There’s been a lot of online debate lately about the benefits of self-publishing vs. traditional publishing. Some of the best summary of that debate can be found at Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds blog, and I’ve followed it with interest but haven’t participated much because most of the time it doesn’t look like a debate so much as a food fight or a shit flinging frenzy in the monkey house. Chuck is a braver pen monkey than I. He doesn’t mind putting on the Hazmat suit and venturing in there on a regular basis.
But I might finally have something to contribute.
A radical idea.
A guiding light.
A pole star by which the intrepid up-and-coming author might steer his or her ship.
It’s great that authors have so many options these days in the digital marketplace, but it can be difficult to navigate the world of publishing and I think most writers will find themselves circling around certain questions as they progress.
Should I self publish? Should I seek an agent? Should I submit to small presses? Should I sign with this particular agent or press? Should I blog? Should I write short stories? Novellas? Should I write this idea or that?
Most of the people arguing about Kindle Direct Publishing vs. Gatekeepers, most of the folks trying to interpret Hugh Howey’s author earnings charts like some kind of ink blot derived from a printout of a photo of Jesus’s face descried in the water stain on the ceiling that is Amazon’s Author Central ratings…they’re framing all of the above questions in relation to the Big Question:
Will I make more money if I do X?
Sure, money is important if you aspire to do something professionally. For me writing is a second job that I put a lot of hours into. Hours away from my family and friends. Hours that could be spent playing guitar or going to the dojo, or watching movies. Of course I want it to pay off in the long run, and it’s starting to.
But I suggest that a better Big Question for writers is:
Will it help me up my game?
Take that as your pole star.
Will writing this book or that book next help me up my game?
Will querying agents who will only look at the first five pages of my novel force me to scrutinize those pages and hone them into razor sharp, mirror polished steel? Hell yes, that’s a trial worth engaging in because it will force you to up your game.
Will clicking PUBLISH on Amazon temper your work in the same fire? Ehhh….
Will working with a great editor who had to earn his job with a publisher push me to up my game? Yes.
Will writing short stories or tweets or blog posts help me to hone my craft and up my game? Only you can answer this for yourself, but asking the question might affect your approach to such endeavors.
Will self-publishing and getting my work in front of people who can critique it in reviews help me to up my game? Maybe.
You have to decide how much of your growth you want to do in public, right?
If you are looking to paying customers to provide the pressure that will turn coal into a diamond, you’re also leaving a public trail of your development. I guess any published author who continues to work at improving their craft is also growing up in front of an audience, but I believe that “gate keepers” are valuable because in the early stages of your career when you don’t have a lot of perspective on your own work, it’s kind of cool that the rejections and critiques are kept between you and an agent or editor who knows better.
I’m aware that bad books do get published by big houses, but I also feel sure that Hugh Howey’s Wool would have been a success no matter how it was published because it’s a damned fine story by a writer who had honed his craft before putting it out there.
If you want to be a pro, you should develop yourself before you sell yourself.
Even in the little choices throughout the day, you can keep asking this question. There’s a place for marketing and for educating yourself about the marketplace, but if you have twenty minutes of reading time available to you on a busy day, you might ask yourself what it’s best spent on. Will reading your Facebook or Twitter feed and related links help you to up your game? How about reading a few pages of a great book?
I have musician friends who practice non-stop to perfect their technique, even when they have no intention of gigging, because mastering music is a heroic quest to them. Others may find that the experience of playing in front of people is something they have to force themselves to do because it develops different skills and helps them to master their nerves under pressure.
I remember my Ear Training teacher at Berklee, an old jazz cat, laying this hard-ass lecture on us:
(Morgan Freeman voice)
“You can go on ahead and make music without practicing. Sure. Go on and do it for the love. But don’t book a gig and subject the general public to your lack of musicianship. Don’t make those poor people paying their hard earned cash for a good time on a Saturday night suffer through your not giving a shit about being in tune. That’s just wrong.”
I know this ain’t Medicine or Law and you don’t need credentials to practice an art, but looking at the writing community, I’m often reminded of the martial arts. My six-year-old has been doing karate for almost a year now, and he’s somewhat motivated by the color of his belt. He’ll also tell you that he knows most of the kicks and punches already. And yeah, he “knows” them, but all of the adult black belts I’ve met will tell you that learning the full range of techniques and proving that you can execute them under pressure is just the beginning. When I took my first black belt test I was told that a black belt is kind of like a Bachelor’s degree. It’s a starting point, a basic competence that says you’re ready to embark on the real work of refining your technique and developing your own unique strengths.
I suggest that more writers should view getting published in those terms. A professional editor, publisher, or agent is a kind of sensei. They’ve seen a lot of red belts who thought they were ready for the tournament get the shit kicked out of them. There’s something to be said for finding a sensei who will push you beyond your comfort zone into a new range where you don’t know if you can meet the challenge. There’s something to be said for the day when your sensei tells you you’re ready to go out there and do it for real, and that it doesn’t mean you’re perfect or finished. Because it’s never time to rest on the laurels of your belt color, or your publishing contract, or your audience. It’s just time to keep working.
Keep asking: Will this help me level up? Will this choice challenge and refine me? Is it for my ego or for my craft?