This past week, my husband writer Dean Wesley Smith tilted at a windmill and decided to define terms in this new world of publishing. He described self-published writers as writers who published books by themselves without starting a press to do it. (In other words, if you saw the book on Amazon, you’d see: The Story by Writer A. Published by Writer A.)
He defined indie publishers as writers who have started a press to publish their work and maybe the work of others. (In other words, if you saw the book on Amazon, you’d see: The Story by Writer A. Published by Some Press.)
Specialty presses, according to Dean, publish high-quality often limited-edition books, and have been around forever. He defined small presses as “a term used in the larger world of publishing to define a publisher, either an indie or a specialty publisher, who has gross sales under a certain figure. That figure tends to be around 50 million dollars. Or less than ten titles per year.”
Then he defines the publishing industry that we used to know—those big multinational corporations—as traditional publishing. I like those terms as well, and agree with what he said in the piece.
Why do I say he is tilting at windmills? Because writers need something to argue about and so do publishers. Right now, independent presses that have been around for years are angry at the “co-opting” of the term “indie” by “self-published” writers who “have no idea what they’re doing.”
Actually, the real problem that those long-term independent presses have is that they’re no longer special. Back when it was hard to get a book published outside of the traditional publishing venues, the independent press provided an essential service. It rescued all kinds of low-selling books from obscurity, making certain that they at least got the critical recognition that they deserved.
Now that publishing has become easier (note that I did not say easy. It’s not easy publishing anything, your own work or someone else’s), the old independent presses have lost a lot of cache. Some have fantastic reputations and to be published by them is a complete honor in and of itself. As long as those presses continue to have a consistent, strong editorial vision, they’ll remain important.
But they’ll have to share the name “indie” with a whole bunch of up-and-coming presses, some run by writers, others run by brand-new publishers who see a new way of publishing books that they believe should be in the marketplace.
In an area where there’s been no competition, the arrival of competitors is threatening. But it’s something that the older independent presses will have to get used to. (Some of them also need to change their business model; they’ll need to publish e-books, use POD on their trade titles, and stop warehousing the lower-end books. The indies will save money that way and guarantee their own survival.)
Dean has gotten some pushback on this piece, but not so much on his blog. People don’t argue with him in public, preferring to yell behind his back. (They do that to me too. I think that silly; if you have an argument, defend it.)
He and I were talking about some of that pushback the other night, and he said to me that he was no longer sure where he fit in his own categories. Together, we co-founded WMG Publishing, which has already grown to three employees (not us), plus a ton of support staff. We’re setting up an independent distribution company with a new employee coming on board in the spring. We have a third company that’s underway as well.
WMG is a corporation; it is not us. So we have publishing contracts with WMG, as will other writers as the years go on. Our anthology series, Fiction River, will contract with dozens of writers in the next year or so, but the contract will come from WMG which owns Fiction River. And so on.
Dean said to me, with a bit of surprise, “I think I’m no longer a self-published writer.” So I pointed at his blog, and said, “You self-publish every single week.”
He looked a bit sheepish. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “That’s right.”
And the conversation between us ended. But I didn’t stop thinking about it. I took a good hard look at my own writing career and tried to figure out who I was and how I fit into all of those categories.
Here’s what’s going on as best as I can figure:
I publish novels through more than one traditional publishing company in the United States alone. If you add my novel publications overseas, I’m with dozens of traditional publishing companies with a variety of works.
I publish short stories through even more traditional publishing venues, from fiction magazines (online and in print) to anthologies all over the world.
I publish nonfiction through traditional publishing companies as well as online in several markets—more than I realized until I finally had to admit to myself that yes, I am a nonfiction writer too. Or rather, still. I never did quit writing nonfiction, even though it stopped making my full-time living in the 1980s.
I publish novels through the independent press. If we look at Dean’s definition of small press, then WMG has been one for years. Its gross isn’t as high as that 50 million—yet—but that’ll come. There’s a lot of money to be made in publishing, which is why traditional publishers stay in business and why scammers have flocked to it in recent years.
I publish short stories through the independent press as well. I have had collections recently in specialty press venues (not WMG) and online with specialty presses.
I have returned to editing through a specialty press (and honestly, I did some freelance editing without getting credit for it for years. I would rescue editing projects).
And then I self-publish. I’ve done this blog every week since April of 2009. I occasionally put up a short story here. I’m flirting with podcasting, although at the moment that’s under WMG’s auspices, but who knows what tomorrow might bring? And I have a few projects I don’t discuss that I publish myself in venues I don’t talk about.
In other words, as a writer, I don’t just straddle two areas of publishing—traditional and indie—I straddle three. I’m a traditionally published writer who also publishes with indie presses and who manages to find time to self-publish a few things as well.
And you know what? I’ve always done that. I write what I write and publish it in the place where I hope/think it will thrive the best. I’m still stunned that I’m better off doing the business books as a blog first. I have sold more copies of the actual books (paper and e-book) than I ever would have sold through a traditional nonfiction press, especially with commercial press limitations on how long the book would be on the shelf.
Still, Dean’s attempt at a definition of the various kinds of publishing brings to mind something else: how writers seem to crave being labeled. It used to be that we labeled ourselves as genre writers or nongenre writers, fiction writers or nonfiction writers. Only a few of us tried to cross those lines.
Now we have to add a description of how we’re published—and we fight over what that means.
Just today, a friend wrote to me about the fact that some writers whom she points to this blog won’t listen to anything that I have to say because everything I do “applies only to genre writers.” I could find a lot to argue about with that statement. For one thing, I’ll wager I have more mainstream publications than the people making that snobby judgment and I’ll wager I’ve been nominated for more literary (non-genre) awards than they have as well.
But that aside, the definitions—hastily made and held firmly—allow people to dismiss anything that doesn’t fit into their worldview.
It limits them more than it limits those of us who don’t need the definitions.
As I wrote this piece, I read an essay called “The Writing Life: Editors and Publisher” by John McPhee in The New Yorker. He has a lovely digression about the development of writers. He mentions that the New Yorker’s famous editor, William Shawn, “once remarked that he thought young writers were ‘taking longer to find out what kinds of writers they are…’”
The sentence made McPhee stop and ruminate, and it did the same for me. Here’s a bit of what McPhee wrote:
The writing impulse seeks its own level and isn’t always given a chance to find it. You can’t make up your mind in a Comp Lit class that you’re going to be a Russian novelist. Or even an American novelist. Or a poet. Young writers find out what kinds of writers they are by experiment.
He’s so right. And experiment takes a variety of forms. He talks a bit about the writing forms:
It is so easy to misjudge yourself and get stuck in the wrong genre. You avoid that, early on, by writing in every genre. If you are telling yourself you’re a poet, write poems. Write a lot of poems. If fewer than one work out, throw them all away; you’re not a poet. Maybe you’re a novelist. You won’t know until you have written several novels.
One of the best things Dean and I do as teachers is something we stumbled on accidentally. I got tired of using movies or television as examples of storytelling. I decided all of my students would work off the same fictional templates. So I would assign stories (or novels) in a variety of genres for every class that I taught. Early on, one of the students realized that she was writing in the wrong genre; that she liked novels published in a genre she never read. She switched to that genre and now has a long (and successful) career there.
I had thought she was an aberration, but time proved me wrong. Many writers have no idea what genre they belong in because they read only one genre. They get stuck in that genre. Many writers have no idea what their strengths are. We all know our weaknesses because critique focuses on problems, but most of us have no idea what we do well.
Now apply this same theory to Dean’s list above. In the not-so-distant past, we all had only one road to publishing success. We had to go through traditional publishers. Some writers, like me, spread out our opportunities by writing nonfiction articles as well as fiction in the short story and novel form, but we still went the traditional route to publication.
Then the easy access to e-books and print-on-demand publishing happened, and our opportunities are endless. We can have a hybrid career like mine above or we can focus just on traditional or we can be 100% self-published. We can start our own publishing businesses or we can write for someone else’s business.
It’s really up to us.
The problem comes, in the words of William Shawn, in “finding out what kind of writer” we are. It takes a long time to figure out what interests us in subject matter; it might take longer to figure out where we’re the most comfortable publishing that subject matter.
So many writers default to traditional because that’s what they know. They’re like my former student, struggling in a system that they’re familiar with, but one which might not be a good fit for them. Yet they’re unwilling to try anything new.
And by being unwilling to try something new, they’re limiting not just their choices, but what kind of writer they can be. Maybe they write quirky offbeat stuff that’s doomed to small print runs in traditional houses, but would do extremely well in a self-publishing system. Afterall, those quirky books would stay in print, sell all over the world, and build an audience slowly, which is what quirky usually does.
Or maybe they have such a commercial book that they could be the next John Grisham if it finds the right home. They might not have the opportunity to have a huge impact on the culture with everyone talking about the same book at the same time if they don’t try a traditional publishing route.
What writers have to remember in business is that they can just say no. So you think you’re the next John Grisham. You take your book to a traditional house and they only offer you a midlist contract, not the bestselling deal you want. Say, “No thank you,” and walk away. Try a few other traditional houses and if they don’t fulfill your bestseller dream, then publish the book yourself. Or create an independent press to publish it for you, and build your own name.
Experiment, as McPhee urges. Or don’t take his word for it. This advice has been something writers have told each other for at least 400 years. In his essay, McPhee quotes Shakespeare contemporary, the poet and playwright Ben Jonson, who wrote, “Though a man be more prone and able for one kind of writing than another, he must exercise all.” McPhee adds, “Gender aside, I take that to be a message to all young writers.”
I think it’s a message for all writers. Exercise all of your options. Try new things. Don’t worry about how to define yourself. Defining yourself limits you.
Worry about whether or not you’ve given a different genre enough of a try or whether you’ve put the right amount of effort into figuring out how to properly publish that story you wrote.
If you look at what you’re doing bit by bit, piece by piece, you’ll probably end up with the same kind of hybrid that I have. A bit of traditional here, some indie there, a little self-publishing in the middle. You might end up with a preference—I know that Dean’s enjoying the hell out of his indie-publishing projects right now—and that preference might remain the same for the rest of your career.
Or it might not. One other thing I experienced in the e-mail today is a short discussion of the future with two of WMG’s employees. We tabled a discussion of a new project until the spring because we simply do not have the time to do it.
By then, I joked, things might have changed dramatically. No joke, one of the employees said. Think how different things were last spring. She’s exactly right. I would never have been expecting to be sitting here 18 months ago. If you had asked me, I would have guessed that it would have taken five years to get to this position.
Things are changing very fast. Too fast for me to try everything, but I’m keeping an eye out. I believe what John McPhee, Ben Jonson and William Shawn were discussing; I think it takes a long time for a writer to figure out what kind of writer she is.
I think it might take a lifetime.
And I hope to remain passionately undefined through it all.
This business blog remains part of my writing journey. I’m so glad that you all are coming along with me on it, because one of the perks of self-publishing this blog is the flexibility it gives me. I can respond to your questions or the events of the day or I can do a long series on contracts if I feel like it. I love the interaction and feedback with you all.
The only thing that remains the same is that my writing must earn my living. That includes this blog. It needs to pay for itself. So if you’ve learned something or benefitted from the blog, please leave a tip on the way out.
“The Business Rusch: “The Writer You Want To Be,” copyright © 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.