Dreaming Well: Does the Future of Publishing Need More Imagination?

For the past three or four years, the book world has been inundated with advice, predictions, and knowing winks about the next phase of what it means to be a writer. We’re told to exploit social media, to cater to our fans, to turn to self-publishing through e-books, to eschew copyright in favor of giving readers material for free. But what value does any of this actually have? What actual results, and at what cost? Is the salvation for writers the same thing that will wind up killing off good books? Who is rendered invisible by all of this, and what does it mean for the future of literary quality?

Just for those who don’t know me, I’ve been a writer for over 25 years, with novels out from major and indie publishers, as well as self-published titles. I’ve got multiple awards nominations, and wins, and write-ups in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. I’ve run an award-winning publishing company. I help run a teen writing camp and write book reviews for major national newspapers. I’m also the author of what is still the only internet/new media-based book on what it means to be a writer in the modern era, Booklife, which has such spin-off sites as Booklifenow. I’m not at all shy about using social media, and getting my hands dirty with promotion and all of the other things that we are increasingly told we must do.

But I feel passionately that some of the information we are getting is increasingly wrong and motivated by selfishness and, yes, to some degree, a form of hyperbolic illogic. We are so hung up on predicting the next big thing, on getting in on the next gold rush when it comes to ways for authors to promote themselves and market their work that we often seem to be active participants in our own destruction. We are voluntarily committed at times to dismantling those elements of traditional publishing that actually work and adopting the new simply because it’s shiny and seems to offer an easy way out. We may talk now about accessibility and visibility instead of distribution and publicity, and the delivery system and format of books may be changing, but those are just matters of terminology and translation. At the same time, we’re not able to truly dream well about what e-books might mean beyond things like making them look more like videogames or annotating them. Honestly, who cares? That’s pretty much dressing something up, not dreaming well.

The problem right now really isn’t the “tyranny” of big NYC commercial publishers or an Amazon monopoly. The problem is the virus of mediocre and received ideas coursing through the collective brains of the book world, infecting too many of its writers, commentators, reviewers. It’s a kind of fundamentalism at its heart, and we want to believe in it because it’s easy to do so. Then we don’t have to think for ourselves and we can also worship at the altar of a God of E-Plenty.

Just a few prominent examples, although there are more, and more subtle, cases…

War on copyright and the fervent belief that content should be free. This belief isn’t based on any scientific facts showing that this will benefit the majority of writers (the midlist, which often is the bedrock of literary quality) but often based on anecdotal experience from gatekeepers who mistake their own immense personal power for signal boost as distributing evenly across the book culture.* When it most assuredly does not. The idea, meanwhile, that non-US/British Commonwealth writers do not in fact want some form of international copyright in place is just plain wrong for the most part, not to mention insulting to the wealth of diverging opinions across countries, regions, and traditions. (This is leaving aside the ridiculous length of copyright in the US/UK right now; it is too long.)

Mega-selling self-published authors war on traditional publishing, specifically the Mighty Konrath. This belief, again, isn’t based on scientific fact—note the recent study showing less than 10 percent of self-published authors make any kind of money at all—but on anecdotal evidence related to a unique situation in already having an audience built up through traditional publishing. Any crusade against traditional publishing is selfish to the extreme—it wants to replace diverse ways to publication with One True Way. The same call is often taken up by budding writers, because it can be very seductive to think publication is so very, very much closer than ever before…even if time put into getting rejected can be extremely important to developing writers. Self-publishing is a tool and like any other tool it can be used well or poorly. Putting it on a pedestal is a pointless exercise. I AM BOLDING THIS STATEMENT SO I DON’T GET ANY COMMENTS ABOUT HOW I HATE SELF-PUBLISHING, BECAUSE I DON’T. (Any such comments will be deleted.)

Advocating against the use of an agent. I’ve seen more than one experienced writer who should know better rail against the use of an agent in the new publishing atmosphere. All I can say is, if you think agents are evil sycophants who want to suck all of your money out of you and cheat you, feel free. I’ll be over in this corner getting a lot more done for more money because of my agent.

No one at New York publishing houses edits books any more. This is something I really find to be propaganda in the worst sense, in the context of bolstering the case for self-publishing (the case for which doesn’t need bolstering, depending on the context). All I can say is that everywhere I’ve been published in NY, I have had amazing editors who rolled up their sleeves and suggested, in some cases, major changes that had a big impact on the quality of the book in question. And many of my friends who also publish with NY publishers will tell you the same thing. This little inaccuracy used to be relatively benign back in the day, but it now more and more harmful, since it also suggests that since writers with big houses don’t get edits, editing in general really isn’t necessary. Not true.

Claiming you know how things are going to look five years down the road and recommending strategies based on your Sacred Knowledge. There are a lot of different elements in play right now in a market in flux. No one can really be sure of what book publishing will look like in five years except that e-books will be a hugely important part of it. But one thing you can be sure of: that future will have built-in tumors and cysts due to your promulgation of shit-ass ideas now, infecting the mind-stream of the internet and taking hold when they needn’t have.

Telling writers to establish some social media presence well in advance of finishing or selling a novel or other type of book. Another one-size-fits-all approach that isn’t useful for all writers or all kinds of books. For some writers, depending on their personality, it is downright destructive. For others, it is like being a hamster in a wheel trying to power your career, and expending lots of energy for little gain. Writers over-extending themselves, losing track of their art, all concerned that otherwise they’ll be rendered invisible.

This invisibility concerns me the most, especially in the context of those who scoff at traditional publishing these days. Trad publishing offers something to the shy writer, the introverted writer, the writer who will *always* trip over themselves trying to yank at the levers of social media. And that thing is advocacy and support. Is the advice we’re being given actually coming with the subtext that “if you’re not good at social media and selling yourself, don’t become a writer”? If so, fuck that. Some of my favorite writers wouldn’t know a facebook from an effing hole in the wall and yet, gasp, somehow manage to have careers.

Taken together, advocates for the wholesale dismantling of the current system and, to a lesser extent (lesser because it’s not as prevalent) other advocates who too frequently defend the inadequacies of the current system represent the biggest threat to the majority of writers. By spreading a more-or-less ideological virus that is then repeated by ever-growing numbers of people who do not stop to analyze what they then put out there as gospel, a self-fulfilling prophecy occurs that may do long-term damage to the ability of writers to survive in this new age of publishing.

As noted, I’m no luddite. I use social media strategically and well. I write very surreal books that reach a larger audience than they otherwise would because of these tools. But I also know what doesn’t work, and that old-fashioned word-of-mouth and many of the traditional ways still hold true. I am not at all interested in being complicit in the impoverishment of the literary community by adopting new ways without thinking them through thoroughly first. I also am not at all interested in some becoming more visible at the expense of making others into ghosts.

Now, of course, you’ll ask if I have the answers. Well, I don’t. I’m smart enough to know I don’t, but also savvy enough to know bullshit solutions when I see them, and not to promulgate them to new writers. We live in an exciting age for books, but the jury’s out on whether we’ll have enough imagination to make it a Renaissance or a Dying Fall. And lest anyone misunderstand, I am as at-fault as anyone in not yet having been able to see clearly on this issue. I just know there must be better ideas out there, better ways of doing things. Before we become Locked In to just One Idea or Two Ideas.

* In other cases, artists coming in from other media suggest ludicrous things like “all you have to do is have your own popular band and then you can write a novel that easily reaches people.” Yes. Form your own musical group. Then use that popularity to write a novel. Next idea, please.

20 comments on “Dreaming Well: Does the Future of Publishing Need More Imagination?

  1. Excellent analysis of the current climate. I am a “Newby” author trying to make it in the writer’s world (without much success I might add). I have recently self-published my first book after getting rejections from over a 100 agents and publishers. I have burnt my hand with “Small press.” There is a lot of terrible advice on the net and also in hard copy. Most of them ask you to “go Indie”. I have bought several books telling me how to be a successful writer. There are people who “guarantee success within 6 months”!! Self-publishing is an “easy option” in some ways, but extremely un-fulfilling in other ways.
    While I agree that social media may or may not be of useful tool right now, I feel it has a future for all of us.
    We need more people like you who are on the “inside” giving us a fair view of publishing – both Indie and Traditional.
    Thank you.

  2. I love the point about social media. I actually created my blog because I read that’s what I should do. I didn’t like blogging then and while I’ve learned to like it a great deal more now that I’ve figured out my “blogging voice” as I call it, I would maintain that I started a blog for the absolute wrong reason and I had absolutely no success with it until I had three books out and a following from conventions that was already interested in my speed writing methods. (And though I’ve had a few posts go viral, I still don’t blog as much as I really should, so I’ll never be a true blogging success).

    My experience with Facebook was the same: hated it, created an FB account because I felt I had to, still only use it when I must.

    My greatest success has been with Pinterest and Twitter because, surprise! I actually like using those services. In the end, this was the key. New writers ask me all the time: what should I do about social media? And based on my experience, all I can say is do what you like! It’s the only way you’ll be able to muster the sincerity needed to draw a following. The internet can sniff out fakers faster than a bloodhound.

    Anyway, just my two cents. Love the post, especially coming from someone who’s done a bit of everything.

    Oh, and Veniss Underground is one of my all time favorite novels! Just wanted to fan girl a bit :D

  3. Great post, Jeff! Self-publishing, small presses, and even the big NY publishers are just available options. They all have advantages and disadvantages. The key is to not dogmatically swear one way is better than the others. I loved your point about using the tools available and knowing that they are just tools.

    As far as social media goes, I have a blog on my website, but I barely use it because I feel like I never have anything to blog about. The same thing goes with my FB fan page. I was told to make one, but I have a paltry amount of fans on it so really what’s the point? I enjoy being on Twitter so I should focus my efforts there rather than spread my time and energy so thinly on platforms that I don’t like.

  4. Elizabeth Moon says:

    Agreed. The demonizing of traditional publishing, agents, and copyright is in no way justified by the facts. It’s really depressing to see writers with name recognition and clout doing this. Nobody really knows where publishing will be in five or ten years. But nobody knew ten years ago where it would be today, either.

    I have seen newbie writers convinced that all they need for their self-published books to sell is the right stand-out promotional gimmick…and quit writing to look for it. Very sad.

  5. I’m not at all sympathetic to the idea that to embrace the new you have to demonize the old. It’s a weird way of thinking, I totally agree.

  6. Excellent post, well said, Jeff.

  7. Good article. I too am trying the self publishing route after getting almost five hundred rejections. I was really getting tired of writing letters to people I knew almost nothing about, telling them how they were the perfect fit for me. From what I have seen getting traditionally published is harder than ever. Years ago I had a sort of mentor on the internet, Charles Sheffield, who I corresponded with by email. I would send him excerpts of work and he would make suggestions. His advice was to keep trying, that I would make it. Never happened. He told the story of how he broke in by sending short stories to Jim Baen, who was desperate for copy. When Baen moved on and started his own publishing company he asked Charles to write a novel, to which Charles replied he did not know how to write a novel. Baen told him to just write a dozen shorts and string them together.
    I don’t really like having to spend so much time promoting on the net, but I am also still producing, just taking more time from other things. I for one do not want to see the traditional publishers go under. The people who published Heinlein and Asimov, Moorcock and Zelazny? You’ve got to be kidding. I still love buying books and following my favorite authors. But Amazon has been a Godsend to people who have fought for years to get a quality work published and weren’t able to for one reason or another. I may never become a millionaire, but it has made writing fun again, and I can concentrate on projects I want to do, not what I hope, wrongly, is the next big thing.

  8. Sam X says:

    Really engaging piece, your third paragraph especially is a concise shot at what passes for “innovating” concepts in the literary world today. I also agree that self-publishing is inherently neutral and can thus be used well or poorly.

    (I do find it a little disingenuous to accuse the other side of ideology–which they no doubt succumb to–while at the same time claiming their methods “may do long-term damage to the ability of writers to survive in this new age of publishing.” It’s safe to say writers will survive no matter the publishing conditions.)

    As long as people admit they don’t have the answers–as I try to, and you do in this article–we can have an intelligent discussion on the progression of publishing. It’s wise for aspiring writers to learn about their options, figure out their current project, and decide what’s best for it. Certain topics will be better in a small press or a Kickstarter; other projects are made for traditional presses.

    It’s all in the presentation. I believe firmly in “creating and sharing” but I certainly wouldn’t evangelize to a young writer–everyone needs to find their own path in relation to their definitions of success and art.

  9. A good reminder of perspective, but let’s not forget that one reason some experienced authors (*ahem*) have turned on traditional publishers and agents is that they’ve had and heard about others having extremely very bad experiences with them. Colleagues of mine have talked about being contacted by their publishers asking for e-rights in books contracted with no e-right covered — “Gimme these rights for nothing, and I’ll get the books out there sometime in e-form and give you 25% royalties on those sales.” And then they based e-royalties on *an average* of e-book sales, instead of actual sales of each e-book title, until caught and sued for it. This is after having pared their mid-list advances down to where they were in 1974. These guys have not acted like our allies, so it’s not surprising that as soon as an alternative showed up many authors gave a sigh of relief and jumped on the new bandwagon. Similarly, some agents have been getting very grabby and exploitative since the e-book phenomenon took hold (well, since the nineties, actually, when they all just *decided* to got from 10% to 15% with no connection to *increasing the authors’ income* at the same time, which would have validated such a draconian increase in there own share of writers’ incomes). There’s a good deal of legitimate and accumulated rage behind the kicking that some established authors have been giving to agents and to traditional publishers, and no response from either category of recipient that that I’ve seen, so the kicking — and the ditching, where feasible — will continue, I expect. This is too bad, since all that stored up and legitimately come-by anger does cloud perception and judgment of what’s actually going on in publishing, and we do need to be more vigilant and objective in weighing up new choices against traditional ones, and not being taken in by “The One and Only Good Way” hype. But where all the animus against traditional players comes from needs to be recognized, too.

  10. jeff vandermeer says:

    No doubt. But the biggest mistake and disservice a writer can make in giving out advice is letting their anecdotal experience influence that advice without making it clear *this is just my single experience*. Not to mention saying “publishers” or “agents” without specificity as a generalization is irresponsible to an extreme.

  11. M says:

    Great post!

    I know I’ve become tired of the social media wagon and the endless self-promotion that nettles me around every corner, and despite supposed champions of this method of visibility, it makes no different and has no impact. Writers fight for space among a thousand and one distractions. The noise is what renders us invisible. Thus I’ve shrunk my own presence and come back to what matters: content. I think the most tragic thing to watch is so many writers plunge headfirst into self-publishing without attempting other routes because they see the Horatio Alger myth and little else . . . I have my own rule of thumb: One should have as many rejections as it takes to break a human heart, and then keep going.

    Writers have a bad habit of marketing to other writers. Think about it: If you run a car company, do you wander into Chevy headquarters and try to sell them your vehicles? Of course not; they can manufacture their own.

    I’ve come to the depressing realization that I’m surrounded by writers who are very eager to have their work read, but make no investment on their own behalf to read others. They want traffic to their blogs, but don’t bother to read any. As a business person, that’s a poor philosophy to run a business with, and I think that’s another thing that writers forget: it’s very much a business. With all the pitfalls and responsibilities of one. While not true of all writers, there are many who seem to believe they need only occupy a pedestal for the privilege of worship.

    I came into the game genuinely wanting to make connections with others — and those have been few and far between. I do not see writers excited about what they do. In the end, I’ve decided I’m a storyteller first, and a writer second. It’s an important distinction. One requires my imagination, the other assumes an action. And without the first, all the social media in the world, all the self-publishing, all the sour grapes, all the decrying of the industry, is meaningless . . .

    Oh, and the part about advocating against an agent? *maniacal laughter* Let’s just say that no matter how unfair 15% might seem to others, I have no intention of writing without an agent and retaining that imaginary 15% loss on something I could not sell without her in the first place.

  12. PhilRM says:

    Jeff, as a corollary (of sorts) to your excellent post, you might find this take-down of social media marketing by Ewan Morrison of interest: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/jul/30/tweet-about-cats-just-write

  13. Thank you for this, Jeff. I’ve been doing the same line of thinking lately, as I’ve sort of come out of a nearly 2 year (unintentional…) writing hiatus (which also included not tuning in much to the trends/advice/etc. web “hotline”). I’ve come to many of the same conclusions and am reminding myself daily why I do this, which inevitably shapes what I write and how I find the time, etc. Early on I was driven to hit certain markers along the way — write that query! get that agent! — but now I realize how much energy I spent on unimportant tasks when I could have just been improving my writing. Hindsight. It’s a bitch.

  14. jeff vandermeer says:

    Natania: It’s not like I haven’t been scarred getting to this point, so I can sympathize!

  15. Jo Rhett says:

    Jeff, love your work and like you as a person–but I think you are grandstanding a bit on the trad side, just like you are claiming others are grandstanding on the self-published side. Can you speak honestly to the following issues?

    1. You claim that trad published books are edited well, yet I haven’t bought a book in the last 10 years that didn’t have more than a dozen fairly obvious line editing failures, nevermind factual inaccuracies. Plot holes are the writer’s job, factual references can be checked and should be. Unless the author has proposed new rules for chemistry in their world-building, then how one chemical interacts with another should have been caught and fixed for example.

    For example, I read the hugo nominees this year and dropped out every book that had major factual problems. Oops, zero choices. Drop that criteria — had less than two dozen line editing failures. Zero choices, drop that criteria, etc etc. And the worst part is that I drop polite notes to authors about misprints, and half the time they shoot me back scans of their markup which were sent to their editor with the exact same notations prior to printing. As a consumer it really isn’t apparent to me that New York cares very much about fixing the problems before they ship.

    As a reviewer my personal experience is that the best edited stuff I receive comes from successful small presses–PIR, Tachyon, Nightshade, etc. The New York trad publishers fall roughly in the same general level of editing proficiency as the self-pubbed stuff does.

    2. You claimed in your remarks to another blog that it’s not true that sometimes zero money is spent on marketing stuff. However, I have sat in panel after panel where TOR, DAW, Baen, etc have straight up admitted that listing the work in their catalog is “as much promotion as most books get” (their words). They have straight up said that unless they can convince their marketing staff of the upside potential of a book, and it has to be a sequel to a book that did well with little to no marketing, it simply gets put out with their catalog.

    This is their words. Can you let us in on your insider knowledge about marketing efforts these publishers extend but are unwilling to admit to?

  16. jeff vandermeer says:

    I think for me to be grandstanding you’d have to be pushing back against more than a paltry two of my points.

    Re marketing–core genre category books may require less work to reach an audience. Built-in distribution and slots in the SF section of the bookstore are often enough for readers who will pick up a ton of, say, military SF titles every month. In the ebook era these also serve as reminders the ebook is available (although in that category the average reader may–I am speculating–be older and not care about ebooks anyway). So it will vary in my experience depending on the need. But I don’t know why you’re talking just SF publishers. I wasn’t. I also welcome any NY publisher commenting on this issue and correcting me as necessary.

    Marketing-wise, Tor and others have sent us to bookseller and librarian conventions, done special promotions to booksellers etc. They also still have regional reps who talk up the books.

    Night Shade doesn’t edit their books well at all so I am going to take a shot in the dark here and question your expertise in this area before answering further.

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