Dearest Writer: Nobody Owes You Shit
I get it.
You’re a writer.
That means whatever it means in terms of technical format — you write novels or comics or blogs or webisode scripts or dirty jokes on clean napkins. Beyond the vagaries of format, it means you took something of yourself, you wrenched it free, unmooring it from your intellectual viscera, and you bled. Boy howdy did you bleed. You bled a story. You bled your ideas. You made up people out of your guts and your gore. You hemorrhaged time and effort and hope and dreams. You gushed some of your very identity onto the screen and onto the page. It’s arterial, this act. It is life — your life — soaking into the tapestry fabric of creation.
Nobody can take that away from you.
And fuck anybody who tries to diminish it.
(You know there was gonna be a ‘but,’ right?)
But but but but but but but.
But just the same, nobody owes you a damn thing.
I mean, unless they owe you like, cash, or a dinner, or a knuckle sandwich. And certainly if you’re with a publisher, they owe you money and all the things that they should be doing as per your contract. (My contracts all stipulate I get one pound of exotic, illegal animal meat. For instance, Harper Voyager just sent me a package of ground lemur. Fragrant and delicious. Tastes a little like marmoset, though, so if you like that, it’s all good.)
Still, the point stands in the larger sense.
You writing anything doesn’t mean anybody owes you a good goddamn.
Let’s talk about books and novelists in particular.
There’s an article going around.
Cut to: “No, I Don’t Want To Read Your Self-Published Book” at WaPo.
Cue the complaints, which I’ve seen around (Facebook a good example) of gatekeepers and legacy-fried-jerky-jerks and why-they-gotta-be-down-on-the-indie-publishers.
Understand something: at this point, writers are multiplying like an orgy of Tribbles. And each writer is writing more books than ever, which means not only are writers multiplying, but every writer is barfing up a dozen books and we just need to thank the gods that books aren’t then barfing up smaller books or soon we’d literally be buried in the damn things. I’m pretty sure that if you buy two Kindles and put them in a dark room with smooth jazz, you will have fifteen Kindles by morning, each of them packed with 666 e-books.
How many books come out in a given year is a hazy, shifting number — I’ve given these numbers before, but it looks like there were around 300,000 books published traditionally in 2013, with about 50k of those being adult novels. Self-publishing easily doubles that number, and that’s only counting those who bought ISBNs. Which means the real number is probably a whole lot bigger.
But for now, let’s say that between the two forms of publishing, you get around 600,000 books released into the wild every year, like a stampede of lemmings. (Lemming meat? Not so tasty. Stringy. Greasy. Tastes like sadness and panic.) So that means, over the course of one year, around 11,500 books land in a given week. Roughly 1600 in a single day.
Now, okay, you can probably chop that number in half because a lot of those are so marginal they don’t even count — they’re naught but fog, but noise, but a sneeze in a starless void.
And certainly the number gets wonkier when you figure the spread across various formats, genres, categories, age ranges. It starts to dice up a good bit due to the taxonomy of books.
Still, let’s carve away a lot of that gristle and fat…
Shall we say that ten percent of that total number equals meaningful books?
And by that I mean, those books that share the same air as you and your book. Not direct competition in that it’s all New Adult Erotic Space Westerns, but I just mean in a general sense — competing for attention, social media, reviews, shelf-space, even competing for the weird algorithms and insane discoverability engines that guide the web.
Ten percent is 60k.
Or, around 160 books published per day.
Can you imagine that?
In the time it takes you to wake, do all the frivolous flopping about that goes into your day, then go back to sleep, 160 new books just teleported into existence. Six new books an hour. It’s like there’s a giant book monster somewhere just squatting over a Barnes & Noble dumpster shitting out books. CLUH-CLANG. “Another six books.” CLUH-CLANG. “Six more, high fiber.” CLUH-CLANG. “There we go — ooh, a new Stephen King, that one was really blocking me up.”
And all that competes with games, movies, TV, that video where a guy gets hit in the nuts with a skateboard on the YouTubes. Lotta competition for eyeballs and wallets and hours in the day.
Self-publishing has really dialed this up — overall, in a good way, in that yay books, yay authors making a living, hoo-fucking-ray for new options and opportunities. But it complicates things at the same time. This isn’t a knock against self-publishing — but it is a reminder that with gatekeepers fleeing their posts, this wonderful time of unfettered creation still comes with issues and complexities. Because of this, author-publishers and the traditionally-published alike need to recognize the new realities, the new difficulties, of being a writer. This is the best time to be a writer, but also a time of upheaval and bewilderment, a time of great coyote bedlam. The noise and signal are both increasing, and that old adage of “90% of everything is crap” probably holds true — but it’s a lot easier to find one diamond within nine shards of broken glass than it is to find 10 diamonds amidst 90 shards, or 100 shards among 900. It’s a challenge. And it’s really a challenge for those who help to curate interesting content — reviewers, critics, bloggers, bookstores, libraries, and so forth. (It’s also why many of them shut out self-published authors: the noise there is too great, the ratio of quality too imbalanced, the chaos too large. Don’t be irritated at them for not built to handle these tectonic changes yet. You just colonized a brand new world, so don’t be pissed off if there isn’t a Starbucks on every corner yet, mmkay?)
Life is full of kept gates.
In and out of writing.
Even author-publishers are beholden to them. Amazon is a kept gate, though one with nicely loose hinges. Reviewers — professional and otherwise — are gatekeepers. BookBub and its ilk is one. Editors better damn sure be a kept gate for you. And at the end of the day, readers are one, too. They’re the final gate, the last of the infernal portals. Any outlet of discoverability, any axis of transmission, is a gate watched over by somebody. Traditionally-published authors just pass more of them on the front end — that cattle-chute is far narrower (which is both very good and very bad, but is a reality regardless of the pluses and minuses).
The point is, it’s hard being a writer.
It’s hard having a book and having it get seen.
It’s hard no matter which choice you make in terms of getting it out there.
You’re not better because you traditionally-published.
You’re not better because you did it yourself.
We’re all our here, struggling to find our way, working to put our books in the hands of readers. It’s harder for some than it is for others, but it ain’t easy no matter how you whittle this stick.
Let it be hard.
Accept and expect the challenge.
Recognize that you’re not the only one doing this.
As I said last week, you’re just one special snowflake in the whole damn blizzard.
Nobody owes you anything. They don’t owe you a review. Or a retweet. Or any consideration at all. They don’t owe you a blurb, or a blog post, or blog space. The bookstore doesn’t owe you shelf space. The library doesn’t owe you circulation. Nobody owes you attention, and they certainly don’t owe you a career. They don’t even owe it to be nice to you.
But you can earn those things. Not just by writing a good book — though that damn well better be Step Fucking One. You earn it by doing better. You earn it by being nice, and humble, and recognizing that it’s not the world’s job to bend its knee to you, but your job to bend knee. You gain audience by being the sharpest, smartest, kindest version of yourself you can summon. You overcome the challenges implicit to a creative life and career not by raging against them or by being sour about them, but by acknowledging them and dealing with them either head-on or with your own clever solutions. You get these things by being honest and earnest and authentic.
You wrote a book.
That’s a truly special thing.
To you, to me, to your mother.
But it’s not a golden ticket.
Don’t complain. Don’t pout. Kick your excuses and whinges out the door.
You wrote a book? So did that woman. And that guy. And that llama.
You’re gonna have to do more.
Recognize this up front. Arm yourself with that information now.
Nobody owes you anything.
But you? You owe them a lot.
You owe them the best of you.
The best book.
The best effort.
The best you.
Now go and earn your place. Give more than you take. Offer more than you want.
And always do better.
* * *
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