Wednesday, 16 March 2016

The Evolution of Reading

I understand pretty much all of the arguments for e-books: ecological friendliness (Save a Tree!), lower costs, availability, accessibility, scalable type and so on. Good arguments.

But it's rare to hear anyone talk about the downsides. And oh, yes, there are downsides.

I understand that a lot of people read on their phones, and in fact, I see people doing it. But I simply cannot comprehend how someone could indulge in that activity for any extended length of time.

A cellphone has never struck me as an acceptable medium for reading fiction. Tweets and texts – fine. Most web sites are built to absorb in snippets. But chowing down on a 2000 or 3000 word essay – not so much. Even short stories lose continuity for me, as I zip from one screen to the next.

I am a reader who frequently flicks backward and forward; rereading passages to better appreciate something that comes later; doublechecking the names of characters to make sure they are who I think they are; reestablishing my place in the narrative; and so on. Poems and short stories are readable in that fashion, as long as they're not dependent on layout – but not novels. The centre cannot hold.

When the screen is tiny, there are far too many pages. It's easy to go too far or not far enough, and too hard to find my place again when I'm done my search. Reading Lord of the Rings or Moby Dick on a cellphone would be akin to listening to a song one bar at a time – which would suck the joy right out of it!

I've heard of people writing novels on their cellphones! Seriously? With those itty-bitty keyboards and my enormous thumbs, texting is a challenge. Maintaining a coherent narrative would be like painting the Sistine Chapel on playing cards (thus creating the world's largest and most unhelpful jigsaw puzzle – where every piece fits almost everywhere).

All of my problems are exacerbated if I'm connected to wi-fi or a network. The constant bleeps and whistles are complete concentration destroyers. Even if I'm unconnected, the telephone is a constant distraction. And God forbid the fucking thing should run out of power or spontaneously decide to install an update as I'm turning a page.

I've never measured, but I would guess that when I'm reading a hardcopy book, I read at least 20 full sized pages at a sitting. If I got through that many on a cellphone, it would be a minor miracle. And since it takes 12 cell phone pages to equal one real page, I would be clipping along at a rate of about a page per sitting. Anton Chekov stories would be mini-marathons. Game of Thrones? No, just no.

My reader experience doesn't improve that drastically with tablets. I've used small and large screens, dedicated readers and all-purpose androids. Each of them has different problems:

  • If I don't read fast enough, the screen dims.
  • If I move my hand, or touch the wrong spot on the screen, I turn pages I didn't intend to turn.
  • Or I turn them too fast – a chapter at a time is not unheard of.

At first, I thought that once I got used to this, it would get easier. But I've now read dozens of books in e-pub format and I still don't like it. Yes, it's doable, and it's convenient and desirable in all the ways I mentioned in the first paragraph. But I still don't find e-pubs very reader friendly. The tech, the apps, the connections are all unreliable. And adding bells and whistles somehow makes the devices even less reader friendly.

Maybe if I had grown up reading for pleasure on electronic devices, it would be less annoying, more intuitive. Maybe. But in truth, it would also be more distracting. Video games, movies, socializing, gossiping, videos, animation – they're ALL easier than reading and far, far easier than writing.

The formats in which we digest our entertainment have always been dictated by available media, and I honestly believe this is the beginning of the end for all the literary forms we currently know and love. There will always be people who love different forms and seek them out. But once the tools for modifying "literature" are available, accessible and easier to use, I believe that fiction will become more interactive, multi-channel and multi-sensual.

The seeds of it are at websites like sub-Q Magazine. Hasn't caught on yet and probably won't for awhile. And what we see there is a long ways from whatever form it will ultimately assume. But what they're aiming for is fiction that is created specifically to consume online – an admirable and inevitable goal that might actually make reading onscreen enjoyable. Until then – well it is cheaper, and more convenient. Maybe I'll...hmmm.

Hurry up interactive fiction. Your time has come. 

Friday, 11 March 2016

The Rise of the Accidental Small Publisher

So the short story marketplace is becoming incredibly crowded and competitive. Other than being a great time to buy short story collections and anthologies – what does that say about the literary landscape?

Is it actually easier – or harder to get a novel published these days than a short story?

Well if we're talking big name publishers, it's almost certainly harder than ever before. Lots of publishers have gone under in the past fifteen years – unable to hold their own in a marketplace where people who can barely string a coherent sentence together suddenly have the power to make their dreams come true by self-publishing a book.

According to a 2002 NY Times article by Joseph Epstein, more than 80% of people in the U.S.A. believe they have a book in them and 80,000 books are published in America every year. Remember – this was 2002 – ten years before the self publishing boom. These days, every one of those 200 million people has the resources to self-publish their book.

You may have considered such a thing, or, like me, have actually gone there. If you have a few dollars to spend and can afford to pay for a good cover and cover design, your book can be indistinguishable from the masterpieces or the gripping thrillers or the intellectual tomes that you're positioning yourself against. But the public is slowly starting to catch on to the signs that separate self-published books from their more well-heeled competitors. Like the imprint. If something comes from Doubleday or Harper Collins or Simon and Schuster – that means it has not only appealed to a distinguished and experienced editor – but also gone through a rigorous editorial process (or as rigorous as it gets these days). These processes do not guarantee quality, but they at least promise that the book will come up to the minimum standard that all books once had to achieve before they saw the light of day.

Over the past few decades, the stigma of a self-published book has been enough to ensure that said authors are not taken seriously by the literati – the critics, other writers, bookstore buyers and so forth. Most self-published books suffer from "cheap design." Even if the author has gone out and consigned a wonderful work of art to grace the cover, and hired a professional copy editors to vet the prose – there are still tell-tale signs that give it away. Many of these books waste the beautiful cover image by embedding it within poor design – a badly chosen or overly familiar typeface – sized and coloured or poorly placed on the page; there may be a complete absence of design on the spine or back cover; badly laid out pages inside, with lack of margins or white space, hard to read or uninspired typeface or similar design problems. None of these problems fatal in and of themselves, but collectively they conspire to reveal the final product as "amateur."

And even if the book gets all those things right, it can give itself away in a multitude of other ways: lack of reputable blurbs on the cover or within the front or back pages; 100% five-star rave reviews online; and most obviously, an imprint that no one has ever heard of. A web search for the imprint reveals that they have published a total of five books – all by the same author.

A self-published book that doesn't display any of those obvious tells suggests an insider perspective. It's a sign that even if the book was self-published, the author knows books, understands marketing and has invested the time and effort to put out a professional looking product. This is also a clue that their book may be considerably better than most of the self-published work on the market (or not). The process can also work the other way – where a brilliant book is hidden behind layers of bad design and poor marketing choices…but I like to think, or at least hope, that the author involved in such a project stands at least some chance of getting discovered and building an audience for themselves.

As for the book-buying public – we're all on the lookout these days!

Which brings me to the trend that I was intending to talk about. The rise of the accidental small publisher.

Once an author has self-published a few books, they will likely make many of the above discoveries for themselves. Coming to realize how important design is in creating a professional looking product, they find and hire a good designer. They may bring some literate, unemployed friends on board as editors and start building a publishing infrastructure. And having done so, they discover that their books still stand out as self-published because there are no other authors on their imprint. If they network and belong to a writer's community, they may know other authors who are producing good work. By publishing their books (maybe with some personal investment from the writers involved), they can build a small stable of writers. They discover they can get the word out about their company and attract visitors to their website by publishing short story collections. This works better if they actually pay authors a nominal amount like a penny a word. Gradually, the website starts looking more and more legitimate and this begins to boost sales of their own titles. At that point, they probably just pay novelists commissions on sales on their books – which gives them a way of not only recouping their own investment, but bringing the writers back with more and better books. And then, some of these accidental publishers may come to the revelation that if they are willing to pay advances – on the novels as well as the short stories in the anthologies – and as little as a couple hundred dollars will distinguish them from 95% of the micro-publishers in the marketplace – they may be able to attract some truly outstanding writers. Because with the current state of publishing, there are hundreds of writers who would have (or actually have) been mid-list writers or better in the old regime. And they are grateful for any publisher who will pay them real money. Suddenly the new imprint is getting some respect and maybe even an award nomination or two.

From out of the ashes of the old publishing model – I can see more than a few of these publishers rising. Many will likely continue to grow and evolve, because they are not saddled by the same sort of infrastructure that "real" publishers have to deal with. They can write their own ticket. And in the process, they can provide a worthy home for some wonderful writers who were left wandering the wilderness with their poor tattered manuscripts.

Publishing is dead. Long live publishing.

Monday, 7 March 2016

Short Stories ARE the Big Time These Days

Writing short stories used to be a sort of apprenticeship for aspiring writers - a great way to hone your craft in preparation for the big time. But in today's ultra-competitive marketplace, it make have become just the opposite. An ongoing cage match for expert practitioners of the form.

When I finished writing my story, "They Fell Away," I was certain that it was one of the best things I've ever written. I remain confident in it - but for the sake of keeping it real and properly tempering my expectations - in the hope that it make the process of writing and submitting stories more bearable - I gave some thought to the actual odds of getting an acceptance whenever one sends out a story.

"They Fell Away" bounced last week from a one cent a word market called Hypnos. The respected bi-annual, semi-pro mag gave me a short personal response essentially saying that they had been discussing it and decided not to take it. At least they discussed it - which meant that more than one editor had most likely read it. This was at the top of a long "form" that they send out to everyone - explaining that they can't respond personally because they receiver over 900 submissions per month - which would put it at 5500 submissions per issue - and can accept no more than a few. At best, the usual odds are close to 1000 to one.

I listened to an interview with Jacob Haddon of Lamplight magazine (a 3 cent a word horror market that's had one of my stories for almost 6 months), where he explained that he received approximately 3,500 submissions since his last issue. Since he solicits some of his contents - and like most editors, has regular author/submittors whose work he likes, I guesstimate the odds at Lamplight to be somewhere between 3 and 10 in 3,500 - or somewhere between 350 and 1150 to one. 

I can't even imagine where this puts the odds at big name pubs like Asimovs or F&SF. But suffice it to say that even if my publication history and writing skills give me an advantage over 95% of the competition, my odds at a semi-pro like Hypnos probably don't get much better than 10 to one. At a lesser known prozine like Lamplight I might be between 35 and 100 to one. And at a well known prozine, it would probably be at least 250 to one against on every submission. Don't know where this puts the odds of getting picked for a years best antho or getting an award nom. But suffice it to say that the odds are not in anyone's favour and just getting positive responses and establishing some sort of personal relationship with editors is a huge kudo. 

Maybe my best stories can (and have) overcome these odds in a heartbeat - but I think every story I write is one of my best stories when I first send it out. It's only as the rejections start piling up that I grudgingly admit anything different.

David Nickle, one of the most accomplished writers I know, pointed out that the odds of selling a novelette or novella to a market that doesn't already know and love me are pretty much off the charts - because they can run three shorter stories at the same cost to them - and increase their readership with a more diverse selection of options. Their odds of running a story that resonates with readers triples by taking three shorter stories over one novellete. 

So in the end - anything less than clear and absolute brilliance will require extreme perseverance, lots of strategy, a ton of rejection and a boatload of luck. It gets better once you establish a reputation and fanbase and editors start soliciting stories from you - but that is a process that could frankly take decades. Even solicited stories are only selected for the final TOC part of the time. I've had friends who have had multiple solicited stories rejected before scoring with one.

There was a time when breaking in with short stories was a good strategy. But these days,I've come to realize that our odds of selling a novel are just as good or better than selling a short story. (granted - our odds of getting a reasonable advance are worse than ever). 

So next time you see a story collection out there - with half or more of the stories having been previously published - do yourself a favour and buy the damned thing...because the odds that it will contain something brilliant are very much on your side. And when a writer breaks out, like another of my friends, Kelly Robson, with five published short stories in a year - where three or four of them make the best of the year anthologies - I can do nothing but sit back in awe and admiration. As far as I know, Kelly doesn't even have a story collection on the horizon - but as soon as one becomes available...if there was any justice in this world (which I know there isn't), there would be long line-ups at the bookstore from people waiting to get their hands on it. 

Achieving that level of success with no more than short stories is an accomplishment than no more than about one in 1,000 writers will ever come close to.