…as I was saying.
Welcome back to Flytrap, and back to our column. Regular readers may remember that I would use this space to discuss topics of interest to writers, and to people involved in publishing. Several of these pieces were repurposed and became chapters in my writing guide Starve Better: Surviving the Endless Horror of the Writing Life.
And then Flytrap folded. And then Kindle came out. And then self-publishing became viable as the distribution problem was solved by Amazon’s network of buyers, and the quality problem was solved by the ability to reduce the price of books to ninety-nine cents. (You don’t care very much about the quality of products you buy at Dollar Tree either.) And then Borders folded. And then Kickstarter turned everyone into an anthologist. And then everyone in the world stopped talking about writing. There is no more writing; there is only publishing.
The other day I asked on Facebook for column ideas. I got back: cheesy covers, hybrid writing careers, how to keep a platform when working on novels and thus not writing short stories, the guidelines at Clarkesworld magazine (of which I’ve not been a part for six years), and the like. Reader, I am disappointed.
I could see this coming, like a great wave. When I last attended Readercon in 2012, I made a vow, and tried to get others to join me, to not talk shop or engage in industry gossip while at the convention. Instead, let’s talk about what we’ve read, the aesthetic challenges of writing this or that piece, I said. Come on, I said. It’ll be fun. Mostly, I found myself just talking about the vow itself, and answering endless variations on the question, ‘‘Well, does this topic count against your vow? How about this one?’’ We didn’t talk very much about writing after all. What we were drinking, yes, and ultimately about the man who attempted to sexually harass a friend at the convention. Also, Neil Clarke had a heart attack. So we had topics, but not anything to do with the actual work of a writer or reader. Have I mentioned that I was at Readercon? That’s the science fiction convention that prides itself on focusing on reading rather than costumes or even having a good time. Its co-founder turned to me one evening and said that he thought it was funny, since he hasn’t read anything new in years. ‘‘I only watch movies.’’ And then the topic became Netflix.
And then there was my recent trip to Danbury, Connecticut, to teach at the January residency of the Western Connecticut State University MFA program. MFA programs tend not to teach much about publishing—no surprise, since MFA faculty don’t publish much—so I was actually happy to talk about publishing. I cannot tell my students how to become a best-selling author, of course. If I could, I wouldn’t be there. I’d be flying around in my solid gold helicopter, shooting at poor people with my special rifle that fires bullet-shaped diamonds. But I can tell them how to become good enough to get published. This time though, that wasn’t enough, thanks to self-publishing.
In one talk, I described a bad self-published book I’d read, and explained that it sold 100,000 copies despite its low quality because of its low price. Sufficiently low quality that the prologue describes events from the end of the novel, rather than before the main action of the novel. Movie-in-my-head-I-ain’t-never-read-nothin’! bad. I was told by more than one student that the book—Cyber Storm or something like that—couldn’t have been bad. It sold 100,000 copies, after all! People would want their dollars refunded (one at a time!) otherwise, right?
No, not right. But it didn’t matter. The conversation quickly degenerated into whether one should collect one’s short fiction into a single file to sell for $3.99, or sell stories individually for ninety-nine cents, plus the occasional free giveaway to get on the radar of the readers. I nearly pulled the fire alarm.
Things are no better in the upper reaches of the literary world. Making any sort of comment about aesthetic ambition, or characterization, or the fact that some books are better than others is basically a summoning spell for Jennifer Weiner to appear and complain that people are being mean. And then she sics her Twitter followers on you. Whimpering apologies from those who dare note the obvious soon follow. But the fact remains that some things are good, some things aren’t, and it is possible to hold conversations about why some things are better than others. We have the technology—language!
It might be that publishing has always been more interesting than writing. In the early days of one’s career, there’s little publishing to write about. Writing is a great challenge. After a few years (someone called me a ‘‘veteran’’ at the 2011 World Horror Convention in Austin; I was shocked!) you learn most of the writing tricks you’re going to learn, and you get positive feedback in the form of publication and teeny tiny checks for performing those tricks. So the writing continues, but only in the way a hamster in a wheel continues to run—you never get anywhere other than where you’re already happy to be. Had I just climbed up to a new layer in the writing community? It’s a peculiar one, if so. It’s the one where short story publications are still sought after, and nobody has much gossip about literary agents since our agents never actually talk to us. If New York gave us a swing at bat, we struck out five years ago. We talk about publishing the way fangirls talk about teen idols. We know everything about it; publishing only knows us as an abstraction. The ‘‘good writer, but…’’ abstraction. In such an environment, no wonder self-publishing and its dubious promises of a DIY mint seems so compelling.
Or maybe it’s just that my dayjob is in publishing now, and I hate talking about work.
At any rate, here is my promise to you, Reader. This column will be about writing and reading, not about publishing and money. Come back in six months, and you shall see. If I get it wrong, remind me.
Nick Mamatas is the author of many things, most recently crime novel Love Is the Law, and the forthcoming The Last Weekend. He edits the Haikasoru line for Viz Media.