They Just Don’t Get It…

I tried to resist the fray, but sue me, I’m weak. So here goes.

gatekeeperHugh Howey and Anonymous X published their first report at authorearnings.com. I won’t go into the details (go read it for yourself), except to say I knew it would cause a shitstorm. To see one example, take a peek at the absurd rebuttal from Dear Author PG posted on The Passive Voice blog. All this comes on the heels of a sudden spate of self-publishing bashing by such luminaries as Steve Zacharius, Robert Gottlieb, Donald Maas and others. (Joe Konrath had a great run fisking their foolishness over on his blog. One example where he fisks Mike Shatzkin.)

As interesting as it all is, I’ve noticed a whole lot of “missing the point” going on.

It’s really not about the money.

Oh sure, money is a measure, an easy way to calculate one’s progress. Money is very nice and pays the bills. But every real writer I’ve ever met (and by real, I mean the passionate, even hypergraphic wordsmiths and storytellers who love nothing more than bringing mere words to life) will write and tell stories even there is no money in it. Their real goal is not money, but readers. Because without readers a piece of writing is incomplete. It exists, it is tangible, but without readers it is dancing on an empty stage in a closed theater or singing in the shower. Readers complete the connection.

Publishing houses know this impulse, this hunger. They know writers will endure almost any abuse in order to be read. For a long, long time they were the only game in town and it was their way or the highway.

Self-publishing is nothing new. Anyone with the bucks to pay for it could get their work printed and bound. But what the individual could not do on any scale was find readers. The publishing houses had a lock on distribution. While a bookstore might carry self-published hiking guides or cookbooks from local authors, they wouldn’t touch a self-published novel. Self-publishers were reduced to hand selling every copy. Unless one were selling books via seminars or workshops, there was no feasible way for the self-publisher to connect with readers.

Because the publishers had so much power, they (of course) abused it. Ever seen a publishing contract? It’s ugly and from what I understand, they are getting uglier. Want to know if your publisher is paying all your royalties? Be prepared to pay a CPA and sign a non-disclosure statement. Want input on your cover, editorial, marketing, distribution, pricing and scheduling? Find another job.

Writers endured it because they had no choice. Because they had no choice, writers were afraid. “The publishing world is small, all those agents and editors talk, so don’t make waves! Don’t piss anyone off! Watch out, if you complain, you’ll get blacklisted!” In public writers LOVED their publishers. In private, in hushed conversations, they shared horror stories. You don’t know pain until a publisher has botched your book–and there is not a damned thing you can do about it. Except take the blame for the lousy sales, that is.

Then there’s the soul-crushing despair that the cycle of submission and rejection can cause. On one hand it’s a badge of honor to be able to say you endured the lengthy response times and form rejections before some agent or editor recognized your brilliance. On the other hand it’s humiliating. Even more so when I see all the nasty mockery and snark by agents and editors all over the net. It’s as if they enjoy humiliating writers. Many probably do. That they would show such disdain publicly says a lot about the general attitude in the industry.

Then along comes Amazon and Smashwords and ebooks and something astonishing happens. Suddenly self-publishing is feasible. Hugh Howey’s Author Earnings data proves, without a doubt, that it is feasible. Self-publishing offers the means for any writer, anywhere, to find readers.

And that’s the real point.

Writers can find readers without the humiliations, the shitty contracts, the bad editorial, the lousy production values and high prices. They can do it without the condescending attitudes, disrespect and disregard. Writers can go with a publishing house if they want to. But if they don’t want to, they have the feasible option of self-publishing.

Judging by the sheer number of self-published works available to readers, a whole lot of writers don’t WANT to go with publishing houses.

The publishers have stood between writers and readers for so long they believe they are essential to the process. Thousands of writers and millions of readers are proving that not only are publishers non-essential, but in many cases they throw up unnecessary barriers and actively interfere with the connection between writers and readers.

Publishers are running scared. Fewer writers are demanding entry at the clubhouse door. Many couldn’t care less that the clubhouse even exists. My God, publishers and agents are being *gulp* rejected. Writers no longer fear being “blacklisted” and are talking openly in blogs and forums about publishers and contracts and money and all those other “forbidden” topics that publishers don’t want discussed. The feasibility of self-publishing has proved the trad publishers are non-essential–now they are running the risk of becoming non-entities.

That’s where the nastiness is coming from. This is what has reduced publishers and agents to act like that jerk in the bar who, upon being snubbed by a pretty girl, calls her a “fat lesbo who hates men.” Sorry, fella, she just hates you.

There are some things the traditional publishers are very good at and they have the infrastructure and connections and experience to do them exceptionally well. Unfortunately, for them, a lot of things they do well can also be done very well by the self-publisher. And, the self-publisher can do it faster and more cheaply. Doubly unfortunately, what publishers don’t do well at all is compete. They don’t like being reduced to “an option.” The days are over when they can sit back and wait for treasure to fall into their laps. The days are over when they can say, “My way or the highway,” because nowadays that highway is pretty damned tempting.

This little commentary of mine isn’t about “Us versus Them.” It’s not a declaration of war. As a reader I don’t give a damn who publishes the writers I like. I’ll discuss pros and cons of publishing options with any writer who asks–and there are pros and cons with all options. This is a reality check. My data might be all anecdotal (except for my dealings with multiple publishers and agents and the contracts I’ve signed), but it is twenty-plus years of anecdotes. I can read the signs. I can see with my own eyes what is going on. The question is, can you?

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38 thoughts on “They Just Don’t Get It…

  1. Heck yes they are losing talent. I for one chose to self-publish without bothering to ring at their gate…and while I may not be a platinum talent, I am at least as good as half the writers big publishing selects in my genre. And it wasn’t a vitriolic decision on my part, based on years of rejections or bad contracts. It was more, I looked at what they would ask of me and what they would give in return, and I decided I’d rather make my beer money on my own than via them while they made steak money on me.

    • I think you are part of the New Norm, Lily. Weighing options, running personal P&L, and finding out you’re a far better business person than the paternalistic establishment want you to believe.

      There is no magic involved in publishing. It is hard work, but it is not difficult work. Anyone smart enough to write a book is smart enough to figure out how to publish it. To the risk-takers go the rewards.

    • Well said, Lily! I submitted to the Harper Voyager cattle call – to prove to myself that I could survive rejection – and then I published on my own, because I was giving myself a better deal. As Indies, we still have to crawl out of the slush pile to be seen, but at least it’s now /our/ slush pile.

    • Thanks, Julia. As much as the trad publishing industry has irked me over the years, I truly don’t want to see it collapse. They have provided me countless hours of pleasure and information. I do hate to see them so side-tracked.

  2. You’ve cut to the heart of it, Jaye, and you speak for my heart. It’s all about the readers. Many, or even most of us don’t think in ‘us versus them’ terms. We just don’t want to be pushed into a corner by bullies for doing what we love.

    • I truly believe if there ever was an “Us vs Them” war, it was between publishers and readers. Another thing that Hugh’s reports shows me is that there are genre readers who are being seriously underserved.

  3. “As a reader I don’t give a damn who publishes the writers I like.”

    That’s the other side of the “it they don’t get”. Howey’s report demonstrated that and it “does not compute”. Think about it. If you’re in the publishing biz and along comes a spreadsheet that says writers can do just fine without you AND readers can do just fine without you, what’s left?

    • I would go a step further than “I don’t give a damn about the publisher–just as I mentioned to an agent a week or so ago: When it’s a writer whose work I love, whose work I’ve paid hardcover crazy-butt prices for in the past, writers I preorder cause I have to have it ASAP, whatever they are spewing from their imaginations–I will buy their books WITHOUT COVERS. Yes, I don’t care if the ebook has a cover, a blurb, a recommendation. I will throw money at them just for the story without the pretties. And I think most readers who are fervent fans of X number of writers will do the same: Just gimme the story. Toss me the cover art and whatnot later, when you have time, don’t care.

      What? Like I won’t read the next Dresden Files novel cause it’s not got a cover and blurb? Pfft. I prolly spend 1/2 of a second looking at the cover long enough to read the title and off I go.

      I wish Butcher went independent. I’d probably get my fix sooner. Ditto Koontz, Gaiman, and other SF/Horror writers.

      And I say this as a gal who has collected vintage SF for the covers, specifically. I like a beautiful cover. But other than collecting purposes, it’s all about the tale.

    • What’s left is learning how to show some respect, William. Not too long ago, this was a conversation I had with a publisher: ME: We want 50% of net for ebook sales. PUB: Sorry, 25% of net is industry standard. ME: From where I come from 35-70% of list is standard. PUB: That just show YOU don’t know anything about publishing. ME: Uh huh, no thank you very much.

  4. Pingback: ebook sales for 2013, part one | Jonathan Moeller, Pulp Writer

  5. I agree that the whole point of his report was to just show that writers are not chained to traditional publishers. Self-publishing can be a valid career choice for many writers, and might even be the right one.

  6. But, but, we’re not supposed to paying attention to the money thing at all. We’re writers! We should focus on just writing.

    So says this Teleread writer. She admits that she’s not a book writer, but she had to write something, by gum, so she decided to lecture us on what we should do.

    I think this wins the prize for the most deadheaded response, against tough competition.

    http://www.teleread.com/writing/how-much-attention-should-writers-pay-to-hugh-howey/

  7. This is a great editorial. Well written and says it all. As for me, I’m so happy self-pubbing I’m not sure I would have enjoyed a traditional contract had I nailed it. I can see trad pub surviving for non-fiction as that needs to adhere to journalistic standards (in theory.) But for fiction I think trad pub is done for, and frankly I’m glad because of the angst they threw my way. I’ve said it many times but nothing made (or makes) me laugh more than a trad pub warrior who says “I want to see something original!” then publishes another sexy vampire novel. Nothing against that if that’s your thing, but don’t be telling me it’s original. 🙂 Anyway, all the best Jaye!

    • Hi Larry. I used to have an editor who’d tell me to bring her something fresh and exciting and original. Then she’d send me a list of movies and tell me to write books with the same “feel.” Uh huh.

      • Ditto, Jaye – as I slogged my way through 22 contracted books with traditional publishing.
        Now, I savor the role of Independent Author-Publisher. Now, I control my books and please my readers.
        Oh, and now I’m happy again! Laura Taylor – Romance Writer

      • Every job and process has painful parts. When those outweigh the joyful, satisfying, even fun parts, then it is time for a new job.

  8. Howey’s report was definitely a bombshell to some in legacy publishing, but I thought this debate was all settled back in 2011 – there’s money to be made in self-publishing (or gaining readers as Jaye puts it). Honestly, I don’t see how how authors in certain genres, particular romance/erotica, could not self-publish. Readers are more demanding than mob bosses for new books from some of the big names and going through traditional channels just takes too long in this day and age.

    • I try to not be too strident (when possible), especially in forums and such, but (and this is just my opinion) anyone writing romance is absolutely out of their minds to go with a trad publisher. There is zero upside for a traditional publishing contract. It’s not just the money, it’s the distribution. Indie bookstores remain stubbornly anti-romance novels. I don’t know how it is in other towns, but in mine (which is an extremely book-happy city) mass market paperbacks are getting harder and harder to find. Retail shelf space is disappearing in supermarkets and at Walmart. Romance readers shop heavily online and they’re insatiable. For the print holdouts, print-on-demand is inexpensive and easy to do.

      For other genres, especially if the writer has a series, writers need to consider very carefully the availability and scheduling of a publisher’s catalog. Readers are getting used to being able to find and obtain their favorite series. They HAVE to ask if the publisher is capable of keeping up with demand. If the answer is no, then the writer ill-serves himself and his readers by going with that publisher.

  9. And what’s up with people who depend on authors for a paycheck (agents, publishers, etc.) publicly mocking them on Twitter (Jaye provided the link in her post)? Who the hell do these people think they are. If I said something negative about a client, who we depend on to pay the bills/salaries/etc., on a public channel, my ass would be fired in about two seconds and I’d get deported. For those of you folks who’ve been in the game a while, has this always been the case? Or is it sort of like a death rattle?

    • The public nastiness is a relatively new development, Paul. But trust me, the attitude behind it has been around a long, long time. Agents and editors (not all, but many) look down their noses on “supplicants.” And disrespect for writers has been endemic in publishing for as long as I’ve been involved. I have been told such things as, “Then get a day job,” when I pointed out that it’s been months and I still haven’t received my advance, and “Those are the kinds of questions nobody around here is EVER going to answer,” when I asked where the figures on my royalty statements came from.

    • Paul wrote: And what’s up with people who depend on authors for a paycheck (agents, publishers, etc.) publicly mocking them on Twitter (Jaye provided the link in her post)?

      I know, right? It astonishes me. But as some have pointed out–including Kris Rusch a year or so ago about the literary agency that blatantly sold out their midlist with that contract addendum– when agents are the defenders of publishing and not authors, it’s time to look for a better/another agent. Or, I imagine, some forgo them altogether. And here, silly me, I always thought agents were about championing, protecting, and nurturing writers.

  10. I began my career in the traditional sense and like so many other authors believed I didn’t have a viable alternative. Three years later I terminated my contract, and later learned a dozen or so other authors represented by the same publisher did the same. Their reason? Breach of contract and fraud. FWIW, this publisher is still in business actively recruiting new writers. Those charges seem to have fallen on deaf ears.

    No writer should feel forced to sign a one-sided, unnegotiable contract in order to reach readers.

    Thank goodness for indie publishing and readers who don’t care HOW a book gets into their hands. All they want is a great read. End of story.

  11. I’ve said, again and again, that my decision to self-publish wasn’t about the money, or about the potential of being rejected, as much as it was about the kind of treatment I’m not willing to accept. For years, that meant I didn’t bother writing new material or submitting for publication because there simply weren’t other viable options. Publication wasn’t worth what I’d have to put up with.

    Now, it simply isn’t an issue.

  12. Excellent post and excellent insight. Thank you very, very much. Your blog just became one of my daily reads. I spent years writing with no hope of getting my work read or published, even writing about Mexico’s drug war to a tiny audience until I saw Smashwords and epubs existed. I was lifted onto the lifeboat Smashword provided and I haven’t looked back. And I am grateful.

    I had been down some about writing because my work doesn’t sell very well, but your blog post seems to have gotten me back on track.

    Thank you.

    Chris Covert
    Rantburg.com

  13. Pingback: Necia Phoenix | Things make up things

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