Everybody Knows

“There were so many people you just had to meet, without your clothes.” Leonard Cohen

The title of this blog post (and the tag line) were suggested by my older son, as we were talking about how fast, how strangely, and how unbelievably the “truths of a publishing career” are being overturned.

Mind you, this sort of state is “normal” in the society we live in.  I suppose once upon a time it wasn’t?  I mean, I suppose back in the middle ages, you actually knew what was truly approved and disapproved of by the establishment, and it stayed like that a good long time.  Oh, no doubt there were unspokens and double reverses, but it – in the end – was fairly easy to follow the game and everyone knew the score.  (Of course, not knowing it or mouthing off a little too early in the change of guard could get you killed.  Quite possibly what happened to Christopher Marlowe.  Even though he lived in the renaissance and, of course, in a time of great change, what with the religious “in” side flipping every few years.)

My adult life has been more of a theater of the absurd, when it comes to being in and out of favor with the establishment.  For instance, when I first came to the States, as an exchange student, my brother carefully went through my books and tapes, in case I had a communist in the lot (not many.  Couple of French musicians) because we all KNEW communist books/songs weren’t allowed in the US and the establishment was strongly anti-communist. …  While when I arrived here I found a sort of chic fellow-traveler-ism prevailed amid the intellectual and the upper classes.  I could not only have proclaimed myself a communist without being in trouble – I would have been lionized.  In fact, a certain amount of moral equivalency was necessary at the end of the cold war to be considered “smart” and intellectual.  (And in many circles it still is because of the abject dereliction of duty of our press and historians and publishing establishment in reporting the true realities of Soviet life.  Never mind.  This is NOT about politics, but about what is perceived and what really is.)

Leaving politics we get to publishing, which IS what this is about.

Part of the reason this happens is because humans are designed to fit in to a group.  They tend to establish their group credentials in adolescence, and after that have difficulty perceiving if things have changed.  This is why in every human society there’s always been an “old guard.”  And that changes very slowly.  In the modern era, say, since printing became cheap, people are “educated” by a generation too far.  We read “children’s classics” which inculcate us with the perceived groups and cliques of a generation past.  The same for movies and TV.  This explains why often you talk to people who seem to think “establishment” and “anti-establishment” are frozen circa the 1950s.

This is how come writers think they’re being edgy and “countercultural” or “speaking truth to power” while advocating such things as female liberation, religious dissent or sexual freedom: all of which are the stuffiest and most approved-of notions in publishing.  In fact, if you’re advocating any of those, YOU ARE the establishment.  Advocating the opposite might cost you your career, or worse.

We’re simply not adapted to a society where things upend in between generations.  It’s startling and a shock, and eh, leads to very funny commercials where someone informs an old boomer he is “The Man.”  While there have been generation gulfs and cultural contrasts in generation handoffs for centuries, they’re usually not as stark as now.

Part of what causes this is the acceleration of tech innovation, which is hitting all groups, more or less, and has now come home to beat up on writing as a field.

With the advent of e-readers and the subsequent burgeoning of ebooks, and the possibility of a living, if not a fortune, from indie publishing (so far I have only shorts out, but I’ve made more this month from my shorts than my novel royalties.  Something to think on) our world is not only upending, it is twirling round like a windmill in a hurricane.

So.  It’s not so much a matter of “people perceive things as they were fifty years ago.”  That is, at least, usual for humans.  It’s more of “people perceive things as they were everywhere from fifty years to last month and they’re ALL outdated already.”  Even I, who have been trying to retool my mind to this since … oh, June or so, am having trouble adapting to what’s actually happening instead of what I’ve known “was happening” since I started in the field.  I mean, there are sooo many little adjustments, and so many things I never thought would change, and other things I didn’t even realize I thought until I came up against the hard fact that “this is not so anymore” and then I realized it had been so.  This is not an exhaustive list, but simply what occurred to me as I type.

First, what I thought was set in stone, and has now changed:

1 – Self publishing is always a bad idea and will taint your name forever.  Ah! Ah ah ah ah ah ah ah!  Ask that to Amanda Hocking, or for that matter to Larry Correia whose first book was self published.

2 – The real money, the real recognition and the real professionalism is with the big houses.  Again, we’ve had enough professionals now making a very good living and get recognition and professionalism through independent publishing in ebooks.

Second, what most people still think is so, but… not so much

1 – you’ll get guidance and your talent will be developed by a big publishing house.  Pardon me while I laugh with multiple exclamation points!  Not for the last couple of decades.  The closest you’ll get to this is Baen and they’re not really “big.”

2 – If you write a great book, you’ll have a great career in traditional publishing.  Uh. uh.  Yeah, IF you have the right connections, the right look, the right… yeah.  AND if you’re lucky, even with all that.

3 – If you’re insecure, you should always go with traditional publishing, because you’ll get the affirmation you need.  You’ll know you’re good if they take you.  (Uh, uh.  sure thing.  Only, uh… be ready for the series of kicks in the teeth that come from being treated as disposable.)

The less obvious, which I’ve come to terms with

1 – One no longer needs to lay low for fear of saying something that will offend the establishment.  For one, they have troubles of their own and are unlikely to have time to beat you.

2 – Where it used to be (see the Leonard Cohen quote) that you couldn’t talk back of even defend yourself (yes, Dean W Smith said we should demand our professional dignity, but up until recently, those of us who came up in the last ten years simply couldn’t.  I saw people being shut out for objecting to mistreatment.  EVEN when they were patently right.  NOW you can complain.  And you should.  You’re not an indentured servant in a company town.  You’re a professional.  Ask to be treated as such.

3 – I don’t
Have to take a contract with a clause I can’t stand.

I don’t have to make nice to editors or writers I detest (the good side of this?  If I’m nice to you, you know I like you. Possibly quite a lot, since by disposition I don’t go out of my way to make nice.)

I don’t have to put a book in the drawer because no one will buy it.

I don’t have to write proposals and send them out.

I don’t have to write books I don’t want to write.

I don’t have to twist my books to make them acceptable to someone.

4 – I can

I can now write books from the heart.

I can make a living (probably) writing exactly what I want to.

I can slant my writing exactly as I wish.

I can bitch when I get a bad edit; bad cover; bad marketing.

I can try other routes and other options.

And I can fail, but fail on my own terms.

And the ones I’m having trouble twisting my mind into accepting

1 – I don’t need to aim for the “big” novel, where big is defined by what will do well in traditional publishing.  (Or what people think will do well.)  Instead, my progression can be individual and to what I consider “good.” The ladder to success is now a staircase, and it’s my staircase and I can climb it sideways, if I wish to.

2 – I don’t need to tell anyone if I decide to write under a closed pen name.

3 – I don’t need to travel to cons when I don’t want to, to meet editors or agents.  (I will travel to cons I like.  And I will sometimes go to cons to meet fans.  That’s different, though.)

4 – Contacts with peers are as important as contacts with those ahead and in power over you.  Because the road is being forged as we walk it, having a group along to point out the pits with stakes at the bottom and to tell us when the lion is lurking behind the trees is a good thing.

So, is everything beautiful in the garden?  No.  Note my “I think” before things like making a living.  I think I can.  I think this will work.  BUT things are changing so fast and so completely no one knows where they’ll be in a year or two.  Heck, in a month or two.

However, for now, and unless some catastrophic event intervenes, the direction seems to be for more freedom for the writer, and more ability to forge our own path.

And it’s a beautiful feeling.


  1. “3 – If you’re insecure, you should always go with traditional publishing, because you’ll get the affirmation you need. You’ll know you’re good if they take you. (Uh, uh. sure thing. Only, uh… be ready for the series of kicks in the teeth that come from being treated as disposable.)”

    I see a lot of these. Especially with the ‘Darlings’. And what I don’t see is the quality being affirmed. To be honest what I see is support for those who think like the editor, and share the same politics as the editor. That’s only a hallmark of quality to the editor’s tastes, not a hallmark of quality for readers, and they’re the ones that count.

    1. Completely agree with you, and yet a lot of newbies tell me this is what they want, because then they’ll know they’re good. Like the poor girl at the panel at fencon with me telling me her publisher invests “a lot of money” in her paper back books. Sometimes I think youth and innocence should be illegal. At least at the same time.

  2. It is _not_ too hard. Self publishing is a bit tedious. You have to nit pick your own stuff. It is a new skill to learn, and you can do it.

  3. “3 – If you’re insecure masochistic, you should always go with traditional publishing, because you’ll get the affirmation you need. You’ll know you’re good if they take you. (Uh, uh. sure thing. Only, uh… be ready for the series of kicks in the teeth that come from being treated as disposable.)”

    Fixed that for you…

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