Business Musings: Book-Shaming

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I run another website, Women in Science This week, while I’m also curating a Storybundle titled Women in Fantasy, I asked the writers involved with that bundle to write guest blogs about their favorite authors.

I urge you to check out what the women have written. For one thing, you’ll discover several writers that you might not have heard of. For another, you’ll see a discussion something I had forgotten all about: Book-shaming.

I had even forgotten the term until Laura Anne Gilman mentioned it in her post, which will go live on Saturday morning.  In that post, she defines book-shaming better than I could. She writes about discovering books science fiction and fantasy books as a teenager, and the response she got from the adults around her:

I didn’t want Martian princess or philosophical musings under an alien sky, Le Guin’s elegant questioning, Donaldson’s cynicism, or Tolkien’s gorgeous language.  I didn’t even want dragons, per se.  I wanted books that weren’t afraid – or ashamed – to lead with their emotion.

But trying to explain this to people, especially as a female teenager… even from the most well-meaning people, I got a significant amount of book-shaming, as though an emotion-led book somehow wasn’t as acceptable, that it was lowbrow, downmarket, teenaged female.

Oh, I remember those days. I read everything I could find, much to my parents’ chagrin. (And they were big readers.) They wouldn’t tell me not to read a book—although my dad’s remaining three hairs stood on end when he found me reading his Harold Robbins novel—but my folks would often look down their noses at me and say things like, “You’ll understand that better when you’re an adult.”

Which was like a red flag in front of a bull, let me tell you. In those days, I was a lot more polite than I am now, but just as stubborn. So I would often take the books offered instead of what I was reading, read those as well and continue reading what I want. I remember reading All The President’s Men in my junior high school English class, my parents’ hardcover volume tucked inside my English literature text. My teacher caught me, and told me I wouldn’t understand that book.

He was wrong. (And booooooring.)

Laura Anne apparently did not continue reading what she wanted, at least right away. She added, “It took me a long time to learn how to tell those people to fuck off.  And I mourn every month of the time I didn’t, where I forced myself to read books I don’t want…”

Book-shaming. I’ll be so happy if that term disappears because we no longer need it.

Right now, however, I think it has moved to another part of the industry. Writers are suffering a lot of book-shaming right now. Or should I say publishing-shaming.

Once upon a time in a land far far away, there was only one method to publish books and have those books read by more than five people. We now call that method traditional publishing. Back in those dark days, there were dozens of traditional publishing houses (instead of the Big 5 and a few hangers-on we have now), so writers had some choice there.

A handful of daring writers would self-publish a book. Mostly, those writers were also advertising executives or salesmen in their daily lives, and knew how to move product.

A handful of delusional people would self-publish their book (singular), take it to a handful of bookstores, get turned down, and leave that poor book (and its 5,000 companions) to rot in a garage. Many of the delusional went to a vanity press, one that would make an inferior product with the knowledge that the only money the press would make would be off the writer, not off any reprints. (So, yes, Virginia, there were scam vanity publishers.)

The daring writers, who would sell out their initial print run, would often get offers from traditional publishers and would then sell the book to them. Only a handful of the daring writers, almost all of them nonfiction writers, would continue to self-publish and would make a tiny fortune.

But no one discussed the successful self-publishers. Because they were “lucky” or they were “talented” or they had “the right topic.”

Or maybe, as a friend pointed out the other day, they were smart and understood that publishing was a business like any other. After all, no one says someone who opened a retail store was vanity-retailing.

Okay. I get ahead of myself. But you know where I’m going.

The methods that bookstores, retail outlets, and other places used to get books was convoluted and arcane. It took a bit of wizardry to get any kind of book into those systems. Traditional publishers had mastered that wizardry. They had, in a few cases, gone into business with the wizards.

Dean and I learned the arcane practice of book distribution when we started Pulphouse Publishing nearly 30 years ago. Because we learned that practice in the bad old days, when publishing was hard and distribution required climbing mountain peaks in a blizzard just to consult with some damn oracle who might deign to take your book and pay you pennies on the dollar to distribute it (with returns, of course), we were not afraid to take on indie publishing in the early days. Indie publishing seemed—and it turned out to be—a lot easier.

However, when you’re dealing with a closed system like traditional publishing used to be, it’s exponentially more difficult to operate outside of that system. The system becomes Important in and of itself. Writers use all kinds of words to describe the system—from gatekeepers to traditional publishers to…well, let’s not go there. The fact remains, however, that a closed system forces anyone who wants to work inside it to do a special dance just to make sure they can come to the party.

Last night, Dean was channel surfing while he was waiting for me to join him in front of the television, and he happened upon a bio of country superstar Carrie Underwood on AXS TV. The program, called Carrie Underwood: Country Idol, actually came out in 2014. (You can download it here, if you want.)

The section we watched discussed how she broke into country music, and then how she became an accepted superstar in country music. Note the word “accepted.” The fans had already accepted her, but Underwood came from TV—and not just TV, but a reality TV show (worse!) American Idol. The country music community (read: the power brokers) believed she was a manufactured phenomenon, and didn’t want to deal with her.

Even after selling a lot of albums (I missed the numbers) and having a huge fan base, she still had to prove herself to the power brokers. She jumped through hoop after hoop after hoop to prove she loved country, the way that they wanted her to love country.

I’ve also been reading Peter Guralnick’s biography of Sam Phillips, The Man Who Invented Rock ’N’ Roll. (Phillips discovered Howlin’ Wolf, Johnny Cash and, of course, Elvis Presley, among others.) Early in the book, Guralnick depicts in great detail the lengths Phillips’ small company (before Sun Records) had to go to in order to court these power brokers, many of whom were simply small radio station owners in the Deep South.

The thing is, in an entrenched system like music was, and like traditional publishing was, these people, who were essentially untalented business owners or employees of corporations, took on great importance. And then they came to believe they were important.

Once upon a time in a land far far away, these power brokers actually had a modicum of power. And they used it or abused it with startling regularity. When the power brokers said, “This type of book is no good,” then the people who bought books for libraries or who stocked major bookstores or who bought for The Book of the Month Club (once an important institution) listened to them, and wouldn’t acquire that book.

Once upon a time, my friends, this snobbery was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Oh, sure, there were a lot of us who read other books. Many people didn’t admit it to their friends. I did, if asked. But mostly I kept quiet about what I read. So did most of the sf readers I knew and the romance readers I knew. The fact that the snobs hated those kinds of books built both the sf community and the romance community as havens from book-shaming.

But now these power brokers no longer have real power. They’re losing their grip on taste-making. Not because they have lost their positions of power, but their positions have lost that power. See my post last week on the actual publishing numbers.

These days, people who self-publish or who run indie companies to publish their books, make more money and have more fans than new writers coming up the traditional way—even with all the backing of traditional publishers. Books with tons of push, shoved into the old taste-maker system, no longer become the books discussed in every living room and coffee shop. Book clubs discuss indie books these days as well as traditionally published books. Libraries buy indie books for the shelves. So do bookstores.

But the shaming has moved to new heights. People in those old positions of power worry that most of the indie published books are crap. They believe that readers have no taste and must be led to good books. These power brokers are afraid of word of mouth, unless the words come from their mouths.

So they’re shaming writers. These former power brokers, many of whom have lost their jobs in traditional publishing, are telling writers that they need development editors to make sure their finished book is “good.”

(Why can’t readers tell them that—by buying the book? Or maybe, if the writer’s really nervous, a few trusted first readers who are not writers and won’t tamper with the manuscript?)

Over and over again, writers hear that they shouldn’t self publish. They’re not “ready.” Or they wouldn’t know how to write “quality.” Or they don’t want that “stigma.”

The fear of the stigma of self-publishing sends many new writers to equally new small presses. Many of these presses are worse than their traditional publishing counterparts. These presses don’t know what they’re doing, they have no idea how to design or publish a book, and they don’t understand contracts. As I wrote a few weeks ago, the worst contracts I’ve seen lately have come through indie published writers and the indie small presses. And that’s a crime.

Once upon a time, the power brokers could label self-publishing “vanity” publishing and get away with it.

But now, the true vanity publishers are the traditional publishers. Writers make less money going through a traditional publisher than they would doing the work themselves. The writers often lose their copyrights in that book, and they often sign a non-compete clause which effectively prevents them from making a living at their writing by writing other things like a real writer would do.

The only reason to go with these big publishers now is ego and vanity.

Ego first: writers who want to be taken care of, writers who believe they are so talented they deserve to be catered to, go to these traditional publishers. These writers want to be famous and they want to be treated like Someone Important.

Those people wouldn’t make it in indie publishing, so let them go. They will implode and no one will cater to them and they’ll be gone.

But the writers who go because they need the “stamp of approval” from traditional publishers—well, that’s just insecurity. The insecurity is easy to describe: all of us writers have it. We are constantly worrying that our work isn’t good enough. Newcomers worry and so do old-timers like me.

But the writers who go to traditional publishers these days need to prove to themselves, their friends, and others, that they are great. And they believe the only way to prove that is to be published in the old system, by people who used to have power, once upon a time.

These writers believe it’s more important to have that stamp of approval and lose everything than it is to have readers who love their work and actually pay them for it.

It’s a hard transition to make. I get it. Most of us grew up when the power brokers actually had power. Dean blogged about that just this month.

But now the power brokers don’t have power, and they treat writers poorly. Worse than poorly, actually.

Many writers who were indie published who then got a traditional contract for the same book (back in the days of the gold rush) had to suffer through rewriting a book that had sold tens of thousands of copies because some young editor at some Big 5 publishing house deemed the book “not good enough.”

In other words, thousands of readers were wrong, and this little editor, on the job for maybe five years, was right.

The vanity comes from the Big 5 themselves. They believe that they know more about good fiction than writers, more than readers, more than anyone. These publishers aren’t even aware that the books they sell have readers. Everything the publishers do is geared toward what they call “the trade channel,” the distributors, the bookstores, the handful of critics who still review, and that’s it. Traditional publishers are still practicing the arcane magic of distribution, long after distribution system they’re playing in has been disrupted so badly as to be unrecognizable.

As these former power brokers write and talk, it becomes increasingly clear that they don’t understand the world they find themselves in. I’m not going to embarrass the pundit that I saw from last week who thought Author Earnings was using questionable data gathering tactics with their spiders and their bots and their scrapings of websites, only because I’m not sure the pundit I saw was the first one to make that ignorant remark.

Apparently these pundits still live in the 19th century, and don’t understand how data gathering is done by organizations like Google or any other tech company that samples things on the web. It’s rather sad, really. These poor former power brokers are sitting in their buggies, watching automobiles go by, and denying the existence of the internal combustion engine.

What is the vanity press now? Nonexistent. Some people persist in calling indie publishing vanity press publishing and those people are wrong. There are also scam publishers, who try to make money off writers, but no one calls those publishers vanity presses. In fact, many of those scam publishers are side corporations of the Big 5 publishing companies. (Sigh.)

Now there are simply competing ways for writers to get a book into print. Some writers just upload their single (badly written) book and hope a miracle will strike. They’re as delusional as those old-timers with books moldering in their garages.

Some writers send their single book or books to agents, hoping someday the agent will land them a big publishing deal. I’ve dealt with this a lot on my blog. I want the good writers to actually learn their business, and I want to wish the other writers good luck as they strive to win what is essentially a lottery.

Some writers actually learn the craft, learn the business, and self-publish everything they write. Many of these writers make a decent living at what they do. These writers have actual readers. The writers nurture their readers, respect their readers, and do the smart thing—by writing more books. (Which readers love.)

Writers who learn the business of writing and the business of publishing actually have long-term careers in publishing, as opposed to writers who want to traditionally publish their one book to get that rubber stamp of approval from the power brokers.

Which brings us to shaming.

As I prepped for this blog today, I read article after article, opinion piece after opinion piece, shredding self-publishing. The language in these posts is condescending. The implication is clear: Self-publishing is for losers.

And yet, there’s a tinge of fear in all of these posts. The power brokers understand that things are changing. They can feel the change all around them, but they don’t understand it.

Rather than try to understand it, they’re shaming writers, playing to that writer insecurity. These former power brokers keep trying to convince writers who self-publish that they’re embarrassing themselves, that they’ll never amount to anything. Oh, sure they’re making money, but from whom? Readers who will read anything.

Let me be as blunt as I can here.

People who shame you are trying to control you. They want you to behave in a certain way. Rather than telling you to behave that way, they’re striving to subtly change your behavior by embarrassing you, and making you think less of yourself.

These people are trying to place themselves above you, to make you act the way that they want you to act, even if it is not in your own best interest. Shame is a particularly useful tool, because so many good-hearted people want to behave properly. These good-hearted folk don’t want to offend in any way. Yet shamers try to convince the good-hearted that they are offending or at least, making themselves objects of ridicule.

There’s an entire psychological area of study about this kind of shaming. It’s subtle, it’s nasty, and it often hurts the people it’s aimed at. Usually, shame is used by the powerful to keep the less-powerful under their thumbs.

That’s why shaming has suddenly become a huge part of the public discourse about how writers should publish their works these days. The powerful are losing their hold on the industry. This scares them. The language is getting more and more belligerent (and hard to believe) as the powerful realize they’re going to lose this battle.

The subtlety is going away. And soon, they’ll simply be shouting in the wind.

The problem is that so many writers have accepted the shame. They self-publish, but they’re embarrassed by it. They want recognition, but the old-fashioned kind that has nothing to do with real readers and everything to do with an out-of-date system that doesn’t even respect them.

I’ve worked in “shameful” genres my entire career. I’ve written books that power brokers have told me not to write, because those books will embarrass me and ruin my career. I’ve internalized some of that shame. Like Laura Anne above, it took me a long time to tell some kinds of people to fuck off.

Sometimes I have to do so quietly, alone, in my office, as these shamers crowd in. What I have to realize on a sometimes daily basis is that I brought them into my office with me—and then I have to kick them out.

With the changing world and the discovery that the wizards are just little men from Kansas who got blown off course in a hot-air balloon they couldn’t control, what we writers have to realize is that we now have choices. A lot of them. And those choices have nothing to do with the Big 5 publishers or power brokers or Important People.

Those choices are personal. They’re about the kinds of careers we want. Some of us do want to sell just one book to a traditional publisher. As long as we’re honest about the reasons for it, then it’s a good choice. Some of us want to make a fortune at our writing. As long as we are willing to work hard at it, it’s a good choice. Some of us just want our work read by as many people as possible. As long as we’re willing to continually improve our storytelling craft, that’s a good choice too.

There are no bad choices—as long as we approach what we do with confidence and education. Know what you’re giving up to go traditional. Know how much work you’re taking on when you go indie.

Don’t accept someone else’s opinion as gospel (even [shudder!] mine). Make your own opinion.

And most important of all, don’t waste time living someone else’s dream. Live yours.

In order to do that, you need to know what your dream is. But once you’ve figured that out, believe in it. Work toward it. And own it.

It’s yours.

It may not be mine. It might not be your family’s. It’s yours.

Be proud of your dream. Be proud of the work you do. Be proud of your choices.

As long as you believe in yourself, the shamers can’t control you.

Be yourself—and I guarantee you that no matter what you choose to do, you will eventually succeed at it. Because you’re not doing it to impress someone else. You’re doing it for love.

And that’s the key to everything.


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“Business Musings: Book-Shaming,” copyright © 2016 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © 2016 by Canstock Photo/ lenms.

27 thoughts on “Business Musings: Book-Shaming

  1. The version of this that I’ve been coming up against lately is the whole ‘you shouldn’t publish your first book,’ coming from a variety of sources. The subtext being that it’s awful and you’re too green and silly to see that, and you’ll ruin your life by putting it out there yourself. (Because no agent will take you on if you’ve self pubbed to mediocre success apparently.)

    Even a few months ago this advice was worrying at me. But the more I learn from people like you, who are out there independent publishing, the clearer it’s becoming that this is just another way traditional is trying to grasp for control over the system, essentially saying that a writer isn’t good enough until they say so.

    But to be honest I still have to think of these first few books as a learning experience, and tell myself that it’s a good idea to practice on these ‘awful’ books so that when I finally write something good I’ll be all set to publish it well. The residual shame can go deep.

    1. Maree,

      Let the readers decide. “Beginning” writers are not created equal. Some can write powerful first novels, and some can’t. Readers won’t buy books that aren’t to their taste. Remember, they can sample now, and they will. The early books will allow you to practice the publishing side of things, covers, blurbs, and all of that. So put them up. It won’t hurt you and it might help you.

  2. I enjoyed your post, but have to say that I don’t see why it has to be an us or them argument. I’m a writer, I write all kinds of books including romance, erotica, science fiction romance, and cozy mysteries. These days I get to choose which model of publishing best fits the product/book I am trying to sell. Some of the smaller niches, science fiction romance, for example does better when I self publish it, my cozy mysteries, however benefit from an experienced marketing team at a NY publisher.
    Every single person I have met who works for a publishing house is just as passionate about producing great books as every writer. The problem these days is that most publishers are owned by huge conglomerates who do not understand how the business works and do just see the profit to be made. But I also see this issue in self-publishing, I don’t think the mighty amazon really cares about individual authors either, do you?. 🙂
    And book shaming, publishing shaming has been going on ever since writers put pen to paper, there are always people who are jealous of others success.
    I just want to write great books. The method of delivery is irrelevant. I do what is best for the success of that project. No one can make me feel ashamed of my choices-whatever they are-unless I let them. 🙂

  3. My mother was the editorial half of a small subsidy press for many years. Consequently, I went into my writing career with a somewhat different perspective on the business than most. Because while all vanity presses are subsidy presses (that is to say, the author pays the cost of producing the book, rather than the publisher) not all subsidy presses are vanity presses.

    The difference is that a subsidy press sold publishing services to authors. The author continued to hold the rights, the press did editorial, proofing, layout, and printing for a set fee. The press that my mother worked for also had a catalog that they published and did some promotion.

    That particular press existed because small print runs in the days before POD were simply not cost effective for major publishers. The press that my mother worked for specialized in local histories, corporate histories, niche technical works–books that had a market that was too small to interest a large publisher. One of their bigger sellers, for example, was a guidebook to the Oregon Trail that showed how to retrace the trail on modern highways and where to stop along the way for historical points of interest. History buffs loved it, and it was considered a definitive work, but there aren’t enough history buffs to interest a Big 5 publisher.

    Many of the authors who paid my mother’s company to publish their books did make a living from writing–although the successful ones usually did lectures or teaching in addition to writing.

    Now the technology has changed, and much of what the press did can be done by authors themselves. You don’t need to own a typesetting machine to typeset a manuscript. “Cut and paste” no longer involves an exacto knife and a pot of glue. I don’t even know if anyone makes non-photo-reproducing blue pens any more.

    When it came time for me to try to publish my own novel, I did query some agents, but when I never heard anything back from them I looked at Amazon and I liked what I saw. I had a pretty good idea of what went into putting a book together, and while it takes some hard work, it’s not magic. Nor did I have any illusions that a major publisher could guarantee success.

  4. I don’t think that my parents or my teachers ever book-shamed me, although at one point, when I was about nine, my mother did ask me, rather tiredly, if I was planning on reading anything other than the Freddy the Pig books.

    Oh, but the grand trad-pub and indy-authors flame wars, the book-shaming, the jockeying for advantage, how hundreds and perhaps thousands of perfectly readable books and authors were locked out of the grand fortified castle of the Literary Industrial Establishment! And even, sometimes, those who were proudly indy one week, turned around as soon as they were offered a contract! For about three years, I was part of a group of indy authors – we started as a discussion thread on Amazon, swapping means of marketing our various books. (Most of us had a historical novel, and had published it thru a POD press, or a tiny local publisher.) We migrated the group to a website and a yahoo discussion group, and had a wonderful, effective time in encouraging each other, sharing tips and strategies, keeping a website page with all of our books listed on it, with links to where they were available, and to our various websites. Most of the early members went on to publish more books – I’m up to ten myself, in ten years alone.

    But there was one author, I won’t forget – she emailed me in a panic, saying that she had just negotiated a contract with an establishment publisher — and I must now, right this very instant! remove her book, links and her name from the website. She couldn’t possibly be tainted by having published an indy book – or by association with us other authors in the group. It was a really pathetic little show on her part. She was so grateful to be thrown some scraps from an establishment publisher.

  5. Kris, I can’t begin to thank you and Dean for some of these recent posts. It’s helped me change my attitude a great deal (with the help of a great hybrid imprint manager). It’s interesting to see even as my publisher signs new writers that so many of those new writers are treating this publisher like a traditional publisher, and maybe even hoping they are.

    But you two are doing a great service for a lot of people. It’s going to take me a while to shift gears, rather like bringing an aircraft carrier about. Those things don’t turn on a dime, and I’ve got a lot of work to do. But I so appreciate how you two are helping me and others.

  6. There are days when I reflect on how spoiled I was to have two teachers as parents. I read everything, and I mean everything, and their only comment was “Homework first.”

    The only issue I can ever remember with what I read was when I was 12, I ready Valley of the Horses by Jean Auell, and then put it in my mom’s to read pile. She came to me about a week a later with a strange look on her face holding the book and asked if I needed to ask her any questions. I was like “nope, I’m good. They had sex.” And that was the end of it. ~snickers~ to this day my mom and I share books and I think that was the only book she wished she had read first.

    As for the rest – I read. If it has words I’ll try it, and those who try to give me guilt about it also tend to say, “Well the last book I read was in high school” and they are decades away from that.

    PS – agreed, if I have to defend Whedon, we have nothing in common and I don’t feel like wasting my time on you.

  7. Thanks for this, Kris.

    This is an issue I’m wrangling pretty hard with. I grew up reading science fiction and fantasy, and I enormously respect a lot of traditionally published sf/f writers. I’m an envious lurker on a lot of conversations between sf/f authors on Twitter. And I honestly haven’t found a lot of indie sf/f that’s as good as, say, Gene Wolfe or China Mieville or Ursula Le Guin. If I weren’t a writer, I’d probably ignore the indie publishing world completely.

    But I am a writer, and I have yet to win the traditional publishing lottery, and I have indie published my fiction. And I think a lot of what’s getting in the way of indie success, for me, is the idea that I’m not really a writer yet. That I shouldn’t work hard on promoting my work because, if an agent and an editor haven’t liked it enough to buy it, it’s not good enough yet.

    (And it may not be good enough yet. But I have gotten responses to page requests from agents that say “It felt almost too inventive” and “this is a bit more complex than I’m looking for in fantasy.” Now, maybe this is all a euphemism for something else — and there were straightforward criticisms in those responses too, of course — but the fact that they wanted pages suggests that my work is at least not shit.)

    Anyway. I am working on this problem — I really do want to make a proper go at this indie thing, rather than just publishing books and hoping. (I’ve never been deluded into thinking that just publishing a book would lead to success, but I have been talking myself out of doing the promotional work that I know is required for success.) But your post helped me understand a bit better how I’ve been getting in my own way. So thank you.

  8. I love your new definition of vanity publishing (Snooki and Kim whatever-her-name is spring to mind as examples).

    And scam publishing: they’re the ones who should be ashamed.

  9. They’re afraid that indies, having started with genre and taken that over almost completely, will take aim at THEIR books, and compete. Compete well. Learn to write well enough to win prizes (unless the prize committee won’t consider indie work). Tell stories that are big and mainstream and used to be published only by the Big Publishers who anointed the select few who could do this.

    The secret: indie writers can be BETTER than traditional ones. Those developmental editors? Essential to writers who haven’t learned all their craft – those writers let someone else do part of their work for them. There is nothing wrong with external editors, but learning to self-edit properly is much more important – then the next book won’t require nearly as much editorial ‘help’ – and the book will belong more to the writer.

    The BP are sitting there with a big target painted on their… back covers. Writing well is learnable. By writers with some natural talent who put in the work. LOTS of work. Then the BP will have to depend even more on adult coloring books.

  10. I can’t believe this is even still a conversation anybody is having. I stopped caring whether anybody thought I was a “real writer” when I started making a “real living” doing it.

    Are there seriously any people left who think this isn’t ‘legitimate’? Wow.

    re: readers who will read “anything”… I happen to think my readers are really intelligent people so I don’t really get that criticism either.

    I think there comes a point where writers really need to just say “I don’t care what you think” and do their thing.

    Stephen King said in his book “On writing” that if you want to be a writer, your days as a member of polite society are numbered anyway.

    I think that’s true of all of the arts. And artists simply shouldn’t give a crap what randoms think about their “legitimacy.” In fact, it’s almost “anti-art” to care at all.

    And you are right on the money re: people who shame you are trying to control you. Absofreakinglutely they are. And the first rule of being an artist I believe you pointed out in one of your books is to BE an artist.

    Part of being an artist is not letting other people control you because the job of an artist whether you’re a visual artist, musician, dancer, writer, whatever is to shine a light on the world as you see it. You can’t do that if you’re being controlled by some puppetmaster.

  11. This post was absolutely wonderful.

    Once again, I am gobsmacked by your moxie, Kris. I want to send this post to several writing acquaintances of mine who are still querying agents but I fear it will fall on deaf ears.

    If there was ever a dangling particle of desire in me to traditionally publish – it is gone. After this post and Hugh Howey’s from last week, I am free and clear of any desire to go into the traditional publishing briar patch.

  12. People who shame you are trying to control you. They want you to behave in a certain way. Rather than telling you to behave that way, they’re striving to subtly change your behavior by embarrassing you, and making you think less of yourself.


    There’s an entire psychological area of study about this kind of shaming. It’s subtle, it’s nasty, and it often hurts the people it’s aimed at. Usually, shame is used by the powerful to keep the less-powerful under their thumbs.


    If you’re honest and forthright, people will try to shut you up, because some types of people thrive by manipulating what’s polite and what’s rude to keep themselves looking good.

    It’s terrifying what people can get away with, because people do the “polite” thing and let the bullies get away with it (or come to believe that bullying is perfectly appropriate and natural and even “loving”). (Seriously, terrifying.)

    You can be yourself and still be tactful, picking your battles with the bullies and those who want to control you. You can even set things up for them to make fools of themselves, if you are so inclined and have a sense of tactics and don’t do it out of a desire to punish, change, or fix them (else you’ll end up hurting yourself more than them). Or you can ignore the would-be bullies and controllers and just hop along on your own path (which is honestly the better option, in a lot of ways).

    As long as you believe in yourself, the shamers can’t control you.

    Be yourself—and I guarantee you that no matter what you choose to do, you will eventually succeed at it. Because you’re not doing it to impress someone else. You’re doing it for love.

    And that’s the key to everything.

    Thanks for this, Kris. I needed the reminder today. 🙂

  13. Wow, what a FANTASTIC explanation for this attitude, Kris. And the continual attempt to “shame” indie publishers for going the path of least resistance – even if it’s not the path of least effort – is something I’ve seen myself.

    But worse, it’s something I’ve DONE myself. facepalm It was unintentional, but I did it just the same.

    I’d been hoping to reach some of my writer friends with a message like the one you present here, but you did it with such succinct clarity and in a gentle manner, I can’t believe they wouldn’t have responded better to the message than they did when I delivered it. (I was…um…well, let’s say you did it way better, m’kay?)

    Some of my demeanor came in frustration; whatever I said to those writer friends didn’t matter. I’d been traditionally published for non-fiction, and my “input” for them then was irrelevant because that was NON-fiction. I indie published my fiction, and whatever I said was irrelevant, because I wasn’t part of traditional publishing. So, I had nothing to offer those writers in any discourse at all. None. Dismissed.

    I got mad, and made harsh statements about cowardice and lotteries (yeah, I saw that analogy too), and then I didn’t have those friends as friends anymore. (Big surprise.)

    But I’ve learned lots by reading your blog, Dean’s blog, and others. I’ve learned a lot by haunting a particular forum for indie writers. But I didn’t know there was still this shaming going on, because I simply don’t follow traditional publishing industry stuff.

    I guess the last part of your post is the key, at least for me – those writer friends want so badly to get that mythical stamp of approval by winning that elusive lottery, and it’s their dream. Theirs, not mine. So I really don’t have anything to offer them. No encouragement to find their readers I offer is worthwhile to them, no amount of support to indie publish their languishing work I forward them will succeed, and none of my experiences will amount to a hill of dung.

    Dean’s advice has been, let ’em go. They won’t listen. Maybe they’ll never have the confidence in their work to realize they only want that dream of traditional publication because it would indicate, to them and to those they hold in positions of power in their lives, that they are good at what they want to do. They won’t listen, so instead, smile and nod, and let them go.

    Good advice. Wish I’d been wise enough to know that before I acted like a jerk.

    We all have our delusions. I have mine (though a lot of those were rudely slapped back into reality after I hit the “Publish” button and didn’t receive the waterfalls of money I thought would surely come when the world glimpsed my greatness), and I guess they have theirs. And in a textbook example of “HEY YOU! Get off o’ my cloud!”, they kicked me to the curb along with all my views and experience in both traditional and indie publishing.

    But maybe that’s because…y’know. Jerk.

    I think I was trying publishing shaming to get them to do what I thought was best for them (and still do – indie publishing). How embarrassing to admit that. I think I need to make some apologies, post haste.

    So thank you for showing indies what this looks like, and what might be behind it. And thank you for pointing out to me, personally, that I need to be aware of how I present a message I wanted to be encouraging, and in the best interest of the writers. Epic fail on my part. (Hangs head in shame.)

    1. Dane, I admire your honesty and your courage in admitting where you went wrong. But do keep in mind that choosing a different publishing path can still lose you friends, even when you are tactful or stay silent about the issue.

      I had a writing buddy back before indie publishing was a thing. He and I shored each other up as we wrote our works-in-progress and all was well. It was great to have a “companion in arms.”

      By the time we were ready to seek publishing options, the indie world had arrived. I looked into it, learned about it, and dove in. He looked askance, started seeking an agent, but politely said little about my choice. A little distance grew between us.

      A year later, I had 7 titles indie published, and he was still looking for an agent. I had never uttered a critical word about his choice. But he finally told me that just being in my presence gave him pain, because I had several books published and he had none. He bade me a regretful farewell.

      I respect him for telling me the truth. Many a person would have told me that the end of the friendship was my fault. He didn’t. That is worthy. But it was still the end of the friendship.

      Just sayin’.

      1. Wow, J.M. I’m sorry to hear that, I really am. That’s too bad. Jealousy is a powerful monster though. I didn’t have to face that particular demon – no sales to speak of in my indie-pub stuff – but I know one particular writer buddy who might respond just that way in those circumstances.

        Also, thanks for the support in being honest. I seriously didn’t see how horrible I was behaving until too late. I’m very ashamed of it now.

        1. Thanks for the kind words, Dane. Really, my old friend is more to be pitied than I. We both suffered the loss of the friendship, but he suffered jealousy as well and the knowledge that his jealousy had overcome him. You are right in calling it a powerful monster.

          Shame can be an equally powerful monster. I hope you are able to make amends for your fault and then leave it behind. Or, if amends are not possible, put it on your list of amends to make if it ever does become possible. And then leave it on the list! Wallowing will do no one any good. Commit to not making that mistake in the future, and embrace the opportunities coming your way!

      2. Wow. So sorry, J.M. I get this. I had a similar experience with a trad-pubbed friend who was also a mentor of sorts. His reasoning about why I wasn’t getting a trad-pub contract for my first book was all over the place: too this, too that, just shove it under the mattress, etc. even though he thought the book was decent enough to get picked up.

        Our friendship was at the point of complete degradation because I was considering self-publishing and I was working on another book (of the heart) that he said (emphatically said) should have gone in a different direction. Unfortunately, he passed away suddenly so we never had a chance to work out our differences (or not). This crushed me and I was unable to work on that book for a long time. A few years on and I’m still struggling to finish it (it’s all a mental block) but determined to do so.

        1. Oh, golly, Sharon. Tough enough to have a friendship go sour, but even tougher when that friend is a mentor! I hope you’ve been soaking up Kris’ many inspiring posts that urge writers to believe in their art and in themselves as artists. I’ve certainly found her words helpful, when doubt troubles me. Carry on with your book of the heart. Your former mentor, no matter how insightful and skillful, was only ONE PERSON. And he may well have not been in the audience for that particular book. Since the story means a lot to YOU, you can be sure there will be readers who will say, when they read it, “THIS is the book I’ve been longing to read for all those years without ever realizing it!” So, write on!

  14. Wonderful post! I wish a lot of writers would come over here and read this. Hopefully some of your readers will recommend reading this. It would hopefully lend some perspective to them.

  15. Yes, YES!!! Squeee! (That would be my girlish shriek of excitement over this post.) I’ve always been drawn toward emotion-led books. My father had been appalled when he saw them, called them “lemonades,” and told me what to read instead. Something valuable, like Vernes and London. So I did, but I also smuggled my precious “lemonades” from the library and hid them under the piano. When we came to the US, my motto was “I’m in America now and I can do whatever I want.” Even so, however, when I’d learned enough English to use the library, I’d bring home emotion-led books, and… I wrapped them in brown paper-bag papers. “To protect them, because they’re library books.” This applied to romance and fantasy and, especially, religion.
    My father still tries to pull the shame-strings even decades later. (He means well. He thinks he’s right.)
    If I’d survived all those pressures, I think I can duck the “taste-makers” as well. Thank you for naming them for what they are. It’s important to recognize who you’re dealing with – or choose not to deal with.
    You rock, Kris!

  16. Sorry, I’m recovering the post after a power spike. I’ll try to do it properly, but I don’t re-write at my best…

    Book shaming’s over? You mean I no longer have to defend SF/F, manga, anime or Pixar or Whedon? I no longer have to defend “Grave of the Fireflies” or “Inside Out”? Hah! I wish. It beats me, but “Grave” is a “cartoon for kids” while “Da Vinci Code” is A Real Book (TM).

    Sorry, book shaming’s been here for ages. In Spain, at least, since the early XVII. Culteranism vs. Conceptism. The first chapters in the Quijote (book burning non-proper books that lead to insanity). Hell, Eco managed to get a film done out of a bestseller on book shaming. It’s here to stay. Damn, the whole Hugo thing is a rehash of this.

    On the power of critics, two points: It’s curious how the definition of “vanity” is fluid. There’s no clear difference (among critics) between the guy with a single short to his pen-name, the writer with a previous Big V career, a writers’ coop brand…

    The shaming part is like an ex boyfriend trying to shame you because the clerk dared smile at you. Because he’s EX-, right? It’s one of the steps of Rory’s hierarchy of violence. [good person > manipulative > assertive > aggressive > … ]

    Off with their heads!

    I’m tied to a very small production company. They [we?] did a documentary on home births [*]. The industry barely knows it exists (professionals, magazines, distributors…) but thanks to the equivalent to crowdfunding in exhibition (presales of tickets, so that the event only goes ahead if it rises beyond a minimum), it’s basically selling out every single pass. And this is _cinema_, where gatekeeping is still sort of healthy (I think that, by and large, video is going the same way as books, but the equipment is simply more expensive).

    Also, 2 more bits:

    Pulphouse Pub: didn’t the collapse of distribution get you, too? I only recall bits and pieces, being a tad far away, but…

    “These poor former power brokers are sitting in their buggies, watching automobiles go by, and denying the existence of the internal combustion engine.”

    Because the engine works. It’s difficult to understand that if you’ve only seen it at a remove. Both meanings for “work”, of course.

    Take care.

    [*] Remember the subject and click only if you want to go there.

    1. I feel pretty strongly that if I have to defend Whedon to somebody, they aren’t my type of person and we likely have little to nothing in common worth pursuing further.

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