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Books

Writing About Writing

11.16.05 | Comment?

Before I forget, Jason kindly found the translation for the song in the A quoi ça cert l’amour? video to which I linked in Monday’s post. Scroll down the comments to find it. There’s a Google translation, which is very poor, followed by a human translation, which captures the poetry of the song.

A few recent road trips gave me the opportunity to download some writing-related podcasts and listen to them on CD in the car. Two were interviews with author agents, and they gave really insightful looks into the world of traditional publishing. Two others were about National Novel Writing Month, (more famously known as NaNoWriMo–really.) All these podcasts on writing have certainly gotten me looking at writing from a lot of different angles. For one thing, it has been a nice motivator to write more.

Writing and publishing RPGs has been fun and rewarding, but my writing at 12 to Midnight has essentially been self-publishing. Of course, the holy grail of writing is the novel, but now I ask to what purpose? These podcasts have opened my eyes and made me re-examine my expectations. What does it mean to “be published”? What is the measure of success? If all I want is to “be published”, Lulu can do that for me easily enough. But self-publishing lacks a certain legitimacy, and for good reason. But at the same time, what is good enough? Getting picked up by a New York publisher? Picked up by a small press? Simply seeing my book in a book store? What if someone offered me an e-book only deal?

Writing a novel with the expectation of seeing it for sale in bookstores nationwide is an excellent goal. But now I’m recognizing a danger in hanging your self-fulfillment on the ever-shifting needs of the traditional New York publishing world. The big publishers are gate-keepers, which believe it or not I think is a generally a good thing. We need gate-keepers to ensure that what you get at the bookstore is of a certain quality. But business models being what they are, it means a lot of fine material gets passed over simply because of supply versus demand. And because of the economics involved, big publishers expect writers to produce best-selling works their very first time. Otherwise, next time they’ll take a risk on another new writer’s potential best-seller than the second novel from a writer whose first sales were average. Thus, the big publishing houses are both the epitome of what most people think it means to be published, yet it’s what we’re stuck with…for now.

Having been in the e-publishing business for almost three years now, many of these issues are not new to me. But the answers are still elusive. I think in the next ten years, the internet is going to redefine what it means to be published. The old distribution models will hang on and New York will continue its strangle hold on the bookstore trade, but at the same time new markets will open up. Imagine if Apple did for e-books what it is doing for music and now video. (The thing we lack most is an e-book viewer that is affordable, convenient, rugged, and easy on the eyes. Get it adopted by junior high students, and in a matter of years they’ll be as pervasive as mp3 players. In fact, we’re already half-way there. Imagine if something like the Gameboy evolved into more of a multi-purpose device with a larger screen. Give it a few more generations and it’ll be there.)

In a world where anyone with less money than the cost of a dinner and movie date can have their book printed and bound, what does it mean to be published? Certainly self-publishing lacks legitimacy. So the first criteria–and most important–is that the work must be published by a second party. To further clarify, that second party must accept and publish the book based solely on its own merits and not because your publisher is a family member, friend, or some guy you paid $100 so you could have a printed copy of your memoirs.

I wrote and deleted a second criteria because I realized that it was trivial compared to the first. Whether you’re signed on with a small press or a New York publisher, whether you’re in a brick and morter bookstore or an e-book purchased online, you’re still “published”. You may (almost certainly) not be rich and famous, but you’ve impressed a business with your creativity and mastery of the language enough for them to invest their own time and money into producing and releasing your work to a more broad public audience.

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