You Can’t Win: Publishing’s Culture of Extremes

March 6, 2015

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You can’t win.

You know that, right?

That book you’re laboring over so dutifully? The novel you’ve soiled with virtually every variety of fluid contained in your body? The one you’re going to self-publish? The one you’re going to market and sell directly to the reading consumer?

It might as well be a lottery ticket.

Actually, your odds are probably better playing the lottery.

Don’t worry. It’s the same for traditionally published authors. They can’t win, either. It doesn’t matter if they sell a book, or ten books, whether they sign with a midlist publisher or a major. Did you know even if you land that mythic hundred-thousand-dollar advance you don’t really make any money? It’s true.

No matter how much money you make as an author NO AUTHOR EVER REALLY MAKES MONEY DOING THIS.

YOU CAN’T WIN. DON’T EVEN TRY.

What an absolutely steaming mountainous pile of triceratops dung that all is.

I’m sick of it. I’m as sick of the extremist emo self-loathing cynicism about this industry as I am the ignorant wild-eyed optimism.

They both suck.

Look, writing for money, particularly writing for a living is very hard.

It really is.

You know what else is hard to do for a living?

Everything.

Everything is hard.

You’re not entitled to this shit being any easier.

Writing is really no different than any other trade, craft, or profession. Anything you do for a living requires awareness and effort and consistency. Fiction just lacks the traditional markers. No one hires you to be a novelist at their novel writing company (actually that is a thing that exists, and it’s generally a horrific sweatshop kind of deal. Don’t do it). You don’t get a weekly paycheck. You don’t have a building you go to or a company logo. You don’t have traditional peers. None of that shit.

You’re pretty much alone and have to figure out what being a professional writer means for you.

Because of that what we’ve ended up with, the state of things now, is really two core groups of people: Wide-eyed aspiring writers with completely unhinged expectations of this industry, and working professionals trying to grind the hopes and dreams of those aspiring writers into a fine paste “for their own good.”

We’ve created a culture of extremes. The newbies are so uninformed and so dangerously expectant that the rest of us become just absolute soulless bastards trying to check them on it. We think we’re helping them, showing them the “reality,” but in truth we’re projecting our own fears and loathing onto them so hard we end up hazing them out of even trying.

I’ve done it, too.

Just FYI: Receiving a hundred-thousand-dollar advance is never a bad thing? Okay? It’s just not. And anyone who makes it sound like it isn’t a good thing is an asshole. It’s like getting any new job. It’s not going to solve all your fucking problems forever. No job ever does. But you GOT THE FUCKING JOB.

Go celebrate.

And when I say “we” created this culture I’m being literal.

And do you know how we did it?

Our obsession with success and failure.

We’re obsessed with extremes, thus we’ve created a culture of extremes.

Take author-publishing (more and more I’ve come to see “self-publishing” as pejorative). You know about EL James. You know about Ellora’s Cave. You might know about Hugh Howey. You know all about the runaway, one-in-a-billion, Rowling-esque success stories in author-publishing.

And you know that anyone who isn’t those people probably failed miserably trying to be them.

We never talk about moderate author-publishing successes. We never talk about authors and books that just did okay. Maybe a little better than okay. They made some money. Maybe they’ve got a nice little secondary income stream flowing from it (that’s me. I admit it outright and proudly). Maybe they’re doing well enough to live very frugally and they’re happy with that.

Maybe they’re just well into the black.

We never hear or read about those folks. And because of that many of you will read this and go, “Who are they? Those people don’t exist. I would know.”

No, not really. There’s nothing sexy about moderate success. There’s no pull quotes or click-bait headlines to be made from it. No one’s writing a blog post or a Buzzfeed article about how an author just did okay. Oh, you might occasionally see some shit like, “Digital Sales on the Rise” or “Ebooks are the Next Big Market” or something, but no one is profiling authors who just kind of did better than break even, or did a little better with this book than their last one and are fired up for the next go.

There are really only two types of author-publishing headlines.

“THIS PERSON MADE FIFTY GAZILLION DUCATS WITH THEIR FRINGE FUCKING WHACKED-OUT AMAZON EBOOK ISN’T THAT AMAZING WHY AREN’T YOU PUBLISHING YOUR OWN BOOK RIGHT NOW SO YOU CAN BE THEM“

or

“ALL YOUR SELF-PUBLISHED BOOKS ARE CRAP THAT NO ONE SHOULD EVER READ AND THAT’S WHY THEY DON’T SO FUCK YOU YOU’RE RUINING LITERATURE AND THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY”

That’s all you fucking hear and read about. Extremist bullshit.

You never hear about the Sean Platt’s or the Johnny B. Truant’s or the hybrid authors like me or Mur Lafferty or Chuck Wendig who are doing okay or quite a bit better than okay, but are by no means millionaires (they’re both doing way better than me, by the way).

We’re just workers. We do a job. We get paid reasonably. We make our rent or mortgage and our bills.

And we get to do those things by plying a trade we actually love and creating cool things.

We just work really fucking hard around the cool things, too.

These are the folks we need to speak about and hear about. These are the folks and stories prospective authors need to hear about. It will help them form a realistic idea of what’s possible and what’s expected, one that isn’t god-like in its grandeur or soul crushing in its cynicism. And working writers need to be cured of their jaded kicked-dog bullshit in the same way. The proper response to the overblown ambitions of aspiring writers is not to try to prove to them publishing is scorched earth upon which nothing may grow or dwell.

How can we blame them for their ridiculous perceptions when all we do is inundate them with our takes, positive or negative, on the absolute .00001% of author-publishing success stories? We teach them only that this is an industry made of deities and they’ll never be one.

No one becomes a plumber because they’re trying to be like the three millionaire plumbers they read about, you know?

We don’t need to crush the dreams of aspiring writers. We just need to teach them to have realistic goals and reasonable expectations. “Make the book as good and professional as possible” is really great vague, obvious, kind of useless advice, and it’s generally the only concrete advice I see any of you working fucks give these people. That’s really just reinforcing the “you’re buying a lottery ticket” mentality.

I can’t stress this enough: Your author-published book is not a lottery ticket. YOU DO NOT JUST MAKE IT AS GOOD AS YOU CAN AND PUT IT OUT INTO THE WORLD AND FUCKING HOPE. Is there luck involved? Of course. But luck is not a marketing plan.

There are things you can do and should be doing to get a reasonable return on your investment of time, energy, and money (it is not a sin to invest money in your ebook, although it is my feeling it’s wasteful to invest money in promotion of the ebook). And that’s the first question to ask: What is a reasonable return? What do I need to make and what can I expect from the market? How many copies do I need to sell to justify my expenditures of time/money and the notion of doing this again?

Don’t start by asking what you want to get back from author-publishing.

Ask what you fucking NEED to get back.

And do your goddamn research. Take it seriously. Know what kind of book you’re writing and putting out. Who is your audience? Where do they buy their books? Where are they online? How can you reach them? And how can you cross-promote to reach beyond them? If you’re a genre author that’s fucking essential. How do you get out of the niche? What are topics related to your story that non-fiction, non-book folk are into and talk/write about online? Is your protagonist a chef? Target food bloggers and markets. Ask them if they’d be interested in reading and talking about your book to their audience. Are you writing about marginalized characters? Guess what? Marginalized people would probably fucking love to read about themselves in your book. Figure out how to make them aware of it.

It’s not rocket science and it’s not the lottery. It’s a job. It requires work and effort and forethought and planning and execution.

You can win. Whether it’s author-publishing or traditional publishing, you absolutely can win.

You just need to redefine our collectively inflated idea of what constitutes “winning.”

Winning is doing better than you expected and a little better than that next time. Winning is turning a dime into a dollar and reinvesting that dollar to make ten. Winning is not giving up because you only got a few Amazon reviews. Winning is persistence. Winning is learning from your mistakes, trying something different, and seeing a better result. Winning is perfecting the machine over time.

Winning is meeting your needs, not your desires.

Should you hope for more than that? Certainly.

But you should plan for less, and you should know how you’re going to adjust and keep going and convert that motherfucker into a win.

Don’t listen to cynics. Don’t listen to some lucky dick who made a million dollars, either.

Write what you want to write and then figure out how to most effectively market it to a targeted audience.

Moderation isn’t sexy, but it’s your sword and shield in this battle.

You can win.

I promise.