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Are Self-Published Authors “Real” Authors?

This old chestnut of an argument has recently reared its head again: “Self-published authors aren’t real authors.” (See also: “Self-published books aren’t real books.”) So, of course, let’s go through the debate once more.

What this pronouncement almost always boils down to is the idea that, in order for any book or author to be “good,” they must go through–and ultimately succeed in passing–a vetting process that traditionally consists of finding an agent, then a publisher, then undergoing a number of editing and proofreading cycles as well as a professional formatting and book design (cover and interior). The cherry on top is generally the marketing and promotion one hopes comes with all this so that the book and author, after all that work, can shine bright in the cluster of other stars hoping to be noticed.

So, what someone who declares they “don’t read self-published books” really means is that they only trust a limited number of people and a capitalist industry to choose for them what is worth their time and money.

Look, there are perks to gatekeeping. Yes, I really did say that. Having a minimum standard for entry isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And sure, there are plenty of self-published books that fail on one or more fronts: grammar, structure, design, etc. Supporters of self-publishing will often argue that these problems can be seen in “traditional” books, too, and they aren’t wrong, but the percentages of these kinds of flaws are typically much lower in books put out by bigger publishers. (Though, those numbers are sliding, based largely on the constricted editing cycle in publishing these days; the industry is moving towards quantity over quality since that seems to work so well for self-published authors. In fact, what we’re really up against is a decline in reader demands and standards, but that’s a different argument.) In the end, what this boils down to is that you are much more likely to come across poorly produced self-published works than you are mainstream ones. And some of that is just a law of averages; there are so many more self-published titles than mainstream ones because publishing does have limits, but individuals can do a lot more a lot faster to put out their own books and there are so many more people self-publishing.

All that said, there are plenty of reasons a book or author doesn’t get an agent or publisher, and not all of them–not even most of them–are because the book is bad. As I’ve said so many times, publishing is about what sells, and there are thousands of great stories that aren’t considered marketable by the industry for one reason or another. Agents will sign, and publishers will publish, a less well-written book if it’s more likely to sell than a well-written one. If the subject on trend, if the author is already a name (or has a big TikTok following), a manuscript might get snapped up regardless of flaws. Meanwhile, a worthy story that doesn’t easily fit into a genre and thereby is considered more difficult to market will be rejected. Remember that agents don’t get paid until they sell the book, so they’re looking for something they can sell quickly. Publishing houses, too, are looking for books they can turn around and make money on. “Well written” is only one criterion, and sometimes not even the most important one, as it’s often seen as something (a) fixable, or (b) readers won’t care that much about if they’re into the story or characters or themes or whatever.

And none of this even approaches the arguments about how many minority authors use self-publishing when the industry tells them their stories have no value in the broader market.

But let’s just look at the question: Are self-published authors “real” authors? And the answer comes down to how you define a “real” author. If it’s someone who has written a book, then yes, self-pubbed authors are real authors. If it’s someone who has published a book, then again, the answer is yes. If it’s someone who has gone through the very specific process of agent to publisher to mass published tome that is then sold to bookstores and libraries, then… probably not? Each self-published author puts in the time and effort to write a book and publish it to the best of their ability. Sometimes there are financial constraints on that. Sometimes the best of their ability is not as informed as it could (arguably should) be. But my books are in many libraries and sometimes also in stores, so… Does that leave me in limbo? What about self-published authors that invest in editors and designers?

In truth, we shouldn’t be judging books or authors by how they came to the market. The books themselves should stand on their own merits. But there will always be people who look down on anyone working outside the norms, no matter the reasons. Arguing with them is pretty pointless.

2022 in Review: Writing

Although the year is not quite over, it’s about time to start wrapping things up and examining what worked, what didn’t, and how to move forward. I intend to do this in bits and pieces by looking at different aspects of my life through the year. Naturally, I’ll start with my writing.

Releases

It’s difficult to believe I actually started writing The Switchgrass Crown in April 2021, but that is the doc’s creation date, and looking back, it makes sense. I was shopping GoMP and by February/March of 2021 had realized that, despite coming close, I was not going to have an agent. (Those were dark days for my mental health.) At the same time, I began tinkering with a Merlin fanfic that began to bloom into something else. I set it aside, though, to do final edits on GoMP and prep it for self-publication. So I didn’t really start working on TSC in earnest until fall of 2021, and it was finally released on December 1 of this year. I did not even try to get an agent this time because of the terrible impact the last round of querying had on me; I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ll never be the right fit for “traditional” publishing.

Still, it seems I’m not entirely the right fit for indie publishing either. TSC did not do as well out of the gate as I’d hoped–certainly not as well as GoMP did, and I think that’s due to a couple factors. 1. Time of year. GoMP came out in October of 2021, which was the right time for the subject matter. TSC coming out during the holidays when it’s not a holiday book (it is, in fact, set during summer) was probably a misstep, but I didn’t want to not have a book at all in 2022. (Now it looks like I won’t have one in 2023.) 2. Subject matter. GoMP was easy to explain: two ghosts solve a murder. TSC is more complicated and I don’t like to try to explain it because I don’t want to give twists away. That makes it a harder sell, I think. It’s a blend of genres that isn’t easy to encapsulate.

On the plus side, I can hope that TSC finds its readers over time. But I’m largely disappointed with its launch. I wouldn’t release a non-holiday title during the holidays again. But I’ll probably keep writing weird genres because that’s what interests me.

Meanwhile, I wrote an unplanned novella over the summer titled “One Night in Wildcat Woods” that did better than I might have expected. This story sprang up from my love of Stranger Things. I was traveling and started playing around with the idea of two Eddie & Steve types lost in the woods, and… ta-da! I put it up for free, so that might be a leading factor in its popularity. That and the fact that I think just as many people love Stranger Things as I do. I’m now working on a holiday story for Drew and Rayze that will be up just in time for Christmas if all goes according to plan. (Yes, there was supposed to be another story besides, but it needs more work, so I’ve had to postpone its release.)

Those are my only writing releases this year: one novel, one novella, and one shorter story planned. February was my best month for sales, though December is currently in second and may surpass February if TSC catches on sooner rather than later.

Events

I did participate in a couple of events this year. For one, my local library invited me to return (I had spoken there in 2018) to do a Q&A for their writing group. I had so much fun doing that, even though I talk too fast.

And, speaking of talking too fast, I was a guest on the Creative Writing Life podcast. I love, love, love doing stuff like that and was so flattered to be asked.

I’ve also signed up to participate in Literary Love Savannah next July, so I have that to look forward to! We’re going to do karaoke, have round-table discussions, a big masquerade ball… I certainly hope some of my supporters will come out to see me and all the other great authors, and I can’t wait to meet my readers and fellow scribes!

That covers my writing life in 2022. I’ll discuss what I read this year in another post (and probably also in a YouTube video), I’ll talk about travel I did (and didn’t) do, and possibly recap my social media stats as well. If there’s a topic you’d like to see a summary of in terms of the year in review, let me know in the comments!

Names in TSC

Every author has his or her own way of naming characters. For me, the characters often name themselves, but sometimes they tease me, kind of like a game of Rumpelstiltskin. They’ll make me guess. If they’re nice, they might give me hints like, “It starts with B” or, “It’s one syllable.” Then I have to figure it out from there.

For The Switchgrass Crown, I knew Lucas and Fay’s names right away. Lucas… I don’t know. He just is Lucas. Fay, of course, is a nod at the Arthurian underpinnings of the story. Her name was deliberate, and I think she lives up to it. Below, I have some notes on other character names in TSC.

Emory. His original name was Murphy! I wrote about half the book with that name before realizing it was too similar to Muriel’s name. And I knew I didn’t want to changer her name, so Murphy became Emory. Honestly, I think it suits him better, too. When I changed the name, his character became more solidified in my mind at the same time.

Landis. I met a certain person with this last name a few years back, and it’s safe to say he made an impression. When devising the character for TSC, this felt like the perfect name. I realize it’s kinda similar to Lucas, but since the story is told from Lucas’ POV, I don’t think there’s much chance for confusion. At least, I hope not.

Rowland. This is Lucas and Fay’s last name, borrowed from actress Gena Rowlands (though I dropped the “s”), who I worked with on a film set, and she is just so lovely. In truth, Lucas didn’t have a last name for most of my writing, but at some point I realized I needed one and Rowland sounded right.

Vivienne. Another nod to Arthurian legend. There was never any question about Viv’s name or character.

Muriel. She’s a swimmer, so the name suits her. And honestly, I just love the nickname “Muri.” I did at first spell it “Murielle,” but didn’t want to do that and “Vivienne.” So I chose to change Muri’s spelling because Viv really feels like she needs those extra letters but Muri doesn’t.

Geoffrey and Desmond. Des was always Des. But Geoff was first named Gregory, and it didn’t suit. Still, like that old game of Rumpelstiltskin, I knew it was something with a G that was more than one syllable. Eventually, I guessed correctly, and as with Emory, once he had the right name, Geoff’s personality came clear as well.

You can read The Switchgrass Crown for free via Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited. Or ask your local bookseller to order a paperback copy for you. (At the time of posting, I do not recommend ordering a paperback from Amazon because it is listed by third-party merchants with a surcharge. Barnes & Noble has it listed for the correct amount.)

The Switchgrass Crown

Out today! The ebook is exclusively at Amazon (and can also be read via Kindle Unlimited). The paperback can be ordered from any bookstore. As of release, I wouldn’t recommend ordering the paperback from Amazon; it is only being sold by third-party merchants at a steep mark-up. B&N has the correct list price, or you can always hit up your favorite independent bookstore and ask them to order a copy for you. ^_^

Here is a handy map Angel made of the setting for TSC. It’s not exact or to scale, but it’s still nice to have as a reference.

Above: visual references of how I envision some of the main characters of TSC. The story is told from Lucas’ POV.

Loglines v. Tag Lines

I read a tweet a little while ago about “high-concept stories” and how they can be distilled into a single sentence. This is, generally speaking, true. But then the example given was… Well, I’m not going to post it, but it was not a high-concept logline. It was more of a tag line. You know, the kind of thing you’d see on a movie poster, or maybe even on the back of a book. It doesn’t tell you the plot. Instead, it’s meant to intrigue the reader into wanting to know more.

For example, “Following the leader just got deadly” is not a logline. It is a tag line.

When trying to come up with a logline, it helps to be old school and think about the write-ups in TV Guide. (Yes, I’m that old.) Often one sentence long, these summed up the plot of a show or episode neatly so viewers knew what to expect and could decide whether to watch. “A small-town detective discovers a hidden temple and must destroy a grass-roots cult before it spreads” is a logline. It leaves no questions about the plot, only, hopefully, the desire to see it play out—which, ultimately, is the goal in getting people to watch the movie or read the book. The tag line for this might be more like: “He must betray life-long friends in order to save them.” (I’m assuming the detective has lived in this town his whole life, so the cult members are old friends… You know, never mind.)

Another way to differentiate a logline from a tag line is that a logline answers the question, “What is your book/movie about?” You wouldn’t answer that with a tag line. At least, you shouldn’t. If an agent or producer is asking, you would seek to give a succinct answer. “It’s about a spy whose lover is accused of treason and he’s forced to choose sides.” Not, “Can he be both loyal to his country and his heart?”

A tag line is open-ended and sometimes posed in the form of a question (see above). Even when it’s not, it’s meant to create a question in the mind of the consumer—ideally, a question the consumer then feels driven to answer by watching or reading. How did following a leader become deadly? Can this detective save his friends and friendships?

In short, the tag line poses a question, either explicitly or implicitly. The logline answers one—specifically, what the story is about. A tag line will often sound a little like a marketing slogan. A logline will sound more like a summary. They’re used in different ways, though each serves the purpose of drawing in an audience.

AMC’s IWTV Eps 2 & 3

All right, it seems only fair to update my thoughts after having watched two more episodes of Interview with the Vampire. I very much appreciate that Lestat’s true character is being slowly revealed. OR… it could be that he is trying and failing to change. That much is not entirely clear, but I suppose that’s kind of the point.

I also appreciate that the show attempts to explain the differences between Louis’ attitude in the book versus this current incarnation. They play it off as Daniel pointing out that, when he interviewed Louis in the 1970s, Louis did not have such a romanticized view of Lestat. (Even going so far as to pull quotes directly from the source material.) We are meant to understand that (a) vampires’ memories are not infallible, and (b) additional time and distance—and healing, perhaps—have given Louis a different perspective. In truth, it probably would depend on the day. After all, anyone can look back at a time or moment in their lives and think it was the best of times, and then on another day think it was terrible. And relationships really are that complicated. “I loved him,” “we were toxic,” and “I learned a lot about who I am and what I want out of life and love” can all be true.

Still, I sigh a little at the imminent introduction of Claudia. She will likely be aged up, in part to mitigate potential distaste from the viewers, and largely for production reasons. I cannot say why, exactly, I fear the show will fumble this story line, but I do harbor a bit of dread—and not the good kind. I hope to be pleasantly surprised.

In all, I will say these two episodes were better than the first, and I am enjoying the overall build of the characters. (I am also wondering if the show will stick with the literary fact that Lestat never learned to read.* Was he fibbing when “reading” that paper? It felt like he was.)

LOUIS: What do you mean, you can’t read?

LESTAT: I… [shrug]

LOUIS: You mean you can’t read English?

LESTAT: [sigh] I look at things and understand their meaning, their intent. I do not need to read. In any language.

LOUIS: But… for pleasure? Entertainment?

LESTAT: There are many ways to be pleased and entertained that do not involve words, Louis.

Can’t say I relate, Lestat, but you do you.

* IIRC—and it has been a looooong time—Lestat can look at books and absorb or glean the information without reading them. But I distinctly remember him saying he only learned to read a few prayers and to write his name for the year or so he was at school.

AMC’s Interview with the Vampire

I have only watched the first episode of AMC’s take on Anne Rice’s vampires, but I have some mixed feelings. And yes, I understand why some changes were made, and I don’t have a problem with those. I don’t think Louis needs to run a slave-owning plantation in order to tell this particular story. His being a person of color doesn’t faze me either. And I actually appreciate they kept his brother’s death as a key incident on his road toward damnation; it is, imho, a far more interesting origin story than simply losing one’s wife and child. That he was already attracted to Lestat is a nice touch as well.

In fact, it is with Lestat’s character that I thus far have the most grievance.

Again, I’ve only watched one episode, so things may yet change. But this Lestat is not nearly as much fun as he should be. His sense of mischief has been watered down in favor of playing up his intellectual side. He tells Louis he loves him? Uh, hello, will the real Lestat please show himself?

Lestat, as Rice wrote him, has a grand character arc over a long series of books (those last two notwithstanding; I could not finish Prince Lestat and didn’t even try the Atlantis thing). He goes from impulsive brat to thoughtful over, well, centuries and a number of trials. At the time he meets Louis, at least in the book, he is desperate. He has arrived in the New World with his father and needs money and shelter. Louis is wealthy, pretty, and an easy target. The codependency isn’t healthy, and Lestat’s understanding of “love” is largely self-centered and underpinned by insecurity. He thinks he loves Louis, or at the very least he believes he’s doing Louis some kind of favor by turning him. But Lestat really does it for himself, and the relationship falls apart pretty quickly.

Maybe this will happen in this show? What I would kind of like to see, when thinking about how The Vampire Lestat starts, is the story later told from Lestat’s POV. After all, he does not hesitate to call Louis a liar. But what’s strange is that this story, as taken from Louis’ POV, is thus far romanticizing Lestat. Does Louis, as he tells it to Daniel two centuries later, mean to show that he did romanticize Lestat at first? Will things go sideways now and Lestat’s manipulation become clear to him? (It seems like Lestat has already begun systematically removing Louis’ support system, or am I reading too much into it out of a desire for book-version Lestat to appear?) Or have the writers of this show fundamentally changed Lestat’s character? It’s obviously too soon for me to tell; I have one more episode to watch, and another comes out this weekend, I believe. I’ll keep watching—for now. At the very least, I’m curious, which is as good a start as any, I suppose.

Unpopular Opinion

One of many, to be sure. But I have to admit, I’m struggling. I love me some Stranger Things, so much so that I wrote a story loosely based on Steve and Eddie (#steddie) that has since become my most popular work. (The sequel is due out in November, so go pre-order “One Night in Wyland High.”) All this to say that I adore Eddie as a character, and I mourn him as much as most fans. (And I have a fic that may or may not bring him back, but that won’t be on AO3 until I finish it.)

But that’s just it. Fan fiction is where fans go to change the narrative. Either to write it or read it, to join in all that wishful thinking. At least, that’s where it should happen. But more and more, with social media making showrunners, writers, the industry at large, more accessible, fans feel… compelled? entitled? to push their desires. They want to make their head canons actual canon. And I think that’s a bad thing.

Let’s just say, I’ve never know good work to come from groupthink. Stories written by committee often lack substance and cohesion. Trying to please everyone, or even a majority, generally results in something watered down to the most common denominator level.

All of this came to mind when I saw something about a petition to bring Eddie back having reached 50k signatures. Sigh. He had his arc, and it was a solid, if tragic, one. Calls for him to come back as a vampire just make me more sad.

I’m not saying it can’t be done, or even possibly done well. But as a writer myself, I know that the pressure to gratify the audience frequently comes at the price of compromise. It often means not being able to tell the best story, the one I want to tell. To fit in the things that readers or viewers clamor for, the writer has to retrofit, do a number of storytelling gymnastics, even subvert established characters and plot. It’s not easy, and the result usually negates much of what made the story or show so great to begin with. Instead of sticking the landing, you end up undermining your foundation, and everything collapses.

Would I like to see Eddie again? Absolutely. But only if that was in the plan to begin with. Honestly, I sort of see Eddie Munson as a local legend. The boogeyman that parents warn their kids about. “Don’t go in the woods, or Eddie Munson will get you.” That kind of thing.

Then again, Stranger Things makes no secret of its love for Stephen King. And as Uncle Stevie says: Sometimes They Come Back