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.