What is “legitimate” in the 21st century publishing environment?

Not very long ago, the intarwebz — or at least that part of the intarwebz which is fascinated with all things authorly — became infuriated over this toss-off commentary from the Huffington Post. Now, toss-off commentary is not surprising at HuffPo. In fact, one might say that toss-off commentary is HuffPo’s raison d’être. Articles like this are supposed to inflame. HuffPo wants clicks, and caterwauling. That’s how HuffPo functions. And while men far better than me have taken the commentary to task, I think it’s worth pointing out that the article does bring up a very valid question, which lurks in the shadows at every author workshop, convention, kaffeeklatsch, and bar conversation: when will each of us know we are legitimate?

Way back in 1992, when I first got it into my head that I wanted to be a “for real” Science Fiction & Fantasy author, there was essentially one path to legitimacy. You typed up your story, sent it off to the slush pile(s) at the magazine(s) or the house(s) and you didn’t take no for an an answer — until somebody tendered a contract. Might not happen on your first submission, or even your hundredth, or maybe not even your five hundredth, nor your thousandth. But if you just kept after it, and kept writing and sending out new books and stories, sooner or later you’d make the grade. And when you had that paperback copy of your book (or your story, published in a magazine) in your hands, you could say with surety that you were legit. The other authors and editors at the conventions would agree. So too would most readers. You’d made the bar exam. You were (at last!) credentialed. Even if only modestly — because once you make the cut, you discover there is a whole new spectrum among published authors, from hobbyist dilettantes to million-dollar professionals.

In the year 2017, “legitimate” isn’t what it used to be.

Not when you have independent authors scoring movie deals and mega-contracts after ignoring the slush piles and the gatekeeping of the Agent-Editorial Complex.

I mean, just who gets to decide what “legit” looks like nowadays, anyway?

Partially, it’s you. The person doing the heavy lifting. You have to be able to look at yourself in the mirror. To thine own self be true. It doesn’t matter what anybody else says, if you yourself can’t or don’t feel like you’ve measured up.

And, partially, it’s the outside world. What does your cred look like? Does it meet or exceed any kind of external standard that others recognize, or agree upon?

The universe is filled with bullshitters.

Nobody reading this article wants to feel (or be looked at) like a bullshitter, right?

So we have to establish some criteria. Things which are both specific, and measurable. You will notice that the words “indie publishing” and “traditional publishing” do not appear anywhere in these criteria, because I think the 21st century publishing environment has made the old wall between “vanity” and “proper” press, obsolete. Anyone can publish anything (s)he wants at any time, and stand a chance of profiting from it. Likewise, awards are not included in these criteria, because awards are a completely arbitrary and external measure over which an author has little or not control. For any criteria to be valid (in my opinion) it ought to be something over which the author can exert some degree of influence, through both creativity and effort.

Productivity. Are you a fast writer? Are you consistent? How many words do you produce in an average day, an average week, and so on? How many book(s) or storie(s) can you get to market on an annual basis? Is the trend going up, or going down, or does it see-saw?

Readership. How many eyeballs are on your product? More importantly, how many eyeballs can you keep on your product, across stories, books, series, etc?

Income. How much money do you bring in weekly, monthly, yearly? How big are your paychecks? Is the trend going up, or down, or does it see-saw?

I’ve arranged these specifically in the order that they appear, because you need to be productive in order to get readers, and you need to have readers in order to get income. Q.E.D. I’ve also omitted things like movie and television licensing, games licensing, and so forth, largely because these are — like awards — things over which the author has almost no control. Would they be nice to have? Of course! Everybody loves to have them. But can you plan on them? Not really. I believe pegging your definition of success to things which are beyond your ability to effect (or affect?) is a very literal recipe for heartache. Because you may wind up hoping eternally for things which were never going to be, no matter how hard you try.

Let me tell you something, however. The five most financially well-off authors with whom I am personally acquainted, are also the five most hard-working and consistently productive authors with whom I am personally acquainted. Larry Correia, Brandon Sanderson, L.E. Modesitt, Jr., Kevin J. Anderson, and Eric Flint each bust their butts at this business. They don’t share the same publisher, nor even necessarily the same sub genres. What they do share is work ethic. One might almost call it workaholism? A relentless focus on prose output. Combined with a knack for telling entertaining stories. Some of them have more awards than others. Awards do not correlate to either readership, or income. Most of these men have been approached by different studios, regarding turning some of the authors’ work into motion pictures or television series. The only correlation in that case being, authors doing popular franchises have a far greater chance of being on a given studio’s acquisition radar, than authors doing obscure franchises. But again, the key is franchises. Plural. George R.R. Martin went most of his adult life, before the Game of Thrones books were turned into a hit small-screen series. Game of Thrones is hardly the only thing George has ever done in his career. And he’s regarded as a slow author.

More stuff on the market, means better chance to get and keep readers, equaling a better chance that some executive in Hollywood shows interest in your intellectual property.

But again, that’s not necessarily the set of goal posts you can or should be aiming for. Only a very small percentage of authors — even authors making six figures, or more, annually — will ever see his/her storie(s) turned into a Hollywood blockbuster.

So, it’s back to basics: production, followed by readership, followed by income.

In the eight years I’ve been “pro” in SF/F I’ve gone to a lot of conventions, and I’ve met a lot of different authors, ranging from people who are brand new starving artists all the way up to millionaires with the world seemingly eating out of their hands. One thing that gets respect up and down the chain, is consistent output. We all know how hard it is to keep a regimen. Especially those of us with additional career(s) and/or family and/or other commitments that take time, effort, and resources to maintain, grow, and manage. If you’re the kind of person who can consistently generate many books and stories over time, meeting deadline after deadline, you’re going to be regarded well by your peers — because nobody can fake it. A readership might be faked, in the form of cult-of-personality through a blog, or other social media presence. But if you’re the author at the convention who always has a new book out, every six to twelve months, and can always be counted on to deliver new, quality work within routine periods, that’s practically guaranteed to earn you respect. Even if you’re not necessarily a household name.

Readership follows on, unless you’re just utterly lacking in storytelling skill, or talent. And I’ll be honest, I think talent is ever-abundant. Skill has to be forged through hard work, over setbacks and obstacles. But talent? Talent is everywhere. The convention halls and workshops are filled with it. What the convention halls and workshops are not filled with, are people willing to do the hard chore of putting that talent through the crucible of rejection. Of failure. Of editors and agents saying, “No thank you.” Of Amazon’s metrics flat-lining. Of sitting at a table surrounded by a pile of Createspace copies, and only moving one or two items in an entire weekend. Lots and lots of people think they have what it takes. But in the end, can they endure the disappointments? The delayed remuneration, or even no remuneration? Can they survive a failed book, or series, to create the next book, or series? And the next? And the next, yet again?

Ulysses S. Grant, one of the most historic and celebrated officers in United States military history, was a serial failure at business, not to mention field command. He did have one thing going for him, though. A simple faith in success.

One might argue that Grant’s simple faith in success, not only saved his career, it also saved the war for the Union, and made Grant into a legend. Not because Grant was the most talented or creative officer in uniform. He wasn’t. No, not in his own Army; and certainly not compared to the Confederate side, either. Grant was just the man who didn’t let setbacks cripple him as he drove forward. Grant’s friend (and right-hand man) General Sherman once said, after the disaster at Shiloh, “We’ve had the devil’s day.” To which Grant merely replied, “Yup. Lick ’em tomorrow, though.”

If you can be that author — the man or woman who simply refuses to accept setbacks — you will be able to carve legitimacy out of even the most inhospitable publishing terrain.

Which brings us to the last metric: money.

This metric is tricksy, yes, Precious, because it’s far too easy for any author to grow envious, even to the point of career toxin. Many are the obscure authors who believe themselves to have superior talent — they may even have the awards to “prove” it — but the money just isn’t there. Or, at least, the money isn’t there to the extent said author(s) think it should be. Even critics and taste-makers lament the “corruption” of expanded income, and will practically use money as an inverse rule — the more a given author makes, the more “corporate” or “commercial” (s)he is, therefore becoming a lesser “artist” and so on, and so forth.

My suggestion is to wholly ignore outside factors, and consider your specific situation alone. How much income — directly from prose writing — would it take to pay a single bill? How about several bills? The monthly rent, lease, or mortgage? Pay off the car loan? Wipe out college debt? Pay for a home remodel? Buy a new home entirely? These are scalable, individual goals which are within your individual grasp to quantify, and they don’t place you in competition with your peers. You are never keeping up with the Joneses, to use an old phrase. Your success is not determined by matching or “beating” anyone else in the business. It’s wholly dependent on how much progress you can make, and in what form, according to financial circumstances which are uniquely your own.

For example, I live in fly-over country. The cost of living, for my specific area of Utah, is rather modest. Especially compared to where I used to live in Seattle, Washington. It won’t take millions of dollars to pay off my home, or my auto loan, or to add a second floor onto my rambler, or to accomplish any other dozen things which I’d like to accomplish with my writing income. Better yet, these things can be accomplished without having to look at either Larry Correia to my northeast, or Brandon Sanderson to the south. I don’t have to “catch up” to feel like I am winning at the game of life. I am alone, on my own chess board, and I define my own conditions for victory. They can be reasonable. More importantly, they can be reachable. And I know for a fact that Larry, or Brandon, or any four dozen other successful Utah authors — we’ve got a lot of them out here — will understand completely. Because they’re all doing the same thing, too.

And so can you.

Once more, for emphasis: production, followed by readership, followed by income.

You don’t need an agent for any of that, though it might be nice. You don’t need an editor for any of that, though it might be nice. You don’t need a publishing house for any of that, though it might be nice. You don’t need trophies for any of that, though they might be nice. You don’t need a blog or twitter feed filled with thousands upon thousands of followers, for any of that; though this too might be nice.

Everything you do need — like, 90% of it, really — is within your grasp. You. What you’re made of. Your grit. Your simple faith in success.

32 Comments

Filed under BRAD R. TORGERSEN, WRITING: LIFE, WRITING: PUBLISHING

32 responses to “What is “legitimate” in the 21st century publishing environment?

  1. Reblogged this on Barbarian Book Club and commented:
    A great motivational post on writing success.

  2. By your standards I will always be a failure because there is no way I am going to write fast enough.

    • Me too, especially now I have the day job that pays the bills. I just can’t churn out the words the way I could when I didn’t have the current day job and wrote full time for three years.

      • No, Brad’s standards don’t matter. Set your own. “I’d like to be able to pay the electric bill.” or “Two movies and dinners out a month.” Write enough, regularly–a few hundred words on your lunch break or after the kids are in bed. If you can do it regularly, it will add up.

    • Martin L. Shoemaker

      Brad hasn’t defined a standard here. He has defined a dimension: Productivity. But it is up to you to define the standard along that dimension. Your productivity may be more than mine or less than mine, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is… Are you happy with your productivity? If so, how can you maintain it? If not, how can you improve it? Are you improving?

    • Martin and Pam have it: I am only seeking to define potential criteria which are productivity-centered, while also being sanity-saving. I don’t think it would be fair to also impose a quantity, because only each of us knows what we’re capable of. From week to week, and month to month. Like with money, it’s too easy to look at what everyone else is doing, and then look at yourself, and conclude, “I suck.” Believe me, I know. I have Larry Correia and Brandon Sanderson in my back yard. 😉

  3. Thirteen books out there, two more planned for this year … yep, still chasing that rainbow.
    I began calling myself a writer when I started getting paid for it. Paid not very much in the grand scheme of things, but the affirmation that people were happy to throw money my way was priceless.

  4. Even those of us who will never be able to put out books fast can decide when we are professional writers – I decided 12/12/2012. Every speck of usable time I have goes into writing. I spend hours in the chair every single day. I have methods, and plans, and know exactly what I’m doing next.

    I’m very very slow – and it doesn’t matter. What I’m writing requires precision, and it takes time. I love the results.

    And I love that I can publish it myself, when it’s ready and up to my standards.

  5. TRX

    Robert Silverberg has been issuing collections of his short stories with notes about why and who he wrote them for. The thing that jumps out is that he wrote *anything*. SF, hardboiled detective, pornography, popular science, anything and everything, all the time. And if you look at their bibliographies, so did others, like Robert E. Howard, Lawrence Block, Frederic Brown… nobody was paying much, so they didn’t have the luxury of staying within one genre.

    “To make money, you must have something to sell.”

  6. I think it’s worth pointing out that the article does bring up a very valid question, which lurks in the shadows at every author workshop, convention, kaffeeklatsch, and bar conversation: when will each of us know we are legitimate?

    When we get the Wizards’ college team set up for Foot-the-Ball and face down our fears, possibly with the help of a supernaturally awesome chief and Woman Who Takes Care Of Things.

  7. 0ldgriz

    I personally know more artists than writers. My definition of who is an artist is someone who just has to do art. It is an essential part of who they are. Production is essential to make a living on art or writing. More output helps you hone your craft and gives more opportunities to find fans. Having fans of your work means making money.

    I have some minor talents but I’ll never be a real writer or artist because I am too easily distracted by consuming other’s output instead of making my own.

    I think you can be a “real” writer with low output. Your an amateur not a pro. Brad’s definition is that of a “real pro” not a “real” writer.

    • Bingo. I am an artist who occasionally gets paid to do art but who, for example, took to baking as an artistic pursuit when I didn’t have access to traditional artistic materials. I’ve also learned to make nice coffee drinks even though I don’t drink coffee myself.

      I will always be an artist as a self-definition, even if I become known for writing, or acting, or music. The artistic impulse can get sublimated into other things, but it’s the driving force.

    • Laurie

      I, too, am an artist (or have been, not doing much now). I did professional level work, even if I was never going to be a professional artist. But there was no shame in that – I can hang my pictures on my wall and people can see my level of skill at a glance, even if it’s just “amateur” work (and the meaning of amateur is for-the-love-of-it).

      Why can’t it be like that for writing?

  8. Bob

    Thank you for the informative post. What’s your observation on the role and thoroughness of outlining as regards to productivity?

  9. Yes, HuffPo staff are a lot of tossers…

  10. Hmm, I’ve been publishing on Amazon for six years. Four to nine titles a year, but half of them are shorts or collections. The annual word count published is . . . ouch! More illuminating. 2015 was a bad year.

    • gbp4

      Pam, the quantity you produced in 2015 may not have met your goals but the quality was still very high. So I imagine that you did well on Brad goal #2, retain your Readership.

      • Everyone has bad years. Illness, kids–in my case elderly parents and a death in the family. But you still have to work, even if you take time off or exhaustion or grief destroys your creativity. Sometimes work can be a way to cope with the problem. But wordage-wise, I put out less than half my next worst year,

        But I didn’t _stop_. And that’s the point, I think. It’s both a career and a calling and you can’t just put it on the shelf like a hobby.

  11. My goals are a lot more modest, and frankly, I haven’t really been reaching them lately. I have a very good paying day job, and so I’m not too worried about the money. Productivity – well, I’d like to be able to keep up with my ideas, and I’ve really fallen behind there. Mostly what I crave is readership. The only Validation I need is for people to read and enjoy my output. That way I know I’m not alone in being such a weirdo. 🙂

  12. Mary

    I believe pegging your definition of success to things which are beyond your ability to effect (or affect?) is a very literal recipe for heartache.

    Both verbs would be legitimate here. That is because “things” could refer both to things you can’t cause (You can’t effect a movie-rights sale) and to things you can’t influence (You can’t affect how much Hollywood notices your stories).

  13. Jonathan Bergstrom

    This was a very encouraging read, thank you Brad. You hit my goals for 2017 in a nutshell, which are to keep consistently writing and producing, knowing that eventually I will get to producing something people want it read.

    I got serious about writing last spring, and for the first time actually finished writing a lengthy science fiction novel and got other started and outlined. My definition of success for this year is simply to self publish two books that are as good as I can make them, and just keep working on my craft.

  14. Draven

    And I still can’t fathom the ‘not a real author’ folks when they are referring to someone making a living off of writing… I mean, wouldn’t that be one of the definitions of being a real writer?

  15. Randy Wilde

    And when you had that paperback copy of your book (or your story, published in a magazine) in your hands, you could say with surety that you were legit.

    Anyone else hear Dr. Hook in their heads while reading that?

    “Gonna see my picture on the cover, gonna buy five copies for my mother”

  16. Can’t forget Larry Correia’s “The Official Alphabetical List of Author Success” from 2014, which has some wonderful benchmarks.

    A-list authors have houses made out of gold bars; E-listers are defined as “Authors who make enough off their royalties to impress their mother in law.”
    J-listers are people who “start to pay most of their bills with their royalties,” but M-listers can only splurge at Applebys. Snaky but realistic benchmarks that most people can relate to and are more concrete than “legit authors make $XX.”

  17. Al

    You are a legitimate something if people you don’t know are willing to pay for it and they enjoy it. How MANY people I don’t know but you don’t need to make a living from it. I wrote thousands of pages of internet material but I’d never called myself a writer. I say “I wrote” X number of pages.

    It’s odd when people answer “So, what do YOU do?” with Artist or Writer when they only do these things as aspirational hobbies. I hope to one day meet someone who tells me they’re an “Activist” so I can ask them who pays them to be an “Activist”. First though I’d reply that I’m a Shopping Mall Food Court Critic.

  18. Thanks for this – I’ve been a little down on my writing, but this is just what I needed to get back in the swing of things.

  19. Brad, a very fair post, worthy of remembering. In a few years I plan on retiring from my day job and returning to writing. No I can’t write and work full-time and have a worthwhile home life. Ask any number of successful but divorced writers. My apologies and kudos to you if you can successfully do that thing.
    As to productivity…. I believe I told this story over on Sarah’s blog, but many years ago as a young’un I was sitting next to Ted Sturgeon at a Motel 6 (or some such) in Tucson. When he found out I wanted to be a writer, he said, “I have a guaranteed method to make you a published writer.” (Amazon wasn’t even a gleam in Jeff Bezo’s mother’s eye at the time.) I asked of course, and he replied, “Write 50 stories in a year. I guarantee that by the end of that year you will be a published writer.” It took me 4 years, but I sold my 32nd story. I sent one copy to Ray Bradbury, and he graciously sent me back an autographed movie poster from “Something Wicked this Way Comes.”
    Am I a writer? It doesn’t matter so much to me any more to be recognized as such now that I’m older and have had a successful career doing something else. I feel good about myself and my ability to write, and I don’t feel I need validation about it from other people any more.
    Not to diminish anything you’ve written, but just to add perspective, I think most of us agree that Joseph Heller was a “legitimate” writer even if it took him 8 years to finish Catch-22 and another 12 to finish Something Happened. Than there’s always the cautionary tale of Mr. Tanner https://www.google.com/search?site=&source=hp&q=harry+chapin+mr+tanner&oq=harry+chapin+mr&gs_l=hp.1.0.0l3j0i22i30k1l3.15952.4506485.1.4508882.15.12.0.0.0.0.435.1575.0j4j1j1j1.7.0….0…1c.1.64.hp..8.7.1569…5j46j0i131k1j0i46k1j0i131i46k1j46i131k1.ct3kOZLmvrc.