Unpopular Opinion Time: #ownvoices was a mistake. It was a well-intentioned mistake, but it was still a goddamn mistake…
From a while back now, but still relevant: J.W. Alden on his experiences with Writers of the Future.
(For the benefit of those outside of the SFF author community: the WoF is a well-known annual emerging writer’s award/anthology. It’s also run by the Church of Scientology and, as such, has long been… controversial. Alden’s post is a pretty good explanation of why.)
Author Kaelan Rhywiol shares zir experiences with writing and rejection while marginalized. This is a long interview and much, ah, meatier than a lot of these tend to be, although I don’t necessarily agree with everything Rhywiol says. In particular, I think xie is a little too fatalistic when xie says things like, “someone who writes as much diversity into my work […] is likely never going to find representation.” Obviously this is Rhywiol’s personal experience which is incontestable in that sense, but I don’t think it’s objectively true, if only for the fact that I personally know people who are marginalized on multiple axes who have found mainstream representation/publication.1
I also kind of wince at the, “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with my writing skill” line. It’s said semi-offhand in the context of believing in one’s work which, yes, is a critical component for anyone looking for any sort of publication2 but, like… craft is an ever-evolving skillset. And believing in your work is not the same as thinking there’s “nothing wrong” with it; most authors I know, starting with myself, struggle to go back and read things they’ve written two or three or more years ago for exactly this reason. I suspect this isn’t quite how Rhywiol intended for this comment to be taken, but… yeah. All the same.
Those two things aside, Rhywiol’s overall points (e.g. about preserving mental health in the face of rejections) I think are important, and the whole interview is well worth a read.
In economic terms the issue is not only one of fair apportionment but also of clarity of who takes the risk. I can already hear publishers and trade magazine writers shouting ‘The publisher! The publisher takes the risk’. Yes, certainly the publisher is taking much of the financial risk, and many of the smaller publishers are making very modest profits indeed as a result. However, they are not taking all the risk. By firing out huge numbers of books, placing marketing behind a few and leaving the others to sink or swim, the culture of large-scale publishing is pushing a huge part of the risk back on to the authors, whose remuneration is already low. On the face of it writers, as a producer of goods, have a low production cost – they work largely alone, at home, with minimal tools. And this is the way that the publishing industry generally views authors now – they are cheap producers. And if one gives up because they can’t make ends meet, there will always be another easily and cheaply obtained. However, if you are the established author who has committed decades to building a career as a writer, your next book represents 18 months of work for something that the publisher then might or might not support. Unlike our fashion designers who can expect their income to go up with experience and as they build a name for themselves, our authors and illustrators often find the opposite. They watch as ‘the next big thing’ is promoted over them even though they never fail to create something of a very high quality. Not only that, but because of those contracts they have also found it impossible to have control over their own work, often being shunted into heavy discounting arrangements with little say in the matter. The desire for a high volume of ‘new’ by the larger publishing houses as a reaction to this billowing market is irrational exuberance – and it indicates that the anxiety about missing out on discovering the next JK Rowling overshadows any concern about a market in which prices are spiralling downwards, and margins are getting ever-slimmer. These publishers are themselves adding to their own risk in moving so far away from a model of publishing in which a few books are chosen and worked on by talented editors, who then commit to and invest in the authors, that risks for both parties: the publishers and the authors, are being stacked up like a wedding cake. Would we call that publishing? Or is it merely book-printing?
Kanilworth Books on publishing.
This is a long, dense excerpt from an even longer, denser post, but the whole thing is worth looking at, particularly for authors and/or anyone who enjoys reading…
Oops, Jason had already tweeted it! https://t.co/wEgwbhQXcK
— Apex Magazine (@apexmag) August 21, 2018
He also notes that "Despite this, NONE of the year's best anthologies selected the story for their volumes. I don't think I've ever seen such a glaring oversight by all the major year's best editors."
I do think the story was picked up by @paulaguran. So…one out of eight?
— Apex Magazine (@apexmag) August 21, 2018
A couple of years ago, I was at an Author Event listening to a Big Name Editor talk. Let’s refer to the editor as “You”, just to be confusing.
So. You are a big name SFF editor, who publishes well-known, well-regarded annual collections of the “best of” variety. You have won multiple Hugo and World Fantasy awards, to name just a few. You are, for the most part, visibly a member of some, but not all, of the most privileged groups in society.
What I remember most about You speaking is the way You mentioned, quite offhandedly, that You never do blind or slush submissions for anthologies any more. You feel You don’t “need” to, because You have been in the scene for decades and You know it and are an identified tastemaker. Instead, when You’re putting together an anthology, You approach the authors You want to include. They rarely say no. I mean, why would they? You’re You, after all.
Like I said, this was just one little throwaway comment in a bigger, much longer and far-reaching conversation. Yet every time I think about things like diversity in SFF, or inclusion, or slates or cliques or whatever the Outrage Du Jour happens to be… I think of You, and Your comment. Because, here’s the thing. Those authors You include? The ones You choose to represent as the “best of” Your industry? These authors are, almost exclusively, already well-established big names. They’re also almost exclusively like You, demographically speaking.
Incidentally, I don’t read Your anthologies. After all, they’re always filled with the same handful of authors writing the same handful of stories. And they just aren’t my thing.
Funny, I guess. The way that goes.
Okay, like. So I thought authors whinging about specific negative reviews on social media was The Worst but, no. Apparently publishers doing it is. And this wasn’t like a small press type publisher, either; it was from the account of a major big 5 imprint.
I just… publishers. Don’t do that. Don’t let your media people do that.
So as mentioned previously, last Wednesday I was on a panel at our local SFF writer’s group, talking about author platforms along with co-panellists Elizabeth Fitzgerald and Chris Andrews. It wasn’t a super-formal panel, and I didn’t take notes, but I’m sure some of the discussion will be of interest to some people, so I’ve done my best to recap the salient points below…