What if Harry Potter was Crowdsourced?

Happy-Thanksgiving-Pictures

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The publishing world has changed, and the major players have lost ground to Amazon and some new upstarts looking to cash in on the rising indie-author boom, where more and more authors are choosing to self-publish their work instead of seeking a publishing contract.

The style of work has changed too. Short stories have come back in vogue, in no small part due to shortening attention spans among everyone with internet access. Heck, I stopped twice while writing this post to check e-mail. Even shorter pieces, called flash fiction (1200 words or less) are also in style, and some authors are demonstrating their ‘creativity’ and ‘talent’ by tweeting their work, others post to Wattpad or a similar social sharing site, and now we have interactive books courtesy of Apple. There are still ways to tell stories that have not yet been discovered.

One way which has and which is now being touted is crowdsourcing stories. The idea appears to be, someone writes an idea and writers compete to write the best versions of a chapter. Readers then vote on which chapters they like best, and that goes into the book. From Publishers Weekly:

“Traditional print publishing is gatekeeper driven. The traditional publishing model has focused mostly on large-scale print production and relies on a small number of retained authors with a proven track record of generating commercially successful work. The relationship between publisher and author is nurtured at a high cost. Publishers control their ROI by focusing on a small number of proven writers. With the emergence of e-books, the risk of picking the wrong author is reduced, but because of print’s continued focus on big authors, large publishing organizations are still a tough nut to crack for new authors or hard to categorize material.

Digital publishing is automation driven. Digital publishers saw an opportunity to automate many of the steps of traditional publishing, including digitizing books. This created cost efficiencies and increased the size of the market but the essential process of creating content remained the same. Hundreds of Internet-based publishers emerged to sell digital books, which gave birth to self-publishing and hybrid models in which authors pay partners to be published in exchange for a higher percentage of royalties. While digital publishing has expanded the number of published authors, it has not generated the revenues of traditional publishing, or garnered much respect for its content.

The sharing model of publishing is profile driven. In the newest sharing model of publishing, bits of stories are crowdsourced, and the community defines the best writing. Whereas the other models rely on the market to determine quality after the publishing process is complete, with customers using their wallets to vote, the sharing model publishes stories that have already been embraced by the crowd, eliminating the risk of publishing unwanted material. Instead of being process driven, the sharing model is profile driven. Readers and writers sit at the heart of this ecosystem of content generation, with their profiles defining the value they bring. A good analogy for how this model has evolved is the job postings market. Monster automated the process of scanning newspaper job postings. LinkedIn then focused on the profile of job seekers and allowed the community to crowdsource their careers.

Today there’s a similar opportunity for writers with the new sharing models of publishing crowdsourced original content through “competitive collaboration,” with writers competing to write sections of a story, and readers voting to determine which sections are published. Models like this turn the storytelling process into a social media experience.”

The premise is kind of like Wattpad meets celebrity authors, like how sometimes authors collaborate on a project to produce a book. But now, you promote your rough draft to the crowd, and let the reader tell you what’s good, rather than you finishing work and showing it to the reader.

The basic problem with crowdsourcing stories is that not all writers are equally talented. Yes, if five equal authors got together and agreed beforehand on a plot, it might work. The problem with Skrawl’s idea is, if one author is significantly better than another, then the good author will be dragged down by mediocre to poor authors, having to a) publicly show work that isn’t ready yet and b) being forced to compete with someone who may not be as good

Let’s use your favorite book, which is probably Harry Potter, since it seems like a lot of people’s favorite book is Harry Potter. In the old days, JK Rowling wrote an outline, then a book, then queried until a publisher bought the rights to the first book. The publisher edited the book, added a cover, and sold copies in bookstores. Today, if she received dozens or hundreds of rejections due to declining space for new authors, she could self-publish an e-book and hope for the best.

Under this crowdsourcing model, JK Rowling would post chapter 1 of Harry Potter to a website like Skrawl or Wattpad and then “compete” with some random schlub named Steve, living in Manalapan New Jersey, whose idea of a novel opener is “King Liprix wore a green coat and carried a purple sword.” Steve would post his chapter 2, and most of us agree it would suck. But, because readers determine via poll which chapter to vote on, Steve would get lots of his friends to vote for chapter 2 of the Sorcerer’s (Philosopher’s in UK) Stone. He has more friends who vote the same way most people do for social media competitons, so Steve wins. Then for chapter 3, Tanya from Redding, California gets her friends to pick her chapter 3, leaving JK out of the next two. By the time she’s ready to write chapter 4 (“Diagon Alley”), it no longer makes sense because the story is now about Harry using a staff and rubber band ball to fight a unicorn on a pogo stick while Harry Styles of One Direction looks on approvingly. Thus a great story is now ruined.

Crowdsourcing would require previous collaboration between authors, and voters who are truly impartial and capable of understanding the storytelling process are deciding one step of the way; and also if the authors are of relatively equal strength and talent. And as readers are already gatekeepers of literature, do you really need to check in with them first in a race to the bottom to see who can turn literature into whoever can push the most votes online?

Bottom line for Skrawl: Potential as a niche form of storytelling, but unlikely to replace conventional stories. I have a feeling most readers would rather just read a great story when it comes out instead of devoting hours to reading stinky writing so they can feel “important”.

No posts until next week. Have a happy Thanksgiving.

Is Publishing Unfair?

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Such was this question floated in The Atlantic:

Last month, the Jamaican writer Marlon James won the 2015 Man Booker Prize for Fiction for his riveting novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings. A spate of articles came out documenting his win, noting the fact that the 44-year-old James was the first Jamaican to win the prize. One article by The Guardian however,focused on the fact that the manuscript of James’s first novel, John Crow’s Devil, was rejected close to 80 times before finally being published in 2005. It also discussed how James had given up when faced with such vast rejection. “There was a time I actually thought I was writing the kind of stories people didn’t want to read,” he said, going on to describe how his desperation drove him to destroy his own work. “I actually destroyed the manuscript, I even went on my friends’ computers and erased it.”

This article was shared among writers on social media with exclamations of, “don’t give up!” and “keep at it!” But this reaction reminded me of the exuberance of many when Obama was elected President: To them, his election demonstrated the country had become blissfully “postracial,” despite all evidence to the contrary.

Time and time again, the literary establishment seizes on the story of a writer who meets inordinate obstacles, including financial struggles, crippling self-doubt, and rejection across the board, only to finally achieve the recognition and success they deserve. The halls of the literary establishment echo with tales of now-revered writers who initially faced failure, from Stephen King (whose early novel Carrie was rejected 30 times before being published), to Alex Haley (whose epic Roots was rejected 200 times in eight years). This arc is the literary equivalent of the American Dream, but like the Dream itself, the romantic narrative hides a more sinister one. Focusing on how individual artists should persist in the face of rejection obscures how the system is set up to reward only a chosen few, often in a fundamentally unmeritocratic way.”

The article author goes on to discuss race and publishing decisions, sans #weneeddiversebooks hashtag. While that is another issue for another time, let’s ask ourselves whether talented writers are being ignored by incompetent publishers who are a) evil, b) incompetent, and c) run by folks who are really, really bad at sales.

Just as occasionally athletes who were undrafted make a huge impact on their team, sometimes authors who were missed by the traditional system will have a second chance self-publishing. Just search for ‘self-publishing successes’ and the names of those who have ‘made it’ self-publishing will be there; many who were rejected so many times they took their shot with the internet, others who got their book rights back or were dropped by publishers, others who didn’t even bother trying.

The thing that drives artists crazy is that art is subjective. Unlike providing accounting services or inventing caffeinated peanut butter or chickpea pasta, there isn’t really any portion that is objective, besides a properly edited book. Even the cover is subjective.

Yes, one can argue that some authors are really exceptional at their craft, or that more people liking a particular story makes it better. Or most people agree a particular cover is better-looking than another. But at the end of the day, art is subjective. Meaning we have no way of knowing whether our work is liked enough to be bought until it’s out there. There has never been a golden age where artists of any kind were appreciated and most artists earned enough from their work to earn a living. We’ve ALWAYS had a few artists making most of the money. I would venture to say the top 50 bestselling authors worldwide earn more from their writing (only their earned portion of the royalties and advances received) than every other author combined, author being defined as having published at least one full-length novel for their genre that is sold for a price besides free.

As publishers are run by human beings, it’s natural like sports scouts, they will miss a particular talent, or choose to overcompensate the latest YouTube celebrity or Wattpad sensation with a bigger advance than could be ever earned back, while authors who could sell more than all of them get a smaller advance, if they even get offered a book contract. No, it isn’t fair, but private companies are not democracies and don’t need to be fair. With limited resources, and with art so subjective, editors and anyone else involved in buying book rights have to take their best guess as to what will be popular in the upcoming years when the book is actually published. Most of the time they guess wrong, occasionally they guess right, and rarely they guess super correctly, but those are the books which keep the company profitable.

Having said that, the author of The Atlantic article is correct in saying that the current publishing system is inefficient and does favor a select few. The few authors who have ‘made it’ happily talk about their rejection letters as proof of their ‘perseverance’. The even fewer who become millionaires from their writing are sometimes even more nauseating, as I have yet to see one of them say the traditional system is unfair, particularly to new writers. Of COURSE they will come out and defend the status quo, because THEY got rich off of it. Since they cannot truly explain why they got rich since art is subjective, they inflate their own writing abilities and defend a mismanaged system.

It should be obvious to every reader of this post why the traditional publishing world and their authors tout their ‘don’t quit’ stories, and this is important for you to understand. The closest I can explain it is a casino. Like respected artwork, winning at table games is largely out of your power. You may know the rules, you may have some experience that increases your chances of winning table games, but most winning is arbitrary. You may win the more you play, or you may not. You could win on your first hand or your twentieth, or not at all. Money you win is paid for by others who have played, or sold books. Bestsellers generally generate enough revenue to subsidize not only those authors’ lifestyles, but also purchase new books that might become the Next Big Thing. This is a lot of why publishers tend not to take risks on new ideas or new authors, sticking with the familiar faces and/or ideas that are like the last bestseller, with some changes in plot and character names. This increases the chances of finding more bestsellers to generate revenue.

Theoretically, if everyone knew which books were the best, we’d have a lean, efficient system and likely far fewer authors, meaning better earnings for those who do write. But no one has a clue. Not publishers, not editors, not agents, not authors, not the self-publishing world, not readers, no one. Therefore, traditional publishers require these ‘I made it!’ stories to make sure the authors who are talented keep querying agents and waiting for their book to be picked up. If the stories stop coming in, the system as we know it will collapse.

To be fair, indie publishing sort of functions the same way. Not for those who just want to publish their 1 or 2 books and be done with them, but who see writing as a career. You do remove the ‘middlemen’ and go directly to readers. But if you actually believe that you’ll hit it big by your fifth book, you’re fooling yourself. Your book is subjective, and it might hit it off or it might not. Anyone telling you indie is more ‘democratic’ is also not correct. It’s the same principle behind why people fear flying more than driving, even though flying is statistically safer: it’s the illusion of control. Just as we can’t control other drivers, indie authors cannot control whether potential customers (readers) will like their product enough to pay for it.

At the end of the day, book publishing has far bigger problems than if they miss some gems, because they always will. Getting people to read instead of doing other things. That said, the author of this article is partially correct: a lot of great work is being ignored. But a lot of great work has always been ignored, and will always be ignored, no matter what we tell ourselves otherwise.

 

Is is the Veteran who gives us Freedom

American Flag

It is the Veteran

It is the Veteran, not the preacher, who has given us freedom of religion.
It is the Veteran, not the reporter, who has given us freedom of the press.
It is the Veteran, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech.
It is the Veteran, not the campus organizer, who has given us freedom to assemble.
It is the Veteran, not the lawyer, who has given us the right to a fair trial.
It is the Veteran, not the politician, who has given us the right to vote.
It is the Veteran, who salutes the Flag,
It is the Veteran, who serves under the Flag,
To be buried by the flag,
So the protester can burn the flag.
Author: Anonymous

Happy Veterans Day to all who have served, and those serving today, and their loved ones.

Do Indie Authors Need Gatekeepers?

As someone who has published indie before (disclosure- that was once on Wattpad, but technically it counts), I follow the news in the indie author world. And while many are embracing the “don’t query, just publish” mentality, I find it deliciously ironic that some indie authors are now, in fact, wondering if credible gatekeepers might be a good thing.

Tahlia Newland, Australian author, submitted an op-ed to Self Publishing Advice where she addresses that question:

The problem is that not every book written is worthy of publication and, in general, the author is the least qualified person to make the decision as to its worthiness. Even for an experienced author, the temptation to publish just because you can is strong. How many self-published authors stop and consider whether their book is actually worth publishing or, better still, ask someone objective and well read that question?

The fact is that for all the books written, only a small percentage are worthy of publication. During the days when traditional publishing was the only practical way to get published, publishers used to pick up around 5% of what was submitted to them. One publisher I did a workshop with said that around another 10% were well-written, but they weren’t something the publishers felt would sell.

But the advent of easy self-publishing hasn’t made 85% of the books written any better, it’s just made it possible for readers to read them. So what we can get, at best, is a lot of mediocre books because authors are not that discerning in deciding if their book is worth the effort. They just want to see it published.

The problem of quality in self-published books will only be solved when authors ask a publishing industry professional if their book is worth publishing, and if they get an honest answer and are prepared to not publish. Sounds a bit like a gatekeeper, doesn’t it?

Well, there was a reason for them, and the reason still exists: to protect readers from books that aren’t that great, and to protect authors from the career-killing repercussions of ill-advised publication.

Whoa Nelly! Hold the horses. Is an indie author suggest we need, dare I say it, gatekeepers? And she doesn’t mean readers; she means before it gets to readers, so many won’t be jaded by the perception of indie books being crud.

Often authors who want to publish debate between self-publishing and trying to seek an agent. From my own interactions with indies, most hate the idea of querying and waiting years to get a novel published, with no guarantee a book will ever see the light of day. At least when published, your script has a chance, a 0.0000001% chance, but nonetheless, of hitting mega-stardom and propelling you next to the mega-bestsellers, both indie and traditional.

But as someone who has read chapters or stories from other indies, I can honestly say there are some people I really would love to just say, “you should do something else with your time. You’d be more productive.” They are just not good writers. But the pressure to “write! write!” and “publish! publish!” persuades some that either they are the next big thing, or else at least they can say they did something few achieve: actually publishing a novel, from start to finish. And to be fair, there are some traditionally-published books that are terrible and should not have been published in the first place.

For all authors, making the decision whether or not to kill a manuscript can be tough, especially if one devotes dozens or hundreds of hours to a particular story. But sometimes, shelving that manuscript is for the best. The question is, will those who write treat their work like a product and have it tested before publication? Or do they just toss it up to the internet and hope for the best?

Is Star Wars Proof Readers Like the Same Old Story?

 

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Unless you live in a cave, or Afghanistan (which to be fair is sort-of one and the same thing), you know the seventh Star Wars movie is out.

This movie has already surpassed the half billion mark in box office receipts and the Star Wars Franchise, nearly 40 years old, is still going strong. New generations of fans are always being born, and there is literally no shortage to the possible number of video games, t-shirts, posters, fan art, etc., available. I still remember, as a kid, all the Star Wars games and books I used to have.

So what is it about Star Wars that makes it so popular? And how does it affect the type of stories we write? Is it true that, despite people saying they like ‘fresh and original’, they in fact, prefer the exact same story with some subtle changes?

I searched for the answer to my questions to the omniscient, onmipresent God Almighty, who is manifested on this Earth in the form of the search engine, delivered from Mount Silicon from His prophet Google.

Levi Throckmorton, Star Wars historian (did you know there was such a thing? How much does that pay?) says:

  • Star Wars is genre-defining. It was the first feature film of its kind and it opened the gate for space-based science fiction to occupy an unshakeable position in mainstream culture.
  • The story of the original trilogy of Star Wars is one of humanity’s favorite stories. David beats Goliath. The underdog good topples the powerhouse evil.
  • The universe is vast. Multiple planets are mentioned, visited and explored. All manner of sentient and non-sentient beings are on display, including the primary antagonist being a mixture of both. Entire books have been written just about the spaceships, land vehicles, and weapons that exist in Star Wars. And those are just the films…
  • The movies aren’t the end of the story. In fact, the seven Star Wars feature films that exist only comprise around 35 years of the history of the galaxy. There is so much more information to explore, whether via novels, comic books, video games, or the Star Wars Wiki (lovingly nicknamed Wookieepedia).
  • The stories are relevant to children as well as adults. A 40-year-old can watch these films or read these books and get just as much pleasure and satisfaction as a 10-year-old. The Star Wars universe isn’t something that just fades away as you grow older. If anything, rewatching the movies with an adult perspective on the politics and relationships featured in them has only enhanced my love for the universe.

Here’s a second take from Michael Wolfe:

This may in part explain the recycling of the same idea in our movies, books, TV shows, and video games: Regular joe discovers he’s (almost always a man, it seems) the ‘chosen one’ and must save the world from pure evil, which is evil because it is evil.
Some scripts like Game of Thrones defiantly bucks this trend with main-character-killing or no specific good vs. evil plot to overcome. But for sure, the good will triumph over evil plot is popular, chosen one stories are popular, especially when the hero is unaware of his special powers and doesn’t want to cause trouble in the beginning. It also helps in my view to be “first to market”, getting there before anyone else does. Once you do that, anyone who tries to compete with you will be derided as a “copycat” and will have to compete against your brand, which will occupy space with the divergence of media that is our internet world.
Having said that, is it a bad thing that the most popular story ever told is recycled 2-3 times a generation in a well-told story? or does the public love these stories because they do not believe we live in a just world?

As always, make sure to follow my blog for more fun analysis and talking points. Happy Holidays, whatever you celebrate, and Happy New Year.

Why I Don’t Bother With #NaNoWriMo

For all you writers out there, you know this is the month you’re supposed to put out 50,000 words to “get to it”, to show you can produce some great literary work. Or at least get most of your next book done.

I don’t know how many of you several hundred monthly readers of this blog actually write, and how many of you actually bother with this month. I won’t bother pushing myself this month, for the following reasons:

  • For me, I treat EVERY freaking month like this. While 50,000 words is a tall order, I don’t like to wait around for that special time of year to be told to ‘bust my butt’.
  • For all you writing on the side while working 1 or more jobs: just saying you’ll write 50,000 words a month is a lofty goal that is more inspirational than realistic. If you live in the states, take at least 2 days off for Thanksgiving weekend. For those of you who don’t write, a full-time writer like your favorite multimillionaire author ___________ can easily write 50,000 words a month, if s/he is doing it full time and able to write about 5,000 words a day for 10 days a month. The rest of us? Write in our spare time, fortunately to make time in a day to get to writing.
  • Already booked up this month. Let’s just say the soccer league I ref got waaay more interesting on the weekends, and I have other projects going on.

Feel free to participate in NaNoWriMo and enjoy yourself. I, however, will write when I can and just continue with my normal writing schedule.

Are you participating this month? How many words do you honestly think you’ll get done?