Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Beware of the Bitter Author

Listen to the Companion Podcast Episode

One of the phenomena you'll encounter on your publishing journey is the Bitter Author. The Bitter Author will try to discourage you, give you bad advice, or make you feel badly about your publishing path. Don't let it happen. Keep your guard up, your eyes open, and focus on your goals.

The Bitter Author comes in many shapes and sizes. A few I've encountered include:

"Former Big 5" Author:
This author was once published by a major house, but no longer is. Maybe he still has an agent, but probably not. He might even have had a movie option once, but that didn't pan out. No one remembers his name or his debut novel. Maybe he had some short fiction sales back when people read things like magazines, but no one remembers those either. Now, he clings on, published by a variety of small houses. His books still don't sell enough for him to make a living because he's the same writer whom all the resources of a big publishing house couldn't turn into a commercial success.

Former Big 5 Author is an angry man. He thought he'd reached the summit of Everest when he signed his first deal, but soon discovered all he'd received were directions to the base of the mountain, and all his sherpas quit on him when they saw he wasn't that great a climber. Now, he wraps his disappointment in layers of condescension. He bemoans the "unedited crap" being churned out by "no talent" self-publishers. He won't hear a word otherwise, and mocks and belittles anyone who disagrees with him. Why does he do this? Maybe he believes he'd be selling books if only it weren't for all these cheap, crappy, self-pubbed titles. Mostly, though, he resents seeing others succeed where he failed.

How do we handle Former Big 5 Author? Don't engage. Nothing you say will ever change his mind. And even if you could, what would it gain you? Just smile as he flails away online, spewing his bile, and then get back to writing.

"The Gatekeeper Let Me In" Author:
This author hasn't made it to Big 5 publishing. Maybe she came close, but couldn't sell her manuscript. Maybe she never managed to secure an agent. Maybe she never even tried for one reason or another. This author is published by a small, perhaps tiny, digital/POD press. Like Former Big 5 Author, her books don't sell. She deals with this by clinging to the fact that an "editor" deemed her work worthy of publication. This, she claims, elevates her work above the flood of poor-quality books that are published only because digital publishing has made it possible to bypass the gatekeepers. Meanwhile, it never occurs to her that her "publisher" only exists because of digital publishing opening these gates, and were it not for digital publishing, she'd be unpublished.

The Gatekeeper Let Me In Author is another whom we can ignore. If she wants an editor of some stripe to affirm her work's worth, that's fine. We'll let the readers affirm our worth.

"Failed/Failing at Indie-Publishing" Author
 This author generally comes in two flavors:

"Did Everything Wrong" Author
This author dipped his toe into the waters of self-publishing, but he didn't take the time to learn anything about the best practices. Maybe he tried publishing some short fiction. Maybe he published a few disconnected works. Maybe he didn't identify niches with the best sales potential. Perhaps he had a crappy book cover. You name it, he did it wrong. Why did he do it? Impatience? Arrogance? Maybe he's traditionally-published and is accustomed to being taken care of. In any case things on the indie side aren't working out for him.

Did Everything Wrong Author will get on your nerves. It might be mild comments like, "It might work for some, but it doesn't work for me." In his more annoying form, he'll visit self-publishing forums in search of a magic bullet to make his books sell. Whatever you do, don't suggest that he start from the ground up, utilizing best practices. He'll get indignant and accuse you of "lecturing" or "straying off-topic." If you want to give him a gentle nudge in the direction of resources that would be helpful to him, feel free. Just don't expect it to make a difference.

"Just Can't Write" Author
This is the toughest one of all. Some people are simply bad writers. I'm not talking about genre differences or subjective tastes. Some writing is objectively bad. Other authors can write clean, perhaps even quality prose, but can't tell a story. Some can't write engaging characters. Others write dialog so bland that you sometimes can't differentiate it from the narrative voice.

This author might have actually done everything "right" but when push came to shove, readers tried her work and didn't like it. It's not that she sells zero books. She probably has a handful of readers- just enough to convince her that it's not her writing that's the problem.

Just Can't Write Author is angry. She's followed all the publishing advice, and she's still not selling books. She's convinced the quality of her writing is not the problem, so the issue must be that all the publishing advice she followed is wrong. Why did some succeed where she didn't? Luck. That's all. She lurks on sites like Kboards, itching for a fight, contradicting the advice of commercially successful writers, giving bad advice, seconding bad ideas, and saying things like, "Don't let anyone tell you your (terrible) idea won't work!" Why does she do this? Because, deep down, she doesn't believe anything other than luck makes a difference, so what's the harm in trying out strategies that have failed again and again? Good luck will overcome bad practices, and all the best practices in the world won't overcome bad luck.

Just Can't Write Author shouldn't be ignored. There's no point in engaging her directly- her mind isn't going to change. What you can do is offer good advice to the people she's guiding down the wrong path. They might not know any better.

So who isn't a bitter author?
There are lots of "Positive Authors" out there at all stages of their careers. In fact, I've encountered very few bitter authors. The common denominator? On some level, they're happy with where they are. Maybe they're indie authors earning a nice living; perhaps they've got a nice career going with a traditional publisher; could be their work is being recognized for its literary merit; maybe they're just happy to be published and are having a great time; or, maybe they aren't anywhere near where they want to be, but they still have hope and have surrounded themselves with the right sorts of people to help them on their way.

"Positive Authors" are secure in the knowledge that they are responsible for their own careers and the opinions of the bitter among those they encounter don't matter in the long run.

Focus on the positive influences. Don't let the bitter authors into your life.

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