‘A’ is for ‘Arrogance’: Legacy Authors and Ivory Towers

Author’s Note: This blog was originally published at my personal blog here. Since the post was part of the impetus for spinning this blog out on its own, I thought it was an appropriate first post for Front Matter.

So I was doing my nightly Twittering and I came across this article in which traditional/legacy author Sue Grafton refers to those of us who self-publish as “lazy” and “wannabes,” among other uncharitable characterizations. Remarkably ungracious for such an esteemed author, though I guess since she added “I’m sorry,” to one of the lines and framed it as a hard truth, it was supposed to sound like tough love and wisdom. What’s funny is, I’ve written maybe five blog entries about other authors, and one of them was this one about Sue herself, and what I was learning from her wisdom about a writer’s work ethic and how time-consuming being an author can (and should) be.
Um, yeah.

This isn’t the first time in the last several months we’ve heard legacy authors defending the old publishing system by pointing out how many bad self-published books are out there (because clearly all published works are well-written and worthwhile), and advising young authors to avoid the “career suicide” of self-publishing. But this is the first time I’ve heard the conversation get so pointed and ugly against self-published authors themselves.

In reality, the world of publishing is changing, has changed, in the last few years. Ready or not, like it or not. The accessibility of eBooks for kindle, nook, PC, iPad, etc. is forcing traditional publishers and authors to compete for your reader eyeballs (and dollars) with independent authors, editors and illustrators who have much lower overhead and nothing to lose. We’re hungry, we’re motivated, and we don’t have a six-figure advance in the bank, a series of overpaid English majors weeding through manuscripts on the readers’ dime, or a big shiny building that has to be paid for before we start making money on our work. In this brave new publishing world, we have an advantage.

I can sell you my books for 99 cents and $2.99 respectively because I believe that’s a fair price to pay for a few hours’ entertainment, and because the openness of the amazon platform and generous royalty structure allows me to recoup my costs quickly. I pay my fabulous designer for her artistry with the cover and my amazing proofreader for catching my mistakes. I pay to have a few early copies distributed to my beta readers and I pay some nominal fees for web hosting, marketing, etc. I don’t have to pay an agent (don’t need one), a marketing expert (what little I do, I do myself), a manuscript screener (you do that yourself when you decide whether or not you want to take a chance on my book), an assistant (I wish!), a president, an HR person, a custodian, an office manager, a courier, a blue-line reader, book tour coordinator, or an intern to get me coffee. Those are all me, me, me (usually), me, me, me, me and ME. Hubs doesn’t even know how to work the coffee maker.

All those costs I just mentioned are built in to the legacy publishing system. Those, plus the costs of all the really bad books they choose to publish that no one buys. [Did you know that sometimes books make it through the many filters of traditional publishing and still totally suck? GASP!] That’s why you can’t buy Sue Grafton or Jodi Picoult (even the kindle versions, which would appear to have very few hard costs) for less than $7.99 or $9.99. Recent releases and bestsellers are generally $12.99 and up. It’s why so many people are choosing to take a chance on unknown authors from the $4 and under lists, based on a few reviews or a recommendation from a friend.

No wonder those old guard authors are coming out swinging at their indie competitors, under the guise of giving ‘helpful advice,’ as bullying so often is.

But it turns out that while traditionally successful authors might be more polished from years of rejection and more layers of editing, many readers are discovering that they’re willing to put up with a few comma splices or regretted purchases for the opportunity to get great reads at a great price, or to be the first person in their book club to discover a new gem. And as much as traditional publishers and authors complain about how the market is glutted with self-published crap, the reality is that truly, universally bad books will always be weeded out by negative reviews and bad press. In this market, readers have power and they’re using it to create a credible and reliable system of reviewing. If a book gains any momentum number-wise at all, readers will speak the truth about it; and if it doesn’t gain momentum, it won’t show up in rankings or be recommended anyway.

To some extent I understand why legacy authors might be bitter and confused, and why they will defend a system on which they are dependent (and locked in by both contract and habit). I think we can debate, if we’re bored, whether the reading public are good enough judges of what ‘good’ is; or if we really need publishers and critics and academics to tell us what’s worth reading. Maybe both views are valid. I’ll concede there’s at least some room for discussion about that. On the other hand, calling self-publishing ‘lazy’ and indie authors ‘wannabes’ shows complete ignorance of the self-pubbing process and, frankly, a professional arrogance that is beyond the pale.

The hard work is taking the rejection, learning the lessons, and mastering the craft over a period of time. I see way too many writers who complete one novel and start looking for the fame and fortune they’re sure they’re entitled to. To me, it seems disrespectful…that a ‘wannabe’ assumes it’s all so easy s/he can put out a ‘published novel’ without bothering to read, study, or do the research.

I’m a self-published author. I had a goal to write a novel by the time I was thirty, and events in my life delayed that until I was thirty-five. I have an English degree, two Master’s degrees and a specialist degree (two of those in human behavior), and more than twenty years of work experience, much of which included writing. Not the fun kind of writing I dreamed of doing, but the kind that most of us end up doing when we have a mortgage to pay and people to feed. I’ve taken creative writing classes, I’ve done writing groups and blogs and written magazine articles. All in my spare time — I guess because I didn’t ‘bother’ to do the right kind of work.

Over the years I’ve experienced rejection and criticism and growth, and I am aware those are a lifelong reality if I want to be any good. I wrote my first novel in snatches of time between graduate school classes, morning sickness, breastfeeding, working, and — once in a while — sleeping. I researched, wrote, and rewrote instead of watching TV or talking on the phone or taking a desperately needed nap. I wrote on the bus and in traffic and jotted things down when I got out of the shower. I made notes on a pad while I strolled my newborn around the park. I wrote on my laptop in bed while my husband snored next to me.

I may be a lot of things, Sue Grafton, but lazy isn’t one of them.

When I completed my first novel, it was like giving birth. Just finishing it fulfilled what was, for me, a lifelong dream. I was sheepish when I handed it over to my friends to read and tell me what they thought. I was so proud of what I’d accomplished, and a little nervous that people would conclude I’d completely wasted my time doing it. And then there was this seed of hope, this presumptuous little suggestion in the back of my mind, confirmed by the feedback I got from friends and early readers: You know, this isn’t half-bad. It’s not Shakespeare or anything, but for a first effort, it’s not bad.

Holding my finished manuscript and knowing what I do about publishing, I had a choice to make: send off query letters to agents and publishers and wait for months to hear back rejections, or try a grand experiment. Go ahead. Put it out there. See what happens. Maybe nothing will come of it, maybe everyone will hate it. Maybe they’ll laugh at me for trying. Maybe Sue Grafton will call me a wannabe. But at least my friends and family will get to see the fruits of my labor in print, instead of just hearing me complain at parties about how misunderstood I am and whining about my latest string of rejections.

I was six months pregnant, chasing a toddler, and working in my other job as a therapist. I knew that for me, this was a now-or-maybe-never proposition. I chose now. Like hundreds of other indie authors, I stood at that fork in the road and decided to take a chance on myself, right then and there, rather than pursuing the elusive approval of the publishing industry. I decided to let readers decide what they thought of my book themselves. (And they did. And they told me about it — for better or worse!) I didn’t expect fame and fortune. I didn’t demand attention or start wearing a beret and introducing myself as an ‘author’ at parties. I didn’t ask to play Carnegie Hall with my Five Easy Pieces, as Grafton so condescendingly puts it. I just put it out there and went on my way, hoping only that someone would read it and not regret the experience. What happened a few months later was, as Hubs says, like catching lightning in a bottle. I’m still in awe of it.

My work is not perfect. I am still honing my craft. But instead of hearing the suggestions of someone sitting behind a desk in a publishing house, I get to hear the suggestions and criticisms of readers themselves through reviews and other direct feedback. They are not always as sophisticated, nor are they always as polite, as an agent’s form letter might be. But I hear from them. Immediately.

Is it always pleasant? No. Do I learn what I need to learn? You better believe it. My second book is FAR better than my first, thanks in part to reader reviews and feedback, and I believe I will continue to improve. In the meantime, I’ve had the encouragement of all the positive feedback and the fact that thousands of people have downloaded and read my work, not just a few people to whom I’ve FedExed manuscripts. Over 100,000 have downloaded The Marriage Pact alone, actually, which is nothing to sneeze at — considering the average ‘published’ book sells around 7,000.

And instead of paying my dues by checking the mailbox every day hoping to see publishing house stationery, I’ve actually made a little bit of money at this so I can re-invest it into my own career and give myself more opportunities to be a better writer. If I were trying to break into traditional publishing, I might not have made a dime yet. And, to be honest, I probably would have given up my dream of writing until we could afford to live on one income (which I would venture to guess is how many traditionally successful authors make it through the lean years before they are ‘discovered’).

I don’t feel ‘entitled’ to anything, nor do I believe that being willing to stand up in front of the world and present my work for people to judge as they will is ‘disrespectful’ to anyone. My self-publishing has nothing to do with anyone but me and the people who choose to read my work. In fact, I would say that putting yourself out there to sink or swim in an ocean of unbiased readers takes a hell of a lot more courage than sending a query letter to an agent or publishing house.

When some legacy authors talk about what they’ve ‘earned’ by making it through the old system, I’m sure they have no idea how arrogant and entitled they sound themselves, and how little credit for their success they give to the real people who buy and read their books (some of whom are current or future indie authors). Nor do they pay much attention to how much of every international bestseller’s success is owed to one big factor: LUCK.

Are many of those authors talented? Yes, of course. Do they work hard? Certainly. Is it grueling to make it through the process of winning publishers’ approval, and do they persist when others give up? Of course.

Are they also damn lucky that they got introduced to the right person at the right time, or landed a manuscript on the right desk of the right agent on the right day? Absolutely. Do many of them have connections through friends and family that have helped them along the way? Or spouses or parents who supported them while they were busy getting rejected and trying again? The benefit of socio-economic status and education and time to write rather than working two jobs to make ends meet? Often, yes.

Does any of that matter when you pick up a book? Of course not. No more than it matters whether a person is self-published or traditionally published. I don’t begrudge traditional authors their success, nor do I judge them for how they’ve chosen and/or fallen into their career path. I will continue to read, enjoy and learn from both traditionally-published books (when I can afford them) and self-published/indie authors. But if traditional authors want to continue their success in today’s new reading market, they are going to have to do more to adapt than simply look down their noses and make elitist, insulting comments about self-published authors.

Because we are honing our craft. We’re banding together and learning from our mistakes and each other. We’re publishing and learning and starting over. Unlike traditional authors, we have the necessity of close relationships with our readers. We appreciate emails, listen to feedback, and we take time to tweet back whenever we can. We fight for every sale and we read every review. We’re invested with our blood sweat and tears and stand on the precipice of public opinion with no kindly agent or editor to protect our egos. Our readers, bloggers and amateur critics are smart, too, and they know what good reading is — with or without the blessing of a Big Six publishing imprint.

So traditional publishers and authors, you’d better watch your back (and your sales figures), because we indies are getting stronger and we’re not going away. We don’t need to put you down or belittle you. We are not afraid of failure or a little friendly competition — even if your approach to us is sometimes less than friendly. We don’t have time to squabble about whether we deserve our successes or whether you approve of our decisions.

We’re too busy working our tails off and bringing our A-game.

And “A” is for Author.