Sunday, January 31, 2010

Google and . . .

Most of the time when I think about my writing life, I’m thinking about the writing part—how the story will develop, the way characters are starting to act out, the problems with certain clues. Once I start, I am lost in the story until it finishes. But this month has been about other facets of the jewel of my life—sales and marketing.

I’m not talking now about how to set up programs with libraries, signings at bookstores, or talks to university groups. January 28, 2010, was the deadline for writers to opt out of the newest (and probably final) settlement with Google. The Authors Guild has been staunchly behind the settlement, declaring it a good thing for writers. The National Writers Union has been just as staunchly opposed to it. The last several months have brought me a steady stream of emails about the settlement and opportunities to review the terms on phone seminars. I read the settlement papers sent by one group and sat in on a phone seminar from another. I won’t go over the details here, but I will say that the statement by two lawyers (not both in favor) during the seminar decided me. I opted out of the settlement.

Hard on the heels of that deadline, on January 29, 2010, Macmillan was shut out of Amazon’s Kindle sales and then had all of its books pulled from Amazon, over the issue of pricing. Macmillan is huge and most of us buy books published by one of its imprints some time during the year without even realizing it. The day I signed my contract with G.K. Hall for my first book in 1985, A Reader’s Guide to the Classic British Mystery, the editor sighed and told me, “That’s the last contract we were allowed to sign. Macmillan shut everything down when they bought us out and put everything on hold. The writers are going crazy waiting to find out what’s going to happen.” I know what happened to some of them.

Amazon is now doing to Macmillan a bit of what Google is trying to do to writers—take over “the product” and make all decisions, regardless of official ownership and other rights.

This is not a good time for writers, but when I think about other writers, from Chaucer, who had enough day jobs to populate a small village, up to the number of writers in recent years who were also physicians or businessmen or teachers, I realize there is no time that is good for writers. I don’t know if it matters who wins in the Google settlement or in the Macmillan/Amazon dispute. I only know that the business is changing and the only way to maintain any integrity in my work is to hold on to it as much as possible. When I go on line and find copies of my books for sale in India (India!) and in Europe in formats never part of any contract, I wonder if it’s possible to hold the line, but I’m not ready to give in just yet.

In the 1960s the average starting salary for a social worker was $5,000. A writer who sold a short story to a major magazine, Redbook or Saturday Review, was paid $5,000. The advance for a novel was generally $5,000 into the 1990s and 2000s. And now? Can you imagine any unknown writer selling a story for $30,000? Or getting an advance of $30,000 for each book in a series of midlist crime novels?

Google and Amazon are not the problem—they’re just symptoms of a larger problem, and not one that I can solve, but at least I can resist it as the opportunity arises. And for now I will sit on the sidelines and watch the big guys duke it out while I work on selling my crime fiction through the usual outlets—bookstores and libraries—and work to find perhaps a few new ones.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Vacation That Wasn't

This is the time of year when I head off to India for three weeks of sunshine, spicy food, and sleeping late. I have been doing this off and on for over ten years, and before that I lived in India for a year at a time, returning to the States to complete graduate school and for work. India is in my blood and my psyche. So when events transpired to keep me here this January, I thought I could cope by planning my trip for next year. But I was wrong. I’m not exactly in mourning, but I have been doing the kinds of things that lovesick souls do—mooning over substitutes and thinking of “what might have been.” And this has led to what has turned out to be “the vacation that wasn’t.”

During the first week of January I watched Malayali movies every night—often the same one over and over again. I love Indian movie music—it has a lilt and a lightness that just makes me want to swing and dance and percolate joy. One of the movies is set in Trivandrum, the city where I used to live, and the shots are of places I know well—the Secretariat, parts of Statue Road (since renamed), one of the colleges, and several side streets.

I love the autorickshaws, and even though I supposedly graduated to taxis because of my adult and employment status, I still prefer the little three-wheeled autorickshaws. They’re easy to get in and out of when taking photographs, let the passenger enjoy the breeze, are reasonably priced, pass down narrow lanes and alleyways, and can be found everywhere. Any movie with autos is fun for me to watch. After the movies I page through an Indian cookbook, thinking about what I might make, and then settle down with a Malayalam lesson book. When I went to India to study Sanskrit, I took along a grammar book for Malayalam and picked up a little of the language. I have continued to try to pick up more and more of it, but that’s a challenge in the US. Still, I have a first grade reader and a few other books and I make a pretense of studying them every once in a while.

This is where I start to get restless. The first book-length story featuring Indian-American Anita Ray, set in my beloved Kerala, will appear in May 2010, and I have a second one ready to go if the first one does well (as I hope it will). But I already have several ideas for the third in the series, and I know the main idea is a good one because it keeps popping up after the first time it came to me about three years ago. One of the tests of a good idea for me is if it comes to me, seems exciting, and then after I put it aside to think about something else, it keeps coming back. When this happens, I know it has staying power and can be developed into a novel. This idea for the next Anita Ray novel has been showing up and showing up and showing up regularly, but I’m not yet ready to begin writing. I know that once I begin, I will have to stay with it for months. Writing a novel is a commitment—a long-term one that I cannot set aside because something else comes along or I’m crushed for time or I’m tired and want to get to bed early or any other reason that seems a good excuse for avoiding the work of writing. When I begin writing a novel, I have to stay with it.

The result of this vacation is that I can now feel myself settling into another book—or perhaps being taken over by it. It’s like looking into a well, listening for the sound of a pebble hitting the water or the muddy bottom, waiting for an echo to come back to me. Instead of leaning over and waiting, I’m falling—down and down and down. I am down in the well, and the only way out is to wrestle my way up the sides, stone by stone, scene by scene, working my fingers into crevices and holding on while my nails crack and my skin tears, pushing up and up and up until the book is written, and I again have time on my bloodied hands.

And the bigger problem is that I have several ideas for books, but when an idea for a novel comes along, it takes me over and the other ideas subside and wait quietly for their own day in the sun. But this time I’m going to write about them too, in another blog—and maybe the demons that fight for my writing energy, drawing me into the well, will sit still and listen to the entire menu of ideas before dragging me off again. Staying at home with time on my hands is becoming far too dangerous. I don’t dare spend a vacation at home anymore.