Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Tiny End of the Long Tail

Yesterday marked the N+1 time I officially wanted to give up writing. Or quit. Or however you want to phrase the term stop. A few factors contributed to my poor attitude, including a nasty head cold (which is still hanging on) and a rejection. Yes, I've had plenty of rejections. No, they don't usually bother me (much) any more. The story had been short listed (which is great) but the rejection cited factors such as limited space and fit the theme of the issue. Sometimes it's not about a story being good enough.

Here's the truth: there aren't enough quality venues for good stories, let alone those that pay. You can call it sour grapes; I don't mind. Those who have been around the proverbial block will understand.

I also read "What Publishers, Authors & Journalists Can Learn from Indie Rock and Music Blogs" on GalleyCat. Let me quote a few eye-openers:

"Most successful indie rock stars earn a teachers’ salary through record sales, touring, and merchandise. For publishing, that means we have to adjust our expectations."

Wait...a teacher's salary? (um, speaking of that...your apostrophe is in the wrong place, GalleyCat) I already earn a teacher's salary, plus benefits. Indie rock stars don't have health insurance plans.

"You have to work for every fan, from blog interviews to hanging out in bars after the show."

I'm trying, I'm trying. How does one fight obscurity? That, to me, is the real question.

And from the Music Blogs side:

"Let your readers create on your site. "

Hmmm...wheels turning...thoughts forming...I'll get back to you on that one.

The bottom line, really, is I'm at the very tiny end of the long tail.* I assume I'll stay there for my career (at least somewhere in the long tail). I'm pretty happy with that, but it does effect the kind of writing I'm willing to do.

For example: you know I love short stories. Writing short stories, especially genre stories of the kind I write (horror, fantasy, magical realism), won't boost one's position in the long tail much, even if a writer publishes in the biggest genre mags. I'm okay with that. I'm okay with anything which allows me to hang around and share stories. Anything which kills my desire to write...well...

Have you read Natalie Whipple's post about her harrowing journey toward publication? (she used to be one of Nathan Bransford's clients) Um, sorry. Not for me. She does follow up with a nice take on what she's learned. The truth: even after you win, you haven't won anything. Kevin J. Anderson (genre writer extraordinaire and editor of Blood Lite II) wrote about "False Summits...and Careers in Writing." Read it. Another eye opener.

I'll end my little ramble with this: Ten years ago, Aimee and I took a trip to Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Park. On our last day in the Tetons, we took a short hike into Paintbrush Canyon. We were exhausted after a week of exploring and day hikes. Aimee was sure the big Paintbrush Canyon payoff was just around every corner. She expected something big, the summit, the epiphany, the very mustache of Zeus. We stopped at one point, and the epiphany struck. We'd been surrounded by the big payoff the whole time if we'd just stopped to look around. The lesson: if you focus on a distant shore, you'll miss the journey. Enjoy the journey. It's all you really have.

*Don't know what the "long tail" is? Here's a primer from Wired Magazine and writer Chris Anderson (who basically coined the concept).


Doug Murano said...

Brutal, truthful and well said. When self-doubt creeps in, I like to keep Stephen King's definition of a "talented writer" in mind: If you have written something for which you've been paid, and that money has helped you pay the light bill, you are a talented writer. Of course, that opens up a huge art/commerce can of worms, but it at least qualifies me as "talented" on those terms. It's good enough for a warm, fuzzy feeling every now and then. That, and whiskey.

Aaron Polson said...

Mmmm...whiskey. King is a real inspiration.

Cate Gardner said...

Been there, done that, still wearing the t-shirt.

The internet and the honesty of writers further ahead in the game have helped open my eyes to the possible heartbreak ahead. Once upon a time, I thought agents akin to the fairy godmother poised to make all my dreams come true. Now I know, sometimes their wands get broken mid submission and we have to go searching for another one be it agent, editor or book.

And don't you dare ever give up. There's enough heartbreak in this little world without adding losing friends.

bradygolden.com said...

I have to remind myself almost daily that there is no endgame, that I write because I write and that's it. Depending on the day of the week, this can be either inspiring or depressing as hell.

bradygolden.com said...

I have to remind myself almost daily that there is no endgame, that I write because I write and that's it. Depending on the day of the week, this can be either inspiring or depressing as hell.

bradygolden.com said...

I should also try to remind myself not to click "Publish Your Comment" more than once.

Barry Napier said...

Greta post and even greater links. Whipple's in particular has me etching another PRO in the self publishing column for the on-going debate within my head.

While I think I can safely say I would never quit writing, I do think there might come a day when I stop subbing to agents and large houses. It seems that with each passing year, there are more and more negative things to be said about these routes.

R. Scott McCoy said...

So much if it really has to do with expectations. I came in the game at 38, with a poorly defined goal of wanting to become a solid enough writer that I could get my stuff out there and make an impact on some readers. I think I'm close and will continue on even when I get there.

As for you, I get excited every time I see a story of yours in the submission pile and I'm honored to be in an anthology and magazine with you. You're good, really good and getting better.

Aaron Polson said...

I'm not going anywhere, Cate. Just taking the journey for all its ups and downs.

Brady - The beast is out there. It's hungry. Hope you have more inspiring days than bad.

Barry - I've noticed those negatives, too. The real hump in the way of self-publishing is obscurity. When I crack that little code, I'll let the world know. Then we'll all be obscure again.

Thanks, Mr. McCoy. You've made me blush. Glad to share the journey with you.

Katey said...

I have to agree with Cate--there was a time when I thought they could wave a magic wand and everything would be great. Of course I know better now. Thank you, Internets.

But I was about to make the final point you made about the journey. It's hard sometimes because we have to be goal-oriented. What do you want? I want to sell a book to a big publishing house and be a household name--or at least make enough to live on? I want to amass a little cult following who totally gets me and interact with them, thereby fulfilling my intellectual needs?

If we don't think in those terms, we lose direction. Yet those goals force us to miss what's going on at the time. And honestly, I f#@king love what I do. Every winter I get down on myself, I hate this game, I hate my writing, I hate the world. Every. Winter.

But I don't hate any of it.

Sometimes it's not about a story being good enough.
This is the pisser. God, I had no idea HOW accurate this was until it was me having to let go of a brilliant story just because the theme didn't fit.

It's so sad. But so true. And Jesus, RPP isn't even close to being a pro type market, it's just for fun. And it STILL hurts. :/

Aaron Polson said...

Katey - I kind of think I'm in it for the cult. And winter...sucks. We need a support group. Wait--we are a support group, aren't we?

Milo James Fowler said...

Enjoy what you're writing? Check.
Your readers enjoy it? Check.
Nuff said.
"Never give up. Never surrender!" - Galaxy Quest
End of pep talk transmission.

Aaron Polson said...

Thanks Milo. I'm not planning on quitting. Only on the dark days. Only the darkest.

Over and out.

(and Galaxy Quest quotes, too?)

Daniel W. Powell said...

Morning Aaron,

Nice post. The doubts are always there, I think, regardless of where you are in the tail. I think even at the front of the line, writers find reasons to wonder about their art and their place and the rest of what any of that stuff means.

Human nature.

The healthiest thing I can do is write the kind of stories I want to read. I try to get to it every day, at least a little bit, but if I can't, it's not the end of the world. There's a be-careful-what-you-wish-for cautionary aspect to being at the front of the line, as well.

If you want to be up there in Anderson's fourth level, you need to really want it. That means less time for a catch in the park, less time to cook a good meal, less time to take a road trip whose only goal is to spend time with your family.

If one worryies, in the back of the mind, about his or her daily word count or press clippings or appearances, then writing the kinds of tales you want to read and hanging in the back of the line is pretty fine.

Take care...

Aaron Polson said...

I'm sure writers at the front of the line do wonder, Daniel. And I'm not sure about less time for a catch in the park or cooking a good meal. The fam is pretty important, after all. Thanks for stopping by.

Natalie L. Sin said...

You know, when you make me read the world "Tetons" it deletes anything intelligent I had to say.

I try not to think too much about the lack of markets. If I do, my head will explode. Of course, once the story is written and I'm on Duotrope one needs to be practical.

Aaron Polson said...

Ha! Tetons! Yeah, when you see the mountains, you know what the dirty old bastard who named them was thinking.

Lee Thompson said...

Don't lose the excitement that comes from telling only the stories you can tell, Aaron. There's gold in that.

I think there's a lot of 'luck' involved in publishing. And 'timing' that we have no control over. All we can do is our best and enjoy every success no matter how small.

Great links, too. That one ladies was really sad. Damn.

Aaron Polson said...

I won't lose the excitement, Lee. It's only a hiccup. They happen.

Really sad indeed. I can't understand the psychology, but I love the determination.

Simon Kewin said...


This post warmed my heart : I've been having a similar time of it of late : things not clicking, "sure-fire" hits missing. Sometimes it does just seems impossible to break through the wall of indifference. You're damn right about enjoying the journey though. And thanks for saying all that. It's no help to you but knowing others are going through it helps me!

As to letting your readers create on your site - it's tricky, but it is something I've had various thoughts about. Wikifiction, for instance, a system to allow people to edit the wording of a story. Not sure if that would actually work; might try some time.

Incidentally (see, I can ramble too), where I grew up a "long tail" is a rat. Just thought you would like to know that ...

Aaron Polson said...

Simon - Rats make wonderful (if short lived) pets, but the tails...ugh.

I've thought about wikifiction, too. It might be a fun exercise if nothing else.

Jeremy D Brooks said...

It's a hard way to make a living, for sure...even harder way to make a non-living.

This is how I stay motivated here in the tiny, tiny part of the tail: I'm creating, AND I'm doing something that I love; and very few people in the world can say that. And creating something substantial from scratch is painful and hard and heartbreaking and the most satisfying feeling in the world. (which leads back to the art vs commerce discussion... but, ultimately, you have to love what you're making, or you may as well be an actuary or a water softener salesman)