Making Nice in Book Reviews

Once again, the “you shouldn’t say mean things about a book/character in a book because you might hurt the author’s feelings” crowd has come out in full force, this time in response to a Dear Author review of Susan Grant’s latest release, Sureblood. In this particular review, the reviewer said that the heroine “made her want to puke” and was roundly chastised by some commenters for being cruel and unprofessional. (To be fair, she also got a lot of support.)

I don’t think it’s any secret that I’ve always been on the side of reviewers sharing their honest, gut-reaction opinions about the books they read. As a reader, I want to know how a reviewer really felt about the book because it helps me decide whether or not I might like it (and in some cases, if a particular reviewer hates a book, it means I’ll probably love it because our tastes differ that much.) And as an author, I don’t want reviewers to be afraid of giving an honest review for fear of hurting my feelings. I’m a grown-up, I put my work out there for criticism by getting it published, and my craft isn’t going to wither on the vine because one reviewer (or even half a dozen) says my work sucks.

(As an aside, I’d rather have dozens of negative reviews of my book available on the Internet than only a handful of very positive ones. Reviews, whether good or bad, equal exposure, and the more exposure a book gets, the more likely it is that readers will know it exists. Few reviews, even if they are all slavishly adoring, don’t do much to help a book get “traction.” The negative reviews might not make me feel as good as the positive ones, but they’re likely to do a lot more for my book’s visibility.)

But all of that said, what I find most fascinating about this debate is that there does seem to be a core thread of belief out there about not going “too hard” on books in reviews that doesn’t seem to exist anywhere else in the entertainment world. I’ve never seen a movie/television reviewer taken to task for writing a searingly negative review. And believe me, I’ve read/heard plenty of really painfully negative reviews of films and TV shows, either on the grounds of the writing or the acting or both. So why isn’t anyone worried about the egos of the poor scriptwriter(s), actors, directors, producers, camerapeople, etc.?

I suppose there may be some fans of actors who DO defend their idols with great vigor, but as far as I know, screenwriters NEVER get the kind of “defense by the minions” that authors of books seem to, and in large part, it’s the SAME job. Yes, a screenwriter’s vision goes through many more people to finally reach its audience than a novelist’s does, but by and large, it’s still about writing, about plotting, about characterization. And as for the directors, producers, and so on…NO ONE seems to worry a bit that their feelings might be hurt by a bad review.

This baffles me. I get that, when approaching a novel, it’s easy to feel a very personal connection to the author who wrote it, and that this doesn’t necessarily translate to other entertainment media (TV, movies, plays, music). But by the same token, I can’t understand how anyone believes that screenwriters, directors, actors, musicians, etc. are any less emotionally invested in their work and therefore any less subject to “ego-crushing” than authors.

I’m interested in any thoughts you have on this. Am I wrong? ARE there people out there jumping to the defense of their favorite screenwriters/directors/musicians? Or is this really something that’s pretty much unique to books, particularly fiction?

The 7 Stages of Grief as Applied to Rejection

In honor of all authors who’ve recently experienced a series of rejections, whether from agents or editors, I offer the following somewhat tongue-in-cheek (and somewhat NOT) overview of the process of moving on.

The Seven Stages of Grief

  1. SHOCK & DENIAL

    You read the rejection letter for the third time. Then a fourth. And it really IS a rejection, not an offer disguised as one. You double-check the envelope. Maybe it was meant for Mrs. Hinklemeyer, who lives next door. Granted, it’s unlikely she also wrote a romance novel titled LOVE IN THE TIME OF DYSENTERY, but then, they do say there’s no such thing as an original idea. But no, the envelope is definitely addressed to you. But still, there must be some mistake. This just can’t be right.

  2. PAIN & GUILT

    After the shock wears off, you feel like crap. Plus, you get five paper cuts from reading and rereading that damn rejection letter. You start to second guess yourself. Maybe you shouldn’t have killed your hero off on page 5 of the manuscript (but hey, you did resurrect him on page 15!). Maybe you shouldn’t have used the word “turgid” quite so many times. And trying to write a historical paranormal comedic thriller horror mystery romance might not have been the best idea, but damn it, it seemed like the right thing to do at the time!

  3. ANGER & BARGAINING

    What do these publishing professionals know anyway? They wouldn’t know a good book if someone hit them upside the head with it. They’re all a bunch of risk-averse weenies who wouldn’t buy the Bible if God submitted it for publication. But hey, what if you sent chocolates with your submission? Or maybe if you promise you’ll give up chocolate…

  4. “DEPRESSION”, REFLECTION, LONELINESS

    Aw hell, they’re right. Your book sucks used tea bags. You’re a complete loser who couldn’t even write the phone book. You lose all hope and motivation. Writing is a waste of time, effort, and emotion. You feel like a whiny crybaby and refuse to log into any of the social networking sites or your email for fear someone will ask you how you are. Or worse, announce they’ve just sold in a ten-book deal for seven figures.

  5. THE UPWARD TURN

    Just when you think you’ll never write again, you get a glimmer of an idea. Something so good, you can’t NOT write it.

  6. RECONSTRUCTION & WORKING THROUGH

    You slowly put the pieces back together. You start writing because you have to. With some help from your friends and critique partners, you realize that there are a lot of reasons your previous manuscript was rejected, and none of them are that it was actually bad. Plus, the only way to be sure you’ll never sell a book is to quit. And that’s just not an option.

  7. ACCEPTANCE & HOPE

    You put your much-rejected manuscript in the Magical Mulch Pile* under the bed. The publishing world just isn’t ready for it yet. But wait until they get a load of your new project, a historical paranormal comedic thriller horror mystery young adult romance. Working title: LOVE IN THE TIME OF ACNE. Yeah, this time, you’ve got it nailed!


*Magical Mulch Pile is an UNregistered trademark of Erica Ridley, my friend and author extraordinaire of Too Wicked to Kiss.

Musing on Monday: How Much Are Books Worth?

In case you missed the MacMillan/Amazon ebook price crisis over the weekend, you can catch up on the details (along with a very cogent analysis) at agent Nathan Bransford’s blog. There are several posts over at Dear Author as well.

Hidden in the midst of all this controversy, however, is the question that really interests me: how much are books worth? And by “books,” I mean not the paper and ink on which they’re printed or the computer bytes on which they’re stored, but the actual dollar value of STORY they contain, however packaged. In other words, when you buy a book, are you buying it for the storage medium or for what you perceive its entertainment/informational value to be?

I’ll be honest–I’m still a primarily paper book reader. This is a function of a combination of factors, including the fact that I don’t feel ready to invest in an ereader as I think the technology is still too fluid and the prices for the devices too high for what they do. I worry about amassing a library of ebooks in formats that will become obsolete and unreadable, something I know will never happen to my paper books (well, unless my house burns down). That’s not to say I can’t be converted–and in fact, the groaning of my bookshelves argues I should hope to be converted soon–but I’m just not there yet.

That said, I have bought ebooks, though usually these are books that aren’t available in print format. I don’t dislike ebooks by any means, nor do I feel they’re intrinsically less valuable than print books. Yet I know many, many people DO think ebooks are instrinsically less valuable (in the dollar sense) than print books for a number of reasons, including the fact that there is no physical object, the digital file cannot be legally shared or resold, and (in the case of Kindle) the file can be removed remotely by the vendor. And then there’s the whole DRM thing (something I’ve honestly never encountered because I don’t believe I’ve ever purchased an ebook that had it).

Okay, so I do agree that a physical book has slightly greater intrinsic value than a digital one because, once purchased, it cannot be repossessed and it can be legally shared or resold. Obviously, it also costs more per unit to produce paper books, which argues for a higher price than digital books. But how MUCH more?

A large part of the MacMillan/Amazon kerfuffle was driven by publishers’ fears that setting prices too low for digital books would act to “cannibalize” hardcopy sales, especially of hardcovers, and also set consumer expectations that a digital book is NEVER worth more than $9.99. MacMillan would prefer to have more flexibility in establishing the core value of the CONTENT of their books than Amazon’s pricing structure would have allowed, even though (according to Nathan Bransford’s analysis), the Amazon structure actually results in the publishers receiving about $2 more per copy sold.

The thing is, I sympathize with MacMillan’s position even though I don’t know that I’ll ever be willing to pay much more than $9.99 for a digital book. Certainly, the high end that’s being discussed for digital books in the “agency” model of $14.99 is WAY more than I’d ever pay. But that isn’t because we’re talking about DIGITAL books. It’s because, as a book-buyer in ANY format, my price range for a single title novel is no more than about $10, with an absolute ceiling of about $14, and I’ll pay that only in VERY special cases. (If I want to buy a book that’s only in trade paper, I’ll wait for a coupon or a special 3 for 2 deal to come along to make the unit price more tolerable.) I never buy hardbacks, not only because I think $20+ is outrageous for a book, but because I find them heavy and unwieldy.

So, basically, I don’t see my price tolerance for books changing all that much based on whether it’s digital or print. I don’t tend to pass on my paper books to other people very often (most of the folks I know IRL don’t share my taste in reading material), so the whole “I can share/resell it” thing doesn’t factor into how much I’m willing to pay.

In the final analysis, I’m willing to pay for a book what I think the story contained within its pages or bits and bytes is worth. For me, that’s around $10. But that doesn’t mean I begrudge publishers for wanting to establish higher prices for their books. Maybe I’ll adjust to those prices or maybe I won’t. Only time will tell. But I don’t think format should be a SIGNIFICANT factor in determining the dollar value of a book’s contents.

Okay, tell me why I’m all wet :). And how much do YOU think books are worth?

Musing on Monday: Bronzing My Rejection Letters

Or I would…if they weren’t all email correspondence these days :).

It goes almost without saying that rejection is one of the most difficult things authors have to endure. (The only thing harder is writing the darned book, lol.) Even published, “successful” authors get rejections from publishers. It’s the rarefied author indeed who never has to contemplate the possibility that a manuscript won’t pick up an offer of publication somewhere, sometime.

The last round of rejections I received was pretty crushing, honestly. It’s taken me a long time to get my writerly mojo back. Not because they were awful rejections suggesting I didn’t know how to write my way out of a paper bag (although a couple came remarkably close, lol) or even that they were just form letters saying thanks but no thanks. No, it was hard because, let’s face it, as an author, I have to believe my characters and my story are wonderful and worthy or I wouldn’t bother writing them in the first place. No one likes to be told the characters and story they love aren’t up to snuff.

But you know…I’m starting to change my mind. While I don’t think I’ll ever be happy to get a rejection letter, I’ve decided I’d prefer for them to tell me forthrightly that my book/writing isn’t good enough for them to invest their hard-earned cash in than say that and then suggest I invest my hard-earned cash instead. I’d rather get an honest “You’re not there yet with this book, but keep working,” than “maybe you’ll rise to the top through self-publishing and then we’ll see the error of our ways.”

There’s been a lot of talk the last few days about agents and editors and the gatekeeper function and how that might be keeping readers from getting books they really want. That may be true in a handful of cases. I’m sure there are books out there that get rejected by publishers that would be blockbusters if they’d just gotten a contract and appropriate backing. But those books are few and far between. And more to the point, just because there are books like that our there doesn’t mean MINE is necessarily the diamond that editors just can’t see through the rough. As a reader, there are still plenty of books that are published that aren’t my cup of tea, but without that gatekeeper function to vet books for some level of quality, I think there’d be far more sub-par books published, not thousands of overlooked diamonds.

The publisher is right when it rejects a manuscript that the book isn’t “right” for the publisher. That doesn’t have to mean the writing sucks or that it’s a bad book, just that there are a lot of books being published and this book doesn’t really make the cut in terms of fighting for readers and shelf space. I’m honestly okay with that…as long as you don’t tell me to turn around and claw for the shelf space on my own dime, especially when you know the likelihood of my finding that shelf space is slim to none.

Anyway, I just want to let all the editors at all the publishing houses out there know that I will henceforth treasure every rejection letter. I will hate being rejected just as much as ever, but I appreciate your honesty in evaluating my manuscripts and deciding they’re just not there yet. Because that just means I know next time, I have to try to write a better book.

WTF Wednesday: Diversity, Where Art Thou?

Yesterday, Dear Author posted an anonymous guest post on the subject of cultural appropriation. In it, the writer lamented the dearth of non-white protagonists in romance, and the tendency for those stories which do feature unusual locations (India, the Middle East, etc.) to have white protagonists, too. A long, interesting thread of comments has ensued (last time I looked, there were 250+ comments), including one from author Jade Lee, whose Blaze historical, The Concubine, was set in ancient China and featured Chinese protagonists but which, despite positive reviews, failed to sell as well as Harlequin would have liked. Jade will continue to write for Harlequin, but going forward, her books will feature white protagonists and her historicals will be set in Regency England.

So, given everything that’s already been said in the thread at Dear Author, what could I possibly have to add? Only this: the lack of diversity in romance/publishing1 isn’t limited to the race/ethnicity of the main characters. It’s also evident in other facets of the sorts of books that get picked up for publication.

I’m going to give a concrete example here. I have a proposal out with an editor for a book that’s set in Prohibition Era Chicago. I like to say it’s Dashiell Hammett meets Lora Leigh. I think it’s a great premise for a book and the writing is solid. But I’m also a realist. There isn’t much of a market for Prohibition Era romantic suspense. In fact, there probably isn’t a market for it at all. This means that, for the publisher to pick up my book for publication is a big risk. Bigger than, say, buying a wonderfully well-written Regency era romance by another author. And believe me, there are plenty of wonderfully well-written Regencies out there for publishers to choose from. My proposal isn’t competing for publishing space with OTHER Prohibition Era romances, but with other historical romances set in periods and places that are tried and true, that publishers KNOW have an opportunity to sell well.

Now, many people, when I mention this book, say, “Oh, I’d LOVE to read that. It sounds great. It’s so different.” But, that’s the rub. No matter how great it might be, different isn’t good when it means the publisher isn’t sure the book can sell. Jade mentioned that Harlequin put a significant marketing effort behind The Concubine, but it just wasn’t enough to propel readers to step outside their comfort zone and buy it. (I’m sorry I didn’t buy it, although the reason wasn’t because of the setting or race of the characters, but because I don’t buy/read category romances. In retrospect, I wish I’d stepped outside my comfort zone for that book.)

My agent and I discussed this book and another project I’m working on yesterday and agreed that we probably won’t pursue taking it out elsewhere because the new project is simply more marketable. It has a time and place setting that publishers like (Victorian England), a paranormal element that’s hot and popular, and an interesting high concept. That’s what publishers are looking for right now, so that’s what I’m trying to write–books that will sell.

Quite honestly, that means being “different” and pushing the boundaries just isn’t on my agenda. As a writer, I want to write books people will read. That means writing books publishers will buy, publish, and promote. And in this day and age, that means books that fit within the defined categories that already exist. Sure, there’s always going to be that ONE writer who sells the “really different” book and kicks off a whole new subgenre. But the reality is, that writer probably won’t be me. It probably won’t even be you if you’re a debut or midlist author looking for a slot in this environment. Probably, the breakout, different book is going to come from a well established author who’s already hit the lists a time or two and has a bankable name for the publisher to hang its marketing hat on.

The rest of us have to be different in very small, very careful ways if we want to sell. We have to come up with a “big” premise that publishers believe they can “lead” with (publishers don’t want to buy midlist books anymore; they want incipient bestsellers).

So, bottom line, if anything, the homogenization of romance is going to become more pronounced over time rather than less so. Established authors who have made a stab at increasing diversity are being asked to write “safer” books for their new contrats. (Jade Lee isn’t the only published author I’ve heard of who’s been asked to do this. It’s perfectly understandable, too. If a publisher has an author they believe has great talent, they will want her to write a book that has the best opportunity to sell to a lot of readers. Why “waste” her abilitites on books with a “niche” market?) New authors are going to be bought because their books “fit” into the already defined categories with broad sales potential. And the midlist authors, whose books might be the most likely to be “different” because the sales expectations aren’t huge, will be slowly winnowed away.

But the thing is, it’s not the job of publishers to fix the culture or educate the populace. Their job is to publish books that entertain enough readers to produce a profit for the publishing house. If readers really WANTED these different books in large numbers, I believe we’d be getting them. The fact that publishers have taken risks on books that don’t fit the defined categories and they generally don’t do well is evidence to me that most readers want historicals featuring white Regency era England lords and ladies and paranormals featuring vampires/werewolves/demons, and so on.

If that ISN’T what you want as a reader…stop buying them. You can’t buy the books that aren’t there, but if you stop buying the ones that are (perhaps taking your dollars to epublishers or small presses that do offer the kinds of stories you want), perhaps that will induce the same scramble in the NY publishing industry that happened a few years back when they realized erotic romance was a market they could make money on. Maybe the same efforts will be made to sign authors from epublishing who write outside the box again.

In the meantime, we’re going to keep getting what we’re buying. And yes, I’m guilty, because I’m buying (and writing) those homogenized romances.


1When I say publishing in this post, please think “mainstream, print, NY publishing.” There is room for a great deal more diversity in epublishing, but let’s face it, the majority of book readers are still print readers, and saying there’s diversity in ebooks if you’ll only go find them is like saying there’s diversity in TV if only you’ll get expanded cable. Not everyone wants to go there.

Thursday Throwdown: Piracy for Dummies

Or maybe that should read “Piracy is for dummies.”

If you haven’t been around the Twitterverse or Dear Author lately, you may have missed the flare-up over an article in the New York Times yesterday, wherein a reader told a reported that she shares her Kindle account with several friends, does not always pay for the ebooks she reads, and was pretty sure what they were doing by sharing this Kindle account was exploiting a “loophole” in Kindle’s Terms of Service. Turns out, upon review, that there was nothing shady or dubious, let alone piractical, about what she and her friends were doing, but that didn’t stop some folks from castigating her and calling her a thief. It also let to a pretty lively discussion on Twitter about whether there was a difference between sharing ebooks within a household/among family members versus among friends who don’t live together.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time regurgitating my thoughts about this particular case of booksharing (which I have no issues with whatever and which others have already more than adequately explained1), but instead try to coalesce my thoughts about the issue underlying the outrage: ebook piracy.

There’s no doubt that true ebook piracy is rampant and poses a significant threat to authors. It’s simply far to easy (even with DRM) for a person to buy one copy of an ebook, then upload the file to a torrent site for thousands of passersby to download on a whim. Not only that, there are folks out there who take pride in never paying for books (or music) because they know how to suss out the free copies. They know they are stealing, and not only do they not care, they’re actually willing to brag about it.

A little harder to quantify is how many innocent folks stumble on a book or song they want on a torrent site and don’t realize it’s not legal to download it for free. Yes, yes, I know what you’re thinking. No one could be that stupid/Internet illiterate. Alas, I think they can be. And it doesn’t help, IMO, that Amazon has started offering some of its Kindle books for the whopping sum of $0.00. That may be a win for classic literature, but it does instill the notion that books can be downloaded for free and still be legal. (A lot of authors also offer free reads from their websites, and I think it’s a great strategy for attracting new readers. Buuuuut, it does have a downside, which is again to reinforce the idea that readers shouldn’t/don’t have to pay for content.)

All in all, I don’t think there is a topic out there that can touch off more moral outrage in the author community than piracy. Authors see pirates taking money out of their pockets, and they don’t like it.

I’m not about to say authors should like it, but I do think it wouldn’t hurt to get less exercised about it. Because in all honesty, I don’t think piracy by itself is near as big a threat to authors as (are you ready?) the fact that most publishers seem to have little or no interest in stopping it.

As angry as authors are about piracy, you would think publishers would be absolutely foaming at the mouth over it. You’d think they’d be threatening lawsuits against every illegal downloader the way the music industry publishers back in the days of Napster. You’d think they’d be hiring attorney to bring suit against ISPs for allowing torrent sites that regularly violate copyright. (Most of these sites are hosted in countries with questionable legal systems or enforcement of copyright laws, so going after the SITES is pretty tough.) And you’d think they’d be working way harder to get strong, consistent, coherent definitions of fair use and ownership of digital media so that people would be absolutely clear on what constitutes legal sharing and what constitutes thievery.

Instead, publishers seem to me to be doing little more than sticking their fingers in the dyke by putting DRM on their ebook files and/or otherwise dragging their feet to join the digital age. And frankly, DRMing or holding up ebook production is a little like sticking your fingers in your ears and going “neener, neener, neener” at piraters, because all it takes for someone to pirate your print is a scanner and a few too many hours of spare time. Bottom line: If someone wants to pirate your book, they will, because a) they can and b) there are no real consequences for doing so.

Why aren’t publishers as worked up about this as authors are? I have no idea. Maybe they are and I’m just not seeing the evidence of it. But will say this–authors can’t do much about stopping/reducing piracy without the help of the deep pockets in the game.

So, the next time you, the author, find your book on a torrent site for download, in addition to railing about the injustice of it all and emailing the site to get them to take it down, send the information to your editor or the sales department at your publishing house, along with the number of downloads. Maybe if publishers saw each and every instance of piracy in literally hundreds of emails from their authors, they’d take the threat a little more seriously.


1For great discussions of the situation, see:

WTF Wednesday: The Only Honest Reviews Cost the Reviewer Money

Yes, yes, I know it’s only Monday. But sometimes, WTF Wednesday comes early. Think of it as like Christmas in July :).

This week’s early WTF Wednesday is brought to you by the FTC (Federal Trade Commission). By now, you’ve probably heard about this strange new set of guidelines, which basically requires bloggers who review books they have received for free (or, apparently, even books they paid for but to which they provide an Amazon link for purchase) to disclose their “financial” relationship with the publisher/author/seller of said book. Well, at least if they say nice things about the book.

I won’t go into a lengthy explanation of the rule here, because others have already done so. Instead, I simply point you to the post that made me drop my jaw in disbelief–an overview of a discussion with Richard Cleland of the FTC, explaining why bloggers who don’t actually get paid to review books should be subject to a different standard than those who are paid to do reviews by newspapers, magazines, etc. I’ll wait for you to get back if you haven’t already read it, because it is seriously WTF-inducing.

Back? Picked your jaw up off the floor yet?

Okay, so here was the first thing that got my undies in a twist (I’m not sure what gets yours; there’s plenty of grist for the mill): Cleland believes that when a blogger receives a free copy of a book to read, there is an “expectation” on the part of the party providing the book that the review will be positive in nature. Apparently, then, the free book is “payment” for a service being rendered by the blogger–to wit, an endorsement of the product.

Except I don’t know ANY authors who believe this. Every author I’ve ever known who has sent out review copies of her book to bloggers has worried whether the resulting review would be positive or negative (or whether there would be a review at all). And in fact, in many cases, there IS no review. Sites like Dear Author and Smart Bitches can’t possibly read and review all the books they receive–the people doing the reviews can’t read that fast or live that long. And I’ve sent out plenty of copies of Behind the Red Door to reviewers who NEVER reviewed them, one way or the other. Guess what? I don’t expect them back. They aren’t payment for a service–they’re a gift, plain and simple. There’s nothing I can do TO get them back, even if I wanted to, so the notion that the book is a payment strikes me as ludicrous. It’s only payment if you don’t get it until you do the work…but that’s pretty hard to manage in the case of book reviews.

But what troubles me even more about this rule isn’t that the FTC is asking book bloggers to disclose their “sponsorship” by authors/publishers who send them free books for review. It’s that they’re exempting the folks who really DO get sponsorship (and lots of it) from publishers and authors from the rule. You see, apparently, readers of magazines like Romantic Times or other “traditional” book review media (including the booksellers themselves) are somehow aware that those publications’ endorsements of the products reviewed in them are, by definition, NOT THE REVIEWER’S HONEST OPINION.

Um, wow. Thanks for saying what I knew all along–we can’t trust the reviews of paid media because, hey, they’re being paid for it! (And yes, I believe that WHICH books are reviewed/recommended in traditional media is strongly influenced by money. I don’t mean that publishers are paying for good reviews/recommendations per se, but I do believe that publishers DRIVE which books get attention with their advertising dollars, and that translates into greater attention to those books by reviewers.)

Okay, so now the book bloggers who don’t actually make a living at reviewing books are being asked to disclose the fact that they received a book for free (with a WHOPPING value of, what, $8 for an mmpb, $15 for a trade, and $25 for a hardcover) because I MIGHT believe their review is an honest expression of their opinion of the book. Well, heaven forfend!

To me, the irony is that I think when people read a review in the New York Times or on Publisher’s Weekly, I’m betting that for the most part, they actually think they’re reading the revewier’s honest opinion, even though the reviewer is getting paid to do the review. If we DIDN’T believe that when reading a review, regardless of the medium, why would we bother at all?

And of course, this doesn’t even get into the whole free speech thing. If I love a book and want to recommend it to my friends, how I came by it is irrelevant. I should be able to say what I want about it.

Frankly, I’m stunned by this. Even more so that this is the FTC under my president. What gives?

WTF Wednesday: Ten Things I Hate About You

My maudlin little post yesterday about knowing when to throw in the towel (I still don’t know when that is, lol) garnered this response from an author who’d like to remain anonymous (for reasons I’m sure you’ll understand when you read it).


Being a writer is a little like being a crack addict—or like being in love with an abusive spouse that you just can’t find the balls to walk away from. Over the last few months I’ve received more than a few rejections. Matter of fact, I haven’t sold for quite some time, and not for a lack of trying. I realize that the market is tighter than ever and selling is harder than ever; I am far from naive about the publishing business—and maybe that’s the real problem. But after a spate of recent rejections I found myself wondering if, to be blunt, I was just writing too smart, putting too much thought and care into the proposals I was crafting.

“Too smart” is probably not the right phrase. Maybe the word I’m looking for is complex, as in “too complex” or simpler as in “simpler, more basic storylines” or even trope as in “writing more to trope and trying less to be unique and truly creative”. Because you see, even when I did “the same but different”, as in the same as what everyone else is writing but different, apparently my different was too different.

And when one sees people selling and selling… and selling and publishing and one knows they can write rings around those who not only continue to sell, but end up with six, seven, even eight books out in a year, it does make one wonder. Especially when you receive rejections from an editor who just doesn’t like your voice or your writing and you’ve read some of the books this editor has published and to be frank, they suck. They’re mediocre—at best—and either this writer can’t write or this editor can’t edit. If the authors of those books had been your critique partners, you would have kicked the manuscript back to them and told them to start again because holy fucking hell, that was some nasty vile shit. Not that I would ever say that to any of my critique partners because they’re all damned fine writers.

And when your critique partner tells you that you write better than a well-known NYT bestselling author, it makes you stop and ask, “What am I doing wrong then that I can’t sell another book?”

To be frank, it’s demoralizing.

Time and time again, I find myself wondering why I don’t quit and sadly, the only answer I can come up with is this one: sticking with it might be demoralizing but quitting would be humiliating.

I hate myself for not having the guts to quit, for not having the balls to yank down my pants and show you the moons of my ass while lifting both my middle fingers and then walk away—forever;

I hate myself for loving what I do so much that I’m willing to take beating after beating after beating.

I hate myself for the bitter taste of pride in my mouth.

I hate this business that can get away with paying authors advances that are no higher than when writers like Nora Roberts started out 25 plus years ago. Yeah, there are houses out there paying 2000.00/book advances, 3000.00/book advances, 4000.00/book advances and writers saying yes. We should all be ashamed for saying yes. We should all be ashamed for bending over and saying, “stick it to me and don’t bother with the lube!”

I hate this business because the amount of money you’re paid per book directly ties into the amount of promotional love you get from your publisher. If you took that $2000.00 a book deal, you’re fucked. All the promo is on you and that measly-ass two grand they paid you…there is nothing and I mean not a fucking thing you can do with that two grand that will get you noticed. Instead, what you should do with that two grand is take your kids to Disney World. For real. The Magic Kingdom makes everything better.

I hate this business because there are only two major book chains left in the U. S. and publishers have to pay booksellers for premium space in their stores.

I hate this business because one of the most powerful people in publishing is the head buyer for a major book chain.

I hate this business because retailers…OMFG RETAILERS have the power to change a cover or a title. People I am not making this shit up! And it is not right! Not right at all!

I hate this business because, more often than not, it’s not about what’s good or even what’s great, it’s about what’s marketable and what we can sell the most of. RIP CHICK LIT.

I hate this business because publishers pay booksellers to promote books that sell instead of letting booksellers promote books they love or books that they feel need or deserve a little pimpage. Am I the only one who sees the irony in that? Sure it’s a bookseller’s job and a publisher’s job to make a profit but books that sell are going to sell regardless. What about the books that don’t sell? What about the books that get no attention? I mean, what’s the point of pimping Danielle Steele when she’s got a built-in following? Yes I’m thinking of a recent book-pimpage video I watched)

And honestly, when’s the last time you bought Danielle Steele? Right. You’re not her target audience; your grandmother is.

I hate this business because for many writers, it’s about quantity not quality.

I hate this business because even after you make the New York Times, publishers still aren’t satisfied. They want more and more and more. Congratulations, your last book sold a million copies and you made the NYT. Next time you need to sell 1.25 million and you need to hit higher on the list—and oh yeah, stay on the list longer.

You want to know who the true vampires are? The motherfuckers who look at profit and loss and bottom lines and then turn around and fire damned fine editors because…they can get two, or maybe even three, for the price of one. The assholes who have turned publishing into…Hollywood. You know…that place where imagination used to reign supreme and classics like ET and Star Wars were made. That place where they’re now so desperate for movie ideas, they’re pillaging all the really bad horror movies of the 70’s and 80’s.

A final word of caution: To all you aspiring writers out there who are just dying to break into New York publishing, who think you’d sell your soul for a book deal, or even an agent, who scoff at people who try to tell you it’s no better on the other side of the fence. I know you think you’re smarter and more clever and more educated about publishing that many of those who went before you, and that when you sell, it will be different, better somehow, but the cold hard mother fucking truth is, it won’t. You’ll be as fucked as the rest of us. No wonder Hemingway was an alcoholic.

‘Scuse me while I go shoot up.

WTF Wednesday: What Is It With Dark?

My dear friend and CP, Amie Stuart, received a rejection today from a major publishing house on a “dark” paranormal. The editor’s reason for rejecting it? The tone felt “too light” for her tastes. Now, I can’t tell you anything about the proposal (which I’ve read large chunks of) because I can’t give away Amie’s story idea, but here’s the funny thing: a different editor rejected the same manuscript not too long ago because it was “too dark.”

WTF?

Of course, this just points out what we already know–that reading is subjective, and editors are just as incapable of having completely objective reactions to books as anyone else. One editor’s too dark is another editor’s too light. And as an author, you really just have to write the book YOUR WAY and not try to second-guess. That’s really hard to do, though, especially when you get so much conflicting feedback.

But the real topic of my post today isn’t rejections or subjectivity so much as it is–what gives with DARK these days? Everywhere I turn, it seems editors want “dark” (usually “dark and sexy” but notice the dark comes first.) And they don’t just want it in paranormal, but also in historical, romantic suspense, etc. Now, I do see books coming out now that are lighter (Tessa Dare’s wonderful trilogy from Ballantine comes to mind, as well as Victoria Dahl’s fun contemporary series with HQN), but it does seem to me that editors right now are looking for stories that I, at least, suspect I would find depressing and unreadable.

To me, dark is fine, but it needs to be balanced wit and humor. When it comes to books with dark, tormented characters and plots, I don’t mind a bit of weight, but I still want it to be fun to read. (IMO, Amie’s book is exactly the right mix of dark/tormented and wry/twisted humor.) And if there’s no wit or humor in it–if there isn’t SOME lightness–then it’s not fun. After all, even Hamlet and King Lear, among the darkest stories ever written, have moments of comic relief.

Mind you, I’m not actually saying that none of the “dark” books editors are buying have moments of wit and humor. What I wonder is why there’s such a passion for dark at all? We’re living in difficult times, surrounded by real crises and real danger. I thought one of the reasons romance was bucking the downward trend in book sales is that romance offers a guaranteed “feel-good” read.

Yet it seems to me that most of the dark romances I’ve read lately DON’T make me feel good at the end. There may be an HEA, but all too often, I’m left wishing the heroine (or hero in some cases) would run as far and fast as possible from the character who is supposed to be his/her perfect mate. And even if I like the characters and want them to live HEA, the story leading up to that ending can be too difficult/painful for me to feel like I had a good time reading the book.

Now, of course, I’m only one reader (and one writer). Perhaps there’s something about very dark stories that end happily that a large proportion of romance readers finds particularly satisfying. I simply find it perplexing, in the current climate, that lighter romantic comedies aren’t more sought after/fashionable. I know I want to escape the darkness of our times, not immerse myself deeper in it, and I’m looking for romances that give me pleasure all the way through. (That doesn’t mean there’s not conflict or danger or heart-wrenching moments, but I want to ENJOY those moments. Does that even make sense, lol?)

So please, New York, give me more of the fun and less of the torture. Pretty please?

Musing on Monday: Placement Does Matter

Last week, I asked you all what most influenced your book buying decisions. The results (you can see them yourself by clicking “View Results” on the poll in the right margin) were quite interesting to me, mainly because they confirmed my long-held believe that there’s not much an author can do to materially affect her book’s sales. I was especially interested to see that very few people cited advertisements or online blog appearances as having a significant impact on their buying choices.

What I did notice, however, is that the majority of the respondents said the book’s cover, title, and blurb, along with a scan of its contents was a factor in their choices. That makes sense to me. I know those are a factor in my decisions as well, along with the second-biggest vote-getter, word of mouth recommentations from friends and family. But while most everyone knows that picking up and reading/handling the book is an important part of their book-buying choices, few of you acknowledged that the book’s placement in the store or availability in stores like Target/Walmart had an affect on what you choose to buy.

Now, I suppose if you do a lot of research on books before you even walk into the bookstore and have a very strong idea of what you’re looking for when you get there (and I generally do), store placement/distribution probably doesn’t have much effect on what you purchase. You’ll go searching in the stack for that book you’re interested in whether you can find it easily or not.

But what about those impulse buys? I have to admit, store placement makes a huge difference to me, because I certainly haven’t got the time to go through ALL the books that are shelved, spine-out only, in the romance section to see if the cover and title then the blurb and contents grab me. So it’s just a fact that the books that are shelved face out, whether in the front of the store or on end caps and tables, are going to draw more attention from me unless I’m looking for something specific. And while the cover and title may entice me to pick up the book, the blurb may intrigue me, and the contents may actually induce me to buy, unless I SEE that cover and title, I’m never going to pick the book up in the first place unless I’m actively looking for it.

This is even more true if you do most of your book-buying (as I suspect the majority of Americans do) not at book stores that shelve a wide variety of titles, but at big box chains like WalMart, Target, and Costco. Everything at those retailers is stocked face out, but it’s only a limited subset of everything that’s available at any given time. Those stores have, quite honestly, a huge impact on the reading tastes of Americans. A book that doesn’t get stocked in WalMart, for example, will generally wind up with an initial print run of less than half a book that they do pick up.

All of this makes it tough for authors whose books don’t get picked up by those big chain stores AND whose publishers don’t choose to purchase that face-out space in brick-and-more stores. Your initial print run is pretty much guaranteed to be under 30,000 books. And many potential book buyers who might really like your book will never even see it, because it will be buried in the shelves at Borders or B. Dalton, spine out, between hundreds of other spine-out books. It’ll be there for people who are actually looking for it, and that’s a good thing. No one can buy a book that isn’t stocked. But it’s an uphill battle to get exposure for a book unless the publisher buys it, because there just isn’t a whole lot the author can buy that works half as well.