A few years ago, during one of the wanks surrounding Publish America, I got into a heated discussion with a group of writer friends about the naivetÃ© and ignorance many of the writers on the PA boards. They were of the opinion that those writers were all stupid jerks who were too stubborn to listen to reason. I am of the opinion that a lot of those writers don’t have the same benefit of knowledge, experience and luck that writers who are part of a community have, and we shouldn’t be too harsh on them.
For those of you who don’t know, Publish America is a vanity press that disguises itself as a traditional publisher in order to make money off the hopes and dreams of wannabe authors. They claim to have an editorial process, but will really accept anything sent to them, and pay their authors an advance of $1. They then proceed to mark up their (non-returnable) books about 15-30% for retail sale and offer the authors themselves a discount of about that much, cleverly raking in at least normal retail price no matter what. The people that PA attracts tend to be folks that believe that big publishing houses are out to get them, will only publish insiders, are afraid of the truth, and any number of other similar sentiments.
The message boards were, at the time, filled with people who were almost religiously devoted to PA and who were convinced that they were a legitimate publishing company whose detractors were part of a vast publishing conspiracy to squash them. You may think I am exaggerating, but I am not.
Though I took part in a lot of PA and PA author bashing, in the aforementioned discussion I said that I felt a bit sorry for those people. A lot of them weren’t particularly net-savvy, many of them had fallen prey to scam agents who pointed them to PA, and most had no clue how publishing really worked. Nor did I believe it was for a lack of trying. There is a lot of information on the Internet and in books about how to go about getting published, and a lot of that information is wrong. Horrendously wrong.
About five years ago I was browsing the Writer’s Market book and decided to read one of the informative essays at the front about how to write a cover letter when submitting short fiction. The article instructed writers to include a summary of the story, a short paragraph on why the writer is best qualified to tell said story, and a few other pieces of stupid advice I’ve forgotten. Anyone who has ever read slush knows that neither of these things are necessary or desired in a cover letter. And remember: this was not on some random website, this was in the Writer’s Market, a supposedly reliable source.
How are new writers supposed to separate the wheat from the chaff when there’s a wealth of information at their fingertips? Even if you eliminate online stuff, there are the hundreds of books about writing and publishing, many filled with inaccurate, outdated, and contradictory information.
If an aspiring writer is lucky, she or he might find a community of well-informed and more experienced writers who can give them sound advice and keep them from making stupid mistakes. I say lucky on purpose, because a lot of time it is just luck that a person hits upon the correct group at the correct time. (It certainly was for me.)
Though I was roundly mocked for feeling sorry for clueless newbies (not to mention having folks pissed because I brought up the nasty bug-a-boo of how privilege comes into any examination of net access — lordy!) I have not changed my opinion. I have seen a lot of crazy stuff since that conversation — writers who don’t follow guidelines, who have an entitlement bug up their ass, who threaten editors via email or phone, who show up in person at a publisher’s office, who put videos on YouTube with text of their story or novel set to music and then send it to agents — and I still can’t bring myself to condemn them all outright.
Sometimes it’s tempting, though.
What depresses me most is that I’m not sure what can be done about it. Sure, I could write a book, or write an essay, or create a website for new writers, but what would distinguish me from all the other books, essays, and websites? What would make me or anyone else authoritative on the matter to someone who doesn’t know any better?