I wasn’t sure what to talk about this week, and then I was, and then I thought someone else said it so well, how could I possibly do better? Then I got into a conversation privately with another writer who has, through no real fault of their own, wound up in a tight spot. And I realized that I’m weird.
Ok, if that wasn’t confusing enough, here’s this: this post is not about writing. It’s about what comes from writing, after the story is finished. Because as we all know in our cynical little back-brains, there’s no HEA.
So, let’s say that you did it. You sat down every day, or not-every-day for years (heaven forfend), and now you have a complete manuscript in front of you. You’re done, right? You’ve reached the pinnacle of being a writer. Readers of this blog know that isn’t even close to true, but sadly there’s a whole community of writers out there beyond the reach who do. Who think that handing over their intellectual baby to the publisher, or an agent, is the only choice they have. And I sit here typing and wondering how the mothers of Canaan felt about handing over their bundles of joy to the priests of Moloch who insisted it was the only way for them to succeed in life. You must have an agent, you must have a publisher…
Not even close to the truth. In fact, going with a publisher could land you with the hideous reality of a book relegated to one of the worst distribution platforms, no reviews (or very few), no print version, having to write your own blurb… but you still have to share what tiny bit of money comes in, because you signed away the rights to your own work. Then, the person you trusted to form a profitable business partnership with you did all the wrong things, and left you standing in the dust wondering what you did wrong.
The blog I’d read this week that got me all fired up about this is one of Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s Business Musings. They are usually excellent, but this one hit a resonant chord with me, and while I highly recommend you read all of it, I’m also quoting extensively here.
You’ve all heard that writers can’t make money, so why even try? You’re writing for the love. You’re writing to create something lasting. You’re writing to become famous or well-reviewed or accepted in your own literary circle.
You’re not writing to make money.
Only fools and hacks write for the money. The more someone publishes, the worse their skill must be. The more financial success they have, the more their writing abilities go downhill as they “sell out.”
That’s counterintuitive to the way that humans operate. The more humans practice something, the more they refine their techniques, the closer those people get to the top of their game. Their game might not be as good as someone else’s, but writers—like everyone else—improve with practice.
Those professors with a handful of novels and tens of thousands of teaching hours behind them? They’re probably quite adept at teaching. But their writing won’t improve much over the years.
This myth that writers can’t make money plays right into the hands of embezzlers and con artists. Think about it: I’ll handle your negotiations, your paperwork, your money, so you don’t have to bother your pretty little head about it.
Money gets pocketed, writers need those teaching jobs, and the leech who made the offer benefits from the myth. The writer sure doesn’t.
And then there’s the silence.
Silence is the hallmark of abuse.
I am not a veteran of the traditional publishing business like Kris is. I don’t even consider myself a veteran of the Indie side, yet. But I have the advantage of being on the outside looking in, and of having people who talk to me in private and offer glimpses of what’s going on out there. It’s not pretty. The Big Five are ugly enough, with their biases and bigotry. But small publishers are no better, folks. I’m not offering a blanket condemnation. I’m asking that any of you, before you walk into an arrangement, open your eyes and really take a close look at the situation. Ask yourself: am I making a false assumption here? Do I really need this publisher/agent?
I’m going to bet the answer to that, 90% of the time, is no.
Seriously. Look… I wound up running a business because I had no choice. It was that, or be homeless and my babies starving. I couldn’t shuffle the responsibility off to anyone else. I had to soldier on, and learn how to market, sell, fill the word-of-mouth pipeline. I learned how to do graphic design, how to build a website, how to keep the books. I didn’t have any choices, so I did it. I surprised myself time after time with what I could learn if I applied myself to it. And? You say, I don’t have time. Um. Sorry, yes, you do. I’m being harsh and blunt here. While I was doing all that? I was in an abusive relationship and having four babies who were growing into toddlers and I was running that business from home with them underfoot. Was it hard? Damn near killed me. Was it worth it? When I survived the relationship and ventured past it and the learned helplessness Kris described on her blog, I was able to use those skills to keep the kids and I afloat. And to use the endurance to move beyond mere survival to where I am now, thriving and growing with a partner who pulls in tandem with me for mutual goals. Hell, yes, it’s worth it. If for no other reason that to prove to yourself that YES YOU CAN DO THIS THING.
So stop telling me you can’t take care of your own work. You can hire a cover artist. You can (and should) hire editors. That’s what your publisher would do, after all.
The phrase is “learned helplessness.” Learned helplessness explains so much in an abusive situation. It’s why an abused person needs support networks, because the abused person has been so emotionally and mentally beaten down (in addition to the physical abuse) that they can’t do much for themselves. […] Studies have gone on to show that people might have learned helplessness in one area of their life, but are very competent in other areas. [quote from the above blog]
I stayed in a very bad situation for thirteen years. But, Cedar, you were married… and you, Writer, you signed a legal document also? A contract? Did you read it? Most people don’t. There are times it’s a very bad idea to form a legal bond with someone you don’t fully know and understand (or be stupid proud, like I was, and know I was getting in deep, but the culture I was raised in made me feel like I had no choices, and the social pressure on a bride who wants to run on her wedding day rather than make those steps up the aisle… ok, there are a lot of parallels here). The writing culture might make you feel like you have to marr… er, sign on with an agent and sign your baby away to the publisher. But it’s not true. Pull back the curtain, to mix yet another metaphor here, and take a long look at the reality you reveal there. And then? You get to choose. Not the culture around you. Not the family sitting in the pews looking expectantly at you. If you turn on your heel and walk away, you’ll find more support than you might have dreamed possible. Blogs like this one, with practical how-to’s for covers, formatting, blurbs, and much more. Kris’s blog on the relationships of the industry and how to navigate them.
But I implore you. Do not throw your baby to Baal just because you think you can’t take care of it on your own. You can. We’ll help, but really? It’s you. You’re stronger than you think you are, better, and you can do this.