I hate doing blog posts about publishing, except at MGC, because most of my readers are not writers (I think. At least most of you mugs posting comments aren’t) and therefore it starts feeling a bit like inside baseball.
But sometimes it bites me in weird ways. And this post is weird (and confused, and undigested. Bear with me.)
And I’ve been nooddling a post on where publishing is right now – it’s not as straight forward as it seems – under the dual impact of the con and its panels and the rather interesting post Dave Freer put up at MGC for April’s Fools.
So… the con this weekend. I did enjoy it, though the scheduling was… odd, to put it mildly. For instance, I was put on a panel on writing your first novel. Yes, there was a best selling author on that panel too, but she wrote her first novel in 2009. For me “How to write your first novel” is sort of like “how to suvive your first year as a newly wed.” Given that I’ve been married 30 years and it was a different world… uh… I don’t know.
I mean, however you look at it, I either wrote my first novel on a typewriter with a broken rewind ribbon mechanism (so when it was all on one side, I needed to pause and wind it by hand. Which was hard, since it was made of chipped flint.) circa 1985 (if we go with the first novel I wrote for publication.) or I wrote it in 1998 after selling it to a traditional publisher on proposal (which might still happen, but I very much doubt) if you go with my first published novel. (I reject a priori the notion that the first novel I wrote at six, before I had any clue what publishing was or how it worked was that first “novel.” For one, I suspect it was all of 20k words.)
In either case, one, granted, more than the other, they are like things from a lost world in terms of what needed to be in that novel to actually make it to the shelves someday. Because the first one, though it was never published for other reasons, if we still lived as we did in 85, we’d be talking about how to make your corrections clean, how to work with a carbon so you had a copy, etc. etc.
For the one in 1998, by the time I sold selling your first novel on proposal was already a rarity so in terms of “what to do to sell” I got nothing and in terms of “how to write your first novel for publication” I could only say “write what the publisher wants.” Which I did with the Shakespeare series – which brings up the question “should you do it for love or money” which I’m not prepared to go into. (I do like those books, mind you, but for a while there it looked like I was going to be shoved into writing JUST that kind of overwrought literary fantasy, and I don’t think I could do JUST that, forever.) It also brings up the question of “What’s your first novel that sold?” because Darkship Thieves was written and revised to close to the form that sold before I wrote Ill Met By Moonlight. It’s just that none of my agents would send it out.
Which brings us to how odd it felt to be on a panel on writing your first novel and the gentleman next to me saying he’s not sold his novel, but he’s got it with an agent, so of course…
I had this wild desire to say “So, of course, if you sell you’ll pay 15% and give away your copyright, unless you’re very, very lucky.”
I didn’t. You don’t want to lie to the young (And though he was probably my age, he was young in the profession) but if they want to lie to themselves, it’s their problem.
I wasn’t on any how-to-write workshops (which might have been just as well, since these seemed to be mostly empty) and I didn’t have a reading or a signing (though a lot of beginning, self-published authors did.) This is not a complaint, as such, but an observation.
The observation is this: every local con I participate in, I need to fight for reading/signing and if I get one scheduled it is, inevitably, either against the bestselling author OR during dinner hour. Even during Worldcon, in 08, when it was local, I had no reading, though readings were given to people who hadn’t published a book in years/weren’t writing a book/had no intention of writing a book.
A certain confusion is normal, in this sort of thing, of course, but the way I get shunted to the “Oh, who could possibly want to listen to a reading from her” position started grating a good five years ago. Particularly since when I can afford to go to cons in the South like ConStellation or Liberty con, or even in other parts of the country (Lunacon) and get given a reading at a normal time, not against major events, I usually have a packed room.
Again, I’m not complaining about this con specifically. My only complaint of this con, specifically, is that they don’t realize authors aren’t college students and therefore schedule us really heavily. (Though part of this might be the problem of the constantly breaking down body which is not their fault, and which I’ve lived with all my life, courtesy of being really premature.)
I suspect locally – because a lot of it depends on how involved you get with fandom, how much you publicize, and – frankly – how much you give yourself airs, and also on the local fandom’s PERCEPTION of your career, (including any rumors going around) the fault is at least as much mine as theirs.
I started realizing there was something wrong with how fandom perceived me, when, circa 2006, with the Shakespeare series VERY firmly dead, an urban fantasy (Draw One In The Dark) and the musketeer mysteries coming out, I still got put ALMOST EXCLUSIVELY on “Shakespeare in modern literature” panels or “How to write literary fantasy” panels or – and by that time it was already mind boggling – “how to sell your first novel” panels.
In fact, in 2008 worldcon, the ONLY panels I was on (I crashed a bunch of others because, so there) were on Shakespeare and Fantasy. 2008. Any Man So Daring, the second of that series, had been out of print since 2004. Since then I had written urban fantasy, historical fantasy (the Magical British Empire) historical mystery, fictionalized biography, had a contract for Darkship Thieves and…
I think it was in 2008 that, at my signing, a local big time fan stopped by the table, looked down at a spread that included bookmarks for the Magical British Empire and Gentleman Takes A Chance and said “So, you’re just writing mystery now? You’ve given up on sf/f?”
It was in 2007 that, as I was describing how I’d started art classes to rest from books, a local fan/book vendor told me “So, you failed at writing and you’re trying another career?” Given that I was under contract for six books, which was the impetus for doing art so I could rest my mind, I was mind-boggled at the idea this meant “failing.” (Also, if I intended to be an artist, I’d need to LEAVE writing behind. I can do it at “good amateur” level, and next year I can probably enter some shows — but pro I’m not. To make a living as a cover artist, I’d need to spend two years practicing. At least. Look at the cover of The Muse’s Darling, on Amazon. That’s my art work.)
No, I wasn’t a bestseller. We could go into how at the time the push model of book marketing had become such that you couldn’t be a bestseller unless the house had put you in that slot. (It wasn’t QUITE true for all series and all houses, but the house had to at least allow it to happen. For instance, when the first musketeer book sold out of the print run, it wasn’t shipped for six months – even while the second was. Which, of course, meant that tons of people didn’t buy the second, because they hadn’t read the first. When the first shipped again, the second had been returned.) I could also discuss how “bestseller” is not the be all, end all of a career. It measures velocity (and lay down) so that you can have a huge fandom and still not be able to hit the bestseller list, because your books are “slow, steady sellers.” This usually – eventually – makes you a bestseller, but it takes time, and also a certain amount of fanfare and distribution to get the fast sales up front which right now doesn’t work unless you’re one of the two people a (big) publisher will spend a ton of money on. Or you’re a naturally good promoter (which as we’re seeing I’m not.)
However, given that by 2008, already, most people’s “career” consisted of two books (if you were lucky) the fact that I’ve been constantly under contract since 2001, except for three months in 2003 and that I’ve been making not a spectacular amount of money, but enough to support myself if I were single – PARTICULARLY when you take in account that one of the houses kept making me change name and genre – can’t be considered “since you failed.” BUT that’s clearly the general fandom perception locally.
So… what is at the back of what seems to be a pretty well rooted mis-perception of what I’m doing and how it’s going, among local fandom? Well, it could be political. At least to an extent, it almost certainly is. The fact that I work for Baen is not a plus. I remember how shocked they were that a lot of fans wanted them to have David Drake as a guest. And at least in Denver most of the guests of honor tend to be among the “reds in sf.” (Except Eric Flint, since he works for Baen, of course.)
But since this has been going on from before I worked for Baen, I think it’s more than that.
Part of it is, undeniably the accent. Yeah, yeah, I know, and I’m not claiming “discrimination” but we all judge each other that way, and I sometimes feel no matter what I say after I open my mouth, people hear “foreign born, self published.” (In fact, even though the Shakespeare series got a ton of good reviews, even back then, I read a lot of people disparaging me — it was embarrassing then, remember — as “self published.”)
Part of it is my presentation of myself.
I come from a class-intensive society, more reminiscent of Japan than of even Great Britain, at least when I was growing up. The way you dressed and behaved in public was dictated by rules of where you fit (and going too high was as bad as going too low. The later was “not giving yourself respect” and the first was deception.) Your level of language informed people where you fit in the social ladder and…
And I was always very bad at it. It’s not that I didn’t understand it. I’m not stupid. It’s that I live too much in my own skull to think about “how am I appearing” and also that frankly I like people, and I don’t care what “class” they are. So I would follow handymen around and be very respectful (they can do things I can’t) while asking questions about what they were doing. I would pause on the street to chat with the fishwoman, if she went to elementary school with me. I generally divide the world into “interesting and not interesting” and couldn’t care less what impression that gives tot hose that divide it by money or status. Also, the way I dress is usually “what I like” not what people perceive as cool.
This is stupid, of course, and I don’t need you to tell me that.
What I didn’t realize, at least for a long time, is that publishing is (or was) more like Portugal than like the US. It was top down, there were classes, and fandom is very good at tuning to those classes and reacting to PERCEIVED class of an author. Part of it, of course, is that fandom are odds, and they want it to look like they’re excluded because they’re above the rabble. This is why push marketing worked much better for, say, sf/f than for say, romance, where it never took completely and where they always had both surprise bestsellers and pushed authors that flopped. If publishers push a writer and give signs this writer is “valued” or “special” the “vocal” fandom tends to follow. (This is also why, with the exception of Bujold, Baen gets no awards despite their books selling quite well. You see, Baen has been branded as a pariah and to associate with it is to share its status. [In fact two agents in a row tried to prevent me from working for Baen for just this reason.])
So, it wasn’t just that I work for Baen or the politics… It’s that I don’t act as a big shot author. (In fact, I’m not absolutely sure how a big shot author is supposed to act.) When asked about some effect on a panel, I don’t start the answer with “in my book.” And I don’t list ALL my books at the beginning of a panel. (Partly because it’s tiresome. Partly because, given most people on the panel have one or two books published, when I list them they either shut up or become passive aggressive.) Also, because I’m working really hard most of the time, I tend to do things like leave for a con without bookmarks or promo materials. (Hey, guys, this weekend I left without UNDERWEAR and we had to drop by the store on the way to the hotel. I also left without makeup and decided to do without. This might have been a mistake, as I think I looked very ill.)
I tend to assume that people read the bio in the program – at least when they’re scheduling programming. This, I suppose, means I’m insane.
Anyway – the irritation at the panels that made me go “uh?” including the one on the “age barrier in publishing” that had my entire family and, because we had no clue what they meant (Uh? Age barrier? Which way? Up until fifteen years ago, they were saying you needed to be 45 to be mature enough to write. Ten years ago they started publishing twenty year olds. Yes, that means they skipped my age group. What else is new? I still got in.) and which ended up turning into “Why would you go traditional right now?” has morphed, on reading Dave Freer’s post, into a “Yes, that’s sensible and would never, ever, ever happen” frustration and then on reading Amanda’s post today, into “So they want to publish people who are already good at doing everything they supposedly do?” and also “What the heck do they mean ebook sales are flattening? I think what they mean is that the rate of growth is flattening. And who in h*ll is reporting this? The big six? They’ve reported the same 100 some ebook sales for each of my books for years. And heck, I sell more than that, in SHORT STORIES indie.” I mean, seriously, most people I know are now at least reading paper-and-e. And the younger ones tend to e-only. And judging by the number of emails I got when Baen wasn’t on kindle, any number of them read ebook only.
Will ebooks ever replace the paper books? Yes, I think so. It’s generational. My kids live with kindle and kindle fire growing off the ends of their fingers. I think eventually – in twenty or so years – paper books will be like leather-bound, collector’s editions today. They’ll be what you buy for the two or three authors you love and want to keep clean and untouched, and signed. Heck, mine became that way a while ago. At least for hardcover.
The sign of this – like the sign that TVs are going either massively big or watched on computer, which is craigslist being full of “free entertainment center” offers from people upgrading/changing over – is starting to show in “free bookshelves” all over craigslist. It’s also visible in planes, where people more and more are reading on electronic devices. (I wonder how airport bookstores are doing?)
Are indie bookstores doing better? Well, it would be pretty hard for them to do worse than they’ve done the last twenty years. And with the implosion of the chains, with their top-down and “tri state” shelf stocking, it was inevitable that bookstores that actually bring in authors for signings, have knowledgeable staff, etc, will do better.
Is it a long term growth thing? Who knows? I think eventually there will be a place for bookstore-like hangouts – perhaps bookstore cafes – where you can meet other local booklovers in the flesh and where, if you hit an ebookstore from there they get a cut – kind of like the referral links for people to put on their website but space based.
But I do think most bulk reading will be in ebook. From what I hear from my colleagues – not in Baen. Baen is different. Read Dave Freer’s post yesterday to find out why. – the printrun numbers and sell throughs are in free fall. The ebooks through traditional publishers (at least reported) aren’t picking up, and most authors I know (except Baen) are at least contemplating an escape. Even in Baen those who write other stuff — me — have an indie side.
Now this is where it worries me. Because if I need to somehow give the impression I’m a big shot author before I become one, I’m OBVIOUSLY in deep trouble. I can write. I can write okay. Though my opinion of how well I write now is guaranteed to be very low five years from now, I think I write well enough to be enjoyed.
But I clearly can’t give the impression I’m a pro, much less an old pro, at least not locally. Perhaps mom was right and the “giving yourself respect” gene was left out. Perhaps it’s the fact I forget to go to the hairdressers because I’m writing a novel. Perhaps it’s that I treat starting out newbies, if they’re good, with the same respect I give bestsellers.
Or perhaps local fandom is right, and I’m a failure, for a certain definition of failure. Who knows?
Local cons always leave me a little maudlin, a little depressed, wondering if something is wrong with me that can’t be fixed.
And the way the field is falling apart so that, as with the state of the country, nobody knows not’ing isn’t helping.
So you will forgive me for this very scattered and vaguely self-pitying (though more self-reproaching) post. At least I hope you will. Part of it, I know, is tiredness from the con (I finally feel like I’ve slept enough today.)
If you wish to support my so called “failing” career, hit up the side links and buy Darkship Thieves, or Darkship Renegades, or A Few Good Men, which is a book I didn’t mean to write, and is a complex book but is also, in my opinion, the best thing I’ve ever written. I’ll be bringing out the rest of the backlist and a few things (Fantasy, mostly, though some mystery and a couple of horror. Yes, there’s SF too, but I probably should (?) run that by Baen first) from the trunk (not as bad as it sounds. Most were “agent rejected” because they’re “too weird” and “no one is doing anything like this!” Like, you know, Witchfinder.) I just need time to actually, you know, edit stuff. Because a lot of it more than five years old, and needs editing.
And – as bad at promoting as I am, and as bad as giving a good image of my career – the one thing I can promise you is: Read all you want. I’ll write more.
UPDATE:Subscribe button installed (you have NO idea what it involved.) For those not using paypal, I’ll eventually get a po box (it tells you how I’m functioning that I spelled that pox and couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong) and post the addy. Meanwhile two things: first, I don’t expect anyone to donate at the insane (or even the next down level, which now escapes me) but my mentors in these things assure me some people might be crazy enough to. So, it’s there. Next thing — if you subscribe and don’t get an aknowledgement over the next week or so, ping me in comments. It should notify me, but it’s new (of course) and it might not.