Monday, February 29, 2016

Another Publisher Shuts The Door

You've heard it many times before. There is no money in publishing.

There isn't much, to be sure, and if you are a small independent press, there very much is no money in publishing. To break even, at the least, requires a lot of unpaid hours. A labor of love, so.

Samhain is the latest loss to the publishing world. They were never huge, never one of the big five houses. They did not crank out blockbuster bestsellers or celebrity tell-alls. Their mission was to bring good stories to life while filling some particular niche that the major publishers thought too small to notice.

The financial climate being what it is, the readers that Samhain reached are no longer able to buy up all the books they might otherwise have purchased if they had extra cash for luxuries. Their audience was largely romance readers, who are known to consume novels as if they are starving for release from life's stresses. When one of those stresses becomes an overdue electric bill, well, there you are. You have to keep your lights on. There are other places to find cheaper entertainment than what you'd find from Samhain.

Self-publishing has produced a bounty of romance titles, and a self-publishing author enjoys much lower overhead than a small publisher with any staff on salary. It is easy enough to churn out an e-book without requiring much outside help, and if that author wants to generate some buzz there will be copies given away to reach potential readers.

How can a publisher compete with free books, or books offered at a discount?

Samhain lasted for just over a decade, a time in which self-publishing changed the environment radically. A business model that worked in 2005 has stopped working because things have changed, and Samhain's model simply doesn't work any longer. They could retool, perhaps, but would a full re-organization make a difference, or would it mean nothing more than giving all but a few employees the sack and then expecting the last remnants to work without respite, and compensation, to keep the house open?

Those who might once have looked to Samhain to get their romance novel published are more likely to turn to Amazon's Kindle Publishing platform or Smashwords. All proceeds then flow to the author, who is free to hire their own marketing and publicity people if they want, or do their own promotions. They can tweet and Facebook and round up friends to help spread the word. Whether or not they sell as many copies as they would have if Samhain had been their publisher is a point of debate that can no longer be settled by trying both methods of publishing.

Samhain has been forced to shutter its operation. There just is not enough money in publishing on a small scale when the small scale competition is so very strong and the reader's wallet is largely empty.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Daredevils: A Book Review

Loretta is a young woman in a polygamist sect who longs for the outside world. How does she know about that world if she's living in a closed society? That's fiction for you. Suspend disbelief and carry on.

Jason is a young man in a standard-issue Mormon farm family who longs for the outside world. And all things Evel Knievel, the daredevil who inspires the boy to push against the forces that seek to hem him in.

You know these two are going to collide at some point because that's how a novel works. The problem is, you first have to get beyond the author's decision to insert fictional memoir-type paragraphs from the aforementioned Evel Knievel. The paragraphs don't do a thing to move the narrative, and in truth act like a brake on an otherwise gripping story.

For some reason, Shawn Vestal also felt compelled to include a couple of chapters told from the point of view of Ruth, the first wife in a polygamist family who does not welcome the arrival of wife number two, Loretta. Again, the prose does nothing to move the narrative and we don't really care all that much about Ruth because she's a minor character.

If you skip the two chapters told by Ruth and ignore anything that is ascribed to Evel Knievel, you stand a better chance of making it through a rather choppy format that shifts POV with rapidity at the end. It's grand, however, because Shawn Vestal teaches creative writing so he knows what he's about. He didn't need an editor, apparently, under the assumption that he must surely know how to put a novel together.

Would he have allowed one of his students to get away with the old trope of a boy growing in wisdom by meeting his idol and discovering that the hero is a mere mortal? Was it not enough for Jason to become disillusioned by events that spiraled away from his dream?

A good editing would have worked wonders on what might have been a brilliant bit of prose. The novel is worth reading for some insight into the mindset of two people striving to be more than society holds for them. Just skip over the parts that should have been cut out and you'll have an enjoyable read.

Thanks to Penguin Random House for the copy provided.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Self-Publishing Without Internet Access

Out of print as quickly as it was laid down
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police don't understand how serial killer Robert Pickton was able to self-publish a book when he does not have access to the Internet.

They seem to think that self-publishing requires a person to do all the work, when in fact anyone can publish a book and never do a single thing online. All you need, in that case, are friends with computers who share your love of literature.

Mr. Pickton is currently serving a life sentence in British Columbia, and as part of his punishment, he cannot surf the Net. No googling, no e-mail, no electronic connection to the outside world. Yet he still managed to get his memoir published by Outskirts Press in far-away Colorado. Their web page, which Mr. Pickton could not have seen from his cell, boldly proclaims that it exists to help the self-publisher achieve his goal. So how could a man without the World Wide Web do such a thing?

As far as the Mounties can determine, the author wrote out his manifesto by hand, using good old-fashioned paper and pen. There are those (myself included) who really believe that the first draft comes out better when handwritten. The slower pace forces a writer to think a bit longer about each word and sentence, making for a stronger start to a long process.

With his drafts edited to his satisfaction, Mr. Pickton had only to turn to his cellmate for help. Michael Chilldres smuggled the manuscript out of the prison somehow, and it found its way to Outskirts Press. Being a criminal, the concept of honesty never came into play so whoever helped him just said that Mr. Chilldres was the author, or said they were Michael Chillldres and they were self-publishing the manuscript.

Except he wasn't the author, but again, these are men in prison we are dealing with.

Unfortunately, it's very difficult to do a book tour when you're behind bars. Getting publicity and generating buzz was never going to be easy. Did the writing duo of Pickton and Chilldres even sell a single copy? Maybe they did, to someone connected with Mr. Pickton's murder victims, who would be very likely to keep an eye on the Internet to make sure the murderer didn't profit from his crimes.

The book was discovered and a petition was launched to have Amazon pull the book from its listings. Amazon being the biggest book seller, it's only natural that the petition was directed there.

Amazon responded by removing the book, and if you try to buy direct from Outskirts, you'll come up empty. They aren't going to carry the title any more either. They wouldn't want to be getting any bad publicity about publishing any and all shite that comes their way, especially when it's shite scribed by a convicted killer who isn't allowed to visit their website to see his work available for sale.

His future as an author, even one off the grid, has come to a screeching halt.

The authorities in British Columbia are now busy crafting legislation that would prevent convicts from profiting off their crimes. Currently there is no law on the books to stop Mr. Pickton from selling his prose in the province, even though other provinces bar the practice. The law exists in the U.S. as well, and when you've lost the greatest part of your market, your future in writing looks quite dismal.

Until such laws are enacted, however, the prison authorities will have to monitor phone calls and visits, to be sure that criminals are not dictating their memoirs to their visitors, who can then go home to their computers and complete the process of self-publishing. It's not as if publishing on your own really requires you to do it all yourself. You can always get by with a little help from your friends.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Dodgers: A Book Review

East is a feral child, living rough, a product of the Los Angeles streets. He lives by his wits, which in DODGERS means he scratches a living as a watchman at a crack house. All he knows is his neighborhood, and that proves to be little when his underlings fail at their posts and East must make amends to the gang leader by murdering a judge who has angered the gang.

The book provides a well-described journey through foreign territory as East and his colleagues drive from LA to Wisconsin to whack their intended victim. He travels with his violent and unpredictable half-brother, an equally feral child who has no emotional connection to East. There are no children here, nor are there families as you might know them.

Along the way, the gang has various adventures that force East to rely on his wits to escape, all of which make for page-turning fiction. What happens after he reaches Wisconsin and a once simple plan falls to pieces is compelling reading.

The ending is a bit too 'deus ex machina' and I suspect that Bill Beverly would have given one of his writing students a dose of criticism for using the same technique, but other than that the prose is believable.

Granted, it is white people bringing in the element of salvation as East works his way home, a place that he realizes does not exist in the traditional sense that he sees all around him as he wanders through the upper Midwest. Some might quibble about the lack of black influence, wondering why some middle class black man could not have represented the world outside of the drug dens of Los Angeles. Could the narrative have flowed in the same way if so strong a contrast was not made between what East knows and what he sees for the first time outside of some television programme? Did he not leave Los Angeles wearing Dodgers team shirts to make him appear more in tune with white culture, and less threatening?

That's something for the book group to discuss.

What East discovers about the world beyond the borders of his neighborhood alters him completely, and that makes for a satisfying conclusion to a very modern tale. The prose is dense and is meant to reflect the language of the streets, making for a slow read, but the reader's effort is rewarded.

Thanks to Penguin Random House for the review copy. I thoroughly enjoyed the novel.

Monday, February 15, 2016

FanFic For The Literati

So many...
In publishing circles, fiction written by fans of a particular book is normally looked at like so much detritus. How clever they are, those dedicated readers, imagining other scenarios and plots in which to insert their favorite characters.

There are all sorts of fanfic written for Harry Potter, Hunger Games or what have you. In general, the prose is not taken seriously because it's silliness from people overly obsessed with fictional characters.

Unless, of course, it's an acceptable author doing the fanfic dance. Then it's something more literary. It's worth publishing.

Why else would some Jane Austen fanfic make it to the big time? What was Jo Baker's Longbourn but a bit of fanfic that took its characters from Jane Austen's Pride And Prejudice? We all know the story of the people upstairs, goes the reasoning, but what is happening below when Mr. Darcy and Miss Bennett are circling each other? It's fanfic but with a more literate bent, the fanfic label avoided by the imprimatur of a genuine publisher.

The world can never seem to get enough fanfic, and now there's to be another. Did you ever create imaginary scenarios to fill in the back story for Jayne Eyre? Did you not use your flights of fancy to write a novel because you laughed it off as so much silly fanfic?

Sarah Shoemaker did not dismiss the notion. No one is calling her upcoming novel fanfic, however, but it has taken on a shiny gloss of respectability by being labeled a re-imagining of the Bronte novel. Let Ms. Bronte tell her story from the perspective of the downtrodden governess. Ms. Shoemaker takes the story and puts her own twist on it, narrating events through the eyes of Mr. Rochester.

so little time
Mr. Rochester will hit the shelves next year some time, with the deal just announced. Literary agent Jennifer Weltz did not see the manuscript as fanfic, or would she have taken it on and then sold it to Grand Central? Of course she would not market the thing as fanfic for those who adore the Bronte novel, even if that is what it is. No indeed, this is a re-imagining.

Because we can't have too much original storytelling these days.

The bean counters at the publishing houses get terribly nervous with original works that are unlike what is selling. They want the tried and true, and fanfic has a definite market among those who liked the original, even if it was originally released over one hundred years earlier. It's stood the test of time, hasn't it? More than one movie version made, still being read, so why not ride on the fanfic wagon as it travels to profitable places?

How much longer before we get a novel about Heathcliff's version of events at Wuthering Heights? What about the whale that was pursued to the ends of the earth by Captain Ahab, what were his (or her) feelings at being persecuted? After all, we've already heard it all from Ahab's wife. Let's give the whale its turn in the fanfic sun.

Hollywood is living off re-makes of old popular films. Why should the publishing industry not try the same trick? And then wonder why sales are sliding and no one seems to be reading books. Like they aren't flocking to the cinemas.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Joy Of The Contest

Goodreads is a great place to find free books, given away by publishers who are promoting a new title. For the publisher, it's a marketing angle that puts prose in the hands of readers who have friends who read and trust the reviews of others. Word of mouth sells more books than a print advert.

But there are those who are not avid readers. They are avid contest entering sorts, people who want to win prizes. It does not matter what it might be, and if it is something that can be turned into ready cash, so much the better.

Books can be turned into cash if you aren't looking for a big payout. Used book sellers buy paperbacks to be sold to recyclers in need of pulpable material that can in turn be made into new paper. Maybe it's a dollar or two, but it's real money that takes no more effort to acquire than trolling through the list of giveaways at Goodreads and clicking on everything.

How does Goodreads determine who to send a publisher's free books to, in that case? Does it make sense to reward those who have no intention of reading, let alone reviewing the book?

It seems to be happening.

Newcastlewest Books ran two promotions for our newest work, SAINTS OF THE NEW IRISH KITCHEN. Ten books were shipped off to winners, but the great majority of those winners had no books on their lists. Not a single review given. Not a single book read.

Just a lot of entries for giveaways, every day, day after day.

As a publisher, we wasted our time, effort and money to generate a little buzz about a witty bit of women's fiction. Without some reviews on a site where a lot of readers find new books, our copies shipped out to the brick and mortar shops are missing the word-of-mouth buzz that generate sales. How many people are willing to risk their entertainment budget on an unknown quantity? Sure they can read the opening pages, but they would feel more confident about a purchase if they knew that a friend, or a Goodreads reviewer with similar tastes, had said some positive things about the novel.

Is it worth it to offer a giveaway at Goodreads?

Not when the book does not land in the mailbox of someone who intends to read and review the book. Not when a publisher is doing nothing more than transferring some scrap pulp, or feeding the addiction of a book hoarder who collects for the sake of having a collection.

Maybe someone at Goodreads could take a look at the analysis that determines who gets a book and who doesn't. Like culling out the applications of those who have long been members of the site but do nothing more than request books because they feel so happy when they win something, even things they never use.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Green Island: A Book Review

We read fiction for entertainment, but often a novel can teach us something as well. Shawna Yang Ryan's GREEN ISLAND is such a book, one of those rare works of fiction that is so grounded in reality that you can't help but keep turning the pages.

Set in Taiwan, the novel delves into the life of ordinary people living under what was a dictatorship, even though the world saw the island as some hazy haven for liberty in the face of Communist aggression. The real government of China ruled there, until the geopolitical world shifted on its axis and Taiwan became an almost independent nation that continued to face down Communist aggression. By reading GREEN ISLAND, you will discover the harsh reality of an existence frought with peril and the threat of Mao's forces invading.

The tale is told by the youngest child of the Tsai family, although the POV shifts here and there, in a way that suggests the narrator is still telling the story from a different perspective. An uprising begins on the day she is born, and her father is dragged into the conflict by opposing the thuggish tactics of the Kuomintang rulers. The father is taken away, a political prisoner, and so the author enters into the questions posed by the remaining pages. How does one deal with the direst of circumstances, when lives are at stake along with personal freedom?

It is a question that the narrator must answer for herself as she deals with what she thinks is her father's madness. She comes to learn that he is indeed being watched, with the ever-present army of spies infiltrating the family itself as the Kuomintang utilizes every tactic to avoid losing power. After the narrator marries and moves to California, she finds that she cannot escape the ruthless government of Taiwan, especially as the United States reaches accord with Red China and Taiwan's future grows shaky.

The prose is gentle while the story is brutal, the tension increasing as the narrator finds herself enmeshed in a nightmare that Confucian obedience cannot resolve. While I could have used less references to smells and odors (the author is a bit obsessed with how things smell), the story is gripping. The overall theme of the novel is quite topical, with the issue of compliance versus resistance the sort of thing that could apply to many other places in a troubled world.

I would recommend this book to those who enjoy lyrical prose and thought-provoking narration. Thanks to Penguin Random House for the copy used in this review.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

The Better Devils Of Our Nature

The first thing you'd ask of Roosh Valizadeh is, are you serious, or is this some type of performance art?

The blogger is a firm believer in rape, taking a man's rights, anti-feminist, approach. Women are the enemy because they won't have sex with men on demand and that must be stopped. Or so he says. Can he be serious?

Maybe he's just being radically Islamic, coming from a background in which women who dare to go out in public without a guard are considered nothing more than prostitutes who deserve what they get. Leaving the confines of one's home is akin to asking to be raped, therefore, give the lady what she wants.
Look at me, Mommy, look at me!

Mr. Valizadeh is trying to organize a gathering of like-minded individuals, all men of course, and men who would like to be permitted to rape women who are not cowering behind locked doors.

You can find his philosophy at Return of Kings, if you're wondering how serious this man might be.

Some took him seriously, however. The proposed rally has been cancelled.

That's how it is with the Internet and the blogosphere and social media these days. Any fool can find a forum and an audience for any nonsense he or she wishes to spout. Those looking to spoof others are equally able to find an outlet for their joke.

There's no telling which way a post is meant to lean, comedy or tragedy.

In the case of Mr Valizadeh, his claims that he is skilled at picking up women and can show you, one of life's losers, how to seduce the ladies, smacks of the old ads in men's magazines from a by-gone era. All a guy needed was a dose of Spanish Fly and he could make a woman desire him. It was laughable then, and Mr. Valizadeh is laughable now.

Just like in those long-ago days, there are those who take his philosophy seriously, who really believe that it is the women at fault and not some personality defect preventing a guy from access to casual sex. Had the rally gone ahead, there would have been a few followers at Devon and Sheridan Roads on Saturday, milling about looking for answers to their emotional problems.

Women would have been excluded because they are bad, not falling on their backs, dazzled by the virility of the men who turn to Roosh Valizadeh for help in achieving their goal.

Those who did not see 'satire' in the proposed performance raised such a protest that it would have been impossible to stage a rally and maintain the anonymity of the attendees. Everyone has a camera on their cell phone, and photos would have been snapped and posted to shame any man so socially inept as to stand with the legalized rape contingent.

So the enemy has won. Or the performance art fell flat.

It doesn't much matter, in the end. Roosh Valizadeh got himself a big load of attention, his name in the news and his blog site advertised. He won.

Monday, February 01, 2016

White Collar Girl: A Book Review

A few pages in to WHITE COLLAR GIRL and I was wondering if author Renee Rosen was a newspaper reporter. Not because her depiction of the Chicago Tribune offices seemed so real, but because she exhibited a reporter's tendency to describe things in minute detail. Good for an article in the newspaper, perhaps, but a little goes a long way in a novel.

The novel is set in the 1950s, and features a young Jordan Walsh making her way in a male-dominated profession. The cub reporter longs for a seat at the City Desk, a club as exclusive as Berghoff's men-only bar. Which gets a mention in the book, by the way. All kinds of things get mentioned in the book.

In general, the novel is more a series of events than a flowing narrative. Jordan puts in her time on the society pages while pondering what really happened to her brother, who was killed in a hit-and-run accident. Or was he on to a hot story and got himself killed for poking around a potential scandal?

Her drive to succeed spoils romantic relationships as she moves up the ladder, hoisted along by a secret source in high places feeding her info for further investigation. It makes for an entertaining read, but if you are familiar with Chicago history and politics, you might become annoyed at Ms. Rosen's decision to use modern-day scandals and mingle them in with events that actually happened in the 1950s. It might almost seem to be too much scandal in too short a time, with corrupt judges following corrupt meat inspectors and corrupt cops.

For a light weekend read, WHITE COLLAR GIRL will provide enough entertainment. The author does a good job of immersing her readers into the era, taking things a little too far by dropping addresses as well as names. She did her research on Chicago of the 1950s, to be sure, but it isn't necessary to use all of it to that extent.

Overall, the novel is worth reading, particularly if you can forget what you know about Chicago and go along for the ride. We often forget how tough a woman had to be sixty years ago to make it in business, and it can be enlightening to inhabit that world for a few hours to refresh memories and appreciate what our mothers and grandmothers had to endure.