by James Scott Bell
We are well into the second decade of the self-publishing (now more preferably termed indie-publishing) movement. The flame wars of the early years (“Death to traditional publishing!” “Oh yeah? Self publish and you’ll ruin your career!”) have been replaced by the calm ruminations of business-minded “authorpreneurs.”
And while reports of the death of traditional publishing have been greatly exaggerated, the industry’s dependence on A-list stars has left a void in what used to be called the “midlist.”
It is a vacuum productive writers abhor. So they have filled the void with indie product.
Of course, most of the product is, shall we say, not good (see Sturgeon’s Law). Nor is all of it legit. Perhaps you’ve been following yet another plagiarism scandal that recently broke out, this time in that part of the book kingdom where romance flowers. A USA Today bestselling writer apparently hired a ghostwriter from, of all places, Fiverr. That’s a site that has all sorts of freelancers who’ll work on the cheap—five bucks is the baseline. This author was hiring said labor to put together “books” in the romance genre so she could be slapping them up on Amazon at a heart-pounding (notice my genre-specific adjective!) pace. Problem: the freelancer was snatching passages from published works to fill out the pages.
Kris Rusch wrote about this, and has these wise words:
The smartest thing…is to write your books at your pace, and stop flooding the market with mediocre books, written by people who don’t care about your worlds or your characters as much as you do.
If you got into this business because you love writing, then write for heaven’s sake. And if you’re worried about maintaining your income, then the real key is to cut expenses, not add to them. If you can’t survive without gaming the system, then maybe consider a part-time job until you have enough money put away to augment your writing income in the lean months. Then live on a percentage of what your writing earns, not on the entire amount.
Indie writers (who are true writers) want to feed the system. Indie scammers (who are not true writers) want to game the system. You have to live with yourself. Unfortunately, with the death of shame in our culture, cheaters are often able to look in the mirror with a satisfied smile. But know this for certain: they will never experience the true joy that only comes from honest applied effort.
I’ve been a happy indie since 2011. Coming from the traditional world, however, I am appreciative of the “grinder” my books were put through, meaning the editorial process. I worked with some great editors who helped me get better. As an indie, I seek similar feedback on every book I write.
And when a book is ready, it’s published in ten minutes. Boy, do I love that!
Here’s another joy—getting to publish something written by my late father.
Back in 1972 my big brother, Bob, was having thoughts about becoming a lawyer like our dad. Bob was, at the time, a teacher at an elementary school in northern California. So he wrote Dad a letter—a real letter, on paper, with an envelope and a stamp!—asking for Dad’s counsel.
And Dad, never one to do things (like represent a client) half way, wrote a long letter in response.
Dad thought his modest epistle might be something other lawyers would find of value. So he paid to have it published in installments in the Los Angeles Daily Journal, the city’s legal newspaper.
It was a huge hit. The demand for copies proved so great that Dad had the whole thing printed up and paid for it to be included as an insert in a later edition of the Journal.
It hit me recently that Compendium Press, my indie publishing company, ought to publish the letter once again, this time permanently in digital form. But I couldn’t locate any copies in my dad’s files.
So I asked my brother if he had a copy. He did, and sent it to me as a PDF file. I then sent it to a scanning service, and now it’s up permanently as A Lawyer’s Letter to a Son.
Why publish it again? It’s not because I think it will make a lot of money; it won’t. It’s because I believe its message is relevant today for anyone considering going into law—or maybe who went into the profession for the dough and are starting to wonder if that was the right reason. The letter represents a view of the law that is rare today: as an honorable profession, not just a way to gain money or power. (And no lawyer jokes, please!)
My dad was a great L.A. lawyer, highly respected by his peers, and a colorful character in his own right. He loved a good fight in court, a good cigar in his leisure, and a sporty bow tie with his suits. I love hearing his voice again in this letter.
If you know any law students, or wannabe law students, or even young lawyers, maybe you can recommend this little letter, which I’m making FREE for the next several days.
Now to you, TKZers. What brings you joy in your writing?
Problem: the freelancer was snatching passages from published works to fill out the pages.
And, the writer (I refuse to use the term author) was stupid enough to grab works from a best-selling author who was also an IP lawyer AND from Nora Roberts.
As an orphaned traditionally published author, albeit via small presses, I take delight that I can continue with my love of communing with my characters and putting them through hell and present my work to readers.
I’m also lucky that my editor from one of the small presses decided to go freelance and I have her watchful eyes on my work before it goes public.
I think it’s great that you’ve got your father’s work out there, and there’s a better way than the old vanity presses when you have a story to tell for a limited audience.
Terry, it is indeed a boon to have an experienced editor whom you trust.
And yes, I remember those vanity press days. Almost always the books had a vanity look: dismal covers, weird margins, etc. And the poor souls who paid thousand and thousands for this “service” wondered why their garage was full of unopened boxes.
Wonderful post, Jim.
It’s amazing how timely your topics are. I told the story of my father yesterday, in response to Joe Hartlaub’s question, “What book first inspired you to write?” And it reminds me of your action to preserve your father’s book. My dad was developing dementia, wrote his memoirs of his service during WWII, then never edited or published his book. Hard copies (rough draft) were mostly lost, his computer had been given away, and there were no digital files. I coerced my daughter to type the whole thing into a word file, spent a summer editing it, had it printed, then gave my dad a box of his books for his 90th birthday. After my dad passed, my mom got tired of buying box after box of books to give away and asked me to put the book on Amazon. I was too busy, or so I thought. In honor of what would have been my dad’s 99th birthday, last year, I finally published it on Amazon. It will never sell. Few will read it, but there is great joy in having done it.
So thanks for publishing your father’s letter. I look forward to reading it. And thanks for publishing Peter Charlie, The Cruise of the PC 477. I enjoyed that book, too.
Steve, it is a great feeling to know it’s out there. There will be people who read your dad’s book, esp. if you promo it from time to time.
It is tremendously satisfying that Peter Charlie has two reviews by appreciative readers.
Puttin’ the words down, one at a time, until they make sense, growing story and the people who inhabit it.
There is no better.
Right, Jim. There are those great times when what we’re writing “comes alive” for us in a new way. Always fun. Overtakes the “slogging” parts of writing. It’s sort of like the guy who hits one perfect golf shot in a round…that’s what keeps him coming back!
I never understood people who hire ghostwriters for fiction. How do you even say “thank you” when a reader compliments the book? At book signings, they’d need to make up an entire backstory of what inspired the story, the research involved, the writing process, etc, etc. Seems to me, the so-called author would lead a dishonest and uncertain double-life.
What if the same ghostwriter doesn’t want to write the next book? Then they’re at the mercy of trying to find someone who can echo said author’s voice. Makes no sense. If the “author” can’t or won’t write, then they have no business putting their name on the cover. The only exception, I think, is a memoir. My 2c.
Congratulations on your new release, Jim! Republishing your dad’s work is a lovely way to honor him.
Right on, Sue. And we have to make sure to distinguish the ghostwriter from the co-writer. Patterson does a lot of work on the outline, for example, and his co-writers get put on the cover.
Not so the ghost who writes the whole thing for some celebrity and remains hidden.
In the case of the plagiarist mentioned in this post, she didn’t care how the books sounded. Her only concern was fast-posting product to game the algorithms…and make the money.
Your father sounds like a wonderful man. I will definitely check out his book.
I had a brief flirtation with law school, but married an Air Force officer so there went that. The senior partner of a law firm I once worked for thought I would make a good attorney and offered to send me to law school if I promised to come back and work for them. He thought I would be deadly in court because opposing counsel would take one look at me (young and sweet, at the time) and dismiss me, giving me time to cut them to ribbons in court. I liked to argue back then. And I usually won.
My plan is to try traditional publishing first, because I was once an editorial assistant.and it was drummed into me that was the way to go. However, I also have an independent spirit so if I can’t get my work out any other way, I may go that route.
But first, I have to finish something.
Happy Sunday, Everyone!
But first, I have to finish something.
Ha! Words of wisdom.
Finish…and immediately get to work on the next.
And I’m glad I never had to face you in court, Cynthia!
When our children were in high school I expressed regret to my hubby that I didn’t go to law school since attorneys make more than secretaries. He gave me a hug and said “That’s okay, honey. You would’ve spent all your time doing pro bono work for widows and orphans and wouldn’t have made a dime anyway.”
I read your dad’s book. I love it. Thank you for sharing.
Thanks back atcha, Cynthia.
If someone said, “You must give up writing or chocolate,” I’d have to choose the latter…although with great regret.
Joy is finding the exact right word or phrase that clicks perfectly into place and suddenly the character is alive.
Joy is when a reader says, “You captured my feelings like you were inside my head.”
Joy is editing the work of young writers and having them say, “That’s what I meant to say but you said it so much better. How can I do that, too?”
Really enjoyed Peter Charlie and am looking forward to A Lawyer’s Letter. Passing down wisdom from the elders is a great contribution. Your dad lives on. Thanks, Jim.
Three great instances of joy, Debbie. Right on.
And thanks for the kind words about Peter Charlie. My dad didn’t use a vanity press originally, but hired out the typesetting and the printing. It cost a pretty penny to print up hardcovers, but he sold a lot of them through his networking with his old shipmates. He died in 1988 but we kept getting orders, so sometime in the 90s the entire run had sold. Pretty good record, that. And now it’s out forever in digital form!
Good post, Jim.
Joy for me is storytelling, conveying the stories my characters tell me. Rather than being the almighty writer on high, I choose to roll off into the trenches with the characters and try to keep up as they race through the story. I see myself as their recorder, writing down what they say and do. Work? If it was work, I’d find something else to do.
I don’t personally care what road to publication other writers choose. I’m pleased and proud to be an indie writer and publisher. Under the old system, I’d either write under a dozen or so pen names, or I’d publish one or two books per year. Meaning currently my count would be 4 or 5 novels at the words, and 8 or 10 at the best.
Because of this brave new world of indie publishing, I’ve now published 40 novels and am working on the 41st. (That plus 7 novellas, almost 200 short stories and the attendant collections.)
I do have other eyes on my work to catch glitches, wrong words (waste vs. waist), inconsistencies and so on, but that’s it. More importantly (to me), I’ve had hundreds of thousands of words more practice than I would have if I were held to only one or two novels per year.
Loving it. I only wish I’d stumbled across Heinlein’s Rules when I was in my 20s or 30s. (grin)
Harvey, you are Bradbury-esque in both output and process. He once remarked that, for him, plotting was following his character’s footprints in the snow. Ha!
Congrats on your prolificity and joy.
What a lovely way to honor your father’s memory. I just ordered the book and look forward to reading it.
Well that’s quite nice of you, Kay!
I see just that the book is currently #1 in the free Kindle store under Legal Profession. My dad would’ve loved that!
Great post and a wonderful way to honor your father’s thoughts and words.
What brings me joy is the entire Indie process: from initial idea spark to writing/editing/designing to hitting the Publish button to the marketing (which I find as creative as the rest). It’s the whole shebang. The entire process of creating a work and getting it out there and receiving feedback (in multiple ways) that I’ve touched someone with what I’ve created.
BTW, Jim (may I call you Jim?), I just finished “Super Structure” and was able to apply it productively to my WIP.
(a former resident of Woodland Hills, CA)
Harald! Glad to hear about your joy in the indie process. It’s still amazing, even after nearly 12 years of the Kindle, to think that this is possible for writers. I’m still excited about it.
Yes, call me Jim, and thanks for the good word about Super Structure.
Good old Woodland Hills. I grew up four blocks from the Woodland Hills Country Club. Used to sneak on with my buddies and a 9-iron and mess around until we got chased off.
Thanks for response, Jim.
Re: Woodland Hills Country Club… Yep, drove around it every day for years. We lived at the top of Rosario Rd (just under Dirt Mulholland). Until the Northridge Quake shook our house apart. Then down to the Canoga Ave flats for one year. Then adios to L.A. and to the Central Virginia countryside and the land of Thomas Jefferson, another writer of note.
The stubborn part of me just wants positive recognition from an agent that my work is worthy. The realist part of me knows that feedback from an agent is like winning Power Ball – not bloody likely. And so, my fear of publishing on Kindle. I’m reading your latest “The Last Fifty Pages” to take a critical look at my book’s ending. It’s the ending I want, but is it presented in it’s most powerful way. Once it’s massaged in it’s most powerful way, how do I know if it’s good or just another piece of crap in the pile. I’m considering what looks to be a reputable and reasonable beta reading site because I’ve had my work beta read, but I have little faith in random beta readers. You’ve come from traditional publishing so you’ve gotten that positive recognition. Any advice for those looking for quality feedback before subjecting themselves to the slings and arrows of reader comments.
Barbara, I well understand the desire for “validation.” It’s the product of a century of traditional publishing mythology. You just have to assess what you value most. For me, validation comes from my reader base and monthly royalties.
As for feedback, finding trusted beta readers takes time, but you can find good, experienced freelance editors online…check their background and references (as in client testimonials) and ask for a two-page sample edit before chucking over a fee.
There’s also Writer’s Digest’s 2d Draft service:
Good luck…and don’t let fear stop you. All writers, even the pros, have butterflies when their work goes out in public. But as Wayne Gretzky wisely noted, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take!
Thanks for the feedback. Very much appreciated.
FYI I just found out the parent company of Writer’s Digest has filed for bankruptcy which may impact the 2nd draft critique service.
Gut punch indeed. Let’s keep a hopeful watch.
What a wonderful tribute to your father, to republish your father’s letter. That’s great to see.
I’m all-in as an indie novelist, which means all the marketing, and publishing work that goes with that. Last weekend I was reminded of what truly brings me join in my writing: writing. I spent five days from Wednesday afternoon 2/28 until noon on Sunday 3/3, at the Rainforest Writers Retreat, at Lake Quinault in the magnificent Olympic National Forest, with thirty one other writers.
Internet was nearly non-existent. We wrote in a lounge with a stunning view of the lake. There were five one-hour-long presentations on topics like pacing, writing book copy, etc., opportunities to socialize, hike, even had a fun group reading Friday evening. but the main thing was lots of time spent butt-in-chair, hands-on-keyboard. Being able to let go of all the publishing stuff and focus on spinning stories and word-smithing was a Godsend and a reminder of what truly brings me joy as an indie author.
Sounds like a great place to get some writing done, Dale. I think I’ll put up a picture of a lake in my Scrivener compose mode!
Jim, I thought I was happy enough to be contracted by a “traditional” publisher, but I’ve now indie-published five novellas and two novels, Although there’s a lot of work to it, there’s also a great deal of satisfaction (although I agree that the services of other professionals are definitely helpful). Glad to see the “me vs. them” mentality has almost–almost, I said–gone. Thanks for this post.
Isn’t it great that you can do novellas, Doc? That format is not generally viable in the trad world, for production cost reasons. It’s so satisfying to have that available to us now. Five novellas? Wow!
For me, the joy hits me like a bag of bricks when I make a connection. I mean, when I’m building a plot and I know where I want it to go but can’t see clearly how to get from point A to point B (or C to D, etc..). Then something in my brain “clicks” and it seems so terribly obvious. I love that feeling. It’ll hit me at work sometimes while I’m doing actual (non-writing) work, and I’ll shout, “YES!”. Then people stare at me…
I love it when people stare at me like that, Carl. They don’t know the joy they’re missing!
This is neat. I have a niece in high school who is considering becoming an attorney. This sounds like a good book for her as she considers her options. Thanks!
Thanks, BK. Perfect for her.