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Friday, April 22, 2011

P.S. I Love You (Self-Publishing)


A couple of weeks back, I wrote about self-publishing and using myself as a guinea pig took a manuscript all the way from file to "book". Here, below, is the next installment of the story: a P.S. that assesses what worked and what, if anything, didn't.

The entire blog has been run on the www.wewantedtobewriters.com site as a 5-part series this week. I'll run the fifth part to give a sense of flow as it reaches the P.S. The story itself can be found at www.smashwords.com/books/view/51969, or by title and author: The Skins of Our Ancestors by Don Wallace.


How to Publish a Book in 8 Hours #5

By Don Wallace

This is the final installment in a five-part series.


In the morning, my eight years of publishing drought had ended. There was more to do in terms of proofing and other tying up of loose ends, including downloading Kindle’s Mobi and Adobe’s Reader programs to make sure that The Skins of Our Ancestors would meet their standards. But the book was done. All that remained was to set a price.

The Skins of Our Ancestors is a 24-page story. It’s dense and a bit of a risk. It was meant to anchor a whole book on my upbringing in a half-Southern/half-Northern family in Southern California during the racially turbulent ‘60s. I decided it was worth more than free, more than a 99-cent download from iTunes. The Newbie guys, Barry and Joe, had talked about the importance of pricing an e-Book low enough for it to be an impulse purchase. But this was a major chunk of my life and my output. Yeah, that’s worth $2.99.

My royalty breakouts will vary. From Smashwords.com it’s possible to get a pure 70 percent. Retailers like Amazon and B&N and others take a bigger share, around 50 percent. But these are terms much, much better than legacy publishing offers authors on e-Books (around 14.5 percent after all their surcharges are applied).

In the coming days and months and years, we’ll see how it all plays out. But right now, the magic number is eight. As in eight hours from e-Book newbie to author.

My next step? This experience has me wanting more—now. I know that’s a danger with self-publishing; let’s call it THE danger. If you start ladling slop into your stream of books and publications, you’ll do yourself no favors.

Still, I’m not going to stop now. I think a story a month sounds right. Some will be free, some will be 99 cents. All will be from my archive of unpublished work—nothing just riffed off. I think it’s important to reserve a kind of writing for e-Book publication, writing that promises more than the shoot-from-the-hip stuff that fills the web today. Call it premium, or estate reserve, or private label.

Or call it literature.

I also think this may be the route I take with my six-novel series, The Log of Matthew Roving. So maybe that’s what I’ll be putting up six months from now, around September, the traditional fall season in publishing. I’ll need that much lead time, given that the 500 page novel is 25 times longer than The Skins of Our Ancestors and will require a lot of formatting and re-formatting . . .

# # #

Postscript: The initial experience of formatting and designing a book was such a head rush that it was surprisingly difficult to await the approvals that are normal in the publishing process. Smashwords is very clear about there being a time lag while your “published” work goes through both a computer-generated and a human vetting process. They mentioned two weeks as a possible time frame.

As soon as I pushed the final “Publish” button, however, I began to pace and rant. Two weeks? I wanted it NOW.

Funny how the Internet has made us into such babies. In the legacy print world I would’ve settled back and begun to write another novel while my manuscript was in preparation. In three months my editor might send me a set of notes, if he or she were so inclined. Six months later, I would’ve received a set of galleys and begun the proofing process. Nine months later, bound galleys. And after a year, with a fanfare of trumpets, the book would have been born.

E-Books come in a variety of formats. Print books only come in one, paper. Smashwords offers a thorough and, so far as I can tell, unique service in making the 10 most popular formats available. If your book makes it through all the protocols for all the formats, which include handheld mobile devices such as smartphones, you’ll have covered all the bases.

This is what makes Smashwords, in theory, a killer app in e-Publishing. It sure beats Lulu.com, which only sets your book up to be sold through the Apple iBookstore. At this time, it doesn’t look as if Apple will be able to reach an agreement with Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Borders, Sony, and other distribution channels. While this could change (and undoubtedly will evolve), I think Lulu is aimed at Mac cultists. Macs are great, but the e-Book reading world is greater.

In the case of my “book,” The Skins of Our Ancestors was immediately available, in one digital format, if you were persistent and tek-savvy and could figure out which format was viable. I couldn’t. My pal Charlie could. He bought it, bless his heart. Nobody else could, or did, so sales remained at the loneliest number for two weeks while the Auto-Vetting program ground its mysterious gears.

But then, after two weeks, the approvals came through. Now all I had to do was assign new ISBNs to the book, which Smashwords offered to sell me at a no-markup rate. Then Smashwords would submit the book to Amazon and other outlets that required an ISBN. The ISBN would also get me a listing in Bowkers, the book catalog.

Today I will get those ISBNs, and in two more weeks the book will be as published as anything electronic can be these days.

This is both remarkable and sobering. We have witnessed the remarkable part. Sobering is the realization that, yes, if I can do it, anybody can. The spectre of a gazillion self-published books hovers like a horde of locusts in the sky. There are about to be more books than we know what to do with. People won’t be able to find us, quality won’t necessarily be distinguishable, in this mass.

My other worry is that Smashwords will become so successful that they’ll be overwhelmed. That’s always a problem with the free model. Book approval time might stretch out, distribution might crash. It happens in the digital age. These guys have created an amazing product with a brilliant, Facebook-style kind of crowd-sourced philosophy. They are doing no evil, that I can tell. Here’s hoping they have the backing to keep their servers running (or get some soon).

My immediate concern now is the same for any author: marketing. How to keep from getting lost in the mass of e-Books. E-Book authors are my new tribe, yet they are also my rivals. It seems as if we’ve created a monster, unless we as a tribe immediately set up our own system of filters and hierarchies and reviews and schools and clubs. This is already happening.

This is a good place to leave the topic of e-Publishing, with a cloud of locusts darkening the sky but a great shining city on a hill lying before us, where authors find readers and everybody gets a fair royalty.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

How to Publish a Book in 8 Hours


What It Means to Be a Writer Today, Part 8

How To Publish a Book in 8 Hours

Yesterday it had been eight years since I published my last book, One Great Game.

Last night I published a book – an e-book – in eight hours. And therein lies a tale of gee-whiz, uh-huh, whadayawaitingfor and what-the-hell-I’m-going-for-it. Now I’m going to tell the story so you can go for it, too.

Like most writers who’ve been at it awhile, I have my frustrations with publishing. I didn’t grab the brass ring on my first go-round, nor my second. But drawing on my novelist superpowers, I kept at it. Because I became a magazine editor and a journalist, I was forced to encounter publishing reality on a daily basis. In other words, I learned to make sausage. Early on I vowed not to lose my connection to the purest kind of writing, which is also, duh, the least remunerative.

For the past year I’ve been reading everything I could find about the future of publishing, in particular anything to do with electronic publishing. My goal was and is to start my own e-Pub imprint. My reasons were grounded in glorious self-interest. I wanted to publish and be damned, as they used to say. For five years before the meltdown of 2008, I’d worked on a book that was to launch a six-part seafaring series having to do with the American Revolution, time travel, and the twelve-year-old boy who has to save our young democracy while wrestling with the whole slavery deal. I finished it just in time for my agent to take it out into the teeth of an economic gale, where The Log of Matthew Roving sank without a trace. (Although reports of its death were, it turned out, premature: you can check out the preliminary sketches for the project on my website, www.donwallacebooks.com.)

At the same time, my essays and short fiction weren’t going anywhere, or else advancing at a snail’s pace: one memoir in Harper’s every four years, one Op-Ed or essay in the New York Times every two years, and silence from everyone else. I didn’t like my odds of breaking through before having to switch to false teeth to chew my filet mignon.

Like most people my age, I like to think of myself as an original rock n’ roll surfer-rebel-voodoo chile. Time to prove I still had my mojo, I decided. Having worked inside magazines and started magazines, including a prototype for book-reading fools like me that was to have been published by Kirkus Reviews, I figured I knew as much as I needed to know.

I was wrong about that, actually. There was lots I didn’t know and still don’t. But I knew what the hedgehog knows: that my patch of grass was changing forever. The future was slipping away from the legacy print houses.

Yesterday’s adventure began with my finding a story on Twitter, which I only began using seriously a month ago. It linked me to Laura Miller’s article in Salon.com about e-Book publishing. (I’ll list her url and any others at the end of this piece: I don’t want to break up the flow here.) Miller put four links at the bottom of her story. One was this epic 13,000-word discussion of self-publishing between two guys I’d never heard of: Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath. There went my day. Their Newbie’s Guide to Self-Publishing is the Common Sense of this publishing revolution. Between Miller and Eisler/Konrath I found myself at the website of a free e-Pub site called Smashwords.com. It was 3 p.m., I’d just come back from a sweaty walk, I had the taxes to do and dinner to cook. You can guess what happened next.

During my walk I’d tried to think big. Should I take my 500-page seafaring YA novel and throw it up there? How about my mystery novel about a women’s college basketball team whose coach is murdered? How about the first novel in my poi-noir “Hawaiian Hell” series. How about…

Something shorter. A novella or long story. As a test run, but one I could stand behind. Yeah, and being shorter maybe I’d have a chance to see it published before the week was out. I registered with Smashwords and read their calm and matter-of-fact explanation of how they worked. I searched through my WordPerfect files for a story or memoir. It had to meaty, it had to be good. I didn’t want to come out with anything half-baked.

A title leaped out at me: The Skins of Our Ancestors. I was surprised: I thought I’d lost it during a computer meltdown a few years back. I hit the Publish button. There were steps, beginning with one rule that must not be broken: read Smashword’s Style Guide and follow its 25-step process to the letter.

I’ve written a couple of technical manuals in my time. This one gets an A. (Even though some gremlin seems to have messed up a few paragraphs, I could piece together what they meant to say.)

Smashwords only works in Word. I work in WordPerfect, which is a writer’s program but increasingly out of step. So my first step was to strip out any WordPerfect formatting, indents, italics, and so forth from the file that was The Skins of Our Ancestors. Even if you write in Word, though, you’ll have to do this, too. As Smashwords explains, they need your textfile to be utterly basic to be perfectly and easily converted so it works across the many e-reader platforms. Because my file began as WP5 and was saved as WP9 and WP10 before converting to Word, I knew it had to be incredibly dirty. So I chose the Nuclear Option, copying the text into a Microsoft Notepad file, which acts like hydrochloric acid. Then I copied that melted-down text into a new Word doc.

But I wasn’t through. There was still debris in my file, so I followed the Style Guide and cleaned the thing two more times. Then I had to learn to go into the Change Styles folder, make sure nothing was selected except a left indent option, and set that as my new Default. Again, the Style Guide was as intuitive a companion as I could’ve desired. I owe a major lobster to Smashmouth’s technical writer, Mark Coker.

All this reading and uploading and stripping took about two hours and a half. It was highly intensive, eyes-pressed-to-the-screen kind of work. But I was caffeinated and stoked. I could feel my words transforming themselves. Alchemy was in the air.

Smashwords requires two things of a writer: that you do it their way, and you read the damn Style manual. Their way means: no fancy fonts, no experimental spacing or text games. They do give advice on formatting text blocks, charts, images, etc, but all I could say after scanning those steps was, “Thank god I’m a fiction writer,” and “We’ll just stick to words, now, if you please.”

They do require you to do a basic cover, and in fact they give off a vibe that without a competent-looking one your book isn’t going to be placed in their Premium Services category, which is how you show up on Amazon, Barnes&Noble and Borders.
How to create a cover? I figured I’d just upload a picture and slap a title above it.

I’ve taken a lot of digital pictures since 2005, professionally and personally. I was glad I’d gotten into the habit of taking pictures without people in them. (It’s amazing how faces ruin a good landscape.) In this case, I found a shot I’d taken of the oceanfront in my hometown, Long Beach. Since my story was partially about my Long Beach roots, the shot had resonance.

As a magazine editor, I also knew the shot had room for cover lines. The best real estate on a magazine cover is upper right, and this shot had a clear channel all the way down the right.

But when I read in the style guide I’d need a single-image cover sized ideally at 500 pixels wide and 800 high, I knew I was in trouble. My laptop didn’t have any fancy design programs in it, although the Microsoft Office suite undoubtedly had tools. But I’m leery of these internal MS programs; they rarely work as advertised. Third-party programs are usually created by real people to solve read needs in real time, and sure enough, the Style Guide mentioned one, called Paint.net. I linked, downloaded the program, it opened without requiring me to reboot (I had so many files open at this point that would’ve probably sent me off to bed) and I figured out which button to click to put my image up as a background. (It’s called Layer.)

Then I accidentally closed the color palette function and never did find a way to open it. I hit the “T” for text in the toolbar (memories of making magazines late at night guided my fingers) and discovered I’d somehow selected pink. Oh well! To help make the pink pop I found a function that allowed black striping inside the letters. But the sunny ocean backdrop swallowed the title. I knew it would be rejected by Premium Services. And I needed Amazon, etc.

It was late, and I broke to dump some previously cooked chicken sausage into a pot with a can of tomatoes, then chopped some baby bok choy into it. While that was heating Mindy wandered downstairs and put on water for pasta and made a salad. I wandered back to the screen. There was a list of commands in a box on Paint.net, including one that said “Invert Image.” I hit it.

At the top of this blog I hope you’ll see my original photo, before I downloaded Paint.net. The “Invert Image” drained my photo of color and turned it into a negative image. It was noir, it was eerie, it was California’s bright shining myth turned inside-out. It was perfect for my story, which was about black-white relations during the Civil Rights crisis of the mid-1960s.

On the inverted image I happened to type in the first words in lower-case and immediately knew this was the way to go. Ditto for my line-break choices. Suddenly the pink looked real good. Subtle. For pink.

Mindy and I ate dinner with the preoccupied expressions and disjointed conversation common to writers on deadline. She went upstairs to finish her email blast, I went to my screen. Let the publishing begin!

I worked on into the night. A copyright page was required, in a certain style. An author page on Smashmouth’s site needed creating; I was prompted to get a PayPal account, another download which again didn’t require me to reboot. I was reeling a bit as I went through the extensive required formatting and proofreading pre-pub tests. It was 11:30 as I registered and edited and checked indents over and over.

Finally, I uploaded the clean document and pushed Publish.

And was rejected.

But the Style Guide was right with me. If my MS Word 2010 file ended in a “docx” then I had to re-save it in another , probably older Word file that ended with “doc.” Naturally Word doesn’t tell you what those file endings are when you’re doing a Save As, but I guessed Word 2003-2007 because somewhere in the guide the author, Mark Coker, had mentioned that this was his favorite conversion program.

Always pay attention to your tekkie. The file was accepted, uploaded to Smashmouth, and the “Meatgrinder” process, as they call it, began. I was number 323 in the queue and could just walk away, brush my teeth, and go to bed.

In the morning, my eight years of publishing drought had ended. There was more to do in terms of proofing and other tying up of loose ends, including downloading Kindle’s mobi and Adobe’s Reader programs to make sure that The Skins of Our Ancestors would meet their standards. But the book was done. All that remained was to set a price.

The Skins of Our Ancestors is a 24-page story. It’s dense and a bit of a risk. It was meant to anchor a whole book on my upbringing in a Southern/Northern family in Southern California during the racially turbulent ‘60s. I decided it was worth more than free, more than a 99-cent download from iTunes. The Newbie guys, Barry and Joe, had talked about the importance of pricing an e-Book low enough for it to be an impulse purchase. But this was a major chunk of my life and my output. Yeah, that’s worth $2.99.

My royalty breakouts will vary. From Smashmouth.com it’s possible to get a pure 70 percent. Retailers like Amazon and B&N and others take a bigger share, around 50 percent. But these are terms much, much better than legacy publishing offers authors on e-Books (around 14.5 percent after all their surcharges are applied).

In the coming days and months and years, we’ll see how it all plays out. But right now, the magic number is eight. As in eight hours from e-Book newbie to author.

My plans now? The e-Pub imprint I’ve dreamed of is already a reality, and I’ll have more news on that soon. But this experience has me wanting more, now. I know that’s a danger with self-publishing; let’s call it THE danger. If you start ladling slop into your stream of books and publications, you’ll do yourself no favors.

Still, I’m not going to stop now. I think a story a month sounds right. Some will be free, some will be 99-cents. All will be from my archive of unpublished work—nothing just riffed off, like this blog. I think it’s important to reserve a kind of writing for e-Book publication, writing that promises more than the shoot-from-the-hip stuff that fills the web today. Call it premium, or estate reserve, or private label.

Or call it literature.

I also think this may be the route I take with my six-novel series, The Log of Matthew Roving. So maybe that’s what I’ll be putting up six months from now, around September time, the traditional fall season in publishing. I’ll need that much lead time, given that the 500 page novel is 25 times longer than The Skins of Our Ancestors and will require a lot of formatting and re-formatting…

Thank you, Smashwords.

The Skins of Our Ancestors is at http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/51969

Thanks to Jane Friedman, whose Twitter RT started the ball rolling.

Thanks to Michael Maren for telling me to write this blog. To Laura Miller. Here’s her Salon piece, with great links at the bottom:

http://www.salon.com/books/laura_miller/2011/03/29/writer_sell_thyself/index.html

Finally, here’s to Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler. You really have to read Joe’s blog with the 13,000 word Q&A:

http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2011/03/ebooks-and-self-publishing-dialog.html

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

What It Means to Be a Writer Today, Part 7: Who Wrote the Book You Loved?


Who Wrote the Book You Loved?

By Don Wallace

Who are the greatest writers of the 20th century? I nominate the following:

Constance Garnett, C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Francis Steegmuller, Gregory Rabassa and Edith Grossman, Edwin and Willa Muir (with Eithne Wilkins and Ernest Kaiser), Norman Thomas di Giovanni, Robert Bly and, I don’t know, maybe the three score guys from the Hampton Court Conference convened in 1604 by King James.

So, yes, I asked a trick question. But if you read in English, like me, then much of the literary greatness you drank so deeply from in youth was a potion filtered through the copper-coiled consciousness of a translator. And if you accept the greatness of the authors above—Tolstoy, Dostoevski, Turgenev and all the other Russians, Proust and Flaubert, Marquez and Fuentes and Llosa and the other Latin Americans, Kafka, Borges, Hamsun, and God—why not give credit to their translators? Because those are their words you’re reading.

As someone with more skin in the writing game than is wise or healthy, I’ve always found this disconcerting.

I remember first getting this sinking feeling when in college, reading Flaubert and Stendahl. Not having had a lick of French at that point, beyond pronouncing “escargot” once or twice (and “condom” a bit more often), I struggled with the archaic Victorian English until the thought hit me: what if these translations were like those 1950s movies with Maurice Chevalier, whose heavily accented English would be parodied in the later Pink Panther movies with Peter Sellers? Once I had the thought, the giggle would just not go away.

With my fragile literary consciousness at risk, I shelved the idea. But it has resurfaced over the years, particularly when I catch myself aiming for “the literary.” I get this fear that I’m simply writing in a style like those dubbed foreign movies where everyone, no matter what nationality, speaks in a tony BBC accent. Has the fear killed off a couple of stories? Yes, and good riddance to bad rubbish, as someone might say on Masterpiece Theatre.

Now, I love translators, generally. I wouldn’t be here without them—on the page, I mean. But leaving aside their indispensability and noble sacrifice on behalf of art, their ubiquity and their concealment in plain sight does bring up an inconvenient question:

Who wrote that book you loved?

The author, you say. Really? How can you tell? Do you read (French, Russian, Hebrew, etc.)? Okay, then. The translator. All foreign literature in translation is like these movies with which Hollywood is currently infatuated, the ones where James Franco or Matt Damon or Leo DiCaprio get themselves inserted into someone else’s body in another time zone. To save the world or get the girl, which amounts to the same thing.

Only, how do you know that when you’re reading Borges you’re not really kissing Matt Damon? Now there’s a thought. Hope you enjoyed it.

Anyway . . . just once I’d like us to admit that we’ve always accepted the greatness of these “great” books on faith. I understand the reasons. I mean, nobody goes to the rack and looks for books with a “Fair-to-Middling Foreign Classic” sticker on the cover. And yet, that’s what you could be getting, if the translator is a dodo or the editor ran out of money for adjectives. Or, as happened to most of the books in translation that I grew up on, the moral code of the times insisted on bowdlerizing all the good parts.

My beef here is that “greatness” which is actually mediocrity (in any case, but here specifically in translation) lures us away from finding our own soul’s path, our craft’s best practices and our own extra-authentic style. And, dude, falling in love with the “wrong” “great” literature can so spoil your groove. As Glen Beck might say, and hopefully will soon: reading foreign novels in English brings your babies ever closer to the clutches of that secret international puppet-master class.

Okay, so I sound paranoid. I hope it comes off in a fun way. And maybe this sounds a little hectoring, as if I’m now going to sniff and say that if you can’t read Nabokov in Russian then you really can’t claim to have read him at all. Well, nope, I’m not going there. Let me repeat: I love books in translation. It’s just that . . .

Come a little closer. Tell me something. Hmm? We’ve established that you wouldn’t have gone near these books unless they’d been certified “great” beforehand. In other words, it’s indisputable that you accepted a definition of “great” before you ever read a single transmuted sentence. Now, this surely influenced your reception of the work, did it not?

In science, that’s called a failure to control for bias. In literature, it’s called Norton Classics.

But we’re not here to deny the judgment of the jurists; our beef is with prose that takes the easy way out, by adopting the mannerisms, style and subject matter of the consensus great and famous. I’m not indicting the prose of the “greats” in translation, but of those writers who fall under their sway and never, ever emerge . . .

Hey, relax. I’m not prosecuting you—I’m interrogating my younger self.

I guess, more and more, the way imitation turns into something original fascinates me. When you’re young this is experimentation, right? Experimentation: the word that exonerates pot-smoking Presidential candidates and promiscuous young writers. I remember reading Joyce’s Dubliners and Borges’ Ficciones one rainy weekend and the next thing I knew, my characters spoke in Irish accents while dipping in and out of alternative universes—all in suburban Long Beach, California, ca. 1970.

After awhile, though, I was bothered by how easily my sincere flattery became impersonation. The infatuated writer turns creepy, like the stalker in “Single White Female” or Bergman’s “Persona.” The theme from “The Twilight Zone” begins to play in the background . . .

Time here to pause. Reflect. Become afraid. Very afraid. But don’t worry, I’ll be back. We’re not done here. Not by a long shot.

Because the question will not die: Who really wrote the book you loved? Raymond Carver—or Gordon Lish? Thomas Wolfe—or Maxwell Perkins? James Patterson—or a string of J. Walter Thompson vice-presidents?

Monday, April 04, 2011

What It Means to Be a Writer Today, Part 1: The Good News

Part I, The Good News

By Don Wallace

Sitting here in publishing limbo, bracing ourselves for waves of change and tidal surges of destruction, we may feel compelled to ask what exactly did we get ourselves into when we decided to be writers. After all, the consensus of media and other anointed commentators seems to be that the whole writing game is over. To give it a catchy, twitterable title: “Print is Dead, The Book is Toast, And William Shakespeare Were He Alive Today Would Be Writing For HBO and Doing Slam-Tweet Contests–LOL!!!” None of which is refutable.

As this new year dawns, Borders may already be in bankruptcy. E-books surpass print books in sales. And somewhere, in a rude straw-filled library carrel, another would-be writer slouches toward a coffee break. Another would-be writer pauses in making that latte (skim, extra espresso shot) to mentally jot a note about a story unfolding in her head. And in far-off Colombia, a coffee grower’s cocaine-addicted son is typing as fast as his fingers can fly, chasing a vision that nobody can deny and may even get him admitted to an MFA program in the U.S.A.

That’s the beauty of this thing of ours. Publishing may be going to hell, or heaven, who knows. But writing goes on. Writers stumble on their vocation every day.

In future posts, I’m going to try to stick to one topic: What it means to be a writer today. It takes chutzpah to call this first post “The Good News,” but what the hell, it’s a new year and the slate is clean and as I will soon point out, even the “bad” news is good.

As to where I’m coming from, always a valid question with writers on any subject, I figure that in my own way I’m in a perfect position to judge the current scene. I’ve been at the writing thing for my entire adult life, I’ve straddled the academic and “real” world, written for a living and for no reward except the rapture, been inside the beast called publishing, lived on both coasts and in the middle, and I’m not a big success.

I think that last is crucial: success ruins writers in terms of advice. Either they tell you stuff to discourage you (because they’re so unique, and you’re so jejune) or they make it seem so elementary that you feel you’ve been a slacker not to have written and published at least a trilogy by the time you’re twenty-five.

Now for the good news. First, location does not matter. Sure, all the media attention makes it seem so necessary, somehow, to get published before you’re twenty, acquire a quirky ethnic or foreign accent, pal around with the future famous, grow a scruffy beard, and move to Brooklyn or even better, Williamsburg. Well, no. Most of the so-called great writers didn’t come from New York or do their great work there; most still won’t.

If you drag yourself across the country because you think Brooklyn will water your roots, by all means, do it. Rude shocks make for better writing. But thanks to the creative destruction of the publishing mechanism, times were never better for getting your work out into the readersphere.

Second, the door is open. The above-referenced creative destruction is opening a million or more doors for those who, for the first time in history, can bypass the filters that publishing used to weed out the hordes of would-be writers. Not to knock the hard and ill-paid work of agents (the first filter) and editors (the second filter) and publishing executives (the third, hidden filter), but the world they made was never a meritocracy of literature or even storytelling. It was more like a bodyguard working the velvet rope at Club 54. The amount of slush pile submissions was simply overwhelming. And depressing. There was no way to sort it without adopting the most callous triage.

In the end, most books were published by word of mouth–a friend who knew a friend passed along a name, someone sighed and said, “Okay, I’ll take a look.” For those who had really powerful friends, the process was easier and the results often were meretricious: in the ’50s, white males in snap-brim hats apparently had a field day, effortlessly drinking martinis and smoking Chesterfields and single-finger typing huge novels; in the ’80s, any reasonably pretty daughter of a CEO who could put her hair up in a chignon and pout for a photographer could publish her slim volume of stories. (Not to be unfair to pretty daughters of the rich, but writing is a zero-sum game when it comes to reviews and column inches of press coverage, and Daddy’s empire also monopolized attention.) Today, you don’t need to be anybody’s daughter, or white, or male. You just digitize and self-publish and flog that blog of yours. It can happen to you.

Third, the field is clear. Nobody is stopping you. Because the value that the marketplace attaches to books is always much lower than the effort it takes to produce them, those with the drive, obsession, mania or serenity to keep writing and improving (and self-editing) can just motor along and watch the wrecks of wannabe writers pile up on the roadside.

If you start out writing at twenty, by the time you hit forty you’ll be among a very select group–those who kept going. Not that this promises any satisfaction other than that. But as an indicator of mental and psychic engagement in the world, chasing a dream is much better than sitting around wondering where it all went.

That’s enough good news for one day.