Wednesday, May 31, 2006

A Rejected Writer's Rejection (Video)

If you haven't seen this one yet: Black Books - Bernard's Letter have a look. Every writer who has experienced the pain of rejection can sympathize with Bernard's despair -- and his darkly humorous response to the editor who rejected his novel.

The video begins playing when the page opens, so have your headphones ready if you don't want to disturb others in the room.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Want Your Book to Be a Bestseller? Fork Over £50,000

Or in American dollars, that's $94,137.

That's how much it will cost in the U.K. for your publisher to get your books placed prominently in the large chain stores, according to an article by The Times Online, and prices in the U.S. are in the same ballpark. Think those tables of books sitting out in plain view when you walk into Borders were chosen by the staff? Or that the face-out books on the shelves were just to fill space or look aesthetically pleasing, or even to help the customer find books? Or that the staff picks are really, truly staff picks in every case?

Think again.

Most shoppers probably figure that the large cardboard display cases holding the latest Harry Potter installment were the work of a publisher, but few suspect that merely placing a stack of books out on a table where the customers walk it is a privilege bought and sold in huge, costly packages that put the major publishers in the best position to get a shopper's attention.

The practice is nothing new, but it has grown so expensive in recent years that the smaller, independent publishers are feeling the pinch, both in the costs of promotion, and lost sales if they don't promote. Bookstores know that shoppers are attracted to interesting book covers, and are more likely to buy books from table displays and face-out books than they are to choose any particular book that is displayed spine-out. Staff recommendations may make a book more attractive, and in some cases even these are purchased as part of a promotional package. But small publishers are hard-pressed to afford the fees required for prominent placement, 3 for 2 deals, or similar promotions. Publishers belonging to larger media conglomerates often have far more cash for promotion, and the very size of their war chests may be a factor in driving up the price.

The practice, in turn, can limit a shopper's perception of choice. It's easier to find books that are dipsplayed with their covers showing. If you come in looking for a certain book on writing, but spot a different one that is displayed more prominently, the book that was on display may be the book you walk out with.

So what does the average book buyer do about this? Most shoppers are completely unaware that areas of the bookstore carry price tags, so most shoppers will do next to nothing to alter the practice. And since most people buy books by their title or author and care little about who publishes it -- the name of the publisher doesn't carry the same brand name clout as the name of, say, a soft drink -- most shoppers probably don't care. But as an aware shopper, you can make it a habit to seek out the unusual. Bypass the prominent displays and search among the spine-out books for lesser-known publishers to see what they have to offer. Find independent booksellers in your town, who often carry more books from smaller publishers. And if you hear of a good book by a small publisher and your bookseller doesn't carry it, ask them to order it for you.

It's a small gesture, but it means so much to artistic freedom.

Monday, May 29, 2006

In Memoriam

My father, Don J. Lytle (1931-1999), U.S. Air Force, Korea
My uncle, Richard Hiday (1914-1945), U.S. Army, World War II
My grandfather, James W. Lytle (1892-1951), U.S. Army, World War I
My friend, Robert Solonika (1962-1982), U.S. Army

Thanks, guys.

Friday, May 26, 2006

See: Bye-Bye, Barbara--The Play!

Another entry into the "Wish Barbara Bauer luck with some other career" internet extravaganza:

Bye-Bye, Barbara--The Play!

This is, by the way, satire, which is protected by U.S. laws.

It Had to Happen:

Scam agent Barbara Bauer has been making trouble. A shrieking rant over the phone got the fabulous site, Absolute Write, shut down in less than an hour, without time for the web owners to retrieve their data, as reported by Teresa Hayden on Making Light. All this for posting a list of the 20 worst agents, of which Bauer was one. Absolute Write, however, is back in business with a newer and less nervous web hosting service. Bauer snarked Making Light itself, and has badgered other sites that have dared to call a fee-charging agent without any legitimate sales to her credit a "scam." But ya know, if it looks like a scam and it quacks like a scam, it's a scam.

As much as she'd like to shut down writers and their sites who have posted the Stinking Twenty on their own sites, Bauer seems to have forgotten that writers are creative sorts, and usually independent sorts who don't like to be pushed around. Someone out there in cyberspace took the obvious step and registered the domain name of for the sole purpose of posting the 20 Worst Agents list -- along with an unflattering animation of The Bauer herself, with her bit yap flapping.

Give them a visit. Let the traffic pour in.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Free Writing Courses at Barnes & Noble University

Barnes & Noble just announced the latest courses from . Among the offerings are:

All these courses are free and take place entirely online. Here's how it works:

You register for the course, and get access to the message board for that course. There is usually a book that you should purchase for the course, which, naturally, Barnes & Noble is happy to help you order. The instructor posts readings on the course message board, and makes assignments. Students respond to the assignment by posting their writing on the board. Instructors and fellow students may comment on the posts.

Most courses last four weeks, with two lessons per week. Following through requires some committment on the part of the student, but four weeks isn't a tremendous amount of time out of most people's lives.

Besides, free is a very good price.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Myth of the Tortured Writer

I've read Anne Lamott's classic tome on writing, Bird by Bird, several times over, and I've listened to her audiotaped lecture, Word by Word. Both contain interesting insights on the writing life. Lamott is entertaining to read and to listen to, and she's brutally honest about her own life and her own writing.

But there is a point at which my opinions about writing differ dramatically from Lamott's. She seems convinced that writers and other creative people are all highly dysfunctional people who are addicted to their need for positive strokes, which the crazily pursue through writing, and are invariably disappointed because getting published doesn't make their lives sparkle with joy, joy, joy.

I'm a writer. I've published multiple books for children. I do have my dysfunctions, my quirks, and my struggles in life. I've had some tough times in the past, endured an insanely dysfunctional first so-called marriage, have attended far too many funerals, and have some annoying health concerns. But I wouldn't call myself tortured, especially when it comes to writing.

First of all, I don't consider writing to be a chore. Writing is difficult, yes. Brain surgery is difficult and takes years to learn, but no one characterizes brain surgeons as tortured geniuses. Good writing, really good writing, the kind I still aspire to, takes no lesser amount of practice and training. But writing, though difficult, is fun. Yes, fun. I'd rather make my living as a writer than just about anything else, short of getting paid to lounge on a beach on Maui (and I'd still be writing even if I got paid for beach-lounging).

Second, when Ms. Lamott says that getting published won't change your life, I say, "Speak for yourself, dear." Getting published did change my life. It's a thrill to see your name printed for the first time on the front cover of a real book printed by a real publisher. Each book that follows gives the same thrill. It's not so much personal validation as it is closure. Writing a book is a huge undertaking that a writer conquers step by step, sentence by sentence, chapter by chapter. It's a difficult journey, and having that solid book in hand says, "You did it!" It's like crossing the finish line of a marathon. You did it, and no one can take it away from you.

Finally, dysfunctionality is not a prerequisite of genius. It's the tortured genius who gets all the media attention, but for every tortured genius, there are dozens of other highly functional geniuses and hundreds of other highly functional ordinary folks who succeed in writing because they write, write, write, and refuse to give up. Creativity grows with practice. Ideas multiply like bunnies if you give them half a chance. The way to be a writer is by practicing your writing, not by drinking or acquiring psychoses.

Garrison Keillor, on his Prairie Home Companion blog, voices a similar opinion in his essay titled Something he's been meaning to say for years. If a writer with Keillor's charm, smoothness, and skill doesn't have to be neurotic to succeed, neither do the rest of us.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Unfortunate Mr. Handler

Young readers who thrive on dreariness and gobble up the "" books may wonder what a person upon whom the name Lemony Snickett was inflicted might look like. If you haven't combed the web for photos of the elusive author already, a full-face portrait of one Daniel Handler, accused of bearing the nom de plume of Lemony Snickett, can be seen in the Washington Post, accompanied by an article about the Barnes & Noble Summer Reading Program, which Mr. Snickett a.k.a. Mr. Handler is kicking off. And before we commit any of the usual stale "unfortunate" references, let's commend to Barnes & Noble for giving books away to young readers as a reward for filling their summers with literature.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

For Sale: "Free" Expression

If you haven't heard about the current attacks on , maybe your computer has been in at the shop -- and the neighborhood dogs ran off with your newspaper and the television died.

The issue rests on current regulations that prevent big internet providers from deciding what sites you will visit, based on how much those sites can pay. The big providers want to change that, and allow those who pay them more to get their site noticed more. Sounds on the surface like the way in which advertising, or commerce in general, works. But what does it mean for us ordinary mortals of the blogosphere, for small net business owners, for political websites, charity websites, or for informational websites?

It means that if you want your page noticed, you'll no longer have to go through all the trouble of designing a compelling and aesthetically pleasing website, working hard on search engine optimization, writing good content, and providing a good experience for your reader.

You'll just have to pay great, big, humongous bucks.

Why should a writer care? Let's think about it.

  • Suppose I want some music to listen to as I write. I could click on , which is currently my online music supplier of choice. But if Comcast, my cable company, opens up its own (and, with pressure from the music industry, more expensive) music company, they could, under the new law, control my access to and steer me toward their own service. That may sound like only a minor inconvenience, but it is entirely unfair.
  • Suppose I want to continue my blog. In spite of the Google ads at the top, a blog like this makes only a nominal income, certainly far short of the kind of income stream that the big internet bagmen are interested in charging bloggers. Most bloggers would be forced to give up -- and therefore shut up. Now we're seriously treading on First Amendment rights.
  • Suppose I publish with a small company, or I choose to create my own imprint and self-publish. What chance do I have of getting my site and my book noticed? Very little, if I have only a tiny budget and can't shell out the bucks to the internet bagmen. Again, it's put up (with extortion) or shut up.

These aren't just idle suppositions. There are already cases on the books where internet providers have attempted to block access to rival companies and services to promote their own services, and have interfered with their subscribers' rights to hold dissenting opinions. Let's not forget AOL's anti-First-Amendment attempt to block emails having to do with a website that opposed their pay-to-email plan.

The only people who seem to be in favor of scuttling net neutrality are the would-be bagmen: internet providers such as AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, and AOL Time-Warner. They want to apply their own system of taxation for providing internet content. Read their justifications and you can practically hear the "ka-ching!" as the dollar signs light up in their eyes. Service to customers? Pah! That's so old-fashioned. So reality-based.

If you're concerned -- and any website owner ought to be -- please visit the site. Moby just joined the forces, bringing on board Artists and Musicians for Internet Freedom. How about you?

Save the Internet: Click here

Monday, May 01, 2006

Query Letter Facelifts from Evil Editor

If, like most of us mortals, you have trouble writing a decent query letter, hurry over to and check out the letters that E.E. has been critiquing and editing. Fun, funny, and oh, so useful.

If the world were fair and just, I'd have E.E. for my editor and for my agent. No, I'm not just a glutton for punishment. I fully appreciate people who can give me the straight scoop on my work.