18 April 2017
Dear Intrepid Readers,
Our Kickstarter campaign ends on April 23. Making the decision to do a Kickstarter was very fraught for us – well outside of our comfort zone – but we allowed ourselves to be persuaded that it was the right thing. And no one donated aside from our own friends and relatives, which means that this anthology, as of the time I’m writing this, almost certainly won’t get published. What does this say about the writing community? There are a few things I’ve been trying to dissect.
1. What assumptions were made, and how did that impact things?
From the beginning, the outrage that we would ask authors to give us their work for free was palpable. And because this was an anthology of writing from people of color, accusations of racism were thrown into the mix. I’m going to lay aside those accusations of racism, because I honestly believe that’s an entirely different conversation that’s worth having, but I think it detracts from the real point.
The real point was that people assumed we were being exploitative – that we were somehow deriving benefit at the expense of writers. The acknowledged standard model is that writers submit work to an anthology. The publisher puts together and distributes the anthology. Readers then pay for copies of that anthology, and if more money is paid for copies of the anthology than was spent on the production costs, the publisher pockets the difference. In that situation, if the authors weren’t paid at all, it lowers the publisher’s bottom line considerably, and the publisher starts making money much sooner.
I think that people are so deeply entrenched in that paradigm that it’s just not conceivable that it could be different, and when told “this isn’t the scenario you think it is,” people were unable to hear that message.
Nowhere, at any point in this process, was money changing hands. The writers would be donating their work, the press would be donating its time and resources to put the thing together and make it available, and readers would be able to receive it for free, which means that it would be available to everyone, not just those able to pay for it. That’s not exploitation, that’s us offering our services to some writers.
2. Why are people willing to ruin someone, but not to build them up?
In the heat of the moment, more than one person on Twitter said that they were going to tell everyone they knew to boycott us, and, for all I know, they carried through on that threat. We’re such a small press that someone I’ve never heard of telling their friends whom I’ve also never heard of to ignore us hasn’t impacted the number of submissions we’ve received. But it still stings.
What’s more confounding is that all those people who demanded that we do a crowdfunding campaign in order to finance this anthology didn’t even acknowledge us when we launched it. They blamed us for not reaching out to the community, but when we reached out to the community, that community did not respond.
3. How does this impact the larger conversation?
When the conversation about why writers don’t get paid and why many writers choose to place work with non-paying venues comes up, I’m really tempted to point to incidents like this and say “You stood there with your hand out, expecting money, but when we said we were trying to raise money, you didn’t support us in any way, even by letting people in your own networks know about our efforts.” But I recognize that’s not really helpful.
There are a lot of reasons why getting paid a living wage for your work is hard, but mostly it’s simple supply and demand. When you are an unknown writer, to the reading public your work goes into the enormous sea of undifferentiated work. Readers can get all kinds of material (most of it terrible) for free. It’s only as you become more well-known that you raise your status from unknown writer (of which there are many) to known writer (of which there are fewer, but still kind of a lot). At that level, you can expect to get paid for your work, but not necessarily a lot because there’s still a lot of competition among writers whose names people recognize. Lastly there’s well-known writers. There are very few of them, but because each of them is their own brand, their work has scarcity value. No one but Stephen King is writing Stephen King books, and the number of people writing James Patterson novels is finite.
The mistake a lot of writers make is putting themselves into the wrong category. It’s much, much harder to get paid as an unknown writer, and a known writer will never be paid as much as a well-known writer. And all of these dynamics scale differently with different genres. The romance and horror genres in particular have different kinds of readers who are a little more brand-loyal (have authors they know and like) than typically happens in the literary fiction world. And poetry is different yet again. So, assuming that you’re playing by the rules of one genre or one category of writer when you’re not is bound to cause disappointment.
4. How do we build community?
Building community doesn’t have to cost a lot of money or time. If you’re a writer, you should already be voraciously reading in your chosen genre (and, frankly, outside it as well). The second part is that you should be reaching out to those authors you like and letting them know you like their work. When your friends publish work, buy their books or the journals that publish them. Pass along all the good news you find about authors you know. Zoetic Press does this all the time, because we understand that part of our place in the publishing community is recognizing and helping those people in the “unknown author” group who are clawing their way upward.
Are you already part of our community? Let us know how you do community. Reach out to us on social media!
And you should check out this week’s Alphanumeric selection, “The Imp of the Perverse,” which, for the first time, has an audio track!