Monday, June 30, 2014

Free Books

The publishing world continues to get stranger and stranger. On LinkedIn, one thread is devoted to writers arguing about whether or not they should give away their books for free, as a teaser for a series, to get readers interested in their work overall, or just as a way to get their name out there. This debate can get rather heated. On some days, as the emails come pouring into my computer, I wonder if the posters are getting any other writing done. Pricing e-books at $0.00 on Amazon as a sales gimmick is a hot topic, and will remain so for quite a while.

The debate on LinkedIn fades in comparison to the story of the Concord Free Press. Founded by Stona Fitch, the press has published perhaps a dozen books in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. The press is supported by donations and grants, and all books are given free to those who request them. Each requestor is asked to make a donation to the charity of his or her choice, and let the press know what that is. The website includes a page listing the donations. In total, the press has prompted charitable giving of over $409,250. Fitch has succeeded in his goal: “we’re publishing books that connect reading and giving like never before. And that’s enough for us.”

I decided to give this a try and placed an order for Zig Zag Wanderer, a story collection by Madison Smartt Bell. The order page came up and I was asked to check off three questions about whether or not I would make a donation to a charity I believed in or help a person in need, and then pass along the book. I checked off all three boxes. I have chosen the charity, The Gloucester Writers Center, and will also give them the book when I’ve finished reading it.

I have mixed feelings about the business plan of the Concord Free Press. As a reader and a socially conscious citizen, I love the idea of linking books, charity, and raising awareness or initiating discussion, but as a writer I cringe. Few of us in this world (and the numbers dwindle as I write) can afford to work for free. What does it mean for a professional writer, someone who takes the time to learn the craft, and work her or his way up the ladder of the profession of writer (small magazines, teaching, a first book, reviews and reviewing, and the rest of it) to give away a book that may have taken two or three years to write?

For decades, if not centuries, the lament of the writer has been that she is the last one to be paid. The publisher gets the money and divvies it out. The printer always gets paid, for obvious reasons, and so does the designer. The publisher gets paid because he controls the money, and the editors and proofreaders usually get paid. Anyone outside the office, and thus not in the publisher’s face every day, has a much diminished chance of seeing any money. I know because as a freelance editor I often had to make uncomfortable phone calls to a publisher insisting on payment. In the 1980s several small publishing houses in the Boston area went bankrupt, and the publisher walked away with what was left—the writers, freelancers, and staff got nothing. And now, it seems, we begin at that stage of nothingness. (I'm feeling very Buddhist today.)

I admit to deep ambivalence here. I admire what the Concord Free Press is doing, and I understand the passion behind the debate on LinkedIn. But I wonder what all this means for writers who have something to say, the skill to say it, and the determination to do so.

If someone else has insight into this new world, I hope you will share it.

To learn more about the Concord Free Press, go to

To learn more about the debate on LinkedIn go to LinkedIn, Books and Writers, For the sake of writers everywhere, please STOP this!

To learn more about the Gloucester Writers Center, go to

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Writer as Spy

Last week I spent an entire day walking up and down the streets of a seaside town on a garden tour. The gardens, were to say the least, gorgeous, various, and photogenic. But the absolute best shots were the people visiting the town or working there. 
As an amateur photographer, I know the rules against taking intrusive photos. As a writer, I know how to use what I see in whatever I’m writing. The rules of behavior are different for writers and photographers, and I have yet to learn how to use a camera to spy on people on the street without getting caught, though I can easily do so as a writer. This has come to the fore after seeing a terrific film documentary about an unknown photographer, truly one of the almost-lost great artists of her generation. Finding Vivian Maier begins when a young man, looking for images of old Chicago, buys a trunk full of negatives at auction.
Vivian emerges as a very odd creature who sought out the marginal, outcast, and rejected of society. Her images are startling, arresting, striking, moving. She saw what most people choose not to see, and are even trained not to see. Years ago a colleague wondered aloud how a good friend born into a high caste in India could go about every day and not see or be moved by the suffering all around her. The same certainly can be said of many in the States. But Vivian was different. She never turned away from the suffering; instead she sought them out. She left behind over 100,000 negatives and dozens of rolls of undeveloped color film. It appears, by the end of the movie, that the only reason she didn't present her work to the world at large was because she probably didn't know how to go about it. That and her tendency to hoarding would have derailed her efforts to become established as a photographer. She was very peculiar.

Vivian didn't care what people thought of her. Most artists in any medium or genre feel much the same. But we usually acknowledge the boundaries of mainstream society and honor them. Vivian tripped over them and kept going, most of the time. She used a Rolleiflex, which gives the photographer a distinct advantage. She can hold the camera at waist level, focus and shoot, without the object of her attentions appreciating that a photograph is being taken. The current popular cameras (Canon, Nikon, Pentax, etc.) are held up to the eye, which gives away what we're doing. I use a Pentax, and even when looking through a window, anyone can tell what I'm up to. You can see the problem. It's easier for a writer. 

I may not be able to photograph strangers on the street without first getting permission and overcoming my innate reluctance to invade another's privacy, but I can write down everything I see to use in a story or a novel without regard to its origins. Whenever anyone asks if I write about real people, my answer is always no. But I often encounter an image that is so memorable, so vivid, that I have to use it. The image is a springboard to something else; it is not a record of real life.

Vivian's life teaches something else. She became a nanny so she could be outdoors more, which for her meant the opportunity to photograph. She led her charges into the parts of town other people tried to avoid. To get the photographs she wanted, she had to be fearless. For any artist or writer, to get the result we want we have to drive forward, crush any doubts, and focus strictly on the work. We have to be fearless in another way.
Any good work of art (or craft) brings to the viewer the opportunity to see something as if for the first time. The creator records the experience, lives it and preserves it for another. And the reader or viewer is given a new set of eyes, a new experience of the mundane, after which it is no longer mundane. Artists like Vivian Maier remind us of this, and thereby enrich our work. As peculiar as she was, she could see beyond the veils of society and left behind for us a little of what she saw.

My series character Anita Ray uses her camera all the time, for her work and for her
investigations. She doesn't have to worry when someone challenges her because she is an established photographer, with a gallery of her own. I'm not planning on getting her a Rolleiflex to make it even easier. They cost about $5,000. But I may give her a few things to worry about when someone sees her photographing a private home or a dead body. Why would she be doing that?

Anita's newest adventure is For the Love of Parvati, where she does photograph a corpse.

To learn more about Vivian Maier and see her photographs, go to

To learn more about the documentary film, go to