I’ve talked before about the soccer clubs where I grew up, and I’ll start with that because it illustrates something without the immediate reaction that professional or political examples would bring.
Where I grew up, soccer is what people use to slot into the place reserved for tribal affiliation. (I suspect the reason my family doesn’t give a hang about sports is that we’re affiliated with the sf/f tribe and have been from way back.) Porto – Futebol Clube do Porto – is the club of the largest big city nearby and the “tribe” most people in the North root for. Since this is not an affiliation of birth or of locality per se, though, there is always a desperate bastard or two – picture the hunch-back in 300 – who declares for Benfica, the Lisbon club, just to get everyone’s back up the wrong way.
To illustrate what lies between the two regions, they were on opposite sides of a civil war fought around the same time as the American civil war. The overt reason was not the same. The underlying reasons were fairly similar: catastrophic technological change, particularly industrialization. (I’m not going to dispute that slavery was a great evil, or that it needed to be corrected, but the two sides had pulled together under the same yoke for a good long while. The war was coming, but the covert precipitating reason determined the moment when it came.) In Portugal the open reason was parliamentary vs. absolutist monarchy.
Porto was in the North and the North held for absolutism. Yep. My ancestors fought and died for the chance never to have a say in their governance again. No, I can’t even understand that. But there were other reasons there too, reasons of clan and family, of land and regional loyalty.
The North lost. There was no reconstruction, but there sort of was. There were no carpetbaggers, but there sort of were. Nothing is ever overt or open, but Northern accents are “bad” and Northerners are “dumber” and I was once ordered off a public bus in Lisbon after I opened my mouth to ask something, because the conductor didn’t transport trash. (Much to the bewilderment of my – then – American fiancé, who eventually decided to find it terribly funny.) And because Lisbon is the seat of government, and governments tend to attract money like excrement attracts flies, Portugal often resembles a very large funnel with the hole at or about Lisbon. (Beautiful city, at least twenty years more “advanced” than Porto. I just can’t write that sentence without wanting to spit.)
The soccer disputes serve as cover for all of this. As the clueless American tourist I’ve become, I once was there on the day of the last championship match. Dan and I (Either this was before the kids were born or they were very little) took the car out to go to the center of the country (two? Three? Hour drive. It’s a small country) to look at some Roman ruins. On the way back, people kept honking at us. It was driving Dan nuts. He kept wondering what he’d done wrong. We stopped and went over the car to make sure we weren’t spewing black smoke, or dragging a flat tire. Nothing. Then I noticed people flying a blue and white (Porto colors) flag out the window. And people waving whatever they’d found in the car that was blue and white: kid’s toys, scarfs, a gloved hand. This is when I realized that, as a loyal – coff, deranged – fan of Porto my dad had a mini-shrine to Porto in the little flat space behind the back seat, just under the back windshield: a blue and white scarf, surrounding a blue and a white dragon stuffie (the dragon is the symbol of the club. Of course, the Lisbon one is the Eagle, which makes me so confused.) kicking a soccer ball.
All those honks were people trying to share their happiness. After that, Dan enjoyed himself greatly, the rest of the way home, honking back at people and laughing because this was all so weird for him.
But of course, Porto doesn’t win every time. And every time Porto loses, there are REASONS. Yeah, okay, about one in ten times, my dad comes up with a reason that actually incriminates the club or one of its players. Usually only one. At worst the club is composed of ten extraordinary players, and one bum. So it goes something like this “That John Doe, he’s such a bum. If Porto just got rid of him, we’d have the best defensive line/goalies/kickers in the world.”
That’s one time in ten. The other nine times, though, the fault is the referees. Worse, if the game is against Benfica we know exactly whom to blame. The referees were bought by Benfica.
This is not actually impossible. Benfica is the “national club” and as such gets subsidies. And you know, the Portuguese way of DOING BUSINESS, I mean, normal business, seems beyond corrupt to the average American. (Though I daresay you encountered it if you did business with South America or Russia or even, I understand, China.) It comes from Roman concepts of business and business morals. There isn’t exactly payola, but there are nice gifts as a consideration to those who might look out for you in this deal. There isn’t actually pay to play, but there is “one hand washes the other” – you do for me, I do for you.
So the idea that the referees are bought is not necessarily false. It’s even possible that they really are bought every single time. Possible – but unlikely. And you know, I’ve known fans of Benfica (well, some of them clean up nice and get under your defenses before you realize the evil at the core you know [sheepish grin.] It was my dad’s nightmare I’d marry one of them) and they swear every time they lose, the referee was bought by Porto. As a former fan of Porto, I have to tell you that’s just crazy talk. First, our lot is too moral and upright to do that. Second, why would we need to, since we consistently have the best team in the world, save for the one bum?
More seriously, it is highly doubtful that Porto ever has the money to buy referees. (Though not impossible, they have a beautiful stadium, which my dad shows to the boys as a sacred shrine EVERY TIME we visit.)
What I’ve taken almost two pages to say is that perceptions lie. There is a defense mechanism that says that you or the team you support can’t be wrong – or weak, or bad.
There is a defense mechanism too that says your writing can’t be bad. And not just “it can’t be bad” in the sense that you’re the best writer in your writers’ group and you won a regional prize for your writing, and oh, yeah, your mommy loves you – no, part of you, part of event he most modest of writers insists that he/she must be the best writer in the world. That she might not be (yet) Shakespeare or Austen, but she could be a contender. (I assure my readers I TRULY don’t believe this in the daylight world – I’m not that nuts – and the voices are mostly under control. Well, those voices, the other voices…)
So, how do I know that the dismay most of us, midlisters, feel when confronted with our statements, and the reasons we come up with : They don’t calculate the numbers right! They’re robbing us! It was the cover/laydown/lack of promotion! Aren’t basically “those Benfica-bought referees! We wuz robbed”? How do I know the “well, you know, I wrote urban fantasy with no sex. Of course it didn’t sell” isn’t the equivalent of “if only we got rid of that one bum.”
This has bothered me for years. In fact, for years I refused to consider any of the above “excuses” because I could hear, in my mind, my dad ranting and foaming at the mouth about Benfica, and I knew that was crazy talk. Besides, what else could I do? There was no other pathway.
I was forced to confront it again this weekend, as a friend who is just starting out in writing and who hasn’t read any of the industry blogs, came to me and said “What do I do to break in? How do I find an agent?” (She’s been so unplugged, she didn’t realize I’d fired mine.)
I had to consider again what to advise, and what my experiences really met, and were they universal? My friend is younger than I and very pretty, and could the industry go head over heels for her?
I had to think about it: my experience versus my excuses/ when I came in, versus the industry now.
I advised her to go indie first, and I think I made the right decision, but part of it involved deciding which of my excuses have to be real, because it makes no sense otherwise.
1- I’m almost sure that identical numbers, to the last digit, between books published under different names, in different genres (but by the same house – with one exception) are well nigh impossible. I’m even willing to believe the houses aren’t stealing on purpose, but their calculations are obviously off, which means money is going to be free floating and falling from account to account, and it’s so easy to conveniently fall into the one you wish it to, then.
2 – It’s impossible that a system built on guessing how much a book will sell gets it right EVERY time, even with as much control as they’ve had over distro, tec. The only way to do that is what my husband calls “Enron level corruption.” (If those of you who know accounting better want to correct me on that, do so.)
3- Even if you’re going with a publisher who is the soul of probity (and remember bookstores and distributors aren’t even then, necessarily – and not even because they are crooked, but because so much of the practice is based on guesstimating shipments and sales. Read Kris Rusch to find out how much) once you turn the book in, everything from cover to press releases to how much they PUSH is out of your control. And all of those factors GREATLY influence how much a book sells. (I’ll remind you again, with Draw One In The Dark I was so horrified at the cover that I didn’t want to be seen with my own book.) When you’re a control freak, that tears you up inside.
4 – The industry really is in disarray. Don’t listen to me, listen to them: the wailing and moaning about the end of their ability to “push”; the bookstores going out; the DOJ lawsuit… It goes on. If the industry isn’t collapsing, it’s collapsing and rebuilding at the same time. From my angle it’s hard to tell. (Kind of like driving into NYC the first time: is it being demolished or built up? Yes.) Entering the industry now is sort of like pitching a tent in the middle of a tsunami region, just as the water is receding miles off the shore. You might be fine, and the water might bring you goodies you want and deposit them gently in front of your tent, but the odds are not in your favor.
Now, the one argument against this is that 80% of books are still sold on paper and that a publisher can still get you on shelves where your self-published book can’t go.
Against this, though, must be weighed the other side. This field has always taken forever to break into. ALWAYS. I took close to 13 years of intermittent effort, but even the people who are whisked to Olympus in the arms of the gods take four to five years now. And the advances are diminishing. I think the standard beginner advance now is four thousand dollars, and lower in Romance. Add to that all the “we get to keep your copyright, your first born and all your cats” clauses that the Passive Voice has blogged so much about, and the advantages of going in to traditional publishing now diminish.
I can see someone where I am sacrificing the control and, in the long run, the money and still going traditional particularly in a series that’s doing well, so we can extend our reach and build our audience, so if/when we go fully indie, in the fullness of time (even publishers you love are usually wholly dependent on the life of one person. It’s a flimsy protection against being locked out of the field) we have that much more following. BUT for a beginner? When you build in the ramp up/break in time? Not a chance.
Plus, of course, nowadays, the best way for a newby to get a contract offer IS to have a successful indie book.
Which all brings us around to my spectacularly unsuccessful career (sort of. Darkship Thieves, so far, has outsold all others of my books by ten times, and it’s still on shelves. So, the books are still open on that – and btw, this was the book no one in the industry would touch for thirteen years because “space opera doesn’t sell.” Yeah.) and my excuses.
I’m fairly sure the referees were bought. Probably. Besides, you know, there’s that one bum. but I don’t need to worry about it if I go indie, because even if the books sell at the lowest level of my traditionally published books, on Amazon, at 3.99, I’ll get the same I got for my highest paid books.
And if they tank? Well, I know who the bum is, and I can study and work on it. Because there are no excuses. I can stop wondering if it was the distribution/cover/publisher, or if it was based on my age/looks/ethnicity/politics. I can stop fretting over how to make publishers love me, which is like being in middle school and wondering if the boy I like loves me (something I hated back then too.)
I can just look at the book and go “Well, that didn’t work. Let me look at what does, and see what I can do.” Then I can go to work.
I’m a strange woman. I like that.
Update: The free short story is up. You guys really need to remind me to change these every week. (Sigh.) I used to have a brain, then I had kids.