Self-publishing: Go with a YA Novel?

The stigma attached to self-publishing has just about disappeared thanks to the digital revolution and the likes of Amanda Hocking. She started out in 2010 with book one of her Trylle Trilogy selling it for 99 cents. Within a year she had made $1 million on e-book sales and signed up with one of the Big Six traditional publishers for a $2 million deal, saying she wanted to reach out to more people than those reading the Kindle. "I want to become a household name", she declared, referring to all those people out there who read printed books.

Good for her, everyone is drooling over this fabulous story of rags to riches. But how did she do it?

Two things stand out.

First the product: she struck out with a YA paranormal trilogy (of course, she's got more out now - modern authors are famous serial writers). Yes, three books right away and all centered on youthful vampiric romance - ok, a little like Stephanie Meyer's Twilight, but that's important. You want to have a winning model in mind when you start out. And Amanda Hocking's marketing strategy: she priced the books at 99 cents - a great promotional tool since it works on impulse buying. Who's going to hesitate when the layout is so small, less than a coffee? It is also reported that she relied heavily on Twitter and, as far as I can tell (I follow her on Twitter) she still does.

I, along with every other new writer, have little hope of duplicating such a stupendous performance. But surely something can be learned.

Let's set aside this question of price: it is only a promotional ploy and anyone can do it (I am! Check me out on the right upper corner! And of course, I'm not going to leave that low price for very long...So hurry...And if you think that's brash marketing, you're right, it is!)

More interesting is the question of whether it make sense to come out with a YA novel.

The publishing industry is generally convinced books for YA are in a winning category all on its own, covering all sorts of genres and sub-genres, and whose unifying feature is that they are aimed at young adults. There are some grumbles about this, most recently coming from the Wall Street Journal's Ms. Gurdon, who complains that too much YA literature is lurid, violent and in bad taste - perhaps even damaging for teens. That, predictably has caused a strong reaction in the YA blogosphere  (for a couple of fiery examples see below). But of course, I have never had any intentions of producing a violent book - actually that's not something that turns me on: I never liked Grand Guignol whether in the visual arts, the theatre, the movies or books. Grand Guignol in my view is cheap, debasing and a waste of time...There I said it!

So I rummaged in my past publications (for which I have the rights) and decided to use the plot of a paranormal/historical romance I published in Italian a few years ago - doing a total rewrite in English to adapt it to a YA audience.  When I presented my YA proposal - a paranormal trilogy called Fear of the Past -  to a literary agent sometime ago, the discussion bizarrely veered on my protagonist's age.  I thought he should be 19, the agent persuaded me that YA novels call for protagonists who are not over 18...Discussing his age this way seemed slightly Kafkaesque...Later I checked it on Wikipedia:  the agent was right, YA is defined as a teen audience not over 18 (!) But I wanted to go beyond the age question. I wanted to know whether my story was adapted to a YA audience, and beyond the question of audience, did she (the agent) feel it was a good yarn? I've always felt that "a good yarn" is what made the difference.

She stared at me and told me she'd give me the answer when my query letter turned up in her email thread. Immediately I imagined an email string as long as the Mississippi River: as I had first sent my query out to her six months earlier, I assumed I'd have to wait another six months before she got to it (by the way, I'm still waiting...).

Was she right? Wrong? Let me try to give you in a nutshell what this book is about and see what you think.

Forget the Past (the first book of the trilogy) starts with Tony suffering from burnout: a computer whiz kid and a top video game programmer since the age of 14, he's fed up and feels like an old man at age 17 (yes, I gave in to the agent: 17 not 19!).  He sets off looking for his roots in Sicily,  the homeland of his father. When he walks into an abandoned palazzo with a weird name on the front door: Circolo di Conversazione (Conversation Club), he meets the ghosts of his ancestors, going back 900 years. Among them is the Duchess of Floridia, a famous 18th century beauty. He falls in love and tries to escape with her to his own time. Can he make it?

That was my pitch but it didn't work. The agent was a little non-plussed by the idea: what, she said, he falls in love with an ancestor of his? Making it sound as if this was a novel form of incest. I weakly tried to defend myself, pointing out that 200 years separated them - a lot of generations. Actually, I bet many of us are closer to each other than we think, and  not worse off than young Tony and his Duchess of Floridia!

So much for Book One, then it is followed by Book Two, Reclaim the Present, where Tony meets a present-day Sicilian woman who reminds him of the Duchess (and she's older than him - yes, I have this fixation with age!) and Book Three, Remember the Future, where his self-quest comes to a happy conclusion. As you can see, all three sub-titles - referring to the passage of time -  tie neatly in the overall trilogy called Fear the Past. I thought that was rather clever, but it didn't cut any ice.

So I began to worry. Had I got my YA trilogy wrong? It covers several genres, and I thought that for YA that was supposed to be okay.

It's part paranormal : all the ancestors Tony meets in the palazzo are ghosts.

It's part time-travel: the ghosts act out the defining moments in their lives in short plays. The plays are meant to be a sort of after-life therapy, a way to prepare themselves for Judgment Day. Yet the Circolo di Conversazione is not set in a particular century: it  is a place out of time, where dead people linked by family ties meet and "live"  in a limited way since all they can do is talk and act in plays. Incidentally, I had trouble getting across the idea: a historical novel that uses historical figures yet is not a reconstruction of a particular time period didn't apparently fit into any category.

It's part romance: Tony falls in love with a more mature woman, the Duchess of Floridia, who teaches him about love and its limits. That of course sounds a little sulfurous but it's an important part of growing up...

It's part psychological: Tony is on a self quest and his coming-of-age experience doesn't come (as it does for most people) from interacting with his friends and immediate family. It comes from his ancestors and the wrenching discovery that he has more in common with an English adventurer who settled in Sicily in the 1800s (and transmitted his genes to him) than with his own father.

That part (in my humble view) is what really makes it a YA novel: the self-quest. But of course, that is also what makes it interesting for adults. If you think about it, as you live through your life, you are continually on a self-quest: the terms are different in different periods of your life, but the self-quest is always there. Probably the reason why so many adults read so-called YA literature: it is said that every Harry Potter book was eagerly awaited by parents as much as their kids... 

It also raises existential nurture vs. nature questions: to what extent does your immediate family determine who you are? Are you a throwback to some unknown ancestor? Tony is in a unique position: meeting all his ancestors in "the flesh" as it were, he's able to determine who he really takes after (the English adventurer).

Do we all harbor some form of "genetic memory" that makes us behave in sometimes unexpected ways? Young people as they grow up are confronted by comments coming from the adults around them,  like "he looks like his grandfather", "she behaves like her aunt" etc Most aggravating, especially when you realize there's probably some truth in them! And then, who knows to what ancestor your looks and your behavior hark back to?

Again, too many questions underlying a work of fiction make it sound too intellectual - egg-head stuff. Pretentious. Once more a no-no.

Okay, let's set aside these questions.

Bottom line, what I really want to know:  is a good YA novel a mixture of genres? Am I right in my conviction that YA is focused on a self-quest? Since Catcher in the Rye days (that was back in the late 1950s), self-quests are the determining feature of YA literature (something Ms Gurdon of the WSJ forgot to mention).

Just take a look at the basic strategy here: since self-publishing has become a real option, is a YA novel the best way to go?

I see this as an experiment. The digital revolution opens up options that did not exist before. But, as I've said in a previous post, in my view there's no reason to give up on the traditional road to publishing - either seeking out one of the Big Six or smaller, independent "niche" presses. I've got ready a novel that neatly fits into women's fiction (lucky,  this time it goes into a well-defined genre!). It's only wise to hedge one's bets...

But I'm eaten up by self doubts. Am I right to engage in this e-book experiment?

There are so many questions that need answering. Is anyone out there thinking of self-publishing too? And if you've made the jump, what happened next?  How did you do your marketing? How do you balance the marketing (it takes a lot of time and energy) with the writing you need to do? And with all those successful serial writers out there, à la Amanda Hocking, you really need to put that pen to paper, or bang, or click on your computer like mad!

Please share your thoughts!
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BLOGS: their Number is UP, Comments are DOWN. How Come?

Symbol commentsSymbol commentsImage via Wikipedia

Blogs are UP and comments are DOWN! Is that a probable picture of what is happening to bloggers these days?  It seems high-level, veteran bloggers are finding a slowdown in the number of comments to their posts. Judy Dunn on her fascinating Cat's Eye Writer.com has a great post on this subject, here's the link:

And would you know it? She got an unusually large number of comments reacting to her post, close to 70, easily double her average!

The blogosphere is full of advice on how to raise the number of comments on your blog: take a look below, I've collected some of the more interesting articles for you.

At the end of the day, what is really good advice?

I confess that not being tech-savvy, I'm a little lost. I've had one reader tell me I should make my comment box more visible. I use Disqus which I find very useful (sends me the comments straight to my email box and makes it easy for me to reply directly, right under the comment made) and apparently there's also a lot of good to be said for Livefyre.

But I don't think it's the comments technology that can make that much difference. It's the sheer NUMBER of blogs out there - overwhelming information! Even online communities have a plethora of fora and threads. It may well be that this abundance discourages people from stopping by and taking the time to make comments. If you do that - actually write down a comment, even a short one - you always have the ghastly feeling that you're wasting your time on a particular site when so much more interesting things might be happening elsewhere!

Only Twitter seems to be able to appease this particular angst - no doubt why twitter is fast becoming such a big success: there are even twitter bloggers now, and (I just discovered) Twitter poets!

Another thing: I'm quite convinced you can have an interesting blog and yet few comments because you don't elicit either negative or positive reactions: you just don't leave people space for expressing their reaction. You've covered the whole ground, you've done it objectively and convincingly, so there's nothing to add. Maybe one should write posts that are a little screwy, unfinished, opened to question to get good reactions!

Or you can write in a "niche" providing good advice: that's what Konrath does for aspiring writers, encouraging them to self-publish. That message has had a resounding success and his blog is widely read (and commented upon - but then writers are probably the easiest kind of readers who'll take to their pen to respond: writing is in their nature!)

Or you can be someone people look up to or want something from. A celebrity, a big writer, or even just a professional with useful advice, like for example a literary agent giving out advice to aspiring writers about how the publishing industry works, how to write a winning query letter etc. 

Or you can focus on the visual. I've got a friend on my Facebook page (in the news feed) who posts a new picture she has taken everyday - sometimes it's a donkey, or a litter of fluffy kittens, or a red sunset on the sea, whatever, but it's sure to be nice looking, full of colors and (to my taste) rather, well...
cliché (I suppose that's appropriate for a photograph!) But she gets far more comments that I ever get with my "serious", so-called "interesting" posts. Dozens of comments every time she posts a picture! Amazing!

Just yesterday I got a reader commenting on one of my short stories. She loved it and I was very moved: few people comment on fiction work, I don't know why. In case you're interested,  it's in my archives on this blog, here's the link: I am not leaving you behind . It's flash fiction - a sci-fi piece on what would happen if we ever conquered aging and dropped dead while still looking young. So I checked out her blog and discovered she lives in Singapore and has surrounded herself with a wonderful world of pictures that she shares with her followers - here are the links to beautiful ones (an antique Chinese fashion show) and funny ones (weird portraits of an interchanging man and woman). And notice the number of comments! With lovely photographs, she manages to get 20 to 30 comments every time! And deservedly so.

As a friend of mine said, ours is a "culture of the image". And no wonder, images are immediate, you get it right away, as fast - nay faster! - than Twitter!

What's your take on this? What do you think makes readers want to comment? Why do you ever want to comment?

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IMF Top Post: Can a Woman Make it?

Oslo Conference 2010Lagarde and Strauss KahnImage by International Monetary Fund via Flickr

Tall, elegant French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde is in pole position to succeed her countryman, Dominique Strauss Kahn, in the top job at the International Monetary Fund. We should have the results by 30 June. Lagarde was hesitant at first, but once she decided to go for it, she hit the campaign trail running: first garnering support in India, then at the G8 meeting in Deauville, with Russia coming out in favor, and now Brazil, just ahead of her Mexican rival.

Indeed, Mexico’s Carstens is the only other serious contender: he served as IMF deputy managing director from 2003 to 2006, then as Mexico's finance minister, and finally, since January 2010, as its central banker. With a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago, he is a heavyweight in precisely the area where Lagarde is lacking: economics. She's a lawyer, albeit a remarkable one, who made it as the first woman head of the big Chicago-based firm Baker McKenzie (and a foreigner to boot - after 25 years in the US, her American-accented English is excellent).

2011 G-20 PresserImage by International Monetary Fund via Flickr

Why is this race so fascinating? First, because no woman has ever held that post since the IMF was founded in 1946. And having a woman like Lagarde following on a man suspected of rape seems to be a perfect answer. She is certain to put order in the IMF's rather unsatisfactory code of conduct, one (stringent) for the employees, and another ("vague") for the board of directors. A woman, at this point in time, is just what's needed!

For that matter, no woman has ever run the World Bank either: next time there's a change there, a woman candidate should be brought up... Both institutions created after World War II to bring some order to the world economy (largely as a result of Keynes' efforts), have traditionally been run by men, always an American at the helm of the World Bank and a European at the IMF - and the Third World be damned!

Strauss Kahn had started to bring change to the IMF's vote composition, giving hope to emerging economies that they would play a larger role. Under his stewardship, their share rose to 42 percent (from 40.5 percent, not such a big change...). This was mostly achieved at the expense of European Union countries who now hold about 31 percent, while the US retains close to 17 percent. For Lagarde to make it, these numbers signify she only needs a slight nudge from countries outside Europe and the US. While the US has not yet formally announced its support for Lagarde, Geithner has manifested approval and in any case, there is no reason at all why the US would not support a European: if it didn't, the pact would be broken and the US would risk "losing" the World Bank.

Lagarde in her campaign is careful to make all the right noises and assuring emerging market and developing countries that she will give them more IMF power. 

Furthermore, the fact that she is a French citizen following on another French citizen is not disturbing anybody: it's happened before at the IMF with one French Managing Director following another (Camdessus following Larosière).

So is her nomination good and done?

Not quite. There are a few problems. She could be placed under investigation for ordering an out-of-court arbitration in which Bernard Tapie, a former business tycoon and friend of Sarkozy, obtained a € 403 million settlement from the French state.

There is increasing noise in the media about the fact that she hasn't been a particularly good finance minister and is one of the architects of the bailouts in the Eurozone (Greece, Ireland, Portugal) that many view as disastrous; that she is no economist, has never made her voice heard in France on such matters; that she is merely Nicolas Sarkozy's mouthpiece.

And emerging economies in all this? They might vote for her, but perhaps not for a full mandate. Brazil has been muttering about that, saying she should stay only to the end of Strauss Kahn's mandate...But that would leave her stranded with no job in 2013. She has made it quite clear that she wants a full mandate...

So the bets are on...If you could vote, who'd you vote for? Christine Lagarde, the brilliant corporate lawyer or Carstens, the central banker and ex-IMF deputy managing director?
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Amazon: the Next Big Publisher?

Giant!Image by freebird4 via Flickr
The evidence is piling up: Amazon is gearing itself to become the next big publisher. Will it make it?

First take a look at the evidence: the drums have been rolling  recently around the birth of two new imprints, Thomas & Mercer for mysteries and thrillers and Montlake Romance, thus bringing the total to five (with Amazon Encore, AmazonCrossing and the Domino Project).

The biggest news last week were, of course, the appointment of Larry Kirschbaum as the new manager, as of July 5th, of a new general imprint yet to be named that will publish an  array of diverse things, fiction and non-fiction presumably known to be high selling. In fact, the announced categories are rather broad: business and general non-fiction, literary and commercial fiction, young adults - to be published in both print and digital formats. Basically this will be the top-of-the-line imprint covering everything except genre. The avowed goal according to Amazon management is to eventually cover everything Amazon's "voracious readers" are reading.  

Why is the hiring of  Kirschbaum such big news? Because as the former CEO of Time Warner's book division and  founder of a highly successful literary agency with 40 agents, he is a heavyweight in the traditional publishing industry. He is bringing not only his experience but an aura of  "legacy publisher" to Amazon. That's important because for many people Amazon is still nothing but an aggressive, upstart mail and digital library. In an interview to the Wall Street Journal, Kirschbaum acknowledged  he had been trying to find a way to do some publishing as an agent, but  in the end realized "it was cleaner to do this working for a company totally committed to digital publishing and that has the resources and structures to make this successful".

Cleaner? Yes, there have been questions raised in the industry about the possibility of conflicts of interest for writers if their agents cease to represent them and instead go straight to publishing them. So Kirschbaum's decision is undoubtedly cleaner from an ethical standpoint, avoiding all possible code of conduct problems.

Is Amazon, as he puts it, "a company totally committed to digital publishing"? Not quite the case, since the imprint he'll manage will publish printed books in addition to digital. But in the sense that Amazon's strength resides in its digital publishing capacity, it is indeed the case. In fact, therein lies its winning card, and I'm sure Kirschbaum knew what he was talking about when he referred to Amazon as "having the resources and structures to make this successful".

Because Amazon, compared to traditional publishers, has an extraordinary winning card that none of them have (at least for the time being) - and neither do traditional bookstores like Borders (hence its demise). Only those who go digital, cleverly combining the physical with the digital, like Barnes & Noble (vide its Nook, a real rival to the Kindle), can look forward to a serene future in the digital age.

What am I talking about? Those of you who have a Kindle will know right away what I am referring to: their computers' capacity to track your digital purchases, memorize them and the next time you turn up in the Kindle shop looking for a new book, to propose new titles to you on the basis of what you've bought. This is a very powerful tool to catch customers. Physical libraries have traditionally used shelf space, organizing them by genres and types of books to help their customers and make new titles accessible.

This possibility is of course denied to Amazon as an Internet company. They have had to devise digital search tools to make books accessible - but in so doing, they've developed an incredibly powerful marketing tool. Much more powerful than the "genre" system used by traditional publishers which is necessarily based on the history of past sales of their stable of authors.

Herein lies the main difference: traditional publishers know what their authors sold (how many copies, when, where, in what genre) but they don't know who bought them. Amazon does - perforce, it's on Internet, every transaction is written, a complete contract between seller and buyer, with credit card and home address. It's not like when you buy a book in a bookstore or at the WalMart with cash. And at the end of the day, knowing who bought what is going to win the race.

Provided, naturally, that Amazon keeps playing the game above board. I know of one person who got upset when she searched for the latest thrillers published by traditional publishers and instead got a whole lot of indies thrown at her. That happened, of course, because in the past she had bought (or looked, downloading a sample - that counts too) at a lot of self-published authors, and the machine, not being intelligent, thought she wanted to keep doing the same thing. Clearly, with the millions buying on Amazon, computers cannot give the required individual attention, but surely search functions can be improved, to respond better to every kind of requests, including the unexpected ones. My bet is that Amazon will be careful about this sort of glitch, it is in their interest.

Amazon has already started to put this knowledge to good use. For example, in publishing international literature in English with its imprint AmazonCrossing,  it is careful to pick the winners on the basis of customer feedback from Amazon stores worldwide. Result? Its first title, the Hangman's Daughter, sold 100,000 copies in the first six months after publication. And it seems AmazonCrossing is fast becoming a roaring success in the US market that is not particularly given to reading foreign authors.

Then you have the example of author Barry Eisler who just signed up with Amazon's imprint for thrillers and mysteries, saying it was the best, most straightforward contract he had ever signed (remember, he's the guy who walked away from a $500,000 advance with St Martin's Press, saying he wanted to self-publish). His advance was "comparable" to traditional deals and his royalty rate would be 70% since his book would first come out in digital edition (with the standard low royalty on the printed edition to follow). This too is interesting: the traditional model followed by legacy publisher (come out first with a printed edition then follow with digital) is here reversed: first digital, next printed.

So is this Brave New Publishing World going to be a paradise for authors and readers? Hard to say. Some of my friends worry that the craze of self-publishing on Kindle, particularly at the 99 cents price, will create an unmanageable slushpile that will demean the art of writing and turn off readers.

Maybe so but so far it hasn't happened. Amazon makes money on every title sold (even at 99 cents) because it costs next to nothing to deliver it by whispernet and the rest of the expenses (editing, book cover, marketing etc) is the author's, not Amazon's concern. And if the book is bad, the reader will blame the author, not Amazon and simply stop buying books from that author. So the slushpile stays there, unread, invisible, hidden somewhere in an internet cloud.

On the other hand, if a self-published author starts selling a lot of copies, Amazon will necessarily notice. They let famous Amanda Hocking walk away. Remember her? The paranormal romance writer who made such a splash last year, when she signed up with St Martin's press for a reportedly $4 million deal. But now they're not likely to let others get away. A friend of mine noticed recently that a self-published thriller author who'd acquired a consistent following and ranking on Kindle made it into their Thomas & Mercer imprint. More are sure to follow.

So, as blogger Jane Friedman said, will self-publishing on the Kindle replace the query letter to agents? Will publishing on one of Amazon's imprints become a goal as important for writers as reaching one of the Big Six publishers?

My guess is yes.

What do you think?
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The EURO Crisis: Is Greece the Culprit, a Victim or a Scapegoat?

Euro ManImage by rockcohen via Flickr
With the Euro crisis we're back to where we started a year ago: Greece is being battered from all sides.

Let me count the ways:

(1) By the credit rating agencies - but that's no surprise, those agencies are basically in the pay of big banks and multinational corporations all out to cover their backs as investors;

(2) By the biggies in the Euro-zone, in particular France but especially Germany - nothing new here, Ms. Merkel has piled up nasty comments, knowing how well they resonate back home and she needs votes at the next election;

(3) By neighbouring countries, Italy and Spain - and that's something new, although not very surprising: both the Italians and Spaniards are worried that Greece's pains will ricochet to them, as investors realize they share the same kind of troubles (high debt, high unemployment, no or little growth);

(4) By the EU that is asking for Greece to reform asap, in particular pursue privatization of telecommunications, electricity and the port of Athens.

(5) By the International Monetary Fund (IMF) - Dominique Strauss Kahn, reputed to be a friend of Greece, is no longer at the helm, but that doesn't change one iota in IMF demands for policy reform and austerity;

(6) By the European Central Bank (ECB), aligned with the IMF: it will not hear of any form of debt restructuring.

Where does that leave Greece and the Euro?

Athens clearly risks default if it doesn't get more EU funding. Adding insult to injury, the IMF won't release its June aid payment if funding support is not guaranteed by the Europeans (this was announced by the Greek Finance Minister).

The privatization measures the EU is so keen on will bring relief (some €50 billion), but surely this is not the best of times to sell the crown jewels and results might be far less than expected. And in any case, sales will take time.

So can Athens avoid default if nothing is done?

Greek debt stands at €327 billion, 150% of gross domestic product, and is expected to reach 160% in 2013 - patently unsustainable. This is a fact, and a solution MUST be found.

But it doesn't look like the one major European institution that should be concerned is reacting with any sense of either rationality or responsibility: the ECB is adamant it won't accept any Greek debt as collateral in its refinancing operations. That sounds very technical but it means simply that Greek banks and insurers will go kaput under the weight of their debts. And, as we know when Trichet (the head of ECB) walked out on European finance ministers in Luxembourg last Monday, the ECB won't hear about any "soft restructuring" proposal. Greece must follow the EU/IMF programme completely or else!

What's the solution? Any ideas?  Before you say with glee "I told you so", the Euro was always ill-conceived and cannot survive, please consider that if Greece pulls out of the Euro, the solution will be worse than the problem. Because the Greek financial system - and all payments throughout its economy, from the bank to the small store owner - will necessaily grind to a halt while Greece sets up a new currency. Establishing a new, functional currency takes time, and, though Greece is a small, peripheral country,  it still means destabilization for the Euro-zone for an extended period.

And a destabilized Euro is dangerous for the whole world! Personally, I think Europeans have no choice but give the IMF the required guarantees before June and cough up the necessary funding, embark on "soft retructuring" and/or do whatever is needed to save the Euro.

In my view, Greece is not just a test for the Euro but a scapegoat: a reason not to take the measures that SHOULD be taken, including fiscal reform, pension reform etc and  not just in Greece but throughout the Euro-zone!

What do you think?
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Young Adult Fiction: is it really a "genre" that sells books?

Cover of "The Shadow of the Wind"Cover of The Shadow of the Wind
The publishing industry has always relied on "genre" as a marketing tool to push its wares, and among them, the most bizarre is YA.

How to reach out to Young Adults is of course a legitimate concern but lately, with Rowlands' winning Harry Potter series, everybody from literary agents to editors to publishers just drools about it. YA is growing fast. YA is where money is made. YA is the place to be. Even as an indie: look at Amanda Hocking and how she became a publishing wonder with her YA trilogy published on the Kindle.

So about six month ago, since everybody seemed so excited about it, I thought I should try to "break out" with a YA novel. But first I did some research to try and figure out what YA meant.

First surprise: YA is not a genre as such. It is a cross-cutting genre by definition: it means different things to different people. A YA novel can be a romance, a dystopian fantasy, a historical, a paranormal laden with vampires and werewolves, in short, just about anything, one, several or all of them together.

What makes all these sub-genres (also found in adult fiction) particularly YA? I dug in further and ...

Second surprise: nothing in particular, not even the age of the protagonist. Yet, that's what (according to Wikipedia and all the pundits) is precisely what defines YA: young adults are people between the age of 12 and 18. Thus, characters should be within that age bracket.

How pervasive this view is within the publishing industry was confirmed to me about a month ago in a conversation I had with a savvy literary agent. It was amazing. I was trying to pitch my newly-minted YA trilogy Fear of the Past - by newly minted, I mean I'd just rewritten it for the American market in English (it was originally published in Italian in 2007 and meant as a historical/paranormal romance for the adult market). She asked me the age of my protagonist, and I said my Tony was 19. She shuddered, I thought because he was male (a lot of agents are firm believers that female protags have more market value than male ones because more women than men read fiction). No, I was wrong. She shuddered because he was 19. "That's too old," she said, "for a YA Main Character".

I was astounded. Too old? How old should he be, I asked. "Not over 18", she replied with confidence, "especially if it's going to be a trilogy". Presumably that's because he's going to be older in the next two books, so if you start him at 18, he could be 20 or 22 by the time you finish. I opened my mouth to tell her that my time arc was much shorter than that, that this guy was on a self-quest that resolved itself in the course of a single year: by the end of the trilogy, he'd be just about one year older. Then I shut my mouth again.

What could I say? That some of the most successful  novelists who write for YA audiences in recent years have protagonists that are both young and old?

Actually, their characters begin young and then grow old - damn it, that's life! I won't go down the list, but look at Carlos Ruiz Zafòn's books, starting with that absolute masterpiece, Shadow of the Wind, set in a dark, mysterious Barcelona touched by Gaudì craziness and a magical cemetery of Forgotten Books. How I love that book! And all the others he wrote...

I can't see where YA differs from great literature for so-called "adult" audiences. Recently, someone pointed out that Romeo and Juliet was a YA tale. Have you ever thought of Shakespeare as a YA author?! And classified as a YA only because his protags - especially Juliet - are so tender and young, in their teens...

What Carlos Ruiz Zafòn himself has to say about YA is extremely interesting. When asked what he thought were "the most important differences" when writing for adult readers and young adult readers, his answer was an eye-opener and I can't resist quoting him (you'll find the whole interview on his Amazon page):

I don't think they're that many differences, really. You just have to write the best possible story in the most efficient way you are capable of. It is all about the language, the style, the atmosphere, the characters, the plot, the images and textures… If anything, I believe that younger readers are even more demanding and sincere about their feelings about what they're reading, and you have to be honest, never condescending. I don't think younger readers are an ounce less smart than adult ones. I think they are able to understand anything intellectually but perhaps there are emotional elements that they have not experienced in their lives yet, although they will eventually. Because of this, I think it is important to include a perspective in the work that allows them to find an emotional core that they can relate to not just intellectually. Other than that, I think you should work as hard as you can for your audience, respect them and try to bring the best of your craft to the table. My own personal view is that there’s just good writing and bad writing. All other labels are, at least to me, irrelevant.

Do you think he's right? Are young readers more demanding? Do you agree when he says YA is not a genre as such, but only a matter of including "a perspective" that allows Young Adults to find "an emotional core that they can relate to".

Just let me add as a footnote: many people suspect that the Harry Potter series was as much of a success with adults as with young readers. That says something about YA, doesn't it? The best YA novels happen to be damn good stories well told - and a YA classification adds nothing to that. Or does it? What is your view?

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Genre as a Marketing Tool: Does it really Work?

Barnstar of Harry PotterImage via WikipediaThe publishing industry is battered by the digital revolution - and in particular by the 99 cent e-book that blows to smithereens the economics of traditional publishing - yet everyone holds on to "genre" as the one, major, solid, reliable marketing tool.

Do you think that's reasonable? Do you really read in one single genre or are you like me, the genre-flitting kind, moving from paranormal to historical to romance to whatever, damn it, is a real GOOD story? Please take the poll (top of the right-hand side column) and let me know!

Yet traditional publishers rely on genre classification not only as a basic way to direct book distribution to the "right" shelves in bookstores - because that's what works best in the real world to ensure "discoverability" of a new title - but to track the size of the market. Everybody knows that romance is the biggest selling genre, it generated nearly $1.4 billion in sales in 2009. That's where it's easiest for new writers to break in, that's where the biggest advances are paid (most of the time - but the advance question is another one that needs to be looked at: it has taken a tremendous beating with the digital revolution...).

Genre therefore is an easy-to-use marketing tool: it classifies books and places them in nice little boxes, giving a sense of order. And woe to writers whose works don't fit into a genre: their literary agent may kindly speak of "crossover genre" but s/he knows it means it's going to take twice the effort to sell such a book to publishers. Nobody likes people who rock the boat!

In short, genre makes life simple, it neatly divides up the readers in predictable segments. Thanks to genre, publishers (and literary agents) can track past performance of any given market and predict the future with a fair degree of confidence.

You come to them with a romance, sci-fi, thriller or what not, and they feel they know exactly where they're going with it.

Or do they?

It's easy to blast the publishing industry pointing to all the numerous occasions when a book suddenly made the NYT bestseller list and no one expected it, starting with Rowland's Harry Potter series, going on with the Khaled Hosseini's Kite Runner and ending with Stieg Larsson...Nassim Taleb famously labelled such books as "black swans" - those unexpected events that occur on the low tail of the Bell curve and that statisticians can never predict (mainly because they can't tell you where you happen to be sitting on that Bell curve).

What do all these "unexpected" black swan bestsellers have in common? Adherence to the requirements/features of a given "genre"?

Not at all: they were hard-to-classify, "cross-over genres" at the time they came out. But they had one thing in common: they were all damn good STORIES.

So what made them so superlative?

Is it a question of "voice" (or what used to be called 40 years ago, "writing style") ? Yes, it matters but that's not the whole of it. You could even argue that the writing shows shortcomings. For example, Stieg Larsson's books can be overly long and plodding, and I'm sure you can think up all sorts of writing defects in bestsellers you've read...

So is it the plot, the suspense? Sure, the book has to be a "page-turner". But above all, in my view, a black swan bestseller brings something new on the table: it is always chock full of IDEAS - yes, ideas, things people had never thought of in that particular context. Take the Kite Runner: it opened up new vistas not only on the war in Afghanistan, but on war in general, and on cultural differences that in the end are no differences at all, but merely aspects of the human condition. And I could go on and on about what makes a story really GOOD: relevance to our lives, to the issues that matter to us, to our fears, to our hopes, to everything that makes us up as human beings. The closer to the human condition, the better.

So no wonder readers are titillated, happy!

Do you agree with this analysis? And if so, what should publishers do to improve a book's "discoverability"? Genre works up to a point but it is obviously nothing but a gross tool. Much more is needed, and maybe (what a frightening thought for traditional paper book-lovers), in the virtual world of publishing, you can twist genres so that they become cross-over genre monsters that encompass every possible choice. As Passive Guy so aptly pointed out and I quote him:
Amazon has just begun the process of creating a million genres with its categories – Mystery & Thrillers > Thrillers > Spy Stories & Tales of Intrigue. We’re already beginning to see genre busters and there will be more. Look for Historical > Zombie > Arab > Arthurian > Cookbook

A million genres! Wow, what do you think of that?!


IMF Chief Arrested for Sexual Assault!

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Managing Director, Int...Image via Wikipedia
Dominique Strauss-Kahn arrested for attempted rape!

Here's a man who had everything. As the Chief of the IMF he had done what was universally asckowledged as a superb job of helping the world to navigate out of the Great Recession (though in my view we're not out of troubled waters quite yet).

As one of the major exponents of the French Socialist Party, he was ahead in the polls of all other candidates for the next presidential election in France (to be held in May 2012). He hadn't yet declared himself, but everybody expected that he would and that he'd be able to trounce Nicolas Sarkozy. People on the left were rubbing their hands in anticipation.

And then, this!

What amazes me is that a 62 year-old man could blow it all away like that. In a single moment of folly, bursting out naked from his bathroom (or so the press reports say). At 62 - and he does look all his years and more --, you'd expect a person to have acquired a certain degree of philosophy on such frivolous matters as one-stand sex. And he's undeniably an intelligent man, a capable economist (but then economists are not to be trusted: they never get a single prediction right!).

Why would he ever do this? Ok, maybe he didn't.. This could be all a conspiracy against him, and if you believe in conspiracies, go ahead (I don't).

But one thing is certain, innocent or not, his political future is gone, evaporated, kaput!

There's talk that people will occupy the centre of the political spectrum - maybe, maybe not. But there's one person likely to benefit for sure and that is Marine Le Pen, the head of the rightist National Front. And she wasted no time coming out with criticisms - the only French politician to do so at this point in time - but if the accusations against Strauss-Kahn turn out to be well-founded, just watch all the other politicians join in!. She charged him with "damaging" the image of France (!) - quite frankly, that is something I don't believe. Did Bill Clinton with his games with a pretty young thing in the Oval Office damage America's image? I don't think so.

She also said "she wasn't surprised" given the way he "treats women". That is a more serious charge: back in 2008 there was a scandal with a pretty Hungarian economist, who had to leave the IMF. Add to that the fact that it all happened in a $3,000 room at the Sofitel in mid-town Manhattan, you have a pretty damning picture, even if the rape turns out to be (partly) an invention (after all, the woman could have agreed to his advances, how do we know that didn't happen?) .

The $3,000 room immediately brought up in the press other similar news about his luxurious apartment in Paris and a riyad in Marrakesh and his driving around in a Porsche.

If nothing else, here's a man in love with money and sex...Bizarre tastes for a Socialist!

What's your take on this?

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To Self-publish or not Self-pub? That is the Question!

Question book-newImage via Wikipedia
Is self-publishing a viable alternative to publishing with a big publisher, say, one of the Big Six? For unpublished writers, otherwise known as newbies, that's the big question.

Any new writer worth his salt dreams of publishing in New York with one of the Big Six. But Amanda Hocking, the self-publishing wonder who's suddenly made it big in one single year winning a $4 million deal with St Martin's Press, has changed that dream forever.

Self-publishing has just about lost most of the stigma it ever had, and Barry Eisler, who walked away from a $500,000 deal with a legacy publisher to follow down the path of self-publishing has put the last nail on the coffin.

So self-publishing has become an acceptable option even for published authors, particularly mid-list authors (those that never made it big on the New York Times list of bestsellers but have reasonably satisfactory sales). Also big authors might (and do) find the idea of self-publishing their back list (all that stuff out of print) as rather appealing. Especially since they can get a lot more out of their royalties than from their publisher (Amazon gives them 70% if they keep their book price below $10 as opposed to 30% at the very best from their publisher - but usually a lot less than that). There's still the problem that the NY Times does not list self-published e-books, but no doubt that will change (especially after Amanda Hocking's splash that was so big that she outsold NYT bestsellers!).

Add the fact that publishers stubbornly stick to pricing models for e-books that are guaranteed to slow down sales. Consumers have heard that it's cheap to produce digital versions of books and can't understand why a Kindle version can cost as much and sometimes more than a paperback. In fact, everybody expects e-books to cost less than $10. And we all marvel at how Amanda Hocking made her fortune selling her books at 99 cents - an experience comforted by J.A.Konrath's clever "List experiment" (updates on his sales after each change in price).

Add also the fact that publishers' traditional distribution channels are fast disappearing - I mean the bookstores. With Border's bankruptcy, the writing is on the wall for all those bookstores that haven't gone digital. Of course, books are still distributed elsewhere, like Wal Mart and airports, but undeniably the channels are fewer. And surely lots of bookstores will rally and rise up to the challenge - but the downward trend is here.

Then, last but not least, a bizarre bit of news that has lately emerged: publishers, it seems, don't give fully reliable reports on royalty returns. That leaves one very, very uneasy. What, they keep money against the advance, and that's normal but they don't tell you exactly how much they make on e-sales? And apparently only use estimates? Could that really be so? One wonders and begins to lose trust. Who's lying and why? Who's telling the truth? Whatever the answer, it doesn't help the case for traditional publishers!

That's it, folks, self-publishing - particularly ebooks - is in, traditional publishing - mostly printed books - is out! But is that a reasonable conclusion? Does it mean that self-publishing is a viable option?

Let's count the ways.

Pro: You, the author, are in charge, you can publish right away, you don't have to wait all that ghastly time: one year to get an agent (if you're lucky - it can take a lot more!) plus two years for the agent to sell your book to a publisher (again if you're lucky) plus at least one more year to polish it up and get it out there in the bookstores, published at last! Add it up: 4 years on average. With e-books, you can get it out there in a matter of weeks or less - a little longer if you aim for a printed version of your book, but still out there a long, long time before you'll ever manage it going down the traditional publishing road.

Con:  being in charge of the actual publishing process, means you have to dip your hand (and be good at it!) into all sorts of demanding (and often boring!) procedures: (1) proof-reading, (2) editing, (3) cover design, (4) preparation of your docs for uploading on the various e-book publishing platforms (Amazon's Kindle, Barnes and Noble's Nook, Apple's iPad etc) and printed versions (from Lulu to Smashwords); (5) keeping track of your activities as a publisher, including accounting files, tax files etc.

Yep, it's going to cost you time and money (not much if you're careful and do a lot yourself - but you have to be very, very careful or else you look like...a newbie!). All this turns you into a small business and that eats into your writing/creative time...Yikes, you didn't get into writing to become a businessman!

Pro: You are in charge of your own marketing too. Not distribution (thank God!): that's the business of Amazon, Barnes and Noble etc. But marketing is a tall order and only if you're particularly internet-savvy will this work out for you. You need a good online presence, a website cum blog, a Facebook page, lots of tweets on Twitters and lots of followers everywhere on the Internet. If you're comfortable with that, great. If not...But don't think that if you're published traditionally, the publisher will do this work for you. They don't and won't. They (and literary agents too) expect you to have an online presence and that means you need to have started your blog, FB comments and tweets etc long before you published your book.

Con: Don't count traditional publishers out quite yet. They have a major card to play: they are the gatekeepers of literary taste. In terms of marketing, they might do a lot less for you than they used to do in the past, before the digital revolution and before the (still on-going) recession: less book presentation in prestigious locations, less book signing events, less conferences etc But they still can give you something an indie/self-published author is at pains to get: critiques from top-notch reviewers and support in major prize-winning competitions.

That's at the heart of traditional publishers' literary gatekeeper role. That's what helps readers distinguish the "good reads" from the bad. Indeed, publishers are well aware of this and at least three of the Big Six have recently tried to regain the upper hand in this area: they've established Bookish, a new website that sounds a little like it's out to compete against Amazon et al. This has drawn guffaws from bloggers who know how foolhardy it would be for an upstart to compete against Amazon's distribution power - and surely it would be if the sole purpose was to sell their books through that site. But my reading of Bookish is that it's main purpose is to inform readers about authors and their books and even direct them to distribution/sales channels.

In other words, publishers are back into their gatekeeping role, trying to separate the wheat from the chaff. And expect them to keep doing this, it's their one big chance to survive the digital revolution! Don't think good reviews make no difference, they certainly do! Remember that when you go on, say Kindle, your book is competing against another...one million titles! And that could easily double over the next couple of years, if not sooner. A day will come when there will be more titles out there than readers (I hope not!)...

So what should a writer do? For published authors with a good following, there is no question that it makes economic sense to self-publish their back list. For a newbie? I'm not so sure. What do you think?

Personally, I've opted for a Solomonic solution: a little bit of both, hedging my bets.

I'll keep looking to publish my latest book (it's women's fiction) with a traditional publisher, while I'll try the self-publishing road with a trilogy that is totally different, aimed at Yound Adults. Based on a romance I wrote a few years ago (which came out in Italian, Un Amore Dimenticato), it's called Fear of the Past. It's about Tony, an American computer whiz kid who travels on a self-quest to Sicily, the homeland of his father, and runs into the ghosts of his ancestors waiting for Judgment Day in an abandoned palazzo. In book One, Forget the Past, Tony learns about love when he meets the Duchess of Floridia (a real historical character who married the King of Naples in 1814). In Book Two, Reclaim the Present, he learns how his family's fortune collapsed, after centuries of prosperity. In Book Three, Remember the Future, he tries his hand at making his own money against all odds, including a group of ruthless Russian hackers.

How about you? If you have come up with ideas and solutions to this conundrum we are all facing as writers, I would love to hear about it! And get your advice!

QuestionsImage by elycefeliz via Flickr

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War in the Middle East: Libya yes, Syria no, Yemen forget it!

Violence!Violence Image by Rickydavid via Flickr
Western intervention in the Arab Spring is a study in ambiguity.

War in Libya? Yes. Qaddafi is an obvious bloodthirsty villain, worse than Saddam Hussein, opening fire on his own people, using them as human shields, murdering the sick and wounded, women and children. Besides, Libya is just across Italy and Southern Europe - too close for comfort to allow it to go to the dogs. Libya has to be controlled for everyone's happiness across Europe. And Germany's no at the UN Security Council vote on Libya - which led to the establishment of the no-fly zone for humanitarian reasons (to defend the rebels) and NATO intervention - did not help Ms. Merkel and her Foreign Affairs Minister Westerwelle: they have both lost consensus in Germany and their political future is, to say the least (especially in Westerwelle's case) uncertain.

War on Syria? No, Assad is too powerful, his army too well-equipped, his country too central to stability and balance in the region. So the talk at the UN and elsewhere (and measures taken) is all about sanctions and investigations in the killings (that's UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon's suggestion).

War on Yemen? Forget it! Too peripheral, too mountainous, too tribal and while its president Saleh (in office since 1978) is a good ally for the West, the country is basically Saudi Arabia's problem: it's sitting in its courtyard.

Is the Western policy in all this clever? No, as I said, it reflects ambiguities (many of these tyrants used to be allies against muslim/terrorist extremism) and more than that: it reflects deep uncertainties.

Nobody knows how the Arab Spring will play out. Everybody hopes democracy together with a healthy respect for human rights will settle in.

But there are some early signs of trouble in Egypt that are extremely worrying. With the collapse of Mubarak's police and his forcefully imposed "stability" on the country, sectarianism is rearing its ugly head. Last Sunday sectarian violence left at least 11 people dead (6 Christians and 5 Muslims), 220 people wounded (including 65 struck by bullets) and two churches in flame in Cairo after a night of violence. Egypt's Coptic Christian minority of some 10 million people (10 percent of the population) is at bay, apparently increasingly threatened by bearded Salafis. These are people who adhere to an ascetic form of Muslim fundamentalism and tend to be highly militant. Whether such people will end up controlling the situation is anybody's guess.

I hope not, but then I'm a born optimist. What's your view?

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