Recently, I joined a book club. The local listings on Meetup afforded several options for book clubs in my area. I wasn’t anticipating actually meeting in person during these times of Covid, so I suppose I could have joined a club that wasn’t close by, but I decided to stay local. Here’s the description for the book club I selected:
This group is for people interested in discussing books about challenging topics ranging from diversity and inclusion to the environment and the economy. And in the best of book club traditions, it’s mostly about getting to know our neighbors and making new friends.
We read a book a month and meet online for an hour to discuss the book and share our own stories around the book’s themes.
Part of the impetus for this decision came from outreach I have been doing to book clubs throughout the country requesting that they consider my novel as a club selection and offering to participate with their club members to discuss my novel. I realized that it might be helpful to get a feel on how a club operates with respect to selecting books and engaging in discussion. Fortunately, the club I joined has an excellent moderator who does a great job in facilitating discussion that uses topics and situations in the book to allow members a chance to share not only their thoughts, but their own experiences.
I realize that clubs are going to differ in how their meetings are conducted and the quality of the discussion will both be determined by the book and the participants. Something I didn’t realize is how stale my reading selections had become. I’ve written both a science fiction novel and a thriller and have tended towards reading books from those genres. I also have written a couple of self-help health books but have no interest in reading that genre. I also enjoy books that deal with consciousness and spirituality, but these are not light reading material. The club selections have forced me to read titles I have not only never heard of, but they are books in different genres and are nothing I would normally even consider.
The first book I read, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis gave me a fascinating perspective and insight into the culture and politics of a slice of America that I knew little about apart from pejorative stereotypes. Not only was it well written, but I found it entertaining at times and quite educational.
The next book, Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family represents a type of writing I have regularly been exposed to in articles but have not read in book-length in a long time–narrative journalism. Quoting from the book listing, it details: “The heartrending story of a midcentury American family with twelve children, six of them diagnosed with schizophrenia, that became science’s great hope in the quest to understand the disease.”
This second selection reminded me of watching a documentary instead of a drama, but it isn’t dry at all. In fact, the story had additional relevance for me since the genetics of schizophrenia, discussed in this book, was a topic I researched heavily when writing my science fiction novel in which one of the main characters suffered from this disorder. It turns out that the author began his research the same year my book was published.
I never would have considered reading either one of these nonfiction titles, but both provided excellent reads and an opportunity to participate in excellent discussion. I don’t consider myself to be well read, and I have a pile of books just waiting, but I may decide not to read many of them. There is a limited amount of time to read. Now that I have sampled some different types of books, my palate has changed. New tastes in literature beckon to be sampled. I’ve been subsisting on the same literary diet and had simply forgotten how enjoyable it is to try something new and the importance of keeping it fresh.
I tend to be an introvert and I don’t go out much, especially during this epidemic. Now that I’ve gone clubbing, I’ve met some interesting people, read some interesting books, and developed a better understanding of book clubs and of myself.
There is no end of articles, videos and books advising the submitting writer how to put their best foot forward when interacting with that most feared and terrorizing member of the literary species: the editor. Writers have good reason for wariness and trepidation: Editors hold your professional life and death in their hands. Most of the advice regarding author-to-editor interaction can be summed up as: Be professional. That is to say, submit polished copy. Be courteous. Read the magazine and understand what the editors are looking for. Submit copy in the requested format. Do not resubmit revised copy while the original sub is under consideration. Do not argue rejections or ask for detailed feedback on rejected manuscripts. Do not hound or harry over-worked, underpaid editors for favors outside the scope of their normal work duties.
Fair enough. All very sensible, pertinent advice.
But that is not what this blog post is about. No, this blog post is a writer’s critique/feedback/bitch session-rant concerning some of my problematic experiences with them. And believe-you-me, some of this ilk need a bracing bucket of cold water dumped over their heads to snap them back to some semblance of reality/empathy for the word slaves they task with grinding out endless reams of copy written on spec for sniff-nosed rejections or equally frigid, curt acceptances. Below, please find my 10-point checklist of grievances with editors.
Before we get into the list, however, I would like to single out two editors who have been absolute paragons of professional conduct: John O’Neil (of Black Gate magazine fame) and S. T. Joshi (scholar, editor, weird tales writer). Mr. O’Neil and Mr. Joshi are talented, courteous and direct. Talented: their advice and suggestions improved my work. Both are unfailingly courteous in their interactions with writers, regardless of their status within the industry. (I expected S. T. Joshi—“the nastiest reviewer in the business”—Ellen Datlow—to be an absolute excoriating monster of vituperative contempt and snarling arrogance. In point of fact, I was shocked and mildly disappointed to discover that he is an exemplar of old-world courtesy and correctness in his behind-the-scenes dealings with writers: inexhaustibly polite, wryly funny and self-deprecating, offering the gentlest of gentlemanly criticism. When he puts his finger on a weakness in your work, he lets you solve it without being harshly proscriptive or prescriptive.) Direct: they do not mince words, but neither do they “erupt” at writers, issue vague or confusing communications, or retreat into sullen silence when questioned. I confess to having been spoiled by these two venerable gentlemen. I now expect all editors worth the title to model the O’Neil/Joshi criterions of excellence: succinctness and directness in communication (without being rude or abrupt), genuine talent and demonstrated ability for giving constructive criticism, respect and appreciation for a writer’s voice, fast follow-up and follow-through.
Some others, however. . . . Let’s just say that not all the (censored bleeps) of the literary world inhabit the writers’ camp.
Competence. You would think—at a bare-minimum—all editors could improve a writer’s work. You would be wrong. I have had editors who mangled my grammar and syntax, reversed the very meaning of what I was trying to say, punched holes in a narrative’s pace and intelligibility (“We couldn’t fit those two paragraphs on the page so we cut them out”), and in one recent head-scratching instance published an entire short story with all italics removed. (No explanation ever given.) And then there is the editor who published my story under another’s name!
Imperious Behavior/Commandments. “Give us your best work.” I’m not intentionally sending you my worst, pal. I’m actually delusional enough to think that any poem or short story I finish and send out after extensive revision might be worthy of passing note. So what are you paying? “Payment is 2 contributor copies”. Rights? “Acceptance of publication means you sign away all rights . . .” Next!
Curt Acceptances. Look, I understand curt rejections—but acceptances? The gold needle in the towering shit-stack of a writer’s life of rejection? “Acceptance of the work is your reward.” Of course! But can’t you be a little . . . warmer in conveying that news? “No time.” Nonsense! A simple “congrats!” or “well done!” preceding the “accepted for publication in . . .” would do.
Confusing/Impossible-to-Follow Directions Upon Acceptance. “Enclosed find attached contract. Sign and return.” Which I can’t do. Because the version you sent does not allow it to be opened and modified by the receiver. Adobe Acrobat, anyone?
Ghosting/No Response. I ask you a direct question. You refuse to answer. WTF?! Am I supposed to somehow divine the answer, perhaps through a throw of yarrow stalks or the shaking of a Magic 8-ball? Surmise your response through subtext? Re: subs: Your site says: “Follow up in 6 – 8 weeks if no reply to submission received.” Which I do. At eight weeks. Again—one week later. And again . . . one week after that. Yet one more time . . . And then I regretfully (though confusedly—what happened?) pull the story from your slush pile/in-box. Did you never get to it? Plan on going out of business? Feel the story and/or author beneath your contempt? Are simply unprofessional? (Yes, I checked my spam filter.) And don’t give me that crap about “we don’t have time to reply to submissions”. Penetrative-act you! If you have the time to solicit submissions—and publish a magazine/online site/book—you better make time to respond to writers who devote time and energy from their harried, frequently under-paid and over-worked lives (just like you, see?) to create something they feel might serve your needs.
Broken Promises. “Pays 2 contributor copies.” Never received. “Queries answered.” Not. “Please follow up in . . .” See point #5 above. “Will be published . . .” Out of business; story never formally returned.
Changing Submitted Copy Without Notifying the Writer. Yes, maybe your suggested revision is better. Maybe it isn’t. Let’s look at it—together—before one or both of us face-plants in public.
Editors Who Treat Their Magazines as Their Very Own Vanity Press. It’s impressive that you’ve published 5,000 stories. It is! Really. Somewhat less impressive that half of them were published in your own magazine. Who edits the editor?
Editors Who Publish Commonplace Dreck Whilst Rejecting Your Literary Gems. Just kidding! That’s frustration speaking, not sober judgement or fair criticism. So okay; this should be a 9-point list! No one reads 9-point lists. . . .
Endless Whining, Moaning & Groaning, Bitchy Kvetching About Writers. I’m sure all of it is, at times, merited. More than merited—richly deserved. There are madmen and madwomen and genderless mad people (everyone in the pool!) perpetrating all manner of wrong actions upon long-suffering editors. But once in a while—please—pause to consider the sins committed upon writers by your colleagues. (Not you, of course! You’ve never committed any of “The Ten—well, Nine—Deadly Editorial Sins” enumerated above, I’m sure. Never! My goodness. Why, the very thought!)
And now, the bonus round: 10 favorite quotes about editors and/or the process of revision.
1.) “Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers.” (Okay, that’s one for your side!) ― T.S. Eliot
2.) “The first draft reveals the art; revision reveals the artist.” ― Michael Lee
3.) “An editor is like a priest or a psychiatrist; if you get the wrong one then you are better off alone.” ― Toni Morrison
4.) “Just get it down on paper, and then we’ll see what to do with it.” ― Maxwell Perkins
5.) “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” ― Stephen King
6.) “Remove the comma, replace the comma, remove the comma, replace the comma…” ― R.D. Ronald
7.) “Editors can be stupid at times. They just ignore that author’s intention. I always try to read unabridged editions, so much is lost with cut versions of classic literature, even movies don’t make sense when they are edited too much. I love the longueurs of a book even if they seem pointless because you can get a peek into the author’s mind, a glimpse of their creative soul. I mean, how would people like it if editors came along and said to an artist, ‘Whoops, you left just a tad too much space around that lily pad there, lets crop that a bit, shall we?’. Monet would be ripping his hair out.” ― E.A. Bucchianeri
8.) “Writing well is more than mechanics, but it is not less.” ― Douglas Wilson
9.) “Be a good editor. The Universe needs more good editors, God knows.” ― Kurt Vonnegut
10.) “Most of these editors, as they call themselves, couldn’t even effectively edit a haiku.”― Frank Black
Googling the title returned about 420,000,000 results in 0.57 seconds. I don’t have the time in this life to read it all, but what I did read was boring. “Advice for creative writing” strikes me as an oxymoron. “Advice” and “creative” are opposites. “Advice” suggests tried and true while “creative” means untested, new. Fresh.
The Google results clearly claim I’m wrong about this. But to paraphrase Anatole France, “If 420 million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.” And despite my skepticism, I enjoy thinking about insights from respected writers. Such as these two from Kurt Vonnegut.
“Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.”
and “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”
Both quotes help me to focus but creativity is the use of the imagination to form something new. Strictly speaking, no one can give you that. So, my advice to new creative writers is, “Think for yourself.”
But what do you think? What would your best, or favorite, advice be to a new creative writer?
Is social media necessary, to be a writer these days? I’m referring to all the sites on the Internet where people in the writing life communicate with one another. “Necessary” is too strong a word, of course, but I see social media as a place where writers and illustrators and editors and publishers flourish.
I started on Penguin’s Book Country website for new writers because there I found others enjoying the struggle. We happily traded ideas and criticisms. The latter of which grew into a long list for my first novel, and without which I would have learned very little in the writing of it.
The Writers Co-op itself originated on Book Country and is a “social” and “media” support for members. From here, people have floated ideas for new books, aired the progress of their current projects, put out anthologies and publicized the release of their latest works.
Obviously, all these things were accomplished before the Internet but, I submit, never by so many. Thanks to social media, we are living in a Golden Age for the Writing Life.
According to Publishers Weekly, the pandemic changed book-buying patterns. One obvious change: The travel book subcategory had a severe decline last year, with units plunging 40.3% compared to 2019.
Overall, sales were up in 2020. BookScan said the 8.2% gain was the largest annual increase since 2010. When schools shut, parents’ demand for hard copy juvenile nonfiction titles jumped 23.1% Big Preschool Work sold nearly 790,000 copies, while Crystal Radke’s My First Learn-to-Write Workbook sold more than 703,000 copies.
In YA nonfiction, anti-racism books helped drive gains. Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You by Jason Reynolds was #1 on the category list, selling more than 317,000 copies, while This Book Is Anti-racist by Tiffany Jewell sold more than 76,000 copies.
Adult fiction sales rose 6% over 2019. The hottest subcategory was graphic novels, where sales rose 29%. (The action/adventure subcategory had the toughest year, with units down 14.9%.)
Political books -not the spin or puff pieces- but books tied to social justice topics, helped lift sales in adult nonfiction 4.8% over 2019.
Our industry is alive and well despite the troubled times.
I am creating a print-edition of Maisie in Hollywood, an illustrated paper doll/story book. It will be 52 pages, of which I have 31 completed, another ten or so with finished art (previously posted on Medium.com) only needing to be reconfigured to my trim size. The remainder has to be built from scratch. (The story is written.)
I am pausing in my forward progress, revisiting what I have in the can, looking for what needs to be tweaked.
I’m talking to a printer that GD recommended. Valor Printing will print inside front and inside back covers (Book Baby won’t) and will accept my 9×13 pages. Book Baby won’t. 9×12 is the closest they come. I had set up 9×13 to accommodate a decent-size doll and an all-in-one tri-fold stand. I have paper doll books that size and I like the generous proportion. (Bought forty years ago, maybe standards have changed.) I should have checked it out at the start. Too late now.
If Valor is not a publisher, only a printer, do I need to set up my own publishing company? Who has self-published print books?
I suppose I should buy a block of ISBNs? I have a bunch more stuff to publish. (All involve heavy illustration.) But to imagine that I can finish (art, they’re all written) Sly, Celestine, Gaudy Night, and my other series on Sly, on his hard-times childhood in Northern England, his (super whacky, naturally) adventures with his friends Herk (Herk the Jerk) Hedgehog and Ferd the Frog, is unrealistic.
I have an illustration method worked out. I grab bits off the web, marry them, and use the result as an underpainting, reworking them, using, not the Photoshop paint brushes, no. I go with the clone tool, copying textures, manipulating transparency, colorizing, building my figures piece by piece. I might find a mouse body I like, but not the head. I have my folders of high-quality mouse heads, mouse feet, mouse hands. Hands are always a problem. Resolution on mouse hands is mostly crap. You will notice that I use my go-to mouse hands again and again. I gotta jump back on the web and find more good mouse hands. Mouse hands, my biggest problem.
Is Valor Printing a publisher, taking orders and mailing out the book, or do I have to have a stack of books on hand, take orders and mail them myself? I emailed them that question. Yes, that’s what I will have to do.
I am researching POD publishers vs. working with a printer, doing the rest of it myself. Each method has advantages, and drawbacks.
A very informative article here by Andrew Couldwell has my head spinning. He has looked into five big POD publishers, and his conclusion is: IngramSpark is the best of the lot, but ‘Mostly fine’ is as good as it gets with print-on-demand.
With a POD publisher, you give up quality control (he had some significant disasters) but save yourself a lot of work and potentially (again, with IngramSpark) have your book included in industry-wide showcase/catalogs. Aside from iffy print quality you also, after all charges and fees are deducted, make little from your sales. That I don’t care about so much. I’m retired, I’m OK financially, my intention is not to make money. I do want my art to display well, that is my big concern.
With POD, neither do you have to pay for a print run (a thousand and up), nor do you have to be out and about selling. Book/art fairs are what I see ahead for me, and I’m hobbling around from arthritis.
Couldwell says to beware of the POD publishers. He received samples that were acceptable, but when his full order arrived, cheaper, thinner paper substituted, the spines, set up for heavier pages, cracked. Color was sometimes streaked. A bunch of books began on page 31! Some of those services print at multiple facilities, which give very different results. He looked at Kindle Direct (Amazon), Blurb, Lulu, IngramSpark, and Book Baby and, as I said, pronounced Ingram the best of the lot. Ingram also seems to have the most potentially advantageous distribution network.
Lulu has a direct connection with Shopify. You put your book up on Shopify, an app sends the purchase to Lulu, the order is fulfilled, no muss no fuss on your part. The problem is the quality of their product. He gives Lulu a big thumbs-down.
KDP: “The print cost for a full-colour book is unreasonably high for the low quality. But you have the discoverability of your book on Amazon.”
Blurb: “The image quality was passable given the subject matter of our book (technical how-to), but to a critical eye, the images looked like they’d been printed on an inkjet printer.”
Book Baby: “The profit margin of their service is practically nothing, once they — and the retailers they list books with — have deducted their charges.”
Lulu: “Looking into Lulu was a waste of time and money.” The Shopify link is all they have going for them.
IngramSpark: Quality pretty OK in a small order. (He finally took to ordering 22-44 books at a time.) In larger orders, many of the books were damaged in various ways. Strange, eh?
The damaged books were reprinted. Unfortunately, the replacement books were still not perfect. I counted that:
Only 8% of the order was perfect.
A further 8% was similar to the first batch (i.e. had the same faults).
A staggering 19% was damaged!
The remaining 65% was close to (but not) perfect.
I don’t know what I’ll do. This is a lot to think about. Several of these services would (most likely) be fine for straight text. Me with my illustration, maybe not. At the moment I am mighty discouraged.
I will continue to create Maisie’s costumes, but avoid doing any more layouts. I may have to reduce my page size (Ingram’s max size is 8.5 x 11″). With a small reduction, tighter cropping, and a reconfiguration of elements, I can handle that.
OK, I see an article that seems to say I can POD-publish through my choice of printer, order copies to sell on my own site or at fairs, and still get my book into IngramSpark’s distribution network. If I do that, I don’t believe I can put my book on Amazon. This article explains – they are competitors in terms of distribution. I’m a bit fuzzy about this. I’ll give it a closer read.
Well, I got that wrong. It’s the Amazon Expanded Distribution you can’t employ if you use IngramSpark and their distribution network.
Here’s another piece that recommends Ingram. This guy says: like it or not, bookstores see the Amazon/Kindle name listed as the publisher and automatically consider it an inferior, amateur effort, without checking it out.
My final thoughts (after another several hours of reading and asking questions):
It costs nothing to publish on Kindle Direct. IngramSpark charges you every step of the way. For Kindle all I have to do is buy an ISBN. I can get ten for $295. I’m prepared not to like the result from KDP. If I do, that’s a win. But I’m prepared to use them as a proof copy. They offer the tallest page size that I’ve found, 11.69 inches.
The pages I’ve set up fit them almost perfectly when reduced to 91%. And so I will continue with my layouts at the size they are now. I have the type set, I have only to create and place art, which I can further reduce and plunk into an 8.5×11 template for IngramSpark if I decide to give them a try. I read that my preferred size, 9×12, is a standard size for children’s books. But I can’t find a publisher (who handles distribution) who offers that option.
I am worn out. I’ll return to my illustration: in Secret of the Siren Sands, Maisie plays the straitlaced Egyptologist Francilla Fortesque, and the wanton ancient Egyptian Princess A’iesha. Francilla, in her no-nonsense shirtwaist and sensible shoes, I load her down with cameras and satchels, that’s what’s neat about her. A’iesha, I’ve gunked her up good, stealing from Garbo, Pola Negri, any twenties-era vamp I could lay my hands on. Since all those photos were black and white, I’ll have to build my outfit from fifties-and-on images. But I’ve got my conception, my mock-up, and it’s super fun. When I get that new page done (I’ve added two pages) I jump to page 32. Everything in-between is complete.
I’ll leave you with Maisie dancing with Josephine Baker in Paris. In London she’ll be meeting the Prince of Wales! The kiddo from the cornfields of Kansas is flying high.