Writing is a funny profession.  I remember the first time someone referred to me as a writer.  We were renting our first house, after marriage, and the landlord wrote that under my profession.  We’d been talking to him, see…  And I said “But I’m not published!” and he said “You write, right?  Then you’re a writer.”

It took me years to achieve that level of confidence; that I’m a writer, that I’m a professional, that my views of the profession are valid. [What do you mean years?  You still waffle. – Ed  Shut up.  I didn’t say how many years – Sarah.]

In most jobs it’s not like that.  There isn’t an attached patina of longing to the title of “writer” or “author” and there is no doubt when you’re one.

For instance, had my life gone the way I expected [ah!] when I finished my degree, I was a fully qualified language teacher.  For the five years or whatever that the Portuguese system at the time required me to work with supervision, I’d have had a lower pay and not as much autonomy, but SURELY I’d not have said “I’m not really a teacher.  Someone watches over all I do.”  No.  I’d taken the degree (the education part was simply “with an option to teach” – it entailed a class on legalities and that was about it.  So, not like American education degrees) I knew languages, I could teach languages.  No fuss, no argument and DEFINITELY no quibbling over what “teacher” is.

So why is writing like that?

Part of it is that there has been no other marker of status associated with it.  Believe it or not it used to be a viable way to make money.  Back in the forties, that 5 thousand advance for a novel could buy you a middle class lifestyle for a year.

But as the emphasis of the editors moved away from selling to the public to publishing things that impress their colleagues and get them promoted within the organization (logical for them, but perverse incentives) they chose to take the loss off the back of writers, having figured sometime ago that writers will write, anyway.  (This was also partly hubris.  Their emphasis shifted more and more from GOOD writers, having become convinced their ability to sell anything meant they could buy ANYONE.  Recent events have proven they can sell anything… once and to a group of people who normally don’t read.  Things like Fifty Shades sell well, but as the whole field tries to imitate it, it alienates the “power readers” who read more than one book a year.  Hence the spiral down in print runs.)

The human animal is a curious being. Largely we bestir ourselves for two things: mates and food.  Only we’ve complicated the whole thing and “mates” can translate to “status” both for us and for our offspring, which is still a way of passing on your genes.  And “food” can be money, which means security that you’ll have food for a long time.

Give a human a compulsion to perform a task (I’ve often considered that those of us compelled to write stories have more than one gasket loose, except maybe we don’t, because stories seem to be a component of what MAKES us human, and there’s a compulsion to LISTEN to stories as well – or read them, or watch them or play them though each of those seems to hit different hungers, one of the reasons I never bought the “competition from other entertainment” thing in response to spiraling printruns.  I mean, true, but because population is growing as is our thirst for entertainment (no?  How about people always plugged in.  Kids, you don’t know boredom.  No, really.) it only applies if you think of reading as inherently so unpleasant that anything can supplant it – I guess a lot of editors do.)

Anyway – I can only talk about me and the time in which I entered the field.  I think – from speaking to other people – the experience is somewhat universal for a certain time and place.

I came into the field with the intention of living from it – EVENTUALLY – but I knew it would be neither quick nor easy and that it would take time to establish myself.  To an extent it’s been quicker than I expected, but only because I write, on average, half a million words a year.

So status – i.e. outward symbols of success – didn’t count for much for me.  I understand a lot of people come into the field for that, too, particularly young people looking for mates.  They want to be “in the show” and be considered writers, and be invited to cons and given awards.  (Shrug.)  Since I’m by nature introverted, by crankiness get all rubbed the wrong way by hanging out with people too much,  by luck married, and by preference anonymous (in the sense of not being recognized or remarked in public), I might be odd in that part.

On the other hand, I understood what status meant in the field.  Since the publishers controlled the distribution and the distribution controlled sales, status – i.e. convincing the publishers you were a professional and a high-ranking one – brought you money.  And while I write for free, I don’t finish things for free.  That is too much like work, and I am a lazy creature.  If I wrote without the hope of ever being paid, I’d accumulate ten thousand beginnings to novels and never finish one, forever on a quest for teh shiny.

Being motivated to – eventually – support myself and mine from writing,  and having a husband in a branch of employment that was at best precarious, (talk to any friends who’ve worked in computers the last twenty years.  As in publishing, you had to be nimble and aware to stay employed.  It is a point of pride that just like I was only unemployed once since I was first bought, Dan has only been unemployed twice, and both due to external factors which dulled our normal response – my being very ill and requiring care; and the company’s business model imploding) I set about learning the status markers.

The first thing you learned when you entered the field was that you didn’t self publish.  You DIDN’T DO THAT.

I think I learned it even before I was in the states by watching some series or movie (might very well have been Little House On The Prairie) where someone is rooked in a self-publishing scheme.

Self-publishing used to be a self-evident bad deal – you didn’t get paid.  You often had to pay up front.  There were no distribution channels, so you had to do the whole job of selling the books.  It was often resorted to by people who were so thoroughly uninformed they thought that this was how EVERYONE got published.  They charged way more than the cost of their services (i.e. you could get a book printed cheaper.) The field of self-publishing companies was filled with the sort of swindlers ready to take grandma’s last dime to publish her memoirs and people were lured into self-publishing with the most transparent of lies “main stream publishers will maim your deathless prose.  Come with us, we won’t touch a punctuation mark,” was the most common one and the type of people it drew in gave rise to the term “vanity publishing.”

I was smart enough (which tells you what the bottom was for this) not to fall for this nonsense.  Instead, even though in my day getting published had become as much a matter of who you knew than how you wrote, I went in through the front door, slowly widening both my circle of acquaintance and my writing experience, selling ha’ penny short stories, moving on to a cent a word, then two cents, then four cents and finally six.  (Almost literally.)  Then selling a novel.  Then…

Along the way I acquired utter disdain for self-published authors.  I got to know a lot of them.  For some reason, my bio and my publication credits don’t BEGIN to trump the sound of my accent, which immediately makes con-organizers decide I’m at best a beginner and at worst self published.  (I should point out that because my first book had a publicity booklet consisting of the first three chapters, half of fandom decided THAT was the book and that I was self-published in “a chapbook.”  This didn’t help.)  So, for the first six? Seven? [you mean it’s stopped? – ed  Shut up – Sarah] of my career, I got stuck on panels with newbies, people who were still hoping to sell their first book AND self published people by the score.

I learned to dislike the self-published people INTENSELY.  Part of this was self-defense.  When I introduced myself and gave my list of credits, the newbies tended to shut up, or have to be coaxed to speak.  The self-publishers went on a passive-aggressive rampage, trying to prove they were better than I, because they’d published on their own and hadn’t played the stupid games the publishers required.  They were, almost universally, massive bags of gaseous ego.  And when I got to listen to them read, I would inevitably realize that they were also not very bright: their first novels were exactly like my first novel, except that that was safely buried, while they were parading their newby mistakes before the world and didn’t know it.

Except that – around seven? Years ago – I started finding a new type of self-published author on panels.  They might still let lose the quip of “I didn’t want to jump through the hoops, so I published myself.” But they were professional, obviously knew the downside of self-publishing; they’d printed the book at minimal cost and laughed at the scam companies as much as we did.  One or two actually told me, “entering the normal way was impossible, so I self published because if I sell 5000 copies in a year, then I will go in at another level.”  I actually met a few of those, too, who had gone in at another level: way above me.

I’m not stupid – well, not brilliant socially, either, but better than the average bear – I learned to make exceptions for these people.

But as recently as five years ago, I was still advising newbies not to self-publish.  Yes, the game had changed, but there was a considerable status loss, and unless you were an absolute publicity maven, you were going to lose status and diminish your potential initial advance from a “real publisher.”

Now I find myself telling beginners, random strangers who might want to publish someday and DEFINITELY all my friends and everyone I care about to self publish first.  I hear myself talk and sort of step back and wonder what kind of crazy I am.  What right do I have to tell them to do this?  Aren’t I steering them wrong?  What if it’s not right for them?  And what about the “taint” of self publishing?

This week I discovered I wasn’t alone and that no less than Lawrence Block is doing the same thing and having the same weird feelings.  This article linked was sent to me by Kris Rusch after I sent her this link to someone going on about the doom and gloom of publishing now.

The problem is that both those  articles are right.  If you view publishing as traditional publishing, things are getting more dire every year.  So, how could I, in conscience, tell people to go traditional?  Even to friends who think they might be a match for Baen, if I suspect they’re less than “right”, I say that if they have the resources to self promote, do it self first, make it big, and then they can come into Baen at a higher level.  (Unless for some reason I think Baen would love their stuff  RIGHT THEN in which case I sent them to Toni W.)

At the same time, I’ve noticed, over the last, oh, four years, a change in the quality of self-published and newly-traditionally-published (someone explain to me why they’re still – 15 years on – putting me on panels on how to sell your first novel.  The world I knew when I entered publishing “is dead and gone, milady, is dead and gone.  At his feet the green grass grows and at his head a stone.”) authors on panels with me.

But it wasn’t till I read those two articles, and until I went over the mess with Night Shade books, and until the kerfuffle about writer organizations on my blog that I realized why.

Four years on, though the change started gradually a long time before, the quality of the self-published and indie published authors (at least those doing ebooks and not going through one of the scam publishers) and those going the traditional route is almost completely reversed.

I say almost completely because most of the ones going traditional now are not exactly stupid.  It’s not like there is decades worth of lore on what a bad scam traditional publishing is.  What there is is often put out by those other scam companies trying to lure authors to their expensive services.  A lot of them are not stupid at all, just very traditionalist.  They spent years researching, they know the way it’s supposed to go, and they’re not willing to let go of what they think they know.  They don’t care if reality changed while they were researching.

It’s still pretty gullible and it makes me blush and cover my face for newbies to say (as they do) “I know my company spends 100k just to print my mass market paperback book, and I’m so grateful.”  (Particularly when I know the company, can tell the cover is photoshopped, and know that printing is the ONLY thing that company did.  If you get proofreading by someone not a college freshman, you should buy a lottery ticket, because you’re the luckiest midlister alive.)  Or alternately “My series wasn’t selling enough, so they’re giving me another shot.”  (Also known as making you change name, so you’re always a beginner and don’t get bargaining power.)  Or “my agent thought this new direction was better for me” about forcing you to write something you didn’t want to write, have no interest in, and is a piling on on the latest fad, and will just flop.

The same applies to people who are sure “SFWA fights for writers” despite their pathetic endorsement of the very bad Night Shade books’ deal, despite the fact that they’ve never once called the big boys on their contracts or challenged what they were being told about the agency deal with Amazon.

These newbies are playing the old status game (professional status with SFWA was usually the first step up the ladder) and don’t realize the status is no longer there, and is in the process of being upended.

The reasons for this are the reasons that once upon a time self-publishing authors were reviled.  You have to be stupid to sign one of the types of contracts more prevalent every year in traditional publishing.  You have to be willing to let yourself be exploited, treated like dirt, blamed for the failures of every other link on the chain to publication, and you have to smile while they do it to you.

Did we do it too, coming up?  Oh, h*ll yeah, and with bells on.  BUT at the time we had no alternative.  Unless you had an extensive network or a platform that allowed you to promote your book, you were sunk.

Actually, that’s true of traditional publishing now.  Unless you have a platform and are willing to promote relentlessly, your books won’t sell enough in the year or so they’re allowed, and you’ll be sunk.  Which means…

If what you want to do is write, and you’re willing to spend some time working up to making a living, traditional publishing is out.  Indie or self-publishing is in.

If you sign a traditional contract, you’re paying, in content and promo time and in most cases (Baen excepted) your publisher won’t even TRY to put you on the shelves.

I think this is why – all evaluation of content aside.  Both types of authors are still mostly horrible from my POV, but then so are 99% of bestsellers, so maybe I’m odd – these days the smart cookies are the self published authors and the plodding, earnest and, often, not very bright type are the newly traditional published.

If this goes on, I wouldn’t be surprised if in three years people self publish proudly under their name instead of having a press name, to avoid the “taint” of being traditionally published.

I wouldn’t be surprised at all.

And I guess I need to get over feeling guilty about advising people to just self-publish already.  These days, that’s the way to get R-E-S-P-E-C-T and often more money too.


  1. To quibble with the intro, not the main point of the post –

    Actually, the distinction between describing one’s profession as a writer (or athlete, or artist, etc) and that of describing one’s profession as teacher, or any of a number of other jobs, is that for the more traditional jobs, even though you are considered “entry-level” or “apprentice”, you’re still being paid for your work. If you’re a writer, you aren’t paid until you’re published, and therefore wouldn’t be considered a professional. Likewise, a person who plays golf all the time is not considered to be a golfer as a profession unless he has entered, and earned money from, tournaments, or college basketball player does not put down “Basketball” for his profession, because he doesn’t receive pay for it. He has to be picked up by a pro team to do that.

    1. Except that writing when I came in (I don’t think now) required an extensive unpaid apprenticeship and — note the point in the article — even the “pros” couldn’t expect to make a living from it even while working full time or more (hence the support system Dave talked about on Monday.) So those lines were blurry.

  2. It took me several years AFTER I had actually had a short story published (in an anthology that was very minor) before I would consider myself a ‘writer,’ much less an ‘author.’

    While I still may not be what the world at large still considers an author – published in hard copy with many titles selling well – I no longer have a problem with ‘writer.’ H*ll yes. And every day. Once you pass the million words mark, you’re stuck with it.

    But I’m so glad I wasn’t listening to your publishing advice five years ago. Had I been fortunate enough to get an agent and a contract with the first novel (I got some very nice, send-us-your-next-baby, personal rejection letters), I would be stuck in the position of the ‘real’ midlist authors – making nothing past the advance, and with their intellectual property in chains forever to some publishing house.

    Is it really only the last 5 years? Apparently, yes. But I came into reading self-publishing blogs not quite 18 months ago, to you, and Dean and Kris and Joe Konrath – and it’s heady. Intoxicating stuff.

    I can’t wait to be ready to publish.

    And I’m so glad I dodged the bullet.

    1. You did ABE. I was very lucky to just get most of my copyrights back, but if I had to do it over again, I’d write for Baen, then write other books and put them in the drawer — of course, this is in a world where I can tell the future and knew Indie was coming… 😉 (Wouldn’t that be useful?)

  3. I’ve got several manuscripts out with an agent, and nothing to show for it. On the other hand, my early stuff, a lot of which constituted that “Write a million words before you’ve learned enough to . . .” stuff is up on KDP and earning money. Not enough to live on, but it keeps creeping up.

    Perhaps a lot of that is just that at the wrong side of fifty, building a life long career in writing sounds silly. Been through two “life long” careers already. Maybe three, but who’s counting? They didn’t last a life time, and I’m glad, because I’ve enjoyed each one as it came along and wouldn’t have missed them for anything.

      1. Oh yes. I’m planning on another forty–my relatives tend to live well into their nineties. But I have abandoned the idea of pre-plotting a “career for life” because I know that life is a pantser. You just have to dive into the first action sequence, and not spend too much time with the /w/o/r/l/d/ career building.

    1. There is no wrong side of fifty! 🙂
      Also, even though my day job involves a lot of writing, writing fiction is very different and a real challenge, which is a good thing to be working on here on this side of fifty.

  4. Reading you and the others here, and Rusch and Smith has helped me see that there is really no down side to going indie. Also, it has the added psychological benefit of being a lot faster and totally in my own control. Even as I plod through my copy edits, I know that the reason things are going slowly is my own fault (copy edits are dull). If it’s sunny, the photo shoot for the cover is this weekend. Ok, the sun is out of my control, but I like knowing that I’ll decide if it’s sunny enough.

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