In which I am conflicted about weblog advertising

If you read this weblog regularly you know that I often post about how the industry is changing, and the additional burdens being placed on authors. Publishers have adopted a sink or swim approach: instead of publishing 100 novels and backing up each of them with real marketing and advertising, they publish 1,000 novels, provide little support for any of them, and watch to see what will sink and what will swim.

This is not so much a complaint as it is an observation. That is, I know that talking about this is not going to change anything. In fact, my guess would be that things are going to get worse. The whole industry is evolving and will continue to evolve in response to new technologies and the increasing cost of traditional book printing. How that will shake out in the end is anybody’s guess, and authors have no influence on the outcome.

The simple reality is that any midlist author has to take at least some responsibility for marketing, and in many cases, the whole burden falls on the author. This means hiring a publicist, or trying to handle things on your own. Buying advertising space in magazines, for example (very expensive and not very effective); arranging readings; providing online resources for readers. Forums, reading guides, excerpts, etc etc.

And then there is weblog advertising.

It seems a fairly straightforward thing: You can make money by putting ads for other people’s stuff onto your weblog or website, or you can spend money by placing ads for your stuff on other weblogs and websites. Google’s Adsense is probably the biggest and most organized approach to hosting ads to earn money, and Google AdWords is the opposite side of that coin: you go there to buy space on weblogs and websites to advertise what it is you are selling. Another example:

Blogads are ads that appear in blogs and other independent web sites. Each “strip” of Blogads is managed by an independent publisher who sets prices and decides which ads appear.

It seems straightforward, but it isn’t, simply because this is an industry in its infancy and things are volatile. And there is, of course, the issue of ethics. What does it mean to sell advertising space on a weblog? Are you responsible to your advertisers in any way? Does accepting money for ads compromise the content of the weblog in some way?

This is the question that bothers me and still, I do sometimes spend money to place ads on other websites. I don’t do this often, because I’m not convinced that it’s a good use of marketing dollars and also, because marketing dollars are precious. Most of my budget goes into giving away books — I spent close to $700 last year doing just that last year — which seems to me a pretty good way of getting the word out there and keeping readers interested. Certainly $700 in books goes a lot farther than $700 in ads.

If I buy advertising space on other weblogs, then I must be okay with the idea in general, right?

Not exactly. This is why I’m conflicted. I understand that people put time and effort into weblogs and would like some return, but I also am bothered by the way the whole process works. There are author weblogs and review weblogs that accept advertising (Making Light, Bookslut, Filthy Habits, Smart Bitches, and Beatrice are some examples.) Of these, I have
advertised twice, briefly, on Smart Bitches, who have reasonable rates. This seems to me a good place to invest my marketing dollars, because their readership is very, very large and pretty well targeted for my novels. Do they owe me any consideration, given the fact that I advertise with them? Absolutely not. Will other people see it that way? That’s the question.

The Smart Bitches make decisions about advertising based on the needs of their weblog, which is common sense and good business practice. They run ads primarily for new novels, but also for services such as book-rental companies. This strikes me as a conflict, for the simple reason that I’m not nuts about the idea of the ad for my book running next to an ad for a company that exists to take business away from libraries, and royalties away from me. But it’s my choice, in the end: I don’t have to spend the money to place an ad there. I could give away a couple pile o’ books, instead.

I don’t have ads on this weblog, because (1) it’s another layer of complication I don’t need; (2) I’d worry about conflict of interest; (3) it seems tacky. I wish I could come up with another word, but that’s the only one that fits. Unless a person’s sole income is derived from blogging or running a website, I am uneasy. If I go to an author’s website and find a lot of ads, my attention is not on the content of the website, but on the ads, and not in a way the advertiser would hope for. I wonder about connections that probably aren’t there — but I do wonder, and thus I’m not getting what the author was hoping I’d get from the weblog.

Do you notice ads on weblogs? How do you react when you do notice them? Do you have any reservations about ads? And, do you ever buy a book or a service based on such ads? I’m really curious about this, and would like to know what you think.

in which I repeat myself and bore you: on dialect and dialog

The Smart Bitches have a post up about language anachronisms in historical romance. I admit to some irritation about the fact that by the time I caught the post there were 41 comments. Explaining my irritation is a little trickier.

First: The Smart Bitches are usually right on target when they talk about this stuff, okay? This is not me dissing them. I love the Smart Bitches with all my bitchy little heart. This is about the comments, and I’ve already admitted I didn’t read them so really, I should just shut up but no, I’m not going to. Because this will gnaw at me otherwise.

Any MDs out there? If you’re at a party and people start talking about gallbladders or Uncle Mikey’s valve replacement or something else similarly technical, do you get irritated because (1) you don’t want to look like a wise ass know-it-all (2) it’s really hard not to speak up anyway when you hear somebody claim that his brother’s best friend’s second cousin is an expert and he says… (3) if you walk away and join the crowd talking about baseball, the medical talk crowd will conclude that you are a snob.

Which maybe you are. Or at least impatient.

That’s how I get about language discussions. Once before class started I heard one student tell another that in Switzerland they speak a language which is half French and half German. As this was a linguistics class I felt obligated, so I said (very gently) I can see how you’d come to that conclusion, but what you were hearing is Swiss German which is… and I saw her mouth set in a prim little line. I know that line, it means: don’t tell me about language, I speak language myself!

And in her evaluation at the end of the course she wrote: this professor may know a lot about linguistics but it’s not nice to tell people they didn’t hear what they really did hear.

PLEASE NOTE: everybody is free to talk about language and linguistics as much as they like, whenever they like. I am not, and do not want to be linguistics hall monitor of the universe. Right this moment hundreds, maybe tens of thousands of conversations are going on that have to do with language across the nation. Joe tells Sally that she sounds stupid when she uses the word ain’t; Mr. Wilson tells his grandson about the etymology of the word asparagus, his own personal version made out of whole cloth; somewhere in Chicago at this very minute somebody is trying to do an English accent and failing miserably.

All fine and good. Chatter on. The problem is when I’m within hearing range. Then I get all itchy, and I have to just walk away.

So now that I’ve ranted a little (okay, a lot), and for my own peace of mind, I’m going to direct you  to my posts about language/linguistics/dialect/dialog in  fiction both contemporary and historical. You are free to ignore every word, to disagree with every thought; to curse me for a condescending know-it-all… if that’s what it takes to make us both comfortable, so be it. You’ll get all those posts by clicking on “dialog” in the tag cloud in the sidebar.

the unbearable lightness of the blank page

Sarah has an interesting post over at Smart Bitches. Let me tell you first about the quote she attributes to Nora Roberts: “I can fix a bad page but I can’t fix a blank one”.

I think I should have this tatooed on my forehead. Backwards, of course, so I can read it in the mirror. It’s a really excellent reminder for anybody who writes for a living.

Sarah’s post deals with a description of a college course she ran across that promises to teach interested persons how to write and publish a romance novel. You may want to read her thoughts on this, because she asks some questions I’m going to try to answer some of them here.

I do believe that some things about writing can be taught in a classroom. If you understand basic concepts about narrative structure, point of view, plot vs story, and so on, you’ll probably have an easier time as you pursue a writing career. Some people seem to have an intuitive understanding of these technical issues and don’t need instruction. Some people don’t understand basic concepts and write anyway — and get published. You can probably come up with a couple names on your own.

The point is: if you can tell a really good story, you may well get away with all manner of infelicities. The story is the thing, it’s what the readers want. Tell a great story, no matter how flawed in execution, and you may even make a fortune. It has happened.

You can also study very hard, take every class, work diligently, and be able to quote every theoretical work on fiction — and still not be able to tell a story in writing. That happens too. Some of those people can write a beautiful sentence (tree) but have no idea what a story is (forest).

So a class on how to write and sell a romance strikes me as dumb. As would a class on how to write and sell a thriller, or a scifi novel. If you want to write a romance, you have to read them. You have to read a LOT of them. Simple as that. And of course an understanding about structure and characterization would be a starting point. As you read through a hundred or two hundred romance novels, you’ll get a sense of how things work in the genre, and how they don’t.

Every one in a while I think about the possibility of running a week long workshop, somewhere near home. This would be a workshop for people who haven’t written a novel but would like to, but feel that they need an introduction to the basics. After teaching for a dozen years I could put a solid workshop together, certainly, but two things stop me:

It would take a lot of organization;
That age old question: what if I give a party and nobody comes?

Now that would be embarrassing, setting it all up and having to cancel for lack of participants. Authors who do successful writing workshops usually do so under the auspices of some kind of organization that takes on the onerous organization end of things. For example, the Maui Writers’ Conference. A terribly tough gig, but somebody’s got to do it. She said wistfully.

There are many really awful conferences and workshops out there, too.

And there are specialty workshops, particularly for doctors and lawyers who have got the fiction writing bug and money to spend.

So my advice would be: if you want to write a novel, read. Read a lot. If you like a structured approach to learning something new, take a course — but a general course, an introduction to writing fiction. Or you can enroll in a workshop, which are available pretty much everywhere from Maui to Tuscany to Mobile, Alabama. If you feel that you have the basics down and you want to learn about the specifics of a particular genre, you are sure to find conferences and workshops — for legal thrillers, sci-fi, romance, and any other genre you can think of.

But you still have to read, and you still have to do the work. A single college course is never going to get you published, and much less onto the NYT best seller list.

get out the vote: writers of fiction, unite!

Michael Stelzner’s weblog for writers is called Writing White Papers. I don’t stop by there very often because the focus is primarily (as you would guess) on white papers, defined as

A white paper is an authoritative report; a government report outlining policy; or a document for the purpose of educating industry customers or collecting leads for a company. White papers are used to help people make decisions. (Wikipedia)

I had a quick look at Michael’s blog this morning and I saw an interesting post. He’s asking his readers to nominate the top ten writing weblogs. There are a lot of nominations, but almost all of them have to do with websites that promote freelance writing, copy editing, and other kinds of non-fiction. Which struck me as a little one sided, so I nominated Paperback Writer as an excellent source of information and the occasional belly laugh, not to mention all the useful bits and pieces she gives away. I also commented on the fact that so many of the nominations pointed to Deborah Ng’s Freelance Writing Jobs. Which shouldn’t be a surprise if the target audience is primarily non-fiction writers, because that is an excellent resource. Long story short: I should have said that to start with. So now that I’ve taken my foot out of my mouth, my original concern still stands:

Why are the fiction writers not participating? Go on over there and vote for the website/oldweblog which is most helpful and/or interesting to you as a writer of stories. Here are some sites that I like:

Paperback Writer
Tess Gerritsen’s Blog
Smart Bitches Trashy Books
Alison Kent
Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind

You will note that I do not list this website. That’s because I would prefer you don’t nominate it, lest I end up again on the authors behaving badly list. Nominate some other weblog that focuses on providing support for writers of fiction. Go forth, and be counted.