Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Dunlith Hill Writers Guide Collections

The Dunlith Hill Writers Guides were originally conceived as a series of concise e-books, each focused on a single topic. As I developed the guides, it became clear that some of the e-books belonged together.

In conjunction with the release of Artisan Publishing and refreshed editions of the other guides, I’m pleased to announce that the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides are now also available in two collected volumes.

Collection 1: The Artisan Way explores the writing life with:

  1. Professional Relationships: How to Deal with the Characters you can’t Re-write
  2. Sustainable Creativity: How to Enjoy a Committed, Long-term Relationship with your Muse
  3. Artisan Publishing: Why to Choose the Road Less Traveled
And a bonus copy of Surviving the Writing Life: How to Write for Money without Going Crazy

Collection 2: Masterful Writing presents a three-part master class in the art and craft of writing, and includes:

  1. Story Theory: How to Write Like J.R.R. Tolkien in Three Easy Steps
  2. Verisimilitude: How Illusions, Confidence Games, and Skillful Lying can Improve Your Fiction
  3. Character and Archetype: How to Make Readers Fall in Love with your Imaginary Friends

In addition to an e-book bundle (which is more economical than purchasing the guides individually), the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides Collections are also available in trade paperback editions.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Artisan Publishing

Artisan Publishing

Why to Choose the Road Less Traveled

Artisan Publishing

“May you live in interesting times,” is an old Chinese curse, and sounds tame, as curses go, compared to ones that call down withering diseases, plagues of vermin, and the wrath of the undead. Its beauty, however, is that it looks innocuous, but packs a wallop: unlike the gruesome specificity of the typical curses interesting times could mean anything.

Regardless of the cause, times become interesting when old certainties no longer hold and no one knows what to do. Publishing is now in the midst of interesting times. For a substantial portion of the last century and most of the first decade of this one, the publishing industry has been defined by the logistics of distributing books to bookstores. There were innovations, like mass-market paperbacks and book stands in supermarkets and big-box retailers, but none of these changed the fundamental distribution pattern. Setting yourself up as a publisher required a second-mortgage-level investment to print books and a tremendous amount of legwork to arrange for distribution. The advent of electronic publishing changed everything because the barrier to entry dropped to little more than the time and effort required to write the book.

What we used to call publishing (or commercial publishing if we needed to distinguish the standard model, where authors were paid by publishers, from vanity publishing, where authors paid publishers) now gets qualified with words like, traditional, legacy, or even, dinosaur. And now we talk about self-publishing and independent or indie publishing (an attempt to align with the success and credibility of independently produced films and music), and even argue that trading a 70% royalty for a 15% royalty and recognition by a publisher is a new kind of vanity publishing.

But there’s something happening in the market that is far more important than the tug-of-war between dependent and independent publishing models.

The Literary Market Opens Up

In an interview on the Guide to Literary Agents (GLA) blog, Jessica Regel answered the following question:

GLA: You’ve been agenting for almost 10 years now. You’ve got a great perspective on the industry. What do writers need to know about being a writer nowadays that perhaps was not a concern a decade ago?

Jessica Regel: I’m sure writers have been hearing this for years, I know I have, but the quiet, steady mid-list book is dying. It’s extremely difficult to sell a quiet, well-written book. Each project I go out with needs to have that one-line movie pitch. It’s all about the hook—paired with phenomenal writing. [1]

It’s easy to hear that, “It’s extremely difficult to sell a quiet, well-written book,” shake our heads knowingly, and grumble about publishing following in the footsteps other entertainment industries that focus on blockbusters. Regel’s comment, however, is evidence of a fundamental structural change rumbling, like shifting tectonic plates, through the industry.

In 1997, Clayton Christensen published, The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail, [2] in which he explored the generational pattern where once dominant firms are eventually eclipsed by more nimble startups that, in turn, become dominant. According to common wisdom, the old firms became dinosaurs for whom the meteor couldn’t come too soon because their management failed to keep up with changing technology. Christensen’s research uncovered something far stranger: the firms that failed were generally well managed—listening to their customers, investing in research and development, and aggressively marketing their innovations—and yet none of that staved off their eventual demise.

The problem, though, is structural. Christensen showed how, across many industries, companies consistently migrate to the high end of the market where their products enjoy the greatest profit margin. In doing so, they often abandon the low end to new firms with new technology. The key piece in the puzzle that Christensen brought to light was the fact that established firms could rationally abandon the low end of the market because the new technology was so obviously inferior to the older technology the established firms controlled. For example, the manufacturers of 5.25 inch hard drives had nothing to worry about when 3.5 inch hard drives were introduced because the smaller disks were slower and held less data: they were only good for laptops, where space was at a premium. But things tend to get better over time, and in a few years the smaller hard drives were good enough that computer manufacturers standardized on them for both laptop and desktop systems, and suddenly the market for 5.25 inch hard drives evaporated.

What does this have to do with publishing?

The disappearance of mid-list books from agents’ radar is clear evidence of publishers moving toward the high end of the book market and abandoning the low end: it’s no longer worth the time or effort to bring a quiet, mid-list book to market when what publishers really need is a string of bestsellers.

E-books and online markets provide an inferior, but cheaper reading experience. It’s a textbook example of disruptive innovation.

Of course, printed books and the established firms that produce them are not going to go away—at least not anytime soon. Books will continue to be available in a vibrant mix of print and electronic formats. But it’s not hard to imagine a time when printed books, like vinyl records, are only sought out by true aficionados.

The way in which the forces at work in the market for books will ultimately play out is much less important than the fact that established firms are moving toward the high-end of the market, creating space at the low end for smaller, newer firms and even for artisans.

That would be enough to qualify as interesting times, but there is another, equally fundamental, structural shift at work in the market.

The End of Artificial Scarcity

I stopped going to first-run movies a long time ago. I made that decision during the era of local video-rental stores. The fact that I would eventually be able to see the movie, at a cost that was easier to bear on my starving-student budget, took the wind of urgency out of my movie-watching sails.

Now, the same thing has happened with books.

There’s more to the analogy between book-buying and movie-going: both industries do their best business with blockbuster releases because they create value by creating artificial scarcity. Being among the first to see a much anticipated movie or read a major author’s latest release gives short term benefits, above and beyond the value of the story, like bragging rights.

The Internet is well on its way to making anything instantly available. One of the consequences of instant availability is that being first in line to get something the moment it’s released becomes less important. Elizabeth Gumport said:

“Not only do we not want to read about Gary Shteyngart’s latest novel, we don’t even want to know it exists. Newness is not a fixed property. There must be a less arbitrary, more sensible way to encounter books, an organizational scheme better suited to identifying and highlighting excellence; one which doesn’t foreground mediocrities simply because they are the newest mediocrities. ‘Recent’ is not a synonym for ‘relevant.’” [3]

Libraries, the antithesis of theaters and bookstores, are fundamentally about lasting value—not in terms of absolute worth but in the much simpler sense of something in which people continue to find value over time. The challenge for authors and publishers in the brave new electronic world will be to create lasting value that attracts an ever growing audience instead of relying on scarcity to create a bubble of demand around the release.

What is Artisan Publishing?

The opening of the literary market and the end of artificial scarcity have together created an opportunity for a new kind of publisher: an artisan publisher.

The word, artisan, long carried the sense of the common practitioner, as opposed to the artist who brought genius and inspiration to the work. But as mass production blesses us with a collective and mostly uniform affluence, artisan has come to signify a means of production where low unit cost and economies of scale are not the primary objective. Artisan bread, for example, is made by hand even though there are bread factories that can out-produce an army of bakers.

Why, if we are rational economic actors, would we ever choose a product that is more expensive and less available than a mass-produced equivalent? People who prefer artisan breads may argue in terms of the varieties or flavors available nowhere else, or the virtue of supporting local production, but for most people it simply tastes better. Small production batches and traditional, hand-made methods allow skilled craftspeople to invest love, care, and attention to detail to insure the integrity of their work.

Artisan publishing isn’t simply a variation on the theme of doing it yourself. The large, well-stocked home improvement centers dotting our suburban landscape owe their existence more to naivety, false economy, and hubris than to a genuine and supportable conviction that doing it yourself is the best way to get the job done well, right, and in a timely fashion. The path of an artisan publisher begins with having something worth saying and a thorough effort to determine the best way to publish that work. As with our writing, where no character, scene, or sentence is too precious to escape scrutiny, artisan publishing has nothing to do with shortcuts or showing the gatekeepers how wrong they were about your manuscript and everything to do with what is best and right for the project.

What do You Care About?

One of the most important lessons every skilled craftsperson must learn is just because you can doesn’t mean you should. The greatest works of art are exercises in restraint not excess.

Artisan publishing is a patient, laborious path. It’s not enough to have the skill, the aptitude, or even the inclination to publish your own material. You need to know why, both for your particular project and for you as an individual, the way of the artisan is worth all the time and trouble it will cost you.

A journey of a thousand miles may well begin with a single step, but your chances of completing the roughly two million steps that comprise the journey are poor if you don’t know why you’re doing it. There are many bad reasons—one of the worst being because everyone else is doing it—and only a few good ones. The difference is that bad reasons wear away over time but good ones will see you through to the end.

No true craftsperson undertakes a work lightly—not because their work has mystical significance but because the hallmark of skill is to act deliberately. In order to act deliberately you need to know why you’re acting: you need to have a sense of your mission as an artisan publisher. Otherwise, you’ll provide yet another confirmation of the old aphorism that if you’re aiming at nothing you’ll hit it.

Why this Guide?

There are already too many books promising to give you the insider secrets that will enable you to make a fortune in electronic publishing—how to format and upload text, create covers, and build a readership with free, or cheap books, and paid reviews that will make your e-books fly off the virtual shelves.

This guide covers none of that: it’s not a how-to, it’s a why-to. It’s a guide to the context, philosophy, and expectations you should have if you want to be an artisan publisher.

Chapter 2 sets the groundwork with a clear view of the publishing industry. You need to understand what commercial publishers actually do and the roles of author and publisher if you want to participate intelligently.

Chapter 3 takes a sober look at the reasons you shouldn’t choose artisan publishing.

Having laid that groundwork, Chapter 4 explores the advantages of being an artisan publisher, the biggest of which, editorial control, is covered in Chapter 5.

Chapter 6 turns to the challenges you’ll likely face as an artisan publisher. Managing time and your expectations about time is enough of a challenge, in its own right, that it is the subject of Chapter 7.

Chapter 8 outlines aspects of the craft of publishing you will need to master.

The artisan philosophy of business and marketing are covered in chapters 9 and 10, respectively.

Chapter 11 reveals the illusion of a national book culture that holds back many potential artisans.

Chapter 12 explores strategic publishing in an age of abundance (what some have called the problem of discoverability).

And Chapter 13 steps back to put the entire discussion into perspective.

* * *

The electronic frontier is neither literary heaven nor hell. It’s simply a new set of opportunities for readers and writers. It’s not a religion that requires you to renounce other forms of publishing. Rational authors, acting in their best business interests and in light of their particular circumstances, will find good reasons to take advantage of all the different publishing options at various times and places.

The barriers to entry are low enough that you will likely find reasons to participate, but don’t confuse the ease with which you can publish with lower standards. In this new age of digital abundance, the one thing that matters—which is the only thing that has ever mattered—is writing a good book.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

What Ever Happened To…

Planetary alignments are portentous events. Project alignments just mean everything takes longer.

This lonely corner of the net has been silent not because of inactivity but its opposite.

Writing, while one of many modes of making, is still one of my primary passions. But the scope of my efforts over the past year has expanded to something we might call production.

I’ve added a seventh volume, Artisan Publishing: Why to Choose the Road Less Traveled, to the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. But because each of the previous volumes had been modified to include a reference to the new volume it was also an opportunity to revise and refresh those volumes — essentially republishing the entire series.

But, as the advertisements say, that’s not all. There was enough material with the new volume to warrant combining the guides into two collections devoted to the life and craft of the writer. The collections are now available as trade paperbacks as well as e-books (and a better deal than purchasing the guides individually).

That work, however, was interrupted while I put on my audio book producer hat to narrate, edit, and master a seventeen-and-a-half-hour long gonzo steam punk adventure novel for my friend Dave Butler.

All of this work is finally finished and available. But for a long time it wasn’t. With all the inter-dependencies among the writing guides there was a great deal of work without many visible signs of progress and so there was nothing useful to share about the project until it was finished.

Now it’s time to introduce the work and share some observations. I’ll provide more details about these projects in subsequent posts over the next few weeks.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides.

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Ideas: Think Differently

Like the old beer commercial where people argued whether the best thing about the brew was that it, "tastes great," or that it's, "less filling," writers persist identifying themselves as, "plotters," or "pantsers."

If we must have distinctions, I think, "architect," and, "gardener," respectively are much better labels.

But we'd be even further ahead to view architecture and gardening, not as defining our nature as writers but as techniques in our toolbox that we use--like an artist uses pastels and oils--when appropriate.

I came across evidence, on the PsyBlog, that I'm not entirely out to lunch for thinking such a thing. They describe a study, in a post titled, "Unusual Thinking Styles Increase Creativity," in which people who solved problems "using systematic patterns of thought" (rational) and people who solved problems "by setting the[ir] mind[s] free to explore associations" were asked to change their problem-solving style.
The researchers wondered if people's creativity could be increased by encouraging them to use the pattern of thinking that was most unusual to them. So, those people who naturally preferred to approach creative problems rationally, were asked to think intuitively. And the intuitive group was asked to think rationally for a change.

Participants were given a real-world problem to solve: helping a local business expand. The results were evaluated by managers from the company involved. When they looked at the results, the manipulation had worked: people were more creative when they used the thinking style that was most unusual for them.

One of the reasons this may work is that consciously adopting a different strategy stops your mind going down the same well-travelled paths. We all have habitual ways of approaching problems and while habits are sometimes useful, they can also produce the same results over and over again.
The parallel should be clear: architects (or plotters) prefer to write rationally; gardeners (or pantsers) prefer to write intuitively. You likely feel more comfortable in one mode or the other. But if your deeper goal is to write creatively you would do well to switch up your style.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. This article is from Sustainable Creativity: How to Enjoy a Committed, Long-term Relationship with your Muse. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Ideas: The Hallmarks of a Good Idea

It seems only proper, after encouraging you to distrust your first idea, that we should look into the question of how you know you have a good idea.

Of course, it's not possible to be certain you have a good idea until you test it on others. If it were, we'd have institutions that follow the model of drug companies devoted to finding and exploiting as many good ideas as possible. So the good news is that no one has a monopoly on good ideas. The bad news is that the best we can do is find heuristics to help us sort the good ideas out from the bad.

One of the best heuristics I've found is that good ideas have a longer shelf life or more staying power than mediocre ideas.

I once heard of a couple who didn't buy anything until they'd talked about needing it at least three times.

Similarly, if an idea comes back to you at least three times you may be on to something.

But by, "comes back to you," I mean something more than simply remembering the idea. When John Brown talks about creativity, he emphasizes, "zing." That's John's way of saying the idea gives you an electric shimmer along your spine each time you savor it.

Good ideas are the ones that still deliver that zing when you come back to them the third or fourth time.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. This article is from Sustainable Creativity: How to Enjoy a Committed, Long-term Relationship with your Muse. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Ideas: Don't Trust the First One

I've encouraged you not to stop with one good idea. Implicit in that advice was the assumption that you started with a good idea. Being certain that you have a good idea is much harder than recognizing when your idea falls short of good.

The first litmus test for a poor idea is simple: is it your first idea?

In the game show Family Feud, the challenge wasn't to come up with the correct answer but to guess the answers most likely to be given by the hundred people surveyed. Of the four or five hidden answers, the top one or two usually account for more than half the responses. That is, the first answer that came to mind for a person taking the survey likely came to mind to every second or third person taking the survey.

As we've often observed, 'novel,' means, 'new.' If you go with your first idea, you stand a good chance of going down a well-worn path. If you want to be a novelist, you must internalize Monty Python's catch phrase, "And now for something completely different."

But this isn't novelty simply for novelty's sake. The deeper question is how can you take the raw conceptual material and make it your own.

Chances are, your first idea really isn't your idea. (Why, after all, did so many of the people surveyed for the game show come up with the same answer?) It's simply the first association that bubbled up into your consciousness. The first association is likely the strongest, having been reinforced by external influences. To make the idea your own, you need to let it steep in your unique soup of mental associations until it morphs into something that's unmistakably you.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. This article is from Sustainable Creativity: How to Enjoy a Committed, Long-term Relationship with your Muse. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Ideas: Strength Through Association

You've likely heard the spiritual, Dem Bones, and know that the toe bone's connected to the foot bone, and the foot bone's connected to the ankle bone, and so on. It's both an anatomy lesson, of sorts, and reference to the Biblical prophet Ezekiel's vision of a valley of dry bones.

In the vision, Ezekiel prophesies, as commanded, to the bones and they come together, bone to bone, and sinews and flesh until "and exceeding great army" stands before him. Without delving into the religious significance of the vision, we can appreciate the structural significance: by themselves, the bones are dry and impotent but in proper association they become a strength and a beauty that is greater than the sum of its parts.

One of the strengths of the mass of interconnected neurons inside our skulls is in making associations.

I've talked before about story molecules: how a single idea isn't enough to carry a novel, which is why you need a constellation of ideas, working together, to sustain a long-form narrative. Associations are what bind those ideas together.

Think of it this way: if ideas are points, associations are the lines that join those points. Two point can be joined with one line. With three points, each can be connected to the other two with three lines. Four points have six lines; Five points have ten lines; and six points have fifteen. Each time you add one more idea, the number of possible connections jumps. It doesn't take many ideas before you have a rich web of associations.

Another way to look at it is that associating two ideas is a simple way to create a whole (the associated ideas) greater than the sum of the parts (the ideas in isolation).

Let's play a game: we'll start with one object, a gun, and associate it by proximity (i.e., placing it next to) another.
  • What comes to mind if we place our gun next to a shot of whiskey?
  • Now, what comes to mind if we place our gun next to a pair of baby shoes?
Associations become even more powerful if we link ideas into a chain. There was a fascinating series on PBS called Connections, in which host James Burke showed how an event or innovation in the past traced "through a series of seemingly unrelated connections to a fundamental and essential aspect of the modern world."

The associations in your stories need not be so profound, but you can use the same principle, particularly when brainstorming, to turn common-place ideas into something special.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. This article is from Sustainable Creativity: How to Enjoy a Committed, Long-term Relationship with your Muse. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /