Archive for Rants

Would You Sell a Letter?

The news of a completed auction for a 1990 Harper Lee letter about Donald Trump made me contemplate the whole notion of selling correspondence.

Maybe after decades have passed, maybe after I die and heirs and Sackville-Baggins type looters pick through the Slushpile library, then possibly some pieces of correspondence might hit the market. But right now? It just seems odd to sell personal letters.

Biggs Says DRM Sucks


Well, I’m probably exaggerating a bit with that “sucks” choice of words. But suffice it to say, Slushpile’s John Biggs isn’t a fan of digital rights management (DRM) technology used by publishers. He doesn’t employ DRM with his own book Mytro and suggests that the paradigm shift so that indie writers “think in terms of what we can give back to readers rather than what they can give to us.”

Check out his thoughts, along with some audio from Cory Doctorow here.

The Rants of Gordon Lish


Under normal circumstances, I would be ecstatic that the great Barry Hannah gets a mention — any mention — in Newsweek magazine. But this article of Gordon Lish in decline just rubs me the wrong way. I know a number of people who took Lish’s workshop and a couple who were edited by him. So I’ve never been under any illusions about his strong personality and opinions.

Nonetheless, his comment that Raymond Carver was “a fraud. I don’t think he was a writer of any consequence.”

Just a sad article about a once literary icon.

Conservative Book Publishing on the Wane, So Cruz Gets $1.5M

Little more than two weeks after a widely circulated article on the fading of a genre, “Killing Conservative Books: The Shocking End of a Publishing Gold Rush that discussed “the gutting of the conservative book market” and that too many books and too many publishers “made the economics of their genre much tougher, with an ever-increasing number of books competing for an audience that hasn’t grown much since the ’90s”, came news that Texas Senator Ted Cruz agreed to a $1.5 million dollar advance from HarperCollins.

[Disclaimer: Different imprints of HarperCollins published both of my books.]

In a Washington Post article, Paul Bedard writes that Cruz’s advance is even more than Sarah Palin’s check after her entrance onto the national stage.

Let’s go back to the BuzzFeed piece, authored by McKay Coppins…

The crux of the piece is that publishers are basically obligated to sign up books by presidential hopefuls, in the event that they are eventually elected to the White House. However, in the chase for those politicians, many publishers sign deals with conservative politicians that don’t pay off in terms of sales. Coppins’ article points out that Jeb Bush’s book has only sold about 4,600 copies and that Rick Santorum’s 2012 book American Patriots only sold about 6,500 copies.

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Sometimes, Ya Just Gotta Write a Shitty Line


We write poor lines because of rushed deadlines, screaming babies in the background, hangovers, and just general human fallibility.

Other times, we write poor lines because we have to, because even though they may sound off or awkward, they are, technically, accurate. Such is the case with this Scientific American article republished on
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Should You Pay to Make a Book About Success a Success?

gimme money.jpg

Finances are rarely as they seem.

The sports media blasts $100 million dollar deal headlines on an almost daily basis. But it’s only been in recent years that they began drawing the distinction between the guaranteed portions versus the purely imaginary Monopoly money the player will never actually receive. While basketball and baseball contracts are locked in, football contracts can be broken at any time by the team.

The entertainment media reports huge recording contracts, without referencing that the deal also covers merchandising and tour support. A band might “receive” a certain amount of cash in their agreement, but that pays for their studio time and tour bus rental, as opposed to pure profit.

Of course, lawyers, agents, assistants, and everyone else takes their cut as well.

As a result, we often assume that people have more money than they do. Just because TMZ and other outlets reported that Farrah Abraham “struck a deal” for almost a million dollars for fucking in a fake amateur sex tape doesn’t mean the Teen Mom star is depositing a check for exactly seven figures any time soon.

All of which is to say, I get it. You might seem like a big time player in a particular industry, but that doesn’t mean you’ve got piles of cash buried in the backyard, ready to be invested at a moment’s notice. Whatever your accomplishments may be, your bank account might not line up accordingly. Once again, I get it. But I’ll be goddamned if I can understand why we should subsidize a self-described successful Hollywood producer’s efforts to publish a book about becoming a successful screenwriter.

GalleyCat reported that Gary W. Goldstein, producer of Pretty Woman, The Mothman Prophecies, and other movies launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $12,000 to self-publish a book described as a “practical roadmap of every insider strategy I’ve learned on how to make it in Hollywood as a successful screenwriter.”

Let’s highlight the keywords and phrases in that description: “insider” and “make it” and “successful.”

In fact, the word “successful” is used about five times in the Kickstarter profile. Doesn’t this conjure images of someone who can make an investment in their own business and product? Maybe he’s not cruising a Bentley up and down the PCH on the way to his Malibu pad, but at least you’d think someone choosing to self-publish would, ya know, cough up the money to pay for self-publishing. I suppose you could argue that Goldstein’s fundraising effort is, on a small scale, precisely what a producer does: he seeks and puts together money from a variety of sources. Leveraging other people’s cash is old hat to Hollywood folks (and Wall Street) so maybe that’s what’s going on here.

Goldstein’s IMDB profile doesn’t show any projects since 2002 so maybe he’s hit a dry spell. Which doesn’t necessarily negate his knowledge and expertise on the subject. We’ve all gone through fallow periods or maybe changed careers and direction.

But the whole online fundraising thing is simply out of hand. No longer relegated to truly indie projects, charitable efforts, low budget start ups, and outrageous, outlandish flights of fancy, now Kickstarter and Indiegogo are employed to make a success of how-to-be-successful book from a success guru?

Lies, Damned Lies, And Publishing

Scott and I have been discussing the Mike Daisey fiasco and something stuck out for me during his This American Life interview and, more important, in the reactions by various tech visionaries at various online outlets. “He’s a liar,” they said. “He’s a fraud.”

“Me made us care about something that wasn’t true.”

While I will never defend Daisey and his ridiculously overblown stories (I cover Foxconn at TechCrunch) I would like to point out that, in a way, Daisey is not in the wrong or, more correctly, the industry that produced him, mainly the literary establishment, created him and his ilk out of the necessity for endless amusement.
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If Only We Made the Money They Think We Make

Jeff Pearlman Walter Payton Controversy

The sports world has been brewing with furor over bestselling author Jeff Pearlman’s new book Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton. Enraged by an excerpt in Sports Illustrated that painted the legendary Chicago Bears running back as beset with addictions, infidelities, and affairs, the sports nation rose up in ire against Pearlman. Most of these critics were reacting to a short excerpt from a book they had never seen.

In response, Pearlman wrote a post for, “Just Read the Damn Book: Welcome to the Sweetness Bash” that details the amusing/frightening/infuriating shenanigans he’s experienced in the last few days.

Now, since I have not read the book, I’ll reserve comment on the text itself, as requested. I’ve enjoyed Pearlman’s other work and I do look forward to reading Sweetness. But what I’ve found most interesting is how so many of the sports fans and commentators criticizing Pearlman’s work allude to some sort of literary equivalent to backing up the Brinks truck and making off with a bundle.

Which leads me to wonder… How much fucking money do these people think journalists make?

Sure, Pearlman is a bestseller. He’s got a bigtime agent and a bigtime publisher. He’s probably not subsisting on Ramen Noodles and contaminated river water. But my guess is that he’s not driving a Ferrari or jetting off to his vacation home in Bora Bora either.

Pearlman has been quoted as saying that he spent three years interviewing almost 700 people while working on Sweetness. So even if we assume his advance was in the low six figures, that’s still a helluva lot of work for what critics are dismissing as an easy payday.

Unfortunately, many people who are not avid readers or regular followers of publishing think writers are all rich. They see articles about the incredible wealth of the Rowlings-Kings-Browns of the world and believe we all type out a few pages while riding in the back of our chauffeured Rolls Royce. They see the rare publishing news that hits the mainstream media about some mega deal for some reality star who spends an afternoon with a ghostwriter in order to rush out a glorified press release in hardback covers in three months and think all books are easy, fast, and painless. Which simply is not true for the vast majority of books, whether they’re good or bad.

While I wouldn’t want to be going through the gauntlet of criticism that Jeff Pearlman is facing right now, I’d love to have the money his critics assume he’s making. And I’d love to make that cash as easily as his bashers think it can be made in writing.

Come One, Come All: Why Publishing is Drowning in Submissions

Publishing Drowns in Submissions

Everyone involved with writing and publishing complains about the volume of submissions. Aspiring authors lament the astronomical numbers of competing submissions. Agents and editors constantly talk about how they’re inundated with proposals.

And certainly every aspiring author has inwardly groaned every time Aunt Mildred talks about how she wants to write a book and how Dr. Johnson down the lane says he’s going to write a book and how the pizza delivery boy says he’s got a book idea. Sometimes it feels like everyone wants a book deal. Everyone thinks they can write a book. There’s the old chestnut about the dinner party where the brain surgeon tells the author that he intends to write a book when he retires and the writer retorts that he will conduct surgery when he stops publishing.

And partially, those perceptions exist because of the publishing industry’s incessant outreach to every other professional enterprise. In short, anyone can have a book. But the vice versa isn’t true.

On Tuesday, we posted a reference to the Anonymous book proposal currently making the rounds. There’s an interesting statement in that New York Observer article.

“The proposal is the proposal and I have no idea what I’m doing, I have no experience with the publishing industry,” Gregg Housh is quoted as saying. The article even states that he was laughing as he said it.

Now, God bless Mr. Housh and good luck in his endeavors. He’s not said or done anything wrong in this regard. But his light-hearted comment illustrates that publishing reaches out to people regardless of their writing skill, expertise, or long-term career ambitions. The most obvious and easy illustration of this relates to celebrity books.

–A Super Bowl winning quarterback gets a book. But I don’t get to lead the New Orleans Saints onto the field because I’m a writer.
–A heroic airplane pilot gets a book but I don’t get to flip levers in the cockpit of a 747 because I’m an author.
–A Hollywood starlet gets to publish a book but I don’t get a swag bag at the Emmys because I’m a writer.
–A well-known chef will have a book (in this case, a pretty damn good one) but I’m not going to be invited into a Michelin starred kitchen because of my stellar prose.

[In the interest of full disclosure, I did serve as a ghostwriter for a sort of celebrity memoir. And obviously I’m borderline obsessed by the literary endeavors of hard rock musicians. So I’m a participant in this paradigm.]

But it’s not simply celebrities that get book deals. “Normal” people who have no amount of fame (or writing experience) also publish books after surviving various forms of crisis or achieving certain goals, business bigwigs author instructional and inspirational books, and on and on. While we might be moved to tears or encouraged to new heights by a hiker’s tale of cutting off his own arm, that dude isn’t going to be asked to be the new chief executive officer of HP because of it.

“It’s about stories and entertainment,” a dissenting buddy says. “Of course the hiker won’t be asked to lead a Fortune 500 company or to serve as a paramedic in a roaming ambulance because of his experience. But his story can contribute to the entertainment world.”

“Why isn’t he given a record deal then?” I counter. “If we assume he can write a book because of what he went through, then why can’t we assume that he can belt out a Marvin Gaye tune? Why isn’t he given a film to direct? Why don’t we expect him to paint a portrait, produce a sculpture, or slaughter and piece a steer?”

My pal says that with books and literature, our unskilled writing hero can work with a co-author. He coughs, raises his eyebrow, and points to me. I agree that I’m part of this process.

“But couldn’t a director help him helm that major motion picture? You never see, ‘A film by Joe Schmoe Hero, with Martin Scorsese.’ If the civilian inspiration is mentioned in the credits at all, it’s way down at the bottom, and he’s listed as a technical advisor or something. Certainly with Auto-Tune and studio musicians, the normal guy could be made to sound passable on a recording. So why don’t we see these people showing up with record deals? Why do we only give people top billing when it comes to books?”

There’s no doubt that writing is the most accessible art form with the lowest barrier to entry (especially in the days of epubs). That’s partly why everyone thinks they want to write a book. But when bookstore shelves overflow with titles by so many folks who aren’t devoting their lives to literature, it not hard to understand why there is such a deluge of submissions.

Industry Encouraged Self-Esteem Problems

On Thursday, I ranted a bit about snobby, ivory tower writers who think their colleagues should shun all appearances of commercial enterprise. That’s one factor in a complicated mix of issues that causes authors to limit themselves in their money making ventures.

Another factor is how the industry encourages low self-esteem amongst writers. As aspiring authors, we’re constantly given subtle reminders that our words don’t have value. After a while, it’s only natural that some people actually begin to think this is true.

There are Thousands Others Where You Came From
A friend was offered a gig from The New York Times who wanted him to travel on a newly launched upstart airline and write about the experience. The Times has a strict policy against accepting freebies so my pal wouldn’t be able to fly the friendly skies courtesy of the air carrier. But the editorial budget was lacking so the Times informed my friend that they could not spring for his ticket. The only money involved was the $200 pay for the article.

“Well, it’ll still be a byline in the Times, so it might be worth the expense,” he said. Then he checked the price of the ticket he would have to purchase: $350. So he was going to have to pay $150 a chance to publish amongst all the news that’s fit to print.

And the unspoken, yet abundantly clear insinuation from the editors was, “If you’re not willing to do it, there are thousands who are.” I can’t tell you how many articles I’ve written where I’ve lost money, where I’ve spent more to write the piece than I made. And part of this is simply what you have to go through as you start to build a career. Unpaid internships, volunteer work, and just doing whatever needs to be done is a fact of life whether you want to be a writer, accountant, rock star, or ditch digger.

But at the same time, it’s like the stereotypical Hollywood director who still employs the casting couch method. There are ten other blondes chilling out in the waiting room if you’re not willing…

Deadbeat Editors
Talk to any group of freelancers and you’ll hear story after story like this. You will also hear endless tales of financial woe caused by deadbeat editors. It’s unfortunately not unusual for freelancer writers to have to hound magazines for payment. These publications somehow manage to pay the paper suppliers, and they somehow manage to pay the printers, the distributors, the designers, and all that. But when it comes to the sap who wrote the 200 word restaurant review? Well, he better hope they’re feeling flush.

I once went almost a year of begging a publication that is, thankfully, no longer in business for pay. And I had friends on the staff who were mortified and humiliated. But their boss’s attitude was, “What’s he going to do?” Unaware of the larger issues bedeviling the publication, I actually hoped for more work at the time.. And I didn’t want to develop a reputation as being difficult. So I meekly and politely and aw shucksy asked for my pay. I actually felt bad for expecting the magazine to live up to it’s contractual obligations.

Blogger Ed Champion has, pardon the pun, championed freelancer’s right to get paid for the work they perform. He once wrote me a helpful and encouraging email that summed it up well. “Writing is as legitimate a labor as anything else,” he stated and offered some very timely advice and contact information for my collection efforts.

Nonetheless, many aspiring authors do not have the fortitude to take a strong stance with editors or they don’t want to cause waves. So they accept the purgatory of being told “it’s in the accounting department” for years and years.

Now, for the record, I’m not saying that all editors are deadbeats. In fact, the majority of them are hard-working, underpaid people struggling to do a good job, no different than you and I. Even for the assholes, I don’t think they consciously think, “Screw him, I’m just not going to pay.” It’s more subtle than that. The industry just makes it a bit easier to ignore some scribe from Scranton than other vendors and business partners.

Exclusive Submissions, Busy Agents, Honorarium Copies, and all the Rest
There are tons of other factors that can cause a real self-esteem problem amongst writers. Tiny, shithole journals that do not accept simultaneous submissions but want 1 year to read a short story, agents who can’t give an interview without mentioning how busy they are at least 734 times, magazines photocopied at Kinkos that only provide contributors with two copies, editors who reject a manuscript and include a subscription card, and so forth. All of these issues can easily make a writer think his or her work doesn’t have value or that he is bothering people if he actually expects to be compensated.

Let it be said that I am not suggesting that a writer’s life should be easy. I don’t expect the industry to kneel down and lay out palm fronds to ease anyone’s passing. Since I was 14-years-old, I have always held two jobs at a minimum. I am realistic about the economic possibilities of writing as a career and willing to put in the work.

But I also realize that there comes a time for each writer where they need to truly, deep-down believe in the fact that their work has value. Unfortunately, too many of us never reach this point. Too many of us toil away, hoping for a few crumbs, but too afraid to ask.