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December 12, 2006

Book Publishing Advice

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Probably because I've written a lot of postings about book publishing, I receive emails asking for advice about publishing books on a regular basis. Most of these correspondents seem to have run across my posting "Writing a Book," which tends to turn up high on the hit list when "writing a book" is Googled. By dint of practice, I've come up with a semi-standard response to people who ask me about book publishing. Maybe some visitors will enjoy reading these thoughts and this advice too. Others may well feel that they've had enough of me on this subject already.

First off: Who am I to yak about book publishing? I've published precisely one book, and even on that one I was a co-writer and not the full-credit author.

Good point. But I was close to the book publishing industry (especially the New York City-based end of the trade-book publishing biz) for more than 15 years. While a lot of people know swathes of the book-publishing biz better than I do, few people have snooped around book publishing from as many different angles as I have. Some bookbiz trade reporters aside, that is -- and I was friendly with a number of them too. So when I generalize it's based on some actual experience.

But the real reason I'd encourage you to pay a bit of attention is that I have no agenda. I really don't. When the usual crowd talks about book-publishing, they have something to sell. Agents peddling advice to wannabes ... Published authors conducting workshops for the eager-believer set ... Editors pontificating to credulous reporters ... They all have a vested interest in perpetuating the mystique of book publishing. They want you reading books, but they also want you dreaming about writing and publishing books. And they want you to be impressed.

Sadly, that means that the book business is happiest if and when you're stuck in a state of yearning and aspiring and never-quite-getting-there yourself. Nothing wrong with this, of course. It keeps the faith alive, the congregation vulnerable, and the sales turning over. But, generally speaking, the usual suspects are about as frank about their business as a GM CEO is when he speaks to The Wall Street Journal. Ie., not very much at all.

Me, I like reading and writing a whole lot, but I couldn't care less about the container I'm dealing with. Books can be fun, god knows, but so can websites and photocopies. And, unlike many in the biz, I didn't enter book publishing because I yearned to be close to The Greats. I'm not one of what I've called "the book-besotted." I happened to stumble into the field, I found it interesting, and I started taking note of what I encountered. Publish a book or don't publish a book, it doesn't matter to me. So even if I'm not perfectly objective (is anyone?), I'm at least sympathetic and agnostic, and I have some potentially useful information and knowledge I can pass along.

My first bit of advice where trying-to-get-professionally-published goes is: You'll be happier if you don't. You say you feel frustrated? You tell me you're "unfulfilled" because you haven't published a book? Those feelings are as nothing compared to the rage, depression, and fury that will likely be yours if you do get serious about pro-publishing a book.

Understand, in any case, that there's a big difference between "getting a kick out of reading and writing" and "taking part in professional book publishing." A surprising number of people struggle with this basic fact. They like reading ... They have a knack for writing ... They have half an idea ... Professional publishing should follow in the natural course of events, right?

Er, no. In the first place, writing a book is a big, big project. That's simply matter of scale. For most people, a writing project the size of a book isn't going to be fun. It's going to be a chore and a burden. Do you want more chores in your life? Are you actively looking to shoulder more burdens? Isn't the job you already have job enough for you?

Writing something book-length may not be quite in the same league as building a house from scratch. But it's certainly on the same no-fun level as remodeling your kitchen. Have you ever known anyone who loved the experience of remodeling a kitchen? For one small example, writing a book is often a major bookkeeping challenge. All those notes and scribbles and revisions and drafts ... Good lord, what a mess. Opening up the "My Book" folder on your hard drive can be about as much fun as preparing your taxes.

In the second place, publishing a book once you're done writing it is almost always a chore. The fantasy many people seem to have is that once an agent has been landed and a book-sale has been made, the author is home-free. It's smooth sailing from then on, boy-o. Sit back and enjoy the interviews, the cashflow, the blowjobs.

Er, no. For one thing, there's the actual editing process to attend to. What if your editor's fixes are making your book worse? What if your copyeditor is a dunce? What if the designer who has been assigned to your project is illiterate?

Also to be contended with is the fact that pro book publishing often seems stuck back in the early 20th century technology- and procedure-wise. The process itself usually stretches out over a period of from six months to a year and a half. Which means that, by the time you're going through final proofs, you'll be groaning and gasping from weariness, as well as straining to remember having written the book in the first place.

Not to be overlooked is the money question. From a business point of view, publishing a book is nearly always amazingly unrewarding. For many writers, publishing a book -- once the agent, Uncle Sam, and research costs have been accounted for -- is an actual money-loser. Be honest with yourself: How would you feel about putting several years' worth of work into a project that is 1) a big pain to bring to the public and that 2) loses you money?

And how would your spouse feel about it? After all, during that creative stretch he or she has had to put up with your weird hours, your inexplicable obsessions, and your grandiosity-attacks. All for what? And if you think your spouse isn't going to ask that question ...

Which brings us to the third main thing: Publishing a book is often psychically perilous. It can wreck lives. Really, seriously: Don't laugh, and don't shrug this off. I've seen people crack up after publishing books. It isn't uncommon for marriages to go south, or for kids to hate their writer-parents. Friendships break up, egos balloon out of control, people leave the field and are never heard from again.

Here's the reason: Book-writing and book-publishing absorb massive amounts of time and energy. (Make that lonely time and lonely energy.) They're also projects in which it's almost impossible not to invest a lot of ego, hopes, and dreams.

Years of work, a lifetime of dreaming ... And then your book comes out, and not much happens. A couple of reviews. Modest (at best) sales. Your life doesn't change; you aren't hailed as a genius; blowjobs aren't forthcoming. Your friends will tell you that they're impressed, but you can sense damn well that in fact they resent having to read your book: Who really needs another book to add to their "to read" stack? And then, after eight weeks, the good people at Borders and B&N remove all copies of your book from their shelves and send them back to the publisher.

That's a description of a bog-standard book-publishing experience. If it doesn't put you off, great! But please do one short exercise. Look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself: "Do I have a very good reason for pro-publishing a book?" Ask yourself this question because you'll need a very good reason to see you through the process.

Are you an academic whose career depends on publishing some books? That's a good reason, though I doubt that I'll be reading your books. Academic writing: Who can stand to read it? Do you have a business (conferences, consulting, catering) whose prestige or value will be enhanced by you publishing a book? Then it might well make sense for you to go to the trouble.

"I'm seriously determined to make a go of it as a professional writer" -- that's a good reason to publish a book too, at least so long as you aren't deluded about what the book-writing life is really like.

There are great things about the pro-book-publishing life: freedom, adventure. But earning your way as a book writer is also tough, competitive, hard work, whether you're writing high-end literary fiction or computer-tip manuals. As I've mentioned in other postings, there are perhaps a grand total of a couple of hundred people in the U.S. who make their livings as trade-book authors. Meanwhile, there are tens if not hundreds of thousands of people who would like to make a living from writing trade books. That's one competitive field! (This basic fact drives prices -- ie., what you're likely to earn -- 'way, 'way down, by the way.) Perhaps you've noticed that book sales these days aren't exactly robust? So: How eager are you to spend your professional life fighting to make a place for yourself in what's widely acknowledged to be a business in decline?

Another factor to be taken into acccount is that being a pro book writer isn't just a weird kind of business; it's a weird kind of life. It's one that often demands a lot of sacrifices. It's unlikely that you'll be able to manage a normal mid-American life as a professional book-writer, for example. Many pro book writers do without the suburban house, the two cars, the kids. For the sake of pro-publishing, they put up with lives that don't deliver many of the rewards that most Americans have come to expect. Health insurance can be hard to afford. You are your own retirement plan. And your career is always just one inch away from vaporizing. Will anyone publish you if your next book flops? Nerves of steel are a definite prerequisite.

Hey, an aside? Here's a theory I've been working on recently. You know all those articles and books that ask the old writers-and-madness questions? "Do writers have to be mad? Do genius and madness overlap? Is creativity a kind of madness?" We've all run across a million such thumb-suckers.

Once I got a good look at the book-publishing world, I started to laugh at these questions, and at the books and the articles attempting deep-think about these questions. Why? Because you don't have to be mad to be a good or an inspired writer. Art-talent is like athletic talent: Many, many people have it to one degree or another. Simple fact, at least in my experience.

So if talent isn't a form of madness, then why have so many writers been flakey? It's for another reason entirely. It's because you may well need to be a bit of a maniac to be willing to lead the writer's life. The writer's life is a tough one -- and who would volunteer to live out such a thing except for people who really are pretty zany? America is prosperous, peaceful, spacious, and full of opportunities for money-making and mischief. Who but a nutjob would choose to forgo taking advantage of these pleasures?

Since most of the people who have written and published books that are remembered are people who have had the craziness it takes to put up with the book-writing life, it can look as though craziness is a necessary precondition to be a writer. But it isn't. The craziness we've seen so much of among famous writers doesn't have to do with writing or with talent; it has to do with the willingness and determination to lead (and succeed in) what has always been a pretty dismal life.

How lovely it is that publishing conditions have changed in recent years, eh? These days, you don't have to lead a crazy life in order to write and publish. Think blogging: It's something that can be done during lunch hour, or after the kids and the wife have gone to bed. And since writing a blog is the same thing as publishing a blog, we're seeing all kinds of unexpected people putting their words into publication. As far as I'm concerned, one of the best things about blogdom is the way that so many non-crazy people are finally getting a chance to publish their writing and to express their points of view. What a pleasure to discover and read people who have brains, talent, and imagination, but whose lives and emotional cores are relatively normal. Up 'till now, we haven't seen much of that. No one has to lead the writer's life in order to publish any longer -- double-phew! And what a revelation for readers, who are finally able to see life through the eyes of writers who aren't nutjobs.

In any case, here are examples of some typical bad reasons to publish a book:

  • I think I oughta be a published book-author.
  • My friends will be impressed.
  • Being accepted by a publisher will provide validation.
  • I always dreamed of seeing a book of mine on the shelf at the bookstore.
  • Being published will make my life worthwhile.
  • I have something that deserves to live for the ages.
  • I have a contribution to make to literature.
  • Becoming a published author will transform me into something I like better than what I am now.
  • My genius demands that I publish a book.
  • Publishing a book will change my life for the better.
  • Publishing a book will put me in the company of people -- agents, edtiors, writers, intellectuals -- who will appreciate me in a way my friends and neighbors don't.

Ahahhahahahah! Oh what fun it is to list the ways dreamy people delude themselves. Oh let me wipe away the laughter-tears ... Now, where was I?

OK: If, when you look deeply into that mirror, you find yourself thinking, "Hmm, my reason for dreaming about pro publication is one of the bad reasons I'm seein' here," then I'd suggest you abandon the dream. It'll make you miserable. It'll weigh on you. It'll make you look foolish, even in your own eyes. And, if and when you do pro-publish, you're almost guaranteed a nervous breakdown or a major relationship bust-up when your book is completely ignored. After all, 99% of books are completely ignored.

You're still determined to go through with it? Then here's another question for you: "Does what I have to say really need to be a book?" Too few people ask themselves this question. They feel an urge to say something, they've been to a few bookstores ... Hence, that-which- I-have-to-say needs to be a book!

It's the old I'm-so-hungry- I-could-eat-a-horse (or I'm-so-horny -I-could-fuck-all-night) syndrome. And let's face it: Most such urges are in fact pretty quickly spent.

Likewise, most things-people-have-to-say don't really need to run on at book length. Nowhere near. Most fiction-stories, it seems to me, have a natural length of somewhere between a joke and 80 pages. Beyond that, it's padding and writin'. (Which is fine, of course.) As far as nonfiction books go ... Well, I don't know about you, but 400 pages is far more than I want to know about all but a very few subjects. Remember: If you do write a 400 page long book, you're asking an audience to listen to you (and to you alone) talk and talk and talk for about 40 hours. 40 hours! Why would you expect anyone to be willing to attend to your voice and your brain for 40 hours? These are people, after all, who could be watching a movie, enjoying their friends and family, preparing a yummy meal, surfing the web, listening to music, or taking a nap. Do you really consider yourself (and / or your story and facts) so interesting that you can demand 40 hours of attention from them?

The whole book-length thing is one of the stranger cultural fetishes people have, it seems to me. Let's get over it. What's so special about 250-400 pages, the length of most books? Absolutely nothing -- except that it's the length of a typical book. And why is it the length of a typical book? For reasons having to do not with expressive need or even readers' pleasure or convenience, but with binding, shipping, and tradition. Many pieces of book-writing, in other words, aren't the length they are because they need to be. They're the length they are because, well, they wouldn't have been published as books if they weren't.

But, in case you hadn't noticed, the technology of publishing has changed a lot in recent years. Computers, the web, etc. Books and magazine articles aren't the only length-options a writer has any longer. Online, your piece-of-writing can be the length it wants and / or needs to be.

Let's take an example. Let's say you kinda-sorta feel like you could, or might want to, pro-publish a book. But the pro writer's life doesn't sound too appealing. After all, you like your house, your family's good, it's nice to have a car, and your job is bearable. You might feel a few pangs of dissatisfaction with the way some of your talents are growing stale. But really life is OK to not-bad. Yet you still feel an ache to create, you're able to grab an hour or two for yourself every now and then, and you have some thoughts or fantasies or observations that you'd like to give shape to and share with other people.

This is, by the way, the state most people are describing when they tell me they'd like to publish a book. They say, "I have got to publish a book!" What they usually mean is, "Basically I like my life pretty well. But something's missing. I'm looking to do something that's meaningful, fun, and rewarding."

Well, then for God's sake, don't write a book, start a blog. During the years you'd spend never finishing the damn book, you might very well have a blast blogging. While it's beyond-challenging to write a book with the little scraps of time and energy that a middle-class life affords you, writing a decent (informative, amusing, whatever) blog posting is something that can be done in a half an hour; even a long one like the one you're reading only takes a couple of hours to pull together. And as for the "publishing process," well ... You write a posting, you click "publish", and you're published -- no wrangling with editors, agents, designers, etc. As a blogger, you also won't be stuck lugging one idea around for several years, as you will be if you're writing a book. Small piece of Tacit Knowledge: Book writers often grow resentful of their subjects and their themes. They live with them for too long. Meanwhile, bloggers can play with an idea or an observation for a posting or two and then move on.

Blogging is do-able, in other words. Online publishing offers some other enticements that paper-publishing doesn't too, namely interactivity and community. If you persist as a blogger for a while, you'll not only get a lot of writing done, you'll have the rewarding fun of meeting and swapping notes with a lot of nifty people. I can't stress how important and wonderful this is. Publishing a book is often a solitary and thankless experience -- a little like standing alone on a cliff and throwing your heart into the ocean. Say bye-bye! Blogging is more like being a regular at the campus coffee shop. There's always a buzz happening, and there's always someone around you can banter with. It gives energy back to you. Gloomy and lonely it ain't. (See here for my posting about coffee-house culture.)

Take moi, for example. I've written the equivalent of several books' worth of words on this blog, I've had more readers (or at least visitors) than all but a very few book authors have had, and I haven't felt a moment's angst about the whole project. Nice! That posting I wrote long ago, "Writing a Book"? It has been read by many thousands of readers. It has had more readers, in other words, than all but a small number of books have had. And these readers weren't mere abstractions and numbers to me; I got to yak with them. I compared notes, I scrapped, I learned. Some of them feel like buds to me by this point. So remind me again why I should give a second thought to the pro-paper-publishing thing?

As a blogger who doesn't run ads, I don't make any dough. But chances are that I wouldn't be making much dough as a book author anyway. As a blogger using a fake name, I don't get any respect. No one looks at me with awe, that's for sure. But, y'know, that's actually good; it keeps my ego, my vanity, and my frustration levels in check. (The Wife will testify that, thanks to blogging, I'm a more pleasant hubby.) And I can do my blogging in the time and with the energy that's actually available to me. A few tech snafus aside, there has been no strain and no rage involved. I don't have to puff myself up to superhuman size just to open the folder where I've stuffed my research. I can behave directly and spontaneously and then move on. Downside of blogging: Prose fiction doesn't seem to work well online. I wonder why that should be so ... Hmm, what an interesting topic for a blog posting!

OK, let's say that you want to publish a book even though I've persuaded you that pro-publishing might not suit you. What to do? After all, vanity publishing and self-publishing have such bad reps ...

Let me introduce you to the best thing that's happened to book publishing in decades:

Lulu is heaven-sent. It's an outfit that enables you to publish your own book with no money up front. You upload some files, they take orders, print out and mail copies, and split the revenues (if any, of course) with you. Simple as that.

Lulu's business model is based on what's known as POD, ie., print-on-demand technology. This is, in essence, a brawny photocopier, attached on one end to a big computer and on the other to a binder. Such a rig these days can print one copy of one book, then seven of another, then shift gears and print 150 of a third, then back to one copy ... It spits books -- a variety of books -- out at a very high rate.

I've visited the plant where many Lulu books are printed, and I found it an impressive and inspiring spectacle. Where traditional presses have to be set up to roll off a minimum of hundreds if not thousands of copies of a book to make economic sense, POD outfits can make money printing only one copy of a book. A key benefit of Lulu-style book publishing is that you don't have to order up (let alone warehouse) any copies whatsoever. Books aren't actually printed until they're ordered.

I'm far from being the only person who just about fainted from pleasure when he first got a look at POD technology, by the way. The long-overdue revolution in book publishing had arrived! Finally, power returns to the author! Screw commercial publishers! Don't let this get around, but the anarchist in me would love to see 90% of all writers abandon pro publishing for outfits like Lulu. What do professional publishers offer authors anyway? These days the sad answer is "Not much."

Unhappily, the original POD outfits were either ill-conceived or shady. Lulu solves all these problems. Founded by Bob Young, who made zillions off that Linux / Red Hat thing, Lulu was designed from the outset to serve book writers and book readers, not to fleece them.

The work published on Lulu is as variable as can be, as you'd imagine. But that includes the very, very good. I'm currently enjoying Prairie Mary's Blackfeet stories, for instance. Does that woman write with a lot of primal power or what? This is the quirkiest, most enjoyable quotation-collection I've ever read. I just received my copy of WhiskyPrajer's stories. From a ten-minute flip through Darrell's book, I can report that it looks like a charmer, something from the same accessible / literate boy-man shelf as Tom Perrotta and Nick Hornby, two writers I'm very fond of. I'm looking forward to this book by Scott Kirsner, who's as smart as can be about the future of digital video. (Scott blogs here.) Alt-comix people -- who are often resourceful self-starters -- love using Lulu. IMHO, most book writers would do well to quit dreaming about bigtime publishing and emulate the alt-comix crowd instead.

Hey, here's a great concept for a bookblog: covering and reviewing Lulu books. Take it away, someone.

I don't know of many downsides to Lulu. Creating PDFs that behave properly can be a little involved, I hear. And you have to publicize your work yourself, of course. Simply making your book available on Lulu or even on Amazon isn't going to accomplish much of anything. You've "published" your book, but so what? Presumably you want your work to do something other than just sit there. But the fact is that 90% of pro-published book-authors aren't going to be promoted by their publishers anyway. So get out there and hustle, dammit.

The one iffy thing about Lulu (or Lulu-style) book publishing, as far as I can see, has to do with one super-ultra-mega fundamental question: In the electronic future, are people going to be reading many books? I'm not entirely sure they will be. But there's nothing Lulu, Bob Young, you, or I can do about that.

Short version: If you want to write and publish, consider blogging. If you want to write and publish a book, consider Lulu. If you really insist on writing and pro-publishing your work, then may god help you and I wish you well. Oh, you say that what you're looking for is a creative hobby that will deliver trustworthy pleasure and bring you lots of love and appreciation? What a good idea; we should all cultivate such activities. Then avoid writing and take up cooking instead.

A special note, intended for a small number of correspondents (you know who you are): No, I won't give you the phone number of my agent. Are you insane? Book publishing is to some extent a business, and my own position in the publishing world, however minor, has been hard-won. Would you give the number of one of your own valued professional contacts to a complete stranger?

Some other postings about book publishing can be read here, here, and here. Read more about Lulu on Wikipedia. Here's a BBC visit with Bob Young. Here's an interview with him. Erika Dreifus writes about her experience as a Lulu author here.



posted by Michael at December 12, 2006


Writing something book-length may not be quite in the same league as building a house from scratch.

Posted by: Lea Luke on December 12, 2006 7:20 PM

Ok, Michael, I just ordered that book of quotations as a Xmas present for my college bound daughter. It had better be good!

Posted by: Lea Luke on December 12, 2006 7:56 PM

Bless you, Michael. And I'll bless you again when my first check comes from Lulu! So far I'm my own best customer.

At least part of the secret has to be writing FOR some identifiable group that can be reached by ads in specialized mags or through organizations or through mailing lists -- and writing something they will want to read. I've said for a long time that most publishers simply won't keep a Native American book on the market long enough for the word of mouth to get around. This one will be there until Lulu crashes -- God forbid.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on December 12, 2006 9:40 PM

Well, I have to thank you, too! I always wanted to write a book, and I have no idea why. I used to tell myself stories as a kid, as a young child, my mother said it was kind of strange, really. I would just tell myself these rambling stories all day long. I guess a lot of kids do that. Let's hope. And, if not, I deny what I just wrote.

Anyway, I make a decent living and in the nooks and crannies I can create. I can do my own thing. That seems so much more appealing to me these days. I love blogging, when I'm in the mood, because it's about creating something of your own. I think that is what I wanted all along. The other stuff: yuck. Sounds like work...I mean, the boring bureacratic bullsh*t side of work.

PS: Donald P might like an artist I linked to in my last post, Christopher French. Went to see his work and really liked it.

Posted by: MD on December 12, 2006 10:34 PM

Thanks Michael for the interesting information and point of view! I have a friend who is trying to get a book published that she wrote on the Lower Manhattan community's fight to save West St. from being put into a tunnel, and I'll have to alert her to your post. (Her book is titled, "The Light At the End," but I've half-jokingly suggested this downtown version of turf and "gang" warfare be called, "West St. Story.")

I wonder what the implications are in terms of copyright protection and that sort of thing, though. Does one loose any rights by publishing this way -- either legally speaking or practically speaking?

Also, further in line with your advice about blogging rather than trying to write and publish a book, here's an interesting wrinkle: a blog that recently became a professionally published book -- the "Forgotten New York" website and book.

By the way, if you search on the internet enough you will see that Francis Morrone (who, of course, both blogs and has at least two professionally published books to his credits -- although they both preceded, I believe, his blogging days) is friends with the webmaster/author of "Forgotten New York," and can even be seen at the book party that was given by the publishers at "Chumley's" in the Village.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on December 12, 2006 10:52 PM

A very good post.

The working conditions in the arts are just dismal. The music biz is an even worse pile of shit.

I've often thought that the predictable leftism of artists can be explained by this. When musicians bitch about racism, injustice, etc., I believe that this is really deflected anger at the gross stupidity and venality of the music biz. It's easier to bitch about abstract injustices than to confront the viciousness of the arts. What are you going to do about it? The music biz, despite the pretense of rebellion, demands abject butt kissing of a preposterous magnitude.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on December 12, 2006 11:55 PM

Went yesterday to this event by mediabistro, From blogger to author
Not that the topic interests me personally, my ambitions are not book-writing-related (I was there to see two acquaintances) -
but the atmosphere was..strange.
The audience: tense, silent, staring attentively at two publisher women on the panel, sponging their every "word-of-wisdom". Questions session: on index cards, and all lame.
Panelists: only Maxwell G-R ( dared to hint that traditional publishing process is no longer a monopoly, what with blogs and such.
One authoress (said to just published a very successful cooking book), repeatedly said how "everything happened so...silly/stupid/lame" and "I'm not really qualified...if not for my agent/publisher/lov'ya guys"...etc.
Two [relatively] young publisher women have taken an amazing (for me, as outsider) didactic bossy tone nobody seemed to notice or find strange:
"Don't send me a link to your blog as a writing sample...I'm looking for a platform...Fan base is OK, but I can care less about your hits...I know cases when peoplke published without an agent, but these cases a freakishly rare", etc.

Michael, I've got a headache after only 2 hrs in this company; how you survive all these years?

Posted by: Tatyana on December 13, 2006 12:17 AM

Excellent review of the book biz for aspiring writers.

About the only piece of advice that struck me as being missing (and it doesn't fit the theme well in any case) is how much work on a project a writer should do before getting a contract to sign.

A few years back I wrote up a bunch of thoughts about driving in Europe for first-time tourist-drivers. It was fun to compile my views, so the chore factor wasn't great. But it was more writing than was needed -- about a third or half of what the completed book might have been.

I did try hawking the idea to some travel book publishers, but none was interested. No gain, but no big loss either, because my ego-involvement wasn't high and I dropped the project once the last rejection letter arrived.

The one book I did get published (not counting some co-"edited" books that I had little to do with) was a blind-luck case based on little more than a chance meeting and a short outline. So methinks the best policy is to (1) not waste time writing pre-contract while (2) peppering publishers with ideas for different books, at the same time (3) minimizing the ego factor.

And that's if you absolutely refuse to follow Michael's sound advice.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on December 13, 2006 12:37 AM

There is one kind of book publishing that can't be addressed by blogs and Lulu -- that's the high-end, high-quality book-as-object. The beautifully formatted and created book, the handmade "artist book," the stunningly illustrated book -- these escape the idea of books as simply print.

Incidentally, I looked up Whiskey Prajer's "marketplace" on Lulu and read the samples they provided. Since I'm an old fat woman and he's writing about a young live-wire male, the coming-of-age plot didn't grab me right off, but the writing is clear, energetic and graceful. I'll order me a copy of the book. Stand by for review, maybe after Christmas.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on December 13, 2006 8:14 AM

OMG, that is the funniest thing I have read for ages!! My favourite bit-

"Publishing a book will put me in the company of people -- agents, edtiors, writers, intellectuals -- who will appreciate me in a way my friends and neighbors don't."

Owwww!! What poor creatures we humans are :)

Posted by: Alice Bachini on December 13, 2006 11:24 AM

Man, that was long. You should consider using it as a chapter in a book.

I take issue with something you asserted way way back, close to the top: that writing a book isn't fun. True, it's not fun in the way that going to a Mets game is fun, or seeing a good movie is fun. But researching a non-fiction book on a topic you're interested in can in fact be fun; same for writing it. It's hard and it takes a long time, but there are different kinds of fun, and doing a good job on something satisfying is one of them.

Posted by: Tom Andersen on December 13, 2006 4:18 PM

I've never had that patience to write anything close to book length, however I once thought that writing short stories for the New Yorker was my ticket to a comfortable life (with visions of O. Henry Awards dancing in my head). If only I had considered that thousands of others had the same idea ( and so few open slots) I might have spent less time in my room and more time living. I still have anthologies and short story collections lining my wall but haven't cracked one open in years. Oh well, at least I had my Excel spreadsheet skills to fall back on.

Posted by: AlanW on December 13, 2006 4:52 PM

"Hey, here's a great concept for a bookblog: covering and reviewing Lulu books. Take it away, someone."

Someone has. She reviews self-published books, and not just those published using Lulu.

There is lots of good cautionary advice in your thoughts, but I think too much of it comes from a worst case scenario that can be applied to the arts and even to non-artistic professions.

Should one go to law school? Get an MBA? Become a teacher? Think of all the reasons pro and con: one could construct a post similar to yours about just other career objectives. There's even a good book from Nolo Press, 101 Reasons Not To Gop To Law School.

I certainly agree with you about the excessive length of most nonfiction books. I find most biographies' length unjustified by the achievements of the subject being written about. 5, 6, or 7 hundred page biographies of movie stars are ludicrous.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on December 13, 2006 7:55 PM

Ya, but you wrote a book anyway, didn't you MB, and you're married to a writer. In writing, you disavow the secret romantic seductions of the artistic lifestyle, but your life choices say different :-)

Posted by: MQ on December 13, 2006 11:17 PM

I love these depressing posts. Even if they do crush my childhood dreams. And adulthood dreams.

I think it's because you confirm a lot of what I've always suspected: Gee, How to write... books seem to sell a lot better than actual fiction books. And of all the creative writing majors being pumped out of liberal arts colleges, how many of them will ever put that training to use?

Despite all this, I still pound out the occasional novel. It is hard work, as you say. But it's a lot more fun when you're doing it with a bunch of other nutjobs who feel the same urges and don't expect more than a bit of fun from it. And I've found it's a lot more fun to be writing a novel at the same time a beloved spouse is having a go at one. (And as you have pointed out, writing a novel with a beloved spouse can be a hell of a turn-on as well.)

At the end of the day, a couple hours of novel writing leaves me feeling satisfied and energized, while a couple hours of television or video games feels more draining. (Of course I can get the same kind of satisfaction from blogging, and people will actually read it.)

Of course, I haven't followed through and published any of those novels. Or edited them. Or, honestly, finished them. Maybe this means I'm too emotionally well-balanced for the writer's life.

Yeah, that must be it.

Posted by: Nate on December 14, 2006 6:59 AM

Michael (and Mary) - many thanks for the promotional praise. If I could add another bonus to the Lulu/POD model: the environmental aspect of Big Publishing probably rates as the least of my peeves, but it's not an insignificant one. What a rush it must be for an author to be told his book is being shelved in nearly every Barnes & Noble in the land! What a nerve-wracking experience it must be, 18 months later, to finally see a huge pile of your title on prominent display - on the remainders shelf. How does one feel, 18 months after that, when the publisher invites you to buy back copies of your book before they pulp it? So much energy and raw material, winding a long, circuitous route to the shredder.

As a book-buyer, I'm a big fan of the remainder table. But it strikes me that the "print 'em as you need 'em model" is remarkably more efficient, and easier on everyone involved.

Posted by: Whisky Prajer on December 14, 2006 9:27 AM

I, too, love "these depressing posts." If nothing else, you keep me honest, MB.

I still plan to write a few books, but after your own words on the topic and seeing the magic that is Lulu myself, up close & personal, at BlogHer this year, I'm sold. Control! Control! Control!

Oh, yeah--and saving the environment and giving the high hard one to Pro Publishing and saving myself a crapload of grief. But mainly?


Posted by: communicatrix on December 14, 2006 12:41 PM

Some random thoughts:

I think the egotistical motivations are in fact vital for producing economically unsalable products. I think also the act of creating a book and finishing it provides a sense of accomplishment of having created something you're proud of.

Oh, yes, I've taken the book-happy drug.

BTW, I'm writing an essay about the future of the novel in an age of online collaboration.

Am big fan of lulu also, but pdf isn't a good format for ebooks; mobipocket is much better, plus the ebook creation tools are free. I'm been very impressed by mobipocket (which is owned by amazon).

Where you're right though is the need to have a web presence for any sort of project you do. It's inconceivable to imagine writing a book and not using a weblog to promote/extend it.

I've been reading Jane Smiley's 13 Ways of Looking at a Novel and have found it very insightful.

In this day and age, it's hard to justify the investment in time in something that is not financially viable. Even grant money ain't easy to come by these days.

but people will continue to read. And frankly, in the last 3 months, I've read some pretty incredible novels.

By happenstance, I've had brief online correspondence with young readers (i.e under 20) who are reading even more rabidly than I used to at that age. It's made me optimistic.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on December 15, 2006 3:22 AM

Further point: do you see how ipod transformed how and when (and why) we listen to music and spoken word?

When portable reading devices become easier to use and more affordable, you may see a renewed interest in reading entertainment (in between marathon sessions of Session Life, of course).

Reading is perhaps our most direct link with lives of the past, because the tools they used (words) are the very same ones we use today.

What has changed is my conception of what constitutes success and how book-minded people become successful.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on December 15, 2006 3:47 AM

Depressingly accurate!

Tatyana is on the money too-- if there is anything mor depressing than dealing with a publisher I don't know what it could be. One acquaintance, a VERY successful novelist, said that one should approach them with an Uzi and a set of pliers. Another friend, also successful, always insisted they were class enemies in the Marxist sense (Mary can probably guess their identities).

But Peter Winkler is right too, for reasons given by Nate ("a couple hours of novel writing leaves me feeling satisfied and energized") and Tom Andersen ("It's hard and it takes a long time, but there are different kinds of fun, and doing a good job on something satisfying is one of them").

I say this as a very poor writer of six books laughably called "commercial" who is still writing, albeit considering Lulu for fiction.

And no, I don't have a "suburban lifestyle".

Posted by: Steve Bodio on December 16, 2006 10:06 AM

I read this post with growing disgust. You say books don't need to be much more than 50 pages - I think this post could have been distilled into: "Trying to be an author is for crazy suckers!"

I mean, my god, man, you devoted 4500 words to the grim state of publishing. Did the pro-publishing industry murder your first-born, or something?

Please, I beg of you - don't add your voice to the choir. Asipiring writers are told at every single turn to give up their dream and go take a job in a cubicle just so they can get some fucking 401k and a health-care package. Friends and peers roll their eyes, and strangers will laugh aloud. We get it - it's not an easy gig.

What then, do you hope to add by this soul-suckingly depressing post? Are you trying to save us from ourselves? Because if you are, I didn't get that sense. I just got a nauseating dosage of pure bitterness, and tip to write a blog.

Maybe you don't have the temperment to be an author in the standard sense of the word. That's fine - but please don't try and throw the rest of us off the mountain with this nay-saying bullshit. The climb is hard enough without this kind of stuff.

Posted by: Erik on December 16, 2006 10:56 PM

A friend of mine made an interesting use of Lulu. He republished an 1876 book on the founding of Old Catholic Church (he's an OC himself).

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on December 17, 2006 1:37 PM

Great post!

I agree, many (if not most) publishing "experts" and consultants are actually wannabe writers. They're hacks who've really never had any success themselves, but that doesn't stop them from calling themselves "bestselling author" and taking a lot of money from new authors who are just trying to figure out how to sell their book.

I think blogging really is the future for all authors, it's a cost-effective way to build an audience. And self-publishing (not vanity publishing) is really coming into its own.

Posted by: Steve Weber on December 21, 2006 6:33 PM

Thanks for the thoughtful and informative rant, Mr. Bloward. You're right; blogging satisfies that need to create/be heard/get stuff off my chest, without having to break into the professional world, which is indeed a big pain in the neck, and of dubious worth. And sounds like a great idea!

Posted by: larissa on December 28, 2006 10:19 PM

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