By Pen as by Spear

I get asked this question from time to time: “why do you put so much effort in remaining traditionally published when you might make much more by going indie (and retain full control)?” Bear with me, as the answer requires a bit of digging around in my box of metaphors.

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In ancient Greece, all the city-states but one relied on citizen militias for defense of the polis. Farmers, artisans, tradesmen, even resident foreigners would train for the inevitable summer campaign under elected generals. Sometimes, there’d be war; other times, simply a muster, some drill, and then back home for the harvest. Only Sparta maintained a full-time standing army, who trained year-round and became, by extension, the most terrifying land force the Greeks had ever known.

In publishing, there exists a similar dynamic. Anyone who can afford it (and a good many who can’t) can hang out a shingle and call themselves a publisher. Some might even be quite good at it. These are the hoplites of Athens, Corinth, Thebes, and so forth. They do not lack courage and have the victories to prove it. At the other end of the spectrum sits the editors and publishers of the Big 5, the New York publishing establishment; these are the hoplites of Sparta. They are surrounded by allies and “dwellers round about”: agents, industry journals, distributors, sales and marketing folk, even battle squires and helots (assistants and interns), all of whom work in unison to support their Lakedaemonian literary phalanx.

SPARTANS

My editor, when I miss a deadline.

There is hardly any difference between the product produced by small or indie publishers and that which the Big 5 produce. The Athenian hoplite wears the same corselet as the Spartan; he bears the same basic pattern of helmet and greaves, wields the same 8-foot spear, and shields himself and his companions with the same round aspis. These similarities coincide with the covers of books, the typesetting, the production design, even the quality of the words between the covers. The difference is what cannot be seen; what resists quantification: the support network of editors, designers, artists, copy-editors, editorial assistants, marketing personnel, distributors, accountants – all of whom, by and large, have no other career but the production and sales of the best possible book. All told, the writer who braves the fierce agoge of commercial publication with one of the Big 5 publishers will have hundreds of years’ worth of collective experience to draw upon – men and women who have shepherded countless authors from the slush pile to the ranks of bestsellerdom.

(Coincidentally, Amazon is the Epaminondas of the publishing world: the wily Theban with one good stratagem for breaking the Spartan phalanx; time will tell how effective it is.)

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I’ve been published by both small and large presses – a citizen of both Athens and Sparta, if you will; and while I may have had more of a voice in the great democracy of the small press, when bronze meets flesh on the bloody threshing floor of literature, I feel safer in the hands of my current editor and publishing house. So that’s why I stay, why I resist the call to go indie: the support, distribution, and experience more than make up for both the perceived lack of control and loss of possible income.

As always, your mileage may vary . . .

The Plan for 2017

Welcome to 2017!  Sure, I’m a bit late but nevertheless here we are.  In a little over six months A Gathering of Ravens will be on store shelves, both physical and virtual.  If the past holds true, I should start to see early industry reviews beginning sometime in April.  This part of the process is much like sending a beloved child out for tests to determine if she will be lauded as a genius or locked in a basement like some Gothic monster.  But, a few very early readers have already spoken over at Goodreads.  You can read their reviews here.

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The Plan

So, while I’m waiting for the final verdict my plan is to forge ahead on the next book in the saga of Grimnir.  Not a sequel, per se, but rather a whole new stand-alone tale featuring our erstwhile protagonist.  It is called Twilight of the Gods; set approximately 200 years after the events detailed in A Gathering of Ravens, a celebrated Crusader returns to the North, charged by the Pope himself with bringing the pagan tribes around Lake Vänern to heel. Unfortunately for him, one such tribe worships the last remaining skraelingr as the worldly avatar of Loki . . .

It’s plotted out, save for the last act, and writing has begun.  My target is to have it finished by April.  After that, I’ll start plotting out the third book of the Grimnir sequence (tentatively called The Doom of Odin) and have that manuscript finished by November.  It is an ambitious plan, for me.  I’ve been a “book every two years” sort of writer for as long as I can recall.  Now, though, the market has changed.  To remain viable I needs must increase my output (or have a hit of such magnitude that I can take my time and no one will complain).

The prescription for two books a year?  It boils down to a thousand words a day.  A thousand words.  That’s an average blog post; a mere two-and-a-half pages (based on my Word settings).  Maintain that pace, I’m told by those who regularly write multiple books a year, and I can finish a book in 120 days.  Increase the pace and that window shrinks.  It looks good on paper; it looks eminently do-able, but in military circles it’s often said that no plan, regardless of how well-thought out, survives contact with the enemy.  And my enemy is what Steven Pressfield calls Resistance.  That niggling voice in the back of my mind that convinces me I’m not good at this, that I’m not deserving, that I should cut my losses while I can and get out of this business.  “Other people are writers,” my Mother told me, upon learning I wanted to take up writing as a career.  And this is the form of my destructor.

Luckily, I have an extended network of support, from my wife to my agent and right down to people I interact with online, and they think I can do it.  So I will trust them.  I will buckle down, apply butt to chair, and get the words down.  A thousand a day.

Starting now.

The Rivalry of Letters

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I’ve been commenting on a few posts on Facebook and on Reddit about what I see as the forced rivalry between indie and traditional authors (those who self-published versus those who are published through a commercial press). This is a rivalry that isn’t helped by prevailing attitudes in both groups. Though attitudes in the traditional community are slowly changing, the idea that self-publishing amounts to a monetization of the slush pile—with all the negative connotations that implies—remains a reality. I am, myself, a recovering elitist snob. In the not-too-distant past, I often looked down my nose at self-published efforts; “vanity publishing”, we used to call it, only fit for those who lacked the skill or the drive to brave the unforgiving world of commercial publishing. I even blushed, in my early days, when I had to explain that my first publisher was a small press, as if the size and reach of the house you were affiliated with were the final arbiters of a writer’s success.

Vitriol, however, is a two-way street. Indies are quick to toss out Twilight or Fifty Shades of Gray as proof that the system is rotten, bereft of an artistic soul. Partisans make claims that run the gamut, from “traditional publishing puts out badly edited and poorly proofed books” to “a lot of the stories are flavorless”—as though only those who tread the indie path are capable of writing and publishing a unique tale. The rest of us, we poor trad authors, dance to the tune of our soulless paymasters, writing bland stories couched in bland prose which are slapped between bland covers and trucked out to bland stores reeking of burnt coffee and pumpkin spice, where they—and we—are quickly forgotten.

The truth is, neither side is correct in its thinking.

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A writer is one who writes. There is no other qualifier than that. Publishing, both indie and trad, exists as a vehicle to get the writer’s product out and into the hands of readers. Here is the difference: an indie author assembles a team or fills the various roles herself: writer, editor, designer, artist, marketeer; a trad author is asked to join an existing team, where the aforementioned roles are filled by others. The end result is the same: produce a book that will gain the readers’ attention, get read, earn money. In every other respect, the effort of the indie author and the trad author is indistinguishable. If I, as a trad author, want to build my readership then I must do precisely the same things as my indie brothers and sisters do to get noticed. I handle my own promo, set up my own interviews, hang out in places where readers congregate online, offer free copies, run contests, blog to infinity and beyond.

So why not just go indie and keep all your earnings for yourself while maintaining total control over your work, especially if the effort required is identical? A fair question, and one that is put to me quite often. The answer is woven in with who I am. I started writing pre-Internet Age, before the indie revolution, when the only legitimate form of publication was via a large or small press. I grew up reading anecdotes from writers who struggled in the face of an endless storm of rejection just to get their work noticed. One learned to write through practice and imitation, dipped your toe in the short fiction markets to refine your voice, then with a few bylines under your belt, you set your keel for the great shoal of light that was the New York publishing industry. THAT was the life I wanted! And I made that my goal.

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Maxwell Perkins, legendary editor at Scribner’s.

I like the cachet that comes with being published by one of the Big 5; I like having a literary agent who is as much a mentor as he is my advocate at the Flatiron Building. I am no entrepreneur, so I willingly cede total control in order to have access to editors and copy editors, artists, a marketing team, physical shelf space in bookstores, an avenue to easily receive industry reviews, etc.—all the unseen benefits of having weathered slush piles and torrential rejections. The path you take to seeing your own work in print depends largely on acknowledging your limits: how patient are you? How much rejection can you take? How much control over the process of taking a book from manuscript to finished product do you need? How comfortable are you being in business for yourself? Answer these honestly and you will start to see the head of your trail.

One last thing: in no sphere of human endeavor is there such a thing as a level playing field. You will be ignored, pushed away, told no even as your neighbor—a world-class hack who writes anything from dinosaur porn to inane techno-thrillers—is lauded for her genius and showered with the filthiest sort of Hollywood lucre. Life, and publishing, is ultimately not fair. Just because you wrote it doesn’t mean it deserves to be published. To quote one of my literary heroes, Steven Pressfield: “Nobody wants to read your shit.” What you have to figure out is how to make somebody WANT to read your work, be it an agent, an editor, or a dedicated reader.

In that, we are no different at all.