When the Awful, Artful Task of Book Blurbs Comes To Blessings

For those who might not know, one of the more sensitive (and dreaded) tasks required during the process of readying one’s book for publication is the procurement of book blurbs. Considered a time-honored tool in promoting an upcoming book, the assignment requires that you reach out to authors you know and whose work you respect; authors you don’t know whose work you respect; those who might be notable in the arena your book encompasses, or, and most coveted, well-known authors whose status might lend yours a bump of credibility. You offer to send your book—or select chapters—in hopes of inspiring a few lines of endorsement that can then be affixed to your cover or review pages. It does feel like daunting duty, all that asking, and, frankly, I know a few authors who’d rather walk on Legos.

Because getting anyone, even someone you know much less a well-known author, to read your work and write a sentence or two of appreciation feels to be herculean. Everyone’s busy with their own projects, deadlines may make it problematic, and even those who initially agree can later back out for one reason or another. Since it requires a significant focus of someone’s time, the “ask” is approached, always, with some trepidation and a big dollop of sensitivity. You don’t want to appear presumptuous, you don’t want to come off as gushing or obsequious, and certainly you don’t want to risk the pang of brusque and/or unspoken dismissal (though if you’ve ever queried agents you already know what that feels like!). So you proceed with as much elegance and decorum as you can muster, and if you do reach out to a “famous writer,” you do so graciously and with the full expectation of never hearing back.

I heard back from Rebecca Wells.

As the author of one of my favorite books, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Ms. Wells captured my admiration years ago when I first read that book and her many subsequent and attendant titles. And while my upcoming novel, The Alchemy of Noise, is not necessarily a “comp title,” a bit darker and more urban than her own work, the connecting point—beyond my creative respect—is our shared category of “contemporary literary fiction.” It seemed worth a shot.

My letter opened with:

“I was sitting in a natural mineral pool in Desert Hot Springs, CA, when I read Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. I was with a group of women friends, none of whom had had my particular Catholic upbringing, some of whom shared the legacy of a loving, crazy, narcissistic mother, and as I emerged from the steaming water with teary eyes, the goose bumps on my arms were not from the cold: I had been transported. I looked at them and said, ‘I don’t know why I’d ever think of writing after reading this book…it’s one of the best things I’ve ever read.’

“Despite that earnest disclaimer, I transmuted my awe into inspiration and did proceed to write my first novel…”

From there I told her a bit about my own journey as an author; I kept it brief, I asked if I could send my new book, or just a few chapters, with hopes of a short endorsement, and concluded (as prescribed above) graciously and with the full expectation of never hearing back.

And yet I did.

Not even two weeks later I received a sweet handwritten letter on a piece of lined notepaper: “It makes me smile to think of your meeting the Ya-Yas in a hot tub!”

She went on to explain that she was knee-deep in her own soon-to-be-published project, and though she would be unable to carve out time to read and endorse my book, she concluded with:

“Many congratulations on your writing! What guts it takes to sit on our butts and do this… I do send you all the best wishes as this new one goes forth into the world. Thank you for asking me… 84,000 Blessings, Rebecca Wells.”

Wow.

In an industry (a world!) where far too many make too little effort to respond and relate to those who reach out to them, I’m always astonished when someone does, particularly someone whose high-profile comes with commensurate demands on their time and attention.

Moral of the story: don’t be afraid to contact famous authors you admire. Even if they don’t have time to read and endorse your book (most won’t), you will have made a connection with someone whose work touched you, and who knows where that may lead? And if you’re lucky, you may walk away with not only their best wishes, but their blessings… 84,000 of them, and that is something that—in this crazy world—is always, always, appreciated.

Next up: What I Learned When I Heard Back From Jodi Picoult 


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Lorraine’s third novel, The Alchemy of Noise, has an April 2019 pub date, with pre-orders currently available at Amazon.  Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to her other books, music, photography, and articles.

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Competitive Creativity: What Is It Doing To Art? And To Artists?

 "Please...please pick me..."
“Please…please pick me…”

It was the second round, the one where two singers, chosen from the group of finalists, face-off against just each other; winner takes all, loser goes home. I watched my friend take his place on the stage. A handsome, supremely talented singer/songwriter, he’s written and recorded songs that could make your heart soar or break into a thousand pieces and yet there he was, singing his touching ballad with heart and soul…only to be pitted against a Broadway-style belter going full-tilt Mariah Carey on some barn-burner, and, well, you guessed it… my pal went home.

Apples and oranges. Coffee and tea. What’s the point? Both valid types of performers, both excellent at their particular craft and style, but we’re going to throw them in the pit together to decide which is better than the other.

Why do we do that to our artists?

Why do we set them against each other in situations where arbitrary standards are applied, subjective opinions rule, random preferences (“he’s so much cuter!”) play a role, and the whimsy of fickle and often superficial criteria set the bar for what’s “hot,” who’s a “star,” what’s a “bestseller,” and who wins the prize?

Why do we make them compete against other qualified artists to win “best” when “best” is, more honestly, impossible to determine and strictly subjective? Why do we make them give their work away so greedy consumers can enjoy it without exchange, in hopes those consumers start viral and positive word-of-mouth? Why do we make them “audition” every day of their lives for acting, singing, writing, photography jobs, often ones beneath their talent, all while treating them as if their years of work and artistic contribution are irrelevant to their perceived value?

The moment before one of our best becomes that arbitrary "best."
– That vulnerable moment before one of our best becomes an arbitrary “best.”

Why do we make artists battle each other like gladiators in a pit, while giving audience members, opinion makers, and gatekeepers the power to thumb up or down depending on cultural mood and sway? Why do we make them beg for readers, go into debt for song plays, humiliate themselves in hopes of an acting gig, or accept “exposure” and “internet real estate” in lieu of money because, hey, “my kid takes pictures as good as any professional, why should I pay you?”

Why do we make them jump through such hoops, tap-dance with such desperation, become “monkeys” to our grinding, mercurial cultural tastes?

Well – you could also ask –  “Why do artists put themselves in those situations?” And you would be asking another valid question.

Why do they? Why do they allow themselves to be judged on anything other than their work, their evolution as an artist, the depth of their talent and skill, or the merit of their individual and unique creative contribution?

Because they want to “make it” – a living, a fair wage, a career – and “making it” in the creative businesses is a BITCH.

Unless an artist wants zero exposure or connection to the outside world, they want some kind of commercial success. They wouldn’t cut CDs, post photographs, publish books, or produce plays if they didn’t.

artist

They want to make a living — some kind of living. They want a bigger audience, a more influential pulpit; an upward trajectory. They want to advance beyond the basement rehearsal room, the badly lit garage, the crappy office where they wrote their last three books. They want their work to get out there, to touch more people, have more impact; be heard, read, and looked at by more than their enthusiastic, but limited, circle of family and friends. They want fame and fortune because fame and fortune allows for steadier progress, more and better opportunities, the attraction of more effective business connections, and a higher level of collaborators. Because art is communication and communication requires a Point B. They want more Point Bs.

But we live in a world of too many people, and with so many of those people pursuing artistic careers, and so, so many outlets available for those many people to put their work, the supply has colossally exceeded the demand. Which makes creative competition a sort of necessary Hunger Games designed to thin the herd.

Frankly, supply has always exceeded demand in the arts; success has always been a rarefied, selective thing, but now – with the internet, all things DIY, and enough televised talent shows (you’d think!) to run out of talent – the gates of perceived opportunity have burst open, and everyone with a modicum of talent is rushing forth to be counted. And the bean counters are counting and artists are competing and it’s all getting so crazy that shenanigans and misguided notions of every kind have been injected into the madness.

Examples?

Singers, producers, and record execs now regularly rely on digital technology to manipulate marginal performances into artificially perfect ones. Independent (and other) authors pack Amazon pages with paid-for, swapped, and often undeserved “5-star” reviews to hopefully pull them out of the pack. Photographers Photoshop their work to death in an effort to stand out in a field where billboards, newspapers, and media sites are putting out calls to amateurs with iPhones. Copywriters, journalists, and essayists are forced to balance free gigs offering bona fide Ior not!) exposure against “getting paid or walking away” in arenas where “everyone’s a writer!” and no one wants to, or, apparently, needs to pay for quality writing.

All of this has reduced art, and artists, to… yes, I’ll use the analogy again: The Hunger Games: artists out there with defenses high, attempting to survive in a world where those in charge frame them as generic and dispensable… and too many fellow artists believe “cheating the system” is necessary in a competitive environment where talent, quality, and sustaining creativity are far less valued than viral appeal.

But is that giving us the best art, advancing the best artists? You tell me. I’m not convinced, particularly when I read, listen to, or see extraordinary art that is ignored or dismissed for lesser, but more viral work.

Which means this to me:

Personal best

I’ve stepped off the playing field. I won’t compete anymore… at least not in the ways described above. I won’t pit myself against other talented artists to win some arbitrary prize; I won’t chase after an audience; I won’t involve myself in situations that kill my soul, even a little. The only person I’ll compete against is me, to beat my personal best, and continue to grow and evolve as an artist. I’ll put my work where it can be found, I’ll happily share good news, I’ll continue to promote and talk about other artists I admire, and I’ll do everything within my power and resources to advance my goals. But I’ve put down my bow and arrow. If this means I’m truly out of the running, so be it. I’ve discovered that sometimes running just kicks up a lot of dust…

Fingers crossed image by Mjt16 @ WikimediaCommons.
“Best Lead Actor Emmy” shot: video screen grab
Trumpet Player by Padurariu Alexandru @ Unsplash
LDW shot by James Johnson

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

Writer or Author? What To Call Whom and Other Industry Silliness

writer author copy

A writing colleague of mine sent me an interesting article recently; wanted my opinion on a piece written by a book blogger with a rather fierce agenda about who gets to call themselves an “author” these days. The piqued pontificator asserted that there are fundamental distinctions to be made between “author” and “writer,” nuances he deemed essential to preventing confusion in the literal and virtual book-buying marketplace.

And here I thought readers just wanted to know which were the good books!

This inexplicably grumpy guy (who shall remain nameless and linkless in a nod to collegial decorum), purports to have his finger on the pulse of the book industry’s beating heart, and takes personal umbrage at our loosey-goosey tendency to let just anyone use the term “author.” Since it’s a matter of great importance to him, and, unfortunately, many others in this rapidly evolving marketplace, I decided to give his thesis a whirl:

According to our parsing pundit, the title of “author” applies only within this very limited parameter: a writer who makes a living with the books they write. Their full-time living. No side-jobs. No article writing, copyediting, babysitting; mowing of the neighbor’s lawn, or even the occasional catering gig. If there is any under-the-table commerce unrelated to the business of the book, well then, they are not an author. They are just a writer.

Why that assignation—writer— is considered lesser, I do not know; but, apparently, it is.

Obviously this semantical corralling would include most self-published authors—I mean, writers—because, except for the select few who’ve managed to self-publish their way to enviable fame and fortune, the rest are busy selling real estate, proofing web copy, or teaching grade schoolers while pursuing their passion on the side…and until they hit their literary jackpot. Our bitching blogger believes distinctions are to be made for these folks.

But even if you agree with him, I have to ask: why should the distinction matter…to anyone? And yet it does. To that particular blogger and others I’ve encountered along the way. So much so that self-publishers who dare refer themselves as “authors” are likened, in some ways, to paralegals posing as attorneys, interns marching hospitals in doctor whites, or security guards puffed up like the NYPD Blue. In other words: pretenders, imposters, frauds.

Really? The distinctions between writer and author are SO carved in stone as to allow the Word Police to pejoratively deny one group use of the more vaunted descriptive of author?  Well, how ’bout we leave it to the dictionary? 

Author: noun; 1. a person who writes a novel, poem, essay, etc.; the composer of a literary work; 2. the literary production or productions of a writer; 3. the maker of anything; creator; originator. Verb: to write; be the author of:

That seems clear. Shall we continue?

Writer: Noun: 1. a person engaged in writing books, articles, stories, etc., especially as an occupation or profession; an author or journalist. [emphasis added]

Yep, as interchangeable as driver and motorist, teacher and educator; trapeze artist and aerialist. More importantly, did you note the first, most important definition of “writer”? According to the dictionary, it’s the writer who’s identified as the professional, not the author!

Holy bloviating blogger, that drops the whole theory on its head!

But while I poke fun at the condescension of said cynic and his ilk, the sad fact remains that they are emblematic of many who marginalize independent, self-published authors as dilettantes and amateurs, relegating them (sometimes literally) to card tables in the back room rather than up on the dais with the “real authors.” Fair? No. But the nose-snubbing endures.

It likely began with the vanity press, that notorious business model that gave amateur writers the opportunity to publish their work for a fee. The narcissism of the option was presumed: anyone who would pay to have their own book made, a book they obviously couldn’t get published through professional means, must surely be a vainglorious sort.

Forget that they might have just wanted a few copies to leave the family.

Self-pub meme

But moving past vanity presses came the even more paradigm-shifting digital revolution, which first hit the music industry like a hurricane, forcing analogue studios into Pro Tools machines, and traditional record companies upside-down-you-turn-me. No one was sure how to adjust (it’s still a conundrum…see Taylor Swift and Spotify; see Apple and Spotify, see Spotify and Pandora…), but adjustments were and continue to be made. And artists who’d previously been kept outside the gates were suddenly making and selling their own, affordably recorded, music, while payment formulas, arcane to begin with, went up in smoke. No one knows how anyone’s making a living these days, but there’s lots of great music and many excellent (heretofore ignored) singers, songwriters, bands, and musicians who are finally able to get their work out there. That, alone, is worth a great deal to a great many.

Are they, then—those scratching out a living however they can while playing gigs, hawking CDs, and keeping hope alive on the Internet—allowed to call themselves musicians, recording artists, bands, and so on? Of course! Because they actually are all those things. How they get their art produced and delivered, or how much money they’re able to accrue in the process, has zero bearing on their talent, skill, or the value and artistry of their work.

Or what they’re called.

Is it all good work? No. But it never was all good work, even when record companies were stationed like trolls at the gate. But much of it is astonishing music that would have never seen the light of day under the old regime. And now it’s the audience, the marketplace, that not only has access to many more artists by virtue of this democratization, but will be the arbiter of just how the supply and demand piece plays out.

That same paradigm shift is happening in book publishing.

Since sites like Amazon, Smashwords, Kobo, iBooks, IngramSparks and others have created platforms for independent authors to upload, publish, and sell their work, similar fears, criticisms, and condescensions have percolated. But just as those who naysay indie musicians tend to be backward travelers, so, too, are the curmudgeons who’d generalize, dismiss, and denigrate independent authors across the boards.

Because the talent, skill, and artistry of authors is not based on whether or not they fit the narrow demands of publishers scrambling to stay relevant (or solvent); nor is it based on whether the sum total of dollars they’re able to earn is enough to cover their bills. No; the talent, skill and artistry of authors is based on…drum roll…the talent, skill, and artistry of each individual author. Period.

Is every book by a self-published author a good one? No, of course not. That’s been established. But many are as profound, as resonating, as any good book sitting on the shelf at Barnes & Noble. And, conversely, all one has to do is ferret through a book bin at CVS, peruse the racks at an airport, or consider some of the most viral of bestsellers put out by traditional publishers to find examples of the kind of drek that makes our blogger’s teeth grind.

It’s past time for the media, the publishing industry, book stores, and cultural taste-makers to move beyond elitist, myopic attitudes about the clearly indefatigable self-publishing world. As that demographic evolves, the authors within it will raise their own bar to demand the highest standards from its members: constructive peer pressure designed to make sure the steps are taken, the funds invested, and the necessary work done to deliver the most excellent books possible. And what will happen then is that more and more of those authors will break through the barriers to slowly but surely make more money, get more attention, and find their way onto bestseller lists, award tables, Kindles, and bed stands of discerning readers.

Because they are authors, just as the dictionary confirms: “writers creating original, literary works.” Which is exactly what self-published and independent authors have been doing all along.

Image courtesy of Wellcome Images @ Wikimedia Commons

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

I’m Not Interested In FREE Books

Buy my book it's free_r

This came up in conversations with two different writers today: the growing frustration that what “conventional wisdom” tells us—that authors are either to give their books away or sell them dirt cheap—is essentially throwing the incomes (and perceived value and professionalism) of writers under the bus. I concur.

Why are published authors not seen as professionals whose work deserves remuneration on a par with other professionals? Why are writers admonished for daring to price their book any higher than a few dollars? Why is appealing to those who only want “free stuff” considered a marketing strategy? We very decently pay our plumbers, our doctors, our gardeners; hell, even our fifteen-year-old babysitter gets more financial consideration than an indie author! So why are even the most skilled and talented of our storytellers persistently relegated to the bargain heap?

That would take a thesis to analyze; something about how the internet has created a culture that thinks everything online should be free, that “anyone can do anything” (fuck expertise or true talent); that artists are of less value simply because “anyone can do anything,” and so on…(perhaps we’ll discuss all that further at another time).

But I’m having none of it. I pay for my downloaded music, I make sure artists I admire get my dollars along with my admiration, and believe me…I am not interested in free books. I’m not interested in cheap books. The ONLY books I’m interested in are books with a premise that intrigues me, a cover that suggests a necessary level of professionalism, and solid reviews that authentically offer insight. If that kind of book is free—or being sold for $3—I may buy it, but with the thought that the author might be selling themselves short (particularly if they’re an indie struggling to build a name). If a book like that is $10, I’ll buy it knowing that the writer values their work, and I’ll be happy to contribute something to their coffers, usually a pittance of what their time and talent deserves.

But don’t holler at me about “FREE BOOKS.” Holler at me about truly gifted writers selling their work with pride, a sense of professionalism, and at a damn logical price. When most people will easily spend $6 for a latte, $15 for a movie ticket, $18 for a glass of wine, or $30+ for a video game, you will never convince me that a book someone spent years writing, and countless dollars producing and promoting, doesn’t deserve a fee commensurate to that effort.

For more on the topic, see my Huff Post piece: Free Books: Marketing Genius or Devaluation of Writers?

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

Take A Moment To Visualize This With Me….

city street

Would you? Just sit back and take this in, this image above: a New York City bus stop with its large poster in bright, living color. What’s on that poster? The book cover image of After the Sucker Punch with its intriguing face tucked behind those bold, enticing letters.

I see it… don’t you?

For details and links to who created this image and why, hop on over to AfterTheSuckerPunch.com and find your way to reader and writer, Brenda Perlin, who not only took the time to read my book, but shared a few insightful thoughts about it… for which I am deeply grateful.

But don’t click over there just yet.

Take one more moment to visualize this with me… and… very nice. We’ll end with an amen of “so be it and so it is.”

Thank you. I felt the plates shift.

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.