Thursday, December 03, 2009

Thoughts on The Craft -- c.anne.gardner

An Artist might appreciate what he has been paid for his work, but he will never be made happy by it: for an artist’s self-worth -- his sweat, his blood, and his tears -- lies within the work, that which he has reached down into the depthless chasm of his own soul to create. -- Cheryl Anne Gardner

Now I don’t step into the debate much when it comes to Traditional Publishing versus Self-publishing. I am an artist out of love and a publisher out of necessity. I also believe that everyone has the right to pursue their passion in whatever way best suits them. There is a shit-load of diatribe on both sides -- not all of it accurate and much of it spin-doctored -- and I find it tiresome. So, when deciding whether or not to self-publish, authors need to tune out the static and take a long hard look at the facts, and they also need to take a long hard realistic look at their work. What kind of writer are you? If you don’t know that, then maybe you should keep filing those manuscripts away in a drawer for a little while longer. Why? Well, simply put, delusion is the number one reason for perceived failure in the self-publishing game. If you’re ambitious and seek fame, fortune, and a million dollar book deal, then self-publishing is not the route you should take. Mainstream fiction is ill-suited to self-publishing, so if your genre and your personal goal as a fiction writer is to get mainstream acknowledgement and exposure, then please, go that route because you won’t find what you seek here. Writing is hard work. Publishing is hard work, and self-publishing has a patina, a certain kind of futility to it, if you will, so it takes a good deal of stamina, especially when it comes to dealing with the stigma. A rejection letter can be shoved in a drawer; a form rejection letter can be dismissed entirely. Self-publishers can’t hide, and they take it on the chin a lot. It’s not hip, it’s not cool, it’s not a revolution, and it’s not for everyone. It takes a desire to do things right and a desire to be personally accountable for all aspects of the endeavour. It’s not about slapping a document up on Lulu or paying a vanity publisher to do the work for you. It’s a decision making process from start to finish: some of those decisions will be artistic ones and others will be made out of practicality. When did practicality become cool? It didn’t, so if your reason for self-publishing is because you think it’s cool and Indie and all that artist anarchy bullshit, then just don’t do it. The writing is the art and the anarchy, and the publishing is a whole different mindset.

Now, if your work is a hard sell in the mainstream market like poetry chapbooks, novellas, short story collections, or anything that might be deemed “too much” of this or that to be able to sell commercially, then self-publishing may be the answer for your artistic vision. However, to render that artistic vision into something that remotely passes for a real book is an undertaking fraught with an exasperating number of technical nuances that need to be addressed and need to be addressed competently. These are nuances that can and often do become issues, and these issues can transform your artistic vision into a steaming turd. It’s these turds that plague the self-publishing model. All self-published authors need to know that going in. You need to have an artistic vision, but you’ve got to have more insight than just a vision. You need to have a platform to build readership; you need to have the technical expertise to handle all of the backend work: the editing, the proofreading, the interior layout, the cover design, the registration of ISBNs and Copyrights, the creation of the appropriate digital print ready files as needed, web-site design ... the list goes on ad nauseam. And you need to actually like doing all those things. So if you answered yes I do with a huge satisfied grin on your face, then self-publishing, which is about a whole lot more than the writing, might be an option for you. How successful at it you are will depend on how much effort and skill you have to put into the venture as well as your expectations.

For me, personally, the choice was clear. I write novellas. Never received a rejection letter because I have never submitted for publication. Stand-alone novellas are cost prohibitive for major publishers: they don’t meet the word-count necessary to turn a profit. Now, e-publishers are very into novellas, but I am not interested in e-publishers for various reasons: novellas defined by most e-pubs are not true literary novellas, they are just short fiction, and some e-pubs are stigmatized just about as bad as self-publishing for churning out quantity not quality. Not to mention, I spent five years working in the desktop publishing industry, and I wanted to put all that wicked skill to some use. To me, layout, cover design, and all the other fiddly bits are artistically challenging as well. For me, it’s all about the art. Now don’t take all this to mean that I am not concerned about books sales. I adore my readers, but I don’t obsess over rankings and sales stats, and I am not much into marketing or self-promotion either. That’s not what this was about for me. Yes, I get all happy pants when I sell a book. I do, but as an artist, I feel that monetary value is not the true value of a thing. I feel that an artist's true self-worth is in the work, not the arbitrary price tag placed upon it. Royalties, for me, cover the cost associated with turning the vision into reality. The royalties barely cover the cost of the ISBNs, Copyright registrations, and software updates, but I supplement that by helping other authors with editing and interior layout design, and that, along with the meagre royalties, keeps me swimming in post-it flags and erasers. The sales make the publishing possible, not the writing. The writing is my artistic inclination. The publishing gets my art out into the world, and that is where the value is for me. Seeing it out there, seeing people enjoy it, connecting with those people who share a similar vision. The true value is in the reader commentary I receive. The publishing is just a means to that end. Those who want a writing career and expect all the trappings that supposedly come with said career won’t find the Indie arena to their benefit. It’s frustrating at best.

On a final note, there is no need to separate Church and State here. Yes, self-publishing, traditional publishing, and e-publishing can all exist together, will exist together, despite claims to the contrary. The industry will adapt, so will writers, and book readers will have more options and better price points. As it is now, many writers self-publish and pursue the commercial dream at the same time. I happen to think this is the best option for most writers who want a serious career in the business. Self-publish your artistic anarchy and keep on revising and submitting the commercially viable work to agents and editors. There is value to both sides of the equation for many. For me, not so much. It’s all about the art for me, and frankly, “commercially viable” is not in my vocabulary, and I am a lousy sales person. I couldn’t sell water in the middle of the desert, so a contract that requires participation in that respect would be akin to a prison term for me. Regardless of that inadequacy on my part, it’s really about principles for me: The words “art” and “contract” don’t fit well in the same sentence. Not in my world, anyway. I just could never face the thought that my labour of love could be someone else’s commodity. But that’s just me, so I do that which works best for me. I advocate self-publishing, but I can’t be a cheerleader for it because it just isn’t right for everyone. Trust your artistic instinct and know that anything done out of vanity or desperation is bound to disappoint.

Cheryl Anne Gardner is never disappointed.

Yes, I am using the “Ship of Fools” by Bosch again this week ... I know a lot of authors already on board.


Brent Robison said...

"For me, it's all about the art." -- Yes, for me too. I want not only the words to say exactly what I want them to say, but the book to look exactly as I want it to look. So I do everything myself, and I'm proud of the result (and have gotten several excellent reviews to boot -- thanks!)

Although I did try traditional submissions for some months, the truth I suspected all along became clear: my odd, difficult-to-categorize collection of stories was not well-suited for the marketplace, where even adventurous small presses need to make a profit. So I'm under no delusion about that.

Where my delusion comes in is the expectation I had that my "fans" -- the local crowd (a couple hundred or so) who has followed my previous litmag publishing ventures and who has professed interest in my work -- would jump right up and buy my book. I thought the big challenge would come in finding NEW fans. But no -- just getting the people who supposedly love me to part with their $15 is amazingly difficult. I wonder, does it have anything to do with the stigma of being self-published? Or do they just need to be reminded umpteen times first? Like you, I'm not a salesperson (read: nag), so this doesn't sit well with me. I wish I could say as you do that I'm not disappointed.

So, the always-valuable act of surrender that I am now doing means that the "long tail" is the key here, and I'm giving serious consideration to following Henry Baum's example and making e-book editions that I'll give away free (pay what you want). As much as I'd love to recoup my small outlay of cash on this venture, I want even more to have readers. Because, while writing can be it's own reward up to a point, writing without readers is simply incomplete.

Cheryl Anne, thanks for a smart and sensible entry into this silly debate, and for once again voicing many of my own thoughts.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

I sell a lot more ebooks than print editions. My avid readers like physical copies of the books, but most of the new fans have come through ebook offerings. Consumers are more apt to try something new if the price point is low. I only charge 1.99 for my ebooks. Having healthy previews of the work helps as well.

I also give away free books and ebooks from time to time. But I am not a message board junkie, so I don't get much face time where it counts, I suppose.

I didn't really have expectations when I got into this other than seeing my work in print, so everything beyond that has been unexpected joy for the most part.

Thanks for the compliment, I, like Mick Rooney, have had enough of this debate.

Kristine said...

Very well said, and it's nice to see other writers who are in this Indie business for the same reasons I've always been - just the love of art and a desire to entertain readers. I have a day job that pays the bills, leaving me free to pursue Self Publishing as a creative outlet. I find cover art design, websites, even formatting manuscripts to be obsessive and challenging fun. A perk, if you will, and an added creative avenue.

The only thing that bothers me - and it does so less and less these days - is the attitudes and arguments of the Traditionals vs Indies. I find one far more accepting of the other, but it's a decidely one-way street of respect. The best defense I've developed against the "stigmata" of the Self Published is to ignore it.

The only opinions that matter are those of the Reader, after all. If I've entertained, I'm happy. That's reward enough for me, but it isn't for everyone - and to them I say "go ahead and seek an agent, get a contract, more power to you."

I, too, sell far more eBooks than physical copies - and that's fine with me. I keep prices at or below $2.00 for a full-length novel and happily offer them up for free, as well.

I've found that Readers - regular Janes and Joes just looking for an entertaining book - don't give a flying fig how you were published, or what name is on your spine. They're just looking to be entertained. And that's all that matters.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

Yes, Kristine, one side does seem to be more accepting than the other. I got tired real quick of the assumptions made by outsiders as to why we do what we do. And then when they ask us, they say we are lying, that we really want what they have. Well, some of us don't.

Sure, there is a lot of delusion out there, but there are also a lot of SP authors who are savvy, know what they are doing, have valid independent reasons for doing it, and have some driving principle that motivates them beyond fame, fortune, and the million dollar book deal.

I never look at a spine when I buy a book. I don't care if it's a well known author or a NYT bestseller. I read the cover blurb, and if that intrigues me, then I read a bit of it first, and if I like the writting, then I buy it. I look at the art first, not the maker or the distribution label. It means nothing to me. And I never, ever, read a first page in order to decide. I flip to the middle of the book and read two or three pages. That's all I need. Why the middle? Because the middle of a book is usally where momentum is lost, so if the random middle catches me, I know I will love the book, even if the first page doesn't have the cliche "hook."

I am so tired of formulaic writing, so I find Indie book authors tend to take more chances. Deliberate, intelligent chances are a breath of fresh air.

veinglory said...

As some one more on the other side of the street, if not by far--I see traditional authors called formuliac and hacks and tradition presses called celebrity-books-pimps--oh and books tores accused of gouging and bullying. The mainstream rhetoric of self-publishing does not currently strike me as respectful given that the publishing industry runs at very low profit margins and most people in it have a genuine love of literature.

But, indeed, readers just want a good book. They neither know nor care how they get it.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

Wow, emily, celebrity book pimps. I hadn't heard that one.

I read and buy all kinds of stuff, just recently read a NYT bestseller, reviewed it too, and I liked it a lot more than many readers did. Some did call him a hack, but I found that he took great chances and didn't write to a formula. But sadly, there is a lot of formulaic work out there in the mainstream and a lot of "do it this way" sort of advice affectionately called "writing for the mainstream." There is also a lot a crap and bad advice in Self-publishing too.

There are authors who want to make a buck and there are authors who love the art across both sides, but it seems to be the "against SP vitriol" that gets the most media attention and backing. Most often when a Self-published author speaks out, they are called jealous, or niave, or just downright wrong.

It's a slapfest in both directions. And like I said in the article, they will all exist together and everyone just has to adapt and stop with the "I'm better than you" bullshit. Both sides do that. It's silly really when you think about it. I know Stephen King loves the word just as much as I do. He chose the path that was available to him at the time. Nowadays, there are just other paths.

I see finger pointing at the e-publishers too. It's crazy. Everyone has the right to do what they love and do it the way they want to.

One man's trash is another man's treasure.

veinglory said...

Yep, and standing near the middle means getting slapped by both sides ;). I think people should have more of a live and let live attitude. I am bothered by any side being stereotyped or described in a global derogatory way. I am bothered by anything factually incorrect or distorting. Or by any commentary that somehow assumes everyone does or should have the same goals and values. Writing and publishing is a very broad endeavour, that's the great thing about it :).

Brent Robison said...

Seems to me we're all part of a time-honored tradition of artists bringing their work to the world in any way possible....

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

Yup. I was thinking of tattooing my work to my body. I have a lot of tattoos already, so I can sit a long time. Then I could go live in a nudist colony. Nudists read. It's that or I could just resign myself to being arrested a lot for indecent exposure. I don't think "I was sharing my art" would be a legitimate excuse, do you?

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

I made a typo in my one post.

Art always is a broad endeavour. If everyone expressed themselves creatively in the same way, it would cease to be art.

I feel for you Emily. Since the "ebook revolution" e-pubs are taking quite a few on the chin these days as well. I have read a lot of really great ebooks and they aren't all trashy smut, though I do like that sometimes as well. Just like romance isn't all porn for bored housewives.

And all self-publishers aren't deluded and stupid, nor do we need to be saved from ourselves.

Kristine said...

The snark definitely does roll both directions, it just feels lopsided to me because I'm fully and completely devoted to SP, which makes me notice more when the Traditionals toss spittle in my direction. The worst of which comes from fellow writers who assume any SP author is deluded, or a failure. They're so sure you've only resorted to Self Publishing because you weren't good enough to "make it in the real world".

Steering clear and wide of any and all writer forums has saved what's left of my sanity and reminded me that fellow writers aren't my audience, readers are.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

The Lulu message boards turned me off of forums a while ago.

I don't have any sanity left to save, so I am not sure about the realities of the real world.

I prefer my happy place. :) My readers know where to find me.

Mark Barrett said...

Thanks for this, Cheryl. Well reasoned and well balanced.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

Thanks Mark. I was trying to be honest without stepping on people's sensibilities. I am of the opinion that why we do what we do -- self-publishing artists that is -- is as individual as the artists themselves, and no one should be lumped into a stereotype. So sharing my artistic reasoning seemed the best way to approach it.

Love your site BTW.

Anonymous said...

The Kindle message boards are extremely friendly, and there are a lot of readers to connect with, there.

I enjoyed the post, and I've run into a few people (actually, whoops - two of them are on the Kindle boards, but they're pretty much alone) who insist SPers are delusional and obviously not good at what they do, because if they were, they'd have been traditionally published. That's the attitude that irks me the most; I don't really mind the people who think SPers are taking the easy way out. Often, they/we are. Very few put in the time and attention you point out is required to do the job well.

I'm in the middle when it comes to SPing or TPing...I appreciate the value and independence of self-publishing, but I'd like to be trad published, not for the money for money's sake, but because I the only job I want, and could do without coming home grumbling about something and feeling like I really should be doing something else (writing), is to write fiction for a living.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

Thanks Kristen. That's why I advocate that writers do both at the same time, especially if they want to be a career writer. I think the SPublishing has its own level of insight to offer as does the query process for traditional publishing. It doesn't have to be an us against them or an either or proposition.

I just don't care for people telling me why I do what I do. Only I know that.