Crazy talk about writing

A couple of weeks ago I was ranting about the economics of traditional publishing. I mentioned a new day coming in which at least one major publisher is playing with a new model. And now along comes a writer named Seth Harwood whose path to publishing is much more 21st-century (You can hear a podcast or read a transcription of the interview at this link, it’s all on the same page at Booksquare).

I don’t know anything about Harwood or his work. What interests me about his experience to date is how much of a direct challenge it is to the traditional publishing model, and to cultural notions of what constitutes “success.” Harwood starts in one of the “right” literary places — the Iowa Writer’s Workshop — and ends up serializing novels in podcasts, novels that aren’t “finished” enough for the agents he sends them to, but that people out there hungry for story sure seem to enjoy well enough. And hey, now that there’s an audience, there’s also interest from a Real Live Publisher. Harwood’s book will be out next summer.

And was that the goal all along? Is the wacky interweb only a more circuitous path to the hallowed temple of traditional publishing? Of course it’ll work that way for some people, for some books. And the trade publishers will get all excited and make corporate decisions to circle the wagons around the rabbit hole of the internet, waiting for something interesting to pop out… and perhaps the publishers will be thinking, okey dokey, here’s the new model — instead of getting stuff from agents, we’ll get it from these here rabbit holes.

But somehow I don’t think it’s going to be that simple.

There are many lessons for new writers and established writers in Seth Harwood’s experience. One is the lesson that audience comes before money. If Harwood had been waiting to “make money” from an advance before he shared his work with people, he’d still be waiting, and you certainly wouldn’t be hearing about him from me today.

One mistake that many new writers make is to assume that the publisher takes care of finding the audience for one’s book. After all, isn’t that what publicity is for? Well, it’s a sweet thought, but no. Publicity for most books is an automated process: a copy of the book and press release is mailed to a well-established list of reviewers with a hopefully nice cover letter from a publicist (although I have seen some letters that would make you just want to put a fork in your eye if it were your book they were supposedly “promoting”). And that’s it. No follow-up, no tours, no radio, no Oprah, no ads. And even if one does get those perks, it’s no guarantee that these things will create audience the way they once used to. Oprah, yes — anything else, it’s a roll of the dice. But writers have been taught to expect that these things will work. And when they don’t, the publishers suddenly offer less of an advance for the next book because the sell-through was low, and the writer scrambles to write the book faster because that’s another way to “get” that audience…. and here we go down the Death Spiral of the Midlist Writer.

Good luck finding an audience through publicity. People don’t want to hear some spin about your book. They want to know going in what to expect. That means a trustworthy recommendation (which could be a friend or a critic or 30 five-star reviews at amazon), or the ability to judge for themselves before they put their money down. And that means putting the work out there for them to find. Free fiction. Let them find work they like, and hope they like it well enough to begin supporting your ability to do more. That’s how it’s beginning to work in music these days, and I suspect fiction in particular is not far behind (I don’t know about nonfiction, I think that might be a whole different beastie… we’ll see.)

But as radical as the idea of separating writing and money — that writing is a path to an audience, and that maybe the audience is the path to the money — even more radical is the idea of fiction as work in progress. Harwood gets a chunk of the novel out there on podcast, gets some feedback, realizes he might want to make some changes… or he puts it out there knowing that the changes must be made, but wanting to keep to his schedule because he’s got an audience waiting. So he’ll come back and make those revisions later.

That borders on stark raving crazy talk for a lot of writers. Putting something out there before it’s finished, letting people comment on it, letting those comments maybe, I dunno, influence the work? Many will tell you that Real Writers don’t do that, that’s for screenwriters, poor bastards, who have no choice but to write to the demands of others. (And yes, there’s a whole post about screenwriting coming up one of these days, I swear).

But what if the definition of Real Writer is changing? What if it’s expanding to include the possibility that maybe an audience will bring you a big advance a lot sooner than a big advance will bring you an audience? Or that maybe there is no big advance, there’s only big audience and the small amounts of money they’re willing to pay individually to download your work or contribute to the PayPal tip jar on your website? What if some writers develop a here you go, what do you think, should I work on this idea? relationship with their readers, so there’s some kind of push-pull between the artist and audience?

I don’t know what will happen. I don’t even entirely know how I feel about the possibilities. But I do feel change, like a cool wind in late August that smells for an instant like burning leaves and makes you realize that autumn is coming.

18 thoughts on “Crazy talk about writing”

  1. Whenever anyone talks about changes to publishing one of the first things I ask myself is “what would Homer say?” (And no, I don’t mean Mr. Simpson). It occurs to me that a performance poet (if I’m allowed to call him that) would inevitably refine his work as it went along, and tailor it for individual audiences. When writing came along and the words got set in stone (or tablet, or papyrus) he may have been disappointed.

  2. I grew up in Mexico, where the minimum wage today is $4.67 US for a full eight-hour day. Ever since I moved to Canada, I’ve been surprised at how cheap things are up here, and even more so in the US. Audiences in First World countries posses huge buying power. People only have to work one hour at minimum wage to afford a paperback, and three to five hours to get a hardcover. Books don’t cost less in Mexico, if anything, they cost more. So, over there, someone must work four days at minimum wage to buy a hardcover. I still bought two books per month back then. I now buy four to eight books and two audiobooks per month. I sponsor a couple of blogs through PayPal and attend readings regularly. At first, paid readings puzzled me. Readers paying $15 to hear an author read? In Mexico, it’s the other way around. Authors will invest money and time to hang out with potential readers in hopes they’ll sell a few books and earn a following. Eventually, you get to be a celebrity and international diplomat like Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, Elena Poniatowska. The state basically takes care of all your needs once you’ve reached that summit. The Third World is an entirely different animal…

    These realizations allowed me to understand how easy it is to make a living once you have access to a First World audience who can afford to really spend. The internet has granted individuals the perfect platform where they can cultivate said audience. As long as a decent amount of people enjoy reading a particular writer, they’ll jump at the opportunity to chip in if they are aware of the fact that the writer makes a living through writing. I know it sounds obvious, but it isn’t. Audiences have to be educated about the cash-flow reality of artists. I perceive this to be the part where most independent artists fail. Either they overdo it, or they don’t do it at all. It’s hard to say, “If you like my work, hit the PayPal button.” It may feel like begging for change on the street, but it isn’t. It’s fair pay for worthy work.

    As to getting the audience to not only chip in with money, but also with suggestions, I’m all up for it. William Gibson has a discussion section on his site. When he was revising Spook Country for the paperback release, he asked readers to pinpoint errors or comment on things they thought should be changed. This can only make a work better. How else would Bill know that a Cuban character who is flying on an aircraft watching the land below would never wonder, “Am I still in America?” A Cuban could fly all the way to Argentina and still be in the continent called America. He’d have to cross an entire ocean and endure a 12-hour flight to wonder that. A reader who isn’t from the US or Canada can tell him that. The US is not America, just in the same way that the UK is not Europe. An arson expert can correct him on the mechanics involved in an explosion he described, etc. Have look at his forums. A writer doesn’t need to know everything, just know who to ask. And who better than an audience who cares enough to stick around, do some work and pay for a round of drinks?

  3. Hi,
    I really find what you’ve got to say here interesting, Kelly. One of the funny tricks about all of this is that when I was getting my MFA, everything I “put up” would be ripped to shreds with the idea that I would change it, put it back together, and keep revising. In my path to becoming a “Real Writer,” I finished this process, left Iowa, and never wanted to workshop anything I wrote ever again. But it’s funny: the feedback I get from my listeners now is so much more encouraging, positive, and exciting than anything I got back then. Actually, so much of the response I get is actually more of “I love this” than, “this character needs to be…” Most of the critical advice I get from my listeners actually amounts more to copy editing: this kind of car has a trunk like this, this gun shoots like this, etc.

    When I podcasted my first novel, I was basically done with it; I’d shown it to agents as much as I could, revised it as much as I could stand. It was done. Now, as I’ve gone forward with my second, third, and now fourth (starting next week on my site) novels, I’ve started the podcast process with less and less of the book done in terms of revising. Now, with #4, I’m actually still in the draft stage as I’ll begin to start the podcast. Sure, it feels like operating without a net, but I’ve gotten to know the process a bit, I have at least a month of content written already to keep me safe, and I have the confidence that I didn’t have two years ago.

    But I don’t think any of this is new to writing or authors. Dickens serialized a great deal of his work, publishing it as he went along, and as far as I know he was still writing the books as the installments came out. Also, the same is true of many of my crime-writing predecessors, whose work was serialized in the pulp magazines. There’s even a wider trend now where writers from Michael Connolley, to Benjamin Black, to Denis Johnson are currently publishing their work in serialized format too.

    Perhaps my audience has greater access to me than any of these other examples, but I count that as a good thing. They’ve helped me design my website, promoted my work, designed my cover art and other projects that I can hardly count. It’s great. They’re truly fans, and as supportive as any group I could ever ask for.

    So yes, some of this is new, and some not so much. And you are so right about promotion– from every writer I talk to these days, I hear the same thing: you have to do the promotion and marketing yourself.

    Thanks for listening to my interview and taking the time to write about it!


  4. @ Cheryl — here’s a virtual fist-bump on Homer.

    It’s interesting to realize that one of our baseline assumptions in this culture is that work achieves some kind of formal, completed state by virtue of being published. Fiction writers don’t revise a book a year later and publish it again — it would considered, I don’t know, tacky or something to be “stuck” on a work that way. Artists don’t wander into galleries or museums or private homes with their brushes muttering hmm, I’ve been meaning to fix that… But why not? If we can have director’s cuts of movies and a zillion remixes of songs, why not this too?

    @ karina — oh lordy, authors are charging for readings? I don’t mind paying for an event with a Big Name writer — Nicola and I saw Stephen King give a long talk and do a reading a couple years ago, and it was great. But in general I believe authors ought to be reading for free. I heard once about a Famous Writer charging people for autographs, and I wanted to fly east and smack her.

    Although now that I know more about Seth Harwood’s experience, I can also imagine podcast reading subscriptions down the road, a model in which the writer is primarily an audio presence… kind of a cool notion.

    The PayPal jar may be fair, but the challenge is overcoming the cultural bias that Really Good Artists will always make money the old-fashioned way because they’re That Good, and the rest of us should go off and starve quietly in the corner without making a fuss. Make it alone or suffer the consequences. The idea of community support of artists… well, that would involve community, a concept that Americans certainly give a lot of lip service to, and have a lot of nostalgia about in some respects, but aren’t so good at on a daily basis.

    @ Seth — Howdy, Seth, thanks for stopping by. I’m delighted for you about all this — having people come together around your work in so many ways, just because they connect with the stories you’re telling, is nothing but good for all of us. Everyone wins.

    I don’t know what it’s been like for you, so tell me if I’m wrong about this, but I imagine that as you’ve been podcasting and building your audience this way, you have perhaps been the target of some literary snobbery. Oh, podcasting…, said in the tone that really means Oh, you couldn’t get a real publisher. Now there’s a dynamic that deserves to die a quick death! You go, guy, show people that there’s more than one way to be real.

  5. Interesting.
    No, actually I haven’t had any literary snobbery about the podcasting. Basically my biggest reaction from writers has been either 1) that’s really cool, I wish I could do it but since I’m writing more literary stuff (read: harder to pitch than crime) I don’t think I could draw an audience (no snobbery there) or 2) that’s really cool, I wish I could do that but I have no idea how to make a blog, podcast, etc.

    Actually I was more worried about crossing over from literary short stories (what I wrote at Iowa) to writing crime fiction than I was about turning to podcasting. Many of the “real writers” (all but one) I know are more upset by low sales and no promotion than anything else. They think it’s really cool that I’ve found another way than the standard *sit-and-wait* formula that frustrates so many of us so badly.

    And now I’ve podcast my short stories too. They’ve gotten a great reception, definitely more than they’d have gotten if I hadn’t done the crime stuff first.

  6. One last thing I’d like to add beyond the tip jar: what really helped me get noticed by big publishing was getting my novel accepted for publication by a tiny POD press, then, the first day the book came out, a lot of my listeners went to Amazon and bought the book, JACK WAKES UP. They pushed it up to #45 overall in books and #1 in crime/mystery. THAT got people in NYC wondering what I was doing and asking the questions about how they could get a look at my novel.

    So I don’t ask for tips in the paypal account (though some send it). I just ask for them to hold their money and when I have a book come out to buy it. That’s worked great so far. Next release May 09, JACK WAKES UP is being re-released by Crown books/Three Rivers Press.

  7. LOL @ the literary workshop experience. Seth, I can imagine how sick you were after going through an MFA. There’s a guy in one of my groups who only writes SF and people often say, “That reads like genre, it would never be published in a literary journal,” I cringe and reply, “You say it like genre is a bad thing. Seriously, who even reads those journals? You keep writing that fast-paced fantasy, buddy. You’ll be lending us all money one day.” Silence. Painful enlightenment drilling into minds. I enjoyed listening to your interview and am really glad for your success. Thank goodness for eager readers who offer positive feedback.

    And thank goodness for podcasts. I’m stuck on a bus at least three hours every day. My noise-canceling headphones + iPod have become great companions. I’ve paid subscriptions to PRI’s To the Best of Our Knowledge and In Bed With Susie Bright, which my wife loves. Serialized audio installments are interesting and do a their job at generating expectation and following. Audible’s The Chopin Manuscript was an interesting incursion into both serialized and collaborative audio novels. We live in exciting times for anything that has to do with connecting with each other.

    So, Kelley, when is your by-subscription-only radio show coming out? 😉 Also, I think of the PayPal tip-jar as “alternative sponsorship”. Ask readers, “Who would you rather have your favorite author answer to? Oppressive corporations or you? The mainstream or you?”

  8. To even have this kind of discussion is absolutely amazing! Thank you, Kelley, et. al.

    As a playwright, the money is shite. A known fact. Then why do it? Have to, I suppose. Another reason–something I say might save someone’s life. Yes, it has happened. Back in the day, a small book named Ammonite, did just that.

    Things are changing in big house publishing and big entertainment film, music, art–you name it. And artists and visionaries and those perfectly fed up with someone else holding the purse strings are leading the charge.

    One more thing. Name 5 fiction writers who “make a living” solely from their writing. Ok good. Now name 5 more. The field gets a little thinner, doesn’t it? It’s pennies for the rest of us. Always has been. So why do we do write?

  9. I agree, this discussions are stimulating.

    Why do we write? I believe “have to” is the answer. I used to worry about what was practical occupation-wise, yet challenged by the notion of what I was passionate about. I went from two years of environmental engineering to the music conservatory, then I finally finished film school plus computer programming, and ended up working as a web developer. Throughout that long journey, I kept changing my mind, becoming interested in this and that, getting bored, changing fields… But the constants I kept coming back to were writing and translation. Have to.

    Kelley, I had the same initial reaction to paid readings. But now I think it’s actually a good idea. Vancouver seems to foster an active reader/writer community. Big-name authors are the ones who offer free readings, because they no longer need the fees to help them pay the bills while they write their next novel. William Gibson often gives free talks and readings at UBC.

    This summer I took a class called, “Using Canadian Children’s Literature in the Classroom”. I signed up basically out of curiosity. I noticed some YA books got well over a thousand reviews on Amazon. Most of them began, “I had to read this book for school and …” Teachers play a big part in promoting literature. I was the only person in that class who wasn’t a teacher or librarian. I found out that they are very eager to bring authors to their schools and consider fees of $200-$600 for a one-hour talk reasonable. They mentioned that David Bouchard charges $5,000 per visit!!! Holysmokes. But yeah, paid readings are just another way in which a community of readers can help support their writers.

  10. It’s true; these changes are rippling all throughout the various arts. It’s happening in the visual arts as well. There are a bunch of artists – painters and photographers who are embracing the blog thing as a way to get their work out there. A few painters that I know of are having phenomenal successes. The thing that tipped the bucket for them seems to be write-ups in magazines/newspapers after they managed to establish some web traffic on their own initially.

    Galleries turn their noses up at these people, and it is, at some point, mutual – probably when the point of diminishing returns is reached for the artist with the gallery commissions, etc.

    I think it is only a matter of time until these models become more accepted, but I also wonder about some types of art. I think sometimes a lot of people want to be told by critics what is good/bad.

    As a reader, I can see the viability for all of the things you are talking about. And, although I am a big fan of podcasts in general, I dislike audio books; I want to read the words in printed form. So give me a pdf or something to whet my appetite; I’d pay for that.

    I heard a blurb about Seth’s success on NPR recently, and thought it seemed right on track with where things are headed. It’s great to see.

  11. Wow, what a great conversation! Thank you all for being part of it, and I hope it continues.

    @ Seth — I’m glad you haven’t had problems with snobbery. It gives me hope that writers and other artists are starting to realize that we are stronger supporting each other, and actively reaching out to audiences, than spending our time jostling for space at that little table in the back corner where no one’s buying any books. But it’s my experience that plenty of writers feel desperate and competitive, and will spend their time together trying to see who can pee up the wall highest.

    That’s the thing that I’m hoping one day goes away — that assumption that someone else’s success is taking away something from us, that there is only so much pie to go around and that means someone’s not getting any.

    Because I don’t believe that. I think there are so many people in the world looking for images and words and music to connect with, to make a part of themselves.

    And I think it’s not fundamentally hard to find the people who will connect with one’s work. But it takes time and labor, sometimes for years and years and years. I don’t know any way around that.

    @ Everyone else — I want to respond to more comments, but it’s time for beer (priorities, priorities). I’ll be back later.

  12. Kelley, thanks for linking to the interview on Booksquare. It’s great to see that it has sparked such a lively discussion.

    One of the most exciting parts of this story is that Seth is not alone. We’re starting to see more and more authors have success following a similar path.

    It’s an extraordinary time to be an author. Especially a highly motivated, new media savvy author.

  13. @ Kirk — It’s my pleasure. These are fascinating times indeed, a real seesaw between new and old paradigms. Interesting things always come out of those tensions. It’s exciting to think about the possibilities.

    I’m certainly on board with new media, and I love the greater sense of connection that I can make with people through the blog, newsgroups, maybe podcasting down the road, yadda yadda. And yet…. there’s also a part of me that longs to pull up the drawbridge, stock the moat with alligators, and just do my work. There’s part of me that still wants that to be enough. That’s the personal seesaw I have to manage.

    And of course the ivory tower model works well enough if the only point it to express oneself. But if the point is to make art (which to me implies audience, connection, feedback, response…), then it’s my belief that greater and greater degrees of connectivity will be required. People who can’t or won’t play that way will, I believe, get left behind.

    And I regret that. I think there’s the potential for great loss because of the essential tension that often exists in artists — the solitude of the work in opposition to the demands of 21st-century distribution and the connective expectations of the audience.

    Perhaps we will see communities of support develop around artists — the 21st-century version of what karina spoke of earlier in this conversation. Perhaps there will be people (like the folks that have come together to support Seth) who will be happy to handle the tech and the interface and smooth the path between the artist’s inner space and the great big world…

    @ Anonymous and karina — I don’t know any other answer to the “why write” question except “because I must.” But you know, it hasn’t always been that way. I used to tell people that because it was the expected answer — it was the answer that marked one as a Real Writer in the cultural construct — but it wasn’t actually DNA-level true for me until much more recently. And yet during those non-totally-committed times, I wrote some damn good stuff. Just another example to me of the Real Artist paradigm that I for one am ready to shake up right now…

  14. @ Jennifer — I’m thinking free audio and for-purchase PDF or print-on-demand text is the way to go. And maybe a wave-quality CD for people who want a better audio experience. I’ve been thinking about audio on the website for ages, since I really enjoy reading, and hearing about Seth’s experience just adds a little more fuel to that.

    And I like the idea of podcasts. Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows I like to talk (grin). But I think fiction would have to be more the focus, or perhaps some kind of non-fiction focus (writing? who knows…)

    No concrete ideas. Just lots to think about.

  15. Talking about PDFs, here’s another crazy idea. When JACK WAKES UP was due to come out and I was making my big Amazon push, I gave out the PDF free to all my subscribers and asked other podcasters to do the same. It was downloaded 30,000 times in the first six weeks it was out. Every page had a link to buy the book on Amazon at the bottom of it and I gave away the whole book. Now it’s been downloaded over 60,000 times and I’m not much inclined to stop it.
    Why? What’s someone going to do? If they read it all on their computer, great. They’re a better computer-reader than I. If they print it out, won’t they give it to someone else when they’re done?

    Either way, in a word of mouth world, if someone reads the book in a new format (one that seems to involve more effort than a book by my standards) then they’ve put in an extra effort. My bet is they’ll mention the book to someone else, talk about it, pass it, whatever.
    Again, it can only help.

  16. Seth, I think you are right about word of mouth and passing it on. And I would never read anything close to a whole book on my computer either. Printing it out would cost more than buying the book. Now on a Kindle or it’s facsimile…..

    I’m curious if you tracked how many people purchased the book through the link in the PDF. Do you know how many there were?

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