Silver and Gold and Cautionary Tales

I’ve been thinking about the Gold Rush lately. And Baby Doe Tabor.

I grew up in Denver, so this is a natural metaphor for me. We spent a fair amount of time in school studying Colorado history, the modern piece of which pivots around the arrival of all the people chasing gold and silver in them thar hills.

One of my favorite stories was always Baby Doe Tabor. Horace Tabor ditched his first wife, the very severe-looking Augusta, for the very beautiful Baby Doe, whose mother would never let her do manual labor, so she could keep her hands pretty and land a genteel husband. They lived a rich, high-spirited life and many opera houses, banks and other edifices bear the Tabor name. One of my favorite bits of the story is how Baby Doe commissioned her dressmaker to dress the nude statues on their property, because the neighbors were offended.

It’s a cautionary tale, too. When the country moved to the gold standard, their silver holdings lost their value. Horace died a poor man and Baby Doe lived out her days in the cabin next to the Matchless Mine, which had once fueled their fabulous fortune.

There’s a decent summary of the story here, if you’re interested in details.

Those are the gold rush stories – the dramatic ascensions, the terrible crashes. Denver grew from a muddy mining supply camp into a major city with diverse industries.

The whole ePublishing thing has put me in mind of that.

There’s this wild scent in the air that there are fortunes to be had. Everyone is scrambling, in their own ways, to stake a claim. Some are panning the streams, some digging their own mines by hand. People are forming groups, new ePubs popping up all over, mining the writers for their talents. Is gold the way to go? Silver?

I’m sure some people will make lots of money – that’s pretty standard for a gold rush. Others will be the colorful tales, the ones who slog away in the hills alone and trudge into town for supplies, not noticing the gold dust on their boots. Others will be like the Tabors, with a glamorous and prolific burst of fortune that fades into nothing. Such is the nature of all cautionary tales.

It’s easy to look at the Tabor’s story and make judgments. If only they’d invested better. If only Horace had listened to his friends’ advice and diversified. If only they’d seen the money wouldn’t flow in forever and made plans accordingly.

Someone asked me for advice the other day and then ignored it. Their prerogative, I suppose, but I won’t claim it didn’t bother me. I worry about what some of my writer friends are signing up for, dazzled by the promise of riches. It’s true that big gains require bigger risks – but that doesn’t mean the risks should be ignored.

Here are my cautions, for what they’re worth:

1. Track record is more important than ever

This feels like an iconoclastic era, and perhaps it is, but anyone can declare themselves an editor, anyone can set up an ePress in their living room, anyone can have a book printed. The only way to predict the future is to examine the past. If there’s no track record, your risk goes up, fast.

2. Anyone can have a book printed (see #1)

Writers want to see their books in print. We grew up holding books, loving books, seeing them stacked around us on the shelves. There’s a legitimacy to print that we long for. But because anyone can have a book printed, and even carried by a legitimate distributor, that does not mean books will get into the stores. Major publishers are struggling with getting books into stores. Major bookstores are collapsing under their own fiscal weight. Print books are doorstops if they’re not getting into readers’ hands. Pretty doorstops, maybe, but nevertheless.

3. Multi-book contracts are not always good for the writer

For years now when people ask me what I want for my birthday or Christmas I’ve been saying “a lucrative, multi-book contract.” We all want it. It’s the brass ring. In this dream, a publisher promises to publish my next three books and gives me a chunk of money up front, theoretically so I can feed myself while I write them. Now there are ePubs offering multi-book contracts, which has that lovely guarantee, but without the advance. So, now you’re committed to the publisher, without money up front, and possibly no track record. (See #1) What happens if your book doesn’t do well? What if the publisher runs into issues – personnel, financial, legal? (Back to track record.) Now your next three books are tied up, possibly for years. There are plenty of cautionary tales on this one. *cough* Dorchester *cough*

4. Easy come, easy go

Okay, this is the one none of us wants to hear, but that fabulous ePub who loves loves loves our baby novel that everyone else says is unmarketable? They could be wrong in that love. We *want* to believe they’re seeing what everyone else missed, but it’s also possible that the new ePub simply doesn’t have the industry experience to see that it’s not marketable. Also, they might not care. More than one start-up has employed the “throw a bunch of stuff at the wall and see what sticks” method of defining what’s profitable and what isn’t. It’s hard to look at this objectively, but bears considering why they want what everyone else turned down. Maybe they’re brilliant visionaries who alone recognize your true genius. Maybe not.

5. Think long term

A writer told me the other day that she would never again publish with a particular ePress because her profits weren’t as good as with another. Sure, this is a legitimate business choice. However, that less profitable ePress has a lot going for it – personnel with established industry track records (I know, I’m harping on this), strong financial and legal backing. I see them as ramping up in a steady, fiscally conservative way that promises much for the long run. Sure, you might not be picking gold nuggets up off the ground, but for a lifelong venture, maybe you don’t need to fill your pockets with gold right now.

As writers, we don’t always like to worry our pretty heads with business. It would be lovely if we didn’t have to. I wonder sometimes, how Baby Doe saw things. Did she try to give Horace business advice or did she while her days away in play and dressing sculptures? Was she bitter that she died poor when she’d once lived so glamorously? I imagine her hands were cracked and gnarled in the end, chopping her own wood, digging through the rocks for silver.

It’s tempting to chase the gold. Without the dream, no one would pack up their lives and head for the hills. Some will strike it rich.

Just remember the cautionary tales.

Because I Say So

And so, the lines continue to blur.

It’s been clear for some time that publishing is changing. It’s just that no one is sure what it’s changing into. It’s kind of like the scene in a horror/sci fi movie, when one character begins to change into something else. Everyone around them stares in transfixed and fascinated fear while the person loses the hallmarks of humanity. While we wait to see what they become, they’re this mess of jutting bones, sliding tissues and odd liquids.

Right? Exactly like publishing news today.

So, if you’re not plugged into publishing gossip 24/7, the big news this week is that Barry Eisler – a well-known author, though I haven’t read him – turned down a $500K book deal from one of the Big 6 NYC publishers to self-publish. He’s a buddy of Joe Konrath, who has become kind of the foaming-at-the-mouth cheerleader for self-publishing. Don’t get me wrong – a lot of people are inspired by Konrath and his tremendous ability to self-promote, but I find him a trifle on the fanatic side of being a fan of self-pubbing. At any rate, Eisler and Konrath took down their 12,000 word conversation on Eisler’s decision and posted it to the internet. A couple of snide commenters suggested that perhaps they could have used an editor.

At the same time, as former Pocket editor and current Penguin Sekrit Projeckt Wrangler, Danielle Poiesz, notes on her blog, self-publishing luminary Amanda Hocking is close to sealing a major deal with one of the Big 6.

So many choices. So many shiftings back and forth.

Meanwhile I’m seeing more and more writers becoming editors for epublishing houses. They often pick up the work to supplement their incomes. In those transformations, though, a curious thing occurs. As they take on the editorial persona, they gain a certainty they never professed as writers. They start offering writing and editing tips, because now they have the authority to back it up. Sometimes this is like the B film to me, where the person is bit by the vampire and POOF! suddenly they have white skin, red lips and fangs. And a cape.

People are also starting up epresses like crazy. After all, what more do you really need than a computer? Declare yourself an editor, recruit some writers to be editors, too, and start offering book contracts. No need to invest money in advance. It’s the ultimate start-up. All it takes is your time.

The most interesting part of all of this is that reputation, at least for the moment, doesn’t seem to matter. It’s a curious world where things are what people declare them to be. And whoever shouts it the loudest gets the most people to believe them.

Thus the Eislers and the Konraths post their conversations and declare their opinions Gospel truth. People announce contracts with week-old epresses, celebrating with the same fervor as they would a Big 6 contract.

The world will be as we want it to be, people shout out.

It’s as if whoever describes their invisible outfit in the most exciting detail will actually be wearing the velvet and gold. And perhaps they will. Time will tell. Proof is in the pudding and all that.

For a long time, publishers have wanted readers to associate books with their brand. They’ve wanted readers to pick up a St. Martin’s book and buy it because they know what they’ll get with a St. Martins book, just as they would with a Big Mac. This is a basic marketing thing (says she who knows squat about marketing). Obviously this was never going to happen. Readers associate stories mainly with authors, possibly with genre. Most readers never notice the publisher.

As the epresses proliferate, I think this will change. Already I see people noticing that certain epublishers turn out less-than-wonderful books. I’m cleaning up the language considerably here. I hear people talking in terms of the publisher as in, I bought a ebook from Fringed Lampshade books and I wondered if anyone ever read it, much less edited it. Then they don’t want to buy from Fringed Lampshade again.

Which is really how it should work.

It costs nothing to start an epress, to sign authors and offer them a percentage. Maybe you bring quality editing and a fresh perspective. Maybe not. As with all businesses, much will depend on the long run. It’s simple to put a product on the shelf, not so easy to get customers to buy a second time.

And perhaps the big publishers will finally get what they’ve been looking for. After all, at this point the main advantage they retain is editorial and marketing experience. If they can convince readers to look to them for a certain quality, then it might be difficult for an epress to compete.

Meanwhile, we are all in the cast, standing in a circle and watching in fascination as publishing writhes on the floor, kicking out all kinds of ooze. What will it be?

Time will tell.

Good News and Random Bits of Exploding Matter

So, I got an Enticing Offer yesterday.

Every Tuesday for the last couple of months, I’ve been waiting for this phone call. Yeah, I’m enough of a Twitter/Internet stalker to know that this person makes calls with offers on Tuesdays. My cup overranneth (yes, that’s totally a word) with conference calls yesterday. With all the serendipity I could ask for, my cell rang between work calls with a number I didn’t recognize. The woman on the other end asked for “Jeff.”

And I knew.

People who’ve only read my name inevitably go with “Jeff” first. I always respond, “this is Jeffe.” (jeff-ee) Then they apologize and I tell them it happens all the time, which is does. Then I waited for her to make her offer.

Which she did.


So now I’m checking with a few agents, to see if anyone cares, just in case. I’ll sign contracts next week and then I’ll be less coy with the details.

It’s amazing, though, how something like this blows my ritual and routine all to hell. Yesterday afternoon was a blaze of finishing day job and hitting queries, follow-ups and pitch polishing. I’m filling out forms, checking schedules, making plans. No writing done yesterday and I’m over an hour behind getting to things today.

I’m happy, but what are all these little whizzing pieces of shrapnel?

More from the Nerd Journal

I debated this morning: yet another sunset photo or yet another rain chain pic?

No worries — you’ll get the rain chain photo later this week, I feel sure. (Was that a collective sigh of relief? Thought so!)

I mentioned yesterday that I’m having fun working on this new novel. It’s really quite refreshing, getting to do research and chalking it up as progress in the writing column. Part of what I’ve been doing involves this great big ancient Sanskrit dictionary. The book smells like university libraries. It feels good to sit in the leather chair in the sun with this heavy book in my lap. It does feel more important, as I mulled over earlier this week.

My mother (yes, that was her) castigated me in the comments of my post (probably rightly so) for saying that I sometimes feel less intelligent than I once was. Well, tracing these words reminds me of studying back in college. I feel the rush of discovery, the fascination — I can practically feel my neurons buzzing to make new connections. I want to sit and read the dictionary all day. Which, now that I think of it, some of my high school cohorts snidely accused me of doing.

The other thing? It’s relaxing. I have proof, even. This article in MarieClaire cites a study that shows even six minutes of reading reduces stress levels by 68%. And, you know, if it’s in MarieClaire, it must be true. (They also helpfully translate, for the non-mathmatically inclined, that this is over two-thirds.)

The natural medicine types contend that our society is so chock-full of stress that we should be doing all we can to diffuse stress. They say that, even if we think our own lives aren’t particularly stressful, that we’re so surrounded by it that we cannot escape its impact on us.

Are you with me here? Turns out reading is healthy! Just like exercising and eating veggies!

I feel so vindicated.

To E-Pub or Not to Be?

I didn’t post yesterday because I was on short time. After the workout, I grabbed breakfast, cleaned-up and headed down to Brighton, Colorado for the monthly meeting of the Colorado Romance Writers (CRW). I met up with Liz Pelletier in Ft. Collins and we drove the rest of the way together. Meeting Liz in person was great fun, since we’d only ever talked online, via the FFP loop (the Futuristic, Fantasy & Paranormal interest group of RWA).

The CRW folks welcomed me graciously and with great enthusiasm. Renee Hagar, who writes as Renee Knowles, and both writes and is an editor for Wild Rose Press, gave a workshop. Wild Rose Press is interesting because it’s an e-publisher. I confirmed with Renee that they have no bricks and mortar offices. The editors work out of their homes, books are published either electronically or via a print-on-demand service, probably through Amazon.

Wild Rose Press is an up and coming publisher for romance, which continues to be the hottest selling genre. And they have my full manuscript right now. It makes a writer like me feel torn. If Wild Rose Press will have me, how could I turn them down? Yet, electronic publishing still carries a stigma. RWA will not allow ebooks for consideration in the industry’s most prestigous award, the Rita — the romance equivalent of the Hugo or the Nebula. RWA’s stance is that the writer is not valued enough in e-publishing. When few writers make more than $1,000 on an e-book, RWA has a point. Those are hardly professional wages. To provide a contrast, ten years ago Redbook magazine paid me $3,000 for one essay, which was right about the “industry standard rate” of $1 per word.

E-publishing is clearly the future. As the big publishing houses tighten their belts — Houghton Mifflin Harcourt editors were recently told not to acquire new books — as printing materials grow more expensive and less acceptable in the Green Era, shipping and distribution grow more problematic, e-publishing is the answer to so many problems. E-book readers are becoming popular and affordable. And a younger generation is coming up without the resistance so many of us feel to reading electrons on a screen. I think there’s no denying that e-books will eventually lose their stigma and will be the primary, if not exclusive medium, for reading in the future.

And yet, the advent of the internet has clearly devalued the written word. Blogs such as this one, where I write for free, abound. Anyone can pay to have a book published. E-publishers can take risks on new authors because it costs them little investment — a double-edge sword for the writing world as it’s easier for a new author to get published and yet, it implies that the standards have lowered.

And the writing itself? Is inarguably cheaper. Never mind a writer being paid $1/word. From an e-publisher, she may be getting less than 50 cents per book. Which, of course, is better than no book at all.

What a brave new world, and what shall we make of it?