The Big Picture: Should we be a nation of 300 million employees or 300 million entrepreneurs?

I try not to be political. I don’t try that hard, obviously, but I do stop myself for diving full on headlong into it most days. Politics just disgusts me so much and I can get enraged so easily. Sometimes, I just can’t avoid it, though. It’s election season, so it’s absolutely everywhere and it just annoys me to see all the people who think this pomp and circumstance makes a damn bit of difference. Even if your guy wins, the day after inauguration day isn’t going to be any different than the day before. I’ve seen enough presidential elections in my lifetime not to get taken in by the rhetoric anymore. They’re all reactive anyway. Government policy generally follows what people start doing on their own. I’ve always believed that the real strength of a President is how he would respond in a genuine crisis not how he governs. I haven’t heard that question asked yet this year. Have we gone so long without a genuine, far reaching crisis that we’ve forgotten that totally fucked up shit can come outta left field with no notice and how one deals with that can be a pretty important trait?

See what I mean? I wasn’t even thinking presidential politics when I started typing, but it just took over. Dammit! What I wanted to talk about was economics (I know, thrilling!) or more specifically, what kind of economy we need to have because, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but our’s ain’t quite cutting it any more. If I thought this was a typical slowdown or correction of some sort, I might be inclined to hang back till the tide turns, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that we’ve got deep structural problems that tax cuts and/or spending cuts simply aren’t going to fix. Neither party has a clue what to do about it, either. Although I will say, frighteningly, the republicans are a little closer to understanding the implications of what’s going on than the Democrats seem to be, it’s just that their “solutions” are self serving policies for the already haves while discarding the have nots to a future of “Would you like curly fries with that?”

The simple fact, as I see it, is that the days of mass employment are ending. Companies will be functioning on 10% or less of the staff they traditionally needed, manufacturing businesses likely less still. That’s a helluva lot of people with no jobs or hope because they are never coming back. With shitty retail jobs being basically the only widely available growth sector, even that’s self-defeating. Eventually, when such a high percentage of the population is getting piss poor wages, they stop buying stuff. Besides, the internet’s kicking brick and mortar retail’s ass. How many fast food jobs can one nation reasonably support?

I bitch a lot about offshoring jobs, and I’m right, I think. It is exploitative, and it has been destructive to our economy. But I’m now realizing that it was going to happen anyway. Those factories will be fully automated in another decade or so, and even the third world workers raking in their 35 cents an hour will be out of work then. This is a problem we would inevitably have had to deal with, even if businesses on a wide scale hadn’t decided to openly screw their own workers for an extra something-something in their stock options years before it was necessary to downsize.

We’ve got an abundance of people with skills and experience nobody wants or needs to pay for any longer. A problem, I might add, that’s going to continue to get worse as technology gets better. Look at health care, for instance. You know why health care is so fucked up? Because we’re continuing to act like the 1950 model  (when you got a job in a company, health insurance was part of the package and you stayed there for 40 or 50 years, before retiring with a nice pension) is even close to relevant any more. People don’t work in companies for five years, let alone fifty any more. And that cuts both ways. Employers who began to treat workers as resources rather than people destroyed the concept of employer-employee trust, and as time went on, they paid less and less, kicked in less and less for insurance, converted the relatively stable pension system into the volatile 401k racket, all so more and more money could go upstairs. You don’t think the people working in these companies saw the effects, first hand, of their bosses reaping giant windfalls while they had to fight to get a 50 cent raise every couple of years? The whole get-a-job/career mantra has become almost totally exploitative to workers, and their loyalty went straight out the window, as well it should have. The natural outgrowth of this is that companies will automate as many jobs as possible, eventually having as few people on the payroll as is feasible.

Yet our entire economy runs on the foundation of getting-a-good-job/career. How the hell are we going to survive if there’s only 1 good job for every 5,000 or 10,000 people looking? That’s the description of a society poised to collapse in on itself. I don’t know about you, but I’m not quite ready to be living out scenes from Mad Max just yet. I still haven’t finished taking the tread off my old tires and tacking it on to some football shoulder pads.

What can save us? Probably the same thing that fucked us up, technology, specifically the internet. What’s the one big rallying cry on the Democratic side? Income inequality. Well, look at what the internet has done to media companies. Established newspapers and music companies got hammered. But look at what else happened. That money that newspaper lost is being spread around to hundreds or thousands of smaller outlets that made nothing before. The top music companies and the highest grossing bands lost ground, but there’s thousands or tens of thousands of smaller bands making money now that made nothing before. Books are heading the same way. As print loses ground, there’s now tens of thousands of writers making money digitally who made nothing before. You want income redistribution? That looks suspiciously like a free market based way to go about it. Can’t call that socialist. Certainly, this process created giants; Google from newspapers, Amazon from books, Apple from music; but giants will always exist. Besides, the old media companies existed as exclusionary forces. Amazon works with anybody selling ebooks, Apple with anybody selling music (and ebooks), Google with anybody producing content. It’s a simplification, true, but these new media companies generally don’t discriminate between giant multinational corporations and individual entrepreneurs. I’d be willing to bet that alone is the principal reason media companies hate the tech giants so much. It’s not that they revolutionized their industries, its that, in doing so, they failed to properly pay tribute to companies who got a little too comfortable perched on their unapproachable golden thrones.

This is just the media industry, too. Eventually, it’ll work across virtually the entire spectrum of commerce, and individual people will have direct access to a virtually unlimited customer base, helped out by tech companies that are happy to take their cut regardless of who’s selling it. My uncle, some twenty years ago now, well before the internet was widespread enough to be genuinely practical, tried his hand at building furniture for a living. This was no picnic table operation, he was a craftsman, making high-end wooden furniture, ornately carved, hand hewn, the best materials, intricate inlays of hand carved objects like crabs (we live on the Chesapeake Bay, after all) or oak leaves perfectly done. This wasn’t cheap IKEA crap.

And that was ultimately his problem. One that turned out to be a fatal one for his business at the time. Building the furniture; the time it took, the materials, etc; required a price above what the market could bear. The number of people around who could afford to drop that kinda coin on a hand crafted dining room suit was too small to attract a large enough customer base to make money. His work was exceptional, some of the best I’ve seen, certainly, but he just couldn’t connect with enough customers who could afford his rates.

Now consider if he had been twenty years later. What kind of access do you think he could get to high-end furniture buyers? How much do you think it would cost him to get that access, something that was quite simply impossible at the time he tried his business. I’m pretty confident he could’ve found more customers. Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if he ultimately ended up with a waiting list of custom projects, keeping him in steady work, or maybe being able to hire a someone or two to help. The internet levels a lot of traditionally slanted playing fields.

The old ways of mass employment, companies who hired thousands of people at a time are dying off. The new companies coming in aren’t hiring on that scale, and thanks to technology, they never will. We can’t rely on the business community to provide the work we need, no matter how many tax breaks we give them. What we need is to transition from an economy dependent on large companies hiring mass numbers of workers to one where individual people create their own work, their own incomes, likely from multiple smaller sources. There’s never been a better time to be entrepreneurial, either. Modern possibilities are virtually endless, and affordability has opened doors into industries that were unthinkable just a few years ago. We have a society still living in the mass employment model, even though its failing. We need a country of 300 million entrepreneurs instead of 300 million worker bees.

I see two areas where we’re making crucial mistakes, two places where I think government could be useful, for a change. One is not pushing to make broadband internet a utility. Let’s be realistic here, the internet has already become virtually ubiquitous. It’s only going to grow more so as it continues to dominate communication and commerce. Everybody will need access to it and cheaply. Yeah, that means telecomms might take a hit but who among you doesn’t feel just a little exploited by the bills you’ve paid over the years for phones, cable, internet, what have you? Be honest, you know damn well they’re capitalizing on their advantages as much as possible. Considering they operate in a government regulated little monopoly playground, I wouldn’t exactly weep for their loss. Despite the current GOP mantra going around, sometimes things are important enough that for-profit businesses can’t sufficiently handle the task. They have no reason to expand access to outlying areas with few people. There’s no market reason where it makes sense for them to do so. Do we just leave those people in the dark ages? What if we had done that with the electrical grid? Your municipal taxes should cover broadband internet as a utility for all, wireless preferably.

Secondly, we should be expanding the postal service, not defunding it. Look at the direction things are going. How much stuff do people buy online? What happens when most of commerce comes to you rather than you to it? There’s going to be huge demand for delivery services. Sure, UPS and Fed EX would be none too happy, but if government’s role is to create an atmosphere of wide spread opportunity, what harm could possibly come from cheap internet access for all and cheap delivery costs? That sounds like a recipe for retail growth to me, primarily amongst segments who are currently blocked out by high-cost barriers to entry.

Just think, a nation of millions of individual business people, taking advantage of that atmosphere. The established businesses who have locks on the marketplace now will lose some ground, but possibly millions of people will be making money where none was possible in the old economy.

You want income redistribution? Here’s how you do it, you give as wide a swath of regular people the tools to compete in the open market with the big boys and earn that income away. More free and open competition. Some other things will have to change. Health insurance will necessarily have to sold individually instead of in group company rates, yet still be affordable, which it already isn’t even close to now. The tax code will have to be seriously simplified, as well. Can you imagine getting 250 million itemized tax filings from small, individual businesses? How many people essentially just staple their W2 from their one or two jobs to their 1040 EZ and be done with it now? That won’t happen much any longer. We’ll probably end up with some kind of progressive flat tax with higher rates at higher income levels or something like it. Otherwise, the tax preparation industry is set for a serious boom period.

Look, what I’ve talked about here is already happening. Do you really think all these out of work people aren’t finding ways of making a buck here and there to get by? Most of it is unreported cash, no doubt, but people are basically very resourceful creatures. Give everybody the tools and the opportunity and bring this individual resourcefulness out into the light of day.

The time of mass employment at a relative few large companies is ending. What we need is to shift to where the average person is a participant in the market from both sides, not strictly a consumer. The real money is in selling the stuff, or offshoots that assist in the process. Labor in a mass employment world will always get the short end eventually. And the way we’re heading, there won’t be enough of that short end to go around much sooner than later.

I Love A Good Challenge! Musings on whether live-blogging a short story’s a good idea

I’m thinking about live blogging a short story. Do you think that would be interesting? I’m really considering just writing one, basically live, updating every time I save, even keeping any changes visible. Then editing, also keeping changes visible. Hell, if it turns out well, I might even publish it.

Of course, the principal problem would be, “What if the story sucks?” I’m not going to vet it beforehand or take something I’ve already written and act like it’s brand new. I’m leaning toward not even starting with an idea and letting it just grow on the page. A bit risky, possibly, but I’ve always done my best work under pressure. What more pressure can there be than “don’t embarrass yourself by cranking out a piece of shit in public?”

Besides, I’m not talking about a novel, just a few thousand word short story or so. I wrote two blog posts yesterday that were probably 4 or 5,000 words combined, and they were unplanned, off the cuff.

When I was in school, it used to annoy the hell outta me when a writing assignment required an outline. Those damn web diagrams were the worst. I recall asking myself at the time, “Self, how the hell are you supposed to outline something sentence for sentence if you haven’t written it yet?” That process always seemed backwards to me. Nobody else I knew ever saw it that way, and it was years before I finally figured out why.

To me, writing has never been a physical act. Everything I’ve ever put on paper or typed onto a screen was already written in my mind. In fact, the last step in the writing process for me is the actual, physical recording of the writing. The struggle hasn’t been so much to get the story together well on paper but to accurately transcribe the finished tale from my own head.
I’ve always wondered where the small little details come from. I never consciously created them. I happily go along, following the path of the plot, and when I look back, all these descriptive little side notes just appeared in there. Where did they come from? I’m now pretty sure they were already written and I was unconsciously copying them from the finished story in my head. No, for me, writing is an act done best inside the mind. Putting it on paper is simply scribe work and little else.

So, if I write from the position that the story, article, paper, what have you, is already done before the first word is typed, how does it make sense to do a paragraph by paragrah outline beforehand? And why bother? If I’m going through the trouble of breaking down what each sentence is about, why don’t I just write the actual sentence? If I know enough to tell you that information, I know enough to skip that step entirely and just produce it. Needless to say, I almost always lost points on the outline part of the assignment while getting high marks on the actual finished product.

I still don’t understand why my teachers never saw the flaw in their assignments. If I got an A+ on the essay while totally skipping the outline, doesn’t that in some way invalidate the point of teaching the outline in the first place? Why should I lose points because I didn’t see the need in engaging in unnecessary busy work that was actually more of an impediment to me getting the end product finished? The guy I was sitting next to or the girl in the back row might need to use an outline, but I didn’t, as was well-proven by the highest marks on the writings themselves. I even came to resent it. I also didn’t understand until years later that I have a latent problem with authority and being told what to do. Besides, I clearly knew better than my teachers in this regard. One-size-fits-all is true to the extent that the outliers to their rules allow themselves to be squeezed into a smaller box than they otherwise should have.

Even still, I never thought I possessed any kind of special ability. I still don’t. What I have might be different than some people’s gifts, but everybody has them, they just don’t realize in many cases. I’ve always cranked out surprisingly clean first drafts; few typos, consistent details, rarely if ever a flaw in story logic. I just thought that’s the way it was done until I got a look at some other writer’s first drafts. My way isn’t better, per se, though for me it is. It’s just my way, and I developed it intuitively.

Watch an NBA basketball game sometime and take note of how many different variations of a jump shot you see. The common purpose is to put the ball in the basket, and each one of those guys developed their own methods for doing so, on a scale successful enough to earn a spot on the floor with the best basketball players in the world. Some are so-so shooters, some are streaky, some are consistently good and some are great. But each one found what ultimately works for them born of their own innate physical abilities. Writing’s the same way.

I have a mind that runs quick, fills in details on its own to flesh out actions, and is capable of refining and keeping track of complex ideas with little conscious input. My brain just works that way. Always has. So when I first decided I wanted to write a story, I took advantage of the innate tools at my disposal without even knowing I was doing it. All writers do the same. You may not have a mind that works like mine, your skills may reside in other places. Things I struggle with, like convincing dialogue, for instance, may just flow from you naturally. That skill affects how and what you write, and the style you use, whether you realize it or not. There truly is no such thing as one-size-fits-all.

I often wonder, very likely because my issues once a story is drafted tend to be in the “minor details” department rather than grand story elements, if our modern writing culture of beating a dead horse through re-writes, re-drafts and over-editing isn’t stealing a bit of the writer’s soul in a way. It seems a little odd to be saying I think we sometimes over-edit when the principle complaint in publishing these days, particularly indies, is a lack of editing. But that’s how I see it. Whenever I read a writer talking about spending months or years rewriting or editing a specific piece, I find myself wondering one of two things: Are you doing all that extra work because you feel it needs it or because someone told you to, and at what point does the continued necessity of rewrites indicate that the original was just too flawed to begin with?

Music has always been a big influence on me, holding even more inspiration than other writers in some cases. I tend write rhythmically, and use sentence structure to drive pace sometimes in lieu of action or in the service of it. My musical tastes have always run toward the exceptional instrumentalists, particularly those who can jam. There’s nothing like a musician who gets in the moment and just lets it rip. Conversely, the live shows I’ve seen with bands who essentially replicate their studio album note for note bore me to tears. It’s too precise, too processed, lacking in the emotion an artist should display. Are we killing more than simply a few typos by editing everything to within an inch of its life in the search for unattainable perfection? I tend to think we are.

This isn’t to say that a pile of typos and plot flaws big enough to drive a dump truck through is acceptable, just that there’s the law of diminishing returns to consider. At some point, continued edits don’t really improve the story, just shifting the deck chairs, as it were. If you’re re-writing four, five, six times or, god forbid, more, maybe that story just isn’t fixable. Like trying to keep an old car you’re attached to on the road can nickle and dime you to death, a story can do the same. Eventually, you have to break down, write it off and spring for some new wheels; call it as finished as it’s gonna get and move on to the next story.

Writing is such a tenuous, indefinable thing. The best parts aren’t created out of overt structure and control but rather emerge organically. The real issue is the down parts or the transitions between the high points and getting them to mesh properly with the great stuff, or at least not conflict or detract from them. When we over-edit, our tendency can lean toward lessening the good parts rather than raising the quality of what surrounds them. Basically, we can fall into the trap of mediocritizing the whole thing for some unnamed standard of conformity. It’s much like my old writing teachers holding me and others like me back by forcing unneeded outlining assignments on us, teaching for all at the lowest common denominator level. At least, that’s how I see it. But, as I said, my skills are particular to supporting that worldview, your’s may not be.

Anyway, I’m thinking about live blogging a short story. I hope it comes out well or at least publishable. Imagine, I’d have a record of the first draft, the entire editing effort, and the thinking behind every stage. The eventual ebook could be both a piece of entertaining fiction (god willing and the crik don’t rise) and a please-pay-attention-to-the-man-behind-the-curtain look at the writing process itself. I think that sounds at least potentially interesting enough to take a swing at. Don’t you?

The Fraudulent Society: A world of bogus book reviews, statistics & cyclists

We live in a fraudulent world. Everything around us every day is fake. The economy is in the dumps because of financial sector fraud on a scale so large that it can hardly seem possible. This November, we’ll be asked to select which major political party’s dishonest, pandering, self serving pack of lies gets to run the country for the next four years. Hell, even Lance Armstrong has stopped defending himself from doping charges. I know, it doesn’t make him guilty. But it doesn’t make him innocent, either. Given the track record for honesty and integrity I’ve seen around me in my lifetime, you’ll excuse me if I’m a wee bit cynical of the guy who used steroids to return from a virtual cancer death sentence, then goes on to pull off probably the most far fetched athletic feat in my lifetime, going from an also-ran to winning seven Tour de France titles in a row. Sure it’s possible his brush with death motivated him to develop the drive to push himself to never before seen athletic accomplishments. It’s just as likely he discovered the wonders of drugs, or most likely, some combination therein. Either way, the guy who should be the most inspiring athlete in the world doesn’t exactly scream legitimacy. But then, what does anymore?

Certainly not the validity of the customer review system that much of the retail web works under. Read this piece from the New York Times and try not to throw up in your mouth. Now I’m reasonably sure most of us know some kind of questionable practices have been going on in terms of reviews. But the scale this suggests is frightening. This is one guy, subcontracting out “reviewers.” If he made $28,000 a day, as he claimed, that’s a ton of bogus reviews scattered out there. In fact, at that rate, this guy would’ve disseminated a half a million fake, rose-colored reviews in a year’s time. One guy. How many more review services are there out there? How many private groups trading quid pro quo positive reviews amongst their memberships? And what’s the percentage of “sockpuppets” that sellers are using to contribute glowing reviews of their own stuff clandestinely?

The short answer: a royal shitload! Certainly enough that it calls into question the validity of any customer review system. How exactly are reviews weighted in Amazon’s discoverability algorithm? If they’re counted at all, doesn’t this disclosure seem to indicate their removal may be called for? I mean, the information is tainted. Worse yet, so long as reviews directly count toward helping products be seen and possibly drive sales, there’s virtually no reasonable means of stopping it from becoming that way.

So who availed themselves of this “service”? Well, John Locke, for one, reportedly bought 300 reviews from this guy. Somewhat less to Locke’s discredit, he didn’t seem to actually care if the reviews were good, bad or indifferent, just that they existed. Maybe he legitimately thought he was getting people who were going to actually read his book and give an honest critique. Of course, that would mean a man that’s been held up for his business acumen for rising from unknown to self publishing icon would be dangerously naive. What was I saying about cynicism earlier?

But at least Locke didn’t stoop to the level of UK best seller Stephen Leather. Leather, rather incredibly, openly admitted to having a network of fake online identities he used to promote his books, or sockpuppets, as it were. Further, he implied that he also has a group of friends and associates all engaging in the same sham marketing. Here’s a breakdown of his situation.

As appalling as these instances are, really they’re just ham handed attempts to replicate conduct the corporate world has already perfected. Does anyone really think the Big Six don’t have someone posting glowing five star reviews on their books everywhere they’re available? Realistically, they’ve been paying for reviews for a long time, either directly or through back scratching deals with review publishers along the lines of buying ads in said publication with the expectation that your offerings get reviews. At least this new payola actually goes to the people writing the fake reviews and not just the newspaper or magazine printing them. Making the world of review fraud more democratic! That’s something, I suppose. Nauseating, but something.

Then there’s the simple case of the Digital Book World ebook bestseller list. Purported to be an accurate depiction of ebook sales, closer inspection reveals something that smells worse than a suddenly-abandoned fish market three days after the ice has melted. Is it a fraud? I don’t know for sure but my internal bullshit detector goes haywire whenever something produces generally surprising results that would be exactly what you’d expect if the fix was in. First, the somewhat contemptuous tone toward the lower price points in the promotional material for the new list seemed prejudicial to indies and immediately set me to awares. Then, the initial list had publishers prominently displayed but no authors. Hmmm…who would put a greater priority on the publishers being referenced rather than the actual authors? I wonder…Third, the results came out not only unpredictably but almost irrationally anti-indie and pro Big Six. One of the big tells in statistical fraud is when they overreach and results come out far stronger on one side than is actually reasonable. Last, the guy who developed the secret algorithm we know nothing about turned out to be employed as a VP at a Big Six publisher. Not only that, it was kept hidden from all materials until he was outed by a blogger and had to fess up. Hiding possibly pertinent information is usually a big tell in fraud, too. So is it a fraud? If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, well, sometimes it turns out to be a goose, but mostly, it’ll be a duck. And I’m sure you’ll excuse me if I’m fresh outta benefit of the doubt these days.

So, with all this obvious review fraud going on everywhere, will Amazon or someone else yank review data from any meaningful purpose? Nope. One other thing about our fraudulent society is that, far more often than not, the perpetrators of the fraud suffer no consequences from it. No bankers have been called to task, lying politicians are such a cliche now that we don’t even bother to call them on their bullshit anymore, lest we get buried by an even bigger pile of bullshit defending the first load. This review-pimping guy will be back to slinging bogus five-stars before you know it, and in the meantime, the ones who haven’t been outed yet will keep plying along unfazed. John Locke and Stephen Leather will be momentary blips, and very likely won’t suffer a bit from their questionable ethics (or naivete, if you’re feeling the Locke apologist vibe).

Lance Armstrong is getting his Tour de France titles stripped, though. That’s something, right? It would be if it weren’t being done by an agency that 1) has pretty questionable authority to strip them in the first place and 2) has no real evidence of doping at all and the somewhat inconvenient fact that Lance never once failed a drug test. See, when someone does get even the slightest comuppance, it, too, ends up done fraudulently.

But, oh well. I hear Roger Clemens is making a comeback.

The Editor Fallicy…Falacie…Fallacy…yeah, that’s it, Fallacy

I’d like to take a contrary position to the whole of the literary establishment for a moment, if I may. Much has been written, and will continue to be, on the rift between traditional and indie publishing. Hell, many traditional supporters throw a little shit-fit with just the use of the term “indie” as a moniker for self publishers. Some days, it seems like World Peace is a more attainable goal than bridging the gap between the established and emerging segments of the publishing industry.

But there is one area where both sides are in complete agreement. That is the absolute, irrefutable necessity of having any and all writing vetted by an honest to goodness editor. And who could argue with that, you ask? (If you didn’t ask, I apologize for putting words in your mouth but I kinda need that rhetorical response from “you” to keep the narrative flow going. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to do this next thing) Who could argue with that, you ask? I can!

Now before you get all up in arms and pissy, nostrils flaring, uppity defensive of something everyone seems to agree on but the implications of which very few people actually consider, let me explain. If you can’t or won’t edit your own work, both for polish and content, you’re not only lazy, but you’re not a complete writer, either. Three…two…one…ok, now you can get all beside yourself with righteous indignation. I mean, come on! Everybody knows that even the best writers churn out barely literate crap until the sainted editor gets his/her red pen into it. Plus, who would want to live in a world where writers are able, or even *gasp* encouraged to release their work bypassing the filters of the all-seeing, all-knowing editor? I shudder to think of the implications of seeing the raw, unfettered power of the writer’s creative muse. I imagine it would be a little like looking directly at an angel, their transcendent light far too bright, burning mere human eyes right out of their sockets. Our minds would turn to jelly without editors to properly harness all that writerly power.

Seriously, though, I am really sick of reading about how writers can’t possibly string together so much as a tweet, let alone an entire novel without someone else hanging over their shoulder steering the course. That’s what editors do, after all. Were you fully aware of that? Editors take other people’s material and structure it to suit either their own preconceived notions or the fiscal necessity of the platform they’re editing for. That’s the gig. Book editors are a little different than periodical editors in that they tend to shape the content to their perceived needs in their particular market sphere rather than a homogenized “style” or publication “brand.” Same difference to the writer in the end, though. I’d still like someone to explain to me how an editor who steeped within the structure of traditional publishing is going to be all that helpful to an indie. Sure, they can shape your book up into something that might resemble something else that once worked in the traditional realm, but if you’re an indie, you’re not really selling into that distribution area. You know how much real world market experience those former and current trad editors have selling digital independently? About as much as my great grandfather, and he’s been dead since 1954.

Then there’s the little matter of whether many editors are even qualified to dick around with an actual creator’s work in the first place. Let’s not kid ourselves, the phrase editor, in some circles, might still hold a bit of prestige, but from my experience, that editor you’re working with is, more often than not, a result of the “those who can’t, teach” school of thought. People become editors for one of three reasons, generally: 1) they’re a failed writer and had to pay the bills somehow, 2) they don’t have the balls to be the writer and it’s much easier–and usually pays better–to manipulate the work of others than produce it yourself, or 3) they are a successful writer who developed their own skills after years of dealing with semi-competent half wits who likely suggested adding some foreshadowing to the table of contents or some other such absurd idea at one time or another. There may be other ways to get that editor title next to your name (some folks go to school for it, I hear) but those are the three big ones. If you’ve got a #3, then you’re golden, but the other two are sure-fire paths to fucking up whatever artistic vision you lacked confidence in so much you turned to a stranger who’s primary claim to career fame is “I fixed some typos in so-and-so’s #1 bestseller back in 1996.”

Editor is the very definition of a fallback career option. Just like nobody ever says, “I wanna be a junkie when I grow up,” nobody says, “I wanna be an editor when I grow up,” either. Editor is the consolation prize in the literary job market. Ask yourself, is that the kind of person you really want impacting your career, someone who slid into a position filled with tedious shit-work just because it was kinda sorta in the same neighborhood as the dashed and discarded dreams of their misspent youth? Not me and you shouldn’t either.

The editor fallacy is willfully perpetuated by the traditional industry. It’s a ruse designed to keep writers down. I’m not kidding, read some of the criticisms floating around. You would seriously think writers turned out little more than random chunks of directionless text that no mere mortal could possibly make sense of if an editor didn’t mold it into shape first. Are you gonna take that? I mean, you fancy yourself a storyteller yet you don’t know if the story you’re telling sucks or not without third party involvement? Why should I plunk down my hard earned cash for the offerings of your literary vision when you don’t even understand or have confidence in it?

My point is that the notion of the infallibility of the editor, and their necessity in shaping a writer’s efforts can be an insidious one. It devalues the writer. If a book is a house, it makes the writer’s output akin to raw lumber and lifts the editor to the role of carpenter. The traditional industry thrived on this relationship dynamic for years, it helped keep writers in their place at the bottom. Otherwise, they, as a group, might have wanted something outrageous like being fairly compensated for work that produces every single dollar in industry revenues.

It’s a new world now. You are the raw material, the carpenter, the plumber, the electrician and the painter. At best, the editor is the day laborer who comes in and sweeps up the leftover dirt off the floor before you move in. Do you think carpenters ask the advice of a broom jockey on hanging joices joists? Would an electrician appreciate getting notes from the sweeper detailing how he could run the wiring to the ceiling fans more efficiently? Don’t get me wrong, writers aren’t infallible by any stretch, either, but there’s one key difference…you’re the fucking writer!

In the old model, the perception in a lot of ways, was that the writer works for the editor, true or not. In the new model, the editor unquestionably works for the writer. Big difference. Now, when your editor suggests that you rewrite chapters 8 through 14 and add a talking sewer rat as comic relief to break up the tension in your drama about an unjustly convicted man’s experiences with prison rape, you can feel free to snort coffee out your nose, laughing hysterically as you work on cancelling the check you paid him or her with. The old way, you’d laugh a bit then cringe at the inevitable realization that you’ll probably end up doing it if you ever wanted to retain any hope of seeing that book in print.

Look, it’s your book, it’s your story, no one on the planet knows it better than you. If you’re going to be a storyteller, believe in the stories you write. That doesn’t mean don’t seek out input or listen if somebody offers up some interesting ideas. But even then, ideas are just that. You’re the one who has to take the grains of inspiration from those ideas and shape them into the story you want to tell. You can’t rely on anyone else to do that for you, otherwise, it’s not your story anymore.

I’ve been a bit harsh on editors here, unfairly so in some ways, but I’m making a point. The editor is no longer among the gatekeeper class you need to appease. You don’t have to do everything they say, and you definitely don’t work for them. Editors are a tool for indie writers that, if properly utilized can be beneficial. Got that? The editor is at the service of the writer. And even then, they’re still only one tool of many. And don’t ever forget that they work for you now.

A truly great editor is almost worth their weight in gold. My descriptions of editors in this piece are obviously exaggerated, but make no mistake, those people exist. Very likely in far greater numbers than anyone will openly admit. Where a great editor can add quite a bit to your efforts, a lousy editor can do just as much, if not more to destroy and detract from your work. And there are an abundance of lousy editors out there, more than not, I believe. Editors are no different than any other field of endeavor. There’s four or five bad to mediocre ones for every good one, and out of every 50 or so good ones, you might see one reach exceptional status. The key is to recognize the difference. If you’re not confident in your storytelling prowess, if you can’t defend the merits of your work and the artistic choices you make, you’re actively making your work susceptible to the heavy hand of a bad editor.

Despite what you might think with my prior insults, there are quality editors out there available for hire, and in the right circumstance with the proper context, they can help polish your work. But any old editor isn’t necessarily a good editor. One of the worst things that can happen to a person is to fail on someone’s terms other than your own. Giving an editor, any editor, even the good ones, carte blanche to screw around with your story is setting yourself up to fail through no fault of your own. Unless, of course, you consider changing key elements of your story against your artistic judgment to appease an editor a fault of your own. I do.

Editor skills aren’t some magical capability that’s unattainable to writers. Anyone with the right motivation can learn quality editing. It’ll surprise you how much improvement creeps into your work just by having an editor’s mentality in the back of your mind. This isn’t to say you should do everything yourself, although I am one of the apparently few people who believes you can successfully do it that way if you’re willing to be meticulous and put in the time. It’s always better to have multiple sets of eyes go over your work. Just don’t ever forget that you’re in charge. It’s your story, your world, you make the rules.

I’ve said before that many people, probably most, don’t truly understand the dynamic shift going on right now. Many of us still approach the new possibilities as simply an extension of the way things were always done. It’s not. Digital is a genetically different business than traditional, though they may appear similar today in the early stages, they really are quite divergent, and growing more so as time and technology expands. Old models can be adapted and find a niche, but nothing translates easily and without effort. Don’t hold to any particular dogma, and that especially includes slavish devotion to an editor.

Tell your stories, the way you want. It’s been a long time since writers have had that ability on a wide scale. And don’t listen to the naysayers screaming in comments sections all over the web about having your work “properly vetted”. That’s a holdover from a past that, quite frankly, limited and exploited the writer. It also served to homogenize much of the content. You ever wonder why so many cookie cutter books, both in substance and tone, exist? That, my friends, is the work of editors. Nobody can steal a writer’s voice more effectively than an editor. Nobody can suck the life out of a story better than an editor. That’s not to say editors don’t have a place, they do. It’s just a far less influential one than it has been.

Editors are not higher on the literary food chain than writers. They are little more than a hired hand to provide a specific service on the writer’s terms. They are your employee. You’d do very well to remember that, even if you have to block out the shouting of those who don’t yet see that things have changed.

Oh yeah, about that “lazy and not a complete writer crack,” sure, I was shooting over the top, just trying to get your attention, but I’m sticking to it. Prove me wrong. Please.

Published in: on August 25, 2012 at 9:46 pm  Comments (14)  
Tags: , , , , , ,

The Great Lie Behind DRM: Just like that, a little truth seeps out…

Yesterday, I ran across this piece by internet maven (and author) Cory Doctorow detailing the contents of a letter sent by HatchetteUK and its imprint Little Brown to its writers who also publish in other territories with publishers who don’t use DRM, principally Macmillan imprint Tor, presumably. It set off a bit of a pissing contest with Little Brown’s CEO Ursula Mackenzie. In the letter, Hatchette makes a rather interesting demand of its writers, that they force their publishers in other territories to place DRM on their ebooks. Here’s Doctorow:

“I’ve just seen a letter sent to an author who has published books under Hachette’s imprints in some territories and with Tor Books and its sister companies in other territories (Tor is part of Macmillan). The letter, signed by Little, Brown U.K. CEO Ursula Mackenzie, explains to the author that Hachette has “acquired exclusive publication rights in our territories from you in good faith,” but warns that in other territories, Tor’s no-DRM policy “will make it difficult for the rights granted to us to be properly protected.” Hachette’s proposed solution: that the author insist Tor use DRM on these titles.

“The letter also contains language that will apparently be included in future Hachette imprint contracts, language that would require authors to “ensure that any of his or her licensees of rights in territories not licensed under this agreement” will use DRM.

Let’s forget for a moment that territoriality, once essential in publishing, is quickly becoming threatened by digital encroachment, and will soon be little more than yet another publisher-inflicted hindrance between readers and the books they want, if it isn’t already. (It probably is.) Primarily, I was a bit taken aback, as was Doctorow, by the audacity of a publisher dictating in pretty forceful, albeit polite, terms to writers what they can do with rights the publisher doesn’t own. Doctorow himself said, “Hachette has balls the size of Mars if it thinks it can dictate what other publishers do with titles in territories where it has no rights.”

He’s absolutely right about that, and, if it had been me who received one of those letters, I’m pretty sure my two-word reply would consist of the terms “piss” and “off.” If you’d like to tell me what I can do with the rights to my work, then buy them. Otherwise, you’re entitled to your opinion and I’m entitled to laugh at it.

Anyway, Doctorow went on with his usual anti-DRM line, one I personally find a lot to agree with. This, in turn, spurred Mackenzie to release a statement clarifying their position, taking a few jabs at Doctorow in the process. Here’s Mackenzie, as reported via The Bookseller:

“In the statement, Mackenzie confirmed that the publisher did plan to change the wording in its
contracts, but said the modification was designed to make the position clearer and that “variations” on the boiler-plate could be negotiated.

“Our new wording is clearer and we will, as always, negotiate variations of that wording with the many parties with which we trade, nearly all of whom agree with the basic principles of our DRM policy.”

So Hatchette is going to make you follow their terms whoever you publish with, in whatever territory, whether they own the rights or not, but don’t worry, it’s only negotiable boilerplate. Go back and read that second paragraph from Mackenzie again. I’ll wait. Sounds negotiable, doesn’t it? Especially the parts about variations of that wording and the various parties who nearly all agree with their position. Sure, you can negotiate to your heart’s content, you just can’t actually change anything substantive. Sounds perfectly reasonable.

Mackenzie goes on, and here’s the kicker, for me at least. In her spirited condemnation of Doctorow, she let slip a dirty little secret about said DRM and what its real purpose actually is. (Hint: it’s not fighting piracy):

“Mackenzie, who is also president of the Publishers Association, was critical of Doctorow’s position on DRM, saying that it contained “the usual long list of anti-DRM arguments”. Mackenzie stated: “We are fully aware that DRM does not inhibit determined pirates or even those who are sufficiently sophisticated to download DRM removal software. The central point is that we are in favour of DRM because it inhibits file-sharing between the mainstream readers who are so valuable to us and our authors.”

You get it now? They know DRM has no effect on piracy, and they know it doesn’t stop people with the moderate technical knowledge to do an end-around. They use it specifically to handicap what their good, paying customers can do with their legally purchased ebooks. Nice. At least, for once, I can say someone from big publishing was actually honest, for a change. If I owned that company, Mackenzie would have a pink slip on her desk this morning, along with a security guard standing by to make sure the front door didn’t hit her on the ass on the way out. Even if I willfully supported using technical means to screw the people buying my products, I would be incensed that the head of my company openly admitted it.

There, in a nutshell, is the giant lie beneath the concept of DRM. It has nothing to do with anything but creating constraints on the majority of the ebook buying public, then profiting from those artificial restrictions. If readers really were valuable to them, as she says, they wouldn’t treat them so poorly. Their value isn’t in a loyal customer relationship sense, but in an overtly exploitative one. Most of us out here paying attention already knew that, of course, it’s just a little surprising to me to see someone perpetrating the DRM fraud to openly say as much.

Mackenzie goes on:

“We are glad that we have adhered to a model of selling e-books one by one at fair prices and protected by DRM. This model is working very well; although some would like us to change it, the risks are huge and the upside is negligible.”

Of course she’s glad. She’s not the one paying overpriced rates for intentionally handicapped products. Fair prices from who’s point of view? Again, she let something slip. It’s their higher than needed pricing structure that’s protected by DRM, not the IP itself. How can you even begin to justify ebook prices anywhere near print prices in the same sentence that you admit to purposefully limiting them, effectively removing much of the tangible value that exists with a print book? You can do it because this has a lot to do with defending print. Charge higher prices while offering less value with ebooks makes print look better by comparison. That’s the theory, anyway.

Doctorow, apparently always thinking ahead, actually had a response to this in his piece before she even wrote her’s:

“If the Big Six thought Wal-Mart and the other big-box retailers had them over a barrel, just wait until the DRM vendors do to them what they did to the music industry before it abandoned DRM in a Hail Mary attempt to get some competition back into the music retail market.”

Yes, by all means, let’s follow in the music industry’s footsteps with DRM, because, you know, it only very nearly wiped out their business, but hey, this is publishing, we know best, right? Who was it that spurred all that damage to the music industry, again, after DRM locked themselves into a platform? Oh, that’s right, it was Apple, who leveraged their dominance in the mp3 player market with the iPod to redefine digital music sales. This is also the same Apple who’s iBookstore agency pricing arrangement has gotten publishers into serious, potentionally deathly hot water with anti trust investigators.

It’s also the same Apple who’s currently dominating the tablet market with the iPad. In 2012 alone, Apple is responsible for 64% of the the tablet sales for the entire planet, more than six times as many as the second place company, Samsung. By the way, Apple is also suing Samsung for those tablets, with chances of a win looking pretty good while doing it. Smartphones are also fast becoming an ebook reader of choice for many. Guess who’s a major player in that market too? Apple’s iPhone. Oh yeah, let’s totally lock ourselves into DRM in an environment where Apple is the dominant device manufacturer. What could possibly go wrong?

Not only is DRM ineffective against piracy, and easily circumvented, its only effective use seems to be exploiting paying customers who lack the expertise to get around it, as Mackenzie basically admitted. But much like publishers exploiting these poor, unsuspecting readers, DRM also serves Apple’s purposes as the dominant device manufacturer, which they will use to exploit publishers much like they did with the iPod and music companies. And all the while, the entire industry ties itself in knots over Amazon, just like the music industry did with Napster while simultaneously handing the keys to the store to Apple. This would all be hilarious if it weren’t so damn serious.

It reminds me of a line from the recent remake of Battlestar Galactica, “This has all happened before and it will happen again.” Unfortunately, while it had a good, often great run, the finale of that show ultimately sucked. Hopefully, publishers will wake up before it’s too late or find themselves facing an ending much like it.

Correction: Originally, I stated that the iPhone was the leader in smartphone sales. Turns out, they are actually third, trailing Samsung (who Apple is suing over their phones, as well as their tablets) and Nokia, who is falling precipitously but still a good ways ahead of Apple in marketshare. My confusion was probably spurred on by first hand observation. Of the 30 or so people in my immediate circle with smartphones, easily 2/3 have an iPhone (I don’t. I have an HTC. I’m contrary like that) and I’ve heard most of the holdouts suggest that they’ll be getting an iPhone on their next upgrade. Maybe they’re just more popular here in Maryland, I don’t know, but everybody and their brother seems to have one, particularly younger people. Also, I can count the number of Nokia smartphones I’ve seen folks with on the extended fingers of one hand clenched in a fist. Even so, my point stands. Apple’s marketshare on phones is growing, even if they’re not yet at the top. They’ve got Samsung tied up in court on patent related issues and Nokia is falling backwards. It’s not out of the realm of possibility the iPhone could reach #1 in the not-too-distant future. Their tablet is unquestionably dominant, however, and when talking about ebooks, the tablet is king.

Two Theories: Why can’t we in publishing all just get along?

For a while now, I’ve been trying to understand the resentment toward self publishers by some in the traditionally published writing community. I get why publishers don’t like it–it’s opened up massive amounts of new, lower-priced competition that threatens not just their sales figures but the entire cost structure of the industry their large infrastructures depend on. Simultaneously, it’s also given writers, who were essentially a captive supplier, leverage to fight against potentially onerous contract terms and even the capacity to walk away from a deal, which was virtually unthinkable even five years ago. I totally get the rhetoric from publishers.

Writers who dismiss or otherwise demonize self publishing, on the other hand, I don’t get at all. These are new opportunities for you to make money. They are opportunities that can get you better terms in your contract, or more money if used properly. It also has the potential to drive the industry toward more writer-friendly terms for a change. There is more access to more readers the world over than ever before and it can all be done keeping most of the proceeds in the actual creators’ pockets, something else virtually unheard of on a wide scale until very recently. As a writer, it makes very little sense to me to fight against this tide.

So I figure there has to be a reason for this. I’ve had two somewhat conjoining theories bouncing around in my head lately and I can’t decide which is more likely. It may well be both, or it could just be as simple as abject fear of change.

My first theory is of the writer’s ego. One of the most commonly referred to benefits of traditional publishing is the validation factor. In some circles, being chosen by a publisher is worn as a badge of honor and used equally as a bludgeon against those who either haven’t yet achieved that contract or who eschew that entire process. Imagine all those years of effort trying to convince the gatekeeper set of your worth, all the mountains of rejection, humiliation, restrictive contract deals you’ve subjected yourself to just to get inside those walls.  Then one day, very suddenly, a whole bunch of other writers start skipping that path altogether, and worse yet, a significant and increasing number of them are selling books and making money at rates only the upper echelons of traditional writers exceed.

What good is that validation you slaved away earning when another writer who doesn’t have it can sell books right next to yours with almost no definable difference from the reader’s point of view? The strength of that validation certainly isn’t what they’d been led to believe it was their entire working lives. Even more, the new ways are much more democratic. It doesn’t matter what school you went to, or if you even went to school at all. It doesn’t matter how many prestigious writing programs you’ve been involved in or how many literary awards you’ve won. A poor housewife from Nebraska who penned her first novel eight weeks ago has a (relatively) equal chance of being a best seller as the most critically acclaimed writer out there.

The writing world has always had an ugly elitest side to it. That was never an issue when virtually all the successful writers were part of the same pipeline, born of that shared experience. But now that large numbers of writers outside of that framework are finding success, it’s not only threatening the business model of their publishers, it’s threatening their very self image.

When outside validation becomes crucial to your worldview, anything that undermines those doing the validating becomes a target. So theory number one is that some writers are resentful because self publishers are finding ways to avoid the crap they were forced to subject themselves to, and their memberships in the exclusive traditional publishing club no longer carry the same cache they once did, and may well be declining by the day.

The second reason is simply laziness. Well, not laziness, exactly, but complacency and a lack of desire to try new and different things. Given the proliferation of comments I’ve seen coming from trad writers characterizing self publishing as a short cut and a lazy choice (Google Sue Grafton for the most recent example) I am beginning to believe they’ve got it backwards. Look, the stark reality is that it’s much more difficult to do this stuff essentially by yourself than with the backing of a giant corporate publisher. To suggest otherwise is to be purposely naive. If you happen to be one of the fortunate writers inside the gates who moves books, you get lots of support the other 95% of traditional writers don’t even get, let alone self publishers. The notion of tossing that off and self publishing is to take on significant responsibilities you currently pass on. In that respect, it’s the traditional writers who are shying away from extra work. Not saying they’re wrong for doing that, given their situation, they’re not. My problem comes when they cast aspersions on the work ethic of others when they, themselves, stay away from these activities because of the added risks and extra effort necessary.

Let’s be honest here. Writers like Grafton, Ewan Morrison and Scott Turow do little more than just write. Even the smallest one-person self publishing operation is doing much more than just writing. Criticizing other writers as lazy or taking shortcuts looks like sour grapes when their paths are far more ambitious than yours, requiring more effort in numerous directions than simply writing a book and sending it to your editor (I know, I’m oversimplifying, but just look at the bitching by trad writers about publishers making them actually, god forbid, promote themselves more to readers. Self pubbed writers accept that as a matter of course).

For serious self pubbed writers, it’s not simply about writing the book. It’s also about publishing the book. And it’s about selling the book. Three inter-related but very different activities. And, to top it off, writing the next book and starting over again. That’s a lot of interconnected hats to wear, and the ones who do it successfully wear them all very well. Lazy’s got nothing to do with it. Lazy writers who flock to self publishing will find themselves discouraged, overwhelmed and out of the picture soon enough. Self publishing is not an easy answer, a shortcut or the lazy way. It’s incredibly difficult to do well. For top tier trad writers to point fingers and call self publishers lazy shows their ignorance of what’s actually involved. Or maybe it’s not. One of the oldest political tricks in the book is to accuse your adversary of the very weaknesses you fear in yourself. But why are we adversaries in the first place? It doesn’t have to be that way. And you certainly don’t have to be openly resentful to those looking to blaze new trails you have no interest in, and willfully taking on the extra work that entails.

Do these writers have a point that there are a lot of shitty self published books out there? Do some writers take the relative ease of getting something live and for sale now and abuse it? Absolutely no doubt. But in case you didn’t notice, there are people like that in every industry and every walk of life, even traditional publishing. I’ve read a lot of shitty books, seen a lot of shitty tv shows and movies, heard a lot of shitty music on the radio over my lifetime, and you know what they almost all have in common? They were vetted by a media company gatekeeper. Shitty work happens in all creative pursuits, no matter how big the bank account of the producer. No one is immune to it. The ratio of great work to crap is always gonna lean heavily on the crap side, no matter the system. Basic human taste and subjectiveness guarantees that.

I think the problem can be illustrated with a simple mental image. Imagine Grafton, Morrison and Turow kicking back catching some rays by the pool inside the gated publisher walls. Suddenly, the gates swing open, and all the outside rabble comes pouring in, doing cannonballs, splashing water everywhere, their shouts and laughter almost deafening. Just generally throwing the relaxed, exlusive poolside scene into chaos. Now, those three are no longer the fortunate few who get the pool to themselves, but just a couple folks in the big crowd diving in. If I were in their shoes, I might resent that kind of development, too. Ah, who am I kidding? I’d be grateful for the company. I’m sure the conversations at that poolside were getting kinda stale before those gates burst open.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 123 other followers

%d bloggers like this: