embracing abundance

Can we talk about this Huffington Post essay for a moment?

tl;dr: The author is basically saying that, because JK Rowling already had her time in the sun and that every time she publishes something new, it creates so much buzz that it crowds out everybody else, she should stop writing. For example, of The Casual Vacancy, this essayist writes:

It wasn’t just that the hype was drearily excessive, or that (by all accounts) the novel was no masterpiece and yet sold by the hundredweight, it was the way it crowded out everything else, however good, however worthwhile. That book sucked the oxygen from the entire publishing and reading atmosphere. And I chose that analogy quite deliberately, because I think that sort of monopoly can make it next to impossible for anything else to survive, let alone thrive. Publishing a book is hard enough at the best of times, especially in an industry already far too fixated with Big Names and Sure Things, but what can an ordinary author do, up against such a Golgomath?

The solution to this “problem” is to tell Rowling to quit.

This assumes that there are a finite number of slots available for all published books. It assumes that JK Rowling and the rest of us are competing for the same readers. It assumes that one runaway bestseller will somehow hinder every other writer from getting her voice out there.

There are a few things to pick apart here. I mean, we can dispense with the argument about quality pretty quickly, right? The value of a book is subjective. This essayist admits to never having read Rowling. (I’m somehow still surprised to find people for whom this is true. I don’t read much YA or fantasy and yet have read every Harry Potter book at least twice. You can make arguments about them being derivative or childish or whatever, but I was highly entertained by every one. I haven’t read Rowling’s adult novels, so I can’t speak to those.) Still, it’s an argument that gets trotted out a lot: It’s inconceivable that _____ is so popular because s/he is terrible! And yet, there are some people that love the punching bag books, and there’s always at least one in the popular mindset. Before Fifty Shades there was Twilight or The DaVinci Code or [book you made fun of at parties with your well-read friends]. Something in each of those books resonated with readers, so even if the book didn’t work for you, it did work for thousands of others. And, let’s face it, quality and popularity are not synonyms.

But to the greater point that the popular writers should take a seat so that everyone else can get a chance: Nope. That’s a problematic argument. You can’t tell a creative person to stop, because they won’t, because creating is what they do, a part of who they are. But also, there is no reason why the continued existence of Rowling (or Stephen King or James Patterson or E.L. James or whoever) prevents anyone else from becoming a bestselling author.

But Kate, I hear you arguing, this is obvious. I need Rowling to keep writing so I can have enough fodder to complete my Hermione/Ginny femslash, and also, duh, obviously no one REALLY thinks Rowling stepping aside will suddenly create a gaping hole to fit all our books in.

Well, but, the thing is, I have seen writers treating the market as if there are only a finite number of books that can be sold. Just this morning, I fell into the rabbit hole of reading Goodreads reviews on which this one author was harassing reviewers who gave her books bad reviews. Authors still buy reviews to get the coveted 5 stars so they sell more. They also bash other authors, publicly put books down, treat the industry like a contest.

It’s not. Publishing is not a race. Especially if you write romance, there are PLENTY of readers. I believe that any of us has the potential to be the Next Big Thing.

One of my friends said on Twitter last night that this is a classic example of scarcity mindset. That’s the belief that there’s not enough of anything to go around. In this particular instance, the author of the piece on Rowling is assuming that success is somehow quantifiable and that there is not enough of it to go around. That there’s a zero-sum game such that if Rowling has all the popularity, there’s nothing left for anyone else.

That’s not true. Personally, I think there’s benefit in taking on an abundance mindset. (I like that post a lot. It’s a little new-age-y, but the gist is to give away instead of hoard, to not assume things are finite.)

For example, deep in my soul, I want gay romance to be successful. It doesn’t matter if it’s me making the Times bestseller list or accepting a RITA or someone else, I love this niche of romance and this community and there’s room for us to share in its successes. One of the things I love about the romance community generally is the willingness to share and talk about books we love.

This is part of why I personally don’t write negative book reviews. I mean, I have a degree in English lit and have worked as an editor for twelve years; BELIEVE ME, if your book has flaws, I can see them. Sometimes I can overlook them if I’m finding a book entertaining. Sometimes I can’t. I feel like such a Pollyanna on Goodreads sometimes, squawking about how much I love things. Books I don’t love don’t get rated, and I tend not to talk about books when I don’t like them, and part of that is selfish and face-saving, but part of that is I just don’t want to tear other authors down. (That’s me, though; your mileage may vary. I certainly don’t begrudge other authors adopting other policies in this regard, and you can say of my books whatever the hell you want. I actually think negative reviews are good because they show potential readers that plenty of real people read and reacted to the book. I’m personally leery of books that get all 5-star reviews.)

Over the weekend, I was playing around with this new Ken Burns app on my iPad and watched a segment from his documentary on the Shakers in which Burns talks about how the Shakers made a number of technological innovations and then shared them with anyone who wanted them. It led to a lot of other Americans taking Shaker technology and expanding and developing it, spurring some even greater inventions. Burns asked rhetorically if we could imagine current technological innovations being shared in the same way and how that might affect technological development. It’s an interesting thing to think about. I mean, it’s why open-source software exists, for one, but so much technology is hoarded and proprietary. If more people were allowed to play with and innovate these new inventions, would that change how fast new gadgets are developed?

Similarly, I think it’s important for writers to pay it forward. I teach workshops. I talk up books I loved. I want to embrace abundance because book sales aren’t finite and there is room for all of us. Sure, you have to figure out how to get heard above the noise—and there is a LOT of noise these days—but one author’s success does not translate to another author’s failure.

in which I have opinions

It’s been a weird week in which a lot of things have happened, and I got very

but somehow restrained myself when it came to actually speaking up. It’s the problem of being an author and being conscious of the fact that people are watching what you do. To be clear, I don’t feel stifled by potential readers, it’s more thinking, “Does acting this way or saying these things really live up to the image I want to portray?” and usually when I want to rant about something, the answer to that is, “No.”

But here are some things I’ve been thinking about, in no particular order:

• I should know better than to read most “journalism” on the romance industry. So many of the articles take a “hey, look at what these silly women are doing” approach that I find kind of offensive. But the kicker is that I read two articles recently that made the argument that romance writers don’t aspire to be literary or romance writers aren’t concerned with the same things literary fiction writers are. I got into kind of a shouty argument with a friend, who countered that this was a good thing because literary fiction is soulless and concerned with writing the perfect sentence over plot and character. I disagreed because, as with romance, you can’t characterize a whole genre with such broad strokes. Sure, some literary fiction novels are soulless, and some romance novels are crap. But that doesn’t mean the whole genre is that way. More to the point, the connotations of the statement that romance writers don’t aspire to the same things literary writers do is that romance writers don’t aspire to be good writers. Which I take issue with. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I spend a lot of time studying and working on my craft, with the goal of each book being better than the last, and to me, a great book is one that gets everything right: beautiful writing, a compelling story, interesting characters, emotional resonance, all of those things. The ONLY differences between a romance novel and a literary novel, as far as I’m concerned, are romance’s emphasis on the central story being a romantic one and the happy ending requirement.

Basically, the distinction between literary and genre fiction is one of marketing and expectations, not writing quality. For example, if I walk over to the fantasy section of a book store, I’m looking for a certain kind of book. I have expectations for what it will include. Literary fiction is much more broad. But otherwise? Sure, maybe there are some genre writers who are painting by numbers, but a lot of romance writers I have met over the years are genuinely invested in creating a great book.

• Although, perhaps disproving my own point, I read a historical romance novella earlier this week that was just rampant with factual errors. (Not m/m for what it’s worth. And no, I won’t tell you which book it was.) Now, I will grant you, I’m a dweeb and a history buff, so I’m going to spot errors that other readers may not. In this case, there were two that stood out to me: one was a bit about baseball that was so wrong I actually dropped the book in exasperation—and that was something a thirty second Google search could have rectified—and, without giving away the book, the other error is about something so fundamental that if you fixed the novel to correct it, the whole plot would fall apart. That is, the premise of the novel is based on something historically false, and this is not an alternate history. This is apparently a hard limit for me; the writing was competent and I liked the characters okay, but I just could not get past those historical errors.

• I did actually weigh in on an argument on an author loop, which I basically never do, but apparently I hit some kind of tongue-holding critical mass. I mean, I was nice and respectful. I don’t even necessarily think we all have to get along within the community, and some debate and disagreement is good, but it’s a combination of “am I putting myself in the best light?” and “is everybody going to hate me if I say this?” that pass through my mind whenever I type something to put on the Internet, even somewhere semi-private like an author loop.

• I’m reading a Beverly Jenkins novel right now in which the heroine is a whore—this is what she calls herself in the novel, and indeed, she is a woman who has sex for money and the hero is one of her clients—and I’m finding it so refreshing that this heroine totally owns her past and her choices and feels no shame about it! I’m really loving that aspect of the book. That is, the heroine has had a hard life and totally recognizes why a happily ever after with the hero from a prominent family is probably not possible (except it totally is because this is a romance novel) but there’s no effort on Jenkins’s part to make the heroine pure anyway—and I recently read a book with a virgin concubine heroine that was published in 2009, so this is still a thing we’re doing in romance—or regretful of her past life except as it pertains to her current situation and the novel’s central conflict.

I wonder sometimes if some of the reason LGBT romance sometimes feels like it has fewer limits is that the fact that there are two dudes or two ladies or whatever at the center of the book is already a barrier to entry for some readers, and if you’re already redefining a genre, you might as well go for it. Is it the same for multicultural romance? Does the fact that this Jenkins book has two people of color embracing on the cover keep some readers away? (I’m not so naive as to think that it doesn’t, which is a shame because this book is so fantastically trope-y and I’m finding it very entertaining.) If so, does that give Jenkins some room to write a different kind of heroine than what we’re used to seeing? I honestly don’t know; I’m just wondering if that’s what’s happening here, because it’s been a while since I read even a contemporary romance with a heroine who owns her sexuality in this way. (So far. I’m about halfway through the book.)

I’ll leave it there. It’s raining in New York right now, which is washing away the snow finally. I have high hopes that I will soon be able to go outside without wearing clunky boots.

Surprise Out in the Field Valentine’s Day Short!

Lots of big news this week if you’re a sports fan. There are Olympics going on. NFL-bound player Michael Sam came out of the closet. My beloved Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter announced he’s retiring at the end of the upcoming season. And today is not just Valentine’s Day but also the day that pitchers and catchers report for baseball Spring Training. So I thought, what better way to celebrate than a short visit with Matt and Iggy? So here you are! Enjoy!

Matt frowned at Iggy’s giant suitcase, half packed and laying open on the bed. Iggy hadn’t even left the city yet, but the apartment already felt empty. With a heavy sigh, he left the room and walked into the kitchen, where he put a half-hearted effort into making a sandwich.

He was half eating, half reading the sports news on his phone when a snow-covered Iggy blew through the door.

“Don’t go outside,” Iggy said. Continue reading

The Pollyanna Principle

I am, generally speaking, an upbeat, optimistic person. I have dark moments—we all do—but for the most part, I try to keep a positive attitude.

But lately I’ve developed a complex about this.

This post is about to get kind of rambley, so apologies in advance.

First, an aside: A coworker of mine announced a few weeks ago that she was only going to read YA and not read literary fiction anymore. I am personally not a YA reader and have struggled to figure out why the genre is so popular among adults, but my coworker summed it up in a way I appreciated: YA is optimistic. Even in the darkest, most violent post-apocalyptic books, the teenage characters tend to have hope and optimism in the way only young people can, and my coworker liked that hope more than the sometimes depressing stories found in the literary fiction section of the book store.

And I said, “Why do you think I read romance novels?”

Romance is an optimistic genre. There are dark books and fluffy books and deeply emotional books and sweet books and basically anything that will hit your emotional sweet spot, but the key to the romance genre is the optimistic ending. Love will conquer all, the characters will end up together (at least for now), and good will triumph over evil.

I find that reassuring. There’s hope in the world, you know?

cheerleaderSo back to my complex. I’ve been working on an article that I want to pitch to a magazine about how having a positive attitude can help with book marketing. The gist is that getting bogged down in negativity—which publishing is rife with in the form of things like rejections, disappointing sales figures, bad reviews, and the like—could affect both your approach to self-promotion and how you come across to readers.

And I wrote a post for the new Rainbow Romance Writers blog about thinking bigger and LGBT romance breaking out of its niche to go mainstream, which I think a lot of people don’t realize is possible, but that I think totally is now in a way it never has been before.

But then I thought, Wow, do I come across as a ditzy cheerleader or what?

I believe every word of what I wrote. I believe that new opportunities for writers of LGBT romance open up every day. I believe that our little community does not need to be relegated to the ghetto, that readers are out there who want to buy our books in droves, that editors want these books.

But.

Just showing up is not enough. There’s still something of a disconnect between mainstream publishing and what indie/digital publishing has been up to for a while. The Big Five still aren’t really sure how to market LGBT romance, or aren’t sure how to acquire the good stuff. We’ve got a ways to go there.

I choose to view the fact that many editors I’ve talked to over the last few months are open to new things: Big Five publishers want LGBT romance; digital-first pubs that have only ever put out m/m are interested in the other colors of the rainbow. (Guys, a Big Five editor just told me this past Saturday that she’d love to see a good lesbian romance. For real!)

But maybe you are not so optimistic. And so I have a complex. Because I think maybe I’m coming across as the insane person, but I do believe, deep in my gut, that there are opportunities here for those willing to put in the effort to take advantage of them.

On the other side of the coin is the effort it takes. LGBT books won’t win major awards if none are entered in those contests. There won’t be LGBT panels at the big conventions if no one submits workshop proposals. The Big Five say they want LGBT romance but I get the impression some editors aren’t sure where to look for it, so we should bring it to them. It means pitching to editors or finding an agent, maybe, or taking a risk and trying something new. And, dude, I know, it’s not easy. Just writing a novel is a lot of work, and doing all this on top of it, putting yourself out there? That’s tough.

And, yeah, sure, for every editor on a panel at a conference who says she wants an LGBT YA book, there’s somebody in the audience who says, “Good luck with that. I hope you’re ready to lose readers and get threatening letters.” (This actually happened at a panel I attended. I was like, “Way to rain on the parade, lady.”) It’s also true, unfortunately, that not every writer who wants one can get a Big Five contract, that some writers will just never catch on with readers, that some books are too niche-y and weird to ever gain mainstream attention, or even that real life will get in the way of a budding career before it takes off.

So I guess my point is not to be all Mary Sunshine about this but to just say that these opportunities exist.

And I know there’s been some criticism of romance’s “culture of niceness.” It’s not limited to romance; I think this is something endemic to spaces dominated by women. Perhaps in some cases it can stifle legitimate criticism—the pressure put on reviewers to be nicer, for example, which I don’t think they are under any obligation to do. But there is also something to be said for professional courtesy. I view it this way: I treat other writers the same way I treat my coworkers at my day job. I try to be polite and respectful, basically. I want to foster creativity and create opportunity, not tear people down.

So I don’t know. Perhaps what I’m trying to say here is that I’m aware of the challenges because I’m well-informed and not delusional (…as far as I can tell), but at the same time, I can’t help but be hopeful. So I’ll keep churning out these cheerleader posts and hoping that some of what I say will stick and we will enter a brave new world where gender and race and those kinds of things matter not a whit, when the majority of readers just want a good story and that drives the market instead of vague inaccurate perceptions of what readers are really looking for. (Okay, now I’ve gone over the edge with the optimism, but I think the point holds.)

Being the president of Rainbow Romance Writers gives me a platform, and I choose to use it to inspire others because I want to see LGBT romance (and multicultural romance and anything else that people want to write that is considered outside the “mainstream”) prosper and succeed, not even for personal gain but just because I think these are stories that should be told and deserve an audience. I want to see an LGBT book win a RITA, be a New York Times bestseller, be that book that everybody is talking about. I want us writers to be taken seriously because we work hard at what we do and we deserve respect.

I want a lot of things, I guess.

So… Go team!