An Open Letter to Laura Miller

Dear Ms. Miller,

We have not always seen eye-to-eye in the past. And my tone was perhaps inappropriate. However, I will try to do better. I think your heart is in the right place and I have long appreciated your devotion to good writing and good literature. I am a fan of yours when you’re not being condescending! (Sorry, tone again. Mea culpa.)

I was interested by your statement that you are working on a series of articles on the changing literary landscape. I myself have come to view these changes as a great positive force for good. If that is too optimistic, then perhaps we can agree that change is inevitable; what we can hope for is that each of the constituent groups affected by the change will benefit to the appropriate extent.

I think the key main groups that will be affected are publishers, writers, and readers. (There may be others, such as bookstores, critics, teachers, and librarians, but I think these are the core three.) The key questions as I see them are these: Which of these groups do we want to see prosper? And how do we measure this?

Frankly, I expect publishers (and agents to the extent they are allied with them) to fend for themselves. They’ll figure out a way to make money or they’ll do something else. I do not care if at the end of the day Company A is ahead of Company B. Or if Grand Poobah C retires early while Grand Poobah D is forced to keep slaving away. We need to fight for the interests of writers and readers. I’m willing to base the success of publishers on how well they’ve served these two groups.

Moving on, while I’ve mocked the Great Fear of the Almighty Slushpile in the past, I do think there are ways in which readers can lose. Certainly if writers stopped writing, readers would lose. If books became more expensive than they are now, that would be a setback for readers. So too would reduced formatting options – if printed books disappeared altogether, for example, that would be a great blow for most readers.

The last group, and the one I want to focus on here, is writers. And the problem of measurement looks hopelessly formidable. What’s better – a thousand writers finding a way to publish for the first time? Or an established writer who is able to quit her job and write only what she wants? (And if that’s our goal, the patronage system might defeat anything currently on the horizon.) What are we trying to achieve here: A Nobel Prize winner? An all-time classic novel? A hundred really good books a year? Or a broadened field of a thousand, a hundred thousand, a million books out of which great art may arise (or may not). If we take publishers and agents out of the picture, do we think great art won’t happen at all? Or that we won’t be able to recognize it?

The problem is that any analysis of writers slides into an analysis of which writers you want to privilege. Do you believe there are a small number of people – the Great Authors of Our Generation – we should be looking out for? Do we open the doors completely and give everyone a shot? Opinions will no doubt differ.

What I would like to propose is a framework for a utilitarian analysis of the impacts of change on writers as a category, without privileging one type of author over another. In fact, I’ve already done so, with my Levels of Financial Success for Writers. I would hope that your forthcoming articles will not be limited to a few anecdotes but will instead look at the big picture. How will changes move writers up and down these rungs? How much do we value each of these categories? We all have opinions about what kind of books we want. What kind of world do we envision for writers?

Best,

Jacke

Madame Slushpile Rides Again

This long Salon article by Laura Miller covers the battle at Goodreads between readers and self-published authors. High Priestess Miller once again bemoans the democratization of authorship, which in her view is marked by

average readers, who, now that agents and editors can be bypassed, would be exposed to the horrors of the slush pile for the first time

Mercy! Ah do declare, Miss Laura, what will all those poor lil’ readers do when they encounter that big bad horrible slush pile!?

Oh… that horrible slushpile…

Um, perhaps they might take their lead from a professional book reviewer such as Miller? Seriously, has she no confidence in her and her colleagues’ ability to help readers figure out what’s worth reading? Why does she think she’s writing those reviews? To impress people with how much she’s read? How in the know she is? Who does she think she’s writing for, anyway? Authors? Publishers? (Don’t answer that.) 

Note to Ms. Miller: You help people make choices about which books to read. That is what you do. 

One of her colleagues (who to me sounds “reasonable” and “possessed of common sense” but to Miller is a “techno-utopian”) points out that people will find ways to figure out which books merit their attention, perhaps using bloggers, other experts, or “the crowd” (in forums and sites like Goodreads) in order to help them figure out what to read. Miller’s condescension slowly ascends (“I’m sure he had plenty of company in that hopeful sentiment” she snarks) before reaching its peak:

Gatekeepers of some kind are necessary simply because there are way too many books chasing far too few readers, and people have to choose among them somehow. But it’s unrealistic to expect professional behavior from people who not only aren’t professionals but are not even aspiring to professionalism and have no obligation to accountability. The whole point of a hobby is to do as you please.

Argh, where to begin with this? I am not strong enough. I will retire to my fainting couch and hope that some publishing professional comes along to tell me what to think about it.

(Waiting…)

(Still waiting…)

In fairness to Miller, she seems to recognize that this “Goodreads flame war” is “just one corner of the shifting landscape between authors and readers,” which makes me hold out hope that her coming articles will look at the positives (higher author royalties? a good thing!). Why not look at Joanna Penn or Denise Grover Smith or Kristine Kathryn Rusch or any of the other positive examples of self-published authors finding their readers, to the benefit of all (except perhaps the professional bank accounts of the professional gatekeepers, whose professional services apparently were not professionally needed).

Miller goes on to declare “there could not be a better illustration of that old adage: Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it.” Is she referring to a wish that changes in the publishing world will make insufferable snobs harder to hear? Because in that case, let’s hope she’s right.

An Update of the Self-Publishing Update

When I put together the last progress update I forgot I had to buy my own ISBNs. I bought the block of 10 from Bowker which set me back $250, dramatically increasing my costs thus far. That climb from Level 8 to Level 5 just got a lot steeper.

Ah well. I guess the fair way to consider this is that each new book only has to earn $25 to break even. Plus another dollar for its share of the website costs. So I need to earn $26 dollars. Exactly the same as where I was before!

Onward and upward!

Photo Credit: The Daily Mail

The Author as Publisher (Dream? Or Nightmare?)

Another fascinating and informative post from Kristine Kathryn Rusch. This time about the use of contract addendums to grab the rights of authors.

Are you ready to stand on your own and keep the publishers and agents out of the equation?

Here’s a litmus test.

Which of the following best describes you and your feelings about personal finances?

a) You are comfortable hiring a financial planner to handle things for you (or would be if you had enough money for it to make sense to do so). You’re reassured by the idea that the planner is a professional who knows more than you do about the subject, and you trust that any conflicts of interest that may be inherent within the relationship will generally be resolved to the benefit of you and your interests.

b) Although you aren’t naive about your own ability to beat the market, the thought of having a third party trying to beat the market with your money (and taking a cut either way) doesn’t seem like the right way to go. You’d rather invest the money yourself (i.e., in low-cost mutual funds), learning what you need to know to make practical if safe investments, and ultimately maintain control over what happens to your money without paying someone else to be involved.

If you answered a), you may be temperamentally suited toward trusting publishers and agents. If you’re fortunate enough to have a choice between traditional publishing and indie publishing, you should still check to see whether the publishing contracts are in your best interests, but you might be fine with giving them the benefit of the doubt and expecting things to work out for the best.

But if you answered b) (or, as in my case, “b, b, b, hell yes b!”) you’ll probably look forward to not being involved with the whole mess.