B is for Book

B is for Book

B is for Book.

Continuing on our theme of obvious alphabet letters… But what exactly do we mean by a “book”?

Once upon a time, a book was a physical object that consisted of printed pages bound between covers. In the modern world, those pages were usually printed on paper, but the quality of the paper could vary from rag cotton (high end) to newsprint (low end). The covers could be clothbound (hardcover) or cardstock (paper) with yet more varying degrees of quality.

In the past, there was a wider range of “book.” There were, of course, the stone tablets of Sumerian cuneiform (although many people would argue those were “documents” or “records” but not books.) There were scrolls of papyrus or parchment or vellum. Books could be written out by hand before the invention of movable type.

And now, the range of “book” has expanded in other ways. Books may be electronic files, suitable for reading on a computer or a specialized e-reader. Books may be audio files, intended for listening, and a hot debate rages on whether listeners have “read” a book. (I’ll spare you a preview of the R is for Read section that I’ll never write—I personally believe that “reading” requires eyes looking at words, either in print or on a screen. Nevertheless, audiobooks maintain many of the characteristics of print books, with regard to how they are marketed, sold, and used by consumers.)

For years, students have relied on book summaries to grasp the essentials of a book—Cliffs Notes or Monarch Notes or other study guides. And others have opted for cinematic adaptations of books, although such movies often change major aspects of the underlying work. (Grapes of Wrath, anyone? Where the movie ends with the Joads arriving optimistically in California, their fortunes on the cusp of positive change?) At some point in the future, “book” might be stretched to mean movie or summary or game or…any number of other things.

“Book” also has a flexible meaning regarding the length of the work in question. In common parlance, a “book” of fiction usually means a novel, a full-length story. It’s distinguished from a short story, novelette, or novella. But the definition of those other forms is up for grabs, according to context. Lacking an industry-wide standard for defining length, a variety of genre special-interest-groups have set their own definitions. Those definitions are almost always used for the allocation of awards. For example:

•    The Horror Writers of America (“HWA”) states that “short fiction” is a work of less than 7499 words. “Long fiction” is a work from 7500 words to 39,999 words. A novel is more than 40,000 words.
•    The Mystery Writers of America (“MWA”) states that a short story is a work from 1000 to 22,000 words. A novel is more than 22,001 words.
•    The Romance Writers of America (“RWA”) states that a novella is a work from 20,000 to 40,000 words. A novel is more than 40,000 words.
•    The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (“SFWA”) states that a short story is a work of less than 7500 words. A novelette is a work from 7501 to 17,499 words. A novella is a work from 17,500 to 39,999 words. A novel is 40,000 words or more.

(All of these definitions are subject to change; some organizations debate the categories much more frequently than others.)

But do these distinctions matter?  When traditional publishing remained an author’s only option, length of a work was important. Various publications, usually magazines but sometimes print anthologies, would consider short stories, novelettes, or novellas, but mainstream publishers traded almost exclusively in novels.

(In fact, most mainstream publishers traded almost exclusively in novels longer than 40,000 words. Some publishers, like Harlequin, maintained precise page limits for its books, manipulating margins and type size to guarantee a specific number of pages in each category of romance. Those limitations allowed the publisher to buy large quantities of paper and cardstock in advance.)

The growth of self-publishing, though has expanded the options for publishing shorter works. Most self-publishing results in electronic files. Those electronic files are being read on devices such as phones and tablets, where an increasing number of readers has expressed a preference for shorter works. Moreover, the delivery cost of electronic files is low (compared to printing, shipping, and warehousing print works), allowing entrepreneurial authors to set low price points for shorter works. While a print publisher could not effectively market a short story for $0.99, an electronic publisher can do so without a problem. In fact, the ubiquitous $0.99 for a music file on iTunes conditioned many readers to expect similar low prices for short fiction.

These shorter works bear many of the characteristics of full-length novels. They have cover art and back-of-the-book blurb descriptions. They can be grouped in series, resembling trilogies or longer collections of works. They have an independent presence at vendors; each short story, novelette, or novella is displayed on its own page, with its own metadata.

Enough with laying out the options. What about you? How do you define “book”?

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Grumble. Grouse. Complain. (Restaurant Edition)

So here’s a situation…  What would you do?

You and a companion spend a long morning traipsing around a national battlefield in near-100-degree heat. Around 1:45, you realize you’re ravenous. At 2:00 p.m., you enter the Tavern, the only restaurant visible on Main Street of the town nearest the battlefield. A sign says, “Seat Yourself,” which you do. About five minutes later, a waitress comes over, brings menus, and takes your drink order. She brings you your drinks and takes your meal order (for one plain burger and one chicken panini, hold the chipotle sauce on the panini; add fries to both sandwiches.)

Then, you wait. After about 10 minutes, the table of four that ordered immediately before you gets their food. After another 5 minutes (15 total since ordering), the waitress refreshes one of your drinks. After another 10 minutes (25 since ordering), the waitress re-refreshes both drinks. She says, “They made a mistake and put the chipotle on the sandwich. They’re fixing it now.”

About 5 minutes (30 since ordering), another party of four enters, sits, orders, and gets drinks. After about 15 minutes (45 since ordering), the second party of four gets their meals. Your waitress is nowhere in sight and has, in fact, been absent since telling you about the mistaken order.

Do you:

  1. Continue to wait, in hope that your meals can now be completed because no one else is waiting for food in the restaurant and you know you’re in a small place and people need to relax and be patient?
  2. Ask the bartender to track down the status of your meal, in hopes that he might be able to determine the cause of the wait?
  3. Pay the bartender for the drinks and leave, because you really don’t trust what you might say to the bartender, the waitress, or anyone else, in your ravenous state?
  4. Walk out without paying for anything?
  5. Something else?

We opted for option 3. We were fresh out of patience for option 1, and we didn’t trust ourselves to be civil for option 2. Ordinarily, we’d ask for a manager, but we suspected none was around, and we certainly didn’t want a free future meal at the place. We needed to get home within two hours, and we had 1.5 hours on the road, so we didn’t want to spend any more time waiting.

The entire experience was tremendously frustrating. I felt for the overworked waitress (right up until she didn’t manage to get our corrected order out before the second table of four’s food.) I understand that restaurants work on narrow margins, and we cost them three sandwiches, and I actually feel a little guilty for that. The locals at the bar didn’t-look-at-us with the sort of disgust locals feel for unreasonable out-of-towners.

Sigh.

But ultimately, we were left with a new catch-phrase – “chipotle sauce” – for a certain type of not-life-threatening disaster that we’ll certainly encounter in the future. And a new appreciation for the efficiency of McDonalds, which served us for half the cost in less than 1/10 the time. (Yeah, it was McDonalds, but by that point, we didn’t care…)

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The Author’s Alphabet: A is for Author

The Author’s Alphabet: A is for Author

When you call a series The Author’s Alphabet, you pretty much know you’re starting with “A is for Author.” (I suppose I could have started with “A is for Alphabet”, but then everyone would expect me to write an exposé about the mega-company-that-was-Google…)

So. A is for Author.

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Simple. Straightforward. We all know what author means. Authors write books.

Authors are inscribed in the United States Constitution: Congress has the power “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their Respective Writings and Discoveries.” (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8, emphasis added.) The U.S. Copyright Act of 1976 elaborates on those rights, setting up a system for authors to register their copyrights and to protect against infringement of their work.

But the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t have an exclusive category for authors. Instead, it places “writers and authors” in one class, defining their primary occupation as: “originat[ing] and prepar[ing] written material, such as scripts, stories, advertisements, and other material.” Illustrative examples include Advertising Copy Writer and Television Writer.

Along the same lines, Eudora Welty famously called her autobiography One Writer’s Beginnings. One of the long-standing magazines designed to help people who want to be published is Writer’s Digest, and a literary magazine goes by the name of Writer. Thousands of college programs call themselves Creative Writing departments.

Is there a difference between an author and a writer?

Some people attempt to define the difference between author and writer as a difference in function. According to this school, an author creates, develops, and communicates original ideas, while writers record ideas created by others. One individual might perform both functions; however, the Function School seems to believe there are a lot of scribes-for-hire wandering around, capturing the otherwise unbound wisdom of authors.

The Function School’s parsing of words doesn’t have a lot of relationship to reality. There aren’t many people who fill journals with ideas, sketching outlines of concepts in preparation for a non-thinking wordsmith to reduce those concepts to reality. Moreover, the Function School ignores the legal reality of copyright, which explicitly states that authors own the specific expression of general ideas.

Another school defines the difference between authors and writers by the passage of time: writers focus on a single work they are currently creating while authors focus on the body of work they’ve created in the past. According to the Time School, writers are wrapped up in characters and plots, in specific stories they are in the midst of crafting. Authors focus on past works, defining their professional life in terms of the sum of their writing. Authors concentrate on series of novels, on acquiring a presence, a gravitas, in specific genres. Authors are established, and permanent, and career-minded.

The Time School is overly concerned with the success of a storyteller—authors only come into existence after writers see professional recognition. Moreover, the Time School doesn’t adequately recognize that one person can wear multiple hats in creating written work. Once a Time-School writer finishes a single creative piece, she doesn’t shove it in a drawer. Rather, she begins the process of fitting that work into her portfolio, placing it in a series, promoting it in a genre. At the same time, she likely has started on a new work; she flows back and for the between Time-School-defined writer functions and Time-School-defined author functions.

Yet another school divides creators into two camps according to their status: elite authors create literature; writers create everything else (genre books read for entertainment, advertising copy created to sell products, technical writing meant to instruct, etc.) According to the Status School, authors have been forged in the crucibles of great editors at powerhouse traditional publishers. Writers might have worked with less prestigious traditional publishers where they concentrated on churning out pablum for the masses. They might even have skirted traditional publishing altogether; the lowest writers, according to the Status School, are the self-published riffraff.

But the Status School does not reflect the modern reality of publishing. The days of Maxwell Perkins and Albert R. Erskine are long gone. Storytellers regularly make the bestseller lists and win awards without benefit of any traditional publishing houses’ editors. The slippery distinction between high status and low status is immaterial to a reading public hungry for Gone Girl and Fifty Shades of Grey; those avid fans aren’t going to care about fifty shades of meaning of the word “author,” of the word “writer.”

So, where does that leave us?

This series follows yet another school: the Rational School. To the Rational School, author and writer are used interchangeably. Authors and writers are people who tell stories with words. They have a process for their work, regularly allocating time to achieving their writing goals. They focus on specific goals, publishing specific material for a specific audience. Authors and writers keep one eye on their craft and another on their business. The rest of the Author’s Alphabet will look at that process, examine those goals, studying craft and business for the successful, rational storyteller.

What about you? Do you use author and writer interchangeably? If not, how do you define the difference between the terms?

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