The Business Rusch: More Modern Writer Survival Skills
(Changing Times Part Nineteen)
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
This week hasn’t been quite as heady as last week was in publishing, but part of that is because the industry is trying to face the reality of the Borders bankruptcy filing. Most of the publishing blogs that I’ve read this week have dealt with the potential impact of that filing. Some have been defensive (with one editor saying on Twitter that she has 9 deals pending, so everything is fine) to gloating (some writers claiming again that the end times are upon us) to vaguely worried (including me).
Other pieces of news that floated past my desk went from the ridiculous to the surprising. My favorite in the ridiculous category? Publisher’s Lunch’s discussion of the New York Times e-book bestseller list which mentions that the Times had to remove a bestseller from the previous week’s list because the Times discovered (horrors!) that the book was self published.
Which leads me to wonder…did those sales figures that put the self-published book on the Times bestseller list vanish when the Times voiced its disapproval? Because the book remained a bestseller whether the Times acknowledged those sales or not.
On the surprising side of the equation is this post from Dominique Raccah, the founder and publisher of Sourcebooks. She states that the dollars her company made off e-books in January represented 35% of the dollars sold for that month. She says that she now believes the tipping point—where e-book sales equal 50% of the market—might happen this year, rather than in 2014 as claimed at Digital Book World. She also says that publishers will have to reassess their e-book figures at the end of the first quarter in 2011. The e-book numbers, she believes, will be higher than expected.
For some companies, maybe. But for others, it might take some time. Their inventory has to hit e-format first. More than one publisher has shared with me in private e-mail that getting their inventory from the past 2 or 3 years onto the various platforms (from Kindle to Sony to the Nook) is both labor-intensive and headache-inducing. The publishers—rightly—want their books to look good in e-pub format, and getting the interiors replicated in some of those formats is proving harder than advertised. We’re talking about formats with specific arty fonts or icons for section breaks and so on.
In order to sell on these platforms, the publishers need to have inventory on the platforms. It’s a mad scramble in Big Publishing to convert titles to e-books—and no company is willing to hire employees just for that in this rough economy.
Finally, so much news has crossed my desk that I almost forgot this tidbit in the middle of Barnes & Noble’s earnings report, which was released on Tuesday. B&N is being cautious, refusing to pay dividends to its stockholders and hedging its bets on where it will spend its corporate dollars in the future. Most financial outlets reported the bad news from the earnings report, burying or not even mentioning this tidbit (which I found on Marketwatch.com):
“At its company Web site, Barnes & Noble said it sells twice as many books for its Nook device than it does physical books.”
That’s interesting for two reasons: 1) The Nook hasn’t been around as long as the Kindle and has fewer users, and 2) B&N is comparing website sales to website sales, not paper book sales in its stores to electronic book sales in general. So the statistic, while encouraging for e-books, is not that surprising given the way the information is reported. Of course web site users will order more e-books than physical books. The web site is the only place to get books for the Nook, even if you order those books while sitting in a physical B&N store. I’d love to see the statistic from B&N comparing physical book sales from all of its venues to e-book sales. Then we’ll have a really meaningful statistic.
The weekly news wrap-up leaves me with the same impression that last week’s wrap-up did: Things are changing rapidly and it’s hard to get a handle on what all of the changes mean.
Just a few years ago, it was easy to advise writers on the paths they should take. With all these changes, however, paths are harder to find, and they branch off depending on who the writer is and what his concerns are. Rather than try to give blanket advice to new writers on what to do in this changing world last week, I instead decided to write about the skills writers would need to survive in this modern marketplace.
And, not surprisingly, I ran out of space. (I try to limit these blog posts to about 3,000 words—which is probably too long for a blog, but tough. I can’t make any cogent points without going at least 2,000 words.)
If you haven’t read last week’s post, please do so now, so that you’ll be up to speed with all that I’m discussing. For those of you who did read it, here’s a short review.
I said that to survive in this modern era, writers need:
3. Business Savvy
4. Entrepreneurial Spirit
Then I moved away from the business aspects for a moment and moved to some craft considerations. I only got to one of those. I said I believed that the new system favored the writer who writes fast for both business and for craft reasons.
5. Write Fast
So…let’s move on from there, and consider a few other craft things that a writer will need to survive this brave new world of publishing, before we return to a few more business attitudes that a writer should have.
Here goes (drum roll please)…
6. Storytelling Ability. It’s long past time to stop calling ourselves “writers” and start calling ourselves “storytellers.” The word “writer” is misleading. The craft of producing good fiction is not about the words. In fact, it has never been about the words. Fiction is about the story.
My favorite example of this comes not from the novel from but from playwriting. Most people consider William Shakespeare to be the best stylist in the English language, and noted scholars repeatedly call him the best writer who ever lived.
If that’s the case, then how come Shakespeare (whose plots were recycled from other popular works) can have his plays successfully performed in languages as different from ours as Japanese? Well, methinks t’would be because of the storytelling, milady, not the language itself.
If you look at the bestseller lists over the past century (and I have, thanks to Michael Korda’s Making The List, which I’ve mentioned before), you’ll see that most of the writers on that list were storytellers first and stylists second. Those who were known for their style and not their stories, like Edward Bulwer-Lytton have become jokes in our time. Sometimes (usually) we read these storytellers in spite of their prose, which is often dated. If you need an example, open any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels and look at the actual writing. By today’s standards, it’s bland, passive, and turgid.
But the characters—and more importantly—the stories come through so strongly that the strange (to modern readers) prose style vanishes.
Why am I saying that storytellers will rule in this new environment? Simple. Sampling.
In the past, the only way to sample a writer’s work without buying it was to either go to the library and read there, or to scan as much of the book as possible in the bookstore. In the 1990s, with the rise of the coffee shops inside the chain bookstores, sampling became a bit more common. You could sit at one of the tables and read a book before buying, provided you weren’t a klutz who dripped your latte all over the book’s interior.
Amazon tried to get publishers to allow sampling before e-books with the “Look Inside This Book” feature, but many publishers wouldn’t sign on. (Fears of piracy made some writers refuse as well.) But sampling is a fact of e-book life. I currently have 19 pages of material on the home page of my Kindle and 17 of those pages are samples. I read a review or saw an ad or heard about a book from a friend, and I immediately downloaded the sample.
On nights when I’m not sure what to read next, I start reading samples. If I find myself reading feverishly when the sample runs out, I buy the book. Often, though, I delete half a dozen books based on their samples simply because the book didn’t catch me.
In electronic book form, it’s not the cover or the back cover copy that entices me to buy a book. It’s the writer’s ability that does so. In fact, I still prefer paper books to my Kindle, so once I discover an author, I often go to the store to buy her next book. More than once, I’ve physically recoiled from the product when I saw it on the bookstore shelf.
I had the rather startling revelation that book covers can repel me from great writers as often as the covers can lure me in. This experience has made me wonder how many writers I’ve missed because someone in the publisher’s production department slapped a cover on the book that I simply loathe. Twice now, I couldn’t get over my package prejudice and while I was standing in front of the paper copy, I hauled out my iPhone and downloaded the e-book instead.
To be fair, let me say that the package has enticed me to buy the paper book more often than not. I’m a sucker for a beautifully made book, and if publishers return to investing in production values on their paper books, I’ll buy them—for the writers I already know I like, of course.
Sampling favors the storyteller. Once the reader hits a story she can’t put down, she’ll order that book no matter what price the book is. These price barriers that beginners often discuss are irrelevant in the face of good old-fashioned storytelling. Of course, readers won’t buy past a certain price point (generally about $12 for an e-book), and readers might read the entire sample of a more expensive book than they would from, say, a really cheap one.
But readers aren’t just limited by their budgets or their own unknowable price barriers. Readers are limited by the amount of spare time that they can devote to reading. Readers want books they’ll enjoy. Sampling from a vast catalogue makes finding those books easier rather than harder.
Writers need to focus on the elements of storytelling—great characters, great plots, real emotions, cliffhangers, fascinating settings and situations—rather than lovely words. Lovely words might get you admirers, but lovely words won’t get you readers. Readers will put their dollars behind the person who moves them seamlessly from chapter to chapter.
The book that keeps you up all night when you have an important meeting in the morning was written by a storyteller, not by a stylist. And it doesn’t matter what the genre is. Some of the most compelling books I’ve ever read have been romance novels in which the plot is predictable (boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl) and the actual events that occur are so minor that they would take about five minutes to film. But the emotional story is incredibly compelling, and even though I know that the story will end happily, I turn pages because I want to take this particular journey through some pretty dark stuff to that happy ending.
Those of you who spent all of your time learning how to make pretty sentences, stop now. Focus on telling compelling stories.
Oh—and um, those of you in peer workshops of unpublished writers? I’d say it’s time to leave. Those writers know no more about storytelling than you do. All they can do is focus on the words and the grammar.
The best stories are controversial stories. A peer workshop will divide over those stories with some members hating the story and some loving it. Or the peer workshop will hate it in general. Because the story makes them feel something. The stories everyone agrees on in a peer (unpublished) writers’ workshop have lovely sentences, but are familiar and bland, and will never keep a reader up all night to see what happens next.
One final thing on this point: storytellers often write sentences that can’t survive a grammar checker. Storytellers will do all kinds of things in service of the story that will make an English major’s lip curl. One-word paragraphs, comma splices, run-on sentences, you’ll find all of that in a good storyteller’s work. Because those things improve story.
This, my friends, is how “terrible” prose writers hit the bestseller list. (That judgment, by the way, comes from critics who are so wrapped up in their critical reading [which is not how readers read books] that they miss the story altogether.) Writers who write sentences that won’t make it through an English 101 class and whose books sell 1 million copies know more about language than the stylist whose sentences reach English major perfection. Those writers know how to sling the language like a weapon.
(And if you really want your brain to explode, take a look at a classic by the number one bestseller of his day, Charles Dickens. Take that first sentence of Tale of Two Cities and run it through your grammar checker. I dare you.)
How do you learn to tell stories? Simple.
First, shut off your critical brain. Storytelling is entertainment, and criticism is the opposite of entertainment.
Second, find story everywhere. Movies, television, books, short stories, and your favorite raconteur all tell great stories. Find them, enjoy the story itself, and absorb it. Don’t think about it.
Third, play. Writing is fun. Telling stories is fun. Have fun. If you have fun, your readers will too.
The next thing the writer needs in her craft arsenal is…
Okay, now I’ve just confused you. I tell you to stop being stylists and become storytellers. Then I tell you that the writers who will survive in this new world need voice.
How can you have voice without style? Simple. Voice is the opposite of style.
Style is something you fake. You think from your critical brain—ah, that looks lovely, I should put that word here. You rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, putting in your stylistic flourishes.
Or so you think.
What you’re really doing is removing all trace of voice.
What is voice? Voice is you. It’s authentic and real and to you, the writer, voice looks bland.
Let me back up a bit.
When I was in college, I had a creative writing class from a marvelous writer (not a professor) named Lawrence O’Sullivan. He was a former CIA operative, quite a character, and he was a manly man who chomped on cigars while he talked. I got two things out of that class. The first was that I met my lifelong friend, now bestseller, Kevin J. Anderson.
Second, I got a great quote.
Because on day one, O’Sullivan walked into our class and said (without saying hello), “There are seven plots. Shakespeare did them best. If that scares you, get out of my class now.”
If O’Sullivan was right (and he was) and I just told you to be storytellers, then what differentiates your story from my story, especially if we have the same plot?
To best understand this in a modern context, watch American Idol. Critics, who don’t understand what’s going on, call Idol a karaoke contest. But it’s not. Idol is, as Randy Jackson repeatedly says, a singing competition. The goal of that competition isn’t to find the most beautiful voice or the loveliest technique.
The goal of the competition is to find a superstar performer. The competition fails more often than it succeeds, but it does one thing right: It searches for voice.
And the way it does so is to have its contestants sing songs we’re already familiar with. A karaoke singer will try to imitate the original song. A performer will do something new with that song. A superstar will make that old classic her own, make it so memorable that you might actually forget the original version.
How does she do that? Not by stylistic flourishes, but by being authentic. By putting herself into the performance.
It’s the same with writing. When you’re telling the same plot as someone else, you differentiate that plot from the other person’s only by making that story personal, making it something you care about. You write honestly, without stylistic flourishes at all.
If you do it right, that story will be compelling—and here’s the weird thing. Everyone will mention how strong your voice is. You won’t see your voice in that piece at all. In fact, you’ll think that story’s prose is colorless, unoriginal, and rather mundane.
Ever since you learned the language around your first year, you’ve been thinking precisely that way. That’s how you think. That’s how you talk. That’s your perspective. It’s old news to you. In fact, it’s normal. But to everyone else—especially people who’ve never met you—that perspective is new and vivid and memorable.
How do you get to your voice? Write fast. Do not rewrite. Write new material every week. Eventually, you’ll strip all the stylistic crap from your writing habits and get down to who you are.
Why am I saying that voice is important in this new publishing world? Because you need to stand out from the crowd. And one way to do that is confident prose. Writers who write in their own voice have a confidence that writers who try to be stylists will never ever have.
You know you’re in the hands of a master when a voice reaches across the page, grabs you, sucks you into the story, and won’t let you go.
It’s like this: You have just walked into a crowded party. Conversations hum around you. Across the room, a group of people laugh. You focus, hear a voice you’ve never heard, one that says something startling. You make your way across that crowded room, past conversations whose topics might interest you more, just to get more of that voice.
Well, readers are always inside that giant party, looking for a compelling voice, hoping the speaker will tell a memorable story. Voice grabs the reader. Story makes the reader stay.
It’s that simple, and that hard.
Once again, I’ve hit my word count for the post, and I’m still not done with the skills a writer will need to survive in this changing publishing world. I have only a few left, and I’ll get to them next week.
I know I’ve been provoking quite a bit of discussion on other blogs. That’s good. We all need to be thinking about the changes ahead. This week, I’m teaching a class and trying to finish up a novel, so taking the time to write this post was a true imposition on my schedule. If the post and/or the series is valuable to you, please consider making a small donation to keep encouraging me to take the time from my increasingly busy life to write these things. If you can’t donate, then please link to this or tell a few friends about it. Thanks!
“The Business Rusch: More Modern Writer Survival Skills (Changing Times Part 19)” copyright 2011 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.