Monday, October 17, 2011

the future of publishing

The title of this column is one thing everybody in publishing is worried about, and I have a few thoughts that have been percolating over the past four months (sorry!), during which I haven't posted on here. I can only plead that my wife and I have been doing a lot of writing. Unfortunately, very little of it has enhanced our career--at least not yet. I should have continued what I was working on earlier: the next book in the Samurai Detective series. I haven't entirely neglected it; I am about 60 pages along on a first draft, but there's been too much else on my plate to really concentrate on it. More on that in later days.

Back to the title of this column. Today's New York Times has an article that tells how Amazon, the maker of the Kindle e-reader, is signing up authors directly--even paying advances, at least to celebrity authors like Penny Marshall. (A celebrity author is merely a celebrity who puts his/her name to a book, but there are a lot of readers for such books.) Now the significance of this is that it cuts out the conventional paper-and-ink publishers. They're not needed if an author goes straight to e-books. Nor, by the way, are conventional agents, saving the writer 15% of his/her royalties.
Now any author can, right now, publish books as e-books (or even in paper, if that's your thing). I have done it with four books. You can find them all on,, or One of the four is a rewritten version of a book I published in paper-and-ink. The other three (including the sequel to that first book) are originals. As I've indicated earlier, the big problem with selling your books this way is publicizing them. I still haven't solved that problem. But publishing with Amazon directly would presumably include publicity supplied by them. As one of the writers quoted in the Times article says, "I assume they want to make a lot of money off the book, which is encouraging to me." Because Amazon has the resources.

Now let's suppose Amazon and their authors do well. Presumably their contract is exclusive. In other words, readers will have to buy the book in Kindle format, which will incidentally sell more Kindles and more of Amazon's brand-new tablet. That will force other e-book publishers, such as Barnes & Noble (Nook) and Sony to get into the business of signing up authors as well. At some point, I would imagine Apple will enter the fray as well, just because they're in everything. All this can only be good for authors. And I might add, very bad for paper-and-ink publishers. How about agents? I can see the better agents moving into preparing authors' manuscripts for e-book publication and even marketing them to e-book publishers. Some authors don't like to do those things for themselves. I think this is going to happen faster than you think.

A nod to those, like me, who love bookstores. First of all, there will continue to be used-book stores, and for a while at least, stores that sell certain kinds of paper-and-ink books. Children's books, picture books, maybe cookbooks...  But I think the behemoth kind of bookstore will follow the Borders chain into oblivion. The economics of such stores, i.e., rent, won't permit them to survive.

Friday, June 24, 2011

advice from a mistress

I haven't posted on here lately, because I had to put aside the Seikei/Judge Ooka book to work on something that had a better prospect of making money. Actually, my wife is still interested in publishing in the paper/ink format, and I have promised her I'd help on new books. So we're working on a project I don't want to discuss just now.
However, I read an article in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine about Amanda Hocking, who is the most successful person publishing in the e-book format--that is, in e-books only. She sells about 9,000 copies of her books every day, and some months she's sold as many as 100,000.
I'll let you read the article yourself, but there was something there that seemed relevant to an earlier topic on this blog: writer's block. Amanda has written ten novels in the past two years, as far as I can tell. She certainly doesn't have writer's block.
Is that because she was born lucky? No. She had written a book by the time she was seventeen, and sent it out to about 50 agents, all of whom rejected her. After that she took menial jobs (no college for her; no writer's workshops) until she realized she wasn't going to be a writer by waiting for it to happen. To quote from the article, "It was January 2009, and Hocking started treating writing as a job. Before it was 'something I always did--like playing video games.' After, she wrote even when she didn't feel like it."
Read that quote again. She treated writing like a job. She wrote even when she didn't feel like it.
Nobody can guarantee that you (or I) will ever sell as many books as Amanda does. But if you want to write seriously, you treat it like a job. Can't give you better advice than that.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

characters and plot

I've been working on thinking about characters that might be in this book, in addition to Seikei and the Judge. The original thought I had was that Seikei would be entrusted with the care of a Dutch boy about the same age. I'm thinking that the Dutch boy won't speak Japanese, and Seikei, of course, won't speak Dutch.
First thought I had was that the boy might be the son of a ship's captain. They are guests of the shogun, who did frequently like to see the Europeans, more as curiosities than anything else.
Conflict comes when the captain is killed--but why?
[If I don't have a solution to that problem, I go right on jotting down notes. Usually I find the answer eventually.]
Are there other non-Japanese guests? One of them might kill the captain because he wants to take over the lucrative trade with Japan. Maybe a Chinese, who also came into the port at Nagasaki.
A death in the Shogun's palace is serious, a blow to his honor if a guest is killed there. Death will have to come by poison, or some other method where the killer is not immediately obvious.
So the Judge is called on to solve the case. Maybe he and Seikei are already there, to see the foreigners, whom Seikei has heard are "red-haired devils." He's surprised when they don't have red hair.
Maybe one of the things the foreigners are displaying to the Shogun is Western-style food. The poison comes in that.
The judge cannot hold the other foreigners for long, so he entrusts the captain's son to Seikei, who will escort him back to Nagasaki. Maybe they leave a day or two before the others. The Judge wants to see who will pursue them?
Have to find a route that a traveler took through Japan. [That was Shiba Kokan, the scientist and artist that some call the Leonardo of Japan.]
Along the way, Seikei and the boy will meet interesting people, some helpful, some dangerous. Like to work in a Zen monk. He shelters them along the way? Helps them? How?

Anyway, this shows you how starting to think of characters helps you to form a plot. It works for me. Maybe you'll find a better way that suits you. Kurt Vonnegut once told me he had big charts on the wall where he tried to outline plots before he began to write. But he admitted that he hardly ever finished the story with the plot he had at the beginning.

Monday, May 16, 2011

hunting for ideas

People always ask me how to get ideas for a story. I mentioned last time that you have to create a world, and the world I'm creating is the world of 18th century Japan, where Seikei lives. Now for the past week and a half I've been writing down ideas that come to me from reading about that world. Some people find this boring. To me, it's like fishing. You sit there a lot of the time with your line in the water, but no fish are biting. But you keep your line in the water.

I'm not going to put down here every idea I jotted down. That would be REALLY boring. But here's a page of notes I wrote while looking through a book written by a Dutch trader in Japan.
The Dutch were all thought to have red hair like the demons portrayed in Japanese art.
Some black men from India and Africa sailed with Dutch traders. Maybe first time Seikei sees one, he thinks the man has suffered terrible burns.
Chinese ships also docked at Nagasaki--maybe a Chinese character?
Bird painted on the sterns of ships to speed the journey and avoid shipwreck.
When ships approached the port, they signaled port officials with flags.
The ship fired a gun salute when arriving or departing. This was a signal to furl or raised their sails, done under cover of smoke. Seikei would never have seen this before
Komo-Ryu (school of Red Hairs): the Dutch
Namban-Ryu (school of the Southern Barbarians, the Portuguese, who originally arrived from their colonies to the South.
Dutch doctors were sometimes in the employ of daimyos.
Glass was rarely used by Japanese in Tokugawa times, but the Europeans used it in their "factories," or trading HQs.
Somebody is pursuing them--Seikei meets the boy from the theater troupe in Tokaido Inn book.

See how it goes? You don't use every idea, but you put yourself into the world, so you can write about it, and then (the last line) maybe you get a story idea.
This is just the way I'm doing it. You may find better ways for yourself.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

early steps

Sorry it's taken me more than a week to follow up on the last blog. You'd think I would have more time to write than I do. Anyway, as the process of writing a novel begins, I have to do research. Fans of our books about Seikei and Judge Ooka often ask: "Have you ever been to Japan?" Some seem convinced that we must have visited there many times. But the answer is "No, but nobody alive today has ever been to the Japan that the characters of our books live in." That is, Japan around the year 1700.
 We visit that Japan through books. So I've been reading and jotting down notes and ideas for the story. Here are the titles and authors of some books that are easy to get: Everyday Life in Traditional Japan, by Charles J. Dunn; Daily Life in Japan at the Time of the Samurai, by Louis Frederic; Daily Life in Early Modern Japan, by Louis G. Perez; Handbook to Life in Medieval and Early Modern Japan, by William E. Deal.
   It's important to note that Dorothy and I have read several of these books many times, but you always learn more when you're thinking of writing a new story. I'm also lucky enough to have access to the libraries at Columbia University, and since we're going to deal with the Dutch traders in Japan in this book, I went to Columbia's East Asian Studies Library to find some more books. I had heard about a Japanese man named Shiba Kokan, who lived in the 18th century. He was very interested in what the Japanese of his day called "Dutch learning," which meant the science, medicine, and art of Europe at that time.  Shiba was both an artist and a scientist, and for this reason some people call him the "Leonardo da Vinci of Japan." He made a long trip from Edo to Nagasaki and wrote about it. That gave me the idea of having Seikei take such a trip himself.
   I think the lesson here--if you're looking for lessons--is that by learning more about a place and time, you develop ideas that you might use in a story set in that place and time. Now some people write about imaginary places. Think of Lord of the Rings. In that case, you're creating your own world, but that world will take shape as you think about it and write down what it's like. All worlds have rules. They have to be consistent. If you have a character who can fly in one scene, for example, you can't have him unable to fly in another. At least not unless you have a magic charm that takes away the power of flight...
   I'll try to contribute to this blog more often. I always tell people you should make a habit of writing. Write every day, if possible. Good advice, if you can keep it. Usually, when I'm doing the writing part of writing a book, I do follow that advice. Right now, I'm building a world in my head.

Monday, April 25, 2011

See how I write

OK, I'm going to try to be very practical here. Many readers have emailed us and asked for more books in the Samurai Detective series. The publisher, as you probably know, doesn't want any more because they didn't sell as well as hoped for, even though two of the six books were nominated for an Edgar and one (In Darkness, Death) actually won an Edgar for best YA book of 2005. The publisher really didn't try to sell the books, never advertised them, and on one memorable occasion when we were invited to appear at the Smithsonian bookstore for a presentation/signing, the editor refused to pay for our trip, saying, "We don't promote books that don't sell." And vice-versa, I might add.
Anyway, I am going to try to write a first draft of a new book in the series, and let you watch, so to speak. I'll try to describe the process, and maybe that will show how I write. Remember, that doesn't mean you should necessarily write that way. I think everybody finds his/her own method. And in fact, when my wife and I write non-fiction, she usually writes the first draft.
OK, then. The first thing I do--you're going to think this is boring--is try to find an idea. In this case, I already have some characters, especially Seikei and his foster father Judge Ooka, who have been the central characters in all the previous books.
Talking it over with my co-author, we decided it might be good to have Seikei meet some of the Westerners who were allowed to trade with Japan at this time (early 1700s). After the shoguns banned Christianity and threw most of the foreigners out, the still permitted some trading ships from the Netherlands to dock at Nagasaki, and store their goods on the man-made island of Deshima, in the harbor there. Sometimes Dutch traders came up to Edo and appeared before the shogun.
I think every story begins with "what if?" and this one begins with "What if there was a crime committed against one of the Dutch traders while he was in the shogun's palace?" That's the starting point, and the next step (or steps) is to write down possibilities.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

how to write

OK, this will be a little bit Zen, but my wife and I wrote six books about a samurai detective and his adopted son. So...
The Japanese tea master Sen no Rikyu, who originated the "rules" for what is still the tea ceremony today, was asked by a student to explain the mysteries of the tea ceremony. Rikyu replied, "Tea is nothing but this. First you make the water boil. Then you brew the tea. Then you drink it properly. That is all you need to know."
The student was disappointed by this answer, and said, "I know all that already." Rikyu replied, "Well, if there is anyone who knows it already, I should be glad to become his pupil."
This story reminded me of the time when I enrolled in the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop many years ago. I was expecting that once I got there, somebody would explain to me how to write. We had our choice of five professional writers, and I picked a then little-known science-fiction writer named Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Let me say that Kurt was very entertaining. But he told us at the very first class, "Nobody can teach you how to write. You have to teach yourself." He had us buy an anthology of short stories by masters of the form, read them all, give them a grade, and then justify the grades in class. Besides that, he had us write our own stories that he mimeographed and distributed to the class, and had the other students comment on them.
As far as I can recall, Kurt never told us anything about writing, although occasionally he approved or disapproved of the grades we gave the master writers in the anthology.
I recall vividly one day when Kurt came into class with some galley proofs. These were long sheets of paper that publishers printed books on before they were divided into pages. They were to be used by proofreaders, and often were sent out to people that the publisher wanted to give a blurb to the book. That's how Kurt came to have them. This particular set of galleys was for an annual anthology of the Best American Short Stories. Kurt had read them the night before and entertained us students by mocking them cruelly. (As you know if you read his books, he could be very cruel when he was funny.) He finally threw the entire set of galleys across the room, where they separated like party streamers, and yelled, "Stories written by English majors for other English majors!"
Can you learn anything useful from Sen no Rikyu and Kurt Vonnegut? I think that Rikyu would want you to write as well as you can, and let the writing flow naturally. Let it become as natural to you as breathing and walking. That doesn't come easily.
And Vonnegut would want you to remember that you have an audience. You are trying to please that audience, in one of a number of ways. You might want to make them feel an emotion, you might want to make them think, you might want to amuse or entertain them--I could go on, but the point is, you want to write something that other people will want to read.
I think I'm going to mention here that your spouse, your mother, your children, your friends, will probably all praise your work. That's not helpful, but they can't do otherwise. Think of a reader who has never known you. What will that person think when they read your writing? How will they feel?
I know this is bragging, but I got an email just a day or two ago from a reader of the Samurai Detective Series. Here's what it said:
"I love these books. I don't like to read much cause when I do it takes a long time. But now I have finished the series and I was wondering if there were any more planed for Seikei? I would really like to keep reading about it. And also are there any spin-off stories I could read?"
So that makes me feel like I'm doing something right. It makes up for the fact that the publisher of these books (Philomel) has never made any effort to sell them, has in fact been hostile to them, and has told our agent they don't want any more. I know--because this was not the only letter that I've received from readers like this--that the publisher is simply wrong. And that's because publishers are generally business-school graduates who don't know much about books.
And that's why, in my opinion, that in the next few years, we will see more and more writers skipping the ink-and-paper publishers and just putting their books online as e-books. I know I'm going to be one of those writers, and I think you should be too. And if you need any other reason to do so, remember that by putting your own books online you get 60 to 70% royalties--far more than any paper-and-ink publisher will give you.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Writer's Block

My closest advisor tells me that people read blogs to find out how to write. They don't care about my experiences in the publishing business. Actually, it would do them a lot of GOOD to know about the publishing business, especially if they want to make money as a writer. But for this column, anyway, I'll chat about one of the biggest topics among people who think they can write.
Let me say, first of all, that there is a big difference between people who "want to be a writer" and people who want to write. People who want to write, write. People who want to be writers expect inspiration to strike and all of a sudden they'll be a writer.
Doesn't work that way. Writers write, and if they produce anything significant they write almost every day. Nothing stops them.
The would-be writer finds all sorts of excuses for postponing or avoiding writing. When I hear somebody talk about writer's block, I know they're looking for an excuse not to write. Here's how I explain it: If you get on a bus to go somewhere and the driver stops at a red light, you don't mind. But when the light turns green, and he still doesn't move, you wonder why. Then if it goes through another cycle, red light, green light, you or some other passenger might ask the driver: "What's the matter? Why aren't we moving?"
Suppose the driver answers, "I'm sorry. I've got driver's block. I have to wait until it's over." Are you sympathetic? Do you assure him that if he waits long enough the driver's block will go away? Do you give him tips on overcoming driver's block? No, you say, "Get your foot on the accelerator and move the damn bus."
And that's the same as writer's block.
Now there will be days when you find it hard to get started writing. Hemingway said he tried to leave off every day at a point in his writing where he knew what was going to happen next, so he could get a nice start the next day. But what you don't do if you find it hard to get started is get up and see what's in the refrigerator or go see if the mail has come yet or check your stocks on the Internet. And you don't tell yourself, "Oh, I have writer's block. I can't write."
No. You sit there and wait. Pretty soon you'll get bored enough to write something to please yourself.
Or you won't. If you don't, maybe you ought to ask yourself seriously if you're cut out to be a writer. Because writing is work. Don't think it isn't. And if you're not ready to drive the bus, maybe you should take the LSATs or try to make a living selling second-hand goods on eBay.
Not everybody is cut out to be a writer. The life isn't all that great anyway, unless you're lucky enough to write a best-seller. Or unless you like to write. Just wanting to be a writer isn't enough. Think about it.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Rule #1

OK, I'm not going to tell you these stories about Bernie just because I hated his guts. He's gone off to either a just or merciful god at this point, I'm sure, and god can take care of Bernie. But I want you to understand rule #1 of writing and publishing: Editors are no smarter than you are. In fact, some of them are a lot dumber. So while it may be a good idea to consider what an editor says about your book, by no means should you take editorial comments as the word of God.
Back to Bernie. One day he called me into his office and said that we had to write a textbook for sex education. It was clear that Bernie would rather not do that. His generation learned about sex from the gutter, the natural place for sex ed. But since the New York City public school system had decided to teach sex ed in classrooms, and since Bernie had some higher-up in the system willing to put his or her name on the book as author, we had to produce a text. That was to be my job. I think it was because I was the youngest editor on the staff, and Bernie figured I was "with it," or "hip," or some other quality that would enable me to write such a book. But Bernie wanted me to keep one thing in mind. He said--I'll never forget it--that I had to tell them about sex without actually explaining "how to do it." If you want to know how I accomplished the feat, you'll have to dig up a copy of the 1970s-era New York public school sex ed text. Maybe on eBay.
But the really funniest story I recall about Bernie, who was not just an editor, remember, but the editor-in-chief of a real, functioning book company, came when we were turning out a science text. He decided to hire some free-lancers to write features and sidebars for the text. One of these features was on Father Gregor Mendel, the Catholic monk who discovered the principles of genetics by cross-fertilizing green and yellow peas. I was actually the person who chose the topic, and I found a free-lancer not too far away. She was in fact my girlfriend, soon to be my wife, but we didn't tell Bernie of our relationship because he would accuse me of favoritism. So the three of us were in Bernie's office, discussing some of the sidebars she had written. And we came to Gregor Mendel and the peas. (Bernie kept referring to the Catholic monk as "Mendel Gregor," thinking apparently that he was a famous Jewish monk.) Anyway, Bernie smiled at both my girlfriend and me and said he wanted to tell us something about writing for students. Naturally, she and I assumed that with his years of experience, he would tell us something very wise and valuable. (I'm using sarcasm here, but we paid attention as if we thought anything he said could be worthwhile. He was paying both of us, after all.) Bernie then told us, "Kids aren't turned on by peas." My girlfriend and I looked at each other, wondering which of us would explain that peas were the essential part of Mendel's (or Gregor's) experiment. But then Bernie said, "Why don't we say that Gregor experimented with something like collie dogs?" It was a sign of extreme self-control that my future wife and I didn't laugh in his face. We were, as I say, getting paid. Not much, not as much as the people whose names were on the books we wrote, but something.
Please remember Bernie, and Rule #1, when an editor suggests something equally idiotic about your book or manuscript. And one will, no doubt about it. Be prepared to defend your book.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

what you should know

I'm sitting here in my apartment in Manhattan and it's pouring down rain outside. I like to write at night, and it's 12:47 am at this moment. I decided to start a blog to tell people what it was like to publish 100 books. I plan to finish the 100th book tomorrow--at least the first draft--and it's kind of a celebration for me. Not just because it's my 100th, but because I wrote it without any intention of trying to get some ink-and-paper publisher to accept it.
Mind you, I did get something like 99 books published in that format, and all of them had publishers that paid me for the privilege. Knopf, Putnam, Little Brown, Philomel, Macmillan, Silver Burdett, and a whole bunch of other publishers that are not so well known. But I no longer have to depend on ink-and-paper publishers to get my work out to readers. And neither do you.
Starting with this post, I'm going to tell you what the ink-and-paper publishing industry is really like, and why you shouldn't bother with it--at least if you're a writer who wants to get his/her book published. I'm not going to charge you for reading any of this, and I have nothing to sell--except, naturally, that 100th book, which you can't even read or buy just yet.
I came to New York as a young man. I wanted to write for a living, but since I hadn't actually written anything yet (at least not a novel), I decided to support myself by finding a job as an editor. I was an English major, editor of my college paper, had in fact earned money by proofreading at my father's printing business. So I felt I was qualified to be an editor.
I found a job at an educational publisher called Globe Book Company. An educational publisher publishes books that are primarily intended for schools. Textbooks, of course, and supplementary books for classrooms and school libraries. The company was owned and operated by two men, brothers, whose father had started the company decades earlier. The father had based the business on one simple principle: If he published books that were written by administrators in the New York City public school system, those same administrators would adopt those books for the New York City school system, which would mean that every student would need them. And presto! the Globe Book Company would make money.
One problem was that the administrators of the New York City public school system didn't really have the time to write books--and maybe they weren't capable of writing books, even if they had the time. So that meant the Globe Book Company would have to hire "editors" like me, whose job was to write the books that would be published under the administrators' names. The administrators would be paid royalties, the company would make money, and we editors were paid, as I recall, something like $11,000 a year. In those days you could live on that--barely. Of course it was very little compared to what the owners of the company and the New York City school administrators were getting paid for the work we did. That is the real secret of publishing, and one you should never forget: the writer, the one who does the work, is the one who gets paid least--at least, in ink-and-paper publishing.
Next time I write, I'll tell you about Bernie, the editor-in-chief of the Globe Book Company. He was one of the two brothers who now owned the company. And, quite honestly, he was the dumbest person I had ever met up to that time. (Of course, since I was in publishing, I would meet many others like him.)
Don't worry. This blog won't all be about educational publishers. We'll get to trade publishers, the "real" publishers, soon enough. Stay with me!