When I asked Cliff Burns, author of So Dark the Night, if he’d like to guest host my blog, he responded that he’d rather have a discussion. I was thrilled. I enjoy talking about writing, but even more than that, I love learning how other writers approach the craft. This is the second part of our discussion.
BERTRAM: How do you see the “indie world.” Is there hope for independent authors? By that I mean, is there a chance for independent authors ever to make a living at writing?
BURNS: The technologies are still evolving. Obviously, the two major concerns for indie writers is a) preserving and protecting copyright so someone doesn’t rip off your ideas without credit and/or compensation and b) getting paid for your efforts.
BURNS: Right now, I have two full-length novels on my site and a good number of short stories — all available for free download and reading. There’s a “Donation” button for those who wish to voluntarily leave a small stipend but admittedly few people have taken me up on the offer. But money has never really been the object to me — it’s more presenting my work without editorial interference. Soon I’ll be moving into the world of podcasting and POD printing and hopefully that will spread the word . . . and earn a bit more money. We’ll see.
BERTRAM: Is the book publishing business as we know it coming to an end? How will that effect the “indie world”?
BURNS: The era of corporate book publishing is coming to an end. Media giants swallowed up various publishers in the 1990’s, hoping to milk them for as much profit as they could. Unfortunately, business models don’t work that well with publishing; book-lovers are notoriously eccentric and eclectic in their tastes and it’s hard to predict or graph or pie chart a bestseller. J.K. Rowling came out of nowhere. Profits are not nearly as high, stable or predictable enough in publishing, which is why I think many of the Big Boys will be dumping their publishing arms in the next 3-5 years. And, as I’ve written, this is the best thing that could happen for readers and writers. Smaller, more intimate and committed publishers will supplant the media giants and better books will be released as a result. Lower advances but maybe larger royalties (though writers will have to stay on their toes and make sure the people keeping the books are honest with actual sales figures) . . .
BERTRAM: Did you happen to see the New York Magazine article about the book business not living happily ever after?
BURNS: The New York Magazine article was brilliant, I printed it to have around. Confirms my view that the corporates are on the verge of dumping publishing from their portfolio . . . and also my opinion that most editors and agents are idiots. Some of the money they throw around for the worst sort of crap infuriates me. And meanwhile, their midlist authors (the most interesting of the lot) get no promo, no notice . . . and so they’re dumped from the roster for under-achieving (a classic case of a self-fulfilling prophecy).
BERTRAM: I wonder if the insistence the major publishers have in slotting all novels into niches was one of the things that’s leading to their downfall. It used to be that most books did not fall into the genre category except for, obviously, the different genres. There used to be the genres, which were just a step up from pulp fiction, and at the other end of the spectrum was literary fiction. I liked the books that fell in between — books with readable styles that could not easily be categorized. What I like to read or write cannot be considered literature, but I do prefer fiction that isn’t quite as trivial as that which is on the market today.
BURNS: I’m with you, I like fiction that crosses all sorts of boundaries and defies easy categorization. But, unfortunately, (back to the corporate model), editors and agents like fiction that can be easily slotted. Someone who writes “in the tradition of . . .”. In other words, derivative stuff. Yet another Dan Brown or Stephen King knock-off. Is it the chicken or the egg? Do we blame readers for being undemanding, reading the same old crap over and over again or do we point the finger at editors and agents for not challenging readers? Or both? The corporate model of publishing does trivialize and does not encourage innovation of any kind.
BERTRAM: I guess what I’m really wondering is if people are still reading. I wonder if there are far more writers than readers, thanks to the self-publishing industry. Two of my novels are being released by Second Wind Publishing, a new independent doesn’t yet distribute to bookstores, but I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. With independent bookstores disappearing all over the world, it only matters what is available on-line. People keep pointing out to me that less than fifteen percent of books are sold on-line, but if the vast majority of books that are sold off-line are the grocery-store books by best-selling authors, does it matter?
BURNS: My colleague Alexandra Kitty (she runs an alt.news site) insists that people are reading as much, if not more than ever, they’re just doing so on-line (and free!), rather than shelling out money for books. The free culture of the internet creates a mindset of “why should I pay for something when I can get it for nothing on-line?”. And that pertains to newspapers, music piracy and, increasingly, publishing. I used to be on the local library board and I recall figures that indicated people were checking out more books, our numbers went up year by year. Could the expense of buying books have something to do with that? Hardcovers are getting close to that fifty buck threshold and even paperbacks are pricey items (especially up here in Canada).
BERTRAM: It seems to me that this is one of the best times to try to peddle a book because of all the online resources, such as blogging and discussion forums. It also seems as if this is one of the worst times because of the hundreds of thousands of writers looking for readers. I’m hoping that someone like me who is willing to do the work to promote can reap the rewards.
CLIFF: Yes, everyone can claim to be a writer these days and the new technologies allow people to publish their crap, regardless of the quality of their work. How do we separate the wheat from the chaff? I chose to publish on-line, I chose the “indie” life because I detest the notion of anyone having control or input re: my writing. Some folks who don’t like me would say I’m doing it my way because I’m not good enough for traditional publishing. I say the quality of the work wins out in the end and I’m willing to let readers decide if my work is worth reading. But the surfeit of bad writing on-line drags down the professional status and quality of craftsmanship of those of us who struggle mightily to compose good work. I implore potential readers to use their critical thinking skills and don’t lump us all together.