Writer’s Blockade

I know that many of the people who follow my blog are not writers or publishers. I also know that, as a writer, I often get in a discussion (about being a writer) with people who have a very hard time understanding what I am talking about. This is because of the revolution you didn’t know was happening. And this blog is for you.

I’m going to try to break this down into the most surprising, simple, and basic points, because, let’s face it, I could go on all day about this stuff. You, on the other hand, want the short(er) version.

(Definitions: Self Published – one person conceives of, writes, edits, designs, produces, and prints a book. Some aspects, like editing, cover design, and printing, can be (and is often) hired out. Indie Published – same as self published, but a more modern term. It can also mean being published by a small, independent press, and that press may or may not be owned and operated by the author. Traditionally Published – the author is represented by an editor (and sometimes an agent) and paid by a (sometimes very large) publishing house that also edits, designs, markets, prints, and sells their book. Some (or all) rights are sold to the publishing house in a “book deal.”)

The publishing world is in complete flux, and has been for several years. And it will be still, for awhile. It started with a few things: the economic recession that pushed book purchasing to the back of the average American’s purchasing power; the advent of the e-book and popularity of the e-reader (like Kindle, iPad and Nook); and the invention and implementation of the POD. (“What’s a POD?” you ask. It stands for Print On Demand, and it means that when you order a POD book (which you have no idea is POD), it actually prints out the book for you after your order. It is used in everything from book vending machines (yes, they exist) to many purchases from Amazon and other major online retailers. Authors can also order copies of PODs to distribute themselves, at a relatively low cost.) What has resulted: a weary publishing world (aka. editors and agents taking on fewer projects, marketing on the decrease, small stores (and big ones, like Borders) out of business); a glut of material (meaning that there are now WAY more books available than there were only ten years ago); and a shifted point of success (from what used to be a “Hurray! I’m published!” to “Hurray! My book sales have finally broken out!” (which could be many years later)). Unfortunately, this has led to a decrease in average book quality, little to no ability to publish even promising manuscripts the traditional way, and a clamoring for attention and sales in the landslide of books. Some of the most exciting benefits of this are: better royalties for writers; a more informed and active writer (needing to be involved in all aspects of publishing); a fighting chance for truly talented and persistent writers; books that break the traditional publishing mold (like longer first novels or books about college kids); full control given to the author, including in choice of cover art, final edit power, movie rights, etc. Of course, all revolutions come with their battles and at a price, but I won’t bore you with all the intricacies of the power struggle. I’m sure you can imagine.

Self-publishing is not vanity presses. I suppose this is why many of us like to call it indie publishing. Self publishing is just not what it used to be, and indie authors are sick and tired of being saddled with the negative press surrounding the old way of doing it. Here’s another thing: self publishing is free. (Basically.) It didn’t used to be. The old impression was that if you self-published you were a failed writer, and that you had to fork out thousands of bucks to put your sorry copy between two covers and then hawk it to your friends. This is not the modern reality of self-publishing. Granted, indie/self-publishing lacks a filter like a major publishing house with its agents, editors, and markets, but two things: 1) there are many indie authors producing superior books and 2) traditional publishers don’t necessarily have the best record for premium books, either. Sure, I don’t like it that the glut of shoddy, rushed books give me a bad name, but the pros far outweigh the cons, and I predict that most readers already can’t tell the difference between a well-done self-published book and a “normal” one.

PODs and ebooks have opened up a whole new world for writers. Yes, I already touched on this, but let’s just say that–even while the economy was trenching the fields–it was these two technologies that turned the whole writing world onto its head. It meant that with only grit and time (and no money), a writer could publish. It meant that writers could circumvent the gauntlet of agent- and editor-seeking, a process which had become increasingly painful, hopeless (for many), and perhaps even outdated. Yes, you may pause to sing a line from Aladdin‘s “A Whole New World.”

Most authors must do their own marketing. And, surprise!, I don’t mean just indie published authors. Almost every author, even the traditionally published ones with a whole slew of editors and marketers behind them, must do their own marketing. Publishing houses don’t have the resources or the interest in putting themselves behind a vast majority of the books they produce, so even though you may snag a book deal, mid-list (and bottom-list) authors usually wane as quickly as they wax. Put another way: when brick and mortars (this means physical books stores) put your books on their shelves, they might give it a few weeks to sell like hotcakes before they sell it back to your distributor. That’s right. Your book is basically a consignment object. And really, most authors don’t even get that far. Without a big marketing campaign and with book sellers pushing only the top titles, your book probably never even made it through the front door. So indie authors aren’t more burdened this way, they are just more aware. Most authors these days are stuck with the onus (and the bill) of branding, publicizing, marketing, touring, and selling their own books.

Your local author is wearing about a hundred hats. As I just said, even traditionally published authors have to do a lot more than just write, these days. You can imagine, then, what it is like to be indie published. Here are a few of the responsibilities I have on a weekly basis (counting only my day job, of course): branding and platform building (which means keeping a constant web presence among other things); marketing and publicity (like scheduling virtual and live appearances, creating material and distributing it, blogging, guesting, keeping abreast of indie publishing news, etc.); writing (oh yeah, that); copyrighting and permissions; learning (which I largely do by near-constant reading and through writing-education material); editing and copy-editing; designing (everything from webpages and eflyers to book covers and interior); finances and bookkeeping; organizing and managing (like creating deadlines and standards); and networking. And you thought I was daydreaming and tapping at the keyboard all day.

Most books don’t sell well. I know you mean well when you ask how my books are selling, but my embarrassment partly springs from the fact that you can’t possibly know just how poorly most–and many incredible–books sell. And I do sincerely mean most. I’ll repeat it. Most books don’t sell well. Poor book sales are often less of a negative reflection of the quality of the book or even the marketing (although these need to be in place), but more of a combination between the aforementioned and time, quantity of books in the author’s catalog, and dumb luck.

Your reviews matter! I put this point in here not because you were asking, but simply because it is one of the things most authors would like to tell you, oh general public. Your reviews are one of the simplest and most amazing things you can do to help us succeed. If you like or–hallelujah, even love–a book, pretty please consider a review on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Goodreads, Smashwords, Shelfari, etc. Likewise, sharing, liking, and commenting are truly important to our business.

Writing is taxing, necessary, and noble. Most successful authors are very hard-working, determined, persistent, and long-suffering. Most of the wimps get picked off early on. It is, both emotionally and financially, a grueling profession. Imagine working for little to no pay, having everyone in the world privy to your results, and then being publicly both praised and razed about it. It takes a lot of chutzpah to bare your work and soul in the public forum, and it takes lots of endurance to keep it going (thinking of things to write and willing yourself to do it with little to no oversight). On the other hand, writers often write because “they have to.” It is the way in which they confront and process the world, and many of them feel truly compelled to do it. Also, they are often rewarded in ways which are not financial. Most writers love their jobs as writers. Many writers aim not just at your entertainment, but also at enlightenment, relationship, connection, justice… for good and great and worthy things. They are some of the people who bring about change and betterment in the world, who open your minds to new ideas and the complexity of life in all its shades, who push the envelope, feed invention, and facilitate societal change. Their creative minds churn on, day and night, to observe, make sense of, and report, for you.

Most writers are walking a fine line between starving and selling out. It’s true. After all the hard knocks, the struggle, and the rewards, many of us are right there in the chasm between Rowling and whoever takes photos of cats clinging to precipices. We want to do our art, desperately, but we are waiting for the pie in the sky–the means and resources to do what we feel born to do. Many of us will not get there, but we also try, generally, not to elbow all the other contenders out of the way. Personally, I am a professional. I was created to write. I have to do about a million other things to get there. I have my hand on the throttle and its pushed all the way up in hopes that one day you will all discover me and give me that path into your lives that I have been working so hard to earn.

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11 thoughts on “Writer’s Blockade

  1. “Most authors must do their own marketing. And, surprise!, I don’t mean just indie published authors. Almost every author, even the traditionally published ones with a whole slew of editors and marketers behind them, must do their own marketing.”
    Completely true. The only actual marketing of my book that’s occurred has been done by me. You have to wonder why publishers go to the trouble, you really do.

  2. I absolutely love this piece! I wish it had been in hand when I tried to explain to a supportive, but wildly under-educated friend, about my goals, what lay behind the things I am trying to do, and the length of time it will require. He had me published and cashing royalty checks on a canoe trip in six months. I almost peed myself laughing. Don’t we WISH! So thanks, and I enjoyed especially the last two paragraphs – smiled through those 🙂

    • Just watched a movie last night that entrenched these crazy ideas people have about the publishing world. Hope you can use this blog entry in the future to help others understand. Until then, look for my post this week on “Authors Anonymous,” debunking the movie myths about writers.

  3. Such a great post! I just announced my self-publishing vendor over a week ago, and I already feel the hard effects. Just building a web presence is challenging. But as you said, we writers have to write…. I really had no choice in the matter. Thanks for sharing!

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