Monday, April 5, 2010

Anger management and the working author

Being an author is one of those unusual highly skilled jobs that have absolutely no application criteria and a 'you got the job' rate of about the same size as make it into astronaut training. Oh and an average income - last survey I saw - of something like 1/4 of the minimum wage... which among many other reasons is why I sometimes feel there SHOULD be one entry criterion (I don't _really_ because I believe in an open and fair-as possible playing field. The 'fair' part is why I actually mention it.)

Almost every author and wannabe author I know could probably have used an anger management course before they started. And probably, with a few exceptions, a refresher every few months. I spend at least 80% of my time on the edge of livid with myself for not writing better, thinking smarter, catching the right opportunity, for thinking I have written the best book that will change the world (or at least sf) and no-one seems to read it (so I am angry with myself for not doing a better job). And that's just the start - The waiting, the stupidity, the attitudes, the arrogance (some of it mine) conspire to make the most even tempered and nicest person angry to boiling over furious a lot of the time. The fact that no-one has yet gone bat-sh!t crazy and taken out their agent, editor, publisher, cover-artist, blurb-writer, proof reader, reviewer, various distributors, Neilson bookscan, retail buyers and even book-stores staff - let alone the fine upstanding gifted people who did this to newbies continues to amaze and perplex me. Because that's your BABY. Even with the best will in the world (and that, trust me, is sometimes just a little lacking) NONE of these people will give it the love and care you feel it deserves. And some of them are useless bastards, and some are unmotivated jerks (like that store-clerk who didn't put your book - which only has a month of face time, on the shelf for 2 weeks) and some of them are out to screw you. The paranoids just have no real idea how bad it actually is ;-).

In these interesting times of course this paranoia (which isn't entirely unjustified) has knock-ons. Take this post: Now, besides the fact that it is fairly obvious that, somewhere down the line the author has decided that he's prepared to risk burning his bridges with a very big publisher in order to poke it with a shark stick, the active dislike for large publishing does show through. It's largely hidden because authors are in an envidious position, where criticism of your publisher is a death sentence for your career - probably (a la John Norman) with all of them. Any gripe is either voiced in very private and trusted quarters, or couched in the most diplomatic terms possible. Of course for the industry's real darlings the opposite is true. Their income is thousands of mulitples higher than the average midlister (and no - there is no proportionality. Rowlings might be 50 times better than Joe Midlister, but she's not 100 000 times better and nor does she have a 100 000 readers who would enjoy her books for every one who'd like Joe's. The system is simply not very good at matching taste of reader and type of writer. It'd be good for readers and writers if it were, but fairly bad for our middlemen.) and so is the amount they earn for the publisher. Every whim is therefore catered to, and every effort made - more and better than they could have made themselves. There is a good reason financially for this... but did that ever stop the rest of us being as mad as cut snakes about it all? There is some justification in this too. There is plenty of evidence that extraneous factors besides the writing quality can and do push books into the public eye and make bestsellers of them. Most of these are not things that ordinary authors can afford to do, or have the skills or contacts for. I can't dispatch 20 people to go and buy every copy of a book in NY and place orders for more and buy those too and buy 40 000 copies and put myself on the bestseller list. But I believe it has been done. I have no control over pricing, over my cover, over my release date, over the push for retail buyers to make a big laydown happen, over book dumps over end displays, over tours to have dinners with book buyers, over appearances on Oprah etc. etc. Yet... these things do happen, and... some of the books they happen for are one-book wonders, because no-one will touch that author again. Quite often too they've lauched books that are, let's face it, good but no better and sometimes worse than Joe Midlist-and-staying-there's books. Remember Terry Pratchett was exactly that - Joe the ignored midlister for I think 20 years. Others have leapt from the starting gate to being on every shelf (though sometimes I wonder who BUYS them) on the basis of a subjective decision. This may be real life, but it does leave some very angry people out there.

Anyway - back to the knock-on effects of interesting times and e-books... It's fairly obvious to me that most White South Africans had no real idea of the depth of feeling of Black South Africans about Apartheid. And mostly they didn't really care. Some even kidded themselves it was really the best for them. And now the boot firmly on the other foot, it's very apparent that the Black and very wealthy powerful leadership are really, really enjoying schadenfreude and even it means hurting other black citizens, NOTHING is better than stomping and kicking those whiteys. They hero-worship the genocidal homophobic kleptocrat Robert Mugabe who has destroyed his country and has set the region back 50 years, because he kicked a few whiteys and spat in the West's eye. And that, I think, is the situation right now in publishing. Publishers probably are aware that some authors don't love them that much. But I think they have no idea of the years of deep bottled-up frustration and un-expressable anger that is seeting away in 99% of the midlist and newbies - and even higher up. So I think they also have no idea that most of these people would - given a chance - support a retail Mugabe (Amazon are no saints. And I wouldn't dish out halos over at Apple either). I don't think they realise that most of their midlist authors would take utter delight in leaving them and spitting in their eyes as they go. Apple has so far been kissing up to the big publishers. Amazon (and we don't love them, but they've been no worse for the little guys than B&N or most of retail) is taking an adverserial stance to them. I don't think Amazon is good for authors... but I can see that they will be bad for publishing. If they start winning, and offer a home (even with strings and nasties) to authors, watch. Authors will leave their publishers faster than rats leave a sinking ship, and they'll take glee in opening the stop-cocks as they go, even if it hurts their interests.

It's probably realistically too late for large publishing to mend the relationship. Throwing a lot more than just crumbs (and so far all they've done is point to gouging more, as thanks for helping them against Amazon) at the midlist could make a difference, but only if they're prepared to make big bold steps too - firing a few people, and improving the equity of spend and effort - neither of which are going to happen. Moving a few deck-chairs might. So... watch this space. I think that Amazon have started with moves to steal publishers only real assets. If Apple - or Google or any other player start too, we're in for interesting times. Small houses with some personal loyalty from their authors might survive. But the rest will die. It might not be any better for writers than Bob Mugabe has been for Africa though.

So where do you guys think its going?
And how do you cope with being frustrated and angry?


Francis Turner said...

I have to say I agree with you completely regarding Amazon. I don't like what I see of the Amazon business model - is a good example of abuse of monopoly/monopsony position - but on the other hand the publishers seem to be abusing their clients far more.

I think the important thing for everyone to remember is that all publishers and all those who may fight against them (Aoogle, Apple, Amazon) are commercial entities who want to make money and therefore are unlikely to be motivated to "give" money away to authors and readers.

Amanda Green said...

Dave, you are so right. I know I have touted Amazon in the past but mainly because, right now, I see it as the lesser of two evils -- at least from the consumer point of view when it comes to e-books. Do I like what it's done to brick and mortar stores, no. But then, I blame even more the big box stores that, like Walmart, came into town, priced their books lower than the small stores could and stole away business, only to later quit catering to local wants, opting instead on regional or national buying patterns and stock decisions.

What I think will happen will be more authors banding together to open their own "houses" -- small, e-presses with possible POD options. These "houses" will sell directly and through outlets such as Amazon, B&N, etc.Not all will be successful, but some will be. Other authors will go with small presses. What I don't see is a wholesale change at the major houses and that means, imo, they will not be able to pull out of the trouble they are currently in -- at least not without major changes to business plans, personnel, etc.

As for the anger, when things get really bad, I build or remodel around the house. I also tend to kill myself at the gym. I learned long ago that I need the physical outlet -- well, that and I saw what happened with my father who kept everything bottled up inside of him and now that I'm the age he was when he had his first heart attack, I don't want that to happen to me, or the rest of the family.

Brendan said...

Change always brings turmoil and in the publishing industry these look to be as the Chinese(and you) say "interesting times". When you talk of authors being treated badly I always think of Barry Hughart and the end of his Master Li books.

Hughart has blamed the end of the series on unsympathetic and incompetent publishers. The style of his books made them difficult to classify and he felt his market was restricted by the decision to sell only to SF/fantasy outlets. As an example of publisher incompetence, Hughart notes that his publishers did not notify him of the awards given Bridge of Birds. He also points out that The Story of the Stone was published three months ahead of schedule, so that no purchasable copies were available by the time the scheduled reviews finally appeared; finally, the paperback edition of Eight Skilled Gentlemen was published simultaneously with the hardback edition resulting in few sales of the latter. When his publishers then refused to publish hardback editions of any future books, Hughart stated that he found it impossible to afford to continue writing novels, which brought the series to an end.

The thing that irritates me most is that publishers must have known this would happen. They saw the same problems occur in the music and video industry and went and stuck their heads in the sand. I would have expected SF publishers especially to perhaps pay a few grand in consultation fees to their authors for ideas on what may be coming and do some planning. Hell they could have found out for free! I wrote to an Australian publisher in 2001 about my idea for book cartidges that could be read on the new Gameboy Advance. I didn't even get a reply, so since then have been watching what has happened with large amounts of schadenfreude.

I do feel sorry for the authors caught in the mess though but hope they will persevere until things settle down.

Brendan said...

Amanda, I can actually envisage a lot of small genre 'web e-sellers' spawning over the next few years. It wouldn't be much of a jump for the review, news and gossip blogs and aggregaters that we have now to start offering the books for online sale that they currently just talk about.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I'm a huge Hughart fan, and I've read his story before. Would you like to know the truth? He was only unique as a VERY talented writer in not forging on, sometimes under several different names.

I could tell you stories that are as bad and at least one that is worse. I THOUGHT people were out to kill my career on purpose. Over and over again.

And then one convention, at a bar, we got together a bunch of us, and traded stories and I found out that I (and in retrospect Barry) were practically given the royal treatment.

The stories included a midlist book -- by author who is now, twenty years later, a bestseller -- which came out with 14k print run, sold out within hours and instead of a second print run got taken out of print in three days. Because the house wasn't COUNTING on it doing well, and it was, apparently easier to take it out of print. Mind you, it was economically boneheaded but this reflected not at all on the purchasing editor because at the time (and maybe still) they got more bonuses from predicting outcomes accurately than from having a runaway bestseller. Kind of like companies and their stock predictions.

So, trust me, Barry didn't get the worst of it. He was perhaps saner than most of us and chose not to continue hitting his head against the wall -- to the field's great loss.

And I took ENOURMOUS comfort from hearing Terry Pratchett who is an amazing, on-in-a-generation genius, talk about how for ten years NO ONE knew him and they kept reporting to him that alas, the public just didn't take to his books and that's why they were selling... about what mine sell now.

As for how I cope? right now, extreme, no holds barred cleaning. Once that's done, painting the house and fence. And then there's a garden. I've found if you're too fricking tired to stand, you CAN sleep.

This is part of the reason I write so many books a year, too. I immerse myself in the story and it serves as escape for ME before it's escape for readers.

Anonymous said...

Anger... management? You mean I shouldn't keep calm, cool and (somewhat) collected when my publisher pushes my book back TWO F*CKING YEARS because their editors have a poorer grasp of English than I?

I don't understand what you mean, Dave. *slams a shot of alcohol and gasps* I just don't seem to let it get to me. *slams another shot of alcohol* Sometimes, I think that I just manage to keep an aloof attitude in regards to the publishing industry because of my personable nature. *finishes off the bottle and starts scouring the kitchen for another*

Ed Bear said...

It's not just Authors who have anger management issues. On Friday, I got a notice that a book I'd pre-ordered at Fictionwise (eBook) for $8 would not be available and they refunded my money into my micropay account.

Fine. Then I discovered two things: 1. EVERY book from HarperCollins was gone from the site (not on sale)


2. The book was still available at BarnesAndIgnoble -- for $12.

Am I missing something here, or is "Come back later with more money" a really crappy way to treat customers?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Look at my comment on Amanda's post and her subsequent comments on this.

Also, for the record, I've been madder as a READER a lot longer than as a WRITER. I used to forge life-long fandom particularly in mystery. Find a book that's pleasant and 'want to read more' and I had a friend for life. It didn't even need to be extraordinary. JUST "good enough." And then about ten years ago the lottery model of publishing took hold (get a new author. Throw out there with no publicity, if he's not bestseller in three books, toss him out, get another one. For the record, this results in NO bestsellers because in the absence of independent sellers, publishers control ALL the phases of publishing. So, the "surprise" bestsellers are the occasional "darlings" who for some reason DO get publicity.) What this meant is that by the time I found a book "pleasant, okay" the writer had disappeared and if he/she was still writing was doing so under a name I couldn't find.
Reading because like serial breakups, and I started cutting back on new books. Now I only read new authors either because I have to (out of town, nothing else to read, whatever) or because a friend HIGHLY recommends something. And I'm ready to lost the new author at any moment, without warning.

Amanda Green said...

Ed, part of the issue with Fictionwise is that they've been bought by B&N. From what I can tell, they are currently reconfiguring their e-book outlets -- not only fictionwise but I saw a post on fb from one of the authors impacted by this with an assurance that the books would be back up "soon". Of course, this author had no more idea about what that means than you or I do. Yet another way the publishers are screwing themselves in the process of screwing their customers.

John Lambshead said...

I have always been somewhat suprised how arrogant and pointlessly rude some individuals in the publishing industry are to new authors. Given that no one can predict whose work will hit the jackpot such self indulgence seems counter productive.

I say 'some', because others go out of their way to offer helping hands. I will never forget the help and support I have had from Baen people. Should one of my books ever hit the jackpot guess who gets it. Courtesy is not just proper, it's also good business.

The other thing that struck me back in the 80s was how incompetent people were in the publishing industry. I had a contract to design a computer game based on a book. After I delivered it transpired that they had forgotton to obtain the necessary copyright. I got paid, I had a contract.


Dave Freer said...

Francis - why don't they teach Adam Smith in the various business schools? Or do they but the business leaders of tomorrow are too damn stupid to grasp "Enlightened Self-Interest?" (which ISN'T "greed is good" by a country league, let alone mile.) The way authors and readers are being treated isn't in their best interests. They are undermining their entire business with the sort of profilgate abandon of monkeys in the solitary if laden apple tree. Taking a bit of an apple and tossing it, and starting another. Fighting with each other, breaking branches, throwing apples at each other. They seem to believe writers and mostly readers 'will always be in abundant supply' - despite lots of evidence that they're dead wrong.

Dave Freer said...

Amanda, yes, I do hope a number of new e-book publishers will come through. And sometimes when I mad clean through I have to go out and catch (or dig up) something to eat. At least I am in control and if I screw up, _I_ screwed up.

Dave Freer said...

Brendan - I really enjoyed those books. I've... had some similar experiences. And, um, your schadenfrude illustrates what I am talking about. Not much good will there, is there? When the chips are really down (and they were only partly down in the last scrap and authors still helped out - and have been rewarded in the normal way) publishers are going to need author and reader loyalty. And they'll find they actually have very little. And then it'll be 'oh we didn't realise you felt that way.'

Dave Freer said...

Brendan - web sellers - if they have a following - have the one thing authors lack - a good shop window.

Dave Freer said...

Sarah, the very fact that I find I am actually not the only one coping with this sh!t has made a lot of difference to me. I really got to feeling I was being singled out for some kind of 'let's trash Dave' programme... until I found no, that by industry standards I was fairly well treated (not the pave-with-gold treatment of course, but better than a lot of others). The pave the path with gold pattern where the publisher - not the readers - choose what will get the effort is a disaster area for obvious business reasons. The insane but flourish concept that in spite of the fact that the author controls 10% at the outside of their success chance - 'every crash is a driver error' has made things worse. (Actually, I would go to no crash is a driver error - if the book was that bad, it shouldn't have been bought - and if you fire the author... you need consider whether the buyer has done their job adequately. Suddenly there'd be a lot less slips and a lot more care.)

Dave Freer said...

Warpcordova - welcome to the club. My sympathies.

Dave Freer said...

Ed, customers and writers are both expendable and infinitely replacable in big publishing and big retail's playbook. Therefore you can be profligate with their goodwill. I think they're very wrong about that, and unfortunately they're hurting readers and writers in the process of finding out.

Ed Bear said...

"People are expendable."? The last time Western Civilization took that tack, the result was the slaughters of World War I.

I, for one, don't consider Dave, Sarah, Eric, John, Ryk, David(W), David(D), Travis, Tom, James, Sharon, Steve, Michael, or Larry to be "replaceable."

And as for Poul, Christopher, and Robert, I miss them terribly.

Kate said...

I'm not sure if we've tipped, are tipping or are nearly there. We haven't hit the rapid roll down which will destroy the publishing industry as we know it - yet - but every time I see a new piece of idiocy like this I know it's getting closer.

There's a vast reservoir of pissed off out there, and it's getting ever-closer to eruption. The people who think they know what they're doing are in for a very unpleasant surprise when that happens - if they are lucky enough to survive the experience. And I'm not speaking entirely figuratively, because this goes beyond the idiocy of the publishing industry into the idiocy of every organization that thinks it can control what people think, do and feel.

Sorry boys, it ain't so, and when things give, it will get ugly in ways only pissed civilized people can manage.

As for anger management, I'm personally swinging between cold rage of the "they'd better not get within range" variety and depression. Knowing it's not personal and just endemic stupid both makes it better and worse. Better, because it's not personal. Worse, because I'm just collateral damage and don't matter to these morons.

This may have something to do with why I spent this weekend transforming the house from toxic waste zone to something you'd admit to living in. If I'm tired enough, I don't remember my dreams. Or at least, don't remember enough of them beyond "they were disturbing".

Stephen Simmons said...

Anger management? I manage to get angry just fine, thank you ... actually, since I'm just starting out, I haven't had the chance to "enjoy" any of these experiences yet. Sounds like my timing in this endeavor is just about as bad as it has been in most everything else I've ever done. But I soaked up the Serenity Prayer bone-deep during my adolescence, so I'm hoping that will help carry me through.

On a brighter note, the story I'm waiting for editorial notes on right now is for a new independent house's inaugural fantasy anthology - and the picture you've painted makes it sound like having a foot in the door at a place like that could be a Good Thing right about now.

Dave Freer said...

Sarah the lottery system which seems to have more to do with how much publisher spent on the advance than how good readers thought the book is is hopelessly arrogant and doomed to failure. Expecting authors to market their books as well as write them is nearly as logical as expecting a gold-miner to also be jewellry designer. Next we'll be expected to do the editing and proofing? Maybe carry the books on our backs to the stores? (with e-books at least that is lighter.) And then the publisher and retailer want 94%of the money? Authors need to nurtured, developed, helped with exposure and indeed writing. 'toss him out get another one' assumes that readers who are slowly developing a relationship with one author will find any other just as tasty. Bah.

Dave Freer said...

John I have often often thought how pointlessly circular the publish industry is. Inevitably the complaint about lead authors being prima donnas was created by treating them like subhumans when they were new.

Baen - or at least some people (Toni) have always been exceptional.

Dave Freer said...

Kate, I have a feeling we may not tip - but just slowly sink. And that is in a way the worst of all possible worlds, with the dear people we should lose continuing to bleed the last life (and they're flourishing away in every sector of the industry from authors to retail by leeching of the rest and exploiting the system - like awards for chums, or taking from peter to publicise paul or hiding and fudging figures... which weakens the whole thing, but keeps them going.)

It's depressing. But I'm a battler. And so are you. Damned if I am ready to quit, but I would like to see something better come out of this without the above-mentioned crew.

Dave Freer said...

Stephen, yeah, it sounds like you're in a good position right now.

Dave Freer said...

Ed, _readers_ don't consider authors expendable, and therein may lie our salvation. But big retail and big publishing I am afraid, do, readers and writers both.

I think there are a LOT of readers out there (I'm one, I think you're another) who really get satisfaction from supporting their favorite authors. It's important to us, and very satisfying at a personal level, when put that way. It's a small token of support and appreciation for people who have made my life a lot better. Most readers would be disgusted if they found out how little their favorite authors earn from each book they buy, and indeed how little their favorite authors try and live on sometimes. Most of the readers I have met assume that writers are well-rewarded for doing a job they regard highly. I think Baen are the only company where a reasonable percentage of readers do know and support a publisher. And let's be blunt, they do it because the publisher is strongly identified with their favorite authors, not the other way around. In most cases bublisher and retailers are the people who readers consider invisible and totally interchangable and replacable.