Category Archives: Writing

The What vs. The Who

When I founded Publerati ten years ago, one of my core guiding principles was to help The What regain lost power versus The Who. (I’m not talking about the British rock band.)

What do I mean by this? In our loud age of celebrity culture, reality television, and cable news, quietly excellent novels by unknown people have little hope of being published. Agents are looking for people with a large following. So are publishers. Let’s face it, this makes their lives much easier. Starting anything from scratch is a much more daunting (some would say naive) undertaking.

How does one evaluate art on its merits alone? Is this even possible given how subjective tastes are? I’m not here to debate the age-old question of what is art, but rather to make the case for rebalancing our business models and appetites for risk more toward The What and less toward The Who. This trend toward The Who accelerated back in the 1980s in book publishing, with the mergers of book publishers into larger entertainment conglomerates, with the odd, possibly unintended, outcome of deeper pockets but less risk-taking on new Whats.

There have been as many artistic and commercial failures coming from The Who’s as there have been successes from The What’s. Eventually some What’s become the new Who’s. My favorite examples are the courageous signings of first novelists who unexpectedly break out with commercial success, only to then be grossly overpaid for their second novel, which is both an artistic and commercial dud. The initial instinct to evaluate the first novel on its merits was sound, but then degenerated into infatuation with The Who in signing the next two novels sight unseen. It’s a bit like a gambler in Vegas. You were up before you were down. You had a sound strategy but lost it in the hoopla of the bright lights. And the “free” drinks.

So how does one evaluate The What free of The Who?  An easy place to start is to simply try. This means not always starting every evaluation process with the author’s track record, the size of the author’s social media presence, and the potential “reach” or sales. Instead, clear out all the judgments and read the first few pages free of prejudice, “like a virgin,” as Madonna might say. Only consider new projects first thing in the morning, before the travails of the day color our perceptions and attitudes. Do our best to be open to new people, ideas, and expression. Make some decisions based on gut instinct and not solely on financial projections. Work for a company that believes in this strategy and provides some protection from negative consequences brought about by individual courage. Otherwise you end up working in a culture of frightened sheep that produces . . . well, sheepishness.

And don’t completely relegate the gatekeeper task to unpaid interns or junior staff with good intentions but no power. Discovery of new talent should be a core responsibility of any worthwhile book publisher.

Here’s to rebalancing The What versus The Who. It’s difficult work but among the most rewarding.

Caleb Mason, Publerati

The Future of Small-Batch Publishing

(This post first appeared on the BookBusiness Website.)

One of the great backlashes in our era of conglomerates is the steady growth of small-batch businesses. These are very small businesses that cater mostly to customers willing to spend more for a seemingly better and more controlled product offering.

There are many happy consumers who will buy a four-pack of local brew for $16, which when you think about it, is only $4 for a very good can of beer.  Compare that to the bar. I live in Maine where we have many small-batch breweries, and one of the things I love about these business owners is their commitment to buy local even though it means paying more.

For instance, Maine’s potato farmers now grow malt barley for local beer production, which is used by many of the state’s breweries even though the cost is far higher than buying “from away.” The farmers also make more on this new crop versus potatoes. The positive impact on rural areas struggling to compete is significant.

Lately I’ve been pondering the future for small-batch publishing, which is what I am doing with my company Publerati.  Identifying as a small-batch producer immediately shifts a lot of the norms for how products are acquired and produced. I have extensive background in the “pile them high and watch them fly” mass-market retail product areas. This method makes a lot of sense for high-volume mass- market products, including bestseller books.

Offset printing huge volumes of a title that will sell in huge numbers, and accepting that 20-30% of them will be piled high but never actually fly, is a reasonable business proposition for all concerned along the supply chain, from author to publisher to printer to bookstore to remainder company.

The problem arises for those books that do not warrant a large offset first printing, so are not actually represented by agents and published by the conglomerates. If you agree, as I do, that many of them should continue to make their way to readers through a traditional publishing gatekeeper process, it seems logical to conclude that the methods and rules need to change.

For me, so much of this small-batch publishing revolution hinges on two key developments: the increased use and access to inkjet printing of small quantities to ship; and the ability to get a fresh book printed at an in-store book machine, similar to what Espresso Books offers.

Fresh Beer… Fresh Books

Putting my small-batch consumer hat on for a moment, I like the idea of buying a book that was printed and bound in minutes while I was enjoying a coffee in the store. No one else has thumbed through it. I know it is new. Fresh. I also like the idea that this means there will be less waste going into landfills, or at least I think a reasonable consumer would assume so. This also allows the store to decide how many copies of a particular title to print to meet their local demand. They can print and display some on their own dime, so to speak.

Most consumers (other than writers) don’t think about this next point, but I also like knowing books are being kept in print that otherwise would not.  Many major publishers continue to be reluctant to offer their out-of-print backlist books through networks like the Espresso Book Machine, most likely feeling they will make them available on their own “down the road.” It’s the typical gorilla mentality, and one that does not benefit consumers in the here and now.

I like knowing the publisher of a particular title, like the maker of that local cheese, produces fewer products and devotes more time and attention to each one.  It’s the individual attention and care given to the creators of the products—the authors—where so much potential exists for small-batch publishers.

I was never comfortable working for a publisher knowing we did not actually produce the products (the content) that paid our bills. Across the spectrum of all products produced and sold, this is not normal. The risk is that more and more authors are shut out from the conglomerates and so look for someone more eager to show some love. This has been happening for years now with publishers like Coffee House Press and the many university presses that have published books thought to be “too learned or narrow” for the lay reader. They have done a great job filling a void.

Ironically, as we consolidate more and more into the “large-few,” it’s the “small-many” who continue to proliferate faster than we can keep up with. Both can live happily together, serving different customers with differing expectations. The large-few have many advantages of scale in distribution and labor. But so do the small-many, as long as they stay true to who they are. Acquisitions of smaller companies by larger ones can be a disaster, as I’m sure many readers here have experienced.

The processes of the huge factory are not the right ones for the small shop, and vice versa. I continue to be hopeful that the efficiencies of scale we are already witnessing in printing and distribution will allow all publishers to operate more efficiently in serving their customers: authors and readers.

So grab yourself a fresh brew and curl up with that just-printed book bought at your local store.   — Caleb Mason.

Ten Helpful Tips for Novelists

Let’s face it, writing fiction is a daunting undertaking. It’s heartening that so many people want to write novels, and we want to help you before you get too far along, by identifying some of the most common areas for improvement we see in submissions as well as in published works.

First, a lesson from the Japanese. This may be the most important word to keep in mind when working on your novel and living your life:

Kaizen (??), is the Japanese word for “continuous improvement.” In business, kaizen refers to activities that continuously improve all functions and involve all employees from the CEO to assembly-line workers.

So when you find yourself tearing your hair out working on a first draft, or tearing your remaining hair out when revising, keep this important concept in mind. Everything, including your novel, can be improved. You don’t have to go through the entire process of writing your novel without outside help, however; you could look at enlisting the expertise of writing mentors from Jericho for help in areas that it’s needed.

Here are Ten Areas for Improvement:

  • Strive to be Original. The vast majority of submissions we receive are poor imitations of work already done very well by popular writers. Much of this imitation is subconscious, so pay careful attention to your premise when first setting out. Has it been done before? If so, then why bother?
  • Find Your Own Voice. Related to the above, try and write in a tone and attitude that is uniquely you. Much of the writing we read has no distinctive voice at all, but is just words strung together on the page lacking flavor. Like a bad soft-serve ice cream cone. Insipid. It might take you much of your life to find your voice. It will take plenty of practice runs with much work tossed in the trash before you finally start getting the hang of it. Listen to this voice as you walk around town. Finding it is a bit like hitting a baseball: you cannot try too hard or you’ll miss. It’s a delicate mix of passive and active living and effort, paying close attention to your subconscious mind.
  • Be Fearless. You must be confident enough in the mysteries of the creative process to not judge yourself as you write. Just start writing and go with the flow. Even though you cannot see over the next hill, you need to at least get to that hill, which means moving forward. Kurt Vonnegut described it as driving in the fog. What are you afraid of, anyway? If you don’t make the drive, someone else will. So go for it. Life is short. We’re all going to be dead soon enough. Let yourself go and become the characters on the page. It’s fun and rewarding, despite all the difficult work.
  • Read Great Works. The books you read while writing will influence you. So try and read great literature or non-fiction you admire, and study all the problems of fiction: what point of view (or points) is the story told in? How does the author handle time? What do the characters smell, hear, think, taste? How you tell your story is as important as the story itself. Maybe you have noticed this at the movies. The filmmaker and camera have a unique way of telling the story. Maybe we go into the future, then back into the past. Maybe a different character tells the story in each chapter, so the story itself becomes murky, conflicted, fascinating. How is Thomas Hardy telling his story as you read along? Virginia Wolfe? Jane Smiley?
  • Write an Original Metaphor on Page One. You’d be amazed how many submissions do not have a single striking metaphor anywhere within them. Yes, there are hackneyed ones, the ones stuck in your brain because they’ve been drilled in so many times over your lifetime you don’t even think about them as you put words on the page. Metaphors allow us to better see inside our characters. A favorite example we cite is the recovering alcoholic, just out of rehab, who drives to the ocean. “The sea looked like a giant Tom Collins.” This is great because it helps us understand how difficult it is for the character to just gaze at the ocean without thinking about the allure of a cocktail. Hit us over the head with an original metaphor on your first page.
  • Create Your Own Analogies for the Writing Process. This is how you think about and approach your writing. For instance, some writers consider their initial draft to be more of a sketch than a watercolor. But one needs a great sketch to create an even greater watercolor, with all the details filled in as you circle back over and over again, adding texture, detail, and depth. Another analogy is . . .

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