Writing Ramble: On New Writers and Established Hazards

On Saturday, I found David Gaughran on Twitter, and I followed him, and he voiced a bunch of things that concern me – and that should concern every writer. And David is not alone. He’s not barking mad. He’s not some starry-eyed idealist. He just cares. He cares that new authors are coming into an industry that does not have their best interests at heart, an industry that will squeeze that author for every drop of profit, and then not care if they can pay their bills or not.

But that’s the way things are. DavidGaughran is not alone. Joe Konrath, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, and Dean WesleySmith are among a host of established authors who are writing about the rights and wrongs of the industry, who warn of agents who represent their own interests and not the author’s, who warn of publishing companies – and we are talking respected publishing companies, who used to at least appear to look after their writers, not just a fly-by-night scammers; no, we are talking established pillars of publishing taking on the habits of scammers and telling new authors that this is the way business is done, and you have to live with it.

These writers are not trying to scare new writers; they are not “protecting their patch” from newcomers or potential rivals – they don’t need to. These writers are already making a living from their writing, and they’re doing it wholly, or partially, outside traditional channels, away from the path that new writers are told is the only way to go.

As more horror stories emerge about the way writers are being treated by publishing, about contracts that buy the rights of a book for its copyright, but which don’t promise to keep the book in print and available for the life of its copyright, new writers are struggling with confusion and uncertainty.

Are the stories, true? they wonder. Surely that story’s just sour grapes from a writer who wasn’t good enough to be published? Surely the publisher pays fairly. Surely, an established writer with 30 or so books under their belt is making a living from their traditionally published work.

And it doesn’t matter how many stories they hear to the opposite, new writers have attended writers’ groups; they have gone to writing seminars; they have listened to ‘experienced’ and ‘successful’ writers who speak at conferences; they rarely go on-line and take a long, hardlook at the industry from multiple angles. And they usually ignore writers who have chosen the independent path as being failures, and not ‘good enough’ to be picked up by a ‘real’ publisher.

The only problem with this approach is, of course, that most writers in a writing group are after a contract; they want the legitimisation that recognition from an established publisher brings; they don’t feel fit to judge their own work, or that they have the right to say it’s good enough to sell. Most writers who believe enough in themselves to write their book, don’t believe enough in themselves, or their book, to publish it without someone else saying it’s good enough – and that has to stop.

The only reason that publishers get away with contracts that take all of a work’s rights for the lifetime of the contract, the only reason they get away with refusing to keep that work in print for the same time, or for refusing to offer time-limited contracts with a built-in reversion of rights, is that writers don’t believe enough in themselves, or their work, or their readers, to independently publish, or to fight for a fairer contract. Until that changes, the publishing industry has no reason to change.

It is time that writers realised that publishers need writers, much more than writers need someone to do the publishing for them. It’s time writers realised that they can work cooperatively to ensure quality, that the market has enough room for their work, and the works of others, that readers can read faster than writers can write, and one writer is never enough. It is time writers stopped trying to outbid each other in obtaining unfair contracts for limited spaces in a publisher’s release schedule, and it is time that writers stopped supporting the myths that are undermining their ability to make a living from their work.

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