Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Author Breaks All the Rules and Makes Millions. What Should We Conclude? Are Book Publishing Rules Outdated?

Arrgh!! James Frey has a new book out. This time it’s a novel. Seems like a good choice on his part after the scandal a couple of years ago when it turned out that much of what he recollected in his memoir, A Million Little Pieces, never really happened. Once his fabricated story was exposed and Oprah called him a liar to his face on her TV show, many of us thought he was finished. “Ha!” we said to ourselves with a certain amount of glee, “If an author breaks the rules, readers will dump him.”

But that’s not what happened. His partially-fictionalized memoir has sold nearly 4 million copies. After the scandal, Random House offered refunds to readers, but only about 1500 asked for one. The Anchor paperback edition is #780 on Amazon today.

He has a new publisher, HarperCollins for his novel, Bright Shiny Morning, (how's that for a symbolic starting-over title?) released yesterday. It’s a book that would embarrass most indie and self-publishers.

Entertainment Weekly calls it a “slack, self-indulgent mess,” that lacks a coherent story, and “never achieves narrative momentum.” They give it a D+ and criticize the publisher for lack of editing. The Los Angeles Times calls it “a literary train wreck without even the good grace to be entertaining,” and says the book gives a superficial, lifeless portrayal of Los Angeles.

The writing is characterized by run-on sentences with little regard for punctuation guidelines. Here’s a sample sentence:
“Instead of using his real name he started using the name of his site the more it was printed and repeated the more it was recognized the more people came the more people wrote about him the better stories he got.” 

Yet, Frey reportedly got a $1.5 million advance for this novel, which had an initial printing of 350,000. It’s #25 among books on Amazon today. He was the focus of a USA Today cover story yesterday, and appeared on the Today show.

So much for the importance of quality. If this were a self-published book, it would be held up as a horrific example of all that’s wrong with self-publishing. We independent and self-published authors are told and told that our books need to be as good as or better than traditionally-published books, that they must be well-written and carefully edited if they are to have any chance to compete in the marketplace.

Well I’m through listening to the old guard pontificate about the high standards of traditional publishers. I’m thinking I’d sell more books if rather than spending my time rewriting to improve my book, I instead engaged in some hugely scandalous, sleazy behavior that would get me noticed. Then I could ignore all the writing rules, write pap and get a big advance from a traditional publisher.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Fear Restricts Self-Publishing

When I look at the book publishing industry today, I see fear and an inability to adapt to new technology. I see walls that have been put up by authors’ organizations, book reviewers, award panels, and bookstores to keep out the flood of self-published books print-on-demand printing technology has generated. I see attacks on online book review sites and book awards that are open to independently-published books.

This unfortunate reaction to change was described in depth nearly 40 years ago by futurist Alvin Toffler, who put forth the idea that people find the accelerating pace of change overwhelming. His book, Future Shock, published in 1970 described a feeling of dread connected to rapid technological change, and a difficulty in adapting to it.

Today, even though self-published books, books published by family-owned publishers, and books printed using print-on-demand (POD) technology make up a large share of the new books published each year, this change is not welcomed in much of the publishing industry. We are the wave of the future, and we are making inroads. But attitudes don’t change as quickly as technology.

For example, a respected nonprofit website named Preditors and Editors, which bills itself as “a guide to publishers and publishing services for serious writers,” offers some general rules for spotting a scam publisher. They have a long list, which includes the following:

  • The publisher gives no or very low advances.

  • The publisher's books are rarely in any bookstores, particularly the large chain stores that carry books from just about all reputable commercial publishers.

  • The publisher's books have never been seen on a bestseller list published by a reputable source such as the New York Times.

  • The publisher's books rarely sell more than 5,000 books to readers in individual purchases.

Unfortunately, such outdated criteria put most self-publishers and many indie publishers in the scam category. The criteria show an inability to adapt to the new publishing world. They are based in fear and they scare authors away from today’s new publishing opportunities.

I'd like to be able to shake writers loose from the belief that if they can't get their book published by a major publisher, they might as well keep it in a drawer. I’ve seen some very good manuscripts that have been sent out to agents and publishers for years but never picked up. I think that's too bad. I encourage these writers to self-publish, but they fear they wouldn't be seen as "real" authors if they did.

I know how scary it can be to step out onto the cutting edge. Self-published authors are disparaged, stigmatized, and ridiculed by the old guard. My hope and mission here is to change this marginalizing of authors who don’t follow the traditional path to publishing.

A good book is a good book regardless of how it’s published. Authors who rise above their fears can get the books out there to readers. Isn’t that why we write books?