where the writers are
The State of It
Karl Alexander

By Karl Alexander

In the early 1900s, when H.G. Wells was worried about book sales, he hired men to wear sandwich boards displaying his latest title to stand in front of London’s bookstores.  Though it may have cost him a few pounds, it didn’t change the way he worked or the process of writing and publishing.

In the late 1990s, as I recall, a writer still thought about characters, story, his prose, and his voice—those elements that make a novel or a nonfiction book worth reading. Once satisfied with his work, the writer looked for an agent, and if an agent liked the book, the agent submitted it.  If the agent found a pub­lisher, then the writer worked with an editor until the book was deemed ready for publi­cation.  Usually, the publisher handled publicity, mar­keting and distri­bution, and the writer looked forward to reviews, sometimes interviews and book signings, and most of all, his book in the stores.  If he were lucky, his book would become a best-seller which would make writing a second book a joyous, adrenaline-fueled process.  If he were even luckier, he might sell the film rights, and then he could buy a house, a new pickup, and go fishing.

In the early 21st Century, an author’s life has become more compli­cated and techno-driven.  Most authors still want to write books worth reading, yet that is no longer their primary “literary” concern—if they want to avoid being penniless and invisible. 

Now, with the Internet, our weapon of choice is a handheld device with so much shit on it that a savvy user could probably topple a shaky government with it.  (Wikileaks, any­one?)  Now, the arenas of choice are the social net­works, and they have made communica­tion and conversation a chore, an electronic addic­tion.  They have changed human behavior.  Including the process of writing and publishing.          

Yes, people still go to work, go to school, date, get married and divorced, and do all the stuff they used to, but the social networks have ritualized common behavior much like cigarettes used to.  After, say, a meal or sex, instead of lighting up, we take a picture, text someone, or run an app.  Our normal activities get bookended with subtexts that are false, that resemble another 21st Century phenom, reality TV.  Simple tasks have become artifi­cially complex and inflated, most people believing—ironically so—that tech­nology has made their lives easier.

A decade ago, Napster was born and irrevocably changed the music indus­try.  Instead of going to, say, Tower Records, consumers downloaded their mu­sic, and if they were computer-clever, they paid nothing for it, hurting the record companies and the musicians.  Yes, CDs are still in the stores, but they are irrelevant.  They are dinosaurs that roam garage sales and landfills.

A decade later, history repeated itself.  Now, the publishing industry is going through that same painful transformation, and we all wonder if bookstores and print books will be around in another ten years, especially after Borders folded.  Every­one I talk to says they’d rather read a “real book” than an electronic one, yet earlier this year—“Hark the Herald, Amazon sings”—the electronic behemoth an­nounced that it was selling more ebooks than print books.

Where does this leave us writers?   Last year, the Authors Guild Bulletin explained the various royalty models for ebooks and concluded that writers make less royalties from ebooks than they do from print books.  Last spring, the Bulletin published a symposium on the latest electronic knick­knack to befuddle writers.  Apps.  An agent commented, “I used to tell all my cli­ents, ‘Get a website.’  They all got a website.  ‘Get a blog.’  They all got a blog.  ‘Get a Facebook page,’  They all got Facebook.  ‘Get Twitter.’  They all got Twitter.  Now it’s ‘Get an app.’” 

An app?  That used to be the map on the inside cover of a book that took a reader to different locations if the characters hopped around the globe.  Now it’s a potpourri of stills, video, music, f/x, and other stuff that tells someone who stumbled across it in the Apple app store to buy your book.  Pretty cool except an app might cost a writer up to $5000.00 which means that he has to sell approximately 1,460 copies of his ebook (listed at 4.99) merely to cover the cost of the app.  Just as a publisher does not advertise its ebook titles, I doubt that publishers will pay for the cost of an app, either. 

So, these days, in addition to thinking about characters, story, prose and voice, a writer has to be concerned about gyrations in the electronic world that he may not know or care much about.  He must spend hours at a keyboard—not writing, but trying to promote himself and his ebook titles.  To survive, he must be “cyber visible.” 

These days, if you’re a beginning writer, you might reconsider grad school and an MFA in writing.  You might be better off spending that money on an MBA with a concentration in marketing and publicity.  Or, if you have a print book in the stores, hire a sign-spinner to work in front of Barnes and Noble. 

You laugh, but therein lies the million-dollar question: what exactly is the electronic version of a man wearing a sandwich board?  Or a sign-spinner?

Answers, anyone?

Karl Alexander is the author of several books, including the best-selling Time After Time, which was made into a film starring Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen. He has also optioned ten screenplays. His newest novel, 2011's Time-Crossed Lovers, is available now for download.

6 Comment count
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Books as commodities

Technology companies must love writers and, I feel sure, are busy devising myriad ways to fuel aspirations - even funding writing seminars and the like - to keep scribes on a hook.

But publishing greed and the cult of celebrity against demonstrable talent have been the genuine author's main stumblingblock. Few publishers exist who are interested in nurturing promise and who employ sufficiently literate editors. They want the product neatly packaged from the start, with minimum investment. Ever since J K Rowling confounded their 'expertise' by a monumental fluke, they've been striving to locate the magic formula for success. 

We can learn a lot through social networking, which might eventually reward on a chance basis, but I've yet to be convinced that it seriously affects sales.

In industry, one or two per cent of the advertising budget is usually the cited figure for generating business and may roughly equate with numbers of website hits. That model doesn't work for authors. Books are now seen as commodities, but will never be just that.

What I am convinced about is that hard work pays off and the cream will rise. Optimism and belief in oneself is everything. There is some intangible factor in all of this that no one can exactly pinpoint. We can be thankful it is so.


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If the market were milk the cream would rise...

but it's swamp water, where scum rises. Just look at kindle sales. Erotica, no matter how bad, is the biggest selling category, followed by the pop genre, and none of it is cream. The reviews complain of bad writing and editing.

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The revolution's ongoing...

What dedicated authors sometimes fail to realise is that they aren't competing with all of that because publishers aren't the investors. The situation exists in the first place because publishers themselves have chosen the 'quick buck' over worthwhile content.

If authors are competing at all, it's only with those who appeal to the same kind of readership. We shouldn't have any fear of healthy competition.

We all choose to write for any number of reasons (I don't seem to function well as a person without the perspective writing gives, and also I'm writing to leave a legacy - whatever becomes of that) but a creative author who expects anything but a negligible income stream is probably deluded.

There's always an outside chance of success, of course. If you don't write, it isn't going to happen. Surely, this in itself, given time, will be a sifting out factor. Authors who have something to say won't be deterred by the deplorable jungle that is now the publishing scene.

Sir Stanley Unwin, one of the founders of Allen and Unwin, a house which has survived the publishing revolution intact, always used to say that, one way or another, talent will out. "There are no 'mute, inglorious Miltons'."


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Marketing Author, My Response


I agree with you about that this could be what it takes to get authors' books out there, still.  I have tried sitting at my computer so often to market my book I'd written and published, but to no avail.  Well, I got a few sales, but nothing major in amount of sales.  And I'd wondered what it miht take.  But, this could actually work of advertising.  Seriously, it could be what it might take.  I also wondered if putting our books up in store front windows of those that will go for this could work, or not.  I'd tried it pf doing that when I'd lived in St. Louis, MO.  But, it didn't get much sales.  I'm still a new author, too, though.  But, it just is so difficult to get our books out there.  I wonder if going to media and asking to be aired about our books we've written could help get the word out there, as well.  That would be nice it that could also work.  Just a suggestion and thought that I am putting out there.


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Many people write wonderful prose with great stories and characters.  Yet, all the apps, social networking and hard work will not take them to the top.  It's just the laws of art.  I live in a city where we are inundated with art fairs and flea markets, especially in the winter months when the tourists are in residence.  Many of the fairs are considered "juried."

These talented artists have all the modern social networking stuff going for them; yet, they travel the nation creating a market for their work.  Friends of mine follow the writing conferences and book fairs to be noticed.  Many of them will spend their artistic careers prsenting their art just ecking out a living and receiving little notice.  One day, someone with connections might happen by and one of them will grab the golden ring...

Were these lives of promise, beauty and hope any less successful than the few that make it to the top?  Enjoy a day of camaraderie in their midst.  Hear their stories of travel and descriptions of shoppers in different cities.  Watch how they help each other with set up or minding the children.

Success is in the eye of the beholder and the heart of the artist.  My success is a day in the Everglades listening to the swamp symphony and knowing that my camera is words, my picture of the swamp is Ghost Orchid.


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I can only underline...

DK Christi's excellent points above. Success is a thing that cannot be measured in currency.

To cut a long story short, my reading and writing life has enabled peace, sanity, confidence and a revelation of the wonders of the world, plus friendship with all kinds of people, not just authors - in fact not many authors at all. It has opened up all kinds of avenues. I was lucky enough to have a first-class grammar school education in the UK, but didn't go to university and have no significant credentials.

Of course I'd like to sell more books, but I know that, in essentials, it won't make me any happier. I'm certainly not hankering after the 'glitz' of success where authors become the property of their readers and those who 'invest' in them. The contract between reader and author is, I feel, sufficient in itself: the provision of inspiration/information/entertainment in exchange for payment of one kind or another.

There are days when I think it would be good if the  'patronage' system of former centuries were re-introduced, but that would only work with the proviso of artistic freedom, even should the subject matter be supplied.

As to marketing, you do what you can, what seems appropriate for your circumstances, and hope to pick up a following. There are never enough hours in the day. Of one thing I am certain - and it may not seem logical - that page hits have very little connection with book sales!