Libbie Hawker

Independent author Libbie Hawker blogs about her books, the publishing industry, writing, reading, and her personal life here.

Brace yourself. I know this is shocking, but I'm about to rant again.

Well, it's happened again. An article on another blog has annoyed me, and I've just got to respond to it. This time, not surprisingly, the annoying article was on Salon, which is basically the wellspring of annoying articles about writers, books, publishing... even about the act of writing itself.

This time the author of the article is Ann Bauer. And I have to say, I don't disagree with everything Ann said. I agree with her that conversations about class and income are awkward, but that they're important for writers to have, because writing is a profession that's been dogged by some pernicious and potentially destructive mythologies for a very long time.

Somebody is wrong on the internet!

Virtually everybody who first sets out to make a career as a writer does so under some form of delusion--take your pick: that it's easy, that it'll make you rich, that once you have a book deal your problems will be solved, that all you'll ever have to do is write, that all good books get published. I found the process of snapping out of these various delusions rather painful--what do you mean, the career I've wanted since I was eight years old isn't anything like the media and other writers and the whole damn world have led me to think?--and I'd rather not see more writers hurt by the same uncomfortable wake-up calls. So I think it's important to disseminate the truth about writing--about what it means to be a working novelist. Writers are, after all, my people, and nobody wants to see a member of their own tribe suffer.

 So while I applaud and agree with Ms. Bauer's statement that we need to talk about what it's really like to be a writer, I am rather offended by the way she went about it. Mostly because her assertions are entirely wrong, and nothing offends the modern sensibility (or fuels my extempore blog posts) quite like somebody being wrong on the internet.

In the Salon piece, Bauer asserts that "full-time authors" are putting on a certain masquerade. She uses her own life as the ultimate example--

Here’s my life. My husband and I get up each morning at 7 o’clock and he showers while I make coffee. By the time he’s dressed I’m already sitting at my desk writing. He kisses me goodbye then leaves for the job where he makes good money, draws excellent benefits and gets many perks, such as travel, catered lunches and full reimbursement for the gym where I attend yoga midday. His career has allowed me to work only sporadically, as a consultant, in a field I enjoy.

--to assert that all full-time writers a) live a privileged life (not true) and that b) they couldn't possibly get there or stay there on their own. They must have outside support in order to obtain the privilege we associate with "the writer's life."

She then goes on to provide two examples of independently wealthy people who later became writers, thus proving for all time, I guess, that there are no other sorts of full-time writers out there. Each and every person who writes full-time is either "from money" or has a wealthy husband who supports her. (Of course, nobody ever claims that men who write full-time are sponsored by their wives, but this is by far not the first time I've seen somebody claim that female writers must be supported by a male spouse.)

Bauer then wraps up her point by telling us that she used to live in poverty and struggle mightily, and was only able to achieve full-time-writer status with the financial support of other people (first her mother, then her rich husband.)

Ta-daaa! That proves it, I suppose: Bauer is right, and everybody who writes full-time does so at the indulgence of somebody else--either a husband, or the generations of wealthy people who gave rise to you, O Privileged Writer. You can't get there on your own, and if you aren't already a socialite with double MFAs in creative writing (one of Bauer's examples), don't quit your day job. Ever.

Except that Bauer isn't right. She's dead wrong. I agree with her that it's both important and rather creepy-feeling to talk about one's class and one's income, but I also think it's important that the truth gets out there. The whole truth, not the "truth" as distorted by Bauer's privileged perspective.

No. Wrong.

I know, because I skimmed through some of the predictably obnoxious, preciously posing comments (par for the course on Salon) that some people who read Bauer's article felt discouraged. They felt the article confirmed some of their deepest fears, that they'd never be able to achieve the full-time career they want because they don't have the leisure or the connections required.

I don't like seeing other writers discouraged, so I'm about to introduce you to a full-time novelist who earns more than her husband does. I'm about to introduce you to a working writer who has no other job, no family connections, and no education--no privilege or advantage of any kind, in fact, unless you count general societal white privilege, which is probably counter-balanced by the very real bias in this industry against female authors and also by the fact that I grew up poor as hell.

Yep, that working novelist is me.

Libbie Hawker at her crassest

I’m going to tell you where I came from, how I got here, and (roughly) how much money I earn from my books. You might find this crass, and it is, because discussions about one’s class and income are always crass. You might find it to be humblebragging. I don’t care. I’m not disclosing this for head-pats or to make you think I’m cool. I’m disclosing it to comfort those who were discouraged by Ann Bauer’s skewed ideas about what is required in order to write full-time. I’m trying to undo some of the damage this vicious myth does to aspiring writers—that you have to be rich to begin with, or marry into money, or else your dream will never become a reality.

My background is not unlike Ann’s. I was born in rural Idaho to a family of middling but unspectacular means—by rural Idaho standards. In Seattle, where I live now, my family’s comfortable income wouldn’t pay for rent in a shoebox, as we found out when my parents divorced and my mother moved us to Seattle to be close to her family.

My now-single mom worked two jobs at once, enrolled in community college, got accepted into the University of Washington, and completed her bachelor’s degree. While working. Multiple jobs. She busted her butt to support my sister and me—and not without the help of my grandma, who busted her butt just as much.

With both our “parents” constantly busting their butts, my sister and I essentially raised ourselves—or each other—for much of our childhood. It was an uphill struggle for all of us. We sometimes had to turn to the welfare dole just to keep food on the table, and I quietly went without the things my friends had—the things I desperately longed to have, too, like summer camp and horse-riding lessons. I know my mom and granny would have given me those childhood experiences if they could. But I also knew, as young as I was, that my family just couldn’t afford it.

Doesn’t sound like the sort of privileged family, rubbing elbows with social movers and shakers, that Ann Bauer claims one needs in order to have a career as a writer, does it?

In my early life, fate shot my chance at Writerly Privilege in one foot by sticking me in a decidedly non-privileged family. (That’s irony, in case it doesn’t come across. My family is awesome and I wouldn’t change my past even if I could. Okay, maybe I’d spend one summer at camp.)

I shot my potential privilege’s other foot, though, by deciding not to go to college.

I knew I wanted to be a writer someday—all that time my sister and I spent as latchkey kids while Mom and Granny worked, we mostly spent reading, and I knew from the first time I cruised through Watership Down in the second grade that I would accept no career other than writing. I quickly reasoned that nobody needed to go to college to learn how to write well—I was right about that, by the way, so the example-author in Bauer’s article can put both her MFAs in her pipe and smoke ‘em—and figured my efforts would be better spent practicing my fledgling craft and reading everything I could get my hands on.

I took this outlook to such extremes that except for arts classes and time with my friends, high school meant nothing to me, and all the time I should have spent applying myself, I used for reading and writing instead. Consequently, I do not have a high-school diploma, either, nor do I have a GED—though I did finish all four years of high school. (It provided me with ample opportunity to read books, so of course I went to school every day for four years!)

To recap, let’s tally up the strikes against my Writer Privilege: not from old money; not a socialite; did not go to college; doesn’t even have a valid high-school diploma.

Libbie Hawker at her poorest

Bauer’s mention of her first husband certainly struck a familiar chord with me. I don’t like to disparage my ex-husband, who is generally a pretty good guy, so suffice it to say that I found reason to sympathize with Bauer’s description of her first marriage and the struggles she experienced. I don’t have any kids, so at least I didn’t have to worry about providing for anybody other than myself, but going through a difficult marriage and then a divorce were the hardest things I’ve faced so far—so hard that they made the extreme poverty I lived in afterward feel like a vacation.

And in many ways, those years were a vacation—they were freeing. My richest year post-divorce and prior to marrying my second husband (who, like Bauer’s second hubby, is a real partner and adds immeasurably to my life) I earned a whopping $11,000. For the entire year. Even in rural Idaho, it would be difficult to stretch $11,000 over one year. How I managed to pull this off in Seattle still boggles my mind. I literally have no idea how I did it.

But as dirt-poor as I was, I still look on that time as one of the best points in my life. It’s not enough to say that my writing flowed. It ripped out of me; I was so unable to not write that I carried a little pocket-sized notebook and a pen with me all the time, and whenever a compelling thought or a lovely sentence would pop into my head, I’d stop what I was doing and write it down.

For all the time I’d spent reading and writing, those mid- and post-divorce times were the most instructive and constructive of my entire budding career. Nothing makes a good writer write gooder than feeling, feeling, feeling, and dear God, was I ever feeling it all. If ever I could have said that I was “led by the Muse” (a concept I do not believe in), it was during those obsessive notebook days.

But why the notebook? Why didn’t I stop what I was doing and go work on my actual novel?

BECAUSE I WAS WORKING. All the time. I had two jobs, each about 37 hours per week, one of which required me to commute 114 miles round-trip each day. (The economy then was even worse than it is now, so one took whatever one could find.) It was the busiest I’d ever been, and it was unfortnate that the demands of my “muse” didn’t correspond neatly with my free time—not that I really had a lot of free time.

But I didn’t let that stop me. During this insanity, I wrote Baptism for the Dead, which stood as my best novel ever until Tidewater came along, and depending on your tastes, you might still find Baptism to be the superior book.

What I learned, and where that lesson got me

I realized that the intense feelings that allowed me to produce high-caliber art wouldn’t be with me forever. I found out during those strange, poignant, intensely beautiful days what it means to be a real writer: that you do it—you do the task, you complete the chapter, you work with discipline and focus—even if you have to juggle a divorce and two jobs and a 114-mile-a-day commute. You write, no matter what else is happening around you, including the necessities of your day-to-day life, or you don’t write. You are a writer, or you are not a writer, regardless of whether the timing is perfect, regardless of whether you have a desk to sit at, regardless of whether you can make your mid-day yoga class that your husband’s insurance pays for.

In those difficult days, I learned that the timing might never be perfect—ever. I learned to listen to my senses and my emotions as I worked at my day jobs, so that I could tap that well of words when it was time to write. I learned to make time to write, every single day. I learned that being a writer doesn’t mean living a certain lifestyle. It means dedication and drive. It meant, for me, not waiting for my career to land in my lap due to circumstances or privilege. It meant grabbing hold of the identity I’d always sensed was mine, from the first time I’d read Watership Down as a latchkey kid, and making it my reality in spite of my stunning lack of just the right set of privileges.

Eventually I started dating my second husband. By now my resolve to have my writing career no matter what was so strong that I asked him, on an early date, whether he’d ever feel threatened by being with a woman who earned more money than he did. Lots of men do feel threatened by that scenario—men are just as susceptible to pernicious societal expectations as women are. To my pleasure, Paul laughed and said, “I think it’d be awesome if you earned more money than I do.” A good thing, because if he’d given any other answer, I would have broken up with him on the spot. I’d already dealt with one relationship that hobbled my personality and therefore my creativity. I wasn’t going to do it again.

Only a few months after we married, Paul proved as good as his word, when the income from my self-published books first eclipsed my day-job income, then his. He was unfailing in his enthusiasm and support, and was wholly behind me when I quit my day job to write full-time.

In that sense—in the incredible amount of pride Paul has in my career—I am absolutely supported by my husband, and happy to be. Just like Ann Bauer, I can say that every morning, my husband and I get up, shower, and make coffee. I, too, am already at my desk by the time Paul is dressed in his Carhartts and his steel-toed boots. He kisses me good-bye and leaves for his job—unclogging toilets, hanging shelves, and fixing squeaky doors at a ritzy apartment building downtown. My husband is a maintenance worker, as blue-collar as can be, and I am, if anything, even more proud of him than he is of me.

While I will admit that we get pretty good health insurance from his once-monthly weekend gig as a military reservist (he is the hardest-working man I’ve ever met), it’s not Paul’s “dirty job” which earns most of the money in our household. It’s my job—writing. Sure, he could find work that pays better, but he loves what he does. Fixing what’s broken, problem-solving, and slinging tools all day makes him happy. He gets fulfillment from helping the residents of his building, and he loves the fact that maintenance gives him variety each day and a daily sense of real accomplishment. There is never an overlfowing inbox or loose ends left dangling. He’s happy—he likes going to work in the morning. And I’m so glad that we both get to do what we love for a living.

How much do I earn? Giving you exact nubmers right here on my blog is really a little too crass, even for me. I will say that I make significantly more than the median income for Seattle, while not yet crossing the six-figures barrier. Not bad, for a kid from Potatoville who’s never rubbed elbows with any New York socialites.

Unfit, and yet here I am.

So there you have it: my complete dossier proving that I am unfit in every conceivable way to be a full-time, professional novelist. From rural Idaho to poverty to having neither a high-school diploma nor a college education, through a wringer of a divorce and into poverty again, all the way up to marrying a man whose income does not support my writing, but whose enjoyable job is in fact subsidized by my books, I am the very photo negative of what a working novelist must be, if you are to believe Ann Bauer.

Ann certainly has my enormous respect for working two jobs to support her kids without the involvement of their dad. I know how difficult that is—I watched my mom do it. But I reject her assertion that people can’t write when they are in crisis mode, whether that crisis is single motherhood, health issues, a hellish divorce, or simply the very real exhaustion that comes from working all damn day at an emotionally draining desk job. On the contrary, if you can establish the discipline to write through a crisis, even if it’s just 500 words a day, you are already halfway down the path to the writing career you want.

The discipline I learned during my gloriously hellish months, when so much in my life was utter chaos (but when my writing was so, so good) served me well later on. For two years prior to quitting my day job, I did nothing with my free time other than write. I didn’t go out with friends. I didn’t pursue any hobbies. I got rid of my TV. Paul and I didn’t take any vacations, not even weekend trips. I wrote. And wrote. And wrote. I built up a backlist, I learned how to self-publish so I could bypass the decades-long waiting line and start building my audience now, and then I wrote some more.

As Ann found out, the more you write, the easier it becomes. She completed her third novel in eight months—an achievement worthy of real pride. I’ve spent so much time writing with dedication—not waiting for the time to do it, regardless of what else is going on in my life—that I’ve condensed the process of writing a full-size novel into about three or four weeks.

Ann’s fans in the Salon comments section were predictably dismissive of anybody else who showed up to defend the interests of working writers. It’s Salon, after all. The general consensus among Salon readers is that Oh, sure, maybe cranking out crappy ‘pop fiction’ is all right for some writers, but real writers…

Please, spare me. Do you want to be a full-time novelist? Then you need to write what sells. Wish for a world in which the population at large will throw Fifty Shades of Grey money at Lolita-quality writing all you like. It won’t change the reality of the market. If you truly want to write for a living, then write for a living, and pursue what is likely to sell.

Believe me, taking an intelligent approach to your business can still leave you with plenty of time to write the books of your heart. (And writing is a business, not a sacred calling like some of these “but real writers…” types believe.) In 2015, I will finally be able to complete three literary novels I’ve been tinkering with in my free time for years now. I couldn’t justify pouring more time into them because I know they won’t earn me any money—literary fiction doesn’t sell well, period. But now that I’ve got a robust backlist of the “pop fiction” that Salon readers so despise, I’ll be able to spend the latter half of 2015 glutting on self-indulgence.

I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to all that navel-gazing. Although I know what it takes to sustain a career as a novelist—and that’s a lively schedule of publishing “pop fiction”—I can sling a memorable phrase and a compelling image alongside the best of ‘em. Literary fiction is what I do best. You won’t ever catch me weeping into my tea over the fact that I can’t make a living writing nothing but lit-fic, though. Who can? I’m earning good money writing what sells. I get to pay all my bills by writing books, and except for the love and enthusiasm that my husband doles out freely, nobody supports me but me.

I agree, Ann Bauer, that we do all aspiring writers a disservice when we don't discuss what it truly means to be a full-time novelist. I agree that it's a huge problem, that the world has a skewed vision of what it really means, and what it really takes, to be a career writer.

So there you have it: I've discussed.

To those who read Ann's article and were discouraged, thinking the deck is insurmountably stacked against you becasue you don't have the right kind of privilege, I hope you find your way to my blog post. I wrote it for you.

*

Because this is my sole gig, and I've got bills to pay like everybody else, I hope you'll consider supporting my career by purchasing a book. You can find buy links to all my books at http://libbiehawker.com , or on Amazon

Everywhere, again

Hooray! My experiment-out-of-necessity with Amazon exclusivity is over, and my books are available everywhere once more. Here are all the links in one place. Eventually I'll actually update the individual books' pages, too.

TIDEWATER (Remember, this book has been sold to Amazon Publishing's Lake Union imprint and when it's re-released by Lake Union, I won't have control over its distribution. So if you don't read on a Kindle, you might want to get your ebook copy soon!)

Barnes & Noble | Kobo | iTunes | Google Play | Scribd | Page Foundry | Amazon

THE SEKHMET BED

Barnes & Noble | Kobo | iTunes | Google Play | Scribd | Page Foundry | Amazon

THE CROOK AND FLAIL

Barnes & Noble | Kobo | iTunes | Google Play | Scribd | Page Foundry | Amazon

SOVEREIGN OF STARS

Barnes & Noble | Kobo | iTunes | Google Play | Scribd | Page Foundry | Amazon

THE BULL OF MIN

Barnes & Noble | Kobo | iTunes | Google Play | Scribd | Page Foundry | Amazon

THE SHE-KING: THE COMPLETE SAGA (Still processing on Google Play)

Barnes & Noble | Kobo | iTunes | Google Play | Scribd | Page Foundry | Amazon

BAPTISM FOR THE DEAD (Still processing on some distributors)

Barnes & Noble | Kobo | iTunes | Google Play | Scribd | Page Foundry | Amazon

GOTTA READ IT! FIVE SIMPLE STEPS TO A FICTION PITCH THAT SELLS

Barnes & Noble | Kobo | iTunes | Google Play | Scribd | Page Foundry | Amazon

 

Publishers as Curators: Not a Fundamentally Broken Idea

Back on October 22, Matt Yglesias at Vox.com wrote an article with a provocative title: Amazon is doing the world a favor by crushing book publishers. Among book professionals of all kinds, it garnered the kind of attention and sparked the sort of conversation an article with a provocative title is meant to do. Over the intervening five days, debate and analysis have raged across the Twitter feeds, blogs, and forums of virtually everybody in the book loop, as we take to our keyboards to yea or nay the points Yglesias made, as if a lot of people yelling on the internet will change anything about reality. But that’s the internet for you.

It probably won’t come as a shock to anybody that I largely agree with Matt Yglesias’s points. I only agree with them, however, if you add two very important words before every occurrence of the word publisher: New York.

They're really not all the same.

Everybody’s been discussing the relevance of publishers as if all publishers are the same. Perhaps they’re conditioned to think that way because the Big Five, the monstrous New York corporations owned by even more monstrous global corporations, lack competition, and this makes them functionally the same, from contract terms to advances to outmoded, flailing marketing strategies to price-fixing collusion.

At the moment, the only thing that seems to set any one of them apart from the others is Hachette’s disturbing willingness to harm its authors’ livelihoods by stubbornly refusing to negotiate with Amazon for distribution terms. Otherwise, if you sell a book to one of them you may as well sell a book to any of them. You’ll receive the same egregious terms, the same shrunken advance, and the same b.s. timescale for producing and selling your book.

I saw what you did there, Matt. Also, let me state as a former zoo keeper that there's no way I'd get that close to an unrestrained pelican. Do you KNOW what their bills are like?!

It surprises me how many authors, agents, and other opinionated people have failed to acknowledge, over the course of the Yglesias-fueled discussion, that not all publishers are the same. It only feels like they are, thanks to the five-way mirror of New York publishing. But it’s important to remember that other publishers exist, because just as the ebook revolution has cleared the way for self-publishing to offer a viable career to countless authors, it has also cleared the way for the re-emergence of the small press. But only if those presses are smart and agile and don’t try to do things the way New York has done them for the past several decades.

That’s the crucial thing about my book deal. It’s not with a New York publisher. If a New York publisher had offered on Tidewater, I wouldn’t have taken the deal, no matter how high the advance. Not only do I loathe the idea of working with companies that have engaged in collusion in order to suppress the best thing that’s ever happened to readers and writers (ebooks), but I fail to see any value a New York publisher might bring to my business, despite their vociferous protestations that they are still relevant and super-awesome for both authors and readers.

My deal is with Lake Union, an imprint of Amazon Publishing. Obviously I have no problem working with Amazon. I haven’t drunk the Kool-Aid like many other authors who declare that Amazon is evil. (I’m always amused by how many authors and publishers claim Amazon is a force that must be stopped, but don’t put their money where their mouths are by pulling their books off Amazon… but that’s a blog post for another day.)

The Curator Debate

In the debate after Yglesias’s article came out, many bloggers have responded. This recent post by blogger Dr. Syntax, a former publisher, picks the Vox article apart point by point and counters with basically the same counter-arguments we’ve all heard a million times before from the red-faced, fist-shaking New York faction. I don’t mean any disrespect to Dr. Syntax; it’s just that everybody has heard these same points before already, repeatedly, in great detail. We’re ready for somebody who’s batting for New York to make some different arguments, some different defenses of business practices which haven’t changed significantly since the 1980s.

However, I do think one popular talking point the New York defenders always use deserves some consideration, because it actually is a means for publishers to add value and remain relevant, yet New York does it all wrong. Their failure to get it right means that smart, agile, non-New York publishers have a big opportunity.

Exhibit A in Dr. Syntax’s critique of the Vox article is curation. He argues that one of the biggest and most important functions New York provides is the careful sorting and selection of books, so that in a sea of crap readers might find the few books worth reading.

There are so many things ridiculously wrong with this assumption that it’s almost not worth going into, but I’ll go into them anyway because I enjoy telling people that they are wrong on the internet.

  • This viewpoint assumes that readers aren’t smart enough to discern good from bad.

  • This viewpoint also assumes that the opinions of a few people sitting at desks in pricey New York offices are somehow superior to the opinions of millions of other people; that the anointed few are qualified to discern quality while the rest of us are too dumb to trust our own tastes. In this respect, the “curation” argument is absolutely, 100%, undeniably elitist, and therefore eyeroll-inducing.

  • 1) Snooki got a book deal. 2) Kim Kardashian got a book deal that consists of nothing but selfies. 3) OJ Simpson got a book deal (later redacted due to public outrage) that was basically a gloat over how he got away with murder. 4) In the past 18 months, dozens of lifestyle, fashion, and mommy bloggers have leveraged their rapidly dying blogs into book deals which, under New York’s glacially slow timescale, will come off the presses only to be sent directly to remainder bins because by the time those books hit shelves, in the parlance of the internet: no1curr. But the bloggers won’t give a rip, because they got their advances, so nyaah. 5) I have it on good authority that for the past several years the best-selling item at a certain local independent bookstore has been The History of Farting. Now, one might argue that the fact that a New York publisher released The History of Farting only proves how great New York is at picking winners. I would counter that readers will buy what is available to them. If what’s available consists of Kardashian selfies and novelty books about farts, that’s what’ll sell. But is this the best New York’s vaunted curating can do? Is this quality? Am I truly not qualified to choose a better book than these? If this is the stuff New York has deemed worth reading, I am frankly terrified by that sea of crap they’re saving us all from.

  • It’s just not that hard to find good books on Amazon. It’s not. The Tsunami of Swill we’ve been warned about hasn’t posed nearly as much of a discovery problem as everybody feared. Get over it already, bloggers, agents, and publishers.

What all the world is saying about blogger books.

Now that those statements are out of the way, let me say that I don’t actually find the idea of publisher-as-curator a distasteful one. In spite of the fact that it’s really NOT hard to find a good book on Amazon among millions of others, I do think curation can be useful to readers, if it’s done properly and well. Not only that, but curation – real curation, not fart books and Kim Kardashian selfies – was a crucial feature of the publishing industry in decades long past.

And I think it’s an idea whose time has come again.

A Brief History of Libbie, and of Book Buying

I was born in 1980. I’m 34 years old. People from my generation grew up just as New York was starting its voracious feast of small presses, gobbling up independent publishers at rates that shock and terrify. If you’re as old as I or younger, you’ve never really known any bookbuying experience that wasn’t controlled by conglomerated and homogenized New York presses.

But my friends who are older recall fondly the days when they’d walk into a bookstore and look not for titles or authors’ names, but for imprints and brands.

Back in those days, before Penguin was half of a huge, overweening corporation that is just like four other huge, overweening corporations, it was an independent press. It published books of a certain type – a certain atmosphere, with common themes and similar prose styles. The books were visually branded, too, so that my friends who grew up prior to the 80s wouldn’t even search by genre, but would search for a particular design – the Penguin brand.

They knew, because Penguin curated its books with great care, striving to create a cohesive brand, that they were likely to enjoy a Penguin book regardless of who wrote it. Think I’m lying about that branding power, or about the way people shopped by imprint back in the good old days before New York publishing became a giant, shambling, groaning monster with bolts coming out of its neck and a pathological fear of fire? Take a look at these classic Penguin paperbacks. This is what my friends saw when they went looking for a new book.

Okay, they would have been in much better shape in the bookstores of yore. Image credit: Spitalfields Life, spitalfieldslife.com

Okay, they would have been in much better shape in the bookstores of yore. Image credit: Spitalfields Life, spitalfieldslife.com

These old Penguin paperbacks were so hugely popular that now certain PRH titles are being re-released with the old, branded covers. Look below; see what I mean. PRH is re-releasing classic, highly branded covers for many of its titles, trying to hearken back to the days when their branding was unambiguous – when branding signified something real: useful, reader-oriented curation.

Some old Penguin classics, and some new titles with the classic Penguin treatment. Image credit: annoyingdragon.wordpress.com

Some old Penguin classics, and some new titles with the classic Penguin treatment. Image credit: annoyingdragon.wordpress.com

Of course, Penguin wasn’t the only publisher who practiced clear and useful branding. Most publishers did it, and their covers and spines, with their unambiguous branding, signified something important to readers: “This book is just like the last book you read and loved. You’ll love this book, too.”

But such a branding message only works if the publisher is performing real curation: publishing books that have something in common, books that are like everything else in their catalog in some significant way – giving readers a clear message, by the reassurance of their imprint, that “this book is just like the last book you read and loved. You’ll love this book, too.”

This is not curating.

The way New York publishing has functioned for the past few decades can’t be called "curating" by any sensible definition of the word. Even agents and editors admit on their blogs, and have done for years, that publishers take big chances on new acquisitions. They don’t know what is likely to sell and what isn’t.

Most of the books they buy don’t earn out their advances (WHY?! Most of those advances are miniscule; a midlister indie author could earn out some of these advances in two months!) Many of the authors they lift out of the sea of crap prove to be just as crappy as most of the authors who are left behind. A few big hits per year subsidize all the rest – all those books that don’t turn a profit.

New York doesn’t know how to pick consistent winners anymore because New York doesn’t know how to curate. New York doesn’t know how to brand. New York, crucially, doesn’t know why readers buy their books, and what their target readers want each time they step into a book store or open their Amazon app.

Here, my friends, is where the advantage lies. Here is where small presses may find their traction and profit. Here is where publishers can compete with the allure of self-publishing – through true, actual, real curation – through cohesive branding – through understanding what readers want and then, by god, delivering it every time.

If New York ever understood how to curate, there’s no way they can do it now. They are too large. They are too convinced that the book industry can’t exist without them; they think their mere existence should be curation enough. They have forgotten that readers even exist – their end customer (or so they believe) is the book-buyer for a brick-and-mortar store, not the individual reader.

Hybrid authors have confirmed this. Commentary from their New York publishers suggests strongly that New York is shocked and amazed when an author can tell them precisely what demographic buys their books, exactly what that demographic is looking for, and how they respond to certain types of marketing. The fact that reader behavior and preference can be known at all astounds them. Readers are totally invisible to New York, and so New York publishing is fundamentally incapable of effective curation.

Enter the Small Dog

Fortunately, New York isn’t the only dog in the race. It’s just the biggest. Fast and agile small and independent presses can scoop up good authors, brand effectively, target readers flawlessly, and run off with all the sales before New York even knows what the hell just hit them.

Let me introduce you to an independent press I believe is going to make it, and become a major player within its niche – and become the coveted imprint for authors who are writing to that niche.

I first met Mark Bailey, the editor at Torrey House Press, when I submitted Baptism for the Dead to THP for consideration. He didn’t buy the book, but we struck up a bit of an internet friendship all the same. Maybe “friendship” isn’t the right term – perhaps “mildly antagonistic acquaintance with plenty of mutual respect” is better.

Mark tends to be anti-Amazon. He’s a publisher, and so he’s bought into much of the press that spins Amazon as the great slayer of all other publishers, and of bookstores. I’m not criticizing him for that, just stating the facts. The truth is, I know far more people who’ve bought into New York’s attempts to position Amazon as the ultimate baddie than people who see who the real poop-stirrer is in this issue (New York.)

Mark doesn’t like Amazon, and I do, because without Amazon I never would have had my successful self-publishing career – and now thanks to Amazon I will also be a traditionally published/hybrid author, too. I think it’s nice that two book professionals from such opposite ends of the Amazon/New York spectrum can genuinely enjoy discussing the issue, can offer one another varied viewpoints on their respective businesses, and can challenge each other’s assumptions about the industry. Mark and I have certainly had our share of lively debates about the publishing world, and have done much to challenge one another’s perspectives – or have tried to challenge each other, at any rate. I like and respect Mark tremendously as a person.

I like and respect him even more as a publisher. Torrey House Press has the branding-and-curation gig down to an art and a science. Their focus is narrow – that’s smart. They publish fiction and narrative nonfiction that focuses on the land and culture of the Rocky Mountain West, as well as some general, ecology-themed books that aren’t necessarily set in the Rockies.

Torrey House Press has figured out how to identify and zero in on a niche. They have studied their readers – not the book stores they distribute to – and have figured out what those readers want. They provide more of the same, and they’re defensive of their curated brand – they don’t dilute it by throwing in some Kim Kardashian books or OJ pseudo-confessionals, even though those books might sell a lot of copies. They have figured out the ONE thing they’re doing, and they’re committed to doing that ONE thing, and doing it well.

I’m in their demographic. I love the West; I’m passionate about its conservation and its particular magic, and I love a lyrical prose style, which THP provides. I’ve read most of their books and loved nearly all of them. They have successfully identified how to reach their target audience, and have proven that nearly always, they deliver precisely the type of read I, their target reader, want.

I have come to trust their brand. I know that if I pick up a THP book, I’m going to enjoy the hell out of it. And when I feel like reading a gorgeously written book about the American West, I don’t go dinking around in a book store hoping I’ll stumble across the right book. I go to Amazon and I type in “Torrey House Press.” Then I one-click anything that’s new from them without even bothering to read the product description, because it’s Torrey House, I know Mark picks winners, and I know I can trust his brand to deliver the reading experience that I want.

THAT is how you do curation right. THAT is the 2014 version of my friends sauntering into their local book store and scanning the shelves for that distinctive color-blocked Penguin paperback spine.

It's Revival Time

Real talk: this book is so good. You should buy it right now. Image credit: torreyhouse.com

Real talk: this book is so good. You should buy it right now. Image credit: torreyhouse.com

I, for one, would be glad to see a return to this old way of book-browsing: finding books by well-curated brand. Torrey House has proven that it can still be done well, and that it can provide value to the reader, who is the end customer -- the party that matters most. And while it’s certainly not necessary to sell books by curated brand, if your curated brand is strong enough and trusted enough, it could be a huge visibility booster for an author. For a hybrid writer like me, it could lead to elevated sales of all my books, not just the branded title.

I think authors involved in this debate ought to embrace the idea that curating can be a valuable and useful service, as long as it’s provided by a smart, agile publisher who’s got a clear vision and a real understanding of who reads his books and what those readers want. In other words, not New York publishers. As curators, they’re useless. But that doesn’t mean that curators are useless.

With the rise of self-publishing and the proliferation of good, cheap reads, we’ve seen a return to the previously-dead form of the serial novel – readers have embraced serials enthusiastically, something they haven’t done for nearly 100 years. Short stories, too, are seeing a big come-back, and some authors are able to support themselves from short fiction sales alone – which we haven’t seen since the decline of sci-fi’s golden age.

I see no reason why the curated brand as a discovery tool can’t or shouldn’t make a similar comeback. As long as it’s done intelligently, as long as independent publishers respect their readers enough to get to know them, and to provide content selected just for their tastes, it’s a feature we all ought to embrace in this new era of book-industry revolution.

In these debates about the supposed value New York brings to both authors and readers (as if they even know who their readers are…), self-published authors, and sometimes even traditionally published authors, are quick to point out that NO ONE shops by imprint or publisher. It just isn’t done, they say; readers shop by author or by subject matter. Duh.

While it’s true that shopping by author and subject remain the most popular means of finding new books, Torrey House and I are proof that shopping by imprint is still a valid means of selling books – IF the publisher does their branding and curating well.

It’s a foreign idea to people of my age, and younger. But it’s just the way things were back in the good old days, to people who’ve been around longer and have seen more changes come to the industry. Penguin-Random House knows this is true. Otherwise, why would they bother to re-release books with classic branding?

 

If you liked this article, or even if you hated it but appreciate my deft reference of Snooki and intestinal gases in the same bullet point, I'd appreciate your support of my business. You can find my books here and here. Or, please share this article with your friends and colleagues to help spread the word about my writing. Cheers!   -Libbie

The deal is done!

Since I’ve signed the contract, it’s officially official and I am free to announce it to the world. I’ve sold Tidewater to Lake Union Publishing (an imprint of Amazon Publishing) and I’m very excited about the partnership. Tidewater will remain available as a self-published novel until it is re-released by Lake Union in the late spring/early summer of 2015. (I’ll clarify the re-release date once I know it for sure.)

I’m already very impressed with working with Lake Union and feel so very enthusiastic about putting Tidewater into their hands.

Cheers! Happy days!