Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Apologies . . . .

 Castle by Moonlight

Apologies to you for not being here, but I am busy with moving to a new address in the Oakland area. Do stay tuned, for I will return in early February

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Unfinished Business #5: You Get What You Pay For

 A View from Dragon's Ark

(Continued from previous posting)

Maybe you’ve heard of Sturgeon’s Law. If not, it goes like this--ninety percent of all books are crap. Theodore Sturgeon, its originator, was  specifically referring to science fiction when he said it, but later expanded the remark to all art and culture. I think it a decent rule of thumb.

I believe Dragon’s Ark is well in the 10% of novels that are not crap. Now I have to ask: if the traditional gatekeepers—like the critics at the New York Times et al--are slain with that righteous spirit that idealists and revolutionaries are known for, leaving only the unpaid reviewers on Smashwords (mentioned previously) and Amazon, how will discriminating readers—those hardy few who are looking for a little more than The Vampire’s Righteous Organ--ever be able to find that 10%? How will they ever find Dragon’s Ark?

It is beyond doubt a cruel, insensitive and elitist thing to say, but I can’t really depend on either Smashword and Amazon reviewers, nor Aunt Thelma’s blog, to give Dragon’s Ark the boost that it needs, even if they do love it (and they may well not, for reasons I’ll discuss next time). Nor will killing off all New York Times book critics improve my chances. We need the Times and the other traditional outlets—to match the best of the right books to the best of the right readers.

Someone has to say what’s good and be able to make it stick. Readers need some organizing principle to make sense of it all, or we’ll all have to quit reading. Wading all alone through fifty books to find one good one is too tiring. We have to learn to rely on each other—and be reliable—once again.

And so, I want Terrence Rafferty—a noted and favorable critic with a positive outlook on horror fiction--of the Times to
read my book, even though he may not like it. I don’t expect him to. I simply hope he does. I want those gatekeepers: conscientious, eloquent, experienced, discriminating writers of taste and vision, who are as ambitious as the books they tell us about.

Writers, who by the way, are paid for what they do. Because no matter how the pseudo-egalitarians rage, there are distinct definable differences between War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy and Shopping and Fucking by Buffy Barnard. We need the gatekeepers—snobby, arrogant, tyrannical and any other adjective-of-evil you want to apply—to help the rest of us tease out and maintain those differences, to see that the best of human creativity, high artists and sturdy, dedicated craftspeople alike, remains at the center of both the divine and human spirit.

I’ve read Times Book Review online—for free--for some years now and no matter how often they’re wrong or neglectful towards writers I care for, I, at least, still think they’re still the among best at what they do (They got me interested in Barry Hannah—not bad for a day’s work.)

Our days of mooching off the Times are, I gather, ending soon as they try, once again, to move to an online subscription model. I don’t blame them. In fact, good luck to ‘em. I hope it works. I’m not at all sad, even though, right now, I can’t afford a subscription. Being even a halfway decent book critic is hard work, takes years of grinding experience reading terrible books because the guys who cut their checks say they have to!  Reading bad books for the rest of us. They should be paid.

Everyone who visits this page is reading it for free, mistakes and all. Because no one's paying me now, I cannot pay an editor to pare down and clean up my prose (and brother, it needs it). 

What’s more, you’ll never read a review of Zombie Nights or any number of potboilers here, because life is too damn short and close to over to read bad boring books without a paycheck for my misery. Those who whine about the poor writing or copyediting on Slate or Salon better think again. Pay nothing, you may get nothing.

Once readers face it that Aunt Thelma will never learn that there is no “k” in “cat,” and Stephanie Wright is not the voice of anyone’s generation, the gatekeepers will become as influential, as looked to, as before (I hope). The Internet will become the giant book, newspaper and magazine stand
it was meant to be and—as in sweet days of golden yore—you’ll have to slap your quarter on the counter for your copy on the way out.

But for independent writers/publishers with more on their minds than downloads and sales figures, the challenges will continue to mount.

Next in this series: the Time problem. Or: The “Literary” Agent Rises from the Grave.

(re-edited 1/11/10)

Copyright 2010 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by Author

Thomas Burchfield's contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark will be published this Spring 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.

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.