My daughter sent me an email the other day, telling me about her boyfriend’s Phi Beta Kappa initiation ceremony:
…the guest speaker was Nobel Prize winner Oliver Smithies, so that was pretty cool. His two main messages were: no matter what you’re doing or how unimportant it may seem, it’s important to learn how to do it well; and try to find something you love doing so that when you’re old and retired you still do it because you love it so much you can’t stop. Another fun thing he said was “think outside the box…but know what’s inside it too.”
I read that and thought, This Smithies guy may be a science geek, but he understands what it means to be a writer. And that’s when it hit me, when I realized just what exactly has been irritating the hell out of me about this whole debacle with Harlequin and its new vanity press.
Everyone is missing the point.
People have claimed to be stunned and perplexed by the swift decisive condemnation of Harlequin’s vanity press and its stated intent to steer rejected writers to its coffers. They’re confused by the vehemence of writers who are angry and indignant. A few writers have even said they’re angry but can’t quite put their finger on why. Yet everyone has been busy speculating.
I’ve read a variety of reaction from people on the publishing side of the business, very smart people whose experience and opinions I’ve come to respect. I’ve read blogs and comments from writers, including those who are published, not yet published and self-published. Readers have weighed in as well.
Some people have concluded the furor is due to an inability or unwillingness to accept change. Others think it’s because Harlequin betrayed their brand or presented the change ineffectively. Others fear readers will become disillusioned by a glut of newly inferior books. Some writers worry their work will be diminished in the eyes of those who might see no difference between it and that of those who choose the vanity press route.
Disturbingly, much of this rhetoric also has a subtle yet pervasive overtone that presumes most unpublished writers are rather dim-witted uneducated fools in need of protection from blind ambition and who will be easily duped by the lure of a vanity press.
I’m tempted to say, “Bullshit on all counts.” But that sounds so rude. Besides, it’s not that these people are wrong, necessarily, so much as that none of the commentary really addresses the heart of the problem.
The truth is, most writers I know are cautiously open to the idea of change in publishing, especially if it means getting their work into the hands of more readers. Most writers I know don’t give a rat’s ass about Harlequin’s “brand” and whether they change it, however inelegantly done. Most realize full well that books (we’re talking fiction here) produced by a vanity press and lacking marketing and distribution won’t ever make it into the mainstream of readers and will be read only by a handful of the writer’s friends and family members. And the vast majority of writers I know are already quite aware that vanity presses exist and are not about to be deceived into subjecting their work to that process. Really.
So, why the anger and condemnation?
Writers give all sorts of advice to other writers. It varies widely and usually comes with the disclaimer to pick and choose what works for you, disregard the rest. But there is one consistent message you will hear from every single writer who has achieved publication. Every single one of them will tell you about their multiple rejections, about the quantity of books they wrote and the number of years it took before they got published. Every single one of them will tell you the same exact thing: Don’t give up and don’t stop writing. Your work will improve with practice.
This is not mere hopeful wistful dreaming or a platitude to soothe desperate yearning (yes, that’s how writers have been characterized, of late). It’s a simple fact. Look at the backlist of any writer who has been around for more than a few years. Pick up any early book and compare it to something recent. There will be a difference, a distinctive improvement in quality but also in tone and confidence. Writing improves over time.
Writers know this. We accept it for the truth it is. In spite of what you may have heard, most writers are levelheaded, clear-eyed professionals who know hard work and time spent learning and practicing craft are the bricks paving the path to publication. Unfortunately, in our impatience and inexperience, we tend to misjudge the length of our individual paths.
This is why what Harlequin proposes to do is so offensive and just plain wrong, regardless of what they call it. Have you read the verbiage on the website of their newly renamed Dellarte Press? It claims to be all about you, the writer. It talks about the next chapter on your journey and achieving your dreams and indulging your passion. About taking control of your dreams and not wasting your precious time. About reaching your goals with the book of your dreams.
Oh please. Harlequin and their new business partner have missed it by a mile if this is what they assume to know about our “dreams.”
Sure, there are writers who are exceptions, and good for them for making their own informed decisions and realizing a different dream. But for most of us, the “dream” is not just to hold a book in our hands. The “dream” is not merely to see our name on a glossy cover.
The dream is to be good enough. Good enough to be published, to gain recognition for all our hard work, good enough for our stories to be purchased and enjoyed by readers. Good enough to receive monetary compensation, as professionals.
Here’s an analogy, though perhaps not the best one: Imagine you’ve signed up with a matchmaker, or a dating service if you prefer, with the goal of finding the perfect mate. After a few attempts that didn’t quite work out they suddenly declare you to be unlovable. For your send off, as a consolation, they show you a selection of truly fine wedding rings, since they know that’s what you really want more than anything in the entire world. Aren’t they lovely and sparkly? The more you’re willing to pay, the bigger and shinier a ring you can have. You say, but what about a partner? What about love? They say, oh no, trust us, no one will ever love you. But look, you can even have the wedding you’ve always dreamed about, just pay a bit more. And you say, that’s nice but I was looking for love and a life with someone. They say, sorry, never gonna happen, but look, here are the designs for invitations– it only costs a bit more for those, how many people do you know?
And here’s where the analogy breaks down, because you can’t really make yourself more lovable by working at it. Or maybe that’s just me. But you can and will become a better writer with hard work and practice.
Will you ever become good enough that people will pay to read your stories? Tough question. One for which there is no single correct and true answer. The odds say some of us may never be good enough, yet can’t predict which ones. It’s one of the risks we live with as writers. But there are answers to that question that are wrong and harmful and completely unacceptable and one of them is to tell a writer who is not yet quite good enough, “Here, buy something shiny instead.”
It is wholly inappropriate for anyone, let alone a major publisher, to blithely offer a vanity press as an alternative to — or worse, present it as a step to achieving — publication. It is the antithesis of our efforts and our “brand” as writers, a slap in the face of our professionalism. It’s a message that says, “Not only are you not good enough now, you never will be good enough, no matter how hard you try. The only way you will ever see your work in print is to pay for it.”
Damn it, Harlequin, you don’t know that.
If there is a message that should be sent with every rejection it should be one based on truth and integrity and respect, offered with a genuine tone of encouragement. Perhaps it should be the same message we writers give each other, time after time, without hesitation, without deviation:
“You’re not there yet. Go work on your craft. Practice. Write five more books. Read extensively. Learn all you can from your peers. You will get better. Just keep writing. And please, keep trying.”
We say it because it’s true. Because we understand what it means and what it takes to be a writer.