Should We Just Be Grateful To Be Here?

The Guardian recently published a piece on the fact that “publishers are paying writers a pittance.” This is true. Traditional publishers made billions of dollars last year while the writers whose books they published worked second/third jobs, pinched pennies, and lived paycheck to paycheck. Traditional publishing has always been exploitative and it’s because of the allure, the exclusivity, the inability for authors to organize against the monopoly, and the expectation that POC writers must show their gratitude for being allowed in that space by being as amenable as possible.

I am not stating this to be critical of other authors. I’m simply acknowledging that in order to be allowed in that majority-white space we have had certain expectations placed upon us. Expectations that include being grateful for a contract, any contract, even if it values the machine dispensing the art more than the human creating it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this last point as I consider what I want to do with my Fantasy WIP. I’d love to query it but doing so will just subject me to the same exploitation. Unless things change. Unless writers start being honest about how they are being taken advantage of and call out their publishers to make it right. Unless writers stop seeing traditional publishers as gods who can subject them to any kind of mistreatment if its in exchange for a book on the shelf of a Barnes and Noble.

This is going to be the hardest part of the cycle to break–our own toxic beliefs that we are not good enough to ask for more. That we are not worthy of a bigger slice of the pie. That we should just be grateful to be acknowledged at all.

Back in 2012 I decided to self-publish because I didn’t believe there was a place for me in traditional publishing. Characters who were not white or Christian were not easy to find and it was clear they were not valued. Which meant that I would not be valued. My stories would not be valued. So I published my stories on my own.

Six years and over $125,000 later, what was once an act of defiance against the inherent bias and racism in publishing, has led me to an even bigger revelation about how it is not just a spot on a shelf that determines a book’s value but it’s how much an author was paid for the rights to that book. The paltry percentage publishers are currently paying their authors is yet another way of saying, “We are in control. You are no one without us.”

It is another way of saying, “Don’t bother trying to get into this profession unless you already possess the wealth and privilege to make it a career.” Which is simply another way of keeping marginalized people…exactly where they are. In other words, the belief that they are lifting up our voices is simply an illusion until the optics match the money in our bank accounts.

So do not be fooled by the celebrations of diversity or even the number of diverse books being published in recent years. Racism has not been eradicated from traditional publishing. It may no longer show up in the lack of marginalized authors on book shelves but it still shows up in the monetary value that is placed on those authors. Which means there is still a lot of work to do and it starts with us not being so damn amenable. It starts with us acknowledging our own worth and then demanding that others do the same.

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The Indie Experiment-The Dream

My Indie Journey From Start to Finish:
The Indie Experiment:The Beginning
The Indie Experiment:The Decision
The Indie Experiment:The Teacher
The Indie Experiment: The Truth

The Indie Experiment: The Dream

It took me four years, a million drafts, two independent study courses, and time in another state to write and finally finish The Things They Didn’t Bury.The idea originated my senior year in high school and I nurtured it and explored it through my entire college experience and after each personal evolution, the story experienced a new evolution as well. I wrote every week and then every day, getting words down in a fury through my father’s illness and then picking them apart after every new creative writing course each semester. In the beginning there was no end goal, not even to finish, but as an end finally started to reveal itself I couldn’t type a word or take a step without doubting it. And this was when I realized that I did have a dream for this story and it was more than just to create or to finish, it was to write something good.

In the beginning this story was not good. It was muddled and shallow and all over the place but something inside me just wouldn’t give up on it. A lot of writers  have abandoned their first book, so many that some people even consider it a right of passage. I used to think that I’d managed to skip that step of my artist initiation but when I look back at the story I ended up with versus the story I started with, I realize that I didn’t skip a thing. The Things They Didn’t Bury is not the same story I began writing my senior year in high school. Everything from the location to the plot changed completely with the exception of just the characters names. By the time I actually finished the novel it had had several other identities, all scrapped, and all for good reason. But the point isn’t how many novels I abandoned in the process, the point is that I kept writing no matter what. When I realized that even after I finished this novel that I wouldn’t be able to stop writing I knew that it was time to come up with a plan.

Sometimes we steal dreams and sometimes we stumble across them but when a desire that big takes hold of you there’s really nothing you can do except follow it. By the time I finished my first novel I’d already declared my major and had already made the decision to pursue writing professionally. What I hadn’t decided on was how. I’d taken journalism courses, news writing courses, short story writing, poetry workshops, fiction and non-fiction writing, writing for feature films, and script writing courses, and while each method and medium spoke to me I couldn’t deny the connection I felt to the challenge of fiction writing. There was something so romantic about it and the process itself allowed for the kind of spiritual exploration I was desperately craving. I knew that I wanted to write novels and after sharing one of the earlier versions of The Things They Didn’t Bury with one of my professors he gave me some advice on querying–something I had no idea I even needed to do.

I put it off, letting the story experience a few more evolutions before I finally started to do some research. I looked into agents, trying to find a good fit, something that proved ridiculously difficult as I’d written my entire novel without a definite genre in mind. In a lot of ways, letting the novel grow as it needed to without trying to fit it into some kind of box left me with something really unique. But on the other hand it made it really difficult to pitch. I went into querying totally blind, seeking out agents who had even a smidgen of interest in multi-cultural fiction that wasn’t easily categorized. I don’t really remember how many emails I originally sent out but I do know how many personal responses I got. Zero. Every response I received was automated and could be summed up in two words: “No thanks.”

I was deflated but not necessarily devastated. The entire process was pretty exhausting but I also considered it more of an experiment rather than a genuine attempt. Part of me had always thought that the story wasn’t ready but that was mostly because I wasn’t ready. I hadn’t grown enough as a writer yet but luckily since I was only nineteen, I still had plenty of time for that. Other writers might have chosen to abandon the story at that point or at least to start something new and try to move on but I just couldn’t see myself letting it go for good. I worked on it sporadically, picking at it mostly, but not ready to do another round of re-writes. In the meantime I shifted my focus to short stories and after randomly deciding to enter a contest hosted by a small press, something pretty crazy happened. I actually won. And so began my first and only experience as an almost “traditionally” published author.

After I won the short story contest and collected my prize money, which wasn’t even enough to cover the cost of one of my textbooks, the acquisitions director asked me if I had any other short stories that I might be willing to let them include in one of their upcoming anthologies. I was totally naive and so over the moon about someone actually thinking that I was good that I sent them over two more stories to include in their collection. After they read the other stories they asked me if there was anything else I was working on and I told them about my novel in progress, the one I was still nursing a sore heart over having been rejected by all of my dream agents. Obviously I was in a somewhat vulnerable place so when they offered me a contract I was elated. Long story short, after taking the contract to my professor for his opinion, I realized that this small press was one step above a vanity press and that they were basically trying to rob me blind.

I decided to stop querying at that point or even entertaining the idea of being published until I was finished with school and had a little bit more experience. But even in the midst of attempting to take a break I still couldn’t move on from the story completely. Not yet. So I decided to give it another go, one more round of extensive re-writes to try to turn the story into what I’d always hoped it would be. After graduation I moved to Florida for about a year and a half and during that first year all I did was work on this story. It was the perfect timing and without things like school or friends or money I could focus completely on my work. I also found my very first critique partners online, whose help was so invaluable, especially since no one had read any incarnation of the story except for my professor. Working with other writers and setting deadlines for myself to query again by the Spring made me feel not just like a writer but like a grown-up. I learned so much about the importance of being self-disciplined and holding myself accountable for making my dreams come true. Because this was my dream. Somehow it had evolved from just being a passion to being a commitment, something I woke up every day with the intention of working towards. I had expectations and I had goals, and not just word counts or meeting deadlines. I wanted to be published. I wanted to write full time. All of these things were what pushed me to not only re-write the story, basically from scratch, for the hundredth time but they also pushed me to query again even after failing the first time.

When I queried the second time I was confident. I knew the story was good and that I’d reached a new level creatively. I knew that it had potential, that I had potential, and I knew that if someone would just give me a chance I could prove to them that I was in this for the long haul and that I was capable of building something even greater than just this novel, but an entire career. Unfortunately no one gave me that opportunity. Again I’d put my heart and soul on the line and again all I’d gotten in return was a bunch of automated messages from agents who didn’t see the same potential in this story that I did. And this time it actually hurt. Not a lot but a little bit. I felt the sting of rejection but even worse than that was coming to terms with the fact that this story I’d spent the past four years of my life working on may never be read.

That was the hardest part of all of it, the fact that this piece of me, this thing that had dragged me out of so much darkness, wasn’t considered worthy enough to be shared with the world. But I knew it was worthy. I knew it was important. I’ve written about some authors referring to special projects as “the book of your heart” or about having to shelve novels that mean more to them than anything they’ve ever written. Some artists might be capable of that, of abandoning things for no other reason than the fact that someone else doesn’t think any money can  be made from it. But I just don’t work that way. I think when something speaks to you or through you in a way that changes your entire life, that thing is no accident. Me writing this novel was no accident and if the experience of writing it was so revelatory, how much greater are the odds that reading it will be just as powerful? So I couldn’t abandon this story. In fact I downright refused. And even though some people might think that I made a mistake by striking out on my own or that I don’t know what the hell I’m doing and/or talking about, I have come away from the entire experience having learned a very important lesson about defiance. That sometimes defiance is good. That sometimes it is brave and right and true. Sometimes a little defiance makes all the difference.

To Be Read

The debate between self-publishing and traditional publishing has experienced a huge resurgence lately, pitting friend against friend, colleague against colleague, and reader against reader. It’s madness out there right now and while it’s easy to get caught up in who’s right and who’s wrong the real issue that should be being debated right now isn’t a technical one or even a theological one but a personal one.

There are pros and cons for both self-publishing and going the traditional route and by now we all know exactly what they are. They’ve been discussed to death in forums and on blogs, even on this one, and at this point there is enough information out there for anyone considering publishing to make a thoughtful and educated decision. And yet we still judge each other for the choices we make or don’t make and we still feel the need to compile even more facts and stats in an effort to prove each other wrong. We still don’t treat each other as equals.

But like I said, the real issue here isn’t whether or not to choose self-publishing or traditional publishing. No, the question we should all be asking ourselves as writers and as artists is what’s more important to us: To be published or to be read?

More and more traditionally published authors are choosing to self-publish their next projects. One such author is Natalie Whipple who even went as far as to write an open apology to indie authors for the assumptions she made about who they are and what they really do after experiencing the hard work it takes to self-publish first-hand. And why? Why is someone who’s had great success being traditionally published looking to go indie? Because she’s writing something unique, something different, and because despite the fact that it might not have appealed to her traditional publisher she still believes that this story should be read.

That’s her main objective, the objective we should all have when it comes to writing. We don’t write to take up memory on our laptop or to take up drawer space in our dresser. We write to be read and it’s the same objective of someone like indie author Colleen Hoover, who’s another hybrid author, but one who saw more potential in going with a traditional publisher after reaching her initial success than continuing it alone. And why would she trade some of that independence for the partnership of traditional publishing? Because with her book in print and sitting on the shelves of book stores all around the world she opens herself up to a whole new audience. She can be read by people who may never have discovered her otherwise.

And that’s the point. Not money or fame or being able to list your agent on your Twitter account or having a huge publishing house stamped on the copyright page of your book or even being able to say that you’re totally self-made. The point of all of this, the point of telling stories at all is readers and reaching as many of them as humanly possible. So that’s what we should be thinking about when we’re trying to choose the path that’s right for us. Not how superior it is from the path that someone else has chosen but how well it fulfills this one artistic obligation to share our thoughts and our words and our art with the world. Because as long as the path you’ve chosen can ultimately fulfill that obligation then you can be certain that you’ve made the right choice.

Indie Life 01-08-14

It’s time for another edition of Indie Life, hosted by The Indelibles. You can sign up by clicking the graphic!IndieLife7

There are so many benefits to going indie but the truth is there’s also a lot of responsibility. To yourself, to readers. We’re not just writers but we’re business owners and as important as it is to put out a well-written book it’s just as important to put out a sophisticated and attractive product. Which is why cover design is such a big source of contention within self-publishing. And despite all we know about reader expectations there are still people out there attempting to make their own with no knowledge of or experience in graphic design. Indie is short for independent but let’s not push it. There are still things we must and should pay for which is why among talent and drive and all of the other requirements for self-publishing there is also money. It’s unfortunate but it’s true. You shouldn’t self-publish unless you can afford it. Which brings me to today’s gripe about being an indie author:the cost. And not in the emotional and intellectual sense but in the literal sense. Self-publishing is expensive.

I haven’t published anything new since September of last year and while I was planning on publishing something in early spring, I’m just not sure if that’s going to be possible. See, I’ve spent the past nine months working on my first series. The first book is pretty much finished, the second is embarking on its third draft, and I’m slowly working my way through the first draft of the third. I had a plan–to finish all three by mid-2014 and then publish them over the spring/summer months in conjunction with my first attempt at a professionally hosted blog tour. Something that would add another $150 to my overall costs. Something I could realistically afford until last week.

But then things changed, I had some unexpected expenses, and now I can barely afford my beloved kettle corn! And I’m angry–at the world for being so unfair and at myself for being in this position–but more than that I’m just really disappointed. Because this is one of those times when I’m not only faced with the reality of my choice to go indie but almost on the verge of kind of, sort of regretting it. Not really though. I don’t regret a thing I’ve done in the past year. But am I upset about potentially having to push back my release dates just because I can’t afford it? Absolutely. But the real reason I can’t afford it right now has more to do with the fact that I’m adamant about doing things the right way rather than the easy way and at least that’s something to be proud of.

And I will do this the right way. Even if that means waiting. Even if that means eating rice cakes for dinner every night for the next month. Even if that means realizing that even though I’m the one in control, that I still can’t control everything.

Fellow Indies, how do you manage costs, especially unexpected ones? And what’s your trick to planning a book tour on a budget?

SO YOU WANT TO SELF-PUBLISH: 6 QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF FIRST

*To celebrate my one year blogging anniversary, I’ll be posting some of my favorite posts from 2013 through the month of December*

Despite the fact that every person and their dog thinks that they can write a book, living the life of a writer is not for the faint of heart. And whether you choose to publish through a traditional route or independently, the road to success isn’t an easy one.

There’s a misconception about self-publishing that it’s somehow easier. And the draw for a lot of people is this ignorant idea that going indie means you get to skip all of the hard parts. But I’m here to tell you that, not only do you still have to suffer through all of the revisions and rejections and self-doubt, but you have to go through these things alone.

This is the cost of the indie writer’s dream. You want total control? You want freedom? You want to be 100% in charge of your own destiny? Then have at it. You might end up finding that it’s the most fulfilling thing you’ve ever done or you might end up with fifty one-star reviews and a permanent hangover. Like I said, not for the faint of heart.

But if you are considering self-publishing, it’s not all doom and gloom and talking to yourself in your dark apartment because the electricity’s been turned off. Those amazing things you’ve heard about going indie—the freedom, the ability to genre hop, setting your own deadlines, having total control over pricing and cover design, writing for you—those things are true. And if you think those things are worth pursuing in lieu of a traditional deal that might place more importance on financial gain than your creative freedom, I’ve created a self-publishing checklist to help you see if you really are ready to take the plunge.

1.  Are you chasing someone else’s dream?

A lot of people want to be writers. They romanticize what we do. They think it seems so glamorous and exciting and a lot of other adjectives that it just isn’t. Because what most people see is just the end result. They see the book signings and the accolades and the money and the fame. But they don’t see the late nights spent hunched over a laptop or the eye strain or the callouses or the hand cramps or the gray hairs or the self-loathing or the guilt or the years of not making a goddamn cent or the sacrifices or the health problems that come with stress and sitting at a desk all day because we have bills to pay and if we could do anything else in the world to pay those bills we would. We would abandon writing in a second if it wasn’t the only thing we could do well. And we’d be glad.

They don’t see the struggle. And the truth is they probably don’t want to. And even though writing and living a creative life is incredibly rewarding, the end reward isn’t why writers write. Writers write because they have to. So if you’re chasing a dream that isn’t yours, the dream of becoming a writer, let go. Do it now and save yourself the heartache and leave the writing to the people who love every second of the suffering just as much as they love the end result.

2.  What are your intentions?

There are two types of self-publishers—those that self-publish for family and friends and those that self-publish to make money. Among those that self-publish to make money there are also two types—the self-publishers trying to get rich quick off of a one hit wonder and the self-publishers who want to be career authors and make a living (any living) as a writer. I only want to speak to this last sub-group.

If building a career is truly your intention, don’t rush into self-publishing. And more importantly don’t rush your story for the sake of putting it on sale as fast as possible.

Do your research. Find out if self-publishing really is the best option for you. If you’re a prolific writer who has a distinct vision for the kind of writing legacy you want to leave behind and therefore would prefer to have total creative control over every decision, self-publishing might be for you. But if all you want to do is write and you’d prefer to leave all of the promotional and technical responsibilities to someone else, you might be happier going the traditional route.

If you’re still set on self-publishing there are quite a few things you’ll need to get in order. Which brings me to number…

3.  Do you have the stamina?

If you’ve only written one book in your entire life, you’re not ready to self-publish. Now, remember, this is just my opinion and I’m only speaking to self-publishers looking to become career authors, BUT knowing that you have the will-power and the desire to FINISH is extremely important. And when I say finish, I don’t mean one book. I mean finish what you start, each and every time. I didn’t self-publish my first book until I was halfway through the first draft of my third. Why? Because I wanted to be strategic about when I published and I wanted to prove to my readers that I was in this for the long haul. Careers aren’t built on just one book (and don’t give me some one in a million example of an author who did just that *cough* Harper Lee *cough*) they’re built on hard work and consistency. So before you even think about self-publishing, focus on building a backlist that will prove to you and readers out there that you’ve got what it takes to be a career author.

4.  Do you have the money?

Here’s another misnomer about self-publishing—that it’s cheap. The truth is, it’s not if you do it right.

So before you think about self-publishing make sure and research the costs because there are a lot of products and services out there that claim to be absolutely necessary even though they usually aren’t.

Two things I wouldn’t skimp on—editing and cover art. Don’t even concern yourself with marketing at this point because there are so many opportunities to do that for free. The editing and cover art on the other hand are absolutely crucial and they must be up to par. If you’re lucky, you might come across an opportunity to snag these things for free as well, but don’t count on it. For just these two things, which is honestly all you need, budget for triple digits and be wary of anything that costs more. Although self-publishing can be expensive, it doesn’t have to be outrageous. After all, you’re the one trying to make money here.

5.  Do you have the talent?

I probably should have started with this one but “talent” is incredibly subjective and who’s really going to answer that question with a no.

I guess what I’m really trying to get at here is that we are all born with specific gifts and talents and if writing is not one of your gifts or talents, don’t bother. This might seem like common sense but remember what I said about people who glamorize the writing profession? There might be some of you reading this right now who believe you’ve passed every one of the items on this checklist with flying colors and therefore are ready to self-publish. There’s probably some of you who have actually finished a book. Maybe even more than one. But regardless of how closely you’ve followed all of the rules, if you’re not meant to be a writer you’re just not meant to be a writer. And that’s okay. Because writing a book is hard but writing a good book is even harder. And it truly is something that not many people can do.

Of course you can take classes or attend workshops or buy craft books and try to make yourself a better writer but when it comes down to it, if this is not your destiny it’s just…not. You can still love writing and you can still write but it’s also important for each of us to respect those with skills and talents that we just don’t have. And by respect, I mean respect the huge amount of work that goes into writing good books and don’t look at self-publishing as a means to make a childhood dream come true even though it was never your dream to begin with.

6.  Do you have the drive?

If you feel like I’ve just punched you in the gut, I’m very sorry. But if you feel like I’ve just punched you in the gut and you still believe writing is your destiny and you’re prepared to do anything to make it happen, then congratulations. You have drive. It’s that little voice inside you, directing every move you make, encouraging you, promising you that all of the hard work will pay off. And if that voice is louder than all of the others then you just might succeed.

It’s especially important for indie authors to recognize their own voice above all of the questioning and self-doubt because we don’t have the luxury of an agent and a publicist and an entire team of people reassuring us that we are actually talented. We must become masters of the pep talk and we must believe in ourselves no matter what. Because that’s really all it takes, an unwavering will to make your dreams come true, and then they will.

If, after all of this, you still make the choice to go indie be warned that there will be no cheerleaders glancing over your shoulder, no team of PR people behind you doing the grunt work or telling you it’ll all be worth it. You’ll spend months refreshing your sales page or Goodreads reviews with nothing new to show for it. You won’t make a dime and you’ll second-guess all of the money you spent on copy-editing and cover art and marketing that could have gone to something else like groceries or gas. You’ll feel discouraged and like you made a huge mistake. And you’ll want to give up.

But if you really want to be a writer you won’t quit. Because even though there’s no one in your corner, reassuring you or stroking your ego or cutting you a check, you should still believe in yourself. You have to. That’s what separates the successful career indie authors from the failures and one hit wonders. To make it, there is just one secret. One rule. You have to know your own voice and even more than that you have to trust it. Absolutely.

So when that voice says to you, I am a writer, believe it. Follow it. Do whatever you have to do to live out that purpose even if that means self-publishing because you couldn’t get a traditional deal. Even if that means going it alone with no support from friends or family. Because when you’re called to be a writer it’s not a dream, it’s a responsibility.

*Originally posted on 11/6/13 via The Read Room*