I’m having a fascinating spring. I’m watching two of our employees make themselves indispensable.
Dean and I have owned businesses, together and separately, for decades. Not just our writing businesses, but publishing businesses, retail businesses, and a host of other businesses. When we ran Pulphouse Publishing, we had one employee who was indispensable—Debb De Noux, whom everyone knew back then as Debra Gray Cook. When she left to move to New Orleans with her future husband, mystery writer O’Neill De Noux, we knew we needed someone to take her place, but there was no one who could do everything Debb did, and deal with me and Dean at the same time.
Because, as you’ve probably guessed, we’re not the easiest people to deal with. Allyson Longueira at WMG Publishing manages us very well. Fortunately, she’s not only Machiavelli reincarnated (I mean that in the best possible way), she’s also brilliant, talented—and indispensable.
We have another employee working toward indispensable, and it’s marvelous to see.
It’s also scary. Because, as we learned with Pulphouse, when one of the indispensable people leave the business, the business staggers for a while before recovering its footing (if it ever recovers its footing).
We’ve done a lot of growing up since Pulphouse, and we’ve learned a lot about indispensable people. I hope we’re putting that learning to good use.
It took me a long time to realize that there’s a huge difference between a good employee and an indispensable one. In my working life, I’ve been an indispensable employee twice—and once was by accident. When I worked at the radio station, I kept getting hired as interim news director. They wanted me to be the actual news director, but I wanted to write and freelance. So we would go through the process of hiring someone new who would flake out (or fail) and then I would step back into the job. Two different station managers told me that they wanted me in that position, but they could never get me to give up my writing dreams.
I finally had to move to another state to get away from the lure of that job.
At most of my day jobs, I was a good employee. I showed up on time, did my work to the best of my ability, cared while I was there, and did all that I was asked to do. Sometimes the jobs were beyond me (I was truly a crap-ass secretary), but even the jobs that suited me never had my full attention.
I suspect that even if those jobs had had my full attention, I still would have been one of the rotating faces of really good employees—someone who could be relied on, but who could be replaced.
Indispensable employees make the job their own. More than that, they become part of the business in a way that would fundamentally alter the business if they left.
Since I’ve been ruminating on that this year in relation to the other businesses we own, I noted a thought skating across the surface of my brain: Weird that writers can’t be indispensable.
The second or third time that thought skated by, I caught it and examined it, and realized the thought was wrong. (Which was probably why it kept cropping up: it bugged me.)
Writers can be indispensable, but in a slightly different context.
I came to this sideways, from my editing experience. When I started editing (in the deepest darkest dying days of the last century), I realized that if I wanted to put together the definitive volume of something—let’s say horror short stories—then the volume would need certain writers.
Back then, anthologies had to sell to traditional book publishers, and they always wanted Big Names. Big Names—or Brand Names—sell books, but only in the proper context.
So anthology editors who were editing horror would always scramble to get Stephen King or Dean Koontz (or both) to headline the edition. Nowadays, anthology editors hear the same thing about urban fantasy—Laurell K. Hamilton or Jim Butcher would be dreams, along with Charlene Harris or Patricia Briggs.
But…and here’s the big thing, I mentioned doing the definitive anthology, and sometimes that would mean putting together a different group of writers.
When I came of age in reading, the definitive science fiction anthology had to have Isaac Asimov, not because he was a bestseller, but because he was known in the outside world as The Science Fiction Author.
An inside-the-field definitive anthology needed Harlan Ellison and Ursula K. Le Guin. The writers that readers expected. The writers whose bylines gave the anthology credibility.
Recently, Cat Rambo has been posting some ads from the early 1990s on Facebook, ads for book imprints, and back then, traditional book publishers would also line up definitive midlist writers. A traditional publishing horror line, for instance, would have no cache without John Skipp, Craig Spector or Kathe Koja. Not bestsellers, but the writers of the day—the writers whose presence said yes, this editor, this publisher knows what they’re doing.
Some of that is trendiness, sure. And some of it is branding. But really, it’s because those writers had a body of work that made them indispensable to their genres.
One way to identify these writers is this: If some reader in the know has to defend her reasons for disliking that writer, then that writer is indispensable. (If the same reader has to explain who that writer is to another in-the-know reader, then that writer is not indispensable. Maybe up-and-coming, but not indispensable.)
You see this less today for a variety of reasons. Because the traditional publishing industry contracted Bestselleritis in the late 1990s and decided every book had to be a bestseller and successful midlisters needed to be jettisoned, the indispensable writers vanished. They didn’t have time to build the kinds of careers that made them known for great quality, even if they never hit a bestseller list.
That was in books. You’d never see a book imprint advertise its list today, hoping that the midlist names would guarantee quality. Now those names get hidden if they’re on the list at all.
From about 1997 to 2009, the indispensable writer vanished from the bookstore shelves and showed up in the short fiction markets. There are writers whose work is exceedingly well known to short story readers, writers whose work is unknown to novel readers.
And this phenomenon isn’t limited to one genre. The mystery magazines and mystery anthologies have their list of indispensable writers (some of whom were gracious enough to write for me in our Fiction River Special Edition: Crime). The science fiction magazines have their own list of indispensable writers, as does the tiny horror anthology field. There are an entire group of literary writers whose only oeuvre is short fiction. Eventually, they might get a short fiction collection—and the main difference between them and their genre counterparts is that the short fiction collection will be reviewed in places with larger circulations than genre publications—places like The New Yorker or The Washington Post.
So that’s one traditional publishing area where writers are still indispensable. (This also happens in literary nonfiction, in long-form journalism, in tech writing, and so on. But let’s just focus on fiction here.)
But my twisted analysis caught another skating thought—editors were trying to communicate quality to readers. Which meant that readers had already determined that these writers were indispensable.
Let me repeat: Readers had determined that these writers were indispensable.
In the days before algorithms and Goodreads, the only way to know what readers were thinking was through purchases, surveys, and letters to the editor. For example, when I was editing The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, I knew that putting certain names on the cover would make the sales go up. Yes, these names could be brand names, like Stephen King, but often they were favorites of the regular readers, writers like R. Garcia y Roberson or Esther M. Friesner.
That was a quantitative measure of a writer’s power within one publication. Often we’d get letters asking when the next Friesner story would appear or if we planned to publish Richard Bowes again. We would do our best to answer with a definitive yes.
Now, those tools remain important, but so do the algorithms and online tools. If traditional publishers were smart, they would start rebuilding their midlist, using some of these tools.
(A few companies might be moving toward that, with the announcement this week that HarperCollins, Jonathan Cape, Little, Brown, and Tinder Press will be seeking unagented submissions. At least two of the imprints handling unagented manuscripts are literary imprints. Literary books generally do not sell as well as other genres, so I see this as a sign that publishers might be (I said might) be returning to building a midlist. )
In the past, readers conferred indispensability but the gatekeepers had to notice. Magazine editors noticed first. (Which was why, when I started, new book editors would come to magazine editors to find that hot new writer.) The book editors would then nurture the young writer toward indispensability.
What that meant was that a group of readers felt it necessary to buy that writer’s next book. The key was that the group of readers had to continue to grow. Slow growth was fine, but growth was necessary.
Of course, once traditional publishing caught bestselleritis, it abandoned that thinking.
But magazine publishers never did, which is one reason that even as traditional book publishing contracted, the number of genre fiction magazines has grown dramatically in the 21st century.
Now that writers have control of their own careers, they need to understand that indispensability is within their reach. They have to grow their own readership, becoming a favorite writer of an ever-growing group of readers.
In Discoverability, I analyzed how readers approached writers. (If you want to see the first version of this analysis, check out this post.) For example, everyone has a favorite writer. But that favorite writer is not the same from person to person to person. If you don’t understand what I mean, check out the post.
What you want to become, as a writer, is indispensable to a group of readers. (Remember: No writer is indispensable to every reader.)
How do you become indispensable? That’s hard to define.
But I’m going to give it a shot.
- Don’t Settle For Good. Think about this from the perspective of jobs you’ve held. There are dozens of very good, but forgettable employees. If necessary, they can be replaced. Good writers are the same. In every city and town, good writers are trying to break into publishing in one way or another. Either they try to get published in traditional venues or they’re trying to make their way as indies. These writers have initial traction. After all, the good employee (the good writer) can become indispensable over time. But good only goes so far, because good is achievable. Moving beyond good is much, much, much harder.
- Do More Than What’s Expected. Good employees do their jobs. Often good employees do exactly what they’re told to do and nothing more. They do that one thing very well, but that’s all they do.
Same with good writers. If the current trend is vampire horses in a dystopian universe, then good writers will write a good vampire horse story with all of the “successful” elements.
That’ll sell books for a while. As long as the readers want vampire horses and as long as there’s a relative dearth of vampire horses, then the good writer will succeed. But when there’s a glut of vampire horses and the good writer does nothing unique with those vampire horses? Then the readers will move on, and the good writer will get forgotten.
I know a lot of indie writers who are running from trend to trend to trend, trying to keep up with the readers. What good employees those writers are. They’re doing the best job they can, as someone else defines the job.
The difference is that the indispensable writer is the one who defines the subgenre and the job because the indispensable writer takes the next step…
- Put Yourself Into Your Work. Yeah, yeah, you’ve heard that a million times. So many writers add just a little bit, maybe setting their vampire horse novel in their own hometown or something like that.
But that’s not what I mean. When I say put yourself into your work, I mean write something that only you could have written. So what if vampire horses are trendy? Maybe you want to write about fairy princesses, even though the trend is passé. Write it anyway. Make the readers rediscover why they once loved fairy princesses.
If you love vampire horses, then write a vampire horse novel like no other. Make it something you love rather than something you think someone else will love.
Do the work for you.
- Take Risks. Season Eight of The Voice started this past week, and in the middle of the auditions, Pharrell Williams told a singer who didn’t get picked by any of the celebrity coaches that the singer spent too much time in his own comfort zone. Good employees stay in their comfort zone. Good writers do the same.
Writers who will become indispensable some day step outside of their comfort zones all the time. That’s one reason I write for a variety of short fiction anthologies. Someone gives me an assignment and I think: I can’t write that. But I try. And I often learn something in doing so.
Or let’s look at it this way. How many times have you, as a reader, slowly stopped reading a once-favorite author because you knew exactly where each novel was heading? Once upon a time, that novelist’s voice was new to you, and so wherever she took you was fascinating. But after four or five books taking you on the exact same journey, maybe with different characters and a slightly different setting, you stop buying that author’s work the minute it comes out.
Sure, you might read that author’s work on a chocolate ice-cream night—the kind of night where you want to know exactly what you’re going to get. But eventually, you even stop doing that because some other writer has stepped into the comfort position. Or worse, you forget that you used to read that writer.
Those writers are good. But they’re repeating themselves. They’ve found a lane and a pace, and they’re staying in it until someone else forces them off the road.
- Be Willing To Fail. Good employees try not to make a mistake. They try to be perfect. But there is no such thing as perfect in real life.
There’s also no such thing as perfect in writing. (See this post or the book The Pursuit of Perfection) In fact, trying to be perfect is one thing that will guarantee that you as a writer (and as a person) will get stuck in the same groove over and over again.
When you take risks, you have to expect failure. The failures will be hard, but they’ll be survivable.
The fascinating thing about artists who fail? Those failures are often among the most interesting things they do. Think of the comedians like Johnny Carson who was best when he was bombing on stage, or the singers who manage to recover in the middle of a suddenly bad performance. Sometimes a writer’s failures point the way to the writer’s greatest success. Sometimes that failure is a test-run for a future project. Sometimes the failure happens simply because the market wasn’t ready for the innovative piece—and years later, that innovative piece gets rediscovered.
The most important thing about someone who is indispensable?
- Always, Always, Always, Strive to Improve. Never believe you know it all. Never believe that there’s nothing left for you to learn. You can always get better, always improve, always find some way to stretch yourself.
Those writers who get stuck in the perfect groove? They dig themselves in so deeply that they can’t even see the rest of the road. But if you’re constantly striving, you’re always looking around to find out how to better your craft.
Dean recommends watching The Voice to the readers who follow his blog because we both learn a lot from the professional musicians who give advice. We learn. I’m constantly reading business books—not how-to books as much as books on the history of other businesses in the arts, to see how they survived (or didn’t), how they innovated (or didn’t), and how they grew (or didn’t). I’m fascinated by that stuff, and I’m constantly learning.
I realized this past Sunday as I watched the Academy Awards that I’d been so busy building all these businesses, I had closed down a major source of creative learning for me. I had stopped seeing first-run films. I need to find time to watch movies again, because that form of storytelling often advances my own.
- Be The Best at What You Do—However You Define It. That almost sounds contradictory to “keep learning” but it’s not. Because being the best is a constantly moving target. There’s always someone better waiting in the wings, someone who learned from you, someone who has found a way to build a better mousetrap.
Take that design and make it your own. Keep striving to be the best. You might never achieve it (at least in others’ eyes) but work for it in your own.
Bottom line: Writing is not a competition. We are not fighting each other for readers. Every reader can read more than we’ll ever be able to write.
We’re actually working day in and day out to leave a body of work behind. I mentioned some names above who were considered the heart and soul of a genre twenty years ago. In the case of the horror genre, the genre vanished, and those writers could have vanished with the genre.
They didn’t. Because they all had other interests and other strengths and, at their core, they didn’t define themselves as horror writers. They called themselves writers, and they were constantly working to improve, constantly striving to be the best writers they could be.
Sometimes you’re the hot new thing and sometimes you’re the voice of a genre and sometimes you’re someone’s favorite writer. Those things aren’t mutually exclusive, but they don’t always happen at once—and most importantly, they don’t stay constant.
If I asked you who your favorite writers are now, you’d give me a list. But I can guarantee you that if I had asked you the same question when you were fifteen, you would have given me a very different list. And twenty years from now, you’ll give me yet another list.
Some names might remain the same. (Stephen King has stayed on my list since I was a teenager.) But more often than not, the names are constantly evolving. My indispensable writers are constantly changing, as more and more writers come into my consciousness.
I’m sure that’s the same for you.
You can’t force someone to like you. You can’t force someone to like your writing either.
But you can do the very best job you possibly can, take risks, occasionally fail, and strive to be better each and every day.
And if you do those things, you’ll become an indispensable writer for a group of readers. If you continue to do those things, you’ll become an indispensable writer for a growing group of readers.
Never aspire to good. Because you’ll end up at good enough.
Aspire to be the best.
Grow and learn. And keep writing. Each and every day.
Truth time: I write this blog for me. Because talking to you makes me crystalize my thoughts on a topic or research something or figure out if my assumptions are right.
That’s why I love the discussions that happen in the comments section, even if I don’t respond to every comment. I learn from you all too. Thank you for that.
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“Business Musings: Indispensable,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.