Communion Of Dreams


“Ripped from today’s headlines!”

That was a fairly common advertising phrase used to promote books and movies back in the day, referencing spectacular murders and crazed drug orgies. Writers/publishers/moviemakers would try and cynically cash-in on the public attention these events generated by getting their books & movies out quickly.

And recently, it’s  a phrase which has been haunting me.

I’ve mentioned previously that sometimes it feels like I am being a bit too prescient about our own future in writing about the alternate timeline of St Cybi’s Well / Communion of Dreams. Like I told a friend this morning:

I’ve made the comment a couple of times, but let me reiterate that it is just plain … creepy? … scary? … to be hearing comments from the CDC and WHO about the spread of this Ebola outbreak, and how it is a virus we don’t really have any treatment for, and how quarantines are necessary to try and control it … *ALL* of which could be coming right out of the SCW stuff I am writing about right now. Blimey. It’s seriously playing with my brain a bit.

Well, at least I know that all the ‘news’ stuff in SCW will have the ring of truth to it …

 

News? Ring of truth? Try this on for size:

CORNISH: How have past Ebola outbreaks ended, and what do you think needs to be done to end this particular outbreak?

GEISBERT: Outbreaks usually end when the public health agencies are able to come in and quarantine the affected individuals, and, you know, eventually the outbreak runs its course, and it’s over. You know, in central Africa these outbreaks have tended to occur in a very defined geographic area – for example, a village. And the public health agencies, like the World Health Organization and humanitarian aid organizations like Medecins Sans Frontieres, have come in, quarantined that area, and the outbreak has been contained. I think what’s been difficult with West Africa is that it’s so widespread, and it’s occurring simultaneously in so many different areas, that you really stretch that experienced resource thin, and so that’s a huge problem.

 

Or this:

How bad is the current outbreak?

Bad — very, very bad. It’s concentrated in three small West African states: Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, where reports of Ebola infections first emerged in February. The outbreak has claimed more than 670 lives and, worryingly, infected medical personnel attempting to stop its spread. A prominent Liberian physician died Sunday.

What’s particularly scary, though, was the recent death of a Liberian man in Lagos, the bustling coastal mega-city in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country. The man, a consultant for the Liberian government, had traveled from Liberia through an airport in Lome, the capital of Togo, before arriving in Nigeria. The hospital where he died is under lockdown, and the WHO has sent teams to Togo and Nigeria.

 

So, yeah, the phrase “ripped from today’s headlines” has been kicking around in my head entirely too much the last couple of weeks.

Ah, well, maybe that just means that some large publisher or famous director will knock on my door and hand me a very large chunk of money so I can ignore everything else and finish the book in a few weeks …

 

Jim Downey

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Get lucky.

“I’d rather be lucky than good.” — Lefty Gomez

* * * * * * *

In a fairly soul-baring piece by Emily Gould about the reality of struggling to be an ostensibly ‘successful’ writer, this should give even the most optimistic person pause:

In 2008 I sold a book-in-progress for $200,000 ($170,000 after commission, to be paid in four installments), which still seems to me like a lot of money. At the time, though, it seemed infinite. The resulting book—a “paperback original,” as they’re called—has sold around 8,000 copies, which is about a fifth of what it needed to sell not to be considered a flop. This essentially guarantees that no one will ever pay me that kind of money to write a book again.

 

* * * * * * *

In a discussion over on MetaFilter, successful Science Fiction author Charlie Stross had some thoughts on the above-cited essay. Here’s an excerpt from his comment:

In 2001 I had a gigantic stroke of good luck: I acquired a [good] literary agent and sold my first novel. It was about the tenth novel or novel-shaped-thing I’d written since 1990, on my own time. The advance was, eventually, $15,000 for US rights (a good first book advance in SF/F) and £3500 for UK rights. Note that a new novelist can’t get follow-on book contracts until their first book has proven itself in print — to justify the advance money the new contract will cost the publisher — so I had to keep up the freelance journalism for a few more years.

 

* * * * * * *

“A gigantic stroke of good luck.”

But Stross is a good writer, right? I mean, doesn’t he deserve his success and popularity? The meritocracy of the marketplace and all that?

Perhaps. From an NPR story the other day:

Several years ago, Princeton professor Matthew Salganik started thinking about success, specifically about how much of success should be attributed to the inherent qualities of the successful thing itself, and how much was just chance. For some essentially random reason, a group of people decided that the thing in question was really good and their attention attracted more attention until there was a herd of people who believed that it was special mostly because all the other people believed that it was, but the successful thing wasn’t in fact that special.

Salganik came up with a clever experiment, one which allowed a large number of teenagers (30,000) access to several dozen songs by promising but as yet unsigned bands. The way the experiment ran created 9 different iterations of ‘reality’, to see whether the same song would become the most popular one in each test run. They didn’t. In fact, the results were wildly divergent:

“For example, we had this song ‘Lock Down’ by the band 52 Metro,” Salganik says. “In one world this song came in first; in another world it came in 40th out of 48th. And this was exactly the same song. It’s just in these different worlds, history evolved slightly different. There were differences in the beginnings, and then the process of social influence and cumulative advantage sort of magnified those small, random initial differences.”

Now obviously there are many different things that have an impact on success and failure — money, race and a laundry list of other things — and after this work, which one person in the field described as a seminal paper, Salganik went on to do similar studies with parallel worlds that suggest that quality does have at least a limited role. It is hard to make things of very poor quality succeed — though after you meet a basic standard of quality, what becomes a huge hit and what doesn’t is essentially a matter of chance.

 

* * * * * * *

Another comment a little after Stross’s in that MeFi discussion offered a different perspective that’s worth considering:

Emily Gould’s example is crucial because she is the primary example of a writer who had succeeded. She did everything she was supposed to do: came to NYC, produced a ton of successful content for a big brand website, then continued on her own to create a huge internet presence, and then branched out into conventional media (the NYT piece) and eventually a six-figure book deal. If you think of the thousands of writers who are racking up credit card debt writing for free or almost on free all those websites we read every day, they are trying to become Emily Gould. Regardless of what they might think of her work itself, that’s the approximate career path they’re trying to follow.

So when people are glibly like, “Oh, she lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, there’s your problem,” what they’re saying is: the pinnacle of this career is one in which you will never be able to afford to live on your own, never mind have kids or financial stability or even a regular writing paycheck, the end. And that should really give us pause.

Because, sure, you can say “She should never have come to New York, she should always have kept a full time job in a different profession, etc. etc.” But to work for Gawker, she had to come to New York. To gain the kind of name recognition she has, she had to work full time posting and networking and Tweeting and, basically, working for free. And when her book failed, it didn’t fail because it was “bad” – because she wrote, in the book, the exact same way she wrote online. For better or for worse, that was what people liked. The real, applicable lesson is that the book failed because the people who read her stuff online didn’t care enough to pay for it in print.

 

* * * * * * *

“I’d rather be lucky than good.” — Lefty Gomez

I used to think that this was wrong. In fact I was quite confident that my intelligence, hard work, and focus could overcome any barrier. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of those things.

But I’ve seen too much life to still believe that. Yeah, I’d rather be lucky than good.

Back to work.

 

Jim Downey



It’s exploitation.

Nine years ago, as I was in the process of closing down my gallery of fine art, I wrote the following in response to a query from a local restaurant owner who was looking to offer our artists the “exposure” of hanging their art on her walls:

Having free art to hang on your walls in order to entice people is a great idea.  It would be the same thing as getting local musicians to come perform during all your hours of operation for no pay, with the excuse that they’re getting “exposure” and can put out a tip jar or maybe schedule paying gigs – and you won’t even ask for a percentage of the cut!  Such a deal!  Or to get it out of the realm of the arts, what would you call an employer who “allowed” workers to slave away for no compensation other than the chance to sell their services to some other potential employer when they were noticed for how well and hard they worked?  And what do you think that would do for the level of wages in the community?

Folks, this is exploitation, nothing more.  It’s using artists for your own personal gain.

I suppose I should have had the prescience to see the coming storm of internships, but back then I wasn’t as cynical as I am now.

Because the truth of the matter is that this sort of thing has almost become routine. Companies hold “competitions” for new logos and other graphic design needs, with the hook that winning such a competition will give the designer “exposure” and a chance to *maybe* do some other actual paid work for the company later. The Huffington Post was built on a model of not paying for content from most of their writers, but rather providing them an outlet for “exposure.” It’s become such a routine practice for online publications to ask for free content that best-selling author John Scalzi posted a bit of a rant back in December about the requests he gets.

Well, two days ago veteran journalist and multiple-award winner Nate Thayer got a query from the Atlantic Magazine to re-purpose a longer article he had published elsewhere. Thayer was open to the query, right up to the point where the Global Editor said that they wouldn’t pay for the piece, but rather it would be good for Thayer because of the “exposure”. Thayer blogged about it, including his email correspondence back and forth with the editor so that the entire horror show unfolds before your eyes. Thayer’s basic reaction is best summed up by this passage:

I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children. I know several people who write for the Atlantic who of course get paid. I appreciate your interest, but, while I respect the Atlantic, and have several friends who write for it, I have bills to pay and cannot expect to do so by giving my work away for free to a for profit company so they can make money off of my efforts.

The whole thing has gotten a fair amount of attention online, and generated a lot of fairly predictable discussion.  Including taking Thayer to task for publishing the emails as well as his audacity at taking umbrage at being asked to provide his work for free.

My reaction to this is best summed up in Scalzi’s two final points in his rant:

9. If this is your cue to complain about how this makes me an asshole, ask me if I care. Go on, ask!

10. But now that you mention it, saying “fuck you, pay me,” to you does not make me (or anyone else from whom you are hoping to extract actual work from without pay) the asshole in this scenario. It makes me the guy responding to the asshole, in a manner befitting the moment.

Bingo.

It’s one thing to be asked to contribute work to some charity. Or to participate in writing for a blog or website which (intentionally) isn’t generating income for the owners. It’s another matter altogether to be asked to give away your work (creative or non) to benefit a for-profit business. That’s called exploitation.

And calling it exploitation doesn’t make you the bad guy.

 

Jim Downey

 



“First they ignore you…”*

I’ve been sick with the current nasty version of cold/flu going around, so I missed writing about this:

They used to call it the “vanity press,” and the phrase itself spoke volumes. Self-published authors were considered not good enough to get a real publishing contract. They had to pay to see their book in print. But with the advent of e-books, self-publishing has exploded, and a handful of writers have had huge best-sellers.

True, of course, but the piece is also about how the ‘traditional’ publishing houses are now trying to get in on the self-publishing market:

There have been more and more self-publishing successes recently, and the audiences are growing by leaps and bounds, says Carolyn Reidy. She’s the CEO of Simon & Schuster, which recently announced that it’s launching a new self-publishing service. If traditional publishers want to survive, Reidy says, they have to keep up with the rapid changes taking place in the industry. The growth of self-publishing is one of them.

“We actually understand that it is a different world than what we do,” she says. “We want to understand it, and if it is going to … be a threat to our business, we definitely want to understand it and also see how we can turn that to our advantage. And one of the advantages is, it is a great way to find authors, also new genres and new audiences.”

Because I’ve been sick, perhaps, my attitude is “screw ’em.” Yes, I would like to have my books readily available in brick & mortar stores. And realistically, that’s only practical through a traditional publishing house.

But as I have said and documented here for almost six years now, traditional publishing is broken. The major publishers were too inflexible in the face of changing technology, and entirely too insular & inbred in how they sought out new authors. If you were famous or had a connection inside the industry, you had a chance of getting noticed, otherwise it was nothing but a lottery with little or no regard for quality.

I certainly haven’t hit the big time with self-publishing. And I have had to work a lot harder at promotion. But I am *very* happy with how it has gone, and I really appreciate all the help I have gotten from my readers.  Thanks, everyone!

And to that end, let’s do a “free download” day for Christmas: The Kindle edition of  Communion of Dreams will be free to download all day. So if you don’t have the book, get it! And if you know someone who you think might enjoy it, tell them about the promotion!

Merry Christmas!

 

Jim Downey

* Of course.



The $1 freebie.

Wait, what? How can something free be priced for $1.00 ?

Easy: today Communion of Dreams, which normally sells for $4.95, is completely free for anyone to download. Please – go get it, if you haven’t already. In fact, if you have already gotten it, delete that one and go get it again anyway. Why? Well, it’ll help my rankings if you do.

But I’m doing this today to help promote the Kickstarter for my next book: St. Cybi’s Well.

Currently the Kickstarter is just a bit under halfway over. It is also just a bit under halfway to the funding goal. So far, so good.

The thing is, though, that only 28 people have backed the project so far. Now, I love the level of support from those backers, and greatly appreciate the contributions. But so far this year over 20,000 people have downloaded Communion of Dreams for free. And the previous version of the novel had been downloaded over 35,000 times.

If each and every person who got the book for free just this year would kick in $0.50 — fifty cents — no, not him — we’d surpass the Kickstarter goal and I could concentrate on getting St. Cybi’s Well finished and published.

But that is unlikely to happen. So I’m asking for those who see this to do two small things:

  1. Go over, kick in a buck on my Kickstarter. Just $1.
  2. Tell others about it. Word-of-mouth is excellent promotion — it’s how some 60,000 people have heard of Communion of Dreams. Now, let’s convert some of that into support for my Kickstarter.

Self-publishing is incredibly powerful. But it is also damned tough. There’s no ‘advance’ from a publishing house to allow me to concentrate on writing the next book. There’s no budget for advertising and promotion. There’s no design department handling the cover and book layout. There aren’t editors to go through the text. There aren’t copy editors to pore through the proofs. All of that has to be handled by me, one way or another.

Communion of Dreams has gotten praise from people around the world. And not just for the story. Also for the professional quality of the text. That takes a lot of hard work and attention to detail.

I don’t mind that. I take pride in the finished product. But I could use your help. If you got Communion of Dreams for free and enjoyed it, please help me out today. It’ll help get St. Cybi’s Well out that much sooner.

Thanks!

Jim Downey



Looking back: Rejecting Jane Austin.

While I’m on a bit of vacation, I have decided to re-post some items from the first year of this blog (2007).  This item first ran on July 20, 2007.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

How would you like to have been the guy at a publishing house who sent back J. K. Rowling’s query for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (as the book was first titled in Britain)? Purportedly, over a dozen people have this bit of professional shame lurking in their past. There are plenty of other such stories out there of writers who had trouble selling their first book, who then went on to hugely successful writing careers. But given Rowling’s phenomenal success (which I think is fully deserved), this is the tale I find most amusing as I struggle in obscurity with my own writing.

Getting published these days is largely a matter of luck. Oh, if you are already a celebrity, then getting a book published is a simple matter. But as we live in an age of celebrity, I don’t find that in the least bit surprising. But for a first-time novelist, breaking through is really a matter of luck as much as anything.

Don’t believe me? Figure that quality will eventually attract a publisher, the way that J.K. Rowling did after a dozen rejections?

Tell that to David Lassman, the director of the Jane Austen Festival in Bath. Lassman, a frustrated novelist himself, decided to see what would happen if he sent around sample chapters and plot outlines for some of Jane Austen‘s work to British publishers. From The Guardian:

After making only minor changes, he sent off opening chapters and plot synopses to 18 of the UK’s biggest publishers and agents. He was amazed when they all sent the manuscripts back with polite but firm “no-thank-you’s” and almost all failed to spot that he was ripping off one of the world’s most famous literary figures.

Mr Lassman said: “I was staggered. Here is one of the greatest writers that has lived, with her oeuvre securely fixed in the English canon and yet only one recipient recognised them as Austen’s work.”

Lassman barely tweaked some of the names and titles, but left the text largely alone. And so, one of the most celebrated authors in the English language couldn’t get past the first-line readers employed by most publishers and agents to filter out unsolicited submissions.

As I try and psyche myself up for making another round of passes at agents, trying to convince them that having over 3500 people download my novel based almost entirely on word of mouth is an indication that there is indeed some demand there, I will remember this. I do not delude myself into thinking that I am a writer on the same level as Austen or Rowling. Hardly. But not all published work is in anything like that league. Further, the decision as to what gets published, what gets past the poorly paid staff stuck with opening envelops, is largely a matter of just dumb luck rather than the reflection of any sort of quality judgment at all.

Jim Downey

 



Paradigm shift.

Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions came out when I was only four years old, but the ideas it contained percolated through the culture I grew up with, having substantial impact on everything I read at a crucial point in my life. In many ways, the concept of paradigm shift was self-fulfilling, as it came to define and dominate a lot of the intellectual backdrop of my formative years. This in no small part will explain a *lot* of the ‘meaning’ of Communion of Dreams.

And, unsurprisingly, it still has a major influence on how I see the world. Which is why sometimes I am willing to try seemingly absurd things: not because I think that they will necessarily succeed, but because I am looking for an inflection point, a fulcrum, which will allow me to assess and perhaps change perspective.

One of those things has been playing with the idea of doing a Kickstarter in lieu of a conventional publishing deal, as I mentioned previously. Of course, I’m hardly the first writer to consider this, since it seems that Kickstarter-type crowdfunding of creative projects has started to take hold in our society.

Well, I just came across another one, something of a template by author Seth Godin. Here’s an excerpt from his blog about it yesterday:

My idea: Kickstart + bookstore + ebooks.

The publisher (my key to the bookstore) is only willing to go ahead with the rest of the plan if my Kickstarter works. No Kickstarter, no distribution, the stakes are high. (As you saw at the Domino Project, the ebook part is easy now, but the bookstore is still critical to reach the many readers who find and buy books in stores).

If the Kickstarter works, then all the funders will get to read the book before anyone else, plus there are bonuses and previews and special editions. A few weeks after the early funders (that would be you) get to read it, the book will be available to book buyers for purchase the traditional way (wherever fine books are sold in the US, including digital readers). Of course, the Kickstarter funders get a better price, get it first and get unique bonuses, plus the pleasure of being in early–and knowing that they made it happen. The only way this book becomes real is if my readers get behind it now.

This was outlining his project, basically starting it. For the experiment he set a goal of $40,000 on his Kickstarter, and had it running for four weeks to see if it was viable.

He met his goal in three hours. And it is currently funded at $194,873 – almost 500% of his goal.

Now, Godin is a published author and successful self-promoter. He has a real following. Most authors, myself included, have no where near his level of support going into such an effort.

But he has found his fulcrum. He has proven that this is possible, at least under some conditions.

Are there other fulcrums out there? Is it possible for other authors to succeed under different conditions?

Specifically, is it possible for me to do?

Your thoughts welcome.

Jim Downey