Writing on the Ether: When the Wise Women Get Here

19 December 2013 iStock_000017634101Small photog Andrew Soundarajan texted story image

Table of Contents

  1. They Three Queens of Orient Were
  2. Hope and Fear #1: Visibility
  3. Hope and Fear #2: Literary Fiction
  4. Hope and Fear #3: Rest

They Three Queens of Orient Were

If they’d been guys, they’d never have made it to the Nativity. Once the OnStar of David navigation system got behind a few clouds and everybody got disOriented, only women would have stopped to ask for directions. And to do some shopping. Gold, frankincense, myrrh.

I concede that I’m unusual among your modern preachers’ kids. I’ve always had a high level of respect for the King James Version of the New Testament. Its rendition of self-publishing author Luke’s Executive Summary of Certain Events in Judea does us the favor of having the Angel of the Lord correctly avoid the grammatical pratfalls that would have decked a lesser emissary:

Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

Catch that? “Lying in a manger.” So good.

The Angel of the Lord knew that Jesus was lying in a manger. Not laying in a manger. Mary laid him in a manger. And then he was lying in a manger. And that’s the last time anyone got those things right on Earth as it is in heaven.

And this shall be a sign unto us that the Angel of the Lord was an editor. Maybe still is an editor, although whose job description hasn’t changed five times since Bethlehem?

So while waiting for glad listicles of great joy—3 Ways To Tell Your Camel is a Baptist— I’ve decided that when the czarinas-on-tour finally get here, it’ll make sense for the writing community to ask for exchange receipts on those gifts.

Not that the gold isn’t tempting. But here near the close of 2013 (you can stop putting out book lists now, everyone), it would be good for the author corps in particular to ponder three things in its collective heart.

Not resolutions. We don’t do those on the Ether. We are irresolute here.

Not predictions, either. In this field, it’s all too rare to find a shepherd who can keep watch over the industry! the industry! and risk predictions without looking sheepish.

No, we can look to Phillips Brooks’ lyrics for “O Little Town of Bethlehem” for what we need:

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

Instead of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, I’m asking for the hopes and fears of visibility, literary fiction, and rest.

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Hope and Fear #1: Visibility

“All this and more,” as we like to say in TV news, tomorrow at Publishing Perspectives, where I’ll be recounting some of what went on Wednesday in our #EtherIssue weekly Live Uproar on Twitter.

For our purposes here today, I want to call your attention to this:

The information being imparted unto us by Bowker’s Shepherdess of the Identifiers, Laura Dawson, is both old and new.

We had heard that Bowker was able to track some 391,000 self-published ISBNs in 2012. And yes, as our @PubPerspectives associates noted, this figure, alone, does invoke memories of the deity’s mom, Bethlehem-based or otherwise.

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Laura Dawson

What’s new is an interpretation of the Bowkerian data that indicates 2012’s activity reflected a 60-percent jump in ISBN usage by self-publishing authors over 2011. Got it? Sixty percent more authors procured and published with ISBNs than in the previous year. And that jump is—as we’ll discuss in Friday’s piece—despite some deep resistance to the ISBN (and its cost) among entrepreneurial authors, who are required to pay a lot more for their ISBNs than publishing companies pay for theirs (in bulk).

But there’s also a need for us to understand the scale of the self-publishing presence in publishing. Remember that if Bowker could count 391,000 self-published ISBNs (titles) in 2012, there were many, many more than that—precisely because we cannot “see” the titles published without such identifiers and because our great retailer/platforms (Amazon, Barnes & Noble) can’t find it in their corporate hearts to share their sales data with us.

The hope: that even more self-publishing authors will agree that being able to demonstrate the mounting power of their side of the industry is worth standing up and being counted.

The fear: that we’ll find out the market is severely more glutted with titles than we’ve guessed so far.

Hint: Bowker is not the enemy; incomplete data is.

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Hope and Fear #2: Literary Fiction

James Scott Bell
James Scott Bell

So I jumped all over poor unsuspecting James Scott Bell the other day when, in First Be a Storyteller, he got off one of those casual references you read in blog post after post after post after post about…well, here, this is what my friend Jim wrote:

If I have to choose between a novel that has a “literary” style but a dull (and even, perhaps, a non-existent) plot, and a novel that has a killer concept and professional writing, I’ll go for the latter every time. While I can enjoy a bit of “style for style’s sake,” it can run out of steam quickly if that’s all there is. Indeed, I’ve read some highly lauded lit-fic that turned out to be, for me at least, the scribal equivalent of the emperor with no clothes.

In and of itself, that’s a perfectly fair opinion to have and to hold from this day forward. In truth? I, too, want actual story, momentum, and a point in books I read. Pointless is…pointless.

And once I’d unloaded a bit of frustration over this 8,944th iteration of the literary is lifeless recitative, I declined Jim’s kind offer to comment further, feeling that The Kill Zone (a blogging group of mystery and thriller writers) could do without more of my soapboxing on the matter.

Nevertheless, there’s an issue here. Self-publishing has tended so far to exacerbate this slagging o’ the literary, favoring other genre fiction and nonfiction. (Just think, if we had figures on self-publishing, we could actually tell how much literary there is as compared with other genre work. See #1.)

And I’m unsure why so many good, thinking, responsible folks seem to feel the need to get off these drive-by snipings at literary fiction on the way to other points and other shelves in the virtual bookstore.

I’m not talking to my good friend Mr. Bell in the following little litany, I’m speaking to the multitude of the self-publishing, literary-lashing host:

  • Have you been bitten by a literary fiction writer? Did Michael Cunningham knock you down and steal your lunch? Then report that violence to me, I’ll deal with it for you.
  • Have you been personally snubbed by the literary fiction writers you claim are so holier than thou? Did Eleanor Catton say something ugly about your latest grocery list? I doubt it. I think the chip on your shoulder is of your own making and just may have to do with concerns about the caliber of your own output. Why such a concern? That’s between you and the kid who is lying, not laying, in that manger. But why not stop foisting it off on everyone else as if Sam Byers tossed a wad of dirt onto your living room carpet last week?
  • Have you never read a pulp fiction book that was so stupidly invested in being noir that you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face to throw it across the room? I have. Have you never read a science-fiction title so inanely fanciful that it was clear the author had yet to catch up with the technology behind the automatic ice maker in his own freezer? I have. Have you never read a Shirtless Men Kissing Beautiful Women title so pathetically cloying that you feared it had just set back the romance-reading population about 25 years in terms of personal relationship development? I have.

The hope: that more blogging writers will think twice before gratuitously slamming literary fiction as if it were sitting in judgment on everyone else.

The fear: that the digital dynamic will make literary fiction and superb genre fiction less commercially viable, as other fine-art elements of our culture have been eclipsed by…car chases. Digital, remember, is an energy of distribution. It seeks the widest and therefore least discerning audience in any and every entertainment medium, not just books. It’s enough for literary to contend with digital’s love of feel-good diversions without our helping it along by dissing it at every opportunity.

Hint: Many if not most literary novels do have plot, action, purpose, and drive. We could start by not lying, or laying, about that.

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Hope and Fear #3: Rest

By Maria Popova, Accurat, and Wendy MacNaughton. BrainPickings.org
By Maria Popova, Accurat, and Wendy MacNaughton. BrainPickings.org

The infographic you see here is produced by our good colleague Maria Popova of Brain Pickings, and is a collaboration between her and several good folks including Georgia Lupi and Wendy MacNaughton.

In Famous Writers’ Sleep Habits vs. Literary Productivity, Visualized, Popova explains:

I found myself especially intrigued by successful writers’ sleep habits — after all, it’s been argued that “sleep is the best (and easiest) creative aphrodisiac” and science tells us that it impacts everything from our moods to our brain development to our every waking moment. I found myself wondering whether there might be a correlation between sleep habits and literary productivity.

Now, here’s a line that could make a publishing-community member burst into tears:

The challenge, of course, is that data on each of these variables is hard to find, hard to quantify, or both.

Nevertheless, Popova and her associates have succeeded in fashioning an entertaining look at what are believed to be the wake-up times for various authors and have coupled that with color-coded references to their productivity (number of works published and awards “garnered,” as no one ever says in real life).

Honoré de Balzac, of course, leads this awakening chorus with his famous 1 a.m. stagger out of bed. That’s something the aforementioned James Scott Bell and I have discussed with caffeinated zeal many times. Balzac was, as are we, a devoté of the bean, which may have contributed to his undoing at age 51 in 1850.

The 4 a.m. team on Popova’s chart is anchored by Murakami and Plath.

Mr. Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise, Ben Franklin, apparently didn’t roll out until a comparatively cushy 5 a.m. and today could have had his java at that hour with Toni Morrison.

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Maria Popova

Get to the other end of the chart and you’ll find that slacker Charles Bukowski, bed-headed at noon.

Popova’s effort is a fun consideration that leads us, here in the close-gathered mists (4:54 a.m. as I write this) with a couple of more serious digital-era considerations that bothered few of the souls cited by the Picked Brain (I did not say Pickled).

Many of us are struggling to get enough rest. If electrification gave us the chance and then the imperative to work at night, digitization has thrust upon us the privilege and then the burden of being always on.

Digital in its purer forms is never off. As that engine and energy of distribution I’ve talked about, for example, digital is what makes it feasible for your mother’s latest cat video or that picture of your darling child (yet again) to be viewed at all hours, in all parts of the world online.

And this reality of productive potential is working on many of us in ways none too good for literature.


The digital dynamic is damaging some, not all, literature because so many people are telling writers to turn more copy faster. The current marketing mantra for authors is to write more books, write them faster, stack them up high on the Net so readers will stay with you: “Oh, goody, another book I haven’t read by this author, perfect.”

In the purest marketing context, yes, this makes good sense. You hold them with inventory. “You liked that one? You’ll love this one.”

But maybe they won’t love it. Because maybe you’re getting tired, careless, harried.

I’ve just watched a very good book go out too early, and it didn’t have to. It had a chance of being great. But that temptation to publish is too much for a lot of folks, and ironically it may be most seductive to the ones who have suffered the unforgivably slow processes of traditional publishing before turning to the always-on mechanisms of digital self-publishing.

The push for series, even for multiple series; the pressure to put out more books faster; the emphasis you see in so many how-to posts on word counts; frequent whip-cracking admonishment to keep writing, grab every moment, bang away at it, do a writing sprint, spree, binge, jam…all this is rarely intercut with those quieter questions: “Yes, but do you have anything to say at the moment? Was there a point to that book you’re writing? Why did you want to write before you wrote?—can you remember?”

C.S. Lakin
C.S. Lakin

The idea of simply choosing a niche that has less competition in it than others was featured in a guest post at Joel Friedlander’s site this week, C.S. Lakin writing about an experiment she had made in Genre Versus Author Platform? Which Matters More? She tried creating a title in the “sweet” historical western romance subgenre. (“No sex or heat,” as she explains it.)

Be careful to note Lakin’s own disclaimer:

I don’t think writers should “sell out” and write something they don’t want to write just to make money, but hopefully I’ve given you food for thought. I find nothing wrong with writing to a specific audience for the sole reason of selling more books and making some money. It feels nice to pay the bills.

There will always be mercenaries among us, yes. And some of them certainly will have talent. Fewer may be as thoughtful and as forthright as Lakin is. She’s confirming that there’s a place for pure entertainment. Digital is making that a place as wide as a sweet romantic cowboy’s plain, too.

Compulsion ReadsMany more may be in the boat(s) mentioned by Jessica Bennett of the reader-enthusiasm site Compulsion Reads in a post at Writer Unboxed on the first anniversary of her outfit. In Ten Things I’ve Learned From Evaluating Self-Published Books for a Year, Bennett writes of how “self-published authors need to care more about grammar,” and she adds that these writers “struggle with making big edits to their books,” the latter being something I’d bet most writers struggle with.

The systemic issues Bennett spots may well be influenced by the hurry-up-so-you-can-hurry-up-some-more ethos. For most writers whose impetus comes from a desire to say something through their work—and I hope and fear you’re one of them—churning it out may prove to be early-days overreaction, overwork, overwriting amid the technical capabilities of digital.

The  hope: that in 2014 we all can make rest a bigger part of sorting out what it is we’re doing, not just dump it onto the market fast…just because we can.

The fear: that you’ll need to be rested not only to better evaluate the work you’re doing but also to tell off people when they demand to know “what’s taking you so long?”

Hint: You rest up and sort out how your stuff is lying on the page and the lay of your career. We’ll wait for you. We already have plenty to read, thanks.

I could do with a lie-down, not lay-down, myself. Wake me up when the three you-know-who’s get here. I’m very fond of camels.

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Main image iStockphoto: Andrew Soundarajan

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