In the great trad vs. indie debate, there’s an annoying chorus rising on the indie side. Many authors seem to think they have a god-given right to be published. “I worked hard. I write better than [insert disliked writer or celebrity here]. It’s not fair!”
Well, Corky, I’m about to pass on one of the best pieces of advice someone gave me when I was young: Never start a land war in Asia. Since that’s not relevant to today’s topic, I’ll also pass on this valuable nugget of wisdom: “Fair” and “should” have nothing to do with reality.
In fact, the way I heard it originally, “fair” and “should” walked off into the woods one day holding hands. They were struck by lighting and died.”
The point is that the world is not fair. Never has been. Never will be. That’s not to say you shouldn’t try to be fair. Fairness is an aspiration. It’s why we have laws and moral codes and why we keep revamping them over time. Fair and should are where we need to be pointed. They do not reflect reality.
The fact is an agent is under no obligation to read your work. He or she is looking to make money. That’s the whole point of becoming an agent. A publisher is under no obligation to buy your work. They, too, have a business to run. Now, an argument could be made that the Big Five is running its collective business into the ground, but that’s neither here nor there. In the beginning, the only one with a vested interest in your manuscript is you. Not an agent. Not an editor. Not even the buying public. If you go straight to them, they will decide if you’re worth their time. And reading a book takes time.
That is not to say you shouldn’t try. An unwritten, unsubmitted, or unpublished novel will not go anywhere. But nobody owes you a chance. Nobody owes Stephen King a chance. He just made the most of the one he was given. On the other hand, if his wife had never fished Carrie out of the trashcan, you’d have never heard of him. Not likely, anyway. And his experiment with being Richard Bachmann shows that he might have faced a struggle. As King puts it, Bachman sold 10,000 copies of Thinner – respectable, but hardly an NYT bestseller. Steve King sold several times that many copies of the same novel. And keep in mind that “Bachman” had co-conspirators in King’s editors and agent. Misery could have become Bachman’s breakout novel.
Let us remember what the biggest component of success is: Luck. Pure, unadulterated luck. Even if you should go trad, get an agent, sell to a big publisher, and have all the marketing muscle in the world behind it, readers can still look at your work and go, “Meh.”
“But… But… But… Hugh Howey! Amanda Hocking! Dean Wesley Smith!”
Okay, let’s look at Dean Wesley Smith first. He went independent already having a reputation and the ability to write over 100,000 words a month. That’s just combining short stories he writes for Smith’s Monthly and other work. It does not include his blog, his workshops, or work for hire. Smith is a hypergraphic freak of nature who makes Nora Roberts look like a slacker. They exist. I envy them.
But Amanda Hocking and Hugh Howey. They did a lot of work to raise their profile, but both, Howey in particular, could easily have been ignored by the buying public they courted. They worked hard, and they got lucky. You do have to make some of your own luck, but if your work is esoteric or covers tired ground or, let’s face that elephant in the room, sucks, all the hand selling and interaction with readers is not going to do you any good. And even if it is good, innovative… Hell, you could be positively brilliant, and all that comes when you check your Amazon numbers or look at your royalty statements is the sound of crickets.
Probably the moment that set me off on this topic was when I decided independently publish Second Hand Goods. My editor from the original intended publisher said, “That novel deserved to be published.”
Of course, one should learn to graciously take the compliment. I did not say anything to him, but a few people got to hear me rant, “‘Deserves to be published?’ No novel ‘deserves to be published.’ It’s all luck!”
Maybe that’s why I don’t flog the Kepler novels or Road Rules harder. They’re done. I’m satisfied with them. They’re out there for people to find. And besides, crime fiction readers are a little harder to lure. (Hence my forays into science fiction. It’s fun to build a spec fic following!) I stand by my work. I don’t regret publishing them myself.
But nobody owes me a read. If they don’t owe James Patterson a read, why should anyone “owe” anyone else?