Wednesday, September 27, 2006

A Fork in the Road

This was going to be a post last night, but I left it to sleep. It has not gone away so it is the topic of the morning. I have a problem. I have finished about half of the book on kilnforming I have been contracted to write by a well-known publishing house. I am generally happy with what I have written. There is a lot of material, but I think I have organized it well and presented it in a way that will work for people coming to kilnforming from every degree of familiarity from complete neophyte to intermediate/advanced. The problem is that the feedback I got from my editor today is that I am not writing the book they want. They want me to just cover the tools and techniques necessary to make the projects in the book--and all the projects in the book are limited by kiln size--not everything I would like to share after 20 years of kilnforming. In short, they would like a pretty, fluffy little project book. Being from an academic background and infused with the sense that anything worth doing is worth doing well, I am having trouble adjusting to this... lighter... vision.

One of the problems I am having is that I just don't see someone going to Barnes & Noble, seeing this book on the shelf and saying, "Ooh, I think I'll buy this book, go spend $500 on a kiln and another $300-$400 on miscellaneous tools and learn to fuse glass!" It seems more likely to me that the people who buy this book will have already taken a class, or have a friend who kilnforms who will share their kiln or something. Unlike mosaic work where I can go out and buy a few tools and I am ready to rock, the equipment needed for kilnforming is expensive and daunting.

But the main thing going on here is ego, plain and simple. I've had a night to reflect and my backbrain has beaten my forebrain into submission and I have to admit it. When I started this process I was asked by the publisher if I wanted to include pictures of the work of other artists in the book. Heck yeah, I said. As deadlines even then were short, I approached the first 30 that I could think of. These were people I had met over the years or whose websites I had seen, and all of whose work I had admired. It was an eclectic mix, and I was not concerned with things like, did this person "originate" this technique, or who did they learn from, or were there other people I might be unintentionally snubbing by not asking them. All of those conditions are always going to be true in any small list. Unfortunately, my list, as they say in Mission Impossible (and how appropriate is THAT connection) got out in the open. Not too open, but open enough that there was a small bit of furor and flack in my small community. I don't know how much, but the fact that I know at all means it was not inconsiderable.

So where am I going with all this history? Well it is a two-parter. First, when I approached the other artists I indicated I was writing a primer on kilnforming. I gave the size and layout guidelines. There would be a Basics section--materials, tools, techniques, work-area set-up and safety--and a Projects section with 20 projects ranging from beginner to advanced. This is all well and fine. But there is (in my mind at least) a major difference between a "primer" and a "fluffy, pretty, little project book". What are the other artists going to think? Are they just going to be happy to have images of their work in print? Or are they going to be offended to be associated with "fluff"? And I hope you know what I mean by "fluff": It looks great, but when you really delve into it there isn't all that much of substance, and there is certainly no "this probably will be difficult and frustrating, but persevere because it is worth the effort". I haven't been told specifically NOT to put that kind of info in, but I feel herded in that direction.

So that's the first part. The second part comes from a bit of the reaction I DID get on working with this publisher from other members of our geographically diverse, but pretty tight on-line community. (I am a member of I post and read infrequently, but intensely.) Another book that came out a couple of years ago just got RIPPED on the list (and on in the reviews section) because the title the publisher selected when they translated the work was very similar to a well-loved book written by another member of the list. It wasn't even the author's fault but she and the book just got trashed. I don't know if I am thick-skinned enough to deal with deserved literary (technical) criticism from an honest effort. If I have to write fluff...

So as I write, I have someone who has already disapprovingly declined to participate in my effort virtually perched on my shoulder reading everything I type. From his whispers in my ear, I constantly check myself to make sure what I write is both complete and accurate. This kind of writing for a specific audience (notice it is NOT the publisher's target audience for the book) is keeping me honest and true and not giving me any slack for laziness, and I think it is making the book better than it otherwise would have been, better than it needs to be.

And there is the crux of the matter. I am writing a book that is better than it needs to be. It is taking a huge toll on me emotionally, mentally, and even physically. And it is not financially responsible from the publisher's point of view. They are in business. They don't care about ego. They care about sales, profits, bottom-line. They don't give a rat's ass about esoterica (which after 20 years I have a lot of). They want a book which will appeal to the great unwashed masses. They want me to be the Bob Villa of glass earnestly helping people make simple little things and feel like they are Really Fusing Glass, even if they are just using the same technique over and over again in their little 14" kilns.

So I don't know if it is good or bad that the publishers do not seem to get how truly advanced some of the projects are and how each and every one teaches a new technique. I didn't go for eye-candy. I went for by the time you have done every project in this book you will have tried most of the different kilnforming techniques (although I am light on painting so far). Is that bad? I don't know. Will it flop? I truly have no idea. Maybe I really can't present some of the higher level stuff because I won't have the space to go into all the could-go-wrongs and the what-to-do-with-the-went-wrongs.

What's in other books out there on kilnforming? I honestly don't know. Sure, I have most of them (buying books is a sickness with me--I also have a lot of books on metallurgy). But I only glanced through them when I got them and that was it. By the time anything more recent than Glass Fusing Books 1-3 by Boyce Lundstrom et al came out, I was already comfortable with the hows of kilnforming and I had plenty of ideas of my own so I wasn't interested in the projects. Shar Moorman's book was interesting and had some stuff I remember wanting to try, but I was too lazy to make the conversions from Celsius to Fahrenheit (at least that's how I remember it). So should I look now? Should I try to change course and give the publisher something kinder and gentler--like fool-proof projects? Or should I just keep forging my own path, writing what I need to write, and teaching the projects that will be challenging and not always come out perfectly the first time?

Whatever I decide, I have to do it now. Today is a writing day. The big one for the week. Comments really appreciated on this one.


Bill Paley said...

If you don't write what the editor wants, you don't get published, you don't get paid for all your work, and you don't get credit, even among your peers, for trying to put out a quality product.

Why did you accept this book contract? To be one up on your peers in the glass community? Or to try to present something of what you do to those folk who buy books (generally NOT the great unwashed, by the way)?

Once you decide that, you should be able to decide how to finish the work.

Barbara Muth said...

You may also want to think about whether there may be other ways to get the book you want to write published instead of being bullied into writing a book you hadn't planned to write. You should write what you want to write.

If the scope of the book is not what you had represented to artists, is it possible to give them the opportunity to withdraw from the book? (Not that I would ever want to open such a can of worms...)

Jodi said...

I agree 100% with Barbara. You should be writing what you want, so maybe research other publishing avenues. Good luck. I don't envy your situation right now.

Anonymous said...

I am the kind of person that buys a book, then buys the kiln, the glass and everything else. I'm a "give-me-the-book-and-I-can-do-anything" kind of girl. I bought Brad's book first, a couple other (definitely fluffy) books, then had a kiln delivered a month later. I agree though, that's probably not the norm.

ren said...

hmmm. i see from the following post that you have come to some conclusions already. as someone in publishing, i guess i have some different views. it is always tempting to give more info, to be more generous with your knowledge and to show the amazing range of things that you can do and can be done. but there is a much bigger market for a book that holds a beginner hand and guides them along and that is what is being asked of you. if you can do this, then you have the clout and the info ready to delve deeper, maybe do an intermediate book, or maybe go straight to one full of all your knowledge. maybe don't think of it as fluff, think of it as something to whet the appetite.

i buy a lot of cookbooks, but i almost never use the recipes, i read them for inspiration. some are basic, some are involved, but still, i read and then do my own thing. it doesn't make them less valid, it makes them useful reference. and often they are beautiful and well written reference. my favorite is a vegan cookbook, it's totally engaging and yet it hasn't made me a vegan, it has just made me appreciate how well it is written.

i suspect, from seeing what you write on a daily basis, that this will be a well written and engaging book. isn't that really what we want from any book?

marilyn said...

I kept waiting so long for your book to come out (of course, not as long as you did, and yes I'm one of those people with the 14 inch kiln(arrggggggggggh) soon to get a larger kiln, which I'm sure I will then find too small BTW

I actually keep one copy of yor book at my studio (where I have a tiny bit of space, since am primarily a lampworker, and another at home...for inspiration.
Obviously I am really thrilled with the book, and the amount of information presented. It is too bad that you've had all the tussles with the publisher and the community, and I have also dealt with a nonfiction publisher, and while the boo that resulted was nowhere near what I envisioned, at least it came out! You are to be congratulated for your perserverance BTW, and the book itself