The Modern Dilemma

March 13, 2014 11:54 am by MRM in Writing

Once upon a time, I dreamed of a shelf address in Barnes & Noble. BN was a place I spent a lot of time growing up. When I started writing, I used to walk through the Sci Fi & Fantasy section and stare at my spot on the shelf. Considering the thickness the Mc part of the phone book (which was a thing when I was a kid), I was always surprised by how few Mc-authors there were. I’d look at where I would fit in alphabetically, and imagine my paperback there. I’d do it every time I went in a bookstore, and most of the time that was at Barnes & Noble.

That dream was far away back then. It required the right amount of talent, determination, and just plain luck to get noticed. Almost every successful mainstream author has tales of how many times they sent in manuscripts and got rejections, how many years they languished, and how that one lucky break was what got them in the door. The publishing industry was ruthless, massive, and monolithic. A few score people in New York decided the fate of pretty much everyone. Then the internet happened. I like the internet. In fact, I work there.

There’s a lot of talk in my industry about “disruptive technologies.” We love the term and the technology both. In Silicon Valley, everybody yearns to be the disruptor. Kindle is a disruptive technology. Last year, ebook sales beat physical book sales for the first time (at least on Amazon), and it’s unlikely to ever go back. More than that, it’s a wonderful disruptive technology. I love it. I read a lot, and I move a lot. Moving books suuuuuucks. Every time we moved, my wife would ask me “When are you ever going to read [insert book here] again?” When she asks about the 500 or so books on my shelf, it’s hard to explain. Of course I’m not going to read all of them again. In fact, I’ll probably only reread a select few. But… but… you just don’t get it. Kindle solved that problem for me. I take all my books everywhere I go. I even get the paper, and I don’t have a massively piling up stack of ads that weighs down my recycling.

Even more than that, the Kindle has disrupted the publishing industry, because having a monopoly on printing presses no longer means anything. The good and the bad news is that anyone can become a publisher at any time. Plenty of people have beat the drum about the proliferation of published books hardly worthy of the name, but I still hold fast to the belief that the democratization of publishing will ultimately be a good thing for the world.

But it all comes back to that first dream for me—that spot on the shelf in Barnes & Noble. It’s both closer and farther away than it ever has been. Closer because I’m a much more talented writer than I once was, closer because I have several books that have been in polish mode for a while now, closer because I’ve had agent interest quite a few times, but more than that, closer in that I can send anything out whenever I want. There is no more need to wait for that bolt-of-lightning strike. At the same time, it’s farther away because that shelf, that pretty little five-walled box of plywood and paperboard, means so much less than it once did. You still need the big publishers to get there, but their model is dying. It has been disrupted. And no matter how much that dream still tugs at my heartstrings, I don’t feel like waiting on a dinosaur.

I’ve read plenty of missives by writers I love about how their work went through rejection after rejection, and only after years of persistence did they finally get their big breaks. They were patient and persistent and honed their crafts until that one agent, that one publisher, finally took a chance on them. And now we have the Dresden Files, or the Otherworld Series, or The Name of the Wind. I’ve played that game as well, even while publishing Those Who Die Young.

It’s not the rejection that gets to me. I’m okay with being judged, and even with people passing on my work. It hurts, sure, but that’s part of the game. I’ve had more luck than most, and come agonizingly close to getting two of my books out there for real. No, rejection isn’t what I hate most about the Old Way. It’s the time. You send, you wait, and while you’re waiting, you don’t send anywhere else. Sometimes you check to see what they think, and they tell you just one more month…. The Old Way is too slow for the world today, and I’m tired of waiting while the world passes me by. If writing was my only profession, I’d have a ton of freelance work to keep me company and to put my name or byline out there. I’d glad-hand with people in the industry and eventually have that chance meeting that changes my life. I’d go to conventions and I’d pitch and pitch until I whispered my blurb in my sleep.

But that’s not my life. I’m not looking down on any of those things, and they’re probably all great advice for getting your work out there in front of the Guardians of the Old Way. I’ve tried to play the online version of that game in the form of innumerable blog-hopping contests and tours. Some of my closest calls to publication came from those. Still, I simply can’t spend all of my time doing those things. I have to actually write, and when I spend my working hours on a different job I love, something gets left out in the mix. When I was pitching, that thing was writing. It took me a long time to realize how wrong that prioritization scheme was. I’m not saying I’ll never do another contest or never go to a convention, but that’s not my way any more. The Old Way got disrupted, and I’m not going to pin my hopes and dreams on boarding that sputtering train.

I’ll miss the dream. I’ll miss that spot on the shelf, near Syne Mitchell and a few other early-M writers that I wanted to “sit” beside. But the truth is, I haven’t been in an Barnes & Noble in years. I don’t even know where the closest one is. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to read the paper on my Kindle.

About the Author

Written by MRM

I'm a speculative fiction writer that spent lots of time trying out new places to live before finally settling in NC. I love code, craft beer, football, and fiction - in no particular order. My currently running works of serial fiction can be found on Kindle, Nook, and Smashwords. If you're comfortable moving files around to your ereader of choice, always pick Smashwords as your e-bookstore of choice - they give authors a much bigger slice of the pie!

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