Saturday, June 28, 2008

Properly vetted

A writer friend of mine insists that the restrictions placed on membership by professional genre fiction writing organizations and conventions are there because it assures the writers applying for membership have been properly vetted.

The term means that a writer’s work has been confirmed as accurate, that agents have screened it and editors have honed it. Of course, my friend is ignoring the obvious – no writer is properly vetted anymore. The big publishers refuse to pay for it and the small ones never could afford it. James Frey and Margaret Selzer are just two recent examples of writers published by major publishing houses who were exposed as frauds. Sadly, this lack of real vetting applies to journalism as well.

How does all this happen? We readers allow it. We settle for less than the best. We do not demand excellence. We accept what we are told without question because it comes from our newspaper, television, the Internet or an email from a friend. How many false stories circulate because no one stops to check the facts? Thank goodness for

In All the President’s Men, a book about the scandal that forced Nixon from the White House, the reporters dug out the facts, they followed the trail and they told us what was happening. They did not partner with the government; they exposed it. Why can we trust what they revealed? They had to obtain confirmations of their facts from at least two separate sources and those sources could not be other reporters. Their editor would not allow the story to go to press without that substantiation.

As citizens, it is our responsibility to question everything we are told. We should not assume that our representatives in government will act honorably – especially since there is so much proof that they will not. Greed and graft has been part of government since time began. This country is no exception. Mark Twain said it best. Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.”

All writers should produce work that is properly vetted. All editors should require confirmation, checking sources and validating the facts. I’d like to see the population demand that higher standard.

We will be better for it – as readers and as citizens.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Sandwich Generation

When I wrote the first post for this blog, I said I would deal with issues of communication and how it impacts us.

For the last few posts, I looked at changes in the publishing industry that created levels of discrimination within the writing world. Today, I return to my central theme – communication – and what all this says about who we are as writers and as people.

This is a hypothesis for sociologists to explore but I suggest that the flood of DIY and subsidy published books is a demonstration of our need to tell our stories. Sure, some people publish with the idea of becoming rich and famous, but many others just want to share their human experience. They think writing a book will get people to listen to them.

Long ago we shared our lives around the campfire, passing our wisdom and feelings from one generation to the next. That evolved into cave painting and then into writing. Letters maintained the link between families and friends and established our history.

We no longer gather around burning logs (or the dinner table) and very few of us use paper and pen to maintain contact with friends and family. If we communicate at all, it is in short, quick bursts of text boiled down to the fewest possible words and letters. DIY publishing and blogging have replaced the campfire.

I advocate all the things that we consider part of good writing: sound premise, good structure, and correct grammar. I also believe that the marketplace will deter or dissuade those writers who produce a product that is not worth buying. Once their story is told, they will not exert the effort to market it or to write another.

Peg Herring, a writer friend of mine, suggested that we are in the “sandwich generation” in more ways than one. Not only are we the caretakers of two generations, we are caught between the old publishing paradigm and the emerging new one.

As I considered her words, it occurred to me that no matter how poorly written a book or blog may be, someone made the effort to write it. Someone took the time to put words into sentences in an attempt to convey a message. When writers discriminate against other writers and try to silence their voices, if we block the road for those coming after us, we put out the campfire.

Communication is so important that the founding fathers of the United States put that freedom first on the list in the Bill of Rights. I hope that my fellow writers do all they can to nurture other writers and teach them how to do it well. It is up to us to keep the campfire burning.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Cold Logic in these Hot Times

The interesting thing about discrimination is that it doesn't prevent inevitable change. Puritans established a new home in North America, an Irish Catholic became president, African-Americans got the vote.

It doesn’t take much research to see how often advances do not earn out and how many books go unsold. Publishers know they will save millions if they stop paying advances and discontinue the practice of printing books no one buys. In business, it is always about the money. The bottom line rules.

The paradigm has already shifted. Nothing writers’ organizations do can prevent it - no matter how hard they try.

So what do I see in the future? In the near term, some chaos. Publishing is a big ship and it will turn slowly. As it alters course, all the people associated with it will be forced to change as well.
  • No advances means cash flow shifts for all parties.Publishers will have to improve their sales reporting so writers and publicists can capitalize on successful efforts.
  • No returns means no royalty hold back.
  • No large print runs means promotion and advertising will focus on content and credentials, not quantities shipped. No print runs also means fewer trees consumed and fewer books ending up in land fills.

The symbiotic relationship between publisher, agent and writer will transform. Income will be totally sales driven. Agents will redefine their roles and the services they provide. Book stores, if they continue to exist, will be forced to control their inventory - just like every other business. Everyone connected to the industry will operate differently in the future than they do today. The publishing industry paradigm was fine sixty years ago but it doesn’t make good business sense in today’s economy.

Do I welcome the change? For the most part, I do. Since I have never been part of the traditional publishing establishment, I am accustomed to managing my business. I work hard to promote myself and improve my product. The decisions about contracts, publishers and marketing are all mine. So, as the industry morphs into something new, I will feel less pain than some other writers because I am already dealing with it.

Perhaps those genre writers groups don’t think I’m lower quality. Maybe they discriminate because they are jealous?