Category Archives: Digital Revolution

Big 5 Romance: novels by and for the petty bourgeoisie?

Today is a Friday the 13th, the day the madam of The Honest Courtesan uses as a call to awareness for sex workers’ rights. It’s my chance to state publicly that I believe all sex work, including prostitution, should be decriminalized (or legalized, as long as that is not used as a backdoor to regulate it out of existence). The sooner our society leaves off attempting to legislate morality and dictate private, consensual behaviors, the better off all of us will be. And the sooner our legislative bodies and feminist activists stop the infantilizing of adult women by suggesting that we are incapable of making a rational choice to have sex with a particular individual for any reason whatsoever, the safer and more empowered all women in this country will be.

Pretty much since I started this blog, I’ve been mentioning an observed trend in the romance genre out of New York that started somewhere between college (early aughts) and 2009, namely, the excision of almost all “unsavory” elements from historical romance. First they came for the booze. Then they came for the whores. It’s the most bizarre thing, that even as the amount and variety of sex in romance explodes, the presumed morality and interests of its readership narrows.

Why are these changes happening? Is this trend driven by readership or by the “gatekeepers” (agents and publishers) or by the creators themselves?

Before I go further into this topic, let me clarify that I don’t think genre is a static thing, even for a genre like romance that has very clear rules that haven’t changed since the early 1970s (or the 1930s, when Georgette Heyer started producing her Regency  romances…or the 1810s when Jane Austen was inadvertently inventing the genre). There are always going to be cultural values embedded in literature that reflect the perspective and anxieties of the time in which they are written, not the time in which the book is set, and this is especially true in romance, because it is by women, for women, and centered around issues that women still consider important (love, marriage, and how those fit into women’s lives). The books from the 1970s and 1980s are pretty dated now, with relationships that border on (and sometimes cross over into) abusive and heroes who would be rapists except the heroines always secretly want to have sex but can’t admit it, so instead of viewing him as a criminal and an attacker, the audience (of the time) saw the “won’t take no for an answer” hero as a tool to give the heroine what she wants without her having to accept the responsibility that comes with sexual agency. The abusive man/forcible-seduction scenarios are pretty non-existent now in non-50-Shades-knockoff romance (erotica is a different matter altogether!), although I still see a lot of seductions where the hero’s magical sexual power “overwhelms” the heroine so that she can’t resist. Modern-written historicals often verge into anachronism by using heroines who insist on not needing a man’s help for no clear narrative reason and who feel no moral or practical dilemma about having premarital sex, also for no clear reason. So what I am really interested in, and why I wanted to write about this topic, is why the particular cultural values being embedded in (imposed upon?) romance are the ones being used.

One of the people who made me see the “cleaning up” of romance most clearly was Thaddeus Russell (though his writing has nothing to do with fiction). His book A Renegade History of the United States made me view historical settings in a different context–specifically just how fractional a part of the population romance really focuses on–and also how few people even in a historical context actually shared the obsession with chastity and saving virginity for marriage that 99% of all historical romance problems revolve around.  He revised my view of politics and social reformation vis a vis how much of it was done by a very narrow interest group and a narrow part of society. I have never gravitated toward books with “reformer” heroines, even though such women existed, but after reading Russell I downright loathe that type of character. I can understand women who are willing to live within the rules of their class—despite my perspective I am very conventional in the way I live my life, especially as seen from the outside—so they don’t bother me even if they have vastly different agendas or thought processes from me as a modern woman.  But the reformers who want to ruin everyone else’s fun?  No, thanks.

However, most romances don’t feature reformers per se; the authors simply let certain behaviors (such as doing charity work, supporting one or more severely physically/psychologically damaged persons in their domestic service, abhorring male fun such as gambling, drinking, fighting, etc., and sitting in judgment of any drug use beyond alcohol or tobacco) stand in for the heroine’s personality as if there is no possible question about the legitimacy of those “virtues” or the fact that everyone in their audience would applaud them. Despite their newfangled free-love/fuck-like-men-feminism approach to sex, romances are more often than not extremely socially conservative in all other ways.

And why? Beyond, I mean, the obvious answer that publishers push what sells and pressure the authors who still work for them to conform with those codes.

I have a theory: the acquisition editors buy to their own taste, and that taste is uniformly ivory-tower elite, with the proper number of women’s studies classes on their transcript and lockstep “socially conscious” moral edicts that are based on proving how much you care. (Think that’s incompatible with social conservatism? Then why is it that public health initiatives to ban cigarettes and cut down on drunk driving are driven by Democrats? – they just pretend it’s about saving children when it’s about controlling people’s private behavior. The only difference between that kind of statism and what the Republicans peddle is that Republicans are more honest about wanting to legislate morality. And also that the Republicans are basing their moral imperatives on religion versus some nebulous idea of social conscience or you-wouldn’t-like-it-if-it-happened-to-you emotional appropriation.)

Romance may have started out with a high percentage of smut (low-brow) vs. story-driven (high-brow) novels, but now that erotica has emerged as a genre in its own right, most of what’s left in romance attempts to appeal to the readers who want more than just lust – who require a story. And that story is always the same: no matter how unconventional the characters are to begin with, their story ends with a return to convention. Romance, in fact, has only two stories, that of a man raising a woman up via marriage (up either from low birth or a moral failure), or a woman and her love bringing an immoral man back into the fold of upright society. It’s a normalizing genre that reinforces the nuclear family and the idea of monogamy and marriage.

But why is that normalizing infused with all those other social values? The answer to that piece of illogic lies in knowing who still gets married these days – middle class women, especially upper middle class women. The same women who are curating the genre at a publishing house level. The same women who are writing and reading romance from the major publishers. Some of them are even self-publishing romances in the same vein.

Yes, some of the self-published romance is more of the pap the big publishers ladle out, but not all. To me the most exciting part of self-publishing from the perspective of both writer and reader is that authors who have a different moral compass (in any number of directions), or who prefer to examine the grim realities of historical times, or who want to attempt writing actual historical attitudes as opposed to modern ones in costumes, are now free of any interference from a publisher who just wants more of the same “mistorical” romance. The attitudes and tropes of chick-lit that bled into the romance genre following the collapse of chick-lit as its own genre are no longer infecting the entirety of the genre. Thank goodness.

Or maybe just the free market of ideas.

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Filed under Digital Revolution, Ramblings, Rants and Storms, Reflections on Romance

The positive side to bad reviews

One topic that comes up pretty frequently in author/reader/reviewer circles is the negative review. Are they a social good or ill? Should a writer ever acknowledge them? Are they a violation of mama’s rule not to say anything if you can’t say anything nice? Etc., etc.

I’ve stated before that I welcome negative reviews as long as they articulate textual problems, for two reasons. The first is simple dedication to my craft – a valid criticism can open my eyes to a quirk of my writing that I had not seen for myself and lead me to improve as a creator. The second reason is more commercial: one person’a deal-breaker is another’s deal-maker.

For example…as part of my pregnancy-running Steampunk reading kick, I have seen the name Lindsay Burowker (sorry, spelling may be off and I am on my phone, too hard to fact-check) pop up. I’ve looked at…her (? I think it’s her) books but never been able to pull the trigger on a purchase, because they seemed more Steampunk than romance, and I’ve been wanting a balance of the two. Then I saw two reviews of Balanced on the Blade’s Edge (see caveat above about to-the-letter accuracy) that included kvetching about the book having too much focus on the romance and a too-graphic sex scene. Ding, ding, ding! Just what I had been waiting for. I picked up a copy. Haven’t started reading yet, but the author has my money now regardless. And all because of the negative reviews.

***

Addendum: I read it, and it was awesome. A well-selected purchase. I will definitely buy more in the series if she writes them…and all because of the person who chose to articulate a particular disappointment.

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Who Called It? Oh, That’s Right: ME

A couple years ago I ran a post speculating that as authors got the rights back to books they had sold to publishers, we would start seeing “author’s cut” editions self-published. I hadn’t really seen anything like that come across my reading/writing-blog spheres, and I completely forgot about the question. Until this week. On Friday I saw a post on The Passive Voice about how a fantasy author was finally releasing a sequel to his first book because he and his publisher dissolved their contract.

Turns out John D. Brown got his work freed from his contract with Tor over creative differences – not just books two and three in the trilogy, but the first book, as well. Not only that, but he went back and re-edited the reverted book to his original vision of the story. The changes weren’t major – shuffling opening chapters the publisher had asked him to move and adding a bit of denouement to the end that sets up his version of book two better – but yet those changes ARE major in the sense that they represent a re-exertion of artistic control over the story. Making the changes to the text in the first place was a compromise that represented getting the work published/not getting it published and were not major enough for him to walk away over. Unlike, apparently, the changes the editor wanted for the second book. Now he has the confidence in his own storytelling, and a viable alternative to a large publisher, to be able to actually publish his story…not a compromised second draft re-written to a publisher’s aesthetic or perceived market imperative.

This story makes me feel all warm and fuzzy on the inside. One of the biggest drawbacks, to me, of working with a publishing house is fear of this sort of artistic tinkering. My thought on it is that a novel should be treated like a boyfriend (or girlfriend) – you take it the way it is, not on condition of “if you change x, y, and z.”

I don’t want it to sound like I don’t believe in editing or that a macro-editor (story editor, content editor, etc. – basically I just mean not a line/copy editor or proofreader) can never be of value to a writer. But the writer should have the final say in what the story is. An editor can point out where something doesn’t work or is a miscue or a hundred other problems, but the writer is the one who should then be left to work out a solution to that problem. It might not actually be in that scene, but an earlier scene where a character’s action/thought/etc. wasn’t emphasized properly, or a later scene where what was supposedly set up for the character in the “problem” scene isn’t drawn on. And editors are humans; they can fall prey to the same mindset as readers, of expecting one genre/subgenre/trope/mood only to be dissatisfied with a story that turns out to be something else. Maybe the miscue was because of something the writer did early on, or maybe it was just the editor’s own expectation of how the story should play out. In any case, in my opinion, a good editor will point out the issues and offer possible suggestions but ultimately leave it up to the writer how they want to handle addressing that problem. (I know for me, with my beta readers, 80% the time they find a problem and offer a suggestion, I address the problem in a different way that feels more in line with my vision for the story. When their suggestion is exactly what I would do had I seen the problem on my own, then I take it.)

Beyond the fact that editors should be pointing out problem areas but not demanding (or even urging) specific fixes, editors at publishing houses are working for businesses who want to maximize the market appeal of their products. They have a vested interest in either providing what the market wants (or seems to want) or avoiding what the market seems not to want. Often, in my observed experience as a reader, publishers rush  to produce “more of the same” and in doing so pander to the audience that wants that sameness while snubbing the audience that wants something different. Therefore, the changes requested by a publishing house editor are not necessarily to bring the writer’s intention with the story into sharper focus – sometimes they are to blunt it or change it entirely.

All of that is long-winded way of saying, the only person who should have dominion over the tone and execution of a story is the author, and I am very happy that Brown had a strong enough sense of vision not to compromise his story and that he was able to negotiate a return of all his rights in order to give his readers the real story.

If you care to read John’s account, here are the relevant posts:

http://johndbrown.com/2013/05/news-curse-of-a-dark-god-has-a-release-date/

http://johndbrown.com/2013/10/what-changed-in-the-authors-cut-of-servant/

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On “The Death of Davy Moss,” Author Branding, and Nonexistent Recommendation Engines

Over the weekend I read The Death of Davy Moss by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. She brought it up in her article on branding, and her calling it out as a romance when it looks nothing like a romance intrigued me enough to look at the premise, the premise interested me enough to sample, and after I started the sample I knew I would buy and finish that same night. I was glad to have a KKR book speak to me enough to buy; I get a lot of insight and perspective from her business posts, and have looked at many of her books to buy in lieu of hitting the tip jar…but none were quite the right mood or premise for my tastes.

Davy Moss isn’t really my normal sort of reading (it’s contemporary, and it’s about a celebrity, of sorts, at least), but I liked the set-up in the description – it fit my reading aesthetic. And I loved it. I would like to read more books like it…and I have no idea what they are or how to find them.

Herein begins my discussion of the other issues from my post title.

First, author branding. One of the frequent discussions I see among indie/self-pub writers is whether to use one name for everything or a different name for each genre. A lot of writers write in more than one genre, just as most readers read in more than one genre. When I see the argument for “use one name and brand the books to their genres, and let the readers pick what they want” it resonates. I think, As a reader, I would want to know about everything my favorite writers published. As a writer, I think, It would be so awesome to have readers aware of every piece of my writing oeuvre. This was the argument that Kris was essentially making in her post. Reading that post, I agreed.

Then I finished Davy Moss. I wanted a similar book. First thought: what are KKR’s other romances?

I went to Amazon and searched her name, which brought too many results to sift through. She has many genres attached to her name in the Amazon results that I can narrow the search to, but romance isn’t one of them. Therefore, I had no idea how to find her other romances in that moment. Had I been on my laptop rather than my phone, I could have done an advanced search on Amazon or checked her website. Since I was on my phone, with its annoying mobile versions/limited screen, I found having to do anything more than a basic vendor site prohibitive. I did not buy another of her books that weekend.

This is the problem with being both prolific and multi-genre: if a reader is in the mood for one of the genres but not the others, having all of it mixed together is not going to result in an additional sale; it’s going to result in a pissed-off reader who buys someone else’s book because your 200-title catalogue is too hard to sort through.

Now, I have never been entirely comfortable with the suggestion of writing under 1 name for all genres when considering applying it to my own writing, simply because I know that while some readers will be interested in all the same genres I am, not all of them will be. For every reader of romance who likes fantasy there is another who doesn’t, and for every reader of fantasy who likes romance there is another who doesn’t, and I don’t serve 2 of the 3 fans in question by mingling both genres under one author brand (name). My thought has always been to either acknowledge pen names openly (one website with sub-domains, or state the AKA’s clearly in author bio) or to use variations of a name. My reading experience with Davy Moss reinforces that I do not want to use the exact same name for all genres, if I do write in others. However, in the interest of making them accessible to all readers, I think the answer is to use iterations of my name: Lily White LeFevre, Lily LeFevre, Lily Emily LeFevre, L. W. LeFevre, L. E. LeFevre, etc. Similar enough to pop up in a search/obviously be the same person but yet distinct names that searches can be limited to. This is what Iain (M.) Banks did, using his middle initial for certain types of his books but dropping it for others. It helps readers identify in a glance if this is the brand they are looking for.

Now, the second problem that came up reading Davy Moss and wanting another like it was unrelated to KKR’s catalog: I could not get a decent recommendation for ANYONE’S book that would be similar in content and tone. This lack of good recommendation engines for books has been discussed in many places at length. The basic problem, as I see it, is that no one has a vested enough interest in creating a database and/or analysis program for books the way Netflix or iTunes Genius or Pandora did for movies/TV and music. The project of tagging, categorizing, and describing a significant subset of books available is manpower intensive. It would require thousands of hours and clear rubrics for when something qualifies for a tag or category. Once a database of consistently applies tags is built, Boolean inquiries can get a reader to a manageable subset of books. For example, with Davy Moss I would have searched “contemporary” + “sweet” + “not inspirational” (aka Christian-oriented) to start with. If that turned up an unmanageable list I’d have added “character driven” and/or “not small-town” to the search.

Library catalogs attempt to do this – certainly the applied tags and categories are standardized, at least among Library-of-Congress-approved cataloging programs – but I personally find library searches to be clumsy tools that turn up too many results, especially in fiction (because the categories are strictly fact-based, and lack any subjective descriptors like “sweet” or “character-driven”). Google Books has a much more effective search for specific strings of words, but if you are looking to browse a swath of books it is too limited…great for research but, again, terrible for fiction browsing.

The really sad part, in my opinion, is that ebook distributors/retailers actually have a chance to crowdsource the tagging and categorization of books but have chosen not to standardize it or provide clear guidelines for either publisher- or reader-generated meta-data. Fanfiction communities have managed to create and adopt community-wide standards; it is entirely possible to accomplish…the site just needs to publish clear standards and perhaps a tag cloud of “official” terms. That way you don’t get variants like “steampunk,” “steam-punk,” and “steam punk” that should all show up under a search but wouldn’t, expressed three different ways, or “sweet” as a euphemism for either Christian or G-rated (in terms of violence, theme, and language) romance.

As a reader I hold hopes that a true recommendation/curation/limitation database will hit the consumer market and be open-source enough that self-published works can be included. As a writer I am focusing branding efforts on clarity for readers, so none of mine end up frustrated by not being able to identify which of my books they actually want to read.

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On the Fourth Day of Christmas, Myself Gave to Me:

A pretty title page

title page

… and a proper back cover description*.

*I had the description written, this was just the presentation. It is going to go at the front of the ebook, because one thing that has come to annoy the hell out of me as an ebook reader is not having the description of the book that made me buy it in the first place anywhere inside the ebook itself. Sometimes I will download a sample, or buy something because it’s on sale or temporarily free, even though I won’t read it right away, and later won’t be able to remember the hook that made me want to read it at all. I don’t tend to do well with books or movies I know nothing about. Not sure why, but I need some idea where the story is going before I will have the patience to let it get there on its own. Yes, I could go look at Amazon, but…that’s an extra step I would not have to take with a physical book that would have the description on the back, which makes me less likely to read that book versus picking one I remember why I downloaded. Ergo…my ebooks will have the description from the sales site at the front, so that someone who bought it months ago and is only now reading can remember why they wanted it in the first place.

description

Doesn’t it look like the back of a physical book? I figured if I was putting it in, I might as well make it part of the visual interest elements while I was at it.

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Building Reader-centric Ebooks

One of the tasks I have set for myself for this fall is to reformat and republish the ebooks for my Twelfth Night stories so that they will be in line with the look and feel of the new work I have coming out.

Probably the biggest difference in my mindset since I started my experiment 2 1/2 years ago and now is how I use ebooks. In 2011 I rarely read ebooks because I could only do so on my PC, and it was unpleasant. Now I read 80% of my fiction on my iphone. Waiting for someone to buy me a Kindle for Christmas (ahem, husband) because, while I want one, even the $69 cheapie is still signifiant cash for me to outlay on a true luxury product (something nonessential, which performs a task that other equipment I already have *can* perform). But. I do actually read ebooks now, and being a user of a product gives a certain insight into production. So I am basically planning to format my ebooks with the things I as an ebook reader wish everyone did.

1. List on either cover or title page what the story is – a novel, a novella, a short story.
2. Put the synopsis that made me buy it at the front so I can remember what the story was 3 months later when I finally open it to read.
3. Move all front matter – copyright, extended TOC, author’s note – to the back. Leave only title page, synopsis, and abbreviated TOC (with link to full), and dedication/epigraph if either exist.
4. Include a fully linked table of contents.
5. Include live links to places of interest on the web like my other books, my website, etc., for those who want them. (Personally, I never use this but I can see where others might want it.)

I also want to do a better job stylizing my ebooks to be pretty and functional. This would be things like graphics for scene breaks instead of *** and chapter headings that are more than just words in a larger or different font.

What about y’all? What sorts of features do you wish more ebooks had?

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On Stripping DRM

I hate DRM. It’s like gun control–it’s stupid and short-sighted and all it does is punish people who play by the rules. Do you think pirates give a shit about copyright? No. That’s why they are called pirates. Do you think they are going to let a little thing like breakable encoding get in their way? No. That’s the digital equivalent of storming a ship and bringing her to heel.

I can’t pretend like I am any kind of programmer or capable of stripping DRM without tools someone else made to help me do it. But if I have paid for a file and need to use it for my own personal use in a format which it was not “meant” for, I’m not going to buy the thing a second time in the format I need. Sorry. You have my money, and I own this material for any personal use I see fit.

Today was the first day I’ve had to strip DRM off a file. I had purchased an Adobe epub because it was the only format available at the time I bought the book (which has since been added to Amazon for Kindle, which is what I use). Remember, piracy happens because the product is not available in the format needed by the consumer at a price they consider reasonable. Trust me, I would rather have been able to purchase the file I wanted rather than spend an hour of my Sunday downloading the tools to break DRM and then figuring out how to do it, but lacking that option, by God I was not going to let some publishing corporation with a stick up its arse get the better of me. In a way they have, time is money, etc., but my time wasted is not the same as more of my money given to them if I had just bought it a second time on Kindle and be halfway through the damn thing by now. THAT’S NOT THE POINT.

The point is, again, first-hand this time, the only thing DRM does is upset legitimate, paying customers. I am just glad to be computer savvy enough that I can get my file hacked instead of being resigned to a double-purchase and getting taken advantage of by my ignorance of formatting or unwillingness to break any rules.

That emotional and moral calibration is worth considering to anyone working for or as a publisher. As a writer, I want to get paid for my work, absolutely. But I don’t want my customers to feel exploited, cheated, bamboozled, strongarmed, or in any other way ripped off. I want them to pay me because they like my work enough to pay for it in order that I will write more for them to enjoy. I don’t want them to resent paying me, ever, and especially not because I forced them to by the same book twice because they needed to convert their copy to a new format.

So the moral of the story is: pirates > DRM proponents. At least there is a certain honesty to the pirates that seems…lacking from people who want to fuck me as a consumer every way they can simply because they can.

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