Alex Mathews

Alex Mathews – writer, bared naked dude blah blah blah

Publishing Debate: Self-publish or Self-immolate

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As a writer with a manuscript (previously posted in part here) and no publishing credits, I recently decided to join the debate over self-publishing versus trying to get a deal with a publisher. Well, joined the debate means I tried to read up on it, hoping that I would get the information I needed to actually join the debate. Because the internet is too big, information is too hard to come by, so I decided to join the debate anyway. I have confessed that I am an aspiring author, which of course is a secret to the book-buying world, and that fairly well sums up the plight of a first-time author. I am not sure how it got started culturally that author’s enjoy wealth and celebrity (wait, I do. It’s TV, film and mass market paperbacks and the New York Times Book Review and John Grisham and Stephen King), but fame and fortune might be the dream of many who take up a quill. But writing as a profession enjoys a much more inglorious seat in society, despite what they show on TV. But we do live in a world where the success story is far more interesting and inspiring than the alcoholic writer of incredible ability who dies destitute, so we like Who Moved My Cheese over A Moveable Feast. This brings up the question for me as to how Hemmingway would have fared if he uploaded his e-book to Amazon and let the current market drive his sales. Would he hit the top 1000? Would J.D. Salinger have been cut out to scour the web and ask for people to review his books so A Catcher in the Rye would get past the slush pile of self-published books available on Kindle for $1.99?

The idea of the vanity press was repugnant to me, because it basically tells people that your book was otherwise commercially unmarketable, or worse, no press wanted it. But all that is changing, right? The latest buzz is that publishing is dead, or dying, just like the music industry, and the power is back in the hands of the people. Up yours, you media conglomerates. I was inspired by this uproar. Finally, there is fair trade in the publishing world. I read The Altucher Confidential’s article (a meme? a lens? I don’t know what you are calling this stuff anymore), and I was convinced the stigma of self-publishing was gone, and that I would be crazy not to do it. I was exuberant that the royalty structure was better, that traditional publishing was a total rip-off, and even better—there is a paradigm shift in publishing, so you had better, you know, get with the times. I love when you can argue against something because the times are changing. It inspires just enough fear that most people will just agree with you. But even my sensibility wasn’t going to move me off the self-publishing solution. The idea that I wouldn’t have to go through the excruciating process of rejection while seeking an offer from a publisher was like the weight of the world falling off of my shoulders. That process would likely break me, and if you don’t know me, I am already paralyzed by fear and fairly well a shell of a man as it is. I would not write while I engaged in the year long (at a minimum) process of shopping a book around to what so many people are calling scoundrels and dinosaurs. I would become more and more depressed by the rejection that is part of the rites of passage for most writers. I can’t imagine the pain and suffering and the humiliation that I would endure. How would I look at my wife after the tenth ‘no thank you’ arrived in the mailbox? And here I see Amazon and Createspace have come to the rescue of the indie author, offering the panacea for undiscovered talent. Jim Altucher makes a great case for it, and even inspires the idealism of the whole thing, claiming that sincere and honest writers will flourish under the new paradigm. Awesome! I am ready to upload my manuscript to Createspace and design a cover and get my e-book into the Amazon store—where I imagine I will enjoy the feeling of selling my work everyday.

Then the cynic revisited me. All of that is good for Altucher, whose e-book was at #2 on Amazon’s Motivational Books category. If he were just another lowly, first-time author, I might be inspired enough to jump in head first and worry about the rest of the publishing game later. The fact is that he has a huge platform, which is a publishing word for built-in audience. He has enough profile and outlets to gain a large and fast readership that he is really a great case-study in the virtues of self-publishing. So, for all the debate, all that really comes from it is a rather disheartening and discouraging dilemma for authors. The world of traditional publishing is certainly unappealing for so many reasons, which is why the new evangelism for self-publishing looks so lustrous and fresh. The challenge to get off the slush pile at a publishing house is depressing enough. Then, if you do have a deal, the royalty structure will kill the dream of fiscal success. On the self-publishing side, the upside potential is much higher, but the writer is faced with the job of developing a reader base, and marketing their book. In my more cavalier moments, I felt ready to tackle that problem, but once I set out to look at what would be involved, I quickly began to want the support of a publisher. I mean, that is their job, right? Altucher says no, that his publishers did little to sell his books and actually asked him what he could do to get readers. What would someone with no large readership and no knowledge of developing and carrying out a marketing plan for a book do to rise above the heap? It turns out that the statistics for book sales are like the current socio-economic hierarchy, with 7% of all books selling the 92% lion’s share of all books sold, while the remaining 93% of all the other books sell on average less than 1,000 copies (figures are not exact but representative). Do most authors feel it is within their capability to win that game somehow? I have tried selling things on the internet, and it is not as easy as many would have you believe.

Which brings me back to Amazon and Createspace, for they are presented as the solution to all of this. I looked at the Createspace website, where they have a section for developing a marketing plan for your self-published book. I imagine most people would have some notion about what would need to happen to market a book successfully, but a quick read of their suggestions for developing a marketing plan made me feel futility, fatigue and confusion. Not only do you need to have prowess with traditional methods of book selling, but now you have to know the ins and outs of the Amazon store. The more I looked at it, the more I felt I needed a team of people doing this sort of thing for me (like a publisher, maybe?). When would an author have time to write? I consider myself an expert in so many things, but when faced with the prospect of being a writer and a marketing genius (and I mean a good one), I begin to feel the floor sinking. Perhaps it’s just my cynicism, and I just need to say it can be done. What would be more heartbreaking to work hard to sell your books, only to have e-book spammers outsell you with their hit-and-run brochures that proliferate the e-book marketplace?

There is only one national bookstore remaining. There is not even an indie bookstore in my city of 108,000 people (some of them even literate). Yes, more people buy books from Amazon. Now more people buy books that aren’t on paper anymore. But why would you be so ready to publish through what people are beginning to say is a monopoly? The more I get into this, the more I find that neither looks good for writers, but it seems as though there isn’t much choice. Publish yourself or maybe publish with someone else. And if you do publish yourself, try doing it without Amazon. Jeff Bezos is, in my opinion, one of the coolest billionaires alive. He is a crazy, hilarious guy that I would totally party with. I am always inspired that a guy that is so wildly funny—the antithesis of the Wall Street Banker or the VC influencer—and that he has made what he has of his company. But the fact is, we haven’t partied yet, and until we do, I doubt he will help me figure out how to get on the pages of his website that will actually sell books.

The fact is, I would publish with anyone who wanted to publish me. And it seems that Amazon wants to. If the horror stories about the Old Way of doing things in the world of publishing is true, I hope they don’t repeat history. And where the hell is Ralph Nader when you need him? Or that Sherman dude with the Anti-trust laws? Call me Bezos, we’ll have lunch.

Web, Web 2.0, Web 3.0

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Hearkening back to the advent of the internet, I recall a time of exuberance personal, and skepticism from others. I was an early adopter, because I liked computers, and I also invented the internet. I know, Al Gore did too, but it was a phenomenon so collective that no individual could claim it as their own. It was simply an inevitability of the progress in computing and communication, and when such things happen in a society, invention seems something that is born of the democracy of a culture—like we are all somehow connected to the huge hive mind that is godlike in its direction, in its focus, in its capability to birth genius. Such was the adulation of the internet. I do recall the skepticism that seemed to want to thwart my own enthusiasm. This came from older people. My bosses and their contemporaries looked at this thing and reviled.

I have no idea why I am writing about the internet. Certainly there are many who are actually qualified to do so, and this is far away from my wheelhouse (whatever that is). But now that I am older, I feel like my grandmother when her children were speaking of the VCR and the Betamax. And now I understand. Show me something new, and worse, show me something about web 2.0, and I suddenly feel old and tired. I was born into computers with the Apple IIe, which was a thing I coveted (forgive me, Father) from my wealthier friends. My first computer was the Macintosh SE, with it’s dual floppy drive and massive 40MB hard drive. I could stare at that 9-inch monochrome screen for hours. I felt alone in my deep appreciation for Hypercard, which of course inspired me to invent the internet. The idea of linking documents with what was then called ‘hypertext’ was a stroke of genius. I saw the future gleaming so brightly. I loved computers so much I partnered with them to build a career in advertising. I always found that in every place I worked, I was the guy everyone called when their computers ceased to cooperate with them.

And then, of course, depression set it. It was briefly revived when I invented the internet, but I was under-capitalized and swallowed by larger investors. But still, these were incredible times. I recall the days when Google was a risqué search engine, and then it actually gave good search results. Information was available. Now, it spews forth SEO links at nanospeeds, linking to places groomed only to place in the top ten, and sell something. Sometimes these places are splattered with advertising we can try to sublimate, others are cruel cul-de-sacs of salesmanship. There is nothing in the entire neighborhood but something you have to buy. I reminisce of the days when I could get real information. The number of sites was in the millions, then a wondrous and daunting prospect—and now that many appear each day, and if my web surfing experience is any evidence, they are all marketing an e-book.

Yes, I long for the day when I could smirk when a major retailer would launch a website that had no e-commerce solution. I guess one point I make is that there is a threshold that one reaches, when you just don’t want to adapt anymore, you just don’t want any new information coming in, and certainly you don’t want to have to learn something new that would replace the way you already do something. Enter social media. Those two words were never put together in the history of language until Web 2.0, and I have already trained myself to revile at modern internet-age buzzwords. Social media is some catch-all phrase that is supposed to mean something, to carry some weight with people, a panacea for the upwardly mobile, clawing to rise from the swarm of the 99%, in the hopes that playing the game will vault them to the glory of the 1%. The way we are using the web is changing.

But is it?

Sure, there are a proliferation of blogs, and feeder sites, more porn than you would ever need, and a whole new way to socialize and play music and watch television and get news—but even if you adapt to web 2.0, by the time you have it will be old and stale. The techno-natives will be restless. My experience online now is very much push-pull. I am drawn away from it first. I have to unplug from it. The more we discover ways to connect to each other using technology, the farther apart we get from real contact with each other. I am drawn back in, usually because I catch some jubilation from our culture about some new phenomenon I must use to improve my life. So I reluctantly look into it, confronting my own technophobia in the process. Information and content (another word that was never used as it is now) is now aggregated, pushed, viral and instantaneous. We have new devices to obtain it. I spend more time on the internet while using my phone than I do in front of a computer or laptop, and I always experience this anxiety that this tiny device isn’t enough—that I will have to go to a bigger workstation and really get the information. And yet the same sensation washes through me when I get to my workstation. There is too much information, too much content, too many places I want to visit. And the device and the platform with which I can interface with this thing is far too limited.

Web 3.0 won’t be due for an upgrade until that problem is solved, and likely it won’t be to my satisfaction. What I want is a neural-network wireless subconscious implant. Free me from my devices. I don’t want a better phone, or a computer with more storage or faster processor. I want the information piped straight to my cerebral cortex with a decent method of organizing it. The browser has to go away. The screen has to go away. The whole interface has to be re-built, tossing away all assumptions we make as starting points. When this happens, you can revisit this post via your new interface and know that years ago I prophesied this. Trust the man who invented the internet.

 

My Fine Feathered Feminist Friend

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I have a friend who is some brand of feminist. I don’t know how they classify themselves anymore, but I think she calls herself a feminist of some sort. When we were friends I don’t think she was, but of course we were children then. Thanks to Facebook I was able to find her and discover that this was her brand, her identity. It was funny to me, to know someone before they become what they are, you know, like later in life. She has a blog called ReelGirl, and I am always baited by her wall posts to her blog. She seems all into this idea that women are in need of someone to defend their rights against the culture at large, and she has this fixation with what she (or someone notable, notably feminist I am sure) coins Princess Culture. The basic premise I gather is that the myth of the princess as portrayed in our culture by the likes of Disney is quite damaging to the girls who will be raised (and marketed to) with such books, film and merchandising. To value a young girl for her beauty is the gravest infraction of neo-feminist ethic, and you have to watch out when you compliment a young girl on her appearance for fear she will develop a misplaced sense of identity.

When Halloween came she was there to post about how offensive it is that women dress up as sluts, and she even used a photograph of a schoolgirl who looked really sad that her identity was inextricably linked with some male fetish. It had a caption in case I missed the visual itself. Well, now, I really don’t want to come out as being anti-feminist (although when I flame the author’s wall I position myself as such, because I knew her when she was 14), but I was somehow riled about this whole orientation that there is this massive exploitation of women going on, and if you would have the ReelGirl inform you it is a conspiracy of massive depth and proportion. The question she posed—at some guy bold enough to say that he loved Halloween because all women went as a slutty something, and how wonderful it was that women took one day a year to embrace the fact that they could express their sexuality in the folds of a tawdry nurse outfit with fishnets and stilettos, and for godsake ReelGirl, don’t you read Savage Love—was did he have daughters. That helped to put me in the frame of mind to consider the problem from a different angle, certainly. Thank god I don’t have daughters. But I do have a son, and in all of this pontificating about the dangers to young girls that our culture presents, what about the dangers to my son. He won’t have the benefit of being able to claim sexism, and he may grow up just as confused if not more so than the post bra-burning generations before him.

I am sure this is not revelation to people who follow feminism and gender studies, but men have seemingly suffered incredible emasculation since women claimed their liberation. We seem to be confused as to how to assert our natural masculinity without offending some dame who is vigilant about policing for who didn’t learn total sensitivity to the plight of women. Maybe I am the only one who feels that way. Maybe I am the only one confused. Maybe I am the only one who wants to essentially be a man—hunter, protector, provider, sexual aggressor, dominant by virtue and character, and leader. Head of household. Yes, call me a chauvinist pig, go ahead. But I don’t want my son to grow up confused about who he is and what will empower him.

I took my son to the park one day. Of course I am a stay-at-home-dad because my wife has the good job (thank you Gloria Steinem). I had just read the cover article in Newsweek about how the extinction of the middle aged white man was immanent, so I was grateful for the distraction. I came upon a group of girls under the jungle gym who had fashioned a make-believe kitchen, and they were making dinner under the tyrannical rule of the eldest girl there. All my weird gender sensitivity training/conditioning came flooding forth and I worried first about whether I should encourage or discourage my son from playing with these girls. They are girls after all, and I was quite concerned that he would come into contact with one of them and be scarred for life should one of them attempt to do anything unseemly to him. I looked at their mothers, all seated in a circle of power in the grass many yards away. I wondered if I should say that it is not very contemporary for girls to be pretending to cook, but I decided to take the wave. My son went under the jungle gym into the kitchen where he was served cake after cake after cake made of sand. I was watching their leader, the eldest, the despot—barking orders to the other girls. I was stunned that there was an alpha, and I wanted to see how my son would fare. I was engrossed in this scene, really taking it in as a first in fatherhood for me. I was struck by the challenge that faced me in rearing him. How will I teach him to deal with girls? How can I impart to him the wisdom of my own mistakes and lessons? How can I protect him from the world? I watched him. He was scared of the alpha, but another one kept giving him these sand cakes, so I felt he was safe.

Then the mothers started barking orders. It was time to disband this play group. They did it like they were former military. Every mother, barking at their daughters, every command having to do with some physical object or task these children were to perform in order to leave the playground. It was a strange thing for me, this moment. These women scared me.

Maybe they all have a collection of princess tales at home, I don’t know. For all I disagree with my old friend, I really hope not.

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