Questioning Conventional Wisdom Re: Platforms

Hello, dear readers, and welcome back to Nerdy Words. I’ve been seeing a lot – that is, A LOT – of advice to new and aspiring writers urging them to create a “platform” by posting regularly to not just one, but at least three, different forms of social media. The reasoning is by posting content to a variety of social media, you (the author) will garner lots of likes and followers, which publishers then assume will translate into sales.

But is this really true? Or are the opinion-makers of the publishing worlds simply foisting their theories off onto new and desperate authors, effectively making them guinea pigs in their new marketing experiment?

These questions came to me when I was dutifully taking one piece of common advice: look at your favorite authors’ social media presence to see how they interact with their followers. I quickly realized that most of my favorite authors either don’t have any social media presence at all (Daniel Woodrell, for example), or only recently started Tweeting, long after their best-seller status was attained (Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King). The ones most likely to have regularly updated blogs and/or Twitter feeds were non-fiction writers (Dave Barry, Mary Roach).

The content of these Twitter feeds was mostly a collection of random thoughts – Stephen King’s musings on hamburgers, Dave Barry’s quips about World Cup players’ hair. People obviously aren’t following these feeds because they are full of helpful, interesting information. People follow authors’ social media accounts because they are already famous – i.e., their books are their platform; the blogs and Twitter feeds are simply treats tossed out to already-adoring readers.

Think about it a moment: would you follow or like some unknown writer unless either a) their blog/newsfeed offered actually useful or interesting content, or b) you had already read their book and liked it? If Stephen King weren’t already a best-selling author, would anyone care what he thinks about hamburgers? (No offense to King).

Maintaining even one social media account – a blog, for example – is time- and energy-consuming for writers, many of whom already must divide their scarce time between writing and a day job. Most social media is not “monetized” in any way, so essentially, publishing pundits are demanding that authors put in a great deal of time for free, on the assumption that it will somehow, down the road, translate to more sales.

I submit that’s BS. What translates to more sales is two things: national visibility and more sales. More sales, predictably, beget more sales – hitting Amazon’s best-seller list tends to give books a bump. But more visibility doesn’t mean daily posts on Twitter about what your dog threw up; it means book reviews in mainstream publications and websites, it means interviews on national TV and radio. People see or hear about the book and think to themselves, “That sounds interesting…I should read that!” No-one sees an unknown author’s Twitter feed and thinks, “Wow, her observations on pantyhose are so insightful…I should go buy her book!”

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to crawl back into my cave and write – a book, that is.

More Bad News for Writers

I ran across this in the New Yorker from George Packer:

“Without sufficient advances, many writers will not be able to undertake long, difficult, risky projects. Those who do so anyway will have to expend a lot of effort mastering the art of blowing their own horn. ‘Writing is being outsourced, because the only people who can afford to write books make money elsewhere—academics, rich people, celebrities,’ Colin Robinson, a veteran publisher, said. ‘The real talent, the people who are writers because they happen to be really good at writing—they aren’t going to be able to afford to do it.’”

Though it’s buried in a much longer piece, it’s a telling and sad indictment of the publishing industry. He continues by explaining how all the money is driven toward “a few big titles” while advances for mid-list titles, “books that are expected to sell modestly but whose quality gives them a strong chance of enduring,” have declined. “Without sufficient advances, many writers will not be able to undertake long, difficult, risky projects.”

As Packer notes, this trend points to “what the literary agent called ‘the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer.’ A few brand names at the top, a mass of unwashed titles down below, the middle hollowed out: the book business in the age of Amazon mirrors the widening inequality of the broader economy.”

I would add that it’s not just the big publishing houses squeezing out the little guy: paying jobs for writers have been disappearing faster than land-line phones. Gone are the days of magazines publishing serialized novels, or even short stories. Even those ink-stained, wretched reporter jobs are being downsized. Their replacements – websites, literary journals and niche magazines – mostly don’t pay writers. Editors now expect us to provide content for free, with the glory of having our names in print or on a contributor’s list our only reward.

This is the situation I struggle with, along with all the other writers who don’t happen to be “academics, rich people [or] celebrities.” My landlord won’t take bylines. Neither will the grocery store, or the gas pump, or the electric company. They insist on being paid with actual legal tender. So why is it that writers don’t get to insist on the same kind of payment?

At least for the websites and periodicals, I blame rookie writers. Don’t get me wrong, I have penned a story or two for free – mostly as desperate attempts to get into genres or publications that would later pay – but my overall policy is to charge money for what I write. It’s really not so radical. But when I’m competing against hundreds of other writers who don’t have such an onerous policy, I’m at a distinct disadvantage. So I have to work a “real job” to earn that legal tender everyone’s so attached to, which leaves me with considerably less time to actually write. If I do manage to carve out enough time to finish a manuscript (which I have), I’m now expected to build my own “platform” – which entails yet more unpaid work blogging and tweeting and posting to Facebook and whatever other new social network has sprung up in the last hour. Which means less time to actually write.

Many authors say, “To hell with that!” and self-publish. I’m not saying anything against it, but if you want to sell enough copies to quit your day job – or even just cut back to part-time – you’re going to have to do all that marketing yourself. Again: less time to actually write.

So, indeed, this new publishing world does seem to mirror the economy at large, where the wealthy, who don’t need to work “real jobs” and can spend hours marketing (or hire someone else to do it), easily garner plum publishing deals and paying writing gigs based on their immense “platform.” Us working-class schmucks get to fight over the crumbs.

However, I don’t want to leave you discouraged. Remember that throughout  history, revolutions are usually born from the pens of writers.

Amtrak to Offer “Riders” Residencies

Writers across the blogosphere are all atwitter (pardon the pun) about this new development: Amtrak is seriously considering offering writers long round-trip rides for the sole purpose of writing. Jessica Gross, a writer for the Paris Review, was given the honor of taking this program for a test run in exchange for tweeting about it. She writes, quite eloquently, about the reasons why train travel is so inspiring:

“These reasons are all undergirded by a sense of safety, borne of boundaries. … the train is bounded, compartmentalized, and cozily small, like a carrel in a college library. … There is comfort in the certainty of these arrangements. The journey is bounded, too: I know when it will end. Train time is found time. My main job is to be transported; any reading or writing is extracurricular. The looming pressure of expectation dissolves. And the movement of a train conjures the ultimate sense of protection—being a baby, rocked in a bassinet.”

The details are still up in the air, but they plan to keep the program free or low-cost. The selection process still hasn’t been ironed out, but apparently the focus is on those writers/journalists/bloggers with a strong social-media presence (which would probably eliminate yours truly). There wouldn’t be any requirements to actually produce anything; they want to keep it an “organic experience.”

I’ve never been on a train (unless you count the subway), and the nearest Amtrak station is a four-hour drive away, but I would love to do this! I’ve had a similar experience on long bus rides, watching the scenery flow by, the rhythmic motion of the bus lulling me into a sort of Zen state…but the lack of comfort or a place to write made it impossible to actually write anything. Gross’ trip was in, apparently, a small private car, which does sound like the perfect arrangement. Paul Theroux would, no doubt, love this.

James Patterson Giving $1 Million to Indie Bookstores

After Monday’s depressing post, I figured I needed to post something more cheerful today: 2011’s most well-paid author, James Patterson, has pledged to donate $1 million of his own money to independent bookstores across the nation. According to his statement, he “feels that bookstores are vital to communities and that they leave a lasting love of reading in children and adults.”

The bookstores can do whatever they want with the money, according to USA Today.

Way to go, James! I for one can’t wait to see how this will affect our struggling indie bookstores.

Copy Editors Getting Thrown Under the Bus

Bad news: another media job appears to be getting cut in the name of “efficiency,” (i.e., maximizing profits while slashing costs). It’s the one position that many of us felt was safe: copy editor. While more and more publications (both online and print) have found the golden ticket to cost-cutting by simply refusing to pay writers, one would think that copy editors – those underappreciated nerds who make all that hastily-written copy look more or less “professional” – would remain viable. One would be wrong.

Poynter points out that copy editors “have been sacrificed more than any other newsroom category,” so that since 2002, across the nation, roughly half of all copy editors working for daily newspapers have been fired. Apparently the trend is to shift the work to the “content-generating level” (i.e., the writers), as the Denver Post has done. Besides the obvious question – how many writers can treat their stories with the same clear-eyed attention to detail that a professional editor can? – there’s the fact that what this does is dump more work on writers, without, it can safely be assumed, any increase in pay.

The latest dust-up over this trend is playing out over Vice Media looking to hire a copy editor. First, Abraham Hyatt weighed in with a pretty straightforward blog post: “Whatever You Do, Vice, Don’t Hire That Copyeditor.” His reasoning is that when ReadWrite.com started putting all its stories through copy editors, the turnaround time on those stories “slowed the publishing process to a screeching near-halt.” The site’s traffic, predictably, plummeted. Yet if you read the post carefully, he writes that he hired only two copy editors for a site that posts more than 20 stories a day, “many of which were published within 30 mins [sic] of news breaking.” I’m no “math-magician,” but doesn’t that mean that each of those two editors had to go through ten or more stories a day, at 30 minutes or less per story? Can you say “unrealistic”?

Enter the American Copy Editors Society. They refute Hyatt’s anecdotal evidence that readers don’t notice what editors do with actual facts: a study showing that when given edited and non-edited stories, readers scored the edited stories higher on one or more criteria such as professionalism, writing quality, organization and value. While traffic may have plummeted because of the drastic slow-down of posts to ReadWrite.com’s site, how are we to know the number of people who came to the site once, spotted some glaring errors in a story, and simply never returned? There have been numerous times that I’ve visited websites with interesting headlines, only to be turned off by sloppy writing (perfect example here).

Finally, I would like to add one more comment to the mix: one of the things copy editors do is check the facts in stories. All it takes is one expensive libel suit to destroy a fledgling media company; maybe Vice and other news organizations should factor that into their cost-benefit analysis.

News Flash: Outlook Dismal for New Authors

Sorry to be Capt. Bringdown today, but I found a few articles that shed light on some ugly truths about the publishing industry.

First, and not exactly breaking news: it is extremely hard for new writers to find agents and publishers. However, when celebrities like Rush Limbaugh can get their children’s books published, it’s a clear example of the modern focus on “platform” over talent.

And even when those few lucky writers manage to break into the shiny world of print, regardless of if they self-publish or go the traditional route, they will probably make less than $1,000 a year. Yes, you read that right: the majority of published authors make less than a grand a year. 

James Stewart’s article in the New York Times goes into more detail, contrasting the kind of support that more famous authors get from their publishers with the lack of support that new authors receive.

The takeaway, for me, seems to be that despite talent and hard work, breaking into the publishing industry is like winning the lottery, except you don’t get nearly as much money. This is the kind of story that makes self-publishing so much more attractive; if you’re only going to make $1,000 a year anyway, why torture yourself with endless querying, rejections, loss of creative control, etc., when you can just put it out there yourself and cut out the middleman?

 

Foot-in-Mouth Syndrome Spreading Among Famous Authors

Even people who get paid – a lot – for their words can say the wrong thing. Lately a couple of high-profile cases of this “foot-in-mouth syndrome” have appeared, both of which involved writers I greatly admire.

First, the infamous “bitchery” tweet from Stephen King: in response to the recent Dylan Farrow/Woody Allen controversy (which, if you haven’t heard, just Google it), King tweeted this:

Stephen-King-Dylan-Farrow-Tweet

Needless to say, the interwebs got into quite a huff; the connotation that King thought Farrow’s accusations were “bitchery,” or that Farrow was a “bitch,” seemed radically out of character for a writer who has long represented his female characters in a very respectful, realistic way. Thankfully, he did the right thing and apologized quickly. His explanation, which I believe, was that he was using the word “bitchery” to describe the whole “sad and painful mess,” not either Dylan or Mia Farrow.

Being a long-time fan of King’s, I can only hope this one poorly-thought-out tweet won’t wreck his entire career. As he states on his apology page, “Some people seem to believe that writers never use the wrong word, but any editor can tell you that’s not true.” And therein lies the danger of Twitter and other social media: there is no editor. 

Then, Isabel Allende appeared to have contracted the virus. Allende is probably most known for her novel “The House of the Spirits,” though my favorite is her food/sex memoir, “Aphrodite.” As reported by NPR, in an interview about her new novel, “Ripper,” she had a few not-so-nice things to say about popular mystery novels:

“It’s too gruesome, too violent, too dark; there’s no redemption there. And the characters are just awful…” She then stated that she would “take the genre, write a mystery that is faithful to the formula and to what the readers expect, but it is a joke. My sleuth will not be this handsome detective or journalist or policeman or whatever. It will be a young, 16-year-old nerd. My female protagonist will not be this promiscuous, beautiful, dark-haired, thin lady. It will be a plump, blond, healer, and so forth.”

These comments apparently angered many mystery fans. Once small bookstore owner even sent all the copies of “Ripper” back to the publisher in protest. So Allende apologized, claiming that her comments were themselves supposed to be the joke. However, many – including the angry bookstore owner – have not accepted her apology.

In all fairness, having read a lot mysteries myself lately, I can understand some of what she is saying. I know I may be risking a flame-war myself, but I have to be honest: much of what is written in the mystery genre is not the best writing in the world. I have seen a lot of work that falls into two camps: the kind Allende is talking about, which is quite gruesome and populated with cardboard, unlikeable characters, and cutesy cozies, where amateur bookstore owners or scrapbookers solve bloodless murders by following a predictable (and unrealistic) plot formula. Before you click send on your hate comment: notice I said “a lot,” not “all.”

On the other hand, clearly Allende hasn’t done enough research. There are many, many mysteries whose sleuths and protagonists aren’t handsome or promiscuous. The Flavia de Luce mystery series’ eponymous sleuth is an 11-year-old girl with a passion for poisons. The Red Rock Canyon Mystery series’ protagonist is an aging English literature professor…and I could go on.

So now, I wonder, will there be a third outbreak of foot-in-mouth?

New Year’s Resolution: Submit Your Work!

Writers, if you’ve made a New Year’s resolution to get your stories/poems/essays out there to a wider audience – to get published – I’d like to help you with that. Below are a few sites that offer contests and paying markets for you to send your work to:

Good luck, and happy New Year!

Print is Dead; Long Live Print!

“Print is dead; if they want to stay alive, magazines must go digital.” So goes the conventional wisdom. Indeed, printing and mailing full-color, glossy magazines is an expensive proposition, and ad revenues (which fund the printing and mailing) have been dropping like stones for years now. So, harkened by the rise in tablet and e-reader sales, the savvy magazine publisher would do well to move to digital, right?

Except it isn’t right, apparently. This GigaOm piece says it all: “Why Tablet Magazines are a Failure.” Writer John Lund places the blame on a number of factors, but the bedrock fact remains that digital magazines subscriptions just don’t sell. And the ones that do sell don’t get read.

In fact, some digital publications are moving…to print. As Matt Pearce of the LA Times writes, “Where the Web is open-ended and interactive, print is closed and more authoritative, like a street that goes only one way. The Web is timelier, but paper lasts longer than browser tabs.” Pearce quotes Chris Frey, 43, “editor in chief of Hazlitt, a literary site created by Random House Canada that published its debut print edition last month.” Frey “uses words like ‘intimacy,’ ‘permanence’ and ‘presence’ to describe reading a magazine or printed book.”

Frey continues: “Within a Web environment, we’re often more prone to distraction and skimming rather than deep reading, … The Web is an immensely powerful tool for connecting writers with readers far and wide in the present moment. But it can lack intimacy.”

It feels good to be vindicated. I have nothing against reading things digitally – I have a virtual bookshelf packed with interesting, engaging websites I visit, and read, frequently. But nothing can replace the experience of reading a real book or magazine for me. I only hope their business model can adapt to this new economy, because extinction is forever.