Taking It In The Snot Locker (UPDATED)
I wrote a few days ago how novelist Sue Grafton, she of the Letter Mysteries, dropped a few depth charges on us self-pubbers who should apparently remain confined to the deep, cold depths of obscurity. Her comments not only annoyed me, but actually left me in a condition that could certainly be coined as “approaching anger.” I felt her words were needlessly snobby and, more importantly, were perhaps crafted to intentionally insult. It’s as if she actually wanted to take one in the snot locker and be left with a mouthful of bloody Chiclets…
…or maybe, she’s just not as precise in selecting her words as she might have us believe. A shame her publicist wasn’t on hand to help her out, no? Authors say the strangest things when they think no one is listening.
Apparently, Forbes Magazine feels this may be the case. I present to you herewith the article, Publishing Is Broken, We’re Drowning In Indie Books – And That’s A Good Thing.
Some select quotes, cherry-picked by You-Know-Who:
Indie Success and The Publishing Lottery
Another reality that goes against the establishment view of Indie authors is that some of them have, in fact, gone on to sign very significant contracts with major publishing houses. A few examples:
- Amanda Hockingwrote 17 teen supernatural suspense novels in her spare time and then self-published them, becoming the first Indie sensation before she signed a $2mm deal with St. Martins Press.
- John Lockesold over two million copies of his Indie books before signing a limited deal with Simon & Schuster to get physical distribution for some of his novels.
- E.L. James wrote the precursor to Fifty Shades of Grey online as fan fiction and self-published it on her own website before Vintage acquired it. She was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people for 2012.
Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule and these examples don’t necessarily prove that publishing is broken. But the conceit that Indie authors are merely a bunch of lazy hacks unwilling to face rejection ignores the fact that even the biggest proponents of the old publishing system admit that there are many talented published authors nobody has ever heard of. Have you read The Lion’s Eye?
And this line of thinking also ignores mid-list authors. These men and women have talent and persistence but write for small market segments. The economics of traditional publishing makes it very hard for either publisher or author to profit from a pool of only 10,000 to 30,000 readers, no matter how devoted. Amazon, on the other hand, allows Indie authors to keep up to 70% of their e-book royalties, compared to the 15-20% royalties that conventional book publishers offer authors on printed books – and mainstream publishing royalties are much worse for ebooks. Publishing independently can allow mid-list authors to make a reasonable living on writing.
There is something very odd about this war of words between successful authors on different sides of a tectonic shift in the publishing world: it doesn’t exist in many similar industries facing the same sort of technological upheaval. You don’t hear Christina Aguilera or Adam Levine knocking indie bands. Instead they joined a show called “The Voice” which aims to capitalize on the credibility of indie artists by finding journeyman artists and giving them a shot at major label contracts. Indie filmmakers are revered, not reviled, partly because they eschew the studio system and its constraints on artistic expression. And the art world seems keenly attuned to the idea that the next Georgia O’Keeffe might be producing revolutionary work somewhere out of their sight until she turns 30.
Bold by me.
This is what’s perhaps the most puzzling part of this entire I’m-Gonna-Bust-Up-Your-Rice-Bowl paradigm exhibited by trade-published writers: their incessant need to come out swinging, when by all accounts they’ve “made it.” I guess it’s kind of like the medical profession, where young doctors are put on shifts that last for days by their superiors, despite the potential that critical misdiagnoses are more apt to occur when the attending physician is suffering from utter exhaustion–the old guard had to go through it, so the same must hold true for the new one. As such, it seems writers aren’t really professional writers until they’ve been rejected a million times and managed to somehow, some way, sail into a perfect storm of opportunity where their work is picked up by an agent or a publisher (or any other select circumstance which results in trade publication).
Well yeah, in 2009, that’s pretty much how it worked.
Grafton, Thor, the incredibly out-of-touch Author’s Guild–all of them orbit around the celestial body called trade publishing (aka “traditional publishing,” a designation which drives people in the trade business crazy), and it certainly appears they haven’t quite figured out that their industry is going through some seriously tumultuous change. It’s a shame they’re more interested in circling the wagons and manning the battlements to prevent upstart self-publishers from elbowing them away from the trough; it does seem like an opportunity to practice some inclusiveness, and thereby make an attempt to shape the coming changes, as opposed to being overwhelmed by them.
Did horse breeders try to shoot up Henry Ford when he began manufacturing automobiles? Did any of the major aviation manufacturers get all nervous and jittery when Igor Sikorsky started experimenting with helicopters? Damn, did Kodak go on the warpath when digital media came into being, even though they had to know the technology would lead to their death knell?
I’ve written millions of words in my quest to become a writer. Most of them were bad, some were merely adequate, a precious few bordered on being good. But the distant success of my works had little to do with my ability to tell a story–while my detractors are legion, it does seem I’ve proven at least that much–it had everything to do with them landing in front of the right person, at the right time, on the right day, on the right side of the slush pile.
Folks, those are incredibly steep odds to overcome.
The self-publish “movement,” such as it is, seems to only be growing, gathering more momentum as each day comes to a close. Trade publishers, while perhaps not on the ropes, are feeling it in the bottom line. And when they start to bleed, they of course spread the wealth, which means folks like Grafton, Thor, Turow, et al, might not find themselves in the positions of advantage they’ve grown accustomed to. The publishing industry is changing, and while no one has a firm bead on what the end game might be, I don’t think anyone reading this post has to be related to The Amazing Kreskin to figure that change is gonna hurt.
And comments like the ones being cast off by trade-published writers like those already named aren’t likely to increase my sympathy for them when they wake up one day and find their new contracts are suddenly less rewarding than they had been in the past. And for sure, they’re not about to make me fold up my self-publishing tent and go home.
An example: in 2009, I didn’t make jack writing. Not a single penny.
At the end of 2012, I’ll likely realize around $80,000…in profit. (And my accountant hates it when I tell people how much I make, so for those of you who might have been curious why I haven’t been posting my sales data this year, there is your explanation.)
So yeah, waiting a year or so for an agent to read my query letter and then request a partial or a full submission, and then take a year or more to accept or reject? Sorry, it’s just not worth my time any longer. Because I can earn now, and be judged by the readers, the people both self-pubbers and trade pubber rely upon. The readers are the ones forcing this change, not Amazon, not self-publishers, not the fact that some company in Taiwan makes chips that go into iPads, or that a couple of guys named Jacobsen and Comiskey invented E-Ink.
My middle name isn’t Copernicus, so if I can understand this, I’m amazed that a bunch of self-reverential smarty-pants in the publishing industry can’t figure it out for themselves.
But hey, greater minds than mine have articulated all the above with far fewer words: check out the musings of David Gaughran or, for something a little more pointed, Hugh Howey’s epic rejoinder, complete with super-cool graphic that I wish I’d thought of. (I remember well when HH was trounced by the loving souls over at AbsoluteWrite, and I rejoice that his fame and fortune doubtless has many a trade published poster there writhing in AbsoluteJealousy, if nothing else.)
At the end of the day, all this asshattery is going to hurt a lot of folks, and it might be beneficial to all if perhaps some of the Big Name Authors might be a tad more selective with their words. Because while it’s amusing to watch them make asses of themselves, it’s also going to make their eventual comeuppance even more of a train wreck. (And I don’t know about you, but watching trains wreck sounds kind of fun.)
The upshot of all this is, there will be winners, and there will be losers. And I don’t think I’m on the losing team.
Regrettably, my previous analysis stands.