Where Is the Literature of the Anthropocene?

interstellar-cooper-ice-planet2Early on in the recent science fiction movie Interstellar, NASA astronaut Cooper declares that “the world’s a treasure, but it’s been telling us to leave for a while now. Mankind was born on Earth; it was never meant to die here.” After showing Cooper how their last corn crops will eventually fail like the okra and wheat before them, NASA Professor Brand answers Cooper’s question of, “So, how do you plan on saving the world?” with: “We’re not meant to save the world…We’re meant to leave it.” Cooper rejoins: “I’ve got kids.” To which Brand answers: “Then go save them.”

In a 1976 NBC interview on the significance of the Viking 1 landing on Mars, astronomer Carl Sagan likened our space program to watching a dandelion gone to seed: “I can’t help but think of this as an epochal moment in planetary exploration. If you can imagine, a sort of a very patient observer, observing the earth for its four and half billion-year lifetime: for all of that period, lots of things came onto the earth, but nothing left it. And now just in the last 10 years, things are spewing off the earth.”

The Onset of the Anthropocene & the Great Acceleration

urbanlandscape2In a Guardian article entitled “The Holocene hangover: it is time for humanity to make fundamental changes”, Fredrick Albritton Jonsson examines Amitav Ghosh’s interpretation of climate change and considers the need to acknowledge Earth’s own powerful and changing identity—particularly through the face of climate change.

Is climate change the planet’s way of telling us that we no longer belong—like Cooper was suggesting in the movie Interstellar?

That we’ve largely orchestrated these changes may be considered ironic—or is it simply inevitable? For me, as an ecologist, this is not a new concept. Ecological succession is the process of ecosystem change and development over time (usually following a disturbance) as an establishing species impacts and alters its environment to eventually make the environment less suited to it and more to another species, which will replace it. Succession only stops when a climax community—which is in equilibrium with a stable environment—establishes. This climax stage can persist indefinitely—until the next environmental disturbance, that is. Succession occurs everywhere in Nature; examples include the recolonization of Mount St. Helen following the volcanic eruption. Natural succession occurs in human society as well. A good example can be found in any city. My landscape architect son described the natural process of “gentrification” in a large city: a process of renovation and revival of deteriorated urban areas through an influx of more affluent residents, resulting in increased property values and a displacement of lower-income families and businesses. Inherent in succession is movement and flow—something Nature is very familiar with and uses well.

“Our planet is changing into a strange and unstable new environment, in a process seemingly outside technological control,” writes Jonsson, who laments in a disillusioned patriarchal voice: “The fossil fuels that once promised mastery over nature have turned out to be tools of destruction, disturbing the basic biogeochemical processes that make our world habitable [for us]. Even the recent past is no longer what we thought it was.”

Jonsson then unleashes a litany of examples where humanity has imposed global change, including: climate change; reduced biodiversity of ecosystems; acidification of marine life and oceans capacity to absorb carbon dioxide; fresh water scarcity; ozone depletion, which threatens atmospheric stability; and disruption of global nitrogen and phosphorus cycles—to mention a few. “Indeed,” says Jonsson, “the planet’s biosphere bears so many marks of anthropogenic influence that it is no longer possible to [distinguish] between the realm of wilderness and the world of human habitation.”

world-war-2-goosestep“Scientists are telling us that the whole territory of modern history, from the end of World War II to the present, forms the threshold to a new geological epoch,” adds Jonsson. This epoch succeeded the relatively stable natural variability of the Holocene Epoch that had endured for 11,700 years. Scientists Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer call it the Anthropocene Epoch. Suggestions for its inception vary from the time of the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s with the advent of the steam engine and a fossil fuel economy to the time of the Great Acceleration—the economic boom following World War II.

the-great-accelerationThe Great Acceleration describes a kind of tipping point in planetary change and succession resulting from a rising market society.

From the devices we carry to the lives we lead, everything is getting faster, faster.  The International Geosphere-Bioshpere Programme writes that “the last 60 years have without doubt seen the most profound transformation of the human relationship with the natural world in the history of humankind.” They suggest that the second half of the 20th Century is unique in the history of human existence. “Many key indicators of the functioning of the Earth system are now showing responses that are, at least in part, driven by the changing human imprint on the planet. The human imprint influences all components of the global environment – oceans, coastal zone, atmosphere, and land.”

While this notion rings hubristic, there is no question that humanity is now a major driver of planetary change: from tipping the Earth’s axis through the creation of massive water reservoirs and diverting a third of Earth’s available fresh water to increasing carbon dioxide to a levels found 800,000 years ago—changing global climate.

Geologists and historians discussed how the Anthropocene Epoch would best be identified by observers in a distant future. “Among the plausible candidates proposed are micro-plastics, metal alloys, and artificial isotopes,” writes Jonsson. “Such stratigraphic markers must be placed in their historical context. The scientific identification of the Anthropocene with the year 1945 gives us not just a plausible geological end to the Holocene, but also a watershed that fits comfortably with a great body of scholarly work about the historical consequences of World War II.”

great-acceleration-chartThe Great Acceleration encompasses the notion of “planetary boundaries,” thresholds of environmental risks beyond which we can expect nonlinear and irreversible change on a planetary level. A well known one is that of carbon emissions. Emissions above 350 ppm represent unacceptable danger to the welfare of the planet in its current state; and humanity—adapted to this current state. This threshold has already been surpassed during the postwar capitalism period decades ago.

Our Literature in the Anthropocene

greatderangement-climatechangeIn Amitav Ghosh’s diagnosis of the condition of literature and culture in the Age of the Anthropocene (The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable), he observes that the literary world has responded to climate change with almost complete silence. “How can we explain the fact that writers of fiction have overwhelmingly failed to grapple with the ongoing planetary crisis in their works?” continues Jonsson, who observes that, “for Ghosh, this silence is part of a broader pattern of indifference and misrepresentation. Contemporary arts and literature are characterized by ‘modes of concealment that [prevent] people from recognizing the realities of their plight.’”

“By failing to engage with climate change, artists and writers are contributing to an impoverished sense of the world, right at the moment when art and literature are most needed to galvanize a grassroots movement in favor of climate justice and carbon mitigation.”

According to Ghosh, the “great derangement” stemmed from a certain kind of rationality. Plots and characters of bourgeois novelists reflected the regularity of middle-class life and the worldview of the Victorian natural sciences, one that depended on a principle of uniformity. Change in Nature was gradual and never catastrophic. Extraordinary or bizarre happenings were left to marginal genres like the Gothic tale, romance novel, and—of course—science fiction. The strange and unlikely were externalized: hence the failure of modern novels and art to recognize anthropogenic climate change.

flight-behaviorJonsson tells us that bourgeois reason takes many forms, showing affinities with classical political economy, and—I would add—in classical physics and Cartesian philosophy. From Adam Smith’s 18th Century economic vision to the conceit of bankers who drove the 2008 American housing bubble, humanity’s men have consistently espoused the myth of a constant natural world capable of absorbing infinite abuse without oscillation. When James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis proposed the Gaia Hypothesis in the 1970s, many saw its basis in a homeostatic balance of the natural order as confirmation of Nature’s infinite resilience to abuse. They failed to recognize that we are Nature and abuse of Nature is really self-abuse.

Jonsson suggests that these Enlightenment ideas are essentially ideological manifestations of Holocene stability, remnants from 11,000 years of small variability in temperature and carbon dioxide levels, giving rise to deep-seated habits and ideas about the resilience of the natural world. “The commitment to indefinite economic growth espoused by the economics profession in the postwar era is perhaps its most triumphant [and dangerous] expression.”

memory-of-water-emmi-itarantaLouise Fabiani of Pacific Standard suggests that novels are still the best way for us to clarify planetary issues and prepare for change—even play a meaningful part in that change. In her article “The Literature of Climate Change” she points to science fiction as helping “us prepare for radical change, just when things may be getting too comfortable.” Referring to our overwhelming reliance on technology and outsourced knowledge, Fabiani suggests that “our privileged lives (particularly in consumer-based North America) are built on unconscious trust in the mostly invisible others who make this illusion of domestic independence possible—the faith that they will never stop being there for us. And we have no back-ups in place should they let us down.” Which they will—given their short-term thinking.

“To counteract this epidemic of short-term thinking,” says Fabiani, “it might be a good idea for more of us to read science fiction, specifically the post-apocalyptic sub-genre: that is, fiction dealing with the aftermath of major societal collapse, whether due to a pandemic, nuclear fallout, or climate change.”

year-of-the-flood-atwoodIn my interview with Mary Woodbury on Eco-Fiction I remind readers that “science fiction is a powerful literature of allegory and metaphor and deeply embedded in culture. By its very nature, SF is a symbolic meditation on history itself and ultimately a literature of great vision. Some of the very best of fiction falls under the category of science fiction, given the great scope of its platform. More and more literary fiction writers are embracing the science fiction genre (e.g., Margaret Atwood, Kuzuo Ishiguro, Michael Chabon, Philip Roth, Iain Banks, David Mitchell); these writers recognize its immense scope and powerful metaphoric possibilities. From science fiction to eco-fiction is a natural process. Exploring large societal and planetary issues is the purview of both.”

Let’s see more. We need it.

You can find an excellent databank of eco-fiction books on Mary Woodbury’s site Eco-Fiction. Mary Woodbury also includes “12 works of climate fiction everyone should read.” Midge Raymond of Literary Hub lists “5 important works of eco-fiction you need to read.” And then there is the Goodreads Listopia for “Best eco-fiction

naturalselectionMy own works of eco science fiction can be found on my author’s website, Nina Muneanu Writer and at a quality bookstore near you.

 

Why not find a work of eco-fiction and share it with someone you care about this Christmas.

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

 

 

Buy and Give a Book for Christmas

misty mounteinsThere are many reasons to look at buying and giving books for Christmas; not the least to maintain and encourage our literacy, culture and artistic spirit, but also to promote the industry you and I rely on as writers and readers.

According to Literary Statistics Canada, 42% of Canadian adults between the ages of 16 and 65 have low literacy skills. 55% of working age adults in Canada are estimated to have less than adequate health literacy skills. Shockingly, 88% of adults over the age of 65 appear to be in this situation.

Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning to enable an individual to achieve his or her goals, to develop his or her knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in the wider society. — UNESCO

Reading fiction greatly improves our quality of life. Reading is just plain smart. In a study entitled “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind” in the October 2013 issue of Science, researchers Kidd and Castano reported that reading literary fiction led to better performance on tests of affective and cognitive Theory of Mind compared with reading nonfiction, popular fiction or nothing at all. Theory of Mind (ToM) describes the ability to understand others’ mental states, a crucial skill in complex social relationships that characterize human societies. Check out my article on reading fiction, which discusses how it improves empathy, sharpens your brain, helps you sleep better and helps against Alzheimer’s Disease.

I’ve compiled a list of books that I have recently purchased and have or will be giving away this Christmas. Looking at the list, I realize that it represents an eclectic range of style, form and subject matter. That’s good. Diversity is good. Here’s my list:

water-is-webWater Is… by Nina Munteanu. Part history, part science and part philosophy and spirituality, “Water Is…” combines personal journey with scientific discovery that explores water’s many identities and ultimately our own. From water’s many scientific anomalies to its metaphoric archetype with humanity’s evolution and ubiquitous existence in the universe, water remains our most precious and mysterious substance.

 

 

 

flight-behaviorFlight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. A multi-layered meditation on individual responsibility, told through the discovery by a rural family of the climate-changed behaviour of the monarch butterfly. See my review of Flight Behavior.

 

 

 

 

threebodyproblem-cixin-liuThe Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu. In this Hugo Award-winning first of three books on first contact, Liu weaves in metaphoric layers of significance—from the Chinese Cultural Revolution to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring—to reflect on the perspectives of intelligent beings.

 

 

 

 

boilingpoint-maude-barlowBoiling Point by Maude Barlow. Barlow lays bare the issues facing Canada water reserves, including long-outdated water laws, unmapped and unprotected groundwater reserves, agricultural pollution, deforestation and climate change. With its focus on Canada, this book provides an “action” companion to my own “Water Is…”

 

 

 

 

memory-of-water-emmi-itarantaMemory of Water by Emmi Itaranta. This award-winning speculative post-climate change story is dark and reflective like a silent river of unknowable depth, “Memory of Water” flows with a meaning that lingers with you—like the organic scent of soil after a rainstorm—long after you have put the book down. Told in subtle tone and nuance, like an Ingmar Bergman film, the story of a young tea master in a post climate change world unravels a quiet and insidious oppression. Master Noria must navigate the police state to hide her secrets about water. Water remembers…

 

 

quantum-nightQuantum Night by Robert J. Sawyer (autographed). Told through a high paced psychological-political thriller, the story explores the thin line between good and evil and the world of the political sociopath from a Canadian perspective. I braved a snowstorm to attend Robert’s Toronto launch of this book, whose haunting story has persisted with me still; the mark of a great work.

 

 

 

year-of-the-flood-atwoodThe Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood (autographed). Set in the visionary future of Atwood’s acclaimed Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood is at once a moving tale of lasting friendship and a landmark work of speculative fiction. In this second book of the MaddAddam trilogy, the long-feared waterless flood has occurred, altering Earth as we know it and obliterating most human life. At a recent talk she gave, I thanked Margaret for her environmental efforts and gave her a copy of my own book, Water Is…

 

 

freenetFreenet by Steve Stanton. The novel is about the power of free information in a post-digital age. Told as a thriller with interesting characters and world building, the book explores what digital immortality means. See my review of Freenet.

 

 

 

 

naturalselectionNatural Selection by Nina Munteanu. This short story collection explores humanity’s co-evolution with our environment and technology. A man uses cyber-eavesdropping to make love. A technocratic government uses gifted people as tools to recast humanity. The ruins of a city serve as battleground between pro-technologists and pro-naturalists. From time-space guardians to cybersex, GMO, and biotech implants, this short story collection is a journey of great scope, imagination and vision. “…a stunning example of good storytelling with an excellent setting and cast of characters.”—Tangent Online

 

 

silent-spring-rachel-carsonSilent Spring by Rachel Carson. Written in the 1960s, Carson’s cautionary book remains as relevant and powerful today as it was 50 years ago. Worth reading for her outlook on the awareness and protection of the natural environment just as Jane Jacobs was on the urban environment

 

 

 

 

far-from-the-madding-crowd-cover-imageFar from the Madding Crowd by Thomas .Hardy. A classic to be savoured. Thomas Hardy weaves a rich pastoral tale that examines the foibles of humanity: pride, vanity, greed, passion…and gives us a touching love story with a realistic ending. Set in Hardy’s Wessex country, the setting is as much a character as his cornucopia of delightful human characters. What I love best about Hardy is how his setting evokes (like a Greek god) story. Through beautiful description, imagery and evocative language, this is not the sort of book you want to race through to see what happens; but to read slowly and savored like a dark, rich coffee. Breathe in its hypnotic scent and let it linger.

 

 

martian-chronicles-copyMartian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. The Martian Chronicles isn’t really about Mars. It’s about us. Who we are, what we are, and what we may become. What we inadvertently do—to others, and finally to ourselves—and how the irony of chance can change everything. The 1970 Bantam book jacket so aptly calls The Martian Chronicles, “a story of familiar people and familiar passions set against incredible beauties of a new world … A skillful blending of fancy and satire, terror and tenderness, wonder and contempt.” See my 2012 article on Ray.

 

 

fahrenheit-451-ray-bradburyFahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. A classic tale by a master of the craft of metaphor. Bradbury uses the fireman in a world where they make fires instead of putting them out, to explore the phenomenon of censorship in a world obsessed with being “good”. Scenes in his book were reminiscent of what the Nazis did in Opernplatz, Berlin. In fact, of this event Bradbury made this poignant statement: “It follows then that when Hitler burned a book I felt it as keenly, please forgive me, as his killing a human, for in the long sum of history they are one in the same flesh.”

 

darwins-paradoxDarwin’s Paradox / Angel of Chaos duology by Nina Munteanu. This duology explores human-technological symbiosis, AI consciousness, transhumanism and our reconciliation with Nature. I give this duo away every Christmas because they are quite simply my most popular fiction books.

 

 

 

night-country-loren-eiseleyNight Country by Loren Eiseley. Eiseley reflects on the mystery of life, throwing light on those dark places traversed by himself and centuries of humankind. The Night Country is a gift of wisdom and beauty from the famed anthropologist.

 

 

 

 

pilgrim-at-tinker-creekPilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. A personal narrative of the author’s explorations on foot in her neighbourhood as she witnesses astonishing incidents of “beauty tangled in a rapture with violence.”

 

 

 

 

novel-shortstorywritersmarket20172017 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market by Writer’s Digest. An excellent resource for writers, which includes (besides hundreds of listings for book publishers, literary agents, fiction publications, and contests), erudite and useful articles—including “Creative Cures for Writer’s Block” for which I was consulted.

 

 

 

What’s on your list?

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

 

 

 

 

The Hidden Costs of Self-Publishing, Part 1: The Solution to “Author Solutions”

author-solutions-friendsWhat do Simon & Schuster, Hay House, Barnes and Noble and Reader’s Digest have in common? Each of these reputable and famous names in publishing has forged a partnership with Author Solutions. What is significant about that? Well…In a detailed article written in April of 2015, author David Gaughran tells us why this is distressing news to authors and I discuss this further below.

Many beginning authors wishing to “self-publish” are looking for a service that will easily and painlessly “publish” their cherished creative as well as help them get it out into the reading world. Naive about what it takes to “get out into the reading world”, many authors are signing up with service-publishers who will “publish” anything so long as the author is willing to pay. You know who they are; I mention some of them below. Although the Internet is populated with excellent book-publishing services by freelance editors, cover artists, layout specialists and various accompanying software and apps, many authors are unwilling to go the a la carte route of experts. Instead, they look for an easy and convenient solution: a one-stop shop to sell their book. The “expertise” and “services” are usually anonymous and nameless, hidden behind the company name. I’ve seen some horrid examples of extremely poor editing in books that had presumably been professionally edited by a service-publisher for which a writer had paid good money. The writer was himself/herself clueless of the poor quality (for some of them, English is not their first language), and couldn’t tell me who had edited their work. When I did some digging into two of these service-publishers, I finally found, in the fine print, that the service-publisher used students. Another client of mine complained bitterly about how he had not received the services promised in the package that he’d paid dearly for. This sort of thing is rampant in the “self-publishing” industry right now.

As with all short cuts, there are hidden costs. Let’s take Author Solutions as a good example.

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The “Anti-Solution”

Author Solutions provides a “publishing” service to any writer willing to pay.  Typical of virtually all the vanity publishers, Author Solutions and its many affiliates (likely the company you are using) offers several packages for the author, from basic printing services to the deluxe package with promised media coverage and excellent PR. Unfortunately, what they promise and what they deliver can be two different things. Far from providing solutions to an author, Author Solutions operates “more like a telemarketing company whose customer base is the authors themselves,” write plaintiffs Wheeler and Heightsman as part of their 2015 class action law suit against the firm. Some of Author Solutions’ long-standing issues faced by customers include:

  • improperly reporting royalty information
  • non-payment of royalties
  • breach of contract
  • predatory and harassing sales calls
  • excessive markups on review and advertising services
  • failure to deliver marketing services as promised
  • telling customers their add-ons will only cost hundreds of dollars and then charging their credit cards thousands of dollars
  • ignoring customer complaints
  • shaming and banning customers who go public with their stories.

“Despite Author Solutions’ mounting legal troubles and an unending stream of complaints against the company from both its own customers and a whole host of writers’ organizers and campaigners, companies are still queuing up to partner with Author solutions,” writes Gaughran. Is it because its corporate parent is Penguin Random House? Some “Partner Imprints” (in brackets) run by Author Solutions as a self-publishing service for the partner publishing house include:

  • Simon & Schuster (Archway Publishing)
  • Lulu
  • Harlequin (DelleArte Press) – partnership terminated 2015
  • Hay House (Balboa US, Balboa Australia)
  • Barnes & Noble (Nook Press Author Services)
  • Crossbooks (LifeWay) – partnership terminated 2014
  • Penguin (Partridge India, Partridge Singapore, Partridge Africa)
  • HarperCollins/Thomas Nelson/Zondervan (Westbow Press)
  • Random House (MeGustaEscribir)
  • Writer’s Digest (Abbott Press) – partnership terminated 2014

Many authors aren’t aware that these “Partner Imprints” are all run by the same company; or that Author Solutions’ own in-house imprints include iUniverse, Trafford, Palibrio, AuthorHouse, BookTango, and Xlibris. According to Gaughran, this came about as a “solution” for traditional publishing houses to monetize their slush pile. That’s the pile of unsolicited works most beginning writers send to publishing houses that end up in a huge heap in some room that in the past was relegated to new underling editors to cut their teeth on. Now the manuscripts simply go to a company only interested in making money from writers willing to pay for their largely unedited works. Books that would never have been accepted by these traditional publishing houses are now finding a “home”. But what kind of “home” is it and what does the writer really achieve for her many dollars spent? According to Gaughran’s sources at Penguin, the primary directive of Author Solutions is to sell (to the author) the most expensive publishing package they can and encourage authors to buy their own books. When depositions were made public, they revealed that two thirds of Author Solutions revenue comes from selling publishing and marketing packages and one third from selling books—with a vast majority of those book sales coming from authors buying their own books. What about the cool opportunities for book signings at literary events, book displays, advertising space, TV and reviews that they promised? Gaughran provides a staggering list that includes Publishers Weekly, New York Times, Kirkus and the New York Review of Books, and my personal favorite Word on the Street Festival Toronto. “These partnerships don’t provide any real value to Author Solutions customers,” says Gaughran. In an earlier class action lawsuit against Author Solutions by law firm Giskan Solotaroff Anderson & Stewart representing three authors, Publishers Weekly wrote:

The suit, which seeks class action status, alleges that Author Solutions misrepresents itself, luring authors in with claims that its books can compete with “traditional publishers,” offering “greater speed, higher royalties, and more control for its authors.” The company then profits from “fraudulent” practices, the complaint alleges, including “delaying publication, publishing manuscripts with errors to generate fees, and selling worthless services, or services that fail to accomplish what they promise.” The suit also alleges that Author Solutions fails to pay its authors the royalties they are due.

According to the law firm representing the authors:

Author Solutions preys upon the dreams of authors by selling them expensive services that sound exciting but do not actually sell any books. Their defense: They aren’t being deceptive because they aren’t trying to sell books. Of course, for nearly 200,000 authors who have paid thousands (if not tens of thousands) of dollars to buy expensive services that promised to promote their books, Author Solutions’s indifference to book sales comes as more than a bit of a surprise.”

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The Solution—But You May Not Like It…

So, what’s the solution? For those of you starting out, it’s important to know that firstly there are a lot of genuinely good publishing houses out there potentially interested in your book and willing to work with you in partnership toward a successful book that will sell. And they don’t want your money; they want quality. The book publishing industry is booming in many different ways. And while the predatory arm of the mercenary would like to seduce you with glamour and unrealistic dreams—so long as you pay—a whole cadre of small presses are growing who are producing high quality works by emerging writers. These local Indie publishing houses are worth seeking out and submitting to. But they don’t want to see your book until it is ready. Reader ready. This puts the responsibility back on you, the writer, to produce the very best you can. I tell my writing students at the University of Toronto and George Brown College that if you want to publish, you need to:

  1. write the very best story you can
  2. get it edited, preferably by a professional editor or a writing coach of good repute
  3. research the book publishing market and submit to a traditional publisher (not a service-publisher who wants your money)
  4. rewrite (if you feel the need to) and resubmit to another publisher
  5. resubmit to another publisher

If you decide to self-publish, find a reputable printing house and learn what it takes to create a book. Find someone who does sunset-dock-birdslayout and covers professionally. There are good ones out there; I know—I use them myself. Learn some marketing skills or find a marketing specialist or PR specialist who has a sound track record and you can trust. The book industry was and still is based on sound relationships. Writers with editors; publishers with marketers and distributors; writers with readers; and so on.

In the end, it’s up to you. Take charge of your career and bring the “self” back into self-publishing.

In Part 2, I discuss the significance of first impressions and “branding” in self-publishing. Of course with examples.

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nina-2014aa

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.  

Swimming Against the Tide and Rising Up & Rising Above

cheryl-xavier

Cheryl Antao Xavier

“Her passion for giving voice to non-mainstream writers has inspired her to swim against the tide in these harsh economic times,” says Desi News (Issue 31; December 2014) of Cheryl Antao-Xavier, publisher of In Our Words, Inc. (IOWI) in Mississauga, Ontario.

I met Cheryl a few years ago at a writer’s event when she introduced herself during a break as I was helping myself to my third samosa. We’ve since collaborated on several projects. The most recent is a literary anthology on what it means to live in Canada and be a Canadian. The call for submissions has just recently been made, so if you’re interested in submitting, check out Cheryl’s website here: http://inourwords.ca/the-literary-connection-volume-ii.html

Born of Goan parents, Cheryl grew up in Bahrain and then Karachi, where books were a rare treat. Cheryl shares the story of her aunt who taught knitting to women in a banking family from whom she borrowed books—Enid Blyton, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Nancy Drew and comics—for her book-thirsty nieces, who “would devour the books in no time!” says Antao-Xavier.

Quality books were a luxury, even at the university she attended. Cheryl recalls how the Karachi University library had a “chained book” on display. John Stuart Mill’s book was required reading for students of economics but there was only one copy in the KU library. It sat on a wooden stand with a chain running through its spine under a librarian’s guard and you had to book time with the book and wait long hours for a few minutes to make hasty notes.

Cheryl Antao Xavier

Cheryl Antao Xavier

When Cheryl immigrated to Canada in 1988, she found “book heaven” in the second-hand bookstores and libraries. Reading and owning books became an obsession that has endured to this day.

Cheryl worked for several publishing houses before creating her own publishing house In Our Words Inc. (IOWI). IOWI publishes a good variety of works, including literary fiction, creative non-fiction, poetry and children’s stories from both emerging and established writers.

About the work IOWI publishes, Cheryl told Desi News, “I delight in new and fresh voices; language with imagery; twists on the conventional; historical backgrounds with the angst of displaced or marginalized people. For writers with emotional ties to a heritage radically different from the Canadian experience, writing is a cathartic process. There are writers who have lived through cataclysmic events, whose stories are fascinating chips in the mosaic of Canadian literature.”

I recently whisked Cheryl off in Benny, my sentient ship, and settled her to a million dollar view in the aft deck as we circled the planet. I asked her about how she is managing with the industry doing virtual summersaults (as opposed to somersaults–well, it IS summer, eh?) these days. Here’s what went back and forth:

Nina: I was so intrigued by your story, I just have to start by asking you this: what’s your favourite book of all time and why?

Cheryl: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Read it umpteen times, saw both movie versions, have the Colin Firth series in my video collection. I looooove period fiction drama. Dickens, the Brontes, Hardy, to the more recent Forsythe Saga, Downton Abbey, etc. etc. My Dad had the full collection of Perry Mason and Zane Grey books. So of course I read them all. I love murder-mysteries from Agatha Christie to the present day forensic science stuff.

Nina: You have excellent taste! … What is your assessment of what is happening with print books vs ebooks vs audio books and such? Do you see one format winning over the other and how will that affect your own publishing model?

Cheryl: Print books should be around for as long as our generation who love holding a paper book survive. But ebooks are increasingly popular and have undeniable environmental merits. Publishing companies like mine have to do what you aptly call ‘virtual somersaults’ to stay current and cut costs to stay viable. Rather than publishing formats, what worries me more is poor quality books being published and the potential for declining readership in general. The tragedy of do-it-yourself print-on-demand software, freely available, is that anybody with passable tech skills can become a ‘published author.’ Books with flashy covers but no creative merit vie for reader attention and diminishing discretionary incomes. Also, media entertainment continues to steal leisure time.

Nina: Can you share some candid thoughts on the advantages and disadvantages for writers starting out in choosing the traditional publishing model vs alternative models such as indie or self-publishing.

Cheryl: The lines between traditional and indie/self-pub have blurred even more with the proliferation of print-on-demand options. Production costs have consequently plummeted. So the financial investment in an author/book has less of a risk. I would say, do your research. Make your manuscript super-strong, that means get it professionally edited, and then try the traditional route. Read publishers’ responses to your queries very carefully. It’s an opportunity to learn. If there are no takers, then research indie publishers and call, discuss contracts and options and make an informed decision. Make doubly sure that the traditional pre-production steps of editing, proofreading and professional design are not bypassed. Sometimes good content is smothered by verbosity and needs a good professional edit. Basic POD ‘template’ designs SCREAM amateur-DIY when they are set with no real imagination in big blocks of text, riddled with typos.

Nina: Do you see any specific roles for indie and/or self-publishing in helping to define artistic expression in Canada?

Cheryl: Definitely. The traditional big publishing houses can accept just so many manuscripts. So obviously they’ll go for the ones that are a sure bet. That’s where the diamonds in the rough can be missed out. Indie publishers who have the resources to work with authors to polish the content to its best possible advantage are ideally placed to bring new or even established voices to the mainstream.

Nina: What in your opinion is the major impact (both negative and positive) of the growing self-publishing model adopted by many writers over both traditional and indie publishing?

Cheryl: Occasionally I read and recommend self-published books for membership in a major professional writer’s organization. I also attend book launches and local literary events looking at books, particularly by self-published authors. The good thing is that these authors went that extra step to raise their voices in the literate world. They feel the satisfaction of being ‘published authors.’ The down side is that once something is in print, and particularly if it has not been professionally edited and designed, that book can end up being an embarrassment and a waste of time and money. Typos jump out at the reader and lower the credibility of the work and its creator. Ultimately, it comes down to what the writer wants to achieve by publishing. 

Nina: What major change do you foresee in the book industry and the readership that will affect us? How and why will that affect IOWI?

Cheryl: Everybody loves a good story, and finds it worth their while to read well-articulated text. So the successful writers will be the ones who manage to engage their readers no matter what the genre. The challenge is also for a good book to stand out from the proliferation of new titles vying for attention in virtual and brick-and-mortar stores. I see social media, forums like Goodreads, and book tours/festivals being key arbiters in what bookworms find and opt to read. IOWI will continue to offer an indie publishing option that stresses putting out a good book. Something that both author and publisher can be proud of.

Nina: Tell us about your current projects and why they excite you. 

Cheryl: IOWI is working on two anthologies currently, with a couple more in the planning stage. A Mississauga youth group is publishing their third anthology through IOWI. It is so exciting to see the writing and photography talent this group has attracted. We are so proud to be their publisher. IOWI has its own anthology The Literary Connection Volume II, with a theme of ‘My Canada’ due to be published by November this year. The call for submissions is already out and closes end-July. I am also working on pulling together a collection of plays by Canadian playwrights. It’s going to be awesome. My aim is to have writers meet with a professional writing coach, yourself Nina, to workshop their submissions into amazing work. I want these anthologies to be a credible contribution to CanLit.

Then another pet project is The Red Bench Project, which seeks to promote reading and literacy at the family and community levels. We must encourage the habit of reading for enjoyment. Bringing authors and public together is part of this project.

Nina: What three pieces of advice do you have for a new writer wishing to get published?

Cheryl: Write every day. Then spend some time editing and rewriting past work. Learn to write well through courses, mentorship or self-study.

Read voraciously and discerningly. Keep clippings or books of your favourite writers handy. Before writing, read a selection from these writers. It influences your own voice and jumpstarts your creativity.

Be guided by your need to publish your super-amazing manuscript. Not by your need to see your name on a book. If the content is not up to par, that novelty morphs into the proverbial albatross that haunts a fledgling writing career. If you are a serious writer: DON’T PUBLISH TILL YOU ARE READY!birch trees-path

 

Nina: Great advice, Cheryl! Thanks so much for joining me here and I do promise to get you back on the ground… Don’t the Great Lakes look beautiful from 36,000 km?

Cheryl: Thank YOU for the ride, Nina. Be well.

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nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

The Ecology of Print Books: Niche Partitioning by Young Readers

mushroom forestThe Ecology of Print Books: Niche Partitioning by Young Readers

A while ago, I wrote about the S-curve in publishing, an ecological phenomenon applied to the book industry. Today I’d like to talk about another ecological phenomenon: niche partitioning.

Earlier this year, SF author and fellow Canadian Cory Doctorow cited several reports on his blog BoingBoing suggesting that “young readers generally prefer to read books from paper, not screens.” More than that, he adds, “they find ebooks and printed books complementary.”

I’m an ecologist and this makes sense to me. It comes down to niche-partitioning. Every organism occupies a niche, which can be defined as that organism’s “job” in its ecosystem; so niche-partitioning is a way for organisms to co-exist cooperatively—rather than competitively and exclusively—by apportioning or segregating various jobs or roles in an ecosystem. It’s a bit like syndicalism vs. capitalism, in which functional, rather than territorial precepts are used.

“The future composts the past,” says Doctorow. “The advent of films made it possible for performances that couldn’t work onstage to be born and it moved all the plays that were uncomfortable fits onstage to the screen. What it left behind were plays that were more like plays—and a theater industry that’s still going strong, even if it’s dwarfed by the screen.” He’s talking about niche-partitioning here.

I generally find that ebooks are convenient for my mobile lifestyle. I’ve recently adopted an itinerant, gypsy life from my former “nesting” days. My family has grown up and left the nest and I’ve gone “walkabout”. My giant library of print books had to find good homes, rather than travel with me to all parts of the world. I keep a collection of virtual books on my device for reference (like a dictionary). I also find ebooks a good option for a one-off read—something I can get cheap and read without needing to “befriend” and keep.

I treasure my few printed books, both reference and story. My reference print books are underlined and marked and worn from being used over and over again. Printed books are best for protracted reading and comprehension. You want a print book when you wish to delve deep into “story” and relax.

As with the theatre becoming more theatre-like, Doctorow adds that, “books are becoming more book-like. Books that work best as e-books—for example, big reference books; but also short works that are too slight to rest comfortably on their own between covers—are moving to e-book-land. Things that are produced as printed books have passed a test in which someone has asked, Is there an important reason for this to exist in print, instead of exclusively onscreen?

I talked about this in my previous article The Future of Books on this blog: “print books will become the epitome of publishing value and worth. Already coveted by collectors whose libraries will represent the best of the best in the literary world, print books will come to represent the highest status in literature. Only the best stories will endure as print books; perhaps only the ‘best book’ will even be published in print form. Its existence in print form will define its literary value.” Niche-partitioning, like I said…

In an article called Why Digital Natives Prefer Reading in Print. Yes, You Read That Right, Washington Post reporter Michael S. Rosenwald reported that, “Textbook makers, bookstore owners and college student surveys all say millennials still strongly prefer print for pleasure and learning, a bias that surprises reading experts given the same group’s proclivity to consume most other content digitally.”

students-print-online2014Rosenwald adds, “The preference for print over digital can be found at independent bookstores such as the Curious Iguana in downtown Frederick, Md., where owner Marlene England said millennials regularly tell her they prefer print because it’s “easier to follow stories.” Pew studies show the highest print readership rates are among those ages 18 to 29, and the same age group is still using public libraries in large numbers.” Rosenwald adds, “And it can be seen most prominently on college campuses, where students still lug backpacks stuffed with books, even as they increasingly take notes (or check Facebook) on laptops during class. At American, Cooper Nordquist, a junior studying political science, is even willing to schlep around Alexis de Tocqueville’s 900-plus-page “Democracy in America.”

I’ve noticed the same phenomenon at the University of Toronto campus where I teach. Rosenwald writes about Frank Schembary, a young student who loves books—printed books. He loves how they smell. He loves scribbling in the margins, underlining interesting sentences, folding a page corner to mark his place. “I like the feeling of it,” says Schembary, reading under natural light in a campus atrium, his smartphone next to him. “I like holding it. It’s not going off. It’s not making sounds.”

Naomi S. Baron, an American University linguist who studies digital communication, wrote a book Words Onscreen that reported her studies of students’ reading patterns. She found, along with other studies, that readers tend to skim on screens. Her favourite response to her question of what students disliked the most about reading in print was: “It takes me longer because I read more carefully.”misty forest path

Students prefer digital for science and math subjects, where they also have access to online portals and resources linked to their subject matter and assignments.

Niche partitioning makes the world go round. Now, if we can only use its logic in economic systems.

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Lessons from a Linguist, Part 1: Steven Pinker on Reverse Engineering

write anywhere-01 copyWhen I’m not teaching students how to write science fiction, or giving workshops on writing craft or marketing, I am teaching design engineers how to write clearly and convincingly. As Communications Instructor at the University of Toronto in the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering, I help young engineers navigate the dark and churning waters of fluent and meaningful English.

So, when fellow Montrealer, Steven Pinker starts Chapter 1 of his book The Sense of Style, talking about “reverse engineering”—one of the key features in the design engineering toolkit—I perk up.

Good writing, says Pinker, begins with “reverse-engineering good prose as the key to developing a writerly ear.”

I’d recently picked up Steven Pinker’s new book The Sense of Style: the thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st century after I watched several of his videos on language, and communicating science and technology.

Pinker starts Chapter 1 of the book with this quote from Oscar Wilde: “Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.” When Pinker asked several accomplished writers about which style manuals they had consulted early in their careers, the most common answer he got was “none”. Writing, they said, just came naturally to them.

“I’d be the last to doubt that good writers are blessed with an innate dose of fluency with syntax and memory for words,” says Pinker. “But no one is born with skills in English composition per se. Those skills may not have come from stylebooks, but they must have come from somewhere. That somewhere is the writing of other writers.”

Which is why successful authors like Neil Gaimen tell aspiring writers to “read a lot.” Read the best authors. The classics. Authors in your genre; authors of other genres. Authors of other cultures and time periods. Read. Read. Read. My previous article on reading fiction is particularly germane here.

The first thing you need to do is develop a writer’s ear. “Writers acquire their technique by spotting, savoring, and reverse-engineering examples of good prose,” says Pinker. He goes on to demonstrate this in his book Sense of Style by deconstructing several examples of good prose and providing great lessons on what great prose looks like and why.

So, why do we need style guides at all, then? Particularly given that, in Pinker’s own admission, “much advice on style is stern and censorious,” and a writer needn’t approach learning the craft like a treacherous obstacle course to be suffered and endured. Mastering the craft of writing is a lifelong pursuit and ultimately best approached with the passion that hopefully drives the writer to express. “Though the quest for improvement may be informed by lessons and honed by practice,” says Pinker, “it must first be kindled by a delight in the best work of the masters and a desire to approach their excellence.”

Pinker adds, rather pithily, that, “The classic manuals written by starchy Englishmen and rock-ribbed Yankees, try to take all the fun out of writing, grimly adjuring the writer to avoid offbeat words, figures of speech, and playful alliteration. A famous piece of advice from this school crosses the line from the grim to the infanticidal: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—wholeheartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’”

Many style manuals, Pinker admits, “treat traditional rules of usage the way fundamentalists treat the Ten Commandments: as unerring laws chiseled in sapphire for mortals to obey or risk eternal damnation.” Language, he says, evolves and is meant to evolve over time. He adds that, “the graybeard sensibilities of the style mavens come not just from an under-appreciation of the fact of language change but from a lack of reflection on their own psychology. As people age, they confuse changes in themselves with changes in the world, and changes in the world with moral decline—the illusion of the good old days. And so every generation believes that the kids today are degrading the language and taking civilization down with it.”

So, why use a style guide if you’re reading a lot and taking in the best from the best? While Pinker no doubt sprinkles many reasons throughout his style manual (I haven’t finished reading it), here are two of mine:

  1. Once you are on that path toward writing the very best you can, a style guide can help you improve your writing faster by helping you understand why you like a particular “style” used by a favorite master writer and how it is applied. Simply liking isn’t enough; it’s the first step. Mastering it and using it in your own voice only comes with understanding it. I, for one, learn and retain better when I understand why something works for me. My ability to apply that “style” correctly increases markedly when I understand the rules associated with it (whether that particular “style” was in fact following or breaking a particular rule).
  2. The style guide also helps the novice writer ultimately find their own voice, and move out from the shadow of their beloved master and their techniques. It does this by providing a toolkit that applies can then apply objectively to any voice, making it easier for a writer to discover her own unique voice.

 

Of course, there are—as Pinker already pointed out—style guides and STYLE GUIDES. I’ve included a list below of a few I like to use and why.

 

The Chicago Manual of Style. 2010. 16th Ed. University of Chicago Press.1026pp: a comprehensive, easily navigated style guide that is relevant, current and clearly presented, with examples and discussions on a wide range of writing from essays, to fiction. A go-to “bible” for writers and editors.

Strunk, William Jr. and E.B. White. 1918. Elements of Style. Harcourt. 52pp:Even though it’s really OLD, and contains some outmoded notions and prescriptions, this manual is entertaining, smart and still very relevant in many cases. Compared with the Chicago Manual of Style, it’s pint-sized and therefore highly mobile.

Pinker, Steven. 2014. The Sense of Style. Viking. 359pp: called “the thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st Century, it is full of excellent advice, written with a engaging flare and with relevant examples, that speak to process. Read it more for narrative rather than reference.

Munteanu, Nina. 2009. The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! Starfire. 264pp: FictionWriter-front cover-2nd ed-webnot just because it’s MY book, but because it’s FUN and contains the advice of over thirty experts in the craft of writing, including style and grammar. It’s easy to read and easy to learn with relevant examples and exercises. This book is more of a writing-storytelling guide than strictly a style guide.

 

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

 

Should You Judge a Book by its Cover?

NaturalSelection-frontHRMost readers—me included—will pick a book off the bookstore shelf because its cover interests us: the title intrigues; the cover illustration attracts; the author’s name is one we trust.

If you don’t know the author of the book, the nature—and implied promise—of the cover becomes even more important.

If the book does not deliver on the promise of the cover, it will fail with many readers despite its intrinsic value. A broken promise is still a broken promise. I say cover, not necessarily the back jacket blurb, because the front cover is our first and most potent introduction to the quality of the story inside. How many of us have picked up a book, intrigued by its alluring front cover, read the blurb that seemed to resonate with the title and image, then upon reading our cherished purchase been disillusioned with the story and decided we disliked it and its author?

This is because, as readers, from the moment we pick up a book, we engage in a covenant with the story’s author (but in actual fact with the entire publishing company) for a story whose promise we have interpreted from its cover image, title and blurb. It begins with the cover. A book’s cover is its sales pitch: “This is what I’m about!” the cover proclaims in shades of color and texture. The cover sets the tone and attitude with which a reader will interpret the book’s title and back jacket blurb and its interior.

It had better be true.

Let me tell you a story…

Some time ago, a writer colleague of mine secured a New York agent—based on her excellent query and synopsis—for her imaginative dragon fantasy. The agent pitched the book to a large publishing company, who made my friend an offer, and the agent secured a three book deal on her behalf. My writing friend’s career as a published author was launched.

Because the publishing company was one of the large firms, my friend’s ability to participate—never mind influence—the cover design and blurb was restricted. Decisions lay in the hands of the people in the marketing department, who may or may not have read the book (most likely not). This is why it is so important to write a blurb/query/pitch that both scintillates AND accurately portrays the story. All too often, the marketing department misrepresents the story (to sell more books) and you end up with an unsatisfied reader. This is what happened to my friend. Through no fault of hers, the marketing people developed a cover that did not reflect the true nature of her story. The trilogy my friend had developed was a dark tale of deceit, betrayal and suffering. The cover portrayed a lively and sultry seductress, draped with flowing robes and bared thighs against her dragon; hardly the ponderous story shrouded within. The blurb at the back was sufficiently vague to aid and abet the deception.

What followed the book’s launch and accompanying ad campaign was a barrage of bad reviews and censure, unfortunately aimed mostly at the author. It was unfortunate that my friend suffered the brunt of the accusations for breaking her promise to the readers, when she had done no such thing; her publisher and marketers had created false expectations. And now she was paying for it.

I, too, experienced the effects of mis-marketing. I’d written a dark science fiction romance that ended with resolution but was far from the traditional happy ending, typical of a romance. The publisher marketed it as a romance with science fiction elements instead of a science fiction with romance elements. Reviewers applauded it but it bombed with romance readers, who expected a different kind of resolution. Science fiction readers, however, enjoyed it; they didn’t have the same expectations.

The take home lesson for writers is this: write a scintillating but accurate synopsis, blurb, pitch and query that clearly establishes your genre and audience. Chances are your publishers will use it in their marketing department. If you don’t get in with the “Big Boys”, and decide to go with the small presses, chances are very good that you will have more control over marketing and cover design; that is a big bonus. If you are like me, creative control of your intellectual property is more important than the big bucks you get at the expense of your art. Don’t give in to the temptations of wolf-marketing.

I’m still learning that lesson.Darwins Paradox-2nd cover

The take home lesson for readers is this: don’t judge a book by its cover; certainly pick up the book if it looks interesting, then read with an open mind and let the story take you to where it needs to, despite what you may have expected from the false advertising. Chances are, the unexpected journey visited upon you may be a welcome surprise. And don’t blame the writer for something he didn’t have control over.

I’m still learning that lesson too.

 

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.