Sunday, July 29, 2012

Fifty Shades of Hypocrisy

When it comes to books like Fifty Shades of Grey, the Twilight series and The DaVinci Code (huge commercial successes that are pretty universally acknowledged as poorly written), outrage among authors who haven't been as successful in finding a monster, dedicated fan base is generally off the scale.

I'm not going to reduce this to a simple case of jealousy, though jealousy is certainly a factor. It's more like a sense of injustice, a feeling that authors who seem to be lacking in skill or talent haven't truly earned the riches and fame being heaped upon them---particularly in the eyes of those who have labored long and hard on craft.

Anyone who aspires to authorship has been told her entire life that eventually, quality work rises to the top and finds the audience it deserves. Fifty Shades of Grey and Jersey Shore memoirs notwithstanding, I still believe this is absolutely true. The part that angry, hardworking authors seem to miss is that when "quality work rises to the top and finds the audience it deserves," that audience may not be large enough to crack the NYT Bestseller list, nor even necessarily the Amazon Top 100.

Why does this come as a surprise to anyone?

Look at the most popular television shows, musical acts and movies in the West. And by "popular", I mean the most commercially successful. With very, very few exceptions, it's all lowest-common-denominator tripe, aimed at the 18-35 demographic, promoting the pursuit of youth, physical beauty, material gain and fame, above all else. If I wanted to put it more kindly, I might say it's escapist wish-fulfillment material.

For many of us, life is already throwing enough physical, mental and emotional work our way that when we have a few minutes or hours to spare on entertainment, all we want is the cinematic, musical or literary equivalent of junk food. We want something shiny to distract us for a little while, that's all. I'd have to count myself as part of that population most of the time, for the past few years.

Then there's the (possibly larger) population of people who never seek out anything but the shallowist escapism in their entertainment. If a movie, song or book happens to make them think a little, fine. But they're not looking for that, and if it requires them to think too much, they're turned off because it starts to feel more like work than entertainment. It stops being fun, and nowadays, consumers expect everything from driving directions to language lessons to be fun.

Guess what? Quality prose is rarely described as "fun". It can actually be quite demanding. Clever turns of phrase often hinge on historical or literary references. Similes and metaphors are built on the foundation of a shared vocabulary between writer and reader. Intricate plots require the reader to keep track of multiple plot threads and character arcs.

Writers who sweat these kinds of details in their manuscripts do so not only because they take personal pride in quality work, but because they want the reading experience to be the best it can possibly be for the eventual reader. But here's the thing: if you're preparing a seven-course, gourmet meal for dinner guests who only have the time or inclination (or both) to wolf down fast food, your eventual disappointment is both inevitable and predictable. Nobody who's craving a Big Mac is inclined to seek out haute cuisine.

Here's where the "Hypocrisy" from the title of this blog post comes in. As an author, you can strive to write prose your fellow authors and the literary establishment will admire, belittle the quality of a lowest-common-denominator bestseller, and mock the lowbrow tastes of the majority. But if you do all those things while simultaneously being angry that the majority isn't buying and loving your book, you're being a hypocrite. You're not writing what they're lining up to buy, and you don't even want to write what they're lining up to buy, so why begrudge them their choices and purchases?

In fairness, there's definitely some skill and plenty of work involved in engineering entertainment so that it will appeal to the widest possible demographic. Nicholas Sparks is a master of this, and has the piles of cash to prove it. Adam Sandler isn't likely to win an Academy Award in his lifetime, but he's amassed as much wealth as a small island nation, and is beloved by millions the world over for bringing laughter into their lives.

None of which is to say that quality writing and commercial success are totally incompatible. When art and commerce meet and play nice together in the literary world, the result is a Neil Gaiman or Nora Ephron. Authors like these, who hit the magic trifecta of talent, skill and zeitgeist time and again are a rarity. They are the Bonos, Beatles and Bowies of the literary world: hugely popular, successful, admired, respected, and influential in their medium---all at the same time, both within their own profession and in the eyes of the general public. The most that the rest of us can hope for is to achieve maybe two of the things on that list, and not necessarily both at the same time or even in the same book. Anyone can hope to become a literary rockstar, but no one can plan for it the way one can plan for a successful career in medicine or teaching.

So pick a goal, art or commerce, and devote yourself to it. Accept that while it's possible you may achieve both, it's not too likely. Accept that in fact, it's not even truly "likely" that you'll achieve either one. Accept that writers who are willing to pander have better odds of enjoying the kind of sudden, 'overnight' success enjoyed by E.L. James, the author of Fifty Shades of Grey, just as an Us Weekly with a picture of a Kardashian on it is the odds-on favorite to far outsell an issue of the Economist with a picture of a Prime Minister on it. But also know that the likelihood such books will become beloved classics that future generations of readers will reach for, and recommend, time and again is remote.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

To Be (authentic online) Or Not To Be (authentic online): That Is The Question

Writers are supposed to be passionate, communicative, and have some strong opinions. Like all artists, it's their job to speak truth to power when others will not or cannot. In other words, they're supposed to have something to say, and they're supposed to say it, and they're not supposed to give a damn what anybody thinks. It is in this that the purity of their art is grounded.

Authors are supposed to establish an online presence that's open, welcoming, inclusive, and entirely inoffensive. Like all marketers, it's their job to appeal to the widest demographic possible. In other words, they're not supposed to have anything negative or controversial to say, and if they do, they're not supposed to post it, and they're supposed to care a great deal about what everyone thinks of anything they do post. It is in this that their online reputations are kept untarnished.

Do you see the disconnect here, the fundamental opposition of these two sets of requirements?

[palm-forehead] What were we thinking?!

For years now, I've been proferring the same author platform advice: carefully cultivate and maintain your image, always be nice, don't say or do anything that could be construed as negative or controversial, and strive to avoid turning off your readers (and potential readers) at all times and at all costs. I'm beginning to think this advice is wrong.

How can one possibly spend half or more of the time wearing his Author hat and being a totally benign milquetoast, and the rest of it wearing his Writer hat and churning out impassioned, moving prose? Assuming it's possible to make a habit of pretending not to care too much, or be bothered too much, by anything, is it a good idea for any artist to do so?

I've noticed that after about five years of doing the benign milquetoast thing, the seams on my carefully cultivated, totally benign, online effigy are starting to show sometimes. And rip open in a few places. However hard I try, when I come up against something or someone with which/whom I disagree very strongly, there are only so many times I can avert my eyes, either say nothing or just mumble something vague, and keep moving. Increasingly, I can't seem to help going off on the things and people that bother me lately.

Maybe it's just because election years always bring out the ignorant yahoos and smug twits in droves, and I've had just about enough of their nonsense. Maybe it's that the collapsing economies all around the world have us all on edge. Maybe it's because I haven't felt I've had a well-developed enough concept to channel all that writerly angst and passion into a new novel. Maybe it's because I've been (figuratively) beaten down and bloodied by a few simultaneous life crises over the past two years.

Maybe I'm just a cranky bitch.

Or maybe, just's because behind my carefully tended online persona, I'm a human being who's alive, with an active mind, who has thoughts and experiences and feelings, who is imperfect, and sometimes gets angry at the wrong people or for the wrong reasons, who feels guilty or insecure every now and then, and every so often runs out of patience at precisely the wrong time.

As a writer, I'm supposed to believe---no, I NEED to believe---that all the mistakes I make, all the wrongs I either inflict or endure, inform my work. As an artist, if my art is to have any impact at all, I am supposed to wring meaning and insight from these experiences and channel it into my work.

Remember when part of the charm of celebrated authors was their other-ness? They were legendarily prickly, snarky, bohemian, drunks, or brawlers who seemed to spend their days in bed (often with multiple partners), and their nights about equally divided between scandalizing the bourgeoisie and pouring out Important Literature. Above all, they didn't give a toss what the general public thought about them. How could they? In much the same way an actor must be totally un-self-conscious in order to really disappear into a role and be true to the material he's been given, a writer must be totally un-self-conscious in order to disappear into the world of his stories and characters and be true to the material he's creating.

When you've developed the habit of turning off your authentic self to the point that it feels effortless, how can you be sure you're really capable of turning it back on again? If you spend so much of your time worrying about how you're being publicly perceived, how can you prevent that insecurity from creeping into your work? If you care so much about being perceived negatively online that you've made it a practice to avoid posting anything that could possibly cause you to be perceived negatively, how can you be sure you're not sanding off all the rough edges of your ideas, plots and characters as well?

Now, don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying writers should all immediately pick up some self-destructive habits and start purposely offending everyone within virtual earshot. No, no, no. But I am saying that maybe it's not so bad to take a stand every now and then, and maybe it's not the end of your career if it's a poorly informed and badly executed stand. Maybe it's not such a bad thing to expose your human-ness and your passions once in a while.

Being a good little Author Platformer means putting the Ego in charge: the reasoning, detached part of the self that suppresses baser urges and animal instincts. The Id is where all base urges and instincts originate, but it's also where insight and creativity live; chaining the Id to a post in the basement of one's day to day life may be the worst mistake any artist can make. My Id has been locked up for too long, and it's acting out. I'm beginning to wonder if I should've been letting it come out to play, and make its mistakes and messes, a little more often than I have these past five years.

Case in point: a post of mine was picked up by The Passive Voice blog, and there were a number of comments. One commenter zeroed in on one specific line in the post, and took up a real battleflag against it. And this irked me, a great deal. Straw man arguments are a pet peeve for me, but not without good reason...

I have read and personally experienced far too many cherry-picking arguments when the indie author movement was just getting off the ground, where some naysayer or other would attempt to discredit the entire notion of indie authorship by attacking or attempting to disprove one specific statement in an essay or blog post---an essay or blog post with which they could find no other particular fault. Time and again, the trolls would come forward to hold up this or that one, specific example of a failed or poor-quality indie book, and use it as the foundation for their thesis that, "therefore, all indie books are bad and virtually no one buys indie books." So I'm pretty touchy about cherry-picking arguments.

I do not believe this commenter is a troll, nor do I think he necessarily deserved the chilly and irritated responses he got from me. I'm sure many people have seen the exchange, and some of them thought worse of me for it. Three years ago, I would've been frantically working damage control and obsessing about the potential fallout. Two years ago, I wouldn't have responded to the commenter at all. One year ago, I would've responded with some bland bit of mild disagreement, sure to include at least one qualifier that would welcome anyone reading my response to dismiss it completely.

Now, I'm doing nothing. I overreacted because this commenter unintentionally hit a raw nerve, but while I did go so far as to wonder "aloud" what his motivations might be for so tenaciously clinging to this one line of argument, I don't believe I stepped over the line into being rude or hurtful. A display of poor judgment on my part? Absolutely. Obnoxious? Fine, I'll give you that. A total meltdown? No, I think that's going too far.

Above all else, what it was, was proof positive that I'm not just a, I mean brand. It was a demonstration that I can and do get bothered and passionate about things sometimes, even if this Author Platform lifestyle of stuffing those tendencies down for the past five years is now resulting in me getting a little too bothered and being a little too passionate about relatively unimportant things.

I'm not advocating for authors to start shooting their mouths off about anything they want to in any setting. There are such things as decorum, respect, and 'reading the room', after all. I'm just saying that maybe it's not such a bad idea to be your authentic, opinionated, imperfect self now and then, at least when the stakes are low, even in the context of author platform. Some will respond well, others won't. But those who don't like your authentic self probably never would've liked your work anyway. And if constantly stifling your authentic self may also result in stifling the authenticity of your work, it's a price that's too high to pay.

Maybe letting your Id peek through the veil every once in a while serves to vent bile that would otherwise build up until you do have a public meltdown when some minor irritation tips the scale. I can't say for certain. All I can say is that whatever I've been doing up until now ain't working anymore.

Also see:
Thank You For Unsubscribing, by C.J. West

On the Subject of Being Offensive, by Chuck Wendig

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Indie Authors: Stop Promoting To Other Indie Authors

The majority of indie authors have day jobs, family responsibilities, the burden of developing, writing and publishing their books, and the burden of establishing and maintaining an author platform on top of all of it. It's not surprising that when it comes time to promote a new book, indie authors very frequently begin by reaching out to their fellow indie authors. After all, who can better understand the struggle and sacrifice that went into the achievement of bringing a book to market independently, and who could possibly be more supportive of an indie author's efforts than another indie author?

Even though that rationale seems sound, authors promoting to other authors has got to stop, NOW, for two very good reasons.

The first is that unless you're writing nonfiction books on craft or book production, other authors are not your target demographic and every bit of money, time and effort you spend promoting to them is money, time and effort that isn't going toward courting your real intended audience. The second is that it's simply too much to ask of your fellow authors.

You may think the fact that you're spending more time promoting to fellow authors than the general public doesn't matter, since increased sales and positive reviews will inevitably raise your book's visibility among members of your target demographic and the general public, leading to more sales, but you're wrong. Book lovers have gotten pretty savvy to the indie world, and they automatically discount reviews written for indie authors by indie authors. If the majority of your book's positive reviews are from fellow indies --- especially those who take posting a review as an opportunity to cross-promote their own books by including their own book title in their username or signature line --- it's actually a mark against your book in the eyes of the general public. They think, "How good could this book be, if the only people who read it and posted positive reviews are friends of the author?"

You may also think that since writers are readers too, it's totally legitimate to promote to them the same as you would any other member of the public. But the thing is, most indie authors don't promote to one another the way they would to the general public, they often think nothing of spamming and haranguing their fellows in ways they would never even consider doing to the general public. For example, they may think it's totally fine to post a promotional message and link to their book's product page on the Facebook wall, page or timeline of an indie author 'friend', but would never dream of doing so on other Facebook members' walls, pages or timelines. They would never send out a "please buy my new book, I really need your support" email to their PTA or church email list, but don't hesitate to do it to their own email list of indie authors.

Spam is spam is spam, regardless of whether or not the person on the receiving end is a fellow indie author. If anything, indie authors should be even more hesitant to bombard their fellows with promotional messages and pleas than they would be in dealing with the general public, because they should know very well what those fellows are up against every day.

Several times a week (or more) I'll receive pleas from indie authors to buy, review and recommend their books, attend their events (virtual or IRL), locate and tag their books on Amazon, cross-post announcements of their book release events, share links to their blogs on my own blog, "Like" their Facebook pages, follow them on Twitter, allow them to post their promotional messages on my sites, et cetera. They don't seem to realize it, but what their requests really mean to the person on the receiving end is this:

"Hey, I know you have a job, and a family, and your own works in progress, and your own published books that you need to promote, and a website, blog, FB page, Twitter stream and Goodreads account to keep updated, and a To Read pile a mile high containing many works from favorite authors of yours that you've spent the last year wanting to read for pleasure and for your continuing education in craft, and that on top of all this you're trying to squeeze a half hour or so of free time or exercise into your day (and failing in that endeavor more often than not), but can you just drop one or more of those things to do me a favor, even though we're only nominally acquainted and your own siblings would think twice before making this request? P.S. - Since we're only nominally acquainted you don't really know me, and it's possible that I'm hypersensitive or just plain off my nut. If you don't grant me this favor I may go totally ballistic and badmouth you all over the internet as being non-supportive of your fellow indie authors. 'Kay? THANKS!!!"

If the request is to read a book and post a review for it, this wrinkle is added:

"I know you value your online reputation and integrity and stuff, but can you read my book and post a positive review of it? And if you don't like it, can you just write off all that time you spent reading it and pretend you never read it at all? P.S. - If you do post a review and it's anything less than a glowing 5-starrer, I may go totally ballistic and badmouth you all over the internet as being non-supportive of your fellow indie authors. I may even be one of those mean and bitter types who will go so far as to post negative reviews on all your books on every site where they're listed. 'Kay? THANKS!!!"

If the request is to buy a book, that request really means this:

"Hey, I know you're only earning something like twenty bucks a month in royalties off your own books but can you take some of that hard-earned cash this month and hand it over to me? Of course, I'll only be getting a small percentage of the profit, you'll actually be giving most of your money to a publisher or reseller. I know you're acquainted with hundreds of other indie authors who may be making this same request, and of course I realize you can't afford to buy everyone's books, and you don't really know me any better than you know any of the rest of them, but can you just blow the rest of them off this one time and buy my book, because I really really really really need the help so much more than they do, and you know what it's like being a struggling indie author so I'm pretty sure your guilt alone is already making you lean toward 'yes'? P.S. - Again, since you don't really know me it's possible that I'm a selfish jerk. If you don't buy my book and I find out about that, I may go totally ballistic and badmouth you all over the internet as being a greedy, tight-fisted hypocrite. 'Kay? THANKS!!!"

What about lesser requests than these? You may assume that because it only takes a second to 'Like' a Facebook page or re-tweet a message, there's no reason why anyone should turn you down or be annoyed by the request when you make it. But many people take their 'Likes' and re-tweets seriously, and believe there's an implied endorsement and recommendation in every one of their 'Likes' and re-tweets. I don't personally think there's anything wrong with asking for a 'Like' or re-tweet, the problem is that most people who make the request attach an expectation to it and get angry or disappointed when their expectation isn't met. Asking isn't the problem, it's the wave of resentment or even retribution that too often follows.

Identifying your target demographic, locating its members and crafting a promotional strategy that's tailor-made to appeal to that demographic is hard work, but it's the only kind of promotion and marketing that truly builds a dedicated and enthusiastic readership from the ground up. An appreciative readership becomes both a fan base and a cheering section, filled with people who are very happy to recommend a book they've discovered and enjoyed. That kind of fan base grows organically, so long as the author or publisher doesn't screw up the relationship by subjecting the fans to spam or trampling on their boundaries.

If you still insist on viewing your fellow indie authors as a kind of training wheels community to which you can turn for support in promoting your book and goosing your sales, really think about what you're asking before you ask. And no matter what, never ask your fellow authors for something, or promote to them, in a way you would think is inappropriate to do to your neighbors, the other parents involved with your kid's soccer team, your co-workers, or the general public.

Being an indie author is a demanding and draining privilege; we need to treat it, and one another, with respect.