Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Electronic Publishing

One of the industry tropes right now (and probably for the past ten years, but I haven't been paying attention that long), is the recurring "How can we make any money when books can be published electronically for free?" question.

A sensible article in the Book Standard looks at publishers and authors who think, rather "How can we not?"

Major publishers have been releasing online excerpts and teasers of books for years. Baen Books, a publisher of science fiction, does other publishers one better with a free downloadable library on its site, in which all of their authors are invited to post the full texts of their books. The first one Baen posted in its entirety was David Weber’s On Basilisk Station, which had already been selling well in hardcover. “We put it up for free and the result of that is that since that very month, this title has been our No. 1 backlist seller,” says founder Jim Baen. “It bounced up when it went online, and it just stays up.”

Lisa Spangenberg wins the award for best comment:

I tend to think of a "book" as a data container; this is perhaps because I've read "books" in clay tablets, in wax tablets, in papyrus and vellum scrolls, in vellum and paper sheets, and even in vellum and paper codices.

Some containers are more durable than others; some are easier to read on a plane or bus. I tend to think about where I'll be doing my reading, and buy the most suitable container. Sometimes I buy the same book in several different containers.

What we're dealing with is the opportunties and challenges offered by a new kind of container---one that makes delivering and packaging information much easier and faster than before. It's going to be awhile before we figure out how best to use the container to deliver the content in a way that meets the readers' needs. But I think that's part of the fun.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Losing my Faith in Humanity, One Manuscript at a Time

At about the time I began this post (yes, I'm behind in my blogging. Too many escapades.), Teresa, in an instance of serendipity, posted some more slushpile-inspired advice for authors.

Teresa's read a lot more manuscripts than I have. I'm relatively new to this industry, and reading manuscripts is a small part of what we do at the Comma Mines. I don't read slush. I read proto-slush. Then I evaluate it, in the hope that I can give the would-be authors helpful advice on what to do next.

I thought reading manuscripts would be rewarding. Sometimes, when I can really help an author, it is. Often, though it's just sad work. I stand between the author and the slushpile, and my job is to give the author an honest, educated opinion of what he or she should do with the manuscript. Often this involves dashing the author's hopes, and protecting the slushpile reader from one more tiny blob of slushy yuck. Unlike some slushpile readers, I can't stop reading the moment I determine that the manuscript will not make anything resembling a book in this incarnation. I'm contracted to read the whole thing and analyze its strengths and weaknesses, presenting the author with a detailed report of where and how it works, and more often, where and how it doesn't.

It's not the clumsy prose, stilted dialogue, leaden storytelling, limping pacing, heavyhanded symbolism, shopworn plots, or rickety structure of these manscripts that gets to me, though. As dire as these aspects of a manuscript may be, I can point out to the author where he or she went wrong, and make constructive suggestions regarding how to fix them. I like being able to help people. I admire those who can finish writing novels. I love finding out what their ideas are and seeing how they build them into a story. It's often a deeply imperfect attempt, since many of these authors have never tried writing anything serious before this, and haven't the craft to pull a novel off yet. But I can usually find something encouraging to say, even as I try to show the authors where and how they can improve their novels.

What leaves me cold about these stories is what they show me about their authors*.

I know nothing about these would be authors, beyond what they write in their manuscripts. Somehow, after reading the manuscripts, I find myself unwilling to know any more.

I'm not talking about the obviously weird novels—those clearly inspired by Franz Kafka or Tom Robbins or even those clearly inspired by computer games—I'm not talking about the novel in which all the characters turn into birds, or in which the protagonist's pet cactus starts psychoanalyzing him. I'm talking about the relatively straightforward thrillers, generally written by men who seem to hold peculiar ideas about women, men, sex, and relationships.

Often, the women in these novels are featureless. Oh, their physiques may be described in some detail, with special emphasis on breasts, legs, and hair. But, like buxom Glaucons, these female characters serve only to provide Our Heroes with admiration and cues. They ask the questions; Our Heroes answer them. They get into trouble; Our Heroes get them out. They pose problems; Our Heroes solve them.

I don't have a huge problem with the Boy-Rescues-Girl trope—it's tired and old, but it works, and if you're a first-time author, writing in a genre with established conventions, sticking to those conventions isn't necessarily a bad plan. But Love Interest A should have some characteristics that distinguish her from Love Interest B, beyond hair colour and cup size. We should be able to believe that when she's not hanging out with Our Hero, she's leading her own life, not simply waiting in the wings for her.

Then, there are the seriously icky boy/girl things:

Things I try to phrase more delicately:

1) Even if being rescued from a dangerous experience makes a female character horny as a female triceratops in heat, having male protagonist take her to bed immediately after he rescues her shows us only that he is a scumbag who takes advantage of women when they are in an altered state of consciousness. Ick.

2) Describing female protagonists only in terms of what makes them sexy is condescending. Likewise, having your male protagonist decide to marry a woman simply because she is blonde, has a 22-inch waist and an E cup size will not give me a good impression of his judgement. Also, why do older men inevitably wind up with women in their mid-to-late twenties? When I took up with a man twice my age, in my late teens, most real people said he was too old for me. Maybe that's because he was not a gun-toting, studly action-hero (his own delusions notwithstanding).

3) If you tell me a female character is strong and independent, but relegate her to the kitchen and the bedroom as soon as she takes up with Our Studly and Intelligent Hero, I'm not going to believe you about the whole independance thing. Strength and independence are not best represented as whiny and domineering.

4) Likewise, if you tell me Our Studly and Intelligent Hero is a Sensitive New-Age Gun-totin' Guy, have him display a little bit of sensitivity (for example, by not taking our Strong and Independent but Suddenly Temporarily Helpless Love Interest to bed when she's probably in shock, or by making dinner for her once in a while.).

Gary-Stu is not someone I want to hang around with

Just as the cardboard-cutout Love Interests tell me something about how my authors view the opposite sex (and these author have, thus far, been universally male and writing heterosexual fiction), so their protagonists tell me unfortuate things about the authors themselves.

Oftentimes the protagonists are no more well drawn than any of the other characters. The reader is told that the protagonists are smart, bold, honest, quick-thinking, prepared, suave, and, of course, irresistible to the opposite sex. The authors give the heros long speeches in which the heros expound on honour, integrity, loyalty, and other Roman virtues. The heroes themselves, though, display no unusual intelligence, wit, charm, and, like certain politicians, their actions seem to be honourable only because they—the honourable heroes—are doing them. If the bad guys were stealing things, it would be theft; if the hero steals something it must be necessity, and perhaps even a decisive and justifiable disregard for the bourgeois conventions of morality.

This tells me more than I wanted to know about these authors. I'm getting a picture of the author, the way the author wishes to be seen. These heroes are Mary-Sues. They portray men the authors see themselves to be. And, frankly, they're not people I'd wish to know. These characters tend to see other characters only insofar as those characters affect them. Two-dimensional representations of the idealized author, they are rarely portrayed as possessing true faults (other than boringness and one-sidedness, and the authors don't mean for the characters to come off that way). And they often preach. At length.

In the end, the heroes talk a good game, but don't give me anything to admire. If their authors truly believe that they're portraying classical heroes, exemplars of excellence, or even decent guys who do extraordinary deeds in tough situations, then I worry about them. I wouldn't trust these heroes to feed my cats. Are my authors so lacking in real, live examples of decency and humanity, let alone heroics, that they can't look around them, at their loved ones, at the people they see, and put those in their books. Are they so bereft of decent literary examples that they must fall back on Wesley Crusher? And are they so ashamed of their own failings that when they practise self-insertion, they must avoid any mention of peccadilloes that might make their heroes more interesting, believable, and satisfying?

I can help the authors fix the plot problems, the pacing, the dialogue. I can recommend places where they can get help with the craft of writing. I can point out the problems with their diction, their grammar, and their premises. But I can't fix the holes in their selves that their stories reveal.

*It should be noted that I have never met any of the authors, and that not all manuscripts I evaluate share these faults. I'm generalizing based on a trend I've observed.

Thursday, June 16, 2005


Because it's nice to share your toys:

A Glossary for Every Glottis

Via CE-L: The Electric Eclectic—a compendium of online glossaries. From accounting and anthropomorphemics through educationese, oceanographics, and Yiddish, to Zeus.

Very handy.

Grammar Glossary

While we're on glossaries, Get into Uni has a nice Grammar glossary.

Don't Switch that Dial

As you may have noticed, we're making some changes. Yes, that use of the present progressive is deliberate—we're not done yet. Blogger's templates are giving both of us an education.

As we argue about typefaces, colours, contrast, light-on-dark vs. dark-on-light, we keep finding new things to argue about, and we keep discovering that we don't know how to do what we want to do. I'm certain everyone's been here before. So we welcome your thoughts, comments, and suggestions (unless you hate grey, in which case a) we know who you are, and b) we've heard it before).

Rachel's away, so changes won't be speedy (she's the HTML-savvy one; I'm just the wordy one).

We now return you to your scheduled book stuff.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

A Flotsam's-eye View

We're back. We've mostly recovered, unpacked the inevitable free books and divvied them up with our fellow comma miners, sorted through the rolodex of new contacts, and soaked our sore feet. The Comma Miners have survived BookExpo.

Adjectives like "big," "vast," "busy," and "crazy" apply. We did not find, as Publisher's Lunch did, that B.E.A. was "more personal than corporate, and more about encounters than transactions," but then, we are humble Canadian Comma Miners, not Big (or even Medium-sized) Industry Players. My perspective was that of a small plankton floating in the turbulent stream of publishing mania. For a more fish- or even heron-eyed view, you can, view the photos, read the NYT article, or check out the "I was there" anecdotes on Making Light.

Some flotsam's-eye impressions:

Buzzing and Gushing
The only panel I made was the Buzz Panel, mentioned in the Times article, where trade editors from some of the big publishers "outdid each other with hyperbole."

It may be "business as usual," but I found it refreshing and encouraging to hear editors gushing the books they edit. So often in my corner of the industry, we're so pressed to find books that will sell, that will fill a niche, that will capture some of the fickle book-buying public's grudgingly spent dollars, that it's easy to forget that somewhere people are publishing books that they like, that they admire, and that they want other people to read. So often we hear how few people buy books, that it was refreshing to be surrounded by 30,000 people who undoubtedly buy and read books. So maybe I'm working on how-to books and personal finance books, and science textbooks that students are going to abuse and hate simply because they're textbooks. And yeah, sure, a lot of the books on the floor (the majority of the books on the floor, I think) went through the same profit-and-loss considerations that ours do, before becoming books. Still, some people are publishing books they get all teary describing. It's good to know.

Packaging Doesn't Mean with Cellophane
My tag said "BOOK PACKAGER," which kind of annoyed me. Since we were at B.E.A. to sell packages, I can't complain too much, and the label proved a useful tool for sorting the complete strangers to whom we spoke. If we said "We're book packagers. Some of your books look like the sort of thing we do—do you have a moment?" and our prospective client talked about boxes or shrinkwrap, we could pretty much close the conversation there with a quick explanation, like "No, sorry, I guess we weren't clear. We sell books—the idea, the writing, the design and layout, and the illustration, for a flat fee. So you get the whole package ready for you to stick your imprint on and publish. We're not about cellophane. So I guess you don't buy books that way, huh?"

Those who referred us to their acquiring editor or who seemed to know what book packagers do seemed a more likely target than anyone who thought we meant that we make boxes for books.

Everything's Political
After we walked the trade show floor all day Friday, we found the music emanating from the big Events Hall enticing. I could see a bar. By the time we dumped our samples, though, we arrived back at the hall just in time to sit down and watch the American Booksellers' Association hand out its awards. What the heck—we were sitting down.

A year ago, at the Editors' Association of Canada conference, keynote speaker Lois Hole, the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta, gave a speech that was mildly political for an editors' conference, but which was certainly not inappropriate for the audience. She exhorted the assembled editors to support public libraries. Not a difficult sell, really. The ABA's keynote speaker was Congressman Bernie Sanders, who spoke about Provision 115 of the Patriot Act, and the shenanigans surrounding the voting in the U.S. government. Of course booksellers and librarians have protested the very notion of making records of who reads which books available to government spooks. And of course, I've haven't been completely unaware of how important their struggle is, and how very scary the proposed legislation is. Congressman Sanders gave a stirring speech, full of righteous anger and determination, and received a standing ovation, even from the footsore Canadian packagers in the corner. And I thought of Lois Hole's plea, which was also a politcal speech that I could applaud, but was a lot less frightening.

Al Franken, author of Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, one of the many political books that have come out of the States, unsurprisingly played a variation on the same theme, sharing a lot of unpleasant, frightening truths from his upcoming book (which he said he was considering calling The Truth—with no apologies to Terry Pratchett. I don't think anyone will confuse the two books). None Mr. Franken's speech—not the part about how the scary right wing people use fear to confound the public's view of issues, nor the part about how the U.S. uses its protectorates to enslave women from Asia and forces those who become pregnant to have abortions, nor the part about how the aforementioned scary people use smear tactics to keep the public eye on their opponents' peccadilloes rather than on their own, nor any other part, really—could possibly have been a shock to anyone who pays attention. But still, I came away shaken, not by the content but by the extent to which politics permeates all avenues of public discourse, and moved by the desperate sounding determination with which both the congressman and the author-cum-comedian-cum-radio personality claim that they will fight and win.

As Bossman said "That was inspirational. Those books they're selling [the ones labelled "inspirational," which nobody at the comma mines has any time for], are just lame."

Other Random Impressions
People who bring wheeled luggage onto the tradeshow floor, in defiance of the signs forbidding them, should be stuffed into their own luggage. Pedestrian gridlock is bad enough without someone's luggage trailing behind them and adding a tripping hazard.

My fellow comma miners and I were totally wowed by Candlewick Press's booth. The Dragonology Handbook is one beautiful book, among stacks of gorgeous kids' books. We ogled Robert Sabuda an Matthew Reinhart's beautiful, intricate pop-up dinosaurs, and nabbed samples pop-up spreads, thinking these were just the best thing ever. Greg's kids, aged 9 and 10, who are presumably part of the target market, however, displayed nothing but disdain for Robert Sabuda's and Matthew Reinhart's georgeous pop-up dinos. Oh well—the pop-out dinos can live in the Comma Mines.

The Javits Center needs better soundproofing, more chairs and rest areas, and coffee that doesn't cost $3 a cup (I ask you!).