Why the Freed Tiger Sings
This is Sarah and I have a message for my friends and colleagues still trapped in and only in Traditional Publishing:
First of all, that moist stuff on the back of your neck? I don’t care how often they tell you that, but that ain’t no gentle rain.
Look, people, you might choose to close your eyes, put your fingers in your ears, and believe that your publishers are your friends. They’re not.
Oh, okay, perhaps a small exception can be made for Baen books, a small family run company that treats its authors like family. The others?
They’ve made it very clear what you are. Widgets. Another can of beans. Burn your career (snap of fingers.) No skin off their noses. There are another ten saps, patsies, writers just like you in line waiting to break in.
I learned this lesson in 2003.
I first started to write when I came to the US in '85. It’s not the publishing industry’s fault I didn’t make it in earlier. Oh, okay, fine, maybe it is a little, as barriers to entry had accumulated and the preferred method of selling by the time I broke in was to meet the editor and pitch in person. It took me to '98 to be able to do so. One of the books (oh, heck, Darkship Thieves) I’d later publish had gone in the drawer by then because my agent (which I’d acquired by then, the first of four) didn’t want to send it out.
So in '98 I pitched my Shakespeare trilogy on proposal. The first came out October 2001.
You might have heard of the little contretemps a month before. I don’t know if you remember what you were doing then. I do. I was trying to finish the third book in the series only I was so anxious I could only work in front of the TV, with the news on.
No one was buying books. Some people might have been reading old favorites for comfort.
Of course the publishing industry knew this, right? I mean, had to. They are in NYC.
Of course – considering all the paeans we hear to how caring, how wonderful traditional publishing houses are – publishers accounted for this, and gave all those writers who were new and hadn’t sold any so well another chance, right?
Are you kidding me? Baby, Cold Equations and its strict calculations of mass and fuel didn’t have anything on the publishing industry. It had taken me almost twenty years to break in, hand over hand from pays in copies to penny mags, to finally professional shorts, to going to a workshop and selling my novel, to—
But you see, my book didn’t even get unpacked in most stores. It spent the entire time in a closet. I know. I tried to do drive by signings. And then it went back.
And at the 2003 World Fantasy, my editor attempted to fire me. She had fired most of the people who came in that year by then. I’ve never seen so many crying people, not even at my grandfather’s funeral.
Tried to fire me? Well, I refused to say fired, but that’s a story for another day. For months after World Fantasy I thought I was fired, and that all the years of working and improving my craft meant nothing. That I’d done it all for nothing, because events outside my control could kill my career forever.
Hey, readers, did you like Darkship Thieves? Consider I already had it in the drawer at that time. Imagine Baen hadn’t picked me up, and Berkley hadn’t decided they didn’t want to be left behind. You’d never have read it.
Now think of all those Darkship Thieves, or perhaps better books, languishing in drawers.
Hey, you know who allows writers to put their work up, to let readers decide what they want to read?
Oh, that’s right, Amazon does.
Which is why SFWA is so grateful to Amazon hates Amazon with the fire of a thousand suns.
Wait, what? Isn’t SFWA supposed to be a writers organization?
Ah! Fooled you, did they?
They’re not really, you know? They’re an organization of the establishment and their main function is to keep the establishment going without change. Otherwise, explain to me letter the first, and letter the second, both supporting a publisher known for its numerous dirty tricks, while berating the people who would set them free. (Or to quote my colleague Cedar Sanderson, F%$K me, SFWA, One More Time.
Oh, wait, I can explain it. In a novel (Revolt in 2100 unless it’s the Benadryl speaking) Heinlein talks about a tiger who is set free but who still paces in the confines of imaginary bars.
Oh, yes, here it is:
"Please understand me-it is easy to be free when you have been brought up in freedom, it is not easy otherwise. A zoo tiger, escaped, will often slink back into the peace and security of his bars. If he can't get back, they tell me he will pace back and forth within the limits of bars that are no longer there. The human mind is a tremendously complex thing; it has compartments in it that its owner himself does not suspect. I had thought that I had given my mind a thorough housecleaning already and had rid it of all the dirty superstitions I had been brought up to believe. I was learning that the 'housecleaning' had been no more than a matter of sweeping the dirt under the rugs-it would be years before the cleansing would be complete, before the clean air of reason blew through every room. "
Right now SFWA and those of you who agree with SFWA are that tiger. You’ve grown so used to and so comfy in your prison – treated like widgets, forced to do more and more of your publicity and even your editing, all for the princely fraction of profit you get of your books, and even in that scammed – that you’re afraid of the bars going down. You’re afraid of being free. Freedom is scary and cold. Or as the ever loving Grauniad El Guardian tells us self-publishing is a reactionary activity and antithetical to community.
Oh sure, I have more colleagues I cooperate with, help and encourage than I did when I was strictly traditional, because there are no publishers playing mind games, and this is no longer a zero sum business. But never mind that. It’s “anti-community” and you’re afraid of dying alone in the dark with no one to close your eyes. (You are aware, right, that your publisher would steal the sesterce from your eyes before you cooled. Never mind.)
Which brings us to my second point: You’re free. You’re not dependent on anyone to get your stories in front of the reading public. Whatever you want to imagine the bars are gone.
Get used to the scary now. Once you get over your fear you’ll realize you have control – real control not just doing all the work and being blamed for others’ mistakes and even for national tragedies – over your career for the first time in your life.
You’re free. Surely you can get out of that cage at the computer and walk into your own career.
Do try. You’re letting the writer side down.
Even if you never came up against the “Writers are widgets” mentality, you are bound to, sooner or later. Because you see, in traditional publishing, you have no power. The publishers have all the power When things get pinched, you’re out of there. They think they can replace you just like that.
Indie publishing is scary, but it’s also yours. You do it, you take responsibility. You reap the rewards.
I understand that freed slaves walked as far away as they could from their place of captivity, just in case someone changed his/her mind and enslaved them again. Surely you can at least stop beating the companies that allow indie publishing long enough to start your own career. All it requires is that you walk the road to freedom in your own mind.
Forget the Stockholm syndrome. You’re free. Act like it.
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