Sunday, July 29, 2012

Publishing Industry Truths

On Friday I participated as a panelist on a panel entitled “Paths to Publishing” at the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference. From the questions that writers asked, and from the subsequent session I attended with Jack Shoemaker, editor-in-chief at Counterpoint Press (which published my book), I realized that most of the writers present knew very little about the publishing industry. Some of them clearly imagined that they will make a lot of money from publishing their book. I literally heard people gasp at certain points in my presentation because they were shocked to hear the statistics I provided. So for today’s blog, I’m going to share some of the information I offered to them, plus some. It’s an eye-opener.

Editors, agents, and publishers are overwhelmed by manuscripts. Shoemaker receives about 1,000 manuscripts a year at Counterpoint (that's about 83 a month). Whoa! Who can read all that? That’s a big reason why writers are so frequently rejected. I have a rejection letter from everyone who is anyone in the publishing business. But Alex Haley received over 200 rejection letters before his epic book Roots was published. And there’s a famous story about Jerzy Kosinski taking one of his bestselling novels, slapping a pseudonym and a different title on it, and shopping it around to see what would happen. It was roundly rejected by 13 agents and 14 publishers, including Random House, which had already published it. LOL!

My advice to the writers at the conference after I shared my brief thoughts on rejection letters was that if they couldn’t land an agent or a publisher, they should think about self-publishing. Depending upon choices a self-publisher makes about how to publish, self-publishing can be an honorable choice and a viable path to publication. It can be the mechanism through which a writer reaches their audience, and that’s what writing is all about. Self-publishing is an old and well-established tradition. Books that were originally self-published include James Joyce’s Ulysses, Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, The Wizard of Oz, and Joy of Cooking. That piece of junk, the 50 Shades of Grey Trilogy, erotic romance books that have monopolized the bestseller lists for weeks, was originally a self-published e-book. I couldn’t get past page three in it, but obviously it has something that people like because they’re reading it like there’s no tomorrow. Jack said in his session at the conference that the fastest growing market in books right now is genre fiction, particularly romance (the leader).

The most challenging task in publishing is getting the word out to people about a book. These days even authors of books produced by mainstream publishers have to do a lot (if not all) of their own marketing and publicity. Blockbuster authors regularly “give back” a substantial portion of their royalties to their publishers to contribute to the marketing budget for their books. Some, like Stephen King, return more than 50% of royalties to the publisher for marketing. Getting the word out about a book is expensive and time-consuming, and people will only buy a book if they know about it.

Over one million books are published in the U.S. every year. Over two-thirds of the books published in the U.S. are self-published books, reprints of public domain works, and/or print-on-demand books. Less than 2% of all books published sell more than 1,000 total copies in their lifetime (astonishing but true); less than 20% sell more than 100 total copies. (For the record, The Call to Shakabaz has sold almost 2000.) These days almost all books that are published are sold primarily to the author’s and the publisher’s extended communities combined. Not many books are able to break out and sell significantly to a larger audience. There is an old saying in the publishing biz:  “If you want to be a millionaire publisher, start out with $2 million.” It’s astonishing how many books a publisher has to sell just to break even on production and marketing expenses.

This was my parting advice to my fellow writers at the conference:  no matter which path to publishing you take, walk that path for love, not profit; and make it a point to enjoy the journey, wherever it takes you.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Early Response – Interesting Phenomena

Friends keep asking me how well Memories from Cherry Harvest is selling. Because it was only officially released a few weeks ago, it’s much too early to say. The exciting thing for me is that some of my friends who received advance copies have had a chance to read it and respond. This past week brought me a couple of noteworthy communications.

On Monday I received a phone call from Joan and Henry Stone, now in their 80s, friends of my parents. I grew up with their children. Their family joined with ours and two other families every year for a joint Passover Seder. We called ourselves the “seder family.” Joan and Henry are Holocaust survivors. Each of them fled as teenagers from Germany with their immediate families and witnessed the disintegration of their larger families and communities. Joan still has the yellow star she was forced to wear pinned to her coat before her family fled Europe. They called to tell me how much the book means to them. It preserved and portrayed many of the experiences of themselves and others they knew during the war. As they said, it encompassed the Jewish experience on many levels and in many places, America, Israel, Eastern Europe. Since our conversation, Joan has been sending me the names and contact information for Holocaust survivor organizations throughout the country. What an amazing resource she is! As I recall, I inscribed the copy of the book that I sent to them with the words “we will always remember.”  

On Tuesday I began corresponding via email with my friend Rajni who lives in Glasgow, Scotland. She had just completed the book. She read it while vacationing in France, which she swiftly realized was particularly apropos since much of the first section of the book takes place in France. She wanted to tell me that the book had prompted her to phone her father to ask for more information about her own family history. Rajni is my age, in fact we have the same birthday. She was born in Nakodar (in the Punjab) the day I was born in Schenectady. Her family emigrated to Scotland when she was about four years old. Her father is probably close to 90, and still has all his wits about him. Rajni said that in the course of their conversation (prompted by the book) she discovered for the first time that her great-great grandmother was from Afghanistan. One of the things that I strive to do as a writer is to make a difference in people’s lives with my writing, so I’m gratified that the book opened a conversation for Rajni with her father that provided revelations about her ancestry.

On Wednesday I checked on Goodreads to see if anyone had posted a new review of the book. I have received wonderful positive reviews from complete strangers writing on Goodreads. Sure enough, more reviews had appeared, all of them good, all of them written by women, and a pattern was emerging. Women are reading the book and then passing it along to their daughters or mothers, granddaughters or grandmothers. Women are discussing the book across generations. The book lends itself well to discussion. I hope the reader often wants to jump into the conversation with the characters and make a contribution. That seems true of the book. So it’s a good book for people to read together, excellent for book groups. I love this phenomenon of people sharing the book across generations. And also that the book serves as a doorway to valuable, often revelatory conversations about family.

I look forward to hearing more in the future about how Memories from Cherry Harvest has touched people’s lives.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Americas Before 1492

Last month my book group read 1491 by Charles C. Mann and wow did that book explode myths and point out fallacies about indigenous people living in the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans. Reading that book caused a shift in my perception of reality. It had such an impact on me that I want to share with you the main points. The research supporting these assertions is in the book. Mann provides extensive scientific, historical, archaeological, and anthropological documentation. (Compare my synopsis below to what your school textbooks told you was true!)

First point:  Many more, vastly more indigenous people lived in the Americas (North, South, and Central) than previously thought. The Americas were not populated by many small, isolated tribes before Columbus arrived. They were populated by large cultures numbering in the hundreds of thousands. In fact, there were just as many people in the Americas as there were in Europe in 1492 – or approximately 100 million in each region (not a mere 1 million in the Americas as previously thought). There were large metropolises and civilizations extending over vast areas. What the first European explorers found as they spread out into the Americas were the sad remnants of these enormous thriving cultures, which had been decimated, often annihilated completely, by diseases brought over by the Europeans. They found destroyed cultures and broken people, the few survivors of massive epidemics that spread like wildfire the instant Europeans (and their pigs and rodents) stepped foot in the Americas. These epidemics killed most (99 million) of the indigenous population.

Second point:  The indigenous people living in some areas of the Americas have been here since the end of the Ice Age, or at least 25,000 years (and perhaps for as long as 40,000 years). Manmade stone spear tips have been found in the bones of woolly mammoths on this continent. Although some indigenous people may have traveled across the Bering Strait Land Bridge (remember learning that in school?), most of them evolved in place here in the Americas and did not travel here from a different continent. Thus, there was not one “cradle of civilization” in Mesopotamia (as previously thought), but more than one location where civilization was born and some of those locations were in the Americas.

Third point:  Ancient civilizations in the Americas were not only large and not only present a very long time ago, but they were extremely sophisticated and complex. There is evidence of massive agricultural operations, extensive cities, roadways, bridges, water systems, written language, mathematical calculations, scientific understanding, and more. These were not “primitive” ignorant people by any measure.

Fourth point:  These indigenous people who inhabited the ancient Americas were not necessarily good stewards of the ecosystems in which they lived. We seem to be wedded to the image of the Native American crying for the destruction of the environment; stuck in the belief that indigenous people live in harmony with the earth, that they are the original environmentalists. Yet Mann gives one example after another of ancient civilizations in the Americas that exhausted the land on which they lived and destroyed it, resulting in their own extinction. He describes one culture in South America that cleared acres and acres of forest and planted maize to feed a metropolis of hundreds of thousands of citizens. In one year of drought, the maize “plantation” surrounding this city deteriorated into an eroded desert incapable of supporting life and the inhabitants of the city starved to death. End of that civilization. There’s a lesson to us for this day and age (one would hope).

Amazon Rainforest

Fifth point:  Much of the terrain of the Americas, by the time Columbus arrived, had been consciously and deliberately developed by indigenous cultures and civilizations over the course of thousands of years. In other words, the Americas were planted by those who lived here before 1492. Forests were planted. Whole ecosystems were “introduced” or specifically arranged to sustain human life. The shape of the land was not as random as one would think. Mann describes the many techniques used by indigenous cultures to develop the land to their satisfaction. Very convincing.

Sixth point (an extension of the fifth):  The Amazon Rainforest is one big garden deliberately, carefully, and conscientiously planted by indigenous people. One of Mann’s supports for this argument is that almost every tree in the Rainforest bears an edible fruit. The indigenous people of the Rainforest did not have the metal plow (as did the Europeans). They had stone tools. It is nearly impossible to clear fields with stone tools. So they planted trees, which would offer decades of productivity. The Rainforest is an orchard. It is in fact a “built environment.” (Lots of research backs this up – check it out if you doubt it.) Furthermore, anthropologists and soil experts have discovered in the Amazon Basin large swaths of “terra prieta,” a rich, fertile earth, terrific for agriculture, that is believed to be created by humans and is not found to originate in nature. This terra prieta covers more than 10% of the Amazon Basin. Scientists believe that this rich soil (which, by the way, recreates itself ongoing) was developed. It was generated by a cluster of microorganisms that self-perpetuate. (Much more on this topic in Mann’s book.)

Reading 1491 reminds me to keep my mind open to the possibility that what I know about the world is a moving walkway and that each of us creates our own reality by what we perceive and what we understand to be the truth. The truth is fluid.

This is a passion flower, which grows in the Amazon Rainforest and also in my backyard, 
where I planted it. It's gorgeous, dramatic, and bees love it!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Postcards from Cherryfest

A week ago Friday I spent my afternoon baking cherry pies with Butler Ranch cherries and gluten-free crust for my official book launch, which was on Saturday June 30 at Mendocino Book Company. When I opened one of the jars of cherries that I put up in 1997, I was reminded that these cherries were not put up in syrup but in plain water. They were rather tart, to say the least. They cooked up into pie real well, though, with honey and a little lemon juice. We ate the pie and the cherries with vanilla ice cream (which will spruce up about anything) and they were heaven. My friend Cassie made chocolate chip cherry cookies and my friend Gloria made a cherry and apricot crisp. We also had delicious store-bought cherry pies.

                                           Gloria serving up cherry treats. 

Before the Cherryfest, I talked about writing the book and about how it got published as the winner of the Frances Fabri Literary Prize. The story of how my book got published is a long story, even the short version is a long story. I did my best to keep it short. I shared a little bit about Frances Fabri’s life and explained the uncanny connection between Frances and my book (part of that long story). The twitter version is:  Frances was a Holocaust survivor and part of my book is based on family stories from the Holocaust. I read aloud, and it was the first time I have ever read any of the book aloud to an audience. I was surprised at the responses of participants. One woman said afterward that she wants to read the book to see how all the different excerpts that I read go together. A Latina woman sitting in the front row gasped audibly in recognition of her experience while I was reading a section in which a character is arrested for engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience to protest the deportation of Salvadoran refugees. I was shocked when I saw a woman whom I did not know crying at one point because she was so moved.

                                          Me reading aloud to a packed bookstore.

 During the Cherryfest, participants spoke with me and told me about their experience reading the book. Quite a few people are in the midst of it now. Some have finished it already. Honestly, I felt exposed and vulnerable; as if I have published my secret private diary.

My dear friend Jessica drove up from the Bay Area to attend. She was about 50 pages from the end of the book and had been calling me every day to report her progress and to holler at me for killing off characters she loved and to discuss the events of the story and to say how meaningful the book was to her. It was splendid to have her with me for the reading and to continue to discuss the book with her during her brief visit. My friends Gloria and Ken drove up from Sebastopol. Gloria and Cassie worked the Cherryfest for me so that I could concentrate on signing books and talking to people. (I even sold two copies of The Call to Shakabaz!) After the event, Ron and I returned home with Jessica, Gloria, and Ken and we shared a bottle of wine and good conversation. We were too full of delicious cherry pie and vanilla ice cream to eat dinner.  It was a satisfying day.

                                          My wonderful audience. I must have said something funny.

With the book officially “out,” I might be starting to go through a post-partum depression. Lately I have been thinking, OK that’s done, now what? I need to ratchet up the effort again and find a way to get my other books published (yes, I have more written that are not yet in print). It’s sort of crazy. My book is beginning its journey out into the world and I am ready to move on. Just because I managed to get this one published doesn’t mean my others will be shoo-ins. I have to climb down off that publication high and get back in the saddle. And I have to keep writing. I’m almost done writing the first draft of the sequel to The Call to Shakabaz and I have started mapping out a sci-fi for adults. I say it again:  I’m a novelist trapped in a grant writer’s body. Sigh.

                                                       Another photo of Cherryfest food.

My next event will be at A Great Good Place for Books Bookstore in Oakland on July 19th at 7 PM. This will be a different crowd so I have to rethink which excerpts to read and figure out what I want to say. I’ll share my debrief of that event with you in a few weeks. I hope you enjoy the launch photos Ron took that are in this blog post.

Continuing on the journey.

                                                       Me and my book. So much to say, so little time.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

What’s So Funny About That?

I think that I have been slowly losing my sense of humor ever since my children left home and I want to reclaim my funny bone. I needed my sense of humor to raise those children. And I relied on my sense of humor when they first left home and were beginning to make their way in the world. But now that my youngest is a senior in college and all three of them are doing well in their independent adult lives, I am not finding as much to laugh about. My children kept me so amused.

When my daughter dropped her cell phone into a vat of boiling spaghetti and when her brother’s frat brothers spilled beer all over his cell phone, and when my youngest put his iPhone in his back pocket having forgotten that he didn’t have a back pocket (the bottom of the pocket was no longer attached to the pants) so that the phone fell out and disappeared into the depths of Oakland, I just laughed. It was funny to me, and not worth getting upset about. I told my daughter to wait for her phone to dry out and it did and then it worked again (although her calls were in Italian – HA). I told my son to wait for his phone to dry out and it did and then it worked again (although it had a terrible hangover – HA HA). I told my youngest his iPhone days were over and he should go pick out a nice cheap Go Phone with no internet capability. And he did. He said he was about ready to be done with a phone that got the internet anyway – too distracting. (And Ron chewed out the thug in Oakland who found the phone under a bush and called us to see if we would pay him $60 to return it. To be honest, that phone was so old that it was barely working anyway even before it slipped out of the non-pocket.)

For many years I have had to exercise superhuman creativity to manage our finances so that we could send our children to college and hang on to our house and occasionally take a modest vacation. And in the past, the contortions I had to do and the brilliant weird fiscal acrobatics and the bizarre hurdles that fate placed before me to challenge my fiscal genius, all of these were funny to me. So why am I so anxious lately? Why do I worry about the same stuff that I found ridiculously amusing just a couple of years ago? Is the amusement center of my brain shrinking?

I want to be able to throw my arms up in the air and say “oh well” like I did when we pulled into the parking lot at Marine World USA and our daughter shouted from the back seat “Mom, where are my shoes?” and I realized that she had gotten in the car two hours prior at the Ranch with no shoes on her feet. No problem. Ron went into the gift shop and bought a pair of flip-flops for $28 and they let my daughter into the park. I want to be able to laugh my head off like I did when we were driving down off McNab Ranch in the van, on our way to the Oakland airport for a two-week family vacation, and Akili called from the back seat, “Mom, am I packed?” I want to think that it’s the most hilarious thing I have ever heard when Sudi announces “I don’t like fruit.” And he doesn’t. He eats almost no fruit. Should that concern me? No. It should be something to laugh about.

I have decided that I am taking myself and my life way too seriously lately. I need to lighten up. The absurdity of life is simply not tolerable any other way. I think it’s time for me to watch Galaxy Quest again. That would be a good way to start implementing my new resolve to revive my sense of humor. Bring it on Tech Sergeant Chen.