This and that…

The Diminishing wage of Authors and Traditional vs. Self-publishing

Having finished North of Autumn, my second novel, I’ve begun another round of submissions to agents. I chose three this time, one of whom is in Berlin and who I’m hoping will actually want to read the novel. But the waiting game begins again. Based on submitting my first novel, about half of agents simply don’t respond if they’re not interested. So be it. Since I only have so long to live, however, I’ll be giving agents 4 weeks to respond, then move one.

On the other hand, I go back and forth as concerns traditional publishing. There’s very little money in traditional publishing for the vast majority of novelists. Don’t even ask about poetry. Agents are largely allergic to contemporary poetry (and for good reason). I was reviewing some other websites so I could write a minimally informed post, and stumbled across some interesting percentages. The most striking was a site claiming that 97% of writers don’t finish their novels. No source was given for this figure and so it may be click bait. I’m not even sure how such a figure would be calculated, so be skeptical. Less skeptically, another site offers some interesting figures on the percentage of authors who earn a living wage. The site reported that “63 percent of authors who reported receiving book-related income in 2017, the average total income was $43,247“. Alternatively, of course, that means that 37% of authors received no income at all. If I were to earn the average, that would be a step down from what I could make as a builder but a hell of a triumph given what I’ve made by writing so far. The site also notes that “three-sevenths of full-time authors with any earnings were making over $50,000″—the proviso being “full time”. If one is earning enough to be a full time writer, then it stands to reason that one is making something like $50,000 or more.

If you’re a writer like me, with ambitions to be published, there’s an interesting article at the Atlantic you might enjoy—entitled “Now Do Amazon“. The author, Franklin Foer, begins the article by stating a fact I did not know:

~ One of the great literary hoaxes of our time is the book spine. A staggering number of logos stare out from dust jackets, celebrating names including Crown, Vintage, Ballantine, Knopf, and Dial. But the pluralism implied by this diversity of monikers is a sham. In the U.S., nearly 100 of them belong to a single company: Penguin Random House. The rest are owned by a small handful of competitors, one of which is Simon & Schuster.

Foer’s main concern, however, aren’t the mergers and acquisitions (blocked by the Justice Department) that have largely turned publishing into a monopoly (to the detriment of authorial income) but Amazon, which he rightly labels a monopsony.

~ Amazon is arguably the ultimate embodiment of monopsony power. It has, in the past, used its dominance to demand a large cut of publishers’ sales, according to industry insiders. And companies such as PRH have had little choice but to accept—or become bigger, so that they can bargain harder. Amazon’s pressure on publishers has sometimes come out of authors’ pockets in the form of reduced advances.

In other words, not only is Amazon making its billions by squeezing publishers (who are/were themselves hardly saints) but is greatly contributing to the long-term decline in authorial income.

Meanwhile, the website Reedsy argues, in an article entitled “How Much Do Authors Make? The Truth about Money in Publishing“, that Indie Authors (authors who self-publish) fare much better than traditionally published authors—all else being equal. They write:

~ …many more self-published authors make a living than traditionally published authors, with self-publishing royalty earnings outpacing trad pub’s advance plus subsequent royalties. This was proven by several years of Author Earnings reports — most notably, one study that divided authors into groups earning more than $10k, $25k, $50k, and $100k. The study found that the number of indie authors earning 5-6 figures/year from book sales was much higher than the number of Big 5 authors earning the same.

This is almost solely, from what I can tell, because of the difference in royalty. While a self-published author won’t get an advance, they can expect to earn 50% to 70% on each book sold while the average royalty for the traditionally published author is 7.5%, and that doesn’t include any agent’s cut.

And so I’m torn, and it’s not necessarily about the money. I probably have another 25 to 30 years to live, so what does a million dollars mean to me? A traditional publisher can market and promote my book and get it on shelves. I don’t have that skillset. On the other hand, a traditional publisher could also sit on the book and decline to market or promote it. That happens. Then all I’m left with, best and worst case, is a small advance and a book that will never see a readership. In that case, I would have been better off self-publishing. Even a small readership is better than none, and with a greater share of the royalty, I would still be apt to come out ahead.

If I’m disappointed by the results of shopping both my books this winter, then I am definitely open to self-publishing and/or looking for an Indie publishing.

Literary Revelations Publishing House

Speaking of Indie Publishers, I recently submitted a Shakespearean sonnet to Literary Revelations Publishing House. I haven’t submitted any of my poetry anywhere for years, not since founding this blog, but, you know, if I’m going to stop being a hermit… Their home page states that they are “an independent publishing house dedicated to showcasing the best literary and art work. We publish poetry, short stories, interviews, art, and novels.” Their website is really quite professional. My sonnet was in answer to their call for poems on the theme of childhood: “Hidden in Childhood: A Poetry Anthology – Call for Submissions“. If you have written poems on childhood, or have one to write, then consider submitting something and supporting your local, Indie publisher.

Chaucer was not a Rapist

Unfortunately, this article, entitled “Chaucer the Rapist? Newly Discovered Documents Suggest Not” is behind a paywall, but the gist is this: “A court document discovered in 1873 suggested that around 1380, Chaucer had been charged with raping Cecily Chaumpaigne, the daughter of a London baker. In the document, Chaumpaigne released Chaucer from ‘all manner of actions related to my raptus’— a word commonly translated as rape or abduction.” Apparently, two scholars discovered a second copy of the document in which the word “raptus” had either been removed or omitted as a result of Chaucer possibly having hired a new lawyer. The suspicion, that this was Chaucer whitewashing, led the scholars to the original writ of the case (previously unknown). It turns out that Chaucer and Cecily Chaumpaigne were both the defendants and were being sued by a Thomas Staundon who accused Chaucer of poaching Cecily from Staundon’s service. In that case, the scholars argue, raptus refers to ““the physical act of Chaumpaigne leaving Staundon’s service.” So, Staundon was not suing Chaucer for raping Cecily Chaumpaigne but suing both of them—she for leaving his service and Chaucer for poaching her. According to the article, this discovery landed like a bomb. Needless to say, there is considerable resistance from scholars, especially among feminist critics, who have produced criticism predicated on Chaucer’s having raped Chaumpaigne. That’s a tough spot for them, but it’s daily life for any scientist. One day you’re working on your unified field theory and the next some new scientific discovery invalidates the entirety of your corpus. I personally am just as happy to see Chaucer’s good name restored. Judging an artist by their art is fraught with self-deception, but the kind of man who could write Chaucer’s stories, with their humor and wisdom, doesn’t mesh with a man accused of rape.

The first Poet & Writer

There’s a lovely article in the New Yorker about the Priestess Enheduanna. I first ran across her poetry about a decade ago and fell in love with it. It’s truly powerful and beautiful verse. The article is entitled “The Struggle to Unearth the World’s First Author“. The article primarily addresses the strange reluctance of scholarship to acknowledge and celebrate Enheduanna’s primacy or that she even existed—emphasis on ‘she’. The author, Elizabeth Winkler, writes:

~ But since their discovery, in the mid-twentieth century, scholars have fiercely debated Enheduanna’s authorship. Did the priestess really write these works? Is the idea of a woman at the beginning of the written tradition—two thousand years before the golden age of Greece—too good to be true? This winter, an exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, “She Who Wrote: Enheduanna and Women of Mesopotamia,” will try to give the priestess her due.

Winkler later in the article elaborates on the apparently male-centric biases that have resisted Enheduanna’s identity not just as a writer/poet but as a female:

~ Of particular note is a statue of a woman with a tablet in her lap—evidence of women’s literacy and engagement with writing. (When it was first discovered, in the early twentieth century, the German scholar Otto Weber reported, “Our specimen carries a tablet on her knees. Its meaning is not clear to me.”) The statue and others like it have been ignored in the academic literature, Babcock told me. “If this was a man with a tablet in his lap, there would be twenty articles about it.” Such artifacts upend long-held assumptions—about literacy as the preserve of élite male scribes, and about Middle Eastern women as being confined to the domestic sphere.

What I didn’t realize, until reading the article, is just how much of her writing has survived (which is astonishing given how many thousands of years ago she wrote) and the extent to which her writing was kept alive by later generations, even to 500 years after her death. My own opinion is that when reading the poetry of Enheduanna we read the work of a literary genius—the Shakespeare of her age. To think that her voice could survive for thousands of years! It bespeaks a woman, star-gazer and poet who, in her suffering, was capable of communicating our common humanity with a language, symbol, metaphor and archetype that still holds meaning thousands of years later.

And that’s all for today, November 23rd, 2022.

North of Autumn | Ellie’s Hymn

I thought that “the final hymn” would be the last hymn I would write for North of Autumn, but it wasn’t five minutes after I posted the hymn that the current poem began to write itself out of my imagination. I call it Ellie’s Hymn because Ellie is Zoē’s deceased mother and the author of the hymns that appear in the book. These are the final words of the book and are as much a farewell to the reader.

I know better than to say:
  Give no thought to when.
There’s nothing to wish the ache away
  But that we’ll meet again.

Give to the intervening hours
  As much as absence takes
But nothing more—our love is ours;
  And the bonds affection makes.

To you alone the keys
  Who, friend and lover, part;
To you the secret codices
  And chambers of my heart.

Ellie's Hymn from North of Autumn

North of Autumn | The final hymn…

Sorry I’ve been away. Between trying to lace up all the jobs delayed over the summer and finishing the novel, North of Autumn, I haven’t felt much like taking the time to write a post. This last hymn in the novel took me quite a bit longer to write than the others. And maybe not longer, but I never felt myself in the right creative space. There is no S-Bahn or U-Bahn to ride in middle Vermont. I can’t explain it, but European public transportation really makes me a happy and productive poet. The good news is that I’m within pages of finishing my second novel. I’m winding down my carpentry now and will be spending still more time writing. I’m already planning my next poems and am eager to start my next novel.

I’ve seen them sometimes out alone,
  Out walking roads too late
For any business but their own—
  Lost to what they contemplate.

I’ve seen as they have seen: the grim,
  The few remaining rags
Of autumn strung from the black limb,
  How every hour lags.

I too, without a place to go
  And nothing to my name,
Have wandered through the rain and snow
  And would have said the same:

There’s only guessing at what may
  Or may not come tomorrow,
But I have seen enough today
  To know the taste of sorrow.

    by me, 
    October 29th 2022

North of Autumn | Hymn #8 Butterflies

Just a reminder for anyone new to the blog. These poems are being written for a novel I’m writing (or at least will get back to once I’m back in Vermont) called North Of Autumn. (I’ll be back this coming Thursday). The poems are those of a deceased character who read and loved Emily Dickinson. The poem that follows is possibly the most “Dickinsonian” of them. I thought up this one while biking the Mauerweg, a bicycle path that follows where the Wall used to be. It’s mostly a paved and beautiful path. In just the roughly thirty years since the wall, towers, and mine fields were removed, a forest has grown up; but the most startling strangeness is the transition from former West Berlin to former East Germany.

The West Berliners developed right up to the Wall when it was still standing, while the East Germans deliberately left their side undeveloped, the farms and fields untouched. Now that the Wall is gone, the effect is surreal. Going south, the city just stops. It doesn’t gradually peter out. It just stops. There aren’t even roads. Just dirt footpaths. If you’re biking East, and if you look to your left, there will be houses and apartment buildings, roads, buses, playgrounds, etc. If you look to your right, there’s nothing but flat fields and trees as far as the eye can see. You would think you were somewhere deep in Germany’s farm lands. The fields would never last in the US. There would be stroads and strip malls in no time. I can’t help hoping this little piece of Berlin surreality remains unchanged.

  The seasons do not tabulate
    The yearly gross and net,
  And neither do they contemplate
    What quotas go unmet.

  The endless inefficiencies
    Give reason to be worried
  (There's no escaping winter's fees)
    Yet dreams will not be hurried.

  The dreary mind cannot affirm
    What nature testifies—
  The paltry labor of the worm
    Becoming butterflies.

  Written on the Mauerweg
  by Me
  August 12 2022

North of Autumn | Thursday’s Letter Hymn # 17

The U2 must like me. I wrote this poem in one sitting, getting on the U-Bahn at Schönhauser Allee and getting out at Sophie-Charlotte-Platz. That doesn’t happen very often, but I can see how Emily Dickinson wrote so many poems in so short a time. The ballad hymns almost write themselves. The short lines, 8s and 6s, don’t give much scope for over-thinking, especially if one rhymes. One goes where the rhymes lead. The trick is to make them seem wholly coincidental—as if the poet had no idea, none at all, that the poem was rhyming. And if the reader doesn’t notice, all the better.

  I otherwise would hardly write
    (These poems are hit or miss)
  But here I sit, alone tonight,
    Still thinking of your kiss.

  Just so you know, a storm came through;
    The garden is a mess.
  You ought to see the honeydew.
    They're floating more or less.

  The mellons drift from row to row,
    And peas are here and there.
  Don't bother asking if I know
    Which vegetables are where.

  But I can tell you either way
    The mellons are delicious,
  The flesh— so cool, so sweet. To say
    Much more would be seditious.

  I washed the dirt from some tomatoes;
    Diced and tossed them in
  With several waterlogged potatoes—
    (The soup's a little thin).

  The weather teaches us, I guess,
    What is and isn't ours—
  But have I mentioned, nonetheless,
    How beautiful the stars?

    Thursday's Letter
    Written on the U2 on August 31
    by Me

I’ve extended my stay in Berlin until the middle of August. The weather in the poem was inspired by weather, not in Berlin, but back home in Vermont. Something like a small tornado or wind sheer came through and dropped trees across roads, on top of cars and rooftops. That got me thinking about the garden and raspberries in our backyard.

Also, another picture from the city of my birth.

North of Autumn | P.S. – Hymn #7

I’m writing this on my smartphone—a new trick for me. Not sure what it’s going to look like when I publish it. I’m in Berlin again. My father died earlier in the month. I knew he was in poor health and had hoped to see him before he died. In the meantime, my daughter has taken up temporary employment with Germany’s NASA—the Deutsches Zentrum für Luft and Raumfahrt, or DLR for short. Also in Berlin. So here I am. I haven’t had time or the place to continue writing North of Autumn. I have had time to continue working on the poems. I just finished this one while riding the U2, the U-Bahn line between Ruhleben and Pankow, stopping at Sophie-Charlotte-Platz.

  Whatever rakes the attic floor,
There won't be any ghost;
And if there's scratching at your door,
A gust of leaves at most.

Though I may whisper my good-byes,
Who hears the Thrush's song,
Who's seen which way the Raven flies
Will never stay for long.

I'll have crossed the fresh-laid snow
And left no trace behind;
The summers that I used to know
Will since have slipped my mind.

P.S.

Life is itself enough to scare
The living half to death,
No need for supernatural fare
To steal away our breath.

Finished on the U2 July 28th 2022
by Me

The hymn steals lines from a sonnet I wrote many years ago but was never satisfied with. I don’t think I ever posted or otherwise published it. Also, a little something from Berlin:

Rough Drafts | The Luckiest Man Alive

I’ve now written just over 50 percent of my novel. I’ve renamed it North of Autumn. I’ve fallen behind the last few days, around a thousand words short of where I should be. This is partly because the novel is transitioning and I haven’t fully worked out what should happen or how. Also, the short little fable that follows got me all snarled up. Not often I throw a fit when writing, but after the sixth revision I was losing patience. Part of the challenge is not just writing a fable, but a fable that makes sense within the context of the narrative. I didn’t set out to write a novel full of smaller tales, fables and short stories, but writing the novel at speed makes the writing spontaneous—as though the whole novel is more of an improvisation. The novel reminds me a little of a musical. Instead of the characters bursting into song, they burst into stories. Readers are either going to love it or hate it but then, given all the magical realism, one won’t be reading this book for its gritty authenticity.

Sean dangled the phone over his forehead. “I’m in Vermont.”
“Well,” said Louis, with a light French accent, “the house will be okay until you are there. Do you know when you will arrive?”
Sean exhaled. “Zoē is fighting me every step of the way.”
“Ah, I see.”
“And I may have been a guest at a house where I may have caused the catastrophic collapse of a floor and I may have promised to fix it.”
“I see. Then it is a good thing you are an engineer, Sean.”
This was followed by a momentary silence, and Sean added, “I don’t know when we’ll be getting there.”
“I’m sure you have heard the joke. If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”
“Yes.”
“I can tell you,” Louis’ voice continued, “where I am now is never where I expected to be. One makes plans and to what effect? My father loved to tell me a story when I was little. I think it must be a common story.
“A poor farmer considers himself the unluckiest man alive.
“A cohort of soldiers with oxcarts has come to his fields. They bring the stones of a bridge, its viossuers and keystones, the stones of its spandrel and parapet, and the cobblestones that paved it. They strew his fields with these stones and the farmer can no longer plow.
“Years go by and the farmer is very poor. Then one day the mayor of a nearby town announces that a new bridge must be built before the arrival of the King. Seeing that the farmer has all the stones he needs, the mayor orders that the stones be collected and the farmer rewarded. This makes the farmer rich beyond his wildest dreams.
“Meanwhile, the bridge is built and the King arrives. He walks across the bridge. He gives a sharp cry of recognition and, in the very next moment, he drops dead. Many years before, you see, he had been told that so long as he never crossed the bridge, death would never find him; and so he ordered that the bridge be dismantled and all its stones scattered.
“The King, you know, considered himself the luckiest man alive.”

upinVermont | May 31st 2022

Rough Drafts | Zoē and Polyphemus

I’m nearing the half way mark through Stopping by Autumn. Zoē is the novel’s main character and moves through a world very different from that of the other characters. Unlike my first novel, which only has elements of magical realism, the second novel (taking place in the same fictional region of Vermont) glides whole-heartedly through the genre. The following passage takes place after Zoē wanders into a little village called Sled Island. The El Camino has broken down again and rather than wait with her father at the garage, she explores. (Tue 22nd — Being a rough draft, a just updated this with some minor changes, including the addition of Homeric Epithets.)

Further inside the store the shelves were full of books, souvenirs, toys, clothes, used books and handmade quilts. Some of the shelves were carved into the shapes of vines swollen with wooden grapes. The thick vines seemed to coil and stretch from one shelf to the next, growing thicker and hiding more of the shelves the further she went. 

Hidden among their coils were owls, hawks and gulls with gaping  beaks—all carved from the same dark wood. And if she looked twice the hawk might have vanished or the owl turned its gaze. Zoē walked quietly. An old woman with a cane across her lap was sleeping in a chair in the corner. There was a wisp of a beard trailing from her chin and her gap-toothed mouth hung open as she snored. Next to her was a room with sawdust and shavings spilling out. Zoē went to look and found a workshop. There were no windows, a workbench was in the middle, and broken toys were piled on the floor and spilled from open closets. A large man, as old as the woman, was hunched over the workbench. He wore a leather apron and peered through an elaborate jeweler’s monocle. The man had piled toys at one end of the workbench. One by one, as Zoē watched, he took them and with a small mallet broke them.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“I’m makin’ spare parts,” the man gruffly answered.

“But you’re ruining new toys.”

The giant man looked up, still stooped over the workbench, slope-shouldered. “And you never know when a good toy’s gonna need fixin’. So you can’t have too many spare parts.”

Zoē glanced behind her. “You’re just taking them from the store.”

“That’s right.”

“But then there won’t be any good toys to buy,” Zoē answered factually.

“You’re a strange one,” said the man. He flipped up a lens and squinted through his monocle. “You’re a little off aren’t you? Not quite right in the head. Any other girl would have run off by now.” He let that sit, then said, “Come in here.”

Zoē went in and stood at the workbench, hands in her coat pockets. The man picked up a broom that had been leaning behind him and pushed the door shut behind her.

“Why did you do that?”

“What’s that you’ve got round your neck?”

“A necklace.”

“I see that,” answered the giant man, wiping his nose with the back of his hand, “but what’s that you’ve got hanging from the necklace.”

“My mother gave it to me.”

“Give it to me.”

“No,” said Zoē, “you’ll just break it.”

The slope-shouldered man didn’t answer at first. He rubbed his stubbled chin with the palm of his hand as though considering what next. “If you won’t give it to me then let me see it.” Zoē pinched the necklace and lifted the pendant so that he could see it. The giant man studied it and rapped the workbench with his knuckles. “What’s your name, girl?”

Zoē hesitated, then said, “Eudid.”

“Eudid?” asked the man. “Is that a Greek name?”

“Yes,” Zoē answered. “Do you want to see the pendant?”

“Yes!”

“Then let me look through your monocle. If you let me look through your monocle, I’ll let you look at my pendant.”

The giant man stood and took a deep breath. His broad chest expanded and his sloped shoulders rolled. Then he went to Zoē, towering over her. He took off his monocle and gave it to her. Zoē at once saw that he couldn’t see without it—or not very well. She slipped out from between him and the closet, and went to the other side of the workshop. The man tried to see where she went, squinting, but seemed unable to see her. “What are you doing?” he asked.

Zoē went to the workbench. She put down the monocle and picked up the mallet that he’d left on the workbench. “I’m making spare parts,” she answered.

“For what?” he answered.

“For your monocle.”

“How will you do that?” he asked.

“Like this.” She smashed the monocle with one blow. The lenses and tiny gears burst across the workbench and fell to the floor.

 “No!” cried the man. “He swept his arms ahead of him.”

Zoē held onto her necklace, hunched low and scurried along the opposite side of the workbench. The giant man turned, eyes fiercely squinting. When he went behind the workbench, Zoē hurried to the door, opened it and ran back into the store’s displays.

“Eudid!” the man cried.

“Good lord. What’s all the alarm?” The old woman had woken, and was as unable to see as the slope-shouldered man. She clumsily pushed herself upright and swung her cane back and forth.

“My monocle!” roared the man in the doorway.

“What about it?” asked the old woman.

“She broke it!”

“Who did?”

“Eudid!” he roared.

“I did not!” the old woman answered. “I had nothing to do with you or your precious monocle.”

“Eudid!” he roared again. “Eudid!”

Zoē crouched beneath the swinging cane, then ran to a door that was in the center of the store and under a staircase. “I hear the little beast!”

“Where?” answered the old woman, turning and swinging the cane in Zoē’s direction.

“Eudid!” snarled the giant man.

“I did not you old fool!” cried the woman.

Zoē quietly opened the door, stepped down to a little landing, then noiselessly closed the door behind her.

upinVermont | March 21st 2022

Rough Drafts | Sidewalk Poems

The history behind these two poems is interesting. Middlebury, Vermont invited local poets to send in poems for a sidewalk project in which the poems would be imprinted in the sidewalk’s concrete—part of a poetry project. The poems came with strict line length and word limits. I don’t remember them now. But why not? Middlebury is one of my favorite Vermont towns and Brookway, the fictional town of my novels, is loosely based on it. I submitted the poems and—never heard anything again. Story of my literary life. Since they were written for a very particular location—a sidewalk—I was never sure what to do with them. Now I know. If they can’t be in Middlebury’s sidewalks, then they’ll be in Brookway’s sidewalks—a sidewalk of the imagination. They have a home again.

If despite your hurry
You pause just long enough
To momentarily query
The verses here and there,
You next may ask yourself
If poems aren’t everywhere?—
If maybe all along
(And even by a sidewalk)
There wasn’t always song?
And though that may be true,
It’s true because all poetry
Is truthfully in you.
You mostly needn’t guess
(Or second guess) the season,
You know it more or less:
You know it by the spider
Fattened on the addled flies.
They crowd September’s cider.
And if the weather’s terse
And fitful then it’s likely
April; yet suppose this verse
Is buried under snow?
Your guess is good as mine.
Vermont. You never know.
Every year it’s touch and go.

upinVermont | March 6th 2022