Back when I was submitting work traditionally (something I’ll have to do again soon with short stories, because it seems to be a worthy loss-leader) there was a category that didn’t make me seethe only because I didn’t know enough – wasn’t smart enough – for it to make me seethe. The category was “For the Love.”
Now, I’m not saying that people running this category were dishonest, or actually doing anything wrong, other than being spectacularly inept business men and women.
We tried to do it with the category just above it, the “pays a ridiculously low amount” and we too were spectacularly bad at business, as well as trying to do it, as with just about everything we do, to be honest, in the spare time we don’t have.
The result was a one issue-magazine that crashed and burned.
In that we were only marginally worse than most of the “for the love”, “pays in copies” and “pays nominal amount” magazines.
They usually limp along for a year or three, being a financial drain on the editor’s resources and a wearing drain on his psyche, until the editor quits or dies. Judging from what I went through in selling my very first story to sell – Thirst – this seems to happen in about equal amounts. That story sold eight times before it saw the light of day in what was then a semi-prozine – Dreams of Decadence. My joke was that it had killed four editors and four magazines. I considered submitting it with “Stop me before I kill again”
But the truth is that it was neither an unusual nor a particularly strange history for a short story submitted at that level, which tells you how bad the chances are at that level.
I don’t know if they’re as bad now. It’s almost free to put out a fanzine or even the next level. You don’t really have to print it, unless you do it through Create Space. You also don’t have to try to figure out distribution and find someone to carry your mag. That’s now how it works – “I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life, oh, Lord” – in the age of Amazon.
Not that I intend to submit to them when I start writing on-spec short stories again. Why not? Because I don’t need to. I’ll send them to the pros, and if they don’t sell there, I’ll take my ball home and put them up with Goldport Press, individually or as a collection. They’re not going to make me rich, but over time and by volume, I’ll end up making what I would have made out of selling it to the pros – or more.
So I’m not accusing the editors and publishers of the “For the Love” category of chicanery. I was almost one of them except that I thought a sci fi magazine as unapologetically devoted to libertarian ideals as the old Campbell mags were could not, in good honest faith, pay our suppliers nothing.
I’m still not saying we were wonderful. We had no business being in business knowing as little about the business as we did. (Except of course, particularly in the old days, when research involved far more than google-foo, in these arcane fields, you often learned by doing. Certainly I learned a lot as a writer from reading endless submissions.)
But we had no malice, and neither do – most. You should see some of the rejections I got for stuff that went on to sell professionally later – “for the love” publishers.
And yet, they were/are a very bad thing.
Why? Because they get you used to the idea that you’re doing this for the love; that love is its own reward for this kind of work; that there is no money in writing and you shouldn’t expect any.
Years later, in the annus horriblis of 2003, when not only did my career take a dive, but the real estate market seemed to take one along with it just as we were trying to sell a house, and paying on two mortgages, I was told just as much by two old writing friends, one of whom is a professional in the sense he lives from it and the other who used to: “There is no money in writing. If you need the money find a real job, no matter how menial.”
I would have done it too, except at the time, I couldn’t. We were barely making ends meet by having me do the heavy lifting on the home front, which at the time involved cooking from “extreme scratch” (mostly vegies and starches because they’re cheap,) refinishing/refurbishing all the furniture we needed, and do the “after school teaching of the boys.” Also, because the boys were still in two widely apart schools, I spent a considerable portion of my time driving. Unless I found a highly flexible employer – not normally a thing at any job I’m qualified for, from the menial to the academic – who’d let me work two hours a day whenever I had the time, I couldn’t find a job.
So I wrote. Oh, look, I’m not going to brag of having made a ton of money, but my friend who did get a minimum wage part time job at the time (her obligations were a lot like mine) made about the same that year. Ten thousand dollars. Half of that was in short stories. (Question, how many short stories do you need to write on spec to sell 5k of short stories on 300 or so a story? Answer: don’t ask stupid questions.) The other was in found money, as I sold audio rights to the first Shakespeare book.
And there was money in writing – albeit if I’d been paid by the hour, my payment would have made the angels cry. But hey, because it was at home and done whenever, I could work a lot more hours than I would have at a “real job.”
Never mind that – I’m just indicating how pervasive that attitude was and is. “There is no money in publishing.”
And then – if you’re traditionally published – you go to Manhattan (in my case because my husband went for a couple of weeks on business, and I used miles for a plane ticket and crashed in his hotel room. I might be the only human being ever to go to NYC so I could isolate myself and write ten hours a day) and you visit your publisher’s office.
Look, Bub, I said above I’m not the world’s most keen businesswoman – or I wasn’t at the time. As with other things that don’t come naturally, I’m learning – but I’m ninety nine percent sure that real estate in downtown Manhattan don’t come cheap, and neither – for that matter – do salaries for a bevy of employees, all of whom have not only salaries, but pensions.
And at some point, through the back of your mind, the words run “If there’s no money in publishing, how come…?”
I’m not going into funny statements (The ones I get on the not-Baen books are downright hilarious and we’re only waiting for my husband to get a week or so, to crunch the numbers and write a post for my blog telling you where the jokes are. For instance, did you know that the house has developed quantum print runs? No? Ah! Also, did you know that it’s possible to release the reserves against returns, then capture them again, after they’ve sold, [I have this image of representatives for the publishing house running after people who’ve bought the book and forcing them to return it, so they can reserve it. Seems odd, but they must, right. I mean, they wouldn’t lie to me, right?] so you don’t owe royalties? True, that.) or into chicanery at that level. I just want to analyze, at a straight forward, in your face level, the whole “There is no money in publishing, except for us!” statement – the same statement that the Writers’ Digest Poll that Amanda has been dissecting (sharper knives Amanda! More microscopes) so successfully here.
I’m one of those awful believers in the free market, even when I’d much rather not be. For instance, I throw my used underwear away, instead of donating it to a thrift store, unless I bought it in the wrong size and never wore it. Why? Because, ew, it has no monetary resale value, and donating it for them to sell would be a cruel joke.
Or take my advice to my kids when they were choosing their degrees (I could have sat on my hands, they both have true vocations, from which they won’t deviate with sledge hammers. One of them, at least bids fair to make him a living) “Choose a course that will support you, because you and we will be paying for it. And no, Classics is not likely to support you, even as a professor, because there’s more supply than demand.” (What does it say about my kids that both of them would like to take Classics, at some point “for the love” – or at least audit the classes?)
So, if the big publishers are making money, enough to guarantee the largess of Manhattan salaries and the pensions that go with them, but there is no money in publishing, there must be a lot of “supply” in “can write a book professionally” right?
Right. More supply than demand.
(And if you’re going to say they make it up in volume – waggles hand. They’re TRYING to, mind you. Mostly with books to which they have no rights, or by shennenigans like those in my statements which allow them to pay the very minimum so rights don’t revert. This is in the age of ebooks, though. Before that? Not so much.)
This was true to an extent in the bad old days, simply because demand was kept artificially low. All of us heard about the thousands upon thousands of manuscripts that came in for every one that was accepted. In fact, getting in over the transom was so rare most of the houses closed down their slush piles, and went through agents, offloading that expense which brought little return.
This is because the houses could only accept x number of manuscripts a month. Fewer if they were relatively small like Baen (this is not chicanery, again, but – as I found as a small press publisher – the brutal realities of having to absorb the up front costs when you need to print everything, store it somewhere, etc.) But since Baen did not close the slush pile, and since friends and trusted confidants waded through it on a regular basis, I can tell you right now that most of the stuff “slushing” into the submissions was… Not just bad, but eye-searingly bad.
There were gems though – usually more than the publisher had room for, so that it became not just “am I good enough” but “do I fit with what the publisher is attuned to right now.”
The process seems to have given the really big publishers the idea that writers were widgets. Heck, they said just as much. Widgets. Interchangeable units. There was so much supply of good, competent, reasonable, literate writers, that the houses could afford to burn them out. Two books, and if you’re not, by miracle, a bestseller, you’re out bucko, and don’t you come back no more.
Strangely, they might have been wrong, even with the artificially lowered space for publication in the old system. The quality of their “finds” was getting increasingly lower – and they also started allowing “burned” writers to come back under closed pen names (so that you didn’t build a following at a guess, and they could keep paying you beginner advances – yeah, okay, so that’s my guess, but you give me one!) It’s possible they were burning through competent writers faster than they could be grown.
Then came indie…
This means the possibility for publishing yourself is… endless. And for making money from it.
Which necessitates a whole lot of spinning on the part of the publishers and their allied industries, to justify “there is no money in writing.” (Yes, you might sell fewer units indie, but when you get the biggest slice of the profit, you can also live from that. Say you have a thousand true fans, and you make $4 of profit – you just got a standard advance these days.)
The first prediction was that the reading public would be turned off by a “tsunami of crap.”
We’re not 3? Years into widespread indie publishing and … I fail to see it. Oh, there is more crap in certain fields – romance – than in others, because so many more people write it. But, you know what? My husband has been on a romance kick (yes, there’s a reason. Yes, it’s research) and he has – whatever he’s reading at the time – the charming habit of waking me up in the middle of the night to read me the more ridiculous portions of whatever he’s reading, or of detailing to me in the shower just how stupid a plot is.
The indie part of romance is not in fact the worst offender in this – except in the typos and grammar-throttling categories. And frankly, it’s not the worst offender in fantasy or science fiction or mystery either.
So, where did the tsunami of crap go? Those piles and piles of manuscripts that infested the slush pile of every publisher? Publishers didn’t make those up. They were there. I saw them with my own two eyes. (Contrary to rumor, SF writers don’t have multiple eyes, nor are they faceted.)
I think they went two places: first, a lot of them were the same manuscripts. They just got submitted everywhere. (And don’t say “no one would send a children’s picture book about cats to Baen, say” – I will just ask my friends who read slush to testify. Let’s say, yes, they did. Written in crayon. On butcher paper.)
Second, a lot of them got put up in the first rush of indie (those written by authors competent enough to actually navigate a computer, at least) and sold nothing, and the authors have either finally gone off to look for easier game, or are still waiting for the world to realize their genius. A lot of those “slush books” are/were first and sole efforts by people who couldn’t/can’t understand it’s a craft, and expect to be great without any effort of learning how to do this.
So much for the tsunami of crap. What was the publishers’ other prediction?
Well, remember the way they justified their big pay and the writers’ nominal one was that the writers were “interchangeable widgets.” Pick a guy off the street and he might not write as well as Dan Brown (ah!) but he will write well enough to replace any midlister you’d care to name.
Leave aside the fact this is patently untrue (including the Dan Brown thing, where they might very well be able to. At least if the street was full of pompous graduate students.)
How do the publishers reconcile the “writing is so easy anyone can do it, and there’s a line of people ready to replace you, so I won’t pay you anymore, bucko” with “writing is so difficult you need us to find the good stuff for you to read?”
Easy. It’s those intangibles they give the writer, see?
It used to be true. It did. There used to be intangibles. Like printing ahead and distribution.
But now? Now they’re still shrilling, up there in their Manhattan towers, about distribution and dissemination (it’s not true, you know? I mean, if you’re a newby, be aware it’s not true. One year I had six books come out with two major NYC publishers. They never made it to the shelves of any book store my friends and I could trace) and publicity (also not true. They expect you to do it) and editing, and their “expert formatting.”
Brother! If you believe all of that, you either don’t read traditionally published books, or you are the rawest Johnny raw to hit the publishing scene. (I know a couple. A very sad part of the indie thing is realizing some of my fledglings are stone-cold-dumb.) And if you’ve been published before and you still believe that – not just say it. BELIEVE it – you should consider treatment for brain-washing.
Look – most of my traditionally published books I got no editorial input whatsoever, and I wished I hadn’t got copy-editor input. (Baen does give you editorial input. I don’t always agree with it, and they don’t always catch everything, but someone reads and edits your book. This is more than what happened for most of my non-Baen books.) And three of them I got input that wasn’t “refusable” and that I’m now having to clean up before I put them up.
Which brings us to – yeah, they’re not adding anything.
When reading indie books I come across stupid plotting mistakes (we’ll leave aside typos, which are just as thick in traditional) yeah. But they’re the same mistakes I come across in newbies work in traditional. They’re kinks you’ll grow out of the more you write.
And there is money in indie. I have yet to hit that sort of jackpot – but then I’ve only “reprinted” stuff and the covers… we’re coming along, right? – but I have friends who have made thousands per book per year. Yeah, it’s a lot less people reading it, but you make more money from it. The money that used to go to pay for those Manhattan offices.
Which is why we’re getting furious spinning from the traditional establishment and its associated shills (yes, Writers’ Digest. If they’re smart they’ll change to cater to indies. There’s a lot of need. But my bet is they’re not smart.) And why “there is no money in writing” and “You need us to make anything” are getting claimed in increasingly louder and more insane tones, through campaigns of disinformation.
You see, that corner office is at risk. And the pension is in doubt. Writers, you see, are starting to doubt that they should do this “for the love.” They’re starting to think that they – more than office-fillers and paper pushers in some giant edifice in Manhattan – are the skilled workers and that a worker is worthy of his hire.
That way lies ruin – for the massively top-heavy publishing houses in NYC. And so they’re doing what they can to convince you that they’re absolutely necessary to you, even though, you know, there is no money in publishing.
That moisture down your neck? It ain’t rain.
Who are you going to believe? Their polls or your lying bank account?