Today I’m delighted to host the lovely and talented Cheryl Shireman, author of numerous books, including Life is But a Dream: On the Lake and You Don’t Need a Prince: A Letter to My Daughter. Cheryl is also the founder of the Indie Chicks group and Indie Chicks cafe. I hope you enjoy this thought-provoking post about the prejudice faced by indie writers!
Dear Traditionally Published Writer
I love you. I’ve loved you since I started reading. In elementary school we used to get a weekly two page ‘newspaper’ that we could order books from. I always ordered more than my parents were willing to buy, and even so, came home with a treasure trove every week – those slick-backed paperbacks with my order clipped to the corner.
After a few years I discovered The Black Stallion series and read every one of those wonderful books by Walter Farley. Then, one of my friends gave me a copy of My Friend Flicka she had bought at a garage sale. I read it and that was it. The seed was planted. Mary O’Hara did such an amazing job of portraying Ken’s love for his filly on that Wyoming ranch that I decided that I wanted to be a writer. Just like you.
I threw myself into writing. I read all of the books about writing. I wrote one bad novel after another, hiding them under the couch whenever anyone visited my home, stuffing them into a box when I was done. Eventually I submitted sample chapters through the traditional route. To my delight, I received a very kind and encouraging letter from an editor at Doubleday. Then, I didn’t realize how unusual that kind letter was. I soon learned. I finished my book and sent it back again. That kind editor had moved on and I had no way of finding her. This was before the internet and she simply disappeared into the streets of New York City.
I kept writing and kept submitting. I came close several times. I had the interest of a couple of different agents and came close to publishing with a couple different publishers. I dreamed of becoming a published writer. Just like you.
I became even more committed. As a divorced mother of three, I struggled to work full time and put myself through college. I majored in Creative Writing and English and wrote non-stop. I went on to get a graduate degree and I kept writing. I also kept collecting rejections slips and an occasional encouraging letter from an agent or editor. Close, but no cigar.
Then, a little over a year ago, while looking for a book for my new Kindle (a Christmas present from my husband that I did not want) I came across a book from Karen McQuestion. I clicked on ‘About the Author’ and read how McQuestion first published through Kindle. I immediately found Karen McQuestion’s website and started reading. It seemed too good to be true. It was not. It was true and very good. I had just finished another novel and decided to give it a try. Why not? What did I have to lose? Within 48 hours of reading about McQuestion’s success, I had uploaded and published my own novel on Kindle. Within a week it was available as a paperback. That first novel went on to become a bestseller and sold thousands of copies. Those sales enabled me to hire a wonderful editor. I wrote another novel. And then another. I just released a series of eight books for toddlers. I’m currently working on the first novel of a four book series. My editor lives in Australia and I just started working with a cover artist who lives in LA. I’m working with a great illustrator from London on two more books for children. I get emails from readers who tell me they love my books. After all of these years, I am finally living my dream. I, too, have become a published writer. I have become you. Or have I?
I am referred to as an ‘indie’ writer – someone who has published independently instead of going through the traditional route. Was indie publishing my second choice? You bet. For most of my life my biggest dream was being ‘accepted’ and published by a traditional publisher. Now? Not so much. I’m not saying I would reject a traditional offer, but I’m not sure I would accept one either. And I’m certainly not looking for one. I’m too busy writing and publishing on my own.
So – what’s the problem?
The problem might be you, traditionally published writer! Some traditionally published writers (certainly not all) are becoming more vocal in their attacks on indie writers. In a recently published article about bestselling writer Jodi Picoult, Picoult was asked ‘What advice would you give an aspiring author?’ Her answer was: Take a workshop course. You need to learn to give and get criticism and to write on demand. And DO NOT SELF PUBLISH. Really?
Earlier in the very same article when Ms. Picoult was asked ‘What is the story behind the publication behind your first book?’ Her answer was: I had over 100 rejection letters from agents. Finally, one woman who had never represented anyone in her life said she thought she could take me on. I jumped at the chance. She sold my first novel in three months.
Let me ask you this, Ms. Picoult. WHAT IF that ‘one woman’ had not taken you on? What if you were still trying to publish today? What if you were still collecting rejections? If you were in that position, would you try publishing your own book? You bet you would! In fact, you’d be a fool if you didn’t. Why would any writer continue to collect rejections when they have to option to publish now – and receive 70% royalty?
In another article about Jodi Picoult’s novel Lone Wolf, Picoult was asked again – ‘What do you say to people who want to emulate your success and want to be writers themselves?’
Her answer was: My current advice is to not self-publish. It’s still too hard for people to separate the wheat from the chaff, and what you miss out on is the marketability that is afforded to you by a brick and mortar publisher. There’s a lot of crap out there, and one day we may find a way to segregate well written self published fiction from that stuff which anyone can throw on Amazon, but I just don’t think we’re there yet. Let me put it to you this way. The anomalies of self published fiction, the Amanda Hockings of this world – what did they do with their next book? Do they self publish it? No – they make sure they get a publisher.
Well, I won’t go into discussing the many indie authors who are now rejecting offers from publishers (read David Gaughran’s article on writer Lindsay Buroker). And I won’t go into the increasing number of traditionally-published authors who are now turning to indie publishing to publish their backlists (read why Barbara Freethy turned to indie publishing on her website). Nor will I list the traditionally published authors who are now going directly into indie publishing with some of their books (read Jackie Collin’s very honest piece on her blog about why she turned to indie publishing). There are plenty of articles out there on such writers. They aren’t hard to find.
Picoult contends that there is ‘a lot of crap’ out there. I agree! There is a lot of ‘crap’ out there written by indie writers. But there is also a lot of ‘crap’ out there in the traditionally published community. In fact, probably over fifty percent of all books traditionally published could be easily classified as crap. Look at the bestseller lists. This is nothing new. The truth is, crap often sells. Very often the primary difference between traditionally published crap and indie crap is that the former is better edited.
What I do want to address is the prejudice against indie writers. Yep. That’s the word. Prejudice. That pretty much sums it up. Picoult even uses the word ‘segregate’ when discussing indie writers. An ugly word, no matter how used. Let me say right now, I’m not bashing Jodi Picoult. That is not my intention. I am sure she is a lovely woman. I respect her writing success. Let’s be honest – I envy her writing success! As I write this, I can see three of her books on one of my bookshelves. All three books are on my ever-expanding ‘to be read’ list. Instead of bashing her, or any other traditionally-published writer, this is an effort to understand their position. Because, you know what? If I was one of them, I’d probably feel exactly the same way. Let’s look at the facts.
Indie writers are getting an increasing share of the reader’s dollar
It’s true. An increasing percentage of books on the bestseller lists are written by indie writers. Indie writers are here to stay. They aren’t going anywhere. There are people who don’t believe that, but they are probably the same people who thought ebooks would never sell. I think the very fact that Picoult is trashing indie publishing is proof that indie writers are seen as a threat. Perhaps not by Picoult personally (her sales are doing just fine), but certainly by the traditional publishers. I am wondering how much of Picoult’s disdain for indie writers is based on personal experience and how much is based on parroting the ‘party line’ of the publishing industry. I would imagine that she does not have a lot of interaction with indie writers.
Traditionally published writers are relinquishing a huge percentage of their income to publishers who are often doing very little for them
Sure, some of the hot writers are getting a nice share of the marketing budget, but most writers are receiving meager marketing attention. Why wouldn’t these mid-list writers be frustrated? They suffered through their share of rejection slips and, finally, someone said yes. One of the publishing gatekeepers let them in and published their book. All of those years of submitting and never giving up finally paid off! Their book was published. Maybe it didn’t get much initial response from readers. Sales were not so great. They then found themselves fighting for their piece of the marketing budget. Writers within the same house are suddenly competing with one another for the very life of their book. On Jodi Picoult’s website she admitted that the worst part of her job was: The actual world of publishing. Mergers between companies, tightfisted marketing departments, and a bizarre fascination with Hollywood makes the publishing world a very difficult place to forge a career. For reasons that are still a mystery to me, companies will throw promotional dollars at books that aren’t selling (they say it’s a last ditch effort) but they will ignore some wonderful books by writers who are just starting out and could use the boost.
Imagine you are one of those writers. You have put in the time and effort. You collected rejection slips. You have the degree. You’ve done everything right. But still, your sales are lagging while your publisher throws money at the latest ‘celebrity’ or the newest ‘hotshot’ writer. Then along comes some twenty-something indie writer who writes a poorly written (unedited) book (or series of books) that starts selling like crazy on Amazon. You watch as their book climbs the top 100 bestseller list while yours remains firmly entrenched with a ranking somewhere over a million. Over a million books are selling better than yours.
No editor, no agent, no publisher – and no years of rejection (and no degree in writing!) and that indie writer is making more money per book than you are! Suddenly, the rules have shifted and your publishing contract doesn’t look so good. Although, of course, you don’t want to admit to that. You are in the “published author” club – something you have dreamed of for so long. But like the Eagles say – “What can you do when your dream comes true but it’s not quite like you planned?” The only thing you can do is start knocking the indie writer. It’s a matter of self-defense. They must be ignorant and untalented – or you’ve just made a big mistake and they are way ahead of you.
Publishing is a business, just like any other business. The publishers aren’t the bad guys. They push the proven winners. Who wouldn’t? Every year, they also take risks and publish new novels from unknown writers. When those first novels don’t do well, the publishers cannot afford to pour money into a hole. Unfortunately, as a writer, you have a relatively short time to prove your worth in the traditional publishing industry.
It’s just a matter of time before young and promising writers skip the traditional publishing route
Right now there is a writer (many writers!) in an M.F.A. program. She reads ebooks and owns an ipad and an iphone. When she buys a house or sets up an apartment she won’t bother with a land line. She will never own a ‘home’ phone. She doesn’t see the need for one. She will never own a phone book. She has GPS on her phone. She will never buy a map. Immediate directions are at her fingertips. When she graduates from that M.F.A. program, or maybe even before she graduates, she will decide to publish her novel. And she won’t bother submitting to a traditional publisher or an agent and waiting a couple of months for a form rejection. That doesn’t make much sense to her. Instead, she will hire an editor. She will hire a cover artist. And she will publish her own book. It will be well-edited, professionally presented, and wildly successful. The thought of traditional publishing will never cross her mind. Not unless they come to her with a lucrative offer. Even then, she might not accept it. Because, for the first time in the history of the written word, a writer doesn’t need anyone’s permission to publish their book. Ultimately, the reader is the gatekeeper. Readers will find the books they want to read. They will find new writers to love. And they don’t need for their books to be ‘segregated’ because they are capable of deciding what they want to read.
So while Ms. Picoult, and other traditionally-published writers, continue to bash the indies, our promising M.F.A. student has no pre-conceived notions of how a book should be published. She doesn’t care who publishes her book, as long as it is published. And, here is a little secret – neither does the reader. I can give you a list of my favorite writers, but I have no idea of who published their books. I don’t care. No one does. No one ever has. It’s all about the writer. Not the publisher. It’s always been about the writer.
Writers should be sticking together, not bashing each other
For the first time ever, we are in control of our books and our careers. We indie writers have learned to stick together and network. I can email any bestselling indie writer and they will take the time to answer me. I know. I’ve exchanged emails with some of the biggest sellers. Without fail, they are polite and encouraging. Some of them have become close friends, even though we have never met. We ask each other for advice and we exchange tips. Because we know (at least the smart ones know) we are not competing with each other. Your success is my success. And it is just a matter of time before the traditionally published writers figure this out, too.
I think it’s great when a writer signs a much-coveted traditional publishing contract. But I think it’s also great when a writer rejects a lucrative deal from a publisher and decides to publish as an indie. Because either choice is just that – a choice. I am thrilled that writers now have multiple options. If you are a writer, you should be thrilled about that, too.
The bottom line is we are all writers. We all dreamed the same dream. We all labor over words – agonizing when the writing is not going well and rejoicing when the words are flowing. I used to love and respect traditionally published writers. I still do. In fact, I love all writers. No matter how published.
About Cheryl Shireman
Cheryl Shireman lives in the Midwest on a beautiful lake with her husband, Bruce. She has three adult children and one adorable granddaughter. She writes full-time, often in her pajamas. She is the author of several novels as well as many non-fiction books. All of her books can be found on her Amazon Author Page.In 2011, Cheryl gathered a group of women writers together to create the first Indie Chick Anthology. Since then, more bestselling women writers have joined the group and together they continue to create anthologies based on various themes. Cheryl and the other “Indie Chicks” can be found blogging about topics they are passionate about at Indie Chicks Cafe.