The Broken Van

No, this is not a post about my car troubles.  Do I want to start crying this early in the morning?

Though, metaphorically speaking it is a post about ALL of our car troubles.

Years ago when I was young and stupid – the first of which is curable – we had a good friend who worked as a French chef.  Turns out, at least at the starting levels this is one of those professions like writing where your work schedule and money aren’t always incredibly regular.

Because of this, like many writers, our friend owned an endless succession of pre-broken cars which he drove till they would go no more and then get another.

Then one day he bought this van.  As he was driving across town in Charlotte, NC (motto, our traffic makes NYC cabbies shudder) he suddenly realized the van wasn’t responding to the brakes.  So – as he approached a six way intersection – he tried to steer it to the side of the road…  And the wheel came out in his hands.

I no longer remember how he got out of this situation, except that he SAID he’d closed his eyes and prayed several rosaries, which – he said – was kind of funny since he was a practicing Jew.  I suspect he downshifted until it came to a grinding halt.

For a little over a year, since I realized something had gone seriously wrong in publishing, I’ve had that feeling, that we’re all in that van, with no brakes and no steering, closing and our eyes and frantically looking for the rosaries we don’t carry.  Since then I’ve been looking around and I’ve noticed that there’s something wrong with almost every field from science to politics.  And then a few months ago, it hit me.  It’s not us in that broken van.  Or it doesn’t need to be.  Because, you see, we’re not the drivers in that van.  The leadership of whatever the field are the ones in the van.  They’re twisting the wheel, they’re applying brakes, they’re pressing the gas and nothing is happening.

In publishing, of course, the bastages deserve it.  For years they’ve been taking that van four wheel driving, (the push model) to teach the reading public what’s good for them.  They’ve driven in the wrong lane (those very odd accounting practices).  They’ve applied the brakes for the heck of it on a steep downhill incline (the foreshortening of “careers” to three books, then two, then one unless a miracle occurred) and a ton of other practices designed to break that van.  Sooner or later the poor van was going to give out and grind to a stop.  We’ve been screaming that, here, from the back seats, whenever we dared scream at all.  (After all, you know, they were driving.)

So, now, they’re driving and they’re screaming, but we don’t need to be in there.  That road is now covered in all sorts of other vehicles: flying cars and mopeds, bicycles and the inevitable guy jogging.  Because this is a metaphor, all it takes is that you close your eyes, then open them again and see things from the other side.

Yes, I know, if you were in the van, getting pretty good advances and getting somewhere, you’re looking at the moped with distaste.  So?  Soup it up.  Trade it for something bigger.  It’s in your hands.

The problem is most of us aren’t used to having any REAL control – not in writing, not in politics, not in news reporting, not in life – we’re used to be able to get behind the “people who will get us there.”  There are entire systems of prestige and patronage.  They’re milenia old, in society, and they worked on the basic principle that only someone with power and influence could reach a lot of other people.

But technology has upended all that.  Joe Schmo at his computer can suddenly become a cause celebre if he hits at just the right time.  (Luck?  Of course there’s luck involved.  What, you think there wasn’t luck in the old system?  If anything less luck is needed now, and more persistence, more of what my friend Dave Freer calls “battler spirit.”)

You can publish your own books.  If there’s any stigma left, it applies to those badly proofed and badly formatted ones we get now and then.  If you do a competent job and you hit it just right, you can make a living online, on your own. No, I’m not doing that yet, but I still have contracts to fulfill.  I think I can, though.  Maybe not with one book or two but… eventually.  No one made a living from a book or two in the old system, either, not unless you were one of the favorite children whom the establishment picked up usually for reasons other than your competence at writing.

Yes, the van is careening towards a six-way intersection and the leadership – not just publishers, but all the fossilized hangers on of the establishment – are screaming at you about how bad it is, how terrible, how we’re all going to diiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiie.

Unless you’re one of the leadership or one of the darling children, I suggest you close your eyes, open them again, and realize you don’t have to be in that van.  You can walk, ride or fly towards the intersection and pick your own path.  You don’t have to diiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiie.

Yeah, it won’t be as fast as the van, at least for now, but do you want to go fast where that van is going?  Let go of the broken wheel.  Stop praying.  Look around.  Inform yourself.  Research.  See the new opportunities.  FIND the new opportunities. Then pick the one best suited for you.  And if you want to follow the van for a while for the updraft, do so.  Just be aware that the rumors of the death of books and reading are grossly exaggerated.

You are not the van.

18 responses to “The Broken Van

  1. So why am I thinking “Stop the world, I want to get off!”? [Wink]

  2. “Yeah, it won’t be as fast as the van, at least for now, but do you want to go fast where that van is going?”

    Oh, really? I disagree.

    The van is faster for those people who are in it; but most of us are hitchhikers, sticking out our thumbs for a ride. And let’s be honest, most of us aren’t going to get that ride. Sure, I’m waving my thumb as hard as I can, trying to get attention. I think I have a shot. But the odds are against me. So for me and most others, walking may be slow, but it’s still faster than standing and waiting.

    And as any experienced hitchhiker can tell you, you DON’T stand and wait. You walk AND you stick out your thumb for a ride. You can do both. Oh, you’re in the van with contracts that currently keep you there for a while, I understand what you’re saying. But you’re also walking down the road at the same time. In this wonderful metaphor, you can do both.

    And as long as I’m stretching your metaphor all out of shape… If that van DOES stop to pick you up, it will accelerate very slowly at first. For a while at least, you could literally outrun it on foot. I can put a book on Kindle and Nook and Sony in a weekend. I can put a paper book in CreateSpace in a couple of weeks if the proofs go well. That publisher will take a year plus to get the van started. Its 0 to 60 rate is pathetic. And sometimes it gets started and lurches to a halt before it’s really rolling. Sometimes it gets started but then kicks you out before you’re really even moving.

    For some people in some cases the van is faster for a long trip; but I don’t think “the van is faster” is universally true any more.

    • And you could be like me, and end up hanging on the bumper 😉

      I agree with everything you say. BUT if you’re trad. published you get money upfront. THAT’s all I meant. Like you, I’m doing both, for obvious reasons.

      • Ah, OK, yes, money up front. I completely forgot that. I’ve been reading Dean so long, and reading you and others on the size and timing of advances, and I’ve almost come to the conclusion they’re not enough money fast enough to notice. I don’t want to dismiss early money; but it has to stretch a looooooong time before more comes in from that project.

        And I can’t honestly claim to be doing both yet; but I have some nibbles I hope will turn into bites.

  3. Everitt Mickey

    That’s actually very encouraging. Thank you. Everyone needs a pep talk now and then.

  4. inspired>> metaphor and post

  5. What hitchhiker would want to get on a van that’s doomed to crash? Barring the overtly self-destructive? I think of all the things that freak me out about this changing industry, it’s the lack of foresight as to whether the van is truly broken beyond repair, or just making “service engine soon” whimpers. Trouble is, either way, the driver’s not paying attention…

    • Well… If I KNEW it was doomed to crash, not me! But not all vans will crash. And as long as I work on multiple stories, some can be in the van (if they’ll take me) and some on the road.

      I’ve mostly decided to self-pub novels (if I ever finish one). But if I got a chance to work with a decent publisher, I wouldn’t say no without really understanding the details.

    • Ah! They’ve glued duct tape over the lights on the dashboard so long ago they don’t know they’re there anymore and now just “feel” they should do this or that (mostly stupid) thing.

      • Black tape, not duct tape, black tape blends with the black background of the dash, so as not to be distracting like silver duct tape. (I know this from a truck I used to have that the check engine light stayed on it, yes I stuck black tape over the light on the dash:)

  6. I dunno. If I could climb on the van and get some decent covers and blurbs that I didn’t have to sweat blood and pixels for, it might be worth the risk. But only if I could hang on the running boards so I could jump on and off when I wanted to.

  7. OT, ‘way OT, but — omigod.

    Carroll LeFon, CAPT USN (RIP). If somebody doesn’t clean this up a bit and put it up for sale, I swear to God I’ll bootleg it and send his wife the money. “Of Arms and the Man I Sing,” indeed. And if you read it and still can’t see where I got some of my stuff, I’m sorry for you.


  8. Awesome metaphor, Sarah. Thanks! Luckily, I was kicked out of the van after only two books, and am working on souping-up my vespa. 😉

  9. Yes, and if you think things are bad in Traditional Book Publishing, your should check Traditional Music Publishing. The shear desperation I hear from the execs (I know a few of them) is incredible.

    Politicians don’t like the new system either. It makes it too easy for constituents to complain 🙂

    Decentralization. That’s the ticket.


  10. As Greyhound used to say: Leave the driving to us. Which works just great until you realize you’re dependent on Greyhound’s schedule for timing and stops, at the mercy of their driver screening/hiring/training process and, more and more these days, being let out in the seedier parts of town.