The Trials And Tribulations Of The Modern Day Writer

I’m not here to predict the future for you penmonkeys.

Were I to predict such a future, I would suggest that in the next 10 years, we will all be hunted down by self-aware Verbo-Bots and Publispiders, crass automatons who seek to harvest our brains for the words they contain. The Publispiders pin us to the wall while the Verbo-Bots stomp up and trepan our skulls with a whirring drill. We smell our hair and bone burning. When the hole is complete, the robot penetrates our brain-space with some surgical tubing, then milks our minds of our delicate fictions. Then, just to be an asshole, the Publispider plants its robot babies in our colons.

You can see why I’m not allowed to predict the future.

What I can do, however, is ruminate frothily on the rigors of the present, which is exactly what I’ll do now. See, things are different for the writer these days. It’s a brave new world full of great reward and buzzsaw peril — step correctly and you’ll have laurels heaped upon your head, but step poorly and you’ll find your balls cut off with a garden trowel.

Let us then examine the state of affairs for the Penmonkeys Of Today.

Write More, Word Slave

*crack of lash*

Gone are the days when the writer could focus on her novel career and put out one book every year — at least, gone are those days for writers who want to accept “writer” as the day job.

Advances are down. Per-words on freelance and short story markets have dipped. Some markets are outright gone. Takes a while to get published, too. Point being, it’s getting tougher to “earn out” as a full-time writer — or, rather, tougher for those only focusing on a single path through the jungley word-tangle.

Sure, you’ve got self-publishing (and we’ll talk about that 800-lb mecha-gorilla in the room in just one sec), but to really succeed at self-publishing it seems right now that your best bet is to paint with a shotgun: you’re not served by posting one book and walking away but posting a book or project (or product, if you can stand that word) every couple months.

This makes the writer both honeybee and Great White Shark. First, you gotta be the worker bee and dance for your dinner — you want the honey, you’d better shake that buzzer of yours, buddy. Second, in what is becoming a probably overused metaphor, sharks must swim forward or drown, and so too must the writer be ever moving onto the next thing lest he sink into a fetid morass of bankruptcy.

Actually, let’s just hybridize that and say that it makes the writer the Great White Honeyshark.

Agreed? Agreed.

(Mmm. Honeyshark. Sounds like a delicious breakfast cereal. The fin stays crunchy in milk!)

Writers must produce. And produce. And produce. ABW: “Always Be Writing.” (PICK. THAT COFFEE. UP. Coffee is for writers only.) One book a year? Psssh. No. Focus only on novels? Not likely. Writers are no longer as free to work in a single sphere of writerly existence. Get used to writing short, long, script, game, non-fiction, etc. Be many-headed. Like the hydra. (The Great White Honey-Hydra?)

Now, this is a double-headed dildo axe. It fucks cuts both ways.

On the one hand, I kinda like it. I like that the writer is a worker. It means the craftsmen, the producers, the truly capable, will survive. Do work. Live to fight another day.

On the other hand, if we assume a slippery slope (and I always do, one lubricated with Astroglide and the tears of my enemies), then we can see where the profession of “writer” is becoming more and more watered down so much so that, in a few years, it’s going to earn less respect and fewer shekels than before. And trust me, the last thing we need is less respect. Last week, a homeless guy peed on me.

The Writing Life: Now With Actual Choice!

I don’t need to expound too much on this point, but know that the last year has seen an alarmingly fast shift in terms of self-publishing. That shift has been almost uniformly positive — the rise of e-readers and the market dominance of Amazon (who, like its namesake, is now the tallest meanest warrior-queen in the room) has really changed the game. The fact that capable, talented, and serious writers are going in that direction is a telling sign. It’s no longer the realm of Pure Uncut Slush (though I assure you, that’s still in there) and is now a viable choice for writers.

Writers didn’t actually have much of a choice before, after all. Self-publishing before usually meant getting fleeced by some vanity pub. Now you’ve got real — and awesome — options.

A Septic Tide Of Zealots

Some would have you believe that this choice is a false one. And this is true on all sides of the fence. Over there, you have the Defenders of the Realm, those who carry the flag for the “legacy” publishers, who say that the only legitimate way forth is to stomp that rag-tag army of barbarians into the mud from whence they came — it’s get your book with the Big Six or suck a pipe, pal.

On the other side of the fence are the self-publishing zealots, a froth-mouthed cult of author anarchists who believe that the One True Way is to publish yourself — after all, it’s easy! You’ll get rich! You have control! Damn the man! Burn the gates and their keepers! Anybody else is a chump.

Be not swayed by such false dichotomies. My advice to you is taken straight from my own approach: do both. Traditional publishing and self-publishing (sometimes called “indie” publishing, but damn does that term get people into a froth) each have their own ups and downs. Do both. One for you, one for you. Legacy publishing opens you to getting your book in stores, it gives you a path toward greater visibility and other publishing rights and awards and reviews. Self-publishing puts you in the hands of readers faster, and also lets you earn money (sometimes good money) more quickly.

Don’t let anybody tell you your brand new kick-ass choice is not a choice at all.

You smell the sweat-stink of a zealot, call him what he is and shut him down.

The Men Of Many Hats

You’re no longer going to survive as “just” a writer. Won’t happen. The responsibility falls to you to edit, to find markets, to pimp and promo your work, to know what sells and what doesn’t, to network, to do all the sexy dances. This is doubly true of the self-publisher who now takes on all the responsibilities of a micro-pub: design a cover, put the book together, hire anybody who needs to help the book come staggering to life like some rough-shod Frankenstein made only of stitched together nouns and verbs, and so forth.

As a sidenote, I like that term. “Micro-pub.” Better than indie, which carries its own debate. Better than self-published, which is a term that sounds about as dismissive and masturbatory as a term can get. (“I just ‘self-published’ my seed into this Kleenex!”) Ahh, but micro-pub! One man publishing. Like micro-brew.

Yeah. I like it.

I will hereby refer to myself as a “micro-pub.”

At least until I forget I came up with that term, which is in about — *checks watch* — ten minutes.

The Diminishing Value Of Books

Price versus value is almost like plot versus story, in my mind. The former is the hard definition — price is the cost set by seller, plot is the sequence of events set by the writer. The latter is a softer, hazier thing with ill-defined margins — value is the estimation of the product, story is the overall narrative. Price contributes to value just as plot contributes to story: the lesser a part of the greater.

As writers, we’d better get used to the fact that the value of books — novels in particular — is dropping. Part of this is driven by price: some micro-publishers and even some legacy publishers have significantly reduced the cost of books and e-books. Many haven’t — but that’s why value is not equal to price. The other part is an assumption — however correct or incorrect — that digital content is cheaper to produce than printed content. (For my opinion: hell yes it’s cheaper to produce.) It’s why you see so many folks (like me) irritated when an e-book costs the same or more than it’s print counterpart. I see that, I get sand up in my swim-trunks. My balls get gritty with rage. Overtime, a pearl of pure anger forms beneath my manly plums.

It’s why I applaud the efforts of my publisher, Angry Robot, who has their e-books offered for around five bucks a pop. That gets me to buy those books. But when I see an e-book that goes higher than eight, it better damn well be an author whose children I would bear and push out of my urethra. See, but even here, a degradation of value: last year, I didn’t feel the same way.

For the most part, I’m all for the reduction in value — and, subsequently, the reduction in price. I think books should be cheaper. I want books to be accessible. If books are precious (and as a result, expensive), then publishers win, readers lose, and by proxy, writers lose, too. Further, I want books to compete with other media. (I’m waiting for the day a Netflix-esque online “library card” hits the ‘Net — that day will awesome in the truest sense of the word.)

Of course, once again it’s not hard to see the slippery slope slick with guts and lube: go too low with our prices consistently and that value dips. I’ve said in the past (to some scorn) that the ninety-nine cent price point (for novels in particular) helps winnow down the value of books, and I still feel that’s true — that said, it’s worth mentioning first that any price point below standard publisher price has this effect and further, and second, this reduction in value is healthy (up to a point).

Ultimately, what it means for the modern writer of 2011 is: best get used to being better business people as well as better writers.

The Death And Rebirth Of The Short Story

I see the short story market as if it were Schroedinger’s Cat: both dead and alive at the same time.

On the one hand, the short story market — as in, I send in a story, you publish it — is maybe not doing so well, at least in terms of writers getting paid. I’ve seen in the last ten years what markets will pay for short stories either flatline or go down — meanwhile, the cost of living (especially for a writer without a steady day-job) has gone (duh) up. Not the ideal financial direction.

You send a story out there, you open yourself to readership and in some cases awards, but a lot of times it’s not financially sustainable to do all your short fiction like that.

Where the short story is gaining life, however, is in the self-publishing arena. Collections and individual shorts for sale seem to be gaining traction, and that’s pretty great. This is where that dollar price point maybe has more traction.  A buck for a short story is a price I’ll pay and a value I like.

(Again, the advice of “do both” rings true here — take some stories to market, take others to Amazon.)

Lawrence Block has a number of short stories out there for a dollar, and they’re all worth it. So too with the short fiction of Tobias Buckell. Know others? Tell us about ’em.

My God, It’s Full Of Distractions

Sad fact: one of the perils of modern life is that we are deeply distracted. We are bombarded by options. And that’s true of readers as it is of writers. That means as writers are are in danger from distractions on two fronts: on the first front, our audience has an unholy host of entertainment avenues, and so we’re competing less with other writers and more with Every Goddamn Cat Video On The Internet. It also means that our own time can easily be flushed down the ol’ terlet if we spend our time, ohhh, say, watching Goddamn Cat Videos instead of writing.

I’ve also seen comments that suggest that self-publishing has not generated a Tsunami of Crap and that quality work floats. Which is a poo-poo stinky-faced lie. Self-publishing has generated a lot of crap just as it has generated a lot of awesome work, and I assure you that, having downloaded a number of self-published titles, I’ve seen a lot of shit work do well and a lot of brilliant work do poorly. You’re naive if you think that quality is a magical unicorn who will carry your wonderful work aloft in a saddle made of adorable, squirming human babies. Shit floats, folks. The trick is, this is true outside self-publishing, too. Again, you’re competing with Snooki’s book. You’re competing with Goddamn Cat Videos. You’re competing with this blog that you’re reading right now, which is a sure sign that poop is woefully buoyant.

Amiright?

Your Turn

As always, everything I say here is just the opinion of one penmonkey ook-ooking into the grave abyss that is the Internet. I’m only half-convinced of my own opinions on any given day, so I’m always happy to hear dissenting ones. Further, feel free to jump in with your own opinions on The State Of The Union as it relates to writers. What new opportunities and new dangers await in 2011?

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