May 22, 2011

5 Things I Learned from Stephen Leather

Two Great Authors in Thailand: Stephen Leather talking and the Back of Christopher Moore's Head
Today, I managed to cajole the bosswoman into going to Wordplay which was being billed as "Bangkok's First Literary Festival" at the Neilson Hays Library on Surawong road in Bagnkok. The misses had to drop off a hefty stack of 100 and 20 baht bills from our shops at the local Kasikorn bank, so I narrowly missed Christopher Moore's talk, but I bet it was good. At 2:15pm, I had the choice of listening to author Stephen Leather talking about eBooks or to David Thompson, a chef who caused some serious controversy last year when he made a comment about the decline of Thai food. Seeing how my sophisticated culinary skills consist of eating whatever is put in front of me, I opted for Stephen Leather's talk.

The acoustics in the room were pretty lousy, but the talk was very interesting. Stephen Leather has been writing and published for quite some time, and he had some big, recent successes selling eBooks on Amazon. Here's 5 bits of wisdom I was able to pick up from him:
  1. Getting Published 25 Years Ago Was Terrible - Maybe things were easy when the Gutenberg Press first came around, but getting something published back in the 1980s sounded like a huge pain in the ass. Stephen Leather said that you had to spend days slaving over some crappy word processing system, and the big publishing houses expected the manuscript to be perfect and on gleaming white paper. These manuscripts would be submitted to a publisher and typically sit in a slush pile at the publishing house until some poor unpaid intern brought it to the attention of an editor. He noted that after the proliferation of computers and word processing software, more people were able to write books which brings us to #2.
  2. Getting Published Today is Terrible - Now that technology has made it easier to go about the task of actually writing something, obviously more people are doing it. Most of the publishing houses, not keeping in step with technology, have stopped accepting unsolicited manuscripts and only get them from agents. However, Stephen Leather did not have very nice things to say about agents in general at this talk or at his guest post at Joe Konrath's last week when he called American literary agents "horrible, self-centered, arrogant shits". Therefore, getting through the gatekeeper system towards being published is a challenge.
  3. eBooks are Great, but You Need to Write Well - Stephen Leather devoted a lot of his talk to discussing how eBooks are marketed and sold to consumers, and also how he had some success with self-publishing his own work. He said that with this new technology in place, it was a great time to break down the barriers between readers and writers, but he wasn't trying to preach some gospel from "The Secret" or anything. He said that since anyone could publish, it is important that you write well to distinguish yourself. During the Q&A, I asked him how to not "Write Shit" as he advised in his blog post recently. He said that there was no secret really, but you had to be clever, have a good plot, good character development, and work hard to put a novel together. He mentioned that his novels take 6-8 months to complete. He also recommended all of Joe Konrath's blog if you are getting started or his book:The Newbie's Guide to Publishing (Everything A Writer Needs To Know).
  4. Time Spent Marketing eBooks - Stephen Leather said when he was writing for the publisher, it was about 95% writing and 5% self-promoting.  With his eBooks, he said it was about 50% writing and 50% self-promoting. This makes sense, as 25 years ago there were no blogs, facebook, twitter, Kindle boards, and other signs of the modern age. However, I personally think these forms of outreach will be better in the long run, as it allows you to get direct feedback and kiss ass to the customers actually buying the product rather than some dickhead critic.
  5. My 6-Year Old Stepson Will be Well-Behaved if Given an iPad - Unlike everyone else, I made the faux pas of bringing in my kid to this talk. The nice lady running the event told me about the children's workshop at the fair, which I assume was code for get your kid the hell out of here. Luckily, I had my iPad with me and I let him play Grand Theft Auto. I'm probably not winning stepfather-of-the-year award, but there was hardly a peep from him during Mr. Leather's talk except his fingers sliding across the screen. A good tip for other dads I learned at the talk!
Many thanks to Stephen Leather for giving this talk on an extremely hot day in Bangkok. The streets were practically vacant in the city today because it was so damn toasty, and it was nice to get inside some A/C and hear words from someone who has been in the business a while. I think I'll send him a thank-you email, because everyone likes those.

If you're interested, be sure to check out Bangkok Noir, which has Stephen Leather and lot of other interesting writers who focus on Thailand.



Stephen Leather said...

It was a great day, Paul, hopefully they'll do it again next year!

Christopher G. Moore said...

Paul, this is a good summary of Stephen's talk. He has a great deal of knowledge about the ebook world and did a fantastic job explaining the impact of ebooks on traditional publishing. He's one of the most accessible, helpful authors you'll ever meet.

Jenny Beattie said...

Thanks for posting about the festival yesterday. It's great to see that people enjoyed it.

John Burdett used the microphone in the library later in the day and it made a big difference to the audio! Some speakers don't like them but I think in the future we will push them a bit harder to use them because it makes all the difference for the audience.

Paul Salvette said...

Stephen, thank you for your excellent talk. It was very much worth the visit.

Christopher, I wish I could have seen your talk and written another post, but I was bit slow on the arrival. I'd blame my wife, but she's pregnant, so I'd probably go to hell or something. Thanks for visiting my blog.

Jenny, thank you for helping to organize the event, and I look forward to future Literary Festivals.

Mihnea said...

I have read and reviewed books by both Stephen and Chris and really enjoyed them. They offer a unique view of what Thailand, in general, and Bangkok, in particular, REALLY look like.