James JosephWriting can be difficult and it can be fun. Here, I can write about anything that comes to mind, modern or ancient. I hope you'll join in with your comments.

July 30, 2009

Are Publishers Really the Best Judge of Books?

The latest trends in publishing indicate that both major and small press publishers severely limit the quality and variety of newly published books coming to market. Granted, a large percentage of self-published books are of very poor quality, and often unreadable. But many best selling books are not exactly of the highest caliber.

For a new writer to break into the fiction market, they need to have different talents than authors of the past. They need to have television presence. They need to be comfortable with public speaking. And, they’re generally required to make book tours. Due to the expanding influence of television on the publishing industry, an author must be ready to interview on Oprah or one of the morning shows. The problem with this is some of the best authors are introverts.

In the past, that was completely acceptable. But now, if you’re not a highly animated extrovert, you’re unlikely to get off the “maybe list”. 

New writers are encouraged to write mini-novels, or to write what the publisher in their area of interest likes to publish. I know an author who writes romance novels in unique historic settings of 13th century Europe. She writes one every year, and has gained a following. But her royalties fetch her somewhere in the neighborhood of $3,000 – $4,000 each year. It doesn’t seem likely that she’ll make a good living as an author.

The fact is, the vast majority of authors make next to nothing. We all hear of the highly paid authors like Stephen King, Patricia Cornwell, John Grisham and a handful of others. I’m very glad someone in the modern era is being recognized for their literary contributions. But there aren’t many. Most people can’t even name 10 authors of fiction from this century. Most professional sports figures earn substantially more than writers. Most professional actors make more than authors.

Imagine that! People who throw a ball a certain way are much more highly valued that a writer who can spin a 50,000 word tale. People who act like other people – characters that are most often contrived by writers – are revered on the screen, and receive some of the most lucrative contracts in the world. People who drive cars around in circles racing other drivers are more highly valued than writers.

It’s not all about money, but as you can see, the modern publishing conglomerates have not done a very good job of promoting authors, creativity, and interest in the writing field. It is a labor of love, and the vast majority of aspiring writers will never get beyond the “starving artist” stage. There is hope, though. With the advent of print-on-demand, it has become affordable for authors to publish their own works. And with the internet, authors have also gained a new, more affordable marketing avenue.

June 1, 2009

New Fiction Will Be Dominated By The Internet

The internet has had a phenomenal impact on publishing houses. Most people already realize that many newspapers are struggling and converting to online news centers. Likewise, magazines are becoming more expensive, and losing circulation as they’re replaced by web-based counterparts. For these two venues, the cause is related to advertising revenue.  For publishing houses, the problem is related to marketing avenues, choice, and control.

Knowing how publishing companies work (or, have had to work in order to succeed) is key to understanding their “devaluation” in the internet age. Typically, major publishers do not publish fiction that falls outside of mainstream genres. They prefer romance, mysteries, historical novels, science fiction, fantasy, detective and a few other very limited categories. In fiction, publishing companies do not necessarily choose their authors and books for originality, or even the quality of the writing. They choose fiction based on how well it fits into their marketing programs.

For instance, science fiction must fit into a certain formula that appeals to a small but predictable audience. These novels must get good reviews in a number of sci-fi magazines in order to sell at a profitable level. This is due to the way business works. In literature, there’s a reversal of value from concept to sale. To demonstrate this, the author who comes up with the concept and writes the entire novel gets the smallest share. Next, the publishing company that edits the novel, lays it out, creates the bookcover, pays for the printing, and markets the new novel, gets a larger share. Next, the distributors that send the books out to retailers get a very sizable share. And the largest share in the sale of any book? That goes to the store that puts it on their shelf and sells it.

As you can see, the books you end up with are those that have a marketing and sales avenue from beginning to end. As a reader of fiction, you end up with an endless stream of the same stories told in different styles with different characters. Readers have to wait for mutations and fiction-evolution to slowly get new material.

Consider the murder mystery novel. Most of us would be shocked if a murder occured within our own personal circle. Yet, we expect a murder and solution as to how it was conceived or hidden in one of these novels as part of the entertainment. At one time, this was shocking and new in the publishing world. That was way back in time, when quality writing and originality were of great value. But now, it’s a form of entertainment, because a marketing avenue was developed.

It does seem quite strange as to how it would become normal for a human being to read stories about murders, and buy them on a regular basis. And, it’s not just the novel. It goes on to movie and television rights. Many of the most popular television shows revolve around murder and deception. If you think about it, it’s very similar to what most would consider the very gruesome and barbaric “games” played out in the Colliseum during the height of the Roman Empire.

The internet is now having it’s way with Publishers in the same way it has with Newsprint and Magazines. It’s changing everything. It’s eroding the heirarchy. Authors can now have their own books printed … one at a time … no high upfront costs, no waste. They can hire an internet marketing firm on a very reasonable budget. Or, they can market their book themselves. And, they can sell their books from their own web site. Indefinitely. Most large publishers will mothball a book if it doesn’t succeed in the first year.

It seems we’re coming to a time when authors will most often become their own publishing company. Consider that most publishing companies are not interested in what the author writes best unless it fits neatly into their marketing program. Consider that a first time author must limit the size of their first novel, whether it fits their style or not. Consider that all the things a publishing house used to do can now be done by the author, with less money up front, and practically no overhead. My guess is that the publishing industry is extremely vulnerable right now. And, readers are in a position where they’ll have an infinite selection of fiction, but no guarantee of quality. But, we’ve lost that anyway.

It is the authors who rise to the top on their own that will truly make it in the coming years. In the near future, publishers will become obsolete, and broken down into specialists. Internet rights will become more important than book, television and movie rights as we move into an age where just about all of these mediums will be controlled by your computer. Good or bad, big changes are coming, and most are already in motion.

May 22, 2009

Addicted to Fire

It’s often said that the difference between humans and all other creatures on earth is the ability to reason. But there’s another unique trait of human beings that’s common to no other creature. Humans are constantly burning something.

It’s not new. This has been going on for hundreds of thousands of years. Even our distant cousins, the Neanderthals, constantly kept the homefires burning. We use it to cook, because raw meat and stored food can make us very ill, or even become poisonous. We use it for heat because we don’t have enough hair to protect ourselves from extreme temperature changes. Later, we used fire for hardening wooden spearpoints, funerals, punishment, pottery, metallurgy, warfare, agriculture, and an endless stream of useful or defensive/offensive purposes. We’ve been using fire for so long, that we can no longer live without it, or some end result of burning.

You may or may not have read the introduction to Shadow of the Serpent. The main idea is that while progress can strengthen the whole, it also weakens the individual. There is no way back to our natural roots to which humans would willfully submit. The only thing that would turn humans back to living naturally would be a catastrophic global event. But that would most likely exterminate the human race. So, there really is no going back. We can no longer survive without the progressive evolution of our technology.

To make it clear, we would not survive without any tools, clothing, fire or energy sources and medicines. But let’s just focus on the need to burn. Could we even imagine another species constantly burning both organic and inorganic materials? And could we imagine another species that’s so dependent upon burning that they’d disappear if they stopped? I think it would be pretty scary to have another species on this planet that burns and transforms vast areas on both land and sea, puts itself above every other life form, and irradicates competitors without question. Of course, we do have competing subspecies (cultures) that accomplish a similar effect. 

But, we are changing. We’re now looking at new ways to create energy and replace the need for burning with alternatives. Is this a natural evolution? Taken from that perspective, humans are really quite odd compared to the rest of the creatures on our planet. We are an extreme on the planet called Earth. But, no matter how you look at it, we are in fact completely natural. We evolved through many different landscapes, and even waterscapes. There is nothing we use, invent or consume that does not originate or has not been derived from our natural environment. Humans are a very unique example of diversity within the natural realm.

May 11, 2009

The Stories Behind The Story

Filed under: Authors,Books — Tags: — Jim @ 2:30 pm

Like every other author, there are many books that defined my writing style. They helped me to decide what’s most important in a story. Shadow of the Serpent is a blend of the many books and authors I’ve enjoyed reading since I was a child.

Perhaps one of the most influential would be J.R.R. Tolkien with The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As a teenager, I was spellbound by these books. The sense of adventure, allegorical fantasy and the characters were extremely compelling. I tried to include that same type of fantasy in Shadow of the Serpent.

Another profound influence was James Michener. It’s hard to pinpoint any one book that related to the style, structure or tone of Shadow of the Serpent. Alaska, Hawaii, Chesapeake, Caravans, Centennial, The Drifters and even Space were influential individually and collectively. I enjoyed Michener’s thorough research of each area. He’d often start with the geological history, move on through the first creatures and animals, the climatic changes, and finally to the first people and on up to the present. It’s important to show how people are bound to the land, and how it not only influences them, but is an integral part of their makeup. Shadow of the Serpent follows that lead, though not as faithfully as Michener. The setting is very rough, including the entire Mississippi Valley up to the ancient copper mines near the great lakes.

It takes into account the Adena and Hopewell peoples’ serpent mounds, Cahokia, and mound building to the south. Teotihuacan, near present-day Mexico City, is used as the central source of “The Snake People”, an evil and hostile group that was essentially ostracized from the metropolis after a long reign of terror, and forced northward to build their own empire in the Mississippi Basin. Purported visits by Norsemen were also included in the story, as well as many of the artifacts, technology and crafts of the time.

But most of this was to lend credibility. The more facts and reality you mix into fantasy, the more realistic it becomes. None of the tribes ever existed, though they resembled many throughout the prehistory of the midwest. The story is not actually about Native Americans or Meso-American cultures. It’s about the natural lifestyles of small tribes/villages vs. large and sophisticated civilizations.

I’ve also been influenced by many spiritual, philosophical and ideological works such as Siddhartha, 1984, Animal Farm, Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, Black Elk Speaks, Ghandi. I grew fond of the ancient American and Native American books by the Gears, Linda Lay Shuler, Ruth Beebe Hill, Patricia Rowe, Jean Auel and many others.

Shadow of the Serpent, though, is a breakaway from the genre. It’s not a strict focus on archaeological fiction, nor is it a romance in an exotic setting. It’s a blend of facts, adventure, philosophy, fantasy, spirituality and imagination. Parables are laced throughout the story, and like most books I’ve really enjoyed, each chapter moves the story along with increasing intensity.

I actually wrote a book that I would find enjoyable. The story unfolded of its own accord. I would allow characters to paint themselves into corners, or wander into hopeless situations where even I had no idea as to how to get them out or save them. And, I would have to think long and hard to find a way without some miraculous event, or contrived escape. I believe this is what makes a story compelling… no pre-planning. I hope you think so, too.

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