Not a Meritocracy

An excellent example of HuffPost muckraking has been making the rounds today. Honestly, I think author Lynn Shepherd wastes a lot of valuable screen space throwing a tantrum about JK Rowling’s relative success in publishing. But there is a point at which Shepherd gets my full attention.

It wasn’t just that the hype was drearily excessive, or that (by all accounts) the novel was no masterpiece and yet sold by the hundredweight, it was the way it crowded out everything else, however good, however worthwhile. That book sucked the oxygen from the entire publishing and reading atmosphere. And I chose that analogy quite deliberately, because I think that sort of monopoly can make it next to impossible for anything else to survive, let alone thrive. Publishing a book is hard enough at the best of times, especially in an industry already far too fixated with Big Names and Sure Things, but what can an ordinary author do, up against such a Golgomath?

Lets get something straight, right from the beginning; publishing is a capitalist business, not a meritocracy. I understand this, and seldom even question the situation any more. If you publish use the tools you have at hand to sell more books. That’s the rule, that’s how it works. Right, wrong? That doesn’t matter.

Additionally, I’m not going to lay my neck down on the block and suggest that J.K. Rowling (or anyone else) stop writing, stop writing in my genre, or stop anything for that matter. Your success as a writer is your business. If you chose to tell the world about the details, good on ya.

Ultimately, I think that the foamy kerfuffle this article surfaced has a lot more to do with the way the big boys sell books than the quality of anyone’s writing. Per USA Today’s most up-to-date rating for THE CASUAL VACANCY saw a bump from not registering to #131 twenty-eight weeks after it was first listed coincidentally at the same time Shepherd published her story on HuffPost.

Shepherd goes on later in the opinion piece, but the whinge starts to gather mass and the reader is forced to ask the all to critical question “Why?”

The book dominated crime lists, and crime reviews in newspapers, and crime sections in bookshops, making it even more difficult than it already was for other books – just as well-written, and just as well-received – to get a look in. Rowling has no need of either the shelf space or the column inches, but other writers desperately do. And now there’s going to be a sequel, and you can bet the same thing is going to happen all over again.

I have to say that I’m happy for Rowling’s success. And why not, she must have worked hard enough to get where she is. Writing takes a lot of time and energy. She should be allowed to write books, just like the rest of us. Good or bad, however, it is the readers that should determine how much of our collective mind space her works take up, not very deep pockets and well refined marketing strategies.

And there is the problem, ad execs and publishing mavins, convinced that anything a Big Name writes will sell a forest’s worth of paper, are tripping all over themselves in the mad dash to sell, sell, sell. They can signal boost in a way that most of us can never hope for.

In doing so they have exposed their hand. The tell is in the fact that they can and do lavish such treatments on a few authors while ignoring so many more. And yeah, this sort of market manipulation hides so many other good works. But what can be done? Nothing, publishing is not a meritocracy.

What I Want

Recently, all-around good guy and SpecFic author Ramez Naam wrote a blog post Publishing – We’re All On the Same Side in which he outlines some observations about publishing, publishers and the people who write. At the end of this piece he writes “What I’d Like to See”.

In my dream world, what I’d love to see:

  • A little more acknowledgement on the self-pub side that traditional publishing has various advantages. Yes, it has downsides too. Yes, self-pub will be better in some situations. But the dialogue right now simply waves away the advantages to authors that can come with traditional publishing deals.
  • Fewer insults cast at self-pub books as a class, particularly on issues of quality and so on, from traditionally published authors. Really, unless your goal is to get people good and angry and harden their hearts, there’s very little point to this.
  • Less taking it personally on both sides. More compassion for and cheering on everyone who writes.

Well, I can keep dreaming, can’t I?

I really enjoyed this post and it further underscores my belief that there is a middle ground. The concept has been smoldering for a while now and the Shepherd piece just blew on it. So Mez, I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to take a crack at this too.

For context, I am a self-published author and will likely continue to be so. I have published traditionally; a number of non-fiction, short pieces, but honestly, I don’t count these. And my fiction is weird enough that traditional publication would be a tremendous stroke of luck. That said, I am pragmatic person and writing is a career choice, so ultimately, I will publish the way that works best.

Without further adieu, my thoughts:

  • Writers get respect, yo!

    Fiction writers especially. Yeah, it’s hard. You’ll lose much sleep if you become a writer. Your conversations will become one dimensional explorations of story ideas you want to develop later. You’ll likely lose friends, for a vast variety of annoying reasons, while you’re bleeding on the page.

    Writing isn’t just a vocation, or a career choice. It’s a life style. An already unnecessarily complicated and problematic lifestyle. Like becoming a monk or a nun with about the same amount of sex. If you write, you deserve respect.

  • Stop the Whinge

    There is a lot, and I mean a lot, of envy in this business. Hell, I feel it too. At ConFusion I felt envy when John Scalzi talked about when he felt like he had made it. I too, would someday like to buy a tank of gas and not worry about where the money to buy it might be coming. I too would love to swim in a J.K Rowling sized swimming pool of cash (or more realistically, write checks to the charity of my choice with lots of digits).

    Every last one of us pours as much of their self into their work as they can afford. And that’s why, when it’s done and up on Amazon, we sit and wonder why we’re sitting at #374,097 on the Paid in Kindle Store while that worthless piece of fluff won’t release its death grip on #1.

    Ultimately, I know that it is going to take a much larger pile of words to get there. To get anywhere close to there. But the whinge does nothing to get anyone there. Bitching about someone else’s success, endlessly comparing your works to theirs, whining (often publicly) about whatever is a WASTE OF TIME.

  • Publishing is Publishing

    This might be a corollary to the previous bulleted item, but the fact remains. Publishing is publishing.

    I am super-fucking tired of the constant, low-grade squabble that goes on between the different parts of the published world. As Mez correctly points out more is better, and both parts of the community can contribute to each other. They should contribute to each other. The belief that one way or the other is somehow “better” is just ridiculous.

    Is traditional publishing working for you? That is awesome! Do you prefer the indie route to print? Let this stand as a virtual hug and pat on the back. Just getting work out there is hard enough. The “I poop on your publishing mode” attitude has got to go; it’s simian and base and it makes you look silly.

  • Be nice to one another

    This bears repeating. In fact, it should become a mantra. If you feel the urge to tear someone else down, even if they’ve just invested lots of time and effort in the destruction of another (see Shepherd), ask yourself “am I being nice?”

    It’s a truism that authors don’t really compete with one another. We mostly compete with people not reading, with them sitting on the couch, or watching television, or simply not knowing of anything good to read. I trust that most of the authors I know are supporters of other writers as a class, and that we want to see more people make the leap from “I have a book!” to “People are reading my book!” and even “I’m making a living off of people reading my book(s)!” as we did at one point (or may be in the process of doing).

    So let’s cheer each other on, and point to success, anywhere we see it.

  • What I’d like to see

    This is my dream world statement. It is also me being a hopeless optimist, publicly and without shame.

    • I’d love to see more inclusiveness from professional organizations such as The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Guilds and Unions of yore did not increase their power and influence within their operating space by excluding a particular class of member. If there is a gateway for entry let it be legitimate. The SFWA bar for entry is antiquated at best and this hurts Science Fiction and Fantasy writers. All of ’em.All you need to be a full member of Romance Writers of America is the serious desire to pursue “a romance fiction writing career” and $95 a year. You get full benefits of membership (which are laudable) and voting rights. It makes me want to carve out time for at least one romance story a year (which would be crap I know, but still).

      Other professional organizations need to legitimize all parts of their slice of the pie. They need to do this quickly. When they do, they’ll see a huge bump in their membership and a precipitous drop in drama and ugliness.

    • More readers, yes, many more readers. And this isn’t just the self-interested sort of plea for you to be my reader. No, I think we need more readers.Guys, I’m a slow reader. I admit this because I know, in the past, it is the thing that has kept me from reading more. I’ve felt a fair amount of self-loathing and shame over this deficit.

      But stories are a critical and necessary part of our humanity. We have evolved to pass wisdom around using them. Your perfect story is out there. Whatever your handicap is – lack of time, slow reading, a crippling, misanthropic fear of overwhelming crowds in books stores – there is a ready made solution for you.

      It is my sincere belief that if more people read, even a little, every day (instead of relentlessly tuning into the boob tube or other distraction) the world as we know it would experience a dramatic and much needed shift toward the positive.

    • A lot more cross pollination. Meaning, if you read something you like SHOUT ABOUT IT. If you fear that the juggernaut hype machine of Big Ink is obscuring the voice of a really good writer you like than why are you letting that signal drown out that voice?There are ample options for feedback out there. Review the book on Amazon or GoodReads. Write a letter to the author. Tweet about your favorite read, or your last read. Tell someone at the coffee shop. The list of ready made options goes on and on. And every time you get someone else to ready, you’re cross pollinating.

      Or you could try and be really unique. Cause you’re hip and cool and your love of a story is also a sort of self-expression. Tattoo your devotion to a story on your hide. Name your child after a favorite character. Think outside the box, astound the masses, be awesome!

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