DOES Everyone Have A Novel In Them?

On March 24, 2012, in Opinion, Rant, Soap Box, by rsguthrie

I think the saying goes more like “everyone has a story to tell”, but a man I work with asked me the other day “how long does it take you to write one of those [novels]?” He then followed up with “You know what they say, everyone has a novel in them…” {now you need to imagine him chortling in that way that implies ‘you know damn well if you can do it, I can do it!}.

My coworker is nearing retirement. The whole conversation came up in the context of what he might do with himself once the day job wasn’t demanding his presence any longer and us talking about my published (and forthcoming) books. He then bent over and gave me the Judas kiss. Not literally, but when he said what he said it was such a betrayal of the dedication I have given to my writing craft over the past, oh, say twenty years that I felt like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He says, looking at me conspiratorially:

“Nowadays, everyone can publish a book.”

Here we go again. It’s not that his statement is incorrect. Far from it. His statement is right on the mark. Now everyone really can publish a book. Okay, not everyone—those without access to the Internet face a pretty deep challenge. But that’s about it. Everyone else can have at it.

Many of you have read my posts on the book tsunamis raging into the marketplace hourly. You know my stance. A while back I mentioned a theory that if Amazon charged a nominal fee it might weed out a few of those less serious about actually considering themselves “writers”. I didn’t equate money with talent. I only speculated that anyone out there who does “publish” only because they can (freely and easily) might not be the most serious writers in the world and their “product” might not be of the highest vetted caliber.

But I’m not here today to offer any potential solutions to what I personally view as a crisis in the book market. My coworker’s statement prompted me to offer up an old but dear opinion that not everyone can (or should) do everything. Let me say that I know you are out there—yes, you: the writer who is going to take great offense at me suggesting that there is even one single person on the planet Earth that lacks enough talent with the written word that they should not be placing their works for sale in the marketplace. I know you’re there because I have heard from you many times before. It’s okay. Everyone is entitled to their opinion—even me. But please, before you scroll for the comment section to rage against my audacity, put all manner of words in my mouth, and accuse me of being so self-absorbed, solipsistic, and egomaniacal that I shouldn’t be allowed to blog in public, just hear me out (and do it with the same respect you want me to give your opinion about the volatile subject).

First of all, I am not making any kind of personal attack on any single person out there. I don’t believe telling a person they are not cut out to be a professional hockey player or a CEO or a competitive marathoner is being personal or derogatory. It’s simply factual. I could certainly say it meanly, which would potentially make it personal, but I wouldn’t ever do that. I’m just attempting to state the facts. Not every person is a talented writer. Not every person is a sous chef who should be serving delicate cuisine in a restaurant. As mentioned before, not every person (even those who have played hockey) are good enough to be paid for it.

But everyone has a story—or shall we say a novel—in them.

You know that’s probably true. I mean, most people probably do have a very interesting story to tell. I have a singer inside of me, man let me tell you, he’s been wanting to get out for YEARS. My dad was a musician; my mom could really carry a tune. Music has been in my blood since I can remember. I like listening to music almost more than reading (and that’s a near-sacrilegious statement coming from a writer). But it’s in there. I have a song to sing, just as many people (if not all of them) have a story to tell. But here’s the difference:

I’m aware of my limitations.

I’m not insulted by the fact that there are a billion singers better than me. I have friends who are tremendous singers. I have a nephew who’s tried out for American Idol. My distant relatives Woody and Arlo Guthrie were legends in the music business. LEGENDARY. Music pulses in my blood; I cannot help myself in the car—cannot stop myself from belting out every great tune that plays from my audio speakers.

I love it. I wish I could do it. I would give almost everything I have to be a musician—to make music that I could publish in the marketplace and sell to others.

But none of that—and I do mean NONE OF THAT means I have the talent (or potential) to do it.

I don’t. I can carry a tune. I really can. I’m not the worst singer in the world. I’m not tone deaf and I was even chosen for a solo each year I performed in my small town music group.

Oh man, why didn’t I go for it then? Why didn’t I hire a vocal coach and pursue my dream?

Because I didn’t have IT.

IT is an intangible but we all know what IT is. Whether we care to admit it, if we are sane, rational, objective thinkers, we can watch ten singers sing or look at ten painters paint or grade ten students’ papers and when we see IT, we know it.

I knew I didn’t have IT when it came to singing. I just didn’t. It wasn’t a matter of giving up on a dream. I have all kinds of dreams. We all do. Rudyard Kipling, however, said this about dreaming:

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master…

I believe people confuse dreams with goals, just as they confuse ability with talent. Most people have the ability to write, and by “write” I mean put together words into coherent sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into letters, resumes, reports, and other everyday necessary communication requirements. To me, that is ability to write. I think, however, that there are people who confuse the fact that they have the ability to write with the dream that they are talented.

Yes there are fine lines. I don’t believe in a black and white world in any way—and with writing it’s no different. There are genius writers, phenomenal writers, great writers, good writers, intermediate writers, okay writers, nominal writers, poor writers, terrible writers, and God-awful writers. And yes, there are a hundred different levels between each of those broad denotations.

But please, we all know that there are certain lines that can (and probably should) be drawn. Every profession in the world has some sort of qualification system. In the world of publication, it used to be the traditional publishing houses. You could write all you wanted, submit your work to an agent and/or a publisher—you could do so unsolicited or solicited. Every year I bought the Writer’s Market. 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999. What a great book. Every genre, magazine, publishing house, agent—all the rules, requirements, guidelines, and even chapters on how to write a query letter and what various terms meant.

But each of us—every person who wanted to be a published writer—had to go through the vetting process. Was it a perfect process? HELL NO. In fact, my personal opinion was it was so flawed it became like a terrible dictator, ruling over his peasant population with a wave of a hand.

YOU live, YOU die.

No, I am not saying the old “traditional” path was anywhere near an agreeable solution. But neither is a one hundred percent swing of the pendulum to ZERO VETTING. A friend asked me the other day what I thought the differences were between the digital (Amazon) bookstore and the traditional brick and mortar stores (soon to be, I’m afraid) of yesteryear. I hadn’t thought at all about the answer but it came to me instantly. I told him this:

“When you walked into a Borders, Barnes & Noble, Waldenbooks, etc. ten years ago and stopped in front of a shelf representing your favorite type, genre, or even just a random perusal of the thousands and thousands of books, there was one thing of which you could be relatively certain: somewhere, somehow, and by some third party, each and every book in that store had been vetted. Most, extensively. Many, ruthlessly. But you knew there was an overall quality control mechanism—heck, a whole industry—devoted to at least attempting to see that the merchandise (product) before you was worthy.”

Now don’t jump to the conclusion that I think that meant every book in said stores was good or that every author published on those shelves should have been there (and most importantly that any author or book that DIDN’T make the grade should NOT have been there). As I said before, the previous process was flawed—in many cases, worse than flawed; it was criminally subjective, wantonly elitist, and shamefully totalitarian.

But you don’t fix a poor government by going to no government at all. You fix the thing that is broken. You try something else. But governing is still necessary.

The current market is pure anarchy. There’s no other way to describe it. I wish I had the answers, but what is happening is the people are running the country and that is just a few precious steps away from the lunatics running the asylum. There NEEDS to be control. And something has got to break.

I’d love to hear your ideas for a solution. And yes, it’s still a glorious free press Internet and you can rant at me and tell me how great you are and how dare I suggest someone should judge your work and decide if it should be published. But guess what? That’s how it works in civilized society. We have rules. We have governance. We demand quality control.

And these things, they don’t always work. You may hate the government; you may have a belief that law enforcement is out of control and that there are too many restrictions on what you can buy, sell, drink, inhale, watch, read, spit, say, wear, drive, or do.

But if you think the answer to too many restrictions is to have none at all, you’ve not really thought anything through at all.

(P.S. For those of you who even know who they are, or care, I’m not really related to Arlo and Woody. As far as I know.)

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The blank page is dead…long live the blank page.

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Author known to use spontaneous satire, sarcasm, and unannounced injections of pith or witticisms which may not be suitable for humorless or otherwise jest-challenged individuals. (Witticisms not guaranteed to be witty, funny, comical, hilarious, clever, scintillating, whimsical, wise, endearing, keen, savvy, sagacious, penetrating, fanciful, or otherwise enjoyable. The Surgeon General has determined through laboratory testing that sarcasm can be dangerous, even in small amounts, and should not be ingested by those who are serious, somber, pensive, weighty, funereal, unsmiling, poker-faced, sober, or pregnant.)

 

 

 

22 Responses to DOES Everyone Have A Novel In Them?

  1. Monty Fowler says:

    Rob…as a new indie author I appreciate the laissez faire market that Amazon has created. But, I’ll admit it is awash in crap. But the cool thing about a truly free market is that the people will vote with their dollars. If my first book sucks, my prospects for selling my subsequent books (and my incentive for writing them) goes down significantly.

    Perhaps Amazon could put new indie authors into a separate category where they need to sell a certain number before they can “graduate” to the standard categories. Or you could base it on the average reader ranking. This would give those readers who enjoy trolling for new talent a place to go that is free of the clutter of mass market and established authors. People who are only interested in the Stephen King’s and Tom Clancy’s of the world need never bother with the newbies.

    This would bring some rationalization to the rankings as well, whose algorithms seem to be as convoluted as mortgage-backed securities.

    We must also recognize that we are still in the early days of the publishing revolution. As the market matures, more and more indies will adopt a traditional workflow. There is a tremendous opportunity for someone to create a professional editing service that offers reasonably priced services to indie authors. There are lots of folks offering such services, but the massive scaling of such services that the internet offers is the only way to bring the cost down. Crowd-sourced beta reading is needed too. The cool thing is that someone will figure it out and make a fortune doing it. And everyone, authors and readers, will benefit.

    • rsguthrie says:

      Hi, Monty. I think it’s a GREAT idea to set a standard of X number of books sold to graduate a new self-published author to the next level of “participation” in Amazon’s site. As a book (or author) progresses in sales, they would be presented in more “quality” or standard categories. There are certainly ways to tame this wild frontier, as GA refers to it…and I agree, the person who comes up with the best solution is going to make a fortune (as they should). :) Thanks much for the comment.

  2. I share your sentiment, and I also like Monty’s comments, too. I’ve thought of this publishing revival a bit like the old west, when it was new. Not a whole lot of structure, or law, at least not enforced, and miles and miles of land as far as the eye can see.

    I do like the ideas Monty shares. They, I believe would help a lot. And there does need to be a bar, even if it’s not so high as it is with the publishing houses. The question becomes, however, who does the vetting? I can understand publishers. It’s a business, and the bottom line is, make money. And while there’s never a sure bet, there are ways of minimizing risk and assuring profit.

    The fact that none of us need a publisher to get our book out there is great. But that doesn’t eliminate the need to market it, or that it be good. Word of mouth can kill something faster than anything. Don’t have to be on Twitter long to see how much influence it can have. It’s definitely mob rule, if a group wants to use it that way.

    In the meantime, the better books are also floating in the same sea as the awful ones, and no one’s going to wade through them all to find the good ones.

    Keep up the good work, and keep plugging along.

    • rsguthrie says:

      Hi, GA. Love that you dropped by to comment. Also love your Wild West analogy. I was a huge Deadwood fan and this does feels sometimes a little like Al “Amazon” Swearengen is running roughshod over all us authors and we are in dire need of a new sheriff in town. As far as keeping up the good work, the faith, and the plugging along, I will…you do the same. ;)

  3. This attitude that anyone can publish a book may in itself help to police the system. If the field becomes saturated with too much content (and therefore too many downright bad books), other methods for determining quality will arise— namely, a shift from absolute trust in the taste of big publishers, reviewers, and bookstore owners to a more fluid process of separating the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. Just like with indie music, it needs to become cool to discover an author no one’s ever heard of before. If you’re interested, I wrote an article on how the indie publishing industry should look to the indie music industry for some clues on how this might be accomplished. It was recently published online by The Indie Times.

    I think your idea of places like Amazon charging a nominal fee to publish is a good idea. Makes people think twice about what they’re putting out there. The cost of self-publishing may be too low right now— basically, an author pays with their time, which fewer and fewer people seem to value.

    Great post— very insightful. Thanks!

  4. Dear Rob,
    I regularly stalk your blog, but I’m just not one of those people that tends to comment – unless I feel pretty strongly about something. I do here, hence the reply.
    I found your comparison between musician and writer interesting, precisely because of how inaccurate it is – and cannily accurate at the same time. Let me explain.
    I got into a pretty well known school of music (and wound up not pursuing it), so, although I may not be a musician now, I think it’s safe to say that I know a lot of musicians, some of which who are doing quite well for themselves, and some of which are incredibly talented. Please note that the two groups often do not intersect. One of my companions got into Julliard, and while he make a decent living “for a musician”, he is not pulling in anything close to the money that my ex-roommate does, who somehow got featured on one of those “America’s Got Talent” type shows – and who is vastly less talented. So, first point is the ability to make money from your art, and the relative quality of your art, may or may not be related, and for the purpose of this comment, let’s throw it out. There are lot of other factors there, from sex-appeal to what’s “in” at the moment, when it comes to the profitability of a work of art. I have met musicians that were nothing short of incredible – working street corners and singing in bars.
    The second point I wanted to make about comparing the two was actually featured on one of those cracked.com humor articles (I’ll find the link eventually). It basically states that the “training montage” we grew up with in movies like the karate kid have programmed us to vastly underestimate the amount of time and effort it takes to be good at anything, and I agree. I think that the difference in perceived effort between say, writing a novel, and being a good singer, has a lot to do with the tangibility of the result and the low visibility of the writing process. As writers, we are not often aware of how our perception of the writing process and the public’s perception of the writing process differs.
    Take the case of a musician. A large percentage of average joes on the street understand that being a good musician takes more than “talent”- if for no other reason than the various “reality” shows and A and E movies that have saturated the airwaves. We’ve all heard of musicians that started at the age of five, often because they came from “musical families.” We all know “oddball” musicians that lock themselves in tiny rooms and practice at all hours, musicians that are constantly thinking about their art – to the point where it annoys half of the people around them (and if you knew me roughly ten years ago, I apologize.) We understand that that many musicians go to college and get degrees in music, and the ones that don’t, still probably spent a LONG time getting “good” at what they do. And I think very few of us hear an artist’s breakout song and assume that said song was the first musical thing that person ever did – as a public, we UNDERSTAND that being a good musician takes years of practice.
    I would like to compare that with the understanding of the general public in regards to the writing craft. It’s a lot easier to hear a writer talk about his or her current project and go – wow, I could do that. I mean, I use words everyday, right? I’ve been using words my whole life! And a book only takes like what, a year to write? The process of becoming a good writer is often a solitary one, quieter, and sometimes hard to differentiate from the routine – because of the nature of the work. It includes things like reading a lot of books and actually having paid attention in English class. It can include things like travel, learning about other cultures (I find the study of anthropology almost like world-building in reverse), and REALLY paying attention to the habits and actions of those around you. And then, of course, there is the WRITING – assuming your first novel was a good one, chances are you put YEARS into becoming a better writer. I have started (and been unable to finish) so many novels that I can’t remember them all. The first novel I actually managed to finish is STILL sitting on my hard drive, unaware of its dual status as a source of both pride and shame. My youth was spent in hackneyed short stories, journal entries, and the most horrible poetry you can think of.
    I really disagree with the concept of “talent” in general. One could say I have a “talent” for languages, because I can generally become conversationally fluent in a language – pretty much any language – in a matter of a month (a month of rigorous study, but a month, no less). Or, one could emphasize that I grew up with a mom that barely spoke English, majored in another language, studied another language in anthropology, and have spent at least a fifth to a quarter of my life outside of the United States – often while teaching languages. And yet, I constantly hear this talk of “talent”, which astounds me. Anybody that spends that long doing anything will probably get good at it.
    Discussions of talent often bring up the inevitable Michael Jordan argument – see, he couldn’t switch! In doing so, I feel like we’ve oversimplified the argument and ignored some very key points. 1.) How long has Michael Jordan played basketball for – as in, how many hours – and with what level of engagement? 2.) Are we comparing apples to apples? I mean, how old was he in the prime of his basketball career? 3.) Do we truly understand the processes involved? Have we made the assumption that sport A is roughly equivalent to skill B, without knowing the skillset required? While both involve a lot of hand-eye coordination, perhaps there is a difference between batting at an object that is flying at your head and throwing something in your hands at a small point in the distance. Finally, 4.) at what level are we considered this person a “success?” Michael Jordan as a baseball player still makes a million times (hopefully exaggerated but I’m not looking it up) as much money as I’ll make as a writer, so economically, he’s more successful. He’s still, probably, a better ball player than I am a writer. After all, he was on a pro team – even if he wasn’t quite good enough to be there, I think it’s safe to say that he was probably much better at it than millions of others – including most likely, you and me.
    Do you consider your novel “a good novel?” (I would hope so.) Take the average person, and put ten years of “writer’s training” into them. While they might not be able to write Pulitzer-level material, is it not entirely possible that they would be able to create something engaging, entertaining, and fairly error-free? Does someone really need to be the BEST at something, in order for them to be GOOD enough at it to be worth doing?
    I guess my point is, I looked at the same examples you gave, and I drew the exact opposite conclusion. While everyone may not be capable of writing a novel RIGHT NOW, I do actually think that everybody IS capable of writing a decent novel. It all boils down to a question of how much effort you are willing to expend – not just on the novel itself (although that’s certainly included), but on the entire process of becoming a good writer. Are you willing to write a novel, give it to an editor, have them tear it apart, and go back and learn from every one of your mistakes? To sit down with a thesaurus and a style guide and a dictionary and a bunch of books about plot arch and character development and STUDY them? Yes? Okay, now can you do it five times? How about ten? Because that’s what it might take to get there if you’re starting from below the curve.
    I disagree with the idea of “talent” in general. With ten years of daily practice, for several hours at a time – you’re going to be good at pretty much anything you do. There’s a reason that modern kids have fine motor skills so advanced they can operate medical machinery on a level surgeons can’t (remind me to find that article for you too, it’s kind of fascinating), and it’s not “talent.” It’s because a lot of them have what literally constitutes thousands to ten-thousands of engaged hours of manipulating a controller, while the surgeon might only have what they did in medical school. I think you should tell that soon to be retiree that yes, he can write a book – and then explain what the entire process of becoming a writer really requires. It’s far more helpful and informative than some vague discussion of “were you born to do it?”, and it will allow him to make a more informed choice – one that will probably save him a lot of frustration in the long run.
    As far as Amazon goes – this part is hard for me to explain. Science has shown for a while that there is a “wisdom in crowds” – of which the journalist James Surowiecki wrote a rather fascinating book on in 2004. Simply put, a large crowd of people is often smarter than an expert (I think the opening example from the book involved a crowd guessing the weight of an ox, at which they performed better than a cattle expert.) I think that the feedback and input you could get from having fifty or a thousand people, even, download your book for free and tell you what they thought – for the author, it far outweighs the input of a single individual editor – in the same way that stacks of rejection letters with helpful comments is quite possibly the most valuable thing a writer can ever receive. And that “telling”, by the way, can just be in future purchases or in how much word of mouth they are giving your book. It’s still giving you a pretty good indication of the relative quality of your book. (And yes, I’m including stuff like cover art and formatting, because as a self-published writer, you are no longer just perfecting your “writing” skills.) Is it disenfranchising the reader? I think that, as long as you are providing a decent sample that is indicative of the quality of the work – and you are not charging a price that exorbitantly exceeds what the work might be worth – then, simply put, no. There is a reason that new writers price their books close to the ninety-nine cent mark. It’s because your reader doesn’t know you, has never heard of you, and so – your reader is taking a chance. It’s not like you’ve got ten novels and thirty years of experience under belt, and your low price and lack of following reflects that. If they are able to read a long sample and possibly the opinions of a few other people before buying your book, and the book is only a dollar, then their risk shrinks until it is almost negligible. I don’t think it is necessary to assign a “gatekeeping system” to independently grade the quality of e-books offered – over time, a group of consumers will be able to do that just as well as any system you could devise. People that don’t want to take risks can purchase books that have already been consumer vetted – at a price that more reasonably reflects the quality of the work. And people that are really “looking for a bargain” probably already understand that a dollar book is not going to be of the quality of that 5 dollar book with 4.5 stars and 300 reviews. The dollar tree by my house sells books; I don’t usually shop there for them, because they’re often crap.
    I think a lot of the writers that complain about the “slush” pile are kind of like residents that complain their “new neighbors” are bringing down property values – they are missing the point. You chose to self-publish, most likely, for one of two reasons. Either A, you couldn’t sell a book to a legacy publisher, or B – you didn’t want to give up the majority of your royalties – in which case, you are basically saying – this gatekeeper doesn’t do very much for me, why would I pay said gatekeeper! In both cases, arguing that there should be a gatekeeping system on self-publishing, one which disenfranchise authors who weren’t very marketable or would, quite possibly, cost money and time to institute – money that would probably come out of author royalties – invalidates your reasons for self publishing in the first place.

    I apologize for the length of this comment, but I felt compelled to point these things out.

    My Apologies, and Respectfully Yours,
    Maria Violante
    Author of the De la Roca Chronicles

  5. P.S. There *were* paragraph breaks up there.

  6. I thought about your post since yesterday and today I wrote a blog that is my comment. I think there is always a bigger picture, one that pulls us to look further and deeper, for even with all the hardship I’ve experienced in my life, given time and vision I saw how neatly and cleverly it served me in the end. Read “The View from Here” and see what comes up for you.

  7. Rob – I’m glad you said what you said, but don’t necessarily agree. In response to the blog title – oh, God, I hope not.

    However, here’s where I get off the trail – I read a Malcolm Gladwell article in The New Yorker about in 2008, comparing the talent of Picasso and Cezzane (I don’t know how to put the little thingie above the e) called Late Bloomers. You can still pull it up with Google. I recommend every would-be writer and artist read it.

    It starts with a story about Ben Fountain, who began writing in 1988 and “broke through” in 2006 through years of hard-working and diligence in learning to craft his writing.

    Gladwell goes on to discuss the fact that Picasso was a prodigy, obviously talented at a very young while Cezzane didn’t hit his stride until his eighties, his early work being considered nothing special.

    So, while I too really hate that comment that belittles our efforts that “everyone can write a novel” (I’ve heard it a lot over the years), I do think there are some who start out very slowly, with no apparent talent, who manage to get there in the long run.

    What I find amazing is that no one says, “Anyone can run a marathon.” That one seems to require doing and imparts loads of respect (as it should), but really – writing a novel is a marathon of sorts, isn’t it?

    • rsguthrie says:

      Hi, Kathy! I didn’t mean to imply that anyone who doesn’t reach a particular level of quality right now should (or could) be forced to stop writing or give up. At whatever point a writer “reaches their stride”—whether at 10, 50, or 80—they should of course be published! My point is the current model is at an extreme: no gatekeeper/vetting at all…so writers at, let’s call it, the very beginning of their journey, raw, underdeveloped, can (and do) push their work (typos, poor grammar, thin characters, non-existent storyline, whatever) right out to the shelves and start charging consumers money for it—mixing right in there with the writers who have already reached their potential, stride, call it what you will. I agree with you…who’s to say if and when a writer will emerge from their beginnings.

      I feel like the old publishing house model was at one extreme (subjective, elitist, etc.) and forewent many, many good works. But now the pendulum has moved all the way to the point of zero control. I just don’t see where allowing every manuscript no matter what stage of quality or state of development into the marketplace with a price tag on it helps the market.

      BTW, I’ve actually used your “marathon” example before, so right on!! In fact, all the serious marathons (Boston, New York, etc.) require a runner have participated in a certain number of lower marathons and have finished in a certain time. Doesn’t tell any person they can’t run their marathon, just that they must reach a certain level of “seriousness” before they can run in the elite races. ;)

  8. Love your post and also the comments it has inspired! I completely agree with you that the pendulum has swung now too far, to zero control and the slush pile is growing!

    But is there really “zero control”? I’m not so sure. I believe there still is a form of basic market control: sales do matter, and when a reader has downloaded your book and actually hates it, he or she will never buy another one of your books! So, slowly but surely, the readers will weed out the writers that are no good. It will take time but it will happen.

    This said, the tsunami is there and it makes “book discoverability” well nigh impossible. How do you stand out? In the end, it becomes a matter of luck, that someone “discovers” you, likes your book, tells his/her friends and the book buzz (that we aspiring writers all hope for) gets going…But again, the tsunami is so devastating that the book buzz may never happen. Everybody talks about the “long tail”: you’re on that virtual shelf forever and not for the 6 weeks or 3 months it used to be in the brick and mortar libraries of times past…Forever? Yes, you could also be forgotten forever! In order to attract attention, you need to market your book, grow your presence on Internet in all the right places, FB, Twitter, Goodreads, Pinterest etc etc

    Which brings me to the last point: a successful self-pubbed writer today needs (1) to learn his craft (10 years is a minimum) and (2) produce his books professionally (edited, correctly formatted and converted to readable files on line etc etc), and (3) promote his books, everything from devising smashing pitch lines to humorous tweets. In short, a writer is a full time entrepreneur: that’s what you have to tell you retiree friend. Having a “book in him” is not enough by a very long shot!

    • rsguthrie says:

      Hi, Claude! You know it’s funny…you asked a great question and then pretty much answered it yourself exactly like I was going to (great minds think alike?)…you’re right that the market should control quality, eventually at least. Books that are no good should stop selling. But then you NAILED the crux: the good ones can’t find their way into the hands of the readers because of the chaff piling up all over the place. I call it “looking for a needle in a stack of needles”. The one thing that has not come up in all of this is marketing. (Didn’t come up because it’s not controversial enough!) You nailed that, too—the work has just begun for a writer once the book is finished (and published). Again it comes back to the same problem, though: even if they never do market it or tire of all the work, the book remains in the marketplace, adding to the sheer numbers still. Another needle still hiding another needle. ;)

      Great thoughts…thank you for sharing them!

  9. Trish says:

    I think this was an excellent blog, Rob, and you’ve once again created a great topic for discussion. There appears to be several issues.

    First, can anyone write a novel? Yes. By all means, anyone who is literate can write a novel. Can they write a novel well, and by “well” I mean with their heart? No. Not unless you have talent. Talent cannot be learned. You either have it or you don’t. You can learn the craft all you want but unless you have the imagination, the muse, and the soul to do it, they turn out to be nothing but words strung together in a proper manner. I can do many things because I have the talent for it but there are more things I cannot do because I don’t have that talent, and, some of those things are certainly not for lack of trying or training.

    Second, today’s market. I had an experience today that is an excellent case in point. I was speaking with a nurse, Diedre, who told me about her friend who has almost completed writing a book. Diedre said, “oh, does she have a story to tell and I would buy it too, her story is one that needs to be told, but NOT the way she’s writing it.” Diedre went on to say how she has encouraged this friend to get an editor but the friend is adamant – she wants her book to be read the way she has written it.

    Just this attitude is why the e-book market is cluttered with “authors” (and I am using that term loosely) who believe that what they have written is golden and worthy of publishing as is. With no filter and the fact that with the push of a button anyone can upload “their story”, it will remain that way until something better comes along. I do foresee Amazon eventually stepping in and making changes if this trend of anyone can upload anything continues. The change might not even be driven by profit but to maintain its reputation of selling quality products. eBay established a review board long ago, even CraigsList stepped up last year and started filtering ads – all done to maintain reputation.

    In the meantime I’m really not in favor of the proposal of placing new Indie authors in a separate category. We have a hard enough time getting our books off the ground and marketing them in the same manner as established authors. To be segregated and placed in a category as a newbie would, I believe, make that marketing a hundred times harder and make it far less likely that a reader would go to a new Indie author category and buy a $2.99 book vs. buying one outside the category from an author who has an established “track record”.

    I’m holding fast to my belief that the filter, for now, should be in getting more bang for your buck. Most readers buying through Amazon are looking for a good book to read at a reasonable price. Outside of a marketing promotion, well-reviewed authors should be selling their books on a day-to-day basis for no less than $2.99. When Diedre’s friend tries to sell her book for whatever price she lists it as and finds no takers or a review board filled with one stars, she will eventually reduce it down to 99 cents where it belongs. Leave the $2.99 and up pricing to the ones who have not only the story to tell but the soul to tell it with.

    • rsguthrie says:

      Hi, Trish…thanks for being a regular reader (and for the comment)! You know one of the last things you said really hit me—sort of summed up what I think this whole talent versus ability versus dedication, etc thing really comes down to in a lot of ways: “the ones who have not only the story to tell but the soul to tell it with.” Amen. :)

  10. Great post – will be featuring it on my Twitter feed this morning! Keep reading and writing …
    Louise
    http://www.facebook.com/louise.gibney,writer
    @literaturelou
    http://www.misswrite.co.uk

  11. Okay, I’ll try and make it short and sweet, but I never make promises I can’t keep, so no promises, okay? If I had read your post a few months ago, I wouldn’t have believed you, but since then I have read a couple of books, (One free and one at 99 cents) And I can’t believe these people actually published them. The free one was just a few pages and had no story line whatsoever. It was more like a blurb. The 99 cent one had so many mistakes, misspelled words, and extra words in sentences, that I had to keep rereading it, just to figure out what the person was saying. In my opinion, they had gotten an idea, typed it up real quick, created a cover, and threw it up on smashwords. The problem was, they didn’t take the time to read back through it and find their mistakes, because they were in such a hurry to get it out there.
    As for putting new indie authors separate from established authors, hmm…Not sure if I like the idea or not. On one hand, if people are looking for new authors to try, then you might have a better chance of being noticed, but on the other hand, being a new author and trying to get your name out there and let people know who you are, you might not sell a lot of books in the beginning.

    I’ve written a few posts on my blog about being a reader, a writer, and a self publisher. I am new to writing and I let people know that I am. Not for sympathy, but just to let people know. I write stories with beginnings, middles, and endings. I hope my characters make people laugh, cry, love to hate them, or hate to love them, but overall, I take pride in myself and in my work. I don’t want to be considered someone that should be in the slush pile. I wrote a post on my blog titled “Am I cheating?” I self published a short story in February for the experience and I felt like I was cutting in line for the cafeteria at school! Why should I cut ahead of all the talented writers out there that have been querying their books for years, but I did and I am not going to let myself feel ashamed of it.

  12. Viv says:

    I was very intrigued by your exploration of IT. My equivalent to music would be art. I have some talent but I know full well that I don’t have enough. If I painted and sketched and exhibited I would certainly sell some works, but I’d never be a great artist. I’d like to think I have more chance of being a great writer.
    The whole thing is in turmoil, and I don’t think there are easy answers except that I suspect the Gold Rush is almost over. People have discovered it’s easy to put a book out there but getting it to sell is a lot harder. I think time and discouragement may turn out to be the new gatekeepers, which will also weed out very talented writers too who are perhaps weary from the whole effort of being what they’re not: marketing experts.
    Five years from now and I do wonder what the state of play may be.
    Thank you for such a thought provoking post.

  13. MJMatson says:

    While I totally empathise with Rob, I also totally disagree with his solution, and also one of the other solutions I see being bandied about in the comments: A tiered system.

    The problem with turf protection is that it only works to protect those who have no means to get around it. For those that do, it doesn’t work any better than prohibition, and in fact, is a lot like prohibition. A lot of innocent people end up getting hurt, while those with influence get away with murder. In context, a lot of talented writers once again would find themselves priced out of the market, while those with means could play.

    That’s my 10 cent comment. My full comment is in a blog post here: http://met-pub.newlegends.net/node/29

  14. Jericha says:

    Whoa. I’m not even sure how I got to this post, in all honesty (some twitter-linked maze of related posts and words I like, I suspect) but in addition to really enjoying it, I am VERY impressed at the depth & thoughtfulness of the comments.

    The thing that I didn’t see mentioned here at all, though, is the fact that terrible writing gets published the traditional way, too — and that sometimes it’s because the masses looooooove terrible writing. Twilight is my ever-present example: it’s weak, clumsy, and full of two-dimensional characters. For anyone who loves language, reading it is sometimes actively painful. Yes, it’s correctly spelled and punctuated; yes, it’s coherent; yes, it’s a story that at least vaguely hangs together. But it is deeply mediocre. And people love it for the same reason they publish and download a millionty awful buck-a-books on Amazon: because the truth is that there are thousands, maybe millions, of people in this country who honestly don’t know good writing from a hole in the ground.

    I think that some aspects of good writing can be taught; I think that some are innate, as with any art form. I also think that success or visibility as an author really has almost nothing to do with either talent OR training. Look, I’m also an artist, and I get outraged over the fact that hideous things that look they’re made of playdoh routinely sell for the cost of small islands, and it’s exactly the same kind of outrage: but it’s not GOOD enough! it doesn’t deserve to be successful! and that crap is getting in the way of MY art! And I hate feeling that way. It actively detracts from the part of myself that is good at making things; it acts like acid on soul.

    I’ve been reading & thinking a lot about the whole concept of talent and genius and creativity, and I always come back to the book The Gift by Lewis Hyde, which is about treating the urge to create like, well, a gift — not a gift in the greedy gimme-it’s-my-birthday sense we have of gifts in the West, but gifts in the sense of something that comes into you through one door and leaves you through another. Why do people want to tell stories in the first place? Because there’s some urge in us to share them. Why do we care when somebody’s terrible self-published piece of crap obscures the existence of our opus? Because we’re afraid of not being heard.

    And maybe this is overly nicey-nice of me, but I know that every time I start doing the that shit sucks dance about someone else’s attempt to put themselves into the world, no matter how clumsily, I have to face the embarrassing fact that it’s because I either a) am feeling like maybe MY shit sucks and it relieves my feelings to say HA, well, at least it doesn’t suck THAT much or b) am secretly sweating under the belief that I am a genius and everyone should be praising MEEEEEE and the reason they aren’t is, um, because of those rotten writers OVER THERE!

    All of which is to say, I guess, I think my solution when this panic comes up in ME (and I do think it’s as much of a private panic as it is a public problem) would be to stop myself from spending the energy feeling infuriated over somebody’s rubbish attempt at a story that EVERYBODY KNOWS IS STUPID, GEEZ and instead spend it on getting my work into the hands of a few people who will be moved, affected or delighted by it and want to pass it on and share it and treasure it forever. (Which goes right back to your post from yesterday about giving away your art, actually.) Because honestly, there’s nothing I can do about the slush pile. The slush pile is still there and it’s growing every day.

    But the people I want to vet my book aren’t necessarily the publishers, who don’t necessarily judge books on qualities that I think are worthy or correct either (although, yes, at the very least they tend to ensure that things aren’t incomprehensible.) I want my work to be judged by the people who are going to be affected by it. If they’re turned on by my use of the Oxford comma, hooray! – but not everybody gives a hoot about that. And much as I hate to say it, the people who don’t give a hoot about grammar probably won’t be buying my book ANYway. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think the people reading the self-published crapola are people who would OTHERWISE BE BUYING MY AWESOME NOVEL IF THAT STUPID BOOK WASN’T IN THE WAY.

    I’m with you on IT. But I don’t think that all those people who don’t have it are treading on the toes of those who do. As Maria Violante points out above, less talented people sometimes get more attention than those who really have something amazing, but I also think that not all venues for fame are equally suited for someone’s talents. A smaller audience having a transcendent experience of a singer in a church may be a hundred times more affected by that musician than a national audience watching the same singer on America’s Got Talent. And me, I would rather change someone’s life than get famous. Bestsellerdom is not always the right way to be heard the way you want to be. So maybe I’m willing to let the mediocre and the terrible writers clutter up the what-have-yous of the internet — because I don’t think that that is ever going to keep ME from being vetted, and therefore blessed, by those whom I respect. If anything, I think it might make truly great writing MORE miraculous – by making it more rare, surprising, and delightful to encounter.

    Of course, I’m just a starry-eyed dreamer who’s never published anything, so actually I’m just making this all up as I go along. But if I don’t go on thinking that I’M RIGHT GODDAMIT I’ll NEVER get a book deal, right?

    • rsguthrie says:

      Well however you found it, Jericha, I’m glad you did because you may have added the most cogent, thorough, and well-thought reply yet. What I love is the exchange, and that we can all learn from each other’s ideas, experiences, and analyses. I’ve learned and been driven to thought by yours. Cheers! :)

      • Jericha says:

        Thanks, Rob! What a kind thing to say, especially coming from such a cogent & thoughtful writer with such a cogent & thoughtful passel of commenters! I certainly learned a lot from reading both the article and the responses, which is why I wanted to comment in the first place — it was thought-provoking, as it was meant to be! and I’m sure I couldn’t have made the comment that I did without reading & considering all the viewpoints and articulate perspectives on the question that came before mine. I’ll certainly be back :)

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