Some people might be offended with some of this post, or disagree. I apologize to the former, but caveat with a simple statement – this is my journey and my observation, and by necessity must work on a generalized level. I can’t be condescending, by the way, because one person who is being described here is myself.
This post is written from the viewpoint of a speculative fiction writer.
I will cover a few topics in writing and publishing, but at the heart, it is about what journey should a writer take to ‘make it’. What are the pitfalls and where does it go wrong and right. I use the term ‘make it’ because it doesn’t have anything specific hanging off it. It is meant to be general and fit all. For me, ‘making it’ means being respected in my genres of writing and making a good enough living to carry it out full time. I would be ecstatic if fame and fortune followed, but that is a whispered hope – I would be a very happy and contented man ‘(vegemite’, for my fellow Australians) indeed to achieve the lesser definition.
My view of how to ‘make it’ has metamorphosed several times over the last several years, the period where I decided to really make a go of ‘making it’ (hmm almost tautological, if not recursive). I started off going the ‘traditional route’ – where you submit or query agents and publishers and convince them to read your first three chapters and love it, want more, and sign you on. Not long after that kick off I also realized that writing short fiction is a well established route to ‘making it’ – get industry to take notice and build up one’s street cred. So I started to write a lot of short fiction. A year or so later, I started to published in mainly obscure magazines, ezines and anthologies – around 12 acceptances a year, and I am still running at that rate. I should add that I love writing short stories now.
But then I got frustrated. I really wanted to be published. Pfaw to those who say being a writer is needing to write. For me it is needing to write and be read. Self publishing, buoyed by innovations in digital printing and publishing, meant it was easy peasy to do, but I held off. But it sure was tempting. I will talk more on that later.
I met like minded people and we formed a small publishing house. It started with a bit of an identity crisis – thinking it can help with self publishing as well as ‘traditionally’ publishing – in a disorganized way to help fellow upcoming writers – but we soon realized the model didn’t work (mainly because from a marketing perspective, the paradigm could not be comprehended). We went traditional. Again, small presses have also been buoyed by the digital printing (and cyber) revolution, and we joined the fray. From a writing perspective it allowed upcoming writers to get published without the backing of the Big Six, but at least get published. Using the career ladder metaphor, it got writers up a few rungs, which allowed access to the next higher points. The idea is to ‘make it’ as a small press as much as a writer. I discovered that there were grades of quality of publishers out there (mags as well as monographs), and as a writer there was often a market tuned to the degree of skills one had. This is goodness.
In the end I chose not to self publish. I know people who did and did well by it (the majority of these successes, however, gained recognition and ended up moving to the ‘dark side’ in order to complete the process of ‘making it’). They are a small number. The majority of self publishers achieve the goal of getting their book onto Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble and sell less than a hundred units, the majority by family and friends. A very large percentage of them are poor writers and should never have published – they just convinced themselves they are good or great, and the companies that sell services are happy not to say a thing, or worse, fan the illusion. Many of these books have poor covers and the stuff between is rife with spelling errors, sad grammar, typos, formatting issues, and brimming with all the stylistic errors an unedited and immature author could possibly come up with. I can go on but I wont. The real tragedy here is that these millions of people drag the entire system down with them. Yes, publishing on demand is great, and so is digital publishing, and being able to get up there is fantastic, but it is almost meaningless when you have 10,000 science fiction romance novels being marketed on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads and goodness knows what else, at the very same time. Digitial publishing only accentuates the situation. So much more can now be (rapidly) published. It hurts the good, talented writers, and it has also destabilized the industry.
I would be the first person to shake the hands of anyone who says that the industry needs a shaking – because in my mind, from a writer’s perspective, the old model was not helpful to writers. The poor royalties, the way newly signed authors were given next to no marketing budget, etc etc. This was not good. However, I don’t see the shifts helping them much either. I have huge respect for Konrath and his success in going it alone in the digital publishing world, but I can’t personally see the logical path between his (and some others’ success) with a viable model for upcoming writers, and in particular, separating the wheat from the chaff.
In a funny sort of way I see publishing history as having not moved much at all in this particular respect. Generalizing, 50 years ago it was hard to ‘make it’ because publishing was an expensive business and so openings were slight. 25 years ago it was hard to ‘make it’ because greedy corporations preferred to court the shallow, and simply regurgitate the existing stables of authors. Today the good ones have to wade through the human masses, with the strong possibility of getting nowhere, and the traditional publishers are floundering and becoming squeamish with new signings.
And yet, I think there is hope. I’m not going to spew the old adage of ‘if you’re good, you will eventually get there’. No siree. I don’t believe that is always the case. But what I can say is that there are smart ways to help differentiate yourself and get noticed. This is the key: differentiation. One way is to work the social network and possibly in combo with self publishing. Some can do it, but they have to be truly masterful in those disciplines. This is not for me, and I genuinely believe that only a miniscule percentage of people are good at it.
For me, differentiation is by way of short stories. I have traveled back in time 3 years and have concluded that an effective way to be noticed (in the speculative fiction field), is to wow the elite with short stories. Haven’t quite made it yet, but I believe I am close to it. This, at least, is my strategy. In the specfic world a handful of top 10 mag publications IS noticed by publishers in the field. Even better, a Nebula or Hugo wouldn’t hurt (oops, dreaming again). And yes, it is tough to break in. But you know what? I genuinely believe there are two magnificent advantages in going this route: 1. Yes it is hard, but I believe it is a market that is more open than novels in the traditional publishing field; and 2. It well and truly separates the wheat from the chaff. You can’t publish crap in Asimov‘s, Apex or Interzone. It’s just not possible. In fact, you can’t publish in middling mags or anthologies with crap either. The ladder is pretty predictable.
I know some writers don’t like writing short fiction, or perhaps even can’t. If such writers have another differentiating strategy, then that hole is plugged. I suggest – kindly – that if a writer has the skills, talent and determination to ‘make it’, then the short story route is something worthy of serious consideration.
For me, only time will tell whether I am wheat or chaff.