Please see the bottom of the page for an important update.
Today I spoke with Bernard Schaffer and William Vitka as part of a panel of indie writers about the current state of the self-publishing industry. Mike Shean was unable to attend due to personal reasons that came up at the last minute. We spoke our pieces, did some Q and A during the whole presentation, and we got down on the floor to talk with our peers. It went really well.
Photo credit to Maria Borzacchini. L to R: William Vitka, Alexander Maisey, Bernard Schaffer.
That is to say, except for right before it started.
The conference room we used was shared with another prior panel of writers, those of the old guard—people who had gone through the traditional publication route, who had met with some degree of success in their lives (Though I can’t see success being defined as a screenwriter who hasn’t produced anything that rated higher than 35% on RottenTomatoes—let alone anything at all in almost a decade… but I digress). I’m not jealous of success by any means, since I’m doing well enough myself–not quit my job to live my authorial dreams good, but well enough to keep a roof over my head when I needed it. If you’re making money doing what you like, that’s the goddamn American dream, isn’t it?
What pissed me off was twofold. After running ten minutes over their allotted time, the host of the prior panel was asked to announce our panel since the crowd they had gotten clearly had an interest in writing and might be interested in what we might have to say. He got on the mic and mumbled, “Hang around for the Independent something,” and walked away.
I asked a simple question of the members of the prior panel as our group entered the hall, not knowing their identities. (It’s worth mentioning that none of their names struck a bell after I did find out who they were; a Google search at home cleared that up and did not impress.) I asked, very simply, “Are you writers, too?”
They literally guffawed at me in that, “This guy doesn’t know who I am” way. One snickered, “You could say so.” His particular curriculum vitae includes a number of comic books for a company that failed terribly in the late nineties and little else afterwards.
My career for decades has been in customer service, so I deal with the loudest mouths and the rudest attitudes on a daily basis. Unperturbed, I asked them if they’d be interested in staying on to participate with our panel.
“We have places to be,” announced an author who writes what are essentially glorified book reports: books about other books. None of the rest of the crowd had any response. They pushed their way out the door and faded into the bustle of Philadelphia’s convention center.
Holy. Fucking. Shit.
That bothered the hell out of me, for reasons I knew immediately and will get to in a moment. I put it at the back of my mind during the panel and had a wonderful time—If you were there: Yes, I imagined you naked. But only a little. I’m getting married, you harpy.
I have no problem with speaking in public. In a past job I taught a room full of salespeople from all over the entire east coast how to talk their way into someone’s home and get them to buy an extended warranty that they had refused while at the store they’d bought their products from. I’m that terrible of a human being, yes, but that’s beside the point: I’ve no issue talking to people no matter how uncomfortable the situation is.
Back on point: Bernard will attest to the fact that there was quite a bit of ego in that room during the prior panel, as he sat in on it and tried to ask some questions of the presenters. After hearing about that, and based on the brief exchange I’d just had, I realized something: These people were a clique. A clique of writers.
The audience members that stayed from their panel looked generally wary of us when we first sat down. That is, until Bernard launched his opening volley, asking the audience if anyone was a writer, if anyone wanted to be one. And then we talked to them, one by one, as they raised their hands and told us—proudly—about the books they’d written, the short stories they’d self-published, the chapters they hadn’t yet brought together as a complete organism. They asked us questions—and we answered as honestly as possible—about the tiniest minutiae of what we’ve done, what successes and failures we’d had, what mistakes we’ve made and what they could learn from not repeating them. People smiled, laughed at our dick jokes, and nodded their heads. People were taking notes. At least one lady in the front row started recording us on video.
At the end of it, we got down on the floor and talked to people. I met an aspiring comic artist and his partner, talked to a guy who had never written in his life but wanted to start, and answered questions for another guy who had been published traditionally and wanted to know more about Kindle Direct Publishing and Createspace. Vitka and Bernard had similar experiences.
I had a thought after the third conversation and jumped back onto the stage and grabbed the mic as the poor Wizard World volunteers were trying to throw out our nametags and half-finished Dasanis’. I announced to the crowd to take our cards, to email us, to talk to us more with any more questions.
Why did I do that?
Because for forty-five minutes, we talked to those people—as people. As equals.
As a community.
And I want the conversation to continue… forever. Because we writers should be a community, and communities help each other.
As a whole, we authors should be inclusive, inviting, respectful, and honest.
Sure, you need to have thick skin, because everything everyone writes is crap until it gets polished into gold–But I mean it when I say everything and everyone. A friend who is looking out for your well-being, who is trying to make you better at what you love, is going to make you re-write that passive sentence you slapped onto your first page. They’re going to tell you that your story has an enormous plot hole and you should rethink how the macguffin that manipulates your protagonist’s mind during the climax. I frequently talk to aspiring writers through email: I recently helped a guy bring turn his two paragraph story idea into a really thrilling 40k word detective story. I don’t mind doing that kind of thing, if I’ve got the time to. But if your idea is terrible, I’ll tell you. We help each other. If the help hurts, so be it. I’ve been told I suck—but I’ve been told why, and how to reduce the suck. I knuckled down and got shit fixed, learned my lesson, and now I feel nothing but appreciation for the people who were honest with me.
I am part of a very small, but growing, community of independent writers. I want this community to get even bigger because I’m tired of cliques. I never want to be high and mighty; I don’t want to live in a shining tower of authorial greatness. I kind of like it down here in relative obscurity.
Independent writers: The old guard of the publishing industry calls ebooks the slushpile. That’s a quote, by the way, from one of the presenters at the panel that preceded ours. What does that tell you about how they feel about you and your work?
Meanwhile, me Bernard and Vitka asked you questions. We tried to answer yours. We told you all the places you can look for help, and we opened ourselves up to be spoken to privately and outside the confines of the meeting hall.
We want to succeed and we want you to succeed. We want your help, and we want to help you at the same time. You’re not the slushpile, you’re not the scum. You’re us. And we’re you.
Today I received an email from Shane Vidaurri, who was on the panel prior to ours. He apologized on behalf of the other panelists and made it clear that he was a human being. I need to make right by him, and say that, no, Shane was not a dick to us. He was the one person in that group that did no wrong, and unfortunately, in my anger, I forgot to make note of that. Shane, wherever you are: Thank you for being genuine, and I hope that your reputation was not damaged in any way by association with the people I railed against, or by my railing itself. I hope you and I are able to open the same kind of dialogue I want to engage every aspiring and published creator in, and that this experience doesn’t tarnish our chances of accomplishing that.