Citizen Publishing

I attended a lecture about Sherlock Holmes at the Howe Library last night and sat next to another writer. Before the lecture began, we got to talking about Amazon and its fractious relationship with traditional publishing companies.

American Patchwork—edited by Sonja Hakala
American Patchwork, published by St. Martin’s Press

I get questions about this subject whenever I do a publishing workshop and my attitude can be (mostly) summed up by Shakespeare: “A plague on both their houses.”

But that’s too simple a perspective on what’s essentially an argument about the future of book publishing. So here’s a more thoughtful response to my fellow Sherlock fan.

Even though I shudder metaphorically whenever I count up the years that I’ve spent in publishing, I’m glad I started when I did—on the eve of the digital printing/digital book selling revolution. Because of that, I’ve had the opportunity to watch history being made.

The book publishing industry traces its roots right back to Johannes Gutenberg. I often point out to students that Gutenberg’s revolutionary inventions did two things simultaneously—they freed books and the ideas within their pages from the tyranny of scarcity while taking away the rights of writers to control their own work because of the cost of the mass production that his inventions created.

Cover for the new edition of The Road Unsalted
The Road Unsalted published by Full Circle Press LLC, a company founded by author Sonja Hakala

In 1995 when the first American self-publishing company raised its head—we’re talking iUniverse here—every sage in the business nodded and said (rightly, as it turned out) that this was simply vanity publishing with new technology.

But iUniverse represented a potent idea—that a writer, any writer, could once again afford to print her or his own books. That’s one copy at a time over and over and over again. No limit.

In any discussion of book publishing, it is important to remember that the true origin of the industry is printing—not best seller lists or editorial control or cover creation or marketing. Publishing exists because Gutenberg’s inventions pushed the manufacturing of books beyond the reach of most people.

Digital printing pushed it back.

Also in 1995, a man named Jeff Bezos decided to use this new thing called the internet to sell books online.

If you were around and cognizant then, you will remember the laughter that greeted this new company called Amazon. But this innovation democratized bookselling, giving authors direct access to their readers in a way that’s never been done before.

Independently publishing authors, like myself, needed both of these innovations to be freed from traditional publishing’s feudal system.

My first three books (of which American Patchwork was the first) were published with traditional publishers. Based on my experience as a marketer, editor and book designer with traditional publishers around the country, I can honestly tell you that my author experience with St. Martin’s and Wiley was all right.

But unlike most new authors, I entered into my contracts without any expectations of author tours or editorial attention or marketing dollars. I knew there wouldn’t be any because traditional publishers don’t do those things for 95% of their authors.

Let’s say I was not disappointed.

After my third book was released, I decided to independently publish all of my future work and started my own company, Full Circle Press LLC, to do just that. My novel, The Road Unsalted, is one of my independently published books.

This is a long way around to say that I find the escalating fight between traditional publishing and Amazon sad and infuriating. Personally, I think that the big five publishing companies are really fighting for the preservation of a system that maintains the second class status of writers.

I predict that they will eventually lose the control they are struggling so hard to maintain because too many writers now understand they have a choice.

There are a few traditional publishers out there—Interweave being one—that treat their authors as full publishing partners. When all this dust settles, companies that adopt this business model will be the winners.

Does this mean I trust Amazon to keep its distribution doors open and financially accessible to all authors forever?

Are you kidding? Only a fool trusts what a large corporation will do in the future.

But right now, I believe Amazon has made the stronger argument to the people who produce the raw product on which this entire industry is based—writers.

There are a lot of articulate voices being raised on this issue. Here are three recommendations if you want to know more.

Writer Beware is a blog dedicated to rooting out the many scams in the book publishing world. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox: Writer Beware

Hugh Howey is one of the best-selling indie authors and he does an absolutely incredible job keeping a spotlight of truth on the industry, including a public compilation of author earnings FOR THE FIRST TIME IN PUBLISHING HISTORY. Here’s a particularly good post: Give Customers What They Want.

And David Gaughran is another indie author, very successful, who applies his sharp business eye to the publishing biz. Here’s a post that’s well worth the read: Publishing Is Rotten to the Core.

If You Go Out in the Woods Today…

…you’ll probably get to see one of my favorite plants, Indian (or wild) cucumber.

Indian cucumber
Indian cucumber

I never noticed them before we moved to the shores of the White River and opened a trail that meanders along the water.

These spiny babies grow to about the size of the palm of your hand and when the seeds are ready, the moisture inside pops the bottom open so the plant can drop six to eight watermelon-shaped seeds to the ground.

We grew them up the front of the house one year and were fascinated by the springs they use to fasten themselves to their preferred climbing surface. If you look carefully, you can see one of them coiled below the seed pod.

When the wind blows, the whole vine structure flexes with the breeze.

Somehow when I get to observe plants close up, I feel like humans are so far behind. How long did it take us to catch up with this idea?

Organization Is More Than Half a Book

Thieves of Fire, the second novel about Carding, Vermont, just got back from an initial reading by my editor.
Index cards for TOF 2 for web
I knew it needed more work but I wanted to bounce it off of someone else to get another perspective on my choice of voice for the additional writing before I plunged in.

The feedback was good and the insights very helpful.

But along with the additional writing comes some additional organization. Or reorganization, to be specific in this case.

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to edit the work of a number of writers at all levels of experience. It’s always a challenge to walk the fine line between pushing for one’s personal standard of excellence and an author’s personal needs.

I’m talking about writing style here.

Walking this line is a lot like trying to figure out how hard you need to weed a garden. I have a friend who’s a zealot on weed control and will spend hours digging out every root cell of creeping Charlie or crabgrass. I don’t profess any particular love of weeds but part of me knows that no matter how zealous I go after them, they’ll be back.

So a little live-and-let-live is not out of order in my garden or in the books I edit.

But to me, the one place where you have to strive as hard as you can for perfection in a book is its internal organization. All of us know the sensation of letting our eyes glaze over during the gush of an ill-prepared speaker. The same is true of a disorganized book.

Cover for Thieves of Fire
Cover for Thieves of Fire

Strangely enough, this is the hardest lesson to teach a new writer, and part of me has come to believe that one either has an internal sense of organization or does not. I mean, how does one teach a memoir writer how to put their life in chronological order? Wouldn’t you already know that? (I tried to edit a book like that once. The memory still makes me shake my head.)

This is where the index cards come in. (You were wondering what they were doing in the picture, weren’t you?)

I find these little gems indispensable at this point in editing because I’ve already established my characters and over-arching plot. But it’s keeping track of the fine detail that’s critical at this point.

So for those who have been asking about Thieves of Fire, it’s back on my hard drive for the final run-through, a little later than I wished as far as publication is concerned. But it will be a whole better when I’m done.

Little Green Marvels

Every gardener I know constantly refines their relationship with their soils and plants, especially if you work in the same space over time.
Green cherry tomatoes frozen for web
When we built the CLB (Cute Little Building, the nickname of the building that houses my office and studio), we discovered that the area right in front of it is probably the hottest bit of our yard in the afternoon. (We face the southwest.)

Perfect for veggies.

Last year, I planted a few cherry tomatoes, beans and squash in this space. This year, I expanded the space, added cucumbers and extended the tomato trellis to accommodate more plants.

I’ve already got the expansion for next year underway.

At the same time, I’ve become enamored of the mulching and soil enhancing qualities of hay and have begun to use it liberally. (When combined with a thick layer of newspaper, it’s great for weed control between rows.)

I have to report that my tomatoes are very happy about all these refinements and returned my efforts with a bounty that just took our breath away.

Jay and I snacked on those tomatoes every time we passed by the vines on our way from the house to the office and back again. When the days got short and the weather cool, Jay harvested them and put about 50 pounds of green and red wonders in our freezer.

I’ll tell ya, I will never go back to planting big tomatoes. First of all, our gardens get no morning sun so I’m not even sure we could grow large tomatoes. But processing cherry tomatoes is SO easy.

You just make sure the stems are removed, put them in freezer bags, and away you go.

We’re convinced that the green tomatoes are even better than the red in cooking over the course of the winter. You simply take out what you think you’re going to use, let them stand at room temperature until they get frosty white, and then cut them in half (or quarters for the bigger ones) and toss them into spaghetti sauce, soups, and chili.

If you let them thaw too long (it only takes about five minutes or so), they get mushy and hard to cut. Too frozen and it’s like chopping marbles.

We cooked a whole chicken last night, boiled the carcass for broth, stripped the last bits of meat off the bones, and then I built my chicken chili from that—with a couple of good handfuls of green cherry tomatoes.

The cool-weather cooking season has officially begun.

A Dazzling Cover, Part 2

Sometimes, a new image taken with my trusty Canon just captures my imagination. Like the leaf floating on the Ompompanoosuc River that I took last Sunday. (Almost fell out of my kayak trying to capture it. I was floating downstream while it was caught on an upstream current.
Dazzling cover-high rez with leaf
Over the years, I’ve developed a fairly good eye for nature photography, especially stuff that’s standing still which is why I have so many plant pictures, wildlife having a pronounced tendency to move at the most inopportune moments.

I’ve also learned to play with light on this camera, tuning out most of it on sunny days because the effects can be quite dramatic.

All this is to say I really liked that leaf.

I’ve been looking for a better image for the third book in the Carding, Vermont series of tales, the one that takes place during Hurricane Irene called The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life.

I think I might have found it.

Romping on the Pomp

It has been so much fun exploring the waters of the Upper Valley on our kayaks for the article I’m writing for Upper Valley Life magazine.
Pomp-floating leaf 2 for web
My two favorite kayaking companions, Jay and Goldie, joined me on an exploration of the area where the Ompompanoosuc River (try spelling that three times fast) flows into the Connecticut.

Since the whole point of paddling, for us is exploring nooks and crannies at the speed of a biological organism, we headed upstream on the Pomp (as it is often referred to locally) instead of downstream on the Connecticut. (Though we do intend to get back there because that part of the CT River does have islands and nooks galore–but we were on a schedule.)

It took a while to get away from the traffic noise coming from Routes 5 and I-91, both of which have bridges spanning this area. But once we left that roar behind, it was so great to be on the river.

There were ducks and mergansers galore, a hunting great blue heron, kingfishers, flocking redwing blackbirds discussing which route to take south, and a jabbering flock of crows that squirted out of the trees on both sides of the river as we paddled along.

At first, we thought the crows were talking about us (they are the guardians of the airwaves, after all) but then we spotted the distinctive profile of a merlin on the hunt.

Those black-feathered yakkers harassed that little hawk upstream and finally off their river.

And then it was really quiet.

When we got back to our truck, there was a Momma duck taking her turn on the welcome-back committee.
Pomp-brown duck 2 for web

Every Time You Meet a Quilter…

…you make a new friend.
NEQM logo
My friend Nancy Graham, the talented woman who made the original cover for The Road Unsalted, and I drove down to Lowell, Massachusetts to be part of the teacher presentation day at the New England Quilt Museum.

It works like speed dating. Each of the teacher/presenters has three minutes to tell a gathering of guild reps what you do. Then after everyone is done, you have the opportunity to talk one-on-one and book a program or find out more information or pick up all sorts of marketing stuff.

I especially like the chance to hang out with other presenters, see what other folks are doing, and just get an energy charge from the assembly.

It was a long day but it was a good day. I already have one booking and hope for others. I also discovered some folks that I would love to have visit my own guild.

Yep, new friends. You can’t beat it.

Author of the Carding, Vermont novels, quilt books, and book publishing guides.