So my dog died today and I wrote a poem in her memory. But first, a brief word of warning: the following contains copious amounts of foul language. If you’re someone who’s offended by such things, I wouldn’t recommend reading on. If not, fuck it, enjoy!
Prognosticating the future is always a tricky business. Easy to do, far less easy to actually be right. Fortunately, we don’t often call out folks for being horribly wrong in their Nostradamus impersonations after the fact. You can argue maybe we should but relatively few who make public predictions are going to jump all over someone else’s bad ones because they know only too well how many of their own are way off base. What goes around, comes around so don’t go around in the first place.
But predicting things is fun! Hell, I spent 40 or 50 tweets predicting the NBA season back in the fall, then used another 20 to predict the playoffs last month even though my regular season picks were so hit or miss as to be nearly random. The only pick I’ve got left is Indiana winning the title. I also may be the last person not named Larry Bird who’s riding that particular bandwagon, and I’m not too sure Larry didn’t tuck-and-roll his way outta there a while back, too. But if they win, you bet your ass I’ll be doing some gloating. Albeit without mentioning the other dozen predictions I made that didn’t come through, of course.
My point here is take any and all prognostications you see with the biggest grain of salt you can find. Not usually something you see a writer say in a piece about to make a prediction, I know. But I find the value in prognosticating doesn’t so much come from whether the final prediction is right or wrong, it comes from the process of evaluating circumstances and evidence and extrapolating that out to a conclusion. When I read predictive pieces, the reasoning why the writer is making the guess they’re making is more important to me than what that guess is. You could be completely correct with your prediction but the reasoning leading to it could be so flawed as to be useless, or you can be completely wrong in your prediction but dead on in the circumstances leading you there. You have to evaluate those circumstances and how they relate to your individual situation. It’s impossible to know for certain how things will turn out in a complex environment like the publishing industry, but it’s very possible to understand the conditions and act accordingly for your personal ends.
That being said, here’s my extrapolated prediction: book publishers, even huge conglomerate ones like Random Penguin, will be non-existent or so altered as to be unrecognizable as present-day publishers in less than 10 years time. Easy to say, no way to prove. In fact, you can’t even prove I’m wrong at the moment, only after the fact. You can try, and state evidence opposing my viewpoint all day long, if you like, but guess what? All you’re doing is making predictions to try and counter my prediction. The same flaw that makes my prognostication far less than a certainty is also making your counter-prognostication far less than a certainty. So my final word, as it were, isn’t really the point, only a guess as to where things are heading, exactly like your theoretical counter is really only a guess.
What matters is why I’ve extrapolated that publishers are screwed (or why you’ve extrapolated that they aren’t.) Here’s the basis for my reasoning, in five handy points: Hatchette is reportedly trying to reinstitute some flavor of Agency pricing in its deal with Amazon now that it’s prohibition against such is almost up. The other major publishers will likely take similar action as their DOJ-imposed limits expire. What does Agency pricing do? It limits discounting by retailers and raises the price of books. Point one.
One of the major arguments in favor of Agency pricing (and against, to be honest) is that it works to protect hardcover sales and sales in brick and mortar bookstores from ebooks that are “too cheap.” That’s great and all, but ebooks aren’t what’s hurting brick and mortar retailers, online commerce is. Doesn’t matter if someone’s buying a print book or an ebook, if they’re buying it online, that’s a sale a physical store didn’t make. Certainly, ebooks are native to online but trends show print sales are increasingly migrating there, too, for a number of reasons. Online commerce is exposing the inefficiencies of brick and mortar retail in virtually every business that doesn’t ask if you want fries with that. (I also predict it’ll be exposing their inefficiencies sooner than later, too, but that’s a different article.) Does Agency pricing affect that deeper societal trend in any way? No, not really. Point two.
The book publishing industry hasn’t had the classic disruption drop off in sales that all disrupted industries have suffered. Napster and it’s ilk exposed the holes in the music industry’s model and set off the demand for digital music that caused massive, rapid declines in cd sales. (Not that downloading killed cd sales, mind you, consumer demand for digital music did that.) Craigslist (and later, eBay) virtually wiped out newspaper classified advertising almost overnight. For those that don’t know, classifieds were the most profitable advertising per column inch in the newspaper business. The sudden loss of great chunks of it was catastrophic.
It’s tempting to say ebooks were that force and the industry avoided the huge losses. But think about it for a second. Ebooks have been a decided gain for publishers, the extra profits they reap from ebooks have made their bottom lines look better than they should. Ebooks didn’t work against publishers’ interests, they were extra money dropped into their laps. They were the best positioned of anyone to take advantage of this when a market was firmly established. And they did, albeit while bitching all the way to the bank. Ebooks themselves have never been a threat to publishers, so unless they were braindead stupid, they were bound to benefit from them like everybody else. The fact that they haven’t benefitted more from them is something they’ll soon come to regret, I believe. Point three.
Barnes and Noble is circling the drain. We all know it. It’s just a matter of when. I would argue that if not for the college bookstores (a different, less disrupted to-this-point market) they might already by a ghost. They just reported a 10% drop in sales the third quarter of 2013 over the year before. Immediately after, they suffered about a 10% drop in their stock value. This corresponds rather neatly with a recent U.S. Census report that shows bookstore sales in general have dropped by 10% from last year, illustrating that this isn’t a B&N-centric problem but an industry-wide issue. Their online commerce effort is an epic trainwreck. And, they’re a brick and mortar retail store at their core no different from Borders or Best Buy or Circuit City (remember them?) or Blockbuster or any number of other chains that used to be mainstays in strip malls everywhere. Those pressures aren’t going to go away and they really have nothing to do with ebooks or even the publishing industry itself. Higher education is in many people’s crosshairs as a ripe market to be disrupted. When someone finally breaks through, and they will, those college stores aren’t going to be life lining anything. Barnes and Noble is doomed. Point four.
Ebook sales are slowing down. The market is maturing, establishing a ground floor somewhere around 20% of the industry and is growing at a slower rate as its marketshare rises. Now you could argue if that’s even true, given the nature of the data available and the invisibility of many self published works in that data. But what’s not really disputable is that the data we have is unquestionably reflecting traditional publishers. So, while you can argue whether ebooks on the whole are slowing down, you can’t really dispute that they’re slowing down for traditional publishers. On top of that, inexplicably, many of those same publishers seem to be under some impression that this is a good thing. Point five.
So that’s the five elements I see as the present conditions I’ve made my prediction from: the biggest publishers are likely going to try to reinstitute Agency in some form; the results of that will handicap retailers and raise prices in a market struggling with online commerce already undermining brick and mortar retail; we’re still waiting for the classic steep decline in legacy product sales caused by disruption; Barnes and Noble is a dead man walking; and the growth rate of ebook sales for traditional publishers is slowing. Now that I’ve identified what I believe are the current applicable conditions publishers face, I’ve concluded that their long-term prospects aren’t particularly good.
Here’s how I think this goes: Say you’re a big pub CEO and you sit down at your desk one morning to headlines reading “Barnes and Noble files for bankruptcy. Remaining stores to be shuttered.” As you drop your head into your hands considering the 65 different ways this screws you, there’s a knock at your door. It’s Walmart, Target, Sam’s Club and the other warehouse stores.
“We’re so sorry to hear about Barnes and Noble. It’s a terrible tragedy. We’d like to offer our condolences. Here’s a cookie bouquet.” You nod solemnly and they turn to leave, but Walmart stops short, looks to you and says, “By the way, being that we now represent the last mass-market retail space you have, we’d like to have a discussion about the discounts you give us, when you feel better, of course.” He then leaves, closing the door behind him.
Your mind races. “Well, we can probably absorb a bit of an increase in discounting. Maybe we can hire more interns or move to more freelancers.” As you snatch up one of the cookies from the bouquet and start munching, feeling somewhat ok, your office door suddenly flies open and in storms Amazon. “Hey bozo, guess who’s responsible for 70% of your business now? I’d suggest you get ready to open that checkbook of yours or we might happen to have some technical difficulties with your buy buttons. See ya, loser!” Amazon storms back out, slamming the door so hard the picture of you and a smiling James Patterson falls off your office wall.
“Ok,” you think to yourself, “maybe if we cut advances by 30%, we can get through this. We’ll be alright.” Just then, there’s another soft knock at your door and a finely dressed, lawyerly gentleman strolls in. “Hi, I’m from the Independent Bookstore Alliance. We represent 1500 independent bookstores in the U.S. Given as we are now the last bookstore shelf space in the country, we’d like to discuss the types of discounts you can give to our members at your soonest possible convenience.” He softly lays his business card on your desk, next to the half-eaten cookie from the bouquet, and leaves.
You lean all the way back in your fine $10,000 Italian leather desk chair and mutter to yourself, “Oh fuck…”
Or something like that. B&N’s gone, brick and mortar bookstore sales start dropping 10-20% year-over-year, quarter after quarter for years until what was 50% of your business is now 15%. What’s worse is that the sales you’re still making, both online and physical, print and digital, are less profitable than they were before due to being squeezed by retailers of all stripes. Ebook sales growth, while inexorable, isn’t keeping pace with the losses that are mounting. It’s the book industry version of the print dollars to digital dimes problem. On top of that, you’re losing writers from two camps: the upper echelon superstars who you’re not producing results for like you were before, and the entry level writers who scoff at the increasingly miser-like contracts you’re foisting on them. Midlist writers would likely join them in the exodus, too, if they hadn’t already fled in large numbers by this point. Both groups of writers are moving on to either do it themselves, to better adapted publishers or to some new concoction of collaborative publishing or author collectives that cut you out altogether.
At that point, there’s two choices: change to become a different kind of company, one that can handle these new market realities where you and your ilk are no longer at the head of the food chain (a process you may already be too late for) or fade to obscurity in the corporate sell-off/bankruptcy/vanity buyer process that has chewed up most newspapers. Either way, what publishers are today, and especially what they were 10 years ago, will be largely no more.
So that’s my theoretical timeline. Am I right? I don’t know, ask me in 10 years. What I do know is that there are likely more protectionist actions coming from publishers that don’t actually protect anything. I do know that Barnes and Noble is struggling mightily from the same reasons in the same ways other similar businesses didn’t survive. I do know publishers have lost a great deal of their control of the distribution system, and with it, their principle means of discovery and a chunk of their leverage with retailers over discounts. I do know, for whatever reason, ebook sales growth is slowing for traditional players and maybe everybody. I do know that writers have more options to make it to market than ever before, many of them outright replacing the essential positions publishers were anchored in. Whether all this means what I think it means is open for debate. Whether you agree with all of my five points, a few of them, just one or even none at all, there’s elements within each that can have profound impacts on the choices we have to make as writers.
Maybe you don’t think publishers are in serious trouble but you agree B&N is, so you set up a short-sell deal on their stock. Maybe you agree publishers are heading for a period of great upheaval and don’t want to sign an open-ended contract with one, or go with a publisher willing to work with contracts with a 5 or 10 year expiration date. Maybe you’ve been considering striking out on your own and the struggles of publishers are the last push you need. Maybe you think reinstituting Agency will protect the print side of the industry and put your efforts there. Maybe you agree B&N is toast but you think it’ll lead to a resurgence of independent stores rather than the start of a deep brick and mortar downfall and seek out a publisher better integrated with that community. Interpretation is in the eye of the beholder and should always be based on achieving your own individual ends. Making my prediction led me through a long cycle of circumstances, patterns and considerations to reach what I think may happen. Reading this likely led you to consider the same things, even (maybe especially) if you were breathlessly hollering at your screen how full of shit you think I am as you read. Whether I’m right about the end result or not doesn’t really matter. There are several factors in play here that will impact what I ultimately choose to do, and that’s the real value in predictions. It’s not a right or wrong thing, but a process of understanding and examining smaller elements in order to extrapolate out to a conclusion. Progress doesn’t just happen in big, sweeping pronouncements. It occurs from within the smallest details. And nothing you choose to do will be very effective if you don’t have a better understanding of those diverse yet interconnected details. I predict that’s the case, anyway.
Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron
“Our job is to partner with you on a journey to reconcile your vision of your book with the way your prospective readers will see it.”
The relationship between an editor and a writer should be collaborative, we’ve all been told time and time again. It seems to make sense on the surface, almost to the point of common sense. The problem, though, is that it’s dead wrong. Even more than that, as a writer, it’s a potentially dangerous and expensive mistake to make. Let me explain…
“A developmental editor will take your manuscript and work with the content itself. If needed, they might reshape your work and rearrange sentences to make the book flow together better. This type of editor helps an author find their voice and help refine their vision.”
So an editor of this type, or one that engages in this type of action, precipitates significant changes to the finished product. Do you think it’s fair to say the end result of such a relationship is a collaborative work? That the editor’s contributions are an essential component in the finished creative work for sale? So would I.
“Do editors have a copyright interest in the edited version of the manuscript? Maybe, maybe not, but it is a weapon in the editor’s collection arsenal that should not be ignored.”
This is from a blog for editors openly discussing whether editors have a copyright interest in the finished edit of a work. It’s not a theoretical construct, it’s an actual thing being openly advocated for amongst some editors. Albeit, editors in this case who have been stiffed by their clients, but I don’t think they’d be wrong in doing so under any circumstance. Although, I find the author’s stance that as little as inserting one comma would give an editor a copyright interest is maybe a little bit of an overreach. Appropriate stress due to “maybe” there. It well could. What I have no personal doubt of is that, if you’re making substantive content changes at the behest or recommendation of an editor, you most certainly are giving them a copyright interest.
So why aren’t we seeing courtrooms filled with editors making copyright claims? Because it’s something that was largely irrelevant in the past, and people’s perceptions haven’t quite caught up with reality yet. When most books went through publishers and most editors were employed by those publishers, the copyright interest of the work product of the editor belonged to the publisher. There was little reason for anyone to enforce it. Even after publishers started relying more and more on freelance editors, you can be sure their agreements with those editors contained work-for-hire language, meaning their work product, and any subsequent copyright interest, still belonged to the publishers.
The rights were there but everyone’s interests, as they were aware of them, generally flowed in the same direction so they were rarely, if ever, expressed. That’s why we think of editors as collaborative but not to the extent of a copyright claim, even though, particularly with deep substantive editing, it’s difficult for me to find a rational reason why they wouldn’t that isn’t based on the assumption that they’ve never had one. It’s not that it didn’t exist, but that the nature of the industry itself repressed their claim, likely without most of them even realizing it.
So what’s changed? Everything. Now we have independent writers hiring freelance editors and designers for all manner of tasks. We have writers selling print only rights to publishers and retaining ebook rights to publish themselves. We have the 35 year rights termination procedure passed into law in the ’70s only now coming into use. Everyone’s interests are no longer flowing in the same direction. Little things that were insignificant in the past because the system inherently suppressed them, like any potential copyright claim for editors, can now bubble up through the cracks these changes have opened in the industry’s very foundations. Just because we haven’t seen it doesn’t mean we won’t.
Self Publishers and Independent Contractors
Let me just say this, if you’re doing any freelance work yourself or hiring independent contractors for things with any copyright implications at all, you had better know the law relating to work-for-hire and the IRS and Agency definitions of “employee” inside and out. I see a ton of articles about how to pick an editor or how to pick a designer directed at self publishers. What I don’t see is nearly enough articles explaining how not to screw yourself on the contractual relationships with those contractors.
“(1) a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment; or (2) a work specially ordered or commissioned for use as a contribution to a collective work, as a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, as a translation, as a supplementary work, as a compilation, as an instructional text, as a test, as answer material for a test, or as an atlas, if the parties expressly agree in a written instrument signed by them that the work shall be considered a work made for hire. (17 U.S.C. § 101)”
–From U.S. Copyright Act of 1976
Work-for-hire is a fairly simple concept on the surface. If you are an employee, any work product of doing your job, and any resulting copyright interests, belong to your employer. “Employee” is a little more complicated than just if you’re on the payroll and they’re paying payroll taxes on you, although those are considerations. Whether you are legally regarded as an employee depends on the nature of the relationship. The more the employer controls the terms of your work; the times you work, the equipment you use, where you work, etc; the more likely you are to be deemed an employee regardless of how they’re paying you.
The second part of work-for-hire, and the one you really need to pay attention to, is that the work must fit into one of those categories listed in the quote and be expressed in writing. The and is the crucial part there. If you are an independent contractor and there’s no written work-for-hire agreement, it doesn’t exist. This means whoever contracted you has limited use of the work per the terms of the contract and all copyright interests remain with you. The written agreement is not optional. No contract, no work-for-hire. And believe me, as someone who’s done my share of independent contractor work, it’s extremely useful to be aware of its absence in your agreements. Here’s a link to a pdf of the U.S. Copyright Office circular that explains work-for-hire, and the criteria for employee determination. If you don’t already know it forwards and backwards, read it now.
The point of this is, simply, don’t be stupid. Know the law and protect yourself. Understand that everything is different about the nature of your relationship to an editor you contract versus one you work with who was also contracted by the same third party publisher. And I mean everything, right down to the legal implications of the structure of your business arrangements.
Do editors have a copyright interest? I think they do but I don’t know absolutely. That’s for a judge to decide at some point. But do you want to be the one standing in court across from that judge when he tells you they do? I sure as hell don’t. Simple work-for-hire language in your agreements with any independent contractors who are contributing anything creative to your final work for sale will make it a moot point. Even if a clear ruling is made that they do, you, through the work-for-hire language, would own that copyright interest in the work they did for you.
If you go around leaving holes in your agreements with people, you’re going to fall into one. Know the law, use it, protect yourself and your interests. You can be damn sure others will.
The 35 Year Termination Rule
We’re just now entering an era where authors can have their rights reverted 35 years from publication just by filing some paperwork. This applies to any work after January 1, 1978, so we aren’t very far down the road on what this will mean. I expect we’ll see publishers inundated with these things in the coming years and, eventually, we’ll see some long-term lucrative works they really don’t want to give up in the firing line.
In the past, rights reversions were generally one of two things; done through an out of print clause for a book the publisher’s been getting nothing from, or a buy back where the author pays the publisher for the reversion. This new termination rule is different in that it clearly forces publishers to give up rights against their will with no recourse. If you don’t think they’ve got lawyers pouring all over their contracts and the various intricacies of copyright law to find a workaround, you’re kidding yourself.
Here’s another place where a copyright interest for editors might turn up in the future. Publishers never had any reason to acknowledge such an interest, particularly since they owned all those interests anyway through work-for-hire. But now, faced with losing money-making properties for nothing, they very suddenly find themselves with such an interest. But it shouldn’t matter because the rights are reverting at 35 years, anyway, right? Well, no, not really.
Where a typical copyright term is life of the author +70 years, work-for-hire is different; 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation. More than that, work-for-hire is not eligible for the 35 year termination. Yes, you may get your rights reverted but the publisher, through the work-for-hire work product of editors, may still retain a copyright interest in the final product you’ve been selling for over three decades. With that, they could potentially stop you from publishing that version, or licensing the rights to that version to another publisher. More likely, I’d expect they’ll use it as a nuclear option to negotiate a new deal with them at better terms.
Termination may not be what we think it is, all because folks weren’t paying enough attention to small little contract provisions like work-for-hire. You know who was paying attention? Publishers. Or do you think it’s just a coincidence they happen to own all the rights to any possible editor copyright interest for damn near every single significant book of the past 40 years? Harper Collins just won a lawsuit claiming to have bought ebook rights in 1971, for God’s sake! Their contracts may be onerous but they’re not a leaky ship full of loopholes by any means.
This may be something to keep in mind for future negotiations; provisions that keep any work-for-hire copyright interests created in producing the work attached to the rights for the purposes of any reversions. It’s something to consider.
Print Only Publishing Deals
When I first heard about Hugh Howey’s print-only deal a couple years ago, the first thing that popped into my head was, “how is that going to work?” I have questions and maybe Howey, who’s been very forthcoming in a lot of ways, or someone else out there who’s cut one of these deals can answer at some point at their leisure. Enquiring minds want to know…
What’s the deal with editing? Did the print publisher do an edit of their own? Did they just use your final edit you’ve used in your ebooks? If they did do an edit, did you use that in your ebooks, and if so, is there language in your contract that allows that? Or are there two separate edits out there, their’s for print and your’s for ebook? What happens when the rights revert at 10 years or whatever the time limit is? Does the final edit revert too or just the rights to the original before the edit? Does the contract address this at all? I could probably think of a few more but that about sums it up.
The print-only deal where you publish the same material in a different format simultaneously on your own didn’t exist even five years ago. It’s added a layer of complications to what was a fairly simple process. Who knows what kind of holes may open up? There’s no possible way we can foresee all the potential risks such arrangements may bring about. Unintended consequences are a bitch.
If we presume for a moment that editors, especially of the deep, substantive variety, have a copyright interest, then someone owns that. It’s either the editor themselves, the publisher or the author through work-for-hire. It might be a good idea to know who, and a better one to make sure, iron-clad in writing, that it’s you.
One of the great selling points of self publishing is that you keep control, you retain your rights. That’s true, so don’t encumber them unnecessarily through lax independent contractor agreements or because you don’t fully understand work-for-hire or copyright law. It may be that all of this, even the very concept of editors having a copyright interest, is speculative and will never come to pass as a significant issue. But as I look at what role editors are increasingly asked to play, and as I read the particulars of the law, I’m fairly convinced that they do, at least in some circumstances.
This could ultimately have implications reaching much farther than self publishing. We, as independents, can solve this problem by inserting clear work-for-hire provisions in our contractor agreements. But what about the matter of that copyright interest being owned by the publisher through their agreements independent of us? That’s a different kettle of fish, and much harder to protect from. Especially if most of us don’t even realize it’s a danger.
Intellectual property is the 21st Century gold rush. What they found back then was the rush very quickly was followed by claim jumping. Some of it was criminalized, but not all. I’m in favor of protecting myself at every possible angle. You just never can tell where those claim jumpers might look next.
Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron
The other day, I read this piece in The Guardian about literary fiction writers feeling somewhat pressed to avoid unambiguously happy endings to their stories. There’s a lot of hand-wringing included in the piece at the bleak endings which are often pervasive, and references to the happied-up ending to Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations as proof that happy endings can be good.
I find the Dickens reference particularly telling because I’ve always felt the changed ending of his classic of unrequited love is totally out of character with the rest of the book. All things being equal, in reality, Pip would have zero chance of getting what he wanted from Estella. In fact, anyone who would throw himself back into that emotional thresher years later has to be one of the dumbest men walking. Even implying the possibility of a happily ever after ending there simply doesn’t mesh with anything else in the entire damn story. I could buy that Pip may convince himself what he wants is within reach, but anyone out here who’ve experienced a real live Estella knows without doubt that he’s lying to himself and, when he goes through that gate, his hand in her’s, he’s taking his first steps toward future rack and ruin.
That is the main reason why I have a general contempt for happy endings in fiction; they’re usually contrived to the point you can practically see the writer straining to ignore the psychology of the characters established throughout the work to make an ending where everyone goes home happy fit on the page. Certainly, depending on what you’re seeking as a reader or what level of escapism you’re willing to accept, I can see how someone might find an ending like that hopeful or fitting to the tale. I, myself, found that ending far too unrealistic to the characters as I knew them to maintain my suspension of disbelief.
I’m not the only person with a predisposition to disliking happy endings. Not by a long shot or there wouldn’t be articles like the one linked to above decrying their dearth. I think, for me, I expect more than a happily ever after in my fiction choices because, in near 40 years, I’ve found endings in real life to very rarely be happy and, quite often, miserable and scarring. I, and many others apparently, are attracted to tragic endings in stories because it’s an aspect of life familiar to most. We have trouble relating to happy endings because so few of us experience them on any kind of regular basis.
Then there’s the issue of whether the happy ending actually makes us feel happy. Personally, I tend to have a visceral negative emotional response to a happy ending, particularly one that doesn’t ring true to life. Dark or tragic endings can reinforce that your woes aren’t as bad as you think. Happy endings, however, can often feel like you’ve been slapped in the face with your failures. I do it with films, too. I see a sad movie and I walk away feeling my problems aren’t so bad. Happy movies, though, just serve to amplify my troubles. That doesn’t mean I think all endings need to be soul-crushingly horrific. I’m more apt to buy into an ending that’s dark but hopeful than an overtly rosy fairytale. Emotional lottery winners are far more rare than the monetary kind. Besides, I’ve always found tragedy and loss far more fertile ground to explore creatively. Happiness can be boring, and more than a little annoying, to those lacking or not directly involved in it.
Romances are the worst offenders at this, too. Despite what Ryan Reynolds might say, the friend-zoned dude doesn’t ever win the girl. All he gets is to cry himself to sleep, alone and drunk, after her wedding to someone else. I’ve always liked the ending of St. Elmo’s Fire because of that. Andrew McCarthy pined for Ally Sheedy for years and years before he finally got to have her but she only hooked up with him because she was distraught over the guy she really wanted. McCarthy was totally getting ditched shortly thereafter. On the surface, if you don’t look too deeply, it appears true love and perseverance won out but the clear implication of the movie’s ending was that his heart was going to end up broken far worse than if he’d just walked away.
If that ending had been of the fairytale variety, it would’ve, one, rubbed salt in the wounds or, two, provided false hope to untold numbers of folks who have found themselves in that exact situation. I think that ending is just about perfect, a subtle reminder that, sometimes, getting what we want most in the world can be the worst thing that can happen.
Happy endings can work, if they grow organically from the characters and don’t press. I’m of the opinion that truly good fiction passes on some wisdom in the process and shouldn’t fall too far into the realm of wish fulfillment. Overly contrived happy endings are nothing if not pure wish fulfillment, both for ourselves and the characters we’ve grown to care for.
All this being said, it still comes down to your particular tastes as a reader. To me, the unhappy ending and how characters deal with that is what attracts me. Do they respond with nobility and integrity or do they drop into rage and frustration-created depression? There’s value in those endings, of the kind we can use when we inevitably face the plethora of unhappy endings in our own lives. The Disney-esque, everything works out and they all lived happily ever after endings bring nothing to the table in that regard. There are no lessons to be learned when everything ties up into a neat little bow of unrealistic happiness.
It’s a popcorn ending, one that doesn’t call for too much considerstion, that invites us not to think too hard about it. I, and many others, enjoy seeking lessons I can adapt to my own life from what I choose to read or watch. Happy endings, especially contrived ones, steal those moments of contemplation and learning from us. Stay true to the story and the characters you’ve created and your endings will ring true even if they end up seemingly bleak. Slap a giant smiley face on them, and your happy ending will end up having the exact opposite effect on a wide swath of your readership.
Happiness isn’t as simple at getting everything you think you want. Fictional endings that perpetuate that meme do us all; writers, readers and the characters they’ve created and/or loved; a great disservice.
Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron
I just read this piece on NPR about whether the data collected on reader behavior from ereaders is useful to writers. My gut reaction is, “nope,” but upon further reflection, I can see some circumstances under which some data along those lines could be of use. It’s not a simple, black or white question, however. It all depends on who has the data, and who’s using it and how they overcome the problem of lacking proper context.
I can easily envision a circumstance where a publisher says to a writer, “Our ereader data suggests 63% of your readers were more engaged in the portions of your last book where the hero fought werewolves. We’d like your next book to include more werewolves.” That’s not appreciably different than it is now, only with more data that appears to reinforce their beliefs. Publishing has always been an industry that, when success strikes, beats every ounce of that success into the ground. Fifty shades of erotic romance, anyone? If werewolves are showing signs of being the hot new thing, bring on the werewolves!
But is that interpretation of the data correct? Were those readers more engaged because of the werewolves or because it was a high-tension, exciting sequence that just happened to involve werewolves? That’s a pretty important distinction. The problem is, we can’t say without more data to properly explain this data.
Here’s a point made by author Scott Turow that raises a similar concern in mind:
“I would love to know if 35 percent of my readers were quitting after the first two chapters because that frankly strikes me as, sometimes, a problem I could fix.”
Possibly. But what if that 35% is industry-standard for readers dropping books after the first few chapters? How do we know? I know my reading habits often have me starting books, putting them down for other books, sometimes coming back later, sometimes not. There’s no rhyme or reason related to quality for it, either. Some of my favorite books were started three or four times before I finally followed through. And I’ve read some total tripe cover to cover.
We need a whole lot more information before making any creative decisions based on this. What if we come to discover that 35% is actually better than average? What if 40-45% turns out to be the figure? Would Turow no longer have a problem to fix? He’d still have a third of his readers not getting past chapter two, but he’d also be outperforming the industry. What if we discover this having similarities to baseball, where failing 7 times out of 10 makes you an All Star? We are lacking the frame of reference to make useful decisions based on this data. Finding answers from data lacking adequate context is like reading tea leaves or interpeting ancient religious texts; anybody can do it and find a justification to point to as evidence, even if another person can credibly interpret the proofs you site the exact opposite way.
Turow also said this:
“Would I love to hitch the equivalent of a polygraph to my readers and know how they are responding word by word? That would be quite interesting.”
Frightening might be another word for it. Hell, I sense a dystopian novel where corporations have hitched everyone to a giant monitoring device to record their every impulse and give them back only products that serve their immediate desires, sort of a permanent cultural feedback loop. I don’t see how that much data is even useful. Writers, generally speaking, have varying degrees of OCD. I can easily see the hypochondriac impulse taking over, and some writers getting obsessively lost trying to make sense of this mass of often conflicting information.
He does make a cogent point here, from a publisher’s point of view:
“Why should we publish this book if 11 readers out of 12 can’t make it past page 36?”
It’s hard to argue that. Publishers need to make money to survive. So do writers but on a different scale. If data suggests a book isn’t attracting an audience sizable enough to support publisher overhead, then why should they publish? From the other side, if a book is not showing scale that befits a relationship with a publisher, maybe that’s a way for writers to help determine if a work is better served as an independent release. After all, the term “hybrid authors” is all the rage these days. You have to choose your publishing approach somehow.
But again, this only works if the data means what we think it means. Besides, there’s also the paradox of the fact that the book has to be released in order to collect reader data on it. So, at best, unless we’re talking about turning books into software and releasing beta versions we fix after getting customer feedback, this ereader data is only really useful in a predictive sense for future work. Which means that all we’ve done is pile a lot more data into a decision we’re already making based on an already-existing pile of considerations today. Will it improve end results? Maybe, maybe not. But what it will do is provide justifications to make the initial decision more defensible, regardless of outcome. I’m not certain that’s a good thing because it has the distinct potential to provide pseudo-evidentiary cover for making bad calls on whether or not to publish.
Books will still succeed despite data that suggested beforehand that they wouldn’t. And books will still fail despite having all the indicators of a sure thing. This data is nice, but there are numerous factors at work in a successful novel, reader behavior while reading is a small part of that I can’t definitively say holds much significance. I can’t say it doesn’t, either. We just don’t have enough data. In the future, we’ll fix that, I’m sure, and be awash in all the facts, figures and statistics we can stand on reader behavior. But we’ll still be lacking the context. Without that, I’m not convinced we’ll ever be able to interpret this information properly. Short of Turow’s all-encompassing polygraph or some piece of future tech that reads minds, that context isn’t readily accessible and likely never will be.
More and accurate data is always a good thing, but who wields it and how is crucial. I have a feeling that this will turn out to be little more than echo chamber material. Anyone making an argument will be able to find the numbers somewhere in the increasingly vast data pool to support it, no matter how outlandish.
Will I use this data for something, if available? Absolutely. I can totally see its value from a marketing standpoint. Will I change a character, story or rewrite portions of work based on this information? Absolutely not. I have little confidence that any of this data means what I think it means. I have even less confidence it means what other people think it means. If it only serves to reinforce already existing opinions, then it brings little of value to the table. Maybe I can glean a way to sell more books with this data, and that’s worth a shot, but changing the actual work in response to it is a bridge too far.
A while back, I wrote this. Needless to say, I pissed off a few editors, some so severely that I began to wonder if they missed my point. Hey, maybe I needed an editor to help me make it more clear to editors why I think they’re overrated and, far too often, a detriment to the writer rather than a help. That would be kind of ironic, maybe, if anyone actually understood what irony means.
Anyway, I let it drop after that as, essentially, my point was that editors aren’t higher on the literary food chain than writers and, given the new realities taking hold, are little more than a supplemental contractor, as it were, serving at the writer’s discretion. Yet still, nearly every day, I see the same old arguments made. Writers can’t produce publishable work without editors. You need an editor. Editors are essential. Yada, yada, yada.
Editors are a tool at the writer’s disposal, one of many. Depending on the type and skill level of the editor in question, the trick is figuring out if they’re a tool that can help finish the job well, or an extraneous tool that seems shiny but ultimately is little more than one of those cheaply made pieces of junk you find in the “As Seen On TV” aisle that doesn’t quite live up to the game-changing hype on the infomercial.
Anyway, for clarity’s sake, I decided to revisit my point.
1. Most editors suck at their jobs
Most editors didn’t really appreciate my observations on this. There are so many different kinds of editors, and different jobs within publishing that carry the word “editor” in their title. It’s become a catch-all, pseudo-management title used more often to give an employee an air of higher standing without actually having any of said standing. In book publishing, there’s acquistion editors, copy editors, line editors, content editors, etc, etc. The magazine/newspaper world’s even worse, with offices in many cases employing more people with editor after their names than writers. One of the things I said in my original piece was that most editors are simply people who are wannabe writers who are either failures at it or lack the courage to be the creator. It’s always easier to manipulate the work of others than create it in the first place. This doesn’t mean that a good editor can’t add value, they can. It means there are a lot more mediocre-to-bad editors out there than good ones. I stand by this point completely.
Writers almost always exist in the grey area of uncertainty called self employment. Editors, on the other hand, usually collect a regular paycheck (modern publisher downsizing is changing this but it still holds as a generalization). Do you really want someone who chose the illusion of job security that comes with a regular paycheck over the risk of chasing their dreams dicking around with your attempt to chase your dreams? Again, this isn’t all editors, but it’s more of them than not. Keep in mind, as well, if your editor is one of these people, their motivation lies necessarily on the side of making your work fit the standards of the publisher who’s paying them rather than making your work the best it can be in a vacuum. Sometimes, those goals dovetail nicely. More often than not, however, they don’t.
This isn’t a blanket indictment against editors, it’s their job. They work for the publisher. They’re first order of business is necessarily serving the needs of the entity paying their bills. This is really a question for writers to answer. Do you want your work to conform to a publisher’s standards or to your own? The notion that these two ends always coincide is a fairy tale. In the old traditional market, all the sacrifice was on the writer’s shoulders simply because we had no leverage otherwise. It really and truly was my way or the highway at its root.
I’ve done my share of commercial painting over the years. It’s a nice skill to have and I’ve paid my bills through some lean years with it. The biggest trouble I had was contractors who’s motivations differed from mine. Contractors want to be max profitable above all else. I wanted to produce the best quality job for the person buying the house. Occasionally, this led to conflict when the contractor advocated something half-assed to support their profitability. Publishers are like contractors, editors either conform to their standards and demands or they’ll be looking for work elsewhere. I believe it’s crucial for writers to understand these dynamics. It’s pretty important to know if the editor who’s tinkering with your work is serving two masters. In those cases, when push comes to shove, the master with the fatter wallet wins almost every time.
Now, however, independent publishing has changed things a bit. Writers are the ones cutting the check now. Yet I still see editors with a “I know best” attitude, behaving as if the dynamic hasn’t shifted. The most important thing I said in my previous piece is that the editor works for you now. Listen to them, certainly, otherwise you’re wasting your money, but the ultimate decisions rest solely with you. You are in charge. I wonder if this isn’t why some editors were unhappy with my opinions. In the old traditional mechanism, editors were higher on the ladder than writers. Nobody likes to feel their skills are being maginalized, or declining in influence or authority. I feel bad but editors never should have gotten higher than writers in the first place. Editing is a supplemental activity to (theoretically) benefit the writer. The only reason that structure happened was so publishers could marginalize the importance of writers (and their ultimate compensation, let’s not forget that). Editors became what they did because publishers willfully used them to add a layer between creator and market that only they could successfully navigate, and to infantalize writers so they’d be less likely to rebel against a system that earns all its revenue on your back but only pays out a relative pittance in return. That strategy of infantilization has worked so spectacularly well that writers, en mass, have essentially self-imposed that structure. I still see good, talented, independent writers touting the value of these obstacles willingly put in their way by publishers, like agents and editors. Stockholm syndrome at its finest.
2. All editors aren’t awful
My rhetoric against editors in the original piece was over the top. I admitted as much in the article. Every editor doesn’t suck at their job. Most of them do, though. It’s crucial to find one who doesn’t, and that largely depends on what specific skills they possess and how they choose to wield them. A good copy editor is worth every penny. By the way, I define copyeditor as line by line, typo and grammar editor. This is painstaking, tedious work. I suspect a big part of the reason writers have willfully gone along with the editor fallacy is precisely because copy editing sucks and we just don’t want to be responsible for it. Where do you suppose the notion of “I just wanna write” comes from? Writers who only want to do the fun, easy parts and dump the difficult actual work on someone else, that’s where. Now I’m going to do what I neglected to do but should have in the original piece, I’m going to lay the wood to writers.
If you’re a writer who subscribes to the above-mentioned theory, you are lazy. I just wanna collect royalty checks as a super best selling author. Someone else can handle the actual writing, I just want to cash those fat checks. That’s the same as saying “I just wanna write” while engaged in a business atmosphere. If you truly just want to write, there’s nothing wrong with that. It makes you a hobbyist, but that’s fine. But far too many writers saying this are actively seeking publishers, or actively self publishing. You can’t behave in a businesslike way but pick and choose to do only the parts you think are fun. To begin with, that attitude puts you at a severe disadvantage in dealing with people committed to the actual business and they will screw you every time on the contractual end given the opportunity. I’m pretty sure their mouths get to watering whenever a writer walks in saying “I don’t want to worry my pretty little head with actual complex professional business issues, I just wanna write!” If you don’t want to deal with the actual business end, then do everybody a favor and get the hell out of the business. You’re poisoning the waters for everybody else. By willfully signing over all rights, agreeing to onerous non-competes, accepting pittance royalties with little or no accountability to back those up and basically abdicating any and all responsibility for the business side of publishing, you’re helping establish standards that those of us who do actually care about the business side have to fight through every day just to try and get a remotely equitable contract out of a publisher. Everything worth doing in life comes with a heaping helping of things you don’t want to do. Suck it up, it’s part of the program. By not doing so, you’ve opened the door to publisher exploitation of writers wide open. The “I just wanna write” attitude has done more to infantalize writers than all the actions of all the publishers in the world combined. It’s like with most things, it can only screw us over so long as we allow it to.
Let’s say publishers are vampires. When you, sitting on your cushy little couch, utter the phrase, “I just wanna write,” you’re inviting the blood sucking parasite inside. More often than not, by the end of the evening, the vampire strolls away satiated and you’re left a pale-white, dessicated husk drained to the bone. Too strong a metaphor? Depends on who you ask.
3. But unedited work is awful
Yes it is. But here’s the thing, editing is a task. You don’t need a person with a title for it. Like the “I just wanna write” notion, “writers can’t edit their own work” is another dangerous and inherently lazy attitude to hold. Of course you can edit your own work, you wrote it for Christ sake! It’s like saying a master carpenter can build a chest of drawers but he shouldn’t sand or finish it. “Carpenters can’t paint their own work.” Doesn’t that sound absurd?
Woodworking and painting are simply learned skills that are a means to an end, in this case, a sweet new dresser. Writing and editing are learned skills that are a means to an end, a great novel for instance. No different. Are you going to tell the chef that he’s great at preparing the meal, but the table presentation should be left to someone else? I didn’t think so.
The key here, however, is that the carpenter knows going in that the finish for his chest is a crucial part of the job. The chef understands that successfully plating the meal is a crucial part of the job. Therefore, they learn how to do those things and do them well. Writers, on the other hand, by being told “I just wanna write” is okay, and “writers can’t edit their own work” drummed into us like Moses carried it down from the mountain, don’t even try. There is actually truth in saying writers can’t edit their own work today because we’ve bred generations of writers who never bothered to learn how. It’s a crucial skill that’s part of the job and we, on the whole, ignore it. Writers became unable to edit our own work because the industry actively minimalizing our skills so they could make more money told us so. They also, not coincidentally, had a ready solution of people who could take care of that for us so we could stop worrying our pretty little heads and just write. They’re called editors.
I am not, repeat not advocating that writers just throw unedited stuff out there. Someone has to do it. I’ve already mentioned that a good copy editor is well worth the expense, with all the emphasis on good. What I’m saying is writers not only can but should learn to edit their own work. It’s not rocket science. It’s a relatively easily learned skill. By comparison, it’s a helluva lot easier to learn good editing skills than to learn good writing. It’s not often fun, it can be tedious if done right, but it’s an essential part of the job. Learn it. Now.
Self-edited work is not unedited work. This pisses me off more than almost anything when I see these terms used interchangeably. As a writer, I find it personally offensive. Why is my edit somehow less valuable than someone else’s? Where is the mystical line where the person with the skills to create something in the first place magically loses all capability to refine it?
My opinion is that it’s always better for multiple sets of eyes to look something over. It’s always preferable to see points of view other than your own. But the traditional editor/writer dynamic gives too much voice to the editor. Again, what I’m advocating here isn’t that writers should just say, “Fuck you, I’m going to do whatever the hell I want!” Well, sometimes, maybe. But for the most part, I’m saying we need to look at conditions and re-evaluate the role and importance of editors. That can’t be done if writers don’t also pick up the slack and re-learn the tasks we willfully abdicated long ago.
In the traditional setup, writers were essentially selling books to editors. We weren’t selling them to readers. Editors, in turn, were selling those books to the publishers who employed them. Again, not readers. Hell, even publishers were selling those books to distributors or chain stores, not readers. The only people actually selling books to readers were at the retail level. Should it surprise anyone that it was a retail company (Amazon) that rose up and finally kicked publishing in the balls? Today, it’s more important than ever to sell to readers. Nobody in the old chain knows how to do that, including writers and editors. Is it preferable, when selling to readers, to seek content feedback from actual readers or editors, who, like writers, have been kept several degrees of separation from readers for the publisher’s advantage? That’s rhetorical. The answer’s pretty obvious.
So there it is in a nutshell: editors suck, writers are lazy, we’ve both been made that way by publishers parasitically exploiting us for profit and we’re all screwed anyway because none of us knows the first thing about selling to readers. Wait, was that my point? Aw shit, maybe I do need an editor.
Editors Note: No I don’t.
I’m thinking about live blogging a short story. Do you think that would be interesting? I’m really considering just writing one, basically live, updating every time I save, even keeping any changes visible. Then editing, also keeping changes visible. Hell, if it turns out well, I might even publish it.
Of course, the principal problem would be, “What if the story sucks?” I’m not going to vet it beforehand or take something I’ve already written and act like it’s brand new. I’m leaning toward not even starting with an idea and letting it just grow on the page. A bit risky, possibly, but I’ve always done my best work under pressure. What more pressure can there be than “don’t embarrass yourself by cranking out a piece of shit in public?”
Besides, I’m not talking about a novel, just a few thousand word short story or so. I wrote two blog posts yesterday that were probably 4 or 5,000 words combined, and they were unplanned, off the cuff.
When I was in school, it used to annoy the hell outta me when a writing assignment required an outline. Those damn web diagrams were the worst. I recall asking myself at the time, “Self, how the hell are you supposed to outline something sentence for sentence if you haven’t written it yet?” That process always seemed backwards to me. Nobody else I knew ever saw it that way, and it was years before I finally figured out why.
To me, writing has never been a physical act. Everything I’ve ever put on paper or typed onto a screen was already written in my mind. In fact, the last step in the writing process for me is the actual, physical recording of the writing. The struggle hasn’t been so much to get the story together well on paper but to accurately transcribe the finished tale from my own head.
I’ve always wondered where the small little details come from. I never consciously created them. I happily go along, following the path of the plot, and when I look back, all these descriptive little side notes just appeared in there. Where did they come from? I’m now pretty sure they were already written and I was unconsciously copying them from the finished story in my head. No, for me, writing is an act done best inside the mind. Putting it on paper is simply scribe work and little else.
So, if I write from the position that the story, article, paper, what have you, is already done before the first word is typed, how does it make sense to do a paragraph by paragrah outline beforehand? And why bother? If I’m going through the trouble of breaking down what each sentence is about, why don’t I just write the actual sentence? If I know enough to tell you that information, I know enough to skip that step entirely and just produce it. Needless to say, I almost always lost points on the outline part of the assignment while getting high marks on the actual finished product.
I still don’t understand why my teachers never saw the flaw in their assignments. If I got an A+ on the essay while totally skipping the outline, doesn’t that in some way invalidate the point of teaching the outline in the first place? Why should I lose points because I didn’t see the need in engaging in unnecessary busy work that was actually more of an impediment to me getting the end product finished? The guy I was sitting next to or the girl in the back row might need to use an outline, but I didn’t, as was well-proven by the highest marks on the writings themselves. I even came to resent it. I also didn’t understand until years later that I have a latent problem with authority and being told what to do. Besides, I clearly knew better than my teachers in this regard. One-size-fits-all is true to the extent that the outliers to their rules allow themselves to be squeezed into a smaller box than they otherwise should have.
Even still, I never thought I possessed any kind of special ability. I still don’t. What I have might be different than some people’s gifts, but everybody has them, they just don’t realize in many cases. I’ve always cranked out surprisingly clean first drafts; few typos, consistent details, rarely if ever a flaw in story logic. I just thought that’s the way it was done until I got a look at some other writer’s first drafts. My way isn’t better, per se, though for me it is. It’s just my way, and I developed it intuitively.
Watch an NBA basketball game sometime and take note of how many different variations of a jump shot you see. The common purpose is to put the ball in the basket, and each one of those guys developed their own methods for doing so, on a scale successful enough to earn a spot on the floor with the best basketball players in the world. Some are so-so shooters, some are streaky, some are consistently good and some are great. But each one found what ultimately works for them born of their own innate physical abilities. Writing’s the same way.
I have a mind that runs quick, fills in details on its own to flesh out actions, and is capable of refining and keeping track of complex ideas with little conscious input. My brain just works that way. Always has. So when I first decided I wanted to write a story, I took advantage of the innate tools at my disposal without even knowing I was doing it. All writers do the same. You may not have a mind that works like mine, your skills may reside in other places. Things I struggle with, like convincing dialogue, for instance, may just flow from you naturally. That skill affects how and what you write, and the style you use, whether you realize it or not. There truly is no such thing as one-size-fits-all.
I often wonder, very likely because my issues once a story is drafted tend to be in the “minor details” department rather than grand story elements, if our modern writing culture of beating a dead horse through re-writes, re-drafts and over-editing isn’t stealing a bit of the writer’s soul in a way. It seems a little odd to be saying I think we sometimes over-edit when the principle complaint in publishing these days, particularly indies, is a lack of editing. But that’s how I see it. Whenever I read a writer talking about spending months or years rewriting or editing a specific piece, I find myself wondering one of two things: Are you doing all that extra work because you feel it needs it or because someone told you to, and at what point does the continued necessity of rewrites indicate that the original was just too flawed to begin with?
Music has always been a big influence on me, holding even more inspiration than other writers in some cases. I tend write rhythmically, and use sentence structure to drive pace sometimes in lieu of action or in the service of it. My musical tastes have always run toward the exceptional instrumentalists, particularly those who can jam. There’s nothing like a musician who gets in the moment and just lets it rip. Conversely, the live shows I’ve seen with bands who essentially replicate their studio album note for note bore me to tears. It’s too precise, too processed, lacking in the emotion an artist should display. Are we killing more than simply a few typos by editing everything to within an inch of its life in the search for unattainable perfection? I tend to think we are.
This isn’t to say that a pile of typos and plot flaws big enough to drive a dump truck through is acceptable, just that there’s the law of diminishing returns to consider. At some point, continued edits don’t really improve the story, just shifting the deck chairs, as it were. If you’re re-writing four, five, six times or, god forbid, more, maybe that story just isn’t fixable. Like trying to keep an old car you’re attached to on the road can nickle and dime you to death, a story can do the same. Eventually, you have to break down, write it off and spring for some new wheels; call it as finished as it’s gonna get and move on to the next story.
Writing is such a tenuous, indefinable thing. The best parts aren’t created out of overt structure and control but rather emerge organically. The real issue is the down parts or the transitions between the high points and getting them to mesh properly with the great stuff, or at least not conflict or detract from them. When we over-edit, our tendency can lean toward lessening the good parts rather than raising the quality of what surrounds them. Basically, we can fall into the trap of mediocritizing the whole thing for some unnamed standard of conformity. It’s much like my old writing teachers holding me and others like me back by forcing unneeded outlining assignments on us, teaching for all at the lowest common denominator level. At least, that’s how I see it. But, as I said, my skills are particular to supporting that worldview, your’s may not be.
Anyway, I’m thinking about live blogging a short story. I hope it comes out well or at least publishable. Imagine, I’d have a record of the first draft, the entire editing effort, and the thinking behind every stage. The eventual ebook could be both a piece of entertaining fiction (god willing and the crik don’t rise) and a please-pay-attention-to-the-man-behind-the-curtain look at the writing process itself. I think that sounds at least potentially interesting enough to take a swing at. Don’t you?
For a while now, I’ve been trying to understand the resentment toward self publishers by some in the traditionally published writing community. I get why publishers don’t like it–it’s opened up massive amounts of new, lower-priced competition that threatens not just their sales figures but the entire cost structure of the industry their large infrastructures depend on. Simultaneously, it’s also given writers, who were essentially a captive supplier, leverage to fight against potentially onerous contract terms and even the capacity to walk away from a deal, which was virtually unthinkable even five years ago. I totally get the rhetoric from publishers.
Writers who dismiss or otherwise demonize self publishing, on the other hand, I don’t get at all. These are new opportunities for you to make money. They are opportunities that can get you better terms in your contract, or more money if used properly. It also has the potential to drive the industry toward more writer-friendly terms for a change. There is more access to more readers the world over than ever before and it can all be done keeping most of the proceeds in the actual creators’ pockets, something else virtually unheard of on a wide scale until very recently. As a writer, it makes very little sense to me to fight against this tide.
So I figure there has to be a reason for this. I’ve had two somewhat conjoining theories bouncing around in my head lately and I can’t decide which is more likely. It may well be both, or it could just be as simple as abject fear of change.
My first theory is of the writer’s ego. One of the most commonly referred to benefits of traditional publishing is the validation factor. In some circles, being chosen by a publisher is worn as a badge of honor and used equally as a bludgeon against those who either haven’t yet achieved that contract or who eschew that entire process. Imagine all those years of effort trying to convince the gatekeeper set of your worth, all the mountains of rejection, humiliation, restrictive contract deals you’ve subjected yourself to just to get inside those walls. Then one day, very suddenly, a whole bunch of other writers start skipping that path altogether, and worse yet, a significant and increasing number of them are selling books and making money at rates only the upper echelons of traditional writers exceed.
What good is that validation you slaved away earning when another writer who doesn’t have it can sell books right next to yours with almost no definable difference from the reader’s point of view? The strength of that validation certainly isn’t what they’d been led to believe it was their entire working lives. Even more, the new ways are much more democratic. It doesn’t matter what school you went to, or if you even went to school at all. It doesn’t matter how many prestigious writing programs you’ve been involved in or how many literary awards you’ve won. A poor housewife from Nebraska who penned her first novel eight weeks ago has a (relatively) equal chance of being a best seller as the most critically acclaimed writer out there.
The writing world has always had an ugly elitest side to it. That was never an issue when virtually all the successful writers were part of the same pipeline, born of that shared experience. But now that large numbers of writers outside of that framework are finding success, it’s not only threatening the business model of their publishers, it’s threatening their very self image.
When outside validation becomes crucial to your worldview, anything that undermines those doing the validating becomes a target. So theory number one is that some writers are resentful because self publishers are finding ways to avoid the crap they were forced to subject themselves to, and their memberships in the exclusive traditional publishing club no longer carry the same cache they once did, and may well be declining by the day.
The second reason is simply laziness. Well, not laziness, exactly, but complacency and a lack of desire to try new and different things. Given the proliferation of comments I’ve seen coming from trad writers characterizing self publishing as a short cut and a lazy choice (Google Sue Grafton for the most recent example) I am beginning to believe they’ve got it backwards. Look, the stark reality is that it’s much more difficult to do this stuff essentially by yourself than with the backing of a giant corporate publisher. To suggest otherwise is to be purposely naive. If you happen to be one of the fortunate writers inside the gates who moves books, you get lots of support the other 95% of traditional writers don’t even get, let alone self publishers. The notion of tossing that off and self publishing is to take on significant responsibilities you currently pass on. In that respect, it’s the traditional writers who are shying away from extra work. Not saying they’re wrong for doing that, given their situation, they’re not. My problem comes when they cast aspersions on the work ethic of others when they, themselves, stay away from these activities because of the added risks and extra effort necessary.
Let’s be honest here. Writers like Grafton, Ewan Morrison and Scott Turow do little more than just write. Even the smallest one-person self publishing operation is doing much more than just writing. Criticizing other writers as lazy or taking shortcuts looks like sour grapes when their paths are far more ambitious than yours, requiring more effort in numerous directions than simply writing a book and sending it to your editor (I know, I’m oversimplifying, but just look at the bitching by trad writers about publishers making them actually, god forbid, promote themselves more to readers. Self pubbed writers accept that as a matter of course).
For serious self pubbed writers, it’s not simply about writing the book. It’s also about publishing the book. And it’s about selling the book. Three inter-related but very different activities. And, to top it off, writing the next book and starting over again. That’s a lot of interconnected hats to wear, and the ones who do it successfully wear them all very well. Lazy’s got nothing to do with it. Lazy writers who flock to self publishing will find themselves discouraged, overwhelmed and out of the picture soon enough. Self publishing is not an easy answer, a shortcut or the lazy way. It’s incredibly difficult to do well. For top tier trad writers to point fingers and call self publishers lazy shows their ignorance of what’s actually involved. Or maybe it’s not. One of the oldest political tricks in the book is to accuse your adversary of the very weaknesses you fear in yourself. But why are we adversaries in the first place? It doesn’t have to be that way. And you certainly don’t have to be openly resentful to those looking to blaze new trails you have no interest in, and willfully taking on the extra work that entails.
Do these writers have a point that there are a lot of shitty self published books out there? Do some writers take the relative ease of getting something live and for sale now and abuse it? Absolutely no doubt. But in case you didn’t notice, there are people like that in every industry and every walk of life, even traditional publishing. I’ve read a lot of shitty books, seen a lot of shitty tv shows and movies, heard a lot of shitty music on the radio over my lifetime, and you know what they almost all have in common? They were vetted by a media company gatekeeper. Shitty work happens in all creative pursuits, no matter how big the bank account of the producer. No one is immune to it. The ratio of great work to crap is always gonna lean heavily on the crap side, no matter the system. Basic human taste and subjectiveness guarantees that.
I think the problem can be illustrated with a simple mental image. Imagine Grafton, Morrison and Turow kicking back catching some rays by the pool inside the gated publisher walls. Suddenly, the gates swing open, and all the outside rabble comes pouring in, doing cannonballs, splashing water everywhere, their shouts and laughter almost deafening. Just generally throwing the relaxed, exlusive poolside scene into chaos. Now, those three are no longer the fortunate few who get the pool to themselves, but just a couple folks in the big crowd diving in. If I were in their shoes, I might resent that kind of development, too. Ah, who am I kidding? I’d be grateful for the company. I’m sure the conversations at that poolside were getting kinda stale before those gates burst open.
After all the Halloween stuff I did over the past few weeks on this site, I took a little time off. Hey, cranking out 18 pieces in 14 days can be exhausting. Anyway, I was very happy with how that worked out. I got a massive uptick in traffic to this blog, I added a number of Twitter followers who actually stuck around and, ultimately, I sold what I consider to be a fair number of both of my books.
Now, don’t get me wrong, the actual numbers behind any of this are miniscule. I’m not making a fortune, I didn’t sell 50,000 copies, I didn’t add 25,000 followers on Twitter. What I did do was illustrate to myself how some of this could conceivably work over the long haul. And I made a few bucks to help pay the bills. Sounds like a success to me.
I’ve noticed a few things of late that are steering me toward future choices. The first is the impact a second book has had on generating sales for the first one. That is, while I’ve sold copies of the new book, I’ve noticed a nice little bump in sales of the old one, too. As much time and effort as I’ve put into trying to figure this stuff out over the past couple years, it startled me a bit to realize that I was still a victim of old school thinking.
I was looking forward, focusing on the new book, almost subconsciously determining that the old one was played out. It really never dawned on me that “played out” doesn’t even begin to apply to any of this any longer. Ebooks are a relatively small percentage of the overall book market right now, but even the most pessimistic observers admit that they will soon come to dominate the market. Tablets are getting cheaper and more diverse, meaning their penetration into the mainstream of life has the potential of what the VCR or DVD player or cable television did in the past, as in sooner than later, more people will have one than not. How can a book that never goes out of stock, and never leaves the marketplace be played out when the market itself could be 200-300% bigger in the next few years alone?
I believe the mistake I made, and the mistake a lot of other, smarter people than me are making right now, is considering ebooks a segment of the overall book market. It’s not. Ebooks are an entirely different market altogether. Even though you have the same material overlapping between print and digital, that’s really the only similarity. Digital revenue won’t overtake print revenue in total dollars historically anytime soon, or even compensate for print’s losses in any effective way because the economics are different. As much as big publishers want to tell themselves that people will pay $13, $15, $17 for ebooks, that’s a pricing structure doomed to failure. So to look at ebook sales in the context of a percentage of total book sales misses the point, and totally underestimates the potential upside.
Ebooks are a market that, barring another economic catastrophe, is poised to enter a period of enourmous growth and expansion. That expansion is predicated on a vastly different sales model than what has existed seemingly forever in print. There is no longer any such concept as “played out.” In fact, it appears that, as the networked infrastructures within ebook sales continue to grow and be populated by more and more readers, that each new entrant into the market under an author’s name has the potential to generate just as many sales for a book published two years ago as it does for a new release.
That just seems counterintuitive to anyone who’s worked extensively in print publishing where everything, no matter how popular and successful, has a distinct life cycle. It may be that ebooks hold the possibility of not simply extending that life cycle, but making it near infinite. While things have existed in such a way for the most popular of writers, albeit to a lesser extent, this infinite life cycle in ebooks isn’t limited to the top of the top, it’s available for all writers at all levels of the book food chain. That is a massive departure from the past, a total game-changer, if you will.
And it never really occurred to me even though it was staring me right in the face. But I get it now. After two years of wrapping my head around this stuff, trying to find something that makes sense economically–meaning an earning potential that equates the effort necessary to produce the product–ebooks are by far the most promising development I’ve seen. There really hasn’t, with limited exceptions, been a model that makes a compelling case for selling digital content as a writer. The ones that do tended to pull the majority of revenue to the institutions operating the platform. Newspaper paywalls, for instance, generate revenue mostly for the newspaper and the corporation that owns it, and the writer is left with a miniscule share of that, if any. Content farms pay peanuts for material, yet exploit that for their own, much larger share. Ad supported sites are stuck in a volume business because the unlimited structure of the internet has been, and will continue to, drive a race to the bottom on ad rates. And again, the writer gets a tiny, insignificant slice while the institution gets the lion’s share.
Even book publishers, who have operated on that premise forever, are trying to squeeze that form into ebooks. What does it say about a system where I can sell a book for a third or a quarter of the price of a Big 6, agency priced ebook yet I make more per copy than their author, no matter how big their name? Ebooks have a clear potential to break this cycle, and produce significant financial gains for writers, putting us into a position, perhaps for the first time, to reap the majority of the proceeds generated from our work.
While I’ve had conflicting issues with previous developments for writers online–most of which seemed based on a devaluing of our work, further mitigating our place in the content ecosystem–ebooks look to be just the opposite. And we’re right at the ground floor of what is possibly a booming growth industry over the next decade. When I look at ebooks, I see optimism, I see large growth possibilities, I see earnings potential that at least meets the efforts required to enter the market, and quite possibly far exceeds it. For the first time in years, I can look at the disruption the internet has wrought on publishing and see an opportunity created for writers rather than one taken away. Can it be that I’ve actually found what I’ve been looking for?
Anyway, enough pontificating. I liked the 13 Days of Halloween stuff I did here so much, I decided to collect it up and make it an ebook all its own. I unleashed it a few days ago. You can click here to check it out. I did slap a modest little price on it, as it’s a cleaned up, better organized and polished version of what’s still on the site, so I don’t believe that’s unreasonable. If you simply must read it for free, well, just scroll on down and have at it.
After wrapping that up, I dove right into something I’ve considered for a while but haven’t acted on, I kicked off a series of individual short stories in ebook form, each available for 99 cents. I started off with three stories, and am listing them under the banner “Watershed Tales.” Click here to check them out and see where you can buy copies.
It’s been a busy few weeks. And there’s much more to come. It’s interesting how encouraging it is to finally see a direction that doesn’t look like a dead end. I’ve had a lot of pent-up creativity the past few years, mainly because I couldn’t find an outlet that made sense. Now, however, without even truly realizing it, I’m overloading with ideas and possibilities. For the first time in a long time, they actually seem attainable. It’s about damn time!