Cold-Blooded Necessity

I haven’t previously weighed in on the Great Pay Rate Debate triggered by this post by John Scalzi* because a) I’m busy, and b) I don’t care. Which is not to say that the pay issue is irrelevant — it’s definitely relevant, and important. I just don’t care about it. It’s not an emotional thing for me. It’s just business.

OK, that was intentionally obtuse. Basically, I draw a very clear distinction between the art of writing, and the business of publication. Writing is something I’m very passionate about. I angst over nearly every aspect of it, constantly. Publication, though, is something I view as only loosely linked to my skill as a writer. There’s no point in my getting emotional about it. So I don’t.

Getting published isn’t about being a good writer, after all. Sure, being good helps, a lot. But whether my work sells to a market depends on whether it’s a good match for that market, and whether it will sell books/magazines to that market’s readership, more than anything else. I was the same caliber of writer when I had two stories rejected from Clarkesworld as I was when I had one accepted. I didn’t suddenly get better; those first two just didn’t resonate with the editors. I will probably never sell anything to the Big Three for the same reason — my authorial voice is too girly, or too experimental/stylistic, or something, which will cause it to grate painfully against the editor’s inner ear. (I suppose I could change my voice to better appeal to those editors, but why? There are other markets out there that don’t have this problem, so I just send my work to them instead.) I also can’t control which markets will be open to receiving submissions at the time I begin shopping a piece around. If they buy my work, I can’t make them run it at a time that’s optimal for getting reviews or award nominations. I can’t force them to format or typeset it properly; I can’t make them get attractive cover art; I can’t control what other authors’ work will be presented alongside mine.

None of this has anything to do with my mastery of the craft, though obviously it affects how I’m perceived in the field. It’s all just part of the business.

And because it’s just business, I treat market submissions as a business decision. I seek the maximum return on my investment — the investment being the time and energy I spend on writing a short story, getting it critiqued, and rewriting it. The optimal RoI is what will benefit me not just now, but in the long term as well. Pay is certainly part of that long-term benefit consideration. As a career counselor I know that short-term salary decisions can impact earnings for the rest of your life — accept a “lowball” salary for one job, and then the next time you look for a job and the employer asks what you made in your previous position, you’ll probably end up with another lowball offer. So it’s to my benefit to always seek the highest pay I can possibly get for my work — even now, when I’m just starting out as a professional. If I want to make good money in the future, I have to try and make good money now.

But I’m also willing to accept attention (from readers, from critics) as an alternative form of compensation. Some markets — even those that don’t pay — can promise the kind of attention I want, because they’ve developed solid reputations and have published award-winning stories by award-winning authors. That means, come jury/review/award time, those markets are going to be at the top of everyone’s list. That’s as valuable as pay in the long term — though naturally, in the interest of maximum benefit, I prefer to get both pay and attention if I can. (Fortunately, markets that pay tend to be those that get this kind of desirable attention. Makes things easy.)

I see no point in getting emotional about this. Maybe that’s because I consider myself primarily a novelist, and as such I’m used to an insanely long delay between the time that I produce work and the time that I receive feedback on it. (Case in point, I finished The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms in December of 2007. It comes out in February of 2010. And that’s a short example; some of my novels haven’t sold to publishers yet. If I were the kind of person who needed reader feedback to function, I would’ve lost my mind by now.) That delay is so long that it effectively severs the connection between writing and publication; they feel like two separate processes to me. Which they are. And I think most pro writers figure this out somewhere along the way.

See, I think a lot of the angst surrounding this debate is happening because some folks — particularly newer writers — are caring about the wrong things. They’re basing their sense of themselves as writers on extrinsic factors like which markets publish their work and how much their work sells for and whether they’ve got any sales at all, rather than on intrinsic factors like belief in their own skill. So of course they get upset when someone disparages a market they’ve sold/hoped to sell their work to; this feels like disparagement of them, and their skill. They take it very personally. And thus a conversation that should be strictly about business becomes a conversation about their personal/artistic worth.

This will sound cold-blooded. But the solution is for these writers to stop caring. Or rather, care better. I think the shift from extrinsic to intrinsic valuation — from caring about what others think to caring about yourself — is a fundamental part of the transition from amateur to professional, perhaps even more than pay rates and book deals and awards and such. It’s a tough transition to make, I know; how do you believe in yourself if no one else does? How do you know your judgment of yourself is sound? I could write ten more blog posts trying to answer these questions. But for pro writers — and I include aspiring pros along with established ones in this designation — it’s an absolutely necessary transition. Otherwise you spend all your time caring about the wrong things.

This is not to say that I don’t squeal gleefully when I get a story acceptance, and that I don’t squeal more for certain markets than for others. I’m not nearly as dispassionate about this as I’m sounding right now. But I squeal because a piece of fiction that I already know is worthy has found a home — not because the acceptance proves the story is worthy. A small, but important, difference.

* And continued here and here and other places. (BTW, while you’re at Jeff VanderMeer’s, check out this fantasmical review of 100K.)

1 thought on “Cold-Blooded Necessity”

  1. This is a great post. Too many writers want external validation that ultimately is the wrong measuring stick.

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