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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Interview with Author Michael Bunker

Michael Bunker at WorkMichael Bunker‘s biography only grants the reader a momentary glimpse of a truly innovative and unique mind. He has been grinding out an amazing list of stories which include dystopian sci-fi, the WICK series, The Silo Archipelago, The Last Pilgrims, and the Amish/Sci-Fi novella Pennsylvania.  His latest short, the excellent REDOUBT, is part of FROM THE INDIE SIDE and is a bit of a prequel to some of his longer form fiction. It is also an excellent example of short fiction done well.

I sat down and talked with Michael about REDOUBT, the FROM THE INDIE PROJECT and his writing. I have a feeling you’re going to enjoy his thoughtful answers as well as his formative storytelling.


MT An anthology takes a lot of outside editorial effort. Finding all the authors, ensuring that all the different works make it into the collection on time and with requisite polish, and then there are the on going business aspect of publishing and imprint that must be managed. It is a difficult proposition for traditional publishers to undertake. How were these things managed by a bunch of independents spread all the way around the Earth? Were there hurdles along the way?

MB Susan May has written a wonderful article for Suspense Magazine that outlines how the whole thing came together. But basically it was a serendipitous conflagration of events and how I ended up involved I’ll probably never really know. From my perspective, it came as a total surprise, because – you have to understand – things have changed a lot for me since I first was invited into the project. When my friend Jason Gurley first asked me if I’d be interested, I was probably by far the most unknown author of the twelve. At least that is the way I saw it. I jumped at the opportunity to be connected to these other eleven authors, and I’d do it again. But my overall footprint in the Sci-Fi world was almost non-existent when this first came together. Since then, I’ve become slightly better known, but I’m still awed to be mentioned in the same breath with any of these other professionals. As for hurdles, I was surprised that there weren’t any that I knew about, because out of all the authors in the world, we ended up with 12 that worked really well together, and who were all willing to sacrifice, if necessary, to make this thing happen.

MT Tell us about how you became involved in the FROM THE INDIE SIDE project?

MB I was contacted by my friend Jason Gurley. He’d been approached to write a short story for the project, and I was fired up for him.  Secretly, I might have been a tad envious, but I really think that Jason is a great author and I want good things to happen for him, so my excitement for him squashed the envious part.  So then Jason said that they might be looking for a few more Indies and asked if I would mind if he mentioned my name to them. He said that I’d already been discussed, and he was pretty sure they’d be glad to have me, but he wanted to clear it with me first.  I jumped all over the opportunity.  To be included in this anthology was – and is – a great honor for me.

MT After FROM THE INDIE SIDE would you consider future anthology projects?

MB Absolutely. I’d love to do more of them. I’ve tried to make myself more valuable to the big guns involved with FROM THE INDIE SIDE by working my reader base and turning out a bunch of reviews. Hopefully if anyone else out there is doing one they’ll ask, because I’m all for them.  I wrote a little piece on my blog about what I think about short stories and anthologies, because I’m a huge supporter of the form, and I always have been.

MT Your contribution REDOUBT parallels the world you’ve developed in your novels WICK and THE LAST PILGRIMS in that it takes place at the beginning of an American collapse shared by those books and is the result of a series of attacks. Something that is unclear and never really answered in the short story is the question of who the aggressors are. Can you provide a little background about the conflict?

MB Yes. I wrote THE LAST PILGRIMS first, and it takes place 20 years after a worldwide collapse, the root of which I only hint about in that book. The next novel was the WICK Omnibus which details the events of that collapse.  In that book I started with some events that were really happening in the world. Economic problems, the sharp and acrimonious political divide in America, and then I added two very real natural disasters: Hurricane Sandy, followed by a Nor’easter that strikes the New York area leading up to the presidential election.  The fictional part comes in when my protagonist in WICK, lost in the snowstorm in the Catskill reserve, stumbles into a prison that turns out to be part of an actual top-secret town that turns out to be a Russianized village that is a privatized spy school – utilized to turn out authentically Russian intelligence operatives that can be sent into Russia to spy for America.  That part is based on some real events and locations that happened during the Cold War.

Through this bizarre landscape, we learn of a plot by hardliners in both America and Russia to destroy America and Russia as they are in the modern age. This leads to an EMP attack over America – carried out by corporate interests serving these hardliners – and eventually a full scale nuclear exchange.  Through all of this, my goal has been to show real people and how they deal with one another, and not so much to focus on huge events and the show that is going on.  WICK, THE LAST PIGLRIMS, and REDOUBT are essentially Russian style stories. They focus more on people, the real-world consequences of philosophies, and human interactions, with action only serving to move the story along.

MT Three of your main characters have a military background (SOF and SAS) and are currently survivalist militia members waiting for a collapse. Have you served previously? Are there other experiences that you draw on to create these characters?

MB I have not served in the military, although I was raised in a military family and as a student of history and human nature have spent a good part of my life studying the subject. I also, in my younger days, spent a lot of time around militia types and have many friends in lots of different political/social camps – including militia members, and people who are hostile to anything paramilitary.  The main background of THE LAST PILGRIMS, and therefore REDOUBT though was that TLP was written as a direct modernization of the story of the Ancient Waldenses. A religious community that lived in the Alps for centuries despite numerous genocidal attempts to destroy them as a people. So my military characters are almost all directly drawn from real life individuals in history who lived with and protected the Waldenses.

MT Near the end of REDOUBT there is an exchange between Phillip and Geoffrey in which the Taos artists says, “I don’t have any [politics] left. Except this place. This place is my politics.” Considering where and how he lives before the attacks, I found this sentiment a lot more believable than his earlier characterization. Why was it important to you or the story to make this Taos based artist a “socialist/communist” in the first place?

MB I wanted to have these wildly different characters who came from very different backgrounds. Goffrey Byrd who is the artist, is based on several real life people who I’ve known and befriended who have self-identified as socialists or communists, when in fact, once pressed really only adopted those labels as a way to be different and to shock some people while ingratiating themselves with others.  So I modeled Goffrey after some real artists.  My parents have a rental home in Angel Fire, New Mexico, only miles from the location I describe in the book, and I’ve spent a lot of time in Taos talking to people and drinking coffee. So many beatniks and hipsters and society dropouts who hang out in Taos identify themselves as socialists and communists, but I found that when I really got to know them, they had almost no political foundation at all. They were just like me, in fact. They just wanted to live life and be left alone.  That was their real politics.

MT Was REDOUBT something you had sitting a drawer or did you write it for the anthology?

MB Busted! I wrote REDOUBT originally as an Epilogue for WICK. Something that would lead into a third novel (or series) that would tie WICK and THE LAST PILGRIMS together. It was quite a bit longer, and it really ended with a cliffhanger.  When I talked to Brian Spangler and others about a story for the anthology, I was encouraged to use the story if it would introduce a whole new audience to my other works. So at first I submitted the longer REDOUBT story for FROM THE INDIE SIDE.  After thinking about it awhile, I realized that first – I shouldn’t end an anthology story with a cliffhanger, and also I didn’t want to introduce a whole bunch of ancillary conflicts that are not resolved in the story. So, I ended up pulling the submission and re-writing REDOUBT so that it became a shorter story, and one that had an ending that said what I wanted it to say, without it angering people by leaving the story with a cliffhanger. In the original story, there was a lot more about what was going on in Taos, which becomes “New Rome” in THE LAST PILGRIMS novel.

MT You live and work on a farm, take care of a family, and, without a doubt, you are a prolific writer. I often wonder how much time you put in on a day-to-day basis and where that time comes from given your other obligations and responsibilities.

MB I have a wonderful family, including four children – three of whom are either adults or teenagers. I’ve reached an age where my wife and family are really able to handle most of the farm requirements, which allows me to write full time.  I work at writing just like it is a full-time job. I am at my desk usually at 7:30 in the morning, and I work straight through until I’m done. Sometimes that is 5 p.m., sometimes it goes on until midnight.  I have a goal I try to hit every day, and I try to work until I’ve reached my goal.

MT In the Forward to FROM THE INDIE SIDE Hugh Howey makes a very compelling case for being an independent author. He writes, “Just think about how many other adventures await, how many unknown authors are out there, fully independent, bending the rules while creating something extraordinary and new.” As an independent author myself I’m convinced, but I want to know if you would offer Indies advice about what they can do to reach those readers? You seemed to have figured out the ins and outs of discoverability.

MB Well, I don’t think anyone has figured out the ins and outs of discoverability. There is a natural Catch-22 there, and I’ve talked about this in some of my blog posts. If ever the “way” is figured out and broadcast, everyone would do it, and it would instantaneously cease to work.

Discoverability is like Atlantis, or the Fountain of Youth. Maybe it is out there, but I don’t know where. I’m not sure anyone knows how it works or where they are. All we can do is increase the likelihood that IF someone finds us, they like us and want more of what we write.

There are three concrete things Indies can do to help themselves.

  • Write and publish. Build a backlist. It is possible for someone to have a hit book with their first title (and with nothing else out there,) but it is very, very unlikely. Too many authors go all-in to try to make their first novel a hit, without realizing that statistically your first novel sucks, and realistically – if there is nothing else out there for readers to buy, then they might be unwilling to take a shot on a debut title AND think that it is representative of what the author will continue to produce. There are some great debut titles, and some turn in to hits (people win the lottery)  – it just isn’t likely to happen to you or anyone you know. The answer is to work hard, and publish a lot.
  • Get better. Since in every field of endeavor people tend to improve as they practice and work at their chosen field, your next books is most likely going to be better than this one. Especially if you are studying to make your writing improve. So keep writing AND improve your skill at writing.
  • Be Nice. Say “yes” to opportunities, be a good member of the community, and try to help others.  All the marketing and promotion stuff – to me – is secondary. It is an afterthought after these three things. That way when the time to be “discovered” happens, you’ve increased the probability that what the discoverer finds, is worthwhile and can ignite into something much larger. There tends to be streams or paths of least resistance, which readers follow to find the things they might want to read. You usually cannot force your way into that stream. You have to grow into being a part of what people are looking for. Sometimes Indies get frustrated because there is no “Easy” button, or some system they can use that is guaranteed to work. And answers like mine only increase that frustration – but that is just because I don’t know how to be found, break out, or be successful at this.  I’m still trying to figure it out myself. All I know is that when I publish more, improve, and be nice, better things start happening for me.

MT I believe science fiction today is trending toward the dystopian. Many new stories are more survival epic than space opera. You write a great deal about what happens after the end of everything as we know it. Do you agree that this trend exists, and if so why?

MB I agree that it exists. Absolutely. I’m just against dystopia or post-apocalypticism being lumped in with Sci-Fi. I am not a Sci-Fi writer (Ok, with Amish/Sci-Fi I am, but still…). It is by accident of historical genre manipulation by companies that sell and categorize books that I am a sci-fi writer. I think there can be dystopianism or PA in Sci-Fi, but for the most part realistic dystopian and PA titles should not be considered Sci-Fi.

They are only considered Sci-Fi because there is world building, and usually it takes place in the future, and sometimes that imagined reality involves some technology that isn’t currently widespread.

Now, to answer your question. Why? Why is dystopianism popular today, and why is Sci-Fi really trending more dystopian? I think it is because we live in a world that is very troubling right now. There have always been pessimists, but I don’t think they’ve ever outnumbered the optimists. Not even close to doing so, probably. I think those numbers are probably growing closer together today. You know, I am a great pessimist, but I think I write optimistic fiction.  Whereas someone like my friend Hugh Howey, who is a great and evangelistic optimist, seems to me to write more pessimistic fiction. If that strange scenario is what is really happening, then maybe more Sci-Fi writers today are actually very optimistic about the future of the world! It’s just that I’m not. Because I’m a pessimist (mostly).

MT I am very interested in the tools other authors use to create their works. Give us a rundown of what your writing space looks like. What are the tools you keep in your tool box? Are you a “planner” or a “pantser”? Is there anything you’re unhappy with or is there a feature request that you have for a particular tool?

MB I have a great work space.  I have an almost 600 square foot office that is a separate building on my property. It is almost solely used as my work space.  I have a huge library in my office, and I have a really ideal environment for creating.  I live off-grid, so my office is powered by alternative energy sources (solar power and a backup generator).  Ideally, I’d like to increase the amount of power I have available (for printers and perhaps some larger monitors) but I’m really happy with my space. I think I have all the tools I need, since I rely on some really talented people to do a lot of the graphic and formatting work.

MT Is there anything else you would like to say to our readers before we sign off?

MB I’m just glad to be asked to do this, and I appreciate the opportunity!

Inclusion

In between potty training and packing boxes this morning I came across this video in my FaceBook feed. It’s nothing particularly revolutionary or mind bending for that matter, but it is video which deals with a topic that has been on my mind of late.

I have been a part of many different communities. Whether it was standing along-side strangers on a wildland fire crew cutting line or waiting atop Tiger mountain for the thermals to start I have usually felt included. Rarely, have I felt like others in any of these groups were judging me or placing me in some sort of of diminished position within a predetermined hierarchy.

Credentials can be important. They can tell others you are working with or playing along-side something about your relative skill level or dedication to a particular disciple. How did that guy in the fox hole next to you qualify at his last range, for instance. Or is this person really qualified to be teaching this class? Pertinent questions that often need to be answered swiftly.

Arbitrary categorization, the kind that says “you’re not as much of a geek as I” or “you’re not as qualified to be a storyteller as me”, however, are capricious and often ill-informed. I really enjoyed this sublime message embedded in Jennifer Landa‘s video, because communities only get better when we allow others into them. Diversity, whether its race, faith, or your publisher is a sign of quality.

Thanks to the community of science fiction and fantasy writers I’ve recently been introduced to, your welcoming inclusion means a lot to me.