Friday, February 24, 2006

scary writers

My big eventual goal is to be a novelist. I have no issues with saying this -- I'm gradually overcoming my personality issues that make writing, and writing well, more difficult than it needs to be. And I generally enjoy writing, though even at its best it's still hard work; I've had easier days digging post holes than writing. One of my long-term problems with writing is the peer-group issue. I never tell anyone I'm trying to be a writer unless I know them well and for a long time, but I keep meeting people who self-identify as writers to pretty much anyone who'll listen, and who are, really, not the ideal peer group. They tend to lump into a few broad categories, including:
  • Public Posers. These are the ones who tend to write in public and make a big show out of being writers. They have highly romanticized views of what writers do, most of which revolve around the superficial trappings of the "writer's lifestyle". In their view, writing is more about the lifestyle, less about the actual putting of words on paper.
  • Pretentious Literati. These are the snobbish writers who spent too much time in lit-crit classes in college, who favor deep symbolism, allusion, alliteration, obscure vocabulary, and convoluted phrasing, who badmouth Harry Potter readers when they get a chance. They tend to hang out in groups online and spell the word "art" with a capital A. If you don't like what they write, it's obviously because you're just not educated or intelligent enough to understand it.
  • Scruffy Street Person. Generally unemployed, usually uneducated, often unwashed, these potential writers lurk in libraries and public places, scribbling barely-legible words on looseleaf at a breakneck pace because they've got Stories To Tell. These are actually some of my favorite people to chat with. Conversations with them are often educational and tend to expand one's world view, and they're really passionate. But I'm uncomfortable viewing them as my peer group.

Don't misunderstand me, I know writers who are none of these things, who are friendly and fun and also write. I'm happy to mentally associate myself with them. But it's always bothered me thinking of the three archetypes above as my peer group. Today, though, I had a revelation. We were closing the Artsgarden to prepare for a private event, and I was booting out a writer of the Scruffy Street Person variety. I was the one doing this because I was the only person on staff who could tolerate the stench surrounding her. She was telling me all about her fairly interesting life and her somewhat less interesting writing when revelation struck: These people aren't my peer group. They're my competition. Maybe that's catty, but I feel much better now!

Monday, February 20, 2006

On James Frey, memoirs, and publishing

So, here's something I wrote in an e-mail a few weeks ago that I thought might be of more general interest. We were talking about the publisher's responsibility for fact checking in memoirs, and publishing in general. I put the asides with asterisks as footnotes. Here goes:

I'm thinking the cost of fact checking in nonfiction is really pretty prohibitive. It's not just copy editing; Pieces didn't get in trouble, for, comma, splices. The problem is, once you start checking memoirs for errors, where do you stop? Sure, it might have been reasonable to check on James Frey's arrest record. But how much time, trouble, and expense would it take to check that he really made a particular airline flight? Or how much he paid for meth? And, what if someone comes forward and says that he invented a conversation with them for the book? No one would expect the publisher to check this stuff. I'm thinking it's all the author's responsibility. And Frey's been getting slammed pretty hard for it, too. But I have a friend who recently went through rehab after some pretty heavy drug use, and he says the revelation that the story was embellished didn't change his impression of the book at all. It's still an unnervingly accurate look at what hardcore drug use and recovery is like.
On a related note: error checking in textbook publishing has been taking a hit for a few years now, too. Even publishers admit it happens more often than they'd like, and they're a lot easier to check than memoirs or other nonfiction; most often, you just need an encyclopedia or a calculator. In my science-major days, I had to buy a couple of $120 textbooks that were written my my professors*; I know for a fact that all of the error checking in the problems and equations was done by grad students (some of whom were my TAs). So, the error rate in those books (and we found a few) was basically the error rate of grad students. Not surprising that they're not perfect, then.
And, the increase in book prices. A few years ago, I asked a guy in the printing end of the publishing business about this. The increase in publishing costs in recent years is real, but is only a fraction of the increase in book prices. Pulp paper has almost quadrupled in price in the last twenty years, bringing the cost of raw material up to -- gasp! -- thirty-five cents per book!** And, marketing costs for books has risen in recent years. This is also the publisher's fault; while they're publishing fewer and fewer books, they're spending more per book to market their likely bestsellers (books by bestselling authors, continuations of popular series, novelizations, et cetera). And, because so many of their sales are through so few huge booksellers, they're giving steeper discounts to their volume sellers. But the main increase in book price is the increase in profit by the major publishers. Bertelsmann, f'rinstance, now owns not only a dozen or so major imprints (Bantam, Doubleday, Dell, Random House, Knopf, Crown, Ballantine, Fodor's, Del Rey, Fawcett, Times and Pantheon), they also own a lot of distribution and sales channels -- like, half of And these mega-companies are structured so that it's pretty easy to show only a small profit, no matter how much money they make***. So they can keep charging more and more, while pretending they're losing money on even bestselling books.

The ideal for a publisher is to have exactly one author, and for that author to turn out a new book every month, and for that book to sell 10 million copies****. Every deviation from this formula is to a publisher's detriment; incremental overhead largely boils down to the number of different books you sell. You make less money on a hundred novelists selling a hundred thousand books each, than you do on one author selling ten million books. And you actually lose money on two hundred thousand authors each selling fifty books. There was a time when publishers took a lot more chances on new authors; now, they view every author who's not potentially a bestseller as a net drain on their balance statement. It's not that they'll lose money, they just won't make as much as they would for an equal amount of overhead with a best-selling author. Which is as good as a loss to current corporate thinking.

Yah, that's a lot of rambling!


* A pretty common income supplement for many professors. My professor for IUPUI's intro-level speech class, required for (as far as I know) every major on campus, wrote the $45 textbook. You had to tear out pages to turn in and therefore couldn't sell the book used after the class. He taught three bulk lecture sections per semester, around 400 students per section. If he got a standard textbook author's royalty -- probably 15%, because of the volume and guaranteed sales -- he made an extra $16k a year from textbook sales.
** This is his estimate. He says it's in publishers' best interest to make this number look bigger by factoring in shipping costs, warehouse space, labor for handling, et cetera. But he figures the actual paper cost is in this ballpark.
*** Remember Frasier? When a writer filed a lawsuit claiming the network shorted him on his percentage of the profits from the show, the network somehow managed to produce figures showing that the second most popular sitcom of the '90s actually lost around $1.2 billion.

**** This applies pretty directly to the music business, too.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

English-major moment

I worked today with the original 50's doo-wop group The Counts. They were great; they were all in their late 60s or 70s, but they've still got soul. I've been noticing recently, and I noticed it again today, that a lot of older musicians tend to talk a lot about how cool they were. They're not cocky or jerks about it, but they spend a lot of time talking about the big names they played with, the cities they toured through, that sort of thing. Today, I was talking to an older world-class sax man. He's on oxygen, he travels in a wheelchair, he's a tiny bit shaky on the horn. And he was telling me about some famous songs he wrote and people he played with. Into my head jumped Shelley's poem Ozymandias:
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Then, the competitive voice in the back of my brain tried to trump this with some Latin: Sic transit gloria mundi. Maybe this sort of thing justifies getting an English degree.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

notes comedy

I just came from the dress rehearsal for a new dance show. I was watching with a few theater friends from the observation booth, because someone had a baby -- this means we could talk through the show. At one point, a dancer bungled a move and landed on his butt, then bounced up and kept dancing. Katie said, "that'll be a big note." I said, "do they really give notes that say, 'Don't fall down'? " And, she and Jeff both said they really do. They've heard notes like, "don't fall into the orchestra pit" and "don't hit the blackout button on the light board in the middle of a scene". I guess I've been out of actual theater-theater long enough that I've forgotten all about stuff like that. When I was TD'ing, I never gave really obvious notes; I just assumed that someone knew when they screwed something up....

Monday, February 13, 2006

what price freedom?

So, I'm thinking the value of freedom is greater, the farther you are from the U.S. I can tell because I've been listening to neo-conservatives. In Iraq, there is no security and few government services. But they're better off because they're free. Contrast that with here, where the Patriot act is up for renewal. We'll be less free, but we're better off because we're safer....

Sunday, February 12, 2006

getting old(er)

So, I discovered yet another sign of aging. We got Laura an XM satellite radio for Christmas, and it's great. It's got a whole pile of music by genre to suit whatever mood you're in. I found a station I really like, that's great for casual listening and background music: Beth Orton, Chris Isaak, Suzanne Vega, things like that. I just checked the channel guide and found I've been listening to the adult contemporary easy-listening station. And really enjoying it. Egad!

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Pithy thought

So, I had my first quotable moment in a while. I was talking about being overworked, and this came out of my mouth:

"If you're going to get really good at something, make sure it's something you like -- because people will want you to do a lot of it."