You know, being a professional writer is somewhat like being a plumber in that it all centers around an essential premise. For plumbers, it is that water flows downhill… and it ain’t all water that flows downhill. But without that water, nothing flows. For writers it is that money flows TO the professional writer… and it ain’t all money. But without that money, nothing flows.
Writing –unlike plumbing – has an exceptionally low entry bar. You want to write? You can. Writing is the easy part, however. Getting read, and more importantly, getting paid for that writing is the hard part. For that, especially at the level where one can make a full-time living at it, you’re going to, outside of luck and powerful influence, going to have to work very hard. For the same amount of work, as a plumber, frankly, you will almost certainly make more money. The tiny percentage who make more than the average tradesman are exceptions. You may be one. But it’s not a good gamble. Look, that didn’t stop me. Why should it stop you? If it stopped everyone, there’d be no great books for me to read, so I have a vested interest in encouraging you – but I want to be as honest as possible. I succeeded, I managed – as a sole-breadwinner while the kids were at school and college – but I lived in a good exchange rate, and I’m an effective hunter-gatherer, a mediocre farmer, and I was able to choose to live in places where I’m not hunting in dumpsters and growing crops on a balcony.
So, look, there are essentially two models for getting readers – the ‘push’ and the ‘pull’. For a long time now, ‘push’ has been effectively the only model. Your publisher had leverage with the distributor (You want bestseller A, you also have to sell them also-ran B. And offer them noobs C & D.) and that’s how the book ended up ‘pushed’ in bookstores, which have a limit on display-space. They would also ‘push’ through a web of patronage and sometimes just outright money, to get reviews and advertising. They’d also pay the bookstore for endcaps, display dumps, window displays etc. All designed to ‘push’ your book at the potential reader.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? The problem is it SOUNDS good, and can be good for individuals, in the short term. BUT…
But the reader popularity of the pushed books are not actually in the equation, except in terms of re-order (which can be pretty important – or not). The bookstore doesn’t have any short term loss in this equation – They can rip off the cover and get a cash refund if they don’t sell the book. They might well still make money (from selling special display space). It does have a medium term loss if the books it sells are generally unappealing, or less appealing and the volume sold drops – but that’s quite hard to see and harder to control – when they’re getting books pushed at them, and making money off the display of what the publisher wants to pay for displaying. This of course is different in a small independent bookstore where the owner sells you the books and makes money for himself, directly – but the huge chain retailers – well, that nice guy who works there because he likes reading and needs a job recommends a book, but other than a little satisfaction, he gets nothing.
Unfortunately, books are not essential foodstuffs. You could have fooled me, as a young soldier I gave up a few meals to buy a book I really wanted – but they are a discretionary buy, and people can and do skip them when they don’t like what they’re offered. No it isn’t: ‘You’ll sit at this table, boy, until you finished your boiled Leckie. And don’t try feeding it to dog. It’ll make her sick.’ There is a degree of ‘obligatory buy of books by people who want to be seen to have them’, but what books have – or don’t have is usually a pretty private affair. I remember a very activist, vocal militant feminist author lamenting that if only she sold one copy for every person who crammed in to hear her speak – WisCon I think. But the people there could be seen to be attending. No-one saw what they spent their money on.
‘Push’ breaks down a little earlier than that – back in the day of several sf houses being family/ individual affairs, their founders businesses lived or died by what they decided to ‘push’… but that has largely gone in the large corporate. I’ve been told that what REALLY counts is not selling a lot. It’s selling just about exactly what you estimated you’d sell in that editorial meeting… so there is powerful incentive (unless the outside pull is very large and loud) to ‘push’ just exactly what you said you’d sell – and to pull the pin on books that are selling a bit too much. Yes. Really. I know several folk whose sales were doing just fine… until suddenly book two of three was out of print, and not being reprinted. Or a book went out of print the day it earned out. Yes, IF the clamor is loud and long from the public, they’ll reprint. But… that’s not that common. For most of us it’s merely a case of the book getting a percentage more sales. If a reader has a friend recommend it as good read, and can’t find it, or just doesn’t see it a brick-and-mortar store, it’s out of sight and out of mind. This has improved with online sales, but it still remains a system where there is little incentive for the publisher/editor to ‘push’ beyond what they planned. If they’re an editor (not a shareholder or owner of a small publisher) there’s no financial benefit. They don’t get an extra penny in their paycheck (as the author does, as long as the accounting is straight) for every sale of a specific ‘push’, but just get paid their wage.
You can see just how this can break down, also given that Traditional publishing is a status-but-not-money employer. It’s also almost entirely –in the US—based in NYC. It – in a modern society, with excellent electronic communication, is where it has no major justifiable need to be. It’s a legacy tradition and a social status symbol – not to customers (who neither know nor care) but to the employees and their peer group. It’s an expensive place to live. Think long and hard about what this means about the kind of people deciding who to ‘push’, and just how in touch they are with people who don’t have the freedom to choose a poor-paying job in a mega-expensive city, for the status among the set who care about such things, and regard publishing as above the salt. They’re out of touch with most of the audience. When you add ideological filters to that, you begin to understand why less people (even before online sales) were visiting book-stores to buy what NYC trad ‘pushed’ into them.
‘Push’ COULD work (and did) – but not long term, and not without direct and immediate feedback of that stuff that’s supposed to flow to the author – money – all the way down the line. That doesn’t alter the fact that it’s STILL the major model that most traditional published authors view as their only hope – possibly with good reason. It’s a tough environment to sell into. It’s why so many authors invest so heavily into pleasing the NYC editors bubble – aside from the fact that you can’t get in to their stable without it, your ‘push’ is determined not so much by how much the readers might like it, but how much the editor/s like it. If the latter was a measure of how much readers would like it, it could work. But, as the evidence shows, it isn’t, outside of their bubble.
When you look at the loud demonstrations of solidarity with the politics and interests of that insular little subset, to say nothing of embracing the fashionable victimhood du jour – whatever it this week, be it being Gender-fluid or people who try introducing gerbils or tarantulas to their various orifices for pleasure* – that’s what it is really about. There are doubtless some ardent believers in whatever the current doctrine is, and there are undoubtably some people doing okay out of faking it. It’s not easy to drag an audience along into a worldview they don’t share (like ¾ of the audience don’t live in anything like this bubble), and that takes more skill rather than less. But less skill and more loud solidarity will still get you the push. If you choose to go that way, it is possible. Personally I think it’s a gradually dying set-up, and besides I think we have passed peak PC (and its champions will be left like English authors who championed the Nazis before 1939 – there were quite a lot – in a few years time) — but it could well linger on for years.
So – let’s talk about ‘pull’. Pre-internet ‘pull’ existed of course, but only really worked in conjunction with ‘push’. No matter how popular Joe or Jill were, how eager people were to buy their book, if a publisher didn’t push it into a bookstore, it couldn’t really cut it. Then along came the internet, e-readers, online shopping – and suddenly people with a following – Larry Correa or Peter Grant could sell by pull, and some – Weir, could even build pull from almost nothing.
It’s not easy, and has got harder, but it is possible.
Some of us are good at pull. Most of us take a hard look at this and quake. Yes, me too. Strip me buck naked and drop me on a ‘desert’ island and I’d be less-freaked out and more capable than dealing with social media or crowds! That’s stuff I am good at, or least not completely clueless.
Which is why, still, so many people turn to ‘push’. Give it a go, it may work for you, or you may build a big enough platform to ‘pull’ from. But – back to the plumber – it is vital to remember that money is our water, and if too much of it is flowing the wrong way… something is badly wrong. Look, I am not saying that you shouldn’t be paying for artwork or editing, or some form of promotion (within reason, and with a real return. For instance I tried a facebook promo and it didn’t work. I didn’t spend a lot, and I won’t do it again. YMMV.).
But as soon as you’re paying – upfront – for a place in an anthology, for example, look long, hard and very, very carefully at the project. There may well be exceptions, you may decide that some exposure is worth the money.
We had a micro-publisher here for example who was trying to collect funds from would-be antho writers – which he would spend on hiring a prominent, award winning editor. Not only would you get your piteous work edited by a great editor, but readers would flock to buy… you were paying for push that you’d get by being an anthology bearing their name. Now, said editor actually had ‘failed upwards’ repeatedly, leaving dead publications in their wake. They were of course very PC, very avant garde, and the amount of money wanted for their prestigious services… was not small. Let’s put it this way, if they had such ‘pull’ as to push your career and name recognition along, they’d buy stories, and take a percentage as their fee. Or the publisher would put up his own money or take a loan pay them, because they expected to make a profit. As that wasn’t the deal, well… you work it out. It’s vanity publishing, really. If that floats your boat, and you have the money for your ego-trip, go for it. But if you’re hoping it’s going to launch your career as professional writer, making a living… buy lotto tickets.
Of course, one of the reasons that new authors look at the behavior of authors in puzzlement is… payment isn’t all money. Or not all money directly, anyway. Some of it is in social status – you look at the backgrounds of quite a number of authors and you discover a well-off background or well-off spouse with a job that pays the all the bills quite happily without their contribution. They’re inevitably rich or upper middle class, and being an author means something to them and their social set. This is a jolly, an ego-boo, a status symbol that means that selling to the public was never important. Being seen by the ‘right’ people to be writing the right sort of books was. It’s vanity publishing too, really.
And those not taking their pay only in social status among their chosen peers… and who need the money to pay the bills – you’ll find a lot of them are being ‘paid’ by using their status as ‘Author’ and any awards (these are the group who NEED awards, and some will will quite cheerfully push other people’s careers off a cliff to get them. You wonder why on earth they care SO, SO deeply about that literary award, which, if anything, will reduce their sales numbers? Look hard at what they’re doing with their lives and careers. A few may hope to leverage better advances out of their publisher (it’s also *status* with value for the publisher to produce many award-winners, even if all it means is they get more award-chasers, cheap) but really most of it comes down to this credentialing them to take college teaching jobs. These pay well, are not too arduous, have social status, and as you get to teach another whole generation of hopefuls. I wonder how many students ask ‘If you’re such a great, award-winning writer… how come you are teaching?’
Look, not all the authors getting MFA’s or Journalism degrees even English Lit PhD’s (on their own work) and wanting an award or two, set out to follow this course at first. I know a fair number taking it up as insurance, because the ‘push’ they got hasn’t made them a long term career, and they’re seeing danger signs or falling incomes. It seems sensible to have a fallback… even if to me it appears rather like scrambling off the leaky harbor ferry onto the Titanic. The whole arts-degree-college, just looks hopelessly unsustainable to me. But I could be wrong on that, you could be right and plumbers could become less needed than Arts degree grads. (Looks around hopefully. What sort of odds are you offering?)
So: all very well being Sun Tzu and knowing the models, but what to do, and what future – especially for the introvert who doesn’t fake being whatever the current fashionable victim-for maximum points it is at the moment. It’s a tough one. I don’t think that I can prescribe to anyone, but here is my advice: Firstly, write the best book you possibly can –which means it needs to be true to you for you to really get it right. Secondly, you always need to remember you’re long term writing for as many readers as possible. If ‘as possible’ is the same bubble as NYC editors, it is. That’s still a good few people to sell to. Thirdly, no harm in trying Trad to give you an initial footprint by their push. It may work, and may be where you stay forever. But: succeed or fail (and it is no ‘failure’) – fourthly, you need to look at hybrid model – where you get as much push from wherever – be it a publisher, a sympathetic site letting you promote, or money you spend on bookbub, but you work on ‘pull’ – on social media as much as you can bear and are able. Be nice, be funny, hell, be controversial if you can handle it, but don’t endless punt your book…. But here is kicker: it’s not your job. Your job is writing, and writing a lot. If social media conflicts with your writing, it is social media has to be curbed.
Now, for the puppy kickers who have no interest in helping writers to make a living, but have struggled through all this skimming for something to be offended by for their little witch-hunt:
I know, it’s been hard for people who struggle to read anything longer than a tweet. Tch. Shame. Let me try, for the last time, to persuade you that I didn’t turn Jim Hines into a newt. He’s exactly as he always was. And I know you took delight in dressing me up in these clothes, but I really don’t have the legs for it, and I’m doing physical work on farms, and even the hat won’t stay on in the wind, and the skirts keep getting caught on the barbed wire. Why not try one of the authors who doesn’t have a farm to run, and likes dressing in women’s clothing and posing? I’m kinda used to my own broken nose, and I don’t even have a wart. Nor do I weigh the same as a duck. And if you have a dead gerbil stuck up your ass, no, I am not responsible for that either, no matter what you say to the Doctor in ER about having no idea how it got up there.
If it was me magically placing it, I’d have made it a tarantula for your ‘pleasure’, except I wouldn’t be that cruel to a tarantula or a gerbil. And I know: that makes me a gerbil-or-tarantul-anus-ophobe because how dare I criticize your love. I’m not. I’m mocking and accepting the first accurate accusation yet. I’ll wear that one. You don’t want to be like me. And you so enjoy hurting things, so long as you’re in a mob or safe and anonymous like Fieldsy or they’re very little, like gerbils- as you’ve proven so well. Tell the rest of your twitter-mob if they haven’t already shown their solidarity with this oppressed minority, that it may be the next winner of NYC publishing victim bingo, and a shoo-in for a Hugo. Don’t all rush to the nearest pet shop now.
*I wish I was joking. Someone apparently really did this with a tarantula, because gerbils are quite vanilla. As one medical friend said, you can’t imagine what people introduce to their orifices for ‘pleasure’.