The Business Rusch: Lines in the Sand
Here’s the bottom line for me today: I’m teaching a writing workshop for professionals. It’s the hardest workshop I teach—for them and for me. Tonight I have three hours of work for class, and only four hours in which to complete it, so if anything throws me off, I’ll get less than the necessary hours of sleep…which wouldn’t be a big deal, except my health has been dicey all spring, so sleep is essential.
Yesterday, I wrote 2,000 words of a blog. Then, as I was describing it to Dean, I realized that the blog topic I had chosen was one of those topics that would get this response: one third of you would ask for clarification; one third of you would think I’m brilliant; and one third of you would tell me to do something anatomically impossible (and half of that group would also tell me to do so while flying, also impossible).
This week, I honestly don’t have time to answer all of the responses I will get, so I’m tabling that blog post until either next week or the week after. When I’m rested, no longer post-teaching cranky, and ready to have a great discussion, I’ll finish that post.
Which leaves me with a busy day and no time to write a full post—at least of the kind I normally write, filled with research, links, analysis, and all kinds of other goodies.
Instead, I’m going to talk about something that’s bothering me, something I can’t change.
Just before I entered my office, I got an e-mail from a reader who also happens to write and publish her own work (at least in part). She was deeply upset that one of her favorite writers wrote a long blog post that about the fact that all self-published books are crap. By definition. Self-published equals crap.
The reader got so angry that she not only responded (politely) on the favorite writer’s website, she also wrote an answering blog post. It too is reasoned. It too is polite. It is what I would call quietly angry.
And she has a right to be quietly angry.
Just like romance writers and readers get angry when critics say the entire genre stinks.
Just like science fiction writers and readers get angry when critics say the entire genre has no heart.
Just like mystery writers and readers get angry when critics say that the entire genre trivializes crime.
Are there bad romance novels published by traditional publishing houses? Sure. Just like there are bad science fiction novels, bad mystery novels, bad literary novels, and bad fantasy novels.
Surprisingly few truly bad novels get published through traditional publishing houses. I say surprisingly because the volume is high. Traditional publishers publishes hundreds of thousands of books each year. Some stinkers have to be in the mix somewhere.
Usually though, it’s just a matter of taste. My biggest complaint with critics is that they often don’t know how to separate their own taste from a legitimate criticism. Until they learn that, their comments are essentially useless.
No genre deserves to be dismissed out of hand, just like no publishing method deserves to be dismissed out of hand.
Last month, I left a listserve of professional writers and editors that I’ve been part of for more than a decade. A goodly portion of folks on the list told me point blank that my blog hurts writers, and that everything I do to help writers is actually destructive.
Of course, I got mad. Dean and I have spent decades teaching new writers and professional writers, often for no money, and always (in our own workshops) at a loss. We bring in other instructors, we bring in diverse points of view, and we strive hard to help writers.
So I was offended on a personal level. On a professional level, I was also rather shocked that everyone who told me I was harming people had not read my blog. After all, a good portion of this blog is for long-term professionals. I try to help them survive the changes in this industry.
One person on the listserve even told me that I should understand people in that person’s situation, someone whose life simply does not allow them to learn yet another new thing. That comment made me shake my head, and was the one that convinced me (as others piled on) that the folks on that listserve don’t read my blog. Because that very thing had been the topic of my blog that very week.
So these people were judging what I did without reading what I did or even examining it. And then they were attacking me.
If you’re going to attack me, do so because we know each other’s point of view and disagree. I don’t expect everyone to read my blog. But if you have an opinion on my blog, then for godssake, make it an informed opinion.
I’m a grown-up. I can handle this stuff. I’ve been through worse when I edited The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
But the night of the kerfuffle, I found myself with a new train of thought.
I have friends who are Muslim, friends who are Jews, friends who are Mormon, friends who are Catholic, friends who are Protestant. I am on listserves with them, but those listserves do not discuss religion.
I have friends who are Republican, friends who are Libertarian, friends who are Communists, friends who are Democrats, friends who are Progressives. I am on listserves with them, but those listserves do not discuss politics.
The listserve I was on—the one that had attacked me—was filled with publishing professionals. When I joined in the 1990s, publishing was a uniform game. There was one way to practice it and one way only. We didn’t even have to discuss it. It was like the sky. It just was. Sometimes we wondered if the storm clouds in the distance could harm us, and sometimes we discussed how to survive a blizzard, but we never ever questioned the sky.
Slowly publishing changed. Multinational conglomerations started to run it. Friends who worked in publishing houses got laid off. Writers who’d had decades-long careers couldn’t sell a book. People on that list serve started to get frustrated, and sometimes we’d talk about it.
Other people on the listserve became bestsellers. Others went to Hollywood to survive. Some went to the gaming industry. Still others gave up writing or editing altogether. We moved along.
In 2008/9, change hit the industry so hard that we all staggered. I started the freelancing blog as a chapter-by-chapter online posting of a book. Eighteen months later, I had finished that book, floundered for a while, and then decided to deal with the changes in publishing head-on.
A lot of folks from that listserve had helped with The Freelancer’s Guide. I figured they’d transition to the publishing blog, and perhaps they did. I don’t know.
But while I was writing, the publishing community fractured. The discussions about self-publishing and traditional publishing had become fraught with tension.
Hell, we can’t even figure out what to call this stuff. I like “indie publishing” because it encompasses everything from the do-it-yourselfer to the small publishing companies that have sprung up from this new wave of technology. Some folks are mad at me for “coopting” the word “indie.” I just use it the way musicians do, because my training is partly in music.
I also prefer “traditional publishing” to “legacy publishing.” I don’t even know what “legacy” means in this context, actually. (And I don’t want to. Let it go.) So I leave that word on the table. Really, I often have to revise the blog because I often type “New York publishing” when that’s not accurate either. A good third of you read this in countries other than the United States. I’ve had to move the blog to an international outlook because of you—and because of the way that publishing is changing. So “traditional” is what I prefer.
I don’t like any of my options–traditional, legacy, indie, self—because none of them are accurate.
But that’s one of those minor arguments people love because it allows them to vent their anger at something else in the blog without addressing that something else. I’m okay with that.
I do want you to note, however, that things have changed so fast, we’re waiting for our notoriously quick-changing English language to catch up.
As I kept writing this blog, the tension filling publishing became sides in an argument. The sides in an argument hardened into positions. The positions became entrenched. And I didn’t even notice. I was watching the overall changes on a vast industry-wide level. I realized that folks with day jobs inside traditional publishing had a literal vested interest in maintaining the old status quo, and that sometimes led to bad behavior.
But I did not foresee the fact that these entrenched positions had moved beyond both “entrenchment” and “position.” They had become religion or political points of view.
And suddenly, I was on a listserve with a bunch of people of varying religions and we were talking about religion.
They assumed that because I discussed indie publishing, I hated traditional publishing. Of course, most of them failed to remember that I’ve published more traditionally than many of them. On another listserve that I used to be on, I got excoriated for being a traditionally published author. Of course, most of the folks there failed to note that I had published more titles indie than they probably would in the next five years.
The blindness, the anger, the vituperativeness came from having a religious discussion with true believers.
True believers exist in every walk of life. I have a friend with whom I do not discuss computers. That person believes that Apple products are for stupid people and PC products are for smart people. It is a religion for him.
In person, I will not have a political discussion with anyone about certain hot-button topics, because if I do and we disagree and we become entrenched, I will revert to lovely helpful sentences like “What kind of idiot are you?” It will take maybe ten minutes, and my friend and I might come to blows. The fault will be mine.
I like my friends. I prefer not to fight with them over things that we cannot and will not change about each other.
Unfortunately, parts of publishing have become that way.
Some indie writers are like those reformed cigarette smokers who pull a burning cigarette from a stranger’s mouth and then excoriate them for their personal habit even though they’ve never met before.
As a person who reads American history for pleasure, I was appalled at writing bloggers who called traditionally published writers “house slaves.” Yeah, yeah, I saw the argument that these bloggers meant Roman history. Fine. Well. Good. But the language is insulting and offensive. No matter what culture you pluck it from, the word “slave,” when applied to someone who runs her own business and chooses who to partner with (a traditional publisher? An e-book distributor?) is unnecessarily harsh. It takes the argument from polite to screeching in less than sixty seconds.
On the listerve I left, I got lumped with writers who use “house slave” and other derogatory terms to describe other writers. I never have. I never would. I’m appalled at the folks who do.
But the traditionally published true believers are just as bad. Saying that anything self-published is crap is as insulting as calling another writer a house slave. The terms labeled at anyone who publishes his own work might seem more polite—“unprofessional,” “amateur”—but they are just as insulting and just as inaccurate.
Writers have moved from having constructive discussions to arguing out of their prejudices. And once people argue from a place of prejudice, they’re impossible to reason with.
So I reluctantly left that listserve. Not because I was insulted—I was then; I got over it within a day or so—but because I don’t discuss religion with my religious friends.
I dislike dogma in any form. I avoid it.
If you hand me a history of your religion, some of its texts, and introduce me to its leaders, I’ll read the documents and listen to the leaders. Then I’ll make my own decision.
If you can still respect me the morning after I’ve made my decision, even if it’s different from yours, we can have tons of religious discussions. They won’t occur to change my mind or to change yours. Just to keep each other informed about our beliefs and the way we view life.
I’ll respect you if you respect me.
Right now, these lines in the sand, drawn by writers on both sides, disrespect the other side. The sides have devolved into making mud balls and lobbing them at each other.
Those of us who stand on the line, who are trying to watch for more changes in the distance, and trying to follow the correct path for us and us alone are getting pelted from both directions. Those of us who are blogging about it are stupidly standing up, so we’ve become targets.
I kinda feel like the late Rodney King. I want to go to a microphone and say to the writing world, “Can’t we all get along?”
But I’m not that naïve. This battle has become a religious war, and those things go on for years, if not decades (and in some places in the world, centuries).
I’m not going to argue with you. If you want to tell me how stupid I am for any part of this post, and you fail to do it politely, I won’t put the comment through. If you want to convince me to join your side of the true believer debate, I won’t even if I’m leaning in your direction.
Arguing solves nothing.
Drawing lines in the sand solves nothing.
Writing blogs on your website about how stupid other writers are and how crappy their publishing plan is (whether traditional or indie) won’t gain you fans. Readers really don’t care what company published a book.
Readers care about a good story. If your story is filled with typos and bad formatting, a reader can’t read it.
If your story is priced too high or out of print, a reader can’t read it.
If you can’t sell a book into traditional publishing, but you refuse to go indie, a reader can’t read that book.
It’s that simple.
What’s going on in publishing right now, folks, is a change in delivery systems. That’s all. It’s not the War of the Roses. It’s not the Crusades. It’s not the American Civil War.
So if you want to play soldier in a religious or political war, go ahead. But you won’t get me to play along.
I have novels to write. I have students to teach (this evening, in fact). I have books to read.
I don’t have time to waste trying to convince someone with a closed mind to listen to someone else with a differing opinion and an equally barricaded brain.
Fight among yourselves, kids. I have a career to run.
Speaking of comments, I will monitor the comments this week, but I’m going to be too busy to answer each. If you have questions or expect me to expound, I won’t be able to do so until Sunday or Monday.
The comments, emails, and donations keep this blog alive. I appreciate the links and the opinions. I use the donations to gauge whether or not this blog is useful. If I were a different person, I would have shut down after my realization that talking about the changes in publishing is like talking about religion. But I think those of us standing near that line in the sand, those of us who aren’t pelting each other with mud balls, need to continue our discussion.
However, I do write fiction for a living, and if this blog does not pay for itself, I will go back to doing fiction only. So I add the donate button.
Thanks for all the support.
“The Business Rusch: “Lines in the Sand,” copyright © 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.