Giving Back: Using Writing to Help Others

I had a recent conversation with a dear friend, about a project she wished to undertake and the concerns about paying for it. While we were on the subject, we talked about how crowdfunding has been so overused and abused (I wrote about it in a previous post), that the people who would benefit from it are now at cross purposes because people are loathe to contribute. Then I had a lightbulb: perhaps I could use my writing to help her.

Writers helping others in need isn’t anything new. Acclaimed fantasy writer Terry Brooks gathered a group of fellow fantasy writers to produce Unfettered, a collection of short stories. The sales of this book went toward relieving the debt of author Shawn Speakman, who had accrued massive medical debt for treatment of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. This was a cool way of using one’s job, so to speak, to do a solid for not only another person in general, but for a member of one’s tribe.

My thoughts are to write a short story, which is not one of my strongest writing forms, and have the proceeds going toward her project. Of course, I’m nervous: my book isn’t even out yet, and who’s to say that the short story will take off (or even that the book will)? How will I fit this story into the other writing projects I have in the near future (finishing the first draft of book #2, Camp NaNoWriMo, Clarion Write-A-Thon)?

To help a friend, I will be forced to step up my game. I have to be better. And that’s a good thing.

Thanks for stopping by.

I’ll Teach You, But I’ll Have to Charge: Valuing the Creative as Commerce

A few months ago, I posted about a potential publishing client who wanted me to do her book marketing, and editing, for free, in exchange for a (nebulous) percentage of upcoming sales. The theory being that I would hustle to get her book in the public collective, which will in turn fatten my own pockets. This was clarified when said client stated that she’d already spoken with a marketing firm earlier but could not afford that firm’s fees. After further conversation with my potential client, I figured that it may not have been a question of affording that firm’s fees, so much as not wanting to pay the fees.

Yesterday, my potential appearance at a book club gathering, in another state, was cancelled when I asked about compensation. My contact balked, as her book club was one of the potluck-and-discussion variety, and the members would likely not contribute to any fees regarding my appearance (despite the fact that I was travelling specifically to their book club meeting–again, from out-of-state). My contact also informed me that in the past, authors had appeared at their book club for free.

Which brings me to the subject of this post. For some reason, our society has gotten into the habit of devaluing any type of creative work. No one would expect a physician to do free exams in exchange for future good health on the part of the patient. Attorneys are normally not expected to work pro bono, unless it’s a specific part of their contracts or corporate culture. Why, then, are people in creative fields expected to work for free? And, as a corollary, why are those of us who work in creative fields expect fellow creatives to hook us up for little or nothing?

A lot of this involves the overall low perception of the labor value of creative work. We are a society that was initially agrarian/agricultural, then switched to industrial, and is now technological. The first two industries required hard, physical labor; the latter, more mental labor and creative thinking, but within the parameters of science and math. Creative fields, which can be equally laborious from a physical and mental standpoint, are still seen as soft options because they don’t make an immediate contribution and/or impact on society…unless one makes money and/or receives recognition or fame. As a capitalistic society, America is all about the bottom line. If it doesn’t make money, it doesn’t make sense. Or, as the rap group Wu-Tang Clan once noted in their popular song “C.R.E.A.M.“:  “Cash rules everything around me/C.R.E.A.M., get the money/dollar, dollar bill,  y’all.”

Case in point: I do not blame my book club contact at this particular venue for the tight pockets of her fellow book club members. I do, however, blame the author(s) who have placed so little value on their work and time, that they agree to make appearances for free–which devalues the process for the rest of us authors. I didn’t understand this until I published my first book. As a self-published author, this is my livelihood now. I am at the point where if it doesn’t make dollars, it doesn’t really make sense for me.

As Kelis once sang in her song “Milkshake“: I’ll teach you, but I’ll have to charge.

Perhaps it’s because authors are seen as yet another venue of entertainment, much like professional athletes and reality TV shows (but minus the payoff). We should, I supposed, be grateful that anyone wants to read our work at all–this gratitude should, in turn, extend to appearing somewhere–anywhere–that will have us, because hey, we’re just people who wrote books for entertainment. It’s not like we’re doing brain surgery, right? Our profession is not on par with those who heal, or provide legal services. This is especially true of self-published authors–we are often not seen as “real” writers because we do not have a contract with a major publishing house, for whatever reason, and the author advance and PR push (if you’re lucky) that usually comes with it.  Our gratitude should be doubly ample, because we really are seen as long shots.

Plus, creative types are seen as dreamers, livers in the ether, “woo woo” types of folks. This usually is a code for a lack of intellectual firepower. Ergo, any advice given or work performed would be on par with asking a toddler to do the same, since contributions allegedly don’t require much energy or many brain cells. Perhaps we creative folks should be grateful to be consulted at all, to let our society at large tell it. This may be a reason why arts and music programs are the first to be cut from public school funding, but I digress.

All that being said, and despite the more publicized contributions of our white- and blue-collar folks, being a creative person is a lot of hard work. Not only do we have to deal with narrow-minded perceptions, we also have to deal with the struggle to quantify work that is not normally meant to be quantified (e.g., monetized), since our work is usually subjective. The energy it takes to write, draw, dance, paint, etc. is just as valid as slogging in a trading pit on the New York Stock Exchange, or arguing a brief in front of a judge, or performing heart surgery (I just wish is was as lucrative in the short term!). In fact, in this age of digital media, marketing is an extremely difficult job, especially when it comes to social media: that’s a full-time job in and of itself. Asking your creative friend to create, for free, continues to perpetuate the notion that creative work lacks value–because we only value that which we pay for and the higher the fee, the more value ascribed.

Creative people, we are contributors to the problem as well. We have helped create our perception of being a bit “out there” because we don’t pay attention to business. Yes, we want to be left to create and leave the tedious stuff like setting rates, submitting invoices, and the like for other folks, but that’s not going to help us eat. We also want people to like us, and like our work as a result, and buy it, and recommend it to others who will, in turn, buy it as well. But the old adage is very true: people do not value what they can get for free. That whole cow-and-milk thing? It’s gospel. Like it or not, we are in a left-brain world and we need to adjust accordingly. If someone asks you to do work for free, don’t cave and agree because you don’t want to hurt any feelings, or you’re so desperate to be put on that you’ll do anything for recognition. Politely refuse the request and counter with a list of your rates for the services requested. The requester may be a bit peeved at first, but in the end they will respect you for respecting yourself, your time, and your work.

It’s always tempting to ask someone to do you a solid when your funds are low, but it would do you well to remember that time is money, even the time of someone who isn’t perceived as doing “real” work. So do THEM a solid and pay your way. Your pet creative will thank you for it.

Thanks for stopping by.



Adapt, Improvise, Overcome (or Not): On Turning Books into Movies

“Adapt, Improvise, Overcome.” This phrase is very familiar to members of the United States Marine Corp, and the people who love them. It’s not just a rallying cry for the Marines, but it is also  a sotto voce mating call in the symbiotic relationship between the literary world and cinema.

For years, the movie theaters have been inundated with book-to-screen adaptations. This usually is big screen (movies shown in theaters), but also applies to TV and even YouTube. Hollywood has profited mightily from adaptations of books and stories such as The Exorcist by William P. Blatty; The Godfather by Mario Puzo;  Kiss The Girls and Along Came A Spider by James Patterson; How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Waiting to Exhale, Disappearing Acts, and A Day Late and a Dollar Short by Terry McMillan; and Danger Word (based on the novel Devil’s Wake by Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due). In more recent years, audiences have been exposed to the movie versions of the Young Adult novel sensations The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashears; The Twilight series (Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn ) by Stephenie Meyer;  The Hunger Games and Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins;  Divergent by  Veronica Roth; and The Fault In Our Stars by John Green. And, lest we forget, the blockbuster Harry Potter series by JK Rowling: The Sorcerer’s Stone; The Chamber of Secrets;  The Prisoner of Azkaban; The Goblet of Fire; The Order of the Phoenix; The Half-Blood Prince; and The Deathly Hallows. Even classics have enjoyed a renaissance, from East of Eden by John Steinbeck, to The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and of course, various versions of  Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew, by William Shakespeare.

For book purists, the rub lies in the creative licenses taken when books are adapted for viewing pleasure. As readers, we are used to taking a writer’s words and visualizing what someone or something looks like in our heads. We especially are enamored of the book plot; that’s why we finished the book in the first place, and keep coming back for more–or not. The author’s words are, in that case, gospel. Movies, as we all know, are very different in that they show you how to visualize something. When these two visualizations collide, it can get ugly. Case in point: fans were up in arms about the girl cast as Rue in the movie adaptation of The Hunger Games. Though the book clearly implied that the girl was of African descent, the visual reality in a movie was too much for some fans to bear. Likewise for movie adaptations of The Green Lantern (he was, at one point, a black man in the DC Comics universe), Malcolm X (he had a much lighter skin tone than Denzel Washington in real life), the X-Men franchise (I can’t be the only one who was pissed that Halle Berry got the part of Storm; not just because of looks, but because of acting ability as well), and Their Eyes Were Watching God (Michael Ealy’s casting as Tea Cake was wrong because Tea Cake’s dark skin tone in the book was an integral part of the plot).

Most times, book adaptations work.  Blockbusters such as the Harry Potter series and Game of Thrones (based on the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin) have remained fairly close to the books that spawned them, to the delight of most of the viewing audience (there will always be uber-purists who will not be satisfied, bless their hearts).  Even How Stella Got Her Groove Back  took some plot deviations that ended up making the movie better (Whoopi Goldberg’s character was originally already dead in the book), as did the Harry Potter movies (but seriously, what could you expect when the last four books in the series each topped out at over 400 pages long?).  But sometimes, book adaptations make you look at the screen like, “WTF just happened?” This is especially true of the movies The Firm and The Pelican Brief, based on the novels of the same name by John Grisham; (at least A Time To Kill, The Rainmaker, and The Client remained truer to the books). The deviations from the book plot were so egregious as to be offensive to book loyalists.

As our society ever morphs into a visually stimulated one, we can expect movie adaptations to sometimes move further away from book plots in an effort to hold viewers’ attention. Still, there is a burden on movie makers to appease those who actually read the books upon which adaptations are based; word of mouth is very powerful and while many Hollywood studios are catering to the 18-24 year-old demographic, it’s wise to remember that the people who actually read books are usually the ones with the most spending power.

What are your favorite book adaptations? Which ones do you think were a mistake? Sound off in the comments.


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Resistance is Futile: Amazon and the Strong-Arming of Corporate Publishing

There has been much ado about Amazon‘s attempts to get Hachette Publishing to lower their book prices. Some come squarely down on one side (Yay, major publishers!) or the other (Yay, Amazon!). Most don’t really give a flying fig, unless they are authors of the books being “delayed”, or people trying to purchase said books; the only concern is their God-given right to discounted prices.

[Still wondering what’s going on? Here’s a quick recap of this publishing “Clash of the Titans”]

A friend of mine emailed me to ask where I sat on this whole issue. Having had my own tangles with mainstream publishers, and knowing of others who have as well, I’m rolling with Amazon at the moment. Granted, Amazon will eventually turn to a less-benevolent form of operation (corporations being what they are), but right now, they are the BFF of a writer. Why, may you ask? Get comfy, and I’ll tell you. 😉

As an author, I have long been dismayed with the direction of the major publishing houses. I know plenty of authors (especially those of color) who have left major houses and mainstream publishing contracts, in order to self-publish. Publishing houses don’t do what they used to; they don’t throw their resources (PR, editing, marketing, etc) behind authors (especially new authors) unless you are a Stephen King, Eric Jerome Dickey, James Patterson, Michael Eric Dyson, Cornel West, Bill O’Reilly, or a big name that is guaranteed to earn back the six- or seven-figure advance given.  Some new authors aren’t given an advance at all or if they are, it’s relatively paltry. And, the mainstream publishing industry has a long-standing practice of showing preference to white authors, with the lucky Asian slipping in to give some diversity. This is a reflection of the people who make the decisions as to who and what will be published.

Amazon makes it very easy to get a book out there, as there is no one (usually a clueless , sheltered someone who believes in the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” school of book sales/procurement) to tell an author that their work isn’t good enough to be published. Granted, that leaves the door open for books ranging from extremely crappy (by that, I mean disjointed plots, remixed plots, typos, grammatical errors, etc.) to very good to hit the market, but the purpose is that anyone can put their book out there, no matter how bad or good it is (“good” and “bad” being subjective terms. One’s man’s trash, and all that)
Now, Amazon has its own way of slipping a noose around an author’s neck. Case in point: CreateSpace  is the self-publishing arm of Amazon, where you can publish your books via e-book or physical book. When a book is published, it is assigned an ISBN (International Standard Book Number–the long number on the back of the book, right above the barcode). The barcode is associated with that ISBN, and that’s how book sales are tracked in stores. A true self-publisher will buy their own ISBN (you can actually get this through CreateSpace for an extra $10, or purchase it from Bowker [the company that distributes ISBNs] for $250 each, or a block of 10 for $325); this enables YOU to get the profits and sales records in YOUR name. You use a different ISBN for each book format, even if it’s the same title: an e-book will have one ISBN, a regular book will have another, an audiobook will have its own as well.  One can pay the $10 through Amazon and retain rights to use that ISBN wherever, because you are the publisher. Or, for those who have already purchased ISBNs, they can just add their own and still publish through Amazon simply because it’s so easy to get those books out there and ready. BUT…Bowker (the ISBN people) is just inflating the price in an effort to get people to buy in bulk: $250 for ONE ISBN, vs. $325 for TEN (which then comes out to $32.50/ISBN). They are counting on most people saying, “Wow, I might as well buy ten.” But for those who don’t have $250 or $325, Amazon is the best option (no one else is offering ISBNs for $10…as long as you publish through Amazon).

Another temptation for Amazon authors: the book can be for sale within 24 hours of uploading the PDF file of the book. Compare that to waiting nine months (at least) for publication through a traditional/mainstream publisher, or a few months for an independent publisher.
The kicker: most self-published authors are all about minimizing costs. They will take the free covers offered by CreateSpace, and the free ISBN provided (which makes Amazon the publisher, not you). When you do this, though, that ISBN can ONLY be used via Amazon; you can’t list your book on Ingram (which is the go-to and largest book distributor in the world; all bookstores are hooked into it, since that’s how they order books), can’t sell it on your personal website unless it links back to Amazon. So Amazon created this easy, comfortable space for authors, and many are content to swim in that comfort zone. Another way Amazon locks authors in is royalties. Right now, authors get 70% of the royalties from sales of their book through Amazon, but that will probably change. Still, it’s better than what an author (especially a first-time author) will get from a major publishing house. And, like I said earlier, a lot of the authors on Amazon either have gotten shot down by a mainstream house, or figure why should they do everything and let those publishers get most of their money? In this way, Amazon is garnering a lot of loyalty.
So both sides have their issues, but right now self-publishing is the way to go, and you’ve got to give it up to  Amazon for its hustle and one-stop publishing model. I encourage anyone seeking to write a book (any kind of book) to do for self, and Amazon just may be the easiest way to get your foot in the door.
Agree? Disagree? Sound off in the comments below.
Thanks for stopping by.


Other People’s Money: Crowdfunding and the Writing Life

Crowdfunding is all the rage these days. Indigogo, Kickstarter, and now GoFundMe have made many an author’s dream come true. But all that glitters isn’t gold, and crowdfunding isn’t necessarily a cure-all for shallow pockets.

Depending on your publishing path, most (if not all) of your expenses will be taken care of, one way or another.

When I interviewed author Bill Campbell, of Rosarium Publishing, he mentioned his initial ambivalence toward crowdfunding for his latest work, Mothership: Tales of Afrofuturism and Beyond. He saw it as more of a marketing tool, than as a means of bringing dreams into practical fruition.  I suppose that could be true (especially since some of the lower-levels of donation compensation involve acknowledgement of said donation and donor via social media).

The concept of crowdfunding is a great one: instead of relying on bank or framily loans, you ask people to donate a few bucks to The Cause. In turn, donors get a hookup that is directly proportional to the size of their donations.  It could be something as simple as a public “Thank You” when the project finally launches, or as major as a personal “free” copy of the book/film/gadget when it comes out. It’s a great way to not only raise money, but also to garner awareness of whatever you are trying to bring to the public.

As with all things, crowdfunding can lead to an assumption of the Golden Rule: S/He who has the gold, rules. Or rather, megadonors (those who donate at the higher levels) can easily cop an attitude of, “I paid X amount to help you get on. Ergo, I own you, even a little bit.” Even those who donate at the lower levels can see themselves as the pillars who are keeping your house aloft. To an extent, that is true. However, the spirit of crowdfunding is to help someone else’s dreams take flight out of a sense of altruism, not quid pro quo or positioning as some sort of status symbol, like a Birkin handbag or a Rolex watch.

And before you ask: yes, I have considered crowdfunding, but I am hesitant. The concept is being abused, what with people asking for donations for graduate degrees, vacations, cars, etc. I’m loathe to reach out to my network, since they are being bombarded with such nonsense. I’m not ruling out ever doing crowdfunding, but there’s not much I can give to donors other than a free book.

Meh…I guess I’ll just do it the old-fashioned way: hustle and flow.

Thanks for stopping by.