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The “I can do better” writer’s syndrome April 22, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Blogging, Misc, On Writing.
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Could you do better than this man?

One thing I have noticed lately, especially on forums, is that certain nameless, faceless people think they can do better than some of the biggest selling authors out there — Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer, Stieg Larsson — just to name a few.  Even the ones that come short of actually saying it imply it with their trashing of the author’s writing and shock that their books have sold so well.

Sorry to break it to those people, but you can’t.  If you could, you would have done it already.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with critiquing a writer or a piece of work.  Even the most revered masterpieces have their critics.  People have different tastes, and no piece of writing is ever going to please every reader.

But to say you can do better is a big call.  There is so much that goes into putting together a novel than these ‘I can do better’ people can fathom.  Sure, luck does play a role, sometimes a significant one, but at the end of the day, a mixture of skill, talent, perseverance and determination is imperative in putting together a bestseller.  And time — finding the time to actually complete it is probably the biggest obstacle of all.

The truth is, good writing alone is not enough to sell books.  It’s about meeting the demands of the market, bring at the right place at the right time, and having an interesting idea.  An idea that appeals to the masses.

Dan Brown, the creator of The Da Vinci Code, is an oft-targeted author.  His writing is, admittedly, nothing spectacular from a technical standpoint, but it’s adequate.  He also has his strengths, being an excellent craftsman of page turners.  But is that why The Da Vinci Code was such an international phenomenon?  Of course not.  It’s because he identified something when he read Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and realised that it would make an awesome premise for a thriller.  At least one that would be highly controversial.

But was that all he needed, a good idea?  Of course not again.  He must have spent hundreds of hours researching and piecing the story together, and who knows how long he spent creating the novel’s many cryptic puzzles?  Then, he had to actually write the damn thing.  I recall reading somewhere that for every page of The Da Vinci Code, there were another 10 pages that ended up on the cutting room floor.  How can anyone not find that an impressive effort?

There are times when I am reading a particular writer’s work and I don’t think it is any good, and I start wondering if I can write something better.  But I tell myself that it’s one thing to tell yourself that you may have the potential ability to do it, but it’s another thing altogether to actually get it done.

E-Book Millionaire Gives Hope to Aspiring Writers March 6, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Blogging, Misc, On Writing, Websites.
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Source: smh.com.au

A friend of mine recently sent me a link to an article about 26 year-old Amanda Hocking, who is apparently making ‘millions’ in the e-book market on Amazon.

Being an aspiring novelist, I was intrigued by her success, especially since there’s been nothing but depressing news lately on the publishing front with the collapse of RedGroup Retail, the owner of both the Borders and Angus & Robertson bookseller chains in Australia.

Can a writer really become successful selling e-books on Amazon?  Well, Hocking has.  She prices her books between 99 cents and $2.99, but gets to keep 70% of all sales.  She reportedly sells around 100,000 books a month, so by my calculations that would net her between $70,000 and $210,000 a month.  Those are numbers any writer with commercial aspirations would die to have.

Anyway, I looked up Hocking’s blog here, and learned that she is American, and she writes paranormal romance, which means that she probably owes some of her success to that person who wrote a love story between a human and a vampire (and a werewolf).  Hocking’s the bestselling author of Trylle Trilogy and the My Blood Approves series.

However, what I found most interesting came from her post on March 3rd, which really put things in perspective for me.  I’ll just quote her directly:

Everybody seems really excited about what I’m doing and how I’ve been so successful, and from what I’ve been able to understand, it’s because a lot of people think that they can replicate my success and what I’ve done. And while I do think I will not be the only one to do this – others will be as successful as I’ve been, some even more so – I don’t think it will happen that often.

Traditional publishing and indie publishing aren’t all that different, and I don’t think people realize that. Some books and authors are best sellers, but most aren’t. It may be easier to self-publish than it is to traditionally publish, but in all honesty, it’s harder to be a best seller self-publishing than it is with a house.

I don’t think people really grasp how much work I do. I think there is this very big misconception that I was like, “Hey, paranormal is pretty hot right now,” and then I spent a weekend smashing out some words, threw it up online, and woke up the next day with a million dollars in my bank account.

This is literally years of work you’re seeing. And hours and hours of work each day. The amount of time and energy I put into marketing is exhausting. I am continuously overwhelmed by the amount of work I have to do that isn’t writing a book. I hardly have time to write anymore, which sucks and terrifies me.

I also have this tremendous sense of urgency, like if I don’t get everything out now and do everything now, while the iron is hot, everything I’ve worked for will just fall away. For the first time, I truly understand why workaholics are workaholics. You can’t stop working, because if you do, it unravels all the work you’ve already done. You have to keep going, or you’ll die.

Or at least that’s how it feels.

How about that?  I admit, I was one of those people that thought, maybe this is just some girl who got lucky riding the Stephenie Meyer wave, pretty much like how she described it above.  But of course, while she must have had some luck along the way (as most successful writers do), she succeeded because of hard work and persistence– not just in writing and editing but also in promoting and marketing her books.

While I do envy Hocking’s success, what I envy most is her determination and sense of urgency.  She’s not an overnight success, even if that’s what the media is painting her out to be.  She has been writing for years, written 19 books, with 8 novels and 1 novella published.  She didn’t get e-published until April 2010, and since then has sold 900,000 copies across 9 titles.

That’s the mental stuff I need to develop — that burning desire to work every waking moment I get, continuously striving to perfect my craft and work.

Kind of like what Charlie Sheen is doing right now — making the most of his life (and winning!).

Stieg Larrson rules Australian book sales in 2010 January 11, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Blogging, Book Reviews, Novel, On Writing.
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Stieg Larsson

No real surprises as the 2010 Australian book sale figures (via Nielson Bookscan) were released today.

Stieg Larsson’s Swedish-translated bestseller, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (my review of the book here), topped the charts with around 400,000 copies sold in 2010, and the other two books in the series, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest pushed total sales of the Millennium Trilogy to over 1 million.

I personally thought the book was pretty good, but as I said it the review, not entirely worthy of the insane hype.  I’ve got the next two books of the trilogy lined up, I just need to get around to reading them!

Anyway, no doubt the Swedish versions of the first two films have attributed to the strong sales of the books, and with the Hollywood version of the first film due to hit cinemas December 2011, expect the books to continue selling.

Nevertheless, it was good to see the 2009 chart topper, Twilight, slow down a little despite what feels like its ten millionth reprint in yet another different coloured version.

Another strong seller was Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love (250,000 copies), probably also helped by the Julia Roberts’ film based on the book (which I am yet to see but heard was complete trash).

A bunch of cook books also did well, thanks to the TV juggernaught Masterchef.

The top selling Australian author was Bryce Courtenay, whose book Fortune Cookie sold 104,000 copies.  Di Morrisey’s The Plantation was not too far behind with 101,000, and various biographies (Ben Cousins, John Howard, Anh Do) sold around 70,000.

For the year, the Australian book industry sold 66.2 million books (not too bad for a country of under 22 million), which was up 0.4% in volume but a drop of 4.2% in value because of lower book prices.  With the iPad, Kindle and other e-readers starting to penetrate the market, I wonder which direction sales will go in the coming decade?

In any case, these figures show just how hard it is to make a living as an author in Australia.  Unless you can break into the international market, it’s almost impossible to not require a day job.  Discouraging, no doubt, but an aspiring writer can still dream, right?

Movie Review: Forbidden Lie$ (2007) September 10, 2010

Posted by pacejmiller in Movie Reviews.
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I came across Forbidden Lie$, the phenomenal 2007 Australian documentary (directed by Anna Broinowski), while researching for an interview.  While perhaps not one of the best made documentaries from a technical standpoint, Forbidden Lie$ is definitely one of the most intriguing and exciting films I’ve seen this year.

Some may recall the worldwide bestselling book Forbidden Love (also known as Honor Lost in the United States), written by Norma Khouri.  Released in the aftermath of September 11, Forbidden Love tells the purportedly true story of a Jordanian woman (Khouri’s best friend) who was stabbed to death by her family in an “honour killing” simply because she was in a chaste relationship with a non-Muslim man.

The book brought the insanity of these honour killings to the Western world, and for a while, Khouri was a huge star, appearing at book festivals and on TV shows all around the world, discussing the subject like an advocate and expert.  She was pretty, charismatic, passionate, and yet completely inexperienced in love.  People lined up for hours just to shake her hand and book signings and people even wrote songs about her.  Forbidden Lie$ was ranked by Australians as one of their 100 favourite books of all time, and it was said to have sold over 500,000 copies around the world.

That’s certainly the way Forbidden Lie$ starts out, painting Khouri as a remarkable woman who fled from oppression to tell her amazing true story to the world.  But for those who know the story, things suddenly take a crazy turn.  I won’t go into it much more than that, but the title of the film says it all.

Proving that truth is stranger than fiction, the film unravels like a well-written mystery — is she telling the truth, just part of the truth, or is everything that comes out of her mouth a bold-faced lie (like George Costanza trying to lie his way out of more lies at all costs)?

Part of the reason the film progresses like this is because director Anna Broinowski approached Khouri with the intention of making a film that would tell her side of the story and exonerate her from all the allegations.  So in many ways, the film is really Broinowski’s journey as she goes from stern believer to unconvinced sceptic.  Just how far will Khouri go to prove her innocence?

There are plenty of unexpected twists and turns, as more and more secrets start coming out of the woodwork, and yet, as Khouri is often the voice we hear, we feel almost compelled to believe everything she says.

The final half-hour or so may be too long-winded and repetitive, and some of the tactics were a little cheesy, but on the whole Forbidden Lie$ is simply riveting.  I can’t believe I hadn’t heard about the documentary until only a couple of days ago.

4 stars out of 5

Good news for those who now want to see it: the entire film is available on YouTube in 10 parts.  Check it out yourself.  Here is the trailer.

And if you want to read more about the story (warning: contains spoilers), I would recommend this article from journalist David Leser, who also appears in the film — Norma Khouri: The Inside Story of a Disgraced Author

The Depressing World of Publishing August 4, 2010

Posted by pacejmiller in Novel, On Writing.
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I’m back into the swing of things with my writing course, which has so far been extremely satisfying and enjoyable (for the most part).  Two of my subjects this term are editing and writing feature articles, both aspects of writing I’m really looking forward to.  The classes this first week have been small (less than 10, though a lot of people who were supposed to be there didn’t rock up) — and about 50% of students are ex-lawyers!  That says it all, doesn’t it?

Anyway, it was interesting and depressing to learn about how difficult it is to crack into the publishing world and how difficult it is to stay there once you make that breakthrough.  It’s hard, it’s rough, and for the vast majority, little money to be made (especially in a small market place like Australia).

For starters, most big publishing houses these days don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts.  They just don’t have time for slush piles, 99% of which is unpublishable drivel anyway (or so they say).  That means you need a literary agent, but not many agents accept people who have never been published.  Does that even make sense?  You can’t publish unless you can get an agent but you can’t get an agent unless you’re published.

Secondly, publishing has evolved into an industry where it’s all about making money.  Gone are the days where commercial fiction is used to prop up the literary fiction that generally don’t make any money.  If your book is unlikely to sell, then chances are the publisher won’t even consider it.  It could be a masterpiece, but if there is no market for the book, it’s unlikely the book will see the light of day.

There are some boutique publishers these days more willing to take on unknown writers and literary fiction writers, but the money to be made there is very small (clearly not enough to live off) and their budget for advertising/promotion etc will obviously be a lot more limited.  But at least there’s a chance.

Thirdly, and relatedly, it’s hard to keep books on the shelves these days with the increasingly accurate counting of book sales (thanks to systems such as Bookscan).  Bookscan essentially tabulates real sales from most bookstores across Australia (I’m sure there are similar systems across the world) into an exact, concrete figure.

This is important because back in the old days it was easier for publishers to inflate the success of their writers by manipulating the numbers.  For instance, you may print 5,000 books in your first run, and 4,000 of them are sold to bookstores.  The publisher might then say you sold 4,000 books, which is technically true — but of those 4,000, perhaps only 2,000 are sold from the stores, with the rest returned.  Now, there’s no hiding the truth.  If you sold 163 copies, you sold 163 copies.

So if you finally managed to get that first book published but it sold poorly, your chances of getting a second book published becomes that much harder.  You can’t even go to another publisher and lie about the success of your first book because they’ll have all the numbers right there in front of them.

Fourthly, and also related, is the fact that books don’t stay on the shelves for very long.  New titles that don’t perform well are pulled off the shelves within 3 months.  3 months!  How does that even give people a chance?  How can you build any momentum, any word of mouth?  It may take 3 months just for some people to read the book!

The need to make money out of every book on the shelf as become a recurring nightmare for aspiring authors.  That’s why we have the vicious cycle of the same books remaining on the bestsellers lists every week — you know, the Stieg Larssons, the Stephenie Meyers, the JK Rowlings and the Dan Browns — because these books are proven sellers.  People tend to gravitate to what’s “hot”, what everyone else is reading.  Hence instead of bringing in new books, book stores prefer to stock new versions (often just different sizes and covers) of existing titles to freshen them up a bit — the best example I can think of are the movie-tie-in versions and the Twilight red page-edge versions.

Let’s face it, the chances of becoming one of those superstar authors mentioned above are a hundred million to one.  Those guys can live (well, except for Larsson because he’s dead) off the sales of one book for the rest of their lives.  For everyone else, they’ll have to keep writing.

The advances on royalties for new authors in Australia are excrutiatingly small.  Essentially what they do is make a prediction of how many books you will sell, and then multiple that by 10% of the price of the book.  So if the book costs $30 and they think you will sell 2,000 copies, then your advance is $6,000.  Considering the book may have taken you 10 years to write, that’s not a lot of money.  And if the book ends up selling more than 2,000 copies, then each additional copy sold will earn you 10% in royalties.

The problem is, in a small market such as Australia, selling around 15,000 to 20,000 (in total) would be considered successful.  Even if each book is priced at $50, that’s still only $75,000-$100,000 — not exactly money you can retire on — and that’s only if your book is a success.

Look, there are still plenty of local success stories out there, such as Rebecca James (author of Beautiful Malice), which I talked about in this post here.  But these are rare, rare cases.  It’s like winning the lottery.

Few authors can become international superstars like Meyer and Rowling, but there are many minor to moderately successful writers who have been snapped up for multiple book deals at a price equivalent to working in a decent job (say $100,000-$200,000 a year).  That’s a pretty comfortable living.

However, the pressure of churning out one or even two books a year could take the fun out of the writing, and more importantly, the quality of the books will suffer.  Can you imagine being contracted to write one book every 12 months, especially if you say took 5 years to write your first one?  Can you write one every 6 months, and expect to put in the same amount of effort and ensure the same level of quality as your previous books?

That’s exactly why we have so many reasonably well-known authors (not going to mention names) that seem to continuously bring out new books, but each one is worse than the next.  It gets people wondering why the quality of their new stuff is so much less inspiring than their old stuff.  But at the end of the day, they still sell, and that’s what publishers care about.  After all, they are the ones putting up the money.

So it’s hard to get an agent.  It’s hard to get published.  It’s hard to stay on the shelves.  It’s even harder to get republished.  The money is unlikely to be good.  And even if you do get signed for more books, it might not be exactly what you were hoping for.

And yet, despite all of this, I continue to write, and I continue to dream.  Why?  It reminds me of this awful movie I just watched (review coming shortly) where a woman says that her daughter is studying and wants to get into creative writing.  Her male companion is shocked and says, “But how is she going to make any money?”  The woman responds stoically, “She’s doing what she loves.”  I can relate to that.

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