Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the month “April, 2009”

Becoming the Personification

A new member at our writer’s group asked me what genre I write.

I answered: “Transformational fiction.”

“What’s that?”

I was asking for it, since I have adopted a phrase I heard from the presenter of a workshop at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference.

“I write about change – people who want to make a change in the world and by doing so make a change in themselves.”

What followed was a meaningful conversation about my books. It progressed into which causes we each work for, and what organizations we are members of and support. I felt that I left him wanting to buy my book because he had connected to me. Best of all, it wasn’t false or salesmanship. I was being me and, perhaps the fact that I was being genuine is what was most attractive.

Brian Judd in a recent Booksurge webinar recalled a man who had written a children’s book about bananas. He would dress up as a banana, which naturally became a talking point.

I have tried to make my website (http://www.alonshalev.com) fit that transformative flavor: the Richard Wright quote, the request to purchase my book at an independent bookstore and showcasing non profits and causes that I support.

This urge to advance a persona behind the book and author feels right. It wouldn’t work if it wasn’t genuine, but since I have been a political activist and community organizer (no I’m not announcing my candidacy for President) for most of my life, it fits.

And so I will go out into the world: Alon Shalev, author of transformational fiction. And maybe one day, the person I am being introduced to won’t respond: “Transformational fiction – what’s that?”

Even better, maybe they’ll say: “Alon Shalev? Yeah I read your novels.”

Death to the Publishing Industry: Long Live the Publishing Industry!

Two weeks ago I wrote about the pitfalls of an author receiving a large advance. Despite the feedback I received, I am still convinced that the up-and-coming author would be better off rejecting a $20K advance and asking the publisher to invest that money in book promotion. And yes, I am still waiting for a publisher to test my resolve!

But there is another principle, another cornerstone of the publishing industry that I wish to vilify: The Principle of Returns. In any other industry, the shop can return a product to the manufacturer if it proves defective or damaged. A bookstore can return a book if…it doesn’t sell.

Where is the responsibility? Your average big bookstore will stock around 100,000 books in their store, while taking responsibility to promote only a few. Why should they put any effort into selling any but a select number, when they always have the option of returning the books and receiving a full refund? Barnes & Noble, I understand, are taking a lead in responsible book ordering and trying to find a more sustainable model.

This has two major effects. Firstly, there are way too many trees being cut down unnecessarily and energy being wastefully expended on production (I admit that I have not yet felt a desire to purchase a Kindle or other electronic reader, despite being a fervent environmentalist and Star Trek fan – where do you think the idea came from?).

The second issue is that such a policy is blatantly discriminatory to the smaller and independent publisher, who can often receive a book returned a couple of years later. Such business practices are strangling the smaller publishers and creating a fearful environment of huge corporations that base their decisions exclusively on the bottom line.

Last month, I attended a talk by Charlotte Cook, president of KOMENAR Publishing, a small independent company, at the California Writers Club (Berkeley branch). Ms. Cook spoke about how they often receive returns up to four years after ‘selling’ a book.

But what most annoyed me was Ms. Cook’s account of a recent booksellers’ conference to which several workshops focused on teaching booksellers how to improve a returns instead of payment strategy in. Certainly booksellers who hadn’t previously considered returns as a legitimate and productive business tactic, may well have left the conference thinking why not?

Like Ms. Cook, I am left pondering: why did they not offer workshops on, perhaps, how to promote and sell a book?

I have heard rumors that there are a number of well-placed people in the industry who want to abolish the returns policy, and that they are exploring the idea of creating a publishing house that will not work on this premise.

I have no idea where this stands, and have to admire the courage of anyone in this economic climate who would consider leaving a secure job to set up a new business while challenging one of the sacred cows of the industry, even if it is time to put that cow out to pasture.

Good Writing,


Btw – I am five days away from holding a copy of Oilspill dotcom in my hands.

Also thank you to those who offered feedback about my website (http://www.alonshalev.com). I really appreciate your input.

Happy Passover/Easter/Family Gathering

It has become easier to talk about my upcoming book release and my aspirations to be a known author when talking to workmates and strangers. So why is it still so difficult when it comes to family?

It’s Passover and Easter, and common to most religions, the family gathers. They ask different questions: more probing, analytical, and in the author’s view, more judgmental.

We could avoid it: talk about the kids, the economy, sports, anything, but we feel a need with this group more than any other, for approval. They see the new website but you note that they go straight to the bio and comment on the family photo. Their eyes glaze over when you try and launch them into the blogosphere.

Why do we crave their encouragement? We’re adults, having left the nest decades ago. They probably won’t even buy the book since we’ll feel obliged to gift them. Perhaps it is us who are out of step. Why should they have to oblige us by following every baby step we take? They probably see this as our latest craze (admit it – there have been a few)?

Ironically though, there is only one person who has read my newest, unedited manuscript from beginning to end – my Mum. She cannot always be counted upon for blind support (she hated my 2nd novel – the one that will probably never see its way into the public arena – no connection, I’m sure!). Others have read the first 50 pages or so, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, but my Mum loved the book and I feel on fire with my latest creation.

Perhaps these family gatherings that religious and state holidays afford us can serve as a reminder that the most important person who must approve of our work is actually ourselves.

Good Writing,


Advancing Backwards

I’ll admit it upfront. No publisher has ever offered me a $100K advance, a $20K advance, or even much more than the time of day. So I can make no claim that I would stand by this blog entry should the occasion ever arise.

It was not long ago that the author’s worth was measured by the size of the advance that s/he received. Newspapers, with apparently little else to report, headlined the latest six-figure deal. I can’t help thinking that there are parallels to the housing and credit crises – money was offered/promised without any real foundation to back up whether such assumptions would play out.

The advance is essentially an advance on future sales. If a book sells for $4, the author receives a dollar on each book, and a $20K advance, s/he needs to sell 20,000 copies to be deemed successful (probably within 4-6 months). Failing this, s/he is deemed a failure in the eyes of the publishing world.

Had the same author not received an advance and sold 15,000 copies, the publisher would probably have been happy, seen potential in building this author’s platform or visibility, and gone with a second or third book. Chances are that this author would also have worked considerably harder to promote and market his/her book.

I also suspect, though I claim no inside knowledge, that the often suicidal bidding wars on the rights to an author have helped lead to the destabilization of the publishing market and the disappearance of so many publishing houses.

I have heard that a number of insiders from the publishing world are considering forming a new publishing house based upon the principle of not giving advances. Good luck to them, I say, and here’s my website (www.alonshalev.com) if you’re looking for more than just a fan.

Oh, and anyone out there who wants to test my resolve with an audacious offer – same website.

BTW – Oilspill dotcom is now officially in Acquisitions phase. I’m not sure what this means, but I understand that I am only a week or so away from holding a physical copy in my hands!

Good Writing,



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