Writing Vs. Publishing (Or: “No More Half-Measures, Walter”)

I know, December was supposed to be a “no writing talk” month, but it’s my blog and I’ll use it how I want to, goddamnit. *kicks dirt on your shoes*

Ahem.

So.

Digital BookWorld did a recent survey about how much self-published authors make and then Hugh Howey responded and —

Well, Porter Anderson does a nice wrap-up here.

I tend to be somewhere in the middle on all this stuff — hovering in between Howey’s admittedly infectious optimism and any writing-income survey’s overall grimness. I do think this is the best time to be writing and publishing. We have a bounty of options available to us. Opportunity is a fruit hanging fat and juicy on the vine if you’re willing to grab for it.

So I thought I’d take a couple minutes to offer a few thoughts.

a) Writing income surveys are nearly always flawed. For a number of reasons, really. I rarely see them take into account those who are doing it part-time versus full-time. Freelance versus IP ownership. Across different mediums. Across different genres. And, of course, effectively across traditional-, self-, and hybrid-publishing. (And any time I see such a survey I think, “Shit, nobody asked me.” And then I go back to work, making money with words HA HA HA.)

b) Howey’s right-on with the error on how one calculates income from traditional works (which had to be vetted through various stages) and income from self-published works (which are not whittled down by that vetting process and so represents a far larger bulk of work, roughly equivalent to the slush-piles that fail to dwindle due to the varying kept gates of the system). It’s not that we’re comparing apples to oranges: we’re comparing a bushel of apples here to a truckload of apples there. How delicious is the entire lot of apples on all the apple trees versus those that have been hand-picked and taken away from the rest?

c) While I totally share Howey’s excitement over the sheer joy and power of creating stories out of nothing, I think his posts (part one and part two), while very exciting and very interesting, maybe conflate writing and publishing, which has for a long time been one of my overall theoretical problems with not the act of but the culture of self-publishing. (It’s why I prefer the term “author-publisher” because it clearly separates out those two roles, yet keeps them joined by that magical hyphen. A hyphen is like a bridge made out of PURE PUNCTUATION.) Howey says:

How much do knitters like my sister make a year? How much does someone like my wife, who likes to strum a guitar, make in a year? What about my friends who play video games hours upon hours a day? What does your typical gardener make? Or someone who blogs regularly? Or all those people with YouTube channels who are always looking for more subscribers? What about serious home chefs? How much do they make?

Because this is how I look at it: Hundreds of thousands of voracious readers with a dream of writing a novel sat down and did just that. They wrote out of love and passion, just like a kid goes out and dribbles a basketball for hours every day or kicks a soccer ball against a garage wall. Of these hobbyist writers, thousands now make a full-time living from their work. Thousands more pay a huge chunk of their bills from their hobby. These are part time artists who have thousands of fans and hear from readers all over the world. Some of them go on to get offers from agents and publishers and score major deals. All because they are doing something they love.

Even better, this hobby costs nothing. Many of the other hobbies I listed above might cost you thousands of dollars. Everyone has access to a pen and paper. Most people already own a computer for other reasons. It just takes time and imagination. Some of us didn’t set out to become wealthy from doing this . . . it just happened. There are tens of thousands of authors out there now making $20 or $100 a month doing what they would happily do for nothing. In fact, if you told me I had to pay a monthly “writing fee” for the privilege of making stuff up and pounding it into my keyboard, I would do it.

…and abstractly, I’m on board with writers who just want to write. We are free to tell whatever stories we find compelling. Thing is, we’ve always been free to do so. Publishing those stories in a different matter. Publishing is an act of business. It is — to me, at least — a professional endeavor. Writing is craft, storytelling is art, and publishing is business. More to the point, that means publishing isn’t a hobby. If you’re looking for money for your work — which is what publishing and charging money for your work suggests — then you’ve changed the game. You just made it serious. Self-publishing is often viewed as the domain of amateurs frequently because folks treat it like that’s what it is. But I don’t want to sell my shit at a flea market. Do you? Publishing isn’t Craigslist where I’m trying to sell you a jizzed-on couch. I want to sell my work at proper professional venues. I want to take this seriously and, in a perfect world, I want you to take publishing seriously, too. If we’re going to assume that author-publishing is viable and professional, then we damn well better treat it that way.

d) As a result of all this, I worry the “just click publish!” meme takes the reader out of the equation. It puts a great deal of excitement and energy on the part of the writer, which is great. But it fails to take into account the readers who are ostensibly going to pay for this work. A lot of this might be semantics, but I don’t want to subject my readers to my hobby if they have to pay to play. Blogging is one thing. Home cooking is another. I’m not charging anybody for that and so — you don’t like the price of free, hey, get out of my kitchen. (And why are you in my kitchen anyway? *wings a can of Spaghetti-Os at your head*) But once I’m putting something out to YOU, the masses, that should be sacred. We’ve left Hobbytown and entered into Holy Shit I Need To Respect My Audienceopolis. It should be the best version of that story I can muster.

e) Final worry is — and this is possibly just a knee-jerk twinge-in-the-gut feeling, but here it comes just the same — I worry a little about suggesting that a little money for writing is a good thing, like, “Oh, hey, that’s nice, you can buy dinner now and again with that book you wrote.” Or worse, the fact that we should be willing to pay to be allowed to do what we’re doing. That way leads to vanity publishing. That way leads to another ding in the armor of how authors get paid fairly for their work — because, even outside this one nonsense arena of traditional-versus-self, we still need to value writing across film, television, games, comics, and any other storytelling or journalistic medium. Writing is supposed to be worth something. Stories are supposed to have value. Not just to the ones that write them but to the audience beyond. Suggesting that it’s a privilege to write and get a few ducats here and there suggests writing and storytelling deserves to be a hobby instead of an art. And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to do it to make money.

(Someone in the comments of Howey’s blog said that self-publishing was a lottery ticket, and I can’t get on board with that. Your book isn’t a Willy Wonka golden ticket. It’s not an audition on American Idol. It’s so much more, and so much different, and should be treated as precious — not a cheap piece of paper that will most likely end up in the trash.)

Not much more to add here except the takeaway that I’m finding is:

Acting as author-publisher to your own work is entirely valid and helps to confirm for me why, like Howey says, this is one of the best times to be a writer.

But it won’t be one of the best times to be a writer if we don’t continue to treat the publishing of our stories with seriousness. Not because of the writer, but because of the reader. The reader deserves our very best. As Ron Swanson says: “Never half-ass two things. Whole ass one thing.” (Or, if you’d rather a gem from Mike Ermantraut: “No more half-measures, Walter.”)

Writing a story is for you. But the moment you publish it: it’s for everyone else.

Be professional. Be awesome. Don’t fuck around.

This is a real thing, and if you do want to make money at it — which, by the way, is for absolute real and I know a whole lotta authors who are doing very well for themselves financially — then you need to treat it that way, and not like a hobby. Mindset matters.

If we’re going to ask for efficiency and professionalism in our publishing surveys, then it behooves us to ask for the same across all of publishing, no matter what form that act of publishing takes.