Technology always changes our reality and there are inevitable growing pains that go part and parcel with any innovation. Every meaningful advance always has social consequences.
From the Gutenberg Press to the Model-T to electric lighting humans have had to adjust, shift and learn to balance great benefits with never before encountered consequences.
With the digital age? Here we go again.
As I’ve mentioned before, as early as 2004 when I was puttering around a site called Gather, I saw what social media was going to evolve into, that we were looking at likely the largest shift in communication since the Gutenberg Press. I knew even then that this was likely going to be the end of publishing as we had known it for well over a hundred years.
But I would be lying if I said I didn’t have mixed emotions.
By 2006, novelists were dying due to the predatory practices of mega-bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble (for more on why, go HERE). These businesses had made next to impossible for novelists to make a living wage. Their methods obliterated the author middle class and replaced a balanced economy with a Publishing Third World where most of the wealth was concentrated at the top with the super well-known brands.
Mid-list authors were leaving writing altogether and going back to “real” jobs like teaching. New authors were finding it increasingly difficult to “break out.”
The reason is that, to offer so many books so deeply discounted, books had a far shorter shelf life. Also, unlike say a B. Dalton, the mega stores didn’t carry backlist so a mid-list author was no longer making royalties off eight or ten or fifteen books, she was making royalties off of ONE. The backlist was pulled and essentially stuffed in storage.
The problem was that how platforms were traditionally built was by an author being able to offer multiple titles. Without multiple titles in circulation? Platforms dissolved or never formed at all.
If you were a new author, you had to hope for a proper alignment of stars and hope the book took off and made impact like a literary meteor strike. Because, if you didn’t? There was no good way to keep fan fires burning because older titles got pulled.
Enter social media….
I saw that it was now going to be possible for an emerging writer to cultivate an audience and fan base before the first book was ever published much the same way non-fiction authors could do. Additionally, authors now had a way to offer interaction and content with fans between books.
When Amazon, Smash Words, etc. entered the scene with e-books? The future got brighter. Mid-list authors who were leaving publishing in defeat now could take that backlist and put it out with new life and power this engine using social media. Not only could they build and maintain a brand and platform with social interaction on, say, Twitter or Facebook, but they were back to having those multiple titles SO critical for any brand.
Authors who’d been driven practically into poverty now were making incomes unlike anything they’d seen before.
Before sites like Amazon, writers had two choices. Legacy press or the pay-to-play vanity press. But the steep cost of vanity press acted as a sort of gatekeeper. Also, without social media, vanity press was pretty much a sure way to end up with $10,000 worth of books in our garage. This meant that 1) bad books never really made it into circulation and 2) writers had time to learn and grow and mature before their book was good enough to be accepted by a legacy press.
Granted, I am not saying everything NY accepted was great literature. Nor am I saying they didn’t reject some amazing works because of their business model. But, I think I am fairly safe saying that writers who had no plot (I mean NO plot), poor grammar and atrocious spelling likely didn’t make the cut.
So places like Amazon have been wonderful and have given us gems like Wool and The Martian and it has given new life to old series we wouldn’t have been able to buy unless we struck gold at a garage sale or used bookstore.
Even I have benefitted greatly. NY didn’t want a social media branding book. Even though they were insisting every one of their authors BE on social media, they refused to publish the manual on HOW to do it well.
Yeah, I know. Go fig. But Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World would have been impossible without self-pub and writers would have had to figure everything out the hard way.
But one of the reasons I was not fully gung-ho on self-publishing is that I also saw it was going to bring a LOT of problems. The slush pile would be dumped in the reader’s lap and it would devalue what it meant to say, “I am a published author.” And, by giving any person who’d finished a book the title of “published author” it was going to be harder and harder to correct bad writing.
You guys know I am all about writers being supportive of each other. We have a tough job and we already endure friends, family and the world knifing us, we don’t need to be doing it to each other. I have always had a policy on doing book reviews. If I can’t leave at least three stars, I don’t say anything at all.
But I am starting to have REAL internal conflict about this policy because…
Publishing is the New Participation Trophy
We are drowning in a sea of participation trophies and this is problematic not only for readers, it is devastating to the writing community. Writers who were in no way ready to be published are, but because they are “published” this makes it all but impossible to offer meaningful correction so they can actually grow.
Social media only exacerbates this. Groups of writers band together to offer “support” by reading and reviewing but one of two things is happening. Since the writer is a “friend” others might be offering good reviews that simply were not earned in order to “help.”
Or, they remain silent.
By remaining silent, the author is given no meaningful feedback on how to get any better so the author is just going to keep putting out bad books only making the problem worse.
Then because the writer now is an “author” they are far harder to correct. I have had folks who have won my 20 page critique who sent in writing so bad I could barely make it through. When I red-penned it, I got ripped on how the work was already published and had “great reviews” (All my friends and family LOVE me so you are an idiot).
Failure to Thrive
We are seeing real problems with the millennial generation, and reaping the consequences of handing out participation trophies, banning any failed grades and making teachers use blue pens for grading because “red ink hurts feelings”. We have young people who are bright and passionate and who want to change the world, but they are vastly unrealistic and virtually impossible to correct.
They are addicted to instant gratification and for being rewarded for “trying.” Because of social media, they also have the ability to surround themselves in an ideological echo chamber so anyone who challenges their beliefs or opinions can be “unfriended” and replaced with a more compliant “friend.” When they leave the university and enter the real world they are getting discouraged because creating a career is a long hard journey with lots of work and no one cares if you “tried.”
What is happening is that our intelligent and idealistic youth are suffering unprecedented rates of depression and they are giving up before they should, all because the world doesn’t match their skewed world view. We all are suffering because these kids DO have a tremendous amount to offer, but have been knee-capped by misguided benevolence.
They were not allowed to fail. And by not being allowed to fail, we stole the joy of authentic success. We devalued those who’d earned success. Failure is the best teacher. Humans are wired to learn from failure.
And while that is a whole other blog altogether, I am seeing what I feared back in 2004 happening to the writing world. The same crisis facing our millennials is devastating our writers.
We have created Generation Author Snowflake.
A title that once meant something is open to anyone with a computer. Not only does this discourage writers who did the hard work by handing rewards to those who skipped key parts, but it gives many writers a skewed sense of their abilities. Because failure has been removed from the equation, many writers keep putting out books that aren’t any better than the first bad book that really wasn’t ready to begin with.
I frequently tell writers the key to success is multiple titles (like above) but this is assuming the author is putting out quality material people want to read. Simply writing book after book with no plot or one-dimensional characters is only padding a virtual slush pile.
Additionally, benchmarks of success have been devalued. Years ago, there was a writer in my old writing group whose writing was SO horrible we felt like we were hostages, not critique partners. He never took a single suggestion even though we endured that terrible book for 18 months. When he invited me to his “book signing” at Barnes & Noble? I died a little inside. To this day a “book signing” means less because of this.
But it gets worse. Because we really don’t want to hurt feelings or suffer a backlash, those of us who might actually help a writer grow remain quiet. I recently tried to read a book that was unbelievably bad. But the author was popular, so I guess that is all that matters, right?
I really struggled.
If I wrote the scathing review the book deserved, then I am a jerk for publicly stabbing another writer (and risk tanking my brand for “being mean”). If I write an e-mail, then that would likely fall flat because so many others said the book was better than unicorn tears. But if I remain quiet, who really suffers?
One, the reader for being recommended a 5-star book that hardly earned the rating and for more reasons than simple subjective taste (no plot, repetitive words, bizarre body movements, flawed facts, etc). But the author never grows because the social media echo chamber of popularity is offering a distorted reality.
In the end, I have no good answer. I still can’t bring myself to write bad reviews but then am I contributing to Generation Author Snowflake?
I get messages from writers who have friends who published and, being a good friend, they bought and read the book then were are all, “W…T…H?”
This book is awful! Kristen, what do I do?
I got nothing. Sorry.
But this is the reason behind my post. One of the great benefits of social media is the hive mind. I am only so smart, can only have so many answers. But with you guys? Maybe we can figure out how to change things because I want to get better. I don’t want to get trolled, but I don’t want sunshine blown up my skirt, either. I want to believe I earned what I got and I don’t think I am alone.
I am so thrilled we have all the advantages of e-books and Amazon and blogs and social media. But there are some serious consequences we need to address and correct. Writers are getting discouraged and giving up. Their careers are lacking meaning and they feel like failures, much like the millennials who have corners filled with ribbons and medals they know they didn’t earn (but with no authentic feedback how to improve).
Maybe they really DO have talent, but because they have no correction it really never develops. Or, sad to say, maybe they just aren’t good writers and they need to treat writing as a hobby and stop hemorrhaging money in marketing because they lack what it takes to do this as a career.
No matter what way I look at it, this is bad. It need to change.
So what are your thoughts? Do you have writers around you who are less open to feedback because they are “published”? Do you struggle with reviews? Do you have any ideas or thoughts or suggestions? How do you handle it when a friend has a book that really wasn’t yet ready to be published? Do you find that old benchmarks mean less? Do book signings or book launches fall a bit flatter for you? Do your real successes mean less than they might have 15 years ago?
I love hearing from you!
And to prove it and show my love, for the month of DECEMBER, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
November’s winner of my 20 page critique is Nancy Segovia. THANK YOU for being such an awesome supporter of this blog and its guests. Please send your 5000 word Word document (double-spaced, Times New Roman Font 12 point) to kristen@wana intl dot com.
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