David Kubicek

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Self-Publishing and Book Reviewers

Although self-publishing is less stigmatized now than it was even ten years ago, we still have a long way to go before we stamp out every form of prejudice against self-published books. For instance, book reviewers – other than local reviewers in the author’s hometown – refuse to review self-published books. They won’t even open the book and read the first few paragraphs, which is enough for people who make their living reviewing books to determine if the writer is good, or if he’s publishing prematurely.

Once upon a time, I edited a book called October Dreams: A Harvest of Horror. I received an average of 240 submissions per month. I had lots of other things to do besides read 240 submissions per month, which would have taken a substantial amount of time. After reading a couple of paragraphs, two pages at most, I knew two things: 1) If the writer was ready for publication, and 2) If the story was the type for which we were looking. That’s not difficult to do, and it doesn’t take much time. There is not an editor anywhere who reads every word of every manuscript he or she receives.

When I was a student at the University of Nebraska, one of my English teachers brought in an arm load of self-published books. They weren’t difficult to find. UNL’s English department publishes The Prairie Schooner, a prestigious literary magazine. The Schooner receives many review copies of books from traditional and self-publishers. At that time they dumped the self-published books on a table where anyone who wanted them could pick them up.

My teacher read excerpts from the books, and we all had lots of laughs over them – until he came to one written by a fellow named Thomas M. Disch. That piqued my interest because, being a reader of speculative fiction, I was familiar with this author’s name. My teacher, with a smirk on his face, started reading. Slowly, the smirk dissolved. He stopped reading, and in a voice that clearly communicated his astonishment, he said: “This isn’t funny.”

He seemed almost let down, as if the Prairie Schooner had cheated him by putting this book on the rejects table.

The reason that book wasn’t “funny” might have been that Thomas M. Disch had a long history of being “traditionally” published. I don’t know why he chose to self-publish the book my teacher picked up. There are many reasons writers choose to self-publish, and it is a mistake for a critic  to dismiss a book because of his or her own misconceptions, his or her own prejudices.

Reviewers who have a rule that they will review no self-published books, would not have reviewed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which Mark Twain self-published because of “the foolishness of his publishers.” That’s one reason some writers self-publish. Other writers self-publish because the pay is better (a royalty of 60-85% vs. 10-25%), and they are paid more quickly (many traditional publishers withhold an author’s royalties for three pay periods – 18 months – after the book is published). Other books may be self-published because, for whatever reason, they failed to find a publisher who thought there was a market for the book.

And yes, many self-published books are not ready for publication. But this is true of traditionally published books as well. I’ve been an avid reader for many, many, many years, and 99% of the books I’ve read were published by traditional publishers. And I’ve read lots of crap. Lots of crap. I’ve read fiction by writers who weren’t ready for the big time or who had ineffective editors or both, and I’ve read nonfiction books that did not support their hypotheses with good evidence. I’ve also read many good traditionally published books.

On the flip side, I’ve read some good self-published books as well as some that were not ready for publication.

My point is, to borrow an old cliché, you can’t judge a book by its cover. A reviewer who refuses to even look at a book because it is self-published not only is failing to do his job, but he’s also doing his readers a disservice, readers who might like Amanda Hocking’s stories, for instance (for those of you who may not have heard, Hocking found her audience by self-publishing, then was offered a $2 million deal from a “traditional” publisher).

For a look at some famous authors who self-published, check out my earlier blog post Self-Publishing: Is It For You?

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Story of the Great Migration

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great MigrationThe Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Lincoln may have freed the slaves in 1863,but that only changed the nature of African Americans’ enslavement in the south. They got paid for their work, but their paychecks were much smaller than the paychecks of white people doing the same type of work–sometimes, as in the case of sharecroppers, they would be lucky to do more than break even, and sometimes they ended up owing the planters whose land they worked. Black people could not vote, they had to step off the sidewalk if a white person was coming, they had to look down when talking to white people, and black men had to be especially careful not to look at white women. Lynchings were commonplace, and no court in the south would convict a white man for killing a black man.

This was the life for freed black people living in the south for more than 100 years, until the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s began gathering steam and resulted in key court cases and legislation that eventually killed the Jim Crow laws.

Many African Americans left the south, heading north and west, in search of better lives. Beginning as a trickle about 1915, it soon became a flood and finally petered out about 1975, when southern society was changing enough that blacks didn’t feel that it was urgent for them to leave to seek better lives.

The Warmth of Other Suns is the story of The Great Migration, focusing on three immigrants who took three different routes–George Swanson Starling to New York, Ida Mae Gladney to Chicago, and Robert Pershing Foster to Los Angeles. George Starling left when he got word that he might be lynched, Ida Mae Gladney and her husband George were sharecroppers who wanted a better life, and Robert P. Foster was a surgeon who left so he could practice his profession without restrictions dictated by the color barrier.

But the north was not the land of milk and honey many blacks expected it would be. There was still racial tension and discrimination, but of a different variety, and Wilkerson does a good job of covering the struggles the immigrants had while starting their new lives.

Wilkerson, whose parents migrated from the south and who was the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism (in 1994), spent about 15 years researching this book, conducted more than 1,200 interviews, and retraced the routes taken by Starling, Gladney, and Foster.

The Warmth of Other Suns is a history buff’s dream. It is a readable and informative book about a period that changed the face of this country. I highly recommend it.

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War, by Sebastian Junger: A Review

WARWAR by Sebastian Junger

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is not what you may think it is, namely the “war is hell” theme or “we’re fighting for our country” mantra. War is not a political book. The reasons for the war and whether it is right or wrong, the author says, is left for politicians to haggle over.

Between June 2007 and June 2008, journalist Sebastian Junger made five trips to the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan. He was “embedded” with American troops, meaning that he was “entirely dependent on the U.S. military for food, shelter, security, and transportation.”

The Korengal Valley is a particularly bad place to be in terms of fighting, and the Taliban proved to be an unconventional fighting force.

For instance, the Taliban would pay a teenager $5 to go up in the hills and start shooting at an American outpost. When the Americans returned fire the teenager would put down his weapon and disappear down the back side of the hill. The Americans knew about this stunt, but they had to waste an entire afternoon and lots of manpower to make sure it was a stunt and not a real “firefight.”

The Taliban would also leave weapons lying at various points in the hills. They would walk unarmed through villages – often past American soldiers – up into the hills, pick up the weapons and start shooting.

War focuses on the soldiers, the bond among them, and their thoughts about what they do and why they do it. As I mentioned earlier, the big picture of why we are in Afghanistan, as far as the troops are concerned, is something for the politicians to argue about. They are fighting to that they can go on living and so that their buddies can go on living.

This book shows how war changes people, for better and for worse. It has made me examine my preconceived ideas about our troops, and I highly recommend it for everyone. Those of you, like myself, who have never seen combat will gain a new perspective on war and the men and women who fight.

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Relics of Repentance–The Letters of Pontius Pilate & Claudia Procula, compiled by James F. Forcucci: A Review

Relics of repentance: The letters of Pontius Pilate and Claudia ProculaRelics of repentance: The letters of Pontius Pilate and Claudia Procula by James F. Forcucci

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you are interested in Biblical history and archeology, you’ll like this little booklet. The story leading up to the Crucifixion of Jesus is well-known, but then the Bible says nothing more about Pontius Pilate and his wife, Claudia Procula.

In Relics of Repentance, Biblical researcher James F. Forcucci tries to shed some light on events that were overshadowed by the formation of the Christian movement.

Relics is built around A Letter From Pontius Pilate’s Wife, translated by journalist Catherine van Dyke and first published in 1929. The letter is said to have been written by Claudia Procula to her friend, Fulvia, several years after the Crucifixion. The letter fills in some blank spots in the lives of Claudia and Pilate both before and after the Crucifixion.

To flesh out the story, editor Forcucci also has culled from various sources several letters purportedly written by Pilate as well as an excerpt from The Gospel of Nicodemus (formerly The Acts of Pilate).

For more information about Relics, check out http://issanapress.tripod.com/

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Images From A Writing Retreat

From July 16 to 18 I participated in the Nebraska Writers Guild’s annual retreat, Write Across Nebraska (WAN). This year a retreat was held in three locations: Valentine, Grand Island, and Schuyler. I was one of 20 who attended the Schuyler retreat (or the Eastern WAN), which is in the northeastern part of the state, about 68 miles from Lincoln.

The retreat was held at the Saint Benedict Center, a non-profit retreat and conference center, which was established by the Missionary Benedictines of Christ the King Priory. It is primarily used for religious retreats but other groups are welcome.  The mission, which was established in 1934, is built into the side of a hill across the road.

The Center–which is about four miles north of Schuyler–resembles Lincoln’s Southeast Community college but with religious imagery and stained glass windows. There is a lake with a fountain and a statue of St. Benedict in it, benches and tables outside, and a walking path around the lake. Meals were served buffet-style in the cafeteria from 7:30-8:15 a.m., 12:15-1:00 p.m., and 6:15-7:00 p.m., although there was a refreshment area where guests could get coffee and other drinks all day.

There was little to distract us from our writing–no TV or telephones in the rooms, and because of the Center’s location in the hills wireless phone reception was almost impossible from inside the building (although some fellow writers reported being able to make calls from outside). I managed to send a few text messages from my room but that was it.

We didn’t write all weekend. Saturday morning Sally Walker, President of the Guild, and Connie Crow, the Guild’s Secretary, each led a class. I think most of us attended. I’ve been writing for a while (no, I won’t tell you how long, but if you’re motivated you could figure it out by looking at the bibliography on my Website) but I always learn something new from every class I attend, and last weekend was no exception.

Saturday night we had a reading. Everyone who wanted to could read from his or her work-in-progress. Readings ranged from poetry, to memoir, to song lyrics, to fiction. All of it showcased the wide range of talent in the Nebraska Writers Guild. I read approximately the first 750 words of my young adult dystopian novel, working title: Beyond the Wall. It was the first time I read from that novel anywhere.

The rest of the time we spent writing. I wrote 2,310 words more on Beyond the Wall, which actually was toward the lower end of production; some writers wrote several thousand words. But I have an excuse. I wrote in longhand (well, actually I printed because I wanted to be able to read it later), and I don’t write my first drafts at white heat; I am constantly rewriting and revising as I go.

Checkout time was 10:00 a.m. Sunday, but we had the conference room (where we held the classes and the readings) all day. So after we checked out, some of us congregated in the common room for a little final writing.

In all, the retreat was a relaxing and productive experience. If you have an opportunity I encourage you to attend one.

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When You Should be Paid for Your Writing, and When it’s okay Not to be Paid

In the documentary Dreams with Sharp Teeth, in a nearly three and a half minute segment–laced with, as Spock said in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, many “colorful metaphors”–writer Harlan Ellison rants that writers must be paid for everything they write. Everything.

In general, I agree with him. People–sometimes even editors, who should know better–undervalue writers. Isn’t there an old joke in Hollywood that when it comes to power and respect the screenwriter is one step below the janitor who cleans up the studio?

Back in the days when I was doing writing-for-hire work, a fellow wanted me to write his book, for which he magnanimously offered to pay me $100. To write the whole book. That’s one of the reasons I no longer seek writing-for-hire jobs.

Ellison scoffs at the idea of giving away his writing for publicity; publicity, he says, will not do him as much good as cold, hard cash. He’s probably right. Ellison has been writing for more than fifty years and has a respectable track record across several genres, including television. So the publicity value of working for free is negligible, but the cash would buy some groceries.

But for writers at certain stages in their careers, giving away freebies may be helpful. These stages include:

  • Beginners who are trying to become noticed.
  • Writers who are known locally or regionally and are trying to broaden their appeal.
  • Writers who are trying to create platforms, to brand themselves, to become known as an experts of particular subjects.
  • Writers who already have platforms but want to promote their expertise in other areas.

All of the above can be done most effectively on the Web where writers can create their own Websites and blogs, can be guest writers on other blogs, and can comment on blog posts they read. This is a seriously cool time to be a writer; creating a platform is much quicker and easier than before the advent of the Internet. The networking possibilities are virtually limitless.

As I wrote in an earlier post, one of the Four Steps to Building a Successful Writing Career is marketing. When I write for my blog or other blogs or post articles at other sites around the Web, I’m working in the marketing/PR area; the free work I do will eventually pay off in a growing audience for my work.  Writing is an art, and I would write even if I never made a dime, but when I move on to the production step, I’m writing fiction and nonfiction for which I eventually expect to be paid.

For another perspective on being paid for your writing see the blog of novelist Allison Winn Scotch.

Review of True Compass, by Edward M. Kennedy

True Compass: A Memoir by Edward M. Kennedy My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is an extraordinary memoir. It held my interest and was a quick read, which is good for a 500+ page book. There are several reasons why this autobiography is so intriguing:

  • It gives a well-rounded look at Ted Kennedy’s life: his family, his schooling, his years campaigning for his brothers, and his own political service.
  • Kennedy writes candidly about the low-points in his life: his brothers’ assassinations, Mary Jo Kopechne, and his divorce.
    He gives a behind-the-scenes look at the Presidents with whom he served, portraits that often differed greatly from their public personas.
  • This is not a kiss-and-tell autobiography, but Kennedy is candid about his experiences and what he learned from his mistakes.

True Compass is a must-read for anyone who has, or is planning to have, children. The first part is largely concerned with how the Kennedy childrenTrue Compass: A Memoir were raised. I’ve seen many times in the media that Joe Kennedy groomed his sons to go into politics. Ted debunks that notion. His parents, he said, emphasized public service but did not dictate to their children how to accomplish that public service. In fact, Joe was surprised when Jack announced that he planned to run for Congress.

The book is full of anecdotes. For example, to illustrate the respect for Joe by his adult children, Ted told of Jack’s visit home while he was president. Jack decided to sleep in on Sunday morning but awoke suddenly when he heard his father’s footsteps coming up the stairs. Knowing that he would be questioned about why he wasn’t in church, he dressed hurriedly, slipped out the back way, and climbed over the fence into the neighbors’ yard. Ted didn’t mention if Secret Service agents were right behind him or if he ditched them, too.

True Compass gives us a good look how things get done in government and how politics has changed over the years. Kennedy tells about good and bad experiences he has had working with both Democrats and Republicans, and he doesn’t use his book as a platform to lash out at people he doesn’t like.

This is a nonpartisan book. It tells the story of an American dynasty and its last patriarch. It is a memoir that should be read, and can be enjoyed, by Democrats and Republicans.

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Review of Sh*t My Dad Says, by Justin Halpern

Sh*t My Dad Says Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book is hilarious. The Backstory: Justin Halpern started a Twitter account (of the same title) where he tweeted humorous quotes from his father. He didn’t tweet quotes frequently, but before he knew it he had over 1 million followers and was getting calls from agents. One result was this book, which quickly shot to the top of the New York Times best seller list. The Dad in the title has a potty mouth (one reason I recommend it for adults), but he is an educated man, a doctor who spent his career in research. At the end of each chapter is a list of quotes on various subjects. Each chapter tells a story about a different experience Justin had growing up and what he learned from his dad in the process.

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