By Letitia Coyne
Posted September 6, 2012
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I’ve just spoken with an author and independent publisher about her claustrophobia. And about her despair. I’ve talked a lot here about the freedom of digital publishing and the individual constraints necessary when external boundaries are taken away. I’ve babbled about the falling fences and absent gatekeepers and limitless choices, but the flipside that emerges is claustrophobia.
It’s a bit like standing in a queue. Once we stood in line for years, quietly but impatiently waiting for our moment to shine. It came, we sparkled briefly, we smiled and bowed, and we moved back to the end of the line and started queuing all over again. When there is no longer a line, when there is anarchy and we are all free to rush to the front, the more delicate souls among us get crushed in the rush. Those with the loudest voices and most strident tones, and sometimes the greatest bulk, will squash the frail, the less confident, and the introverted; the arty types.
Since I first discovered the world of online fiction, I have regularly heard the reassurance that quality will rise, the rush of mediocrity will pass, and the deserving will inherit the world. That never happened in the traditional world of publishing. I think, most often, the loudest is heard, the dross floats to the top, and the inheritance is torn into ragged shreds that aren’t much use for anything but mopping up the bloodshed. Is that cynicism creeping in?
The crush is not a bad thing, really. Sometimes change only comes by riot and revolution. There is far more to gain from a world with free expression than there will ever be harm. For those, like me, who are horrified by the new 20% writing-80% hard-out self-promotion rules, there are quieter back streets to haunt. At least there we can watch the winners win and mumble under our breaths.
So – back to my chat about claustrophobia. We were discussing reviews and the difficulty of raising a profile in the claustrophobic, sardine-packed book sale sites. We all snigger when the likes of Mr Ellory or Mr Locke or Mr Rutherford are caught making up their own five star positive feedback, and we all know the names of others who play that game, but in terms of numbers – career altering numbers – even the liars are rarely rewarded with much space in the spotlight. There’s a riot in the market-square; tall poppies are targets.
Sadly, as much as I uphold my faith in the natural laws that assure us that this riot, too, shall pass, I see too many fragile and beautiful souls crushed or teetering on the brink of giving up their art.
That is overcrowding; that’s what it does. It stretches the resources too thin. There is not enough for all to take as much as they would like, and there is no longer a regulator to decide who will have and who will have not. And as in nature, it is the loudest and the most aggressive, not the most deserving, who take the greatest share. Nature is what it is, but it can be very hard to watch.
The trouble, I think, is not that some authors of dubious literary merit will succeed and others, better, will not. The trouble is the prize itself that we are all wrestling in the streets to touch.
We think the prize is a vast collection of five star reviews.
We decided that is how we would determine the best.
We allowed our work to be strung up on the auction block and when there were not four hundred five star reviews forthcoming, we found a way to provide them for ourselves. And the system our anarchy was supposed to have deposed, *coughAmazoncough*, allowed that self-defeating standard to rule in terms of sales and recognition.
I maintain my healthy cynicism about the claims of authors who do not wish to succeed/make money/become well known/bestsellers. It is a dream most humans cherish in one field or another. But poverty has never pushed artists to abandon their art. It has been the backbone of most artistic communities throughout history. Artists starve; it’s what they do.
The prize we were seeking when we got diverted by the new real was validation. Validation. To be told – that was good. I enjoyed that. Genuinely.
That’s why some authors can excuse themselves for buying fake reviews or drafting friends and family into the fray. Aside whisper to self: If fake reviews fool the true punters into reading my work, they will see how good it is and genuine validation will follow. Maybe not. It’s a slippery slope and no one wins anything.
Validation. Not reviews. It won’t equate to sales, but it fills the hole inside that drives you onward through the screaming crowds. So, here’s a happier, personally invaluable example of finding validation.
Recently, the lovely Julie O’Yang invited me to fictionaut. I have for a long time read work on that site and marveled at the quality. Jewels, I thought. I was a little bit in awe of the company I found myself in. I went into the quieter spaces there, a bit more like a library than a market square on Sunday morning, and I whispered some tiny little poems and I painted a snippet of flash on the wall.
And it appeared; not begged, not sought out with a cover letter detailing personal bests and a history of violence and bloodshed in the arena, just there, whispered back just as quietly.
“That was good. I liked that.”
If you feel it is time to drop the pen and take up the sword once again, try finding a quiet place away from the rioting masses, the sort of place you always wished you could belong, and do whatever it is you do best.
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