The Desperate and the Impatient

All aspiring writers are desperate to get into print. That’s a given. I certainly was, but that was before the advent of  POD vanity presses, which prey on the "I-want-it-now" impatience that afflicts so many aspiring writers these days. These aspiring writers just don’t want to invest the time and effort that’s a necessary part of shaping their voice, their skills and their careers. Bestselling Tess Gerritsen writes about that today:

What makes a new writer today think he should be immune to that
desperation I felt?  What makes him think this is SUPPOSED to be easy?
What makes him think his very first book is going to get published — or
deserves to get published?

I’ve lost count of how many crappy novels I wrote before I got my break. Tess wrote three unpublished books before she finally sold her fourth. And she knows another writer who wrote seven books before finally selling her eighth.

Think of her desperation, her
hunger, to be published.  It had to be there, driving her, or she would
have just given up.  But she just kept going and wrote manuscript #8. And it sold. Think about that — writing seven books that don’t sell.  Would you
have the persistence to start writing #8?  Do you accept the fact that,
yes, there’s an apprenticeship involved in being a writer, a period of
training that you will be forced to undergo before you finally
understand what the craft is all about?

No, it isn’t easy to get accepted by a publisher, and get paid for
your work.  It’s a lot easier to whip out the checkbook and pay a
vanity press to print your manuscript.

That’s the real danger posed by these vanity presses — besides the emptying of a gullible writer’s bank account. The self-publishing companies are also robbing the writer of the experience that’s required to become a successful writer (and part of that is learning to deal with, and learn from, rejection).  Too many aspiring writers fall for what appears to be  "the easy way" — when, in fact, it’s not — rather than
accept the fact that their books are unpublishable and that they have a lot more work to do on their writing.  They don’t want to work. They want a book now. Or at least the illusion of one. But it’s a career-sabotaging move…not to mention stupid and expensive.

And if you can just pay to get published, where’s the incentive to hone
your craft, to study your own work with a critical eye, to polish and
polish some more?  Where’s the incentive to write books number seven
and eight and nine if each one is just going to mean you have to whip
out that old checkbook again to pay to see yourself in print?

There isn’t any. Sure, there are a handful of people who have found a measure of success self-publishing, but for the vast majority it is a financial sink-hole and a self-destructive mistake.

UPDATE 11-26-2006: Author Mat Johnson blogs about how the lure of vanity presses is ruining African-American fiction.

If I had hit my wall just three, or even two years later, all of those
self-publishing options would have been available to me. As desperate
as I was, I don’t know if I would have said no to the idea. I don’t
think I would have known to. At the time I was working on that book, I
actually considered it good enough to be published. I might have jumped
at any opportunity not to take "No" for an answer.

[…]I saw a generation of black writers fall into this
trap, authors that could have been original voices that added to the
canon, who instead became literary canon fodder. They went pop, blew
up, and then almost instantly started vanishing, their worth dwindling
with their sales.

Sadly, instead of working actively on getting better, many of this crew instead try to falsely justify the merit of their work.

20 thoughts on “The Desperate and the Impatient”

  1. This is a valuable post. It is really about self-betrayal by taking shortcuts. (Fan fiction writers do it too.) My gifted friends, anthropologists Mike and Kathy Gear, wrote thirteen novels before selling their first, and were down to their last $75 when they finally sold one. Now they are award-winning best-sellers. Every one of those failed novels lifted them toward the great success they enjoy today as the authors of an acclaimed North American prehistory series.
    The formative process does not end with a first sale, either. Most successful novelists have a few shelf novels written after they had achieved their breakthrough. I have several.
    These unpublished novels not only hone skills, but also shape the writer’s future career. On my shelf are an unsold contemporary literary novel, a mystery, and a love story. I continue to write stories that don’t sell and to experiment with new forms and genres.
    These “shelf novels” as they are called, are commonplace among successful novelists. Sometimes they can be revamped when a novelist has the skills to see what went wrong; often they can’t. They were part of the apprenticeship that people seriously devoted to a writing life must go through en route to success.

  2. Those “shelf novels” are also a way for writers to find their voice and their genre. My friend who wrote those seven unpublished novels decided to switch genres and try writing a Regency romance instead. (Her seven unpubbed manuscripts were contemporaries.) Suddenly, she says, the writing felt natural. It felt like HER voice. She realized that she should have been writing Regency novels from the start.
    That was the one that sold.

  3. I think another reason why it’s beneficial to do the rounds is that it involves being realistic. Going out on a limb, I suspect that one reason why self-published novels are often bad is that self-publication, at least on the assumption that there must be something wrong with the publishing world because it’s not buying your book, is the act of someone who’s not prepared to consider that reality might sometimes be in plain opposition to their wishes.
    Someone with that attitude is not paying close enough attention to the world to be a good observer and chronicler of it. I have the sense that two-dimensional characters, Mary Sues, wish-fulfillment plots and similar unrealistic scenes are a symptom of the same fallacy as ‘I’m going to self-publish because it’s impossible for new writers to break in’. In both cases, personal wishes have overridden accurate perceptions.
    A person who, on the other hand, works over endless revisions and new novels is a person who’s continually trying to improve, who’s prepared to learn and learn and learn. That makes for better writing, not just because you get more practice, but also because you’re looking at the world with your eyes open.

  4. Self-Publishing Fiction and Craft

    Ive been reading a lot of posts about self-publishing and vanity presses recently and thought it odd how many people defended both so vigorously as a viable option for novelists. They dont seem to consider that fact that the stigma comes…

  5. “What makes a new writer today think he should be immune to that desperation I felt? What makes him think this is SUPPOSED to be easy?”
    I find this a curious attitude. Does desperation and extreme difficulty improve one’s writing? I think not. Talent should be the only requirement. If you have it, you should be accepted as soon as possible. If you don’t, you should be told so, but as politely as possible. Everything else is extraneous and irrelevant.

  6. Skill seems more like it to me. Work hard enough and you’ll have it. This line of work is a craft. Craft can be learned.
    I got spammed by this author:
    On behalf of this outfit: As a rule commercial authors don’t lend their names to this sort of thing. It’s a paid service that does for a fee what is readily availble for nothing but well, sweat. Not a good sign.

  7. Richard Wheeler said:
    “Maybe there is something called talent, but I haven’t come across it.”
    I think I have come across it–but it really just amounts to a head start. Some people seem to have certain skills earlier in life than others. But all the skills can be learned. The problem I see is that if you’re a slow learner and you start very late in life, learning them can take longer than you’ve got left.
    On the other hand… maybe some talent does have an unlearnable aspect to it. One of my favorite quotes about one of my few heroes is this:
    “There are two kinds of geniuses: the ‘ordinary’ and the ‘magicians’. An ordinary genius is a fellow whom you and I would be just as good as, if we were only many times better. There is no mystery as to how his mind works. Once we understand what they’ve done, we feel certain that we, too, could have done it. It is different with the magicians. Even after we understand what they have done it is completely dark. Richard Feynman is a magician of the highest calibre.”
    – Mark Kac

  8. I’ve dredged the original quote out of my ancient brain. It is “Genius is ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration.”
    That fits nicely with Keith’s perceptions.

  9. To Tari: He gave it that name for a reason. He explains it here:
    You can find that page by clicking on the giant link “Niggerati???” on the front page. It’s twice as big as the others.
    Why is it “unfortunate” that he chose a name which might have some connotations to those who are either ignorant of its origin (as I was prior to reading his explanation) or chose to disregard said origin?

  10. Two quotes that back up the divine Dr. Tess for this discussion:
    “Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work. ”
    Stephen King
    And a longer passage from Elizabeth George in her book “Write Away: One Writer’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life.:
    “You WILL be published if you possess three qualities–talent, passion, and discipline.
    “You will PROBABLY be published if you possess two of the three qualities in either combination–either talent and discipline, or passion and discipline.
    “You will LIKELY be published if you possess neither talent nor passion but still have discipline. Just go to the bookstore and pick up a few “notable” titles and you’ll see what I mean.
    “But if all you possess is talent or passion, if all you possess is talent AND passion, you will not be published. The likelihood is that you will never be published. And if by some miracle you are published, it will probably never happen again.”
    Add their opinions to Tess and you have to see that this is a significant opinion. These are THREE major lights in publishing who have enviable careers. Why is it that we don’t want to believe them?
    It disturbs me to see people who want to arrive at the finish line and claim a victory without ever running the race.
    Talent is a good thing. It’s the last thing that we need to worry about when there’s so much butt in chair, fingers on keyboard work to be done before we have a book that can display any talent.

  11. Too G. T. Karber: I am not unaware of the term ‘niggerati’, and as a Black person who does care any form of the n-word, despite your insinuation that I am – and others – are somehow ignorant for finding it objectionable. The N-WORD – the genus of ‘niggerati’ – is indeed a slur, and no form of the word is the least bit ‘regal’, nor will it ever be, no matter how big a font this guy uses and no matter how many intelligensia try to reclaim it.

  12. This kind of pre-supposes that by writing x number of novels, you’ll eventually improve enough to get print published. For how many people is that true? Very few, I imagine. Getting published, as seen by what’s out there, is as much about hitting the market right as writing well. I’m not sure I understand the, I suffered for my art, so why should you have it easy attitude. And I’ve noticed time and again that once an author jumps the fence to published status, they immediately develop amnesia and forget how hungry they were for that status and start lecturing other authors on going slow. For some, self publishing is a viable alternative to waiting until they’re collecting their pension for someone to notice their manuscript. I’ve heard writers complaining that self published writers are stealing their slice of customer pie. Well, it’s a free market and if people are willing to part with their money for a book it’s their choice. We may not think people deserve it, but who are we to stop them? There’s way too much snobbery in the literary world. If people want to self publish, then I say let them. Other craftsmen are allowed to make their products and open a market stall to sell them themselves without the hassle of a middle man or agent, why can’t authors be allowed to do that? If the publishers don’t like the fact that writers won’t be filtered through them any more and that means a loss of power over what people read, then that’s tough. It’s the future, and more power to it.

  13. Wayne wrote: “I’ve heard writers complaining that self published writers are stealing their slice of customer pie.”
    This is typical of the ignorance that thrives among the self-published. In 99% of the cases, the only person buying a self-published author’s book is the author and his family.
    Wayne wrote: “Getting published, as seen by what’s out there, is as much about hitting the market right as writing well.”
    More self-delusion for the self-published: it’s not about writing well, it’s about marketing. No, it’s about writing well, so yes, Wayne, it actually matters if your book sucks. Face reality. Marketing matters but, um, you really do need to know how to write.
    Wayne wrote: “If the publishers don’t like the fact that writers won’t be filtered through them any more and that means a loss of power over what people read, then that’s tough.”
    Again, another typical argument expressed by the painfully ignorant. Wake up, Wayne and smell reality: Publishers don’t give a damn about the self-published. Nobody thinks that publishers are worried about “losing their power over what people read,” it’s a come-on that vanity presses use to prey on the embarrassingly ignorant and pathetically desperate wanna-be writers who are convinced the reason that nobody wants their book is because of some vast NY conspiracy….or that John Grisham is terrified that he might lose some book sales. Here’s the truth: NOBODY IS BUYING THE POD SHIT. NOBODY. THE POD PUBS MAKE THEIR MONEY OFF THE “AUTHORS” !!
    Frankly, Wayne, the ignorance expressed in your comment is exactly the kind of thing the vanity presses prey upon.


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