Business Decisions and the French Revolution

I’ve never published before.  I have a novel, Boxcar Red Leader, that’s in what I call “draft 3 alpha” stage – gone through some critiquing by my writers group and trusted others for draft 2, then rewritten for, hopefully, the majority of typos, grammar errors, plot deficiencies, relevant and egregious historical inaccuracies, etc.  When I finish Draft 3 Alpha I’ll have it reviewed again and depending on comments, it will go to Draft 3 Beta to correct anything my reviewers find.  And then, with fear and trembling, off into the world it will go.

With the approach of this happy event, then, the current debate about different publishing methods has assumed increasing importance for me.  Last year, as I developed draft 2, I hadn’t really heard about indie publishing and the advantages offered by eBooks.  As I recall in the first part of that year my writers group still pretty much thought that we’d have to endure the traditional publishing paradigm.  We studied comments by various agents and others regarding good query letters, what’s hot in publishing, how to write a good pitch, plus all that other stuff that the how-to magazines sell to aspiring writers, because, well, if you’re selling regularly you don’t need any of that stuff, do you?  And then, of course, there was that one agent whose advice to writers was “don’t quit your day job, it keeps you real.” It was the middle of summer and I work construction.  The tone of that article was so patronizing and paternal that if I could have found that agent I would have made her pour concrete for a couple of hours at a humitemp of 110 degrees Fahrenheit.

So when we became aware of it, digital publishing as a venue seemed like the Holy Grail found.  No need to pay agents, no need to pay a publisher; you keep the lion’s share of the sale price; no stupid query letters or synopses.  Of course, there are those niggling little problems of marketing and editing, but we figured that the quality of editing in the fiction that we read was visibly in decline (down-sizing your editorial departments will have that result) and if we got a contract with one of the Big 6 we’d end up doing most of the marketing anyway.

The point is that, with digital publishing, we could get our books out there and have a potential audience as large as everyone with an internet connection.  Maybe we could even get paid for what we’d written!  And we wouldn’t have to write a single quirky, fun or flirty query letter to do it.

Are we critical of the traditional publishers?  You bet, and how, absolutely!  And if you want to know why this debate between the indies and the trads is becoming vitriolic, polemic, and almost ideological in nature, that’s easy.  It’s because writers, especially unpublished, talented, determined writers, have been treated like dirt – no, permit me to rephrase that; have been treated like French peasants before the French Revolution.  What we are looking at in the indie vs. traditionalist “feud” bears, in my opinion, considerable resemblance to that situation, at least with regard to attitudes and motivation on the part of either side.  But here’s the thing: even in the digital age what writers have to offer hasn’t changed.  Like the peasants of France, we offer what we have always offered: the fruit of our labor.  The publishers have been able to pick and choose among those fruits, and in the process, as far as writers are concerned, they’ve built up some pretty bad karma.  Writers perceive, rightly or wrongly, that they have been poorly and even abusively treated by publishers, at least in the contractual sense.  To the publishers, though, it’s just business.  Big business, which always has been and probably always will be fairly brutal and Darwinian in the worst sense of the word.

I can understand business decisions.  I’ve been subjected to them all my life.  If the company isn’t making any money they can’t afford to pay you, anyway, so why should you kick if you get laid off?  If the company isn’t making enough profit, would you rather lose your job, or give up your benefits and take a cut in pay to keep it?  But that’s not a business decision for your employer alone, it’s a business decision you, the employee, have to make as well.  Is it in your best interest to go and seek employment elsewhere, or stay and hope things don’t get any worse?

Choosing which stories will sell, and which will not, is a marketing judgment.  It isn’t necessarily a commentary on a given writer’s skill or talent.  I once got a rejection letter for a short story that said, “This is a great story that deserves to be told.  Unfortunately, we don’t publish this kind of story anymore.”

Well…gosh.  See what I mean?  Marketing.  It sucks, but I get it.

But therein lies another question: in one sense having “the publishers” to demonize (“no one understands my work”) kept a lot of writers from having to face, directly, either the realities of the marketplace or their own deficiencies as writers.  Nowadays, though, you can publish anything you like whenever you want.  But you may have to face the reality, as a writer, that you aren’t selling because no one wants to read what you write, and that may be because you haven’t sufficiently developed your craft, or your subject has no niche, or maybe even just bad timing.  Then there’s no one to blame but yourself.  I mean, how many rejection slips are we likely to collect from Smashwords or Amazon?

Of course if you’re in the blame game maybe you should reconsider being a writer.  Blaming other people for your failures is a good way to go nowhere.

In the indie age, you can publish, and if you have the talent to tell a good story, you may even sell.  But the second you publish, you have to put on another hat, your three-piece-pinstripe-suit hat, that’s right, your business person hat.  And you will have to make business decisions, and it doesn’t get much more personal than asking, what’s best for me?

And ultimately all the debate comes down to that.  In the wicked world before the Dawn of this Golden Digital Age, publishers made all those business decisions about what would sell and what wouldn’t.  We can criticize their choices all we like; there’s plenty to criticize, after all, in a system that had 8 books fail out of 9 launches.  Also, I think the publishing industry pretty much got aristocratic in its notions.  They got a sense of entitlement; they were entitled to take the lion’s share of profit, they were entitled to treat writers as if they were peasants, they were entitled to have this system go on in perpetuity.  All of that is going to go the way the French aristocracy went, under the marketplace equivalent of the guillotine.

There were, however, French aristocrats who embraced the Revolution – such as the Marquis de Lafayette, who fought in our own revolution here in America.  And I am very curious indeed to see what those intelligent, adaptable publishing aristocrats make of this brave new digital world, because as one of my favorite writers was fond of saying, there’s nothing like a professional in any line of work.  And those folks have a lot of training and experience to bring to the table.

It will be a lot easier for such surviving traditional publishers to sign up writers and determine what stories will sell – now that those writers have become successful as independents, selling stories an earlier generation of aristocrats would have (or even did) reject out of hand, building up “brand” and “platform” and name recognition in the process, without the traditional publishers needing to spend a dime.  The business question for both sides will then become, what will the publishers offer those writers that the writers can’t get on their own?  Because the truth is that publishers need writers, and nowadays writers don’t necessarily need publishers.

However it turns out that’s in the future.  I’m not waiting for them before I publish Boxcar Red Leader.  That’s a business decision.

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4 Comments

Filed under Writing, Writing as Business

4 responses to “Business Decisions and the French Revolution

  1. This blog nails it, and very eloquently. I particularly like “In the indie age, you can publish, and if you have the talent to tell a good story, you may even sell. But the second you publish, you have to put on another hat, your three-piece-pinstripe-suit hat, that’s right, your business person hat.” That captures the schizophrenic world of a writer. Particularly when said writer gets to the point where she or he is writing the next book while trying to keep interest in the first book alive–while also still thinking about whether said second book should be indie again–or is it time to take on the Bastille of traditional publishing this time . . . well, you get it . . . Juggling is an apt metaphor as well.

    • Thanks, Blythe! “Schizo” is probably pretty apt, especially, as you point out, when you’re juggling a couple of books, thoughts on future projects, AAAAANNNNDDD, not to be left out, the little problem of getting them in front of potential readers. And people wonder why writers tend to be a little nutty…!

      • AAAANNNNDDD, not to mention, of course, whatever commitments we have to more remunerative work that keeps the cheese sandwiches (Margaret Atwood once very entertainingly described that as what writers must live on) on the table! While I have sworn never to take a W-2 job ever again, there are bits and pieces of corporate consulting I have to attend to to pay the bills . . . How many personalities does an aspiring writer need? That’s the question!

      • You know, one of the guys in my writers group is a psychiatrist. I’d ask him how many personalities a writer needs, but I’m afraid he’d just give me one of those “Now, son, keep calm” routines while he stealthily dials 911 under the table.

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