Publishing is not exempt from the ills that plague any other industry. I wish I could express that to every new writer.
A lot of aspiring writers think publishing is somehow different than, say, the auto industry or the food service industry or any other conglomeration of people getting together to sell things or make a living. Where there are people, there are agendas; where there is a gathering of people, there are predators and unhealthy dynamics. Industries are ecosystems, and if one isn’t prepared for some aspects of the food chain, it can get messy indeed.
I was forcibly reminded of this by Kameron Hurley’s essay for Locus about things she wasn’t told.
Being a writer is a solitary business, folks say. But it’s not the writing that’s lonely. It’s navigating the business. It’s spending a decade, or two or three, churning out work, and still never knowing which agent is best at managing foreign rights, or which publishers actually listen to author feedback about covers, or how many books you need to sell, outside of a million, to be considered a ‘‘success.’’
I published my first book in 2011 with Night Shade Books. I knew their reputation as a reader, not an author. They were the publishers of good, weird fiction with great covers. That’s all I knew, and my agent shared no concerns when signing with them.
The day I posted publicly that I’d signed the contract, I received an e-mail from another writer asking if I’d heard that Night Shade wasn’t paying several of their authors and was involved in disputes about selling versions of books they did not have rights to.
Why, no. No, I did not. (Kameron Hurley)
Hurley points out that this secrecy often harms, and it especially harms those new to the business side of writing. I would go so far as to say it invariably does harm, and the depth of the harm is largely a matter of chance*. You’re lucky if you survive the gauntlet with a few bumps and bruises. Of course, if you’re unlucky, a perfect shitstorm can descend, and the impact on your career or even your will to write for publication can be catastrophic.
This particular silence exists for a number of reasons, and in a number of forms. Writers produce the raw material the entire industry runs on, but the arcane royalty system most publishers can’t get rid of for various accounting reasons, added to the expensive nature of quality control (which is what publishers provide, with their art and editing budgets), multiplied by the fact that creative types in our society aren’t supposed to be any good with money and are supposed to suffer for their art anyway (oh, God, go read Julia Cameron, please, I beg you, and DO THE WORK), and the persistent idea that there’s only so much success to go ’round (fanned by the flames of those who want to fleece you with their self-publishing and vanity-press scams promising you a leg up) and and and–well, it all adds up to a large class of isolated professionals ripe for divide-and-conquer, and a mass of fresh flesh coming in the slaughterhouse doors every day. Even if there’s no ill intent on the part of publishers/agents/whoever, the system’s still difficult; it doesn’t have to be actual abuse to be harmful.
Publishing is at the same time a very incestuous little business. Badmouth someone, and they will eventually hear about it. And most people are wired to want to get along with their coworkers/friends/tribe; that natural solidarity means that information gets passed around through informal channels, with all their gaps and holes. Informal channels only work if you’re placed to take advantage of them, and additionally if you have an awareness of what grains of truth and warning to winnow out from innuendo and rumor.
I learned a lot by just keeping my eyes and ears open at a few convention bars, and on a few author loops. The problem is, those loops–and bar conversations–self-select. Again, they’re informal channels, and weighted in favor of those who can afford them. (Conventions, author loops, socializing with fellow writers–these things take time, emotional energy, and not so incidentally, a lot of them take more than a survival wage before you can plumb them.) Not only that, but professionals see a huge number of aspiring and new writers every year. Warning each one of them about the dragons isn’t humanly possible.
There is yet another dimension to this problem. Many new and aspiring writers won’t–I use this word deliberately–educate themselves. They have the means, the brains, and the Internet access, but they won’t visit Writer Beware; they don’t do simple Google searches for blogs that focus on the publishing industry or even professional writers who talk about some of these pitfalls. (These are often the same writers who won’t look up submissions guidelines, but that’s another blog post ENTIRELY.) If I had a quarter for every time I’ve been (implicitly or, more often, explicitly) told “I’m too busy to do that sort of research” by an aspiring writer, I could retire now, buy a house in the country, and take up goatkeeping and ceremonial gardening for fun. I think a lot of aspiring writers have this fuzzy thought that publishing is “different” because writers are “different” somehow, as if to be a writer is the guarantee of being a decent human being. (Hint: it’s NOT.)
I want to state here that I am most emphatically and categorically NOT saying most new and aspiring writers “deserve” to be victimized. I’m saying that I see an awful lot of them thinking they don’t need to do the sort of research they might do before going into some other industry and trying to make a living.
The killing silence is further institutionalized by the predators themselves. They naturally like cushy watering holes, and will seek to arrange them in the most comfortable way possible. Predators don’t have to be individual humans–sick systems love to enshrine themselves, they’re set up to do so. Like corporations, once they reach a certain number of parking spots they will start to maintain themselves like a discrete organism instead of a group of individuals.
Where a lot of this ends up is with those who would want to quietly spread the word about Publisher X not paying, or Editor Y being a harassing piece of dung, or whatnot, find themselves stymied at several points, some institutional and others personal. Or, they want to warn people, but their informal channels of communication only stretch so far. This ends up right where you’d think it would–with young, new, and aspiring writers essentially tossed in with the sharks, where if they escape with just a chunk taken from their surfboard they’re lucky indeed.
Personally, I have often erred on the side of silence and caution for various reasons, none of which seem very good when I weigh that there might be other writers who were harmed by my inaction. The few times I have passed along quiet words of warning have felt inordinately risky, even though I couched those warnings in the most polite and even-handed a way as possible. Strangely enough, each time, the person I was warning would give me an almost-shocked look, and say something to the effect of, “I was really uncomfortable with [insert thing I'd warned about here], anyway.” Which leads me to believe that the problem isn’t so much warning as validation–making it the norm for people to believe their own perceptions of danger.
I have no ringing conclusion for this post, so I’m just going to say, dear Reader, whether you’re a fellow writer or not, what do you think?
* Of course, that chance is often weighted for the usual vulnerability factors in our society, like, oh, being a young female, or an undocumented immigrant, or possessed of a different skin color or sexual preference, etc.