A few weeks ago, I posted a blog about things I miss from traditional publishing. My intent was to learn from the past: since I’m my own publisher now (and will be for the foreseeable future) I wanted to identify processes and strategies that worked for me in the past, so I could find ways to incorporate them into my current method of publishing. The bad side of traditional publishing gets a lot of airtime, but I wanted to examine the other side of the coin. The post was picked up by other blogs, and appeared to strike a nerve for many writers. The comments here were thoughtful, but elsewhere, I was surprised by the vehemence of the replies.
There is clearly a lot of anger in the writing community.
What difference could it possibly make to another writer that I believe there were some good things in my experiences with traditional publishing? The most I expected was that someone might say “hmm, yes, that is a good idea” or “no, that never worked for me.” I suspect this anger has a different root, and that my post was simply a convenient target.
So, today, let’s talk about anger.
It’s easy to become angry when published traditionally. The marriage between commerce and creativity is a notoriously uneasy one, regardless of media. The publishing industry in particular is structured so that authors have very little power or say in the production choices (or even the editorial choices) made for their books. Coupled with that lack of control is a perceived answerability—readers often believe that authors are responsible for everything about their books. Even if the reader knows that authors don’t choose the cover or the print distribution pattern or whatever, the author is the most visible and accessible point of contact, particularly with the popularity of social media. Answering for something you didn’t choose or can’t fix is a toxic combination, though, and one that can certainly incite fury.
The thing with anger is that it’s stifling. Whenever I’m fuming over something my publisher has done or not done, I can’t write. Since I write for a living, this is a problem. The first time I was caught in this situation was in 1995. There were a lot of things going on with my publisher then and I’m not even sure now which incident pushed me over the edge. I felt betrayed and angry—and worse, I wasn’t writing. I knew I had to fix that. The rent had to be paid.
I discovered Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way, that year and did the exercises for the first time. Chapter Three remains a powerful one for me, and here’s a quote from it:
“Anger is fuel. We feel it and we want to do something. Hit someone, break something, throw a fit, smash a fist into the wall, tell those bastards. But we are nice people and what we do with our anger is stuff it, deny it, bury it, block it, hide it, lie about it, medicate it, muffle it, ignore it. We do everything but listen to it.
Anger is meant to be listened to. Anger is a voice, a shout, a plea, a demand. Anger is meant to be respected. Why? Because anger is a map. Anger shows us what our boundaries are. Anger shows us where we want to go. It lets us see where we’ve been and lets us know when we haven’t liked it. Anger points the way, not just the finger…
Anger is our friend. Not a nice friend. Not a gentle friend. But a very, very loyal friend. It will always tell us when we have been betrayed. It will always tell us when we have betrayed ourselves. It will always tell us that it is time to act in our own best interests.
Anger is not the action itself. It is action’s invitation.”
This chapter and its exercises were transformative for me. I chose to listen to my anger. I explored other publishing opportunities, including self-publishing – know as “vanity publishing” at the time. It was print based then, requiring an investment I didn’t have, storage of print books and the hand-selling of those books. I didn’t have the cash, the storage space or the talent for hand-selling my work, so it wasn’t for me. Small presses tend not to acquire genre fiction, especially romance, which I write, so that wasn’t viable either. All paths led back to traditional publishing—or a career change. I was determined to make writing my career.
I couldn’t change the terms of my signed contract, and I couldn’t affect how my publisher did business. I had no luck getting an agent in those days, so there was no industry ally to help me. I couldn’t change the rules of the game, but I could play it better. I wrote a number of proposals, polished them and strove to make them as marketable in my niche as possible. I sent one as my option to the house, and marked my calendar with the last date of the house’s contractual period to consider the work exclusively. When that date passed without a whisper, I sent the work out to other houses, as was my contractual right. I had sufficient interest in the work that by the time the house got around to making an offer on my option—an infuriating offer, btw—I was sufficiently confident of the proposal’s future to decline it. Two days later, that proposal sold to a Big 6 house. The first book in that series was my first book to hit the USA Today bestseller list and gave me the credential I needed to hire a good agent. Using my anger as a map helped me to change my situation for the better, even when there were few choices available. I used my anger as a map repeatedly in my career, perhaps most significantly in 2012 when I chose to walk away from traditional publishing.
As writers, we are fortunate to be publishing in a time of opportunity. Instead of being committed to following a single path to publication—i.e. through traditional publishers—we can select the route that suits us, or the work, best. This is tremendously liberating. I know writers who have built their careers in indie publishing, writers who began in traditional publishing and have remained there, writers working with small presses, writers publishing with digital-first publishers, and “hybrid” writers who work with some combination of the above. I know writers who have moved from one way of publishing their work to another. This is going to continue as more choices become available. The growing array of possibilities is exciting—but what is more exciting is that each writer can create a publishing solution that best suits his or her work. We can choose the best format for a work, a series, an author brand, or the ideal path for a particular point in our career.
I don’t feel angry that other authors make different choices than I do. On the contrary, I’m excited. And nothing my former houses do or don’t do has the ability to make me as angry as once it did. They haven’t changed, but my situation has: I have both control and responsibility, which is a much less stressful combination. I am a far happier writer these days, and a more prolific one.
What about you? Have you successfully used your anger as a map?