So You (Still) Want to be a Writer…

Remember Tupperware parties?  The idea was that stay-at-home spouses – then called housewives – who were bored out of their minds and wanted to make a little of their own money, would become neighborhood distributors of Tupperware, a collection of plastic food storage containers.  In an early form of direct marketing with a dash of pyramid scheme, these women would invite their fellow housewives to elaborate parties thrown in their homes where Tupperware would be sold and new distributors would be recruited.  Everyone got dressed up and had a good time, but no one made any real money except the Tupperware company, and eventually, once the kids were grown, the housewives put aside their fantasies of making money from the comfort of their homes and went out and got real jobs.  Cut to the Women’s Liberation Movement.

The Tupperware party may be a relic of the Fifties, but the phenomenon of a bunch of people — predominantly women — enthusiastically pursuing the chimera of a livelihood while talking mainly to one other and being exploited by entrenched commercial interests lingers on in various forms.  One of the most galling and exploitative is the current market for and in aspiring but unknown writers.

In the heyday of the Tupperware party, the discovery and publishing of new writers (meaning “unknown” authors of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry) was the exclusive province of a few brick-and-mortar publishing houses and periodical organs – Simon & Schuster, the New York Times, Newsweek, The New Yorker, etc. – that acted as gatekeepers to the world of Getting Published.  There was absolutely no appeal from their judgment, since they acted as the sole arbiters of quality and taste in writing, as groomers and educators of new writers, and as the only available channels of marketing and distribution for writers’ output (other than a few literary magazines of modest distribution and mostly academic interest, publication in which was a synonym for being “unknown”).

In this former world, the path to publication for the unknown author was long, chancy, but well-understood: you majored in English, took a job as a teacher or college professor and wrote on the side, maybe took an MFA in writing or became a local journalist, wrote some more, and eventually, if you had the courage and the encouragement, began to submit your stuff to the gatekeepers.  Almost always, your stuff was rejected over and over again, but you kept writing and subscribed to Writer’s Digest and kept submitting and maybe eventually realized (since you read Writer’s Digest) that you needed an agent (of which there were many even in those days), and you submitted your stuff to an agent and maybe he or she submitted it to the gatekeepers on your behalf, and your stuff was still rejected over and over again.  And eventually, in virtually all cases, you put aside your fantasies of Getting Published and went out and got a real job.  Cut to retirement.

Today is different, but is it better for the unknown writer? (To be clear, I count myself as one of these, though my stuff has occasionally been published by some of the old gatekeepers.)

The publishing paradigm for the aspiring writer has changed in a number of obvious and important ways, starting with the phenomenon of e-publishing.  E-publishing means that the gatekeepers no longer control all the gates. Amazon controls some of them (though it looks a lot like another gatekeeper, and we’ll come back to that), and there are little plots in the outlying sectors of the publishing plantation (blogs, online magazines) where a sharecropping writer can actually see his or her stuff, if not in physical print, at least on a screen.  The territory is now theoretically infinite, like the Web itself, and there is room there for self-publication in a myriad of public platforms, from YouTube to Tumbler to the commentary on your trip to Aruba in your Facebook timeline.

There are huge trade-offs to this change.  Most glaring from the reader’s perspective is the trade-off between volume and quality. Internet commerce is driven by two engines: our bottomless narcissism, and easy access to means of expressing it.  The flood of new writing on the Web is torrential, but the sole arbiters of its quality are, in most cases, the individual authors themselves. There are no gatekeepers, no plantation owners, to keep out the riff-raff.   When you can set up a blog page in five minutes, for free, every person on the planet with access to a computer is a potential memoirist.  As a result, most of the writing published on or through the Web is, to put it charitably, junk, and still more of it will never be read by anyone but the author.  The world of writers (like that of other artists) has been radically democratized by the Internet but also radically debased, like a wildly inflated currency.

From the unknown writer’s perspective, the trade-off is between access to publication per se, which has become astonishingly easy, and actual recognition, which has arguably become much harder to achieve.  Back in the ‘90’s I could (and did) submit essays to the New York Times “over the transom” (a charming old phrase that you can Google if you need to) with the reasonable expectation that they would be read and, occasionally, accepted.  Now the place is like a bunker, heavily fortified with diversionary Web-presences and black-hole editorial email inboxes against the tidal wave of writing that is directed its way daily from every corner of the World-Wide Web.  The odds of your un-agented, unsolicited piece, no matter how marvelous, being plucked out of this morass are probably worse than winning the jackpot on a lottery ticket, and certainly worse than it was in those supposedly bleak pre-Internet days when your only weapons as a writer were your typewriter and some stamps.

Ok, so even if it’s harder than ever to get published in the old-school way (i.e., by an edited print platform), what about self-publishing? Even in the Tupperware days, you could pay a “vanity press” to have whatever you wanted put on respectable-looking paper and sandwiched between real, physical covers.  This (or the electronic version of it) has, without question, become much easier and cheaper with the advent of such Web-based services as Smashwords and Amazon’s CreateSpace where, for a few hundred dollars, you can produce a professional-looking physical or e-book and have Amazon stand ready to sell it.  (Whether any copies are ever sold is a different question; Amazon doesn’t market unknowns except through its own portals, like its “Kindle Singles” e-publishing platform, which walks, talks, and rejects like one of the old gatekeepers.)

Nonetheless, for many writers for whom the only satisfactory measure of their work is the knowledgeable judgment of others (emphasis on “knowledgeable”), self-publishing is thin gruel, maybe one step above leaving the manuscript in the drawer.  If I self-publish my book on Amazon but nobody but my Aunt Polly buys it, has it in any real sense been published?  (If a tree falls in the forest, is there sound?)

For some, self-publishing can be viewed as an entrepreneurial venture, sort of like selling pies to your neighbors in the hopes of someday opening a bakery (or like a Tupperware party).  There is the tantalizing example of Hugh Howey, whose self-published dystopian novel “Wool” was eventually purchased by Simon & Schuster for a six-figure sum after years of author-driven promotion on the Web. (In a triumphant flourish, he sold S&S only the print rights and Howey retained the online distribution rights.) Exploiting such rare success stories – and the writers who have heard them — is the business of a whole world of seminars, conferences, webcasts, and online courses aimed at the unknown author who still believes that Getting Published by one of the gatekeepers is the only real game in town.

The exploitation of aspiring writers is in part the consequence of another aspect of the new publishing paradigm: that the gatekeepers, having been acquired by conglomerates, undercut by e-publishing and forced to minimize costs, have abdicated many of their former author-grooming, editing, and marketing functions, pushing them down onto the writer.  Publishers these days expect the author to present her work as a finished, pre-marketed, high-yield product, not as some nascent work-in-progress that would cost them a lot of editorial time and advertising money and still mean a roll of the dice. Hence, many of the webinars offered (for a fee) by, say, Writer’s Digest  instruct would-be authors not in how to improve their craft, but in how to create an online platform, build a personal following, hire a “book doctor,” devise a marketing plan, and otherwise do the work that, in a prior epoch, had been the job of the publisher. There is a major industry, far larger and more lucrative than the Tupperware of old, built on convincing would-be writers that they need these skills and services, having nothing to do with the tedious terror of actual writing. This may not be progress.

Is today’s world of publishing better for the would-be writer than the pre-Web world of the literary gatekeepers?  I think not.  You still have to write well, and you still have to have something worthwhile and interesting to say.  Beyond that, today’s confluence of too many liberal arts majors with too many computers has resulted in too many people who think they are writers – or could be – and print publishers have simply stopped looking for them. The merely possible begins to crowd out the good:  even as the writer’s self-help industry dispenses false encouragement, real-world publishers erect ever stronger filters against the rising tide of submissions.

How is the individual writer to respond to all this?  To write at all is an act of ego: we believe our thoughts are interesting, entertaining, or informative enough that they should be committed to the page.  It’s a short step from there to the belief that others would love to read what we’ve written, or would even pay to do so.  In vastly more cases than not, this belief is simply misplaced. This doesn’t mean we should stop writing (a real writer probably couldn’t even if he or she wanted to), but it does mean, first, that we should be tougher self-editors.

More importantly, we writers, even those few who have been published, need to learn to better content ourselves with the inherent pleasure of writing and stop distracting ourselves and lining others’ pockets in our Sisyphean efforts to get the world to acknowledge it.  We need to tamp down our narcissism and recognize the universal cultural urge toward fame for the waste of time that it is.  If Getting Published is our only litmus test of whether we’re good writers, we’re probably not, because we’re writing for some imagined audience rather than ourselves. This is not to say that if we write for ourselves and write well, such authentically good writing will win out, because it probably won’t — the likelihood that it will has diminished, not increased, in the new world of publishing. We nonetheless need to write for ourselves, for the sheer love of the right words in the right order on the page, and perhaps for those relatively few others who might care to read us, even if they’re only a handful of friends and family.  We might never (or never again) be published in the old-fashioned way, and that’s perfectly alright.  It’s time to go home from the Tupperware party.

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