In the process of disseminating my long post on the evolution of publishing, and then adding a personal note about what it’s done to me and how I’ve managed to be fit enough to survive, I’ve heard quite a few stories from and about other authors in similar situations.
One that really struck home was a comment on livejournal from an author who, ten years ago, had occasion to interact with a number of up and coming, very fine writers with books in print or about to appear. It was a lovely time, I’m told; people were excited about the books, working on new ones, looking forward to the future of their careers.
Most of those authors, the commenter told me, are gone. Books out of print. No new books published. Sales weren’t high enough, new contracts weren’t offered, buh-bye. The commenter had tried to contact some of them, and found that many didn’t appear to be on the internet. Those who were reachable were, almost without exception, crushed.
Writing is a very personal thing. We’re told to just open a vein, write with our skin off, put our heart and soul into it.
Publishing, on the other hand, is as cold and hard as any for-profit business has to be. There’s some heart in it, many editors and publishers who will try to keep an author or a book or a series alive for the love of it, but realistically? If it doesn’t sell, the publisher can’t stay in business.
So authors are told that after we open that vein and pour out that heart, we have to turn into cold, hard businesspersons on the publishing and promo and sales end, and develop skins of industrial-grade plasteel. And if our sales aren’t good enough and we can’t sell any of our new mss. or ideas–that’s the way it is. Tough luck. Hope it finds a home elsewhere.
Ten years ago, or twenty, that home was pretty much nowhere. Another publisher wasn’t likely to take the risk on a property that was known to have sold poorly. A small press might try it, and the author might go broke (since very few small presses can pay advances) but at least have a chance to see their work in print.
Now, of course, there are so many more options. Chances are the author will still go broke–all those stories of ebook gold mines are exceptions, not the rule, especially for authors without large followings or very up-to-date, popular, trendy subject matter. But the books will see the light of day as ebooks, print-on-demand books, audiobooks, even games or graphic novels.
That doesn’t help the authors of ten or twenty or more years ago who saw their hopes crushed, their dreams shattered, and their books rejected by the one standard that validated them in publishers’ terms: money and sales. It doesn’t matter how many great reviews a book gets, or how many awards nominations or even wins it may receive. If the next book doesn’t sell well enough to keep the contracts coming, that career’s dead, Jim.
For authors brought up in this world, conditioned to judge their validity as authors by their ability to land new print contracts, the new world is pretty much beyond comprehension. Worse, they may not even be able to write, because writing in their minds and hearts became equivalent to writing to deadline, under contract. No deadline, no contract, no incentive to write, or perhaps more to the point finish, a book. Why bother? Who will even care?
Their readers do care, of course. And there is a chance that a book that didn’t find its audience then may find it now, at least in numbers enough to pay the monthly rent. But will the authors realize this? And if they do, can they piece the shards of their art and heart together well enough to be able to write again? Or to have the confidence (because it takes a whole lot of that) to put that writing out in a world that, the last time they tried it, smacked them down flat?
Book View Cafe is one way that a group of authors found to stand up against the pressures of a rapidly changing market. By banding together, pooling resources and skills, and being both big enough to be noticeable and small enough to be quick and agile as the sands shifted and shifted again, they–we–have managed to keep our collective careers alive, and in some cases, to raise them from the dead.
Not everyone has the time or the particular slant of personality to do it our way (all-volunteer, high-workload, consensus decision model), but I do believe that some form of banding together is essential. If nothing else, validating each other–convincing each other that yes, they can write, their work is of good quality, and readers should have the opportunity to find it again–can be a literal lifesaver for an author whose publisher cast them out into the cold. Low sales need not mean no sales. It may simply mean that the work appeals to a smaller slice of the audience than publishers need in order to keep up their profits–and that slice, at current royalty rates for self-published works, can be enough to live on. Frugally, maybe, but still.
It’s not really about the money, either. It’s about the heart of the matter: the joy in creating new stories, generating new words, making something that wasn’t in the world before. Giving authors back their happiness. Forging a new dream–maybe not the dream of a printed book with a major publisher’s colophon on the spine, but something that can be just as valid and worthwhile and exciting: to find new readers, and bring back old ones.
So many talents lost. So many series unfinished, books unwritten. In the new world, there’s room for them. I’d like to ask the hive mind of the internets: What can we, you, all of us do to help mend those shattered authors? How do we find them, and how do we encourage them to go back to writing again?