Another One Bites the Dust

I finally got around to reading Festive in Death by JD Robb (the mystery-writing pseudonym of bestselling romance author Nora Roberts).

Festive in Death

This is the 39th book in the popular In Death futuristic mystery series, and perhaps that’s why this book is further proof that Robb/Roberts is losing her touch.

At first, I thought that I wasn’t that into the book because it was my first time reading an e-book on Google Play Books, instead of my usual Amazon Kindle app. Perhaps that was the reason I kept putting the tablet down while attempting to read this book: an unfamiliar e-book delivery system. But no; when I read another book via Google Play Books, I was able to stay engaged and had a hard time putting the e-book down. So the platform delivery was not the issue; the book content was.

I noticed that the quality of the In Death plots began to decline with Salvation in Death, book #27 in the series. At the time, I thought the book had a phoned-in quality, like Robb couldn’t be bothered to put forth her best efforts. Random reviews from different bookseller and fan sites showed that I wasn’t alone in my thinking; indeed, many were not pleased by the lack of her normal plot and character depth. She redeemed herself in subsequent books until she reached Indulgence in Death (book #31), which was a poor rehash of the plot of Seduction in Death (book #13). Again, all was decent until Calculated in Death (book #35, which was another poor rehash of the subplot of Born in Death, book # 23).

[yes, I’ve read the entire series from the very beginning, and have most of the books, so I can pinpoint a lot of these changes–so can a lot of other fans.]

There have long been rumors (since around the time of Indulgence in Death) that the In Death series/JD Robb books were being ghostwritten, rumors that Roberts/Robb vehemently denies. Yet continuity errors (character names, character backstories, noticeable difference in writing style from earlier books in the series, etc.) in latter books belie her denials. Given the state of the last three or so books, I’m leaning toward the ghostwriting school of thought for at least some of the books in the series.

Hey, I get it: Nora Roberts has  “written” forty of the JD Robb full-length novels (#40, Obsession in Death, comes out in 2015), plus short stories surrounding the main character, Lieutenant Eve Dallas of the New York Security and Police Department–all in addition to putting out her romance novels under her real name. Nora Roberts got her start, and made most of her money, writing in the romance genre (indeed, her full-length romances are almost instant bestsellers. She’s a very prolific writer who seems to churn out a new book once a month or so), and it can be argued that romances are her first writing love. That being said, it’s easy to see why she’d want to take a break as JD Robb and fall back on what made her famous. It happens.

I’ve seen other of my formerly favorite authors go down the same “phone it in” path: Mary Higgins Clark and James Patterson are two of them. Patterson started the “ghostwriting via collaboration” trend that Higgins Clark is now picking up, as he turned his attention to Young Adult novels with his Maximum Ride series. Perhaps that’s what happens when you publish a certain number of books, or been in the writing and publishing game as long as they have:  you become numb, writing-wise. I’ve seen it in Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta novels; Terry Brooks‘s Dark Legacy of Shannara series (The Dark Legacy of Shannara: Witch Wraith: what was that?!); and both Brenda Jackson‘s Madaris and Westmoreland romance series, as well.  For all of these authors (who are pretty prolific), I stopped reading them on a regular basis years ago because the spark that fueled their first twenty, thirty, forty books had gone dim. I no longer enjoyed their newer offerings and found myself reading their older works (and enjoying them more). Robb/Roberts has now been added to the list.

This is one of my fears as an author: writing so much that I will grow weary of my craft, and start turning out subpar stories just to say I published another book; or worse, hire someone to do most of the heavy lifting and rubber-stamp my name in order to retain and maintain my fan base. I’m not at that level yet, but given the amount of mental energy that goes into writing and publishing a book, I can see where the aforementioned authors are coming from. As Whitney Houston once sang, it’s not right, but it’s okay.

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From “Like” to “Legend”: The transformative power of literary fame

Acclaimed poet and activist Nikki Giovanni recently celebrated her 71st birthday. This was the same day of the funeral service for the late, great, Maya Angelou (Ms. Giovanni even wrote a lovely poem in memory of Ms. Angelou).  While updating my Facebook page with a link to Ms. Giovanni performing one of her most famous poems, “Ego Tripping (There May Be a Reason Why)”, I went to bookmark it so that I can revisit it later on. My dilemma came when I went to select the appropriate folder for the bookmark; I hesitated on “Authors” before deciding on “People”.

My choice gave me pause. Yes, Ms. Giovanni is an author. She has penned many critically acclaimed collections of poetry, the most recent being Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid. She is a contemporary of poet activist Sonia Sanchez and literary novelists Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. Yet she is also a Person. By dint of the popularity of her writing among fans and critics alike, she has gone beyond being just an author. Indeed, her name is spoken with the same reverence as those of Angelou, Morrison, Walker, Sanchez.  She is no longer Nikki Giovanni, poet and activist. She has become NikkiGiovanni (one word), or sometimes just Nikki, literary icon.

What is it about our literary folks that propels them from the pool of mere mortal authors into the stratosphere of literary royalty? What gets them to the level of one-name-only recognition? Much as those who are familiar with movies and TV automatically know to whom is referred when the names Oprah, Denzel, Gwyneth, Charlize, Angelina, Brad (other than their occasional uniqueness) are uttered. So does this occur in the literary realm, except there are few first-name-basis authors. Instead, we meld their first and last names into a litany of fervor, to be repeated ad infinitum–or until they fall off in their writing quality.

NikkiGiovanni. SoniaSanchez. MayaAngelou. AliceWalker. ToniMorrison. StephenKIng. JamesPatterson. DavidBaldacci. NoraRoberts. ChimamandaAdichie. EricJeromeDickey (okay, he has three names).

What these authors all have in common is not only reign on the New York Times best seller list, among others, but also lots of sales in general. And book awards: Pulitzer, National Book, National Book Critics Circle, PEN . These writers are practically guaranteed to hit the NYTBL upon publication. Their advances are gleefully handed over by their respective publishers, because the publishers will earn it all back within the first week of sales.

Perhaps it is the lot of writers that we have to rely on first and last names due to relative lack of visibility; when was the last time you saw an author’s face splashed across promotional material as a focal point? Most marketing tools showcase the book cover (because that’s what the reader is most interested in), and leave the author pics to websites and the like. That being said, readers are much more likely to remember the book rather than the person who wrote it. No one usually geeks out and says, “Oooh! XYZ is releasing their latest book today!” Since book titles are promoted months in advance of publication, it’s more common for readers to say, “Ooh! This New Title is being released on this date!” Supplantation of the author by his or her work is the nature of the beast, and lends to the reinforcement of identity via the use of whole names. We’re glad that you like our work, but authors are people too: check out the person behind the curtain. This requires authors to have personality. For those on all-one-word basis, they also have the persona that engages readers during book signings, and this in turn encourages readers to keep up the fandom (people buy from people that they like).

Perhaps that’s the magic ticket: sales plus sparkle. It’s a good start for those seeking to transcend the boundaries of mere book sales.

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Resistance is Futile: Amazon and the Strong-Arming of Corporate Publishing

There has been much ado about Amazon‘s attempts to get Hachette Publishing to lower their book prices. Some come squarely down on one side (Yay, major publishers!) or the other (Yay, Amazon!). Most don’t really give a flying fig, unless they are authors of the books being “delayed”, or people trying to purchase said books; the only concern is their God-given right to discounted prices.

[Still wondering what’s going on? Here’s a quick recap of this publishing “Clash of the Titans”]

A friend of mine emailed me to ask where I sat on this whole issue. Having had my own tangles with mainstream publishers, and knowing of others who have as well, I’m rolling with Amazon at the moment. Granted, Amazon will eventually turn to a less-benevolent form of operation (corporations being what they are), but right now, they are the BFF of a writer. Why, may you ask? Get comfy, and I’ll tell you. 😉

As an author, I have long been dismayed with the direction of the major publishing houses. I know plenty of authors (especially those of color) who have left major houses and mainstream publishing contracts, in order to self-publish. Publishing houses don’t do what they used to; they don’t throw their resources (PR, editing, marketing, etc) behind authors (especially new authors) unless you are a Stephen King, Eric Jerome Dickey, James Patterson, Michael Eric Dyson, Cornel West, Bill O’Reilly, or a big name that is guaranteed to earn back the six- or seven-figure advance given.  Some new authors aren’t given an advance at all or if they are, it’s relatively paltry. And, the mainstream publishing industry has a long-standing practice of showing preference to white authors, with the lucky Asian slipping in to give some diversity. This is a reflection of the people who make the decisions as to who and what will be published.

Amazon makes it very easy to get a book out there, as there is no one (usually a clueless , sheltered someone who believes in the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” school of book sales/procurement) to tell an author that their work isn’t good enough to be published. Granted, that leaves the door open for books ranging from extremely crappy (by that, I mean disjointed plots, remixed plots, typos, grammatical errors, etc.) to very good to hit the market, but the purpose is that anyone can put their book out there, no matter how bad or good it is (“good” and “bad” being subjective terms. One’s man’s trash, and all that)
Now, Amazon has its own way of slipping a noose around an author’s neck. Case in point: CreateSpace  is the self-publishing arm of Amazon, where you can publish your books via e-book or physical book. When a book is published, it is assigned an ISBN (International Standard Book Number–the long number on the back of the book, right above the barcode). The barcode is associated with that ISBN, and that’s how book sales are tracked in stores. A true self-publisher will buy their own ISBN (you can actually get this through CreateSpace for an extra $10, or purchase it from Bowker [the company that distributes ISBNs] for $250 each, or a block of 10 for $325); this enables YOU to get the profits and sales records in YOUR name. You use a different ISBN for each book format, even if it’s the same title: an e-book will have one ISBN, a regular book will have another, an audiobook will have its own as well.  One can pay the $10 through Amazon and retain rights to use that ISBN wherever, because you are the publisher. Or, for those who have already purchased ISBNs, they can just add their own and still publish through Amazon simply because it’s so easy to get those books out there and ready. BUT…Bowker (the ISBN people) is just inflating the price in an effort to get people to buy in bulk: $250 for ONE ISBN, vs. $325 for TEN (which then comes out to $32.50/ISBN). They are counting on most people saying, “Wow, I might as well buy ten.” But for those who don’t have $250 or $325, Amazon is the best option (no one else is offering ISBNs for $10…as long as you publish through Amazon).

Another temptation for Amazon authors: the book can be for sale within 24 hours of uploading the PDF file of the book. Compare that to waiting nine months (at least) for publication through a traditional/mainstream publisher, or a few months for an independent publisher.
The kicker: most self-published authors are all about minimizing costs. They will take the free covers offered by CreateSpace, and the free ISBN provided (which makes Amazon the publisher, not you). When you do this, though, that ISBN can ONLY be used via Amazon; you can’t list your book on Ingram (which is the go-to and largest book distributor in the world; all bookstores are hooked into it, since that’s how they order books), can’t sell it on your personal website unless it links back to Amazon. So Amazon created this easy, comfortable space for authors, and many are content to swim in that comfort zone. Another way Amazon locks authors in is royalties. Right now, authors get 70% of the royalties from sales of their book through Amazon, but that will probably change. Still, it’s better than what an author (especially a first-time author) will get from a major publishing house. And, like I said earlier, a lot of the authors on Amazon either have gotten shot down by a mainstream house, or figure why should they do everything and let those publishers get most of their money? In this way, Amazon is garnering a lot of loyalty.
So both sides have their issues, but right now self-publishing is the way to go, and you’ve got to give it up to  Amazon for its hustle and one-stop publishing model. I encourage anyone seeking to write a book (any kind of book) to do for self, and Amazon just may be the easiest way to get your foot in the door.
Agree? Disagree? Sound off in the comments below.
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