I read something over on The Passive Voice that has been bugging the crap out of me.
6/ Someone To Say ‘No’ This is the big one. It’s counter-intuitive to most indie authors, and even to many authors who come from traditional publishing. One of the things I love about indie publishing is the freedom. It’s very liberating to not have anyone to shoot down your ideas, to be able to play with different formats of stories or different genres, to take a chance on an idea and see how it flies. That power restores our ability to take a chance on an idea that just won’t let go of our imagination.
But who will tell an indie author if he or she has it totally wrong? As tedious as it can be to build consensus, there is merit in listening to other voices. Where will I find that voice? Everyone I consult in this market is being paid by me. I’m the client of my freelance editor, which reverses the balance of power between us. Just as in the traditional publishing market, I couldn’t tell my editor that I wouldn’t make change X to my book (or do it by Y date), my editor now can’t tell me to make change X. A freelance editor might believe she can’t tell a client indie author things that author won’t want to hear.
Power is held by the one who pays.
(Deborah Cooke–the original article is well worth reading)
I had a strong reaction when I read it. I like to think I’ve gained enough maturity to examine my own reactions before I start spouting off. Plus, I’m horrendously overworked these days and even commenting on blogs is an indulgence. So it’s been sitting inside my head, nagging at me as I wonder why this is wrong.
The answer came the other day while I was engaged in an email conversation with a client. One of the things I said to him was:
Promotion and marketing don’t sell books. Promo and marketing get your name out there. That’s it. What sells books is word of mouth. So you do your promo then act pleasantly surprised if your efforts do result in a few sales. Where your real energy goes is into the stories. You write, get better, write more, get even better, and eventually you figure out what your readers like and then you give it to them, plus some. Every single “overnight success” I know personally has been plugging away for years. You’ll know you’ve “made it” when you have readers arguing over whether you’re best thing since Skippy peanut butter or the worst literary fraud who ever existed.
Here’s the thing, back in the good ol’ bad days of traditional publishing, writers had one road to travel to publication. Submit their work to agents and editors until somebody, somewhere said “Yes.” A writer could spend months or years on the submission/rejection treadmill, and quite often they never did find the right person at the right time to say “Yes.” There are some (I used to be one) who feels that grind builds character and makes writers better writers. I don’t believe that anymore. In fact, I think it’s the opposite. I think the submission/rejection grind wrecked or outright destroyed far more writers than it ever helped–even those who got publishing contracts, and in some cases, especially those who got publishing contracts.
The reason I’ve changed my mind is because the prevailing myth is that the reason agents and editors reject writing is because it’s no good. It’s not just a myth, it’s an outright lie. The ONLY reason any work is rejected is because the agent or editor doesn’t think they can sell it. That’s it. The only reason. One person (or a committee) decides a particular piece of work is unsaleable, and rejects it.
Some agents and editors are better than others at reading the market and knowing what will sell. But the vast majority are just as dumb as the rest of us and so they’re just guessing. I’ve met a lot of publishing house editors and several agents. Some are quite talented at what they do. I’ve never met one who was infallible. Most of them are just like me: established tastes and strong opinions. Unfortunately taste and opinions do not make for good business sense. For example, I love Anne Tyler’s books and I’ve never been able to make it past chapter three in a Nora Roberts novel. Were I an agent or trad editor and something that reminded me of Anne Tyler crossed my desk, I’d dub it good or great, and I’d reject anything that smacked of Nora Roberts. I would tell myself I’m making my decision based on sound business principles, but the reality is, I’m just another goof who can’t see past my own biases.
Ms. Cooke asks: “But who will tell an indie author if he or she has it totally wrong?”
My answer is: “Nobody has a right to.”
Writers, editors, and agents have only their own prejudices, tastes and opinions to judge the worthiness of a work. The only people who actually know what will sell are readers.
I do some copy editing and a whole lot of proofreading, and some of the books I work on appeal to my tastes and others don’t. Some are beautifully written, others aren’t. Some are slickly professional, some are rough or even amateurish. It’s not my place to judge a work’s worthiness. In fact, no writer wants to ask me about the saleability of a work because I’m the last person anyone should ask. A former friend and I used to have a running joke: if I adored a story she wrote, chances were it would not sell, but if I hated it, even loathed it, it would not only sell, but probably pick up a few awards along the way. I know what I like and I’m very passionate about it and given time to think I can make pretty good arguments as to why I like or dislike any particular piece of writing. I haven’t a clue about why anybody else likes what they do. I can Monday morning quarterback with the best of them and sometimes I think I can figure out the appeal of best sellers, but it’s just guessing.
If a client asks my advice on how to improve the CRAFT of writing, I can go on for days. I’m pretty good at pinpointing where a writer is interfering with the reader. No writer should ever ask me if they should publish. How the hell should I know? More importantly, I don’t have the power or the right to tell anyone to not publish. As a reader, yes, I can decide if I want to shell out cash and then invest my time, or not. As an editor? Absolutely not.
Back on the submission/rejection grind, a lot of writers did get better. Not because their writing was rejected. It was because they kept writing. If you keep writing, you can’t help but improve because practice really does make perfect.
The trouble with the submission/rejection grind was that a lot of rejected manuscripts ended up in drawers or under the bed or tossed in the garbage. The only thing wrong with them was that some editor or agent (or even a lot of editors and agents) decided they didn’t know how to sell it to readers. Readers, if they knew about all those lost/forgotten/trashed stories, might disagree.
I’m of the mind these days that if you write it, let readers decide if it’s something they might like–and NO ONE ELSE. Not your critique partners, not an editor, not an agent, not a reviewer, and certainly not organizations like Authors United or Authors Guild. The latter can spout all they want about the evils of Amazon and how self-publishers are destroying literature and culture by flooding the market with cheap crap. Reality is, how many of you have ever walked into a book store and said, “Holy shit, there are way too many books! I’m outta here!” No? Yeah, me neither. Do publishers and writers have a discoverability problem? They sure do. Readers don’t, though. Readers know what they like and they know how to find it and they don’t need some “curator of culture” holding their hand. I, personally, don’t give a rip about how many books are published each year. It doesn’t make a bit of difference to me. If I want something, I know how to find it. Everything else is ignored.
Nobody is entitled to reader attention. Everybody has to earn it–whether you’re just starting out, or you’re Douglas Preston of Authors United (who, if you type in his name on Amazon will bring up over 1000 results). If you earn it, you reap sales and accolades and maybe even a living. If you don’t, well, you can either give up or get better.
To my way of thinking, self-publishing the early works is a lot like the submission/rejection grind, EXCEPT for one very important distinction: Instead of seeking out that one person who is guessing your work is salable, you’re putting it out in front of a whole lot of people who actually KNOW if it’s salable or not. You won’t have to wait weeks, months or even years to find out either. You’ll find out in real time. Readers might tell you “No.” They might turn up their noses and ignore you completely. It’s a risk you take. The thing is, it’s YOUR risk. It’s your time, your energy, your vision, your money. If you believe in what you’re doing, then do it, damn it, and don’t waste time seeking permission. If you miss the mark, oh well, roll up your sleeves and try again.
Deborah Cooke said it herself: Power is held by the one who pays.
That I agree with 100%. Except, she means the self-publishing WRITER and I mean the READER.
On the practical side, you might benefit from expert advice, even if you pay for it. Not permission, not validation, not praise, not attaboys, not judgement–advice. There are as many reasons why a particular book doesn’t sell as there are books. It could be timing, it could be packaging, it could be subject matter, it could be the writing itself. It’s all guesswork. As an indie writer/publisher, you’ve got a lot of room to experiment and grow. You’ve got time for readers to find your work (a HUGE advantage over traditional publishing). If you think you could be doing better and should be doing better and can’t figure out on your own how to do better, then it will benefit you to seek advice. But don’t make the mistake of asking anyone–especially someone you’re paying– “Do you like it?” Because it’s pointless. Be specific. “What can I do to improve my writing?” “Is my packaging working?” “How come readers are giving up on my novel after only reading three chapters?” The thing about paying for advice is that you are free to take it, or not. If it rings true to you and you’re capable of following it, you’d be a fool not to. If it doesn’t make sense, then you’re out a few bucks. Big deal.
In the meantime, keep writing, keep publishing, keep putting yourself out there. Let the readers decide. They are the only ones who matter.