Friday, March 09, 2007

The Secret: Magic is real! Santa Claus exists!

A previous poster asked about The Secret, and if it inspired the current inspirational book phase. I can say that no, it did not. It's just the latest, most awful movie/book in a long succession of awful books that make us hate people's query letters because they think they can write them because honestly, they look pretty easy to write. Well, they're not, so stop it.

As to why The Secret is such a success, the short answer is of course that people are stupid. That's all I was going to write, but then I realized that blogs are meant for long, rambling monologues where the poster insults the readers' political/spiritual/moral beliefs, and that writing about something other than my mystery virus would distract me from the headache that is caused by my mystery virus. Don't start a publishing company.

Self-help and inspirational books have existed since the beginning of contemporary publishing, whenever that was (sometime this century). It exists as a genre because there's a great demand for it, for the most part by bored people who want to improve themselves or their lives, and I support the idea of buying a book about carpentry and building a birdhouse. Sure it'll fall apart next week, but you'll feel better about the crappy Dilbert job you have and feel like you accomplished something, even if the thing was just glued together and your area doesn't have many birds.

Then there's "inspirational" books, a term I take to mean, "at least vaguely-Christian watered-down spirituality, sometimes in the form of old man wisdom." On a certain level I admire a person who can find total happiness in life with a $7.95 paperback on the bargain rack at CVS. It's a lot cheaper than my synagogue membership and this person probably has way more free time than I do. I'm busy trying to figure out if I can put the chili on the hot plate on Saturday morning because the chili is so watery that it might cook the water, which is a violation of one of the 39 labors forbidden by G-d to perform on the Sabbath (as opposed to solid food, which cannot be re-cooked), and this person is at the movies or the theater or riding a bike. Who knows.

On the other hand, most people who turn to the bargain rack at CVS for meaning in their lives are probably in pretty dire straits in terms of finding that meaning. Allow me to sum them all up in one sentence:

If you have a more positive attitude, your crappy life will not seem so crappy, because you have a positive attitude about it.

This does not, however, actually change the quality of your life, as these books lead you to believe. It may, but it depends what you're up against. Cancer, not so much. These sorts of books have a double-edged sword that can cut you, to take the metaphor way too far. If you believe that you will recover from an illness by positive thinking and then you don't, you might come to the very logical conclusion that it's your fault that you're ill because you didn't think hard enough about how much better you were going to get.

You may have guessed at this point that I'm speaking from experience. When I was newly diagnosed with Crohn's Disease a lot of this mind-body shit was shoved down my throat to the point where I actually believed it, and when my surgical procedure did arguably more harm than good and the complication nearly killed me, I thought it was my fault. It wasn't a hyperactive N-protein in my immune system causing inflammation to my lower intestines that was the problem. It was my bad attitude.

When I realized that was complete bullshit, I felt much better - about my life, at least. I didn't actually feel better health-wise, further proving my point.

The problem with The Secret and the reason that it's caused so much controversy is that it takes this basic concept to the extreme of wish fulfillment. There's apparently a segment in the original video on which the book was based in which a woman wishes for a gold necklace around her next, and because she wishes hard enough, the necklace appears. At this point I can't help but think of Patrick Swayze's slimy motivational speaker in Donnie Darko, who turns out to be a kiddie porn addict. At one point in the movie, the gym teacher (who is a devotee) makes the class watch one of the videos and says that all of human experience can be put into the categories of either fear or love, to which Donnie angrily replies:

Donnie Darko: "I just don't get this. You can't just lump things into two categories. Things aren't that simple."
Gym Teacher: "The lifeline is divided that way."
Donnie Darko: "Well, life isn't that simple. Who cares of Ling Ling returns the wallet and keeps the money? It has nothing to do with either fear or love."
Gym Teacher: "Fear and love are the deepest of human emotions."
Donnie Darko: "...Okay. But you're not listening to me. There are other things that have to be taken into account here - like, the whole spectrum of human emotions! You can't just lump everything into these two categories and just deny everything else!"

Needless to say, when the gym teacher threatens him with a failing grade, he replies with something that involves shoving a card up where the sun doesn't shine and earns himself a visit to the principal's office.

The Secret isn't just stupid; it's dangerous. Telling people that they will just get things by wishing for them is only moral if you happen to inhabit a Disney movie, and not one of those ones where the parent of the protagonist dies. The idea does work in some circumstances; if you happen to be standing in the middle of the road on a misty day and wish to be hit by a car, you might get your wish, and then Rod Sterling might step out of the bushes and talk to the camera about how stupid you were.

One of the many professors and doctors trotted out on the video was recently interviewed about the infamous "necklace scene" - to which he replied that it wasn't meant to be "taken so literally" and had clearly no idea the lengths to which Rhonda Byrne was willing to take things to sell more copies of her video. She even wound up on Oprah with her new book. Oprah's a fairly intelligent woman (she's very good at making people feel better about themselves, which is a talent), but she has a tendency to fall for literary shysters.

It's one thing to be a semi-talented writer and speaker who knows how to lump extremely conventional wisdom together into a book and have it be a bestseller. It's another thing to tell people that wishes come true.

For everyone's information, we get submissions like The Secret all the time from people who think they have figured out the secrets of the universe or how to do real magic or the date that Christ is coming back and the exact set of things we have to do to bring him along. We call these people "crazy" and trash their query letters. Sure, a couple of them might be written well enough to sell a bajillion copies to, but we like to sleep at night.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Indepedent Publishing

The answer to where I've been is: in bed. Apparently starting your own publishing company while being a full time student and having two other jobs can cause your body to like, collapse for a week. Or two.

Which brings us to our topic, which is self-publishing. Yes, the much-maligned business of publishing your own books using either a digital printer or a POD service. There are three reasons to self-publish:

(1) You have written a body of work intended for a small audience (under 100 people) and just want it bound so that it's easier to read and this audience is willing to spend a lot of money to get it.

(2) You want to reprint a public domain book that has not been printed in a very long time and is very hard to get for a niche audience that you know will buy it like mad, but generally have no plans for mass market.

(3) You are an idiot or a terrible writer with lots of money to blow.

I fell into category number two. I discovered that this book that a group of people (a few hundred) wanted had gone horribly out of print to the point that the New York Public Library only had one copy in the reading room and they wouldn't let me take it out. After some investigation I also discovered that the book had fallen into public domain in the 70's with a lot of other books published between 1932 and 1950 because the original publishers had never renewed the copyright. I decided to reprint it by scanning it in to my computer after photocopying it at the reading room, writing an introduction, and start collecting quotes from digital printers. I would (or will) probably make back the money I invested in the project (roughly $500) and then maybe a few thousand on top of that, much of which would go to charity. The real intent was to get the book back in print. As someone who loves books and collects them, I feel it's sort of a public responsibility to make sure literature doesn't disappear because of circumstance and time.

I decided not to go with a POD press, which would have been really easy in that they would have done stuff like layout and promotion and generally managing the project. They also would have taken most of the profits, and I decided I didn't want that,. Since I work in publishing, I should probably have some idea how to do layout myself anyway, so instead I looked into digital printers, who are willing to do print runs in the 100-300 range for about $5 a book. I charge for shipping and handling, and the everything in between on the cover price (in the $15 range) is profit.

Other than causing a physical collapse from exhaustion, this little (and still ongoing) exercise taught me a thing or two about how much it takes to actually create a book. It's true that the amount an author makes on a book is low. Most of it goes to the publishing company, because no matter how altruistic they are, they still have to pay their employees and they still have to make a profit. And boy, are there a lot of little jobs to pay people for. There's layout, copy-editing, proof reading, buying the ISBN, cover art, deciding on various types of binding, and last but not least, making sure the book does not look like crap or fall apart in anybody's hands. Companies have choices beyond hardcover and softcover. There's paper weight, thickness, and quality. There's the size of the book, which lowers page count but increases the price of binding. There's things like what font to use and how much of the page to leave blank (more white space makes the book look more professional, but raises page count). And then, at the very end, there's me, trying to make sense of all of the options the digital printer's website is giving me. (matte instead of gloss costs more but looks better. How much more? Can I get a new quote for 300 versus 200 copies?)

Oh, and publicity. The biggest job and the one I'm totally unequipped to do, being one person. Thank G-d I'm only doing this for a niche market that I already am in contact with. There's more to it than posting your book on Amazon. In fact, you don't really want to post your book on Amazon. Amazon takes a high commission - higher than bookstores, in fact, which is how it can afford to offer you, the buyer, all of those discounts. Bookstores generally take 50% off the cover price for themselves, while and other websites will take 55%, a very significant difference. It's quite brilliant, actually. They offer discounts and then offer super shipper savings so that you'll buy more books than you originally planned to do, knowing that they'll make it up in bulk shipping as opposed to individual purchases. Also, they take most of the money from the used market. There's a flat rate of $3.49 for shipping on a used book sold through Amazon - Amazon will take half of that, and then a percentage from the price the book is actually being sold for, to the point where the sellers might actually be losing money if the book is very heavy and media mail goes over $2.00.

So, it has all been kind of insane, and will continue to be until I get over the initial hump of selling off my first run (if there even is a second run; I could care less), but now at least I'm back on my feet. Today was a much easier day for me in terms of working at the office because I felt better. It didn't result in more maybes - lots of auto-rejects instead. We're in the middle of an inspirational self-help craze the way we were in a Da Vinci Code-type thriller phase about a year ago, and it's just as annoying, but in a different way.