Thursday, December 15, 2011

Lazy headline writing

It's no secret that the quality of journalism has declined dramatically in the Internet era--largely because of the constant pressure to add fresh content and get "clicks and eyeballs."

However, taking a moment to clarify the most important part of your article--the headline--is always worthwhile. Here is an example of a lazy headline from an Associated Press story as it appears on Yahoo (incidentally, Yahoo probably has the worst content aggregators and story presentations in the business, although I am not sure Yahoo News counts as journalism).

Penn State figures accused of lying head to court

Maybe I am the dummy, because it took me three reads to make sense of what the story was about, although I have been loosely following the PSU case. "Penn State" is the good opening hook, but "figures" is a double-meaning word, made even worse by the fact that one meaning is a verb and another is a noun. "Penn State figures" could mean "Penn State expects." So you have to go to "figures accused" and that throws a hiccup into the reader's understanding.

Then you get the "lying head." Is the head lying on a pillow? "Figures accused of lying head." Huh?

This isn't an egregious offense to written communication and meaning, but it is an example of how unclear word use and inattentive word order serve as roadblocks. No doubt some people breeze right through and translate it instantly into coherency, but in a world of many content choices, wouldn't you want an inviting doorway?

When I was a carpenter, we had a saying, "Measure twice, cut once." Sounds like good advice for writing, too.


Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Prime lending library apocalypse

You can't be someone in the indie writing world without stating an opinion on Amazon's Prime lending library, which allows writers millions of readers for very little money. Amazon is asking for exclusivity for those books that indie authors opt into the program, with a $500,000 monthly earmarked for payment, based on number of checkouts.

I don't know why everyone automatically assumes this is a monstrous exploitation of authors. Every single maneuver Amazon does is always met with rampant paranoia in the indie community, the giant lifting its boot-heel. But the reality is that every one of those moves have ended up with more money for more authors than at any time in history.

What if, instead of Amazon pouring champagne on the heads of starving writers, they actually say "This has worked out better than planned and we're upping the outlay to $12 million for 2012"? They didn't go into this without some risk. Why does everyone assume the worst when Amazon single-handedly created the indie market and gave us a huge audience and untold millions of dollars?

And this is inevitable. Publishers should have done it five years ago and then they wouldn't be whining about Amazon. Sure, I am an Amazon homer, but after 15 years of writing, Amazon is the first entity that I felt any sort of true partnership with. Yes, the warm fuzzy of the megacorporation. I'm in.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Publishing manners: Only responds if interested

Dean Wesley Smith, one of the contributors to the freebie manual Write Good or Die, has a post on "But why would you... insult writers like this?"

The post is well worth reading, covering the growing habit of professionals in the publishing industry to not bother responding to queries. Dean rather eloquently points out that they do it because they can.

Previously, writers had no choice, but now the balance of power is shifting away from the middle management and to both ends of the real business--connecting writers and readers. Over the course of my own career, I watched the lack of response happen. In the late 1990s, you could pretty much count on getting a form rejection within three months of your submission. That was when publishers still looked at manuscripts.

After that, publishers started requiring agents, and agents responded to their newfound power by raising their commission from 10 percent to 15 percent. The corporate publishers merged, smaller presses folded, and soon we had the Big Six that we know today, although there are still some established small and specialty presses. All this moved the selection of marketable books into the hands of a very few people, which also caused them to be busier than ever.

The net result was that there were few of them and many, many, many writers. It was actually easier to ignore almost all writers, because they really only needed a few. Even if the 100 best books ever written all showed up at the same time, they'd still only buy five of them. Same with the worst 100 books--they'd still need five.

But that's not an excuse to ignore writers. If a writer spends a year working on a manuscript, even if the story is dog slobber, it deserves a "No, thank you." Of all the ways traditional publishing contributes to its own demise, I can't help but feel the "Only responds if interested" policy is a subtle but revealing detail about where modern publishing has arrived.

Perhaps the decline was inevitable, but it could have been embraced with a little grace, and then perhaps more writers would be saddened at the loss. As it is, we're not even sure it's any loss at all.