*Only the ones of you who’ve been here from the beginning will remember the context for this post, which was the fifth or sixth in a sustained blog war with a non-fiction writer whining about how “real writing” was vanishing from the world with indie. Turned out her problem was that she’d no longer get paid research trips. The rest of us who never had paid research trips (not being special flowers) pointed and laughed. She got nasty and said we weren’t real writers. But this post goes beyond that whole mess, to change and implosion of fields and of expectations. That part is still as relevant (or more) than it was 4 years ago, and it’s interesting to see how many people who are as unpleasant as this woman was are really scared out of their gourd. Change, really change, is chaotic and hard. And as we’re heading into more of it, I thought this might provide some bracing. Well, that and I’m writing fiction and just finished a revision of something due today. BUT above all, you know, it’s to suggest pathways to survive the choppy waters ahead. Chin up. We’ll survive. No. We’ll thrive.*
DAYS OF WHINE AND FIRE – A Blast From the past post May 2012
Yesterday I said I did not mean to pick on the person’s fears for her job. I meant that. I realize that I sounded ever so slightly cranky (there are tons of reasons for the crankiness but “because I’m me” should suffice most of the time) but that was a reaction more to her tone than to her meaning.
Oh, her meaning was stupid beyond belief and amounted to little more than a long sustained whine. BUT that doesn’t mean SHE is stupid, or even that WHINING is stupid as such. A long sustained whine with no rationality behind it is how humans react to hitting a wall or feeling they’re about to. It was probably how our ancestors reacted to a tiger springing out of the undergrowth in front of them. “Ah, ARRRRRGH!”
The difference is what comes after. Some got sharp sticks and played the Maasai lion trick on the leaping tiger. And some went “glurb” and died.
I’m not going to rehash it, but what ticked me off about her post was the implication that a) fiction writers have it easy, they just make up cr*p and b)self-publishers don’t even understand what books are – the ignorant newbies. (This was not helped by her follow up post, in which she first failed to grasp that not only do I have 21 novels traditionally published – at this point I don’t really have any novel non-traditionally published, except perhaps A Touch Of Night and the reissue of Death Of A Musketeer, each a special case. – and then, once this point was brought home to her, that she considers me “tainted” by self publishing… Even though 99% of what I have out – all but three short stories – were published in magazines an anthologies before. And the whole idea that self publishing “taints” is probably blow by the fact that those three are my biggest cash cows every month.) It’s entirely too bad of me to react to “tone” but as my grandmother would have said, “if you don’t have feelings, you weren’t born of good people.”
But in a way it was too bad I got sidetracked by the tone, because what I actually wanted to go into was the panic reaction, what it means, and how to counter.
Every writer I know has hit that panic reaction at one time or another in recent months. The exceptions are, perhaps, those who haven’t realized what is happening to publishing yet. (Oh, you’d think there are none. Or at least none who aren’t cognitively impaired. But there are, I guarantee. H*ll, in honest truth, but for my agency going odd and a couple of other things, I might have been one of them. And I’ll explain why.) When we hit the panic, we all run around for a week or two or a month, or a year, as if our hair were on fire, screaming “the world is ending.” And then… And then we find paths out. Which is what I want to talk about.
First of all, if you’re a writer, or a journalist, or one of the other professions where, looking ahead, you see the conveyor belt disappearing into a furnace – take a deep breath and realize you’re not alone. This is being masked – somewhat – by the recession. But, without going into politics, the recession is – IMO – a creature of unspeakable economic stupidity imposed from above. (Partly from the hopeful and amiable belief that hobbling the US improves the lot of other people. This is the sort of stupidity it takes years of education [and a willingness to ignore the real world] to achieve, which means … nothing. If I ever get a time machine, I’m throttling Karl Marx in his swaddling blanket.) That means sooner or later the idiocy from above quits (or we’ll all be more worried about whether we can get a leg of squirrel for telling a good story around the camp fire of what remains of human civilization) and when it does, if anything the pace of tech change is going to accelerate as we recover. Part of it, of course, will be to cut out the severely dysfunctional parts of the economy without sinking more money into them. And part of it will be because new tech HAS come on line but no one has invested in propagating it through society. When they have money, they will, and the effect will be… As though some evil villain just pushed the “fast” button on that furnace-headed conveyor belt.
(No, I’m not going to unpack the previous paragraph, not only because it’s unavoidably political, but also because it is, ultimately, fodder for several essays. Just nod and say “Okay, Sarah, whatever, let’s assume what you said is true.”)
So, just trust me, that when economy recovers, we writers are going to be joined on the line of people going “argh” as the tiger springs out at them, by: in some order – journalists, teachers, photographers, artists, software engineers (trust me. They’ve been in crisis since 2000 mostly because their skill is becoming less needed with machines that are more friendly to programming) and eventually real engineers (printable pieces will make a lot of difference.) Worse, I can’t even imagine all the people who will be hit by the change – literally – and though I’d laugh if you said something like “chefs” or “car mechanics” I could think of a way – and not far off – that their professions AS EXERTED RIGHT NOW will be obsolete in no time. I don’t even need to mention the two professions my kids are training for, right? Doctor and aerospace engineer will FOR SURE change shortly after they start working. Which feels many levels of wrong, but probably no “wronger” than where most writers find themselves.
You see most of my friends are between 30 and 50 or a little either way. These were the ages at which you used to know what you were doing in your profession, and just take off. Peak earning years and all that. Oh, brother.
Part of the long sustained whine is because we writers, perhaps more than other humans – but we humans in general too – believe in stories. We’re raised with stories. Oh, sure, little Red Riding Hood, but also “don’t cross the street in front of a semi, or you’ll be a pancake on the pavement.” It’s a story. A just so story.
All of us absorbed such stories growing up, as well as stories about uncle Hubert who worked hard and made good and uncle Eggbert (oh, him!) who went down to Rio where he lives in a compound peopled entirely by hookers and fueled solely by cocaine.
Okay, fine, my family has several uncle Eggberts, and it’s entirely possible that some boring families out there have none. The point is that all of us absorbed, at some point, the idea of what it takes to make good at several points in life – what’s expected of us, as we were. We are after all social monkeys, and monkey does what he sees, and, in this case, what he hears.
At my time of life – and a lot of the people panicking are somewhere between 40 and 50 – we expect our profession to be clear and the path ahead to make sense and be… well… expected. And now, you know, instead of “rising acclaim, secure retirement” there’s the furnace. Worse, because of the way things have gone in the most recent years – and no, not just in writing. As tech change came in every field turned odd and sometimes evil (read Dilbert!) – we are, most of us, nowhere near the acclaim and security we thought we’d attain. And this might be “as good as it gets.”
Amazing thing is not that we’re indulging in long, sustained whining. What IS amazing is that none of us has yet gone postal somewhere conspicuous. My people must be better balanced than I thought. (Or more confused. Some psychology researcher should count the massacres in books recently. We’ve always had trouble with that reality thing.)
The thing is, after the whine, for everyone so far, there is the moment of shaking yourself up and looking at the way of life that is dying. Because in most cases it was SO dysfunctional these last ten or twenty years that constitute our entire working life, there is usually a time of looking at the field (whatever field) and seeing everything that was screwing us over and holding us down, and going “oh.” in relief. Sometimes for those of us full of piss and vinegar there is – to quote a writer who is FAR more established than I – “If this new model works, I’m going to be very rude to a lot of people.” And then… and then there is a time of thinking, a time of rebuilding. And, at this point friends and I have been on THAT phase long enough that we have checked back with each other and compared notes. I’m going to pass the notes along for those of you, writers and non writers alike, who are staring the furnace in the face. Remember those are the notes NOW – for me about a year after the whine – and that the operative part of that catastrophic change thing is the “change.” Things are changing all the time. Retailers, tech, etc. change minutely almost daily. We’re not at the end of the wave of change. We’re barely at the first swell. So, don’t take what I say and go, this is the plan for the next fifty years. Go, rather “Um… good thing for a year or so, if I’m lucky.” And note how much of it is the same you’d tell someone walking through a jungle full of hungry tigers – “be alert” – that’s what most of these translate to.
So, here’s the distilled wisdom from staring into the furnace (and by the way, the furnace, in most cases, is only a temporary fire, and it’s possible that you’ll emerge from it stronger than you went in, like steel.)
1 – You have to change.
Yes, I know, you’re settled into your routine, and one of the things I’ve learned through the last year of various physical ailments, is that ANYTHING can become routine. You get used to doing six books a year, under pressure, upside down, in a sewer pipe. (Okay, I’m exaggerating a little.) And you like what it means: you’re still publishing. You’re making money. And you convince yourself things will get better. But you don’t expect them to get better suddenly. Truth is and you don’t really, ever expect them to get worse and yes suddenly. And you want “better” to happen TO YOU not that you’ll have to make it happen. So when you realize that the money or the publication is diminishing your first instinct is to panic, because it means you’ll have to change how you do things, and it’s going to be uncomfortable. The bad news? Yep, you have to change. (The good news is that almost for sure things will get better – in the long run.)
2- It’s going to be a lot of work up front
Oh, G-d, is it a lot of work up front. Part of this is because for a good long while, for many of us perhaps forever, you’ll have to work in both worlds. Or you’ll have to work at what is bringing money in right then, and what will bring money in in the future, both of which will change as things change. For me, right now, this means keeping up deadlines, helping NRP with covers AND trying to figure out how in heaven’s name to get my backlist up in a modicum of time.
3 – Take a deep breath and give yourself time
This will be different for each of you/each field. Right now I have 25 (I think) short stories out, and I’m netting $100 a month from Amazon (other places take longer to report.) I have about 250 in total stories I could put up, and I haven’t put any up in two months. If you’re going “Are you crazy woman? MONEY! If the ratio holds – and so far it has – you could be making 1k a month. Why aren’t you?” Oh, G-d. In this house we have a trinity of excuses we invoke for the “I just can’t” – it’s not logical, but it’s what we’ve heard someone use at some time – “Cheese, lasers, wife!” Or in this case: “Health, kids, work.” Or perhaps just a manifestation of Kris’ post about things bringing you to your knees. Life has been VERY complicated, and emotionally I think I’m healing, as much has I’m (hopefully) healing physically.
I hate being late. I’m compulsive. But pushing seems to tie me up more. So I’m taking deep breaths and going “I’m giving myself time.” It will happen, once the kid graduates; once I know what is causing the endocrine disturbances, once a couple of other dominos fall in place, once life establishes itself again.
3a A caution – make sure you keep trying to fit the stuff into the routine. Like, I’m trying to tell myself Saturday is publishing day. So when normalcy comes back, that’s not squeezed out.
3b – you’ll make mistakes. You’ll take the wrong projects indie and sell the wrong projects. You’ll put awful covers on your stories (guaranteed); you’ll put up at least a story with ten typos (the others will have more, no matter how you hunt them.) You’ll glorp a few formats. You’ll forget the legal notice on a story. You’ll make mistakes. Don’t worry. It’s more work, not the end of the world. You’re only human. The goal is ALWAYS survive to fight another day. If you’re alive, you’re learning. Tomorrow YOU’ll be better.
4- Don’t Put ALL Your Eggs In the Same Henhouse.
Don’t put all your faith on one stream of income.
Don’t go “traditional publishing is dying, so I’ll now make all my money from indie publishing. CERTAINLY don’t go “I’ll now make all my money from writing epic novels about gay warriors” (What? I’m sure there’s some people are! I don’t have time to google it. You’ll have to be pervie on your own time.)
In the end doing that puts you in the same boat as if you’d stayed in traditional publishing. Remember the thing about we’re only in the first swells of a tsunami of change? If all you do is sell space nuns (what?) on Amazon, you’re setting yourself up to go under on the next wave.
For one at least at first, your stream of income from indie will be small – much less from one type of indie. So you want to keep all your legs going. Think of yourself as a multilegged mechanical, self-balancing spider (really? I think of myself as that sort of thing ALL the time.) In my case, say one leg is traditional. One is indie. One is art – and I need to put some of that up and on merchandise to sell. From yesterday’s kerfuffle I realized another can be non-fiction. As soon as I have time, I’ll resume the journalism one (two dying fields are better than none.) And, who knows, as things stabilize health wise, there might even be stuffed dragons and fairy princess porcelain dolls to sell at cons. (Maybe. If I can find the time.)
I come from a culture in which nepotism is viewed as a virtue. A basic proverb is “He who has no godfather dies in jail.” Being me, I rebelled against it. And I still think that nepotism qua nepotism is a bad idea and makes a society sclerotic and not nimble at all.
We are social animals. One thing I had to learn is that people reject you MUCH more easily if they’ve never met you – beyond the quality of your story. Now it’s a little different, but networking is more important. Networking and having a large group of friends is how you hear what is working and what isn’t, because the knowledge is so new there are no manuals yet – and no manuals that aren’t superannuated in five minutes. Have as many friends as possible everywhere, particularly friends who are also trying to figure out the change.
Every so often get together with your friends and brainstorm – not ideas. Not stories. Brainstorm how to make money. Shoot wild ideas out. Make crazy suggestions. Look, until the kerfuffle yesterday, it never occurred to me I could sell my research as non-fiction BEFORE selling it as fiction/integrating it into stories. But of course it should be possible (though the time thing might delay it.) And I AM trying to be aware of new opportunities. It’s just that the new model is so different we have to make tiny incremental changes. So every so often, get your friends together, break out the alcohol (or whatever) and just talk. “Hey, can you think of any other way to make money? What if–”
And that’s all I know so far. Like a traveler on the move in strange, mutable terrain, stay alert, move fast, be ready to see things in a completely different way (Sometimes a schmerp ISN’T a rabbit, even if he looks like one) and keep all your several legs on the run.
There’s gold in them there hills. You just have to survive to get there.