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The Demise of Bookstores

I spent many many years working as a book buyer in a bookstore. It was a bookstore specializing in science fiction and fantasy, as well as books to do with cartoons, animation, fantasy art and genre films. I used to know every book coming out. The bookstore was mostly a comic book store that had the book area as well as the gaming area, which had started with Dungeons & Dragons.

The comics branched into all sorts of merchandise, made hugely popular by Todd McFarlane and his toys and of course his Spawn comic creation. Dungeons & Dragonsexpanded into numerous other roleplaying games and became predominated by Warhammer. The books, well they went the way of the dinosaurs when the owner decided they weren’t profitable.

Of course the reasoning was faulty because most bookstores keep their regular customers coming in by buying the new monthly releases. All publishers have new releases and most of the major ones have both paperback and hardcovers, with the larger and more popular selections coming out before the seasonal holidays and the second largest for the ending of the school year (usually the college year but coinciding with summer as well).

The owner didn’t pay his bills on time, which meant the mass market monthly releases didn’t come out and though some people were always buying the older books (series) too, many shoppers read all the new books every month. It was a flawed logic but it still killed the book aspect of the store, except for the art books.

Over those years there were fights by many independent booksellers to protect their rights. The megastores like Chapters came along and got super deep discounts from the publisher, which meant they could lower the price of their books. Whereas the small independent bookstore would buy maybe 25 instead of 2500 of a book and couldn’t lower the price. The difference in the two types of store is that the bigger chain stores often had staff who knew nothing about books and a new book remained on the shelf for two weeks only, then was stripped and sent back. (stripping is where the cover is removed from the paperback and returned for credit since returning the cheaply printed books is not economically feasible).

The small bookstore would tend to keep a larger variety of titles on the shelf for longer, perhaps specializing in genres (antiquarian, fantasy/sf, crime/mystery, religious), and the staff would be highly knowledgeable, as well as lovers of reading themselves. But how does a little mom and pop operation compete against a corporation with business men drawing up plans for increasing revenues? They can’t and most bookstore owners do it for love, hoping they can survive, pay the rent and maybe live off the proceeds. You don’t get rich running a bookstore.

The independent booksellers had to band together across Canada to keep themselves from sinking. It worked…to a degree. In Vancouver, of the three bookstores that specialized in science fiction and fantasy (The Comicshop, Granville Books, and White Dwarf Books) only one survives, White Dwarf. Chapters expanded their sections somewhat but you’ll be hard pressed to find something really odd or obscure, or an older series but an other than top list author, unless you go to White Dwarf.

It is a constant threat and on top of the big box stores these days, there is Amazon, with their big discounts. Unfortunately people are looking more for the discounts and saving a buck or two (that they may then pay in shipping) and foregoing service and knowledgeable staff. I’ll always be a champion of the little independent store whether it’s selling pet food or books. To me, the homogenization of our society into sameness and banality will kill individual thought and creativity.

Maybe we are heading toward a completely electronic society, but not yet. With the economic crunch, it will be the demise of some bookstores and this article is worrying. http://www.cbc.ca/arts/books/story/2009/02/02/bookexpo-cancelled.html This happens again and again and will happen yet again, but a plus note is that booksellers are tenacious and hopefully book lovers will survive. Here’s to the little guy, the underdog and a search for the unique shopping experience in the world of mass merchandising.

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Writing: Demise & Panic

In the writing world, whether mainstream or speculative writing, survival depends on sales. For some literary magazines put out through universities, grants and other funding are often delegated to be able to pay the writers. But still a magazine of any style hopes to have a high viewer rate and sell subscriptions, guaranteed revenue for the future. In the case of a university funded magazine, the funding might be cut if the subscription numbers go down.

With individual or private magazines, they are sometimes owned by companies or individuals. In all cases they need to make money to survive unless a rich person is altruistically funnelling money into a labor of love and though they hope to sell out, don’t have to, to keep going.

With the recent panic in the economic rivers, we see various businesses tossing themselves on the banks, gasping for survival, their eyes goggling about and seeing little. In some cases the rivers are still flowing but a ripple has moved through, frightening everyone to make for land before the drought hits. Hmm, it makes me wonder. Is there a need to hunker down, to cut staff, to close offices or is it all anticipation of the worst, and that anticipation is what brings about the apocalypse?

Well, whatever the case, it’s hitting the speculative writing world as well. Realms of Fantasy has just announced that their April 2009 issue will be the last. http://sfscope.com/2009/01/realms-of-fantasy-closing.html I’ve always wondered how all the little paper magazines survived, and have suspected (but have no basis in fact) that sales were never great. The era of the great pulp magazine is truly gone, those sales were dependent on a relatively untried format and genre, the mass marketing of such and more successful when TV was infantile and the internet not even a spark in Daddy Gates’ eye.

Of course, if you’re running a magazine in the US and you sell to 10% of the people, that’s still a respectable number, compared to 10% of Canada’s population (one reason why a writer always wants to sell in the US first). So in some ways the speculative/SF/fantasy markets are hurting as well. Fantasy and Science Fiction has also announced that they’re going quarterly from monthly.

For us little writers it does mean that pickings will be slimmer, especially for the still generic brand writer. Alas. What to do? Well, as I have seen over the years, magazines come and go, publishers consolidate, shrink and grow. Everything is in a constant flux and publishing is an incestuous business with houses often changing hands, being swapped for a better fit. So it goes. I’ll just continue to write and submit.

I’ve also finally fired myself up and started writing on my novel again. Not hugely productive but productive nonetheless. The only way I can keep myself from being distracted is going off to cafes and restaurants and spending some money to sit there and write on my laptop. Luckily I work well with ambient noise. If I’m at home I fritter away the time on all sorts of things, never quite getting to that novel.

I started again two weeks ago and have about 8,000 words. To make it feel like I’m actually accomplishing something I’m writing through one viewpoint character’s chapters  before going back to do the other two. It means I’ll have to smooth over the chapter transitions but then this is first draft. I’m not worrying too much about perfection at this point, but just writing and getting the story down. It feels good to be moving ahead. I’m into the second chapter of one of my antagonists.

By the time I finish the book and am looking at marketing it to publishers, maybe things will be more stable. Maybe they’ll want a book that takes place on another planet that deals with economic, political and religious downfall. It might echo this world, but if it does, it’s not intentional. In the meantime I will watch the markets and continue to submit. Really, every few years there is a culling and if one can just find another stream, we’ll survive (So I used all sorts of metaphors here. What the heck, I’m not being paid for this.)

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Writing: Bitter Writer?

Back in September I wrote the blog Writing: Things to Watch Out For https://colleenanderson.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?action=edit&post=445 On my other blog I received a letter titled “Bitter Writer Syndrome” a while back but didn’t get time to comment until now. Well, I pissed off Mr. Hobbes, and he was correct in that I presumed he was the head of Hobbes End Publishing, but at the time when I did research through the internet I didn’t find that information. Hobbes End website now mentions that Jairus Reddy is the publisher. http://hobbesendpublishing.com/index.html

So let’s look at Mr. Hobbes’ comments. (I have posted his full letter at the end so I can’t be accused of unfavorable editing.) “Being paid for one’s writing (rare in the industry) is not prostitution, but professionalism.” It is a matter of perspective and really we can all say we prostitute ourselves whenever we sell something for money, whether our services or our art. Of course what I meant was, selling oneself too cheaply. And yes, new writers do need to start somewhere and $100 is decent for 1,500 words but not for 30,000. Being paid for one’s writing is not rare in the industry. Book publishers, respectable book publishers, do it all the time. Just ask Random House, Bantam, Tor, Baen or any of the big name speculative publishers (or mainstream too).

Then he says: “The reason publishers ask for all rights is something that might be above your understanding.” It’s very well within my understanding and what Mr. Hobbes does not know is that in fact respectable publishers, as the ones named above do not take all rights. In fact, you can look at many smaller publishers such as Edge Publishing, Bundoran Press, Nightshade Books, etc. and none of them take all rights. I think it is he who is under the veil of misunderstanding.

Next he comments that the anthology he is editing “will also be highly publicized and promoted, which I can say most publishers don’t do. Many thousands of dollars will be spent doing so. Also, since you have not read our contract, you wouldn’t know what offers we are making towards secondary rights.” Any publisher who wants to stay in business promotes. But let’s look at Mr. Hobbes’ (along with authors Benoit and Palmer) first book Exiles in Time: The Contrived Senator. I did a google search of his name and the two titles for the book. I found the publisher’s website and of course the book listed on various online bookselling sites, such as Amazon. Granted that advertising also means ads in magazines, other print formats and local areas, I can’t know how much the publisher has put into this book. But of the four reviews on Amazon for the book, two were by the Reddys, owners of Hobbes End. I could find no review anywhere else and certainly not on any of the normal SF review sites. So uh, highly publicized? I also have to wonder what could possibly be their “secondary rights” after they’ve taken all of the rights. That’s a mystery that Mr. Hobbes didn’t elucidate.

“You mention, over and over again, magazines. However, this is not a magazine. This is for a novel.” That’s even sadder, taking all rights on a 30,000 word story as opposed to a 200 word article, not that one is better than the other. And I did, in my post, talk about publishers of magazines and books, who really don’t take all rights except for a few exceptions. He also says: “The financial risk is to the publisher—the opportunity is to the writer. Unlike a magazine, which is taken off the shelves monthly, this one will stay in publication indefinitely.” Except the writer also has a financial risk in trying to sell their work and get paid what they’re worth. And Mr. Hobbes is wrong. Books in chain stores also get taken off the shelves monthly or even after two weeks. Places like Chapters will keep a small smattering of some titles. Privately owned bookstores will keep books longer on the shelves and likewise for magazines that may not be monthly; some of them will keep these till they sell them all. It varies. The only guarantee is to have your book on Amazon, listed with thousands of others, whether self-published, small press published or major book published.

Mr. Hobbes added: “However, I have seven more [books] coming out next year, three of which are through major publishers.” I did a search and have found nothing listed but I no longer get the sneak previews into the upcoming  lists as I did when I was a book buyer. However, nothing is listed except the co-authored books on the Hobbes End site. I’ve found no other info. I have no idea what the quality of the writing is in these books or where else he’ll be published. Eventually, I’m sure we’ll see the lists and it’s up to each person what they think of a story. That is very prolific and Mr. Hobbes should be congratulated on completing three books plus the co-authoring of the others (which he didn’t mention they were co-authored).

He ends with a good thrust: “It sounds as if you suffer from ‘Bitter Writer Syndrome’. It happens to the best of writers who don’t seem to understand the risks publishers take to make it in the industry. Blaming publishers for not paying them ‘what they are worth’ is curable. If you want to ‘make it’ in this industry, I suggest you research before you post such nonsense.”

 Bitter writer? Nah. I’ve published enough and work on my novel. I’m about where my energies have taken me. And I’m afraid I understand the industry much better than Mr. Hobbes does and I know that buying all rights is not the norm nor fair. Buying all rights in perpetuity for a hundred bucks is not something I would ever do, even if I was selling my first piece. And over the years of selling pieces I have been careful not to sell to such rights. It’s one reason I pulled my poem from Sotto Voce, because I could not agree to their selection of rights.

As I said before, each person must make their own decision on what to give away and what to sell, and for how much. I do apologize to Mr. Hobbes for saying he owned the company but I would also suggest that perhaps he was just a bit bitter himself about my comments. And in reality, it all boils down to taking all rights which I caution writers to think more than twice about before they do it. But I don’t think I’ll be submitting to Hobbes End, not that they’d buy anything from me now anyways. 🙂

Bitter Writer Syndrome?

In response to your blog, “Things to Watch out for”—

You begin by stating that $100.00 is not a fair price. Everyone who has submitted thus far has had no issue with making money for their writing. Few writers do, and the intent with this project is to help out first time authors. Being paid for one’s writing (rare in the industry) is not prostitution, but professionalism.

The ad is clear and any writer who has a problem with ‘all rights’ is welcome to not submit. The reason publishers ask for all rights is something that might be above your understanding. The financial burden taken on by publishers is insane. Editors, printing, distribution and promotions add up. A writer is always welcome to self-publish if he or she worries about such things.

Each of our writers for this anthology will receive credit for their work. They will also be highly publicized and promoted, which I can say most publishers don’t do. Many thousands of dollars will be spent doing so. Also, since you have not read our contract, you wouldn’t know what offers we are making towards secondary rights.

Hobbes End Publishing is not a new publishing company. And your comment about ‘pros not submitting’ is uncalled for, since the point of this project is not for the pros, but for new writers.

You mention, over and over again, magazines. However, this is not a magazine. This is for a novel. It will receive major distribution and advertising. This will not only give authors opportunity to break into the industry, but give them the chance that other publishers, and magazines, don’t allow. The financial risk is to the publisher—the opportunity is to the writer. Unlike a magazine, which is taken off the shelves monthly, this one will stay in publication indefinitely.

What you should be complaining about are the publishers who make writer’s pay for their work to be published.

I have had one novel published by Hobbes End Publishing, you are correct. However, I have seven more coming out next year, three of which are through major publishers.

Also, make sure to check your facts. I have no ties to Hobbes End Publishing, with the exception of writing for them. I am not an owner and in no way control their agreements amongst writers. Please check your facts before stating what you do not know about. The company was simply named after a story I wrote.

It sounds as if you suffer from ‘Bitter Writer Syndrome’. It happens to the best of writers who don’t seem to understand the risks publishers take to make it in the industry. Blaming publishers for not paying them ‘what they are worth’ is curable.

If you want to ‘make it’ in this industry, I suggest you research before you post such nonsense.

Sincerely,
Vincent Hobbes

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The Idiocy of Retail

On one of the writers’ lists, we ended up discussing shopping experiences this week. It began with someone going into Chapters and being asked no less than twelve times in as many minutes if he was finding what he wanted. Most people decided they’d rather have no service than service that killed any joy in shopping, or more in a bookstore, browsing.

I had the reverse experience in Future Shop where the CDs were so mixed up I could find nothing. The store wasn’t that busy but when I looked for a clerk, he was watching TV. I didn’t buy anything there.

Service has always had its ups and downs. You either have overly helpful clerks who don’t know when to give you space (like the overattentive waiter) to those that are too busy chatting to each other or fixing makeup or watching TV to actually do their jobs. And then there are the ones too clueless to hold the job: they don’t know their stock or as was the case in Calgary at a restaurant, the waitress didn’t know what alcohol was besides beer.

There are the clerks who are truly helpful. They’re visible but they don’t crowd you. They stay alert and notice when you start to look around for help or have that bewildered deer in the headlights look. It seems rarer these days. I’m more likely to go back to a store that has good service and have walked out of stores with no service or bad service.

Like at The Bay. I was looking for skirts and carrying a couple on hangers as I walked around. It seems one was touching the floor and this clerk with no manners came up and said, “You’re dragging the skirts. You’ll ruin them,” and wrenched them out of my hand. Where was the mud? She could have said, “Can I put those in a room for you,” but she didn’t. I turned around and walked out. When I tried to find The Bay’s address/email online so I could write a letter of complaint, could I find anything pertinent or even a customer service line? Nothing. This way The Bay is assured of only having good reports. I didn’t shop there for many months because of the rude behavior. After all, there are plenty of stores.

I might just be a crank but I do expect to be treated with the same attentiveness I would give someone if I had those jobs. And I have, in the past. I’ve been a waitress. I’ve been a store monkey.

Another aspect of idiot retailing is the lengths stores will go to help perpetuate a myth. The myth of the ideal body. Women are supposed to be caricatures of the ideal female. We’re supposed to have large puffy lips, large but not pendulous breasts, narrow waists and boylike hips. Botox will give you the lips and implants will give you the breasts. But should you want the cheaper way of getting the larger bustline, the stores have helped. I’ve not changed in inches but I now wear a C cup because it is far more desirable than a B cup. Bras are also padded in a variety of ways to increase the illusion of bustiness.

Le Chateau has taken sizing to ridiculous heights where no one wants to be seen as wearing large. You’ll be lucky if you find a large in the store but you’ll find medium, small, extra small, extra extra small and extra extra extra small. WTF? I’ve bought an extra small and still found it too big. Petite is better in their books where a small would probably equate to a size 10. Even stores that have numbered sizing have changed it. A size 8 is now larger than it once was. I find that depending where I shop, I can wear anything from a small (or extra extra small) to a large, or a size 3 to a size 12. Perhaps everything should just be a free size these days because the numbers don’t matter.

Starbucks takes this in the other direction. No one wants to pay five bucks for a small coffee so the small is a tall, the medium is a grande and when they ran out of words in common English usage for large, they went to venti. What’s that, Italian? So there is a small English, a medium French and a large Italian. When it comes to food we want grande, super size, mega large, but when it comes to fitting ourselves into clothes we want petite and super extra mini small. Unless you’re a man. Maybe shoulder widths on jackets have expanded as well for those manly, super hero broad shoulders.

But as one person pointed out on the list, there is a plethora of interesting names for condoms including iron grip and super strength. The sizing is hidden but there is never a small.

May all your shopping experiences have medium attention from the clerks and the prices be super extra extra cheap and the bargains be mega uber mondo grande.

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Writing: Advice on Getting Published

A little while ago someone asked me:

 I am here desirous to find a faithful publisher for my book…. What useful counsel can you give to me.

I’m not sure what is meant by faithful publisher but finding a publisher is a mixture of you wanting them and them wanting you. There are literally thousands of publishers. There are some that publish all types and genres and others that specialize. So the first thing to do is figure out if your book is a how-to, a biography, history, fantasy, romance, literary, sports, spiritual, etc.

Once you know who your reading audience is, you can then research publishers. Writer’s Digestputs out a series of books on markets. They’re specific, such as, literary markets, short story markets, romance markets, etc. These books give good information on how to write a query letter, which is the first step to what to include in your submission package. Some publishers only want a query letter. Others want a letter, a synopsis and the first three chapters. Some only want agented submissions, which means you must go through the process of querying agents first. It’s best to read up on what the publisher wants first. They received hundreds of manuscripts and someone who hasn’t bothered to research the market and sends something in the wrong format or way is likely to piss off an editor and have their manuscript tossed.

Writer’s Digest also lists publishers and markets, giving short descriptions, addresses and editor names. It’s good to read up on the advice and then to start submitting. It’s important to make sure you submit your manuscripts in the proper format, which in most cases is double spaced text, no extra space between paragraphs, regular font and size, no right justification, word count, page numbering and name. There is enough information out there that tells you what to send and what not to.

Outlines by chapter, or synopses also are often required so make sure they’re laid out well and contain what is the main action/point of each chapter. Taking courses or workshopping manuscripts as well as outlines is not a bad idea. And of course, making sure your manuscript is polished and free of as many grammatical and spelling errors as possible does improve your chances.

Besides researching the right publisher for your manuscript, it’s not a bad idea to check the legitimacy and publishing record of a publisher. Find out what they’ve published and do internet searches both on the publisher name and the book titles they’ve put out. There are vanity presses that charge you to put everything together. Your chances of making a profit are small. There are print on demand publishers that will work out a deal for self-publishing but depending on how they’re set up, you will need to figure out how to advertise and distribute your book. Unless you know what you’re doing, you could have some very expensive doorstops and going with established well known publishers with marketing departments and established distribution is worth it’s weight in gold.

I once edited a book for a friend who was writing a guide on places to walk your dog. He did his own layout and found a printer. Then he found a local book rep who would market it to the bookstores and see to distribution through a local book distributor. That worked well but the book was locally focused. In most cases you’re going to want national distribution if you hope to make any money or sell your book.

Then all you have to do is keep submitting your book to publishers until they bite. Sometimes they’ll ask to see a few chapters, and then they may ask to see a full manuscript. This process can take months. Expect the average of three months before seeing a reply to even a query. It’s best to send out query letters to many publishers at once. Persevere. Like writing it takes work to get published and some is just the persistence of sending out your manuscript until you hit the right publisher at the right time.

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Fourth of July for Writers

Somehow I missed posting this on the 4th. Probably because I fell asleep half way through writing it.

Today was Independence Day for the writers, and overall we did what we’ve been doing all week. We went for dinner but spent longer than usual, then returned to the dorms to write and discuss. When the fireworks went off, a couple of people went outside to watch but they were far away. The KU campus sits on a hill, but the rest of Lawrence is flattish.

I’m now quite excited about my novel and listening to a few others, they were starting to feel this “it’s right” feeling. Of course, everything will change with the critiques next week, where most of us have to rewrite our outlines.

I’ve had to get rid of a viewpoint character that Rhea was calling my Duncan Idaho and completely downplay my gods. And I have to reformat the crisis/conflicts but I also have a second and possibly third novel out of this.

We’ve talked about opening lines and how they convey setting right in the first sentence and that that first sentence is the most important. We’ve looked at pacing and dialogue, overall story arcs, as well as interior and exterior motives/arcs. Much of this I knew but working out the nuances for novels is somewhat different. The pacing can be longer and needs to be, but then you have chapter arcs within story arcs.

I think some of this will settle out once I’ve had time to ruminate.

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Writing: Scenes

We’ve been workshopping our first three chapters. Kij mentioned that many of us had setting but little in the way of anchoring a scene. At least five of the nine novels take place in worlds different enough (Earth’s future, medieval Earth style, space or non-Earth planets) that we must really set the place. This holds true for everyone in the group so Kij has given us an assignment of rewriting the first scene of the book.

The scene should be around 700 words and give at least six pieces of info on the first page and no more than three on the subsequent pages. I may not be remembering this correctly but five senses have to be used, and then three per page.

It sounds easy but is not. One has to get the right amount of pacing as well as the right info in the setting. Too little and the reader is not anchored. Too much and the reader gets lost. I’ve started my scene and it’s not one I’ve written yet. In fact, it was a later scene, which is now moved right up, bringing action and my three races into the picture all at once.

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