Defensive Wounds

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.

37 responses to “Defensive Wounds

  1. Not so strange. After all, no matter what genre we write in, the creative process is about control. YOU draw the characters. YOU decide the wetting. YOU craft the plot and theme and tone. YOU call all the shots in this mini-world you’ve crafted.

    Then what comes next? In a trade publishing deal, you’re asked to surrender every last bit of control you’ve spent months or years establishing. Then it’s “We’ll do the cover, we won’t need to ask you whether she should be brunette or red-haired (except to pay lip service to ‘author input’). We’ll decide how much we want to spend on promoting it, we’ll decide whether it sells well or poorly.

    “Then, after we’ve assumed total control, if it fails to sell better than our wildest dreams of avarice, we’ll blame YOU.”

    Oh, the joy! Lead me to that boilerplate contract. I’m such a control freak.

  2. ppaulshoward

    Very good.

  3. See this is why my only nominal sports fandom is for the Chicago Cubs. You don’t need to get all upset and worried over how they are doing. No matter how well they do in the spring they will have it all blow up by the end of the season so why stress? Just enjoy a nice afternoon with friends eating peanuts and cracker jacks and maybe looking at the feild sometimes 🙂

    Its been over 100 years since they won the World Series and the last time they even played in it was the middle of WW2 when all the other teams had their good players in the military so it barely counts as a ‘real season’.

    Its all the goat’s fault anyways!

      • I had at one time in my life determined when the end of the world would occur: The World Series, Boston Red Sox v. Chicago Cubs, Seventh Game, tied at 0, bottom of the ninth, third out … but then the Red Sox violated the laws of nature.

        • Nature? I thought there was a musical and movie about what really happened . . . Or was that the Yankees?

          • The musical, Damn Yankees, was based upon the book The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant by Douglas Wallop. While the movie is the one record we have of the brilliant Gwen Verdon dancing in her prime (choreographed by Bob Fosse – who dances the Whose Got the Pain number with Ms Verdon), and a lovely performance by Ray Walston, the book is vastly superior.

    • My one and only (so far) idea for an alternate-universe short story involves a business traveler from Chicago, who checks into his hotel and goes to sleep. The next day he wakes up, gets dressed, and reads the paper. Everything seems normal, until he turns to the sports section and sees the headline “Cubs Win the World Series” — at which point he knows he’s somehow ended up in a parallel universe.

  4. There are a lot of things you can learn from sports (heck, for the attentive mind there are a lot of things you can learn from a beating, as Mickey Spillane showed.) One is amazement that cheating rat bast*rd A can suddenly have a remarkable change of character when acquired by my team and yet revert to his previous villainous ways upon leaving the team for another franchise. Doubtless an effect of the virtues of the local gastronomical specialties of my home town (NB, Thomas P: the problem with the Cubbies is obviously a consequence of the ghastly things you people put on your hot dogs, compounded by what you inflict on pizza.)

    Another, more important thing, is that you can’t control everything. Sometimes sh*t just happens. No matter how good you are. On May 26, 1959, Harvey Haddix threw a perfect game – not allowing a single opponent on base — for TWELVE innings (which I guess means he threw one and a third perfect games) AND LOST. You could look it up. Sometimes your book hits the stands the same day as George R. R. Martins’ latest, or J. K. Rowlings’ … or on 09/12/01 and the greatest book ever written by mortal man gets lost in the hubbub. Sometimes you’ve just written the right book at the wrong time.

    The temptations of selling to a publisher are great. It is the traditional route, tried and true. It lets the author (the creative genius) focus on what he does best: craft the book. It puts the marketing into the hands of professionals, experienced and connected people who live to serve the artists whose works they flog. It provides the author the support of an editor, an art director, an entire staff dedicated to presenting your work to the public in a manner befitting its genius.

    And if you believe that you probably think your local public schools are dedicated to enriching the intellectual life of each and every student in their care. As I’ve said before, you cannot be too cynical. Indie offers an opportunity to hang yourself rather than be hung by others, but at least you will have only yourself to blame. And bad timing, bad luck, bad advice, bad audience …

    • Frankly, I’m kind of looking forward to an approach by a trad publisher … and their faces when I gently and with a becoming show of regret, turn them down.
      Especially if the books they are most interested in are my first two, which I was assured by trained agency professionals – weren’t marketable. Yet somehow, they just keep toddling along…

    • Well, if publishers DID the support stuff…

      • Even if they did. Because they can’t, not really. how many times have movies & TV mined for comedy gold the disparity between what goes in front of the proscenium and what occurs backstage. We laugh because we know it is true: this world is full of semi-competent people doing their best amidst myriad distractions. And nobody is as dedicated to selling your books as you are. Some folks may be less conflicted about flogging them, but often that is a product of disinterest: it ain’t their work that is on the line.

        Netflix and watch the first couple seasons of BritCom As Time Goes By for a delightfully jaundiced view of what publishers do. Some compare it to paint drying, but it is gentle and affectionate and endearing in a way the Brits do so well.

    • I like Papa Murphy’s chicago style stuffed crust pizza.

  5. *shoves family stack of Blue Devil banners, shirts, books, and sneakers out of sight; tucks Bayern – München scarf into cabinet*

    There’s a flip side to “the ref was blind,” “they bought this year’s title,” et cetera, at least on the non-fiction side, and that’s when someone does get a boost of some kind. If they have a conscience they start to wonder “do I really have the chops, or is this award/ initial acceptance/ offer of a contract because So-and-so weighed in for me? Is my stuff OK or are they trying to please/placate/pay back So-and-so?” If they don’t have a conscience, karma tends to get them on the second book. I’m starting to think that, apologies to Tolstoi, all unhappy publishing scenarios are unhappy in their own ways.

  6. Umm Kaiserslautern — when we lived in Germany, my landlord and lady were fans. We ended up going to a huge party in the middle of Kaiserslautern with them. It was very strange hearing German accents singing “We are the Champions.” lol

    As for writing and losing, I do that all the time. I write a good story (I won’t say great cause I don’t think I have the time in to be great yet). I write the stories I want to read because for a long time I could only find a handful of writers who were writing what I wanted to read. It doesn’t mean that I didn’t read anyway. I found that I like mysteries – hardboiled mainly, and sci-fi Heinlein mainly, and fantasy female paranormal mainly. LKH was a staple until the last few years when she had my favorite necromancer become a slut bunny. The part of the story which was interesting to me (her powers to raise the dead, find the bad guys, and destroy them) was subsumed into the sexual playlines.

    I end up writing about some very sad things. I try to give hope at the end of the tunnel. I truly think that any person who has been through hell can survive and live a better life. I try to show that with my characters (or they show me). Do I get read? Well, my numbers are better this year than last year. I am not an instant hit. I don’t worry about it. I just write another story. I hope someday, someone, will enjoy what I write.

  7. Yes, with Indie, there are no excuses. So you can–hopefully–identify the reason any given book is not selling, and improve that part of your writing. Or hire out the editting and cover, because those are spots you’d rather spend money than time on.

  8. Your description of the sports teams reminds me of an essay by Luigi Barzini, the Italian journalist who was well-connected in Mussolini’s regime before the war. He talks about the startling disconnect between the foreign view of Mussolini’s ruthlessly efficient regime with its vast, well-disciplined army and omnipresent secret police . . . and the chaotic, struggling band of fools and amateurs he saw as an insider.
    Needless to say, whenever I mention this regarding the two sides in any modern political issue, the response is almost always “Yes, but [THE OTHER SIDE] really is like that!”

    • er. No, really. This is not political, but I totally see traditional publishing as a band of disorganized delusional people. “Hey, let’s raise the price on ebooks” “Yeah, and more DRM” “They’ll burn their kindles and buy hardcover. Mwahahahahaha”

      • They’ll burn their kindles

        Hey, you never know. It might be a passing fad, like say 8-track tapes. Yup, a passing fad. So no reason that the publishing industry should be any more concerned, just look at the industry manufacturing 45s and LPs.

  9. I’ve a friend who runs a local writers group. He’s rather insufferable, and though he critiques everyone he never brings anything in to read. And he’s responded to the technological changes in the book business by bemoaning the death of publishing as we know it. I took him seriously for a long time, but after I saw what first Cory Doctorow was doing, and now what all the other Indie writers are doing, I figured there’s gold in them thar hills. And my friend was just making excuses for himself instead of taking the steps (the outside the box steps) necessary to succeed in the current environment as it exists today.

    Ultimately, it’s not Porto that’s on the field, it’s us. We’re making the plays and figuring out how to take what we’ve got and win with it. My friend refused to take matters into his own hands, because he could blame-shift his lack of success as long as someone in Manhattan was making the decisions.

  10. “Once you turn the book in, everything from cover to press releases to how much they PUSH is out of your control.”

    This, I think more than anything, is what has pushed people towards indie publishing(including myself). Most folks simply don’t see the reward being worth what they give up. Writers are treated like dispoable commodities. It’s like traditional publishers want to pat you on the head and say, “Thanks for the great story – the grown ups will handle all that nasty business stuff now.”

  11. Melvyn Barker

    I don’t suppose you’re getting coverage of the European Football (Soccer) Championships over there. Tournament is being played in Poland and the Ukraine (don’t ask) and Spain and Portugal are in the same group. They played each other in their opening match on Friday and Spain won 1-0. I’m now imagining groups of Portugese fans wandering round Krakow buttonholing bemused Poles to complain that Spain bought the referee.

    • betcha money! And my dad is only not among them because he’s over eighty, other he and a dozen “boys” (his age) from the village would have taken a train out and be doing exactly that. Ten years ago they used to. In an example of how age erases age differences, ten years ago my brother (then my age now) would join them, with HIS friends, and they’d all act like crazy people together.
      The one thing I miss — OT — from the village is that: the friendships that last from elementary school to the grave. There are too many drawbacks that go with those, of course, but there is also a feeling you don’t get with anything else.

      Anyway, yep, they’ll be absolutely convinced that Spain bought all the referees. Spain is the one thing that unites Porto and Lisbon.

      And no, I don’t get coverage. At any rate, I only ever enjoyed watching those with my dad. Half the fun is his reactions.

  12. Actually, the “no sex” argument has some weight. One of the many things I love about watching fanfic is its demonstrations of human behavior and likes, and the top fanfics are always sex fics. Skyhawke has rankings you can see. That’s not to say that these are not also well-written, but when all of the top ten stories are triple XXX, that says something. ^_^ It means, if you don’t have sex, that could mean lower numbers if that’s normal for the genre. Just part of being realistic.

    But yes, don’t let rationalizing blind us to our own shortcomings, which are simply areas where we need to improve, and we can do that.

    (Enron level corruption is probably about right, though it wouldn’t be the same kind of house-of-cards corruption. Enron couldn’t sustain itself for more than a few years. If anyone says to you, “Perception equals reality,” just say “Yeah, worked real well for Enron.”)

    • “If anyone says to you, “Perception equals reality,” just say …” I perceive you are an ass.

      Not you, Laurie; you I perceive to be a rubber ducky (because I’m awfully fond of you.)

    • Yes, but what’s the bias there? I mean, most people going to fanfic, particularly slash fic, are looking for sex — so there is a selection bias. ABSOLUTELY if you’re writing for a genre where sex has become part of it, you might be hurting yourself not to have it. (In my defense, the Shifters series is a BAEN series, so it’s a weird spin on urban fantasy. Also, the sex post is tomorrow.) OTOH I wonder if there is a … hunger… for Heyer-like romances. I mean, am I the only one who is getting bothered by detailed anal sex in (hetero) Regencies? Maybe I am, but I don’t think so.

      • Some selection bias, true — but another factor should also be considered: it is not necessary to be a best-seller. To borrow from baseball: you don’t have to hit a home-run every time up to bat, a single will do just fine. Following the market is not always the best strategy in the long haul and accepting a lesser but more consistent reward will feed the kitties just fine.

        As to the question

        I mean, am I the only one who is getting bothered by detailed anal sex in (hetero) Regencies? Maybe I am, but I don’t think so.

        Let’s not go there.

      • The other thing about fanfic — they have the advantage of the they can switch around the shipping to their heart’s content because there is no problems of upsetting the apple cart with a mis-matched one shot.

      • No, you’re not the only one. I’m VERY bothered by it. And I love Heyer. (Of course, I don’t read romances per se.)

        And, for the record, my fanfic wasn’t romantic, it was genfic. So I was always pretty happy with my hit numbers, which were pretty good for things that had no sex in them. ^_^

    • Just as an observation, “Perception equals reality” is a valid premise in the social sciences, where “reality” is the internal construct of the world which we each assemble and maintain. If I perceive you to have insulted me then, regardless of your intent, my reality is that I have been insulted. Just as your reality is that no insult was intended and thus none occurred.

      Just one more reason to be careful and get out side your head at least once a day. Misapplication of the P = R adage beyond the Social Sciences is, for brevity’s sake, just stupid.

      • Criminal, actually. Criminal.

      • Agreed – perceptions in social interaction are often wrong, and we spend a lot of time correcting them. That’s normal damage control, as a friend of mine puts it.

        But someone whose perceptions are consistently poorly aligned with reality is going to get smashed hard, or smash other people hard. (Of course, from my observation, they’ll blame reality every time instead of taking a hard look at themselves. Which is what this post is about.)

        • Really now, given a choice between blaming reality and blaming myself there is no question as to which to choose. I’ve got to live with my self.

  13. melissamichellegreen

    Hey you! I suck because I JUST got around to reading this (been plotting!) but YOU rock! Wonderful post, helpful, and…screw them all, I want to own my own stuff even if it sucks! HA! (That “HA!” is for me, as I’m sure none of the mighty 5 publishers that are left care!