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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