Monday, August 08, 2011

On the Dubious Hierarchy of Writers

One thing that still chafes me as I do the rounds, both on the internet and at writers' conferences and get-togethers, is the difference in the way writers are treated according to their publication status.

On the one hand, there are those who are published. (And these further sub-divide into those published digitally only, published in the small presses and independents, or published by major publishers: the latter being considered VIPs, in general.)

Then there are those who are either unpublished or self-published. (Pre-published is a newish term that attempts to circumvent the perceived weakness of this position.)

In my experience, which is not insubstantial, there are two main things which decide where writers are placed in this dubious hierarchy.

One is hard work. The other is luck.

Talent is important, yes, but you can get there without it (see celebrity biographies and surprise successes) and a lesser talent can be honed by hard work and application.

Luck is either dumb or smart. Usually the latter. That we make our own luck is self-evident. Any fool can find themselves next to an agent in the queue for the conference buffet, but a smart person will know what to say to get their attention - and what NOT to say.

Now, forgive me for pointing out the obvious, but unpublished or self-published writers may be working just as hard - sometimes harder! - than published writers, and also struggling to get Lady Luck on their side year after year. They may make the big breakthrough next year, or never. But that doesn't mean they should be disrespected for not having 'made it' yet, or for having decided to eschew the lengthy and often tedious agent-publisher route by publishing themselves.

Everyone has their story. Being published doesn't necessarily make it better than anyone else's. Just more high profile, perhaps.


Jim Murdoch said...

One thing I’m starting to notice more and more of is that those who now choose to go it alone are doing not because what they’ve written is not good but because it doesn’t suit what publishers want. Try and get a science fiction novella published these days, once a staple of the genre and a form that is well suited to science fiction, and you’ll find yourself up against a wall because epic is the flavour of the month: 100,000 words plus. This is what one reviewer said of my first novel: “In all, this is one of those novels that bookshops must hate: not 'hard' enough to be spec fic, not 'weird' enough to be fantasy, too realistic for the humour section and yet too humorous to shelve easily with the lit fic. And that, I suspect is going to prove to be its charm…” I’ve been talking to an Australian novelist who has found the same problem; he doesn’t fit into a box.

Jane Holland said...

Absolutely, Jim. That's one of the key issues in a nutshell. People have to stop thinking of self-publishing as a last resort for under-developed writers. In many cases, it's the first line of defence against publishers and agents who aren't interested in a book that doesn't 'fit', for whatever reason.

There will always be writers who can't write and whose ebooks, for instance, are rubbish. But being able to sample a book before buying or check out the reviews should weed out the worst of those. If a writer knows how to edit a book or is willing to pay for that to be done before publication, and has the energy and time to do some promotion, why shouldn't they take control and self-publish?

I think an organisation for self-published authors might be useful about now. Somewhere that can promote the image of that choice to those who don't yet understand it, and give advice to those struggling with technology, promotion or editing. It feels to me like there's a growing need for such a body to exist.

Ranae Rose said...

Jane, I think you've proven that a good writer can be successful at traditional publishing and still self-publish, as you did with your regency novels. I say there's no shame in any venue as long as it gets the books to the readers that want them. ;)

heavy hedonist said...

Good post. I've noticed more and more, in my various writer groups online and off, that writers with years of experience whose critique is sound, are suddenly taken less seriously when they admit they have not pursued publication as the be-all/end-all of writing, or that they are thinking of self-publishing. As if their useful opinions instantly lose their
Conversely, those much published are considered sage, no matter the quality of the writing.

Claire King said...

Great post, Jane and good food for thought. I've noticed some of this snobbery, although in places like Twitter the hierarchy for me is more about which writers which are generous and collaborative (whether published or otherwise) and those that are not. And that's not luck, it's choice!

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Excellent post, and I agree that we need such an organisation of self published authors. I'd join! I'm just starting on the Kindle route - cut my teeth with a trio of short stories and am now about to 'Kindle' a novel called The Curiosity Cabinet which was published in the conventional way, and well reviewed, but which went out of print and in which I reclaimed the rights. All this with my agent's blessing. But he's currently trying to sell a new novel for me - and I'm sitting here as a mature, experienced, professional, with two completed and well edited novels and another almost finished and nothing is happening. The problem seems to be that publishers are obsessed with selling to an ever diminishing group of conventional retailers, rather than the reading public. Sometimes, it seems to me that I have wasted not just days but months - possibly years - of my writing life trying to squeeze myself into somebody else's ill fitting mould. The sense of empowerment which online publishing brings is nothing short of exhilarating! And really, all I want to do is try to communicate my own excitement in a piece of work. tell a good story as well as I can. But there has been a real failure (of courage? of imagination?) where the conventional'gatekeepers' are concerned. Older, perhaps wiser, I now find that I no longer trust them.


I was at the receiving end of this many times. There is a beautiful artists' residence here in Ireland and there is always a feeling of pecking order there, which I loathe.
Years ago, I was greeted at my first stay by a male resident who barked at me: 'Artist? Composer? Writer?'
'Yes, I have 2 books out with Arlen House.'
'Never heard of them,' he barked, and turned away. I was beneath his notice.
People think that if they haven't heard of you, or your publisher, you are no good.
This is why Jordan et al sell millions of books: everyone has heard of them and they confuse that with quality.

Pat Jourdan said...

At the Short Story conference in Toronto last summer, I was talking happily to a professor at the book-table.
"And who is your publisher?" he asked.
"Oh, I'm selfpublished," (Poetry Monthly Press and YouWriteOn)I answered.
Within seconds, all I could see was a wide tweed back, he had swivelled away from me so quickly.

Jane Holland said...

There's a moral there about those who wear tweed ...