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October 22, 2003

Writing Stuff

Notes about the writing life and etc for this fine October Wednesday.

* In one of those interesting coincidences, there's another "stupid people doing stupid things" book out on the market right now, pretty much directly competing with mine: Hey, Idiot! Chronicles of Human Stupidity, by Leland Gregory. Mr. Gregory has mined this territory before: He's also the author of America's Dumbest Criminals and What's The Number for 911? I saw the book in the bookstore yesterday, so I picked it up to see what the competition's like. No, I won't tell you what I thought of it; slagging a direct competitor seems tacky, and of course praising one wouldn't be the smartest thing for me to do either, now would it. But I think it would be interesting to put both books in front of a reader and see which he or she prefers.

On a purely business perspective, Gregory's book does have a couple of advantages, primarily in that it's already out and its list price is marginally cheaper: $10 vs. $13 for my book (however, I note that on Amazon, the price difference between the books is actually about 40 cents, so maybe that's not going to be a real advantage). My book has its own set of business advantages, including its association with the Uncle John's brand and the fact that the publisher is owned by the company that services books to warehouse stores like Sam's Club and Costco as well as other "non-traditional" retailers. So while Gregory's book may have the jump, I think I have the reach. We'll have to see.

Not that it has to be a competition, of course. Theoretically, there are enough book buyers for both us. And, I should hasten to add, his collection of stupid bits and mine has absolutely no overlap in terms of content; you could buy both and not read the same story twice (which says rather unfortunate things about the quantity of stupidity in the world at the moment). But I'm interested in seeing how the sales go. I will note that at the moment (12:25pm Wednesday 10/22/03) the Amazon Sales Ranking for Hey Idiot! is 1,918,308, while the ranking for Book of the Dumb is 52,419, and my book isn't out yet. It probably doesn't mean anything, and you know how those sales rankings can change. I still like it, though.

* Yesterday I also picked up my yearly edition of The Writer's Market, which, if 2004 is like each of the last six years, will sit on my shelf all year long, entirely unused, as the majority of my work comes in from non-traditional writing avenues like business and marketing and whatnot. Krissy asked me yesterday why I keep buying the thing if I never use it -- she is the practical one in the family, after all.

Basically I keep buying it because it represents two things to me. The first: A security blanket. It's nice to think that if my usual gang of clients dry up on me (and indeed, over the last couple of months my business writing business has been slow), I have something to hit to drum up new work. The second: An aspiration. Fact is for a successful freelance writer (which is to say one who doesn't have a day job), I don't have a huge number of magazine article credits aside from my steady and totally fabulous OPM gig. Every year I keep meaning to query more magazines, and each year I kind of get sidetracked into other things, like books and business writing and what not. Mind you, this is not a complaint -- I know a lot of magazine writers wish they could get sidetracked into writing books -- but it would still be fun to see my name in some magazines it's not been in before.

Also, I have high regard for the Writer's Market as a resource and I do avidly recommend it (or at least some sort of writing market book) to other writers in terms of gunning up business. Part of me feels I shouldn't recommend the thing if I don't buy it myself and have at least a vague plan to use it. So those are my reasons for buying, and buying it every year.

* Over at Penny Arcade, Gabe had an entry that resonated with me, when he discussed how he ditched a chance to go to art school when it became clear the instructors thought the art he was interested in wasn't worth consideration:

One professor told me that he could see the same caliber of work by examining the margins of any 9th graders algebra notes. They all agreed that I had "potential" though and decided to allow me into their school under the assumption that I would of course focus on doing "real art" as opposed to the crap I had been producing up to that point. I toured the campus and saw the sorts of people that go there and the sort of work they produce. I realized that I was not like them. I decided not to attend the most prestigious art school in Washington and instead went to community college for a few years.

I had a rather similar experience to which which I've related before, when I took a creative writing course and the professor, a novelist of some experience, said at the outset of the first class that he didn't want to see any science fiction stories because, basically, he was of the opinion that writing science fiction didn't actually constitute writing. Now, maybe he was right and maybe he was wrong, but I do happen to know that outside of the professor, I'm the only guy who was in that class who has sold a novel. So you tell me what that means. By the same token, I don't know what Gabe's potential classmates are doing now, but Gabe's work is successful enough that not only does he live off it, he actually employs others. Again, you tell me what that means.

"Art" is a remarkably hardy thing, but "artists" tend to be a bit pissy. In both the case of Gabe's professors and mine, there is some resonance in what they were trying to say -- both comic art and science fiction can be tar pits for the mediocre and the self-marginalizing -- but their solution of expunging them entirely from consideration is like condemning a house because you're worried a trainee plumber won't learn install a pipe correctly. Better to encourage people to learn several forms to enhance the forms they love. Then maybe comic art and science fiction (or any other number of marginalized genres) would improve.

That is, if they need improving. I like science fiction because people actually tell stories in the genre; I like comic art because the people drawing it want to connect with the readers. I suppose the implication here among artists is that certain genres of art or writing are not challenging. But I would argue that there's a difference between "challenging" and "alienating."

I'll mention this in closing: Not long after I sold Old Man's War, I went to New York to chat with the Tor editors and we tossed around some ideas -- one of which was my suggestion that they consider Gabe to do the cover art. I suggested Gabe for two reasons: One, I knew I'd get a book cover that wouldn't look like anything else out there, and two, Penny Arcade's got thousands of rabid fanboys and fangirls who'd probably buy the book just for the cover art. They'd get the hardback, slide off the cover, have it framed and then maybe get around to reading the book. And I'd be okay with that.

I can't and certainly wouldn't criticize the artist Tor eventually went with, because his art rocks in a completely different way, and I'm thrilled to have him doing the cover. Hell, my local bookstore owner asked who was doing the cover, and when I told her, her eyes got all sparkly because she made the connection between this guy's artwork and sales at the register. Tor's made my local bookseller pleased, so color me six shades of happy.

But I have to say I will envy the first guy who gets a Gabe book cover. And one day, I'd like to have one of my own. That's artwork worth having.

Posted by john at October 22, 2003 01:39 PM

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