The Old Boss, the New Boss and the Emperor’s New Clothes

When I was young and knew everything I believed with all my heart in Revolution, that radical, fundamental change that would make the world a different, better place, full of generous ideas and love.  But I have two afflictions I must live with, neither of them comfortable: I’m the sort of restless person who wants facts, and when I have them it raises new questions, so I want more facts; and, sooner or later, sometimes a lot later, I can face facts I don’t like.

 

One of those uncomfortable facts is that every generous, well-meaning revolution in world history, with the possible exception of the American Revolution, has ended in a blood bath that changed nothing except which gang of thugs was on top.  The Who even wrote a song about it titled “Won’t Get Fooled Again” bits of which some of you may recognize the title of this piece.  A long-forgotten writer by the name of Rafael Sabatini even acknowledged this principle at the climax of his novel Scaramouche, which was written, I think (don’t take my word for it, I haven’t looked it up to confirm) in the 1930s.  So it isn’t as if this realization is anything new.

 

I got out of the Revolution business for one simple reason: I didn’t see any point in shedding blood to no end.  (Might be my blood, after all.)  So I figured until I, or someone, solved the little problem of human psychology that permits good and generous principles to be drowned in death and blood – and students of history out there will realize this is not hyperbole – then there’s no point to Revolution.

 

But sometimes revolutions happen anyway.  Sometimes that opportunity for true and fundamental changes in the way things are done comes along in a manner that makes one wonder if there really is such a thing as a “force of history” that has nothing to do with deliberate human manipulation.

 

And writers, NOW is one of those times, and digital publishing, if you haven’t figured it out already – and you should have, because there’s way too much information out there for you to have any excuse for ignorance – is the means of that revolution.

 

What is at stake for writers?  After all, in one sense we’re just going to keep doing what we’ve always done, which is to put one word after another until we have written a story.  That’s what writers have done for centuries.  And writers have starved in garrets, too, sometimes, while others made fortunes off their work. 

 

Maybe a lot of this is the mindset that, “Well, I’m a writer, and if I wanted to be in business for myself I’d’ve gotten an MBA,” etc., etc.  Most writers I’ve ever heard about are relatively poor at the business aspect of writing – I mean, the attorneys who write those one-sided contracts for the publishers don’t write the same way I do.  Their audience isn’t you, its other attorneys, after all. 

 

And I really don’t believe anyone sets out purposely to starve themselves for the sake of their work.  I don’t necessarily believe that it’s the price of passion for the work, either.  But I will point out that an artist’s zeal for their work is the sort of passionate belief that can fuel a revolution – if that zeal translates itself into a sense of ownership.

 

By ownership I mean simply this:  This is my work.  My best effort of mind, skill, craft and imagination, not to mention the sweat of long hours, went to produce this work, and if you don’t believe it, you try it.  I’m proud of myself for doing this.  Besides — I’m capitalist enough to question why anyone has a right to make a fortune off my work if I’m not making a fortune first.

 

However, before that blessed day of ownership dawns, there is one simple logistical problem which every writer faces and from which all of the mundane, bill-paying problems of a writer flows:  it takes a long time to write a novel.  Even if you’re one of those people like Stephen King who has mastered the craft of writing a 200,000 word novel in less than a year, you still have to take that year to write in.  And no except maybe your mother or an over-indulgent spouse is going to support you while you do it.  Unless of course you’re independently wealthy.

 

The writer’s logistical problem, then, is simple to state: how do I live while I write?

 

The answer, overwhelmingly, is that “day job” we don’t like very much and only tolerate until that pie-in-the-sky day when we can live off our writing. 

 

So for now let’s put aside questions about writing as a craft, and think very seriously about where we, as writers, want to go as professionals, as business people, if you will. 

 

The key question for me as a writer in this Revolution is pretty simple: Why should we, as writers, voluntarily submit to any sort of “gatekeeping” interface between us and our readers?  In the past that might have been necessary.  If you wanted to put your story in a reader’s hands, the only practical means was to sell them a book.  That meant you had to print, bind and ship the book.  Which, of course, meant you had to have a publisher.  The publisher, naturally, wanted a piece of the pie, and given the nature of the business, a pretty hefty piece it was, too.  Then at some point publishers stopped being retailers, and the business model we writers have lived with until quite recently took over.  Retailers took the risk of buying books based on their perceived market value; publishers would only accept for publication from writers books that fitted in with that same (more or less) perception of market value.  Retailers and publishers necessarily had a very close business relationship in which the writer took part pretty much on a “take it or leave it” basis because “if you don’t take it, pal, there’s a couple of dozen others who’ll jump at the chance.”

 

The writer, in this relationship, was treated this way even though the writer was actually the only person with an original product to sell.  Everyone else in that relationship depended upon the writer as a primary producer.  Think that over for a second, and as you ponder it, think about this, too: as a writer, do you think of yourself as being someone who produces a (hopefully) marketable commodity?  You should, because you are.  In this sense you’re just like a wheat farmer, or a cattle rancher, or a professional engineer.  And if you have done your job as a professional, you have a good product to sell.  I think in the past there was a certain amount of paternalism in the profession, a tendency to pat writers on the head – after all, they were just gifted, wayward children who didn’t really understand the intricacies or the realities of the Great God of Business.  And that, my friends and fellow scriveners, was the Old Boss. 

 

What concerns me now, friends and fellow scriveners, is the very real and grave possibility that we will forget, and instead of Penguin and MacMillan, substitute “online retailers” as the “New Boss.”  There is already some rumble among the bloggers about Amazon cutting the writer’s percentage of royalties from sales – apparently for no better reason than there’s nothing to stop them from doing it.  That’s definitely the same spirit as the Old Boss!

 

But there’s also one simple fact, so simple that it makes me wonder if I’ve just plain overlooked something, and that makes me nervous.  But I’m going to spell it out anyway, because, well, I just don’t believe the Emperor is wearing any clothes.

 

Why do I say that?  Kristen Lamb put it forcefully in her post “The Modern Author – A New Breed of Writing for the Age of Digital Publishing.”  The modern author has to do it all to succeed in the marketplace.

 

Well, if we have to do it all anyway, why not do what a lot of writers (Dara Joy springs to mind along with a number of other romance writers, savvy gals from whom the rest of us could learn a lot) have already done and create our own online retail presence?

 

Oh, but you can’t sell it in Kindle or Nook format that way?  Well, can you or can’t you?  I don’t know; I’m a relative newcomer to this process.  But I do know that Baen Books has been offering free downloads to your desktop from their website for at least four years now, years before the availability of ereaders, and I’m given to understand from a friend who owns an ereader that it will handle Adobe PDF files – and Word 2007 will convert a Word document to PDF in a couple of mouse clicks. 

 

In any case, we’re talking software that someone will eventually market for retail use.  Screen appearance?  Yeah, I like the near-printed-page look of the ereaders I’ve seen, but you can get that on a tablet and if enough people wanted it as a laptop feature I bet next year’s model would have it.

 

Think of an objection, and then tell me if you’re not thinking in terms of dinosaurs because, little mammal, avoiding and/or cooperating with dinosaurs has been the key to your survival until now.  Why do we need Amazon to sell for us?  Admittedly from a lot of perspectives it might be convenient, but they, like any online outlet for books (or any other good), offer a service to readers and writers alike.  That service is the classic one of the marketplace go-between, uniting a willing buyer with a willing seller, no more and no less.  And if they charge more than the service is worth it’s time to go elsewhere with our business.  The old days are gone.  Amazon.com is NOT a Big 6 publisher and as long as any one of us can buy and sell online they never will be. 

 

Our problem as writers is that when we put on our business hats we become terribly intimidated.  Many of us accept the notion that we have to be a ferocious combination of attorney, CPA, Donald Trump and maybe just a little bit of the Incredible Hulk to make it as business people.  In the past that was because we were being hunted by dinosaurs and you needed all the help you can get.  Today the only thing hunting us is our own memory of being chased by a T.Rex – but if we’re going to do it all we still need all the help we can get. 

 

I just don’t think we need to be intimidated by someone wearing a rubber T.Rex costume making Big 6 Publisher noises, however binary they try to make themselves.  Hey, isn’t that a zipper up its back?  Or should I actually pay attention to the man behind the curtain?

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