Business Musings: Book-Shaming
I run another website, Women in Science Fiction.com. 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 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.