Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Publishing and Me, and the Great Freakout of 2010

When I started writing, older writers would often say things like, "The publishing world has changed! It's not like it was when I was starting." I'd wonder what publishing was like for them; they painted utopian pictures of editors who spent lots of time nurturing writers who showed promise but didn't have professional polish. They described bookstores giving "fringe" authors a chance, and not giving up on authors whose first books didn't sell well. They described publishing as a kind, gentle world where promotion was left up to the publishers and writers had nothing to do but work on their craft.

I don't know how much of that was factual and how much was romanticized. My guess is about 50/50. It's true that when I began writing professionally in 1997, the publishing world had become more competitive, more prone to the chain bookstores' "bestseller" mentality (leaving less space on shelves for books with smaller audiences, regardless of how well-written they might be), and more likely to give up on writers who didn't sell well out of the starting gates.

Probably the most important shift was to "platforms." No longer was publicity something we got to leave to others-- we had to get in there and stomp on those grapes ourselves and get our feet all stained purple and red if we expected to get some wine out of the deal. (Speaking of which, guh-ross!)

Although there was talk of platforms in '97, it's overwhelming now. Agents and editors want to hear your book summary in the first breath, and your platform in the second. Your great book idea is unlikely to sell unless you have something to back up the marketing of that book-- speaking engagements, a radio show, a popular blog, a zillion Twitter followers. Which means that authors today are busier, and less focused on just the writing. We have to be skilled not only in writing great books, but also in making online "friends" and fans, speaking to the media, and generally drawing attention to ourselves. That suits some people fine, and others (like me) wish we could just write and leave the sales to someone else. There's a reason I switched majors away from advertising, you know.

Most of my books are published by large and medium-sized presses. Some are small press books, and I've self-published a few niche titles and one anthology for charity. I wrote a few e-books back in the 90s and early 2000s, and I recently released one exclusively for Kindle. So, in short, I've published books in pretty much every way one can publish books. When I say I've written 19 books, I'm referring only to the ones that have been published by real publishers. In reality, I've probably written more like 26 or 27, but I don't count the others, just because I don't.

If you were looking at a graph of my career as a writer, you'd see a nice steady upward climb, for the most part, since 1997. And then came 2010. What the hell happened in 2010? In my view, publishing collapsed.

It didn't, of course. Books were still being published. But I went from being so in demand that I could pick and choose from a variety of great book offers to having to send out missives to every editor I ever worked with begging for assignments, and those assigmments paid less than they did a year earlier. I had to drop my "minimum" book fee and still couldn't find work. I second-guessed myself. I wondered if I should take up a career better suited to my strengths, like professional basketball. When my daughter told me she wanted to be a ghostwriter when she grew up, I just said, "Awww. That's sweet. Also, no freaking way."

(I didn't say that. She was 3. I would have fired myself as her mother had I said that.)

I confided in my writing friends that I was worried. Did I actually suck as a writer and it just took 13 years to catch up with me? "It's not you," they assured me. "It's everyone."

The publishing world as we have always known it was and is in trouble. At least one major publisher put a moratorium on new submissions, saying that it was not acquiring any new books indefinitely. Bookstores closed. Chain bookstores focused more and more on their cafes and DVDs and gift products and less on books, and still are in trouble. Amazon began selling used books on the same screen as new ones. As the economy tanked, people bought fewer "luxury" books.

One bright light in the well has been the emergence of popular e-readers, which was a long time coming. It took a lot of flops before we saw the Kindle and the Nook. But early evidence suggests that people who use e-readers buy a lot of books-- more than they would buy in print. And that's great, mostly. There's a new article out about how the vast majority of e-reading people claim they still buy almost as many paperbacks and hardcovers as before, but frankly, I don't believe them. And I don't believe that trend will continue if it is true. We're becoming an e-culture, and I, at 35, am already a dinosaur. I love my print books. Moreover, I love writing print books.

Several of my books would not work as e-books. The Marilyn Monroe Treasures and Celine Dion: For Keeps are the most obvious-- they're gorgeous, oversized gift books filled with beautiful photo layouts and removable memorabilia in vellum envelopes. How am I going to get a removable marriage license into a Kindle? I'm not. And I'm not even going to make many sales on Amazon of books like that-- those are books that people have to see in person to appreciate. They have to walk into a bookstore and notice the gold foil cover and open the pages and feel the textures and be delighted at the beauty of the layouts and the intimate feel of the memorabilia. I love writing those books. A culture dedicated to e-reading will kill those books.

A culture dedicated to e-reading will kill bookstores.

It's something I didn't even want to acknowledge as a possibility before, so this is kind of a step for me, typing it out loud. Here's the trend I see as inevitable: as people are more able to buy books online and on e-readers, they are less likely to walk into bookstores and even book sections of megastores like Wal-Mart. As bookstores' profits continue to dwindle, they will have less money to invest in books that aren't guaranteed to sell. That means publishers will publish fewer books, focusing their efforts on books by celebrities and politicians and authors who have already hit bestseller status. Fewer options in bookstores will make readers even less likely to walk into a bookstore, considering that-- at this moment-- everything they want is at their fingertips on Amazon.

"At this moment" is the key, because the cycle hasn't caught up with us yet: as publishers publish fewer books, consumers will no longer be able to find new books on every conceivable topic that are published by "reliable" publishers. That will shift toward self-publishers and e-presses. A major publisher is unlikely to publish a book with a small intended audience, so an author who wants to write that book will be foreced to either self-publish or forget the idea. But self-publishing means there are fewer guarantees for readers: the quality of self-published books is, at best, a risky gamble. Self-publishing authors often don't hire editors (or if they do, they don't hire qualified editors-- partly because they don't know any better); they don't have their work professionally copyedited and proofread and typeset and designed. In short, they don't go through all the same steps that are meant to ensure quality control in commercial publishing. (Again, let me emphasize the word "often," because I'm not trying to tick off the small portion of self-published authors who do actually follow all these steps.)

And I'm not even judging the authors who don't follow those steps... it's expensive! Hiring all those professionals and paying for an ISBN and copyright and whatnot is expensive. Add that to the fact that you're not getting an advance and there are no guaranteed royalties, and you're talking one heck of a leap of faith for those who don't have a lot of money to begin with.

So, end result, readers who buy self-published books are probably going to have a bunch of bad experiences with writers whose work isn't vetted, fact-checked, or properly designed. They may or may not get fed up enough to cut back on their book-buying habits altogether.

And where does that leave us career authors?

Again, in my Great Freakout of 2010, one of my other author friends who was previously very successful and had become... not so successful... told me that she had branched out. Now she was mostly taking on private clients for editing, consulting, and teaching work. She suggested I try that, too, but I was uncomfortable consulting and teaching when I was currently not succeeding at the very thing I would be teaching. I knew I had to get back on top before I could feel okay about telling others how to be a writer.

I swallowed my pride and took on assignments I wouldn't have taken since my earliest freelancing days-- articles for local publications, cheapie articles for websites-- because this is all I have and my daughter and I need a place to live. But I felt miserable about it. Then I pulled out all the stops and began trying things I'd never done before: I took out some Google ads, put out an ad on Publishers Marketplace, joined ASJA, started handing out my business card to people who spoke at seminars, asked for meetings with a couple of great agents.

And then the miracle happened. It wasn't just one thing or the other. I don't know how to pin it down, other than to say that I do believe the economy is rebounding a bit and people are more optimistic, but in the course of a couple of months, I got work... more work than I have ever been offered before in my entire career.

The swing was phenomenal, from scraping by to having to turn down multiple projects each week because I was just too busy. They aren't all the same caliber I had before; whereas I had gotten very used to having editors and agents come to me with their best projects, now I'm taking on more private clients who don't yet have an agent or publisher. But I'm taking them on only if I believe they have what it takes to get commercially published, because I can't stand letting people down. And the advances are still down; an editor who might have offered me a $40,000 advance a few years ago now offers $20,000, and I'm supposed to split that with a ghostwriting client. But at least the assignments are there.

When I mention that I have an overload of work now, I get a deluge of responses that say, "Give your extra work to meeeeee!," which shows me that not everyone is out of the woods, and that bums me out. When I first saw my work picking up, I hoped that meant that everyone's work was picking up and that the whole publishing world was coming back to living color again.

I'm trying not to let all these offers get to my head, though. I hope that this means my career is permanently back on track and that I can look forward to decades of smooth sailing where I'll never have to freak out again, but I still feel the publishing trends of tomorrow breathing down my neck. I still fear that, long term, we're going to lose most of our bookstores and many of our publishers. I fear that the genres that are best suited to e-readers (like romance, fantasy, and practical nonfiction) will do well while the books that are more often "bookstore finds" (memoirs by unknowns, gift books, graphic novels, pop-up books, etc.) will fade away. I fear that talented authors who aren't skilled at interacting on Facebook or speaking at conferences will lose their place in the publishing world. I fear the sky is falling, and I want to get all of us to help hold it in place.

I know I'm long on fears and short on solutions today. And I hope I'm wrong about most of it, and that e-readers really mean what the optimists think they'll mean. What I know is that for today, I'm okay, and my shelves are still full of wonderful books. My editors haven't lost their jobs, and the agents I work with are still getting by. There are a few new authors who are achieving stunning successes in the e-world in addition to the print world. For today, that will have to be enough, while we figure out who's in charge of holding up the sky.


Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Normalizing The Insanity

First, thanks to, where you can get anything from a dollhouse to an Eames lounge chair, for inviting me to do another review-- which is coming up soon. But I have something else I wanted to talk about first.

Or rather, that I don't want to talk about first. Namely, I don't want to talk about Charlie Sheen. And so I'm blogging about it. I realize the irony of this...

I stopped caring about Charlie Sheen at precisely the moment he held a knife to his wife's throat and threatened to kill her. A guy who does that should not have a TV show. A guy who does that should not have the world record for the quickest rise to 1 million Twitter followers. But people love crazy. We love to watch people go off the rails. I'm not sure exactly why, and I'm sure not above it all-- despite that I have no sympathy or positive feelings for Sheen, I've watched the interviews, too. (At least, parts of them, until I got frustrated enough to stop.)

I want more attention to be paid to the real role models. People like this guy who's out there feeding the hungry and tending to the sick and trying to make people feel human, just because it's the right thing to do. Could you help bathe a homeless stranger and give him a haircut? I can't imagine it, but maybe that's what needs normalizing.

As it stands, in this culture that rewards celebrities behaving badly, what we have done is to normalize sin and crime. Politicians are expected to cheat on their wives. Athletes who get women pregnant and deny they're the fathers? No big deal! Musicians who use drugs? They might as well shoot up on stage... we don't care. Teen role models who pose nearly nude? We'll reward them with bigger contracts. Kleptomaniac actresses, movie stars with DUIs... we may act outraged for half a second, but look what happens. Paris Hilton gets paid tens of thousands of dollars to show up at a party. Linday Lohan gets offered a million dollars for an interview when she gets out of jail.

When something happens that's big enough to still really make us sit up and take notice-- like Tiger Woods and Jesse James and the way they slept with everyone-- even that helps to normalize the "lesser offenses." A guy cheated on his wife just once? Oh, no big deal-- at least he wasn't like Jesse James. The fact that Hugh Grant got caught with a prostitute mattered for about three seconds, and then it seemed okay.

It's not okay!

Look, I know that no one's perfect and that we've all done a few lousy things in our lives, but I wish we could find a way to elevate the status of the people who are out there quietly doing great things rather than focusing so much attention on the people out there who are loudly doing horrible things. Imagine if, instead of spending a week listening to Charlie Sheen mouth off about his tiger blood and how much better he is than the rest of us unworthy peons, we spent time learning about Timothy Jaccard, a Long Island police department paramedic who devotes his life to rescuing newborn babies who have been abandoned or are in danger of being abandoned or killed. I'd even be satisfied with paying more attention to celebrities like Matt Damon, who loves his wife and kids and is trying to do some good in this world.

Let's stop getting jaded by the crazy, bad things celebrities do. Let's instead get so inundated with acts of human kindness that they become the new normal. Let's normalize goodness.


Tuesday, March 01, 2011

To My Daughter on her Birthday Eve

My sweet Sarina, tomorrow you will turn 4. I know you've been afraid of turning 4 because-- as you put it-- "my whole life will change." But I want you to know that that's not always a bad thing. When you were born, my whole life changed, and I could spend forever telling you how grateful I am for that.

I had heard about this magical moment from some women, but things very rarely happened for me in those fairytale ways... people said things like, "You'll never know how much love you can feel until you look at your baby for the first time," or "It's the greatest joy you'll ever have!" and I only half-believed them. I mean, I really did want a baby more than anything, but I still thought they might be exaggerating this supposedly magical, indescribable, otherworldly love. They weren't.

When I first laid eyes on you, I cried. I said, "She's perfect!" and I meant it. And I still do. You, my mess-making, candy-sneaking, bedtime-avoiding girl, are the perfect daughter for me, and I still can't believe I got this lucky.

I thought I knew what mattered before, but I had no idea. You came along and everything that came along before you suddenly seemed inconsequential. The primary function of my life became looking for silly things to stick on my head to make you laugh. Pretending to drop stuff? Sheer genius. Some of the best accomplishments of my life have been: figuring out that you were doing the sign language for "thirsty" and not "I have a thing in my eye," getting you to eat carrots, sewing your Halloween costumes, and getting you potty trained (now THAT was hard!).

Your heart is so full of love, and I get to see it in every little thing you do. When you were off playing yesterday, I saw a little boy fall, and I also saw you rush over and touch his face to ask if he was okay. You didn't know I was looking, but I didn't even need to... the minute I saw him fall, I knew you were going to be the first one to check on him. And when the little girl was afraid of the costumed character, you took her hand and asked, "Do you want to come with me?" Never mind that you're not even six months older than she is; you wanted to be her protector.

You have a wonderful way about you of making everyone around you feel loved. We read a book the other day that had a fill-in-the-blanks exercise at the end, and here's what it looked like:

My name: Sarina
My age: 3 1/2
I feel excited when: my whole family comes to our house to visit
I feel happy when: I am with my mommy
Some of the things I like to do are: Go to Dave & Busters, the library, ice skating, and anywhere else as long as my mommy is with me
I like to learn about: love
My favorite place is: snuggling

We read a Sesame Street book of safety tips next, and you made me read the same Grover line over and over and over, at least 20 times, and you cracked up every single time: "Always wear your safety helmet if you are being shot out of a cannon!" Then you wanted to call Grandma so you could tell it to her, too.

Sometimes I feel very bad that I couldn't give you the kind of family life I know you want. You so desperately want a baby brother or sister, and you're just now starting to understand what divorce means and why your parents live in different houses. It's all you've ever known, so I'm glad that at least you were spared the separation, but I'm also so sorry that things aren't just right. I will continue to work hard at being the best mom I can be for you and hope I can be someone you will always turn to whenever you need a hug or someone to talk to. No one knows what our futures hold, but I hope that wherever we wind up, we'll always be as happy as we are now.

Because that's the thing-- we are happy. No matter what, you are always enough for me. I remember looking down the barrel of being a single mom with such fear, never dreaming that I'd wind up cherishing this time. I've learned so much in these three years... I can take apart the dishwasher, use power tools, assemble "some assembly required" furniture and one giant dollhouse... I'm stronger than I ever knew, and more capable, and I've become very at peace with who I am. That makes me feel so much better about being your mom, because I know now that I'm showing you what it means to feel good about yourself.

Every few days, you tell me your latest career goal. Over time, you've wanted to be: an apple farmer, a ballerina, a gas station attendant ("Because it looks fun?" "No, it looks easy."), a veterinarian "who is always busy," a librarian, a writer, a ghostwriter, a teacher, and your latest-- a tattoo professional. (?!) Whatever you do, I trust you will do it well, and with a giving spirit.

At your preschool orientation, lots of kids cried because they were away from their moms for the first time. You were an old pro at this already, listening to the teachers as they reassured the kids over and over, "Your mommy will always come back for you." So when the time came for preschool to start, you stuck a heart sticker on me and said, "Don't worry, Mommy. I will always come back for you."

You find ways every day to make me feel great, from writing me cards ("How do I spell 'You're the best mommy and I love you more than a dinosaur weighs?'") to making up songs, to proclaiming your love in French and Spanish and "dog language." You humor my endless requests for you to pose for pictures, and you try to let me down easy when you don't like my cooking ("I sort of hated it a little").

You think that because there is an "unfortunately," there should also be a "refortunately," and I find myself agreeing with your logic, so we have added refortunately to our family dictionary, Mirriam and Webster be darned.
Here are some of the things I wish for you:
  • I wish that you'll never tire of making wishes on dandelion puffs or stars
  • I wish that you'll always have at least three true friends
  • I wish that Kira would live forever
  • I wish that you'll get that baby brother or sister
  • I wish that you'll always have just enough fear to keep you out of real danger, and never more than that
  • I wish that people will see you the way I do
  • I wish for you to know hard work, but not hardship
  • I wish that your life will be full of music
  • I wish that you will love learning, and have teachers who will inspire you
  • I wish that you won't date until you're 25

Being with you is so much fun, and I can't wait to see what you do next. I want you to know that I will love you every day for the rest of your life, and that being your mom is the best honor I've ever had. Thank you for teaching me about who I was meant to be, and thank you for being the best little person I've ever met.