The Business Rusch: Standards

Business Rusch free nonfiction On Writing

Business Rusch logo webThe best essay I’ve read so far this week comes from fantasy writer Tom Simon using his H. Smiggy McStudge persona. H. Smiggy McStudge writes little posts called “Told By An Idiot,” and whoa boy, it gets a bit pointed from there.

This week’s takes on a head-shaking post on the Huffington Post by someone named Dr. Jim Taylor (really, that’s his byline), an adjunct professor of something or other at some California college. Taylor’s post is really all about him trying to figure out what makes his writing feel legitimate to him, which is a tough thing for a writer to do, even when showered with accolades and lots of sales.

Unfortunately, the post is a bit snobby and it has this paragraph:

The self-publishing industry has allowed anyone with a computer and a small amount of money to call themselves authors. Not long ago, I read a fascinating article in the New York Times (unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find it when I did an Internet search) that questioned whether self-published authors should be called published authors. Rather, the article suggests, they are book writers who have their books printed. There is, I believe, a significant difference between authors published by traditional houses and self-published books in that the latter lack the processes that we can count on to ensure a minimal level of quality, both of content and style.

Simon (or should I say McStudge?) wrote a brilliant response, using the unfortunate Dr. Taylor’s own standards against him. By Taylor’s standards, well, let me quote:

Now, Fifty Shades (of Grey) is high-quality literature, for it meets the standards of the Industry; and so is The Da Vinci Code, and so is Mein Kampf, and so is Shore Thing by Snooki: for they all have the seal of Industry approval — a real live publisher’s colophon! On the other hand, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not literature, but a vile, inferior, self-published product. It was published by the author, the reprobate Samuel Clemens, under the transparently phony name of Charles L. Webster And Company.

The post goes on from there, and honestly, I wish I had written it. It’s marvelous. Go see.

But that post, plus some other things I’ve been reading, got me thinking about standards.  What else have I been reading? Let’s give you an insight into my magpie brain, shall we?

This passage from a Vanity Fair article on Martha Stewart:

One often sensed that Stewart was embarrassed by her association with Kmart. She once referred to its executives as “K-Martians” and publically sniped about the low quality of the store’s products. “I paid the price for going mass,” she testified in March. “Very early on, the garden club of Greenwich canceled my speaking engagement because they didn’t want me to talk because I was selling product at a mass market store.”

And this from a fascinating book on the French language, The Story of French by Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow:

[Amadou] Kourama’s first novel, Les soleils des indépendances, is written in French, but the syntax is heavily influenced by that of his mother tongue, Malinké. The title itself is a regionalism: Soleil in Ivory Coast means an era, not just sun. To speakers of standard French, Kourama’s writing can seem unsettling, even unruly. In the 1960s, two dozen French publishers turned Kourama’s novel down before a Quebec house decided to publish him. [The novel] went on to be a classic of francophone literature.

And this lovely little bit of snobbishness in The New Republic from literary agent Andrew Wylie (who, I must say, is not unique among agents for his attitudes):

The biggest single problem since 1980 has been that the publishing industry has been led by the nose by the retail sector. The industry analyzes its strategies as though it were Procter and Gamble. It’s Hermès. It’s selling to a bunch of effete, educated snobs who read. Not very many people read. Most of them drag their knuckles around and quarrel and make money. We’re selling books. It’s a tiny little business. It doesn’t have to be Walmartized.

All of this loveliness came together in my head as one thing: these three diverse topics—Martha Stewart’s country club (poor baby), two dozen French publishers, and the ever-so-charming Andrew Wylie—are focused on a quest for standards.

And not just any old standards, either. But easily defined standards.

All of this disruptive technology has blown the old standards system to smithereens. As the rather vicious Vanity Fair article points out about Martha Stewart:

Today it’s hard to remember how pioneering [Stewart’s relationship with Kmart] was, but it would help transform the retail business, paving the way for upscale branding efforts by stores like Target, and, some say, changing American taste and style.

If fashion designers sell a low-cost version of their $5,000 dresses at mass market retail outlets, then does wearing a designer label impress any more? If anyone can, in the words of our friend Dr. Taylor, can “print” a book, then does holding a printed book with your name on it impress any more?

How in the world can the garden clubs of America figure out who to look down upon any more? Especially if the bastions of taste—publishers like Simon & Schuster—publish Snooki alongside Stephen King and Mary Higgins Clark and…oh, wait…those are authors who get sold at Wal-Mart. According to our lovely friend, Mr. Wylie, they aren’t authors at all.

If the gatekeepers go away, who determines the shorthand? Who decides what celebrity gets to speak at the garden club? Will anyone care about the garden club any more?

When you read articles from the point of view of the gatekeepers, you can see them spinning, trying to figure out how they belong. Take this from The Financial Times, analyzing Tina Brown’s departure from The Daily Beast:

Her departure from the Beast, which she founded in 2008, is as much a comment on the shrunken state of traditional journalism as a career turning point. She tried to revive Newsweek three years ago when it was merged with the Beast, but that effort failed. Magazines are thinning and news websites with vast traffic lose money. In these straitened times, it is harder for a brilliant, capricious, high-spending, old-school editor to thrive….Tina Brown is still big. It is the media that got small.

I love that last line, because it’s exactly backwards. The gatekeepers are small; it is the media that got big. And easy to access.

Damn the populace! When offered a choice—a real choice—they chose the things they wanted, not the best of the crap that was offered.

I feel for the gatekeepers. I do. Those who are truly defending the garden club against women who are not Our Sort, the country club against those awful non-WASPs, the publishing industry against the knuckle-draggers who, surprisingly enough, can actually read.

I feel for those gatekeepers because I’m old enough to understand how it feels when everything you’ve been taught, everything you know, and everything you do, is no longer of value.

I grew up in a world of gatekeepers, of standards, and my entire life has been about watching (via a medium that had no value when it started, television) those standards disappear. Among my earliest memories—Civil Rights lunch counter protests, women railing against glass ceilings, students demonstrating against a world that demanded they fit into a mold. The world shifted, then shifted again, and keeps on shifting.

The United States is not the same country that I was born into and each difference, each change, came with a fight against gatekeepers. When I was a child, those gatekeepers were chubby middle-aged white men who would stand in the ruins of their tiny empires and wonder what had just happened to them.

Now change has come to publishing, one of the last bastions of that system I was born into, and it’s agents, editors, and publishers who are standing in the ruins of their tiny empires wondering who let the riff-raff in.

Technology let the riff-raff in, just like it has been for the past hundred years or so. When people could get into a car and drive, they began to understand that the world was larger than the little farm they grew up on. When television news aired images of children getting sprayed with fire hoses and attacked by dogs for simply existing, people who had never thought of civil rights began to believe in and act on the cause.

The internet has been disrupting major entertainment systems for more than a decade. The music industry felt it first. The film industry has tried to combat it for years. The television industry is trying to figure out how to live with it.

And publishing—that world of garden clubs and “effete, educated snobs”—has just learned what public education did to America more than 150 years ago. Public education taught Americans to read. And when provided with books they actually want to read—oh my—they actually buy those books.

They look into the doors of the garden club, at the members in their little hats, holding their tea cups with their perfectly manicured pinkies extended, and wonder why in the world anyone would want to go into that place. Or they start their own garden clubs, with its own standards and its own hats.

Really, we’re not facing a decline of the gatekeepers so much as the disappearance of the shorthand created by snobby standards. If the Right People can’t agree on what Good actually is, then what happens to Good? Are books printed items or are they curated by the Right People?

How can we tell at a glance what Quality is any more?

Those are the real questions that people like Dr. Taylor are asking. They don’t want to know if their work is good as much as they want to know how they can impress someone with their work if there are no standards any longer.

How can you be an instantly recognizable Big Fish if the pond turns into an ocean?

The answer is, of course, that you can’t.

You need to figure out for yourself what matters to you. And if the opinion of others is all that matters, if having agreed-upon standards is what makes you comfortable, then get out of publishing.

Because the standards are gone, except for one standard and one standard only:

The readers will buy what they like, when they find it, and when they want it. Not one moment before.

How do you find readers? Publish your work. Keep your work in print. Be patient.

And forget about the gatekeepers. You’re beginning to get a sense, if you read the above posts and quotes, of what they really think about you.

Why in the world would you want to impress those people? It looks like they can no longer even impress themselves.

No gatekeeper has vetted this blog. No one has told me what to write or how to write it or where to publish it. I make the decisions here, for good or ill, and I must take responsibility for them. No more saying that my publisher made me do it, my agent thought it was a good idea, or my editor revised that sentence. It’s all me, folks.

And I’m so glad that so many of you have decided to visit this blog on a weekly basis. I greatly appreciate it, since I know how many demands there are on your time.

Thanks for the links, thanks for the e-mails, thanks for the comments, and thanks for the donations. Honestly, the donations make the blog possible. Without them, I can’t continue because the blog does need to earn its keep.

So please, leave a tip on the way out.

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“The Business Rusch: Standards” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

56 thoughts on “The Business Rusch: Standards

  1. Gatekeepers will always be flittering around arts and subjective pursuits. These gatekeepers are just butthurt because their turns and their gates are going away.

    I’m involved in self-publishing, and in touch with many, many writers who are pursuing the self-pub avenue, and a lot of them are lining up on a pathway where new gates are forming. These gates are policed by Discoverability guardians. It resembles an organic, symbiotic process where both authors and potential gatekeepers are finding each other.

    Every time you turn around a new anecdote (the plural of which, I know, is NOT “data”) pops up detailing an author’s great success with an ad-buy or a feature in a newsletter or book blog. Oftentimes, those blogs or newsletters will have criteria an author or book has to meet (“only accept books with all 5-star reviews” or “book must have no fewer than 85 reviews” or “author must not have been featured in the past X weeks”). And recently…those newsletters have been turning authors down. Authors whose books met the criteria, or who were lining up to *pay* for advertising.

    The game then becomes how to game the new gatekeeper. A new set of quality standards arises, and authors must figure out how to dance to the tune of a new piper. The consolation is that many of the giant newsletters seem to have a shorter half-life as gatekeepers, and an ad placement or feature nets diminishing returns the longer the newsletter is out.

    It’s an interesting study-subject in itself.

  2. Thank you! What a great post. The times are definitely changing and the gatekeepers’ hold is slipping. I mentioned to a group of bookish friends (who are not writers) that I was going to self-publish, just to test the waters. I expected censure, or at least skeptical looks, but they were over the top supportive. Evidently they don’t care about gatekeepers as much as I thought they would. At this point, I’d almost be more scared of traditional publishing, because then I would have to live up to the publisher’s expectations regarding financial returns and the literary standards of readers such as Dr. Taylor. I much prefer to be answerable to myself (and potential readers) in terms of quality and standards.

  3. But it is everything. Not just publishing or writing. Doctors tell you to do stuff they told you not to do ten years ago. I have lived through way too much of it. Konrad Lorenz should be required reading by law. No. That would be Fascist. Maybe Anarchy is a better choice. I am really getting nervous. You do know these are all symptoms.

  4. And one last comment before I’m outta here:

    For decades these folks have done their jobs one way, without keeping their eye on the “What’s next?” ball. They don’t know how to make a living in this brave new publishing world. I don’t think they’re the devil, but I do think a lot of these efforts at snobbery and attempted exclusionism are driven largely by sheer terror.

    And you know? We don’t have to listen to them.

    Thanks again for a great post, Kris.

  5. All true and engagingly so but you didn’t mention one other purpose of gatekeepers — an important one. Gatekeepers get to charge for passage through the gate. Gatekeepers are upset with the current state of self-publishing because they haven’t figured out how to monetize it, except for grabbing rights from authors who don’t read contracts. It will be interesting to see how they attempt to accomplish this in the future, so keep an eye out! 🙂

  6. Major publishers are being disingenuous when they complain about catering to the marketplace. Most of them are now owned by multinational entertainment conglomerates that squeeze them for every dime they can get out of them. Major publishers, the supposed gatekeepers of the industry, are paying outrageous advances on things like celebrity biographies, not independents. This has consequences.

    I know self-published writers who have paid a thousand or more dollars for editing services before they put their books out. I suspect that this is more than major publishers pay for the editing of their individual books. What does this say about relative standards?

    I have suggested that self-published authors form some kind of co-op to vet their books and give them a literary “good housekeeping” type seal of approval. Although not without its own problems (hey – I only recently had the idea, so you gotta expect a few kinks, okay?), this would create a different way of flagging the quality of self-published books for potential readers.

  7. It’s like dance. Some prefer ballet, some modern, or jazz, or tap, or ballroom, and what about Irish, or hip hop?

    The wonderful thing now is instead of being told “Baryshnikov is the best,” the viewer can decide who and what makes them happiest.
    Don’t forget that all dancers, study for years, practice their art hours a day, no matter whether or not if the powers that be decide what they are doing is “special” or not.

    It’s the same now with books. The reader can truly decide what they want to read. They go by the recommendations of people whom they trust whether that person runs a small off-beat blog, or a paper that is read by millions.

    There are more choices for readers to take recommendations from those who really “get” what they want, instead of having to depend on gatekeepers who try and “force” people to see things their way, for their own good.

    Elitist attitudes don’t work well in a atmosphere where everyone can easily access, at their own price point, their personal choice of entertainment.

  8. “How in the world can the garden clubs of America figure out who to look down upon any more?” Well said, very well said.

    Or to quote from one of their irrefutable classics, “You are a Nately, and the Natelys have never done anything for their money.” Unlike the Hiltons whose family, I believe, still lets rooms. (OK I fudged a little bit, so sue me.)

    Say, isn’t Gatekeeper just another word for tollbooth attendant?

  9. I read Dr. Taylor’s article. I thought about leaving a comment. I didn’t. I felt that he was only stirring a controversial pot in an attempt to drum up business for his work. I’ll bet Amazon got hit with plenty of visits to his book, so objectors and supporters alike could “see” for themselves, via the Look Inside option,what kind of author he is. Really, I didn’t want to give him any credence, so I let it go.

    Thanks for writing this article, Ms. Rusch–as always, you get right to the heart of the matter.

  10. I’m reading along and I realize and glorious heart of their concerns:


    1. Bless their hearts, they could try reading the books they publish. *sweet smile, bats eyes in approved Southern manner* That might give them some ideas. *even sweeter smile*

  11. If self-published authors only produce trash, why are the big publishers using epubs as their new slush piles? Just another thing that makes you go “Hmmmm….”

    And lately I have met some wonderful people who might not have approached writing at all if it meant having to deal with the incredibly intimidating world of traditional publishers. Their stories are wonderful, too, and might have gone untold if tradpub was the only avenue for expression. It’s not as if these writers wouldn’t have written their stories anyway, because these were stories that simply had to be born from these people. But without the option to bypass a world they were ill-equipped to survive in professionally or even emotionally, those writers may have left their work in a drawer somewhere. Being able to self publish allows them to share their work in a way that does not intimidate. And there, I suppose, is another standard that traditional publishing relies upon for its life’s blood: Not just “is this story good enough” but “is this writer driven enough to bet a decades-long career on”?

    Not all writers who write amazingly good stuff even WANT to make a career out of writing–which is counterintuitive to most of us who do, but it does happen. They may only have one or two stories to tell, and often the point for them was not to sell the story, but to tell it. Selling it was just a lucky perk for all of us. But I’d hate to have missed Harper Lee or Margaret Mitchell, because for all the money these people made their publishers, no editor alive could have mistaken them for production writers. That they made careers out of so little production is a tradpub anomaly, something every editor dreams of but can’t–and often won’t–bank on, especially not in the last 30 years. And that’s where writers who do not want the pressure of “going pro” stall on writing anything at all. When tradpub was their only option, they simply didn’t bother OR the work they did do didn’t ever get exposed to those who would loved to have read it. Now, they have a quieter, more anonymous option that gives them a voice without having the hungry, heartless Moloch of tradpub staring at them as fodder to feed the machine…which can be a freakin’ damned scary experience for anyone who isn’t prepared for it.

    This is a wonderful post, Kris, and comes at a time when I have been exploring my own “standards” for my work…and reveling, finally, in a world that allows me to write whatever I damned well please, picking and choose whatever level of literary “quality” works for each specific piece and allowing both my inner poet AND my inner neanderthal to range as far and wide as they may. Honestly, after the ego-swatting “success” of publishing for one of the big six, it is THIS freedom that excites me enough to make me want to write again…NOT feeding Moloch.

  12. I’m a classically trained pencil and paper animator. I don’t have a degree from any art school…I learned my craft on the job back in the mid-1970s assisting animators who had worked on Popeye and Mighty Mouse cartoons, and the Disney features Pinocchio, Bambi, and Fantasia. Back then, you couldn’t call yourself an “animator” until a recognized animator vouched for you and recommended your work to a director. Those were the legitimate gatekeepers of my profession.

    My wife Cathie and I have only self published, but our novels were glowingly reviewed by the Chicago Tribune, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal. Award winning authors Loren Estleman (4 times Shamus) and Scott Phillips (Ice Harvest) enthusiastically blurbed our books. And we were nominated for the same mystery award as Harlan Coben. Based on Dr. Taylor’s criteria, none of that scrutiny is enough to qualify us as “writers.”

    It’s curious that the “gatekeepers” of publishing aren’t writers themselves. These people need gates to keep, otherwise they don’t have any reason for being.

    John Celestri
    (The male half of Cathie John)

  13. “fly-speck font”

    How did I practice law all those years and never stumble over this descriptive term?


    This is a post to bookmark.

  14. I’m always amused when people try to hold Tina Brown up as an example of doing things well in publishing. She’s the paradigmatic example of “inability to tell one is a big fish when one’s pond becomes an ocean”… and fails to watch out for apex predators that were hiding in the ocean depth. Who loooooove bigger snacks.

    Don’t believe me? Check out the history (financial, reputational, and raw circulation) of The New Yorker for the five years before Brown took over through the five years after she left. And do the same with all of the existing publications she has touched. Nobody wants to talk about Talk, so I won’t.

    And then remember that she’s considered a “gatekeeper” by the largely less than stellar minds populating what passes for “journalism” that focuses on the publishing and entertainment industries… Frankly, the TSA does a better job and is less intrusive.

  15. Snobbism will always survive. It’s just that they can no longer delude themselves that they matter outside of their own group.

    Still, I expect that when they find themselves in a big ocean, a lot of the Big Fish will flee for smaller enclaves they can at least feel bigger inside of.

    And that’s okay. It’s called a “niche” and we all know this new world of indie publishing is great for serving niches!

  16. Viva la revolucion!

    It’s amazing how condescending some of the quotes in this article are. It seems like many of the gatekeepers exist in bizzaro world: up is down, down is up. What’s bad, though, is that most of what they say gets passed off as wisdom, and then people quote it as correct without verifying the facts.

  17. It’s a bunch of bitter, twisted people who have nothing but contempt for “the massse” and then are shocked, SHOCKED I TELL YOU, that said masses don’t like their work.

    Speaking of, this reminded me of you, and made me snort with laughter as well:

    “In an ideal world, people involved in the creation and promulgation of art wouldn’t be distracted by the need to make a living. The fact that we must do so has come to mask the fundamental reason why just about everyone in the book business, from writer to bookseller, has chosen to work in it: because we love books.”

    Poor diddums, having to make money by appealing to, ick, customers like some, like, tradesman or something.

    1. True story: At a bookstore event a fan was horrified and disgusted that I wrote for money. The work itself ought to be reward enough. Look at all these people here!

      Yeah. Look at all these people here, buying my book, so I can afford to go home and write another.

  18. I have a feeling poor Dr. Taylor won’t read Tom Simon’s lovely post (that was some mighty fine word-slingin’, Tom), and if he does, he won’t understand it. But Tom took Doc T at his word regarding standards, and if you’re looking to set standards to live by, you’ve gotta live by them. Even if that makes Mark Twain not a real author and Snooki a real one. Them’s the rules, Doc.

    Them country club bitchez wuz prolly just jellus of Martha’s sweet K-Mart cash. Also, it’s still easy to tell high-end designer merchandise from designer merch sold mass-market. Ain’t nobody mistaking my Isaac Mizrahi For Target stuff for full-out couture. So the gatekeepers really needn’t worry — we proles still look different!

    The more I hear about agents, the less I like them. I never had a ton of respect, and I’m into negative numbers now. They’re lower on my esteem scale than publicists and car salesmen.

    Sadly, it still seems to be the chubby middle-aged white men who are standing athwart progress.

    1. And speaking of middle-aged white men, I would like to point and laugh at Andrew Wylie’s head. Who the hell does he think he’s kidding with those ten strands of hair plastered across the middle of his bald head? Shave those off! I’d have trouble keeping a straight face. He wouldn’t get past my gatekeeping of standards of “not having a hair-don’t” and “not being a sociopathic douche”.

    2. “The more I hear about agents, the less I like them. I never had a ton of respect, and I’m into negative numbers now. They’re lower on my esteem scale than publicists and car salesmen.”

      Yep. Try actually dealing with some of them.

  19. Oh, my. Whatever is the world coming to? Hugely horrifying that the Guardians of Good Taste, the Gatekeepers Against Garish Excess, and the Arbiters of Awesome Culture are being ignored by the riff-raff/hoi polloi/lumpenproles who are insisting on making their own choices.

    Imagine, readers deciding for themselves what to purchase and peruse! Please excuse me while I go cry crocodile tears into my hankie.

  20. “Among my earliest memories—Civil Rights lunch counter protests, women railing against glass ceilings, students demonstrating against a world that demanded they fit into a mold. The world shifted, then shifted again, and keeps on shifting.”

    You came very close to bringing a tear to my eye.

    Thank you.

  21. It is funny how publishing is not viewed as a business or maybe people believe that business is something other than making money. The ones who point to publishers as vetting for quality remember the days of giants like Hemmingway and Steinbeck and the sort. But these authors only had such large backings because they made lots of money. The well educated were the only ones buying the books (read white males here). But when education itself was demystified and people realized class didn’t determine the level of education you could receive — voila it became every man’s game ( every woman and all nationalities and classes).

    I don’t believe when agents and authors rant about standards they are railing against the indie author alone, but strangely enough against the large variety of readers. I believe they don’t want to narrow the number of authors, but want in turn to control who reads in this country. I think the variety and lack of ‘credentials’ (upper level education and from one of the elite schools please) from the readers today actually bother agents and snobby authors (not publishers because they will take and make money from anyone). It is bigotry. And it can come from a man, woman, gay, straight…anyone who feels class and education entitles them to a buffer from the riff-raff. It is ugly and has lead to oppression around the world. This country is lucky and we can thumb our noses a bit, but take away the freedom of speech and this kind of thinking.

    Do most of us care what Snooki wrote – no. But for those who see themselves in her or find her culture interesting it was right that they had a book to hold that reflected their life – their voice in this world. Many like her would not write books, but they should see themselves reflected in this world and not marginalized to the shadows.

    1. I meant to say ‘take away our freedom of speech and this kind of thinking becomes a form of Darwinian selection.

      Sorry but I over edited.

  22. Thank you for this, Kris. The seed of doubt that I’m making the right choices by ignoring the gatekeepers (NY publishing) creeps into the rational brain from my subconscious every now and then when I see some post on FB about sales to NY but then i recall the many discussions about contracts, rights, royalty fights and all the myths surrounding publishing and the doubts disappear. I’m getting to old to handle the stress of having to take on those folks. I don’t need them in my life or my business. Back in the early ’90’s when we owned small franchised business we decided that any business venture we did in the future had to be something where we were in control. Once we got into the writing business we soon discovered there are critical parts of the business side which have significant impacts on our overall business and where our control was not absolute. But by then it was too late we were hooked. (writing is a virus which has no cure other than to write the next story lol) Then along comes 2008 and over night we gained control over many aspects of our business. No more gatekeepers, no snobs, no bad contracts, no agents, no idiots. Just us and whomever we choose to hire. Love this new world. Keep up the great work, we really gain a lot from these posts.

  23. I thank you sincerely for the link. It’s gratifying to be noticed by someone of your stature, Ma’am, and of course (to a writer) always useful to have my name mentioned to the public.

    However, I notice that the tags on this post include ‘Todd Simon’. They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, as long as they spell your name right. In case I should ever deserve a mention on your blog again, it would be pleasant if your readers could find both posts categorized under my right name.

    Thanks for reading, and double thanks for linking!

  24. I read that Andrew Wylie article a couple of days ago and the arrogance and lack of respect for readers is just staggering. And the cluelessness . . . if he’s representative of how literary agents think, their industry is doomed. Makes me proud to be a money-grubbing, knuckle dragging, aspiring book writer/printer. Who’s bought Martha Stewart towels at K-Mart.

  25. Hi Kris,

    So, so, so VERY glad for this post.

    Recently, I had a long-time professional writer whose name you would know, and I bet other writers here would know, tell me if I wanted to be a “real” writer I needed to a.) get a graduate degree in English so I could enter into the conversation Western literature has been having since Homer, b.) stop writing a lot because persistence is no replacement for talent, and c.) start focusing on the quality of my paragraphs and metaphors.

    For about two hours, I had that sinking feeling that I was completely unfit for writing. That is was a hopeless cause.

    Then I thought to myself: Did Dickens, Hemingway, or Faulkner have graduate degrees in literature? Or what about John D. MacDonald, Robert Heinlein, or Harlan Ellison?

    Then I thought: Doesn’t every single long-term professional writer I heard of say that the only way to become a better writer is by writing more. Ray Bradbury. Harlan Ellison. John D. MacDonald. Stephen King. Dean Koontz. They ALL exhort writers to write and write and write … because that is the only way.

    And then I thought: while good writing can help make a story more enjoyable to read, no one reads a novel only because of the writing. At least, MOST readers people don’t.

    And then I woke up this morning to this blog post of yours — and Tom Simon’s — and I realized where this long-term pro was coming from. This writer, who I think should know better, was simply trying to justify some standard of his. I probably should’ve thought twice about seeking this writer’s advice after this writer disparaged both TWILIGHT and THE HUNGER GAMES as books no writer worth his/her salt can learn from.

    Ah, well ….

    It’s a good lesson to learn — and one to relearn, too — that in this writing business,the only thing that really matters is your own standard of quality, your own measure of success.

    By the way, I met Tom Simon a few years ago at one of David Farland’s workshops. He’s a great, good-natured man who, when he speaks, reminds you of a rather tall G.K. Chesterton. (If you’ve read a lot of Chesterton, you’ll know what I mean.) And as his essay demonstrate, he has trenchant wit as GKC did, too.


    PS — You tagged this post using “Todd Simon” instead of “Tom Simon.”

  26. Gatekeepers will always be with us; people who want to prove their worth by excluding or belittling those who are different. Frankly, the biggest offenders these days are the Baby Boomers. In my college days, I found it tiresome to endure the Baby Boomer professors who still thought of themselves as hippy rebels against society even while they had become the elite who now looked down on any who disagreed with their views, who used their power to silence those who dared to think differently.
    You are not a rebel for listening to NPR, driving a Prius, and drinking the latest concoction from Starbucks. Bah, cut off the ponytail (its gray now anyways) and grow up. Admit your power and control your urges to intimidate and silence those who disagree with you.
    Also, I’ve noticed that gatekeepers get grumpy when people no longer want to use their particular gate. They love being able to select the “special few” privileged to enter. What happens when the crowds vanish from outside your special door?

  27. Oh, they can have their “standards.” They just have to keep using their “standards.”

    They can keep following their rules, double checking their language, etc… and keep writing books.

    Because the Internet allows for BOTH their “standards,” and any other standards that anyone wants to use, to exist together at the same time.

    In their echo chamber however, there just won’t be as many people listening, because those people can find the author who couldn’t live up to the “standards” of Dr. Jim Taylor before.

    Now, everyone has the opportunity to be found, everybody has the opportunity to publish according to whatever “rules” they want to follow.

    There is choice… and that’s not a bad thing. 🙂 It just rattles a few cages is all.

  28. I found that Andrew Wylie snob-talk from Passive Guy’s blog. Had me wanting to spit nails or something on his arrogance.

    And, to top it off, in one breath, he rails against Amazon, but then in the next breath he talks about how he partnered with Amazon to republish a bunch of books by those he agented over the years…and still is the agent of record for.

    Thanks for the links to the others. 🙂 I’ll have to check those out too.

    1. Welcome to agents, Nancy. I heard one call her bestselling author a crappy smut writer the day before selling the book the agent hated for mid-six figures. Oh, and the agent didn’t “build” the writer. She was the agent the writer chose after the writer became big and decided to hire an agent. [sigh]

      1. Oooh, oooh, just had a thought:

        For every adverse comment an agent is heard to make in public about any work they represent, they loose their percentage of one royalty payment.

  29. I love this blog post, Kris. Thanks !

    “How can you be an instantly recognizable Big Fish if the pond turns into an ocean?

    The answer is, of course, that you can’t.” Yeah !

    I think I may try to jump from my pond to the ocean of english (self) publishing in a few months. Yes, I know, I must be out of my mind. 😉

  30. Great post, Kris.

    I was discussing this in the comments at The Passive Voice a week or so ago. Those so-called “standards” that we grew up with are themselves fictions. They simply reflect the tastes of whomever has a chokehold on distribution at that particular moment in history. And as you showed, that is always changing.

    This is basically the conflict between absolutists and relativists. In grammar, it’s the conflict between prescriptivists and descriptivists.

    Right now I’m listening to the lectures of linguist John McWhorter — highly recommended, BTW, very funny — and he shows just how futile it is to try to maintain “correctness” in something as volatile as language. This applies to publishing too.

    1. Oh, I’ll have to look for those. I listen to news while cooking, but lately it’s been making me made (the news, not the cooking), so I think I’ll switch to things like lectures and podcasts. This sounds like one I’d be interested in.

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