Writing on the Ether: When the Wise Women Get Here

19 December 2013 iStock_000017634101Small photog Andrew Soundarajan texted story image

Table of Contents

  1. They Three Queens of Orient Were
  2. Hope and Fear #1: Visibility
  3. Hope and Fear #2: Literary Fiction
  4. Hope and Fear #3: Rest

They Three Queens of Orient Were

If they’d been guys, they’d never have made it to the Nativity. Once the OnStar of David navigation system got behind a few clouds and everybody got disOriented, only women would have stopped to ask for directions. And to do some shopping. Gold, frankincense, myrrh.

I concede that I’m unusual among your modern preachers’ kids. I’ve always had a high level of respect for the King James Version of the New Testament. Its rendition of self-publishing author Luke’s Executive Summary of Certain Events in Judea does us the favor of having the Angel of the Lord correctly avoid the grammatical pratfalls that would have decked a lesser emissary:

Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

Catch that? “Lying in a manger.” So good.

The Angel of the Lord knew that Jesus was lying in a manger. Not laying in a manger. Mary laid him in a manger. And then he was lying in a manger. And that’s the last time anyone got those things right on Earth as it is in heaven.

And this shall be a sign unto us that the Angel of the Lord was an editor. Maybe still is an editor, although whose job description hasn’t changed five times since Bethlehem?

So while waiting for glad listicles of great joy—3 Ways To Tell Your Camel is a Baptist— I’ve decided that when the czarinas-on-tour finally get here, it’ll make sense for the writing community to ask for exchange receipts on those gifts.

Not that the gold isn’t tempting. But here near the close of 2013 (you can stop putting out book lists now, everyone), it would be good for the author corps in particular to ponder three things in its collective heart.

Not resolutions. We don’t do those on the Ether. We are irresolute here.

Not predictions, either. In this field, it’s all too rare to find a shepherd who can keep watch over the industry! the industry! and risk predictions without looking sheepish.

No, we can look to Phillips Brooks’ lyrics for “O Little Town of Bethlehem” for what we need:

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

Instead of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, I’m asking for the hopes and fears of visibility, literary fiction, and rest.

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Hope and Fear #1: Visibility

“All this and more,” as we like to say in TV news, tomorrow at Publishing Perspectives, where I’ll be recounting some of what went on Wednesday in our #EtherIssue weekly Live Uproar on Twitter.

For our purposes here today, I want to call your attention to this:

The information being imparted unto us by Bowker’s Shepherdess of the Identifiers, Laura Dawson, is both old and new.

We had heard that Bowker was able to track some 391,000 self-published ISBNs in 2012. And yes, as our @PubPerspectives associates noted, this figure, alone, does invoke memories of the deity’s mom, Bethlehem-based or otherwise.

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Laura Dawson

What’s new is an interpretation of the Bowkerian data that indicates 2012’s activity reflected a 60-percent jump in ISBN usage by self-publishing authors over 2011. Got it? Sixty percent more authors procured and published with ISBNs than in the previous year. And that jump is—as we’ll discuss in Friday’s piece—despite some deep resistance to the ISBN (and its cost) among entrepreneurial authors, who are required to pay a lot more for their ISBNs than publishing companies pay for theirs (in bulk).

But there’s also a need for us to understand the scale of the self-publishing presence in publishing. Remember that if Bowker could count 391,000 self-published ISBNs (titles) in 2012, there were many, many more than that—precisely because we cannot “see” the titles published without such identifiers and because our great retailer/platforms (Amazon, Barnes & Noble) can’t find it in their corporate hearts to share their sales data with us.

The hope: that even more self-publishing authors will agree that being able to demonstrate the mounting power of their side of the industry is worth standing up and being counted.

The fear: that we’ll find out the market is severely more glutted with titles than we’ve guessed so far.

Hint: Bowker is not the enemy; incomplete data is.

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Hope and Fear #2: Literary Fiction

James Scott Bell

James Scott Bell

So I jumped all over poor unsuspecting James Scott Bell the other day when, in First Be a Storyteller, he got off one of those casual references you read in blog post after post after post after post about…well, here, this is what my friend Jim wrote:

If I have to choose between a novel that has a “literary” style but a dull (and even, perhaps, a non-existent) plot, and a novel that has a killer concept and professional writing, I’ll go for the latter every time. While I can enjoy a bit of “style for style’s sake,” it can run out of steam quickly if that’s all there is. Indeed, I’ve read some highly lauded lit-fic that turned out to be, for me at least, the scribal equivalent of the emperor with no clothes.

In and of itself, that’s a perfectly fair opinion to have and to hold from this day forward. In truth? I, too, want actual story, momentum, and a point in books I read. Pointless is…pointless.

And once I’d unloaded a bit of frustration over this 8,944th iteration of the literary is lifeless recitative, I declined Jim’s kind offer to comment further, feeling that The Kill Zone (a blogging group of mystery and thriller writers) could do without more of my soapboxing on the matter.

Nevertheless, there’s an issue here. Self-publishing has tended so far to exacerbate this slagging o’ the literary, favoring other genre fiction and nonfiction. (Just think, if we had figures on self-publishing, we could actually tell how much literary there is as compared with other genre work. See #1.)

And I’m unsure why so many good, thinking, responsible folks seem to feel the need to get off these drive-by snipings at literary fiction on the way to other points and other shelves in the virtual bookstore.

I’m not talking to my good friend Mr. Bell in the following little litany, I’m speaking to the multitude of the self-publishing, literary-lashing host:

  • Have you been bitten by a literary fiction writer? Did Michael Cunningham knock you down and steal your lunch? Then report that violence to me, I’ll deal with it for you.
  • Have you been personally snubbed by the literary fiction writers you claim are so holier than thou? Did Eleanor Catton say something ugly about your latest grocery list? I doubt it. I think the chip on your shoulder is of your own making and just may have to do with concerns about the caliber of your own output. Why such a concern? That’s between you and the kid who is lying, not laying, in that manger. But why not stop foisting it off on everyone else as if Sam Byers tossed a wad of dirt onto your living room carpet last week?
  • Have you never read a pulp fiction book that was so stupidly invested in being noir that you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face to throw it across the room? I have. Have you never read a science-fiction title so inanely fanciful that it was clear the author had yet to catch up with the technology behind the automatic ice maker in his own freezer? I have. Have you never read a Shirtless Men Kissing Beautiful Women title so pathetically cloying that you feared it had just set back the romance-reading population about 25 years in terms of personal relationship development? I have.

The hope: that more blogging writers will think twice before gratuitously slamming literary fiction as if it were sitting in judgment on everyone else.

The fear: that the digital dynamic will make literary fiction and superb genre fiction less commercially viable, as other fine-art elements of our culture have been eclipsed by…car chases. Digital, remember, is an energy of distribution. It seeks the widest and therefore least discerning audience in any and every entertainment medium, not just books. It’s enough for literary to contend with digital’s love of feel-good diversions without our helping it along by dissing it at every opportunity.

Hint: Many if not most literary novels do have plot, action, purpose, and drive. We could start by not lying, or laying, about that.

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Hope and Fear #3: Rest

By Maria Popova, Accurat, and Wendy MacNaughton. BrainPickings.org

By Maria Popova, Accurat, and Wendy MacNaughton. BrainPickings.org

The infographic you see here is produced by our good colleague Maria Popova of Brain Pickings, and is a collaboration between her and several good folks including Georgia Lupi and Wendy MacNaughton.

In Famous Writers’ Sleep Habits vs. Literary Productivity, Visualized, Popova explains:

I found myself especially intrigued by successful writers’ sleep habits — after all, it’s been argued that “sleep is the best (and easiest) creative aphrodisiac” and science tells us that it impacts everything from our moods to our brain development to our every waking moment. I found myself wondering whether there might be a correlation between sleep habits and literary productivity.

Now, here’s a line that could make a publishing-community member burst into tears:

The challenge, of course, is that data on each of these variables is hard to find, hard to quantify, or both.

Nevertheless, Popova and her associates have succeeded in fashioning an entertaining look at what are believed to be the wake-up times for various authors and have coupled that with color-coded references to their productivity (number of works published and awards “garnered,” as no one ever says in real life).

Honoré de Balzac, of course, leads this awakening chorus with his famous 1 a.m. stagger out of bed. That’s something the aforementioned James Scott Bell and I have discussed with caffeinated zeal many times. Balzac was, as are we, a devoté of the bean, which may have contributed to his undoing at age 51 in 1850.

The 4 a.m. team on Popova’s chart is anchored by Murakami and Plath.

Mr. Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise, Ben Franklin, apparently didn’t roll out until a comparatively cushy 5 a.m. and today could have had his java at that hour with Toni Morrison.

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Maria Popova

Get to the other end of the chart and you’ll find that slacker Charles Bukowski, bed-headed at noon.

Popova’s effort is a fun consideration that leads us, here in the close-gathered mists (4:54 a.m. as I write this) with a couple of more serious digital-era considerations that bothered few of the souls cited by the Picked Brain (I did not say Pickled).

Many of us are struggling to get enough rest. If electrification gave us the chance and then the imperative to work at night, digitization has thrust upon us the privilege and then the burden of being always on.

Digital in its purer forms is never off. As that engine and energy of distribution I’ve talked about, for example, digital is what makes it feasible for your mother’s latest cat video or that picture of your darling child (yet again) to be viewed at all hours, in all parts of the world online.

And this reality of productive potential is working on many of us in ways none too good for literature.

Brainpicker.org

BrainPickings.org

The digital dynamic is damaging some, not all, literature because so many people are telling writers to turn more copy faster. The current marketing mantra for authors is to write more books, write them faster, stack them up high on the Net so readers will stay with you: “Oh, goody, another book I haven’t read by this author, perfect.”

In the purest marketing context, yes, this makes good sense. You hold them with inventory. “You liked that one? You’ll love this one.”

But maybe they won’t love it. Because maybe you’re getting tired, careless, harried.

I’ve just watched a very good book go out too early, and it didn’t have to. It had a chance of being great. But that temptation to publish is too much for a lot of folks, and ironically it may be most seductive to the ones who have suffered the unforgivably slow processes of traditional publishing before turning to the always-on mechanisms of digital self-publishing.

The push for series, even for multiple series; the pressure to put out more books faster; the emphasis you see in so many how-to posts on word counts; frequent whip-cracking admonishment to keep writing, grab every moment, bang away at it, do a writing sprint, spree, binge, jam…all this is rarely intercut with those quieter questions: “Yes, but do you have anything to say at the moment? Was there a point to that book you’re writing? Why did you want to write before you wrote?—can you remember?”

C.S. Lakin

C.S. Lakin

The idea of simply choosing a niche that has less competition in it than others was featured in a guest post at Joel Friedlander’s site this week, C.S. Lakin writing about an experiment she had made in Genre Versus Author Platform? Which Matters More? She tried creating a title in the “sweet” historical western romance subgenre. (“No sex or heat,” as she explains it.)

Be careful to note Lakin’s own disclaimer:

I don’t think writers should “sell out” and write something they don’t want to write just to make money, but hopefully I’ve given you food for thought. I find nothing wrong with writing to a specific audience for the sole reason of selling more books and making some money. It feels nice to pay the bills.

There will always be mercenaries among us, yes. And some of them certainly will have talent. Fewer may be as thoughtful and as forthright as Lakin is. She’s confirming that there’s a place for pure entertainment. Digital is making that a place as wide as a sweet romantic cowboy’s plain, too.

Compulsion ReadsMany more may be in the boat(s) mentioned by Jessica Bennett of the reader-enthusiasm site Compulsion Reads in a post at Writer Unboxed on the first anniversary of her outfit. In Ten Things I’ve Learned From Evaluating Self-Published Books for a Year, Bennett writes of how “self-published authors need to care more about grammar,” and she adds that these writers “struggle with making big edits to their books,” the latter being something I’d bet most writers struggle with.

The systemic issues Bennett spots may well be influenced by the hurry-up-so-you-can-hurry-up-some-more ethos. For most writers whose impetus comes from a desire to say something through their work—and I hope and fear you’re one of them—churning it out may prove to be early-days overreaction, overwork, overwriting amid the technical capabilities of digital.

The  hope: that in 2014 we all can make rest a bigger part of sorting out what it is we’re doing, not just dump it onto the market fast…just because we can.

The fear: that you’ll need to be rested not only to better evaluate the work you’re doing but also to tell off people when they demand to know “what’s taking you so long?”

Hint: You rest up and sort out how your stuff is lying on the page and the lay of your career. We’ll wait for you. We already have plenty to read, thanks.

I could do with a lie-down, not lay-down, myself. Wake me up when the three you-know-who’s get here. I’m very fond of camels.

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Main image iStockphoto: Andrew Soundarajan

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Porter Anderson (Find him on Twitter / Find him at Google+) is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute. As a journalist, he has worked with three networks of CNN, The Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, D Magazine, and other outlets. He contributes to Digital Book World’s Expert Publishing Blog and to Writer Unboxed, and has been posted by the United Nations to Rome (P-5, laissez-passer) for the World Food Programme. He is based in Tampa. His companion to this column, Issues on the Ether Issues on the Ether, appears on Tuesdays at PublishingPerspectives.com, and is followed by a live chat on Twitter each Wednesday, hashtagged #EtherIssue. His Porter Anderson Meets series of interviews for London's The Bookseller features a live Twitter interview each Monday hashtagged #PorterMeets, followed by a write-up in the magazine on the stands each Friday. More at PorterAndersonMedia.com.

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41 Comments

  1. What great hopes and fears, Porter! I’d comment on all of them, but the weird online treatment of literary fiction is my biggest concern these days. This idea that you either write stylized literary fiction or stories with plot is a false duality and shows shabby thinking.

    That said, what we’re after here in the self-pubbed indie world is a battery of unabashed damned good writers who are able to knock down trees and clear boulders away so as to permanently open up new territories for the written word in ways that allow readers tramp en masse beyond the borders of the old publishing world.

    That will happen over the next decade. Those writers very likely are still young and forming. They have a lot to learn. And so do we. Patience, dear reader (and wannabes). Oh, and stay away from the YA…

    • @davidbiddle:disqus

      You know, David, seeing the carryings-on at Jim’s subsequent post on the topic over at his column (meaning the comments from his readers, not his own piece) makes me remember how very much people enjoy feeling persecuted. They’re having a ball with it. :)

      http://bit.ly/1chyg0z

      Thanks for the good comments –

      -p.

      On Twitter: @ Porter_Anderson

  2. Ah Porter, this is indeed a dustup worthy of further explication. It is only by dint of weekly scheduling that your expanded pleadings precede my own. I have prepped a Sunday Kill Zone post on the matter, which I will preview here only by explaining, again, that I was not making a “gratuitous swipe” at all literary fiction….indeed, I will offer ample evidence to the contrary. Nor have I ever written or verbally opined that “genre” fiction is somehow more worthy simply because it is, well, “genre.”

    Instead, I rendered what I thought (before the comments opened!) was a relevant point about STORY, viz., that SOME (key word) well regarded literary fiction seemed to me (your humble opinionator) to be less than it is reputed to be. Even when penned by a “name.” (You may recall “A Reader’s Manifesto,” that famous–or infamous, depending on your outlook–article from The Atlantic some years ago. Google it). It’s a discussion worth having. However, the discussion should have rules about tarring with too broad a brush, including charges of lying which may toss off bits of gooey discredit onto innocent bloggers trying to have a civil, even though sharp, conversation.

    All to say that yes, we are agreed, much literary fiction succeeds on all levels, including story (I’ll name several in my post)….but it does not seem cricket to give literary fiction a storytelling pass simply because it lives in a fancier neighborhood than its unshaven cousin, genre. Likewise, when genre behaves like a brute at a party, getting drunk and cursing literary fiction to its face, it deserves to be shown the door.

    More to come…

    • @jamesscottbell:disqus

      Wow, fantastic, Jim!

      Totally glad to hear you have a Kilt Zone piece coming on the issue! This is great! Battle Station Literary is going to high alert! :)

      Seriously, your third graf here cinches it beautifully. A pox on all our houses when we don’t behave and respect each other’s work, no matter what’s lying on the table or who laid it there.

      Certainly don’t want literary to get a storytelling pass by any means. (I actually can enjoy a good car chase, and James Joyce let us down badly in this regard).

      I know your intent was — and will be — far more constrained and restrained than those who do tar (with Angel feathers) the wider bands on either side of the issue much too broadly. My own reaction was really just a last-camel’s-straw response having read enough of such comments (many as well meant as yours, some not) and feeling they’re lying, not laying, about on the Web more than they should be if we do want to grow this industry up and live happily ever after.

      So bring it, standing by for incoming, and will look forward to Sunday’s Kill Zone kontribution from you with even more anticipation than usual, sounds great!

      As ever, thanks for being such a good sport, too. When we all end up making our own papyrus as that self-publisher Luke did, I’ll gladly share the mallet with you. :)

      -p.

      On Twitter: @ Porter_Anderson

    • So, I don’t mean to sound like a punk here, but is there every accounting for taste in this debate? I mean, yup, there’s a lot of long-winded literary stuff you either need the stomach for (dare I say Moby Dick or The Sound and the Fury?) or should just not touch under any circumstances (and everyone has their own set of circumstances, right?).

      But might I also point out that by the time I was 25 I’d read so much crime/mystery/thriller and sci-fi I was feeling a bit like a bulimic clown every time I cracked another version of a Travis McGee or Dune.

  3. Love it, Porter! These are great straight through, and I’m with you on the call for greater visibility for certain.

    Oh Mighty Bezos, please may we unwashed masses be given to know just what goes on in that Emerald Tower? Or, at least a few bits and pieces about what goes on?

    It’s not too much to ask.

    On the issue of rest, I have no trouble mustering the energy to rebuke anyone who might demand why it takes so long. It’s as easy as sharing a couple of links.

    Neil Gaiman’s epic blog retort on the matter of “write faster, you writer you!”: http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2009/05/entitlement-issues.html

    SDCC 2013 performance of “Write Like the Wind”, quite ceremoniously attended by GRRM and Neil Gaiman:

    Books aren’t cakes. :)

    Happy Christmas, Porter and a wonderful New Year!

    • Thanks for the good input and the Neil links, Aaron. Do check the Ether on the day after Christmas (the gas also rises, lol) — I think our piece that day my hit a chord for you.

      Cheers, and thanks!

      -p.

      On Twitter: @ Porter_Anderson

  4. Another great piece, Porter. I found myself nodding in agreement not just over the King James Version, but several other points you mention as well.

    One clarifying question about ISBNs and Amazon: I understand that ISBNs allow Bowker to track the number of self-published books each year, but ISBNs do not also allow them to aggregate sales data per title, correct? So the argument against self-publishing authors using Amazon’s ASINs is to get better data on the *number of titles published* rather than the *number of self-published books sold.* Or am I missing some other key data point lying around?

    • It won’t even tell us that, because self-publishers (are supposed to at least) use different ISBNs for paperback, mobi, epub, hardback, audio, PDF etc. And not every title makes into every format. Plus Bowker is (AFAIK) only counting US registrations, and there are self-publishers from all over the world (like me!) selling books in the US (and, indeed, predominantly in the US).

      So even if all (US) self-publishers paid the crazy prices Bowker are asking for ISBNs they don’t want or need, you still couldn’t make any pronouncements as to how many titles were published… let alone more useful data like how many were sold or what percentage of the market self-publishers have grabbed.

      I’m not against the counting or the data, I just think this is the wrong approach.

      • @davidgaughran:disqus

        Actually, David, I believe the ISBN can be spotted internationally. Remember that Bowker is the US agency appointed by the International ISBN Agency (as Nielsen is in the UK http://www.isbn.nielsenbook.co.uk/controller.php?page=121 ) The international body guides the formulation of ISBNs and, unless I’m mistaken — and I’ll run this past Laura Dawson — those things should be readable everywhere.

        To your point about the multiple formats, the system aggregates the five or six or however many ISBNs you’ve assigned to various formats of a book, using the metadata you supply in your dashboard. So it understands “Let’s Get Digital” is the same book in different formats as it spots them. The reason for applying an ISBN to each format, apparently, is that this allows more extensive tracking data and detail on the book’s different iterations.

        We can actually get to the international agency and put some questions to them along these lines. Would you like to email me a few things you’d like asked? I could bundle them up with mine. I’m interested, for example, in how the world body makes the designation of this company or that company in each country. (I imagine that in countries in which ISBNs are covered by cultural subsidy, the “agency” is a civil service office of some kind, maybe seated in a ministry of culture, etc.)

        Honestly, if we were starting from scratch, I’m not sure I’d think the ISBN was the way, either. We’re awfully far down the road on that now, though, and while I think it could be really good to see much more equitable pricing for authors (it’s not right that publishers get a price break and entrepreneurial authors don’t), trying to impose an entirely new system of identifiers is almost unthinkable….so far…things do surprise us here in the Digital Age, so I never say never… :)

        -p.

        On Twitter: @ Porter_Anderson

        • Thanks, Porter, David and Carla, for the ongoing ISBN conversation! As someone who purchased 100 ISBNs back in the 90s when they were as cheap as Skittles, whether to use them now is not a question. I was just trying to clarify what data those international identifiers help us aggregate.

          I just went over to myidentifiers.com to look at my Bowker dashboard–and was repulsed by the massive upsell engine that site is now! ISBN pricing aside, if Bowker wants to be more helpful to self-publishing authors, it will stop going the way of GoDaddy and start offering us a peek at the actual stats it compiles from all our data.

    • @anneahill:disqus

      Hey, Anne,

      Thanks so much for the kind words.

      Amazon’s ASIN identifier, remember, is part of its proprietary information system — trade secrets. What it tracks is not made public unless the company wants to make it public. It’s a bit as if you had your regular license plate on your car and then you had an additional one right beside it that only a few people who used those knew hot to decode. You and those few people could read each other’s “secret” license plate but the standard authorities on license plates (i.e. the cops) could not.

      The ISBN is that standard license plate. Use it and the standard authorities can tell lots of things about the book to which it’s attached — self- vs. traditionally published, etc. In the states, that standard authority is Bowker, in the UK, Nielsen. The International ISBN Agency decides which outfit in each country is the ISBN agency there.

      To be clear, there is nothing wrong with Amazon’s ASIN. Any book carrying one is just fine. So there’s nothing wrong with a self-publisher having an ASIN on his or her content. In fact, if you publish through Amazon, I’m pretty sure you’ll simply be given that ASIN. Maybe there’s a chance to opt out but I’d be surprised. The ASIN is simply how Amazon tracks its goods and services as they move through the supply chain.

      The confusion comes when you hear an author saying, “Oh, I don’t need an ISBN because my book was published through KDP and Amazon gave it an ASIN.”

      What that author isn’t understanding is that only Amazon can read the full extent of the information an ASIN provides. For the world standard collectors of this kins of information be able to follow that book, the ISBN is necessary — unless at some point Amazon decides to report its sales data, not something, I have to say, that seems likely. The company does know very well how crippling its proprietary cloak on its data is to the industry. Many of us have spoken with folks there and, in my experience, they’re personally a bit torn on the whole thing, too. Nobody in the business can possibly think that it’s good for publishing not to be able to understand its scale and the scale of various sectors (such as self-publishing). But so far the corporate imperatives these folks have to respond to are such that the company feels it needs to keep the sales data to itself. That being the case, we need sales-tracking systems that can be read outside the Amazonian system and, to date, the ISBN is simply the one that has become the one.

      A couple of reality checks here:

      (1) The ISBN system was never designed for individual authors to use — it was created When Publishers Ruled the Earth, lol, and was meant only for their application on books. This is what’s behind some of the awkwardness now in trying to see ISBNs as the important thing they are for anyone’s book, including and maybe especially self-publishers. (Important in my biased purview because I want to see those writers be counted, I think it’s important, though some of them do not.) The last thing folks expected back in the day was that every member of their immediate family and their larger and better behaved dogs would become self-publishing authors, needing and deserving the tracking services that the ISBN creates. Everyone is in full-court scramble on this. I believe that if we could shape-shift ourselves and become flies on the walls of some of today’s ISBN agencies (Bowker in the US, Nielsen in the UK, etc.), we might even hear some rather earnest concern about how the pricing of these things has turned out to look to many as punitive to self-publishers. The best deal the self-publisher can get in the States is that $25-per-ISBN price, which is what it works out to when they buy 10 ISBNs for $250. Publishers, on the other hand, are paying closer to $1 per ISBN because they buy them in great bulk, say 1,000 at a pop. So in a very curious and I assume unintentional outcome, the small-business person is the one who is hurt by the exigencies of a system that simply didn’t see them coming.

      (2) The ISBN — at least in concept — also predates the arrival of the mega retailers. There was a change to the 13-digit version in 2007 (the year the Kindle came out, incidentally), but the original 10-digit one seems to have had its inception in 1970. So there was no model in place at the time (if I read the background correctly) that would have predicted the coming competitionary force of something like Amazon, so powerful that it could create its own parallel tracker (the ASIN) and basically shut the door to the rest of the world’s main tracking tool, the ISBN. Nor, in fact, I feel sure, was there any idea in anyone’s head of legions of authors who wouldn’t want or care about having their work tracked and counted.

      In short, digital has happened. And this is what we mean by disruption. And on some days, it feels like it’s getting awfully old, doesn’t it? :)

      -p.

      On Twitter: @ Porter_Anderson

      • Who would have thought that the matronly ISBN could ignite such a hot and vigorous discussion? ISBNs have been on my radar lately too, because a couple of the authors we work with have been asking questions — whether they need one (we always say yes), how to acquire one, and so on. I’m always amazed that these seemingly arcane topics will surface and begin popping up all over the place. I appreciate that you’ve raised the points that the ISBN was never intended to accommodate the explosion of titles that self-publishing has made possible and that regardless of your opinions about these conventions of traditional publishing, being able to count the books out there — and in their various formats — allows us to better understand the shape and depth and impact of digital and self-publishing, both on our industry and on our larger culture. It’s so easy to understand why self-published authors choose to bypass the ISBN — first the cost is significant, but something more, too, I think: the ISBN is part of that old system which has rejected so many self-pubs. Why should they have to pay to get into the club that won’t have them? As you’ve said, maybe the ISBN is not the ideal apparatus to weigh and measure the breadth and depth of self-publishing, but for now it might be the only one we’ve got. Finally, a note about free: in Canada, ISBNs are available free of charge to anyone who applies. They’re administered through Library and Archives Canada — “a federal institution tasked with acquiring, preserving and making Canada’s documentary heritage accessible.” So here the ISBN is a part of a system that helps us to define who we are and carries with it the message (I hope) that the production of cultural artifacts should be available to everyone. That sounds pretty idealistic for 2013, doesn’t it? And because it’s free, I think that here the ISBN is more readily seen as just part of the publishing process, whether that’s self or traditional publishing. There’s so much more to say about this — I look forward to the ongoing discussion!

        Carla Douglas @byondpapr

        • @carla_douglas:disqus

          Hey, Carla —

          Right on all points. We’ve actually been struggling with the ISBN issue and self-publishing for some time. More than a year ago, I was writing “Can We See You?” over at Publishing Perspectives. http://bit.ly/Jj3oS5

          You’re correctly identifying the two-level problem — authors’ wariness of perceived Old Gatekeeping and what really does increasingly look like a highly inequitable pricing structure. (If corporate publishers can get ISBNs at $1 a pop, why are single authors being charged so much more?)

          Your experience of the ISBN in Canada is comparable, of course, to so many European cultures (and I assume other Commonwealth cultures), in which “social democracy” or the label ju jour features such payments as a society’s rightful contribution to the life and productivity of its artists.

          The US ethos, of course, is far more deeply predicted in the idea of every person for himself or herself, each soul out to make his or her own name as best as possible and don’t even think of providing such “socialist” benefits as a free ISBN.

          As I collect questions I want to put to the international body, your comments are, as ever, insightful and important, and it’s good to have you with us!

          Sorry for the delay in getting back. I blame Santa Claus.

          -p.

          On Twitter: @ Porter_Anderson

  5. Love your opener, Porter. Hilarious. I will always be grateful to my Sunday school teacher who told us that “if Jesus had been laying in a manger, He would have been a chicken.” I’ve never confused the words since. And every Christmas post needs a camel joke. That should be a rule.

    • @annerallen:disqus

      Still laughing at Baby Jesus laying an egg, Anne, lol.

      That’s a lovely way to get someone to remember “lay” and “lie,” at least on a seasonal basis, lol.

      And yes, where would we be without our camel jokes? I’d walk a mile for them.

      -p.

      On Twitter: @ Porter_Anderson

      • Porter, the same reference was made by a Sunday School teacher of mine many years ago (too many to share here!). I’ve never had a problem with laying vs. lying!

        Thanks for the most clever post this near Christmas I’ve read these last few days.

        @Sherrey_Meyer

        • @Sherrey:disqus
          @annerallen:disqus

          What’s amazing me, Sherrey, is that I never heard this egg-laying manger reference…my guess being that my own Sunday School teachers were on their best behavior when the First Son of the Church was in their class, LOL. (I fear there were many things going on all around me…you and Anne were certainly having more fun than I was!)
          -p.

    • Anne, I was about to make this same reference in an comment to Porter when I read yours! The Sunday School teacher/grammarian combined must have been duplicated from church to church and town to town. Mine said the same thing, and I’ve never had a problem distinguishing between the two!

  6. You’re cracking me up!

    In my humble opinion, as I’ve probably commented before on other posts you’ve written of this nature, we all know there’s some great literary fiction, and there’s great genre – and then there’s the reverse of both. It’s much like the dust ups between traditional and self-publishing. What is out there is out there, and the quality of each must stand on its own merits. Everyone trying to justify themselves only speaks to the competition everyone feels with each other. I think I’ll head over to The Kill Zone and read the article and comments and will look forward to Sunday with James Scott Bell’s rebuttal. The two of you should definitely provide a lovely and interesting debate.

    And your dexterity with lay and lie is very impressive. Even though I look it up each time I need to use the word, I never can remember when to use which form. I’ve started trying to figure out other ways of saying what I want without using the word, because it’s easier than going back to a reference book. :P

    • @laraschiffbauer:disqus

      “Everyone trying to justify themselves only speaks to the competition everyone feels with each other.” Hey, Lara — this is such a good line. I think you’re very right that what we’re seeing is a reflection of the competitive climate in which everything is moving right now, and seeing these divisions open up at times is probably predictable.

      And yeah, I’m looking forward to Jim’s piece on Sunday, too, I know it will be as smart as ever — and I also know that Jim’s intention isn’t to run down one form of writing or another, it’s just that we all, myself included, can easily put off on one thing or another at times and what might be casual to us starts adding up as fairly palpable opinion. Tough times, many sensitivities!

      Lie and lay are amazingly hard for some folks. I’m just lucky on those, others give me fits, too, LOL. See Anne Allen’s note below, she has a very funny and Christmasy way to remember from her mother, it’s a scream (to a minister’s son like me, anyway, lol).

      Thanks, Lara!

      -p.

      On Twitter: @ Porter_Anderson

  7. Oh verily I say amen, Porter.

    When I posted on my blog about the time taken to write literary novels versus the time to write genre novels (because I have done both), the crucifixion mob arrived in the comments. And it wasn’t even Easter. No matter how patiently I answered them, which got rather repetitive, there was a core of readers who seemed determined to be slighted. I wonder, actually, if they ever read the whole post, but simply wanted somewhere to brawl with scant provocation. Such is online life; we’re in too much of a hurry to actually read something properly, in full, and think about it before rattling off an opinion.

    I also worry about the relentless advice to put out more books. I’m not saying it doesn’t make sense, but it should be modified to: ‘put out as many books as you can write well’. While self-publishing has freed us to publish fast, it has also freed us to take our time if that’s the kind of writer we are.

    • @byrozmorris:disqus

      Hey, Roz!

      Yeah, I do hear you. BOTH on how very hostile some people can seem to be about this idea that literary fiction is “against them,” somehow, but also about not really reading a post. Very frequently someone will tell me they read everything I post, and as soon as we talk for a few minutes, it’s obvious “they know nothing of my work,” too paraphrase Marshall McLuhan.

      Right on the advice of putting out more books, too. It makes *business* sense. It’s very unclear that it makes sense to the caliber of content being produced. Very few things go well when rushed and there seems to have been a kind of shift made lately — a jumping of the shark — in which it suddenly is A-OK to tell everybody to get more out faster.

      There certainly are some writers who can do extremely good work extremely quickly, and lots of it. But that’s not true of all people and I’d be willing to guess it’s not true of most creative people.

      This is the clash of the digital dynamic’s speed and human creativity — which has not been digitized. Only the distribution side of things has sped up. And we’ll find out just what all this pressure for more and faster does in time. I wish more writers would think about digital as giving them more time, as you say, not a kind of unwritten mandate to speed up.

      Thanks for the great commentary here!

      -p.

      On Twitter: @ Porter_Anderson

  8. “… as if it were sitting in judgment on everyone else.”

    I think a lot of genre writers would argue that literary fiction *is* sitting in judgment on everyone else – or at least making assumptions about literary fiction versus genre work.

    Indeed, in your very next para: “…as other fine-art elements of our culture…”

    Someone could take that to mean that you are equating literary fiction with art (and, by corollory, genre fiction with non-art). Even if that wasn’t your intention, that attitude does exist. There is a snobbery out there from some readers/writers/publishers/critics of literary fiction, just as much as there is any gratuitous slamming on the other side. And I say this as a reader and writer of both literary and genre fiction.

    As to James Scott Bell’s original point, that reminded me of an excellent definition of literary fiction (which you may or may not agree with). I wish I could remember who to give credit to for this, but it was the first satisfactory (to me) definition I’ve come across. Instead of focusing on the writer or the book, it focuses on the reader. Namely: readers of literary fiction are more forgiving of a medicore story, and readers of genre fiction are more forgiving of medicore prose.

    That’s not to say a literary novel can’t have a cracking story, or a genre novel can’t have scintillating prose, but the readers of each are more forgiving of paucities in those respective areas.

    My wish for this whole literary/genre debate is this: that we compare the best examples of each, rather than the worst. Then the conversation might just be about great books, rather than arbitrary genre lines.

    • @davidgaughran:disqus

      David,

      Thanks for catching me in what was actually a mistake. Until you isolated the fine arts comment as you did, I didn’t realize that I’d appeared to separate literary from other good (genre) work. So I’ve updated the piece to have that line this way:

      The fear: that the digital dynamic will make literary fiction and superb genre fiction less commercially viable, as other fine-art elements of our culture have been eclipsed by…car chases.

      It seems to me the best way to fix that one is to simply, flat-out say “superb genre fiction,” because we all know there is such a thing. (Check out John le Carré’s new A Delicate Truth if you haven’t read it yet — every bit the creature that anything we’d dub “literary” could hope to be, as are many, many fine genre pieces, of course.

      So thanks again for catching that unintentional implication in the way I’d written the line. And what a fascinating way to delineate the difference in one and the other, by looking at what the readers will tolerate as weaknesses. I’d never heard that one before. It probably has a lot of truth to it, too, though I like to think that the readers of the best work shouldn’t be having to settle for less on any level, no matter what they’re reading.

      I hear what you’re saying about genre lines but I don’t think they’re arbitrary. I think the industry has developed them for pretty good reasons (certain characterizations can be as helpful to readers as to writers), and they’re a fact of our biz. I do like the combos we see, crossovers, blends, and I think these are appropriate and are good to describe as such. Maybe the only thing I’d say is that the genre categorizations do tend to guide writers to think in certain structural concepts of what they’re doing maybe more than they might if we just talked “good books.”

      But, then, if we had bookstores with, say, 60 percent of their inventory shelved as “great books”…what would we call the rest? :)

      It’s a fine debate, and thanks for jumping in, good to have you here, as always, though I fear I’ve overworked you this week!

      -p.

      On Twitter: @ Porter_Anderson

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  10. Thanks for mentioning that blog post I did about my genre experiment. It’s opened a lot of interesting discussion, and I particularly want to thank you for the paragraphs above the mention–about cranking out books quickly and the frantic feeling many have about hurrying to get more and more books and novellas and serials out there quick before losing readers or … whatever reason. I did crank out that very long (125k words) romance novel in 3 months while working full-time, pulling very long nights (my husband was very supportive but wouldn’t be if this went one year after year!). But I am a fast writer and have the kind of personality that writes better under time constraints. I set that ridiculous deadline for myself but wouldn’t encourage many to do that (I’ve written 14 novels, so this wasn’t daunting to me–other than getting the genre structure figured out).

    i say this to make the point that we are living in a fast-paced world that is getting faster by the second. I remember when the Internet first started and we’d wait about a minute for a page to load. Did that make us antsy? No. It was great–fast! We’ve sped up so fast that we eat dinner in three minutes (and do other things in that short of time that really should take a whole lot longer), we shorten text on chats into acronyms because we have no patience to write out words … etc. So authors, too, with the now-fast methods of uploading books (and voila! You’re an author!), there is no wait time. No taking a number or a seat. Just go go go. Which is causing a huge sacrifice of quality. i have been decrying the whole word-counting thing for years (to much opposition), saying that the focus on quantity is hurting our quality.

    But I’ve said enough here! Love your insights. And thanks again!

    • @susannelakin:disqus

      Susannne, this is such an important line:

      “I have been decrying the whole word-counting thing for years (to much opposition), saying that the focus on quantity is hurting our quality.”

      Thank you for this. A lot of folks seem to believe that counting words, working for a word-count “goal,” is accepted by everyone as the normal, natural procedure for all writers. And, of course, that’s not the case.

      I’ve never found it even remotely productive to tell myself that I’d write a certain number of words a day or week. For my own purposes, that makes no more sense than it does to decorate one’s new home by ordering “thirty inches of red books” for the living room. (Something that actually happens, of course, from time to time — I’ve known interior design people to talk about such requests from clients.)

      The more our lives overall become quantified and quantifiable experiences — the “quantified self” trend that has me wearing my cool FitBit Flex Christmas present to myself, after all — the more logical it’s going to seem to many that creative work is rightly calculated and evaluated in such terms.

      We have our work cut out for us, Susanne, encouraging the genuine souls who measure progress in terms of what they write, not how many words they log.

      Keep the faith. Don’t stop saying it. You’re right, not wrong.

      -p.

      On Twitter: @ Porter_Anderson

  11. Thanks for keeping what we call literary fiction in the discussion, Porter. I say, “what we call,” because when I was a beginning writer I heard what I mean by literary fiction described as quality fiction, as opposed to slick and pulp fiction. Definitions, definitions! When I mentioned the phrase to a friend she said, “literary fiction is not a genre it’s a judgement.” My aim is to hit on all cylinders, ie, make a good story, with original characters, using fresh language. And, of course, the point of it all, which everything aims towards, that organizes the rest of it.

    • @disqus_B3IxJ8bXan:disqus

      Mary, thanks for the good input here.

      Your aim sounds right. Start with story and look for the language it needs. If anything, the purity of that approach will “genre the book” (as if “genre” were a verb!) for you.

      Now I’m thinking “genre-fication.” I need to stop thinking. :)

      Great to have you, thanks again!

      -p.

      On Twitter: @ Porter_Anderson

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  13. On the ISBN price front, Porter, if you’re sending questions the Bowker folks’ way, could you ask them to explain some of the pricing rationale? I stopped by their site yesterday with the sale code you recently shared in hand, only to find that the promotion doesn’t apply to ISBN purchases.

    I understand why some people are saying that indie authors should use ISBNs in order to give everyone a clearer picture of what’s going on, but to charge such a premium is a bit much to ask of most people. Why one price for thee and another for me?

    • @MichaelPeck:disqus
      Hey, Michael,

      It appears that the discount code applies to some of Bowker’s packages of services, at least one of which includes ISBNs, but perhaps not strictly to ISBNs only, as I understood it to apply. Sorry for any confusion there.

      I have, actually, already started asking a bit about the pricing. I do think it’s worrisome that corporate publishers get such a better deal than our entrepreneurial authors — and this pricing makes it much harder to argue for the use of the ISBN as an identifier to help give us the look we need at the market. I’m hoping for some dialogue on this so that we can at least understand why the prices are the way they are.

      Appreciate you reading and commenting, as always, bests for the season,

      -p.

      On Twitter: @ Porter_Anderson

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