I May Live To Regret This . . .

UPDATE: The comments section for this post is FAR more interesting than the post itself. I’m grateful for all those who’ve stopped by to comment. I’m learning a lot from it, and what I’m learning makes me even more eager to see someone from The Human Wave get out there in front and tell the rest of the world what they do and how they do it. Because honest-to-god, folks, the rest of us DO. NOT. KNOW.

UPDATE #2: Kate Paulk has taken my challenge and made a first stab at a “here’s what we do” piece. Read it here.

photo via Douglas L. Saunders

. . . because I said that I rarely write about writerly stuff. But, damn! Again: from my point of view as a historian, these are exciting times. VERY exciting. So this is more the historian speaking than the author.

A bit of background: as I noted in a blog entry a few days back, publishing is in total disarray at the moment thanks primarily to the power of the digital. Thanks to that, it’s now possible to publish a book without the middlemen who have long held sway.

This isn’t a bad thing, and as I also said here, I wrestle every. single. day. with what to do with my own work. (That was the point of my original post about this: When your work consists of 85 to 90 percent research, and only 10 or 15 percent “writing,” it ain’t easy to give up the subsidy that traditional publishing offers.) (*1)

No one knows how the disarray will shake out because that’s how “history” works: We don’t know the end until the end gets here. (Unless you’re a writer of historical fiction, in which case you can make things turn out any way you please, lucky you!

The ramifications of the “new” publishing are being felt by everyone in the business, as evidenced by this absolutely bizarro article in the New York Times a few days ago. That in turn prompted this response from a group blog I’d never heard of but somehow stumbled across in pursuit of who-knows-what, and there I found a link to this thoughtful commentary on the nature of “writing.” 

But I digress from my main point, which is this: My original post about publishing generated, um, a response. (Not one I expected. I assumed no one would read it.) The response was, well, interesting, not least of which was this.

That got me thinking. Yesterday when I was walking, I contemplated the snarkitude of the response and thought “Wow. This is what a revolution feels like!”

This kind of rage is what, for example, the rich of Moscow likely felt as rebellion gained power and heft in 1916 and 1917. This is what ruling classes feel when the fury of the “oppressed” takes form and turns into outright revolution.  (Not, I hasten to add, that I’m either rich or a member of the “ruling classes.” Rather, my point is that the self-publishing crowd regards people like me as elitist and they wanna see me suffer.)


But then today, I was out walking (again; yeah, like most walkers/runners/swimmers — I do all three — my best ideas come when I’m in motion) and I thought “Well, okay. This is definitely what a revolution would feel like. Except — they’ve already won!”

The self-publishers have won both the battle and the war. They’ve won. The spoils are theirs. They’re making money. They call the shots. They’re building audiences and did I mention they earning money from their work?

And no, I’m not being snarky. They’ve won. I’m the loser, as is anyone else who still clings to traditional publishing. (Which is why I a great deal of time pondering how and when I should move to The Other Side.)

So here’s my question: Why are the winners so angry? I only follow one blog devoted to self-publishing, and its proprietor is a mostly mild-mannered guy; full of snark and condescension toward us losers (which, again, seems normal to me), but through his blog, I’ve landed at plenty of other self-publishers’ blogs, and man! These people are ANGRY. (*2)

Is this normal human behavior when the oppressed finally gain power? They lash out at their former oppressors? (Again, I’m hardly an oppressor. I’m a mild-mannered, middle-aged historian. But in their eyes, I’m an elitist, whiney jerk with an overly developed sense of entitlement.) (*3)

So please: someone ‘splain this to me, because I don’t get it. And I swear this is my last take on writers’ crap for awhile. It IS fascinating to me, but it’s not something I can take a lot of time to ponder because, well, I’ve got to ponder equally historical shifts in the American food system and, hey, a girl’s only got so many hours in the day.


*1: I’ve thought about this often enough that I’m daunted by the prospect. Should I opt for self-publishing, I’d have to get a job, obviously. The only thing I know how to do other than “history” is waiting tables. So I could do that and then use my off-time to research. By my calculation, and under those circumstances, the kinds of books I write would take 10 to 15 years to complete, and that includes giving up any other kind of leisure activity. (Bye-bye, husband!) (*1.1)

*1.1: The self-publishers scoff at such calculations. According to them, people like me simply don’t work hard enough. I think what’s really going on is that they simply don’t know what historians do, and for that, as I’ve said on many occasions, I blame the historical profession for its unwillingness to engage with the public.

*2: I inadvertently got a load of that contempt/condescension/rage myself a few days ago. And again: I get why the self-publishers are smug about their success. I would be, too! But angry? What the hell are they ANGRY about? They’ve won! They should be happy, not angry.

*3: I must say: that’s the other weird thing about the response from the self-pubbers who responded to my blog entry: They somehow got that idea that I believe I’m entitled to some kind of public subsidy. To which I say: Huh? I’m not asking taxpayers to fund my work (something many, many writers do, I might add). My arrangement with my publishers is entirely legal and private and takes nothing from anyone’s pocket.

If Publishing Is Dead, What Happens to Non-Fiction?

UPDATE: See my long, and related, comment at this post. (As in: It’s in the COMMENTS, not the blog entry itself.)

I rarely write about the publishing side of my life; frankly, it’s not that interesting and it’s more insider baseball than anything else and how boring is that for those who aren’t on the inside? (Bohhhh-rriiiiing.)

So indulge me. Just this once. (I’m a historian and a writer and am living through a once-in-a-millennium paradigm shift. What’s not to love??)

For those of you who don’t work in “publishing,” a bit of background: The industry consists of publishing houses, both big and small; literary agents; and writers (aka the Big Mob At the Bottom of the Totem Pole).

Gleason's printing operation, in: Gleason's Pi...

Gleason’s printing operation, in: Gleason’s Pictorial 1852 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Until recently (like, oh, coupla years ago), writers wrote, then tried to find an agent who then sold the writer’s work to a publishing house. The agent takes a percentage of the author’s royalties, and everyone involved hoped for the best (meaning: hoped readers would want to buy the book the writer had written. Most of the time, they did not.)

“Self-publishing” — when a writer acted as her own publishing house — was looked on as the resort of hacks, the untalented, the losers.

No more. Now anyone can write a manuscript, create a digital version of it, upload it to Amazon or wherever, and wait for readers and their wallets to come running.

For authors, the advantages are obvious: There’s no time lag between finishing a manuscript and “publishing” it. (In contrast, assuming all goes well, my meat book will come out in about ten or eleven months.) There’s no agent to take a chunk of the profits. The writer becomes a one-woman publishing industry.

For many writers, this has become the road to riches. Authors who never earned anything on books published the old-fashioned way swear that, thanks to self-publishing, they’re raking in the dough.

The self-publishing king- and queenpins are relentless in their mockery of those of us who cling to agents and publishing houses. According to them, we traditionalists are losers of the first order. We’re world-class fools for letting agents take our money, and dumbasses for letting editors and publishing companies call the shots on our behalf.

The self-pubbers canNOT wait for the day when the entire traditional publishing complex falls into a huge hole in the ground. The self-pubbers have the funeral all planned. (If the self-pubbers spent as much time writing as they do gloating over the slow death of publishing, they could easily crank out another book or two each year.)

Okay. Fine.


Cuneiform-Rabat-Tepe2 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But I’ve noticed: The new self-publishing king/queenpins are almost entirely novelists, meaning they write fiction rather than non-fiction. (*1)

They crank out a novel or two (or three) a YEAR. I’m sure that many of them have to do research for their books, but for MOST fiction writers (not all of them), that research is minimal and is the kind of thing that can be taken care of with good googling or a trip or two to the public library.

As a result, they don’t understand that for people like me, the “traditional” publishing industry is my only lifeline, my only means of support.

Consider: I started working on the meat book in early 2007. I finished it in early 2012. You do the math.

I spent five years researching and writing the beer book, and of that, a great deal of money and time was spent on traveling to specialized libraries. The Key West book took me two years to research and write.

How did I pay for that? By entering into a partnership with a traditional publishing house that provided financial support.

It works like this: My agent sells my book IDEA to a publishing house. The house pays an “advance”: a sum of money upfront that I can live on while I research and write the book. It’s not much money — in fact it’s an embarrassing amount of money and I also am fortunate enough to receive financial support from my spouse.

Without that assistance, I couldn’t do what I do. Period. Again, it’s not much money, and it’s the ONLY money I earn from my books. (If I were lucky enough to write a bang ‘em up bestseller, I’d earn more than the advance, but I’m not that lucky. Er, um, not that talented a writer.)

The self-publishers, in my opinion, have a distorted view of “books” and of “publishing.” In their minds, every writer is cranking out novels that don’t require much time to research and write, and the lag time between creation and payoff is short.

So I ask them: What happens when the agents, editors, and publishing houses go away? Who will write non-fiction then?

Library book shelves

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And yes, sigh, all this ruminating led to that single simple question. I TOLD you I was long-winded.

UPDATE/OTHER LINKS: For more on non-fiction in this brave new world of books, see this post by Sarah Weinman, a long-time industry insider, and this article in the Wall Street Journal. (The latter link may evaporate.) And another update: This take from a writer who’s been on both sides.

*1: I say “almost entirely” because among the self-pubbers are a small but vocal group of non-fiction writers who, having earned beaucoup bucks from their work, are now Famous and Rich and can afford to dump their publishers and agents and publish their own work.

The Internet! Books! Everyone and Her Brother Duking It Out

Tons ‘o commentary lately on how the internet is or is not messing with our minds and how “the book” is or is not dead or dying. On the topic of “Internet: Dumb or Not?,” this in today’Wall Street JournalClay Shirky v. Nicholas Carr.

On the future of books and publishing, in this corner we have Garrison Keillor. And in this corner,Jason Epstein. (My “lately” adjective falls apart a bit here: Epstein’s essay appeared in March. But you get my drift.) (Or at least I hope you do.)

We Interrupt This Hiatus . . .

. . . to bring you breaking news: Looks like we’ve finally got a viable e-reader. Remember when Steve Jobs said no one read books anymore and that was interpreted as evidence he was working on an e-reader? Well, it’s here (actually, not sure if it’s literally on sale, but the device was just introduced at a news conference). (Live blogging all over the place, but good coverage here from NYT.)

Soooo. Now all I need is the $700+ the thing is going to cost. And since there’s no hope of rounding up that much disposable cash anytime soon (you didn’t seriously think I earn any money from my books, did you??), I shall lust after the iPad from afar.

iPad? What the FUCK were they thinking with that name? Every woman over 45 is howling with laughter. And every guy old enough to remember the era of the bachelor pad. All I can think of is electronic Kotex.