Here in one small image: the end of publishing

Or at least, the end of publishing as we understand it. Consider this fact: In one month there were more than 100,000 new book releases on Amazon Kindle.amazon-com-kindle-ebooks-kindle-store-literature-fiction-foreign-languages-romance-moreI took this screen capture last week and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Two extreme ways of looking at this:

One: Electronic self-publishing has democratized the book industry. It’s an embarrassment of riches.

Two: We are caught up in a tidal wave with no refuge in sight. It’s an embarrassment. 

There’s a weird disconnect in the mind of most of the reading public. Pat doesn’t want to spend $15 on a novel, so s/he jumps into Kindle Land, wanders around, and exits some time later having paid $1.99 for a novel that will be tolerable, or vaguely amusing, or awful, or (this is also possible) excellent.

The author of the $15 novel is an endangered beast in this new landscape, and still Pat finishes the  $1.99 novel and dreams of giving up the day job to be a novelist. And not just any novelist, but a rich one. Someone who knows Oprah’s cell number and who has a film agent. The fact that Pat is unwilling to pay more than $1.99 for a novel should put a crimp in these day dreams.

But this is not happening, as is plain to see because in one month, 100,000+ new books appeared on Kindle. And there are lots more in the pipeline, waiting to be sucked into the tsunami.

It would be very useful to get this huge number broken down and put in context.  Here’s an inquiry for Amazon that I might send, but they will never answer.

Dear Amazon:  

I am researching the career  and life cycle of the modern American novelist and require data for quantitative analysis.  Your assistance would be very much appreciated and duly acknowledged in the author’s notes. 

The data I require:

  1. Total number of new book releases for the years 2000 ______, 2010 ____ and 2015 ______
  2.  For each of these years, I would like the percent published in paper and electronically.  
  3. For each year and category (paper/electronic), please indicate what percent were published by established houses, and what percent were self-published.
  4. Now the same figures, but limited to fiction for the years 2000, 2010 and 2015.

If Amazon were to cough up these numbers (and please don’t hold your breath) we would have the makings of a really interesting discussion. As it is, I can only give you my impressions.

Publishers are in trouble, and will continue to be in trouble until the whole industry self-corrects. Publishers are not particularly good at introspection, so this is another area where you should not hold your breath.

Authors are in trouble because not only is the market saturated with cheap books, the publishers have no interest in helping midlist authors keep their heads above water. It’s sink or swim.  If 50,000 new novels are released over a two or three month time period, how will a reader ever find the novel you just published? What are the odds that your novel will even make it onto a shelf in a brick and mortar bookstore?  Answer: poor.

And that’s where we find ourselves. On the bright side, you’ll be busy for the rest of your life trying to read your way through the mountains novels that are piling up, right now.

revealing words on words

There are many things to admire about Barbara Kingsolver’s work. She has written some novels that I think about all the time, even years after first reading them. Her people and their stories crawl into my head and make a permanent home for themselves there, settling in between  Aunt Helen’s overgrown garden at sunrise in the hottest days of summer and the sound of chalk squeaking in Sister Peter Joseph’s fourth grade classroom.  What more could any author ask for? 

Then today I came across this quote about writing, and now I know that she is indeed the wise woman I suspected she must be on the basis of her fiction. Because it all comes down to this.

“A novel can educate to some extent, but first a novel has to entertain. That’s the contract with the reader: you give me ten hours and I’ll give you a reason to turn every page. I have a commitment to accessibility. I believe in plot. I want an English professor to understand the symbolism while at the same time I want the people I grew up with?—?— who may not often read anything but the Sears catalog?—?— to read my books.”  

Barbara Kingsolver

The Gilded Hour sequel: NOT YET.

Not done, but making progress. I can offer you the image I’m using for a writing prompt. The cover design will be out of my hands — as ever — so this is just temporary. It’s from a painting by Whistler, and was painted at the right time. 

The title is a fragment from a poem by Rumi: “The wound is the place where the light enters.”

sequel-where-the-light

The historical novelist’s nightmare

If you’ve followed my ramblings at all you’re aware that I take research really seriously. Most historical novelists have this quirk, in my experience. Most of us have at least a dollop of ocd, would be my guess.

When I’m working out themes or major plot lines I am especially careful with my background research. So for example, I read widely about the development of sterile techniques in medicine after Lister’s work began to be accepted. Something that really jumped out at me early in my research was the fact that until late in the 1800s doctors and nurses operated with bare hands. There were no rubber gloves, and so they had to dig right in, bare handed. The idea makes me a little woozy, to be truthful. I can watch any kind of surgery without a problem, but I can’t quite cope with the idea of a bare hand digging into an abdomen to locate a tumor. 

Because physicians and nurses understood about contagion and the importance of sterile technique, they went to extremes in washing their hands. They used a combination of antibacterial solutions, many of which were highly abrasive and corrosive, which played havoc with skin and nails and caused all kinds of problems. This is actually a famous paragraph in the history of medical science, written by William Halsted (full citation to be found here).

In the winter of 1889 and 1890—I cannot recall the month—the nurse in charge of my operating-room complained that the solutions of mercuric chloride produced a dermatitis of her arms and hands. As she was an unusually efficient woman, I gave the matter my consideration and one day in New York requested the Goodyear Rubber Company to make as an experiment two pair of thin rubber gloves with gauntlets. On trial these proved to be so satisfactory that additional gloves were ordered. In the autumn, on my return to town, an assistant who passed the instruments and threaded the needles was also provided with rubber gloves to wear at the operations. At first the operator wore them only when exploratory incisions into joints were made. After a time the assistants became so accustomed to working in gloves that they also wore them as operators and would remark that they seemed to be less expert with the bare hands than with the gloved hands.

an original surgical rubber glove
an original surgical rubber glove

It wasn’t until 1892 this venture started by Halsted came to pass and the first rubber gloves were used in surgery — by the nurse Halsted mentions in the excerpt above, the woman we went on to marry in a twist worthy of any romance novel. Dermatitis My Love.  You can read the whole story of how he circumvented this problem in an article called Venus & Aesculapius: The Gloves of Love at Discovery Magazine.  

it wasn’t until the end of the century that sterile gloves were widely used by surgeons as well as nurses. 

If you have read The Gilded Hour you will remember that both Anna and Sophie deal with this issue, which will evolve into a bigger plot point in Where the Light Enters.  

Now, with all that in mind, consider this excerpt I came across today:

chronology-gloves

My blood pressure must have jumped twenty points when I read that. Now, I knew this had to be a mistake — which it is — but it certainly got my attention because if it were true and rubber gloves had been in use in operating rooms by 1882, I’d have some finagling to do. 

Consider this a tempest in a teapot, if you like. I think of it as a reminder (to myself) that my ocd actually serves a good purpose. 

Techno Fail: Missing FAQ

I had a very long and detailed FAQ page at one point not so long ago, but as sometimes happens with a weblog this old and cantankerous, it seems to have crawled away to die in a hidey-hole somewhere.

Before you ask: yes, I have backups. But there are technological complications with plugins you really don’t care to hear about. The bottom line: in time I should be able to reconstruct most of the faq page — I did a little of that today. But it also occurs to me that I get a lot of questions and I haven’t added any to the faq page in yonks, as my Brit friends might say. Thus: if you have a moment to look at the sadly denuded FAQ Page, please take a minute to send a note with a question you’d like to see included. Or that you once saw here, but is now missing.

 

Toni Morrison at 85, and life goals

In February Toni Morrison turned 85. I did mean to post about it back then, and just yesterday realized that I had missed the date by something close to a year. Luckily she’s still out there writing things that need to be read. So for example, an essay about the election called Mourning for Whiteness. Toni Morrison has never shied away from difficult topics. 

I would love to come and help out wherever Ms Morrison is having Thanksgiving, because I think it would be an education of a very rare and valuable kind to be able to listen to her talk to her nearest and dearest. To hear her tell stories would be the perfect compliment to reading her stories, the novels that have so moved me over the years.  Toni Morrison speaks from a heart of gleaming ebony;  she speaks the language of her community.

When the Oakland African American English controversy was washing over the country, Ms Morrison was one of the few prominent black academics and role models who did not give in to that full-blown moral panic; she did not reject the language she is most comfortable with or the children who speak it. Jesse Jackson said some harsh and destructive things about African American English, which was rather ironic as he is a main speaker of that language.

Toni Morrison has always talked about the power of African American English and its importance, as in this 1981 interview:

The language, only the language. The language must be careful and must appear effortless. It must not sweat. It must suggest and be provocative at the same time. It is the thing that black people love so much—the saying of words, holding them on the tongue, experimenting with them, playing with them. It’s a love, a passion. Its function is like a preacher’s: to make you stand up out of your seat, make you lose yourself and hear yourself. The worst of all possible things that could happen would be to lose that language. There are certain things I cannot say without recourse to my language. It’s terrible to think that a child with five different present tenses comes to school to be faced with those books that are less than his own language. And then to be told things about his language, which is him, that are sometimes permanently damaging. He may never know the etymology of Africanisms in his language, not even know that “hip” is a real word or that “the dozens” meant something. This is a really cruel fallout of racism. I know the standard English I want to use it to help restore the other language, the lingua franca.

Ms Morrison is someone I admire greatly, for her courage and power as a writer and a woman and a woman of color.  I hope she glides along to ninety trailing essays and novels and stories behind her. 

This quote from her is the truest thing I know about writing.

Passion is never enough.
Neither is skill.