Archive for category publishing

on competition and opportunity

Or, Here’s that sweeping, inspirational post I promised last week.

I spent my formative years on my high school debate team. I mostly only joined because of peer pressure from my then best friend, although the very handsome coach was a persuasive argument as well. The funny thing is that my friend quit the team halfway through freshman year but I stuck it out. I don’t like to quit things. I still don’t think I ever had quite the right temperament for debate, but as the years went on, it certainly pounded any shyness I ever had right out of me and I learned a ton. I don’t regret the experience at all.

I imagine anyone who has ever done anything competitive probably has noticed this, but I found that debating against opponents who were better than me made me better.

In my four years on the team, I debated everyone from brand-new freshmen to national champions. By senior year, my partner and I were in the top 50 debate teams in the country—not the best, but definitely very good. In addition to honing my debate skills, one of the things I had to learn was how not to sink when faced with a weaker opponent. By that I mean that it was easy, when faced with a team I was confident I could beat, to sink a little, to play at their level, to get too cocky and not put the effort in. Some of my worst debating was actually against teams I should have handily beat and some of my best was against opponents who could handily beat me.

It’s about rising to the challenge. Eventually, I taught myself to always perform at my best, regardless of opponent, and that was really when I shone, but that was a tough thing to learn how to do.

Writing isn’t inherently competitive, but I think in these modern times, it’s hard not to feel like it’s a contact sport. We watch our Amazon ratings go up and down. We feel anxious and jealous when other books out-perform ours. We covet five-star reviews, contest wins, placement on bestseller lists. I think, too, that the anxiety that stems from this sense of competition is what brings out the worst behavior in authors. (I wrote an article about this for RWA’s Romance Writers Report that will be published in the near future. The thesis of that is that creative people operate under a scarcity mindset that assumes there is a finite amount of reader attention each author gets, so we all fight for it, but in fact, our reach is infinite.)

I’ve been following a lot of online discussions but not commenting on them, partly because I just don’t want to touch those discussions, but partly I think some of the drama and pettiness stems from this attitude, that we’re all competing with each other for readers. I think sometimes that one person can say something, can put forth an idea, and then everyone weighs in, and it becomes a sinkhole that is not unlike debating an opponent you should be able to beat in your sleep—you sink to their level instead of rising above.

I don’t say that to be superior. I’m just saying that I want to take those lessons I learned as a teenage debate nerd and focus them on my current writing career. I’m working hard and looking ahead. It’s tough not to get bogged down in all of it, from fretting about reviews and ratings and rankings to feeling like I should wade into whatever the big discussion topic of the moment is.

Because I also believe that we all rise together. Writing isn’t a competition. In fact, a career is built on support, on colleagues and friends, on the romance community. And there are some great people in this community, people who are just a pleasure to be around, people who inspire me, people who have helped open doors for me, people who make Romance better.

I’ve spent this year as president of an organization whose sole purpose is to advance the interest of LGBT romance writers, which means I’ve been working to get more attention on LGBT romance, for it to gain more recognition, for its writers to have more opportunities. I feel really proud of the work Rainbow Romance Writers has done with our limited resources. There’s more work to do, but if we work together, we can accomplish a lot. We can make writing any kind of romance a viable career option. We can gain more readers, more sales, more respect.

It’s already an uphill battle. The general public doesn’t take romance seriously, dismissing the whole genre as being bodice-rippers or something silly, sex-obsessed women do or whatever. You’ve read the articles about the genre. LGBT romance has a steeper hill to climb by virtue of the fact that it’s a niche of romance about people historically marginalized. But it’s not an impossible hill to climb.

This was brought to you in part by this post by Chuck Wedig that expresses a similar sentiment.

Step away from the pit by recognizing that while you aren’t perfect, you can always do better. We can commit to improvement. We can challenge ourselves. In this great big creative RPG we can level up in a character class of one — the character class only we belong to.

Then he concludes:

I just wanted to say all this because we all go there. And we can all get through it. None of us are singular beings in this feeling. It hits some of us harder than others (and to those who manifest this as bonafide depression, I can only remind you again that you are genuinely not alone). But it’s something we all experience. Doubt. Frustration. Fear. The envy of others. It won’t do much for you. It’s a poison. Stop drinking it. Spit it out.

Step away from the pit.

Be you. Don’t be me.

And create the things that only you can create.

* * * * *

underdogRelated to this, viewing that hill as impossible is how we defeat ourselves as writers.

Nothing is impossible. Write that down. Repeat. “But I’ll never—” Nope. Your career is yours it can be what you want it to be.

Some examples:

At a recent meeting of my local RWA chapter, we were talking a little about book distribution. An author was frustrated because his publisher had limited distribution channels. The panel of booksellers basically said, “That’s something worth looking into before you sign with a publisher.” I absolutely agree, and I think it is essential to do your research before you even submit a manuscript. Just getting published isn’t enough—you want to work with a publisher who will able to get your book into the hands of as many readers as possible. And I get that it’s tough in certain niches and sub-genres—there are limited audiences, the big publishers aren’t quite sure how to market erotica or LGBT romance yet, etc.—but there are small presses and digital-first publishers that ARE doing great work. An unpublished writer at the meeting said, “Well, yeah, but that first offer you get, why wouldn’t you jump at it?”

You don’t have to take the first offer. Thinking that you have to take the first rope thrown at us is one of the ways writers limit ourselves and our opportunities. It can lead to rough going ahead—publishers who end up cheating us or agents we don’t work well with. If you keep at it, if you make your book as good as it can be, the right opportunity will open up. Your dream publisher could come knocking. An agent you click with could offer to represent you. That first offer could be the opportunity of a lifetime, but it could also be a shot in the foot, and it’s worth taking the time to make sure it’s your best move before jumping at it. And, hey, self-publishing has made this a buyer’s market. You don’t need a publisher or agent to get your book out there. So if you want one, hold out for the right one. Take a long view of your career and decide what you want, what’s right, and what will help you reach your goals and go after that.

We also throw roadblocks in front of ourselves by assuming what we want isn’t possible. We assume we’ll never get an agent and let that discourage us from trying. We assume we’ll never make a bestseller list and so don’t explore as many promotional opportunities as are available to us. We don’t put in the full effort or we let our doubts cloud our judgment.

Rejection sucks. No doubt. But it’s not the end of the world. If you really want an agent but fear of rejection is keeping you from querying, you’ll never get an agent. If you’ve written a weird book—and I think we all have that wacky book in us that we’re convinced no one but ourselves will want to read—but don’t submit it anywhere, it will never get published. You’ll never know unless you try. And, yeah, maybe it will get rejected. Maybe an agent will pass. Maybe your book isn’t right for that publisher. But you can’t get to that next step in your career without putting yourself out there. The worst thing that will happen is someone says no.

No is not the end. I’ve got a nice little stack of rejection letters to prove it. In a couple of cases, the novels I submitted weren’t really ready for prime time. I was able to revise and resubmit to the same publisher or substantially rework and send it elsewhere. I’ve got a story that remains unpublished because its submission was met with a form rejection.

My way of coping with that is to allow myself feel bad for a couple of hours but then to move on and figure out the next step. Because one rejection did not end my career, nor will it end yours. So if that’s the worst that can happen, what else is stopping you from trying? Probably only yourself. Because maybe someone will say no, but maybe they will say yes.

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.

the future of publishing! dude lit! stereotypes!

I made kind of an off-hand tweet about this Galley Cat post with some publishing predictions, and someone said they wanted to see my analysis, so now they’re paying the price! The most interesting of the predictions to me were that 95% of books would be read on screens within the next ten years [something I would be in favor of but which I find unlikely, given an informal survey I conducted, i.e. based on conversations I’ve had on the subway with people who interrupt my reading to say, “Woah, is that one of those Kindle things? What’s it like?” This conversation invariably ends with the other person saying, “I don’t know, it looks cool, but I don’t think I could give up paper books.”] and that all authors will be “indie authors.” I’m not sure what this means. I think it means that indie publishers will start to take a lot of the market share away from the big publishers.

Coincidentally, I had dinner with my mother last night, and this came up in conversation. We are both publishing industry vets; I still work in the industry (albeit in academic publishing, which is an entirely different market), she’s basically retired. My mom worked at a bunch of the big houses, though, so I feel she has some insight. And we came to similar conclusions. The current advance-paying model of publishing is unsustainable. I read recently that only a very small percentage of books earn back their advances. Paying a 7-figure advance for a book penned by a celebrity, for example, seems like a big gamble for an industry already struggling.

And don’t even get me started on delaying ebooks to give hardcovers a chance to sell. When I mentioned this to my mom, she said, “That’s stupid, they’re different markets.” Exactly! I rarely buy hardcovers. Most of the hardcovers I own were purchased at used book stores or the bargain table at Barnes & Noble, you know? So even if I were not an ebook reader, it’s unlikely I’d buy the stupid hardcover. But I am an ebook reader, and there have been a number of times recently where I’ve followed a link to an interesting-looking book and thought, “Oh, not available in ebook? Guess I’m not buying it.” I mean, take my anecdotal arguments with a grain of salt, I guess, but I can’t be the only reader who thinks this way.

Although, this also ignores the fact that half the reason I wanted to own an ebook reader to begin with was that about half the books I purchase these days come from the epubs, and reading on my laptop is not as fun or portable as you’d think. Well, and also, once I realized that I could desire a book and then have it in my hands in less than a minute, I was drunk with power.

Anyway! So then NPR has this article about how ebooks will change reading and writing. So let’s pull it apart.

Apart from Twitter books and cell phone novels, Grossman, who is also a novelist, says the real challenge for writers is electronic-book readers like the Kindle. He says the increasingly popular devices force people to read books in a different way.

“They scroll and scroll and scroll. You don’t have this business of handling pages and turning them and savoring them.” Grossman says that particular function of the e-book leads to a certain kind of reading and writing: “Very forward moving, very fast narrative … and likewise you don’t tend to linger on the language. When you are seeing a word or a sentence on the screen, you tend to go through it, you extract the data, and you move on.”

Oh, where to start. Here’s the thing. I like paper books. I own a whole lot of them. I went into publishing in the first place because I love books. I like how they smell, I like how paper feels, I find the process by which they are put together fascinating. I also live in an apartment with limited space.

I would say my reading experience is not markedly different on the Kindle. Just because the words are on a screen doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate lovely prose when I see it. I still get lost in a book the same way I used to with paper books. I don’t see why or how books would have to be different, content-wise, in the ebook era. (And, infuriatingly, the NPR article talks about Twitter, makes the argument that authors will have to write pulp in order to be successful, and then ends. Um, what?)

Smart Bitch Sarah makes the argument that a book has to hook her in the first 30 pages or she’s moving onto the next thing in the queue, but I personally am this way with paper books, too. Sarah goes on to talk about single-purpose ebook readers like the Kindle and the flaws therein, which I think is a separate blog post. (I keep seeing buzz about the Apple Tablet and think “Ooh, shiny!” and I sometimes wish the web browser on the Kindle were less clunky, but I like that eInk is easy on the eyes and the Kindle fits in my purse. The Kindle certainly has flaws, but it gets the job done while I wait for the Next Big Thing.)

While we’re talking about publishing trends, there’s the Katie Roiphe essay that’s getting a lot of buzz. Honestly, I feel out of my element here. I have a lit degree and normally love this kind of analysis, but my focus was primarily on women writers. I’ve read almost all of the authors mentioned, and I’ve seen lots of reactions to the article today (everything from, “Well, of course heterosexual novelists have issues with sex; talking about sex and emotion is perceived as feminine and/or gay” to “ooh, pink infographics” to “Roiphe kind of has a point” to “why is Roiphe publishing her college term paper?”) but I still have no conclusion, just thought the essay was interesting.

Finally, via this Queerty post, I discovered this article on writing gay characters. My favorite bit is the “avoid at all costs” section. I read the list of cliches to avoid and thought, “Wow, this is basically the first season of Queer as Folk.” Bonus: there’s a list of recommended books at the end.