Who’s an Outlier, Again?

A funny thing happens during times of great industrial upheaval: Everyone wants a piece of the new deal, but nobody wants to take what they perceive to be a risk. Most established players retrench, hold on to what’s familiar, and try to shout down anyone with a contravening opinion. It’s human nature to get defensive when one perceives a threat to one’s view of the universe.

In the midst of the upheaval in the publishing industry, I’m seeing this a lot. As agents are conning their clients into unethical business arrangements (and kudos to Peter Cox and Kristen Nelson for going on record about the danger this represents to writers), editors with excellent reputations are getting kicked off writing forums for providing data on the change, publishers are defrauding their authors and engaging in massive rights grabs, breaking the rules can earn you some pretty serious grief from other writers who are following the rules and hoping they’ll get reputation points for it.

Trouble is, this isn’t first grade. There are no gold stars for following the rules. And a lot of people are breaking the rules.
And they’re winning.

There are the people who are pursuing the established business model of licensing their work to a large publishing house, and they’re not following the script. You know the script, right? “You have to get an agent, then your agent will sell your book on to a publisher after they help you shine it up–because publishers don’t buy books that need work, and they don’t buy books from unagented writers.”
This script is, of course, a lie, and a dangerous one. Many new writers spend years hunting for an agent. Leaving aside for a moment questions about the future viability of the agented business model, there is one thing an agent can’t do, has never have been able to do, and will never be able to do: Write you a check. You can spend an entire career trying to sell your book to someone who is unable to buy it.
Or, you can do what over 40% of first-time novelists do–including my friend Gail Carriger–and say “fuck the rules.” Mail your book to an editor who doesn’t accept submissions, the worst they can say is no. You won’t get a bad reputation for it; frankly, you’re not that important. You’re one of thousands of names they see every month, and unless you’re extraordinarily rude, your name will be forgotten as quickly as your manuscript. On the other hand, you might instead get notes like some I’ve been getting recently–notes from people who swear up and down in public that they’ll never look at an unagented mss, who are asking to see yours. (But if you mention that you’ve done that, you’re likely to get attacked by people who feel threatened when others don’t follow the rules).

Then there are the folks pursuing the new opportunities provided by the changes in the industry–either exclusively working through the new distribution channels or pursuing both the old and the new models simultaneously, with varying degrees of success. These are people like J.A. Konrath, Barry Eisler, Amanda Hocking, Dean Wesley Smith, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, James Melzer, Jennifer Hudock, Nathan Lowell, Scott Sigler, Brand Gamblin, and (last and least) me. These people have looked at the rules and said “Well, we obviously don’t need those anymore.” And they’re really pissing people off.

Both camps have something else in common, besides breaking the rules: The people who feel threatened by rule-breakers call both camps “Outliers.” They make out as if the normal rules don’t apply to us, because we’re somehow special. That there’s something magical about our talent, or our social savvy–something that makes us so rare that we shouldn’t be studied or listened to.

Think of this logic: The people who are most successful at what they do (or even, as in my case, marginally successful at the beginning of their careers) should be ignored, because their experience is so atypical it can’t be learned from. In other words, if you want to win, ignore the people who are good at winning.

This, my friends, is a recipe for failure. Every author’s career path is different, and you’re going to have to cobble together your own as you go. If you’re slavishly following a program rather than adapting and experimenting, your odds of success are diminished. If you’re dismissing “outlier” data, you’re cutting off your arm. If you’re slavishly following the advice of an “outlier,” you’re probably also missing out. Business requires creativity and a willingness to experiment. It also requires resilience. You don’t get that by operating on tunnel vision.

From the point of view of the people who dismiss the rule-breakers, the world is getting smaller. The business is in upheaval, and the opportunities are diminishing. Self-publishers are flooding the market with crap, and no good work will get found in all the white noise.

This argument is a load of bullshit. If white noise were capable of preventing people from finding good content, then the Internet (which is, by some estimates, over 70% spam) wouldn’t function. You wouldn’t be reading this blog right now.

But this? This is the best time in history to be a writer–better even than the Golden Age of Pulp, and that was a damn good time.

You don’t have to take my word for it. You can listen to the other “outliers,” or you can listen to the Consulting Editor at Wiley Press, who says exactly the same thing. These are times of unparalleled opportunity.

So if you’re trying to figure out why your career isn’t going anywhere, perhaps it’s time to look at your paradigm. Do you have a million words or close to it under your belt, but aren’t selling? Maybe you’re not sending material to people who can write checks. Are you selling, but not making a living? Perhaps it’s time to put a foot into the self-pub world as well, and spend the time learning how to package your work to attract eyeballs.

Or maybe you’re a new writer, with only a year or two under your belt, and like most new writers (including me when I was baby-powder fresh), you’re looking for a program to follow: solid answers and prescriptions for writerly success in a few short months or years. It’s time to stop looking, because it won’t happen. Writing is a discipline that takes practice–at least a decade’s worth–to master. And it takes constant learning of all kinds. There is no end, unless you quit.

That’s the breaks. And don’t tell me I’m an outlier, because if you’ve got the stamina and creativity to write novels, you’re already more intelligent and determined than around 90% of the population, which makes you an outlier by definition. You become an outlier among outliers by taking risks, being adaptable, and working your ass off. Don’t use the success of others who have more years in this than you do, or a bit more luck, as an excuse to avoid experimenting.

Don’t wuss out.

If you find this post useful or thought provoking, please consider donating to the tip jar at the top right of this site, or buying a copy of any of the books you’ll find listed in the right sidebar. Writing is how I make my living–I enjoy it and would like to keep it up!

Bookmark the permalink.

4 Comments

  1. We don need no steenkin badches.

    Seriously though, I can’t thank you enough for this post. While I’ve been podcasting for a number of years, I hadn’t seriously started writing until two years ago. I have a long way to go, and while I’m frustrated at times by the uphill climb, I am also very excited about the changes going on in the industry. It makes me think of Dickens. It’s the best/worst of times to be in the writing game. I honestly believe that life is what you make of it, and I think that sentiment applies here just as aptly. There are no gold stars. There are no brass rings. There is no finish line.
    Write. Publish (however you determine to).
    Write more. Repeat.
    Pay attention to changes going on (almost daily) and then write some more.
    That’s kinda my plan.

  2. I’ve had six traditionally published novels, but writing is a lot more fun and productive now that I’m publishing my own work. I spend far more time on the business now than I did in the past, but I love it. Yes, it’s hard work, and no, I haven’t found “success” yet, but I’m being patient. This really sums it up: “You become an outlier among outliers by taking risks, being adaptable, and working your ass off.”

    Thanks for this.

  3. David and Linda-

    Glad it was helpful–always nice to hear there are other deranged souls like me out there 😉
    Keep kicking ass!
    -Dan

  4. Pingback: Fans Making A Difference at Literary Abominations

Comments are closed