Update from PM Class

It’s time for my weekly update from the Project Management class, for want of anything better to talk about.  Which, this week, is a pretty big want.  In other words, there wasn’t much interesting about the most recent PM class.  This class we had a guest speaker who talked a lot about Microsoft’s Project Portfolio Server program.  I wasn’t really inspired by it.  Certainly, it made organizing large numbers of projects into a single view easier, and easier to do some cursory analysis on them.  But, with the analytics essentially obscured to the user, I didn’t feel confident that it was a good platform for decision analysis when considering multiple projects against constrained resources.  What I’m learning in my Decision Modeling class is much better for that, I think – and there, defining the parameters becomes a much more transparent process.

We also were given our group assignments, and I’m still waiting on feedback from my boss about whether there’s a project here at work that we can use.  If not, one of the other group members may have a project.

Tangentially related, as I was thinking about projects – both for this class and for the Decision Modeling class – I came up with what I think may be a great project idea for Decision Modeling.  In that class, we’ll need to model a complex and non-trivial decision with lots of constraints and uncertainties.  I don’t know all the details of the project’s requirements, but I was reflecting on the A & M Kerfuffle when this idea struck me.  I left a comment on John Scalzi’s blog a few days ago (scroll down to comments #43 and #44) about one of the factors that I thought was entering into the psychology of consumers regarding e-book prices (one which I hadn’t seen really brought up much, that being that physical books, even having the same content as e-books, can be valued higher simply because they have physical, concrete, and tactile existence).  Later, I thought about my comment, and thought: “Stephen, you’re smarter than that.  There’s more that enters into pricing, and perception of price, than any one factor.  It’s a complex interplay of Supply, Demand, Break-even, Equilibrium, and Consumer Psychology, all in one package.  Heck, it’s a complex, non-trivial nut to crack.”  That’s when I thought: “Complex!  Non-trivial!  Nuts-to-crack!  These are the features of the sorts of problems that I’d want to use my new decision modeling ninja skills on.”  Besides that, the prof had mentioned finding a project about which we were interested.

I’ve already reached out at work on that project, too, to see if there was a complex decision problem requiring ninja-level-analysis there.  And that will take precedence if I find one.  But I’d be much more interested in exploring the complex problem of e-Book pricing, if nothing at work pans out.  If I proceed with it, I’ll next have to consider how I’d frame the question, and what, precisely, I’m trying to “decide” and from who’s perspective.  Probably, I’d think that both Amazon’s and Macmillan’s positions on the issue are well vetted within their organizations, so the tack I’d have to take would be: from an author’s perspective, what is the ideal e-Book price?

If this goes forward…

STAND BACK!  I’ll be doing SCIENCE!

Updates of All Kinds

I regret to inform my dear reading public that there was not, in fact, any Wii-playing over the weekend.  There was instead an overabundance of homework-doing and anxiety-having (on account of the homework, largely).  The cabinet doors did get finished, both the painting and the mounting, but the Wii had to wait.

Beyond that, my current short-story is in the hands of one reader – other than my wife.  I’m still interested in finding one or two other readers who might be so inclined as to provide some thoughts and feedback on the story (and who will not be put off by the story being a fantasy story).  My goal, in pursuing feedback, is in learning what are the critical weaknesses of the story in its current form (operating under the assumption that I am too inexperienced a writer to discern those myself, and that they in fact exist). 

My wife discovered one perhaps critical flaw: she got a little confused about just what was going on in the climax of the story.  That suggests I was not as perfectly clear in the exposition at that point.  Up until the moment of the climax I tried to obfuscate and subtly mislead, while providing sufficient clues as to what was really going on.  Once everything hits the fan, though, I wanted things to be clear to the reader even as they became increasingly unclear to the narrator (the story is told in first person perspective, so that makes it a bit more challenging, I guess).  I added probably a couple dozen lines of exposition to try and make things more explicitly clear, but I’m well aware that I may not have succeeded yet, in that regard.

I put out a general call on Facebook to find folks who might be amenable to giving my story a read.  My reasoning was that most of my “friends” on Facebook are friends in real life.  But the thing about facebook is: once you broadcast your message, there’s no realistic likelihood that anyone will see it.  What Facebook chooses to show on your newsfeed seems to be determined algorithmically, but it’s not easy to figure out how that algorithm works.  From a user’s perspective, it’s pretty random and scattershot.  And you have to have a certain level of masochism to switch away from the “newsfeed” to troll all the recent wall posts, etc. of all your friends.  I don’t have time for that level of masochism, and most FB users don’t seem to either.  So my general call was probably easily burried, and those who did see it were mostly not the ones most amenable to answering it, I suspect.

On a tangential topic, I’ve added a Twitter feed for my blog, so that updates will now be posted there, as well.  You can follow me at @swatkinsjr.  For the time being, the only thing that will appear on my twitter feed will be posts about this blog – twitter is blocked from work, but these tweets will be managed from a back-end.  If I ever live in a future where I have a job in which services like Twitter are not blocked… who knows.  In general, I consider my daily life insufficiently compelling to warrant hourly updates, as it were.  But if I have a pithy thought, during the day, that might be worth sharing.  For now, however, that shall not be.

A Novel Venture (A Publishing Successor Model)

On Saturday, I alluded to the possibility of posts on some ideas I have for possible “successor” models to replace the existing “traditional publisher” model that predominates publishing today.  Market forces are whittling away at that dominance, and publishers are struggling to find new ways to survive.  Eventually, they will more than likely have to change to remain viable.

Today, I present the first (and possibly only, as so far this is the only idea I’ve come up with for an alternative) Publishing Successor Model.  The format is this: I will begin by describing the Model, giving it a name and detailing the basic function.  Then, I will offer an argument for why it will succeed.  Finally, I will conclude with an argument for why it will fail.  (If there are any future Publishing Successor Model articles, they’ll follow the same format.)

What it is:  The Novel Venture Capital Model

How it Works:  The model is based loosely on the way many small businesses in America today get funding, and how they are primed for success.  The idea is that the mechanisms by which novels are screened and edited (and financed) are decoupled from the printing and publishing process.  Instead of sending off query letters to publishers, novelists in the future will prepare short business plans (including a short summary of the novel, sample chapters, reviews of the finished work when available, an explanation for why the novel will succeed, target audience analysis, that sort of thing) for review by “Novel Venture Capitalists”. 

NVCs, as we’ll call them, are a decentralized, loose network of angel investors and avid readers of some means who organize together to fund “Novel Ventures” for publication and distribution in exchange for an equity share in the business venture (potentially anywhere between 20 and 60 percent stake).  Working with an NVC group gives an author access to that group of NVC’s network of distributed, experienced, and vetted freelance editors, artists, designers, proofreaders, and so on, as well as to established relationships between NVCs and the large, old-school printing, distribution, and marketing firms (today’s traditional publishers will become these, and will make their profit on a per-book-sold fee).  An NVC group may work with a number of different printing and distribution firms, depending on the specific distribution channel (for e-Books, Hardcovers, etc.). 

Because the primary role of the NVCs will be to screen and vet novels and novelists for publication, finance the venture, connect the novelists to skilled and experienced professionals who will manage the process, and then get out of the way and let the system work, the NVCs will develop a talent for, well, recognizing talent.  Everyone else gets to do the part they’re good at, and nobody has to support the overhead of trying to cram all that talent together under one roof (most of these jobs can be done from freelancers’ homes).

Why it Will Succeed:  Today’s new mid-lister authors will be tomorrow’s old guard, blockbuster novelists, replacing the current group as they pass away or retire.  And these mid-listers/future-blockbusters will be increasingly disloyal and disillusioned with current traditional publishers even as their own names increase in brand recognition with the reading public.  As the traditional publishers try to demand more and more rights from writers and offer ever-diminishing royalty rates in a bid for their own survival, these established and experience authors will revolt, seeking new opportunities in the open marketplace.  They’ll seek ways to maintain all of their rights, bundled together and closely held, and only sell out shares of the potential profits: a business model that ties easily with existing network of angel investors. 

Bereft of their big-name, tent-pole authors, the current business model of traditional publishers will suddenly implode as the reading public abandons them in droves.  They are forced to divest unproductive assets and imprints in order to lean up and compete with the smaller printers that are lapping up the new business.  The old publishers still have the means to do large-scale print runs the most economically possible.  Their divested imprints have the marketing and distribution relationships needed to manage the book, the publication process, and ultimately success. 

Writers get to keep the rights to their own work and keep on writing (even if they sometimes have to write business plans).  NVCs reap huge hordes of cash when Hollywood moguls purchase licensing options for film adaptations.

Why it Will Fail:  Typically, novelists are terrible at writing business plans, and have a general lack of business acumen.  Real-world Venture Capitalists demand huge returns on their investments, on the order of 30% or more over a couple of years (for comparison, the stock market historically returns something like 8% in the long term).  It’s uncertain whether the chance to fund (and get a share of) the next J. K. Rowling or Stephanie Meyers will be worth the risk of funding (and getting no return from) the next John. Q. Nobody (who is a more populous animal than the J. K. Rowlings) to business-savvy VCs.  Plus, the idea is predicated on groups of VCs who love books and reading simultaneously coming up with this same idea and spontaneously forming networks.  Heavy industry consolidation in publishing means the remaining players have a lot of power to manipulate the market for their own mutual benefit and to prevent their own demise.  It will take some heavy defection from some really major tent-pole authors (we’re talking tomorrow’s Stephen Kings et al.) before all the old publishers will be in any serious trouble.

What do you think?  How do you think the market and industry will evolve to solve today’s market and industry inefficiencies and problems?  Let me know in the comments.

Modeling as Art

Just a short update from the grad school trenches for today.  Decisions Modeling continues to be one of my favorite classes from the MBA program so far.  And I continue to realize that this is largely because I am a nerd (and also because the professor is really great). 

I did struggle a couple times in the last DM class to stay awake, right at first.  I’d had a long day at work, and the previous two nights I’d been up way to late working on homework for class.  I felt awful about it because I sit very close to the front and center.  I managed to pull myself out of it, though, and focus in on the class.  A good amount of the class was building more Excel and Modeling “ninja” skills, as the prof calls them.  Much of class was spent looking at random number and distributions and other skills related to sensitivity analysis.  We talked more about objective functions and constraints in linear programming models, and how very robust models can flip the two on their heads, solving the same problems using different approaches.  I asked whether we might see situations where we would find it useful to spend the time solving the problem from opposite directions and the professor answered, emphatically, that YES, very complex and difficult problems can benefit from taking multiple approaches to them.

Meanwhile, one of the benefits of the @Risk add-on is that we can define an entire distribution within a single cell (and reference that distribution in our formulas which will generate distributions for answers).  We can also define a distribution based on empirical, observed data.

So, yeah, no cool writing thoughts to glean from all this.  But, the deeper we get into this modeling stuff, the more I am coming to realize that spreadsheet modeling is really working art with numbers.  The professor has said over and over things like “there’s an art to this”.  And I can see that he’s right.  That’s the reason I like this stuff.  I’m a very creative type who happens to have a very logical and mathematical mind.  This sort of modeling appeals to both those halves.  That’s also why I like writing so much: a well written story or novel operates within a very structured environment, and the way language works is has an emergent internal logic and consistency.  Creating something new within that structure, using sound logical principles, is very gratifying.

Happy writing…  or modeling.

Quote: Love is in the Air

It’s once again time for the weekly Writing Quote day.  But since today is also Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d go with a special theme.  And, while I’m at it, I may as well declare today the First Annual National Love of Writing Day.  Celebrate with me by sharing your love of writing in the comments.

Ink and paper are sometimes passionate lovers, oftentimes brother and sister, and occasionally mortal enemies.

~Emme Woodhull-Bäche

I love writing.  I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions.

~James Michener

Love letters and poems aren’t the least bit difficult to write, if you write directly from your heart into the ink and don’t channel through your brain first.

~Graycie Harmon

And again, since it’s Valentine’s, I thought I’d leave a short little love poem for my wife.

Early Spring: a Haiku

By: Stephen Watkins

The cold Winter melts

You are the Spring in my heart

The green buds my love

I love you, dear wife.  Happy Valentine’s Day.

Saturday Short

Yesterday’s post was extra-long – it took me more than twice-as-long to write as any normal post.  Ordinarily, I would have tried to split it up into multiple posts, to get several day’s worth of material out of it, but I thought the gist of my analysis would lose cohesiveness if I broke it up.  So you got the long, hard slog.  And today you get this short post.

Let me clarify that my intention yesterday was to do an analysis of the various forces acting on the publishing industry and extrapolate what that might mean for writers.  I certainly don’t discount the alternative models that people are experimenting with as we speak.  It’s far too early to tell what will come of all this, as there is little evidence to suggest whether these alternative models will succeed.  (The established history of self-publication is replete with the desiccated husks of publishing disasters and a few, rare, shining beacons of fabulous success.  But the changing world, by definition, means that the old rules may no longer be valid.  We have to reevaluate everything in light of what we know is true that wasn’t true then.)  I’ll be talking in the coming week about some thoughts I have for other possible alternative successor-models for today’s traditional publisher.

In other news, I’m still looking for reviewers for my short story.  My wife reported that she liked it (barring two points of confusion she had that stemmed from some aspects of the twist ending; I’ve attempted to add a little more exposition to help clear it up without, hopefully, slowing it down too much.  Just a line or two, maybe a couple dozen words.)

Besides that, if all goes well, we will be installing the new TV cabinet doors on our previously existing built-in entertainment center and bookshelves.  We are excited to be making our entertainment center more functional.  If that project succeeds, there may be Wii-playing in our future.

New Media & the Future of Publishing

So, I had a very interesting discussion with a writer named Cliff Burns a few days ago in response to my post about the challenge the future holds for new writers like myself.  And I’ve been thinking (and reading) a lot since then about the state of the publishing industry today, and what the future holds.

Thanks in large measure to the AmazonFail/Macmillan Kerfuffle, a lot of writersmany of them published (especially those published by Macmillan and its imprints) have written a lot about the state of the publishing industry right now.  Frankly, it’s not pretty, but there are a few common themes.  I’m going to try to walk through some of the insights I’ve gained by following these blogs in recent weeks.

Lesson 1: The World has Changed

There’s not a lot of consensus on this issue, but there’s a certain economic reality to it.  The Information Age Revolution happened without asking authors (and especially without asking aspiring authors) their opinion.  Amazon.com launched in 1994 when the internet was still in its infancy.  But in time it has grown to become a major player in the bookselling world.  Meanwhile, blogging began to grow in popularity between 1997 and 2000 (the word “blog” was coined in 1999).  Shortly on the heels of blogging came the new wave of Social Media: Friendster launched in 2002, MySpace in 2003, Facebook launched initially in 2004, and expanded to include everyone in 2006.  (I finally got on Facebook in 2008.)  And then, there were e-Books and POD. 

The first dedicated e-Readers were launched in 1998 (the SoftBook and Rocket eBook), but the market wouldn’t start to be noticed by the publishing world until the advent of Amazon’s Kindle in 2007 (and to a lesser degree, Sony’s Reader in 2006).  Amazon quickly followed up with an improved version of the Kindle in 2009.  As the e-Book market began to grow, the old-media publishers had to take notice.  A burgeoning monopoly was in the birthing stages: today more than half of all e-Books are sold through Amazon.  As for POD printing: Amazon offers a service for this, as I understand it, and I mentioned others in my prior post on this subject (like Lulu.com and Virtual Bookworm). 

What the advent of e-Books and POD did for struggling writers was open up a tantalizing golden road of self-publication.  Vanity press is nothing new: they’ve been in existence since as long as writers have wanted to break into print.  But you could never achieve a wide distribution with an old-fashioned Vanity press.  You’d be left with an expensive bill, and a lot of books you couldn’t possibly sell to make up the difference.  Self-publishing via e-Books and POD offered a huge advantage over old-school vanity press.  Both have relatively low set-up costs compared to the old vanities.  E-Books allow you to reach a potentially “limitless” online audience.  POD allows you to defray the printing costs one-book-at-a-time by only printing and delivering books to readers as they order them.  Both were only made possible thanks to widespread adoption of the internet.  The old writer’s adage on the subject is that “Money flows to the writer”, meaning that in a legitimate, traditional publishing enterprise, the publisher buys rights from the writer: they pay the writer for the right to publish their work.  If a company asks the writer to pay the company to print the books, that’s a classic warning sign of a scam.  But these changing paradigms mean that, as attracting the attention of a traditional publisher is increasingly difficult, these paid “services” to writers become a viable option for writers with an entrepreneurial spirit and a certain amount of confidence in the salability of their work.

The market was again shaken (not stirred) in the last few weeks, with the advent of the great messiah of e-Books and the announcement of Apple’s iPad device (I say that with tongue-in-cheek; I have neither ill-will nor particular best wishes for the success of Apple’s new venture; I know only that I cannot afford one).  The details aren’t clear, but the story seems to go something like this:  Apple wanted a piece of Amazon’s action (they’d been steadily building an online media distribution monopoly of their own, in the form of iTunes).  They needed something they could market as an e-Reader, but better.  Ergo, the iPad.  And they needed publishers to get on board with their platform.  But publishers were already wary of Amazon’s growing monopoly power, and the damage Amazon’s $9.99-all-the-time price point was putting on traditional publishing models.  There was a point of pain, there, and Apple exploited it: offering publishers a deal that allowed them a flexible pricing model (a deal Apple never offered to music producers on iTunes, but only came about after what were, by all accounts, intensive negotiations).

On the face of it, there’s one flaw in Apple’s plan: if publishers can sell books for more than $9.99, why would they buy on Apple when Amazon sells them for less (vice versa, though, theoretically Apple would have some for less than $9.99, but let’s put that aside for a moment).  The flip side: the iPad’s virtually inevitable success (I’m not making any actual judgments here about the iPad’s potential for success, but looking at this from an market/industry perspective) gives publishers a new lever to pull: they don’t need Amazon anymore, to sell to the e-Reader market; Apple’s iBook store has a decent chance of superseding Amazon.  With that potential leverage, Macmillan felt the time was right to broker a new deal with Amazon to get a more favorable arrangement.  (Rest assured, the other major publishers are right behind Macmillan; some are probably kicking themselves for letting Macmillan do it first, others are content to let someone else be the guinea pig.)

What all that boils down to is this: all of these factors are part of a perfect storm of changing winds in the way books will be bought-and-sold in the future.

Lesson 2: The Old Publishing Model is Broken

For someone like me, who’s lifelong dream is to break into the traditional publishing world, this is a hard concept to realize.  But it’s not traditional publishing, per se, that is broken: it is their business model.  It’s antiquated, and maladapted for success in the changing, increasingly digital world.  Much has been said on the various blogs out there about the hordes of costs involved in producing a book that are fixed, regardless of the number of books that are sold.  These costs are relevant even if the publishers sold only electronic versions of their books, and nary a single hardcover.  But there is a persistent image among consumers that most of the costs of a physical book are tied up in the physical printing and binding process, and the rest is just gravy for the writer.  To these consumers, e-Books don’t incur the expense of printing, and their is no physical product to own and to hold.  For these reasons, consumers value an e-Book much less than they value a physical book.  This image is a false one, but it hints at something that’s fundamentally wrong with the business model of traditional publishing: there are a lot of fixed costs tied up in the business that have nothing to do with bringing good books to readers.  Most publishing firms are housed in New York, a land of notoriously high real-estate costs.  They have a byzantine and expensive-to-maintain distribution system that doesn’t add value to readers (allowing “remainders”, or unsold books, to be returned to the publisher, and other strange practices).  These practices are predicated on the idea that the publishers produce only blockbuster novels, allowing them to spread some of these high fixed costs over as large a print-run as possible.  But they’re not set-up to succeed in the new, fractured-media-landscape that has evolved.  What’s increasingly challenging this model is that the base of regular readers is shrinking (even as the base of irregular readers – those who will pick up a blockbuster novel from time-to-time – is growing).  And deep discounting at the big bookstore chains and online at Amazon are hurting the value of their product in customer’s minds.  It’s created an unsustainable cycle.

Over the past twenty years the industry’s answer to this has been consolidation.  Consolidation means cutting down on the number of extra publishers, allowing them to cut out the duplicative costs associated with having so many of them (like duplicated New York real estate; duplicated marketing & finance departments, etc.)  But the industry has nearly consolidated as far as it can go without becoming a monopoly itself – there are now only 6 remaining traditional publishing houses.  So, using the consolidation model, there’s just only so many more costs the industry can squeeze out.  What’s need, for long-term survival, is radical change.

The problem is, book publishers don’t act anything like other consumer products manufacturers.  Nor do they act like other media producers.  They try to act a little like both, but fail to successfully tap either model.  If they shift toward a focus on e-Books, they would need to act more like a media company.  If they remain focused on physical books, they need a model more like successful and acclaimed CPGs companies (like Coca-Cola, Proctor & Gamble, etc.)  Right now, they don’t know what they want to be, and until they do, their model is going to continue to fail.

Lesson 3:  The Signal-to-Noise Ratio Means Traditional Publishers Are Still Necessary

And here’s a lesson that’s a hard one for the new breed of young writers feeling empowered by the weakness of traditional publishers and the rash of new tools available to them: you are not alone.  You are so not alone, that there are too many of you for dedicated readers (and even more so for casual readers) to ever find your voice among the din and cacophony of the internet.  Yes, I am in this same boat.  My voice is one of thousands.  But readers don’t have time to sift through thousands of voices to find the few that will truly shine for them.

What’s more, while what a writer does is one of the most important parts in the telling of a finished, polished story – what they do is the part that adds the most value – what a writer does produce is not a finished product.  What comes hot of the keys from a writer is unedited manuscript.  It’s the story, the characters, the world, the meaning, the theme.  But it’s also bad grammar, plot holes, dropped characters and deus-ex-machina.

Traditional publishers have two huge advantages, from a reader’s perspective, that really do add value.  The first is that they employe editors.  Editors fix all those things that are wrong with a rough manuscript that I mentioned above (or at least point them out to writers so they can fix them).  Editors also, at least in theory, screen out the unsalvageable crap from the diamonds-in-the-rough.  And make no mistake: there is a lot of unsalvageable crap out there.  This one advantage means that traditional publishers have an opportunity to build a lot of good faith and trust with consumers, by ensuring that they publish only high-quality books.  The second advantage that traditional publishers offer is marketing power.  The author is really integral to a successful marketing plan for a new novel, but the writer alone cannot hope to do everything that needs to be done to properly market a new book to a reading public heretofore uninformed about the book’s existence.  And don’t underestimate the value of effective marketing.  It is, in no uncertain terms, the be-all and end-all of getting your book into reader’s hands, for a reader will never want your book in their hands in the absence of good marketing.

Besides these two critical functions, traditional publishers do a lot of other work to help make a novel successful.  Besides editors, you have copyeditors, proofreaders, typesetters, interior designers, cover artists and cover designers, and so on.  A lot of people seem to believe that novel writing is a solitary affair – and with good reason: the content of the novel springs mostly from the mind of the writer himself.  But there is this small army of behind-the-scenes crew that are applying the spit-and-polish.  In this sense novel writing is really a lot more like making a movie, one in which the novelist is writer, director, and the stars of the show, but for which we also have producers (the editors), cinematographers, soundtrack composers and performers (like the interior design and type design), and so on.  You know, the Oscars have a whole host of technical categories that regular people almost never see, because they’re not flashy and glitzy but which are every bit as important in the production of a good movie.  So it is with good books.

For writers with investment money to burn, savvy business chops, and a dynamite book on their hands, there are paid services that can and will, for a hefty fee, do much of this for you.  Through one recent commenter, I discovered the services of iUniverse, a self-publishing services outfit.  But their basic package, with editing services, a cover design, and ISBN, costs almost $600.  Their full service, with all of that plus other services like the ability for bookstore to return remainders, an internet marketing campaign, and promotional materials will lighten your load by more than four grand!  And the author will still have to do the lion’s share of the actual marketing work.  I can only imagine how much an actual, full-service not-just-email-only campaign will set you back.  Add to that the cost of finding a good artist for the cover, type-set and interior designers, and so on.  That’s a pretty significant risk – with that large of a financial investment, this is considerably more than your average struggling author can afford for a minimal chance at returning that amount in terms of sales.  Again, as I suggested at the head of the paragraph, a writer with the money to burn, the know-how to succeed, and a book that is dying to be read by the masses (oh, and tons of free time on his or her hands) this is, technically, a realistic option to success.  Some of this a writer can even learn to do him or herself, competently (and at the expense of spending time writing, of course).  But the chances of succeeding in this route are, even by the best estimates, realistically no better than succeeding through the traditional route (which, granted, is also very very poor).

The fact is, at the end of the day, writers need traditional publishers if they want to achieve widespread, mainstream success.  And readers need traditional publishers as a filter for the noise and unlimited number of choices available on the internet.  These two facts mean that traditional publishing, in some form or fashion, can, will, and must continue to exist – at least until a better model is devised.

What neither the writers nor the readers need is to subsidize expensive New York real estate, costly organizational structures on the back end that aren’t in the business of adding value to the reading consumer, and byzantine distribution channels that are not optimized for the customer.  Unfortunately, what the state of publishing is today means that you get a mixed bag of the good and bad together.  And besides that, one of the core promises of publishers having editors in the first place – that editors filter out the crap – isn’t even remotely true.  Editors can realistically only filter out the crap from what they have time to read.  The signal-to-noise ratio right now is so bad, it seems your average editor doesn’t have anywhere near the time to actually review everything that comes his or her way.  That means that tons of real gems never even make it to the editors’ eyes to get caught in their garbage filters, recognized for what they are, and polished to perfection for mass distribution.  They make sure that we don’t get crap, but they can’t possibly guarantee that they’ve given us the best-quality gems.

But back to Lesson 1: the world has changed.  Whatever else we may say about this, that change is real, and it’s permanent.  And nobody – I’m convinced, nobody – really knows how this thing is going to pan out, yet.  It’s a market that’s far more dynamic than ever it has been in the past.  It’s in flux, but one thing we do know is that the successful publishing model of the future looks very little like the model of today.  The shifting tides lend a certain air of inevitability.  E-Books will grow in importance in the market.  Old-fashioned physical books will never fully die away (especially hardcovers) but mass-market and trade-paperbacks will be increasingly supplanted by e-Books.  But how this transition will be managed, and how publishers will succeed and how writers will break out and gain the fame and notoriety they crave: these things are as yet unknowns.  Some traditional publishers may fade away into the dust, or get absorbed into larger companies until their are only two or three left, or the distribution channels may get refined, or… well, who knows?

What does this mean for me, as a writer, and undiscovered author?  I don’t know yet.  I’m simultaneously excited and scared.  I’ve never been published.  Will I ever be published?  Will I find a way to succeed and thrive in this new environment?  Frankly, I just don’t know.  But what I do know is this: I am a writer.  And there is one thing I must do.  I must write.  I must write the best dang stories I can possibly write.  And… someone will read them.  Someone will read them because they are good stories.  (Are they the best they can be?  Without editors, probably not.  But for what I can do without editors, yes.)  Until I can make a name for myself, that may not be many someones.  I might only count them on a single hand.

But I cannot be discouraged.  I will write on.

Happy writing.

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I Have Seen the Avatar

Yes, this weekend past, my wife and I finally went to see “Avatar“.  It did not take us so long for lack of any desire to see it (at least, not on my part) but from sheer lack of time.  Between me working on my MBA, my wife staying busy with various activities, and both of us scrambling to get ready for our baby, there’s just not much “let’s-go-out-and-see-a-movie” time.

So, while I’m clearly a little late to the game (and that will be a recurring theme around these parts), I wanted to offer my “review” of the film.  Since by now, if you wanted to see it you’ve more than likely already seen it (unless you’re like me), this isn’t a review slanted toward what was good or bad, per se, but an analysis of the movie from a writer’s perspective.

First, the easy part: this movie is gorgeous.  The 3-D effect is seamless and realistic (not gimmicky feeling like the laughably bad looking “Piranha 3-D” trailer that accompanies the movie which, by the way, is a remake of a bad 1978 flick the 1981 sequel of which, ironically, was directed by James Cameron).  About ten minutes into the movie, my wife leaned over to me and whispered “Wow, this is cooler than I was expecting”.  It’s the kind of movie that makes you long to live in a world filled with 1,500-foot-tall trees and floating islands in the sky (neither idea James-Cameron-originals, but not made any less cool by their inclusion in the movie; rather, it was about time somebody made a movie with giant trees and floating islands).

I suspect, though, that my wife wasn’t expecting much precisely because the plot synopsis I gave her of the movie was so uninspired sounding.  Indeed, the movie has been called, in private circles, “Dances with Smurfs” (my personal favorite) and “Bluecahontas“.  It’s been compared to “FernGully” and, get this, “The Ant Bully“.  They all, of course, are right.  And when you get past the criticisms of the obviously derivative nature of the plot, you run into criticisms that ask whether the film is racist, another in a long line of “white-man’s-guilt-fantasies“.  And it’s certainly possible to see those dark undertones if you look for them.  On the other hand, it’s got a slap-you-in-the-face pro-environmentalism, anti-corporate message.  And yet, whatever all that means to you, it garnered a fairly impressive 9 Academy Nominations, including Best Picture (nevermind that, objectively, it has little chance of winning the top two spots).  Clearly, somebody thinks it’s a really great movie, controversy aside, and not just because it’s a pretty movie.

Is there a disconnect here? 

Having seen it, I don’t think so.  In the moment of the movie, all the criticism of the film only comes to mind if you’re looking for it.  The plot may be rehashed, but the comparisons only occur to you after the fact.  In the heat of the movie, the thought that occurs to you, instead, is “I know the good guys (the Na’Vi, Jake Sully, et al.) have to win this thing, because the good guys always win, but I’ll-be-damned if I know how they’re going to pull that rabbit out of their hat!”  Over the course of the film, you grow to love and care about the Native American analog that are the Na’Vi. 

This is so in part because the movie is so visually impressive.  But there is another factor at work here, a factor that is of paramount importance, especially in science fiction and fantasy films.  This was brought to my attention by one of the “Daily Kicks” by writer David Farland.  In this particular edition, he talked about “Avatar’s Power of Iconism‏”, by which, really, he means the power of “symbolism”.  Avatar is rife with symbolic motifs and those symbols, whether we are consciously aware of them or not, have meaning.  The Na’vi, Farland argues,

…Look basically human, in order to convey emotion. Of course, the eyes are the “window to the soul,” and so he made them larger than human eyes. Noses are unnecessary for iconic characters, and so the noses were nearly eradicated. In short, his aliens here were easily identifiable as humans to children.” 

And it’s hard to argue with that.  Would the story have resonated if the aliens were eight-legged, slug-like gastropods with eye-stalks?  Would we be having arguments about racism?  The human-like (and Native American-like) qualities of the aliens are symbolically meaningful to us.  Farland continues:

But humans also favor certain colors. When asked why he made his aliens blue, Cameron said that it was because ‘green had already been taken in all of those old Martian movies.’ But the truth is that blue is better. Seventy percent of all people will name it as their ‘favorite’ color, and Cameron needed to get the audience to accept his aliens as the good guys right out the gate.”

Farland continues, linking the Na’Vi “Great Tree” with mythical trees of symbolic importance: the “World Tree” of Norse Myth, the Judeo-Christian “Tree of Life“, and various other “Tree of Life” motifs from across many mythologies.  Trees are ancient, important symbols of life and of goodness.

In short, other than visually impressive 3-D vistas, “Avatar” doesn’t really reveal much that’s new to us, but that’s not necessarily the point.  What’s been employed here (effectively, if the box office haul is any indicator) is the same thing that’s employed in block-buster fantasy and science fiction novels: symbolic and mythological motifs that have powerful meaning and tap into our collective unconscious.  Would it have been better if the plotting and writing had been more original (while still employing those symbolic and mythic motifs)?  If it had offered some new twist on the basic premise of the movie?  I imagine the answer is yes.  But it succeeds, in part, because even without offering something new, it does what it does in part by using symbols in a way that requires a certain skill and finesse (and in part by having awesome 3-D CG).  We writers would do well to learn some of those skills as well (the ones about using symbols, not 3-D; it’s hard to use 3-D in any books other than pop-ups).

Happy Writing.

First Draft

So, I have this giddy, cloud-nine, can’t-keep-me-down feeling.

I finished that short story I’ve been working on.

I didn’t finish it in the time-frame I’d originally been planning or hoping, but nonetheless it is now done.  And I’m very proud of it.  Which is not to say that it is not without its flaws.  It clocks in at almost 10,000 words – a couple thousand more than I had intended.  I seem to have this ongoing problem with short-form fiction.  Whatever the flaws, it’s hard to state, precisely, what they all are from where I stand, now.  I feel like it’s a pretty good story.  I’d enjoy it if I was reading it.  The real question is: will anyone else?

That’s the next step, now.  I’ll be looking for a few folks who might have the time and who might be able to, with a critical eye, give the story a read and tell me honestly where they thing the major flaws or weak points are.  I can’t make this request of the general public – I’m not sure that making the story generally available isn’t any different than “publishing”, which if done would decrease the value of the story.  But I’ll be asking a few friends.  The danger of asking friends, of course, is that they are frequently incented, vis-a-vis their personal relationship with the writer, to issue generally positive feedback.  But I’ve known people who were not afraid to lay it out like it is to their friends.  Sometimes that criticism is hard to take, but it’s important if I’m to improve.

Once I get this in the hands of a few critique-readers, I’ll concern myself with what comes next.  Once reviewed and critiqued, I have a chance to polish off the draft with any changes that can improve it.  Then I’ll write a cover letter and send it in.  I’ve read pros and cons to submitting simultaneously to multiple markets, but even though it takes longer, I can wait it out one-at-a-time.  I’ve decided who I intend to send it off to first (a magazine I’m most familiar with), but I’ll probably have to start researching a second and third option once I’ve sent it in, just in case I receive a rejection (as good as I think this story is, a rejection is still the most probable scenario; it would not be a commentary on the value of the story so much as on the lack of time on the part of most editors to give it a solid read-through).  Once it’s as good as I can write it, there’s nothing else I can do but wait.

While the my critique-readers are hard at work reading, I expect I’ll shortly be getting to work on the next story.  I already have two ideas for stories I want to write – one is based on some experiences I had several years ago (but with a certain fantastic element) while another extrapolates from a timely political and social series of events.  The timely piece is likely the one I shall tackle first, simply because it is more relevant now than it might be in a few years.  The other story has been simmering in the back of my mind for a long time but I’m really itching to give it a try.  Besides these, I’ve got another finished short story draft that, if worked over like the story I just finished, might be a worthwhile tale.  It has some huge weaknesses right now, but there’s some element of value in it, overall, I think.  Then I have a concept plus the first paragraph of another story that I never finished.  For all of these, I’d apply the process I’ve developed on this current story rewrite.  Working out the characters and their motivations and the details of the plot based on that really gave me a solid framework for executing this story.  In fact, I’ve already jotted down a few notes about characters in both the story options I am currently considering.

Overall, I’m excited.

Happy Writing.