Friday, March 11, 2011

Writing: Time to Hang it Up or Time to Ignore the Voices of Doom?

By Ellen Byerrum

[Originally posted at]

The times are changing for writers and they are dire. You might as well hang up your pen and paper, shut off your computer and go wait tables -- at least according to news reports swirling all around us.

These are some of the tidbits I keep hearing:
  • Women’s books are not getting reviewed as often as men's books.
  • Women are not being published as often as men.
  • With Borders closing hundreds of stores, it will be murder on the mystery midlist, and many writers will have no (or one less) champion in their corner.
  • With e-books making their mark and publishers afraid to take chances (unless of course there is a high celebrity bimbo quotient), the ground is rapidly shifting beneath our ergonomic writing chairs.
  • Publishers will continue to look for blockbusters and celebrities and not take a chance on "smaller" books and lesser-known writers who take time to build an audience.
  • Writers must have a website, they must relentlessly tweet and blog and Facebook and Skype and make video book trailers for YouTube and hand out bookmarks and postcards and dance on the high wire of publicity (not to mention the head of that pin) and attend every conference and meeting they can find all over the country. At their own expense. They must be able to entertain a crowd and drop one-liners like a pro on the comedy circuit because nobody wants a boring, or heaven forbid, a shy writer. The only thing they don't have to do is make balloon animals. Not yet anyway. But writers must also keep up the high quality of their work. However, that’s really secondary, hardly important at all. It's all about successfully navigating the endless sea of social media.
Is that all? Really? Phew, I’m exhausted.

Was it really any different in the past? Aside from the relentless social media chores, has publishing ever been anything but a ship of disaster and heartbreak ahead? Full of cautionary tales for anyone who wants to be a scribe, or for that matter, an artist, a musician or a dancer? Hasn’t it always been a tricky proposition for women? Seriously, is it becoming harder, or is it just transforming into something new, easier in some ways, but harder in new and unexpected ways?

It seems to me that writing a book has always been daunting and difficult, the Impossible Dream. When I started writing my first book about Lacey Smithsonian, mixing fashion and crime, a little mystery, a little comedy, a little romance, a little snarky social commentary, there were no books like mine out there. No heroine like Lacey. I had no idea whether anyone would publish me or read me, I only knew that this was the book I had to write, because it was the book I wanted to read. I also had to shut my ears to my critics, both external and internal. Yet that book, Killer Hair, was published and is on at least its tenth printing. And the seventh book in the series, Shot Through Velvet, was just released in February. All seven are still in print and on bookstore shelves, and I'm up to my ears in writing Book Number Eight.

Maybe it takes a bit of idealistic innocence (or sheer ignorance) and a stubborn spine to succeed; maybe it takes a belief that, no matter how ridiculous the odds, you might just be the one to make it, as crazy as it seems. The one to make it past the gatekeepers and past the pitfalls and find an audience and a home in the publishing market. On a fool’s errand, perhaps only the fools win.

And what will I do in this brave new publishing world? All I can do is keep my head down, square my shoulders, and march forward into the winds of change. And no matter how compelling it is, maybe, just maybe, I should stop reading every dismal prediction of doom that comes my way.

Ellen Byerrum is the author of the Crime of Fashion mysteries. Two of her books -- Killer Hair and Hostile Makeover -- were adapted for film by the Lifetime Movie Network. The seventh and latest installment in the series is Shot Through Velvet.


Donnell said...

In this vast wave of doom and gloom thanks for the reminder of sunshine. Thank you!

Maryann Miller said...

Very nice post. Thanks for the inspiration. Every time I read all the doom and gloom about publishing, I think of a writer friend who never stopped in the face of much greater challenges. He said we write because that is who we are, writers. It isn't a job, it is a part of our very being. So we ride those waves of positives and negatives and hope the positives win out in the end.

Ellen Byerrum said...

Thanks you Donnell and Maryann for your comments. I'm glad I'm not alone. Sometimes we have to shut off the negative voices all around us, and sometimes the ones in our heads, as well.

Anonymous said...

The good news among the bad news is that a new author may actually have a better chance of publication, thanks to the rise of small presses, e-books and self-publishing. For years publication relied on the whims of the major houses. Now writers are getting published without them and with more control over their product.
Sally C.

Msmstry said...

Ellen, I'm glad you're writing what YOU want to read—and I'm always glad when someone else follows that advice.

I hope others will do another thing you do in your writing—submitting well-written manuscripts that don't just follow the current trend.

Keep up the good work!

Dana Stabenow said...

With chaos comes opportunity.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Excellent reminder that we spend way too much time letting the negatives rob us of the joy (or is that compulsion) of writing. Let's remember why we do this and listen to our hearts and the music.

Thanks, Ellen!

Georgia said...

Thanks Ellen, writing is a lonely pursuit and I am appreciative of successful authors sharing their view of the road up ahead. This fool loves to write and, truthfully, can't do much else, so I rush on, way behind you, but following the tracks.

Cindy Sample said...

Hi Ellen. These are interesting times, as they say. But opportunities abound if we're willing to work and I don't think that is any different than the past. As a new author of a humorous romantic mystery series, thanks for paving the way for the rest of us.

PS - loved the Lifetime movies. Keep up your hilarious homicides.

Ellen Byerrum said...

It's gratifying to see so many of you who are on the same wavelength. We know writing is and always has been a daunting endeavor, but we still go for it. I'm in great company.


Meredith Cole said...

Go, Ellen go! Thanks for reminding all of us to write what we want to read. Looking forward to number 8!

Karla said...

Dear Ellen:

Thank you for your words of encouragement just when I--and probably many others--needed them most! I've added your Crime of Fashion series to my must read list. And I'm back on track with my own writing goals.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Way to go, Ellen. And in all that gloom we forget that almost every day there's a major article about e-books--which tells me that e-publishing/e-reading might be putting the "sexy" back into our industry.

There will always be room on bookshelves and in e-books for good reads. Thanks for the reminder.

mary kennedy said...

Terrific article, Ellen!! The current publishing climate reminds me of those old-timey maps from centuries ago, the ones that said, "Beyond here, there be dragons." Very insightful piece...

Eileen said...

When I get depressed reading all the doom and gloom stuff, I think of the mystery writers who wrote all through WW II in England, when folks kept mystery libraries in the tube for refugees to read while the bombs dropped overhead. And we think we have problems? As Dona Said, out of chaos comes opportunity, and I'm seriously thinking of publishing my own stuff for the e-readers (after getting a professional edit, packaging, etc.). If the agents and publishers are going to piss and moan and cut the mid-list, that's our opportunity,no?

Mary Montanye said...

Great article. Yes, we have to stop reading the doom and gloom and read (and buy) books instead. It's much better for our own writing. Thanks so much, Ellen.

Diane said...

This comment is from the standpont of someone who is an avid reader of the mystery genre, not a writer. I say write what you love to write. Several years ago I had the chance to talk to one of my favorite authors. She had 2 series, both of which I loved. She had stopped writing one because her perky young editor said to drop it. The character wasn't young & perky. Said editor finally quit to have a baby. Home was - in my opinion - was a better place for her, and for readers. With ebooks you can self publish. And you will be found. I have a Kindle - my bookshelf is full - and I have bought - and enjoyed - several new authors. One or two were duds, but most were good. Or if they weren't outstanding at the beginning, I can see improvement coming. To those of you who are older, remember MASH and Barney Miller tv shows? They weren't instant hits, but were given a chance and just got better and better. Now, on tv, the new shows don't get a chance to develop and gain an audience. Give yourselves - and the readers - a chance. Your dream of writing is worth it. To both yourselves and to the readers.

Mizmak said...

I spent decades trying to get published in the older, more traditional market -- it wasn't until the winds'o'change came blowing through that I finally found not one, but TWO terrific small presses for my work. No, it's not much money. Yes, they ask for a lot more of my help in the marketing/publicity arena, but hey, I broke through! I'm grateful to the savvy new small presses which are taking up where the big name publishers left off - with the midlist writers.

Thanks for the refreshing post!

Alexandra MacKenzie