Saturday, May 19, 2012

Publishing Portents

Everything changes and yet everything stays the same. Seems like an oxymoron. In publishing, that is exactly what it is -- an oxymoron. The more things change, the more publishers seek to maintain the status quo, scaring authors into believing there are nothing more than an unimportant cog in the vast machinery of publishing.

I began writing about the truth in publishing years ago -- 8 years ago -- when a writer I knew set down the path with a specific agent in mind. The writer was determined to have this one agent and approached the agent to take her on as a client. The agent refused; the  writer had no backlist and no publishing credits to speak of. It didn't matter that the writer had more than 10 years of experience writing articles and blogs and had co-written a book on writing; she didn't have enough experience -- or income -- to interest the agent, not even with a book that had series potential.

The writer went out and got a contract with a publisher through unusual channels and went back to the agent, newly signed contract in hand, and begged to be taken on as a client. The agent said yes and took her 15% off the top for doing nothing. The writer had done the hard work and, hat in hand, was shark bait.

I was outraged that the writer had so little faith in herself and couldn't see what was happening, but when the agent's contract, which the writer asked me to read, included an annual fee for the cost of doing business, I begged the writer to look for another agent or at least tell the agent to forget about the contract unless the annual fee was deleted. The writer signed anyway, consigning 15% of the hard earned royalties to agent for the life of the book, and the planned series. I wrote about it in 2004, but it was merely a portent of the coming storm. Other writers with a wider readership and more years in the publishing business began writing about what was going on behind the scenes.

Since the Dept of Justice case against 5 of the Big 6 publishers and Apple hit the news, Joe Konrath has written extensively about what is happening, and he continues to inform the reading and writing public exactly what it all means. It's all about who has the power.

Writers do not seem to understand that they have the power. Without the words, publishers have nothing to publish. Readers don't generate books. Publishers merely print what authors write and without the words, there is no business. As I explained to my writer friend 8 years ago, a conversation that ended our friendship, the writer has the power, not the agent. An agent might have great contacts, but those contacts exist because the agent is representing the writer. No writer, no words, no contract, and no money, despite the fact that agents are determined to bite the hand that feeds them.

Agents may believe that publishers feed them, but that's only because publishers take agents out to lavish lunches and dinners, give them booze, invite them to launch parties where the food and booze flow freely, and sign the check made possible by the author who put the words together so a book was possible. It's hard to see who is really paying the bills when the publisher's name is on the check, a check that wouldn't exist without the writer. It's called exploitation and agents and publishers have been exploiting writers since the first mass market book rolled off the Gutenburg presses.

When workers, in this case writers, are exploited, they form unions that bargain for the collective power of the workers (writers) and strike if necessary until terms are met and conditions changed. Writers have a union of sorts in the Authors Guild, but that union hasn't been doing much to help out the people (writers again) that make the Authors Guild possible. Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler hit it out to the cheap seats. Once again, people, even authors, forget who has the power.

That writer friend I mentioned told me that refusing to sign the agent's contract, annual fee and all, was not an option since the writer was a small fish in a very big ocean. I still believe that someone must take a stand and put a stop to the exploitation of writers. I would have refused to sign, but then I wouldn't have chosen that agent in the first place. The agent has done little for my writer friend's career except collect her 15% and she still charges for the cost of doing business, rather like the phone company or the utility company adding an annual fee for the paper clips, ink, paper, and postage necessary to send you a bill. Those charges, overnight mail fees included, should come out of the 15% the agent already gets. Thinking that only a Stephen King or J. K. Rowling could stand up to the agent and get the annual fee rescinded is wrong thinking. Every writer, every author who writes a book that is published is powerful enough to say NO very loudly and be heard -- and heeded.

There will be scabs who will work during a strike because they have no other choice, but Joe Blow who has never written a book before cannot replace a Barry Eisler or Ted Dekker, and that will become obvious when sales fail to make it possible for publishers to take agents out to lavish lunches where the martinis and whiskey flow so freely.

The signs are obvious. Pay attention. Writers have the power. They always did. It's time to use that power. We are authors, hear us roar.


Thursday, May 17, 2012

As in Cross-Stitch, so it is in Writing

One of the things I love most about cross-stitch is the way the picture emerges from tiny stitches and colored threads.

It begins with a blob of color that grows with each stitch and each new color from nothing special to something quite beautiful -- if I do it right. I have moments when I get frustrated and tear out stitches because I've counted wrong or read the wrong part of the pattern, but mostly I get it right and can't resist stopping to unroll my work just to look at what emerges.

I'm working on Xmas stockings for my grandchildren this year. It's different than what I've given them in the past and I hope it will be something they will treasure and use each year, remembering that it was made especially for them.

I'm working on a cute pattern that is much prettier as it emerges from the amorphous collection of stitches and colors. I have just finished the bottom half of the stocking and am now working on the top, finishing off stray stitches and making sure the back is as neat as the front with no loose threads. The cat and kitten's eyes are finished and I'm moving on to the rest of the tree and ornaments.

Cross-stitch is calming, despite scattered moments of frustration, and reminds me of how I feel when I paint or draw -- and especially when I write. I begin with an idea, begin writing, and from the words and sentences, paragraphs and pages, emerges a book complete and far more inventive than what it was when I began. That is true of all the creative projects I have done and continue to do.

I feel best and happiest when I'm creating and, for a while, cross-stitch has fulfilled my need to create. I will continue with the stocking and the last 2 I need to make for this year well ahead of schedule, and I will also continue writing, exorcising the dreams that plague me with snatches of conversation, plots, description, and the urgency the dreams fill me with when I'm not writing. There is room enough for more than one creative art in my life and I must have writing or be caught in an endless cycle of realistic dreams that invade my waking and sleeping worlds. At least with cross-stitch there is an end and with writing there is always one more thing to add, one more paragraph to trim, and a few more words to choose to exorcise or leave.

In a couple more weeks, I will have another Xmas stocking for one of my grandchildren, and maybe a new book to begin fleshing out and preparing for publication. It is the journey I love with a goal at the end that never fails to make me smile.

Review: Vestal Virgin by Suzanne Tyrpak

Rome and Nero are fascinating subjects, as are the vestal virgins, women who are educated and held sacrosanct, priestesses of of the goddess Vesta who are responsible for all the legal documents in the Empire. Matching a vestal virgin with Nero, throwing in a Sibylline prophecy, and fleshing out the story with details of what it was like to live in Rome during the time of the rise of Christianity and Nero's excesses is what Vestal Virgin is ostensibly about, and the author, Suzanne Tyrpak, has done her homework, evoking a Rome in all its glory and squalor.

What Tyrpak fails to do is flesh out her characters sufficiently and keep the plot moving, finishing up with a bang that fizzles around the edges. However, Vestal Virgin is a good first effort and and intriguing story that offers an intimate look at what Rome was like in the first century.

The story centers around Elissa Rubria Honoria, taken at the age of 9 to serve for 30 years as a vestal virgin. She is dark and beautiful and considered incorruptible by her younger sister and another vestal virgin, both of whom are ready to take her down, charging her with violating her vow of chastity, a charge that will end with her death by entombment.

Nero is fascinated by Elissa and he wants her. Unable to corrupt Elissa, he instead corrupts her younger sister, appointing her a vestal virgin though she is 14 and too old to be considered. Nero changes and violates the rules to get what he wants.

Elissa is, however, in love with a Roman soldier who has become a Christian, studying under Paul of Tarsus, who is under house arrest in Rome. Elissa and the soldier exchange letters but they are not of a sexual nature, and yet their content could condemn Elissa.

While Tyrpak weaves a spell with her words, she loses focus in the middle of the story.  The ending does have moments of high intrigue but loses power and leaves the fate of Elissa's younger sister in question. Vestal Virgin begins strong and ends with fizzled satisfaction.

While I did enjoy the novel, I found it weak and unfocused and erratic at times. Vestal Virgin is a good first novel from a talented author who needs a bit more experience and a good editor to help her tighten the plot and flesh out the characterizations. It's almost there, but not quite.

RATING:  A solid C

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Review: White Horse by Alex Adams

There's nothing worse than getting to the end of a book and reading the author bio on the back flap of the dust jacket to find out what you thought was over has just begun, that it's the beginning of a trilogy.

There's nothing better than finding out a story will continue, that it's the beginning of a trilogy.

There are few serial novels that have sparked my interest as much as Alex Adams's White Horse. In short, it's Alex Adams's debut novel and the book is good. The girl can write. No doubt about that, not after being lured into accompanying Zoe on her journey through the landscape of hell and out the other side into a whole new kind of Gehenna.

Zoe is a reluctant heroine, a Pandora who resists the urge to open the box full of disease and pain and loss -- and the gentle spark of hope at the bottom of the jar. She begins by seeking help from a therapist, Nick Rose, who is attractive and dark. Zoe can resist opening the ancient sealed jar in her apartment as easily as she resists Nick's charms. She is a girl with a mission, a janitor working for a pharmaceutical company so she can afford to go to college and get a better education so she will have a better life. Hers is a life on hold while she keeps her eyes on the future, a future that quickly slips through her grasp.

Zoe's colleagues, friends, and family die one by one as a disease cooked up in some lab and dubbed White Horse by a southern minister decimates the population, leaving 90% of the world dead and the remaining 10% either immune or genetically changed into abominations. Zoe is immune, although why she is immune is anybody's guess, and there is no one left to strap her to a table and dissect her to find out.

What begins with an ordinary woman on an ordinary day quickly becomes a juggernaut that barrels through the barren landscape of the present while trying to find meaning from the past. White Horse isn't talented, it's brilliant in concept and execution. Alex Adams has hit on something that could be lurking around the corner waiting to pounce tomorrow or next year and woven a spell of seductive power that has long, strong legs.

And there's a website with all kinds of goodies just waiting to be devoured until the 2nd installment of this promising trilogy is released.

I can hardly wait.

That's the problem with trilogies -- waiting.