Books & Beyond

Michel Sauret

Posted on: January 2, 2014

The unfair criticism of self-published authors

I typically hate when people use the word “unfair” in their argument. It has a childish tone, that of someone who isn’t able to deal with reality and resorts to complaining about it instead.

But when it comes to books, self-published authors really do get some unfair treatment.

Immediately, book-reviewers, journalists, editors, libraries and even some readers will jump to the conclusion that unless a book was pulbished through the traditional route, it must suck.

What other artists get that sort of treatment just because they’re unrepresented?

I try to compare self-publishing to things that I know… About three years ago, my wife, Heather, and I started our own photography business. We called it One Way Street Production because of our faith in Christ. We invested our own money (we didn’t go into any debt or borrow money from anyone) to buy camera equipment, computers and editing software, which totaled thousands of dollars. We launched a website that we control and update ourselves directly.

We were a self-started business. Our company name was our own. We worked directly for the clients who hired us, not some third-party representative whose existence validated our work.

Families and brides who wanted to hire a photographer came to our website and judged our work based on its own merit, not based on who represented us. We didn’t need anyone’s permission to take photos. We simply had to produce quality work and make sure our clients were happy.

And yet, in book publishing, most people still believe you must earn someone else’s permission to publish your book. They say, “You have to go through the gate keepers, otherwise you’re no good.”

A few months ago, my sister, Marta, who is also my publicist, helped me set up a workshop on self-publishing at a local college. The professor who helped her organize the event was generous, understanding and very supportive. Marta and that professor posted flyers around the college campus in the weeks and days leading up to the workshop.

The night of the workshop, Marta was setting up the room about an hour ahead of schedule. I wasn’t there yet, but she told me how another professor from that college had come to the room to tell her how much he disagreed with this workshop.

He called self-publishing illegitimate. He called it a crock. He called it no good.

That professor was a coward. That’s what I call him.

He went to my sister to complain about my workshop instead of coming to me directly. After the workshop, I left him a note with my email and phone number inviting him to talk to me, and I still haven’t heard from him.

Not only was that professor a coward, but he was wrong about all of his accusations.

The reality is that self-published authors are gaining ground in the book industry. More and more indie authors are gaining the attention of publishers who originally rejected their books. There have even been self-published authors who hit the New York Times, Amazon & USA Today beste-seller lists!

Up until recent years, the world of book publishing did hold a different standard. There were gate-keepers in the book publishing world more so than in other artistic pathways.

In order to be published, you had to first go through an agent (no publishing house with any sort of reputation would dare to accept a manuscript directly from an author!), then the agent had to go through the publisher, then the publisher had to go through their accountants (in other words, it wasn’t enough for a book to be good, it had to sell!), and then finally the book reached the public!

A whole slew of independent publishing houses (small presses) bypassed that formula and often accept submissions directly from the author, but self-publishing has defied even that principle!

Self-publishing allows authors to skip the agent, the publisher, the editor, even their accountants and go straight to the public.

Self-publishing took the door ram straight through the gate and rushed into the castle uninivited. For that, this form of publishing has left a bad taste in many people’s mouths.

And because we’ve barged into the party uninvited, some have resorted to cowardly name-calling and unfair criticism.

My take, read first, judge second.


Have short stories become irrelevant today?

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Getting the short story published is a challenge because the market is so small.

In April, I’ll be hosting a workshop on writing short stories. To prepare, I reached out to a few authors and asked them why they think short stories are still relevant and valuable in today’s age.

This is what a few of them responded…

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Richard Bausch (perhaps my favorite short story author of all times):

Stories are all we have, really, to connect with each other across time and cultures and the very grave itself. The linguists call it a triadic event when two minds connect over a third thing. But look where that leads. Your mind, and that of, say, Fitzgerald’s, over that sad figure whose losing his daughter again in “Babylon Revisited.”

Eugene Cross (Pitt Grad and author of “Fires of Our Choosing”):

I’d say they’re important because of the pure immersion they give us in another world. Because of all the things we can learn about ourselves from reading them.

Martin Slag (Author of the “Letters of Rejection” blog, which is extremely humorous and engageing):

The short story, by contrast (to a novel), is unique in that it packs all the pleasures of long-form fiction into a savory, aromatic dish that can be ingested and enjoyed in about the same time as it takes for you to leash up your dog and go looking for adventure in the woods.

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Have short stories become irrelevant to the young or common reader?

I had originally emailed Martin Slag (whose email name is Ernesto Barbieri?) to get a quote from him on the subject because he writes an unbelievably addicting blog called “Letters of Rejection” which is all about the process and experience of getting short stories rejected by Literary journals. Instead of replying by email, he told me he would answer my question in the form of a blog article, which you can read here.

One of the comments he made in the article sparked my interest and caused me to respond.

He said, “First, the short story market is not disappearing; if anything, it is expanding, at a vastly disproportionate rate to our culture’s interest in the form.”

But isn’t that a contradiction in terms? For a market to expand, there must be an equally proportionate growth in consumption as there is in production. For a market to grow, supply must be met by demand. You can have a farm that grows a million bananas each year, but if you have enough buyers for only ten thousand, that’s a market about to collapse on itself.

This leads me to question whether short stories really ARE relevant today? Was I jumping to an unsupported conclusions when I asked whether short stories were really relevant today?

Afterall, there are a number of literary journals shutting down each year due to financial struggles.

Also, short story collections don’t sell nearly as well as novels.

If you look at the Literature best-selling list on Amazon, very rarely will short story collections break the Top-100, and usually only because a really well-established author has come out with a highly-touted release.

Have short stories gone in the way of classics, therefore mostly irrelevant to young or common readers who need to be energized and excited about reading itself? Are short stories better left for a college or more intellectually mature audience?

I’m afraid that maybe I’ve assumed too much by asking WHY short stories are still relevant today.

I’ve seen that problem myself with “Amidst Traffic.” Though the collection has been met with favorable reviews and praise, the sales are so meager that it’s been difficult to call it a “marketable product.” The demand for short stories has decreased over the years, and the most popular books are usually ones that provide much action and little thought provocation.

But why? Our American culture is one that’s moving toward a shorter attention span and desiring shorter reading materials for public consumption.

The most popular blog posts are the ones that are short and to the point. Twitter and Instagram have become king in the social media world.

But then why is there no oxygen for short stories to survive financially? Why is the short story market dying?

I’m beginning to wonder whether short stories really ARE relevant from a public’s perspective. Except, I’m willing to argue that short stories ARE relevant from a writer/supporter’s perspective.

My argument is this: Short stories (the good ones), provoke the reader to think critically about the material because everything is packed in such a way that every word must have added meaning. It is BECAUSE our culture is so intellectually lazy, that more short stories are what we need!

But in a free society (which we all want, right?) it is the consumer who decides what product lives and what product dies. Authors will continue to write short stories even if there is no money to support it.

But is that enough to make them relevant?

And then there was this…

The New York Times recently released an article discussing the resurgent of the short story form, mostly thanks to the internet being available on smaller screens to wider audiences.

The article goes on to say that the current resurgence in the short story form could translate in future sales.

Originally, I rejoiced at this article! I was hopeful!

But as I kept reading the piece I saw that it was more speculation than journalism. Really, the NYT article provided no factual, tangible or quantitative evidence to support the case that Short Story Collections are on the rise in the market.

This article by Laura Miller on Salon.com is a candid response. And a correct assessment of the market, I believe.

My concern is that even if the short story is making a comeback thanks to the internet, maybe sales won’t follow as greatly as the article might expect. After all, people who love reading articles and news on small screens (say tablets and smaller devices), are usually readers who enjoy most of what they read for free.

If, however, the market moves into the Kindle, Nook and iBook format, then there’s financial hope after all…

Until then, the Short Story Form will always be a greater exercise in joy than in profit.

A character interview: Figuring out what your characters want

Image re-used from http://www.beccahamiltonbooks.com/

When I was studying at Fiction writing at Pitt, I had a professor, Jeff Martin, who had us do a really clever exercise. He gave us the assignment to interview one of our characters. He said that sometimes to figure out what our characters want, we have to have a conversation with them and ask them directly. I thought this idea was both crazy and brilliant. I ended up doing an interview with Lena Ralin, who is a character in a novel I began writing while in Iraq and I recently decided to return to writing.

Recently I was going through my notes to get back into writing the novel when I came across the interview I did with Lena. I figured I might share with you all.

A bit of context: The novel is titled “Jump” and it’s about a young man who grows up in a fundamentalist, strict Christian home and eventually decides to go on a journey of faith. Lena is a girl he meets in college at the University of Pittsburgh.

Enjoy!

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Michel: “I know a little bit about you, but there’s something I’m trying to figure out.”

Lena: “Go ahead. I’m ready.”

M: “I’m not sure that you are. I think you’ll get defensive.”

L: “I wont.”

M: “Why don’t you have any girlfriends?”

L: “Guys are easier to get along with. We can laugh together. Go out and have fun.”

M: “By fun, you mean go to the bars and do body shots? What were you thinking with Christopher. You know he’s fragile. You know he’s one of my guys.”

L: “I like Christopher. He’s sweet. He’s, I don’t know… gentle. I like to know that I can have an influence on him.”

M: “But that’s what I mean. When you say ‘influence’ what I really hear is ‘seduce’ him.”

L: “Well that’s the name you picked for me, isn’t it? Lena. It means ‘temptress.’”

M: “Yeah, I know and…”

L: “And it disturbs you?”

M: “Yes.”

L: “Why?”

M: “Wait a minute, wait a minute. I’m the one who’s supposed to figure you out. I’m the one who should ask the questions. But I guess that’s how you are. You like to take control. Take hold of people. That’s why you like being around guys. You like to take hold of them. Influence. Seduce.”

L: “You think of me as easy.”

M: “Yes. And I don’t want to. I want you to be a sweet girl. Christopher likes you, but you put him off. And besides, you’re a Christian.”

L: “Just because I’m a Christian it doesn’t mean I can’t experience life. It doesn’t mean I can’t love and party.”

M: “Well, yeah. It does. It means you give your life to Christ and submit to God.”

L: “That’s the problem with you fundamentalists. You and your conservative, dead churches without any music.”

M: “We have music. We sing.”

L: “No instruments. That’s why I like my church. It puts me on stage. In front of people. It gets us to live and enjoy life. Enjoy the music and the sound. The drums. That’s worship to me.”

M: “I’m not going to get into a theological discussion of worship. I’m just trying to figure out who you are.”

L: “Listen. I slept with a guy only once, and the only reason I told Chris is because I wanted him to know we’re all vulnerable, not because I thought it was okay.”

M: “Then what happened up on the cathedral?”

L: “That was a misunderstanding. I took him up on the thirty-fourth floor, out on the ledge because I wanted him to see Oakland from up there. I wanted him to see the city alive after the Steelers won the Superbowl.”

M: “And what did he think?”

L: “That I brought him up there to try something. You know. Make a move. I wouldn’t have minded a kiss, but that’s not what I was doing.”

M: “You know you scared him, right?”

L: “I know.”

M: “And then he ran off.”

L: “Can we talk about me? I don’t know why Chris took off. He did it to go find God from what he told me. I thought this was an interview so you could figure me out.”

M: “Alright. Fair enough. When was the first time you experienced death?”

L: “In Oakland actually. My freshman year. I never had a close relative die in the family, really. So this was pretty much the first.”

M: “What happened?”

L: “I saw a guy jump. I was walking on the bridge by Phipps. And a guy jumped off the bridge. But it wasn’t like you see it on camera, where the guy is far away and you’re below, or you’re right there with him talking him down. I didn’t even have a chance. At first I thought it was a stunt. This guy passes me on his bike. Whizzes right past me. He stands on his pedals, holds open his arms, and jumped over. His bike didn’t even stop until it crashed into a pole. I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know what to do. I just stared for a moment. There was nobody else around. Then I looked over to see if the guy had parachuted his way into the air, but his body was gone among the trees. I couldn’t see him.”

M: “Did you call somebody? The police?”

L: “No.”

M: “How come.”

L: “I didn’t know how it was possible for a guy to embrace death like that. Not that he was just okay with it, but he was rushing toward it at full speed. It was acrobatic. Like he’d put on a show for God just before going over.”

M: “Do you think he went to Heaven?”

L: “I guess so. I don’t know. I’m not God. I don’t like thinking of people going to hell. I don’t know why he did it. I don’t know why he chose to do it when I was there. I never even talked about it to anyone for a few weeks. The police found him a couple days later. It was the weekend. Nobody reported him missing until Monday. And I felt guilty for that, because they could have found his body a lot quicker if I had said something?”

M: “And the bike?”

L: “Some random guy killed himself in front of me and you ask me about his bike?”

M: “I thought maybe it would mean something to you. The way is just went on rolling without the rider and then crashed.”

L: “It looked like a ghost was riding it. That was probably the worst. I didn’t really want to say that. I didn’t want to tell you how the bike was the worst part. The way it moved without anybody there. It made me question God. Not because of the senselessness of this death, but it made me wonder if maybe this world is a bike without a rider. People say God is watching, he’s moving, doing His Will. But what if there is no God at all? What if the bike crashes, and there’s nobody there to let anybody know? That’s why I didn’t call anyone. Because I couldn’t accept that God had actually seen that happen and did nothing to stop it.”

M: “Maybe you were the one who was supposed to stop it.”

L: “Let’s change subject. What else do you want to know?”

M: “I want to know what you desire. What you want.”

L: “I don’t know what you mean, like how serious of an answer do you expect?”

M: “Serious.”

L: “I want to influence people into worshipping God, into loving each other. That’s why I’m involved with youth leadership at the church. And I want a guy who can treat me like a girl.”

M: “That’s pretty general. How does a guy treat a girl?”

L: “He lets her figure things out on her own. He lets her make mistakes. But he also protects her. He lets her be a girl until she turns into a woman.”

M: “So you want to be a girl, or a woman? There’s a difference.”

L: “Okay. Around Chris, I feel like a girl. I feel his innocence and I wish I never had sex. I wish I wasn’t a drinker. A partier. He’s sweet and I want to be sweet with him. But he still doesn’t know what he wants either. He says he wants to go find God, but I don’t know why he needs to go somewhere else to find Him. He’s right here. He’s with us.”

M: “But you said the world is an empty bicycle.”

L: “That’s only a fear I have, that we might be an empty bike. But down to the core, I can’t accept that. There are too many beautiful things. And I don’t just mean the flowers and nature. I mean like music. Why in the world would we have an appreciation for music if God didn’t exist? What genetic defect caused that? It doesn’t help us survive. It’s just beautiful.”

M: “What else do you find beautiful?”

L: “I was in Florida one time with my family and I saw a feather stuck in the ground after a rainfall. It was like a pen of God, there for my plucking. I like how the anatomy of a feather looks. The stem is hollow like a vein and the strands all come together to form a smooth surface. Like a veil. And even when it ruffles or splits, you can make it come back together.

M: “One more question, and then I’ll let you go.”

L: “Shoot.”

M: “Do you say ‘coo-pon’ or ‘que-pon’?”

L: “I don’t use coupons.”

M: “That doesn’t help.”

L: “Deal with it.”

M: “I’m still not convinced by what you want.”

L: “I told you.”

M: “Yeah, but there’s gotta be more. It doesn’t fit. You’re so self contradictory.”

L: “I want some independence. Some wiggle room. I want to be able to shock people. I want guys to think about me. To wonder who I am. To wonder if I’m serious or just teasing them. I want to be mysterious. I want to know that people can’t figure me out. That I’m still a bit of an enigma. Even to God.”

M: “That’s very presumptuous.”

L: “Quit interrupting me. You ask me what I want, and then you judge me for it. I don’t want to be judged. I want people to think of me as a perfume. As a fragrance that lingers and gets you to remember memories all day long.”

M: “In other words… a seducer.”

L: “Yeah, but not sexually. Just spiritually. Like a muse, but one you can’t own.”


Kirkus Reviews: Is it worth the money?

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The moment your book hits the market, you have to switch gears from writer to book promoter. From artist to business man. As a business man, you’ll have to spend money to market and promote your book, which is no longer a book, but a “product” for public consumption.

That’s a cold way of looking at things, but that’s (unfortunately) how publishers look at the books they release to determine the perfect equation for profit.

When I released “Amidst Traffic,” I became starry-eyed and giddy by the idea of getting my book reviewed by Kirkus, one of the major book reviewers in the industry. I thought for sure that Kirkus would love the book, pick it for Editor’s choice, show it off to hundreds of thousands of unique web visitors, and I’d make a killing.

Heck, I might even score a starred review, I was so confident.

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Not only was I starry-eyed, but I was also impatient. Instead of paying $425.00 for a review that might take 9 weeks, I decided to fork over the extra money and paid $575.00 for the 4-6 week review.

Once the review was published, however, nobody saw it. It got tucked away three or four layers deep into the Kirkus labyrinth of thousands of reviews, and you wouldn’t find it unless you searched for it specifically.

I thought that by getting my book reviewed by Kirkus, I’d get immediate coverage and exposure.

Wrong.

Only an extreme select few books get selected by their editors for a featured review, and even fewer (literary greats) actually get a star. They don’t give those things out like kindergarten teachers, you know.

Before I go further, please know that this article is not a criticism of Kirkus or their reviewing system. I think they’re extremely fair and objective, and that’s what they OUGHT to be.

My point is that if you’re an indie author, their review is not worth investing your money. You have to invest the finances you have like a business man, and in this case, Kirkus Reviews is a poor investment. That is, unless, you’ve been reviewed so many times and by so many objective reviewers that you KNOW Kirkus will love your book (and therefore feature it to their massive audience).

How to better spend that money:

With a little bit of patience and wise discernment, I could have spent that same $575.00 and gotten a lot more out of it.

Here are some objective book reviewing companies that charge a lot less:

ForeWord Book Review: $129.00 (Unknown turn-around time)

San Francisco Book Review: $125.00 (6-10 weeks)

Portland Book Review: $99.00 when added to San Francisco Book Review (6-10 weeks)

Reader Views: $119.00 (2 weeks)

Indie Reader (Discovery Awards): $150.00 – provides a book review AND enters your book in their award competition (2 weeks)

The grand total for all five of those reviews combined would be $622.00 AND you get a heck of a lot more exposure from the added sum of those reviews. Some of those review companies will re-post your review on multiple sites, therefore increasing your Search Engine Optimization (SEO) back to your website.

You do the math: $575.00 for one review that nobody will ever really see or $622.00 for five reviews that you can add to your book cover and link back to your website?

What about you?

Where have you submitted your book for reviews? What type of results and sales did those reviews generate?

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