A post of Kris Rusch’s this week, about the near-religious acrimony between partisans of traditional and indie publishing made me think about my own goals.
The fighting has been terrible and just like reactions to 9/11 put pay to what remained of my writers’ group, splintering it to the four winds, this argument over whether to go indie or traditional seems to be bringing an element of insanity into a career that was at no time sane and destroying long term networks and associations.
I’ve been – on this very blog, or at least a blog linked to it – derided as “self-publishing” (implied “trash”) even though so far the only self-publishing I’ve done is of short stories that were (for the most part there’s three notable exceptions, which DO sell very well) published in traditional press. The indie people, oddly, have never derided me, except for sometimes asking me when I’m taking “the full plunge.”
I’ve also found myself very exasperated with a beginner writer who is not making inroads in traditional, but who refuses to go indie because “it’s not real.”
The reason for all of it, including my rides-two-horses position became clear to me in reading Kris’ post.
It’s all a matter of goals. When we start a writing career we all have a goal in mind. Yes, the goal is usually “I’m going to be richer than J. K. Rowling” but, pardon me, that’s not a goal, it’s a daydream. Beneath it, hidden, there is usually a true goal.
Let’s assume we’re all compelled to tell stories, or at least we all enjoy that. Let’s also establish that no one can predict how publishing will change in the course of their career.
It’s like writing a novel. I know few writers who are such exact plotters that their work never surprises them: no minor character steps out of the woodwork to steal a scene; no lover reveals himself/herself as a shrewd negotiator; no planned villain redeems himself. Yet, I also know no authors who start a novel with no idea of how it ends. You might not know who commits the murder, but you know the detective survives or not. You might not know which of two the girl will choose, but you know she’ll choose one and settle down to write the next generation of your saga.
In the same way, you might not know if you’re going to ever make it to a bestseller list; or make enough money to live from; you might not know if you’ll ever be published on paper; you might have no idea whether you’ll end up hitting in romance or in mystery, but you know there is an underlying reason you want to do this, and a goal you’d like to attain. And your goal, whether you’re aware of it or not, shapes your decisions along the way.
As in a novel, I urge you to be aware of your goal, so you can make those decisions consciously, instead of by chance and guess. As in a novel, knowing where you’re aiming makes it more likely you’ll get there. Particularly since real life is notoriously resistant to editing or going back and foreshadowing.
All writers I know have one of two PRIMARY goals (the slant on these goals, and the minute variations of sub-goals are something else again.)
Writers write either to be read by the most people possible, or for prestige. (The immediately next subgoal is usually “to make money” – but that is usually seen as a sign of either a wide and appreciative audience or vast prestige.)
The degree of “being read” or “being admired” to which we aspire varies. I know people who are glad to be read in a fan fiction group.
I don’t know if people who want fame would be happy being famous in their state or in their genre. I think it depends on each person.
Myself, in case it’s not obvious, I was never in it for the fame. What I always wanted to do was tell stories. Of course, note that telling stories requires an audience, and on that for many years was a rub. I put a lot of ideas aside because I thought they’d never find an audience. Now I wish I’d finished them, because I’d have them ready to go up. No matter. They’ll be finished by the by.
The extent to which I’ve acquired fame is amusing because being recognized by a cashier in a store or the guy who came to repair my washer is still rare enough to be fun.
I don’t know how I’d feel if I ever – not that it’s likely – acquired the sort of fame J. K. Rowling has. Being mentioned by total strangers routinely would probably drive me to hiding under the bed and never getting out.
It’s not that I’m shy. I’m private. Even in this blog, there are things I hold back very strongly, some of them important, some of them frankly trivial. The important ones usually relate to what is going on with people close to me that might be affecting me, but is not anyone’s business. And the trivial ones include stuff like “I’m going to be out of town this weekend” which, on the practical side, is my way of avoiding getting the house burgled, and on the other side, since my haunts are relatively well known, is a way of avoiding having fans show up just as the family and I sit down for dinner at Pete’s in Denver. (Where they tell me people have occasionally asked for me – or told me, back when we went there more often and one of the waitresses knew us.)
I’m comfortable with certain degrees of being known, because at least in the old model of publishing it was impossible to be making a living at this and not be relatively well known. I can even enjoy cons – more so as I’ve become friendly with some of the fans.
BUT ultimately my goal is to be read and to make money, not to be recognized on the street or have people talk about the genius of Sarah A. Hoyt.
Ultimately, I’m in this to tell stories to people, not for the prestige.
A lot of people are in this for the prestige, with the telling stories and the money secondary. This is not a judgement. I think it’s a personality thing.
So if you’re starting out as a writer, or even if you’re a veteran, and you’re buffeted here and there by “indie or traditional” ask yourself what you want from this game.
Is it prestige? Nothing wrong if it is. Some people believe that to be recognized as best by those “in the know” is the reward to be coveted. Fine.
In THAT case the prestige is still on the side of traditional publishing, though unless you’re one of the very precious few then you’ll have to do a lot of publicity. Count that in on your plan. Find an angle on which you can sell yourself, then push there.
On the other hand if your goal is to get your work read by as many people as possible and, preferably, paid so you can write more stuff for people to read, your path is not so clear.
If you’re not published – given how hard it is to break in now – by all means, go ahead and bring your stuff out indie. You probably stand a better chance at a contract offer if you do well indie.
If you are published and have a good relationship with a house or two that don’t give you contracts that are too awful – or at least so awful you can’t live with the consequences – the route is more complex. With each book it becomes an evaluation: do I think this book will reach more of its audience through me or through one of these houses?
In the end it’s case by case, and sometimes it might be “a feeling.” For instance, for most of my science fiction I’ll go with Baen without hesitation, whether the book is written on spec or not. It costs me money – probably – in the long run, because I get a MUCH smaller percentage than my indie efforts, and the electronic books aren’t available on Amazon. On the other hand, I’ll be out in stores, Baen has a large fandom for its science fiction, and I’m likely to sell more books which compensate for the smaller percentage. The fact that I get money up front doesn’t hurt, either.
However, there’s books that just aren’t Baen stuff. (Coff, Witchfinder.) Or, for some of the books I have planned, they’re of a length Baen wouldn’t touch – around 60k words, the size of a golden age novel.
Also for most of my mystery and even the vast majority of my fantasy, I don’t think I can do better for it traditional. Part of this has to do with not wanting to sign contracts that put my ability to write other books – ever – in strangers’ hands. A lot of it has to do with my reluctance to sign any contracts at all right now. I agree with Dean Smith that ultimately we’ll go to a contracting model where books – like short stories now – get their copyright leased for a finite amount of time: five or ten years being the ones proposed. (Short stories usually are only exclusive for one year.) As such, and because I expect that model will become dominant in the next five years or so, I’m hesitant to sign any contracts at all. I make an exception for Baen because Baen is family, but everyone else I’d rather not deal with just now.
So, since I will still write mystery and odd fantasy, and I still want it in front of readers, those will go indie from the beginning. Same, frankly, for most of my short stories. I can spend months sending them to magazines, then wait a year for them to see the light of day, or I can finish them, have them edited, put them up and – by the time they’d have been published – I’ll have made what I could get for them. The exceptions, of course, are “by invite” short stories.
Anyway, because my goal is “how do I get this novel to its fans” I don’t know that I’ll ever go fully indie or fully traditional. It’s possible, but not likely. Each novel is on a case by case basis, what I judge will get it read by more people and get me more money (the second being the sincerest form of appreciation.)
Do I grudge those people who are trying to do primarily indie or primarily traditional? No. Their goal is their goal, and how they achieve it is their decision.
So, my advice to everyone is, stop fighting and establish your map. And then take your way, merrily, no matter how it twists and turns. And stop trying to force your friend to take your way when his goal is different. Send him fond letters along the way, and stand ready to help him should his goal change. Other than that, mind your own business and blaze your own trail.