Monday, March 10, 2014

Identity and the Writer

Who am I?

What do others think of me?

Identity is a very important, and terribly difficult, concept to grasp. What makes us who we are is fodder for philosophers, and perhaps biologists, not for this blog.

This blog is about publishing, and it is written for writers. But I'm going to take a stab at discussing identity anyway.

Lately I've seen a lot of stuff on the internet that falls under the umbrella of what I call "identity issues." There are a lot of writers, and a lot of people in the publishing industry, who believe they have clearly defined identities, and who believe they have the ability to understand the identities of others. Identities that may be embraced and accepted, or dismissed and derided.

Let's take a look at some of the things I'm referring to.

Years ago, Barry Eisler used the word legacy to describe traditional publishers. This word is apt because publishing fits the definition of a legacy system. Since Barry began using this, it has fallen into the common vernacular, but only in the shadow industry of self-publishing, used by self-published authors. Legacy publishers don't like to be thought of as "previous" or "outdated", even though they indeed are by any definition, so they reject the term because it conflicts with their personal identities. They believe they are relevant, forward-thinking, guardians of culture. They are wrong, but their identities are so entangled in these labels it may prevent them from doing things that could improve their bottom line, like treating authors better, innovating, and using new technology to reach more readers.

The media often uses the word legacy, but puts quotes around it. "So called 'legacy' publishers." The media sides with the publishers, so when they report, they want to downplay the growing usage of the term legacy.

The idea of "I am X, so I cannot be Y" is a powerful idea, and it is one of the reasons we won't see as many legacy publishers in the future. If any. At least, not in their current state. Because they don't recognize themselves as legacy publisher, because they choose to believe their identity is something different than legacy, they won't be able to fix themselves.

You won't see a doctor if you refuse to believe you're sick. And denying your diagnosis, or downplaying the threat, is stupid. That's what killed Steve Jobs. Smart guy. Innovator. Apparently didn't fear death enough to take appropriate measures. Jobs's understanding of himself--his identity--may have killed him.

But legacy publishers aren't the only ones with identity issues in this biz. Because legacy publishers recognize that writers are desperately searching for identity. And they have ways to prey upon, and exploit, that desperation.

I grew up with a whole generation of writers who understood the only way to get their work into bookstores was to:

1. Write a book.
2. Find an agent.
3. Find a publisher.
4. Sign whatever piece of shit contract they put in front of you, because you have no choice.

I'm simplifying things, and exaggerating a little. But the majority of working fiction writers became published following those four rules I listed.

An entire cottage industry sprang up around this. Books appeared on the market explaining how to write, how to find agents, how to get published. People taught at seminars and writing conferences. Vanity presses became huge industries. Some agents started charging reading fees, or referring work to book doctors.

Writers, who were doing work they hoped to someday be paid for, were paying others millions of dollars hoping for the opportunity to one day sell a book.

Why?

One could guess that it was a monetary decision. Writers figured they could pay experts to teach them how to break in, and then make that money back when they are able to write full time.

But history shows that very few writers among all of those chosen by the legacy industry actually make enough to quit their day jobs. So this has to be about more than money, or making a living.

I used to believe that simply finishing a book wasn't enough for a writer to feel like they are a writer. There also had to be some level of acceptance. If certain people accept the book, then the writer can accept they are, indeed, a writer.

But which people? If a renowned agent accepts a novel is that enough?

For me, it wasn't. I would tell people I had an agent, but I still didn't consider myself a writer until it was actually validated with a contract. I followed those four rules above, buying into it entirely.

I remember going to conferences back in 2003 and hearing unagented, unpubbed writers call themselves "pre-published'. If that's how they felt about their identity, good for them. But whenever anyone said that, there was much eye-rolling among others in the room.

We labeled ourselves, and each other, and often those identities were at odds.

In my early days, I'd tell people that I'd written a few books, and I'm trying to be a writer. Then I'd say I had an agent, who was trying to sell my book. But I didn't consider myself a real writer until I signed that first deal. It was how I felt. I was a nobody until someone invited me to be a somebody.

The funny thing is, the book hadn't changed. It hadn't gone from being a mess of jumbled words to being a good manuscript simply because it was accepted. Whiskey Sour would have been what it was whether a publisher accepted it or not. Some of my books that publishers rejected have made me more money than Whiskey Sour has, but when I wrote those I didn't feel like I was a real writer because they never got me a contract. Even though they were agented. Even though they have gone on to earn me hundreds of thousands of dollars.

I thought I knew a lot about writing, and publishing, before I was actually published. But I didn't teach, or blog, until I landed that first deal. Because I didn't feel like I was worthy to blog or teach until the industry validated me.

As if me signing my name to a piece of paper was akin to being bitten by a radioactive spider. Once I was ordinary. But once I signed the contract, I was a WRITER.

Hogwash. Bullshit. And I had bought into it, hook, line, and sinker. But that was the only way I knew where I could claim the true identity of writer.

Self-publishing has made writers reconsider what it is to be a writer. A writer can now form an identity without an agent or a legacy publisher. Readers can validate writers, and writers can reach those readers directly.

But there is still a whole lot of confusion. Some people don't believe self-publishing makes a person a writer.

Some writers are so worried about how they'll be thought of by others that they succumb to moral panic (they were concerned about John Locke buying reviews and corrupting the system.). Yet those same writers see no need for public outcry when publishers do things even worse than the things those writers promised to never do (publishers paying to get books on the NYT bestseller list).

That entire No Sock Puppets Here Please nonsense reminded me of those religious virgins who wear purity rings. It isn't enough for your own identity to simply remain chaste. You have to announce to the world that you're chaste as well, because your identity requires the knowledge and approval of others.

No one is immune to this. You'd think as prominent and rich an author as Anne Rice wouldn't feel the need to respond to critics, or worry what anonymous pinheads on the internets thought of her or her work. But you'd be wrong. Anne just signed a petition to require identity verification of commenters on Amazon.

As readers of this blog know, I encourage anonymous comments. I value freedom of speech, even if the anonymous commenter is a pinhead here to call me names. But what I find fascinating about this petition is how some people seem to care a whole lot about what strangers think of them.

Sort of like me in 2002. I didn't consider myself a writer, even though I'd written ten novels and had an agent, because the industry hadn't accepted me. The opinions of strangers clouded my opinion of myself. It seems that how we label ourselves often depends on how others label us. In some cases, it means getting their approval. In other cases, it means silencing the critics.

Some writers seem to have clear lines of what is acceptable and what isn't, what makes a writer and what doesn't. Publishers also have lines, but they don't seem to be as clear. Certainly publishers will pitch to newbies that the only real writers are those who publish with a legacy house, but there's that whole cottage industry I mentioned earlier, bilking writers out of big money via vanity presses. One of the worst violators is Author Solutions, a vanity outfit that preys on newbies. It's owned by Penguin Random House, a Big 5 legacy publisher.

Random Penguins knows people want to be published, because many authors will only believe they are writers if they have a book in print. Even if they have to spend $3999 for a book signing package at the LA Times Festival of Books. These people are paying a legacy publisher to sign books next to writers who are paid by the same legacy publisher. I'm not the only one who sees a conflict of interest her. Yet the media ignores it. When John Locke buys reviews, or Anne Rice bemoans anonymous comments, it's all over the publishing world. When Author Solutions continues to rip off authors, or it is discovered that publishers buy spots on the NYT Bestseller list, where's the moral outrage?

Oh, yeah. It's reserved for Amazon, who--as the largest bookseller in the world--had the audacity to become one of the sponsors for the LA Festival of Books.

Why is that the story? The same reason some authors supported the agency model and agents protested the DOJ's claims of collusion.

It's an identity thing. Amazon has done a whole lot to cause legacy publishing to question its identity of itself, and to cause writers to question their own identities.

This shadow industry of self-publishing is both threatening to the status quo, and empowering to anyone who wants to call themselves a writer.

Well, almost anyone.

Consider legacy pubbed authors who are openly pro-legacy. Many of them believe they deserve success, or earned their right to sit at the legacy table. It's natural to disparage self-published authors who didn't have to jump through the same hoops in order to be accepted. Admitting self-pub is a real, viable alternative to legacy publishing means admitting they were wrong to put so much faith, time, and effort into getting a legacy deal. To feel secure about their own identity, some authors have to belittle others.

Now I believe a writer is someone who writes. Maybe you get paid. Maybe you don't. Maybe people agree. Maybe they don't. You don't need anyone's approval or acceptance or imprimatur or validation to consider yourself a writer. But legacy pundits like agents and publishers don't want you to believe that. They want you to feel that the only way you can call yourself a writer is if they agree. And their approval comes at a high cost.

The legacy world doesn't want you to feel like you're a writer if all you do is self-publish. Because they need you to make money.

Your peers may not consider you a writer if all you do is self-publish. Because they need to protect their own identities, and that means dismissing yours.

You may not feel like a writer until you meet certain criteria. But consider this: who sets those criteria? You? Or an industry that wants to make money off of you?

Readers don't care. Readers just want a good book. Maybe we all should worry less about labeling, and more about writing.

I wish Kindle and KDP existed back in the 1990s. It would have saved me years of desperation, depression, and self-doubt.

And I wish all writers realized that agents, publishers, book doctors, vanity presses, and how-to seminars, have a cost attached to them--sometimes a very high cost--with zero guarantees. You can be a writer, and have writer be a part of your identity, without any of them.

It doesn't matter what anyone thinks about what you call yourself, and you shouldn't care what others call themselves.

There is no us vs them. There are only those who believe in choice, and those who do not. Those who are comfortable with their identity, and those who are not comfortable with your identity because it makes them rethink their own identity.

Writers write. Depending on your identity, that could empower you, or scare the crap out of you.

It's your choice if you prefer to be enlightened, or frightened.