Derek Raymond’s Revolutionary Factory Series went too far, and that’s Exactly What was Needed

“It seems that all that was good has died, And is decaying in me.”
-Disturbed,
“Down with the Sickness”

Hardboiled crime is a special genre. Derek Raymond, the founder of British Noir, took it to a whole new level with his Factory series. Nothing was like it before, and nothing has been like it since. It also includes the design of one of the most heinous fictional crimes in the history of all entertainment.

“After all, hatred of a person is a form of interest in him, and I repay that interest with curiosity.”

He Died With His Eyes Open, p. 198

Raymond, born Robert William Arthur Cook, created a simple character in the Factory series: an unnamed sergeant. This man, the one the reader knows as Noir’s classic unlikable protagonist, works for the A14 division of London’s Metropolitan Police. Or, as the branch is also known as, the Department of Unexplained Deaths.

The author sets the stage in development, but its simplicity is genius. Raymond gives us a man with no name who handles grotesque murders with no apparent motive, suspect, worthy victim or sufficient evidence. The nameless can’t be explained just like the deaths he is assigned—a perfect love affair between character and cause. It also subtly alludes to the fact, through crime as a metaphor, that persons of power and popularity chose prestige, like picking the most athletic kid on the playground first while leaving the ugly scraps for the less important who dwell in lower, unclaimed societal statuses.    

The series begins with He Died With His Eyes Open (1984). This not only remains the best title of the grouping, but perhaps one of the best hardboiled crime books ever written. It changed the genre by inserting philosophical thought into a style that was normally structured for fast-paced entertainment with little depth. However, it didn’t stray from the standard characteristics of the literary category which is fascinating. It still gave readers mystery, bleakness, wit and sharp tongues, but added the element of furthering the discussion after the last page. It made readers think.

The remaining titles in the five-book series include, in order: The Devil’s Home on Leave (1985), How the Dead Live (1986), I Was Dora Suarez (1990) and Dead Man Upright (1993).

One aspect of the series is that the crimes, though all gruesome, progressively get worse or stranger. Nothing will ever compare to what happened in I Was Dora Suarez, however. 

“I go where the ghosts are, I go where the evil is.”

The Devil’s Home on Leave, p. 30

Raymond’s narrative goes deep below the surface of just a shocking crime and the path to resolution and closure. There, in fact, is no closure after each respective case file is sealed because the crimes are parallel with the unnamed sergeant’s, as well as the suspects’ he pursues, thoughts on society.

In his personal life, Raymond made it public that he did not particularly fit in with the upper crust he was thrust upon from birth. He challenged his upbringing constantly, and his escape became writing. With the passion he wrote with and the topics he brought to light through controversial creativity, he established a signature dialogue. Whether said dialogue was portrayed as negative or positive is a rather moot point because if an author can form a discussion without being involved, then they have produced something impactful.

Raymond’s literary work focuses on the ugliness of society. The platform and genre he chose was a perfect foundation because it reached an audience and demographic that was ripe for unexpected influence; it put readers in an urban landscape, immersing them on the streets where many found an either direct or indirect relation. An interaction they were accustomed to or wanted to understand on another level.

Anna Pasolini, contributing author of Serial Crime Fiction (2015) wrote, “The five novels included in the Factory series encompass the core issues in Raymond’s literary and political project: a representation of the margins of society and of its evils aimed at uncovering and overthrowing the power relations embedded beneath its apparently plain surface” (p. 144).

The author’s transition from crime to crime increased the severity of his underlying message beneath the prose. It’s as if readers experienced Raymond’s transformation from frustration to absolute disgust. It wasn’t expected, but it was needed and welcomed; it was a literary fit decades in the making. Yet, even among readers who aren’t fazed by the most shocking illustrations, the descriptions of the unimaginable acts—details that may question Raymond’s overall sanity and own sociopathic nature—in I Was Dora Suarez and Dead Man Upright may have gone too far.

Still, it was needed and welcomed.

“Reality is to be questioned, not accepted. Matter dangles on a rail, drawn and dark like a curtain or an overdraft. Our state is an unending crises and the invisible, crammed with errors, crashes through us.”

How the Dead Live, p. 189

The controversial crimes in the last two novels of the series are unsettling, the most disturbing on display in I Was Dora Suarez. It wasn’t necessarily the crime itself, though ghastly beyond the imagination; it was the whole process of the performance. The victim was dismembered and her open wounds were violated, but the multiple forms of defecation by the assailant and his masochistic self-mutilation was what left chills. Somehow, halfway through the book, it got worse during an autopsy, and the final scene brought back the bumps. To put it in perspective, if this was ever made into a modern film, or even adapted to a case for crime television, the crime couldn’t be shown or even spoke of without a non-pornographic rating above “R” or “TV-MA.”

However, the unimaginable, yet strangely outstanding criminal concept behind the act, was where Raymond’s creativity shined. It was amazing this was never conjured before. Perhaps there are better word choices than the accolades, if taken in such a way, for the storyline, but it’s not the situation that deserves praise, it’s the fact that it was created, used and presented as a viable disgusting possibility during this time period, and actually captured a major issue that was trending in society.

With the addition of the crime(s) in Dead Man Upright, Raymond’s imagination must be addressed. He was not a sociopathic person as some could assume just from reading his words. He was quite colorful and emotional, on the contrary. I Was Dora Suarez broke the author; the book was a difficult burden, but a task he had to complete, only to realize what he had done after the fact. His reaction to his own work, his empathetic behavior to a fictional situation proves he was not sociopathic.

He said in his memoir, The Hidden Files (1992), “I know I wondered half way through Suarez if I would get through—I mean, if my reason would get through. For the trouble with an experience like Suarez is that you become what you’re writing” (p. 133).

The plot changed him and it was apparent in his shift of writing, even the shift of the unnamed sergeant’s life.

“Each to me, even some killers, have been men or women deprived of any reason for going on—children even, sometimes—and one bright desperate day they awake and say to themselves, ‘I’ll end it,’ and they write themselves off in one single stroke of negative, savage joy, since there was nobody to meet them at the station.”

I Was Dora Suarez, pp. 129-130

Each novel, or “black novel” as they have earned the moniker, in the Factory Series offers something unique and addresses different aspects of society and mentality.

He Died With His Eyes Open helps us understand the unnamed sergeant and his bleak outlook on life. This is most apparent has he absorbs the recordings left behind by the bludgeoned victim and relates to the viewpoint. The reader gets a feel for not only the character’s personality, but also the true setting and issues revolving around that time in London. This is the best title in the series because, and I will repeat, it brought philosophical thought into hardboiled crime.

The Devil’s Home on Leave delves deeper into mental health; though it was a theme throughout the series, this was more specific and involved post-traumatic stress and literal and figurative forms of addiction. It also involved power and status. A deranged hitman has been done and will continue to be done in the genre, but the metaphor for how the crook was used and by whom, his techniques and backstory are a direct reflection on societal standing and trauma. For reference, Raymond, as Cook, was a corporal in the National Service. Though good, this title is the fifth best in the series.

How the Dead Live gives the reader love in a loveless world. The story almost didn’t fit, but after the reader processes the message, it almost fits too well. There is love and beauty in death, there is devotion in the most disturbing of ways. Also, this is where the reader gains more insight into the personality and life of the unnamed sergeant. He is being developed with more understanding of reason and humanizing the otherwise overlooked lowlifes and unwittingly banished now-reclusive ex-socialites, showing admiration for the enemy. He gave life to people through death. An underrated title, this is the third best in the series.

I Was Dora Suarez pushed the limits of everything. There isn’t much more to be said that hasn’t been mentioned. The book was repulsive to the point where Raymond’s publisher at the time vomited over his desk while reading the draft and immediately told him to take the work elsewhere. Yet, the underlying message was that of societal contamination in a variety of aspects. What the book did give us is even more depth to the unnamed sergeant; it gave him deep sympathy and meaning to his own life. It gave him a reason for redemption not only for the victim, but to fill the voids and pain present from the demons and memory he personally possessed. Despite the criticism, this is the second best title in the series, and not because of the shocking crime.

Dead Man Upright gave the reader what has been overdone: a look into the psyche of a serial killer. It also, and somewhat expectedly, used a snuff film as evidence—which is why it’s the second most disturbing of the series’ acts. It wasn’t the first work to examine the mind of an unhinged psychopath, and it probably has been more overdone since and not before, but it was different and extensive for the genre. The intention of the book, however, may not have been to just provide a form of entertainment, but rather closure to the mystery that was the unnamed sergeant. It gave answers; it gave readers deeper looks into reoccurring characters, or for the main character, relationships and significance in the world. The ultimate summary in metaphor: the killer was society and the unnamed sergeant was the counter thought. The title was the fourth best in the series, but vital to the masterpiece as a whole.

Raymond explained, “A special mood is necessary to make language plastic enough to convey such experience exactly; experience so devastatingly simple that, like love, it verges on the indescribable. Nearly every attempt to convey it can really only be described as another endless series of attempts since we cannot describe what we are not yet in a position to know—and yet it is the black novel’s absolute duty to express it. T.S. Eliot, I think, got closest to describing the nature of this challenge when he wrote (I paraphrase): It is not necessary to die to describe death” (p. 144).

He later added, “Nothing else much matters once you have achieved the hardest thing, which is to act out of conviction. Even if you have been beaten by evil, in the bitterness of the defeat the battle has left a trace for the others, and you can go feeling clean. I recognise that I am a minor writer; but this does not affect the depth of my convictions” (p. 287).

Perhaps, then, it wasn’t the murders that were most disturbing and needed closure; it was the times. Readers followed the journey of an unnamed sergeant; they followed a needed counter belief combating a damaged society.                 

“But I don’t believe I am the disaster—I think I’m just a reminder that people are living in one.”

Dead Man Upright, p. 20

I must first state that I do not recommend Raymond’s work for every reader. I know many aren’t affected by this style of writing or imagination, but then again, nothing like this has been read. If your advantageous enough, your curiosity may be met with delight, but the scenery does come with a warning label. The series is not for the squeamish; it’s certainly not for everyone. It is, however, a fascinating work of literature.

The Factory series was needed. Not because of the gruesome crimes, shock value, sharp wit or superb writing, but because of the philosophical understanding, in the mind of the author, that paralleled the issues society faced during that era. It enhanced the hardboiled crime genre, made it more academic in a sense, instead of just offering raunchy entertainment with enough bleakness to satisfy but not continue a reader’s thought.

Raymond wrote in How the Dead Live, “I’m afraid even those of us who have never committed murder are nevertheless guilty of it because we enjoy death at second hand, just as we enjoy watching a thriller on television. After all, what’s the use of a newspaper to the general public if there’s not a single good murder in it?” (pp. 2-3).

Murder and crime surround us in various mediums, in fantasy and reality. We’re victims without an escape other than avoidance, which is sometimes too tall of a task. Raymond made hardboiled crime meaningful, thought-provoking and relevant, and blended our separate fears into bittersweet grotesqueness. The Factory series is tragically beautiful and there’s nothing else like it.

My Struggle is Our Struggle

“Seems like in death, we all become our perfect self.”
-Stereomud, “Perfect Self”

I finished My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard. It was exhausting. It was an accomplishment.

At the end of the sixth book, the Norwegian author stated, “I am no longer a writer” (p. 1052).

I am no longer an ordinary reader.

“We can strip down reality, layer by layer, and never reach its core, for what the last layer covers over is the most unreal of all, the greatest fiction of them all, the true nature of things.”

p. 1012

My Struggle, or Min Kamp, should not be confused or compared to the most recognized European work with the same title, Mein Kampf. Knausgaard’s struggle has nothing to do with Adolf Hitler’s struggle from a philosophical aspect, so you’re able to continue at your leisure. Phew.

There are, however, two curious similarities. First, the style must be addressed. They are both autobiographical. Second, the key antagonist, if we were to classify a real-life character as such, is the father.

The controversy surrounding the book isn’t in its title, but rather the full disclosure of the author throughout the text, and the inclusion of his family and friends as the cast. Knausgaard’s My Struggle is a series of six volumes forming one immense piece of work. The books were published in Norway from 2009-2011, and have been translated into 35 languages. More than half a million copies of the 3,600-page novel have been sold in Norway alone.

In 2012, the books began to appear in English and each volume was released in year increments. By 2018, the sixth and final installment was made available and I instantly purchased my hardback copy. However, with grad school set to begin in 2019, and with the looming combination of academic text and heavy autobiographical philosophy, I decided to pause my reading of the latter.

Two winters and a global pandemic later, I started the end of this specific literary journey. It took me nearly three months to complete My Struggle Book Six, but the eagerness was worth the overwhelming distraction, the sometimes dreadful anxiety was relieved with small situational climaxes, and the closure, well, it will always remain a thought.

“All generations live their lives as if they were the first, gathering experiences, progressing onward through the years, and as insights accumulate, meaning diminishes, or if it doesn’t diminish, it at least becomes less self-evident.”

p. 32

Though the struggle the reader absorbs is Knausgaard’s, there is relation in the prose. Not specifically or literally per se, but rather one’s comparison to the stressors of daily life and how an upbringing shapes an individual.

Whenever I read a volume, timing was everything, and I was enthralled from the beginning. It seemed to move with my life, or at least the lasting memories, current idiosyncrasies and future perspectives. For example, in book six, my wife and I had just been discussing what traveling with two children would be like after we are comfortable battling the tail end of the pandemic, and, sure enough, the section I read the next day involved Knausgaard, his wife at the time, Linda, and their children navigating through an airport.

That, however, is just coincidentally anecdotal. But such is life. Major similarities include the dialectal closeness of our names, the fact that we are both authors (one being much better than the other), we are both fans of soccer and have both broken our collarbones playing the sport. Not to mention our obsession with music, the minuscule and immense aspirations of adolescence, complete existentialism and death.

Perhaps the reason I latched on to Knausgaard’s journey was because I was always given a fitting line at the perfect time. Or perhaps I see a common bond through my own literary fiction—or my own life.    

“As a stylistic device in literature, a particular filter through which the world is viewed, beauty lends hope to the hopeless, worth to the worthless, meaning to the meaningless.”

pp. 174-175

I’m more of an author than a reader, and that has nothing to do with desire and motivation, but rather time. I am one who is always battling time. Therefore, I know what genres I’m genuinely drawn toward. Autobiographies are one of said genres.

My Struggle has been labeled as autobiographical fiction. This is part of the names used and perhaps the jumbled memories of the author. However, it’s not a fantasy, everything is based on Knausgaard’s life as he remembers it. If you can find me a person who says they remember every precise detail of their life, then you have found me a liar.

In episode six (how delightfully accidental) of the television series Clarice, a therapist says to the mentally-damaged young FBI agent, “Everything is tinged with experience.”

In other words, experience may slightly alter fact because it can tend to be viewed subjectively. That raises the question: Is anything truly an autobiography then? Which also raises another question: Is most literary fiction autobiographical? Authors tend to take situations from real life and insert it into their prose when the genre calls for it. However, it’s safe to say the answers to both are yes and no.

That didn’t clear anything up.

Knausgaard’s style can be maddening to some readers. Some become exasperated with the excessive use of minute details, but there is valid reasoning to such confidence in filler and fluff. The strange double standard is that over-describing is allowed in some genres and not others. I’ve heard readers complain about autobiographies or literary fiction having too much detail, but then they love epic fantasy. Each involves a world you nothing about and yearn to discover, so why should it be stereotyped, and therefore only permissible in one genre or the other? Writing is writing. Creativity is creativity.

As an author, I believe that every single word matters to a story, and you must love every word or it doesn’t belong. In a discussion I had with esteemed novelist Leslie Epstein, he said, “About cutting, you can be ruthless. Look closely at the passages you love the most; the reason you love them may be because, like one’s favorite child, they are the weakest. Out they go! Just make sure the storyline is clear and that reader will never be confused.”

Epstein also shared a quote from Rudyard Kipling, “It’s like poking a fire, no one knows you have done it but when people enter the room the flames are burning so much more brightly.”

Sometimes the fire is a bonfire, or a massive blaze consuming a city in the case of My Struggle. Every word is needed, and it is intimate to the author no matter what Knausgaard claims.

“To be seen is vital, but not to be seen is vital, too. Nothing feels more perilous to us than to be exposed to the attention and gaze of others.”   

p. 412

Book six is a different animal than books one through five. Knausgaard’s life was on full display in the prior volumes and it led readers to this point—the point of publication and revelation. We followed him through his adolescent years, adulthood, childhood, the various phases of fresh independence when life’s complexity is commonly exaggerated—which continues until maturity settles the fire.

Readers know everything about Knausgaard, from his reliance on cigarettes and coffee to the daily paths he strolls and the views he observes to even the most personal and intimate details of his life such as how successful his bathroom breaks and battles with sexual desire are. We become him, but he is us.

The main difference between books one through five and six is he was a nobody, just like us, and now he is writing as a somebody, unlike us. Yet, though that would seemingly eradicate this bond that had been formed between reader and author, person and person, Knausgaard’s style keeps him exactly as we know him in book six: human.

This is why the finite details are so important and should not be considered fluff or filler. He must prove that he isn’t an esteemed author, but rather just a man. It’s almost as if he is guilty, as if he abandoned humility, and us in the process, and must maintain and prove his worth as an everyday person. It would be daring to call it Christ-like, but wrong to leave that comparison out.

This is also something Knausgaard is used to doing: self-modulation. Strangely enough, and to counter my own point, self-modulation is actually the opposite of how people view their lives in the modern era of being “social.”

That is beside the point, however. The middle section of book six is where we find an unnecessary exaggeration by Knausgaard to prove said worth. We experience his love of literary analysis first-hand, which is greatly appreciated. As he works us through Proust, Joyce, Kafka, Hamsun, Mann, Faulkner, Dostoevsky and Dante, and inserts Hamlet and Don Quixote comparisons wherever he can, we delve more into not only his life in the literary world, but his passion.

Yet, he still downplays his importance in that very world by stating, “This is the novel’s basic constraint, chained as it is to life in the social domain, the way people are to each other, and the minute the novel departs from that human world and ventures into the nonhuman or the beyond-human of the divine, it dies.

Music can express it, and painting too, since their forms are wordless, their language another and nameless, as removed from the ‘I’ that employs it and the ‘I’ that perceives it as figures in a mathematical formula. Reading a novel after having listened to Bach’s cello suites is like leaving a sunset to descend into a cellar. The novel is the form of the small life, and when it’s not it is because it’s being deceitful and is no true novel at all, since no ‘I’ exists that isn’t small too” (pp. 425-426).

He’s implying that he is small life. Then, he takes something he isn’t strong at, analyzing poetry, and dissects the importance of individual entities in a a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, which leads to another analysis of a Paul Celan work which transitions the word “ash” from literary line to tragic representation—which then leads the reader to the most controversial part of the entire six-book journey: Hitler and the Holocaust.

Yes, Knausgaard analyzes and picks apart Mein Kampf, but not only the words, but rather the life of the author.

He said of the work, “I usually always sniff the books I buy, the new ones as well as the old, putting my nose to the pages and breathing in their smell because I associated that smell, and the smell of old books in particular, with something good, that element of childhood that was unconditionally pleasurable. The adventure, the abandoning oneself to other worlds. But I could not do that with Mein Kampf. The book was evil, in some indefinable way.

Hitler’s book is no longer literature. What later happened, what he later did, the axioms of which are meticulously laid out in that book, is such that it transforms the literature into something evil. Hitler’s Mein Kampf is literature’s only unmentionable work” (p. 493).

It was a heavy experience for there were excerpts shared and history remembered. It went on for 353 pages and felt like an academic text. As Knausgaard searched for the meaning of evil, “you” and “I,” he wasn’t necessarily providing us with his exceptional analytical talents, but rather his defense. In his analysis of “I,” he is the literal and figurative “I” in every form. He needed to prove to himself, not us, that he could review and understand poetry; he needed to prove to himself, not us, that there’s no ideological similarity between Min Kamp and Mein Kampf; he needed to prove to himself, not us, that his novel, his glorious accomplishment, was truly relevant and remained chained to life in the social domain.

He needed to prove to himself, not us, that he’s just a man living his life.

And that’s why this book is beloved. He is us.

“And writing was such a fragile thing. It wasn’t hard to write well, but it was hard to make writing that was alive, writing that could pry open the world and draw it together in one and the same movement.”

p. 123

What is on the surface, a simple tale about a life that not many people would consider fascinating, is somewhat what My Struggle can be considered even after dedicating your time, part of your life to his 3,600 pages.

I always remember when I ordered the fourth volume from Barnes & Noble. The woman who was checking me out said with sarcasm on full display with no intention to be hidden, “Still going on about his struggle I see.”

Reference my aforementioned counter-point.

These unnecessary exaggerations to prove one’s worth aren’t actually a counter-point, you see. We all self-modulate below the book cover. It’s life. Knausgaard is infected with self-doubt from an insignificant being to the limelight and spent anxious years writing a book about him and his father.

There’s not much to analyze because of the way My Struggle is written. Knausgaard puts everything out there for the world to absorb—attempting to make analysis almost impermissible—similar to what we experience on social networking, but in single form. In the “I” form. He is constantly on the defense, guarded, vulnerable, as if he was on trial as we all seem to be.

My Struggle is needed. It’s brilliant because it’s human. Yes, it was about the “I” but it became “us.” What Knausgaard did for himself, what he did for the world, is greatly appreciated and will go down as one of the most significant pieces of literature in our history.

Thank you, Karl Ove Knausgaard.

Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster Merge

“Come on, come on, listen to the moneytalk.”
-AC/DC, “Moneytalks

German company Bertelsmann has agreed to acquire Simon & Schuster for $2.175 billion from ViacomCBS. This is a massive deal in the book industry, and one that could either help or hurt indie publishers and amateur authors.

Bertelsmann is the parent company of Penguin Random House, and this agreement turns the media giant into a complete publishing conglomerate. Both Penguin and S&S are two of the five brand leaders in book publishing. The deal took eight months to close, and is set to become official next year.

Markus Dohle, Penguin’s CEO, told Publishers Weekly that the deal was a, “good day for books, book publishing and reading.”

HarperCollins, Hachette Book Group and Macmillan still remain strong outlets in the publishing world, but it will be hard to compete against Bertelsmann’s combination of houses.

Bertelsmann Chairman & CEO, Thomas Rabe, said in the company’s press release, “This purchase marks another strategic milestone in strengthening our global content businesses. The book business has been part of Bertelsmann’s identity since the founding of C. Bertelsmann Verlag more than 185 years ago and has lost none of its appeal to this day.”

On the contrary, the book business needs competition, and this transaction may reduce the possibility for deals and only present lower advance offers for authors. ViacomCBS explained that both Penguin and S&S would be managed as separate publishing units, just under the same umbrella. Though that resonates an assurance of market rivalry, the revenue is still filtered into the same ownership. 

CEO Robert Thomson of News Corp, parent company of HarperCollins, told Fox Business of the deal, “This literary leviathan would have 70% of the U.S. literary and general fiction market.”

HarperCollins was also bidding for S&S, but the house couldn’t outdo the substantial, almost desperate offer from Bertelsmann. If News Corp was able to land the deal for their publishing unit, it would have helped HarperCollins catch up to Penguin’s sales. The U.S. sales for both are estimated at $1.1 and $2.2 billion respectively.

Thomson added, “There is clearly no market logic to a bid that size. Bertelsmann is not just buying a book publisher, but buying market dominance.”

Despite the fierce challenge that lies ahead for HarperCollins, Hachette and Macmillan, this is the business of the industry. With that in mind, there needs to be less business and more diversity.

Independent Publishers   

Bellevue Literary Press is a non-profit publisher. The press was founded in 2005 as part of the New York University School of Medicine, and was stationed within Bellevue hospital. In 2010, the house made a mark in the literary world by publishing a Pulitzer Prize winner, Paul Harding’s Tinkers.

Bellevue has been dedicated to providing quality work that engages readers and creates conversations and debates. They have several award-winning titles in their catalog. Now fully at independent status and located in lower Manhattan, the press has become one of the more consistent and sustainable names not only in the non-profit world, but across the independent publishing landscape as well.    

Publisher and Editorial Director Erika Goldman said of Bellevue’s goals, “We simply wish to continue publishing great books at the same rate as we have been so far.”

Independent publishers have grown tremendously of recent, and more boutiques and presses open yearly. Due to the modern form of self-publishing and a variety of smaller outlets, major houses have seen a drop in market shares. Penguin and S&S combine for just 18.2% percent of the book market—and the giants rank first and third respectively.

“Consolidation of the commercial corporate publishing world has been going on for decades now,” explained Goldman. “Independent and small press publishers represent true diversity in the publishing industry and great alternatives for authors. I believe that authors and agents will understand that they may be better served by independent presses.”

Smaller houses tend to focus on producing a handful of excellent titles per year while corporations simply seek to increase revenue to benefit their shareholders. Quality over quantity should prevail, but that unfortunately isn’t always the case.    

Self-Published Authors

The plight of a self-published author is a difficult one to combat. The market has become over-saturated due to free platforms such as Amazon and a plethora of author services companies. There are some sub-par works being produced and made available to the public, but there are also great novels by undiscovered writers.

Scott Kujawa, author of four trilogies and a variety of novels and short stories, not only has had to battle in order to get noticed among the crowd, he also writes in a niche-romance genre. There is hope, however.

“My income is growing,” Kujawa said. “However, indie/selfpub is a different mindset compared to trade pub. I’ve heard many trade pub’s say they have to work to market their books. They don’t help the way they used to when it comes to selling certain authors. The help they receive depends on who the author is.”

Advertising and marketing rule the world. Many self-published authors and independent presses know how to expertly navigate social media. Their strategies have put the pressure on major brands. Even though Penguin’s and S&S’s market share percentages seem low, book sales are up in 2020 so far. Print sales have increased 3.6% and ebooks are up 4% from last year.

Yet, the merger may hurt self-published authors in the long run. “Many authors might struggle with finding anyone willing to contract their stories,” Kujawa predicts.

Looking Ahead

Smaller presses must be more select with the work they choose in order to strengthen their brand, and independent authors must increase their presence on social media. Bertelsmann’s acquisition promotes a strange forecast for the publishing industry next year. The independent sector could continue to grow, helping the industry overall with quality works and diversity within authors and trends, but authors may still struggle financially. Penguin and S&S can both expand their sales through synchronized rival marketing and taking advantage of famous author names and well-known brands. However, the merger could limit the scope of opportunity for unestablished writers, swaying them toward independent houses and platforms.

It’s still beneficial for an author to be traditionally published because of editing services, promotional strategies and media exposure. On the other hand, less opportunity at the highest publishing level may saturate the industry even more below. Dohle mentioned that the market was highly fragmented, but that doesn’t mean this merger is going to fix anything. We will wait and see.

Good luck, authors.

The Failure of Social Media, and why it’s Needed

“Talking is just masturbating, without the mess.”
-Our Lady Peace, “Happiness & The Fish

For authors, booking an event is a wonderful feeling. A store values you; people may value you. However, the difficult part of an event is marketing. Yes, there’s the crazy chance that people think you’re worthy of their honored presence, but you have to convince them to come first.

Back in February, I had an event for “Cursed: A Jack Swift Case” at a local bookstore. The owner had stocked both Jack Swift novels leading up to the reading, and they promoted the booking on social media as well as traditional advertising avenues. I was also responsible for promoting the event, and therefore believed that the best way to do so was through social media. Millennials and younger generations worship social media; they believe it’s how society should function, and frankly, advertising rules the world and social media is the best way to reach an enormous audience for not only product placement, but for the arts as well. Unfortunately, this reliance on the medium is unwarranted. Social media doesn’t work for all, and worse, it makes people feel like they’re providing an important and cherished contribution.

I tweeted, shared status updates, posted photos with tagged details and personally asked friends and colleagues to spread the word—through an in-person meeting with the use of my voice! Who would have thought a vocal face-to-face interaction could also be used as an effective source of communication. The responses were promising; thumbs pointing up, warm and bright red hearts and ecstatic yellow faces with wide mouths and tears of joy filled my notification box. I fell victim to my own vulnerability; I thought people cared, but the point of all the responses weren’t to help me, but rather promote other users’ sympathetic support. They did their part by clicking a button or smudging a phone screen, and assumed their work was done as they felt rewarded for their good deed. Let us celebrate their generosity!

From all the likes and loves and encouraging threads of text that others could recognize and praise each other’s care, four people showed up to the event. That’s right; four. That’s not the most shocking part, however.

The event was on a weeknight, and that gave people an excuse. On the other hand, the restaurant that shares the same foyer as the bookstore had a long wait as diners clanged their utensils against their plates and laughed over nursed drinks and loud gossip. I set up as the store emptied and my first fan entered. She was the aunt of one of my closest friends; I recognized her short blond strands before she opened the door, and gladly conversed with her as there appeared to be no rush to start my spiel. Next my friend, business partner and fellow local author, Jason DeGray, sauntered in as the staff placed way too many chairs in front of my podium. To my surprise, a random book browser plopped down and waited patiently as if she had nothing better to do with her time—my third attendee. I finished setting up a clever display: The book was stabilized upright, a replica Honus Wagner card ignited wonder behind its plastic armor, cheap chocolates wrapped in sport ball foil overflowed a homemade bowl, and a Bluetooth speaker softly played the playlist from “Cursed.”

I spoke about my background, credentials and style; I explained how Jack Swift came to be and transitioned from reference to excerpt flawlessly; and I interacted with the audience and listening staff members—especially the browser who was taking notes for whatever reason. The fourth fan, my dentist, strolled in during the presentation, but immediately became involved as she answered a question I had for the spectators. It was a good crowd; it was fun; I had a surge of confidence after practicing my presentation and completing the event. Almost everyone isn’t aware of that, however.

Not one of those four people came because of social media. DeGray knew through me, the browser stumbled upon the event because of first-hand in-store advertising, and my friend’s aunt and my dentist read about the reading in the newspaper. The newspaper of all places! That’s almost as extinct as in-person conversation. As a master of journalism, I appreciate that the newspaper is still relevant and proving to be more effective than the highly touted social platforms that run the world—in regards to this specific situation. That’s why I didn’t share the outcome of the reading right away; it wouldn’t have felt good; it would have been an emotional response; there was no sustenance; no one would care. They would have just pretended to care or completely avoid the recap because it’s easy to not see one post among the meaningless over-saturation of more important things like pictures of food, or fishers hoping to hook compliments about their good deeds, or snowflakes flurrying for empathy as they overcame a difficult situation like making it through a full eight-hour shift.

Social media is just masturbation; it’s purpose is to please the user in any way, shape and form. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a medium that has become essential in society and industry, but from my experiences, it deserves little praise. Authors shouldn’t rely on it because it doesn’t guarantee anything. They also must remember bad showings can happen to anyone.

One of my professors shared that she had an event where no one showed, but at least she had a good book to read to pass the time. Esteemed novelist Leslie Epstein, who is referenced in “Cursed,” told me that he held a reading where two people came: one old lady who fell asleep knitting, and the other seeking shelter from the rain.

Yet, we need social media which is bittersweet to embrace. It may fail most of the time, but if it can create just one success, that may be all an author requires, so don’t disregard the whole system.

We also still need newspapers—obviously—so don’t rely on just one form of marketing.

For authors booking their first event, don’t expect much and, most importantly, don’t base your future on how many people did or didn’t attend your reading. Practice your presentation and interact with anybody in attendance—even if that’s just the staff. Go through the motions before human interaction becomes artificial.

Talking to someone in the same room is still pleasurable, and less messy than social media.

Incentivized Fraudulence (Eesh, That Sounds Serious)

“Don’t sell your soul for a pack of lies”
Eagle-Eye Cherry, “Rainbow Wings”

I realize that last post’s song, “She Works Hard For The Money” by Donna Summer, would have been a perfect fit for this article as well, but the lyric above still strikes the right chord (pun intended).

Solicitation. Whoa, whoa, whoa, settle down now, we’re not talking about the bad kind—or good kind, whichever way you want to view paying for services. The solicitation I’m talking about takes place in the writing community and the publishing industry. I’ve done it, you’ve done and future authors will do it.

Just to be clear, because I know some readers may be “groggy” from the turn of the year, I’m not talking about prostitution involving sexual acts. Sometimes, you just have to state the obvious.

Moving on. Let’s start by reading Amazon’s Customer Review Policy. I will give you a minute.

Don’t worry, that wasn’t the extended one. If you did read it, you may have noticed that some of the exclusions may seem outlandish, others valid and most create a double standard. Authors are in a difficult predicament when it comes to reviews because, whether we like it or not, they’re very important and have a direct impact on sales. There has been an ongoing argument in the writing community about who reviews are intended for. Some reviewers tend to believe that their posts are generally for readers, while publishers and authors view critiques useful for their own business or brand. The truth is: reviews are meant for everyone. Readers use reviews to see if the work is something that matches their interests or sounds intriguing enough to purchase, publishers examine how their product is performing through direct market analysis, and authors review criticism—hopefully constructive, but we know that’s not true all the time—to understand their demographics and better their writing. Though it seems that a review is as simple as writing something down and clicking the mouse, it’s far more complex than that. Here’s something a little startling: authors, the creators of the intellectual property, may actually make the least amount of money off their work out of the three mentioned parties.

Last post we discussed the amount of money that authors must put forth to publish a book, and that includes the time spent drafting and completing a written work. The author is now responsible for more tasks that have been primarily done by others in the past. This isn’t just limited to authors, but most writers. For example, in the journalism industry many job openings post duties that require the writer to not only write and report, but also take their own pictures and touch them up, design the layout of the article and fully edit the piece. As a journalist, that isn’t a big deal, however, they’re still only being compensated for one job, not three. I once saw an open position for a paper in Santa Fe, N.M., and the writer was responsible for all of the duties above and the salary was $30,000. The average salary in Santa Fe is $56,000 and the cost of living is very high for the region.

You may be thinking, “What the hell does this loser know?” Well, I know this type of stuff. I’m a writer in many forms, and this is why I returned to school to earn my graduate degree in journalism and creative media, and this is what my research involves. I’m here to help the writer—unlike other parties and platforms.

It takes authors longer to write a book than publishers to publish that work, and it takes authors longer to write a book than it takes for reviewers to read and critique that work. The time authors spend doing the actual work doesn’t guarantee any income. On the other hand, publishers take over during a stage that should lead to sales which betters their chances at turning a profit, and many reviewers are incentivized for their contributions—despite what Amazon believes, and what they do themselves for that matter.

Peter Riva, Publishers Weekly- Why most Amazon reader reviews are worthless

With incentive comes fraudulence. Ex literary agent Peter Riva said in his 2016 Publishers Weekly article, “My observation is that most Amazon and Barnes & Noble reader reviews are either fraudulent, or, at best, useless in assessing the true merit of any given title.” He continued, “It is trampling on First Amendment rights and playing into the hands of what is, after all, a nonliterary, mathematical rating system.”

Money drives the industry, but it doesn’t drive the authors. Many authors do this because they love writing and creating, however, their success and status is directly impacted on how other parties are incentivized. This is most apparent in reviewer credibility and retailer/media gatekeeping. Regarding the former, just like the publishing industry, the reviewer world is also competitive and over-saturated. In order to keep earning revenue through advertising and subscriptions, reviewers strategically provide scattered ratings; it’s almost like a quota to appear as a true critic rather than a paid blogger. An author may be receiving an average review just because a reviewer needs to mix up their rating average and not based on the quality of the content. The consequence of losing revenue isn’t the only factor in fraudulent reviews, however. There is also the relationship factor between blogger and author, whether that is a positive or negative connection.

In regards to the latter, giant online retailers like Amazon and major publications like The New York Times have a stranglehold on which titles are presented to potential readers. They decide what is relevant and what is trending, and most of it is based on what already sells. Just like in the news: we’re only aware of what we’re exposed to, and sometimes the relevance is for ratings. Amazon essentially tells authors they’re prohibited from soliciting their material for reviews, however, this creates a double standard. Amazon will solicit an author’s work via their advertising campaigns—and incentivize reviewers themselves—and the more the writer is willing to spend, the more their book will be visible across the massive retailer’s site. They don’t care about quality; they only care about quantity—available titles and revenue, that is. Who suffers in the end? The author.

Jay Green, The Washington Post- Amazon sellers say online retail giant is trying to help itself, not consumers

In his 2019 Washington Post report, Jay Greene explained that in 2018, Amazon generated $42.7 billion in revenue from seller services, fees and commissions, and they have the power to charge for communication with account managers, push their own brands, alter pricing and control product exposure through advertising services.

That is a lot of money if you couldn’t figure that out, and authors are considered sellers as well. However, they also produce intellectual property, but as we have discussed before with the music industry, that doesn’t seem to actually matter no matter the legal jargon and threats. If intellectual property is work or invention that is the result of creativity, then shouldn’t the rights always be with the creator? Of course, people sell rights and this and that, but the origin remains and the creator of that specific work or invention will always be the same. That is an argument for another time, however, and law definitions are written a certain way on purpose.

Anyway, we’re spiraling here. The truth of the matter is reviews and publishers and self-publishing platforms are needed, but authors also need more flexibility when it comes to how they go about promoting their work because they deserve to make money off their intellectual property; especially considering most still maintain those rights. Authors should be aware that if their work only receives five-star ratings, then the reviews probably are not credible. I received a one-star review for Cursed: A Jack Swift Case recently, and that’s okay, not everyone is going to like your content, but what is said in these types of critiques needs to be considered as well. Due to cases of fraudulence, it has left authors and readers in a annoyingly difficult spot because sometimes both parties really need to take the time to dissect the review (time they don’t have) to see why a critic was unhappy or overzealous about the work, and if the rating was valid. With said one-star review, the reviewer was upset at a few word choices I used in dialogue (though the linguistics were consistent with a character’s personality). Did that warrant a one-star rating? Did the other 80,000 words not matter? Are we now teetering on the line on unwarranted censorship? Honest constructive reviews help everyone, but unfortunately, we all have to work for them.

Who are we really in competition with, and when did books become less about writing and more about the politics of the industry? Two of the most important things to do within the writing community is to support your fellow authors, and keep writing.

If you’re really bored, I will be more than happy to share past relevant research by scholars, and my theory paper as well if interested. Who has time for that? You should be writing because someone needs to make money off that.

Happy New Year!

 

Working for Free

“It’s a sacrifice working day to day, for little money, just tips for pay, but it’s worth it all, to hear them say that they care.”
-Donna Summer, “She Works Hard For The Money”

There is a major error in Cursed: A Jack Swift Case, and it’s embarrassing. It was pointed out by a reader, which I appreciate, and I quickly posted an apologetic statement regarding the issue here. I’m sure many others will bring up the mistake, and some may even base the entire novel on an innocent mishap.

There are two truths to think about: One, there are other proofreading errors than just the one, just like in every book, and two, some reviewers may deem the story to be completely unsuitable for publication.

Let’s cover the former first because I think authors need to be defended. Proofreading or editing your own work is nearly impossible; it will never be correct because the writer already knows what it’s supposed to say, so they tend to heavily rely on squiggly colored lines or will glance over some basic typos or grammatical errors. I know there are some authors who will say, “No way, my book is perfect and I do all the editing myself.” You may think that, but I would suggest reading it again. And then again. Sometimes I’ll go through close to ten drafts, and readers still point out errors. So why not just hire an editor? Ugh, this advice.

Proofreading and editing services cost money; it’s that simple, and they’re not cheap. Basic copy-editing can range from $25-$40 an hour, and an hour’s pace is five to ten pages. We’ll take the low-end of this calculation and use Cursed as an example. The book would have cost $1000 for the most simple of edits. So why not just have a friend or family member read through it for you? Ugh, this advice, too.

Fresh eyes are great, but you must be considerate of others’ time, and you also can’t push them to meet some unreasonable deadline—especially considering they’re doing this read-through for free. Many writers probably have someone who will help out, but money and time remain two major challenges for authors. Not only are proofreading costs high, there are other expenses that come with self-publishing—no matter how much Amazon says it’s free. If you want a professionally done cover, that will cost you a couple hundred dollars; then there are the printing costs if you decide to offer physical copies of your book (for authors just starting out, Amazon actually nets more money than you do on a print copy, so keep that in mind and push your eBooks); lastly, promotional costs can add up, and unfortunately, they don’t guarantee any positive impact on sales no matter how much the provider boasts about their service. In the end, authors can spend thousands of dollars to get their work to market, and never actually turn a profit, and some don’t even remotely come close. So why not just get an agent and get published by a traditional publisher—they have in-house editing, design and promotions, right? Ugh, this advice, too… again.

It’s not that easy. Agents only accept 5-10% of submissions, and due to the popularity of writing among amateurs, the over-saturated market and the volume of submissions, they don’t even look at every query they receive. We can leave that at that because it has been covered before.

I’m a perfect example of an author who has never turned a profit. I’ve now published work through self-publishing, boutique presses and the traditional process (not by a big house, however), and though I’ve sold copies and made money off my books, I’m in the red on each and every title because of the cost to get those stories into the market and exposed to readers.

My novel Forgotten Kids, which is set to be released early next year, almost had a huge bill attached to it because the use of song lyrics. I wrote about it here, but in the end (wait, can I say that because it’s a Linkin Park song?) I decided to re-word to avoid those costs because I, and the publisher, know that the book won’t ever come close to making that sort of money. In fact, in a 2017 Authors Guild survey, Calvin Reid and Jim Milliot reported that the median income received by published American authors for all writing-related activity in 2017 was $6,080, and 25% of the published authors surveyed earned no money at all—18% of them were full-time authors, which is no bueno for them.

People also tend to forget that writers spend hours, months and even years putting together their novels while receiving no wage to do so. They work for free and sacrifice a lot of their time just for the possibility of entertaining and moving readers, and then they use out-of-pocket expenses to issue free copies (that they had to pay for) to beta readers and reviewers, and sometimes all they receive back is nonconstructive criticism and judgment—and it comes from within their own networks as well.

One thing I will never forget is a situation that made me stop using Facebook for networking. I had completed my fourth draft of Forgotten Kids, but was thinking of changing the lead girl’s name from “Lizzy” to “Nikki.” I asked what people would prefer in a post, and one guy said, “Oh, so now we have to pick names for people? Give me a break. Do your own work, were not going to write the book for you.”

Really? That’s interesting. I was unaware that changing the first name of a character meant the same as writing and structuring a 115,000-word novel for me.

Over-exaggeration is a killer when it comes to properly reviewing an author’s work, and that brings us to the latter from earlier (geez, finally!). Reviewers need to be constructive and the criticism will be accepted. For example, in two recent reviews for Cursed, both readers mentioned there was a small amount of proofreading errors, but not enough to distract from the story. That is a great way of mentioning that the editor needs to do a better job when they are reviewing the work, letting the author know there are some mistakes they need to work on before the proofing process begins, and it also doesn’t intend to completely deter future readers from the story itself.

On the other hand, some reviews will blatantly defame the author and their writing ability. For Crooked Gold: A Jack Swift Case, one reviewer gave the book one-star and their summary simply said, “This didn’t interest me at all. None of the sentences even made sense.”

Really? NONE of the sentences in the entire book made sense? I’m surprised so many other people missed that. Amazon actually deleted that review because it appeared to be fraudulent. With that being said, I’m currently in graduate school, and my communications theory research targeted Amazon as a gatekeeper, and how incentivized reviewers directly impact the success of authors. The findings were actually fascinating, as were the studies that have been done beforehand, and from the feedback received by the faculty, my work may turn into my master’s project. We’ll have a nice recap of that if you have a little time next post to become bored.

Please don’t take this as a complaint of criticism because I value constructive reviews incredibly, and appreciate when people point out mistakes. However, when people blatantly and publicly offend an author based on a handful of typos and grammatical errors, then it’s a little uncalled for because they may not be fully aware of outside variables. Readers and reviewers need to keep in mind the financial restrictions authors have when crafting a story, and also that sometimes promotional expenses are more than book sales.

With that being said, authors just need to really buckle down during their line edits to avoid these poor reviews and nonconstructive criticism, as do indie publishers. Slow down and do more drafts, as many as it takes because the market isn’t going anywhere quite yet. Then, if necessary, do more editions after those inevitable typos are discovered by outside eyes (wait, ISBNs cost money, too, dammit!).

Here’s something to think about leading up to the next post: Amazon and incentivized reviewers can make more money off a book than an author.

Ah, the politics of the publishing industry.

Your Consideration

“And hey maybe I’m a critic, a cynic, or am I crazy, do they all hate me?”
-Forever The Sickest Kids, “What Do You Want From Me”

Ah, the excitement of finding an agent or publisher is so exhilarating in the beginning. The author is fresh off their final edit and believes their story is going to be the next great novel. It’s then going to be adapted into an award-winning film, and they will become established in the lavish life of famous authors and entertainers.

Then reality sets in, and they’re rejected over and over as we discussed last week. I know this doesn’t sound appealing, but how do we get to the opportunity for rejection? We risk our whole story, no matter the genre and quality, on how well we can write marketing content, and structure each pitch specifically to the guidelines of agents and publishers. We’re going to structure your query letter in this post.

Um, that still doesn’t sound appealing. You’re right; it doesn’t. You know what else doesn’t? Research.

Unfortunately, research is a must when it comes to querying multiple agents and publishers. First, you need to find agents who are interested in your genre or publishers that focus on publishing your genre. If you’re starting out, one observation to be wary of is the length of an agent’s list of interests. If they enjoy almost every genre, it’s going to be more difficult to obtain representation.

After you’ve narrowed down your search, visit each agency’s or publisher’s website and learn more about everyone and everything. When it comes to literary agencies, simple online searches and blogs or articles directing you toward a certain agent won’t tell the whole story (was that kind of a pun?). There may be a better-suited agent to query for your book within the agency, and they usually have detailed bios and an informative company profile. Here are three important questions that will help while researching agents:

  • Who represented my favorite authors in my genre?
  • Who published my favorite books in my genre?
  • What is in the agency’s or publisher’s catalog like, and what are their most recent projects?

Hey! You slipped in a fourth question. Why do I have to do research AND take a test? Oh, don’t worry, you have to write a paper, too.

I recommend creating a spreadsheet (oh, come on!) with the agents/agency and publishers, each’s contact information, notes to make your query personal, how they prefer their submissions, when you submitted and, of course, a column to put all your “no’s” (don’t worry, only one of them has to be a “yes” and the spreadsheet is a success—or an utter reminder of failure that will never leave the cloud).

When you’re ready to submit, read the guidelines for each agent or publisher very carefully because they’re all just different enough to really make your life annoying. Everything from page or word count, to headers and page numbers, to contact information to query structure will force a change in your generic draft. And that’s the point: they don’t want a generic draft; they want you to show you’ve learned about their agency or press, can follow guidelines and aren’t wasting theirs or your time (spoiler alert: we’ll go back to time—no, not “back IN time,” “back TO time.” Stop wasting time!).

The one question you may come across is whether or not the agency or publisher accepts attachments. Most will state if they want all material in the body of the email or as an attachment, but if they don’t mention their preferences, give them a call or email before you submit. You will get either an answer and it will show them your diligence, or they won’t get back to you and you can cross them off your list. If agencies and publishers are going to hold a standard for authors, then they must show the same standard.  They can deal with their inefficient, impassive and probably a little pompous staff on their own time.

See, it comes back to time. Agents and publishers make it very clear how valuable their time is and how overloaded they are with submissions, and we respect that, but what about the authors? This is a problem not only in the entertainment industry, but everywhere. Take academia, for example: a student spends more time researching, formatting their references and making sure their citations are correct in a paper than writing the content. When a person applies for a job, their beautiful resume they spent hours, maybe days, creating doesn’t mean anything because they have to either fill all the information out again on online job sites or a company’s portal. What is the point of a resume if you just have to change it every time you apply? What is the point of a query letter if you have to cater it to a plethora of individual preferences? You’re doing everything for them to make sure their time isn’t wasted, but your time is—and you’re not even getting paid, and there’s a high chance you will never even make a living off writing! I will be honest; I think garnering all the different guidelines and obsessive particularities has taken more time than actually writing a novel.

The other side could argue that an author needs to work hard and pay their dues, but there comes a point when all authors have done so more than enough. It’s like an unpaid internship in the Twilight Zone that spans multiple decades. During employment searches, companies want candidates with experience, but how can someone gain experience if no one gives them an initial chance? The same goes with unestablished and established authors: how can an author become established if no one will give them a chance?

I once saw submission guidelines that explained how the house would only accept exclusive submissions and they would need three months to respond. Do people out there think others have nothing else to do with their life except wait around? It’s kind of like how every single article of clothing says on the tag to “wash separately.” Seriously, who has time to do that? This is why an author needs to submit to multiple agencies and publishers: they’ve dedicated so much time to their work with the intention to earn income off their intellectual and creative property, and then have to anxiously wait around for answers that sometimes don’t even come. As a courtesy, all agencies and publishers should at least send an email declining an author’s work. They’ve spent a majority of their free time, sometimes years of it, writing a novel for free, so why can’t someone send an email that takes a few minutes to draft? We value the time of agents and publishers, but sometimes the respect isn’t reciprocated.

Man, this is awful. First you imply I need to be a better marketer than writer, then you tell me I have to do homework, then I have to take a test, then I have to write a paper and you end by mentioning no one cares about my time! Querying sucks. It sure does, but let’s go ahead and structure your letter anyway.

  • Addressing: Make sure the agent’s name or publishing house is correct. Seriously.
  • Schmooze paragraph: Just a couple sentences explaining how you found the agent or publisher and why you chose to query them—make it personal between you and them.
  • Pitch paragraph: One or two sentences selling your story; it has to be short, informative and damn intriguing. Here is my most recent pitch:
    • The T206 baseball card set is one of the most famed collectibles in the world, and international criminal Jack Swift is after the full assortment for a hefty payday. As he finds the oddest cards scattered across the world, he unearths the ugly collusion between the mob, gambling, and a little voodoo.
  • Brief synopsis: “Brief” is important here; think of it as what you would read on the back of a published book. Here is my brief synopsis of the same book from above:
    • Swift baits his rival, Detective Jim Beckett, with his trademark hints during an international journey peppered with conspiracies, trophy heists, sports jinxes, and the occult. Witchdoctors, legends of legends, and fiery twin bosses of the Manzoni mob family stand in the way of each’s end game. Will Swift or Beckett end up victorious? Or will they even survive the wrath of the seductive and powerful Manzoni girls?
  • Additional information: Sometimes the guidelines will ask for a word count, genre or if the manuscript is part of a series. Here is my additional information paragraph (sentence):
    • “Curses!” is an 80,000-word crime novel and the second installment in the Jack Swift series.
  • Author bio: This should be pretty self-explanatory, but the important thing to know is only provide RELEVANT information. If you’re querying a crime novel, don’t talk about your children’s picture book you have in the works, or that you’re currently employed as a barista.
  • Gracious outro: Be appreciative of their consideration like any normal human should be about anything.
  • Signature: Spell your name right. Seriously. And provide your email address (I know that they should know it because you emailed them, but do it anyway) and your phone number.

Disclaimer: This query is currently being shopped and hasn’t been picked up (but has been rejected), so it may be a bad example… or just an uninteresting story.

And there you have it. That doesn’t seem so hard. Now, don’t forget your much-longer and more-specific synopsis.

Dammit!

A “Subjective” Industry

“And everyone would know, they’d know it’s our world.”
-I Hate Kate, “Story I Can’t Write”

I watched Jane The Virgin.

First, I have a wife so that explains a little. Second, I didn’t watch the series finale, but I did hear what happened. Third, there’s a reason behind referencing the show: Jane was a romance writer vetting for discovery. By some miracle, she received a $500,000 deal on her debut novel, and obtained an agent after just three rejections.

Talk about fiction.

It’s hard to be envious of a character, but it’s easy to get annoyed. Jane’s whining after her third rejection from a top agent was extravagant, as was her claim to quit until that marvelous phone call happened at the most desperate of times. Okay, okay; the program was a modern telenovela, so it’s not that big of a deal and the writers had a story to tell.

Many authors know what rejection feels like; we hear the word “no” more than unattractive unpleasant men do from happy hour to last call. Here are some fun stats that will either be a brutal reminder for current authors or will ruin the day of aspiring writers:

  • Agents receive around 600 submissions a year.
  • Agents reject around 95 percent of submissions they receive.
  • Over a million books are self-published a year.

Here are some more unsettling stats:

  • Authors make a median average annual income of less that $7,000.
  • Around 20 percent of full-time published authors’ income was 100 percent book-related.
  • Around 25 percent of long-time authors can make $0 a year in book-related income.

This isn’t looking promising, except for Jane Villanueva. I’ve been rejected over 100 times. That sounds like a lot, and it is, trust me, I don’t know how my unstable mind has processed it—I think I’m just numb to the fact. However, brain-numbing is good for authors just like a short memory is for athletes.

Though, the latter doesn’t necessarily work for writers if you’re anything like me (I apologize if you are). I’ve saved every rejection I’ve ever received. It’s torture, but also motivation. You start to understand the process more as the denials filter in, but you also start seeing the same response agents will copy and paste into most of their replies. I’ll sum up a majority of the answers you will receive: “It’s not a good fit for me at this time, but the publishing agency is a very subjective business.”

They will keep your confidence high by saying the issue isn’t in your writing, but if you’re writing is so good then why no representation? Why have hundreds of people brushed you off like some amateur when you’re obviously up to professional standards? Subjectiveness? Not necessarily, because with that many negative responses, it seems everyone has the same tastes.

It may not be the agents who are subjective, but rather the market, which is unfortunate for everyone not writing in a trendy genre. When an agent takes on a project, they have to sell that project, and what’s trending is what sells to publishers because they then have to sell the book to bookstores and online outlets who then have to sell the book to the reader who’s obsessed with paranormal romance right now (maybe, who knows, I can’t keep up with all the hot sub-genres).

I once received a response that said, “I just wouldn’t know how to market this book, so I don’t think I can take it on.”

Reading books isn’t trendy, reading a genre is, and an agent’s livelihood depends on what’s popular at the moment, not necessarily what they love to read. Someone could be selling the next great young adult epic fantasy, and then going home and reading The Idiot in a red leather chair with a glass of brandy on their end table being warmed by a crackling fire; or cuddling up on an uncomfortable contemporary couch in their small apartment while reading The Help as their cat knocks over their glass of chardonnay. Personally, I would be reading My Struggle 6 with some whiskey and a game on in the background—no fire, no cat and probably no actual time to make that situation happen. Ah, life.

With that being said, of course agents love the books they’re pushing because they’re passionate about their preferences and the book industry as a whole, and that’s why a thorough search before you submit is vital. While you’re doing your research, also pay attention to what starts the agent’s list of interests and if there are genres that DON’T fit your book. They could want Sci-Fi, but also women’s fiction (which everyone wants right now), so if your main character is a womanizing hardboiled space bounty hunter gone rogue, maybe the agent isn’t going to find your book appealing based on their other interests. Also, just because they mention they like mystery and suspense, for example, it doesn’t mean that that’s what they’re looking for right away. Sometimes what they’re currently accepting is mentioned elsewhere in their profile, so make sure to read their whole bio and get to know them—or, at the very least, get to e-know them through a generic conversation in the form of an auto-response.

Here are some uncontrollable things to consider of why your story, the one you’ve been dedicating your time to with no pay, will be rejected:

  • It falls into the slush pile for an intern to read, and your whole life depends on the tastes of one arrogant 22-year-old.
  • The market is bad and all publishers are being cheap (unless you’re a celebrity or James Patterson).
  • It’s the summer (damn, that’s right now) and many agents have checked out, are working on their backlog, working for their current clients or attending more conferences than office meetings.
  • You’re a young straight white male because that’s so 20th century, and you just don’t get it.

Okay, that last one might not be true if taken literally. On the other hand, there are certain topics and certain writers that are more marketable for the industry to push. The key word there is “marketable.” I was speaking to a nice woman who I enjoy talking to when we cross paths, and she asked me about the next Jack Swift book. Here’s how the conversation went:

Me: “I’m currently shopping it at the moment.”
Her: “Why don’t you just hire an agent?”
Me: “I wish. It’s a little harder than that though.”
Her: “Well, [Daughter’s name] got an agent for her book. They edited it and published it and dealt with all the legal matters or whatever. She even has an assistant for all that stuff now because she just can’t deal with it, you know.”

Both offer light chuckles… and scene.

Her daughter is a very marketable person who writes in a hot genre with a trendy topic. With that being said, her book was featured in a friend’s book club and no member could finish the novel because it was too boring. She had a marketable trifecta, and though the book was “boring” to readers, it was still traditionally-published.

Don’t be upset if you’re not in the 5 percent who are accepted by an agent because 95 percent of authors are in the same sinking ship as you are. Don’t be upset at Jane Villanueva.

More importantly, don’t change your story to something you can’t write just because it’s hot in the market. Your time will come, you just have to keep submitting and learn from your rejections.

Next week we’ll get into writing that query that’s going to be rejected. Hooray.

Good Mainstream Storytelling

“Do you think that we could play another game, maybe I can win this time?”
-Disturbed, “The Game”

I’m not one to offer spoilers; I don’t need to prove to a near-18 million other people that I was able to watch a program at its scheduled time like the rest of them, and then boast about the fact while ruining all the procrastinators’ days. Yes, I’m talking about “Game of Thrones.”

John Koblin, The New York Times- ‘Game of Thrones’ breaks its own ratings record

With two episodes remaining and a plethora of theories that will most likely be crushed in the opening five minutes of “Game of Thrones 72” this upcoming Sunday (May 12, 2019, 9 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on HBO, or illegally streamed at your convenience), I’m done guessing and I’m ready for closure. However, I will offer this for a Mother’s Day prediction: a woman, multiple women at that, will play a key role in everything. I think it has come to the point in the show where I wouldn’t be surprised if they killed off all men.

Okay, that sounded like I was being a bitter person complaining about agenda and trends. It’s not as bad as say “Captain Marvel” or “The Incredibles 2” where the writers added some dialogue that can correlate to today’s issues. Ah, Hollywood. Yet, I will say this about “Game of Thrones”: The storytelling has been suburb, even after George R.R. Martin agreed to let HBO steer the story in whichever racy violent way they desired.

Anderson Cooper, 60 Minutes- How will George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones” books end?

We’ve fallen in love with the setting and life—perhaps that’s why so many men have beards today—and the characters have become memorable. Frankly, for the longest time I was hoping the White Walkers would just end all things because almost every character became insufferably annoying at least three times a season—good or evil. The dialogue is well scripted, there’s humor and drama and whole lot of conflict and tension. We can list all the elements we want, but the reason the storytelling has been so fantastic isn’t because “Game of Thrones” as a whole has become this trendy production and marketing giant, but because viewers love or hate it and obsessively share their thoughts and predictions. Simply put: it’s impactful in everyday life—even though it’s a fantasy! Think about when you’re meeting a new acquaintance; eventually they will ask, “Do you watch ‘Game of Thrones’?”

There’s also the people who take pride in not watching it. That’s about all I will say about that because no one cares.

Are there some holes in the story? Sure—especially the conception of commuting time and some coincidental aspects that are forced to be made sense by uber-fans. I can’t go into detail quite yet because I don’t want to give anything away to the procrastinators, but if someone has to look something up or have some detailed explanation that still doesn’t make sense presented to them, then perhaps something could have been done differently along the way. In other words: nothing is perfect. For example: I thought the end to “La La Land” was fantastic while someone else I know disliked the outcome. Eesh, that’s about as opposite as you can get from “Game of Thrones.”

Viewers have become obsessed with what will happen in the end, but the truth of the matter is that many people will be satisfied and many others will be disappointed. That, however, isn’t a bad thing because it embraces the full force of the plot, and portrays the talent of great storytelling, and, in this case, great acting.

I watched the “The Following” through its entirety, and for those who have seen the show, there was an antagonist, Emma Hill (Valorie Curry), that I grew to loathe tremendously. In fact (SPOLER ALERT!!!), when she died, I still didn’t think her death was good enough even though she was impaled through the heart with a sharp splintered wooden stake (and she wasn’t even a vampire). That’s a tribute to Curry’s acting skills; she made me dislike a character so much I wanted that person to die in such a horrible way that I still can’t decide on how.

Transition to Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey). If or when Cersei dies, will it be good enough? Kudos to Headey, and the rest of the cast.

So here we are, close to the end of “Game of Thrones” (queue the spinoffs). It has been a wild time-consuming ride in a magical world of sex and gore, and it will be missed. Thank you George R.R. Martin, HBO and the amazing writers, producers, cast and crew that have made this all possible.

Since more people watch the same movies/shows than read the same books, what is your favorite mainstream moving-picture story? What film or series was the closest to being perfect in your mind?

Answer if you must, and squeeze it into your “Game of Thrones” conversations this week so people have something planned to watch after May 19, 2019.

Reviewing Reviews

I never have nothing good to say, I’d rather tear things down, than build them up.
-The Offspring, “Cool To Hate”

If you haven’t been following society in the last decade-plus then there’s something wrong with you, and you need to get out of your sweatpants and breathe some fresh air (with different pants on—I don’t want anyone getting arrested and put on a certain list). On the other hand, if you have taken a moment to grace social media or tune into the news then you will realize that people complain about their freedoms and rights all the time—the best being the complaint about freedom of speech. However, the sole fact that someone is openly complaining about their freedom of speech without authoritative consequence means, in fact, that they’re free to speak, so it really makes no sense sometimes.

The point is that everyone is entitled to their opinion, and that’s how it should be, but as we progress from a “networking” standpoint, too many voices are being heard. Sounds like a mental problem. Oops, I mean, “disorder.” Remember, you need to be sensitive toward others’ issues. Actually… this is where society becomes a tad hypocritical.

In the process of telling people what they’re doing wrong, you’re also telling them how to act, think, and speak. Who’s taking away whose freedom of speech now? When we start arguing about rights and freedoms, we’re really only arguing with each other, not necessarily the “government.” And when we argue with each other, we—yep, you guessed it—censor each other. It’s kind of funny how double standards complete a full circle.

Everyone has had a platform for some time now; everyone has a pedestal to preach their regurgitated theories. Most opinions have spanned generations; it’s not like these philosophical rationalizations are fresh outlooks on life that will revolutionize society. With that being said, more and more people are offering their opinions from the way a country should be run to how well a refrigerator runs.

Let’s force an analogy here. Grade : Students :: Reviews : Authors

Grades help or destroy students, and place them amongst their peers and higher education; reviews help or destroy authors, and place them amongst their peers and the direction of their career. If you higher-education folk recognize that format of the analogy, it’s from the MAT, which is a brutal placement exam used by some graduate programs. Within this analogy explanation, there’s another comparison: both can be explained by objectiveness and subjectiveness.

The MAT is objectively brutal because many of the timed questions you just will not know and don’t have extra seconds to work out the answer. If you answer 79 of the 120 correct, it means your IQ is in the top 2%. A D+ makes you a genius on this test. Why would they make a test so hard that brilliant people would still miss 40 questions? Beats me, but others may know why.

When some questions may be difficult for one, they may be easy for another. For example, people who know how to play an instrument may understand music terminology while someone who just listens may miss the reference; or someone who has an extensive vocabulary may not be able to answer a math equation and vice versa. Subjectively brutal.

Reviews for authors will be objective or subjective, but what’s their true worth?

I personally prefer objective reviews. I feel that the reader looks more at the story and writing rather than the topic or opinions of characters. Here are four good examples:

  • “…[the author explains almost everything via narrative instead of leaving things up to interpretation].”
    • This is good constructive criticism that an author should take into account. Your readers aren’t dummies, they can figure things out.
  • “The plot was good: it progressed more quickly than it would have in reality, but that kept the read[er] engaged, there are some inaccuracies, but not commonplace enough to deter most readers.”
    • This suggests that the book could have benefited from a little less pace, and the author should either watch their fact checking or consistency, but it doesn’t bash the story for minor issues.
  • “This is a fast and easy read… the characters are well written and the author gives great attention to detail. There’s plenty of mystery and just enough good humor to keep you reading till the end.”
    • This directly focuses on readability, character development, and the author’s style, and also the dynamics of what makes the narrative engaging.
  • “…the story is complex, with interweaving parts and historical references that will force you to use knowledge you may have tucked away… and in the end, feel that the book enriched my overall learning experience beyond just the story itself.”
    • This gives other potential readers a little more detail in what they’re getting themselves into, but doesn’t summarize the plot, and also presents plenty of intrigue, almost mimicking what one could expect in the story.

Subjective reviews are simply based on a reader’s preference, but are still valid because everyone has different tastes. However, does preference tell others more about the book or the reviewer? A little of both, but a subjective review is more of a statement than a critique if that makes sense. Here are three good examples:

  • “Every single woman in the book (and there are many) is inexplicably smitten with CHARACTER. It seems as though the majority of them only exist in the book to show what a charming, seductive man he is. There isn’t a woman in the entire book that isn’t painted as either a dumb, lust-stricken bimbo or a mere tool to increase the book’s sex appeal.”
    • This shows others more about the reviewer’s stance on how women are portrayed, and there’s no significant input to the main plot. Every author is allowed to write characters how they choose, and occasionally stereotypes are written with intention to boost another character’s traits. This reviewer actually proves that, but puts a negative spin on a writer’s strategy.
  • “There were way too many characters to keep up with without getting confused or simply bored. At least three or four of them could be cut from the novel without affecting the story or the relationships of the other characters in any way.”
    • This speaks more of how confused and bored this specific reviewer became. Just because they couldn’t figure out why the characters were placed in the book, doesn’t mean they don’t belong. An author feels that each character in their work serves a purpose, even if minor.
  • “I barely related to any of [the characters].”
    • This one always makes me laugh. Read a different book then, not everyone is going to relate to you. A 50-something-year-old bitter man who suffered through tragedy doesn’t relate to a 20-something-year-old cheerful girl whose biggest issue in life so far was when she posted an unflattering picture on Instagram.

Other issues that stem from a subjective review are the thought of whether or not the writing was strong or poor, and reader misconceptions. Here are two good examples:

  • “BOOK by AUTHOR was a clever endearing read but riddle[d] by [the] misuse of words, incomplete sentences, and dropped suffixes. One has to hope that the ARC presented was unedited and not the final effort.”
    • This is a little questioning because I don’t think any published book would have incomplete sentences, but the main problem here is the insult. What if the reviewer was wrong (and probably was)? They’re teetering on the edge of defamation if an author was to overreact.
  • “There were a few factual inaccuracies that were a bit too ridiculous to excuse.”
    • This was a review posted for a FICTION book that WASN’T historical fiction. So… yeah.

People need to remember, especially when dealing with fiction, that a novel is not a term paper, and to be mindful of what genre you’re reading.  Some situations may not make total sense to heighten the intensity of the plot, and some sentences will not be grammatically correct for style and voice purposes. The best example I can give of this is from Jonathan Coe’s “The Rotters’ Club”.  The book ends with a 13,955-word sentence. Do you think those 30-some pages were grammatically and structurally correct? Probably not, but it captured the essence of exactly what Coe was trying to write.

So what really matters in a review? What should you really consider? You don’t have time to dissect what everyone is saying, but look for similarities in the positive and negative aspects of a novel. If just one person doesn’t like the writing style and is finding multiple mistakes, but nine do enjoy the style and don’t mention any errors, then that person probably doesn’t know what they’re talking about. On the contrary, if nine people say the book is poorly-written, and one person thought it was the best book they’ve ever read, then that may be the support of a family member or friend.

Unfortunately, that happens all the time, which is also fine. Another danger is that other “readers” will copy tidbits from posted reviews. You see this with paid promos. This recently happened to me. I ran a promotion for one of my novels and received a two-star review that simply stated the reader didn’t find the book interesting at all, the sentences didn’t make any sense, and the book was poorly written. I’m fine if I get a two-star review if that reader didn’t find the book interesting—again, people have different tastes—but attacking the writing without examples to back it up raised questions of the validity of the reviewer. The woman who ran the promo called that reviewer out, and they ended up recanting their post.

Authors know the gig; we know that there are going to be bad reviews for our books and that’s perfectly okay. Just make sure you have an explanation on hand, because, as we also know regarding society, people are on edge to make a spectacle of something that isn’t important because they have the freedom to do so.

In conclusion:

Reviewers, be honest and constructive, and don’t censor a person’s writing because of bias.

Authors, be willing to accept criticism and use it, and ignore the subjectiveness—don’t change your style to appease a handful of disgruntled readers.

Be you.