Saturday, February 1, 2014

Fiction Natterings

Apologies, Gentle Reader. The political stuff has palled on me for the nonce, so today you get leftover tuna casserole and Brussels sprouts some scattered thoughts about the business of creating prose entertainment in the hope of revenue: i.e., the writing and publishing of fiction.

I'm an old softy, as most of you already know. As regards my fiction writing, that translates to an unusual solicitude toward my readers. They -- that includes you, if you're one of them -- are the reason I continue on. So I listen to them attentively when they express themselves...and they know it. The result is, of course, requests for particular books and stories.

In consequence, I've written and published all the following:

Reader demand, therefore, accounts for nearly all my fiction output over the past three years. You ask for 'em; I write 'em.

No, I'm not complaining. But it does mystify me a bit.

Among contemporary fiction writers, the trend is toward never-ending series built around a single, highly magnetic character. I understand why that should be popular with both writers and readers, but it does have its drawbacks. For one, the writer tends to get into a rut from which he finds it ever more difficult to escape. For another, each new book the reader buys from the writer is a modest variation on a single sort of adventure, rather than something fresh and new. Innovation and invention tend to take second place, at best.

I'd have thought that the readers who gravitate toward indie fiction would want something different: that they'd have more diverse tastes, and less appetite for extended series. Apparently I was wrong: the attraction of the series, especially the protagonist-centered series, is stronger than I would have thought.

At this time, on my desk are requests for:

Well...okay. If I can. I'm not perfectly sure I can, at least as regards the Realm of Essences stuff. But I have to ask: are you sure you wouldn't like something a little more distant from what you've already read?

(And why, given all the above plus the generally strong interest in love and sex, has no one asked for more about Helen and Martine?)

By way of Sarah Hoyt and a chain of links away from her article comes a tale of woe about the perils of contracting with Pub World. It's impossible to excerpt it usefully; please read it all.

The Sunday punch, at least for me, comes with this announcement:

...our contract with TOR says we can’t publish “a competing product” for five years.

The Foglios' "Girl Genius" webcomic is quite popular. I understand it's won a number of awards. That speaks to a certain intelligence on the creators' part...which does not square with the foolishness of accepting such a contractual restriction.

It also doesn't square with the unwisdom of dealing with Patrick Nielsen Hayden and TOR. TOR is one of the powerhouses of the SF field. Hayden, who has a reputation for arrogance, prefers to deal with best-selling writers alone. Regardless of why he decided to take on an independently-published webcomic-turned-graphic-novel, the odds were always against his giving any significant time or attention to it.

Is association with a Pub World barony worth so much loss of control? Apparently it is, to some. Not to me, though I must admit that were a Pub World outlet to approach me, I'd consider the offer seriously at least.

Sarah writes in conclusion that:

In fact, most of my experience in traditional publishing (except for Baen) has been that no one is at the controls, and things just sort of drift. Any other business would crash this way. Oh, wait. Traditional publishing is crashing too, even if in slow-mo.

So, let’s hear it for writers who take responsibility for their own business and mind their own store. Yes they did build that! Now see if by any chance you wanna buy what they have to sell!

If I may quote our beloved Instapundit: Heh. Indeed.

Indie fiction, though it's "taken off" to some degree, has yet to enrich any writer, at least as far as I know. Some indie writers are making money -- I've made some -- but most are "in the red," at least if we insist that the time and energy they pour into their creations belongs on the balance sheet.

The world of independent publishing still needs a few things to gain a degree of respectability consonant with what one can find there. Most critical of all is a garbage filter. Because it's an unrestricted and unpoliced medium, e-publishing allows the emission of literally anything. The prospective customer must therefore wade through a lot of garbage to find the occasional gem.

How much garbage? Let me put it this way: Theodore Sturgeon was an optimist.

Believing my own standards to be good ones, I've striven to review as many indie books as I possibly can. (The overwhelming majority of those reviews appear on Smashwords, where my dreck first made its bow.) But because I'm unwilling to grind my heel into anyone's dreams of fortune and glory, regardless of how silly they are, I resist to the point of projectile vomiting giving any book, no matter how bad, a rating of lower than three stars out of five. If it doesn't deserve that much, I refrain from reviewing it. Thus, you have no way of knowing just how much garbage I've encountered.

I'm here to tell you: you could fill the Pacific Basin with it.

At this time, reviews are the principal way by which the prospective reader is informed about the quality of the purchase he's contemplating. Therefore:


You don't have to be as prissy about it as I am, either.


lelnet said...

Well, keep in mind the core message of those requests: whatever you write, your fans will happily read, and probably enjoy...but yes, you were apparently mistaken about the appeal of series, if these requests surprise you.

(I am, as I think you are, relatively sure that Realm of Essences per se, as well as Spooner Federation, are relatively tapped-out, as sources of good novel plots. But I accept that I may be wrong, and if you can get more novels out of them after all, I'm confident they'll be awesome. More MacLachlan stories? More Sumner stories? More Iverson stories? YES, PLEASE!)

As for why writers sign such awful contracts? I suspect that it may be more due to the fresh happy glow of acceptance they feel when being offered them. Everyone is friends, when there's a check being handed over, and the authors in question interpret what they read in the contract accordingly. They ignore, by and large, the fact that the only circumstance under which the text of those contract provisions could _possibly_ matter is one in which the parties to it are reduced to a state of such overwhelming mutual contempt and disdain that they've hired lawyers to duke it out in a winner-take-all battle of mutual destruction. In the clause restricting "competing products", for example...what does the word "competing" mean, in practice? I'd bet money I couldn't afford to lose, that the author (when signing the contract) had a very different answer to that question in his mind than is now being promulgated by the legal team at Tor.

A legal contract is like a marriage, except -- of course -- for being almost infinitely harder to get out of, once entered. Being head-over-heels in love is an awesome thing, truly...but before you tie the knot, you should still observe how your beloved treats waiters, and treat any red flags observed there with extreme caution. As it is with men and women, so it is with authors and publishers.

Francis W. Porretto said...

Well said, Matt. As Frederik Pohl once observed in an essay about selling one's fiction:
1. Everything in any contract, including the names of the parties to it and the date at the top, is negotiable;
2. The way to negotiate a book contract is to assume that immediately upon signing the document, you and the wonderful, generous people who bought your book will drop stone dead, and that your heirs and theirs will hate each other's guts.

But it does require a certain sangfroid in a writer new to Pub World's machinations to approach the matter that way.

FrankC said...

I get requests from Amazon to review novels I haven't read yet. Very annoying.