Dichotomy Is Easy, and Easily Dismissed

playOr, “What I Learned About Indie Publishing At 4th Street.”

Last weekend was for 4th Street Fantasy, and not even the thief who stole my driver’s license and debit card on Saturday could dull my overall enjoyment.  In addition to attending great panels and having fantastic writerly conversations, I took the opportunity to discover what writers—published and about-to-publish, new(er) and up-and-coming—want to know about indie publishing.

Y’see, SFWA’s new VP Maggie Hogarth recently talked me into working with the Self-Publishing Committee.  (It was the Hopeful Jaguar Eyes that did it.  That, and I didn’t want honey badgers sicced on me…:)  Having so many smart writers at 4th Street offered the perfect chance to gather some helpful information.

The writers I spoke with were not new to the craft or the business.  They were all well beyond the beginner stage in terms of craft.  Most had at least one SFWA qualifying sale and/or comparable experience in invitation-only workshops.  They’re the writers on the verge of breaking in, not the writers who are still figuring out the basics of writerly terminology.

The first and most consistent piece of feedback: For the love of all that is writerly, drop the “versus” between indie publishing and trade publishing It’s shunting conversations away from experienced writers who have the most to share, leaving many new writers unsure of where to turn for accurate information, and robbing credibility from advocates in all corners.  (I’ve been guilty of it myself, responding to actual, and a few unintended, inaccurate assumptions and snubs, alas.)

Besides, every writer I spoke with wanted to have an inclusive career—a goal that’s growing more popular as trade-focused writers learn about the true opportunities of indie publishing, and indie-published writers feel more empowered to seek and negotiate favorable contract terms.

In other words, my discussions indicated upcoming and engaged writers have indeed moved beyond the “versus” sticking point.  They’ve read as many repetitive either/or blog posts as they can stomach, and find them unhelpful.  The debate, still so prevalent on blogs and at conventions, simply isn’t interesting to them.  (It was nice to have my thoughts here confirmed.)

The second consistent piece of feedback:  Discussions on “pros and cons” really aren’t that helpful, either, when deciding a career path and travelling it with knowledge.

Consider a “pros and cons” discussion about buying a Prius or a massive pick-up.  Towing capacity doesn’t matter if all you need to do is cover your fifty-mile commute.  Gas mileage is a lesser concern if what you need is the ability to haul hay bales across a thousand acres of pasture.

Similarly, the pros and cons of trade publishing and indie publishing depend entirely on one’s goals, knowledge base, and personality.  Being responsible for cover art is terrifying or thrilling.  Hiring freelancers is awesome or baffling.  Having a pre-set editorial team is gratifying or annoying.  Participating in marketing and promotion is enlivening or a waste of good writing time.  And those feelings will shift depending on the project, availability of time, increased education, and countless other variables.

So pros and cons are fairly useless to these writers.  Worse, the pro/con talks tend to circle around into the divisiveness of the “versus.”

So what did these writers want to know about?

Skill sets.

Now, we’re not talking about craft-related skills.  We’re talking business skills—all those things that every writer, even those who want “only to write,” must learn in order to be successful.  One path requires a synopsis.  One requires sales copy.  One might require researching and hiring freelance professionals.  One might require researching and hiring an agent.  Both require knowledge of manuscript formatting, yet each requires different formats.

Since most writers I spoke with had, at the very least, social ties within trade publishing, they were familiar with the standard skill set required to pursue that path: how to research agents, how to write a query letter, how to format a manuscript, and so forth.  What they weren’t as certain of were the skills required to indie publish: how to find and hire freelancers, how to format an ebook, how to grow a readership, and so forth.  I know that information is out there.  But it’s often buried under the “versus” mentioned above, or is outright misinformation.

Similarly, there are gaps out there for folks seeking trade-publishing information.  Neil Clarke, editor of Clarkesworld, recently published a straight-forward article explaining First Rights, and it’s valuable information from a knowledgeable editor.  But when I was exploring publishing oodles of years ago, that was fairly standard knowledge of even beginning writers.  Today, however, I can see why writers interested primarily in indie publishing might not know those basics.  I wouldn’t be much interested in seeking business information from a site whose contributors, unlike Clarke, seem determined to belittle or criticize my career, either.  (To be clear, I’m NOT referring to Clarke in that regard.)

Rest assured, I didn’t hear from a single writer who thought any publisher or distributor was their friend.  They’re all quite clear on the distinction between business and friendship, so maybe we can cease with the not-your-friend patronization on all sides, hmm?

On the other hand, I spoke with only one writer who knew Barnes and Noble’s Nook division partners with Author Solutions for its “self-publishing services.”  I’d consider that a critical piece of information for any writer looking to promote BN as a moral alternative to Amazon.  (Cue a reprise of not your friend.)

No one pays us writers to create a bigger “team” for our chosen path to reaching readers.  Snarky and supercilious pontifications seem to be a fantastic way to ensure knowledge-seeking writers will look elsewhere for expertise. We can do a better job of sharing our satisfaction with our career path without sneering at all other journeys.

Everyone—information providers and information seekers—gets to decide if they want to feed arguments, justify choices, or educate writers.  You can’t very well do all those things at once anymore.  The more successful and talented writers don’t much like sifting through bluster in the hope of finding facts.

Dichotomy is easy.  But conversation isn’t all that challenging, either.  The longer we permit “versus” to dominate, the greater the disservice we do to talented writers.

Besides, the more interesting discussions have already moved forward, and this is a good thing.

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