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November 30, 2003

Inexcusable Self-Congratulations

Dear Friedrich --

Here's a well-done piece for Reuters by Mark Egan about the lit-fiction author John Robert Lennon, with a special focus on the finances of writing literary novels. "As soon as you get the money, half of it is gone," says Lennon, who (unlike most novelists) has at least had the luck to be well-reviewed by the NYTimes and other important outlets. (Link thanks to Bookslut, here.)

May I be permitted a moment of gloating? Here's my posting about how goofy it is, from a practical and financial point of view anyway, to write a book.

In Egan's piece, John Baker of Publishers Weekly adds an interesting fact: "More than 60 percent of fiction is bought by women and most of that by women aged between 35 and 55."

May I be permitted another moment of gloating? Here's my posting about how publishers are worried that they're losing younger readers.

Hey, did I ever mention that most authors of what's generally considered to be "serious nonfiction" actually lose money on their books? How is this possible? Well, say you're lucky, and say you get a $100,000 advance for your book. Subtract 15 percent for your agent, and 30ish percent for taxes. You're down to $55,000. That's got to get you through the writing of your book, which often takes two to five years -- "longer than you think it will" is a good rule of thumb here. Plus, the expenses ... All the telephoning, all the traveling, and all the hanging out that you've got to do to accumulate the facts you'll be making use of? They get paid for not by the publisher, but out of your own pocket.

Harumph: And people think I make this stuff up.

Of course, that may just about exhaust my store of mildly-interesting inside dope about the business of the arts ...



UPDATE: Tyler Cowen takes note and offers some reflections, here.

UPDATE UPDATE: Don't miss Alan Kellogg's discussion of RPG fiction in the comments on this posting. It's a whole new world.

posted by Michael at November 30, 2003


Fiction really aint that much easier. You still have research to do, people to visit, travels to make, even when most of it is going to be made up. Then there is the matter of creativity. At least with a non-fiction book you've got some idea of what you're going to be writing about. Here it's more a matter of how to present the information gained than one of crafting it out of whole cloth.

Then you have RPG books, where the problem lies both in having to do research, so you don't contradict what came before, and in making things up. Fortunately research material is as close as the nearest FLGS (favorite local game store) or available through The Internet. Or it can be gained from one's publisher, most of whom are quite helpful where freelancers are concerned.

And speaking of The Internet, one can now do research there. In addition, the prospective author can put up a web site with information on his project for feedback and advice. Or, if he thinks the possibility his opus will actually see professional publication is a tad slim, 'self-publish'. Which is what I'm doing.


(Again, my HTML-fu is weak, so cut and paste the beast into the appropriate location. When the page loads click on the "Dragon Earth News" link. I know I should've linked there directly, but I'm having trouble setting up links back.)

(Yes, I will use any excuse to promote myself.:D)

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on December 1, 2003 12:11 AM

Has anyone here published articles in the press or magazines?

I saw Stephen King recieve some form of literary award last night. Any one listen to his speech? It was a good speech.

Posted by: ShipShape on December 1, 2003 12:37 PM

Just a small point: methinks the lack of younger readers among the publishers' data is due to the tendency of young people to be broke. During the years when I had the most reading time available, I had the fewest dollars available. I got most of my books from the library and used bookstores - which I doubt would be reported to the publishers. Thus my advice to publishers would be to snag the interest of the youth even when it isn't profitable, and then, when the youth manage to generate cashflow, they'll be running to the bookstores to blow it.

Posted by: Dente on December 1, 2003 5:07 PM

Dente: Gregory McDonald (for Fletch) and Stephen King (for Carrie) took off for the very reasons you mention: namely, because mass-market paperbacks of their work became popular. (And in fact, McDonald refused to have a hardcover edition because he wanted to be read by everybody.) That Jonathan Saffron-Farter kid ended up getting a huge advance for the paperback edition of Everything is Illuminated for this reason. The publisher figured younger readers who didn't have the clams for the hardcover editions would swoon over one of the four stupid covers. The gambit seems to have paid off. Likewise, John Grisham and all those crappy pop-lit authors sell primarily because you can find their books in supermarkets and airports (and that's pretty much ALL you'll find there).

Make no mistake. People are reading. But it's really a question of how they distribute their dinero. If a reader has $5 and you can't even afford the $7.99 mass market edition, then she'll go to a used bookstore and purchase two or three Pocket paperbacks. Of course, when you're 35, you're bound to have a hell of a lot more disposable income than when you're a starving grad student clinging onto nickels. And that makes all the difference in the world.

Posted by: Ed on December 1, 2003 7:12 PM

Allan -- Thanks for the info about RPG fiction, a corner of the biz I know less than zilch about. Looking forward to learning more, though I doubt (given my inability to play most computer games or read virtually all sci-fi) that I'll get very far in any attempt to the read the stuff. But eager to learn more about the field, if only as an observer.

ShipShape -- Pieces or articles in the press? About this kind of topic? Shhh, but I've published a few things over the years on such topics. I enjoy blogging a whole lot more, though. I tend to think Stephen King makes a lot of good points, though I missed his last talk, if it was in the last few days.What was he on about this time?

Dente, Ed -- I think lowering prices is an excellent idea, though I suspect the publishers have knocked the prices of original trade paperbacks about as low as they can go already. There seem to be a few diffs between the current young people and young people from previous decades where books are concerned. One's that current kids have so many more easy and fun entertainment options -- DVDs, videogames, cable, scads of magazines, etc, all of which offer tons of image-centric production values that books (and especially cheap books) can't offer. Also, in previous decades, there was excitement in the air about authors and writing -- Roth, Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Brautigan, etc. Even Jay McInerney. Whatever you think of these writers, they were public figures and much discussed -- lots of with-it young people wanted to be in on the conversation. I don't think anyone today compares, and I don't think "the writer" as a public figure has anything like the impressiveness or hipness quotient that The Writer once did. Seems to have been usurped by rock stars, film directors, even magazine editors -- people who "make media" instead of writing books. Publishers have tried sucking young people in to books and reading and have had a few minor successes that I'm aware of. Chicklit has done OK -- it's a genuine new genre, although who knows how long it'll last. Books that partner (or ride on the tailcoats of) other media things sometimes do well with young people -- "The All-Time Best-Of Seinfeld Guide," that kind of thing. (Madeup title, but you get the idea.) And books you can use: references, guides, books that you flip around in. But how to crack the youth market remains a real puzzle. The challenge is that most young people these days are "lookers" (browers and scanners) more than they are "readers." They just don't seem to be crazy about plowing into a mass of linear text. As I've posted about before, as a consequence, I suspect we'll be seeing publishers making more and more books that look like magazines -- boxes, highlights, headlines, and tons of images, books that are more like browsable-scannable media things than like traditional textcentric books. Kids may enjoy that. The challenge there is that such things are expensive to produce -- they're basically like magazines but with no ads to cover costs. And will the kids be willing to buy such a thing, even if (miraculously) the price on it gets lowered to, say, $12.95?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 1, 2003 9:49 PM

Michael, I must point out that computer games have little to do with table top, or face-to-face, roleplaying games other than a surface resemblance. Too, RPG fiction as a term refers to so-called 'game write-up' style fiction, in which the author crafts a tale set in an RPG setting, or provides a 'fictionalized' version of game events.

While RPGs have elements of earlier entertainments -improvisatonal theater, story telling, fiction, they also resemble real life, in that one can not accurately predict what is going to happen, only make a half-assed guess. As the saying goes, no plotline survives contact with the players.

So the Game Master (GM) must create an evening's entertainment that is intriguing, entertaining, does not contradict what is known of the setting he is using (not without a good justification that is), and is flexible enough to survive whatever his players throw at it. And role-gamers are inventive little beasts. They will find and exploit any plot holes, even if they have to invent them.

As to game fiction. It's been around for awhile, and most of it stinks worse than a tasmanian devil after an encounter with a skunk. This largely due to the fact most game fiction writers are amateurs in the modern sense. The best is more game influenced, instead of trying to be a faithful recreation of an often badly designed game setting the author takes the time to expand that world, adding those elements that make up a fully realized sub-creation, but which players are thought to avoid. Largely because most player's experience with such was with books that weren't that well realized to begin with.

Raymond Feist's Rift War series is set on a game world, Midkemia. The world of China Mieville's Perdido Street Station began life as a game setting, to be adapted for traditional story telling later on. Thomas Harlan's Oath of Empire tetralogy has the feel of a game setting fleshed out by a person who got to thinking about the impact of working magic (and other fantastical elements) on Earth's history. (For example, in the world of Oath of Empire the Western Roman Empire has actually thrived up to the early 7th century CE.) As a matter of fact, Mr. Harlan has written a series of stories set in a fantasy version of the First Crusade that has been adapted to Dungeons & Dragons.

By all in all the roleplaying game business is a young one, and largely amateur. Much as cartoons, comic books, and motion pictures were when they were first starting out. Consider the adolescent sensibility of the Leon Schliesenger/early Warner Brothers animated thorts with the adult (but still puckish) sensibility of the later Warner Brothers productions. RPGs are a young persons field, and when a grown-up, a professional, produces material it is notable.

Then too, the field has no real idea as to what it is it's doing. The inclusion of 'game' leads many to assume it must perforce follow the dictates of early forms of the subject. That it includes improvisation, fiction, and other elements seen before means many see it as nothing new, when in actuality it is a combination of old elements, all coming together to produce something new.

In short, we don't know what to call the damn thing, much less how to conceptualize it.

The literature on the subject is sparse, and lacking I'm afraid. Nothing that goes into any depth. There have been academic papers published, but largely by grad and pre-grad students, and the limitations of those should be self evident to anyone with any experience in matters academic. Those produced by more mature academics suffer from the particular author's subject myopia. As far as I know no-one has produced an academic paper on RPGs as RPGs.

In other words, it will be a few years before RPGs become a mature and professional field. But danged if I'm gonna let that stop me from talking about it.:)

Thanks for soliciting further elucidation on the subject, and for giving me an opportunity to practice composition and typing.:)

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on December 1, 2003 11:34 PM

When you guys are talking about the youth market, exactly what age are you speaking too? Grad students are very different from the Harry Potter/ Princess Diaries crowd.

And perhaps the publishing biz is feeling the effects of a larger social phenomenon that has to do with a faster paced lifestyle for families with kids. Off to day care, off to school, off to ball practice/dance lessons/music lessons. Reading takes time and money and with a younger crowd it's not the kiddos who are shelling out the bucks, it's the parents. Newer, faster, better seems to be the criteria for many purchases these days and books as an entertainment device just dont "seem" to be on the cutting edge.

Posted by: Deb on December 2, 2003 6:49 AM

Deb -- Young adults. No longer reading kiddie or juvenile fiction, off on their own for the first time -- the usual TV-ad, target-market crowd. And I think you're absolutely right about "newer, faster, better" -- very hard for books to compete on those terms, and those are terms that the young folks have gotten used to. Their loss: hard for me to imagine a life in which books didn't play a big-ish role ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 2, 2003 10:24 AM

Two more points on gaming fiction (the super-genre of RPG fiction):

1) I'd also recommend Steven Brust's "Jhereg" series (based on a long-running D&D campaign), nearly anything by Michael Stackpole (designer for Flying Buffalo and writer for FASA, among others), and the Honor Harrington series by David Weber (this doesn't seem to be based on a particular game, but the author was heavily involved in the design of "Starfire", and the experience shows in the fiction).

2) At a panel at the San Antonio World Science Fiction Convention (1997), Mike Stackpole (among others) speculated that gaming fiction might be the new SF/Fantasy midlist. His claim then (I don't know whether the current business environment would bear it out) was that the midlist was dying out, lost to blockbusters and new authors. If a new author didn't become a major force within a few books, the contracts would disappear. The only books by established authors with sales consonant with what used to be the midlist were game fiction.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on December 2, 2003 8:07 PM


On the "Young Adult" fiction market. It would help if publishers went looking for material that was well done, and that did not pander to the young. While the typical 20 year old may have all the good sense of a ball of clay, they aren't stupid, and can spot condescension from a mile away.

On game fiction: New to you. It's a mixed bag. Some few are good, some few are atrocious, most are ordinary. In some the game connection is so obvious you can hear the dice rattling, in others it is but a subtle influence.

Right now I'm trying to puzzle out how to simulate the magic of Thomas Harlan's "Shadows of Ararat" in both the Dangerous Journeys and d20 Systems. Not as easy at it seems.

Where RPG sourcebooks are concerned -books, that is, that add to the game written for and provide additional options for play, as I've said before, they do present all the problems of works of fiction, and works of fact with none of the advantages. Which leads to the question of sub-creation and how the author and the audience understand the world. Which understanding is all-too-often sadly lacking in people today.

Which is to say, many of those who play RPGs have no real understanding of metaphysics as it describes this reality we inhabit. But that's another essay, one I'll tell you about once it's composed and posted.

And before I do that I need to set up links to the blog appropriate forums, and before I do that I need to set up said forums.:)

(A web master's work is never done. Which for me is a good thing, otherwise I'd get bored.:D)

BTW, you have my permission to post the original comment in the blog itself.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on December 2, 2003 11:19 PM

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