The true cost of books

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This (old) article from the Huffington Post popped up on my facebook feed yesterday. It asks – what’s the true cost of cheaper books?

It got me thinking.

I’ve never written a book in anger but I’ve self published two of them for fun. I ‘make’ about $6 from each one sold (at the bookshop).

Although the writing bit happens relatively quickly (for me), each of my books took at least a hundred hours of editing. The price doesn’t begin to reflect the cost.

Shameless sycophants tell me that they very much enjoy my books. This response is nice, lovely, in fact, given that I write such rude stuff. But it’s perhaps not surprising, given the amount of time that went into producing them. You can’t polish a turd, but if you spend a hundred hours trying it’ll at least take on a high shine. 

And yet pointing this out is like driving a fork into an untouched shibboleth. To talk about ‘my practice’ as ‘actually practicing a lot’ seems to denigrate the idea of artists as divining some kind of rare, unfathomable genius. Real genius doesn’t take time or practice. It’s genius! 

I blame the visual arts. The visual arts celebrates the artistic genius – the idea that an artist can whip out to the washhouse and churn out a masterpiece between goon bags. Perhaps this reflects my recent lap through the hallowed Boyd studio at Bundanon. In the artist’s studio we listened to an eager volunteer deliver a rattle-gun analysis of the huge paintings propped up around us. They all looked to have been painted in a tearing hurry to me.

The idea that a ten minute painting might look anyone other than a twelve minute painting in good light is anathematic in the world of visual arts. Painters routinely expect to be paid thousands of dollars for work that took a few hours, or perhaps a couple of days. Sure, they might claim that this price reflects years spent ‘engaging the their practice’ – basically, honing their skill, but writers do this too.

Unlike painters, writers cannot rely on the ‘immediacy of the message’. You can’t stand in front of a book for two minutes and claim to know what it’s about. In fact, it needs to be extremely well written for readers to comprehend it at all. You can’t just chuck all the words onto the page and give the audience the finger – that’s called experimental poetry. Experimental poetry is the literary equivalent of modern art, except it looks better under the kitchen sink than above the fireplace.

Or perhaps the immediacy of the message is the key to understanding why visual art expects to be reimbursed for its quick-and-dirty ‘genius’. Perhaps we value it more because you can instantly judge the work. A book, on the other hand, requires commitment. You can’t know anything about it until you’ve read a few pages (and you can’t claim to understand it just by standing in front of it like a winsome ingenue either). Really, what we’re really paying for is our own lack of commitment as viewers.

Something to think about maybe…

My general thought is that writing and literature is going to get a lot worse before it gets better. Writing follows the same patterns of economic history as everything else. The late 20th Century democratised the production of literature. For the first time, poor people were both educated and could sustain themselves long enough to pen their epistle. Those days are now drawing to a close. We’re heading back to the time of self-sponsored drivel that represents the cushy upper classes, where we will once again be forced to choose between the florrid insights of upper class toffs and (televised) penny dreadfuls.

Bring it on.

Silences

I’m about to enter a short story in the Overland VU short story competition as I’ve been feeling far too franchised and encouraged lately. Consequentially, I read the judges’ reports on last year’s shortlist. Specifically, Jacinta Woodhead stated that ‘abused women should never be used as a plot device’. Really?

Here’s the thing; Abusing women is generally frowned upon. It’s easy to see, therefore, how the act of abusing women might be at the centre of a story, as other characters may seek to hide, normalise, amplify or limit their actions. Certainly, the treatment of these women should not be gratuitous, but it’s wrong to limit their presence altogether.

2017

This year I’m going to deepen my practice. I will reach out into more artisanal forms of whimsy. I will engage more deeply with a sense of lightness, follow essential rhythms and embrace the cadences of serendipity.

Also, I’ll get to work on that random fuckspeak generator. It’s overdue.

Are writing competitions a scam?

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Twelve thousand entries. No, make that thirty thousand. Yes. That sounds better….

At the beginning of 2015 I won an art prize. I decided to invest my modest winnings in something even less appealing than visual art – creative writing. 2015 was my year of writing competitions.

My rules were simple; Only Australian competitions and only in 2015.

I chose three of the most reputable Australian writing competitions; The ABR Jolley Prize, the Overland Short Story Award for Emerging Writers and the Olga Masters Short Story Award – Two ‘big’, one small (the Olga Masters Award). All had an entry fee under $30.

I worked on my pieces and submitted on the due date. About a week after submitting to the Jolley Prize I received an email informing me that the deadline had been extended.

It got me thinking; why extend the deadline? Were they short of entries? How many entries did they want?

Research revealed that the Australian Book Review Jolley Prize attracts about 1200 entries, according to, you guessed it, the Australian Book Review. In 2016 the total prize money is $12500, with $7000 paid to the winner and the rest in other prizes.

So, if there’s around 1200 entries, at $20 a pop, that’s $24000. $12500 is paid out in prizes, leaving $11500 to pay for the administration and of course, reading fees. This all seems reasonable, until you consider the following;

– how do you know how many people enter?

– how do you know that all the entries are read?

I’m assuming the competition could be audited by Fair Trading, but there is no information on ABR’s website about terms and conditions, or how the competition is administered. In fact, there is no requirement to justify the outcome. The judges’ decision is final.

Now, in my opinion, the winning short stories were excellent, however, it’s unclear whether they were chosen from 1200 or 20 000 entries. Perhaps they were simply chosen from a much smaller pool of entries, say, perhaps the first two or three hundred entries, after which the ‘reading budget’ was maxed out. Or everyone got bored and stuck into the sticky wine. Who knows?

Writing competitions are classified as a competition of ‘skill’ rather than chance. In this way, they evade Australian gambling regulations. However, with a completely opaque judging process, who’s to say the outcomes are in fact based on skill rather than luck?

In the art world, trading in subjective artistic judgement is a well-established form of money laundering. Politicians and business people sell one another ‘important’ but obscure works of art that store well under the chaise lounge or beside the pool chemicals. It’s a simple and effective way to transferring money for ‘nothing’.

Writing competitions are a variation on the same theme. Entrants pay their money, wait until the jackpot pot is full (let’s extend the deadline for entries!) and then wait to see if they’re a winner. How, where or even if the works are ‘judged’ remains a mystery.

On that note, I’m starting a writing competition. Who’s in?

 

 

Self-publishing and Other Feeble Forms of Self-Abuse

There comes a day when you have to throw off your felted merkin and tell it like it is. Today is that day. Ladies and gentlemen, I have self-published a book. Oh, what’s that? You couldn’t give a fuck? Well I can’t blame you, I kind of feel that way myself. After all, the internet is a morass of poorly written, self- published drivel. I mean, ask yourself this; Was self-publishing invented by:

  1. A)  A marketing genius who recognised that the internet was simultaneously creating an entirely new sense of individualism and democratising the human desire to express it,

or,

  1. B) A marketing genius who identified a troubling dearth of erotic sci-fi penned by thick-thighed IT administrators, meatily sweating their way through consecutive paragraphs of clunky sex while sucking on cartons of Moove?

I think we can all agree it’s the latter. But, that’s not why I’m writing this post. I’m writing this post because I think we’ve forgotten what self-publishing SHOULD be about. For starters, self-publishing should be more than the sole means of emotional rejection for an entire cohort of entitled baby-boomers. And it should be more than just a platform for hairy-chinned shut-ins who’re keeping the tartan cat-hutch market on its feet. Self publishing is stuck in this rut because we’ve lost sight of its purpose. We keep clinging to the delusional belief that it is a short-cut to traditional publishing, a kind of egalitarian; ‘Become a famous author without leaving the comfort of your onesie’ scheme.

Because you won’t. Or, more rightly, you shouldn’t.

And that’s OK. Because for most people writing is just a hobby, a craft no different to any other. It’s an art-form, like painting or patchwork, where some participants are professionals, but most are amateurs. Many people of a certain age happily spend their days sewing poorly thought-out patchwork handbags or laboriously felting knee-length merkins that look as though they’ve been eaten once already. These are pieces of art created by amateurs. They are personal and individual and best appreciated by loved ones, preferably in-utero. At its widest their audience usually comprises local arts and crafts fairs and anyone with a backyard incinerator.

Importantly, through, these artists don’t look at their finished work and think; “Yes! This is the piece that will finally catapult me into the mainstream tie-dyed tea-cosy industry!” So why should writing be any different?

Last year I self-published short collection of essays simply for friends and family, and of course, anyone with a backyard incinerator. I wanted something they could read at the beach, rather than on a screen. And I wanted a project that was ‘finished’. Self-publishing ticked all these boxes. It was simply another part of my hobby.

So here’s my advice. Stop thinking of your mighty epistle 67 Shades of Puce as the next bestseller. Try instead to imagine it as a unique and personal work of art, perhaps with a hand-felted dust-jacket. And slip back into that onesie.