Thursday, May 19, 2011

Remembering the Ladies

Just wanted to alert people to a post on another blog -- The CockleBur -- about the difficulty, and the importance, of uncovering the role that women played in the history of the American Revolution and the Early Republic.

Full disclosure: the blog post contains a favorable mention of my novel, A More Obedient Wife -- and it was written by someone I know, Palma Strand. (Fuller disclosure: I hadn't spoken to Palma in years, but she emailed me out of the blue some weeks ago to tell me her book club was reading my book -- how she came across it I'm still not sure!) But the post also discusses other female historical figures and the late sociologist Elise Boulding, who coined the phrase "the underside of history" to describe the general absence of women from the historical record. I highly recommend it -- along with Palma's other posts, especially one called "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Godliness?"

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Further Adventures in Publishing

One of the topics of this blog is "writing," and one aspect of writing -- the most vexing, often -- is getting published. So herewith, my views on the current state of the publishing industry, admittedly offered from my own rather limited vantage point:

You'd never know it from the state of most bookstores, cluttered floor to ceiling with books (this is, of course, assuming that you can still find an actual bookstore in your vicinity), but it's gotten really, really hard to get a book published. Especially a novel. And more especially a first novel, if you're not a celebrity of some sort or at least a close friend or relative of some powerful and/or famous person.

A lot of good books still get published, of course. But what may be harder to discern, from outside the industry, is that a lot of good books never get published. And a lot of not-so-good books do get published (this is something you may have actually noticed!).

When I found an agent for my first novel, about five years ago, things were tough. Now that I'm on my second agent and second novel, things are even tougher. Now, instead of routinely sending out rejections, a number of editors have apparently given up sending out anything. At the moment, four editors have had my novel for over two months; one has had it for three months; and one has had it for five months. We've had no response from any of them, despite my agent's efforts, and there's no indication we ever will. If I thought there was more than an infinitesimal chance that any of them would take it, I might be content to wait. But my agent has had the manuscript for over a year now, and frankly the prospect of being in this limbo indefinitely is beginning to get to me.

In the old days -- a few years ago, that is -- authors really had no alternative but to wait. It was mainstream publishing or pretty much nothing. That's not true anymore. As the mainstream publishing industry has contracted and fossilized, new publishing life forms have been springing up like mushrooms after a heavy rain.

Perhaps the largest, and most obvious, new form is self-publishing. Thanks to low-cost print-on-demand technology, the number of self-published books has far surpassed the number of traditionally published books (according to a New York Times article, the figures for 2009 were 764,448 self-published books to 288,355 traditionally published books, and those figures have no doubt diverged more widely since then).

Most of these books, of course, languish in obscurity -- and in many cases, that obscurity is no doubt well deserved. After all, with self-published books there's no vetting, no cultural gatekeeper letting in the sheep and keeping out the goats (or is it the other way around?). Who's to say that any of these books are worth reading? Some self-published authors -- the ones setting down memories for their grandchildren, for example -- don't really care about reaching a wider audience. But for those who do, the question is how to get your self-published book to stand out from all the others.

When I resorted to self-publishing my first book, A More Obedient Wife, I did so with a heavy heart. I was embarrassed to admit that I'd self-published, but I figured I'd just give the book to friends and family. It was only after I started hearing from a few strangers who told me they'd loved the book that I began to think bigger.

And that's how I began to discover that there actually were some mechanisms falling into place that enabled a self-published author like me to secure some objective seals of approval -- someone other than little old me saying, hey, read this book. I entered it into two contests open to self-published authors, and it won awards in both (had I been more savvy, I could have taken advantage of other similar contests). I put it up on sites like Goodreads, where members list and rate the books they're reading. I urged readers who told me they liked the book to review it on Amazon, where at one point I was up to 11 reviews, all five-star (somehow, that number has mysteriously shrunk to 10).

And I sent it in to a website called Indiereader, which I had read about in the New York Times article mentioned above. Indiereader not only gave the book a favorable review, they included it in a program that funnels selected self-published books to independent bookstores around the country. Indiereader has also started reaching out to book clubs, giving them (in the words of its founder, Amy Edelman) "a dedicated page, the opportunity to do Q&As with authors (when they're able), to share their faves with other book clubs, and the chance to discover something new." And recently a book group in Pennsylvania that found my book through the Indiereader website picked it as one of their selections--thank you, Bad Girls Book Club of Broomall, PA!

I've also noticed that some of the numerous self-publishing companies (or "indie publishing" companies, as they're now beginning to style themselves) have started programs that incorporate this vetting function. Abbott Press, a division of Writer's Digest (which sponsors a self-published book award that my first novel won), will publish any book -- but, for a fee, you can have your book considered for a "Writer's Digest Mark of Quality" that indicates "high literary merit."

Of course, chances are that even a book with the "Writer's Digest Mark of Quality" isn't going to hit the New York Times bestseller list. With a few notable exceptions (mostly fantasy and romance writers), self-published authors are never going to strike it rich. In fact, despite the hype you'll hear from self-publishing companies, we're almost certain to lose money rather than make it. But for me -- and, I suspect, for many others -- it's not about making a killing, or even a living. I just want at least a few people -- okay, maybe a few hundred -- to read what I write. And these days, the mainstream publishing industry, whose denizens are so certain that they know what's deserving of publication and what isn't, can't stop me.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Ding Dong, Osama's Dead

"Osama dead!!!" my college-age daughter texted me last night at 11:18.

"So I hear," I texted back. "Didn't get details."

At 11:30 she texted me again: "waiting for Obama to speak..."

I was already in bed. Each time my cell phone dinged with an incoming text message, I had to haul myself out of bed and travel to the end of the walk-in closet where my phone was recharging. "Going to sleep," I texted back before switching my phone to silent.

This morning I found a last word from my daughter: "LAME go watch, history in the making!!"

Call me LAME, but I'm finding myself strangely unmoved by this turn of events--and surprised that everyone else in the country seems to find it earth-shaking, especially the college-age kids like my daughter who were only children at the time of 9/11. Not to mention the cognitive dissonance, for someone my age, of hordes of college students displaying fervent patriotism. I realize the contexts are vastly different, but I find it hard to imagine ANYTHING happening in the 1970s that would have prompted college students to spontaneously gather in front of the White House cheering and chanting "USA!"

Does anyone really think that Osama bin Laden's death will make a difference in the so-called War on Terror? The forces he unleashed have gone way beyond him now. Terrorists don't need his orders to prompt or organize their movements. And, as reflected in the extra security measures now being taken around the world, there's a good chance that his killing will only spark more anti-American violence.

(Astute readers will have noticed by this point that the subject of this post has nothing to do with the ostensible themes of this blog. But hey, it's my blog and I suppose it's my prerogative to violate my self-imposed parameters once in  a while.)

Aside from that, it strikes me as unseemly to rejoice at anyone's death, no matter how evil a monster he or she was. (And yes, to answer the inevitable question, that would include Hitler.) The only voice I've found in this morning's news coverage that echoes my own feelings belongs to Harry Waizer, identified in the New York Times as a World Trade Center survivor. Asked by a Times reporter for his reaction, Waizer "paused nearly a minute before he began to speak." Waizer was in an elevator at the World Trade Center when the plane struck the building and suffered third-degree burns.

"If this means there is one less death in the future, then I'm glad for that," Waizer said. "But I just can't find it in me to be glad one more person is dead, even if it is Osama bin Laden."

If Waizer is able to extend the definition of humanity to include the man who nearly killed him, I wonder why it should be so hard for the rest of us.