Is Anybody Out There?

[August 2011] NECon has come and gone for another year. It was a mix of the old and the new. Old faces and new. Familiar activities and new ones. Similar programming topics and contemporary ones. One thing I noticed with most of the panels—and I’ve observed this at other conventions as well—is that, for the most part, the panelists have all been around the block a time or two and have ended up in general agreement about most aspects of the business.

The organizers challenged this by having a panel where the people sitting to the left of the moderator took one side of the debate and those sitting on the right took the other. Then, halfway through the hour, the two groups had to switch sides. However, the concept for the panel collapsed on itself as some people found it impossible to support a view that was so fundamentally different from their own. In the end, the group met in the middle and, once again, everyone agreed. I only attended one panel where people argued with each other. That was fun—not simply because people disagreed, but because people agreed that there was room for differing opinions.

I’ve been contributing essays to this community for over six years now. Once a month I try to come up with an idea that’s worth expressing. Often, I admit that I don’t really have a point or a take-home lesson, but there’s something that I want to ruminate over and I use this blog to hear myself talk. Other times, I do have opinions or advice that I want to share. I remember Mort Castle’s response when I pitched an article titled “Six Marketing Myths” for the second edition of On Writing Horror. He agreed that there was a need for an article that attempted to debunk what he called “the great rise in bullshitskayay thanks to Internet.” Every now and then, I find some bullshitskayay to expose. Caveat scriptor.

However, I’ve come to believe that I’m preaching to the choir. We veterans (and some of us are more veteran than others) agree on many things: Don’t give away your work. Payment in exposure is a fantasy. Royalty only anthologies might earn you the price of a postage stamp—if you’re really lucky. Paying someone to review your work (here’s an especially egregious example revealed last week by Nick Kaufmann) is a terrible idea; in fact, paying anyone to do much of anything pertaining to your writing is probably a bad idea. Having your brother-in-law’s cousin’s kid sister design the cover for your book will probably make you a laughing stock. The list goes on and on. There are tons of websites (including this one) and books out there chock full of useful, helpful, legitimate advice aimed at novice writers.

But will they listen? For the most part—and, though I’ve held this opinion for a while, it’s still pretty discouraging—no. New writers are so desperate to be published that they are easily duped into believing that, despite all evidence to the contrary, something that has been shown not to work by other writers doesn’t apply to them. Self-publishing their first, unedited novel might be a bad idea for everyone else, but they’re going to be the exception to the rule. That anthology that’s being slapped together by someone who’s never published professionally in his brief career is going to sell gangbusters, so getting paid up front isn’t a big deal. We’re going to be rolling in royalties.

Those who don’t learn from history are, in fact, doomed to repeat the same mistakes. I know how the temptation of the possibility of publication can temporarily blind a person. I remember talking with my wife about an offer of representation from an agent for my first novel. After all, the agent’s request for $250 for office expenses didn’t seem all that unreasonable. In the back of my mind, I knew there was a chance it was a scam (more than a chance, in fact. A certainty.) but it wasn’t so much money to risk and the potential benefits? Well, that’s the honey in the trap, isn’t it? Once I started thinking rationally and got past the dizzying possibility that I could have a book out in the world with my name on the cover, I came to my senses. No blood was spilled, no money wasted.

I know the counter-argument. If everyone always does the same thing the same way, innovation will be stifled. I’m not talking about not thinking outside the box. This is a new era in publishing, and some of the old ways are changing. A few years ago, the thought of putting up your backlist of novels for $2 or $3 a pop seemed ludicrous, but I know of at least a few people who are making a decent income thanks to e-publishing. I’m talking about falling victim to the same scams that keep reappearing in different forms. How old is the pyramid scam in business—and yet people are still duped every year by it. I’m talking about using your head and heeding the advice of people who have been there, done that. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. You don’t have to make the same mistakes other beginning writers made. You’re ahead of the game because you have this solid foundation of past experience as a launching point.

Bottom line—and I’m not sure if anyone who needs to hear this message is actually listening by this point, but here goes anyway—don’t be seduced by the evil temptress whose name seems to be THE PROMISE OF PUBLICATION but in fact is just SCAM THE NEWBIE, AGAIN.

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