I have a confession to make, it’s been three weeks since I did any serious writing. I’m supposed to be finished with my next book right now. Fact is I’m a little less than halfway through. I’d like to blame it on the holidays or the fact that I’m juggling writing, being Mr. Mom, and taking a class in programing. Heck I’d settle for blaming it on my rampant ADD, I’m easy that way.
Truth is, however, that I’m not writing because I’m just not seeing any future in it. The writing industry is changing rapidly right now and even if I got a contract on my last book, who knows if the market will be there when it comes out? Then there’s the whole e-self-publishing route where no one really knows what’s going on but we know that some people are selling millions of books. Quite frankly it sounds like there are better odds playing the lottery. (For the mathematically challenged, playing the lottery is only slightly less risky than throwing your money down the garbage disposer.)
So, for the last three weeks or so, I’ve been kicking an idea around in the back of my head.
What if I just quit?
I mean lets face it, while I have been published four times, I haven’t cracked the level of success where I can actually make a living. I used to be a hotshot computer programmer and, while my skills are very rusty, I can whip them back into shape. Programmers make good money (provided you move out of Utah, which I could do). Heck, I’ve worked in the game industry and have contacts there, maybe it’s time to resurrect that dream.
So what if I quit?
If we can set the wayback machine back to about 1995 for a minute….
I had hit that point where I had published enough stories to qualify for active membership in SFWA. I was starting to get solicited for stories for anthologies, and was right at that cusp where I seemed to be getting the acceptance knod on a regular basis. I had a novel in progress, a second in planning.
And I had to make a decision. Geeking computers paid well, and I enjoyed it. Writing SF/F didn’t pay well and I enjoyed it. I was convinced I couldn’t do both well at the same time and have a real life, too. I chose computers, and retired from writing. Why?
Because I looked at what I wrote, and where I slotted into the industry, and I saw the squeeze coming. I was a midlist novelist; I read for entertainment, my favorite books were the kind of things you picked up when you were tired after a long day at work to relax and enjoy. That was the kind of fiction I wrote, and wanted to write. If I were to name a single name, I’d say I wanted to be James White when I grew up. (those of you now going “what? who?”, well, my point. but click through and grab that volume and have a fun evening or three).
The problem was that even back then, almost 20 years ago, you could see the midlist part of the publishing world shrinking and the collapse starting. Chain bookstore buying practices was increasingly pushing the buttons on who got published; chain bookstore return practices was continuing to shred the time a published paperback was actually on a shelf where it could be bought. The first author I knew had found out their first novel sales were weak enough that the chains wouldn’t buy their next book, even though the editors loved it (he ended up going behind a pseudonym and breaking out pretty well — the pseudonym is now a pretty successful author). Advances were flat to down. The short fiction market was already shrinking. Sharecrop universes (star wars, star trek, etc) were growing and taking shelf space from the midlist, too. In talking to other authors, the midlist grind was getting tougher and tougher.
So that was the publishing universe I was contemplating. It’s possible I could have written something that broke out, but if I didn’t, I might be a book or three into it, and without a publisher because some algorithm at Barnes and Noble didn’t like my trend line. I was never a fast writer like Dean or Kris or Mike, so the multi-genre, multi-name publishing empire wasn’t an option, and I didn’t have the many years of backlist to fall back on Mike has. I had sharecrop opportunities — but I wanted to write my stories, not someone else’s.
So I shut it down and walked away from my fiction, knowing some day I’d probably fire it up again. As it turns out, my worries about the midlist getting squeezed came true, and the market got increasingly tough. And I haven’t done badly in the computer industry, so I made the right choices.
I was at Apple when they shipped iTunes, and I watched as it transformed and disrupted the music industry, I’ve watched the video side of entertainment slowly disrupt (primarily because the studios were determined not to let Apple do to them what happened to the music industry, even if it killed them. Which it still might). I’ve seen the online universe disrupt my dad’s world, newspapers, and seen this tsunami washing through all of the traditional media universes.
Smartphones came along, and with them, apps, and I saw in that the path to the book reader. When I got the opportunity to go to Palm, I grabbed it, because I wanted a chance to influence this if I could. Then came the the iPad and the Kindle, and my muse rang the servants bell from her tower, and when I unlocked the door, she looked at me and said “it’s time”.
And it is. And one reason I didn’t go to work for Nokia (or Amazon, or Barnes and Noble, or… — all of which I talked to in some way, shape or form along the way) was I didn’t want my “real” job to create conflicts with my ability to figure out how I and my writing fit into all of this, the way the rules at HP did. Even if I end up never doing anything significant down this path, it was a path I wanted the freedom to explore.)
That’s why Dan’s blog post struck me as it did. He published into the market I walked away from, because I saw it as — on balance — a success path with too many risks given the benefits and effort. Especially compared to geeking computers. He’s now seeing what I see as that chance I’ve been waiting to happen for almost 20 years as the end of his opportunity. And if you only see traditional publishing as your future, you’re correct.
But what is happening here is the rebirth of the midlist, which since that seems to be where Dan’s work lives, should be cause for celebration. No more “that book you spent a year writing has three weeks on the shelf to find an audience”. Instead, the shelfs are now almost literally infinitely large, and your work has an almost infinite time to find its audience. It’s ability to find an audience is now very much up to the author; that may be scary, but if you’re a midlist writer, the push you got from your publisher was little more than “here’s a pretty cover and we’ll pray” anyway, and heck, find a good artist to do covers for you…
So my advice to Dan is this — you beat the odds in a big way by getting published in the old markets; this isn’t the end of times, but the beginning of a better time where you can succeed, and better yet, have a big say in that success. Read Dean and Kris. Read Mike Stackpole. Read Passive Voice, and start understanding how you can take advantage of these new opportunities. Go see what Lawrence Block is doing.
There are a lot of unknowns in this, but out of that, a lot of opportunity. A much better opportunity than existed back when I walked away. And 2012 is where it looks like it’s all going to come together.
(via Passive Voice)