Love and Noir in the Time of Ebooks —
I first met Chris Orcutt at the age of 11, and we both remember it exactly the same way – the wall at the condominium village we both lived in, who was hanging around, even who was standing where. 2015 is 34 years later. 34! That is a very long friendship.
We’re now in our forties. I’m a filmmaker, archivist, annoyance. Chris is a writer.
Here’s a good one of Chris these days, at his writing desk:
It’s a still from from a film I did about his insistence on writing his first drafts in pencil. (The film is here.)
Chris photographs well.
However, we usually look like this when we’re together:
We’ve both moved around a lot, but for the last few years, we’ve lived within a few dozen miles of each other, and getting together on a semi-regular basis is the easiest it’s been in over a decade, so we’re making the most of it. Good lunches, good walks, good conversation.
In his early 30s, Chris became a full-time writer. He’d been a writer for years before that, including for a newspaper, as a speechwriter, and as a copywriter, but after a certain point, he and his wife made the decision that he would dedicate himself, full-time, to writing. Writing novels and short stories and plays. Nothing else.
They’ve kept at that choice, with various amounts of hardship attendant, since then. Chris writes. He gets up in the morning and he writes the entire morning, then either does some reading or other research. Pretty much every day. For years.
Back in his twenties, when we were both going to colleges near each other in Boston, my friend started taking a poor turn. Drinking got amusing, then prodigious, then alarming. It got to a point I simply assumed my very good friend, my best friend, was going to die, so I tried to enjoy what time I had with him.
As he has discussed in the open more recently, Chris had an un-diagnosed bipolar disorder. With medication and medical supervision, it’s under control, the drinking is rare, and my friend is alive to this day. With this control came the ability to focus on tasks and quality of work that shows in his efforts since then.
And that effort, I will say one more time, is writing. Pretty much every day. For years.
The result of this writing has been a collection of novels. They include a three-novel detective series, the Dakota Stevens Mysteries, and two short-story collections.
They’re good. They’re unquestionably good.
He has not wasted his time, his years, poured into these projects. I’ve not had to look away and make excuses for them, or call a glue-ready horse a racing champion. He’s done fantastic work here, and will continue to do so.
Here’s why I’m talking about this.
The third novel in the detective series just came out. Of his going-full-time novels, this is the fifth overall. He and I both do these long-term projects (he the books, I the movies) and we don’t look at each other’s stuff, in-process – we wait until the end and enjoy it with everyone else. So on the day it came out, I bought and downloaded the third novel, A Truth Stranger Than Fiction, and damn if I didn’t devour that thing in a day. I read very fast and vociferously, but I take the book in along the way. And the book’s good. Damn good.
While I didn’t read the in-process novel, I went to a lot of lunches with Chris during the year he’d worked on this book (and he’d written drafts before the intense year) and I know how many times he read the thing, how many drafts he pounded out to get it where it was, and how much editing and polish he put on it, across months, to get the book where it is. This thing’s a craftwork wordsmithing of the highest order for Chris. You may diverge from opinions stated by characters or you may be surprised at which way things go, but none of his books, none, have the sour feeling of a good idea burdened by crap writing. He wrote these for the ages.
This turns out to be a problem.
If you haven’t observed this already, I’m a whirlwind of input and output. I splash through a hundred hangouts, online and off, a week. Tracking down the most minute of factoids just to prove a point in a web-based conversation I wasn’t even in two hours ago is my idea of a good time. Shit howdy do I like splashing through life’s intellectual wading pools and swinging a bazooka of manic lyrical fireworks. Pump me full of the hottest images from imgur, the latest insanity out of hackernews, the twitter tornado of the moment. My tolerance for the always-on glut of intellectually stimulating-and-stultifying river of human experience is legion. Bring it.
Not so much, with Chris.
The rough years of his twenties and the writing years of his thirties and forties have diversified the two of us. In our teens, we were both pretty hyper and bring-it kids. I’ve turned that up to dangerous, slap-a-warning-label-on-it levels. Chris has instead focused on his craft, his skills, in the art of writing. It’s made him different. Not less of a person, mind you… far from that. It’s his years of focus that’s made him really great at the writing he’s aimed his life around. He is the monk, waking to the cold water of the stream and practicing, and I am the insane brother living deep in the city, buried under twelve crazy deals and all kinds of trouble. Different choices.
All said, we still get along.
But it does mean that each time Chris emerges from this thing that means so much to him, this novel that he’s poured hundreds, thousands of hours into… he just hates the way things are. It’s like he’s brought the best pie he could bake to a fair where folks are gleefully handing out Hostess Fruit Pies and crowing at how the flaky crust and the cherry-flavored-filling is a meal fit for a king.
He gets really sad about it, sometimes. Books were, and continue to be, special. But the modern world is working very hard to make the kind of effort Chris puts into his part of the writing landscape a waste of time.
What he wants is for the books to be available in 1975, making a splash with the effort he’s put into them, meeting up with others doing equivalently hard work, and taking his residuals while taking his wife to exotic locations to do research for further writing.
What he gets books are available on Amazon. Amazon takes away the problems of a warehouse of rotting copies that your publisher isn’t promoting, and enables to-the-moment direct control by the author of the sales and pricing of their book. For that advantage, Amazon has progressively, and I do mean progressively, destroyed writing books as a career for any writers who are not in some way self-promotion machines or blowing three quarters of their time that should be spent on their books, on blog entries meant to drag in readers.
Amazon’s structure favors people shooting out a bunch of crap, in serial form, to constantly stay in the promotional frame. Amazon’s routines disfavor older books, with “older” being a month or two ago. And ever-present “sales”, “prime” and “deluxe” situations are existing where Amazon is heading towards making books into an “all you can read” Netflix-like situation, where people pay Amazon $10 a month and they get all the books they can slam down their gullet.
This is not what he signed up for.
I’ve done this rodeo before.
Here, I’ve told you my friend’s craft and pain, and the more passionate reactions will tend to be along two lines of thought, with a bonus track.
The two lines are
- Fuck your buddy. Sorry to hear he came down with the born-too-lates. It’s a world of self-promotion and staying-with-the-times and he better learn those skills as well as he’s apparently learned to write. Or get a second job.
- Writing has never been a self-paying job – congratulations on learning what we all knew.
(The bonus track is, “oh, a book series to read, I’ll check it out.”)
So, both of these are wrong for what I’m talking about here.
First, I think the world is seriously suffering when everyone is writing garbage teenage supernatural romance with a chapter’s worth a month. I realize there has always been crap and Sturgeon’s Law reigns supreme, but that doesn’t mean Sturgeon’s is an end goal. I make the argument that there’s got to be some middle ground – that as we’ve been working so hard to make it easy to transport electronic books in seconds and share them among ourselves in seconds more, that we lost some of that imprint feeling, of knowing a house of publishing was going to give us winners and it was worth the effort to seek out the newest titles. I think it’s a problem, and a problem that needs solutions.
Second, there have been writers who have made it a career, after they put in their dues. Chris has, trust me, put in his dues. After saving for years, and with a boost from sales from a book, husband and wife took a trip to Paris (which was then used for research for a later novel), and this was the first time they’d done any vacation in a decade of marriage. Dues? Paid.
I can’t wrap this entry in a bow. I can’t even bring you the place the plot is going to go. I don’t know what’s going to happen. My friend has skills that outstrip mine in many ways, and I get lots of goofy press for my efforts, while he works in relative shadow.
I thought, maybe, I’d shine a little light on a friend’s lifetime effort, since it deserves a beam many times brighter than it has gotten.
And maybe, just maybe, send them to Paris again, one day.
Categorised as: jason his own self | punditry
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Since 17Nov07, when the first Kindle hardware device became available, I’ve *purchased* 1,396 books. They’ve ranged in price from $50.00 down to $0.99. There’s no easy way for me to total it up, but my guess is that I’ve spent ~$7500.00 or so on books since the Kindle made its debut.
I’ve read ~1100 of them, so far. At any time, I’ve a backlist of ~200 books in my pocket (I mainly read on my iPad Mini 2; I also read on my iPhone 6 Plus. The iPad is my ‘hardback’, the iPhone is my ‘paperback’). And still, I buy more. My backlist never seems to shrink very much, because even as I make a dent into it, I’m still buying new books which strike my fancy.
I’ve borrowed ~20 books via Kindle Unlimited. Authors *do* get compensated for Kindle Unlimited borrows.
I’ve purchased precisely *one* print book during this period, and only because it’s out of print and there’s no ebook version available.
I used to have a library of ~2,000 books at any given moment. It was a huge burden, especially when I needed to travel, or when I needed to move. I got rid of all but ~50 or so books, signed by authors whom I personally know.
Now, with Kindle, I can buy a book pretty much anytime, anywhere I want – even at 30,000 feet in the air, if I’m on a flight with WiFi. I’ve bought books on runways, in hotel rooms, in toilets, on trains, in restaurants, in the doctor’s waiting room, during conference calls, whilst blind drunk in a bar in Bangkok – just about anywhere you can imagine, and then some. Because Kindle allows me the freedom to do that.
I can pre-order upcoming books that look good to me, and they’re delivered instantaneously to me *and my credit card is charged, and the author is compensated*, the nanosecond they’re made available via Amazon. It doesn’t matter if I’ve forgotten about that particular book coming out; Amazon remembers for me, and gets their piece, and the author’s piece, too.
Amazon pays 70% royalties to authors – that’s unheard-of in the publishing industry. For Kindle Unlimited, the author gets paid once I’ve read 10% of his book. Automagically. No lawyers, no chasing down deadbeat publishers, no lost revenue due to books not being available in some part of the world, shipping problems, etc.
I bought your buddy’s two previous ebooks via Amazon, and I’ve just borrowed the new one via Kindle Unlimited. Once I’ve read 10% of it (probably later tonight), he’ll get paid. Again.
There’s a name for the kind of person who’s supposed to take care of all the newfangled social media bullshit. That name is ‘an agent’.
Your buddy needs to get an agent, same as in the dead-tree days, and stop whining. Because he’s getting paid, and people like me buy a *lot* of books due to the convenience, impulse-enabling, and freedom from logistical constraints made possible by Amazon’s Kindle ebook publishing system.
An interesting and thought provoking piece!
I think we’ve moved from a world in which both customers and publishers conflated the materials, distribution, advertising and effort that goes into a finished product to one in which most of the value is in the effort of creating it, yet many customers do not seem to have appreciated that. What is a book worth once it has been written? It can be difficult to get people to value the effort that went into writing it after the fact, when there is a fully formed item on the (virtual) shelves in front of them.
Maybe the various online experiments with patronage systems will work out for writers who have built up a following, though building a following is itself likely to be a challenge for writers who do not already have one. Still, I hope they prove to be a viable funding model for at least some creative types, though it may be harder for those creating larger works.
I came across this post while looking for something entirely different, and stayed to read it all.
First, is that a huge spider hanging from the roof in the background of the two photos of you and your friend? *shudder*
Secondly, as an author self-publishing for the first time, I am in complete sympathy with what you have to say about the self-promoting bits. Nowadays publishers expect their authors to promote themselves. I can do everything else (as a professional editor myself, plus book designer, plus cover designer, plus, of course, I can write), but I am not a promoter and I especially am not a self-promoter. I love writing, but I shrink from promotion, which so often reeks faintly (or strongly) of manipulative, coercive, fear-based tactics, which I refuse to use. Isn’t there a better way to spread the word without using those tactics?
Anyway, authors need, not an agent as Roland says above (agents only sell your books to publishers or movie producers, they do not promote them to the book-purchasing public), but a marketing person to promote their books. But that takes money. Or authors need to learn to be their own marketing experts, which takes time away from writing (from what I hear, a LOT of time), and also requires learning how to promote in what is, one hopes, a respectful and clean way that also works.
Also, “Oh, a book series to read; I’ll check it out.”
Since the dawn of the ebook I have bought several of them, had a lot given to me for free but I’ve yet to actually read any one of them all the way through. My brother got me an ereader for Christmas (2013) but even with that I have not gotten into an ebook.
Maybe I’m just old fashioned, or just old. I like a book I can take with me everywhere, one that doesn’t need a battery to be read and can take being bashed around in my purse, under the groceries I’m carrying home in the shopping bag and so on. I think technology is going to have another big shift soon. People are going to realize they are paying for a cell phone they don’t need because texting is really just a more expensive way to send an email. This will change publishing again. I’m not sure how but I don’t think books and writing will ever be lost to us, in whatever format.
As far as having to promote and sell your own books. I don’t think this is all bad. As a web publisher I’m DIY, other than using WordPress and paying a web host, those standard things, I don’t have help. I often wish I did. But, I don’t make enough to pay anyone a living wage.
Publishing is like a doughnut. There is all the icing and cake stuff around the edges – everyone makes it seem so simple and even glamorous. But when you get into it you are alone in the doughnut hole. It’s not easy being DIY. I’ve proved that to myself endlessly. I’m not successful and I won’t be making any trips to Paris (unless I write it for myself).I got burned out two years ago and I’m on the upside of self recovery.
I can’t not write and I can’t stop feeling I have a persistent need to teach the world. So, I keep on publishing, the web is good for that. I can almost afford to keep writing while paying the bills with a real job.
Everyone has their own unhappiness, I’ve picked mine. Not everyone can say that.
I have been a Chris Orcutt fan since the first Dakota Stevens book came out.
If he’s interested in having independent book stores push his book, he’ll need to publish his ebook to more places than just Amazon. Many independents use Kobo. Also, I just checked out his book on Ingram’s website (one of the largest, if not the largest, book distributors), and unfortunately since it is a print-on-demand title they do not allow returns. That’s a big no-no for most independent book stores, and they usually won’t bring in the title when presented with that situation. Just some ‘inside’ info from a bookseller.