Tag Archives: opinion

Imitation Not Sincerest Form of Flattery

Inspired by Kathy Griffin’s recent sick attempt at humor.

What Type of World

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I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream

I recently participated in an online forum that discussed the ethics of self-publishing. The poster suggested that the image of self-publishing has diminished in the eyes for many, including the media, literary critics, and even readers. I count myself among those who carry a prejudice toward self-published works and their authors, to the point where sometimes I could scream. But in an online forum I have no mouth, merely a keyboard and a monitor, which, they say, is mightier than a sword.

I’ve long ranted against writers who jump at the chance to self-publish their work as an end around to learning craft. As a result, with more than 400,000 books published last year, most self-published, it makes it that much more difficult for the cream to rise to the top.

The debate digressed to a discussion of vanity presses. A vanity press, vanity publisher, or subsidy publisher is a term describing a publishing house in which authors pay to have their books published. In the past, authors paid vanity presses to print “X” number of copies. They were then drop-shipped on their doorstep, and from there the author distributed their work to bookstores. Writers of the past used vanity presses because publishers turned them down.

Digital technology and print on demand have eliminated the need to print copies for distribution. Authors today can upload their text to any number of online sources to list their work at no cost. But it amounts to the same thing: vanity publishing because writers resort to self-publishing when they’ve been turned down by a traditional publisher. Today’s self-published writers cite L. Frank Baum, Stephen King, Edgar Allan Poe, William Strunk, Jr., John Grisham, Jack Canfield, Beatrix Potter, Tom Clancy, and Mark Twain as having self-published, as if these giants in the industry give credence to the practice. The trouble is, Grisham, Canfield and Clancy never self-published. It’s urban legend that they did. Stephen King was a fifteen-year-old high school student when, with help from a classmate, he published a collection of short stories on his amateur press. His first published novel is Carrie.

Self-published writers today call themselves “independents”, a term I’ve always related to small houses not associated with the Big Five publishers. My work is published through Second Wind Publishing, an independent press. But self-published writers wish to brand themselves as more than what they are: self-published through a modern version of the vanity press.

One of the participants in the forum, in his signature line, called himself “President” of a publishing house. I clicked over to his website to find a list of his own published novels, and no publishing guidelines or links by which a writer could submit their work. When I questioned the ethics of this, he told me, “I cannot publish without a press” and promptly bowed out of the discussion.

Huh? Digital technology and self-publishing have virtually eliminated the need for a “press.”

Granted, self-publishing gives voice to some good writers who would not otherwise see their work in print because, well, the publishing industry is in the business of making money. They are the gatekeepers of what likely will make money and what won’t. I was turned down by just about all of the major publishers not because my work was sub-par—I received some very complimentary rejection letters—but because they felt there is but a small market for what I write: stories about everyday people dealing with the universal ideals of love, loss, regret, and death, and the emotions associated with those ideals. Several years ago I self-published a novella because, after shopping it around, I discovered that few publishers publish novellas in today’s world. I consider Chaotic Theory a novelty, perhaps appealing to enthusiasts who own my entire catalog.

Many self-published writers slap the term “Best Selling Author” on their covers and websites. They apparently have no idea what it takes to become a bestseller, which varies. In the United Kingdom for instance, a hardcover book could be considered a bestseller based on sales between 4,000 and 25,000 copies per week; while in Canada, the measure is 5,000 copies. The Indie bestseller lists use only sales numbers provided by non-chain bookstores, while the New York Times list includes both wholesale and retail sales from a variety of sources. USA Today has only one list, not hardcover/paperback, to ascertain relative sales. Self-published writers don’t seem to understand that becoming a bestseller is an achievement; it’s not something one arbitrarily assigns themselves.

The bottom line is that many writers want to see their work in print and choose to self-publish rather than learn the craft of writing. I’ve been writing for more than twenty years. My later novels show improvement over my early work. Some of that improvement is based on feedback I received from agents and publishers who were kind enough to offer assessment and invite me to submit again; perhaps they saw something of merit in my words.

It’s difficult to be critical of one’s own work. We all think we’re great writers—until the tenth or twentieth rejection letter comes in. Before my first novel was published—I’d written two more by then—I questioned the worth of my work. It’s something with which I continue to struggle as I brand myself and fight for a market share, to help my audience find me. Yet today’s writer lacks a thick skin. After two or three rejection letters, rather than consider that their work needs improvement, they throw in the towel and go the self-publishing route.

I’m often asked what advice I’d give to emerging writers, and I’m tired of hearing myself: Don’t be so quick to jump on the self-publishing bandwagon. Take your time, learn your craft. Anyone can self-publish. It’s infinitely more gratifying when a publisher sends you an acceptance letter and a publishing contract.

My thanks to Harlan Ellison for the title of this post.

J. Conrad

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Sexism In the Cigar Industry

Like it or not, sexism is alive and well in the 21st century. If you don’t believe me, just consider the movies Hollywood turned out this year: Superbad, Knocked Up, and The Heartbreak Kid, just to name three. I haven’t seen any of these—nor do I intend to—but I saw enough trailers to know that women’s body parts in all three are the basis for the risqué humor that brought in over $300 million for these three movies alone.

Women in the 21st century boast that they’ve “come a long way, baby;” yet not only are they not yet on a par with men when it comes to equal pay for equal work, but they continue to be objectified in nearly every way imaginable and in every medium: from reality TV to beer and car commercials, from NFL cheerleaders to beauty pageants, from the Victoria’s Secret fashion show to the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. There’s Howard Stern, Playboy and pornography, and the fact that the plastic surgery industry is a multi-billion dollar business—wrinkles, sagging flesh and cellulite cause more fear in this country than global warming and the threat of another terrorist attack combined. And the tabloids think nothing of raining ridicule on Jennifer Love Hewitt in a swimsuit. And Tyra Banks is fat? Since when?

But sexism is becoming prominent in the cigar industry nowadays as more and more ads featuring sexy women appear in cigar magazines, too. My only interests in buying a cigar are the wrapper, its binder, the filler blend, and how long the leaf has been aged. Cigar smoking used to be a male-only activity, but with the introduction of flavoredcigars, more women are indulging in the practice. Yet instead of catering to this new demographic with politically correct advertising, we have CAO Flavorettes. These girls, scantily clad representations of a certain flavored cigar, travel to cigar shows where attendees can sample specific blends based on the color of the bikini these Flavorettes wear. It’s one thing to ask for a recommendation from a knowledgeable woman—someone who’s been in the tobacco business for twenty years, learned it from the bottom up from her father or a favorite uncle—quite another to buy a stick based on the body parts of the woman pushing it. Other than a bourbon infused cigar, which is not the same as a flavored smoke, I don’t know that any of my male friends smoke flavored cigars. So to whom are these Flavorettes supposed to appeal—certainly not women smokers? Perhaps to the men who buy flavored cigars for their partners? “Here, Honey, this blend looked good on the Flavorette at the cigar show, so I think you’ll like it.”

Yet the ad industry has been using sex to sell their products for years. Does anyone really buy a car because of the woman behind the wheel in the ad who asks, “The important thing in choosing a car is, when you turn it on, does it return the favor?”

Yet these ads must work; if they didn’t they would find some other angle. Yet surely there must be some consumers who find them insulting. Why aren’t more women outraged? It seems that more women measure themselves against the sexuality depicted on the small screen as today’s norm.

When I was younger I thought I knew it all; when I turned forty I realized how little I really knew. My father told me that was wisdom. Wise or not, I’m over fifty now, and the wisdom of marketing cigars using women eluded me for a time—then it hit me like a bale of tobacco leaf: the industry couldn’t care less about appealing to a seasoned leaf lover like me: they’ve got my dollar. Their worry is appealing to a much younger demographic, the one that will one day replace me. Now I understand how my father must’ve felt when he told me the world had passed him by—that his “the greatest” generation had been forsaken for the Baby Boomers because we had more disposable income. And so it goes: the capital baton being passed from the Baby Boomers to Generation X, as it will, eventually, from Generation X to the Millennium Generation.

I grew up watching Rob and Laura Petrie, who couldn’t be shown onscreen in the same bed together. The twenty-somethings today, Generation X, grew up on MTV. If today’s TV has desensitized the old fogy generation, what’s it done to a generation who grew up on it? Sadly, little, which perhaps leaves the admen thinking they must further push the envelope in order to make their product memorable.

The pendulum, I fear, will never swing the other way—not until women, with the help of male feminists, stand up and refuse to be used as the objects they outwardly profess to abhor even as they inwardly, perhaps even unconsciously, seem to embrace the practice. Until that happens, expect the advertising industry to continue to use women in more and more risqué ways.

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