Ether for Authors: Are Publishers on a Tightrope with Author Solutions?

In Discussion by Porter Anderson

23 July  2013 iStock_000013813977Small photog JaredAlden texted story image

Table of Contents

  1. Bal­anc­ing Act: Publishing and Author Solu­tions
  2. Ama­zon­ian Drumbeats
  3. More Ama­zon: Lights on in Luxembourg
  4. At the Bot­tom of the Garden
  5. Free Again
  6. When Your Read­ers Want an “Ugly” Book Cover
  7. Conferences
  8. Last Gas: Writ­ing Them Under the Table

Bal­anc­ing Act: Publishing and Author Solutions

 

One of my blog readers, who will remain nameless, has forwarded me emails from an AuthorHouse sales rep touting that company as the “self-publishing wing” of Penguin Random House.

AuthorHouse is one of the multiple vanity-press operations of Author Solutions.

David Gaughran

David Gaughran

And in his article Penguin Random House Merger Helps Author Solutions Exploit Writers, author David Gaughran points up a growing problem for legitimate mainstream publishing concerns that have liaisons with the Bloomington-based corporation in Indiana.

In our lead story today, for example, Book Country: Opening New Territory, we hear from Penguin Random House’s Book Country—both its President and Director—about its re-launch and new plans.

Like several companies, Book Country is walking a potentially treacherous line between the actions of its corporate ownership and the wrath of influential author-community figures who decry any connection with Author Solutions.

Molly Barton

Molly Barton

To my direct question about connections between Book Country and Author Solutions, Molly Barton—Penguin’s Global Digital Director and Book Country’s founding President—describes (very good) tech-team support in redesigning the site for its relaunch Wednesday. And she mentions a selection of author services she has “cherry-picked, myself,” as she puts it, so she can offer them to members who want them.

For example? There’s a custom book cover design offered at $159 (and a current relaunch special of $99). And there’s line-editing at $0.023 per word, with a 5,000-word or $115 minimum. Those, she says, if bought by a Book Country member, will be performed by Author Solutions.

Additionally, Book Country’s 24/7 customer-service instant-message service is manned by Author Solutions personnel, Barton tells me.

Self-publishing through Book Country is entirely elective and can be done free on the “Self-Starter” program. The most expensive of four paid packages costs $399, the “Prospect” program which includes the custom cover. Barton attempts to dodge nothing I’ve asked about the relationship. Her responses are forthright, and she understands very well why I’m asking.

Book Country navy logo July 2013But just as in cases of conflict of interest—in which the appearance of a conflict is always said to be as serious as an actual conflict—Book Country can be assumed by some as working in cahoots with Author Solutions because Penguin’s parent Pearson bought Author Solutions a year ago. Thought by many in the industry to be one of the most misguided corporate public-relations moves a major publisher has made in recent years, the acquisition has infuriated many in the author ranks who for years have seen Author Solutions as predatory.

Barton says she likes to think, in fact, that the incoming management regime for the merged Penguin Random House puts “the right people in place to reissue the profile there and clear up what’s happened in the past.” Such an attempt could be gratifying.

And in an interesting point of experience so far, she and Larsen tell me that the few services Author Solutions provides to Book Country have been available since January in a beta format. The number of complaints, they say, could be counted on one hand.

13-May-2013-iStock_000009523968XSmall-photog-naffarts-TEXTED-STORY-IMAGE“I would say to a critic of what we’re doing with Book Country,” Barton says, “that this is a startup that we have invested in—a platform to try to help writers find a more productive, successful way forward for free,” and not an avenue for Author Solutions to use in reaching more customers of its own.

As Gaughran points out in his write-up, there is an authors’ class action lawsuit pending against Author Solutions. You can find more on it here at Publishing Perspectives in Ether for Authors: The Author Solutions Lawsuit.

Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss, who writes Writer Beware, the industry-watchdog column of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, on June 24 reported the next step for that lawsuit filing: Penguin and Author Solutions (ASI) File for Dismissal of Class Action Lawsuit. She writes:

Last week, as expected, ASI [Author Solutions] and Penguin filed a motion to dismiss, labeling authors’ complaints “a series of gripes” that would be better served by filing individual suits, and seeking to remove Penguin from the lawsuit.

As is not uncommon in the self-publishing community, authors sometimes become shrill and accusatory in framing their concerns. That tends to do their arguments against Author Solutions little good.

On the other hand, major companies working with Author Solutions frequently claim to care about the concerns of authors but appear to be in immediate bad faith when they seem to some writers to turn a deaf ear to this problem.

ArchwaySuch companies include not only Penguin but also Simon & Schuster, which has had its Archway self-publishing operation created by Author Solutions; F+W Media’s Writer’s Digest, which partners with Author Solutions in its Abbott Press self-publishing offering; and Bowker’s Identifier Services, which directs users to iUniverse, another Author Solutions vanity-publishing program.

Abbott Press(Various companies Author Solutions operates is listed on this page at its corporate site. Scroll down to “Our Locations.” They are all at 1663 Liberty Drive in Bloomington, Indiana.)

In his new post, Gaughran goes on to target The Bookseller, the UK’s leading publishing news source, picturing a page of advertising from Author Solutions companies in a Friday print edition of The Bookseller.

Bowker Identifier Services 2Some will say that alleging “censorship” by such media as The Bookseller and F+W’s Digital Book World, as Gaughran does, is going too far. This can be seen as exactly the sort of over-the-top accusation that discredits the author community more than it helps.

I can add to this discussion, for example, the fact that I see ads for Author Solutions companies in my Gmail inbox, particularly the company called Xlibris. The placement of those ads is triggered by the publishing-related content of my messages. I wouldn’t feel safe in assuming that Author Solutions advertising affects policy decisions at Google or its Gmail division.

But the wider message here is that any publishing outfit’s best effort can find itself battling the bad image of Author Solutions, most acutely in precisely the sector of the industry—the author space—so many companies in publishing want to woo. It’s a bit like trying to attract a skittsh cat with a snarling dog at your side.

Many in the author community are incensed not only when they see liaisons with Author Solutions go forward but also seem to be ignored by corporate leaders when they object. Not engaging with authors’ concerns?—won’t get you many author clients.

As the entrepreneurial-author movement continues to gain power, it will likely become harder, not easier, to dodge hard questions from writers about ties to Author Solutions.

Join us in comments here if you’d like: How are some of our leading companies in publishing today with business ties to Author Solutions going to best handle the disfavor those relationships may generate among authors?

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Ama­zon­ian Drumbeats

The problem is that ebooks are the Kindle and Amazon as far as most buyers are concerned. Most of those buyers have non-book alternatives competing for their entertainment dollars as well. If Amazon had a major misstep, that would be more likely to result in the ebook market contracting than in somebody else taking over.

Baldur Bjarnason

Baldur Bjarnason

This is Baldur Bjarnason with what—in this age so fond of cutesy non-words—we might as well call a “pre-tort.” Not a retort because he came out a day before Evan Hughes‘ Amazon-angst article. No, we’ll call this a pretort. Because it got there first. But it surely answers a lot of the seeming hysteria of Hughes’ piece at Salon. Taking them in order of appearance, Bjarnason’s If the Kindle fails so will ebooks came out first, on July 18, declaring:

I don’t get why anti-Amazon people get up in arms whenever they find an author who links to the Amazon pages for their books. Or whenever a publisher out there seems to favour the Seattle Behemoth over the ‘honourable’ opposition.

Should you need background on his reference to authors linking “to the Amazon pages for their books,” you’ll find it here, in Should Authors Stop Linking to Amazon To Support Bookstores? at Writing on the Ether earlier this month.

Evan Hughes

Evan Hughes

The second piece, Hughes’ Here’s how Amazon self-destructs was posted on July 19 (with a graphic showing a fictional Barnes and Noble store boarded up, apocalyptic clouds overhead). Hughes—who sells his book Literary Brooklyn on Amazon and links to Amazon from his site—argues that Amazon is killing the bricks-and-mortar showrooms of the world and thus will finally shoot itself in the foot:

By defeating its competitors, Amazon is choking off some of its own air supply. Barnes & Noble and independents are in one sense competitors for Amazon, but in another sense they are functioning as unwilling showrooms and sales agents for the online giant. As David Carr has suggested, Amazon should want them to survive, if only out of self-interest.

Bjarnason, in that pretort of his, is working on the angle of unloved reality: fait accompli:

Even if every publisher, every author, and every editor out there studiously avoided sending traffic to Amazon in any way, that wouldn’t even cause a measurable dent in Amazon’s book or ebook revenue. People go to Amazon, they aren’t sent there.

Amazon 2In fact, Bjarnason writes, the dream of that “self-destructing” Amazon Hughes seems to enjoy isn’t a healthy one for publishing:

Hoping for Amazon to collapse or fail is (mutually) self-destructive. There are few things more dangerous to a publisher than having a big retailer or distributor go bust on them. It locks up inventory and money for a long time and usually result in the market shrinking in the short term. Moreover, I’m pretty sure the fate of ebooks is intertwined with the fate of the Kindle.

Hughes, meanwhile, keeps running into things he has to say to Amazon’s credit:

Amazon does deserve credit for reaching far-flung readers and expanding the e-book market. A person who lives a hundred miles from the nearest decent bookstore now has access to nearly any literature published in English, whether as an e-book or by home delivery. Other vendors can now offer this too, but Amazon is the best at it. On the whole, the company is outstanding at what it does — and that’s just the trouble.

Hughes isn’t done with his compliments for the corporation he’s here to castigate. Like something out of The Two Faces of Evan, he seems to experience a turn-around in the next-to-last paragraph:

I think Amazon is well aware that there are pitfalls that come with winning too big. Some people in publishing view Amazon as an oafish corporate giant that is indifferent or clueless about the fate of reading. Having done some reporting on the company, I would disagree. These people are no dummies. Perhaps the reduced discounts are a hint that they will begin to ease up a bit on their notoriously merciless methods — “your margin is my opportunity,” Bezos famously says — and allow the rest of the industry to breathe, if only so that they themselves can turn a dime.

It’s as if Hughes had read Bjarnason’s article, which offers a little thought exercise in which “the ebook market…(is) now evenly split between all five major aspirants (Amazon, Kobo, B&N, Apple, Google).” What would happen?

Over the next couple of years Amazon would retake its marketshare until it owned at least 60% of the ebook market again. Why? Because it would build on its ecommerce expertise in general (they don’t just do ebooks), because it has better customer service than the others, and because it would have lower prices.

Bjarnason’s is the realist’s tack that dismisses shame-on-Seattle emotional arguments and articulates the inevitability of a dominant and carefully-executed power base.

Amazon has earned its marketshare. That doesn’t mean that, taken as a whole, Amazon isn’t manipulative and utterly ruthless. They are. And they have a frightening amount of resources. That’s why they’d retake the market in record time. So, how do you beat Amazon? You don’t. You can’t beat a tiger at being a tiger.

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More Ama­zon: Lights on in Luxembourg

Tax structures used by Amazon to route billions of pounds from sales to British customers through Luxembourg, paying negligible UK tax, are among a series of international loopholes earmarked for closure in a programme of reforms backed by G20 nations.

Simon Bowers

Simon Bowers

As you know, Amazon and other companies have found a strong business advantage in the provision by Europe of what Guardian writers Simon Bowers and Patrick Wintour call “holes in international tax rules.” The headline on their story may overstate things a bit—Amazon told: time is up for tax avoidance—in that a change in those tax rules has not yet been enacted. However, finance ministers’ 15-point-plan. produced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), does look as if, at last, the question is being addressed at the right level. And at the OECD’s site, there’s a remarkably straightforward statement, no hand-wringing, of the problem the organization’s own write-up, Closing tax gaps – OECD launches Action Plan on Base Erosion and Profit Shifting:

National tax laws have not kept pace with the globalisation of corporations and the digital economy, leaving gaps that can be exploited by multi-national corporations to artificially reduce their taxes.

Patrick Wintour

Patrick Wintour

That’s it in its purest statement. Bowers and Wintour’s write reveals political nuance, of course:

Notably absent from the launch event was the US treasury secretary, Jack Lew. Sources with knowledge of the extensive negotiations said the US was growing increasingly frustrated with sniping from European politicians targeted at some of the most successful US multinationals including Starbucks, Google and Amazon.

These factors are the norm in international corporate and political issues, however, and will become the challenge ahead to draw new taxation codes that don’t leave citizens of one or another country feeling ripped off by multinational business arrangements. Bowers and Wintour write:

OECD officials are alive to the risk of the reform agenda being paralysed by in-fighting. Officials have warned: “Inaction in this area … could lead to global tax chaos marked by the massive reemergence of double taxation.”

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At the Bot­tom of the Garden

Those of us who write fantasies for a living know that we are doing it best when we tell the truth. There is something that people will respond tothe “True Quill”, as a Texan writer I met once called it.

Neil Gaiman | Photo: Kimberly Butler

Neil Gaiman | Photo: Kimberly Butler

But of course truth can be stranger than other things, and Neil Gaiman, in Neil Gaiman’s Fantasy Painting—here in The Economist’s Intelligent Life—doesn’t have to embellish a single thing about the painter and writer Richard Dadd’s life, 1817-1886.

And then he went mad. Not just a little bit mad, but quite spectacularly mad; a murderous patricidal madness of demons and Egyptian gods. He was locked upfirst in Bedlam, later one of the first patients in Broadmoorand, after a while, he began to paint, trading his paintings for favours. Gone were the chocolate-box fairies. Now there was an intensity to his paintings and drawings of fairy courts, of  Bible scenes, of his fellow inmates (real or imaginary), that makes those we have such treasures. They were worked on with a passion and single-mindedness that is, quite simply, scary.

The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke is the subject of Gaiman’s reverie here.

Richard Dadd's The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke |  Learn more about it at the Tate site

Richard Dadd’s The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke | Learn more about it at the Tate site

The best way to see it, if you’re not where you can take in the work personally, is on the Tate’s site so you can expand it—a devilishly detailed vista that seems a relative of Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, Bruegel’s Netherlandish Proverbs, and Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. Although the work lives in the landscape-full-of-eccentric-beings mode of painting, Gaiman—whose own latest master-stroke is the towering plethora of coverage he’s able to bring to The Ocean at the End of the Lane—is refreshingly blunt in his assessment near the end of the article:

Dadd spent the rest of his life behind bars, surrounded by the criminally insane, and as criminally insane as any of them, but with a message for us from, as it were, the other side. Otherwise, his life was wasted.

And in a BBC Radio 4 Frontrow bit of commentary, you can hear Gaiman saying he’s obsessed with it and likes to spend time looking at “this tiny unfinished painting.” That page also has a terrific blow-up you can open to see the piece in even more magnification than at the Tate’s site. “It feels as if he is now painting from life,” Gaiman says on Frontrow of Dadd’s work once he’d become mentally ill, killed his father, and been arrested on a train to Paris. And in his article, he writes:

There’s one final thing you will know, without question, if you’ve seen that painting in the flesh, and it’s this: Dadd knew what he was painting. He had seen it, through those crafty eyes. He had gone on the great journey, the grandest of grand tours, and this was what he was bringing back.

 

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Free Again

While free gave me what I wanted this time with a book my current readers had been waiting so very long for, I’m not sure it’s a viable way to continue in the future.

As a colleague said to me over the weekend, it seems that almost every sales approach or technique used by entrepreneurial authors soon begins to lose its effectiveness. And one of the most frequently discussed of those approaches is the offer of a free book.

 

CJ Lyons

CJ Lyons

In Does FREE Still Work?, best-selling independent author CJ Lyons explains her experience in a highly specific recent case that gave her a good result from the use of a free giveaway. But as she cautions, the particulars of the case don’t easily generalize to others’ efforts.

As she wrote in Reverse Marketing: Can It Work?, Lyons decided to launch the third book in her Shadow Ops trilogy, Edge of Shadows, as a free book. Readers had waited two years for the book, she writes, and “I’m also hoping to see new readers picking up the first two books in the series.”

Lyons recalls trying a free giveaway for the first time two years ago with the first book of another series, Snake Skin. “I gave away 35,000 books in less than 24 hours”—and her agent asked her to charge for the book so sales could count toward best-seller status. She writes now:

That was 2011. Things have changed a lot since. In 2012, with the advent of KDP’s Select program and the availability of up to 5 free days on Amazon, I played with free, but although I gave away a ton of books, usually around 20,000 a day, I never saw the huge leap in post-free sales that I did with Snake Skin.

Edge of Shadows by CJ LyonsEven free books don’t move like they once did. In two weeks, the new book, Edge of Shadows, shifted 20,000 free copies. Remember that two years ago, Lyons could move that many free books in a day. Because of the special circumstances of this instance, Lyons can enumerate several benefits from using the free giveaway this case. Among them are a 120-percent increase “in overall sales on iBooks.” Nevertheless, she writes, free books aren’t likely going to figure heavily in her future promotions.

Free definitely still works–if you know what your goal is. BUT right now the market place is over-saturated with free books. It’s not uncommon for the free ebook blogs to post over 100 new free books a day.

Instead, Lyons writers to fans on her site that “instead of going mass-free, I’ll probably instead try to reach a more narrow target audience.” And what tactics might she use to do that?

As I figure them out, you’ll be the first to know!

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When Your Read­ers Want an “Ugly” Book Cover

I spent ten minutes fiddling with colors until I hit one that induced a gag. And then I knew I had the right color of orange-brown for this ugly edition of DUST.

Hugh Howey

Hugh Howey

In The Ugly Edition, author Hugh Howey tells us he didn’t really want to make the “ugly” design for the forthcoming (August 17) third book in the trilogy—the “Dust cover,” as I never tire of saying in my irritating way.

But there are a handful of readers who have the ugly editions of WOOL and SHIFT, and they wanted an ugly edition of DUST to accompany them. A lesson here on being careful what you wish for.

Then he does a cool thing. He tells us who designed the beautiful Random House covers for the three books: an artist named Jason Smith.

The topic of covers—and the importance of professional design—has been coming up a lot lately. I can’t think of a better way to get it than to look at the two sets of covers Howey is telling us about.

Here are his original “ugly edition” covers:
Howey covers original style

And here are the Jason Smith covers for Random House:

Wool trilogy Random House covers

So powerful is the difference, in fact, that Howey’s taking a couple of special steps with this third cover in ocher, is it?

With the last two books, the ugly edition was all you could get for a period of time, and then I made the cover purty. This edition is so ugly, I don’t want people to accidentally get their hands on it through Amazon or a bookstore, so it’ll only be available through me directly. And probably for only as long as I can stomach to look at the thing.

So if you’re one of the die-hard original Silo Saga fans who needs a matched set, your author is taking care of you:

Again, this is just for those of you crazy enough to own nasty when you could just as easily own sublime. I highly recommend NOT getting this edition. The Random House covers are spectacular to behold. Trust me.

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Conferences

If you have a publishing conference in the offing, let me know about it via my contact page, and I’ll be happy to consider including it in my site’s listing and in columns as I have the chance. Here’s a look at conferences coming in the near term.  Please note that a listing here is not my endorsement of a conference or other event, but an informational inclusion. As a service, I also list any discount codes that might be of use to readers.

July 21-26  New Haven (Greenberg Conference Center): Yale Publishing Course – Leadership Strategies in Book Publishing: “The program provides a mixture of overviews of the current and future state of the industry and in-depth explorations of specific topics in editorial content, design, marketing, circulation, advertising, finance, and management. The carefully-selected industry experts and distinguished faculty from the Yale School of Management present real-world business models and case studies from both large and small publishers.” List of speakers and topics (including Publishing Perspectives’ Ed Nawotka, Perseus’ Rick Joyce, Sourcebooks’ Dominique Raccah, and Craig Mod).

July 25-28 Seattle: Pacific Northwest Writers Association: “This annual summer conference is an opportunity for writers of all levels to meet other writers, attend sessions focused on different aspects of the craft, and pitch your ideas to agents and editors. Sessions led by industry experts are crafted to address many aspects of the publishing industry. From keeping track of your expenses to crafting the perfect pitch, sessions give you a chance to interact with experts and ask questions in a friendly and open environment.” Speakers include Donald Maass, Debbie Macomber.

Willamette Writers ConferenceAugust 1-4 Portland Oregon: Willamette Writers Conference: “You cope all year with the creative isolation that’s part of the writer’s journey. Our annual conference is an opportunity for you to meet and exchange ideas with hundreds of other writers, to hone your craft, find expert advice, sell your work and get your creative juices flowing, and to pitch your ideas to literary agents, film managers, and editors. Inspiration is what it’s all about.” Faculty includes Larry Brooks, Ray Rhamey, Cynthia Whitcomb.

September 26 New York City (Metropolitan Pavilion): Marketing + Publishing Services Conference & Expo: “This innovative conference & expo is really two related shows, held together. The Marketing Conference is a full-day dedicated event that presents a comprehensive strategy for marketing in the digital age. ThePublishing Services Expo offers three finely-targeted “mini-conferences” for important and often-overlooked publishing constituencies. Each track is an affordably priced, efficiently programmed two-and-half-hour session that pairs concise educational sessions with vendor speed dating to learn about new solutions.” Produced by Digital Book World and Publishers Launch (Publishers Lunch’s Michael Cader and Mike Shatzkin). Save 25% on registration with code PORTER at checkout.

September 27-29 Los Angeles: Writers Digest Conference West: “You’ll make real connections with fellow writers, experience the thrill of pitching your work to literary agents and editors, and get practical publishing-industry advice and writing inspiration from successful authors at Writer’s Digest Conference West.” Speakers include: Jon Fine, Nina Amir, Philip Athans, James Scott Bell, Lisa Cron, Eric DelaBarre, and more. The program this year includes boot camp sessions, a one-day self-publishing conference, and the regular conference with agent pitch slam. (Hashtag: #WDCW13) Save 25% on registration with code PORTER at checkout.

Screenwriters World West 2013 - #SWCW13September 27-29 Los Angeles: Writers Digest’s Screenwriters World Conference West: “Scribes from around the world unite at Screenwriters World, the annual destination for both professional and aspiring screenwriters to come together to discuss the craft, share ideas, and network with fellow creatives.” Speakers include Erik Bork, Ruth Atkinson, Josie Brown, Karl Iglesias, Jeanne V. Bowerman, and more. The schedule this year includes optional boot camp sessions.  (Hashtag: #SWCW13) Save 25% on registration with code PORTER at checkout.

CONTEC Frankfurt 2013October 8 Frankfurt Book Fair: CONTEC Conference: “A new, highly-engaging event experience created by the Frankfurt Academy to address the complexity of the needs of today’s publishing business. CONTEC gathers stakeholders from across the publishing ecosystem – from STM and trade publishers to service providers and tech startups – in one arena to redefine and redesign the experience of publishing.” Save 20% on registration with code CONTEC13KPTW20 at checkout.

October 12 San Francisco: Writing for Change Conference: “The Fifth San Francisco Writing for Change Conference is the place to discover whether your book can change the world. The theme of the conference is “Changing the World One Book at a Time,” and the goal is to encompass business, politics, technology, social issues, the environment, culture, the law, and much more.” The event will be held at the Unitarian Universalist Center at the corner of Geary and Franklin in San Francisco.

Books in Browsers 2012 2October 24-26, San Francisco: Books in Browsers: Among the most advanced of conferences dedicated to bringing designer and code savvy into contact with editorial  and content leaders, Books in Browsers is produced for a fourth time this year by Peter Brantley in generous association with the Internet Archive and Swissnex San Francisco, produced and sponsored by Hypothes.is and Frankfurt Book Fair. Speakers include Kate Pullinger, Baldur Bjarnason, Bill McCoy, Justo Hidalgo, Richard Nash, and Craig Mod.

November 21, London: The Bookseller FutureBook Conference: Once again at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in Westminster, the conference is industry-focused and usually includes both plenary and breakout sessions during the course of the day. Details as they become available.

February 13-16, 2014: San Francisco Writers Conference: “Attendees have access to more than fifty “how to” sessions, panels, and workshops.  An Independent Editor consultation and Ask a Pro are included in the registration fee. Our famously popular Speed Dating for Agents is still only $50 to pitch to a room full of agents.  And you will find there are plenty of one-on-one opportunities to pitch your work to well-known publishing professionals during the weekend. The Conference features large and small traditional publishing houses, but also gives attendees the latest e-publishing, social media, and self-publishing information.”

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VQR poetry tumblr_mq6tgzkjxE1rmbkfqo1_1280

Last Gas: Writ­ing Them Under the Table

 

Fiction may look like the right form for alcoholics, as their dependency teaches them to be good at lying. But holding a novel in your head becomes more difficult when you’re holding a glass in your hand as well. “A short story can be written on a bottle,” Fitzgerald told his editor Max Perkins, “but for a novel you need the mental speed that enables you to keep the whole pattern in your head and ruthlessly sacrifice the sideshows.”

The Trip to Echo Spring - Why Writers Drink by Olivia Laing @olivialanguageThe Trip to Echo Spring by UK-based author Olivia Laing, releases from Canongate on August 1 in the UK and from Picador on December 24 in the US.   (If you need proof that the industry! the industry! hasn’t yet come to terms with the realities of the digital dynamic, just look at how territoriality frustrates readers—those are your customers—who don’t understand why the Kindle edition of a book isn’t available worldwide at once.)

In Why do writers drink? at the Guardian, author and poet Blake Morrison points up the futility of his own article’s headline:

Why do writers drink? Why does anyone drink? From boredom, loneliness, habit, hedonism, lack of self-confidence; as stress relief or a short-cut to euphoria; to bury the past, obliterate the present or escape the future. If Olivia Laing’s entertaining book fails to come up with a simple answer, that’s because there isn’t one.

Which makes it a legitimate question for his editors: so why ask a question in a headline if you can’t answer it? The issue, if not the question, is a good one, however, and Morrison’s leisurely walk around Laing’s subject is entertaining.

One of Hemingway’s complaints against Fitzgerald was that he got drunk too easily; whereas to him, Hem, downing the hard stuff was healthy and normal and “a great giver of happiness and well-being and delight” (and even helped his shooting), to Fitzgerald it was poison.

Blake Morrison

Blake Morrison

Morrison isn’t above some revelation of personal experience here:

Many poets have written a line or two when pissed, but few of those lines stand up next day. Even poetry readings can be ruined by woozy timing and slurred pronunciation. I learned my lesson early on at a reading at the University of East Anglia with Craig Raine; we’d been treated to a generous lunch on campus by the-then writer-in-residence Paul Bailey, and in an austere seminar room at 5pm the effects were a little too discernible.

What always makes the topic of inebriation and creativity difficult, of course, is the huge range of effects that alcohol can have on different people. Morrison writes:

Altering one’s mindset is vital to creativity, and booze can help with that, Bukowski claimed – “it yanks or joggles you out of routine thought and everydayism.” Hemingway thought so too: “What else can change your ideas and make them run on a different plane like whiskey?” They have a point. There’s a window between the first and second drink, or the second and third, when the unexpected sometimes happens – an idea, an image, a phrase. The problem is getting it down before it’s lost; if you’re in company, that means disappearing with your notebook, which takes resolve or self-regard.

His conclusion ahead of Laings’ book—which focuses on six major talents—shows his skepticism about the idea of productive tippling. You may want to go easy on that stuff before your next writing session.

To the literary biographer, binges and benders are a godsend – a chance to recount lurid anecdotes under the guise of earnest psychoanalytic enquiry. But for the rest of us, the words on the page are what matter. And most of them get there despite the drinking, not because of it. “Drank like a fish, wrote like an angel,” would make a pleasing epitaph. “Drank like a fish, wrote like a fish” is more likely.

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Porter Anderson is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute, a 32-year journalist with several newspapers and three networks of CNN, as well as a producer posted to the Rome headquarters of the United Nations’ World Food Programme. This column, Ether for Authors, appears here at Publishing Perspectives on Tuesdays. Anderson’s Writing on the Ether is read on Thursdays at JaneFriedman.com, and he is a regular contributor to WriterUnboxed.com. His all-new London on the Ether for The Bookseller was inaugurated during the London Book Fair. More about him is at PorterAnderson.com.

Main image / iStockphoto: JaredAlden

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. Prior to that he was Associate Editor for The FutureBook, a channel at The Bookseller focused on digital publishing. Anderson has also worked with CNN International, CNN.com, CNN USA, the Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and other media.