Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Religion of Writing: Part Two -- The Hierarchy

Disclaimer: The following example is a paraphrase of the events, so to speak. It's just a general idea of how things happened and how they work and not meant to be exact fact.

Way back in the way back, God had relationships with men on an individual basis. There was God and Adam, God and Methuselah, God and Noah. Then there was God and Abraham, and God and Jacob, and God and Moses. By the time we get to God and Moses, the Hebrews were getting a bit tired of the whole "indie God" scene and wanted a more traditional, I mean, god, so, to deal with the issue, God gave them some basic guidelines to live by. There weren't too many, because God didn't want to bog everyone down with a bunch of rules, and, really, those rules boiled down to two things: 1. Love God and 2. Be excellent to each other.

But you know people, and they couldn't deal with things being so straightforward, so the agents, I mean priests, got together and made lots of rules. Lots and lots of rules. LOTS and LOTS of rules. So many rules, we've lost track of them all. And you couldn't just join the "Hebrew club" anymore, either. There were lots and lots of rules and tests and all sorts of things you had to do to get on the inside with God. According to the Pharisees, at any rate.

After a while, God got tired of all of that, so He sent his Son down to deal with the people. His son, Jesus, said, "Dudes, no more rules. Just love God and be excellent to each other." Of course, we all know how that turned out. But the apostles understood the message and started spreading the love. Except, almost right away, people started making new rules or re-imposing the old ones and, eventually, along came the Romans and made it all Catholic and stuff, and, pretty soon, there were even more rules than before and, again, no one could just decide to follow God; they all had to jump through special hoops and get rid of all their adverbs and stuff before they were let into the "Catholic club."

After another while, this other dude, Martin Luther, came along and said, "Dudes! Jesus came to get rid of all of these rules. And, oh yeah, the agents, too. We don't need those guys!" Things didn't go well for Martin, either, but a bunch of new small publishers sprang up that, initially, did away with agents (I mean priests), but it wasn't long before they put new agents in place and made all sorts of new rules (like you can't go to Heaven unless you speak in tongues, and dancing will send you straight to Hell).

I'm sure you get the idea.

So let's look at something else.

Way back in the not quite as way back there was a dude that wrote a book. He paid to have some copies printed, then he tried to sell them. Other guys did the same thing. That worked out for some of those guys and not for some of the others. Some guys had more money than others, so they could print more books, and things tended to work out better for them than for the guys that couldn't afford to print very many. There was no such thing as "best seller" back in those days, but some of those books are still around.

Eventually, some poor author (because almost all of them were poor (are poor)) had the bright idea to hire a printer to be his publisher. Since he couldn't pay the guy that owned the printing press in advance, he offered to pay the printer, now his publisher, from the profits from the book. The printer saw the opportunity to make more money than if the writer just paid for the number of copies he could afford and, thus, was born the modern traditional publishing model.

However, I want to point out that when all of this started, the author was in charge. The author communicated directly with his readers, often selling his books to them by hand or taking them to small stores to sell (because there were not, yet, bookstores). The printer/publisher worked for the author, not the other way around. As the idea of being paid from the book profits took hold, the whole process became an invest for the printer/publishers, but, at first, the author was still in control. But the balance of power shifted to the money guys as more and more authors sought out the same publishers. And then came rules. And agents. And more rules. Until the author was at the bottom. No longer communicating directly with... anyone. Except the agentpriest.

And all the people began to worship the traditional publishing house and abide by its rules and jump through its hoops to get inside. Agents really are the priests of the traditional publishers, testing people to see if they're worthy, but, just like it was with the Pharisees (charging for sacrifices and requiring that people only use special "temple money") and the Catholics (selling Indulgences to have your sins forgiven) and the televangelists, it's all about the money.

And, now, we have self-publishing, which is kind of like the Protestant Reformation. And, just like the Catholic church condemned Luther, we have the big traditional publishing houses condemning Amazon and other self publishing outlets and calling people that do self-publish all kinds of bad things.

And we have people clinging to the old model. To the church of Traditional Publishing.

And I have to wonder about what sorts of rules we're going to develop for self-publishing and what kinds of hoops we'll eventually have to jump through for that. Because, well, we humans seem to love our rules and our hierarchies. I guess, that way, we know who's "winning." Charlie Sheen, right? Or is he still winning? I don't know.

I'm not much of one for outdated traditions. Or any traditions that aren't relevant. All of this post has been to say that we ought to really look at what the people "in charge" are telling us and figure what part of it is useful. Because, as far as I can tell, unless you are just in desperate need for the validation that comes from being traditionally published, those guys aren't doing anyone any good. Not anymore. And, hey, really, if you are looking for that pat on the back, I'm sure there are better places to get it.


  1. You really had to do that? Compare trad publishing to the Catholic Church and self publishing to the protestant reformation? Good God, I get so sick of this. But then, I guess we were told to expect it.

    *proudly waves her Catholic flag*

  2. I'm Catholic too and my MIL is constantly going on about the "evil" Catholica. She wants me, an Irish Catholic to become Protestant. It's never going to happen and after 25 years, you'd think the woman would just shut up and accept that. I was born Catholic and I'll die Catholic.

    But religion aside I see what you're saying. I'm not a writer as you know, but I think that some of the authors who are published by big publishers are looking for more than validation. They are looking for a paycheck, a way to make an actual living as a writer. I hope that is possible for Indie writers, but I've no idea how the money is working out for you guys.

  3. Technology has brought us many wonderful things since our ancestors tilled the soil with a stick and hunted animals with a club. This self publishing thing appears to be another in a very long list. Hopefully there will be many more in the future. The trend, I think, from recorded history until perhaps our last millenium was for man to form heirachies in almost every human endeavor. For the most part this was out of necessity although it could be argued man simply has a herd mentality. Maybe this is a learned response and not innate. At any rate all this is changing. Technology has advanced to the point where some things can be accomplished entirely by an individual. Hopefully the future will bring almost total independence of a man's endeavors. That will make him truly empowered.

  4. Anne, I might have it worse. I was born and raised a protestant. Then I married a Catholic and eventually converted. Imagine how my mother, the anti-Catholic protestant, feels?

    But aside from the whole Catholic/protestant thing... I think the whole concept of comparing the realities of publishing to religion in general is illogical and irrational. Publishing is a business and there is nothing wrong with traditional publishing in theory. What's wrong is the actual traditional publishing companies and their policies. However, there is no reason traditional publishing can't be good for authors if only they would drop their exploitative practices. But then, decades of writers have allowed them to get that way by being desperate for their validation and buying into the myth that they don't need to worry their pretty little artistic heads about business.

  5. That's one of the best Bible summaries I have ever read, right down to the be excellent to each other.
    It think both will continue to work. Agents are bit outdated though. A lot of it still comes down to money. And knowledge. Would my books have done so well without my publisher? No way, because I still don't know what I am doing and I don't have the funds they do to pour into marketing.
    But can it work? You read RaShelle's story of selling 300,000 self-published books in six months. You bet that can work as well.

  6. "unless you are just in desperate need for the validation that comes from being traditionally published, those guys aren't doing anyone any good."

    Andrew, I'm curious--is this based on your experience with the traditional publishing world, or based on the thing folks like Hugh Howey and Joe Konrath are saying? There's no question that folks can (and do) do quite well from self-publishing, but to say that agents and traditional publishers add nothing is, from what I've seen (and not just from agents, but from plenty of authors), inaccurate.

    Question it, examine it, evaluate it, toss out what doesn't work--absolutely. Dismiss it out of hand? Not yet.

  7. Ha, that's a good analogy. I remember going to one small publisher's website where it clearly stated they had all these guidelines just to weed people out. It seems that inherently when one gets even a small amount of power, one immediately gets a swelled head and begins setting up hoops for people to jump through. I went to some book review blogs that would have like 42 followers and they'd still have all these hoops to jump through. As if I'm going to put myself through all that so your two readers can read your book review.

  8. I read the comments and saw that a huge percentage people thought this was an antiCatholic diatribe. Catholics -- one of the largest, most powerful churches in the world, and the only church whose head has HIS OWN COUNTRY and an army, feel put upon! Much the way white males felt put upon when we elected *GASP* a black guy, twice!

    It's tough to feel like you're in the minority when you're in the majority, so I applaud the Catholics who interpret any mention, let alone criticism, of their church, as an antiCatholic rant. GOOD ON YA, MATE. Flex that indignation but by all means NEVER EVER EVER flex it in the direction of a church that sold shares in Heaven to the rich, presided over the Inquisition, hid proof of sexual abuse of minor children, and so on and so forth.

    Anyway, having now brought more trouble on you via that, EXCELLENT post.

    I'm not sure, though, that the same structure will arise around purely indie writing as you think it will. Indie writing has taken on tons of forms, from the mostly-traditional route such people as PT Dilloway take -- he's got a publisher and a website and ads and stuff -- to the extremely untraditional route that guy who wrote an entire murder mystery using only Tweets took, with people in between like you serializing your book on Amazon and me publishing stories on blogs and Michael Offutt writing secret books that he doesn't publicize but which still hit the top sellers.

    I think the internet, the ever-decreasing cost of bandwidth, and the improvements in technology, will continue to democratize writing, and the next set of rules/structures will come from marketers. Publishers will continue to exist because of their marketing reach, but they'll have to drastically change form once bookstores aren't around anymore, and they'll turn more into publicists, likely stealing markets from the agents who now serve as intermediaries. I think someday writing will look like stand-up comedy looks now: lots of people working hard and making some money, a few at the top making lots of money, and the intermediaries serving mainly to reach a different audience -- the way Louis CK might be on HBO, or a download, or Youtube, or a sitcom.

    But that's me. I'm an optimist!

  9. OK, case in point, a little bit ago I was submitting my book Chance of a Lifetime to sites recommended by another site to advertise it's free. As usual it becomes a hassle as some sites require you have 18-20 reviews (if I have that many, why would I be advertising on your rinky-dink site?) or sign up for a membership. Most just want you to pay them money to get the super-awesome premium listing. Because spending $5 to advertise a FREE book is a great idea.

    But the kicker was one site that actually asked in 60 words or less for you to tell them why they should feature your book. What the heck am I supposed to say to that? I just told them in true Grumpy Bulldog fashion, I don't care if you do or not. There are hundreds of other sites like this. Get over yourself already. Cuz seriously, get over yourself, dude! I'm asking you to list my book on your stupid page, not to give me an entry visa to the country.

    Argh, the hassles indie authors put up with.

  10. Excellent comparisons and very valid point. But does anyone actually make any money with self publishing? I am assuming authors do want to make a couple of bucks out of their hard work

  11. Sarah Mc: Get so sick of which? I'm unclear.
    In case you didn't notice, I didn't lump all the bad behavior on the Catholics. It's been going on all along. The Protestants haven't done any better at keeping things the way they ought to be. I grew up in the "Bible Belt;" I know.
    And, well, it's a valid comparison.

    Anne: There are plenty of Protestant churches that are evil, like those Westboro people. So being Protestant isn't an answer.

    If you look at the numbers, traditional publishing isn't the way to make a paycheck in writing anymore. The last stats I was looking at showed that, overall, indie authors are making $5-10,000 more a year than traditionally published authors.

    David: People, mostly, don't want to have to figure things out for themselves. They want rules so that they know what to do and when to do it. I think it's innate. But not all people are like that. There's probably some kind of compliance spectrum in people that works like the extro/introvert spectrum. I happen to be fairly non-compliant.

    Sarah: I agree. In theory, there is nothing wrong with traditional publishing. In theory, the author comes to the publisher and says, "I want to hire you to publish my book, and the publisher does that." However, that's not how it works. Not anymore. As I said, in practice, it's all flipped upside down, and the publishers (the big ones) think they're more important than the creators, the ones that actually produce all the cash they are sucking up. Publishers have become like a giant tick, and they're fighting for all they're worth to not have to change those business practices.

    Alex: Your not with one of the big publishers, though; you have someone who is invested in you being successful and are working to see that that happens. That's what the big publishers ought to be doing but are not. The small publishing world (which is indie) is completely different from the world of big publishing.

    JeffO: Actually, I don't really follow Konrath or any of those guys. I'm basing most of what I'm saying on the experiences of mid-listed traditionally published authors that have been screwed over by the big publishers. Like Mary Doria Russell (see this post: and Jon Clinch (review on his book about this stuff coming soon) among others. The big publishers have adopted a short term, destructive model of business that is all about gambling on the "next big thing" and, as long as they are determined to be on that course, I think we have no use for them.

    PT: The ones that have most pissed me off are the agents that will demand changes to a manuscript when the changes don't need to be made; they just want to see if you'll do it. If you defend your manuscript, you're not worth working with. That's just wrong.

    And I know what you mean about those sites that you want you to pay them to advertise your free book. I've been... propositioned myself. It's because Amazon quit paying them to give stuff away, and they're trying to get the money out of the authors, now, instead. Leeches.

  12. Briane: Hey, you bring on the trouble. My comment section is fertile territory for people to go at each other. You have to supply the popcorn, though. Michael will demand it.

    You know, I hope you're right about everything with indie publishing and stuff. I think you're right for the near future, anyway. However, looking back over history and how much we like to have all of these rules in place and how much other people like to take advantage of creators to make money, I don't put any long range hope in it.

    Jo: As I mention to Anne, the typical independently published author does make more than the typical traditionally published author at this point. Neither makes much money, though, in all reality. Only a small portion of writers from either side make what would be considered a living wage, and the favor, again, goes to the indie authors. The difference is that all of the really huge blockbusters come from traditional publishing or get taken by them once an indie looks to be a hit. They know how to latch on and milk a product that's already making money.

  13. This was better than a peice of candy! I was protestant, went Catholic when I married my husband, and 20 years later switched back to protestant - although from my beliefs, I'm definitely floating somewhere in between of everything.

    My point? I can see publishing in probably about the same place. Traditional and indie both have their + and -'s. The better place to be is most likely somewhere in between. Where is that? Don't ask me. I'm just trying to be philisophical ;)

  14. I loved this analogy! Summed it up nicely--except Jesus did leave some rules--they were just new rules. Anyway I appreciated the gist of what you said. And I feel like pubbing is one of those things everyone has to decide what's best for them--much like religion. And I'm leaning more and more toward the indie route.

  15. There's a reason I don't consider myself a religious person, and you've summed it up nicely here.

    That said, I'm going for traditional publishing first, but will self-publish if I don't find any interest from agents or editors. I'm kind of open to whatever works best for me.

  16. Interesting comparisons.

    I'm looking forward to seeing the state of the book market in a decade or two from now--it's inevitably going to change.

  17. Great metaphor you got going here, Andrew. LOVED IT. I'm a Bible scholar, and you nailed so many analogies dead on, in my opinion. I still don't know enough about the publishing industry to predict the future or comment on how priests control traditional publishing...but this was an enjoyable discussion. This will be my third time of remembering to push "subscribe to comments" Does that entitle me to some of Briane's popcorn?
    Tina @ Life is Good

  18. T.: Ooh! I beat out candy! That's awesome!
    The biggest issue with traditional publishers is that all of the things that used to be the big +s are now going away, and the -s keep getting bigger.

    Pk: I don't think any of the rules Jesus left aren't summed up in what he called the greatest commandment and the second, which is much like it.

    L.G.: Well, I can't say that the temple of traditional publishing isn't attractive. Like a lot of those old, great Catholic churches. I mean, those things are awesome!

    TGE: Yeah, it will be interesting to see how things play out. I'm sort of glad I'm here in the flux.

    Tina: Well, if Briane brought the popcorn, then, yes. I'm not sure he didn't just sneak off with it, though.

  19. The traditional publishers have started infecting Amazon too though. They hoard all the main pages that are displayed to the user, and they work together to make the prices of digital books rise more and more.

  20. Flippy: If you've been following any of the case from the Department of Justice against the big publishers, you will know that Amazon is not working with them to drive up prices. The publishers and Apple teamed up to force higher prices on e-books despite Amazon's efforts to bring e-book prices down.