Sharers and competitors

by Pari

My mind is a big ol’ pile of mush right now. It’s good mush, steaming on the plate with a dollop of butter and a splash of B-grade maple syrup.

The Novelists, Inc. conference in New York blew me away. I’m still processing. My brain hurts from the massive effort.

It’s astoundingly powerful to hang out with a group of novelists where the average member has had sixteen published books. You know I’m on the low end with three. Think of how many were on the high end.

I went to the conference with no game plan, no highlighted list of agents or editors to pitch, no stores to visit or people to impress. Having such an open mind made the experience even more pleasurable and valuable. I learned so much about the business even my toenails are smarter.

Some of you have heard the sad tale of my two devastating experiences with lit-fic folks days after I signed my first contract with UNM Press in 2003. I won’t go into details publicly, but can say that they shook me and that I worried about being part of the book biz, part of any writing community.

Shell-shocked and nervous, I went to my first Left Coast Crime and was met with pure generosity and warmth. From that, I concluded that mystery writers were the kindest anywhere. This conviction has proven true time and again.

But I’m starting to rethink its parameters.

At the Novelists, Inc. conference, I met writers who’d seen and done it all. Everything. They’d watching publishing lines born, crest and die. They’d had editors buy, leave houses and die. Agents had lauded their work, dumped them . . . and died. (There’s a book in here somewhere.)

Many of the attendees had reinvented themselves so many times they’d forgotten most of their pseudonyms, even the titles of their books.

You know what? They all still love to write. Every one feels there is more to learn, that his or her craft can be honed.

I didn’t witness an ounce of snobbery or self-satisfaction during my three days with them. These romance, science fiction, fantasy and mystery writers talked openly about their lessons learned rather than hold them close or keep secrets to get the upper hand.

On the plane back to Albuquerque, I wondered if my paradigm about mystery writers needed to be expanded.

It does.

Novelists — at least those who write genre fiction — are in the business of entertainment. It’s a glorious profession. And, IMHO, we’re in it together.

We’re the key to continued literacy. Without good, compelling fiction — books that a large audience wants to read — written works will go the way of the Edsel. (This, of course, extends to some nonfiction as well, but that’s another discussion.)

I think there are writers who lose sight of this commonality. They wear a kind of genre or subgenre superiority. Worse, many of them feel like they’re in a life/death race with every other novelist for the much-touted decreasing pool of readers, of book buyers.

Here’s my simple analysis:

There are sharer-novelists and competitive-novelists.

The sharers realize that information is indeed power, that the more we work together for readers, for our rights as creative entrepreneurs, for mutual success — the more we’ll all benefit.

The competitors start from the same place: information is power. Only, they want to keep it all to themselves. They belive it’s only possible to succeed by pushing the competition down. These are the people who denigrate other writers or genres in order to make themselves look better. Frankly, they spend a lot of time spreading negativity and worry.

We can learn a tremendous amount from each other across genres. Together we can either turn, or slow, the destructive tides and trends in publishing. We can unite for our common good AND readers’ good.

I’ve met far more sharer-novelists in my life. I hope others feel that way about me.

So, what do you think? Does this super simple perspective work? Is it way too naive?

29 thoughts on “Sharers and competitors

  1. billie

    I don’t think it’s naive at all, Pari. I’m glad the conference was so wonderful – it certainly sounds like a mind-blowing experience. You have to respect writers who have watched that much change over time in this business.

    I’ve watched a few writer friends get published and go the competitor/snob route and it’s sad. That kind of literary life is lonely and I wonder if the joy of writing doesn’t drown in the loneliness, eventually.

    I don’t read widely in every genre, but I’m grateful for all the books there are to choose from, and for the fact that there are so many generous writers who share their experience and their stories. For book lovers, there can never be too many books.

  2. JT Ellison

    Pari, you couldn’t have said it better. As a debut, I’ve been blessed with an overabundance of sharer-novelists,especially here at Murderati. I’ve only encountered or heard of one or two of the competitive novelists, and they are simply no fun. It’s made my debut year spectacular, and inspired me to find ways to help other new writers, plus promote the writers I adore.

    Thanks for laying it out so clearly! And glad New York was all you expected, and more.

  3. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Billie,Yes, the conference was mind-blowing. I wanted to write about it, but couldn’t begin to figure out how.

    You bring up another point that was much under discussion: Bitterness.

    Both agents and writers talked about how some people–because their careers don’t move in directions they want or take too “long” to develop–descend into an angry bitterness that then informs everything they do.

    I think this is a real possibility in this profession, one that has to be fought because, in addition to loneliness, expectations and hopes can so often be denied.

  4. Pari Noskin Taichert

    J.T.,Yep, I know what you mean . . .

    It’s been such a blast to watch you and your career. Can it be true that only two years ago you were searching for an agent, didn’t have a contract and felt distress because you weren’t sure you’d ever get published?

    heh heh heh.

  5. JT Ellison

    Unbelievable, isn’t it?

    Maybe that should be my advice for the day — find a sharer-novelist that you can ply with wine and beg for their opinions. : )

    Just choose wisely… a mentor is no small thing.

  6. Louise Ure

    We do compete with other writers, but only for those publishing slots, not for readers.

    And within the community of writers, I’ve always thought of the distinction as sharers vs. comparers. You know, those folks who can only measure their success by comparing it to another’s.

  7. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Louise,That’s a fascinating spin on it — sharer/comparer. There’s a lot there to think about.

    I sometimes find myself upset because my writing isn’t as good as X or Y — that kind of comparing is dangerous, too, because it can lead to stasis or, even, decline.

  8. billie

    One more thing – that came to me as I read comments just now – I think it’s really important to remember the obvious: taste in books is so subjective. Any book out there will have someone who loves it and someone who hates it. Plus someone who doesn’t care either way. I think getting one’s book to the reader who loves it is the true success.

    (easy for me to say at this point in the pub process… but as a reader I know how wonderful it is when I read a book that resonates… it’s no small thing)

  9. Stacey Cochran

    Pari, you sometimes say things so appropriate to what I’m feeling at a given time it’s uncanny.

    I’ve been seriously concerned about the health of U.S. fiction publishing in recent weeks.

    I think fiction publishing in the U.S. is due for a major shakeup. It’s a business model built around a small number of people selecting what a huge number of people will read, and as such, it becomes a vehicle for elitism and favoritism.

    In that, it’s very core is undemocratic.

    I believe that no matter what the experience level, people have something to contribute to a conversation about Literary Arts in our culture. My goal for the past two years has been to level the playing field, to give people who might not otherwise have a voice a broader platform.

    One way I’ve done this is the TV show and by using the Internet, and it’s been fascinating to watch several self-published authors who have been on our show move onto bestseller lists.

    I would like nothing more than to develop a Literary Arts television program for a national audience that gives voice to a national audience.

    The model for how fiction is published in the U.S. is culturally dangerous, and it’s time for a change. It’s time to give the voice of our culture back to the people, not a hand-picked few based on favoritism and back-scratching politics.

    What is the risk to a culture that enables a couple dozen folks to select what our national voice is?

    Does this not concern anyone?

  10. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Billie,You’re absolutely right about getting the book to the right reader. It’s a challenge that NO publisher I know truly meets successfully.

    One of the reasons that the onus for promotion is shifting to the author might have something to do with this.

    –I’m being generous here —

    But I believe authors know their readers better than publishers. Perhaps it’s the abdication of responsibilty on the part of publishers or perhaps it’s brilliant forethought.

  11. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Stacey,You bring up so many points, it’s going to be difficult to respond to them all.

    I do have to say that Novelists, Inc. does make a distinction between self-publishing and being vetted by publishers. Members are in the latter category.

    And, yet, I have to say that even among those published by traditional means — where the house edits, designs, distributes and pays the author advances + royalties — the elitism remains.

    The BLOCKBUSTER mentality frightens me more than anything else. The shift from author development for a long haul to the succeed- with-your-first-book-or-be-dropped model cuts right to the core of a healthy culture.

    I, personally, am still quite ambivalent about how self-publishing has affected the overall literary environment.

    Like you, I believe everyone should have a voice.

    Unlike you, (I think)I believe that there’s a qualitative difference (OVERALL) between a book that’s gone through several professional edits, that’s been judged for marketability prior to publication etc. etc. than one that hasn’t gone through this gauntlet . . .

    Of course there are exceptions. I know of some. But, in my experience the difference remains visibly and powerfully evident.

  12. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Hey, there, Cozy!

    I’m glad you found us.

    Very pleased to meet you. There is quite a bit of good debate and discussion on this blog. I’m very honored to be part of it.

    And, thank you for having been a librarian. Y’all do such important work.

    If you’re interested in one of my books, let’s continue THAT conversation via my personal website; you can click on it in this post.

  13. Stacey Cochran

    Let me be clear: My point is that the acquisition process should be done by the public. I actually favor a traditional model for editing, marketing, and distribution.

    But how debut novelists are acquired by houses is bad business. It places way too much power into the hands of an extremely small number of people.

    That’s where the breakdown lies; that is, in finding, nurturing, and publishing new writers.

    What I think needs to be done is to create a platform for up-and-coming talent wherein the selection process for acquisition is done by a vote of the people.

  14. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Stacey,Thank you for the clarification.

    As to the acquisition process, wow, that’s an interesting concept.

    I wonder if there are any other people who want to chime in on this.

    Acquisition by democratic degree. I’m gonna need to think about that. It’d certainly help with the marketing up front, wouldn’t it? The debut authors would already have a built in readership.

    A sort of American Idol for novelists.

  15. JT Ellison

    Stacey, I don’t agree. That just goes to the mentality that everyone should be a writer. Everyone shouldn’t be a writer. Not everyone CAN be a writer. The system manages to acquire and publish, what is it, 175,000 books a year. You have to think that there’s a system of checks and balances in place if they can manage that.

    We devalue our art when we stop seeing it as such.

    And don’t the public already “vote?” It’s called the bestseller list.

    That said, I have a post brewing . . .

  16. toni mcgee causey

    I agree with JT on this.

    The thing is, what doesn’t work for one agent or editor may very well be exactly what another person is looking for. And exactly *what* they’re looking for changes with the natural influences of what they’ve read lately, what they loved, hated, are tired of reading, feel is overdone, feel is fresh, etc. All of these things are going to constantly be variables, and that’s a good thing. Because just because what someone has written isn’t right for one place doesn’t mean it’s not right for another.

    We don’t want a homogenized market place–which is what would happen if there had to be a vote. I want a wide variety of choices, and I think we’ll only get that as long as a wide variety of editors and publishers are still able to choose.

    Now, finding the right one at the right time? Can be difficult, and takes a lot of perseverance, and research, and improving of craft. It’s a painful truth, but I think the process now gives us a lot of interesting books in varying genres, and I wouldn’t want that to change.

    Pari, great topic. I do think your view is dead on.

  17. Pari Noskin Taichert

    J.T.,The one thing I got from the conference is how much we MUST NOT devalue our work. There’s far too much of that going on without us writers contributing to the equation through our own lack of self-confidence or sense of worth.

    Boy, oh boy.

  18. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Toni,I think it’s interesting that I came away from the conference feeling optimistic.

    With so many horror stories, you’d think it’d be just the opposite.

    What I do think is going to happen more and more is the rise of high quality small presses to ensure the variety of subject matter and writing.

    I hope it happens.

    Has anyone else read about the new HarperCollins imprint announced last week? It will pay no advances to authors and (currently, though the publisher seems to be backtracking on this point) will not allow returns. Apparently there will be little marketing as well. There will be a pay-share arrangement with authors.

    Interesting. I don’t know what to think of it.

  19. David Montgomery

    “Acquisition by democratic degree” is a horrible idea. You think books are bad now — think of how bad they’d be under a system like that.

    No thank you.

    Let’s let the professionals do their jobs. Flawed though the system might be, it’s better than the alternative.

  20. billie

    I immediately thought when I read Stacey’s comment about voting – oh no, I’d never get to read the books I love if it comes down to a majority vote!

    There are certainly bestsellers I enjoy, but I especially love the very distinct, slightly eccentric voices that I suspect wouldn’t win in a majority vote. But that certain agents and editors seem to delight in finding and getting out there.

  21. Edwin

    This Stacey person sounds not only lacking a clue, but like someone who has had their manuscript rejected hundreds of times. Perhaps try to improve your own skills before calling for an industry paradigm shift?



  22. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Um, Edwin?

    IMHO, Stacey has a right to his opinion w/o ridicule.

    I like discussion.

    Frankly, I’ve got a drawer full of rejections myself. They made me work harder.

    The people at the conference last weekend all have seen the industry paradigm change — or, maybe I should say, “monumental trends come and go.”

    Much of the change has had little to do with literature and much to do with retail sales. Most of the largest publishing houses now are owned by people who could care less about books, they’re simply products like pet food or paper towels.

    Gone are the days of Alfred A. Knopf and Bennett Cerf.

  23. billie

    I’m glad too, Pari, as I ADORE Sasha. 🙂 Am hoarding Socorro Blast for one of those days when I really NEED her voice on the page.

    This is the thing about the unique and special voice finding the right readers – they not only buy the book, they SAVOR it. 🙂

  24. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pari

    Another excellent post – wow, you guys sure keep the bar high!

    This has caused a lot of comment, and rightly so. I admit to groaning a little when I read Stacey’s suggestion about voting on new acquisitions. I’ve sat in on quite a few shortlist-to-final-winner discussions for crimewriting awards. Obviously, I can’t say too much about the process, only that from my observations it often seems to be the compromise choice that gets there in the end. I agree totally that the current publishing system may be flawed, but the alternative could indeed be so much worse. Sorry.

    On a more positive note, I’ve always been overawed by the generosity of spirit I’ve encountered from everyone I’ve met at mystery and thriller conventions in the US. I love that pay-it-forwards attitude. Thank you all so much for making me so welcome ;-]

    Let me tell you, it’s a little harder to find that attitude over here in the UK. There not only seems to be the competitive element to contend with, but the cliquey element as well.

    I’m very sad to report that the only times I’ve come up against that real look-down-the-nose attitude has either been at UK conventions, or from Brit authors at US events.

    Suddenly I feel the urge to apologise for my fellow countrypeople …

  25. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Billie,Thank you so much.

    I just finished the first edit of the Darnda book and am heading back to Sasha while my critique group critiques the other . . . I’m going to enjoy writing an old friend again.

    Zoe,Yeah, the more I think about a popular vote for fiction, the less enthusiastic I am. I just wish the big publishing houses would be a bit freer, a bit less blockbuster-y, so that all kinds of new voices could be heard.

    And, that stinks about your observations re: the U.K.

    I have to tell you that I have found that competitive spirit — or Louise’s “comparating” spirit — much more in the lit-fic and mainstream-fiction communities. It may only be my experience, but I’ll proceed with caution.


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