Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Power of Story

There’s a powerful story at the heart of this holiday season for the Christian world—and no, it doesn’t involve a charitable trespasser or a bioluminescent proboscis.

Setting aside distractions, like the claim that the event we celebrate didn’t actually occur when we celebrate it, the Nativity—also called the greatest story ever told—is, in fact, the most common story ever told. Until the dystopian clone factories open, I can say with absolute confidence that all of us have experienced this story as one of the major characters. And many of us have experienced this story as one of the other two main characters.

What is remarkable, as a writer, is to consider the way in which this story transformed the most common of events into something of world-changing—and some would say eternal—significance that has echoed through two millennia and counting without losing its potency.

Many of us simply hope someone will notice our stories. And none of us can predict which of the stories now being told will still be told in a hundred or a thousand years. But there are stories that resonate across time and space, illuminating the very core of who we are or hope to be.

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Jack of all Trades, Master of None

For the vast majority of our history as a species, humans were content to live in relatively small groups and spend their time hunting and gathering—and no wonder: most hunter-gatherers work about twenty hours a week to get their living. Yet in the last 10,000-year blink of the evolutionary eye we suddenly have cities and civilizations exploding all over the planet. The culprit, according to a number of anthropologists, is the specialization made possible by agricultural surpluses.

The power of specialization is obvious to every writer who dreams of walking away from the oppression of the day job and devoting his or her full-time to the craft. Imagine the all books we could write—perhaps two or three a year—if we weren’t limited to an hour or two of writing each day.

If you think artisan publishing offers a shortcut to becoming a full-time writer, I have bad news for you: artisan publishing is actually a shortcut to becoming a full-time publisher.

The difference between a writer who is published and a publisher who writes begins with the contrast between the passive phrase, “a writer who is published,” and the active phrase, “a publisher who writes.” One of the reasons for the traditional separation between authors and publishers is that it allows each partner to specialize: the writer delivers a finished manuscript and then the publisher goes to work.

There’s so much to do as an artisan publisher that you can’t afford to specialize. Serious writers understand how much time and effort it takes to go from idea to finished manuscript. Publishers understand how much time and effort it takes to go from finish manuscript to book for sale. You’ve got to be a generalist if you’re going to do everything that needs to be done between the idea and the book. Even if you engage freelance editors and designers you still need to understand enough of what they do to be able to review and approve their work.

But it’s worse than that. You actually need to become a serial specialist. Many of the nontrivial tasks—like writing and design—require focus and skill. And yet just as you’re getting the hang of it you need to move on to something else. In practice this means you’re constantly relearning things. If you feel like you’re being pulled in too many different directions when you try to write now, you’ll find artisan publishing more frustrating than fulfilling.

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Short-circuiting the Great Chain of Rejection

One of the down-sides of becoming an artisan publisher is that you must forego the luxury of getting rejected by agents and editors.

“A luxury?” you sputter.

Yes. Instead of the gentle buffeting you’ll receive from publishing professionals, who respond with a polite, but vague, “it’s not a good fit for us,” you’ll get slapped around by readers who have no qualms about telling the world they think your book is a piece of crap.

As hard as it may be to believe, rejections from agents and editors offer several layers of comfort:

  • They readily acknowledge their opinions are subjective and that perhaps someone else will like it.
  • There’s always the opportunity to revise: when you submit a manuscript to an agent or editor, you do so knowing they will generally ask for revisions.
  • Agents and editors are always open to future submissions. Even if the piece you’re shopping now isn’t right for them perhaps your next one will be.

Compared to that, readers have no mercy.

  • Most readers believe their opinions are objective, or at least representative: if they didn’t like your book, why would anyone else.
  • Readers expect a finished product. If they don’t like your first version, they’re not going to read your book a second time no matter how much you revise it.
  • Readers hold grudges. If they hate one book, they’ll hate the rest sight-unseen.

If you’ve turned to artisan publishing because you’re tired of rejection you’ve come to the wrong place. Electronic publishing does let you bypass the gatekeepers who in the past might have kept you out of the market altogether. But the price for that access is that you also bypass the safety net those gatekeepers provide. If you’re not careful, you open yourself up to getting rejected for everything from typos and grammar errors to characters and stories that don’t resonate with readers.

Offering your work directly to readers requires more courage and a thicker skin than letting a publisher bring out your book. If you have a publisher and your book fails in the marketplace, you can always take consolation—whether it’s true or not—in blaming them. If you publish your own work, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself.

If you can listen to readers rant that your loathsome book defiled the electrons used to store and transmit it and that the author should be hunted down and forbidden from ever putting pen to paper, and then return to your writing with full confidence and vigor you’ve got what it takes to become an artisan publisher.

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A Propper Comeuppance

When you began to believe your writing might actually be good enough to be published, you were determined to do everything right: you read writing books and blogs, went to conferences, found a critique group, polished your novel, researched agents, and sent the perfect query letter. And in return you got nothing but silence punctuated by the occasional rejection.

You did everything right and you weren’t asking for special treatment, so why didn’t you get any kind of positive response?

Even if you understand publishing is subjective, as time, rejections, and silence wear away your enthusiasm, it’s hard not to suspect agents and editors of conspiring to suppress your genius or being willfully ignorant.

Vengeance and vindication make a powerful motivational cocktail. Like many intoxicating substances, a little might help but a lot is a recipe for trouble: a desire for vindication may be good if it motivates you to finish and polish your project but leaping into artisan publishing because you’re going to show all those shortsighted publishing professionals how wrong they were is a recipe for frustration and failure.

To begin with, the people who rejected or ignored you will probably never know that your project has been published because there are simply too many things being published for anyone to keep track of it all. Should they hear of your project they will likely give it little or no notice: agents and editors are looking for new material to sell.

The only thing guaranteed to get the attention of the gatekeepers is to release a book whose sales go off the charts. But even that won’t convince an agent or editor she was wrong. Beyond subjectivity, there’s so much serendipity in the process of producing and selling a book that having different people involved could produce wildly differing results: a different agent—your dream agent—might have sold the project to a different editor whose sensibilities might have colored the story just enough to miss striking a popular chord.

At a practical level, the slow, laborious path of artisan publishing means that you must invest a tremendous amount of work and patience into something where the odds of it making a big enough splash in the market to cause the gatekeepers even a twinge of regret are extremely small.

But the deeper truth is that artisan publishing is about love and devotion, which makes it fundamentally ill-suited for revenge.

Image: Simon Howden /