Thursday, May 27, 2010

Such Anger

by John Gilstrap
www.johngilstrap.com

Last week, Michelle Gagnon reported on Joe Konrath’s presumably groundbreaking deal with AmazonEncore. In essence, his next book will be published first as a Kindle-only edition, and then as a traditional book, with Joe pocketing more attractive royalties than are offered by any mainstream publishers. It was presented as a really big deal. Maybe even a game changer.

Earlier this week, Publishers Weekly
posted a story on its website that refuted most of the claims made in Konrath’s press release. The tone of the PW piece was snarky at best, and maybe even a little bit mean. Konrath posted a retaliatory blog encouraging his legions of fans to let PW know that the magazine’s reporter got a lot of facts “wrong.” I put “wrong” in quotation marks here because I’ve got no dog in this fight, and I don’t know any of the facts. I’m certainly not in a position to take sides, and deep down inside, I don’t much care.

What I find startling about the whole thing is the level of anger out there focused on the publishing industry. Publishers, you’ll learn, wouldn’t know quality writing if it kissed them on the nose, and agents are evil incarnate, allegedly in cahoots with the evil publishers to make sure that the world’s most talented writers are never allowed to have a voice in print.

It’s like stepping through some twisted version of Alice’s looking glass. The publishing world alleged by some of the most spun-up of these sites and others represent the exact opposite of my own experience. In the publishing world I know, every agent is desperately hungry for the next great voice in authordom, and every publisher is betting the corporate treasury every day on new talent. They might now be doing it millions of dollars at a time as they were in the 1990s, but they’re certainly doing it tens of thousands of dollars at a time. New careers are being launched every day.

According to many of the posters on the screaming websites, the publishing industry as we know it is locked in denial of the fact that they are dinosaurs that refuse to accept that they’re dying. In their death throes, they refuse to admit that the future lies in self-published novels and ebooks.

It’s hard for me to imagine a more foul-smelling steaming crock of bull poop. Alternative publishing will certainly change the business model—who knows, it might derail it completely—but if that happens, it won’t happen because publishers are evil; it will happen because readers change their habits.

Which leaves us with the anger. Where is this coming from? Isn’t it remotely possible that the preponderance of the rejected manuscripts out there are in fact rejected because they aren’t very good? Or if they’re good, they’re not marketable? Doesn’t the traditional publishing model exist at least in large part because the model provides quality control?

Is it possible that Joe Konrath’s success—which I do not dispute—actually provides false hope to authors who aren’t very good at what they do? As an author who has had at least some measure of commercial success, is it possible that Joe’s success at independent publishing is not relevant to the average aspiring writer?

19 comments:

  1. I do think you've picked up on something, John. Anger born of frustration/rejection. Now that there appears to be a way around the "gatekeepers," there's a bit of French Revolution shouting going on.

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  2. You're dead right, John. What we're seeing with deals like this one is an emergence of new opportunities and a revolt against the establishment. Writers have always felt that their hands are tied and that they have so little control over their own destiny. Along comes a new set of opportunities to gain back some control (or get it from the start). What I fear--and you pointed it out--is that more books will clog the shelves that should never be published. Those are the ones that would have been filtered out right away in the current business model.

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  3. Konrath makes no bones about the fact he is not a model for new writers; he already had an established platform. His sales fell into a doughnut hole: not large enough for a publisher to make much money from, but enough people want to read what he writes that he could make a decent living, if his royalty rates were higher, which is made possible by lower production costs. This is his solution. I'm sure there are a lot of writers who could benefit from such an arrangement, but even Joe admits its not the recommended way to break in.

    John's absolutely right about the frustration, though it extends to more than the unpublished; I'm picking it up from a lot of midlist writers, too. I don't get the feeling people think publishers are evil, but that they're shortsighted in addressing the weaknesses in the current business model, and it seems as though it's the author who gets squeezed every time. (Increasing burdens of publicity and marketing responsibility are the current prime example.) I think a lot of writers are thinking, "If I have to pick up more of the responsibility for the creation and sales of the book, I should get to keep more of the money." It's hard to say that's unreasonable.

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  4. My friend Jon Van Zile wrote a blog piece called "A Million Jilted Girlfriends"http://1-millionmonkeys.blogspot.com/2010/05/million-jilted-girlfriends.html

    And he wrote, among other things:
    "Then I read the comment thread and I had this very strong image. I pictured a whole football stadium of jilted girlfriends, all yelling at once about how their ex-boyfriends all got crabs and ha ha, sucks to be them. It's a toxic mixture of triumphalism, thin-skinned pique, gloating, and I-told-you-so. I was almost moved to comment, but then I figured there was no point in setting off an argument on someone else's blog. I wondered how many of those angry commenters have been unable to place books with traditional publishers. Then I realized it was probably all of them."

    I mostly agree. But the PW article, aside from tone, had some problems. Although as I myself pointed out to Joe on his Facebook account, "incompetence and laziness are not necessarily synonymous with vindictive."

    The whole Kindle app self-pub furor gives me a strong sense of deja vu to about 10 years ago when iUniverse etc. were going to destroy publishing as we know it. Maybe. Maybe not.

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  5. I don't think what the PW article calls "legacy" publishers are evil (but doesn't that term speak volumes)?

    I do think they've become the embodiment of what's wrong with corporate America: top-heavy, committee-driven, hidebound, and too focused only on short-term blockbusters rather than long term development of new or midlist writers. Problem is, they all desperately want the next 'big" book, but are totally clueless about what that means.

    And as for anger: once you've heard a few editors or agents say "the secret to getting published is to write a good book" and sit back with a satisfied smile on their face as if that was any help at all, and then gotten a few rejections along the lines of "this is a great book, but..." you begin to understand the anger.

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  6. Well, here's the thing:

    The traditional publishing community is heavily committed to the notion that all self-published work is garbage.

    But since we all hear about how horrifying the slush pile is, and how impossible it is for publishers and agents to work through, you'd think that publishers and agents would be glad that people are abandoning the traditional publishing submission process and self-publishing instead. You'd think that they'd just be thankful for a smaller slush pile and fewer stalkers and let it go at that.

    But somehow, that's not how they're reacting.

    They're reacting by lashing out at people who self-publish even more and sneering at them even more. Considering the fact that people who self-publish are all no-talent hacks who never sell any books, you'd think that the traditional publishing community could just ignore them and let them slide into oblivion - but they seem to put a lot of energy into running them down every chance they get instead.

    I think that a big part of the problem is that people inside publishing have no real idea exactly how bizarre their industry is, and this skews their perceptions. Because for a century or two [or more] there has been a huge imbalance between the number of people who want to be authors and the number of people who can feasibly be published under the traditional model, publishing insiders have become accustomed to being able to behave in absurdly unprofessional ways. If I pick up the phone book and call any law firm listed in the yellow pages, I will get a call back today. If I send any realtor's office an email saying I want to sell my house, I will get an email back today. There are no law firms or real estate offices with stacks of unopened mail and unreturned phone messages from people who want to try to do business - none. And if there were, and changing technology gave people the opportunity to screw over those law firms and real estate offices and bring them crashing down, you would see a lot of people eager to do just that and a lot of celebrating and "triumphalism". I am aware of all the cultural and economic reasons why it's no one's fault that traditional publishing is the way that it is, but I think you also have to be aware of the fact that a century or two of arrogance will earn you some hostility.

    I actually think the blogger who wrote about "a million jilted girlfriends" was on to something, but not exactly in the way that he might have thought. If you live long enough with a million girls who want to date you and are banging on your door and scheming ways to run into you in elevators to give you their pitch about why you should date them, it is pretty inevitable that you will, well, turn into a dick. [Forgive my language, but I want to call it what it is.] That's just human nature. You probably won't realize all the ways that you have turned into a dick. And that is pretty much the story of what happened in publishing.

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  7. I think Konrath's move will pave the way for other midlist authors to do the same thing. I'm talking about writers who have some name recognition and sales, but very little publisher support. Why should we exhaust ourselves doing self-promotion, earning squat, when we could do the same thing for a much bigger slice of the action? Publishers are dropping under-performing series like mad these days, and paying less all the time for new ones. A writer whose series has been dropped has little to lose by deciding to publish through Amazon et al.

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  8. John
    I think you're spot on in many respects and I do hear the anger from many unpublished writers. I always say it is a tough industry but one that in my experience is not filled with evil gatekepers. On the contrary all the agents and editors I've met are eager to find the next great author - they want to help you succeed. They all recognize the challenges in doing this but I've never met anyone in the industry who didn't feel passionately about trying to get great authors and their books out into the world.

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  9. Not being published is part of the process. I wrote four novels before one was published. If I had self-published those, I'd be sorry now because they were not up to snuff with what has been published.

    I'm surprised at the number of anonymous comments here, because it's as though we are afraid to put our names to our opinions, observations for fear of retaliation from someone.

    I'll say that publishers pass on more good books than they print and I imagine they always have. I too wonder about the flood of bad or under-cooked books that will litter the net, but I suspect the good ones will float up to the surface as word of mouth builds.

    I think it's great that this internet is a vehicle for the words of anybody who wants to stack them, and I hope it grows. Everybody deserves to share their view or stories, and it's far better to have more to look through than too few.

    Readers will find the best work, the stories they want to read, and the playing field will be more level than ever. Maybe standard publishers will suffer, but I suspect they will survive in one form or another and that's sort of their problem to work through. For the first time authors don't have to win a talent contest in order to get their work in front of an audience. I think a revolution––a whole new way of presenting stories is a good thing. People will figure out a way to profit from it, and I'm sure publishers will be right in there. The model will keep them working harder and harder for their slice.

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  10. I'm surprised at the number of anonymous comments here, because it's as though we are afraid to put our names to our opinions, observations for fear of retaliation from someone.

    Yes.

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  11. I'd like to follow on to a few of these comments, but I make a point never to respond to anonymous comments. Same reason I don't read blogs like Kos, where the writers all have handles. If someone doesn't feel strongly enough to take responsibility for what he/she says, keep it to yourself.

    One thing that seems to be overlooked in this and similar discussion, is lumping editors and publishers into the same boat. They work for the same companies, but editors are--or should be--willing to find and nurture new talent. It's the bean counters and MBAs on the publishing side who tend to frustrate writers, though they rarely deal with us directly.

    Agents can be a pain, with their constant complaining about how busy they are (we're ALL busy), but they have no incentive to restrict writers' access to publishers. They don't sell, they don't eat.

    Sincerely,
    Dana Goddamn King

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  12. Back in 2004 I took a calculated risk to get published. My previous MS had been picked up by an agent but never placed with a publisher and my latest had been passed over several times. I thought if I self-published and created some buzz, I might have a track record to present to an agent to help me toward obtaining my goal of getting traditionally published. So I went with iUniverse, hoping for the best.

    I think my eagerness to see one of my books in print blinded me to the research I should've done. Self-published books, by and large, come with a stigma for a reason...they're not up to par, including mine. Even with the extra editing I paid for, readers found typos (yikes!). Some of the sample pages I read of other books from iUniverse made me cringe. My Catholic School nun would've had a field day with the way some of the authors were butchering the language. And when it came to promotion, I felt like a goldfish in the ocean. It was all on me and I had no idea where to start.

    My point in telling you this is we need the publishing industry. We need their expertise, their connections, their promotions departments, and their years of experience, whether they take us on or not.

    I was the guy who entered "I Just Killed My Wife...Does Anyone Have Change For A Twenty" a few weeks back for the First Page critique. That's a perfect example of how this works. I thought the opening page was tight, but clearly it wasn't, and that feedback made the first page - and the rest of the MS - better for it (and I changed the title, John...good call on your part).

    Self-publishing houses print what you send them, regardless of quality. I learned the hard way that this process doesn't work for me. Not to say that it might not work for someone else, but be careful. What you think is the next "War and Peace" might really just be a "Peace of s--t." Polish your style and get all the feedback you can from someone in the know. If agents are passing on you, chances are it's the writing or the story and not because they're too busy.

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  13. I'm not a writer, just an avid reader - and I am angry at publishers only because of the Agency Model. I appreciate all that they do and would not want to see them fail.

    I probably bought 100+ ebooks over the past year, but have not made a single purchase since the Agency Model went into effect. The publishers have substantially raised prices and stopped competition. In many cases, ebooks are priced higher than paper editions. I find it so much easier to use an ereader, but the Agency 5 have priced me out of the market and sent me back to the library - which results in many lost sales from this customer.

    Another factor is that I have always appreciated friendly customer service from a retailer, and now that the Agency 5 want to be my retailer, it feels like they have erected a wall between us. So yes, I am angry at the loss of what used to be such a pleasurable experience - shopping for books.

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  14. Wow, this is what happens when you post something and then spend a few hours in an airplane. Thanks for the lively discussion, everyone. And for what it's worth, I fully understand why some people choose to post anonymously. It all goes back to the anger--and the presumption of anger in response.

    As one of the truly lucky ones who've been able to carve out a tiny niche for myself in the age-old publishing world, I realize that I bring a certain bias to the table, but when I consider how much better my own books are beacuse of the efforts of my agent and editor, I cannot imagine trying to make a go of it through self-publishing.

    But that's just me. I respect writers who decide to go the self-publishing route the same way I admire any entrepreneur who sets out on a quest that I think is doomed to failure. It's a gutsy thing to do. If I seem dismissive, my dismissiveness comes from the very honest place of knowing how very hard it is for experienced journeymen to turn out compelling product.

    But I still don't understand the anger.

    Every high school jock dreams of turning pro, but few have the skills, training and dedication to make it happen. When a bunch of like-minded jocks find each other, they form local leagues, and they play the same game the pros play, but no one will ever mistake a corporate softball leaguers as major league baseball stars.

    Every town in America has the local star who knocks 'em dead in the coffee houses and community theaters, but just don't have the X-factor that makes their star cast light beyond their little slice of the world.

    Do these people get angry at professional sports franchises and casting directors? Maybe, but if so, it seems to me that that anger is misdirected. Some of the frustrated filmmakers will cobble together something for YouTube and call it an "independent film," but if you've ever judged an indy contest, you'll know that images and sound do not a good film make. It takes . . . dare I say it? . . . hard work and talent--not necessarily in that order.

    Same with athletics. Same with writing books. And on top of that you have to throw in a modicum of luck.

    So, to the several anons who have posted here today--and to others who share their views but have not joined the dialogue--I reiterate my view that the current system, while flawed and in a wild state of flux, in large measure works where it's supposed to. The drive to publish the Next Big Book isn't driven by a conspiracy to shut out little books; it's an effort to satisfy the known needs of their customers. If my overhead is paid by publishing political thrillers, I'm not going to be in the market for a literary novel about an abused childhood.

    The good news is that there are more than a couple of very successful publishing houses who thrive on literary novels about abused childhoods, and look at the commercial stuff that I write as crap. It's about choosing one's options.

    Now, if you've written a novel that fits snugly within the guidelines and demographics of your chosen publisher, yet the publisher is not interested, then maybe it's because the book is simply not good enough--good in itself being an undefinable term.

    But if that's the case, and a team of professional sales people don't thnk they can sell your book, what possible chance do you have of success on your own?

    To me, it's not worth the effort and the financial risk, but then again, I have a chip in the game--at least for three more books. For those who disagree and take the entrepreneurial road, God bless you.

    And think about dialing down the anger.

    John Gilstrap
    www.johngilstrap.com

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  15. John,
    I agree about dialing down the anger. I'm not published, and I'm frustrated, but know it's not because of some conspiracy by The Man to keep me down; it's because my books haven't stood out. Such is life.

    I think a lot of the animus comes from folks who don't have a practical perspective on how the world really works. Athletes will eventually run up against someone better than them. Send the guys out from the local rec league out to hit against Roy Halladay and any bitterness they have over the lack of a major league career should fall away pretty quickly.

    Writing is much more subjective, and too many people think with their hearts when reading their own stuff. I've sat through critique sessions where friends have lamented their inability to get an agent, and think, "Are you kidding me? No one outside your immediate family would want top read this, and your family won't like it."

    That's where the anger comes from: writers are often delusional.

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  16. John, an excellent piece. Such good observations.

    I think Anonymous 10:36 AM hit the nail on the head too. The process simply takes too long for the average person to understand, let alone have the patience for, in our fast-paced world.

    And Matthew Farrell is also right. We all need the industry. Their connections and expertise is invaluable. When television came on the scene, it didn't replace radio it simply became another option. Likewise, self-publishing will become another option as it matures and finds it's place in the industry.

    So here is what I see as the answer to the question of what self-publishing will do to the industry (and also why a certain major publishing house has started up a self-publishing division [for all the rejects from the traditional process]): It's the same thing that happened to American Idol after several seasons. The younger generation eventually realized that there were no shortcuts to singing success - so they largely quit auditioning. The audience for American Idol shifted from mostly teens and twenty-somethings to an older demographic as a result. Blame it all on Simon (or praise him for his quality control), but it happened. Publishing has to go through that same process in order to squeeze out the people that think they can make it big without putting in the effort.

    And that must mean that every Tom, Dick, and Harry and all their cousins, aunts, and uncles right now think that writing is an easy path to fame and fortune. What I'm hearing from publishing industry professionals is that their inboxes and slush piles are all very full right now which supports this theory.

    Ladies and Gentlemen, we have to weather the storm. Publishing will eventually get back to normal albeit with the addition of the self-publishing option. It's like Matthew 24:13 (KJV), "But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved." Those who do the right thing - learn the craft, keep writing, and show perseverance - will eventually get published. Those who don't - who write for the wrong reasons, take shortcuts, and give up too soon - will not. But the industry will persist.

    Anyway, those are my two cents. Take them for what they are.

    Dana's response made me chuckle. Writers *are* often delusional. An occupational hazard I suppose.

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  17. Matthew Farrell is a good and talented writer (I don't care what anybody says), and I should have protested his decision to self-publish. Hell I wrote him a heartfelt blurb for the cover, which probably doomed it. We need as many Matt Farrells as we can find. Trouble is he was growing impatient and I think he didn't do himself any harm by doing so because he can just not mention it in his letters. The system moves at a snail's pace, but once you are in you get why it takes so long to see the book in print. It is worth the wait of course. All good things come after the work is done.

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  18. I think it really comes down to expectations. If your goal is to be a world-famous, bestselling novelist then self-publishing isn't for you.

    If you are happy being the local actor/singer that John mentioned a few responses up, then self-publishing can let you be that person, especially self-pubbing ebooks. The Kindle store, Smashwords, Apple's iBookstore -- all of those places can put your work in front of thousands. It's up to you to find your niche, but now the entire world is your small town coffee shop. The number of people who can see you and might like what you offer is exponentially higher now.

    The thing, to me, that is going to be the game changer in self-publishing are ebook royalty rates. In the past self-publishing a print book meant a price to the buyer that was higher than your average bookstore offering. That and the reputation of self-published books kept the better writers away. At least to my mind it did. Now the fact that a writer can self-publish an ebook and price it low but still make a decent profit on each sale is going to entice both mid-list writers who feel they are unsupported and the better unpublished writers to give it a shot.

    Controlling your own publishing in that way means you aren't having to make back an advance(you aren't getting one either, noted), and you aren't having to turn a book quickly to meet some contract requirements. Or, if you are very prolific you can publish quicker and get more product out to your readers.

    Just a few thoughts from someone who has been following this whole debate closely and with interest. I'd love to find an agent and have a book published traditionally, but am also open to other avenues of making a career in writing.

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  19. Anger frequently is a result of the perception that people aren’t listening. If any accusation can be made of the publishing industry it is that they aren’t listening to most authors. Combine a few rejected manuscripts with an inability find books that the author thinks are good and publishers become this monster that ignores the good in favor of the boring. Authors may turn to self-publishing to combat this perceived problem, but the anger is fueled when the traditional side of the publishing industry dismisses self-publishing, just one more indication that they aren’t listening. We see anger on the other side for the same reason. The traditional publishing side feels certain that traditional publishing is the better route, but these silly authors won’t listen. In the end, it turns into a shouting match with neither side actually listening to what the other side is saying.

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