Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Unfinished Business #4: Rough Dark Seas Ahead

 Dragon's Ark: It only looks hungry when you're alone, at night, walking by the side of the road.

Lately, I’ve been writing about the challenges awaiting writers in the new world of independent publishing. An enormous number of avenues have opened up for writers otherwise frustrated with traditional publishers, who seem to be undergoing massive reductions as they rely more and more on a few guaranteed best-selling writers and take fewer risks with new, untested ones (such as me, and, maybe, you).

New writers are not the only ones having to sail this rough, strange sea. These stormy waters also threaten to drown or shipwreck established mid-list writers too, those great veterans, both high-lit and genre, who rarely break the top ten—or even the top fifty— but who are oftentimes the best writers around.

One of these mid-listers—no name—recently informed me he had been dropped by his major publisher, even though he’s one of the most respected, admired genre writers anywhere.

Also among the endangered writers list, I’d put England’s Ramsey Campbell. Campbell, despite his reputation, hasn’t published a U.S. hardcover edition of his books in the United States since the early 2000s. You can only buy his work in mass-market paperback around here, unless you want to order overseas

Worse, one of my predictions is that, maybe sooner than we realize, the entire field of the traditional mass market paperback will be washed away into the buzzing ocean of e-books and some of literature's most distinct voices will sink beneath hissing waters.

As both a finicky reader and a new writer, how will I—and the writers noted above--deal with this new world? With the sheer volume of books flushing into the market place, how can I keep my own novel, Dragon’s Ark--which will also be available as an e-book—from falling into the same dumpster file as Hot-Pants Hannah and the Vampire?

Now, I know all the basic answers to that: “blog”: use social networks, etc. etc. But I can’t elude the coppery feeling that all this frenetic interneting will only get me—and others--so far. I may be scoring 500 to 600 visitors a week (and trending up), but that is still a low low number and I still feel like a tiny click in the deep electron sea.

For a specific example, take a look at the e-book publishing site Smashwords (where you can download an old, funny screenplay of mine, Whackers, for a mere $2.00, cheap laughs guaranteed). According to Smashwords, they’ve published over 2 billion words so far. While I have published on Smashwords—to no particular effect—I’ve not read any of the novels published there for the simple reason that I’m unable to tell which of them would be worth my time.

As you may guess, I’m a pretty flinty-eyed reader. Most of what I pick up, I put down, and I close the lid on quite a few books. On Smashwords, there's no real discrimination--every book is treated the same. (It appears marketing and publicity matters are entirely up to the writer). The only remote signposts regarding quality are starred reader reviews, which tell me less than little. 

One of the best-reviewed e-books on Smashwords right now is called Samson’s Lovely Mortal ($4.99), vampire erotica about a male bloodsucker with erection problems (I guess this is set in the B.V. era—Before Viagra). These strike me as reviews by readers who sink their teeth into any vampire erotica they can find, good or not—like the pulp novels of old, read once and delete.

Two of the most downloaded works are Zombie Nights (free) and A Letter to Justin Bieber’s Hair (also free). (These are the kinds of books that Dragon’s Ark will be competing with in a couple of months, but we’ll all have a good smirk at my expense about that later).

In short, there’s no way to for me, at least—and you, I'd  guess—to tell what’s really worth time and money and what is not.

If this is future of publishing, then is it a future worth having, and, if not, what might be done about it?

[To be continued]

Copyright 2010 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by Author

Thomas Burchfield's contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark will be published March 15, 2011 by Ambler House Publishing. Other essays and postings can also be read at The Red Room website for writers. He can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.


Anonymous said...

Tom, You examine a topic crucial to any writer who truly wants to be read and ultimately respected as a writer --as opposed to the many serious hobbyists who want to be read but will accept Facebook-like statistical success in lieu of critical success.

One thing I never got to do at the CWC-BB meetings was look in on the Marketing Group meetings. They seem to have a steady group at the table and a lot of the faces are ones I respect. They also have their own Wordpress website. Are you participating in that?

As a guy who has been in sales all my life, I think in terms of marketing plans and techniques. Most artists (including writers) are not commercially successful and many of them are dreadful salesmen. We all know that for commercial success, platform trumps quality, content, topic, and everything that has to do with what is on the page. The best platform is to be commercially successful in your life, then you can sell anything that poses for art. Today a book of Sonnets by George Bush would be a runaway best seller and Shakespeare would be reciting in a Bart station for nickels.

What's a guy like you and me to do? Just what we are doing. Building a following with the several tools available to us and trying to drive traffic from our blogs, columns, Facebook, Twitter, etc among themselves in the hope of building a group of appreciators so that when we offer up something for dinner there are a few diners.

Keep up your good work, I am a follower. I appreciate that you look in on my Year on the Road blog at www.allevenson.wordpress.com and the thoughtful comments you post there.

Thomas Burchfield said...

Thanks for that, AL. (I didn't respond immediately because we've been having connection problems here and they seem to be increasing. Another reason to move!)

I haven't been participating in the Wordpress site--at least not yet, as there is, as you might guess, already plenty to do (a problem I will address in upcoming essays; that "platform trumps quality" problem).

"Loved" your line about Shakespeare v. Bush; it hurt but with the grim sting of truth.

Drive on! Be seeing you soon!