Who am I to decide?

I asked Sarah if I could have the blog today because, frankly, I’ve been sitting on my hands and biting my tongue most of the week. What started as a simple and heart-felt response on Sarah’s part to a non-fiction author’s blog post turned into a war between fiction and non-fiction with a troll to-boot. The non-fiction author couldn’t understand why Sarah had seen fit to post about what she’d said on her own blog. All she’d done, you see, was lament the state of publishing and how those of us who are predicting the end of the industry just don’t understand what that will mean to non-fiction authors or readers. Okay, I can understand the fear. It’s the same fear many authors on the fiction side of the equation have been feeling. But what this author didn’t get — or wouldn’t get — is that in the process of all her lamenting and cries of outrage, she insulted fiction writers. According to her, and I am paraphrasing here, we can pull plots out of our butts and we don’t research. And that, my friends, is where the line was drawn in then sand and things got heated over a series of different posts on different sites.

But that isn’t what had me wanting to put the metaphorical pen to paper today. No, it was the fact that this author simply didn’t understand the options now available to her. She had already decided that the self-published or small press route to digital simply wouldn’t work for “serious” non-fiction. In other words, just like the guard outside Project X in Atlas Shrugged, she didn’t want to make a decision that could, in the author’s case, save her literary life.

In this, she isn’t alone. Authors from fiction and non-fiction have been facing this decision with increasing frequency. They have been told by their agents and their publishers for years that self-publishing is the kiss of death to their professional careers. They’ve bought into the fiction that legacy publishers add value to their work and that is why publishers get the donkey share of monies from each sale. They’ve turned a blind eye to the creative ways of reporting royalties because legacy publishing was the only game in town. They jumped on the bandwagon of condemning Amazon for the KDP program and snickered when some of their peers decided to go that route.

Now, with advances shrinking faster than a cotton t-shirt in hot water and indie authors starting to make money, these same authors who had been so comfortable on the legacy publishing bandwagon are getting scared. They have bought into the company line for so long, they can repeat it verbatim without thinking or blinking an eye. They are starting to see the problems in the industry, but they simply can’t, or won’t, look to see how the new opportunities presented to authors can help them.

And that is where I want to just shake them.

Don’t get me wrong. Self-publishing isn’t for everyone. Not every writer wants or can handle every aspect of publishing a book, be it digital or hard copy or both. But for those who don’t want to do it all themselves, there are small presses out there, presses that will give the author a much larger cut of the pie than the legacy publishers will. And yet authors are still buying into the line that going small press is as bad as self-publishing. It means you are no longer a “pro” author.

I’m not going to repeat their arguments. I’ve talked about them before, as have Sarah, Dave and Kate. Just check the MGC archives.

No, what gets to me is how these authors do their imitation of that guard in Atlas Shrugged. When faced with having to either let Dagny Taggart enter the building or have her shoot him, he cries out, “Who am I to decide? I’m not supposed to decide!”. He was more terrified of facing the possibility of having to think and act on his own, without someone telling him what to do than he was of losing his life. This wasn’t a case of a man doing his duty. Far from it. He had become one of those for whom it was much easier to simply let another do the thinking for him and who simply couldn’t come to a decision on his own without guidance.

That is what so many authors remind me of right now. The non-fiction author lamenting what would happen to her career and the careers of all non-fiction authors if legacy publishing should fail is one. Instead of looking at how the new interactive e-books and e-book apps could help spread her work among readers, she was huddling in her chair, saying we had won. We, the fiction authors who don’t have to work at writing a book the way non-fiction authors do, who were destroying the industry through our push toward self-publishing and small press publishing.

Then you have the fiction authors who continue to cling to the myth that legacy publishers actually add the majority of value to a book. Why else would they continue to sign contracts where they, the creator of the work, get less than half the monies paid for that title? You’ll find them parroting the publishing arguments about how Amazon has destroyed the bookstore business and how e-books have destroyed the hard copy sales, etc. You don’t find them talking about how the influx of the big box bookstores destroyed the locally owned bookstores or how the poor business management and over-expansion of the big box stores then caused their own downfall.

But it is the arguments we are seeing now against the proposed settlement in the price fixing collusion case against Apple and five of the big six publishers. Between the “well, even if they did collude, it was for the greater good” and the “but no one was injured” arguments, I find myself wondering how these supposedly intelligent people can figure out how to put one foot in front of the other without tripping. These are the same comments and arguments we have seen from the heads of the publishing companies named in the suit. All these writers are doing is parroting what they have been told by their editors and agents. They aren’t thinking for themselves, much less weighing their own options and making informed decisions about what is best for their careers. Instead, they are asking “Who am I to decide?”

I know I shouldn’t be surprised by this sort of group mind-think. After all, many of these are the same authors who have written what their editors and agents have told them to write because “it’s what is selling”. Of course, what sells today, may not sell in two or three years, the length of time it would take to write, edit and then bring out in hard copy via a legacy publisher. These are the same authors who haven’t screamed to high heaven when their publishers started adding clauses into their contracts requiring them to write only for that publisher, or to at least give that publisher the right of first refusal. These are the same authors who have sat by and watched their royalties be estimated based on inaccurate figures from BookScan.

For me, I at least want to retain the right to decide what route I go. To do that, I have to educate myself to what the possibilities are and what the advantages and disadvantages of the various options happen to be. To blindly follow a route simply because it is what someone has told me to do isn’t something I have ever been able to do, at least not easily. I ask questions and “just because this is how it’s always been done” or “this is what has worked in the past” isn’t reason enough to do something.

So, when I ask myself the question that guard asked Dagny, “who am I to decide?”, I know the answer. I am the only who can decide and to do so, I need to know the options and the pros and cons of each. It is up to me and me alone to make sure I’ve gotten the information I need. I can go to other sources, but then I have to weigh the veracity of those sources and determine what their bias might be when giving me the information I’ve asked for. My bias in giving you information about self-publishing is simple: I believe it is a viable option for any author who is willing to put in the time and effort it requires. But, as I’ve said a number of times, it isn’t for everyone. For those who are looking for an alternative to traditional publishing but who don’t want to do all the “business” of publishing, then you should look at the small presses. But if you want the cachet that some still assign to traditional publishing, then by all means go for it. But make a decision based on information, not emotion. And, for your sake as well as your family’s, before signing with a traditional publisher, make sure you have an IP attorney vet your contract. Otherwise, you may never see the rights to your book again.

Who am I to decide?

The only one who should.


34 thoughts on “Who am I to decide?

  1. A lot of people don’t want to worry about the business aspects of their profession (I know I’m one). But if you don’t want to take care of the business, you’ll eventually find the business won’t care about it.

    1. Ori, it isn’t the not worrying about the business aspects of the business that bothers me. Heck, I would rather not worry about them. But it is those who so willingly abdicate any responsibility for it to others who aren’t looking out for their best interest and then standing up and parroting the party line like good little puppets that gets to me. Worse, imo, is when they go into their woe-is-me routing, wanting someone else to step into the role of their publisher or agent and tell them what to do instead of spending a little brainpower to find out what options they have. I really don’t care if an author decides traditional publishing is best for them — as long as it is an informed and conscious decision.

      1. I didn’t explain myself properly. If you take the time and energy to make an informed decision, THAT is worrying about the business aspects.

        1. I agree, I hate dealing with business, I would rather just do a days work for a days pay, and go home and forget about it. (day job, not writing) This is why I used to say I didn’t want a career, I just wanted a job. But I figured out if I put up with the headache of the business end, I can work a lot less days, for a living wage, and choose the days I work (to a certian extent). So I end up working for myself, and find that the lack of headache dealing with a boss and regimented schedule makes up for the headache of the business aspects.

          As far as writing goes, I don’t believe those that don’t worry about the business aspects are those that are whining and complaining. Those that don’t pay attention to the business aspects aren’t worried about them, so they have nothing to complain about. It is those that pay a certain amount of surface attention, but aren’t willing to do the work to help themselves that are throwing a tantrum.

  2. My first book had to be published by a traditional press, because that was one of the contract conditions. The generous souls who put up the seed money firmly believe that a traditional press’s imprint validates the quality and importance of the work. And the reviewers pointed out something I’d not seen and that made the book a lot stronger and more useful, so that is greatly in favor of this particular press. In this case. For this work. I’m still doing all the legwork on rights and permissions, illustrations, maps, and what have you. So in this one case, the decision was made when I accepted the seed money and the contract.

    For the rest of the books I have in mind. Well, fiction is going to be small press or self-publish, at least until the Human Wave fiction washes through the major presses besides Baen. Nonfiction I’m still looking at options for. I can sympathize with not wanting to make a decision, but I don’t care to get run over by the proverbial Failroad engine, either. BTDT in the aviation industry’s 2001-2004 plunge, thank you. I have no desire to join all the folks under contract to (IIRC) Houghton Mifflin Harcourt who may see their rights locked up by the bankruptcy courts.

    1. TXRed, you made an informed decision. That’s all I’m asking anyone to make. It’s the lemmings who drive me up the wall, especially when they come out in troll mass to condemn those who do think outside the box. Honestly, it sounds like you are doing a good job of covering your bases and that, imo, is the best any of us can do.

  3. Reblogged this on Sailing the Void and commented:
    I know I’ve been abusing the reblog button in the last few days, but this is a very well-considered, thought out consideration of how authors really need to consider all of their options.

  4. Funny, isn’t it, how many people want to believe in the fairytale “prince” who looks after them and tends to their every need? Even when faced with evidence of frogs (or cane toads) they cling to their notions of princes and wait to be rescued.

    1. Or worse, don’t realize they have a reason to fear they might need to be rescued because the boat is leaking, they are in the middle of the ocean and their wireless operator has jumped in to swim with the sharks.

            1. He’s going to get a knock on his door with a lawyer serving notice that he’s being sued by the Skunk Antidefamation League for an undisclosed amount.

    1. no. There are individuals. We could use a clearing house. Also I wish to G-d someone would start a translators for hire company. If I were still in the field, I’d do it.

      1. AMEN. (I may know of someone who does German translation; haven’t gotten a quote from zir yet.)

        I would also love an Editors For Hire company. Especially one that somehow managed to convey the information I want, which is “will your suggestions make me scream, yes! yes! I can fix that! yay! or will they make me go, …your idea of what this is all about is hurting wrong fun and kills my ability to write. ?” I’ve encountered roughly the latter before. It’s… scary.

          1. Ooh, that would work nicely– does anybody who even wants to write not know what they want their book to be?

            Dang it! I wish I had the money and a clue– I’d start up a company that does all the stuff publishers do to get a book really ready.

            Probably have to bill like lawyers, a by-the-hour thing. Maybe could set rates along the lines of:
            Electronic text, formatted to guidelines and run though our free spelling checker before submission
            10c/page proofreading

            Be nice for artists to be able to submit their work to companies like that to license for covers, too.

          2. True, it helps! I wouldn’t be 100% sure, still, because the framing of something may still be all the difference… But “being paid to do this” might produce better communication skills. >_>

            1. A long time ago, when the Earth was new, I worked for a while in a movie theatre. Often customers would step up to the ticket window and ask “What’s good?” This question ALWAYS disturbed me because, y’know, my idea of a good movie might be My Dinner With Andre while yours might be Die Hard or Friday the 13th Meets Godzilla On Hester St.

              I learned to ask two questions: What was the last really good movie you saw? and What was the last really bad movie you saw? From that I was usually able to make a recommendation of a movie you would like. So your question for the editor is one I absolutely endorse.

    2. I know of one A La Cart editing/design/publishing services company that works for flat fees. I don’t have personnel experience with them but have heard them well mentioned in a few writing blogs that I trust (Rusch, Passive Voice, etc)

      Lucky Bat Books. http://luckybatbooks.com/about/

      It might have what you are looking for.

  5. In the past , the promise from traditional publishing was greater distribution capabilities and a better hand at marketing. Of course, most new authors see very little in the way of a genuine push and end up doing most of the legwork for themselves anyway. If you’re going to do most of the work, you may as well get most of the profit.

    The last real advantage that traditional publishers have is an “in” with major reviewers, which can get your book a great deal more publicity. The majority of newspapers won’t even look at a self-published novel. However, most newspapers are also now going the way of the T-Rex as well. Instead of figuring out how to adapt, they wonder why oh why people can’t just read them for their brilliance the way they’ve always done.

    The key in our recognizing this is figuring out how to adapt to this ourselves. How do we get reviewed by sites or other media that get large amounts of traffic? In what ways can we get our name and work in front of the most people? Once we thread this needle, traditional publishing is done. Oh, it won’t completely fade away, the same way that horses and buggies are still around for trendy weddings and rides through Central Park – it’ll just be that they’ll be a struggling sideshow, and most of the real business will be elsewhere.

  6. When I was a youngster learning to play chess I quickly grasped that eliminating my opponent’s Queen greatly helped at winning the game. So I became a Queen chaser. The flaw here became obvious as I ran up against more experienced players: you don’t win by taking the other guy’s Queen, you win by taking his King. While I spent my time Queen chasing my opponents focused on my King.

    In business this same thing is a common problem. Businesses advertise to a target demographic without considering whether that demographic is a target for the product. For authors there are two markets for selling your wares.

    First, and traditionally, you could sell to a publisher. The target is easily definable, easily found and, while relatively few in number the payoff can be very big indeed. So big you can even hire a beater (agent) to help you. Such are the advantages of selling wholesale: you can eat a long long time from a single elephant.

    Alternatively, you can sell retail. The target is very diverse, fickle, skittish and not so easily found. And while there are an awful lot of them there isn’t that much meat to be had from a single sale. While rabbits are abundant they take a lot more hunting for a meal than does the elephant.

    Of course, if you take up rabbit husbandry and learn the techniques of breeding and caring for rabbits there may come a day when you don’t need to hunt. Which has its advantages, too … especially as elephants appear to be becoming an endangered species and many of the ones still in the wild are looking mighty sickly and just may not provide as much nourishment as you hoped. Still, if what you have is an elephant gun it can be very tempting to dismiss those rabbit breeders as unworthy of attention, the kind of people who can just pull rabbits out of their … hats and not like real hunters, serious hunters at all.

  7. I just want to know where that silly b**** got the idea “non-fiction doesn’t have stories”; pretty-much all of history is Stories, not the “list of names” approach.

    1. apparently this genius who wanted me to write in Atlantic to explain to her about Indie (apparently she can’t read stuff on blogs. Cooties, maybe?) never heard the word NARRATIVE. Honestly, it’s enough to make me want to introduce her to you. 🙂

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