Ah, technology. It makes possible so many wonderful things. And so many terrible things. And so many mediocre things. And so many books.
Today, anybody can write and publish a book, so everybody does. Far more published authors inhabit the world now than ever before, and most of them are independents–indie authors. They don’t need no stinking traditional publishers. By vanity press, print-on-demand publisher, or online tool, they fearlessly bring their creations to life. How great is that?
Once upon a time, it took a lot of work to achieve publication. Self-publishing is nothing new, but the vast majority of books were brought forth by publishing companies. The occasional genius notwithstanding, most writers suffered under this system, spending years collecting rejection slips before making a sale. It hurt, and often the hurt never ended. Not every writer entered the paradise of publication. Most suffered in the hell of endless rejection.
But that wasn’t all bad. Because through those long years of failure, writers gained experience, honed their craft, grew from novice to expert. They didn’t get published. They became publishable. And then they were rewarded.
Today’s indie writer may think she’s got it good, because she can skip all that, but actually she doesn’t. Because it’s horribly tempting to skip all that. It’s not uncommon to hear an indie ask, “I’ve just finished my first novel. How do I get it published?” The occasional genius aside, the answer ought to be: “Please don’t.”
Disclaimer time. I’m not trying to insult indie writers. Conceiving and writing a book is no small feat. Beyond that, it takes a lot of courage to send it out into the world for people to read. Anyone who gets that far deserves respect and encouragement, and they definitely have mine.
But let’s face it: nobody is born capable of writing great literature. Some people have greater aptitude for writing than others, but even they learn through years of reading and writing. I’ve never heard of a four-year-old writing a deathless novel, and neither have you. Very few 20-year-olds have done so, for that matter. Writing is a skill that must be learned, practiced, improved. And that takes time.
Consider me. I spent years writing, principally science fiction short stories. I never sold one, although near the end of those years I got a few words of encouragement from editors, including one from Shawna McCarthy at Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. She rejected my story, but told me I had promise. Oh, that felt great! I’d never enjoyed a rejection so much. I wrote one mystery almost-novel after that. (Almost because it was too short for a novel.) I then wrote an SF novel, a fantasy novel, and two mystery novels. My SF novel almost found an agent, except she was going out of business. Rats!
By this time, I think I was very close to publishability. I hadn’t hit the big time yet, but my writing was starting to get the attention of at least a few editors and agents. And then disaster struck: I landed a contract with a con artist claiming to be an agent. I won’t go into details now. Suffice it to say that I stopped writing fiction for ten years.
Ten years later, I pulled myself out of the writing doldrums and wrote my first Howard County mystery, The Fibonacci Murders. By then, the indie revolution was in full swing, and my wife Kathleen and I had started our own publishing company. So we published it. It was a pretty easy sale, even though Kathleen didn’t let me off easy. She wields a mean editorial pen. Since that time, I’ve written two more novels in the series–True Death which we also published, and Ice on the Bay which we hope to have out by the end of the year. I’ve also written an SF/humor novel, Space Operatic, which is with some beta readers now, and started two more novels: Howard County mystery #4 and a crime/humor novel.
Now here’s the thing: In reviewing my recent work, I find that only HCM4 and my crime/humor novel are equal in quality to the last things I wrote before my ten year hiatus. Those dead years set me back, and I only got back up to speed by writing several more novels.
Think about that, all you indie writers. Scads of short stories and five novels to almost become publishable, then a decade without practice, then three more novels to regain my skill. And someone who has just finished their first novel wants to publish it?
It’s been said that a writer must write a million words to become a good writer. That’s ten 100,000 word novels. The exact number isn’t important, though. The point is practice, practice, practice. The traditional publishing model forced most writers to practice. The indie model does not. Which means, fellow indies, we must force the practice on ourselves.
I can see a possible new paradigm emerging here. We publish book after book. Some of us pay attention to our writing, commit to learning, and over time get better and better. The trail of books we leave behind us is public testimony to our development as writers. Scholars might appreciate that someday, but meanwhile readers have to wade through piles of trash before they find one of us emerging from it with a gem.
The only question is, how many readers have the patience for that? Curious, isn’t it: before, the writers had to have patience, and the readers got instant gratification. Now it’s the other way ’round. Hmmm.