So, who will really read your book?

In 1848 a writer named B.H. Smart produced a book quite improbably titled: Manual of rhetoric: with exercises for the improvement of style or diction, subjects for narratives, familiar letters, school orations, &c.: being one of two sequels to “Grammar on its true basis”.  It was published in London by Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans and is reputed to be the oldest publication that could be reasonably described as a writing manual.  Since then, manual after manual has been produced with the objective of improving writing everywhere.

The first writing manual
The first writing manual

Today, all you need to do is plug the search term “writing manuals” into Amazon’s search function and you’ll be greeted with almost 12,000 hits; if you plug in “writers’ guides” you’ll be rewarded with almost 19,000.  Within these search results there are the direct successors of Smart’s manual such as the Chicago Manual of Style (originally published in 1906) which, along with the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, is one of the go-to, required writing manuals for academic and scholarly writers throughout the English-speaking world.  In addition to these specific style guides there are books for poets, science and technical writers, novelists, memoirists, romance writers, creators of creative non-fiction and every other conceivable type of writer one could imagine.  From the style guides and how-to manuals for specific genres the writers’ guides begin to become more esoteric with books like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing & Life, and Natalie Goldberg’s iconic Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, to the more recent offering from Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft where writers weave their personal stories around writing advice to inspire would-be writers.  If you’re a writer or aspiring writer yourself, you probably own a few of these – or at least in my view, you should!  All of this seems to be in spite of American journalist and writing guru William Zinsser’s pointed comment in his own best-selling writing guide On Writing Well, that most people have no idea how poorly they write.

Poor writing or not, the rush to publish in the 21st century is more like a torrent where the flood-gates, in the form of agents and editors, are no longer needed to stop the outpouring of book-length publications, for better or for worse.  Writers are flocking to self-publishing with a vengeance.  A quick troll through the social media communities, groups and networks of “writers” suggests that the era of co-dependency is upon us in a way never before imagined as writers look to one another for guidance and moral support in their publishing endeavors.  Rather than being connected to publishers, mentors or readers, they are connected to other writers – all as unknown as they are.

What’s truly puzzling, though, is how no one seems to notice their members who are spelling, grammar and stylistically-challenged, not to mention devoid of talent.  At least they’re not admitting it with their continual five-star reviews of every piece of drivel produced by their peers.  Yet, within all of this publishing-related noise, there are truly unique and important voices that need to find a way out of the slush.  What they all need is a reality check.  I’d like to help to provide that. And help those unique and important voices find their way out of the noise.  So, I’ve written yet another manual – well it’s sort-of a manual.

WWRYB CoverThe purpose of my new book is to provide a tough-love reality check on the vagaries of the new publishing models for aspiring writers while at the same time providing you with a kind of road map based on my experience as a writer, writing teacher, traditionally-published author and indie author.

For my blog readers who have been here a while, you might recognize some of the foundational material in the book – it did evolve from this blog (there’s a whole other story, isn’t it?  Turning blogs into books.  I could tell you…).   There is a whole lot more, though, and I’ve tried to tell readers my own story of making it onto the traditional publishing merry-go-round, and then dabbling in self-publishing.  Along the way, I learned a lot and this experience, coupled with my  research over the years as as a university prof, has resulted in this book.

Here’s the book trailer.  Let me know what you think.

Making old manuscripts live again

An old manuscript gets a 21st century makeover.
An old manuscript gets a 21st century makeover.

Earlier this week Jennifer Alsever wrote a piece for CNN Money called “Guerrilla Marketing for Books.”  A cautionary tale for would-be authors, it tells the story of shrinking promotional budgets at traditional publishing houses and the lengths to which authors now must go to get their books to stand out from the ever-increasing numbers of both traditionally and self-published books.  The truth is, it has been ever thus – unless you are a big-name author.

One tactic mentioned in the story is of an author who commissioned a jewelry artist to make necklaces that are featured on her book’s cover as well as a new perfume based on one of her fictional characters. The amount of work and money involved for an author in doing this is staggering to consider.  This, however, reminded me of an event in the provenance of one of my recent ‘new’ books Confessions of a Failed Yuppie.  Stick with me for a few minutes!

If you’ve been reading Backstory for a few years or even months, you might have realized that the “backstory” I’m trying to tell is the anchor of my own experience in writing and publishing.  More than that, though, my objective is to explore the issues that are important to all of us who are more than passingly interested in reading – and writing.  Sometimes I rant about things that have annoyed me; sometimes I tell you a story of my experience.  Sometimes I tell you a real backstory to my writing: what inspired it, how it developed, what happened next.  This post is one of those true backstories.

In the early 1990’s I was on a rant about the Yuppie lifestyle.  So I decided to write a book about it – but rather than a non-fiction examination of the phenomenon, which would have been more akin to my writing experience at the time, I decided to write a novel – a satire of sorts.  I felt strongly, though, that I wanted it published no matter what, so I did what self-publishing authors did at that time, I sent it to a vanity publisher.  (For the working definition of a vanity publisher, you might want to surf back to last week’s post: The confusing world of 21st century publishing jargon: A glossary for writers).

In due course, a box full of hard-cover copies of Yuppie arrived on my doorstep.  What to do with them?  Those were the days before book promotion through online networking channels was de rigeur.  Indeed, there were no social media channels.  Just imagine such a world!  I decided that the first order of business would be to have a book launch.  But before the launch, I’d need some “merchandise.”

The old Yuppie cover and the mug: "I confess: I'm a failed yuppie" with a "reject" stamp!
The old Yuppie cover and the mug: “I confess: I’m a failed yuppie” with a “reject” stamp!

I created a design for the front of T-shirts and for mugs and had dozens of these pieces of paraphernalia created – all at my own expense, of course – and had them available on the day of the pary.  I also had a poster-sized blow-up of the cover of the book so that it could be the focal point of the party, next to the book-shaped cake that adorned the dining room table.  I then created a guest list and sent out invitations.

As parties go, the event was a great success.  We had door prizes of T-shirts that the guests obligingly sported and everyone went home with a signed copy of the book.

As the weeks went by, a number of the guests told me that they had enjoyed the book and when was I going to write another one?

The book, naturally enough, never sold.  Getting a self-published book reviewed in those days was not next to impossible, it was completely impossible.  And since there were no social networks available to promote it, short of taking out advertisements at great expense (I did that once) and going door-to-door with a pile of books (which didn’t sit well with my personality), the book would languish with thousands of others.  And so it did.  Until last year.

Writers have lots of finished and unfinished manuscripts hiding on their hard drives or taking up space in filing cabinets.  I know that most of us should toss most of it, but sometimes a manuscript draws us back and that’s how I felt about Yuppie.

So, I took out the hard-cover copy with its tattered edges and began to write rewrite the book.  It’s now a 21st century Yuppie story, and taking advantage of the digital advances, I decided to make it available once again.

Two decades in the making, Confessions of a Failed Yuppie lives again, and it starts with a definition of Yuppie:

 

“YUPPIE”: A Definition

Acronym for Young Urban Professional, usually occurring in a married pair (often male/female but not necessarily). Categorized as upper middle class or at least moving in that direction, ambitious, well-educated.  Characterized by excessive concerns about appearances.  Lightly narcissistic.  May have money or at least leverage.  But not necessarily. Normal habitat is the urban condo, sometimes the single-family dwelling of dubious heritage in a downtown area with a postage stamp for a yard, for which a bidding war took place prior to acquisition.  Yuppies with children often move to larger, more impressive dwellings.  Diet consists mainly of cocktails, organic kale and the latest gastronomic fad.  Would not be caught dead in a North-American-produced automobile brand.  Skis in winter, does hot yoga, plays squash (it’s making a come-back), and quietly brags all year round. Widely thought to have become extinct in the early 1990’s.  Not so much.

Maybe you’d like to read the rest.  Or not.

Author Readings: Purposeful or painful?

Ah, the pain of the author reading...

Last week someone asked me if I’d consider taking part in an author reading event featuring my new book. If someone had asked me this question twenty years ago when I first started shopping books to publishers, I would have been flattered.  I would have jumped at the chance.  However, many years of writing and publishing experience later have left me a bit dubious about these events.   And discussing these kinds of events with
other writers does little to disabuse me of the notion that they are largely a waste of time – depending on your objective.  So, what precisely are the possible objectives of an author reading in public?

From a publisher’s point of view there is only one bottom line objective, and that is the bottom line. Their objective is to sell more books. Publishers seem to believe that putting an unknown author in front of twenty people will result in massive book sales.  Given the effort involved in doing a reading and the sales potential from such a small audience, one has to question the wisdom of this approach.  Keep in mind, though, that there is no effort on the part of the publisher – only on the part of the writer and the organizers.  And in fact, in Canada, the Canada Council for the Arts even offers grants to publishers for readings. Who knew?

From a reader’s point of view, it’s a free night (or afternoon) of entertainment.  Sometimes there are refreshments and often there will be like-minded people attending.  Sometimes readings are at bookstores, sometimes they’re in libraries or other related public spaces.  When I was in New York city in July, I visited a gargantuan bookstore on Broadway where they had a more or less permanent dais and chairs set up for readings. Only in a large city would you ever see this!  But, is an author reading really “entertainment”?

My most recent experience of doing a reading was at a “literary festival” where a number of authors would take part in workshops and do readings.  This particular afternoon when I was scheduled to read from my memoir (it was about one month pre-publication at the time), I was on the agenda after three others reading from their varied recent books.  What can I say?  At the risk of being lambasted by fellow authors, my only conclusion that (painful) afternoon was that writers are crappy speakers.  To say I was appalled would be an understatement.  One after the other they took to the stage and monotonously read.  Every single one of them.  It was all I could do to stay awake.

A couple of weeks ago, there was a piece in the Globe and Mail titled “The season of readings is upon us, let the misery begin.”  It was delightful to see that I am not the only one who cringes at the thought of authors reading from their work.  Douglas Bell who wrote the article quotes Irish author Aidan Higgins.  He says it so much better than I could:

“There’s nothing more calculated to cause a gritting of the teeth, a shudder of the spirit or even a rising of the gorge than to be voluntarily confined in a Function Room to endure an hour-long ranting by the author in person, of predigested matter now regurgitated, delivered in a monotonous drone. It is enough to make a cat laugh or a dog throw up.”[1]

[I beg you to click through and read the article – If it doesn’t make you laugh out loud, you have less of a sense of humor than I do.]

I’ve been teaching and doing public speaking for many years.  I’ve taken the time to hone my skills and it was clear when I came to the podium and began speaking about my writing and then reading, that this was a breath of fresh air for the audience.  They couldn’t get to me fast enough after the readings were over to tell me how much they enjoyed the presentation.  But sell books?  LOL.

When you spend so much solitary time with your work as writers do, I think it can be fun to share it with a live audience.  But if you are a crappy speaker, just back away.  Please.  The fact is that unless you’re a celebrity to begin with or have a rabid following from previous books, the reading will not sell many books.  And if you already are a celebrity or have a fan base, they’re going to buy the book anyway.  So, the reason to do it has to be more than to sell books.

So, here are my tips for doing an author reading:

  • Don’t focus on selling books.  Just focus on connecting with live people.
  • Prepare. Take the time to consider what you’ll say to put your reading into
    context for the audience.
  • Consider your presentation skills.  If you’re not a good presenter and can’t make your work come alive for the audience, either get some coaching or just don’t do it.
  • For the love of god, don’t drone on and on.  Or you’ll have to carry a gun – to put the audience out of their misery.