Monday, December 7, 2009

The Power of the Interweb

Every time something like the brouhaha over the pay rate at Black Matrix Publishing rears its ugly mug, I'm reminded of the power of the InterwebTM. (for a nice POV on said brouhaha, check out L.R. Bonehill's blog)

John Scalzi brought the fight to Black Matrix on his Whatever blog, claiming, in part, to be a watchdog for the little guy, pointing out publishers that are taking advantage of, me. I've been paid less than Black Matrix's stated rate...hell, I've given my work away in the past. I don't have a name that's going to sell anything, so nobody's knocking down my door with 5 cents+ a word. (Scalzi writes about his own rates here) It just ain't going to happen. If I want to earn that kind of money, I'll have to fight for it.

Some claim you should only publish in pro mags, regardless of how long it takes you to get there. Some claim publishing in lesser arenas will smear your name and make it harder to go pro later. I call bullshit for a whole variety of reasons. 1. I would have quit writing before I'd "honed my skills" at all if that were the case (still desperately seeking that 1st pro sale), 2. the amount of space open to unknown writers is pretty damn small...last time I checked, there wasn't a shortage of folks vying for that space, 3. Being published in a pro venue isn't a simple matter of writing well enough--no, it involves having your work in the right place at the right time and a whole pile of external factors (like editorial preferences, etc.). If it were as easy as writing pro-level material, everyone who writes long enough and works hard enough would go "pro".

Sorry, I'm not buying that argument.

In steps the power of the InterwebTM. David Daley of Five Chapters has a nice interview here. Listen to it. If you don't want to, let me summarize: the internet has made "everything" free. Remember all that blather about cost-benefits analysis last week? It goes for readers, too. Read something of slightly less quality for free online? Sure. Sales have dropped for all printed (dead tree) fiction and nonfiction. Newspapers are dying. Sales are drying up for classic magazine venues for genre fiction. Bestselling authors working awfully damn hard to keep their heads above water. I salute all of them for making it work as long as they have.

One comment on Black Matrix's blog (singed simply "Pittsburgh journalist") carried the angst all professional writers must feel at this point in history:

"Well, as a professional writer who struggles every month to pay the bills, I frankly resent the fact that you are forcing down the price for the rest of us."

Sorry Pittsburgh, it's not Black Matrix that's driving down the's free that's doing it. It's the market. Yeah, some fiction markets make it online and pay decent rates. How Strange Horizons does it, and has done it for so long, amazes me. Awesome, really. But by and large, the money isn't there...not enough to feed the hordes of people, like me, who want to tell stories more than cash checks.

Call me all the nasty names you want. Insult my writing. Throw stones. I have nothing to hide, and I won't comment anonymously on your site 'cause you know, the InterwebTM has freed my speech a little, too.

Let me "out" with a little snippet from Maya Angelou:

"There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you."


Jamie Eyberg said...

The way I look at it, if they don't pay you and they said they weren't going to pay you the writer is out nothing. If they say they will pay you and they don't that is theft. IF they say they will pay you and they do, fantastic. It is up to the writer to figure out the markets and submit accordingly.

Rebecca Nazar said...

Yeah, what Aaron said!

Cate Gardner said...

I read John Scalzi's post, most of the comments (until they became repetitive), and a few other posts linked to it (mostly LJ blogs). It's interesting to see what other people think. In my opinion, if it wasn't for FTL/Token mags taking my stories in the mid 90's, I probably would have given up. If publishing in lesser areas smears your name then I am already well and truly smeared.

I had made a decision (prior to this) to aim for pro and semi-pro magazines exclusively (give me until 100 rejection letters or June, whichever comes first) next year, not because how much I'm paid is a factor (a lot of the time I donate payment back to the magazine), but because I've been at this so long, I really feel I should attempt to step up a gear and if I fail, then I at least know where I stand. For most of 2009, I really didn't try hard enough.

Aaron Polson said...

Jamie - Choice does have to come into play, somewhere. We're all adults here. Most of us, anyway.

Rebecca - Wait...that's me.

Cate - I'm not sure I have the guts to go strictly pro/semi-pro next year, but I'll hold to paying markets (except maybe for flash...I don't mind giving away). The funny thing, some non-paying markets are the most highly respected in the "literary" field. Go figure.

Jamie Eyberg said...

I think you might be onto something. The lit mags that respect their writers by subbing out the best work for awards are worth something as well. I would love to have a Pushcart under my belt.

Cate Gardner said...

I'm expecting a wagon-load of rejection letters and panic will set in when I get no acceptances, but sitting safe and secure in a December where dreams have not yet been dashed, it's easy to feel confident.

Aaron Polson said...

Jamie - I'd take the Pushcart, anyway they wanted to send it.

Cate - December is for being brave. I like that. New Year's resolutions are just around the corner.

Jeremy D Brooks said...

I've learned so much about the world of writing in the last year. One of the first lessons I remember being made a big deal of when I sat down to get some work published was "don't prostitute yourself with FTL markets because it cheapens us all".

I can understand the reasoning there. It is a reality, but it only tells half of the story. No, scratch that--it tells one-third of the story.

The first third: the aforementioned rule against non-payment: we all want to make a living at this, and giving your work away to one market makes it acceptable for two more markets to lower or eliminate their payments. True story. But...

Second third: I think we all kind of see publishing as a triumvariate: writer, publisher, and reader. As the markets shift and the world re-aligns, I, personally, am starting to see it as more of a bivariate: storyteller and listener. The publishers--all of them, small market anthos, NYC bookhouses, FTL websites--as part of the "storyteller" camp. They work for you, the writer--and if they don't work for you, it's your job as the one crafting the story to find a different way to talk to the listener.

Third third: it bears repeating: we all want to make a living at this. But, face it: we all submit to the same markets, and it doesn't take an accountant to match pay rates up to a given author's biblio to see that none of us are paying bills on this game. Is there much difference between getting nothing and getting $15 or $25 for somthing that took you maybe, what, 10-12 hours to create and perfect? Pffft. Not really, at least not from the author's standpoint. The only difference is that it tightens the filter for the publisher and most likely improves the average quality of published stories.

I, too, learned a lot and owe some gratitude to FTL markets that helped me hone my skills. I would love it if more publishers could afford to pay a decent amount for a larger number of stories, but it ain't happening--at least not in the current model.

Something has to change--something will change, and I suspect it has everything to do with the second third.

Adam said...

Amen Aaron.

Good luck Cate, December is not only an emboldening month but also a lucky one.

Aaron Polson said...

Jeremy - You sir, have a way of explaining things I envy. The future is the 2nd third, for sure, and I think that is why some folks have a little fear in their guts. In a bivariate system, the storyteller can be the method of delivery. I'm ready to busker-up.

Aaron Polson said...

Adam - Cheers.

Katey said...

I understand the sour grapes, but the fact that magazines like Strange Horizons stay open is telling: it's about quality (and being able to run a business competently in difficult times-- a lot of that is quality, but the sense to back it up is key).

Plus, things are changing, like Jeremy says. When they do, people who worked well within the old system are always going to dig their heels in. Sure, it didn't make them rich, but they were used to it. It's like the old political thing: no one ever votes against a system that put them in power. I don't blame anyone for hating changes, for calling them the end of the world.

But they're happening whether they want them or not, and no one's going to stop them. The music industry weathered theirs, and the ones who were smart about it came out on top.

As a side note, I completely agree with you. What absolute bunk, that subbing to a FTL market will besmirch your good writing name. F@#k that!

Fox Lee said...

Wow. I had no idea my name has been smeared. Though, given my last name, I suppose it was only a matter of time before I got an unsavory reputation. From now on, I only submit to WEIRD TALES! ; )

Cate Gardner said...

Go, Natalie!

Robert said...

I don't know why, but I find myself ignoring markets who pay one half or one third or one fourth or one tenth cent a word. Sure, I might submit to a journal that gives only copies (and if I do that it's almost always a flash I'm submitting), or a journal that has a flat fee of five or ten bucks, but the half-cent or third-cent or whatever rates ... I just don't understand the point.

Robert said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aaron Polson said...

Katey - God, how I hate REO Speedwagon, but have to roll with the changes. (oh, how I should be flogged for that!)

Natalie - I'm going to change my last name to Lechery.

Robert - Yes, fractions of a cent seem rather silly...still, I'd love to have a piece in Not One of Us, and they only pay 1/4 cent a word. (It's a market with a good following a respect from the establishment)

Anonymous said...

Saying markets like Black Matrix are driving down the prices is utter bunkum. That's like Bono trashing a pub band's equipment because he's afraid fans won't want to pay $100 to see U2. Or perhaps it's nothing like that. Erm. Anyway, I agree with you 100%. I can scarcely believe people think small presses like BM could make it rich off the backs of writers. We - and by we I mean writers, editors and publishers - are all in this for the samee reason: the love of fiction. No one can make a decent living through writing short fiction.

Aaron Polson said...

Michael - I think the U2 comparison is great. (personally, I'll take the pub though...I like the intimacy of the venue)

BT said...

I always thought demand was driven by the consumer. If people didn't want to submit to low, or non-paying markets, then they would dry up. Same goes for readership. If these FTL-type markets weren't supported by readers (who may only be a bunch of writers but that doesn't matter) then they too would disappear.

If the market only provided substandard fare, then people wouldn't support it - not with so much variety out there.

As writers learn the craft and improve, they naturally gravitate towards higher paying markets, but never completely leave the lower paying areas (a feeling of giving back, safety, a continuing need to gain the occasional acceptance...). Even King still has new work published in non-professional magazines (Midnight Echo 1, for example).

People jumping up and down about the bottom end markets being bad for the industry are just frustrated writers who haven't been able to crack the big time on a regular basis (or at all) and have an over inflated sense of their own capabilities and what they deserve. The world owes nobody a living!

The markets will fluctuate and editors will come and go but there will always be a place for every story a writer pens. In the end it doesn't really matter where you choose to have it published - nobody will make a living writing the short stuff. This is the sandbox, a place to play, learn and grow. It is an opportunity to stretch your creative muscle and get those damn stories out of your head and hopefully before an appreciative audience.

If there is one thing which has stood out so very starkly during my editorialship for Dark Pages V1, many, many writers out there are of a similar level in ability. Only some have a distinct voice or a different premise idea and it's these who stand out from everyone else. Sometimes this isn't a good thing but usually it is - this is totally dependant on the subjectivity of the editor or slush monkey reading your piece, what frame of mind they are in, and if they've gotten laid recently.

K.C. Shaw said...

I've been following Scalzi's comments about Black Matrix (idly) and I absolutely don't see his logic. Yes, in an ideal world all writers would be paid what we deserve, but it's not an ideal world. 1/5 a cent is pretty silly (why not offer a flat rate of $5 or something?), but it's not actually hurting anybody. If you don't like the rate, don't sub there. If you want pro rates only, sub to pro markets only. It's pretty simple.

My writing has improved a lot thanks to my short stories. If I hadn't started subbing (and selling) to low-end markets a few years ago, my writing wouldn't be nearly at the point it is now. God knows I'm not doing this for the money or I'd have starved to death a thousand times over.

Barry Napier said...

Well put. And every time I read a post like this, it again makes me wonder if self-publishing isn't really all that bad. A story is a story is a story and all that...

Aaron Polson said...

BT - Absolutely (re: consumers drive the market). And too much of the market is free (or cheap). As for getting laid, well...I'm not one to speak about that market.

KC - You mean I shouldn't be trying to feed my kids on writing $$? ;) Really, reading his other post about his own rates, the guy only writes short fiction on commission--that's a helluva lot different than writing and submitting like me (us).

Barry - I don't think self-publishing is bad, per se, but a little pressure (competition, "gatekeeping") keeps the quality high. In the future...who knows?

Alan W. Davidson said...

As usual, you bring up an important topic and express what many feel. Great post, sir.

Jodi Lee (Morrighan) said...

Like I said on Twitter - if they don't like what TNBP pays, they're free to not submit to it. I pay what we can afford at present, and our model is working so far.

When it stops working, I'll find another way, but in the meantime - I doubt I'll be seeing too many 'names' on the streets of New Bedlam.

Besides... what's wrong with the names that have been there already, and may eventually come back? Each and every one of them is a far better writer than some of the 'names' I've seen published at high-pro rates, simply because they have a name.

/soapbox. ;)

L.R. Bonehill said...

I could go on and on about this subject, but I’ll leave it at this for now: well said, Aaron.

Aaron Polson said...

Cheers, Alan.

Jodi - Oh, you've just inspired another post. (thank you)

L.R. - You tackled it quite eloquently yourself. ;)

Diana said...

I started my publishing company Scribblers and Ink Spillers and my journal Emerald Tales and the short story line Crystal Codices to give writers a legitimate paying market for their work.

I bleed money every month to give talented writers that writing credit. I understand why those publishers are lowering their pay rates. It's lower the rates or go out of business.

If you, the short story writers, want paying markets for your work, then support those magazines and journals that do pay. If every short story writer bought one or two subscriptions to the magazines that do pay writers, it would tremendously help the publishers stay in business. And if you encouraged your non-writing, reader friends to buy the short story magazines that you enjoy reading, then it would help the publishers stay in business. Word of mouth advertising is the best advertising a book or magazine can get. Help all of us who publish short stories out, build some buzz for our magazines.

Aaron Polson said...

Diana - You are absolutely right. A few of us made a resolution last year to spend a little each month in support of the small press. I plan to revisit how I did in the next week or so. If we all chipped in a little, it could make a huge difference.

(and I used to work at a bookstore...word of mouth is the best)