Tips for Surviving Professionally in a Time of Catastrophic Change
For years now, my friend Kevin J. Anderson has been trying to convince me to take the Superstars Writing Seminar. I’ve sort of evaded the matter, mostly because I don’t do well in writing workshops in general. Yes, I’ve taken a lot of them, but they’re not my favorite thing in the world. Usually, at least in the old model of publishing, when people tried to convince me that I should do things in a certain way, it was either something I couldn’t do and still be me – like, writing a corridors-of-power thriller set in DC, say – or something that didn’t work very well for my own peculiar style and approach.
I’m not saying that no writing workshop ever helped me. The Oregon Coast Professional Writers Workshop not only allowed me to make my first sale (I met the editor there) but opened my eyes to a lot of things that were going on in the field. Later, the workshop – by the same people – on indie publishing and how to navigate it arguably allowed me to start transitioning from the old world to the new.
What I am saying, though, is that most of the workshops aimed at making someone a “mega bestseller” or “help him or her get ahead” in the world, unless they were selling access were a waste of time. At least that’s how it was in the old days. Because so much of the break-out and breakthrough had to do with whom you knew and whom you impressed (though granted, there had to be a level of competency there) if a workshop wasn’t introducing you to the people you needed to advance, it wasn’t doing much of anything.
Also, I looked at the authors featured in the program, and I knew the history of a few of them and I thought either their paths were so individual they couldn’t be replicated, or else they depended too much on models past and could not be followed now.
So I evaded Kevin’s push. Except this year the Seminar was in the city I live in, and Kevin got very persuasive. So, in between dealing with a dead freezer, I sat in on what lectures I could.
Yes, most of the authors are still telling stories of how they came up through the old model. But you sit there, and you think through things, and you realize it has an application in the New World of Publishing as well.
For instance, Joan Johnston’s talk about how she broke in – more on that later – was definitely a method that won’t work now. However, her story of putting letters to the readers at the end of every book talking about her other series and other books made me perk up my ears.
After all, we need to make a personal connection. Is that not the whole point? For at least five years now, my editors have been telling me to blog, both here and on my site, to twitter, to Facebook, to “build community” and to establish a personal connection to the readers.
To the extent those work, they’re often the only publicity a writer has and they’re very much a thing of the new media. Peter Grant’s Take the Star Road definitely owes part of its very good showing to the fact that Peter runs a popular blog and has a lot of blogging friends. (Yes, yours truly included.)
But I thought I was being so daring putting links to all my other works at the end of my indie published stories – and most of my colleagues don’t even do that. Instead, for very little more cost (time is cost) I could add a couple hundred words about how story x came to be written, how I felt about it then, how I feel about it now, and how the reader who liked it might enjoy story y, z or p.
It’s a brilliant strategy, particularly for someone like me whose back list extends 20 years, through several changes of style and a couple of changes of political orientation. (Nothing extreme. I was always anti-Marxist. But when I was young I was often a starry-eyed idealist with strange delusions about what would work in the real world.)
It not only establishes a connection with the customers I already have – i.e. the fans-of-Hoyt and the completists (yes, there are some) -- who buy the old stuff out of curiosity, but also with new fans who might find my story-behind-the-story interesting, or my point of view refreshing and try another story, and another.
So, when your field is caught up in catastrophic change, to distinguish yourself, often you need to do something more. It’s amazing how often that “something more” is a personal connection with the customer, whatever form that takes in your field. For instance, given two identically priced restaurants, my family and I will drive the extra mile to go to the one where the servers remember our name and pause to talk to us. Since catastrophic changes often means casualties particularly amid the struggling-to-establish-oneself ranks, being able to get that edge can be the difference between surviving and going under.
Think of novel ways to ingratiate yourself. It could be that letter, at the end of a book, telling everyone how you wrote the story two days after giving birth. This gives a fan a chance to brag of insider knowledge at a meeting of fans, and it makes others hear your name and consider you. It could also be fun giveaways that aren’t particularly expensive. Anything that makes a connection and convinces someone else to do your publicity for you. For a while there were very expensive “contests” authors ran -- I don’t know if they still go on -- for things like ipads and kindles. I also don’t know how much they help, since I knew tons of people just entered these contests but didn’t read the authors. And I don’t think in the long run it’s needed. I think making the connection and giving your “true-fans” – the ones who’ll evangelize – is as important and perhaps more effective. T-shirts or even signed post cards are things fans can treasure forever. Being a zany character in your book seems to make fans very happy. It’s all about the connection. How does that apply in your field? (For instance, my dad had a wine named for him at his favorite restaurant. Of course he would take the family there every chance he got, as well as out of town friends, acquaintances and people who gave him half a chance to tell them about it.)
Then I listened to James A. Owen's story of how he broke in. I’m not going to reproduce his talk, which is called “Drawing Dragons.” In the same way I’m not going to talk of the other authors’ break-in stories. Tracy Hickman’s echoed both James A. Owen’s and Joan Johnston’s.
I’m just going to say these people all took extraordinary risks: they worked while on their last dime, when the lights might go out; they made appointments with editors who didn’t know them from Adam; they believed in their work and stuck it out for bigger advances/better terms, even when the alternative was upsetting the editor and never publishing.
I don’t know these writers’ political affiliation, but watching these talks gave me a hint of why – besides discrimination, and yes, there has been that -- anyone who is even on the fringes of the field has heard enough to be sure that in traditional publishing liberals have, in general, done better than conservatives.
To the extent not all of it is explained by discrimination, there is a different attitude. All I could think listening to the talks of the risks these people took was “I could never put my husband and family through that” and “I could never take that much of a financial risk.” But those financial risks, and yes, putting your family through that, were often what was needed to stand out in traditional publishing.
In the new world? I think some of it still applies. As much as we conservatives/libertarians are more likely to be family people and to be afraid of imposing our weight into the world, we also have read enough to know that in writing and in every other field, sometimes you have to gamble it all to get a good enough pay off. And, hey, if you fail you can always start again.
Perhaps one of the leveling effects of catastrophic change in artistic fields is that when everything is changing fast there is no security anywhere. While it was always true that you could “do everything right” and get nowhere, before there was the illusion of a “safe path to success.” Of course, the only really safe path was gone long before I came on the scene. But I didn’t know that, and neither did anyone else. We had this myth-like version of breaking in, writing for increasingly better publications, building your readership, eventually becoming a bestseller. In fact, it worked not at all like that – if you didn’t “break out” on your first three books and impress the publishers with your daring and confidence, you were out in the cold.
This applied before catastrophic change came to publishing, but it applies to catastrophic change in publishing and other fields as well: Stay informed. Read/talk to/listen to other people in the field. This is much easier in the age of blogging, of course, than it was in pre-history when I broke in.
You are not wedded to one single path, one single way to do things. You can improvise as you go along, and the results are unlikely to be forever.
You might be a conservative in habits; you might crave security. There’s not likely to be much security for anyone in the middle of technology changing our way of life so drastically. The only security is likely to come from staying ahead of the tumbles and changes. And that comes from staying informed, realizing when things have changed or are about to change, and making the next move before the rug is yanked from under you.
Oh, yeah, and if I have the money next year, I will take the Superstars Writing Seminar. I will do it with notebook and pen. And I’ll try to adapt what I hear, even what is about the old model, to ways to stay ahead of the earthquake.
Something old can be made new. And I’m not about to make a breezy comment that ends in blue.