traditional publishing

Time is Treasure

This evening, while I was at a Jazz Vespers service (a real treasure, only a few minutes’ walk from my home) a light bulb came on, about the new phenomenon of self-publishing.

This has probably been said by many, but it felt like a new insight to me, so I decided to write it down.

At one time, when “publishing” meant rendering prose into print, gatekeepers were necessary because it was an expensive process, involving printing machines, warehouses, trucks and heavy boxes of books, in addition to the talents of editors, book designers and publicists. Time and treasure. Traditional publishers had to be selective. Hence the submissions process and all those rejection letters.

Things are different now. Novels and stories may be presented to potential readers in electronic form. No more paper, ink or machines. No more warehouses full of books. Why should anyone be surprised that the gates have been thrown open? Not only have the mechanics of publishing changed, but the fundamental criteria as to what is publishable are completely different.

No longer must every book justify its existence by making a profit for the publisher, or at least breaking even. Self-publishers are free to apply their own criteria of success. Maybe it’s a couple of hundred sales a year, or a few thousand free downloads. Some writers choose to make their self-publishing effort a business; to others, it’s primarily a means of creative expression.

Profit motives aside, all of us authors must remember that our readers’ time is the real treasure. If we want to catch and keep their attention (and thus the few dollars we charge for our ebooks), we absolutely must present polished work, competently packaged. But our books are offerings, not submissions. That’s a radical departure from the world of Trad.

The closing tune of tonight’s Jazz Vespers was “This Little Light.”

Fellow writers, let it shine.

Create and Connect

Last week, I attended an event at my public library (where I am employed, but that’s not relevant to this post), featuring Betsy Warland, writer, poet, editor and author of Breathing the Page: Reading the Act of Writing. She began with a performance poem, a gesture of casting a net which drew the audience into an intensely personal view of writing in the area of memoir. Ms. Warland spoke of family dynamics, the death of her mother and the necessity of challenging the taken-for-granted assumptions about one’s life which she calls the “coma story.” She also introduced “Oscar,” an interactive online salon on her website built around her work-in-progress, Oscar of Between. Ms. Warland invited other writers and artists to engage in this conversation.

Ms. Warland’s talk was followed by a conversation initiated by representatives of the Community Arts Council and library staff on the theme of resources for writers — including self-published ones. This was truly refreshing. Self-published authors have grown accustomed to exclusion, and here were community institutions reaching out, requesting our suggestions. Needless to say, suggestions burst forth, jostling against one another, combining and amplifying. It was a most rewarding evening.

I was happy to set this positive experience against the dreary slog of comments in another forum — discussions on LinkedIn’s Fiction Writers’ Guild. There, the argument on the theme of “Is Self-Publishing Evil?” went on and on, with at least one vocal individual saying over and over again that 99% of self-published material is “crap,” generated by self-indulgent slobs too lazy to learn the craft and earn the privilege of being published by a Real Publisher.

Returning to the presentation at the library, which reminded me that writing is a bigger field than the arena of TP versus SP. Publishing is a subset of writing, and the sharing of creative efforts through the internet cannot be labelled with the scornful term “not good enough to be traditionally published.” People write for many different reasons and define success in many different ways. While it’s true that writers aspiring to make a lot of money by selling their novels have to create a particular type of written product, that is by no means the only way to achieve success in the art of the written word. No longer are “traditional,” “vanity” or “none” the only available publication options. Technology has opened avenues for writers and many are racing down them.

A few final thoughts — publishers and editors are made, not born. Many publishing companies were started by groups of writers who wanted to get their stuff out. Editors begin as readers and writers. Writers are people who write, not exalted members of an anointed elite.

Throwing Darts at the Moon

Toward the end of my “submissive” period as an author, I realized there is an unfathomable gap between a submitted manuscript and the preferences of the target — the professional reader. I wrote my novels with an ideal reader in mind, a receptive, welcoming reader to whom I was eager to present my fictional world and characters. The professional reader can’t be that way, for good reasons. Publishers must perforce reject the majority of manuscripts sent to them by hopeful writers. The professional reader approaches manuscripts with rejection in mind.

Manuscripts rarely return to their authors with a list of reasons for rejection. Unless an editor is almost inclined to accept a manuscript and suggests specific changes that might tip the balance in its favour, the writer is forced to guess. Even when reasons are given, they are often less than helpful. In my submissive days, I used to brood over sentences such as, “Your narrative voice slightly missed the mark at drawing me in,” wondering exactly what would have elicited a different result.

From my experience with critique groups over the years, I have realized that a piece of writing provokes a range of opinions from a group of people. Some want more backstory, others none at all. Some love lush descriptions, others hate them. Some focus on certain words or punctuation marks, others question the motives and personalities of the characters. When your opus is read and rejected by an unknown stranger, you have no knowledge of their quirks and preferences. You do some tweaking or rewrite the whole thing and send it into another black hole where it will be read by someone with completely different ideas about what constitutes a good piece of writing. For any rewrite to match the idiosyncrasies of the next professional reader is like throwing darts at the moon.

That’s if the manuscript is read at all. Most writers who have sent manuscripts to publishers have at least one story about a submission that was rejected more than a year after being sent, or received no response at all. Ever. And yes, we’ve all heard stories about enormous slush piles clogging the premises of beleaguered publishers. Shame on all of us wannabees for burdening them with our stuff. But declaring themselves open to submissions, especially with statements that queries meeting their requirements will be read within a specific time period, implies that publishers will treat those submissions with respect. But not all do. It is, after all, a “buyer’s market.”

Some years ago, I took an evening course on the business side of writing and publishing. One of the statements made by the instructor that has stayed with me was, “Self-publishing is masturbation.” In those days the only means of self-publishing was the vanity press, years before “indie authors,” print-on-demand, ebooks and Smashwords arrived on the scene. When those avenues to self-publication became available and quasi-respectable, they were taken up with such eagerness, in such huge and overwhelming numbers, as to constitute something more like a revolution than a mere trend.

Is that any wonder, given the exigencies of trying to get published in the time-honoured, submissive way? Rejections for unspecified reasons, after months- or years-long waits, repeated as many times as the writer can endure (and some of us are more patient and persistent than others), is not what any writer signs up for. Most of us writers — well, here I had better speak for myself — I want my works to be read. My novels are “out there,” not languishing in someone’s slush pile or abandoned in a drawer. If I can make a few bucks from them, that’s icing on the cake. If that constitutes metaphorical masturbation, so be it.