In all the talk going on about agency pricing and legacy publishers and indies and self-publishing phenoms, one aspect that generally gets ignored is the psychological affect that the legacy system had on newbie writers.
Now, this isn’t a rant about how unfairly I was treated by legacy publishers in the 90s, mainly because they didn’t know I existed. I didn’t submit anything, which was only in part due to the fact that 90% of my fic remained unfinished. So as far as direct relationships go, there was no victimization going on because there wasn’t a direct relationship.
Which is my point: other than Joe Konrath’s frequent references to writers developing Stockholm syndrome for their agents/publishers, no one is talking about how the politics of the situation affected writers and their writing.
Now, a lot of people like to call the legacy system an effective gatekeeper to quality, but I personally know several authors who were churned through that system and they will gladly tell you that they got their “big break” due to the fact of who they knew than how beautifully they wrote. This was/is not a huge industry secret; neither is the fact that at least from the 80s on, publishers were feeling economic pressures that drove them to focus on best sellers, and only best sellers. If you weren’t writing “to type” then there was a good chance there was no room for you.
So, anyone watching who had an ounce of insecurity or fear of rejection did what I did: gave up before even getting to the race track. For me, there was no point of make a break out of the starting gate because I looked at how the gate was rigged, and who owned the track, and realized “no way.” My work rarely fit into a popular genre model, and I believed it would never sell.
Now, many authors still plowed through. They made it, got published, and maybe even became successful. However most, like Konrath and at least one of my friends, suffered the ignominy of being pushed to the back or even dropped outright when their sales didn’t “hit the numbers.”
That, obviously, is not my story. So why do I have a grudge? Because now, NOW, is the time to be publishing. Now is the time to be submitting stories across genres, self-publishing stories that don’t have an obvious home, and getting work out there.
But I don’t have any work to put out there, because a long time ago, the legacy publishing system crushed my hopes and dreams without even trying. When I should be editing stories to publish, I’m writing stories I first dreamed up ten or more years ago. I feel like I’m dealing with a decade long backlog of unwritten work. It’s overwhelming.
The irony is that I never stopped writing, I just never bothered to finish anything. Some things are just a page-long outline, or a couple of out-of-context scenes. Some of it I can salvage, with time; some of it I can’t. But even as marginal as the majority of it is, I would at least have the raw fodder to work with if I had not been so defeated.
Now, I totally acknowledge that my lack of follow-through is on me. As they say, the buck stops here; so I’m just as angry at myself as anyone/thing else. But we, as writers, should acknowledge how detrimental to our profession as a whole the legacy system was at the emotional, psychological level. Did it produce gems of literature? Of course it did; even a broken clock is right twice a day. But if I, a rather hardy and stubborn and determined person on the whole, could be broken by it, I wonder how many truly talented people out there dropped out before their time?
Every creative industry should have a strong element of encouraging beginners, or it will go stale. The legacy publishers left that job to writer’s magazine and writer’s groups for the sake of the bottom dollar. So, I can’t say I’m very sympathetic about their bottom dollar dropping out from under them.
Meanwhile, I have a fuckton of writing to catch up on.