Overhead

Overhead:  That concept they lay on you at the auto dealership when you wonder why it costs $70 per hour to fix your car.

Overhead:  A life concept I too often ignore.

mechanic bill

I digress today from writing about writing per se to talk about the real-world business of writing. Specifically, is this new age better? Or just different?

Surely, we have resources we never had before. Google maps, Wikipedia, thousands … nay millions … of specialized websites. I said in the last post that I was able to scope out and define a little town in Austria right from my comfortable chair in Minnesota.

Wonderful, but …

  • Arriving home from a trip abroad, my good old HP printer doesn’t print. Turns out Apple’s latest update of its OS is probably the problem. That cost three hours and led to a new printer.
  • WordPress.com explains that my podcast hasn’t passed through to iTunes, depriving it of 80% of its listeners. Nobody knows quite why. I’m looking into a separate website. Several hours squandered there.
  • Audible/ACX, the Amazon audiobook service, hasn’t responded after having told me there’s “electrical noise” in my audition file. Serializing the first novel as a podcast is on hold.

Overhead!

I don’t know about you, but I realize I should allow for all this overhead when I set my expectations about what this wonderful world of technology promises.

The Novel and Budweiser

Word has it that Amazon has taken yet another step in the value chain that is writing. They have the distribution part down pat, and the production part? Well, they have that, too. So where does a restless creative force go next? Pretty obvious: The making of the product, which is to say, the writing.

In the near future, if you’re a hyper-qualified Prime member and you’re knocking around Amazon looking for something to read, you will be able to tell Amazon the genre and the plot elements you’d like and their algorithms will whip up a story for you and drill it right into your Kindle. And you wondered where art comes from.

Now, maybe I’m biased, but that strategy will (of course) work well for Amazon in the short run, but I bet the result will be a Budweiser.

There is a little town in Bohemia called Budvar. Folks have been making beer in BudvarBudvar since before recorded history, and it is good beer. When you’re next in Vienna or Prague, ask for a Budweiser. You will get a beer from that little town in Bohemia, and it will have only a vague resemblance to the Budweiser you can get in the States. The beer from Budvar is the modern version of the beer Budvar has always made, and its flavor is a function of a master brewer’s palate.

When the Budweiser from Budvar arrived in the States, it was probably pretty similar to the delicious stuff that now comes from Budvar. But in the years since, it has been run through consumer testing, the cost accounting department, the advertising department, and so on. The result is essential Crushed Beerbeer. Beer stripped of any taste that might offend. It is light. It is bubbly. It is aggressively anodyne, if that is not an oxymoron.  It is high-priced water. As a result, not surprisingly, a whole new industry has sprung up – Craft Beer, aka beer that tastes like beer.

So, I’m wondering how long it will take for automata to reduce writing to its essential drivel and for Craft Writing – aka Not Drivel – to triumph once again.

No Jealousy

Surely, if there are two professions in which there should be no professional jealousy, they are prostitution and literature.

WIlliam Faulkner said this.  Not sure why.  Are both providing similar stimulation, although typically in different locations?

Every time I read a phrase I would really have liked to write, there is that little twinge.  But on the balance, we are running a race against ourselves and our inner voice, aren’t we?  So jealousy is pointless.  Then we get to the publishing part, and need to act a little more like that other profession.

Amazon!

When I started this blog, my purpose was to keep a diary of my writing. So far, I have resisted the temptation to attach pictures of kittens doing very cute things, commentary on politicians doing very stupid things or screeds on the degradation of the moral fiber of the world.

I bet you’re relieved.  OK, just one kitten picture.Kittens

Now, I beg your indulgence.

Writing has two parts: the creative journey that I set out to document, and the part about getting someone to read the end result, aka Publishing.

The part of me that spent a number of years in business analyzing companies like Amazon is nervous.

Right now, Amazon is eviscerating its competition the old-fashioned way, by offering great service at low cost in order to gain market share. As former executives say proudly in a documentary (CNBC’s Amazon Rising), Amazon targets the already weak, because they’re easiest to knock off. A very 19th Century business strategy. (Think Teddy Roosevelt, J.P Morgan and the Trust Busters.)

If you don’t think Amazon’s products aAmazon logore cheap at the price, look at their financials: strong growth at the sales line and tiny, tiny profit. 2/3 of a percent, way below subsistence. The market should punish Amazon, denying them capital and thus snuffing their growth.

Guess what? The market is willing to pay 500 times current earnings for Amazon shares when most retailers’ stock prices are 15-20 times earnings. Is the market crazy? (Stock analysts disagree with each other, as usual.) Maybe. More likely, the market looks at Amazon’s very successful operations and stated business plan and believes that Amazon will be able to raise profits substantially in the future. Which brings us to books, where Amazon started.

I can see why a business wanting to chart new ground in retail distribution would start with books: The technology that has changed music and newspapers is threatening publishing, and it looks as if publishing is not handling the challenge very well … so, it’s a good place to start, particularly if your strategy is to knock off the weaker players. To date, Amazon has extinguished a big piece of the publishers’ retail distribution system, starting with the local stores we loved, then Borders. Is Barnes and Noble next?

When Amazon owns the whole distribution system, there will be pressure to raise profits. The market won’t give anyone a pass forever. There are two ways to do that: Raise prices or reduce costs. Those of us in the writing business are part of the cost side of the ledger. Based on the predatory nature of Amazon’s business plan, it’s not too hard to see that costs will be squeezed.  And prices? Well, you already know that Amazon pricing for books is partly your call and partly Amazon’s.

Maybe we’d better pray for another trust buster.

(The Economist for June 21-27 discusses Amazon in some depth. CNBC’s documentary Amazon Rising was broadcast recently and may be available on Internet/TV reruns.)

Publishing, a Disturbing Article, and The Maginot Line

This morning, I’ve been thinking about platform (oops … Platform), the Maginot Line and an article I just read by Michael Wolff, “How book biz dug its own Amazon grave.”

If you’re a writer like I am, you probably fall into one of two camps: (1) Published, or at least agented; or (2) still hopeful. I am in the still hopeful group, and I am watching the evolution of the publishing industry closely. Of course, I’m on the outside, guessing at what’s going on, trying to decide whether to continue to bust my hump trying for representation or just self-publish. The scary part is that it’s clear that publishing is changing, but it’s not clear how a writer is going survive and prosper in the brave new world of heightened technology.

Business strategists intone the phrase ‘creative destruction’ to describe radical change to an industry, often driven by technology. They say it with such relish and optimism. Fine, if you’re a business strategist … but as a person at the nexus of the destruction wondering what to do, not so much fun.

Wolff’s article reminded me, a former coattail member of the community of business strategists, of Michael Porter, who began writing brilliantly about competitive strategy thirty years ago. In a competitive environment (this is loosely paraphrasing Porter from memory, always dangerous), businesses attempt to erect barriers to entry … tools of the trade and well-kept trucks for tradesmen, patents and software for tech companies, the enormous capital investment in a power plant for utilities … to compete effectively and protect their bottom line. A corollary is that the bigger the barriers to entry a business erects, the more invested it gets in maintaining those barriers.

Even a few years ago, publishing businesses controlled the production and distribution of books, pretty much from inception through production to the retail seller. That control has been taken away at both ends of the chain of production and distribution … many retail sellers have been driven out of business, and the publishing mechanics that formerly meant only publishers could print the end product have changed dramatically. It would take brilliant perspicacity and firm resolve to drive out of the ditch the industry is in. With that thought in The Maginot linemind, consider the Maginot Line, that WWII barrier erected by France to make absolutely sure Germans would never march onto French soil again. That was the line the Luftwaffe flew over. The scary takeaway for the publishing industry is that the noise in the sky is Amazon and Print on Demand technology flying over (soon, apparently, with drones). My question is: What happens to the lowly writer drudge? Yes, I hear the warm air being blown on The New Internet Marketing, but it’s not clear to me what a writer is to do the reach his potential readers.

I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on this.

Finally!

As I said in my last post, I have been twisted around by several helpful critiques from several people in the know.  Each one makes a lot of sense.  Each brings some sense of the market for which I’m writing.  Trouble is, they all disagree.

I have finally hit on the way I want Hack the Yak to read.  What a relief!  I think I’ve integrated some of the comments, but mainly, I can quit twisting and turning.  I hope.

A Query Letter

Another reason for my dilatory behavior with respect to this blog is that been polishing my query letter for Hack the Yak and have come to realize that style is all.  For instance, ‘dilatory behavior’ probably doesn’t belong in my query, given its soporific effect on a 21st century reader.  While good writing is thought to be timeless, style changes pretty dramatically over time. Here’s the equivalent of a query letter from 1706:

John Locke

John Locke

 

I HAVE put into thy hands what has been the diversion of some of my idle and heavy hours. If it has the good luck to prove so of any of thine, and thou hast but half so much pleasure in reading as I had in writing it, thou wilt as little think thy money, as I do my pains, ill bestowed. Mistake not this for a commendation of my work; nor conclude, because I was pleased with the doing of it, that therefore I am fondly taken with it now it is done. This, Reader, is the entertainment of those who let loose their thoughts, and follow them in writing; which thou oughtest not to envy them, since they afford thee an opportunity of the like diversion.   (John Locke, a letter accompanying An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and addressed to:  the Right Honourable Lord Thomas, Earl of Pembroke and Montgomery, Barron Herbert of Cardiff, Lord Ross, of Kendal, Par, Fitzhugh, Marmion, St. Quintin, and Shurland;
Lord President of His Majesty’s Most Honourable Privy Council;
And Lord Lieutenant of the County of Wilts, and of South Wales.)

Writing Groups II

Shoreacres gave a good and trenchant response to my post on writing groups:  “Here’s the key phrase in your post: …having a good writer look at your own stuff…. ” and goes on to say, “(I)f we’re going to listen to other voices, we need to choose those voices carefully.” See her blog at shoreacres.wordpress.com

As I said in the first ‘writing groups’ post, I’ve joined a couple of groups.  I agree with shoreacres that we need to choose carefully.  The hard part of ‘carefully’ has been, for me at least, not choosing just people whose writing I admire most.  I love fine literary writing, and there are a couple of people in my writing groups who are great wordsmiths.  Their critique of my stuff helps iron out the plodding bits.  But I’m writing genre fiction, so I need to listen to folks whose work I don’t read by choice.  In my quest for ‘comps’, which is to say, writers I can compare my own writing to in queries to agents and publishers, I’ve been reading a lot of mystery/suspense lately.  Right now, I’m reading one by a best-selling author whose writing is considerably weaker than at least four (unpublished) writers in groups I’m in.  The characters are square-chinned, chiseled cardboard, and the prose varies from workmanlike to plodding … but the plot drags me along.  For me, it’s a lesson learned.  Reading other genres exposes me to gag-me-with-a-spoon phraseology, but phraseology that’s appropriate to the genre (we’re talking chick-lit, here), but also to writing that has great mechanics (clear description in the right places, despite the heaving-breast breathlessness).  So, I appreciate shoreacres’ insight and would only add that ‘good’ writers’ groups include all sorts of writers.

Overhead … if a Tweet falls in the blogoshere and there’s no one there to ‘like’ it …

MechanicIn a prior life, I knew quite a bit about overhead.  It’s that mysterious add-on the mechanic uses to explain why a $20-dollar-an-hour guy is charged to you at 60 bucks an hour.  Or why a lawyer has to charge $400/hr.  (Never mind … lawyers never explain overhead.)

I have read quite a bit recently about writing.  There’s hardship, writer’s block, the pain of loneliness.  The creative process, like any birthing, is supposed to be painful but ultimately rewarding.  At least, that’s the take of the great writers of, say, the 19th and 20th centuries.  But those writers from days of yore (like, you know, before 2002) never seem to talk much about overhead.  Modern treatises on writing must understand that overhead is an issue, because they allude to it.  They’re often telling you that you have to “make time for writing!”  That chapter is followed by the one called Optimizing Your Social Media Platform.  The subtext is that you’d better do both.  In this connected twenty-first century of ours, everything … everything … needs a marketing component, right?

As an unpublished writer (well, almost published … see self-congratulatory post immediately preceding this one), I guess it’s my lot in life to spend a great deal of time on the pick-and-shovel work of writing.  But it does get old.

I looked back over the last several weeks, and I see that I spent my ‘writing’ time thusly:

15%

Writing blog entries (and I’m behind the sensible prescription to ‘write a short entry every couple of days and a longer one every couple of weeks’)

5%

Figuring out what the #$$% HootSuite is good for

5%

Trying to understand the byzantine kluge of software called Facebook.  (Oh, yes … they changed format a couple of weeks ago, just when I’d got used to the old one)

10%

Rewriting my pitch (aka Query) for novel #1, Hack the Yak (that’s edition 8)

7%

Reading other people’s blogs.  After all, when blogs follow you, you have to follow them …

4%

Cleaning up e-mail from the 85 blogs I follow.

17%

Getting distracted and going on bird walks to find really interesting stuff on Wikipedia, YouTube, etc., etc.

7%

Reformatting and extracting short stories and parts of current writing for submission to writing groups, as well as commenting on others’ writing.

4%

Searching for publishers, agents and literary journals to submit to (I’m mostly on vacation from that for the moment.)

26%

WRITING.  Happily creating, investigating, winding up and unwinding the story of the next novel and watching the people of the novel grow, struggle, fight and fornicate.

So, when I say, “I’m going in to write for a couple of hours,” I guess I have to multiply by 4.