How Much Is That Pie In The Window

Come gather around and let me tell you of the bad old times.

This was prompted by a realization in recent days that most writers – and a few editors – have/had eczema.  It is a known fact that eczema is a stress-related auto immune disorder.

There was also a persistent rumor, in the old days – before indie publishing – that dentists could tell who was a writer, because we wore our teeth out with grinding them.

There was a reason for this.  Reasons, actually.  There was a limited number of slots per publisher, and that a writer who was doing well kept his/her slot, which was usually once a year (though that tightened to twice and eventually four times a year about five years ago) which meant for a newby to get in, he had to hope someone’s career would die.  But also there was a limited number of slots for “lead authors” – the ones who got if not publicity at least prompt reordering and better opportunity at bestsellerdom.

Add to this that most of your success in the field was determined by things you could not control: when the book was published; what cover it got; how much push reps were told to apply.

What it came down to was that no matter where you were in the process, you were either hoping someone ahead of you would fail so you could take his/her place or you were very afraid you’d fail and one of those climbing the ladder behind you would take your place.

Given all this, publishing, at least in the areas you worked in, could sort of become a mini-Hollywood.  The tabloids didn’t give a damn if you feuded or not, but the conventions could be nerve-racking days, filled with false friendship and a hint of dagger beneath.

For someone like me this was particularly annoying.  First, because I tend to say what I mean and mean what I say.  If I have to think to decode whatever you just told me, and figure out if there was a veiled insult in there somewhere, I’m just not going to talk to you – or not talk to you much.  Second, I was deep in the political closet then, and had to literally watch my every facial reaction, because I knew – KNEW – the minute my politics came out, the publishing world would drop me like a hot potato.  Unless I were a bestseller, and perhaps even then.

To make things worse, the field was riven by crisscrossing alliances, conspiracies and betrayals, enough to make an Elizabethan courtier feel dizzy.  As someone who likes who she likes and hates who she hates and largely ignores people she doesn’t deem interesting enough, this was very difficult to keep track of, let alone navigate.  Imagine the largest Southern family reunion, where at any time two or three members are feuding with four others because of what their grandmother did at great uncle Bob’s funeral.  Now multiply that by a hundred, add in history going back before I was born, most of which was hinted at but never talked about openly, and pour in the competitiveness of a just before going bust.
The number of times I came back from a major con, determined never to write for sale again – before Dan talked me around – was roughly close to the number of times I attended a major con.

To make matters even more interesting, and give it a sense of slow-unfolding disaster, starting in 2003 massive numbers of writers got “let go” at major cons.  I.e. they got told they’d never sell again.  Every con you’d see half the authors standing around crying their eyes out.  And then they disappeared.

I continued working, and I’m not the only one of my “class” to still work, but I’m probably one of ten percent.  Tops.  Maybe five.  We came in as this loud, noisy group in 2000, the people published for the first time that year.  Of those I personally knew, I count five still working.

The feel was very much “The Titanic has sunk, I’m floating on the grand piano, but those other poor clowns are doomed.”

Worse – though I never engaged in it, because heaven knows, I still have to look at myself in the morning – was that those of us who were still afloat, would often outright undercut or try to undercut those in the water when they tried to get into the boat.  If your best friend regained her employment with the publisher, would yours be the slot lost?  (I figured the chances were minimal I’d survive anyway – being a fatalist helps – and tried.  It didn’t work, but G-d knows I tried.)

What this meant was that writers had very few true friends among writers, unless they were in wildly separate fields, or at wildly different places in their careers.

It was also hell for editors, at least those editors who were human and decent.  Do you become friends with a writer to whom you might have to deliver a death blow tomorrow?  How can you?  And how can you be sure you’re not favoring them if you do?  (One of my editors, and not one I was particularly friends with, drunk herself blotto on the day she had to fire ten authors.  I was the last, which is why she made a hash of it and I worked for her till recently.)

If this seems like a little slice of hell – it was.  As I’ve said before, I haven’t even gone REALLY indie yet.  Most of the indie stuff I have out is short stories, which sold traditional first, and my space opera short stories/novellas which I couldn’t give away for love or money because my future history was “unlikely.”  (Meaning I was operating from unusual – for publishing – social and economic models.)  I have out A Touch Of Night, an Austen-alternate novel, (yes, yes, A Flaw in Her Magic is one of three novels I’m trying to finish.) Other than that… nothing.  I will put out Witchfinder and, eventually, The Brave And The Free.  BUT for now, my novels are traditional.

On the other hand, I KNOW the possibility is there.  And that it can be done.  So if my traditional career dies – well, then, I go fully indie.

I think a lot of us have realized that, even those who aren’t doing indie yet.  Cons have become way more relaxed, the interaction between writers way more natural.

There are still rivalries.  We’re human.  But by and large we no longer feel that everyone who succeeds, somehow, stole it from us.

Used to be that any mega bestseller got assailed on all sides with accusations of being awfully written, trite, ridiculous.  For some of them it was even true.

Now bestsellers, particularly bestsellers to the public (i.e. those that first came out indie) don’t bother me.  If they’re in a genre or subgenre I work in, I will buy them and analyze them to figure out what they’re doing that people like so much.

I will be blunt with those of you who say things like: “Oh, public taste sucks.  My exquisitely written saga should outsell this dreck.” –   You’re fooling yourself.  Public taste might or might not suck.  Certainly if you are writing historical you’ll pull your hair out at the roots when something like The DaVinci Code is given credibility (though I’ll point out it came out under the old model and with tons of push) or even (GAG) The Other Boleyn Girl.

BUT if you read the books, and you’re honest with yourself, you’ll find what made them popular.  There is usually a combination of an accessible style, fast moving pace and easily digestible background (meaning that like The Code, it might be wrong, wrong wrong, but it plays into decades or centuries of misinformation to sound plausible.)

Yes, sometimes you find that what makes a series do really well is not something you can DO.  I can read Laurell Hamilton’s relentless sex-and-violence porn.  In fact, it’s impossible not to read it, at least for the early books.  It holds you with the fascination of a train wreck, in which people also happen to be screwing.  The pacing and graphic nature of it are enough to hold you reading more.  OTOH if I read two of her books in a row, an investment of maybe two hours, at the end of it I need a shower, and not because it made me hot.  It’s more like I feel tainted by contact, and like all my thoughts are of a sex-and-graphic-violence nature.  It’s not a place I like.  I don’t’ think I could stay with it for even the three weeks it takes to write a “fast” book.  I know how to do it intellectually, but not emotionally.  Not even for money.

I have no intention of reading Fifty Shades of Grey or Twilight, because neither of them are things I have any interest in writing.  There is enough stuff I WANT to write for me to bother my head with what I don’t.  Now, if someone makes it big in indie Space Opera, or mystery or historical, I’m going to be all over that, trying to figure out if there are elements I can borrow, ways to reach a public I don’t know.

Sometimes the reaction will be, “Oh, that.  But I can’t write convincingly about demon-ducks.”  (Don’t ask.  Family joke.)  And sometimes it will be “Oh.  If I put this in chapter five.  I see.”

What the reaction will not be is “OMG, how much are they spending to promote this dreck, and my books are completely unknown because they won’t give a dime.”

There is no “they”.  For good or ill your career is in your hands.  This doesn’t mean your stress will be lower – maybe – but mine will be.  I’m a control freak, see.  I like being in control of my own success and failure.

And I like associating with people I like, indie, high list, low list, or mere wannabe.  I don’t want to worry about what it will “look like” if I give a friend a quote when they’re “only” beginners… or indie published.  Good writing is good writing, I couldn’t care less if it’s self published or chiseled by artisans onto marble walls.

The gatekeepers have never been any good at picking what is “good writing” – defined by appeal to the public – only what appealed to other publishers and editors.  (Baen always the exception in this, for which it has paid the price of being considered low rent – I know they’ve cried all the way to the bank, too.)

Oh, I also like ignoring the people I don’t like, and not having to fawn over some asshat who is the publisher’s flavor of the month.  I was never good at fawning anyway –  congenital stiffness of the back – but even having to be civil hurt me at times.

A bestseller –  in my field or not – is no longer a threat, or even an occasion of envy, but rather a reason to be happy that people are reading.  No matter what they’re reading, reading is an habit.  If they start establishing an habit of entertaining themselves by reading…  They will read other things.  Yes, okay – the only way I would read some of those books, like, say Twilight, is if I were alone on a deserted island and it were my only book.  (I’ve read English/German dictionaries while waiting with nothing else to read for hours on end.)  But those circumstances occur, sooner or later (Okay, not the deserted island, but the waiting room or the car) and then who knows, I might fall victim… er… like it more than I expected and buy more.

So every mega blockbuster that brings people into reading is a chance at a future reader for me – no matter how unlikely.  And every writer and every story teller is a brother or sister, on the same road.

We’re not dividing a finite pie.  We’ve just bought a pizzeria, and the pies keep popping on the tables.  And the more people who taste the pie, the more market there will be.

The clouds aren’t gone, but look, there’s a ray of sun shining through.  And tomorrow, it will rain pie from the sky, by and by.

World without end.

*Crossposted at According To Hoyt*


  1. The very best thing about going indy – which a number of the long-time indy writers have confirmed – is that your book isn’t held to proving itself in the short space of a couple of months after release. If it doesn’t make a huge splash, it’s not gone forever. It’s out there indefinitely, time for word of mouth and whatever marketing you can put into it yourself to build the readership for it. Over time that will pay off – my first HF has been out there since 2007, and it chugs quietly along of itself. It accounts for a third to a half of my digital sales, most months. I don’t know why this is so, but the other five books are more niche regional books… which reminds me, I’d better get cracking on the picaresque Gold Rush adventure…

    1. Yes. I think a reason my books are suddenly doing better is “not disappearing.”

      I wasn’t joking when I said I must read your books. They sound fascinating. Honestly, I need to start taking a reading holiday a year, for a month or so, and just read.

      1. And there is a cumulative effect too – one of the other indy authors in the group is Janet Elaine Smith: she’s a dear sweet little old retired lady (former missionary) who lives in the mid-west and has been writing and indy-pubbing Christian romance, mystery and historical fiction for about twenty years. She has a good backlist out there now – and she says that every book she puts out there that someone reads and likes is almost an advertisement for all the others. People stumble on one of hers, like it, look for the others … and there you go: ka-ching!
        There is a heck of a lot to be said for ‘not disappearing!’
        Take your time – they’ll be there when you are ready. 😉

  2. It occurs to me that almost everything I’ve read more than once for the last several years has been by authors despised by the literati-clique for being ‘terrible’ writers. Funny how interesting, entertaining, and having characters that feel human is supposed to make a book bad.

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