The Myth of Validation

I self-publish.

What that means is that I write what I want to write, based on a lot of factors, like how I feel, what I’m interested in, what my upcoming schedule looks like, what I’ve already finished, what my beta readers are pestering me for, and what I think will sell. After that, I work on it until I decide it’s done, and then I arrange for it to be assembled, laid out, covered, blurbed, categorized, and button-pushed. I don’t ever push the button myself; that’s not in my skillset.

And then I see what happens.

It’s entirely possible with anything I write that no one will like it. And that bothers me plenty.

Because I want to be liked just as much as the next guy. More than a lot of them.

And this is why the professional writing industry has more work coming to them than they could ever seriously consider. Writers want to be liked.

More than that, though. They want to be liked by the right people. It’s the it-clique in high school. The money doesn’t matter. They want special, important people to wave a magic wand and dub them special and important, themselves.

I’m not saying that publishing a book through a mega-corporation is always wrong. For the right contract and the right advance, I’d do it. Certainly. I have a low tolerance for risk (ha! and I want to write for a living…) and I look at every dollar in my bank account as a fraction of a year’s expenses. An advance that bought the rest of my life and left me free to write other things and publish them as I saw fit; yeah, I’d do that. Between here and there, there are a million incrementally different situations that could happen, and I’d consider some of them. This isn’t a hit piece on traditionally published writers. Live your life, man.
What I hate, though, is the hostage-taking behavior of the industry. When they talk about the decision between submitting to a house and doing the work yourself to send directly to distributors, they always bring up this specter of ‘validation’, and it makes me a bit sick.

Because it’s a disease, and I’ve got it.

It looks like this: most self-publishers are ultimately looking to get picked up by a big publisher.

Or this: you should submit to a publishing house first, and only if you get rejected everywhere should you start looking at self-publishing.

Or this: self-publishing is a fine option for self-starters who are obsessive about details and love marketing and are willing to thumb their noses at the so-called gatekeepers and just publish their own work.

Even the term, self-publishing, has this sense of ego to it. Of impatience. That you weren’t willing to wait your turn, that you weren’t willing to push yourself to be good enough, that you don’t care if you’re good enough to be published. You just wandered off and did it yourself. Pushed your book out on the world. Foisted it. Contributed to the tsunami of crap. (Okay, ‘tsunami of crap’ makes me giggle. Dunno why that one doesn’t get me, but the rest of this does.)

And I fight with this. Sometimes out loud when I’m driving by myself.

It’s a myth. A debilitating one that has been intentionally, if not consciously, groomed by the professionals who like to talk to writers on behalf of the industry. (Or worse, who pretend to talk to writers as advocates of the writers. Growl.)

The novel-length publishing industry doesn’t release much of this information, but professional-level magazines (particularly in the science fiction and fantasy genres) does. So let me talk it through.

A ‘normal’ magazine (ha!) may publish four times a year, eight stories per edition. Some will publish significantly more, and some will publish significantly fewer stories, but it’s in the ballpark. Even assuming none of those stories are coming through established relationships with authors (unlikely), that means they have about 30 slots to fill any given year. Many of these periodicals will have as many as 1600 submissions every quarter – more than four-thousand submissions to look at to find their 30 stories to publish.
In a simple, ideal world, the 30 stories with the absolute highest merit would make the cut.
Even assuming a complete, perfect lack of malice and bias, that’s not how it works.
I asked a magazine publisher once, when he’s sitting in front of a stack of 800 submissions, how I get into the last 50. His answer was straightforward, honest, and very useful.

Format the piece correctly. He said that formatting issues kill the first half of submissions. (We’re down to 400.)

Submit the correct genre. Random stuff that doesn’t remotely match the magazine genre makes up the next half gone. (We’re down to 200.)

He reads the first few paragraphs of the rest. He said you can tell which writers are going to be engaging and be a good fit at that point. That’s another half. (100 left)

He reads all of these. Eliminating ones that aren’t a good fit for the next year or so (he printed something like that recently, that trope has been overused recently, this isn’t a good thematic match for his audience) and the ones where the stories just don’t work for him, he gets down to those last 50.

After that, he said, you have 50 stories that are great. They work, they fit, he likes them.

And he has to pick 8. Every one of them, he said, hurt to cut.

I figure a great author with no existing relationships can only control what happens up until the last 100, give or take. (Not assuming that the industry is relationship-based. Some corners are, some aren’t. But having a track record of writing printable stories and knowing what any given editor is looking for deserves to give you a full read and consideration. It’s not about favors, it’s about trust.) After that, you’re looking at a combination of luck and taste.

Let me say it again: it doesn’t matter how good you are. Some people are going to like your stuff better than others, and sometimes the timing is just wrong.

I’ve seen writers ask how many times to submit a piece before scrapping it and the numbers they get as advice are shocking.

Two. After that you do a major revision and try two or three more times. If you get rejected after that, you need to take a step back and consider whether or not the story is really ready. The voodoo that writers believe about what gets short stories and novels (assuming the ratios hold out; I have no reason to believe they wouldn’t) published is akin to sincere belief that the earth is flat.

Worse than this, there’s no telling whether your story was one of the first half cut because you used the wrong font, or if you were in the last ten competing for four slots. There is no affirmation, no validation, from this trusted authority until you actually make it into that last slot, which has very little to do with skill or talent in those last few cuts.

But writers are supposed to believe that validation of talent comes from being selected by one of these editors.

It’s entirely possible for a writer who has a compelling story and voice to be skipped over dozens of times by people who, even without malice or corruption, simply don’t have the space or taste to engage that story.

It’s equally possible for a writer who has very questionable talents to be selected. Taste is a funny thing.

And yet, the psychology persists, that writers should salivate at the idea of being published. And that it doesn’t count until someone else does it.

It doesn’t count.

That’s the hostage-taking behavior.

I’m going to invalidate you until you meet my expectations. Expectations that I developed without consulting you, and that may or may not match your goals.

It’s very simple for commercially successful independent authors to say that validation comes from sales. Readers like your stuff. Therefore you’re good.

I certainly won’t argue with that.

But it implies the inverse: if you don’t sell lots and lots, you aren’t good.

So where do you get your validation if you don’t sell and you don’t submit?

There’s a sickness in that.

I need someone else to tell me I’m good.

Art is funny. Taste is funny.

I don’t have an answer to that. I come to the helpless conclusion that there’s no such thing as good art, something I reject out of hand. Because if there’s no such thing as good art, there must be no such thing as bad art, and that’s just false.

But external validation of art as mandatory is a myth.

If you’re insecure, nothing that ever happens is going to validate you, and if you’re overconfident, nothing is going to take away your self-validation.

Impress your mom. She matters. Impress yourself. You matter more.

After that, look at your goals and be careful who you give validation power to. Be sure that their validation matters, in terms of your own goals.

But don’t let someone hold you hostage by telling you that their validation must matter to you. It’s a sick power game, and they can only win if you play.
What I’m reading: The Martian by Andy Weir
What I’m watching: The Monument Men

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