Friday, October 7, 2011

Art for Our Sake

Hi folks! Nicole Peeler here. Art is such a great topic for the Pens, and there's a thousand different posts I could write. But I'm only going to write one, and it's something that connects to what we're doing over at the League of Reluctant Adults. 

The fact is that it's a hard time to be a writer. All the awesome digital technology has changed things for authors, and the industry is in flux. On the one hand, these innovations offer a lot of opportunities. On the other hand, like with all changes, there is also a lot of uncertainty.

One of the biggest things that's changing is how authors get paid. New York publishers are all threatening to start drastically reducing advances, and I'm hearing it's already happening. Digital publishers pay well on royalties, but aren't known for advances at all. Self-pubbing means you keep nearly all of the money your books earn--but you have to put in the man hours to replace the editorial, marketing, and art departments you lost by eschewing traditional publishing. Basically, the industry is all up in the air, and I've even seen some talk of reinstating the patronage system.

But all of this is worth it for us, as authors, to know our books are getting read. Whether we see them on the shelves at Barnes and Noble or we see them as a Kindle book, it feels good. Because most writers fought a very long time to make it to that level. They sacrificed a lot, and earned their art.

The fact is that pursuing these aspirations creates a lot of powerful emotions. As a professor of creative writing, I see the passion, the dreams, of aspiring writers every day, and I know how powerful such emotions can be, as well as how fragile. Which is why I get so very, very pissed off when people try to take advantage of writers' passion, of writers' dreams, to make a quick buck.

Unfortunately, it happens all the time. There are "agents" who charge you by the word to "edit" your manuscript. There are "publishing companies" who charge you vast amounts of money to publish your book, when they have absolutely NO distribution to bookstores. Meaning someone has paid thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of dollars for a few thousand copies of their book to languish in a warehouse somewhere. There are even stories of people stealing manuscripts, or agents/publishing houses so incompetent that they verge on the criminal, even if it's by mismanagement rather than actual villainy.

On the one hand, people should know that there is no such thing as a free lunch. If a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is. But the fact is that that writing often involves that fatal combination of "passion plus dream" which makes people vulnerable. And vulnerability, while regretful, is human. Preying on that vulnerability, however, is not. It's vulpine.*

When I was querying agents from Scotland, where I lived when I wrote my first book, I was totally at a loss. I knew no one in the industry, and I had no idea where to start. Plus, I'd read enough on line to know there were all sorts of fraudsters praying on wannabe writers, but I didn't know how I'd tell legitimate agents/publishers from illegitimate. Then, I saw some write-ups on this very issue, by very respected agents, that led me to two sites that became my crutches: Absolute Write Water Cooler and Writer Beware. Absolute Write is an open forum, full of information. Want to know if an agent replies immediately or takes forever? You can find out there. You can also find out if an agency or publisher has done something shady. And it's defining the shady from the sunny that's the purpose of Writer Beware. That's a site that tracks agents and publishers, letting you know if they're legit or not.

In other words, they're the aspiring author's best friends. And they're the con artist's worst enemy.

Which is why I was so furious to see this article, by John Scalzi, head of the Science Fiction Writers of America (of which I'm a member), and generally Very Nice Man. Long story short, a group of people claiming to be authors has started a website warning people away from Absolute Write and Writer Beware. It doesn't take a rocket scientist (of which SFWA has quite a few) to see past this unsubtle ruse. This is a group of people that Writer Beware and Absolute Write have warned us against, trying to act like everyone's criminal but them.

The problem with this website is that it is just as predatory as you'd expect from such people. Imagine you're a vulnerable aspiring writer who desperately wants your dream fulfilled. You get offered this deal that appears too good to be true, so you start researching. You find this site that warns you against the people offering you the deal. You're all, "Oh no, once again my dream is shattered." Then with another Google search, you discover a counter website, telling you that the people warning you are the real criminals, and that you shouldn't trust them. With one fell swoop, the possibility of your dream coming true has been resurrected, only to turn into a nightmare in which your vulnerabilities have been reinstated and preyed upon. And look at how sneakily it's done--it's done so that the person has done their research. They're not blindly grasping at every straw. They're looking for sources and they find them. Meanwhile, it's human nature to want to believe the source telling us what we want to hear, and the Write Agenda takes advantage of that fact.

So the League has banded together, as only the League can, to start some shit. We don't often throw down, but when we do, our gauntlet is covered in the thick, black barbs of snark. We demand to be boycotted, as well, because boycotting is this season's little black dress.

And we want you to get to boycottin', yerself. If you're a writer, get over to the League and Boycott yourself. If you're a fan, get your favorite writers to boycott themselves. If we get over 100 writers to boycott themselves, we're donating money to SFWA's legal fund (which helps writers sue the bastards who take advantage of them) and Absolute Write's forums.

Help us put our money where our mouth is, and help us prove once again that while there may be wolves circling the den, writers take care of one another. Fellow writers run Absolute Write and Writer Beware, and believe me, they're not doing it to get wealthy. All they're earning is stress. But I've learned in my almost three years publishing that helping each other is, for the most part, what writers do: we stand up for each other, we support each other, and we sure as shit aren't going to let people prey on our vulnerable.

So git to boycottin'! ;-)

*Sorry foxes, you probably didn't deserve that comparison.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the heads up. This is valuable information and I'll stand behind the collective League to help get word out.

Sophie Littlefield said...

Yaaah Love it. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to do my civic duty while still on 2nd cup of coffee. the League is my hero :) xoxo

Rachael Herron said...

League is MY hero, too. I boycotted myself over there, and great post.

Jane George said...

Wow. Good to know. I'll be paying attention to that one.

I'd just like to say that I think the publishing industry changed dramatically in the last twenty years. With mergers and corporatization came more focus on the bottom line. Chain megastores replaced independent booksellers. Advances shrunk and mid-list authors were squeezed out long before the digital revolution we're witnessing now. IMO, some of the problems the big publishers are having right now stem from this history. I foresee a potential turnaround, with small booksellers coming back with the aid of technology like the Espresso Book Machine.

With the option to self-publish, authors can drop some of that desperation that makes them prey to criminals or even a contract from the 'Big 6' that isn't in their favor.

Nicole Peeler said...

Thanks, Nikki! ;-)

Sophie and Rachael, we love you!

Thanks, Jane! I agree about the dramatic changes, and I hope there is a turnaround. Personally, I think we're all going to be chipped by Amazon any day now. ;-)

As for the idea that self-publishing makes people safer, I'd argue the opposite, that we need Writer Beware and Absolute Write even more, with the advent of self-publishing. There are a lot of new predators out there scamming people who want to self-publish, especially people who are scared of the technology. There are people offering to "represent" you to Amazon, or who will charge hundreds of dollars to upload your ms. Not to mention, there are now a whole new slew of issues with "marketing firms" and self publishing. I don't think self-publishing has made people less desperate, I think the desperation has just changed shape.

Lee Lopez said...

The industry is going through massive changes right now. Indie is taking off and doing much better then anyone in the industry could have guested. It's no longer vanity press, or self publishing, but independent. It's also making a lot of money for the better authors. Not everyone is guaranteed to make money. Promotion is a lot of hard work..Publishers and agents are now trolling the indies, looking for the next big thing. It happens, not to often but it can happen. So I wonder if even querying agent in the future will be necessary, just put up a indie. Be warned it's got to be a damn good one, or it will be lost in the masses.

Juliet Blackwell said...

Yay! I want to boycott, and be boycotted, too! Thanks for this great heads up --love that the league's throwing down!

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