Marsha Canham's Blog

June 22, 2011

More choices

Filed under: Caesars Through the Fence — marshacanham @ 3:46 pm

Yesterday I rambled a bit about choices, and which ones suited me…namely, deciding to self publish my backlist books, which now number twelve, with one more to go.  The only three I don’t have the rights back for are my Scotland trilogy, Pride of Lions, Blood of Roses, and Midnight Honor, and once the postal strike is over up here, I may take a shot at getting those back too.

But we’re talking choices, and is self publishing a good choice for everyone to make?  There is so much buzz around the internet about ebooks taking over the publishing world, sales of Kindles and iPads and Nooks climbing to record amounts, book stores closing because they weren’t prepared for the digital revolution or simply can’t compete with it, canny authors like Konrath and Hocking and Locke making small fortunes because they caught the wave early…and traditionally printed authors taking the high road in some instances, complaining that the market is being flooded by *indie* authors.  

Like anything that seems too good to be true, I tend to think there is a risk of TGND syndrome happening, and that may have something to do with the anger of the *trad* authors.  TGND=The Guy Next Door.  You know the one.  He knows everything, has everything, can do everything better than you.  TGND finds out you’re an author and hey, he can write a book too, and he does.  He finds out now that he can publish it himself, and he does.  He sits back and waits for the millions to flood in, and when they don’t, he blames it on everything but his writing because of course, his book is brilliant and should be made into a movie starring Russell Crowe and Angelina Jolie. But in the meantime, the *trad* author shakes her head, mutters that he’s an idiot and goes back to work, content to know she has a contract in hand and a book on the shelves in twelve months.

I am not knocking all indie writers, so please don’t throw things.  There are some very good writers out there who, because of the economy and massive cutbacks in publishing, have been caught on the edge of the sword.  They’re good enough to be published, but the publishers just don’t have the juice to buy them.  These are the writers I feel for the most, because we’ve all been there one way or another.  I was a fairly well established author with Dell when there was a massive cutback and reorganization of the publishing house.  Myself along with a shocking number of good authors were told our contracts would not be renewed.  Some were able to find other homes, some were not.  Some became victims of “we’ll keep buying your books but if you think you’re getting what they paid you before, forget it and be happy you’re getting half of what you got before.”  So in a way, we had our fingers through the brass ring, but in the blink of an eye, it was snatched away. 

Publishing itself changed.  Drastically.  Virginia Henley has been a good friend for over 20 years. We started out together, writing Ribbon Romances for Avon.  We often compare how it used to be to how it is now and both of us just shake our heads.  Back then (those dreaded two words again LOL) an author was treated like someone special.  Flowers came to the door with signed contracts.  We used company FedEx accounts to mail manuscripts back and forth.  At conferences we were treated to lavish dinners with editors and publishers, some of us even had our conference fees paid for.  We were sent on book tours, met at the airport with limos and chauffered from store to store, then delivered at night to four star hotels.  I remember walking into a SUITE at a Marriot in New York and wondering if there were ten other authors joining me.  I recall a publisher booking flights for me to New York for a Friday LUNCH meeting then arranging for me to fly out to Indianapolis because my son had a baseball tournament that weekend and it was *just a little detour* so we could chat. We can remember being consulted about cover art and cover copy. *I* can remember days when the editor just trusted me to hand in a book on or around the contract date…no need for outlines, no worries that I wouldn’t turn it in.  There was a great deal of mutual respect between author and editor and even though we sometimes got pissed off with each other, once you had an editor, you stuck with her because she knew how you worked and you knew how far you could push to get what you wanted.  Advances?  Well, I started out with an advance of $2500 for China Rose, and I was thrilled. I still have a xerox of the cheque for the $1000.00 they paid me on signing.  My second book, I was paid $5000 and thought I was on the road to El Dorado.  Third book was *gasp* an astounding $15000.00.  I signed a three book contract after that for the amazing (to me) sum of $50,000, which doubled again for the next two book contract, then doubled again for the next two books…point being, you were paid as if the publisher had faith in you.  They also did marketing and advertising and ran promotions.  They had Fabio on the stepback covers and paid big bucks for top artists to do the covers and inside artwork.  I remember my first Pino cover…I knew I had “made it”.  I remember having dinner with my editor at a conference and pulling out a picture of a relatively unknown model, Cherif Fortin, who had introduced himself to me earlier and shown me mock ups of covers.  He was gorgeous, the mockup was spectacular, and I presented it to the editor with a request that it be used on my next cover, which it was.  Back then, you could do that.  And the biggie:  We had creative freedom to write what we wanted to write. The only caveat to that seemed to be to stay away from books about the Civil War.  It had been done to death and publishers were neither looking for, nor expecting to find the next GWTW.  But the bottom line was, we all knew if we kept writing good books, the publishers would be behind us 100% and our careers would grow, just like it was supposed to happen in those wildest of dreams.

Then came the Dell bloodbath and something changed in the publishing world.  It wasn’t subtle and it didn’t happen gradually.  It didn’t just happen to the authors either, it happened to editors and VP’s, and rippled right on down through the distribution and marketing departments.  Budgets were slashed and it was like a tsunami…first wave wiped out the authors and cut them loose, second wave swept away editors, third wave cut the department heads.  It was really quite a spectacular upheaval, looking back.  The lucky ones were spun around and managed to land on their feet.  The unlucky ones quietly disappeared.

I think one of the worst aftereffects was the devastating blow to everyone’s ego.  Big name authors suddenly found themselves without contracts and hearing their agents say they couldn’t sell their books, not at the level they expected and had earned over the years.  Advances dropped like rocks.  Someone being paid 100K per book was suddenly offered 25K and told to like it or lump it and move along.  I won’t even rant about the publisher who offered $2000 advances with 2% royalties, no I won’t. Worse still, they were told what was popular and told, basically, what to write.  They were told to limit the word count, to limit the *complexity* (that was one of my favorites *snort*) and to put more sex and less content into the stories.  Readers wanted sex, not history lessons. (I kid you not, that’s what I was told) They wanted simple stories they could read in a day. 

Some of us said f**k that and retired.

So you can see why, this whole new opportunity for self publishing has breathed new life into the publishing world.  Authors are no longer restricted to sending in manuscripts and getting rejection after rejection after rejection to one publisher after another in the hope that somewhere down the line their book might make it out of the slush pile.  They no longer have to “write to order” following rules of length or content or genre.  I write historical romance but hey, if I wanted to write a Sci Fi adventure based on Omicron Zeggy Three…I am perfectly free to do that!  But so is TGND.

He hasn’t paid his dues, however.  He hasn’t gone the rounds of submissions and rejections. Chances are he hasn’t even had the book edited or copyedited and may not have even had his spellcheck turned on.  These  are the shmeckles that *trad* authors are grumbling over, and to be honest, I’ve grumbled a bit too.  Not too long ago I downloaded a book from an *indie* author who had never been published in print before, but her posts seemed intelligent and witty and I thought I’d lend some support and buy her book.  Augh.  There were spelling mistakes on the first page.  Sentences took up whole paragraphs and there were so many “he said lovingly” and “she said beguilingly” that I wanted to start stabbing all the adverbs.  I couldn’t find one line of dialogue that didn’t come with a “he said barfingly”.  The book needed editing.  Badly.  There was a character who appeared sporadically through the book whose hair colour changed from one chapter to the next, not just from blond to tawny, but from blond to black and back to blond.  I guess they had hair dye in the 1700’s but it was a silly mistake and should have been caught on a read-through.

Again, I’m not knocking all indie authors.  I’ve downloaded and read some good stuff too from authors who have obviously edited, re-edited, and taken care with the words that present who they are and what they can do. And I’m not saying my own writing has no faults.  I just finished going through Straight For the Heart with my own heart in my throat trying not to stab every other page with a fork.  I eradicated more adverbs than I care to think about, but because I’ve been chastised for editing too much out of some of my backlist books, I left a lot intact.  Writing on the whole is a learning curve, and boy can I tell I was learning.

I used to give workshops on writing.  I had a  seminar once where I took some copies of a ten page excerpt from an unidentified manuscript and handed it out to the attendees, giving them two hours to read it through and find as many dumbass rookie errors as they could find.  They could even try their hand at correcting them, playing editor. The results were, as expected,  full of eager suggestions, thoughtful dissections, groans and laughter as one goofy mistake after another was brought to light.  Paragraphs with 200 words were reduced to 20 and said basically the same thing. Adverbs were slain by the dozens.  Every incident of “he said, she said” was banished and first names, when only two people were involved in the dialogue, were wiped out.  Dialogue itself was read aloud with gales of laughter and much slashing of red pens.

At the end of the excercise someone would inevitably ask who the author was, and when I told them it was me, they just sat there stunned.  I said it was my first book, my first attempt at writing and I’d even had it vetted through two neighbours who said wow, great book.  I was, in essence, TGND who thought I could just sit down, write a book, send it off and fly to Hollywood to help with the screen play.  

I wrote three others books after that one that were never published, never saw the light of day, but I learned something important each time.  Learned a lot, in fact.  I learned not to trust people’s opinions when they read something and said it was wow, great.  I learned not to trust myself when I read something and thought wow, that’s pretty good.  I learned to edit and edit again and again and again and when I thought I finally had it the way I wanted it, to edit it again.  I walked on egg shells for weeks waiting to hear from the editor, always thinking in the back of my mind that I sent the manuscript off too soon, that I should have changed this or changed that or done just one more edit… 

I’m not trying to discourage TGND from writing his brilliant story.  Who knows, it might very well be brilliant.  I’m just asking him to understand why traditionally printed authors might come across as a little reluctant to cheer them on.

As usual, I’ve rambled and probably rubbed a few people the wrong way. So I’ll put on my tomato-proof armor and duck behind the couch and just say…er…stay tuned for part three?  LOL



  1. Yeah, that was the dream. *nods* I wanted to be an author like THAT. When I was a kid, Mary Fisher from She-Devil (sans the homewrecking whore crash and burn part) was who I wanted to be. But publishing changed before I could get here. I suppose I should just be happy I made it. And don’t get me wrong, I am. I’m thrilled. But I want to make a living wage too.

    My friend has actually been doing a series of blogposts on the lack of soul in romance and lately, I’ve had a hard time getting into almost everything I pick up. I thought maybe it was just me, but this lack of soul thing seems to be an epidemic.

    And doll, if people are never rubbed the wrong way, they won’t have the sense to know what the right way feels like. 😉

    Comment by Saranna DeWylde — June 22, 2011 @ 4:13 pm | Reply

  2. Thanks for the trip down memory land, Marsha. I’ve had a lot of wonderful memories of my 20 year career during that Golden Age, but they were almost buried under the depressing series of events that led me to jump ship in the late 90’s. I was nodding as I read so much of your post, including the paragraph about the demand for less complexity, more sex. ARGH.
    I know what you mean about TGND, but I have faith that it will all settle down in the end. I’m just grateful to be part of this revolution 🙂

    Comment by Cynthia Wright — June 22, 2011 @ 4:35 pm | Reply

  3. Your blog is right on. Authors can be talented and have fans aplenty and still fall victim to their publisher’s lunacy.
    It’s difficult to get up, brush yourself off, utter a few choice curses and keep writing.
    Being able to indie publish is long overdue.

    Comment by Phoebe Conn — June 22, 2011 @ 5:36 pm | Reply

  4. What you say is so true! But I am happy of the changes because as a reader now I have choices. In the last years I had only a very restricted number of writers I really liked because romances were shorter and shorter and becoming all the same as if there was a model and authors had to write with it. And now I know that was the case! I think having authors publishing themselves is maybe a great idea for them and for the readers. I know that there are some out there that don’t know what they are doing (I downloaded some very badly written or edited books) but that is a risk we have to take and usually you can download a sample that can give a good idea of what are you getting into. Thank you for bringin this to our attention

    Comment by Susana — June 22, 2011 @ 8:27 pm | Reply

  5. Marsha, Thank you for the great post. I love them. And yes, when I started writing romance and joined RWA 1991, that was the dream I wanted, the one described in the first paragraph. However, life intervened and now when I have two completed historical’s…without much of the cookie-cutter requirements that they need today, I am left with the fragments of those old dreams and a new reality. Sigh. But I will write, because I can’t stop, and just maybe If I am lucky enough, they will be published. (hopefully without editing mistakes.Writer I am Grammar girl I am not. LOL BTW, kudo’s to having Virginia Henley and Phoebe Conn here. I was a big fan of both.

    Comment by Patti — June 24, 2011 @ 2:16 pm | Reply

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