This weekend I discovered FreeRice.com, which has proven itself to be yet another wonderful way to escape the blank page. It’s a fun little word game (rather like the SATs, only without the pressure) in which you guess the correct meaning of a word, and the program will adjust to make subsequent words harder or easier, depending on how you do. It’s good news all around: Free Rice will help you improve your vocabulary (if you’re ignoring your writing, you may as well be doing something that will enhance it) and, best of all, will donate rice through the UN World Food Program for every word you get right (okay, so there’s a little pressure). But you can play as long as you like, learning new words and helping combat world hunger. I’m hooked.
When the Los Angeles Times published my short story, “Aftershock,” in its Sunday magazine, it was fact checked. In fact, I was contacted because one of the story’s lines — “She’d never felt the earth shake until she moved to California, even though she’d grown up near the largest earthquake ever recorded, the one that sent the Mississippi flowing backward, that cracked chimneys in Washington, D.C., that made church bells ring in Boston–all from its epicenter in New Madrid” — was not technically accurate. The New Madrid earthquake is, in fact, ranked sixth or seventh on the list of most powerful quakes, and despite the folklore, there is no evidence that the Mississippi River actually flowed backward or that it cracked chimneys in D.C. (I hadn’t checked — this is supposed to be one of the benefits of writing fiction.)
But I was impressed. After all, this was a piece of fiction, and yet it had been checked for accuracy as if it were nonfiction. (We revised the line to read “one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded” and allowed that we could leave the rest alone, as it reflected the character’s perception of those events.) This sort of attention to detail shows a great deal of respect for the reader; it suggests that someone out there, even knowing he or she is reading fiction, might just be sharp enough to catch this inaccuracy. And the problem was resolved in two emails.
If only the New York Times, before publishing its feature on Margaret Jones, aka Peggy Seltzer, had asked fact checkers to send out a few emails, or make a few calls. Instead, the paper ended up publishing an embarrassing follow-up story about how she fabricated her entire memoir.
And now, with more and more memoirs being outed as fiction, it seems that publishers, too, might have to start adding fact checkers to their staffs.
Offering a book free online has proven (so far) that books aren’t yet going the way of the VHS — this AP story about Suze Orman’s book Women & Money, which Oprah made available on her web site, notes that while more than 1.1 million copies of the book were downloaded free, the traditional version is still selling — and it’s selling very well.
As Norton publisher Drake McFeely indicated, an Oprah endorsement would likely make publishers agreeable to offering free content; otherwise, they’re still wary of the free stuff hurting traditional book sales. But while it’s nice to get things for free, there’s nothing like having a real book to curl up with. (This is coming from someone who actually still has a VHS — but that’s another story.) Here’s better proof: As the AP reports, Orman’s book ranked No. 6 on Amazon.com as of Saturday, and the paper edition of “The 9-11 Commission Report,” published by Norton in 2004, spent months on the bestseller list.
This Boston Globe story is an inspiration for us all … especially those who are inclined toward self-publishing. When Brunonia Barry of Salem, Massachusetts, self-published her novel, The Lace Reader, it eventually led to a two-book deal for more than $2 million.
While self-publishing still comes with a stigma, this is beginning to change. Most writers self-publish because they can’t find a literary agent and/or publisher — but others (like Barry) do it to save themselves the agony of the search, or because they prefer to keep more of the profits. And in some cases, it’s not such a bad idea. The publishing industry is all about risk — and when an editor has a chance to buy a book that has already proven itself through reviews and buzz, it’s a no-brainer.
Still, getting there is not as easy as it sounds. As Steve Fischer, executive director of the New England Independent Booksellers Association, told the Globe, “You’re responsible for everything — you have to be author, agent, accountant, postal clerk, sales rep, publicity agent, go around to your local bookstore and find out if there is any interest.”
And time is not the only big investment. Barry and her husband spent $50,000 publishing and marketing her book before she sold it — clearly something very few authors can afford.
But in publishing, of course, anything’s possible.
I’m always encouraging students to do things in threes — whether it’s the number of sources to use in a 2,000-word feature or the number of times you can repeat a playful device in a short story — and this blog articulates well the many reasons that good things happen in threes. Writers, take note — it’s excellent advice for everyone from screenwriters to copywriters to novelists.
Today’s Los Angeles Times laments the year in books, “punctuated by anxiety over the decline of many newspaper book review sections and worry that publishing, with its old-fashioned way of printing books on paper and shipping them to stores or to online services, can’t keep up with a fragmented, increasingly distracted and digital world.”
The article chronicles the closing of yet more independent bookstores and notes the apprehension in the industry over the emergence of new technologies that booksellers fear might further affect sales. Yet publishers also celebrated new books by longtime favorites, as well as the new Harry Potter.
Still, the article concludes, “Overall, as the publishing world looks back on 2007, it’s hard to reconcile the unease people feel about the business with the excitement they feel about the books themselves.” Let’s hope for better in 2008!
This New York Times story about a children’s book, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, comes as welcome news in a time when we constantly hear about how the Web will make books obsolete. The book, which was first offered free online, has sold 147,000 copies and has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 33 weeks — despite the fact that it’s still available for free online.
The article also points out a few blogs that have turned into real-book successes (such as Post Secret) but notes that most popular bloggers have not managed to find success in print, and that many readers aren’t likely to buy a book that they can read free online. But because many children have limited access to the web, children’s books can coexist online and in print. As one reader told the Times, “There’s nothing like holding the weight and smelling the paper.”
Michael Stelzner of Writing White Papers has just listed his picks for 2007’s top ten blogs for writers — a great resource for copywriters and bloggers, and particularly for freelance writers (including beginners).
Freelance Writing Jobs is designed for writers seeking new work; Freelance Parent is written by two freelance writing moms; and Write from Home is part of a site that features paying markets, writing contests, and articles geared toward beginning freelance writers.
While these blogs lean toward nonfiction, marketing, and business writing, there’s plenty of information (and other links) for creative writers, too — such as how to write a good headline (need a title for your novel?), practicing good grammar (writing query letters to agents?), and overcoming fear of failure (enough said).
I haven’t checked out the Kindle myself yet, but this Wall St. Journal review is necessary reading for anyone thinking about it.
For writers with agent questions (and for anyone else who misses Miss Snark), check out The Rejecter (tag line: “I don’t hate you. I just hate your query letter”), a blog by an assistant at a literary agency (who says that on average, “I reject 95% of the letters immediately and put the other 5% in the ‘maybe’ pile”). While no one can replace Miss Snark, this blog offers the same inside view of an agent’s life and covers issues including advances, rejections, the latest scams, and whether a writer’s looks really do matter.
Simon & Schuster announced today that it will “dramatically increase the amount of recycled fiber in the paper used to manufacture its books.” It plans to increase the level of recycled fiber in its paper from 10 percent to 25 percent or more. The company also “will endeavor to eliminate the use of paper that may contain fiber from endangered and old-growth forest areas. It has set a goal that by 2012 at least 10% percent of its purchased paper will derive from forests certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).”
Of the 70,000 tons of paper that Simon & Schuster purchases annually, 70% of that paper contains some recycled fiber content. At current production levels, the shift to 25% recycled fiber will result in the saving of approximately 483,000 trees annually and a reduction of nearly 85 million pounds in greenhouse gases — equivalent to pulling 7,600 cars off the road each year.
This is excellent news — and I hope it’s a trend that we begin to see throughout the publishing industry.
Simon & Schuster UK is expected to adopt a similar environmental policy. You can check out the complete Simon & Schuster paper policy, plus details of other environmentally friendly actions in its publishing practices, offices, and distribution facilities, at the Simon & Schuster web site.
In today’s New York Times Book Review, Stephen King writes that while the American short story may still be alive, it is most certainly not well.
As editor for the 2007 edition of The Best American Short Stories, King read hundreds of stories, finding that while some were very good, and some even great, most seemed to have been written for a shrinking audience of editors and teachers rather than for “real readers.” He writes, “And this kind of reading isn’t real reading, the kind where you just can’t wait to find out what happens next … It’s more like copping-a-feel reading. There’s something yucky about it.”
He includes a sadly funny scene describing his attempt to find literary magazines at his local bookstore, where he is on the ground looking at the very lowest shelves, hoping “the young woman looking at Modern Bride won’t think I’m trying to look up her skirt.”
It’s a sad and distrubing essay, mostly because he’s exactly right about the state of the audience for short stories. But I also found it inspiring, and on these points, I think he’s exactly right, too: “I look for stories that care about my feelings as well as my intellect … What I want to start with is something that comes at me full-bore, like a big, hot meteor screaming down from the Kansas sky. I want the ancient pleasure that probably goes back to the cave: to be blown clean out of myself for a while, as violently as a fighter pilot who pushes the eject button in his F-111. I certainly don’t want some fraidy-cat’s writing school imitation of Faulkner, or some stream-of-consciousness about what Bob Dylan once called ‘the true meaning of a pear.'”
King writes of the short story’s status, “Current condition stable, but apt to deteriorate in the years ahead.” This is where I hope he’s wrong.
I just came across a hiliarious blog about unnecessary quotation marks on signs and other printed matter. In a way, I admire it (someone else gets as irritated as I do by bad punctuation!), and on the other hand, it’s a little frightening (no one should care this much about bad punctuation, including me).
But it’s pretty funny … and it makes clear that the owners of these signs should be concerned about more than bad punctuation. Does anyone really want to eat at a restaurant whose sign reads Open Upstairs for “Lunch” and “Dinner”? And who’s going to take seriously a sign that reads The Use, Possession and Sale of Drugs in Mexico Is Prohibited by “Law”?
If in the course of your lives you see any signs that warrant ridicule on this blog, you can photograph them and make submissions of your own. (Just in case reading the blog alone isn’t enough procrastination for us writers.)
For all you Anglophile wordsmiths out there, check out this Reuters arcticle about the disappearance of hyphens from 16,000 words in the new Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.
The editor of the Shorter OED, Angus Stevenson, says that the hyphen has become “messy looking” and “old-fashioned” — but actually, looks played a rather small role; the staff omitted said hyphens only after “exhaustive research.” Most hyphens were dropped from compound nouns, though Stevenson does concede that they found many instances in which hyphens are still necessary.
Formerly hyphenated words were either split into two or combined into one (in most cases, what most American writers and editors are already used to). A few examples:
fig-leaf = fig leaf
ice-cream = ice cream
test-tube = test tube
water-bed = water bed
bumble-bee = bumblebee
cry-baby = crybaby
low-life = lowlife
Today’s San Diego Union-Tribune features a story about the perils of self-publishing, this time focusing on a local publisher, Ed Johnson, whose second company has just collapsed after taking thousands of dollars from hopeful writers.
This story offers some good insight into vanity presses, toward which many writers are increasingly turning in their efforts to get published. While Johnson told the U-T that he simply went out of business, the article quotes a former employee of Johnson’s company, who said that to Johnson, the authors were “just a source of income,” and that she was instructed to tell authors who called that he was “on the other side of the building” to make it seem as if he ran a large publishing business. In reality, the “publishing house” was a one-room office in a converted motel.
Unfortunately, the stories of these would-be authors are not unusual: In these cases, they paid from $2,500 to $5,700 and never received the books they envisioned, let alone the publicity and marketing they expected. One customer did receive one copy of a “finished book” — in a spiral binder. Most received nothing at all.
The article quotes Victoria Strauss of the excellent resource Writer Beware, which aims to educate writers about the “enormous shadow industry of scammers and amateurs who prey on aspiring writers, who divert people from the real publishing industry into this shadow world of vanity publishing and fee-charging agents.”
This article is a must-read for any writer thinking about self-publishing, but writers should also keep in mind that self-publishing doesn’t have to be the nightmare that this story portrays. Publishing one’s own book can be a good choice for those with a platform and marketing savvy, those who can afford the investment, and those who realize that self-publishing is simply a matter of printing. Writers who want editing, design, publicity, distribution, and book reviews (not to mention an advance and royalties) need to find an agent and go the traditional route.