Tuesday, May 10, 2016

I Am Not Hilary Mantel

I have dreams of midlist glory!
--Me, as recently as six or so years ago 

People say all the time, "I'm no J. K. Rowling" - but the disclaimer has almost no meaning, really. Even in a climate where you *have* to sell, and sell well - in a climate where authors *probably* can't hope for second chances - where providing a moneymaking brand and the product to keep it going is the only hope for an author to gain "publishing success".

I'm not even Hilary Mantel.

Bestsellers, I rarely read. Some of the greatest authors I've ever found were ones who WOULD not emerge, or survive, today - at least in American publishing - at least not the way they did when they came up the Traditional path. Donald Harington. America's Chaucer, I've seen him called. Parke Godwin, who wrote perhaps the best work in my own genre, to whose standard I will always aspire - and who also was able to get away with comedic sci-fi/fantasy farce too. Not happening, that genre-jumping, not such a long jump.

There is no place anymore for the adequate author, for great writing but un-thrilling sales, for second novels from workhorse producers, for first novels from the rarefied genius.

... or is there ... ?

I don't know.
Among the great factors on my mind, as I have begun to contemplate becoming a self-pub/indie author has been the desolation of the middle class, in traditional publishing.

The situation looks, on the one hand, very much like a symptom of an industry upper-class avariciously destroying a wide, bread-and-butter segment of its own livelihood. I don't pretend to know that's the case. Whether it's the corporate imperative of growth above all, infecting a business ... which never has been entirely comprised of uber-moral artistes in any case ... or the creaking imminence of the death of an outdated system: my education is not wide enough to judge.

Even if I knew enough to judge, probably best to make few pronouncements, in this life.

I tend to be skeptical of harbingers of death. In my less than half a century on this planet, so many concepts have died, I no longer take stock. Rock and roll has died - multiple times, I believe - yet seems curiously animate to those of us in ignorance. Disco has died too - or was murdered, indeed by friends of mine - but retains some vitality, no matter how often we tell it it's over. Civility is a perennial hospice patient; it's been dying for centuries now, off and on.

And so I wonder whether the extraordinary shrinkage of the middle-class in publishing ... and I watch the increasing cross-pollination of self-pub and trad-pub - authors increasingly working both ways, at multiple levels of success and experience - and I am forced to wonder:

Are the evil gatekeepers in the traditional infrastructure the virus - or  another patient?

Or are they - is the industry - are we all - metamorphosing?

Transformation is painful, pretty much every time. We've watched for years as newspapers have died (another one for the list), going digital and either suffocating for life's breath without subscription money, or becoming less available ("you have read your limit of free articles this month PLEASE SUBSCRIBE" and you're splatted on a paywall), or even losing relevance just because the vastness of availability means ABC/NBC/CBS aren't the masters of the media universe.

Nobody cried for typewriters.
We kept them on at most companies, without pay, as long as carbon paper took to eke its way out of existence. Sometimes, we used them to cobble together documents already barfed out of a printer but in need of corrections or additions. We used pens, too.

We began to think typewriters were cute.

We forgot they existed.

We began harvesting the truly quaint ones for keys to turn into DIY jewelry.

The typewriter lives on, but primarily in steampunk design now. Rarely used for writing anymore. Even spiral notebooks find more use there. Though those dwindle too, and we recycle more.

And so ...
I both reserve my weeds where death is heralded, and I believe in it at the same time.

And I grew up in Beautiful Downtown White Flight.

I know, sometimes, things just: move.

And again my education is poor.
Did the middle class move to self-pub when it got squeezed out of the ever-decreasing real estate available for non-bestsellers in traditional? Or give up and just ... keep the day jobs, losing the dreams.

The sheer volume of dreams clearly available seems in this world to me to discount the latter, to an appreciable degree.

Have dreams changed?

I wonder about that too. Because, before I ever even began my education as an *author* as opposed to a writer - my education, with the real and quantifiable goal of becoming published ...

I dreamed of not having to deal with those "gatekeepers."

And, no matter how many of you love Janet, and know you're going to do it, and *have* done it, don't you tell me for a second you never thought about that. "I'll just copy the thing and sell it myself." Even before the days when self-pub had gained the traction it has, the legitimacy it has. Even before people DID that, and it was a real Thing.

Before even I dreamed of midlist glory, before I ever encountered James River Writers, when I was a mere stripling of thirty, or in my twenties, or unable to concentrate but somehow aware I was a not-bad-stringer-of-word-thingies ... in fear and before the blank wall of "how the hell do people become authors anyway" and never knew I would, or could - I thought, "why not copy my writing and sell it myself?"

Easier than learning.

("Oh. Wait ...")

And, yeah. It turns out - something to learn, all itself.

I come from the generation that brought the 'zine to its apex. I come from a wordy dang family. I come from all the fear every Woodland Creature (reg US Pat Off, Janet Reid's Phrase and Wordventions Incorporated) ever experienced, not to say wallowed in. I come from curiosity and confidence and ...


I live, in myself, in that moment where the inchoate dreams of a non-author who was nonetheless still a writer has come face to face with the first dream I ever had, and found that a "real" author can do it too. It's not just the throwaway resort of a 'nartist.

It would be sad if it's the *only* way for a non-bestseller to be published, but ... again, I'm decreasingly of the opinion anymore that self-pub/trad-pub is an either/or proposition.

And I have a resolution in my mind, to always learn, to commit to the preservation of my wee and paltry brain by feeding it with knowledge, and challenges.

And ... self-pub was, in its way, the first dream I had, as a writer. Granted, out of fear. But the way I saw it was an instrument of control. The way I saw it was as an escape from rejection, yeah. The way I saw it came from a time before it ever really existed.

And now it does. Because my dream is widespread.

Programming note for those who've been kind enough to inquire after me lately - the illness I've had is called labyrinthitis, it's something I've dealt with periodically since I was twenty. It STINKS but is nothing dangerous, and I've been so grateful for everyone's well wishes. It's still not quite cleared off, but I am safe to drive and very happy back at the office, and Penny will be especially pleased when I'm sure enough on my feet for her to get her regular walkies once again. (She's a tugger; you have to be *really* sure on your feet to walk her!)


Colin Smith said...

Here's my view, which could probably be a blog article on my own site, and might be one day, so I'll summarize for you. Publishing is competitive, and has only become more competitive over the years. For a publisher to invest time and money on your work, you have to have a product they know as surely as anyone can know that it will sell. Sometimes a publisher will take a chance on something new, but for the most part, a debut author has to offer something a publisher knows there's a market for. Twenty--heck, even TEN years ago, that would be a daunting prospect for many good, would-be authors writing in niche genres. But thankfully, that's not the case. Self-publishing affords those niche writers the opportunity to publish and find their audience. The fact of the matter is, publishers don't always know whether or not there's a market for a book. Sometimes it takes publishing the book and putting it "out there" for it to find its market. And there are indie writers who are doing quite well for themselves self-publishing books that major publishers wouldn't touch.

I don't want to take up comment space, but hopefully you get the gist of where I'm going. I'm trying for the traditional route, but it's not for everyone. Especially if agents are saying, "This is great, but it just won't sell," maybe self-pubbing is the way to go...?

Jeff said...

This is a good post--a generous contemplation of all possibilities.

I'm of two minds about this. On one hand, I often think that publishers are merely responding to the culture, to readers who've grown timid, readers who want something familiar--or who at least want a shared reading experience with their friends on social media. Why take a chance on a book when none of the cool or influential people you know have read it? (That isn't my mindset, but it does seem prevalent.)

On the other hand, I'm certain that big publishers could sell almost anything if they put the money into it and hyped it in the right places. I've seen sneering elitists become enthralled by frickin' banjo music simply because it was the flavor of the day on NPR. The problem with complaining about "publishing" is that it has no living embodiment to criticize or blame, no scapegoat with the terrified face of a late-middle-aged marketing executive, just a bunch of people trying to do their jobs in a field governed by forces that even the smartest among them can never hope to tame.

My hope is to move back into traditional publishing after one or two more self-publishing adventures, so I'm with you, increasingly unconvinced it has to be either/or.

DLM said...

Colin, worry not about "taking up space" - you KNOW if I get two comments in a week, around here that's a lot! Commment all you want, you are always welcome - as is anyone who's not trolling or spamming.

One of the possible outcomes I might someday be brave enough to call "coming to a conclusion" I've been zigzagging toward, ruminating on all this, is that crossover point. I think it is less and less two separate tracks, and more and more "you'd better know how to do this both ways" with self-pub/trad-pub. It's important to me to keep what little activity there is in my wee and paltry brain limber, relevant, active. And so, having learned a great deal about TP, perhaps it is just as important to learn about SP as well - not merely to serve my work as best I can, but also to serve MYSELF. At the end of the day, all nobility aside, I do want to make money off my art. If I want to be a small business owner, which is about the size of it, this is my due diligence.

Jeff, heh about the banjo music. :) NPR is a whole Thing with me these days. Speculative taste levels and wildly caroming quality of coverage ... Sigh. But I think you put your finger on it. We like to criticize/complain about industries as if they were people (and have personalities), and that's just not valid.

I actually worried a little about this post; one, it's about as unformed as those inchoate dreams I was on about, and two, the formatting got pretty loopy there, over and over again. Honestly not sure why that is; I usually try not to get to precious there. And this is POORLY done, I know that. But I wanted the formatting to indicate beats. (Or, for 'beats' feel free to read 'chasing new rabbits down new rabbit holes' ...)

Thank you for coming by and piping up. Stimulating thoughts, I'll chew on them for a while.

Donnaeve said...

"And, no matter how many of you love Janet, and know you're going to do it, and *have* done it, don't you tell me for a second you never thought about that. "I'll just copy the thing and sell it myself." Even before the days when self-pub had gained the traction it has, the legitimacy it has. Even before people DID that, and it was a real Thing."

Here's where I get to say - Diane, I didn't, not based on the way things went for me. You may feel dubious about that. You'll have to take my word for it.

Having said what you dared us not to say *insert smiley head* I will also tell you as the submission for the OTHER book started, all I could think was, if this book doesn't sell, I don't know exactly what I'll do. I can't say I wouldn't feel exactly the same as you write about here. Yes, it's very likely I would have considered self-publishing, is what I'm trying to say. I don't know what the agent would have thought of that, and I'm sure he would have offered advice, or said, "good luck."

DLM said...

You're basing it on the way things went for you - but that came AFTER you had educated yourself and put in the work on what you knew and kept learning about the traditional route. I'm talking about before a writer ever figures out that traditional publishing CAN be done, before they've even written anything publishable, probably before they've learned how to really write - to AUTHOR - at all. Before they've even braved the forest at all, never mind even becoming a timid woodland creature in the world of publishing. :)

But I'll take your smiley, and there's one back at you. It's always fun to see you come by.