Nothing’s certain, but some things are less of a mystery than others

At DragonCon this past weekend, I had the opportunity to talk with a number of other authors; ranging from the hopeful to the about to be published to the already published to the long-since-been-published.  It was extremely interesting to discuss ‘the biz’ with peers in person, absent the screening that a post or email or tweet can provide.

Some old stand-bys rose in some of the conversations, but one exchange in particular has stuck with me throughout the week thus far.  While talking with two other authors, they both lamented at some length over the requirement of their editors / agents / and other trad-side gatekeepers that their next works needed to be revised quite extensively before being considered.  Now, I want to be clear.  One of these authors wasn’t even published yet.  The other was, but only a few titles.  And, in both cases, the revisions were absent any sort of contract, and definitely without fiscal commitment.

In other words, the gatekeepers were refusing to sign or pay anything unless and until the works in question had been modified based on the gatekeeper suggestions.  Further, these were not minor changes.  Again, in both instances, word count estimates of the modifications were between one-quarter and nearly one-half of the work as initially submitted.  I want to be clear here.  Neither author had been paid a dime, or been offered a contract.  They had simply been told “do these things because we said to, and then we’ll look at it again.”

Writing is not an easy thing.  Good writing is especially not-simple.  As I listened to both, it just made me so incredibly sad for them.  Both work day jobs, even the already published writer.  In fact, throughout the weekend, that was a particularly galling theme that reoccurred over and over; that of writers not being paid enough by their trad-side paymasters to support themselves.  One panel that talked fiscal trends had four trads and one indie, and only the indie raised her hand when the moderator asked who was financially self-sufficient off writing income alone.  This is why I was upset, annoyed, and even outraged on behalf of the two authors I was listening to in this particular conversation.

It wasn’t enough that they’d produced novel length works.  Now they had to chop and change on weak promises, with no firm commitment in sight.  Certainly absent any sort of promise of payment.  Time they could spend working on the next book, they were being told to spend on the last one instead.

“But Dave, not everything’s ready for publishing.”  Yes, I agree.  Just because a story is finished by its creator doesn’t mean that story is ready for an audience.  Writing is tough.  But both writers had run their story past readers and gotten good responses, and still the gatekeepers wanted changes.  Now, if one is stretching for the ages, I guess re-crafting and re-re-crafting, carefully polishing and shaping and considering every possible little nuance is a process that has some merit.  I quite sure, however, that the vast majority of ‘literary classics’ weren’t put through such a process.  Harry Potter has been dubbed a modern classic by most who’ve read it, including stuffy literary sources, and Rowling didn’t wear out her pens and go bankrupt on new pads writing it down.  She had a story, wrote it, consulted with an editor to double check pace and plot and characterization, and was done.  She didn’t have to sit on each story for years and years; they’re just good stories.  And she’s not alone; older classics – Charles Dickens’ catalog is a good example – were written and published quite fast.

Authors taking time after they think they’ve gotten that finished story wrapped up doesn’t guarantee the work will elevate into the annals of history.  No one can prove it does.  And anyone saying it’s the way is guessing, mistaking, or has ulterior motives.  One should take care, but there’s being careful and becoming paranoid; focusing on detail and obsessing to the point of blindness; wanting the best and losing sight of the goal.

My position doesn’t apply to anyone who is determined to craft some sort of classic that will make literary reviewers coo with delight.  Again, I don’t feel doing that improves the chances of the story working out that way.  But if you do, and that is your goal, then this article isn’t for you.  It’s for the rest of the authors who just want to get stories into the hands of readers, and occasionally get paid for them.

One of the reasons trad-side authors can’t live off their work is things like this.  There are others (bad contracts, loss of copyright, horrible pricing strategies, anemic advances, and of course the retched royalties) but this one makes all the others worse.  When the gatekeepers are only willing to pay a few thousand dollars for the story in the first place, and will only offer royalties in the 5-15% range that will have to count against the advance already paid out, demanding each book take years to write guarantees authors can’t quit their day jobs.

Putting aside the fact that trad-side employees do earn a living from the companies (and from the writers who aren’t being allowed to), when one is selling product – content in this instance – artificially limiting the output is the same as taking money away.

Not every story has an audience.  Or, to be specific, has a paying audience.  But not writing, not releasing, is a guaranteed zero payment.  Every book that’s available on any given day is one that can earn sales.  Those come from readers, and if those readers are happy with it, they could become fans who start to stick with the author.  Paying the bills off one book is quite tough.  A handful of titles, a little more likely.  It’s basic business that the more one has up on the shelf, the more likely it is one will be happy with the money coming in.  Short-shrifting authors is just one more way to keep them down.  It’s bad enough when the indie is doing it to themselves; when it’s being done by the trad-side to an author who hasn’t learned better, we’re back to why I’m sad over it.

Writers write.  It’s why we call them writers.  They should be writing.  If they write well enough to please readers, that’s the point of the exercise.  Those readers are willing to pay for the content; it’s what the modern economy does.  And even ‘back in the day’, people still ponied up cash for magazines and books, back when a nickel or a dime was real money.  These days, a few dollars isn’t a lot to ask for a book.  And when it’s offered by an indie, who doesn’t get a dime for every sales dollar, it adds up quite nicely.  But the whole thing falls apart if books don’t get published.

One more thing the trad-side is doing wrong.  Don’t be that guy writers.  Don’t be the guy who takes a year+ to bang out the story, and then another two rewriting it several times to please your gatekeepers.  Or, at least, don’t and then have the nerve to wonder why you can’t quit the day job.  If they want to pay for the book, and pay for the rewrite; fine.  They won’t though.  And still you wonder.

It shouldn’t be a mystery.