Are The Big Publishers Doing Their Jobs?

Are The Big Publishers Doing Their Jobs?

What is the role of the publishing company?  At its most basic, the job of publishing is to provide the public with content that the public wants to read, and earn a profit as a reward for a job well done.  At first blush, it seems that large publishing companies are continuing to fulfill that role; books are still being made available to the market, and publishing companies are still earning profits.  After all, if they were failing in their role, the market would provide a correction in terms of eliminating profits, right?

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What is an Independent Author, Anyway?

So, what is an Independent Author?

Independent authors are a pretty new idea. Up until pretty recently, large publishing companies held the keys to the kingdom. You couldn’t get on a bookstore shelf and thus into the readers’ hands without them. During this time, the closest we had to truly independent authors were those wealthy and foolish enough to have their book printed, and then sell it out of the trunk of their car.

Then, in 2007, a giant smashed the gates in and let the rabble pour through.

Amazon launched a program called Kindle Direct Publishing.  Together with the Kindle e-reader, this allowed anyone to publish a book that could be purchased directly by Amazon customers and loaded on the customer’s Kindle device, ready for reading. This changed the world, for readers and for writers.

Writers set to work on Amazon’s algorithms and the Kindle Gold Rush era began. There was an ocean of readers hungry for easy-to-get content, and writers responded in spades. But the content offered was different than what we were used to seeing from large publishing houses.  The content was often poorly written, riddled with typos, and featured poorly done design and formatting. The gatekeepers had maintained strict controls on the quality of the books (though not always the quality of the stories contained therein) that were for sale, and they had the resources and the infrastructure to make books of excellent quality. The new self-publishing crowd didn’t always have those resources or know where to find them.

A support industry slowly started to take shape.  Websites devoted to putting authors in touch with designers, automated editing tools, and specialized writing software above and beyond your standard word processor came on the scene. Self published books started to look better… more like the kind of quality you’d expect from a publishing company.

So, with all of these tools, the phrase independent author came to mean someone who could publish without the help of a large company behind them, and make money doing it. It was a whole new situation; suddenly authors had control over the look of their books, the pricing of their books, and the release and distribution of their books.  Where large companies sometimes took one to two years to publish a manuscript, the new independent author could release a book once a year, or several times a year.  The independent author became a powerhouse of social capital and maneuverability.

Now, the self-publishing revolution is reaching maturity; e-book sales are beginning to plateau at their new point in the market, and though there is sometimes still a stigma against the self-published, it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell self-published books from books published by large companies. Some established authors are choosing to self-publish some or all of their titles, and some independent authors are choosing to move titles to large publishers.  

So what does it really mean anymore to be an independent author?

I’m not sure.  I’m no expert, after all. I think an important part of being an independent author is an entrepreneurial spirit; the attitude that you have a product to sell, whether it’s sold to a publishing company or directly to readers. I think independent authors are people who are willing to do the legwork necessary to pull together resources that will make their books the best and the most professional looking that it can be. I think that independent authors are people who do what they can to make the industry as a whole better; to mentor and to form communities of readers and writers, and to equalize the balance of power within the industry.

An independent author is someone who takes risks, accepts challenges, and who won’t take “no” for an answer.

An independent author is not simply someone who writes beautifully, but who cares about how the reader experiences that writing, and does their level best to ensure that that experience is the best possible one.

So maybe what it really is is a question of taking ownership.  Rather than shipping your manuscript off to an office full of strangers to review, judge, and then outfit, maybe what matters most about the independent author is that they care enough to take ownership not just of their work, but of their relationship with the reader and the reader's experience with the work in question.

Being a Writer is Easy, Right?

We’ve all been told, “You can do anything, if you try.”

The hard part is trying. It is easy to say, “I have an idea for a book.” It’s just as easy to say, “I have an idea for a movie,” or, “I want to open a restaurant,” or, “I’m going to fly to the moon.”

Given those frames of reference, the writer comes in as the easiest of these. Writing a novel requires less formatting than a movie script, and if we’re going full movie, a whole lot less work entirely. Opening a restaurant requires training, not just in fine cuisine but in business management. Flying to the moon is becoming more and more in our reach every day.

So, being a writer must be easy, right?

Many people try. They sit, in a room, with their computer, burning candles and chanting, waiting for inspiration to hit. Or, they pace frantically in that same room, trying to dredge up the Ultimate First Sentence that will hook their reader in three seconds. They curse and wail and pull their hair. They turn on music, trying to pick out the ‘soundtrack’ for their unwritten novel.

Then they quit, without ever touching the keyboard.

What’s impressive to me is that they got that far. Everyone has a novel, or a play, or a movie, somewhere in their head, some half-remembered dream embellished with pithy moments, that they trot out at parties when the subject comes up. Everyone has a story.

Stories are demanding creatures. They demand time, and energy, and money, and if they can, they’ll take your every waking minute. You’d have to be insane to write a novel.

Writers are insane. They’ll be the first ones to admit it.

Neil Gaiman wrote an excellent, wry, witty response to what was probably his millionth fan asking for the billionth time, how do you become a writer. I’ll link it here:

The fact that Mr. Gaiman wrote this tells me how many times he’s tried to answer this question in its myriad guises. It appears that even he has his limits. Finally, he resigned and elegantly flung his hands towards the sky and flailed them in the grand tradition of Kermit the Frog.

There is no formula for becoming a writer, because we all become writers differently. A monarch caterpillar doesn’t sit down on a leaf next to his monarch caterpillar buddy for a munch and a discussion about the best strategy for molting into a cocoon or what the most desirable time of day is to start. You can learn English, you can take courses in English literature to find out why other books succeeded, but you can’t escape a story once it has its hooks in you.

You apply ass to chair and put one word in front of the other until it’s done.

Then the real work begins.

I’m always excited when I hear someone say they want to become a writer. I’m always supportive, because writers are amazing creatures who can sit for hours in front of a computer and generate beauty, thoughtfulness, horror, irony, whimsy, and wisdom. I also never criticize someone who doesn’t follow through with that novel. It’s possible that it’s the inspiration for a song, or a poem, or a painting, or a short film, or a beautiful costume, or maybe it just makes them happier knowing that they have a story.

Creativity is a demanding beast, and writers spend a lot of time with that beast. Just like every other artistic output, the final piece makes it all look so easy, but it’s a trick. And just like the best magicians, a good writer won’t reveal all their secrets. It’s up to you to develop your own.

Personal Statement: Allison Drennan

On The Modern-Day Mystic.

Once upon a time, long, long ago, art, literature, science, philosophy, and religion were all a part of the same discipline.  Call it mysticism. As our understanding of the world that surrounded us grew, each of these fields of knowledge expanded, and started to become distinct from one another. The mystics started to fade into irrelevance. When the priests, the scientists, and the philosophers went their separate ways, all that was left for the mystics were the arts, leaving the musicians, the poets, the artists and the writers all as mystics of the modern world..

This story, as oversimplified and apocryphal as it may be, is at the root of my dedication to the arts. They are a means to soothe the human spirit, a balm to the weary heart, worn down by existence.  They are also a way to expose truth; a way to reach into a world that we sometimes perceive but cannot touch, and to bring back wisdom.

There was a time at which we learned nearly everything through story.  Storytelling is universal across all known cultures and all backgrounds.  Story has a powerful ability to teach and convince. Hearing or reading a story activates experiential areas of the brain, allowing the reader/listener to experience the events of the story on their own.

Story has given power and elegance to our religious traditions; it feeds a part of us that science and history can’t. Story allows us to touch the nature of humanity and then to share it with others. In cases of live storytelling, studies indicate that the activity in the listener’s brain begins to mimic the activity in the storyteller’s brain as they both experience the story, resulting in a deep and primal form of communication that neither party may be aware that they’re participating in.

And this power of storytelling exists in all of the other arts as well, because art and music and dance are all just different forms of storytelling.

I never thought I was going to be a writer growing up.

Everyone always made a lot of fuss over the fact that I was an artistic child, I thought that if I went into any creative field, it would be art. I mean, I wrote stories; I did so prolifically and never really stopped. It’s just that it was never really discussed as a part of who I was, or as a potential career.

It became clear early on that art was not going to be a career for me. It’s an expensive process, and the costs were more or less the same regardless of whether I was practicing or producing something useful.  After I dropped out of college and started working full time, I set drawing aside. It was a hobby, nothing more. Eventually I stopped talking about it.  Within a few years I had successfully shed that identity.

I love art, and I still do it sometimes, in between novels or for special projects.  I even hung a show at a local coffee house a couple of years ago, the first time I’d displayed my art in public since high school. It was a success.

Writing stories, though... there was something that I was passionate about, that I loved doing, that cost nothing but my own time, and that was forgiving of errors.

After my first National Novel Writing Month proved that I could write a novel-length piece that people enjoyed (that first project had deep, tragic structural flaws, and will need to be rewritten entirely if it is ever to see the light of day), I wrote a second book.  That one was just not at all good; not even worth hanging on to, really. I consider these my practice novels; they developed my writing skills enough that I could then start writing for readers.

I wouldn’t attempt my third novel until many years later. I wrote in the interim, in fits and starts, and cranked out a few short stories that are worth revising and maybe a dozen that weren’t. The third novel crashed onto the page; I wrote more than half of the rough draft over the course of one ecstatic week. I was in again, and since I was only partially employed following layoffs during the Great Recession, it seemed like a wonderful way to use my free time.

If I’m going to be a modern-day mystic, then this is my medium. Now, it’s time for the next step. This strange magic won’t work unless these stories are read.

Personal Statement: Tina Shelton

Up until yesterday I don’t think that I was qualified to write a personal statement. Despite feeling that I knew that I should be a writer as early as my kindergarten years, I somehow spent my entire life wrestling with this bear of an idea. You see, growing up in the 80’s and 90’s in a small town in Wyoming, my lofty ideal of becoming a writer was met with a lot of helpful reasons why I shouldn’t pursue my dream. These people were well meaning, and loved me dearly, but the idea of me making enough money to survive just by writing books staggered their minds. They were trying to protect me from disappointment and hardship.

Unfortunately, enough voices in the chorus can be convincing. Who was I, that I thought I could write well enough to attract readers? Who would possibly interested in what I had to say?

I learned my lesson. Don’t write. It’s a waste of time. To be fair, this is probably not the message that anyone intended me to come away with, but I did. Until 2009, when everything changed.

For those of you who don’t remember, 2009 was the year that the economy bubble popped and burst everyone’s comfort levels. Layoffs hit me, then my husband back to back. We had a two year old son to care for. The economy was at the worst ebb it had seen. People talked about the Great Depression like it was a fond memory. Everyone was terrified.

Try though I might to find a replacement job, I ended up having a lot of free time on my hands. My son was happy to have Mommy time, but he was also content to play by himself, and other times I would sit down at night and let my mind wander and type.

I wrote two novels in 2009. Eventually I got another day job and quit writing, quit thinking about writing all over again. My novels were in my hard drive, and that was all that I cared about. It wasn’t until 2012, when a friend of mine had the brilliant idea to start up a publishing imprint and asked me if I had anything ready to go.

That was the start of something beautiful. Publishing had its setbacks, and the imprint didn’t exist for a full year before it closed down. My science fiction novel was the only one that got published. Differences of opinion, exclusion and losing the vision that started the little imprint caused its untimely demise.

What looked like the end was only the beginning. My friend Allie had no intention of letting it stop there. She saw the errors made by the previous imprint, and having learned from those mistakes she talked me into starting up a business. I went along with it because it sounded like a good idea. Deep down, I wasn’t sure that I could handle it. It seemed like so much work to put to put out a book. How could I publish another?

And yet, even after I got my next job, I started writing again. Little stuff, short stories, and then one short story caught my husband’s eye, and he demanded more. I fought him, I didn’t want to do it. The truth was I didn’t know how to handle this much support. Even working with Allie, I wasn’t certain I was in it for the long haul.

During this phase of fence-sitting, I sent my second novel to an editor friend of mine, and she told me that what I’d written was barely salvageable. I was infuriated! I was angry! I thought, “I’ll show her!”

It turns out she was right, but I had written and re-written the second novel more than thirteen times between 2009 and 2012. I tried and tried to craft it into something amazing. It didn’t work. What I learned while doing this exercise was a ton about writing, and when I started in on my science fiction identity theft story, I had improved my craft and figured out about beta readers and developmental editors and the important things that make a book good.

Through writer’s groups and industry articles and networking and the hours of grinding out stories, both Allie and I have learned a staggering amount about how this industry works. There’s always more to learn, but when I’m learning, it feels like something I already knew, and am confirming. It’s easy for me in ways that other things aren’t. Despite juggling my time with my now seven-year-old son, despite managing the panic of a loss of income, despite everything, I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I feel as though this is what I was meant to do, and now is the time to be doing it.

Maybe that’s the paradigm shift. Maybe we’ve come to a point in our technology that we can start spending time doing what we love, rather than what we have to. Maybe money isn’t the greatest judge of value anymore. Maybe the imagination is where we’ll have to go to figure out a new way for human culture to develop.

Or maybe I’m just a science-fiction writer who believes in a better world, now more than ever.


The Origin of Barely Salvageable.

In 2009, I wrote two books. The Corsican, which was published, and an urban fantasy called Best Served Cold.  The Corsican flew from my fingers, and when I finished it I was quite pleased. BSC, on the other hand, was a tortuous journey of self-discovery as to how optimistic I was at thinking I was a writer.

I rewrote BSC several times. It had different titles, and several main elements changed during the course of those rewrites. Finally, finally I felt I had succeeded in getting something that was workable. I eagerly sent it to my friend, who scanned the first 10 pages and then replied, “This is barely salvageable.”

To a brand new author, full of pride at her success with her first book, this wasn’t a slap to the face; it was a roundhouse punch to the stomach. On the other hand, when the confusion cleared, I realized that I had a lot to learn in my chosen profession. My friend’s words spurred me on to greater heights of effort, to turn my book into a winner.

I went so far as to hire an editor. This was another learning curve that I was in no way prepared for, but that’s another story. This editor did her best, but there was nothing that could be done. Thirteen rewrites total, 10 before the edits. I learned a lot about improving my work, but I never pulled that manuscript together.

This would have been an excellent time to give up. It seemed as though my friend was wrong. BSC wasn’t barely salvageable, it was wholly unsalvageable. I had wasted time, I had wasted energy, I had failed.

Except that I hadn’t. Realizing that I wasn’t as good as I thought I was helped me learn how to write better books. It’s tempting to huff the polite compliments writers tend to receive from their well-meaning loved ones, but too much of that can falsely inflate an ego and dull the critical edge you need to be an artist. My friend was smart enough to know that, and brave enough to brace for impact when she loosed her opinions upon my unsuspecting mind. I was too stunned to say much when I read her words, to say the least, but her phrase caught in my mind. It’s a token that while praise is lovely, honest feedback is the best tool a writer can receive.

# # #

Allison here.  So I was here through a lot of this. I helped with edits on The Corsican, and I even worked on a piece of artwork for Best Served Cold. We had toyed with the idea of teaming up to work on writing and publishing our fiction, and had even made an arrangement with a mutual friend of ours to start a small company dedicated to independent publishing.

 Unfortunately, the further we progressed after the release of The Corsican, the more apparent it became that we had different priorities than our third partner. Eventually, these differences became insurmountable, and we had to go our separate ways.

Tina and I never really gave up, though.  We harbored the dream, talking about it in private or in hushed voices, as though exposure to the unblinking eye of external scrutiny would cause our dream to vanish in a puff of dust.  We planned, we schemed, and we dreamed. Slowly, this thing began to take shape; plans coalesced, agreements were made, and expectations were revised again and again. We never lost that starry-eyed state. Tina said to me one day, “if we try that again, I have the perfect name. Barely Salvageable.”

And it is the perfect name. We understand that writing does not spring fully formed from the skulls of geniuses, like Athena from the head of Zeus. We understand that to create takes work and time, and that sometimes it’s painful.  We understand that in the end, all good rough drafts are barely salvageable, and we also know that this fact is no reason to give up.

The name became a kind of secret magic word, and incantation that we could use to inspire one another. It was a talisman against the myriad disappointments that the world had to offer us. In the intervening five years, Tina and I threw ourselves into our writing. We learned about building communities. We collected like-minded writers in situations similar to ours, we set up writers’ groups and a beloved critique group which we dubbed, with a knowing smile, Barely Salvageable.

Now, with each of us having a book on the cusp of publication, we’re finally ready to make Barely Salvageable a reality.  We have big ideas, and big hopes.  And we’re glad that we have the opportunity to share this grand adventure with you.