Thursday, November 4, 2010

Writers: Get Over Yourselves

One thing that concerns me a great deal in my perusal of author, agent and editor web sites is how often they focus on writing. Eg: this is a very good author blog in which she discusses how to write.

Now, I guess given the nature of those sites that's only to be expected. What bothers me is the overall feeling that I get from visitors to these sites that the universe is screaming, "The publishing industry isn't fair to writers! Why isn't publishing doing more to help writers? Rather than go with a publisher, I'm self publishing because that way I can actually get my book in print!"

When I get this impression, all I can do is shake my head and wish there were some way to help the purveyors of such thoughts get their heads on right. So here, possibly for future reference, possibly just to vent, is a verbal whack upside the brain-pan.

Get over yourself. It's not about you.

The explosive growth of the web has made it possible for everyone who wants to write words to publish those words to a world-wide audience.

I've managed to post something on average every week for the last 2 years. Assuming 500 words a post (very conservative), that's 113000 words. The effort has garnered me 20 followers. Followers are people who get notified by Google of a new post, provided they are signed in and bother to check, which they may or may not subsequently read. I average about 3 visitors a day. Most are google searchers who are looking for something else and who pause only long enough to say, "Nope, that's not it," before moving on. About 1 in 3 actually pauses long enough to read what's written here (and thank-you for that).

Writing has become such a common pursuit that we even have a month dedicated to producing it. But the broadcast of information is only one part of communication. The other part, the part that is currently being neglected in this cyber-oriented world of ours, is the reception.

Who's listening? Who's reading?

The answer is important. If everyone's writing and nobody's reading, then we have the equivalent of a room full of people yammering at the top of their lungs and wondering why nobody's paying attention.

I'd like to be more popular. I'd like to be Scalzi (note that he doesn't talk about writing very often). I'd also like to be rich, but that ain't happening either. And that's fine. I haven't put any real effort into attracting readers, and so the results are in line with my expectations.

I look at the web, and I see how easy they've made it for people to write, but I don't see where they've made it as easy for people to read. The closest we've got to a tool that makes things easy to read is a search engine, which is the equivalent of having someone go through the bookstore and tell you "These are all the books that contain the word 'asparagus.' Now go through them all until you find one you might like." The web really ain't user friendly. Why not? This essay puts it succinctly: "...far more money can be made out of people who want to write novels than out of people who want to read them." People are willing to pay to put content up on servers. They're not willing to pay to read (access) it (except for adult content which... well, it's one more reason I think the species could use a good meteor). Writers are desperate for an audience and willing to pay to get their words out. That's why being a scam agent often pays better with less effort than being a real one.

Readers, however, are being woefully served by everyone except the publishing industry. Publishing, whatever complaints may be leveled against it, exists to make money off readers. As a result, publishing caters to the readers not to the writers. So you've written a fantastic novel of romance and tripe farming? Congratulations. Sorry the publishing world has rejected your book, but all their research tells them that buying a novel with detailed instructions for growing your own tripe is unlikely to pay off. Not enough people want to read it. Once a novel, or any book, comes out from a reputable publisher you can be sure of at least one thing: a large number of people believe that someone out there will be willing to pay to read it.

Publishing is a pull industry. They don't look at supply (for which I'm grateful). They look at demand. They study the market (readers) and try to figure out "What do these people want?" Oh, they get it wrong a lot, but they get it right often enough to be a viable (if ailing) industry. They've also figured out what readers don't want: Novels that are badly written, poorly plotted, predictable, dull... In other words, they don't want about 99% of what ends up in an agent or publisher's slush pile.

So: writers... before you complain about the commercial publishing industry, make sure you've spelled every word correctly and used standard grammar. Make sure you've written in paragraphs and scenes, that the book actually works, and then...

And then do a national book market study that shows how many people are interested enough to plunk down a minimum of $10 to read your book.

They're going to be giving up what (probably) is the equivalent of one or two paid working hours to own it instead of more food, clothing or luxury items, and then several more hours of personal time time to read it. Are you sure your humble collection of pages are worth that to enough of them to make the editing, publishing, packaging and marketing of those pages profitable?

If the answer to that is a resounding, "Yes!" and you've got the numbers to back it up, then complain away. I want to hear what you have to say.

Otherwise, please shut up.

Don't tell me how you want readers to read your book, because what you want doesn't matter.

All that matters to readers is what they want. All that matters to publishing is what readers want. I think it's okay for authors to want something else. Some want to inspire the world. Hurray! Some want to write a Work For the Ages. Go for it! Some want to make a living off their novels (not all desires are realistic). More power to you! Go forth and write to your highest and best ambition. But in the world of commercial publishing, don't expect any of that to interest anyone. You're not paying for the product, so the only say you have in what's produced is in what you offer for possible production.

Make it good. Make it readable. And regardless of what happens, don't ever forget:

Publishing: It's not about you.

5 comments:

Poetry of Flesh said...

I'd been thinking along those lines more and more of late, it's good to see someone else vocalize them so well.

Amalia T. said...

Great Post--great points, all, and an important reminder to all of us.

maine character said...

Well said. It reminds me of what Jack London wrote over a century ago to an aspiring writer: "Damn you, forget you, and then the reader will remember you."

Ulysses said...

Thanks, folks.

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