Lead-Time and Instant Expectations

Quite a number of writers have a successful first book, possibly even a second… and then fade into obscurity. There are several reasons for this. The first is obvious. The fact is that later books often just don’t sell as well, either because they aren’t written as well or because they just don’t hold the readers. From what I’ve observed, publishers will publish books that even editors aren’t that fond of, or decent books where the author is a real pain in the ass – if they sell. They’ll also continue to publish books that get great reviews and that editors like, even if the sales are disappointing, but just not disastrous. But if an author is obnoxious and the books don’t sell that well, usually that author’s career with an established publisher is rather short.

But there’s another reason why some authors fade after a few books. Some authors never truly understand the lead-time problem. These authors, from what I’ve observed, share similar circumstances. They wrote a book, often working on it for some considerable time. Then it sells, and they get the advance, usually in halves [on signature and on publication] or thirds [on signature, on acceptance of the final manuscript, and on publication]. What many fail to recognize is that this may be the only money they get, because, if the sales aren’t good, the royalties won’t exceed the advance, and the advance is just that, a non-returnable advance against royalties.

This means that a writer had better start working on the next book immediately after finishing the first one – or resign himself or herself to staying at the day job forever. Publishers really want the next book in hand or close to being in hand by the time the first book is published, usually about eighteen months after it’s accepted by the publisher. Yes, a few authors do flout that convention and expectation and get away with it – but only because their first book continues to sell, and that only happens, so far as I can see, in less than once in a hundred times.

Part of this inability to recognize this situation, I submit, is that computers and the internet have fostered the idea that everything can be accomplished faster. And that’s true in part for writers. Having a computer file available as the basis for re-writes and revisions makes that part faster, but it doesn’t speed up writing the first draft that much from writing on an electric typewriter. Since I wrote my first books on electric typewriters, and likely remain among the comparative handful of writers still writing who did, I can assure you that that the computer makes revisions and re-writes much faster and easier – but that the computer only speeds slightly that first draft.

So… if you’re fortunate enough to sell that first book, do not pause; do not relax and celebrate for more than a few days before you get back to writing. You don’t want the editors or your few fans [and most beginning writers only have a few fans] to forget about you.

John S. McCain, III

I never knew John McCain personally, although we certainly could have met. We were both Naval aviators, but I got my wings only months before he was shot down over Hanoi, and I later worked as a Congressional staffer, including duties involving the House Armed Services Committee, while he was the Navy liaison to the Senate. But in the Navy he was a jet pilot, and I was a helo driver, and we were stationed in different places, just as our coinciding times in Washington, D.C., involved different spheres and duties.

For all that, John McCain embodied many of the characteristics I’ve done my best to depict in my heroic protagonists. He made mistakes, often large ones, but he learned from them and persevered. Regardless of mistakes, in his Naval career and his personal and political life, he put his beliefs in the kind of country the United States can be and should be at the forefront and continued to persevere in working toward improving it. Sometimes, I had doubts about the approaches he took, but no one should ever have doubted his desire to better the country or his dogged determination against obstacles that would have destroyed a less motivated and determined man.

Among Republicans, I see no political figure even close to filling his shoes, and I have doubts that there ever will be one in the next decade. Ill as he was, even last month, he stood up to Trump while most Republicans either fawned, equivocated, or changed the subject.

Did I always agree with him? No. Was he perfect? Far from it. But I’ll take one John McCain over all the burnished politicians with seemingly few flaws, no real core, and only the ability to get re-elected by essentially standing for nothing, mouthing whatever will get them votes, and ignoring the challenges that face our nation.

New Tech and One-Size-Fits-All

In past blogs, I’ve talked about the problems created by the willy-nilly unaccepting push to adopt new technology and new software simply because it’s “new,” and new must be better. But there’s a situation where “early adoption” is not only counter-productive, but the negative effects can be far-reaching.

Needless to say, as is often the case, I heard about this instance from my wife the music professor. Her institution has decided that, following the example of several private and very well-endowed universities, that the music department should require all incoming music students to purchase customized IPads that can display what used to be called sheet music. The rationale behind this is that students won’t have to carry around reams of music; all of it will be displayed on their IPads.

At a state institution such as the one where my wife teaches, the department budget won’t cover the estimated $800-$1,000 for each of the special IPads, and most of the students are drawn from rural and small town or working class backgrounds with large families, for which such an outlay immediately on entering college will be quite a burden, especially if the student drops the major. This cost, of course, was ignored in the enthusiasm of “new technology” and the thought that the department could be a “pioneer.”

And, yes, this approach could be a boon of sorts to students in orchestras and bands and other large ensembles, all of whom have a comparatively limited number of works performed in a year, and the instrumental ensemble directors were all for it, effectively insisting that one approach fits everyone. Unfortunately, vocal students face a different situation… because every vocal student has a largely different repertoire from every other one, and must learn more new music every semester, especially if they’re classical performers. Music departments, and especially universities with schools of music, may be dealing with at least 30-50 students, and often hundreds of voice students. That requires music for thousands of individual pieces. While the idea of consolidating all that music in electronic format sounds wonderful, the reality of the situation is far different. My wife the professor, who has a wide range of contacts, got in touch with several music publishers, and all of them made, in various ways, the observation that, at present, only about twenty percent of the vocal music they controlled and had as sheet music was available in electronic form, and that it would be between five to ten years before they’d be able to catch up, given the volume of such music. And that’s probably an optimistic projection.

Now… that doesn’t mean that the students couldn’t scan the sheet music and upload it, but… then there’s the problem of copyright, and for the music to be “legal,” the student needs to keep available the hard copy. This is also a problem for those students entered in various competitions, because they have to have produce “original music” for every piece that they sing, and in some competitions, two copies, one for the singer [even though the singer has to sing from memory, because the singer is supposed to have bought the music, rather than copied it and stiffed the composer] and the other for the accompanist.

Since the most accomplished students, those aiming at a career as either a performer or a teacher, need to prove their ability through competitions, and since those organizations sponsoring the competitions have not yet made provisions for certifying “original electronic” copies, the IPad requirement becomes superfluous and expensive at the present time, at least for vocal students.

In addition, because voice students are largely broke, the IPad requirement is going to encourage even more copying of music, and more copying is going to reduce even more the payment living composers receive, while encouraging singers to sing older works no longer in copyright… and thus further reducing income to living composers.

Then, too, there’s the question of what happens when the accompanist’s IPad crashes during a performance or recital. Sheet music doesn’t crash.

I’m not against change, and neither is my wife, but history shows [even though most people don’t learn from it] that early adoption of new technology can be far more expensive, to everyone, than waiting a bit until things sort themselves out.

But then, you can’t claim to be the great pioneer, while putting the costs off on everyone else.

Flight Talk

Over the years, I’ve embarked on more than a few airline flights, the vast majority of them for business of one sort or another, and it’s interesting to consider what’s changed… and how.

The most obvious change, as a result of nine-eleven, is that flying now takes considerably longer than it once did. That’s the result of several factors. First, because fuel economy is a priority, the majority of jet airliners now cruise at speeds slightly slower than they did a generation ago. Second, security procedures add significantly to travel times for the individual traveler. Third, because planes are always full, have less spacious seating, and because most airlines charge extra for checked baggage, it takes longer to board and disembark [unless you’re in first/business class] because there’s never enough space for all the carry-on bags. Fourth, because of the volume of air traffic and the hub-and-spoke airline model, there’s a lower percentage of direct flights, except on high-volume routes, and more connecting flights.

At the same time, in real dollar terms, flying is, overall terms, somewhat less expensive than a generation ago, and the noise level is slightly lower.

I’ve also noted a general improvement in the availability and quality of food establishments at the larger airports, possibly because more people are stuck there longer.

But one of the biggest changes that I’ve noticed involves travelers themselves. Once upon a time, people used to talk to other people on flights. Today, it seems to me that the majority of travelers don their earphones or ear-buds and retreat into one form or another of electronic unreality.

Over the years, I’ve encountered a variety of people in the adjoining seat, or while waiting to board, some in fascinating professions or with intriguing backgrounds, such as the electrician whose specialty was working on powered high-voltage lines and equipment, various dead-heading pilots, the B-budget movie actress, the Iranian-born doctor who came to the U.S. as a child, the Charolais cattle breeder and rancher, and the former judge who ended up in a second career involving the film industry and politics.

And I wouldn’t have heard their stories or learned some interesting facts if I’d been wrapped up in electronics.

Positive or Negative?

As most of readers of my website know, I try very hard not to make negative comments about books that I’ve read. If I don’t like a book, or don’t find it good, or even if I don’t find it as good as the rave reviews given by others… I just don’t mention it. I also have to say that just because I haven’t mentioned a book doesn’t mean it’s not good. It also might mean that I haven’t read it, because my reading time is limited.

That said, I’m getting very tired of reviewers, particularly online reviewers, who feel that they have a “duty” to warn people off of the books that don’t meet their criteria. I don’t have a problem with those reviewers, few as they are, who will say that a particular book is well-written, but not their cup of tea, so to speak, but there’s enough negativism in the world today, and it’s hard enough to find really good books, that it seems like a waste of time to point out books one doesn’t like, especially since a great number of such negative reviews, I’ve noticed, often seem to reflect a particular reviewer’s dislike of a specific author, usually an author that other readers and reviewers like and read.

Now… one could say, and someone will at least likely think it, that I’m being hypocritical because I can be very negative about politicians, but there’s a huge difference between authors and politicians. We all have to live under the laws promulgated by elected officials, or we might have to live under rules they propose. No one has to live under the policies or laws I hypothecate in a novel, and no one has to buy any book I, or any other author, may write.

Also, given the ever-increasing number of books being published, it’s far more helpful — at least it seems that way to me – to see recommendations about what to read as opposed to what not to read. Then again, maybe that’s just my mindset, but when I read a negative review about a book, my initial reaction is to wonder what’s wrong with the reviewer, not the book, possibly because I want to like and enjoy every book I pick up.

Again, maybe I’m greatly mistaken, but it seems to me that most people are more interested in knowing what’s good and enjoyable than what’s not.