Jun 7, 2012

The Wild West

A few years ago, my day job was pretty much your stereotypical technical support position. Taking calls, answering questions, helping internal customers (also known as "employees"), and fixing computer problems. Oh, and there's also the re-routing of about a dozen or more calls a day who were sent to the wrong department, but, eh. But beside the occasional and frequently aggressive hysterics that IT support persons have to experience, the element that was the most difficult for me was the part of just being at work by 4 am, 5 days a week. I'm not really a morning person - well, I am, provided that I can spend my morning sleeping. But, being at my desk, logged into the phones and my desktop computer, ready to process another bundle of technical nightmares....well, some days there just wasn't enough coffee in the world.

On several occasions, I would simply find myself sitting at my desk, without clear recollection of having gotten up, dressed, and driven to work. And yet there I sat, pants (thank god), shoes, socks, shirt, and so forth. Those days were a little unsettling. I mean, I clearly had driven there (though finding your car in the parking lot when you have completely forgotten where or how you'd parked it can be a bit of a challenge), but I'd obviously been pretty half-asleep along the way. Yikes, right?

I was reminded of this the other day when a friend of mine and I were talking about the progress I've made in writing over the past couple of years. Though, granted, it's still evolving, things are a fair sight more established and blossoming than they were even a year ago. But it occurred to me that I've come a long ways and hadn't really pondered how I'd gotten here. I've been asked by a lot of "aspiring writers" (and please, for the love of god, you've really got to avoid ever saying that about yourself, trust me.) what the secret is - both to getting projects done and to getting attention as a writer. And to be honest, I struggle with settling on any one answer to that question.

I don't think this is a bad thing.

Another author friend of mine compared the current period of DIY-ism that can be seen in music, writing, film and even industries previously believed to be safely in the hands of big business like video games, to the Wild West and the time of the Gold Rush. Just look at the frenzy - everyone with two metal pans to rub together has a chance to strike it rich, even though in the end only a few will strike true paydirt. I've seen a few people compare self-publishing to the lottery - many people play, and almost nobody wins. You want to be rich? "Then, play by the rules, and get in line like everybody else. Maybe you'll get lucky."

Publishing is turning out to be less like the lottery, however, and more like the gold rush. The numbers seem to back this up - although some of the larger publishers and chain bookstores have been claiming a drop in numbers, when you factor in all the various ebook and POD suppliers, book sales are actually higher than they were, say, 4 or 5 years ago back before the technology of ebooks, internet marketplaces and self-publishing (as opposed to Vanity Press companies) really got a head of steam going.

Until this time, it was very challenging for a new author to get published, but over the years a very particular path has been laid out for them: write; get short stories published; work hard; get recognition; prove yourself; find an agent; get published. A simple enough path made all the more complex by the sheer quantities of competition.Thousands of unpublished manuscripts are read and denied every week at each level of the publishing industry: agents, editors, publishers. The US alone has enough unpublished authors to fill a mid-sized American city, and only enough agents, editors and publishers to fill a football stadium. Those aren't good odds, are they? And with so many layoffs in these same publishing houses, the ratio of author:publishing contact is only getting worse. So what happens to these unprocessed, unpublished manuscripts? If you ask the proponents of conventional wisdom, the answer boils down to "if it's good enough, it'll get published. Just keep trying." This is a silly distillation, and, also, complete bullshit.

It is, however, the quickest way they can think of to clear off their desks and get people to stop emailing them.

Let me clarify something here. I've submitted a couple of my own books into the Query mill, and in spite of really positive responses, they all ended up saying roughly the same thing - discarding the dozen or so "thank you but no thank you" form emails their own time constraints require of them. Only a few agents didn't even respond at all, but I hold no ill will towards them, either. In fact, to all the agents, editors and publishers who've told me "no thanks", I'm not mad at them. Seriously. I'm not even upset at the process. It's unfortunate, but it's the best we've had for years at trying to process the thousands and thousands of manuscripts all yearning for publication.

The common answer I received, by the way, was NOT a form email. Several agents and I talked at length about my books, and they always really liked the books, but just didn't know how to market them. The characters, the world, the history - they loved them all. But how do you market a young adult science fiction fantasy adventure with a hint of steampunk and a subtext of cultural revolution, housed in an alternate history dystopian civilization? Last time I checked, Barnes and Noble didn't have a shelf for that.

And let's be honest: when it comes to the present state of the "traditional publishing" industry, it's all about fast returns and the price of real estate. I get that, I do. It's about crunching numbers and determining investment over ROI, and figuring out what it will take to bump your company's shares up a point. It's about making your quarterly goals and lifting the overall value of the company. But for me....well, I can either consider myself a chunk of grist to be cast into the mill and cross my fingers for that perfect combination of agent/publisher that will see the inherent value or potentiality of me or my books.... or I can go out and make it happen on my own terms.

One of the really interesting things I've noted along the way is the general wailing and gnashing of teeth from people who hold to the "traditional" route. Oh, they sound angry! But honestly, I can look past their general disdain couched within their "friendly advice" to see what is going on. They're justifiably nervous about the changes to an industry they previously enjoyed in a quite solitary capacity. Where once there had been relatively few truly successful publishing houses, suddenly there was an explosion of business popping up at every turn. All the rules of publishing genre were smashed. People were coming out with digital books for a fraction of the price of their paperback counterparts - and bypassing hardcover books entirely! And what's worse, so many of these "publishers" were the authors themselves, making 35-70% or more on every unit they sold! Good god almighty! It's the end of the world, they'd cry, rending their garments and coating themselves in ash and sackcloth. Or, like we now know it, snark and condescension. (I really wanted to include links here to a few of the big offenders, but I won't. They have their opinions, and I have mine. In the end, does it even matter if either one of us is correct? History would tell us we're probably both wrong.)

Change can be a little scary, sure. But I'm not here to either bury or praise Caesar. I'm here to tell you why I think that it doesn't have to be an "either or" situation. This is not Thunderdome.

Amazon - just like so many successful franchises - started with the notion of finding a new way to do the old things. It looked at the internet and saw that it was a virtually untapped hemisphere of marketing potential which gloriously catered to the forward-thinking and geek-centric. It addressed people's inclinations towards getting things now, to liking to shop but not to mingle - it offered a service in a way Amazon supposed would not immediately catch fire, but, in time, would.

People didn't always feel they needed to call out for pizza. One hundred years ago, did people look at their phones and say "gosh, if only I could pick up this infernal contraption, and place a call so that a fresh hot pizza would arrive here within 30 minutes or less?" No, not really, no. but someone thought so. In 1960, Domino's started up, and here we are more than 50 years later and it's everywhere. I was in Mexico City when two of its first franchises in the country opened - I know this because I knew one of the managers - and they did more business in their FIRST MONTH than any other Domino's store in the entire world. Just like Ewan MacGregor's character said in "Robots": find a need, fill a need.

And they weren't alone - there were other companies (with new ones popping up every day) who tried to jump into the maelstrom of internet entrepreneurship, only to be dashed against the Scylla or Charybdis along the way. One might say our entire national culture has derived from an almost Darwinian practice of letting the victor have all the spoils. But in the end, Amazon remained as the essentially undisputed champion of internet bookstores.

That's when they did something really weird. They reached out to authors who weren't getting published in the old standard way, and gave them the chance to get published, on their own merits. In the truest example of corporate-sponsored capitalism, everyone who writes gets a chance to be read. Amazon reportedly now has millions of self-published books, both in ebook and paperback format, created, developed and priced by the authors. Successful authors can even be picked up by the larger publishing houses, after an author finds a level of success on their own. Or even successful authors can opt to work with Amazon to publish all their work, including the backlist of their work, long since abandoned by the publishing houses.

Marketing and genre-bending opportunities are everywhere, now. An author need not shove their work into a marketable genre, just on the hopes of getting fitted into the shelves. They can write their story as the story demands, and then use keywords to help direct shoppers to their work.

There's that wonderful scene in Star Trek 2, where the crew of the Enterprise and Khan are playing a lethal game of hide-and-seek inside a sensor-blinding nebula. They out-maneuver Khan, who, unused to the challenges and opportunities of deep space tactics, does not think of looking up or down for the clever Federation. It's a bit of a limiting parable, but one I think very much applies to so many of these companies that are unable or unwilling to access the parts of their mind which might allow for new and exciting revenue streams or the monetization of the internet.

To them, I want to say "snap out of it, you gol-darned idjit! There's gold in them thar hills!"

And to the rest of you, readers and writers alike - I say thank you for embracing the world of the new, and for wandering with me through these exciting lands of adventure and suspense. What will tomorrow bring?  Honestly, we don't know. None of us do. There's no magic bullet, no prophetic prognosticator capable of knowing exactly what's going to work and what's going to happen and what won't.

What I do know is that the future we make, we're going to make together.

More to follow.

Is that worth demonizing?


Leon Davis said...

As I was reading your blog and you will writing about the difficulties of getting published even thou the number are greater then before ebook and stuff

I love the way you state "Change can be a little scary, sure. But I'm not here to either bury or praise Caesar. I'm here to tell you why I think that it doesn't have to be an "either or" situation. This is not Thunderdome."

Ren Cummins said...

Thanks! I'm honestly surprised by all the "Self-Publishing will destroy publishing!" and similar comments. There doesn't just have to be ONE process, honestly.

Actually, I'm surprised I didn't go with a Highlander reference, there. Highlander doesn't get nearly enough love.

well, I guess there can be more than one blog entry, too. Heh.

Ren Cummins said...

Also - thanks for reading and commenting! It's always so quiet here.

It's a bit creepy. 5000+ views, and, like, 4 comments. That math confuses me.

Jack Brummet said...

I get between 600-1000 views a day on my blog, but only a few comments per week. But after reading many of the comments on other sites, it may not be a bad thing!

Ren Cummins said...

Okay, that's a very good point. I'll stop whining. :)