Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Ernest Hemingway, Florida and Digital Publishing

Florida is a beautiful state. This was my first visit, other than Orlando and Disney World many years ago. I'm a native Californian with the smugness that most of us have regarding the climate, lifestyle, recreational opportunities and, of course, our universities, among them Cal Tech and Stanford rated the best in the WORLD, not just among the best, but the best depending on which survey you read.

Until now I'd disregarded Florida believing it to be a poor second to the Golden State. I was wrong. Florida's fall/winter climate is better than California's. The air is a smogless, breezy warm without the slightest hint of chill. Sunsets are brilliant and long, followed by the kind of coppery pink dusk that I thought Hawaii would have and doesn't. Both the Atlantic and Gulf are calm and comfortable enough for swimming, even in October, and clear enough to watch schools of fish circle just out of reach. The sand is cool, sugar white and powdery, the seafood fresh and delicious, the people kind and welcoming, and then there's the pie. Nothing beats the key lime pie. I rarely turn down any kind of dessert, but the tart sweet cream of Florida's traditional state pie is out of this world. I know Florida has hurricanes and floods, but California has earthquakes and fires and, recently, our share of flooding as well. I'd never considered retiring in Florida or anywhere else other than California, but inexpensive real estate, warm nights and that key lime pie just might change my mind. 

The Novelists' Inc. Conference was the reason for my visit. The focus was digital publishing. Until quite recently the organization of published authors frowned on digital publishing, but progress marches on and with the demise of print book stores, eBooks are clearly the wave of the future. Therefore, objections must be put aside. The numbers were clearly explained. Marketing and formatting, social networking and self-publishing were the catch words of the weekend. Industry professionals were eloquent, writers asked pointed questions. I learned a lot. Clearly, those savvy in advertising and promotion will reap the benefits of the self-publishing wave.

I'm still at the overwhelmed stage. Eventually, I expect to make sense of it all. I have a print publisher but I'm anxious to climb aboard the self-publishing bandwagon. It means I'll have to design covers, format text, upload to eBook sites, guest post, compose newsletters and create a fan email list. Interestingly enough, a Twitter or Facebook presence only rates 1.9% as far as bringing in sales, a poor showing compared to Barnes & Noble browsers at 25%, and word of mouth at 14%. (I'm not really sure what word of mouth is if it isn't Twitter and Facebook.)

The good news is self-published authors have control over when a book is published, cover art, marketing and royalties. The bad news is authors must pay for everything up front and hope to recoup their money, much like any other start up business. The other bad news is, what if a writer is good at writing but not so good at cover art and marketing? What if after all that publishing, searching for images, marketing, figuring out finances and working a day job, she falls into bed without a word written?

I visited Ernest Hemingway's Key West house this weekend. Ernest began writing at 6:00 am, fished all afternoon, drank at the local pub all evening and all night wrote impressions of the locals to include in his books. I wonder how he would have handled self-publishing and promotion. Like I said, I'm still at the overwhelmed stage.

Ernest Hemingway's Writing Room

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Business and Friendship...to mix or not to mix

This week I'm traveling to yet another writers' conference. But this time I'm not going for the purposes of selling a novel, promoting a novel, praying for an award or scouting for an agent. This time I'm going purely for information. Although there will be a few editors and agents, I won't be sitting in on their presentations. My focus will be the e-book publishers, authors and marketeers, in other words, the do-it-yourselfers who managed to climb out of the ashes of the print book decline and make a living.

It isn't easy making a living as a writer. The average income of a writer hovers somewhere around where it did 20 years ago, about $17,000 a year, not exactly the kind of salary that makes new college graduates line up for interviews. I did a little better than that in the days when advances were the norm and when I published regularly, one novel a year, occasionally, two. Naively, I assumed the golden years would last forever; I would continue to write books that merited good reviews and, in return, my publishers would accept everything I wrote, sign the contracts, and the checks, promote my books and ask for more.

That didn't happen. Publishing houses merged, editors were fired and authors, even those who had at some point in their careers achieved bestseller status, were released when their contracts came up for renewal. It happens to the best of us. Sales are everything. When publishers tighten their belts, shelf space is at a premium. An author is only as valuable as her last few books. Writing may be an art, but publishing is a business and unless an author wants to write without selling, she must embrace a new marketing plan. Hence, those of us who cherish our privacy like priceless jewels, who take deep breaths and give ourselves encouraging pep talks in front of the mirror before every social event, find that we must now not only write, edit and publish our books, we must develop an online presence in order to sell them as well.

I'm not enjoying that part at all. I do like Facebook. I enjoy keeping up with my friends, reading their congratulations in good times and their commiserations when times aren't quite so good. I love the photos, the recommendations, the recipes, the travel suggestions. But I don't love mentioning my books. Maybe it's because my late father once told me that business and friendships aren't a good mix. He was right about most things so I assume he was probably right about that, too. All of which is why I'm heading off to Florida for the Novelists' Inc. Conference to figure out a way to develop that online presence everyone keeps talking about, the one that will develop business relationships, sell my books and not presume upon my friends. No wonder I'm breathing deeply and talking to myself in front of the mirror.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

I Don't Know How She Does It

I didn’t see the movie, but I recently finished Allison Pearson’s book, I DON’T KNOW HOW SHE DOES IT. It’s written in that British chick-lit-speak that became popular during the BRIDGET JONE’S DIARY years, except that I didn’t find it as appealing as BRIDGET JONES, just snappier and more repetitious. The story of a young mother battling the impossible tasks of her dual careers as an investment broker/wife and mother begins with her smashing the crusts of store-bought mince pies, then sprinkling them with sugar to look homemade at two o’clock in the morning in order to compete with the stay-at-home moms bringing treats to a children’s play. The scene works, but as the novel progresses we find our heroine claiming to love her high-powered job enough to settle for a manipulative, exorbitantly expensive nanny who loses receipts, a long-suffering husband and a boss who disregards the most basic of human needs. How could a woman who managed to claw her way into “a man’s world,” her words, meekly settle for the kind of life that makes the meat-packing factories of Upton Sinclair’s, THE JUNGLE, appear relaxing? I found the book exaggerated and hard to swallow. The author, although a working mom, admittedly, never worked in the field she describes.

I suppose what really bothers me is that my daughter, also the product of a working mother, raved about the book. In fact, it’s her copy that I borrowed. The possibility that my own child related to the attention-deprived children of Kate Reddy, appalled me. I was a teacher for pity’s sake, home after school, on weekends, holidays and summers. I made breakfast, lunch and dinner, volunteered frequently, helped with homework and chauffeured, to and from, practices and games. What more could I have done, I wondered, except not work at all, an option, I believed, wasn’t possible for me? And yet, was it? Could we have lived on less, moved to a less affluent area, shopped more carefully, eschewed the lessons and summer camps, the sports’ fees, vacations and dinners out? Would my children have benefited from a more relaxed mother who didn’t panic when the thermometer pulled out of a protesting mouth read 100 degrees at 8:30 in the morning? I’ll never know. Those days are long gone.

“Mothers have enough to do at home,” my daughter states emphatically.  “Read the book. How can anyone possibly manage a life like that and raise anything but neurotic children?” I stare at her, mutely wondering how she can ignore the obvious. Finally, I muster the courage to broach the question. “Was it really so terrible?” She hesitates, formulating an answer somewhere between her usual brutal honesty and the natural desire of a loving daughter to protect her mother’s feelings. “Summers were good,” she replies, “and holidays were great. You always made holidays great.”

Then my son called from Chicago. “Honestly, how would you rate your childhood experience?” I asked him. He laughed. “Are you serious? I had a great childhood, Mom. No one had it better than us.” My relief was embarrassing.

Two children. Six years apart. One female, one male. The same parents. Go figure.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Teaching Then, and Now

Yesterday, in the grocery store, I reconnected with a former student. Ten years had passed since he was in my class. Ten years is huge in the life of a child. This particular young adult was bright-eyed, conversant, personable and, to my amazement, able to recall quite a few incidents from his 6th grade year, the year I was his teacher. He told me that was the year he learned to love reading. He asked if students today still read “A Wrinkle in Time,” (not so much anymore) and then, he topped off his walk down memory lane by telling me he still had the novella he wrote in my class. “It was my first book,” he added.

He isn’t the first student who told me he learned to love reading and writing in 6th grade. I’ve had a few journalists, English teachers and even a novelist come back and report to me over the years. But for some reason, yesterday, the words warmed my heart more than usual. Maybe it’s because this year is particularly frustrating, 39 students in a room designed for 25, old programs thrown out for new ones with structures that appear nebulous and haphazard, the reinventing of a wheel that falls apart upon not too close inspection.

I’ve been around a long time. I’ve seen whole language replace phonics, Anita Archer rise and Madeleine Hunter sink, and cursive handwriting bite the dust. I’ve seen, in an effort to stimulate creativity, grammar and spelling thrown out in exchange for a kind of accepted stream-of-consciousness writing that would make Faulkner and Joyce look like staunch fundamentalists. I’ve seen desks arranged in rows, desks arranged in groupings of four, six and eight only to return to rows again, this time with chairs pushed so tightly together, children sit like cooped chickens counting down to their few precious moments of recess. We wonder why they fidget, why their attention falls short, why they don’t listen. Take a walk through classrooms with desks that can’t be raised another inch, defaced books used years beyond their intended retirement date and air conditioners that, on the hottest of days, blow heat into classrooms without windows.

We fundraise frequently and this year every classroom has a smart board.  I’ve heard that students will soon have Ipads. We test as often as we read, more often now that the teaching of novels, according to the latest round of statistics, doesn’t reap the results that staying within the Language Art’s textbook does. I miss the days when discussion was a part of instruction, when teaching wasn’t quite so regimented, when a student could experiment with an essay without his neighbor bumping his elbow, when homework was reasonable.

I wonder, ten years from now, will anyone stop me in the grocery store and tell me she remembered 6th grade because she loved reading the state authorized textbook? Will she remember anything of elementary school other than those few precious moments of recess?