Business Musings: Fear And Publishing
A fascinating thing happened in the two quiet weeks of the holiday season. Dean and I worked on a publishing challenge, and we learned something by doing so.
We always learn when we teach. Always. And Dean loves challenges. Me, not so much. I set my own writing challenges because if someone else tells me what to do with my writing, I find a way to do it, without actually doing it. Think James T. Kirk and the Kobayashi Maru. I set my own goals, and I’m fairly rigid about them. But most people aren’t like that. They need to compete against someone, or have something on the outside to push against.
For years, we have provided writing challenges through our online workshops. Dean usually tests those challenges first. He blogs about them, using the blog as a way to get others involved, and then he modifies the challenge for writers who want to join him or attempt what he’s done. For a fee, the writers will be able to participate. If they miss on the challenge (and it’s usually weekly), then the fee goes to buy workshops. If the writers succeeds, they get a lifetime subscription of their choice.
For last year’s writing challenges, half of the participants are on their way toward a lifetime subscription. The rest got some stories and novels into their inventory, and then missed, and are now taking workshops.
As we often say, these are win-win challenges.
In our busy fall, we talked to a lot of writers in person, including many who were doing the challenges. One of the fall writing conferences that we attended took place during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which is November. The other conference took place in the run-up to NaNoWriMo.
I was supportive of NaNoWriMo when it started twenty years ago. It demystified the process and, at the time, emphasized writing and finishing a novel in November. In the early years of the challenge, writers submitted their NaNoWriMo novels to traditional publishers and many of those writers sold the books.
And then, somehow, NaNoWriMo got diluted and ruined. Writers didn’t have to finish anything if they completed 50,000 words. And those words could be a “junk draft,” just getting words on the page, not trying to write a good finished novel at all.
There’s a lot of value to learning how to do a clean one-draft novel. It allows the writer to make the story the important thing, not the words. It also frees the writer up to write, not contemplate every tiny detail.
But as NaNoWriMo became something other than finish a (marketable) novel in a month, all the things NaNoWriMo was initially designed to prevent took over the process. Writers with their half-finished junk drafts put those novels in a drawer (virtually speaking). Writers with finished novels set them aside to “work on” during the year.
Year after year after year, some writers started accumulating their NaNo novels, and ended up with six or ten or fifteen unfinished, unmailed novels in their drawers, completely defeating the initial idea of NaNoWriMo.
When Dean and I do novel writing challenges, and we have one going right now that any level of writer can join, one of the requirements is that the writer must put the novel into paperback to be considered as part of the challenge. In other words, the writer has to finish and publish the novel.
A lot of writers are doing this challenge, and it’s working for them. I see the books come into the condo, and cheer each one of them. These writers are working hard at writing and getting their work out to readers.
Both aspects are important for any professional writer.
After talking with a bunch of writers at both conferences, however, Dean and I realized the even the most driven writers we know had trouble getting their work out to readers. Some writers, who are publishing regularly, aren’t publishing everything that they’re doing. Others were mailing short stories to traditional markets, but dropped off after a few rejections (which is a typical writer thing).
A lot of writers had gotten deeply involved in learning to write fast, but because of day jobs, family, and other pressures, let the publishing part of the writing go “until later.”
So, Dean and I figured, let’s do a Great Publishing Challenge. Writers had to publish 12 books, one per month, in the year of their challenge. (These challenges start when the writer signs on, not on January 1.)
If the writer missed a month, then the writer gets workshops for the fee. If the writer succeeds in publishing 12 books in 12 months, then the writer will get a lifetime subscription to our workshops.
Great, right? Especially since we talked to people who had a dozen novels in inventory, and more than a hundred short stories. (Short story collections and novellas count in this challenge.)
We figured this was a perfect way to let the NaNo writers of long-standing get their novels-in-a-drawer into print. And best of all, writers could use existing inventory. This challenge, unlike the writing challenges, did not require the writers to write anything new.
Even I couldn’t Kobayashi-Maru this one. (We always Kris-test a workshop and a challenge to weed out the ways you can “succeed” without actually doing the work.) And, as I said to Dean, if I were still a young writer working with a small group of writers in Wisconsin, I would have signed onto this publishing challenge in a heartbeat.
No one was trying to control my writing, which causes me to Kobayashi Maru things. The publishing challenge was going to benefit me and my writing by getting the work in front of readers.
Except…Dean started getting really weird whiny letters.
Like: How could he propose this challenge? Didn’t he know that publishing required a developmental editor, a copy editor, a cover artist, and lots of money for advertising? The challenge, which costs $600 through WMG, was going to cost thousands each month. No one could do that.
He didn’t get one of those letters. He got dozens of them, spouting all those myths that are now taking over indie publishing, myths that are getting in the way of writers actually getting their books into print.
He got so many of those letters, he did a blog post about them.
And then he got even more comments—some in private (as the whiny letters were) and some in public.
Hey, Dean, those letters went, I’m already doing the challenge.
Only the people who wrote those letters weren’t doing the minimum on the challenge—12 books, one per month, in 12 months. These writers were publishing at least two books per month over 12 months.
Not all the books were new novels. Some were omnibuses or collections or novellas. But these writers put out at least two and sometimes more books per month.
As one particularly blunt writer said on my Facebook page when I promoted the challenge, I’d love to participate, but if I did, I would have to slow down.
Which made me laugh out loud. Because she’s right. She would have.
All of these writers are successful. All of them make a good living at writing. To my knowledge, none of these writers have had a blow-out 100,000 copies of one title sold in a month. These writers just sell a lot of books, different titles, steadily, month in and month out.
So…Dean and I were suddenly looking at a challenge in which the people who needed the challenge were terrified to do it, thinking it would cost them thousands.
A couple of writers wrote Dean with barely contained anger. Yeah, one of them said, you can do that: you have a publishing company who will do all that work for you.
Um, no. Dean does a lot of hands-on work. In fact, he’s doing the challenge, and he will do the work himself.
WMG came about for other projects and, um, for me. I’m the one who has WMG do my covers and write my blurbs (after I taught people how to do it). I’m the one who is no longer doing hands-on publishing work.
I did, when indie started. I wrote blurbs and did all the marketing in exchange for Dean doing my covers. I swapped out a lot of work with other writers/artists, including copy edits, because I didn’t want to do it all.
I found ways to make it work without costing me thousands per title, because I wanted it to work.
That developmental editor, copy editor, cover artist, advertising guru thing? That’s fear talking. And some really good business-marketing ploys on the part of failed writers.
What do I mean? Let’s do the failed writer bit first.
A lot of writers tried to indie publish when this all got underway ten years or so ago. And many of those writers discovered that they didn’t like writing much. It was hard. But as they swapped work with other writers, those failed writers discovered that for them, other things were easy. Be it copy editing or creating covers or figuring out how to game Amazon algorithms to boost sales, those failed writers found a skill set that they could market.
The skill set was associated with writing, but it wasn’t writing. And for failed writers, it seemed easy.
A lot of cover artists and designers have made some good money doing the work. Many of them charge too much, making it tough for the indie writer to swap out a cover that signifies the wrong genre or just isn’t working, but that’s a writer problem. Many of these failed writers turned cover artists are doing good work.
The failed writers who are not doing good work are the ones who decided to become editors, particularly the developmental editors. For a large fee, these failed writers will go through another writer’s book, telling them how to “develop” the book into something marketable.
Whether that forces the writer to write something more genre-focused or to “tone down” a character or use correct grammar, it doesn’t matter. The result is the same.
Writers who want to succeed are hiring writers who’ve failed to tell them how to write.
Yes, it really is that illogical.
Oh, wait—your developmental editor is a former New York editor? Who did what, exactly? Did she edit novels or was she a proofer? A managing editor? Was she an editorial assistant or an assistant editor? Was she an acquiring editor? Did she manage a book line? Did she start one? Did she actually learn the craft of editing (and yes, it’s a craft) or did she occasionally look at manuscripts?
Did you even think to ask those questions? Do you even know the difference between all those jobs?
Nah, I’ll wager you didn’t ask any questions. You just saw the word “editor,” and because you’d been told you needed one, and this editor “edited” some famous author, so clearly she can edit you. (And really, did that famous author need “developmental editing”? No, of course not. Most famous authors would run screaming at the very idea.)
And yes, writers are that insecure that they believe they need someone else to tell them how to write. I blog about this a lot, most recently in a post called “Raising The Bar.”
I also wrote an entire book about it called The Pursuit of Perfection and How It Harms Writers.
Those of you who believe you need to spend thousands to publish a book should ask yourselves where this “need” came from. And then you should look at how impractical it is.
Because in today’s publishing world, the nimble indie author can change her cover and blurb and marketing to fit new publishing trends. She can revise her genre category, particularly if she got it wrong the first time.
But if she spent thousands on that cover—even if it’s for the wrong genre—she will be reluctant to throw the cover away and try a new one. She won’t realize that her book—which the idiot developmental editor thought was romance—was really mystery with romantic elements. And when the writer does realize that her book is in the wrong marketing category, all she’ll be able to look at is the thousands of dollars spent to “revamp” the novel, not to mention getting a new developmental editor to make sure the book is squarely in the correct genre, more thousands for a new cover, another thousand for a copy editor—
And do you see who is getting rich here? It’s not the writer. If the writer has to shell out that kind of money to publish one book then, yeah, a challenge like the one we’re offering is damn dumb.
But Dean and I aren’t damn dumb. We’ve had careers for decades, and made the transition to indie. Why would we suggest a challenge that would harm writers?
This angry response to the publishing challenge is all about being perfect, publishing the way you’re “supposed to” publish, and somehow—because of fear—keeping your work off the market.
As I said on Twitter to one writer who was terrified to take the challenge, What have you got to lose? Give it a try. At worst, you’ll get workshop credit. At best, you’ll publish 12 books and get a lifetime subscription to the workshops (worth thousands).
What’s stopping all these writers is the fear of putting yourself out there. Not just on the publishing challenge, but with NaNoWriMo too. Once NaNoWriMo changed from finish something (finish it—as in declare it done) to write a first draft to write 50,000 words, the challenge lost its value. Anyone who calls themselves a writer can buckle down and write every day for 30 days.
Anyone who really wants to be a published writer has to learn how to overcome her fears, one by one.
We all have fears. Every single one of us had to overcome fears to get our works into print. Some of us had a fear of finishing. Some of us were afraid of putting out something “flawed.” Me, I have a hummingbird brain. When I started, I had a fear of spending years on the same project, so I invented pen names and worked in different genres right from the start—not because I believed I needed the names (at the time, I didn’t), but because I didn’t want people to know I’d spent a day on a short story and a month on a novel. I lied about the angst of writing. Yep, I’d say, that novel took me years (which I counted from the moment I first got an inkling of an idea), instead of being truthful—that novel took me weeks.
I’ve had other fears along the road, many unique to me, as most of the fears that writers experience are. For example, it took me years to write humor because humor was the subject of great controversy in the house I grew up in.
I learned how to write difficult projects by conquering fears one at a time.
And part of the key to conquering a fear is to recognize it in the first place.
This fear of publishing is a big one, for all writers. We’re putting ourselves out there. We’re putting our art out there. Most writers have that fear, because we’re introverts, not used to standing in front of a crowd, and we all think that publishing is like standing on stage.
Publishing is not standing on stage. When you’re on stage, you get crowd reaction in real time (or worse, no reaction at all). When you publish, readers get to your work when they want to. And you don’t ever have to know their reactions.
All this crap about reading reviews? Using reviews? Getting hundreds of reviews?
Ignore it—because that advice puts you on stage. And since we started with Star Trek, let me give you a paraphrase of the Good Doctor McCoy: “Dammit, Jim, I’m a writer, not an actor.”
Got that? Write, release, write more. That’s what writers do. And yes, they’re afraid. If a writer isn’t afraid of what she’s writing, then she’s doing it wrong because she’s not stretching herself. You should always reach just a bit, go a place you haven’t gone before.
And that place might not be in the craft. It might not be the subject matter. It might be physical, like writing faster. Or it might be taking a risk and learning how to publish—on your own.
Remember what I said in the middle of this post: the writers who are already doing this challenge naturally are successful. They’re full time writers—and publishers. And to do the challenge, they would have to slow down.
Writers write. Professional writers publish their works.
It’s really that simple.
And that hard.
Here we are in the new year—and the new decade. As those of you who follow me on Patreon know, I’ve been reassessing my entire schedule.
I looked at everything, and I mean everything, to see what I love, what I like, what I can live with and what I can’t live without. I looked for time sinks and things that benefit me.
And then I put my calendars together.
I’m dumping a lot of things this year because they don’t help me or my career or my quality of life. Lots of shoulds are disappearing.
And like everything else in my life that’s not family or fiction writing, I examined this weekly blog. This post is number 269 of the new numbering system, after I came back from a short hiatus in 2015 (I went for six years straight before that). Surely I could quit now.
But that made me feel sad. I’d lose the contact with all of you, and that made me sadder. So I’m definitely keeping the blog, and it’s because of your response in a variety of ways.
Thank you for being a part of what I do here. It means more than I can say.
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“Business Musings: Fear and Publishing,” copyright © 2020 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / milo827.
Decades ago, I used to read Piers Anthony’s books, and I loved his style of storytelling. He would also add an author’s note at the end of the books, and one thing he said in particular always stayed with me. He said that if he couldn’t finish a book in a couple of months (I believe it was three months), then it wasn’t any good. That dispelled any myths I had about novels needing to take years to write in order to be enjoyable.
As an aspiring author, I think I really needed to hear that.
As a reader – I sort of disagree. Or rather, I still do agree (I am not stupid, either 🙂 ), but sometimes it fails…Or maybe I am just too critical.
There are several writers out there who have recently joined the indie – path. One in particular had a “regular series”, and kept doing that series as “indie”. And the series is still alive. But the quality has dropped dramatically.
In my opinion, the series was never “original”, but with real editors (yeah, I did read the post), it was OK. NOW, Indie-style, the series is…
– repetitive – where the same argument and explanation shows up in 3 or 4 places in the book
– repetitive – where the same phrase shows up again and again, often uttered by different characters
– illogical – where it is not clear what character is really in the scene, saying something, doing something
And part of the actual… content of the books feel like “is this really a book?” “what was the intention of this?”
Yes, I know, in certain genres we do not have “characters developing/changing through the book” and whatever other “literary requirements” that are in “literature”. And “genre fiction” will sell based on people having expectations – and if you fulfill those, the book is OK.
But this author (and some of his indie colleagues) are missing out by publishing unfinished books!
Yes, I know, trying to make the “perfect” book will mean you never publish anything. And I have myself published short stories that are in no way “perfect”, and had an OK profit from that.
But I still think authors need to do “enough” to ensure the story they are publishing is readable, and not just publish “anything”. The readers are NOT stupid – and we are loosing readers every day to the “ready made” world of television. Television is starting to get “smart”, sending out “complex” stories. (GOT is NOT “easy”)
We need to follow that – and create stories that are good enough for the readers not to just jump to some “better” media.
(and Grammarly refused to help me here – so with English not being my first language, this is probably not understandable at all. But it is heartfelt ;))
Where exactly is the bar for counting something ‘published’, in this exercise?
Making it available for purchase by readers.
Boy, do I understand the fear! I’ve been sitting on a copyedited YA fantasy for two years, putting off publishing it. 🙂 And I’ve run into the writers who feel they have to spend thousands of dollars to publish. When I couldn’t find an affordable artist to redo my Doodlebugged book covers, I finally redid them myself. Another great blog on the myths that prevail in the writing world, and the big industry that has blossomed of making money from writers.
I SO FREAKING LOVE THIS CHALLENGE.
I heard about it in a Facebook group. It was “a novel a month challange,” and I thought… hmmm. Lots of naysayers in the comments.
A novel a month is hard, but it can be done. I had no idea it was as little as 20K or more or all those bits of short story stuff I have laying around. So freaking awesome!
I hope you do this one next year, too!!! Will be saving up to join in. 😀
You can join in at any point, Bokerah. Today, tomorrow, your birthday, July 4, whenever. Just let us know when you do! And thanks!
This post and last week’s Book Birth Day are so important for writers, but convincing myself of this is so very very hard. I had already moved to the Boom Birth Day along with posts about the newest release, but I had also thought I should run a few ads. Nope. I’m going to save that money and merely focus on developing more IP.
Thank you and Dean for keeping a level head AND for keeping both eyes on the best future for writers.
Wow. That’s thought-provoking. One of the reasons I declined to do the challenge is that short stories don’t count. I’m planning on publishing twice a month this year, but that will include short stories.
I figured after the last couple of years I need to start somewhere.
When I started self-publishing it was a free-for-all and I am a by-the-rules person so it was hard. I hung out on forums and “rules” started popping up – all the various editors and marketing musts. Wanting there to be rules, I tried a little bit of everything thinking that was the new system. It didn’t work. I fell by the wayside and watched for awhile. Then I realized that my organic sales were still constant without all the bells and whistles. There were slow months and good months and it was a roller coaster not a constantly rising ramp to FAME. So I quietly went on my way publishing my books when they were done. I’m not a fast writer, but I’ve developed consistency. (Maybe fast will come next.) I’m getting ready for the release of #14. It’s amazing what happens when you just put your head down and write.
Wow! Some deep lessons in these simple words.
I understand the fear. Specifically, the fear of rejection. Even publishing it myself is fear. What if nobody buys it? Or worse, what if someone buys it and leaves a horrible review so that nobody ever buys anything I write, ever again? (Fear isn’t rational, but it’s creative.)
I have a goal this year to learn to write real short stories again (for years, because of work pressures, I wrote occasional vignettes rather than stories, just as an outlet for my creativity, but I’m finding it hard to sustain a story longer than that right now – a different kind of fear perhaps), and then publish them. I’ve even done a mock-up of a cover to try to create a recognizable brand – not quite up to my standards yet but it’s getting there, and it’s designed to be easily swapped out for new images and titles. But …… to pull that trigger and publish something … the fear is still there.
As for NaNoWriMo, I think it still has its place, mostly for experimentation. Anyone who has never written a novel can use it once to start and finish a novel (even, gasp, a first draft) just to prove to themselves that they can, in fact, write a novel – a tool to conquer fear. I did that back in the early days and produced a novel which was more pastiche than original but helped get a lot of clutter out of my head. But I know now I have that skill within me. Later, in my final year of NaNoWriMo, I wrote a bunch of short stories for NaNoWriMo instead of a novel, trying to see what that would be like. I really enjoyed it. That’s what I’m trying to recapture now – writing full short stories with actual plots – so that I’ll have something to publish. And I have one of the NaNoWriMo writing bundles you and Dean contributed to, to help force my way past any fear-blocks (they’re not writing blocks, they’re fear-blocks).
Thank you, as always, for your insights.