Monday, May 20, 2013

The Age of the Empowered Writer

I see the signs of writer empowerment everywhere these days.

A writer-friend in wonder that she no longer thinks of agents as gods. 

Another writer-friend who pulls a manuscript from a Big Six editor, because they were taking too long (months) to get back to her. 

A third writer-friend asking for my help to negotiate a contract with her (new) agent, successfully gaining changes like having the money flow to the writer, not the agent, first. 

My writer-friends' empowerment was fueled by their experiences with indie publishing.

That empowerment - expressed as a willingness to challenge conventions, write different stories, try new strategies, as well as an intolerance for "rules" of traditional publishing, including excessive wait times and bad contracts - was something I felt early on, when I first self-published. And I've seen it in other newly-indie-published authors. There's a sudden flush of freedom, of liberation from constraints you didn't even know were binding you.

What, you mean I can write a story any length I want?

Wait, what if I want to write dark-and-edgy instead of light-and-fluffy? You mean I don't have to change my penname if I don't want?

Hang on, you mean I actually can write to trends? 

In this rush of new-found artistic freedom comes the assumption that everyone realizes this Brave New World is upon us. Sadly, this is not true... yet. The next phase, the one that's slowly starting to show its face but is far from fully realized, is the one where everyone in the publishing ecosystem has adapted to this new age of the empowered writer.

I see the beginnings of it in the freelance artists and editors and narrators I work with, who respect and look forward to creative collaboration with writers - a collaboration based on a balance of power where either party can walk away from a situation that's not working for them. This is creative work as normal commerce - where both parties engage in an activity (creating a cover, editing a book, narrating an audiobook) because they see mutual benefits (money, finished product). I'm a big believer in the free market, and this is free market at its best - allowing for individuals to trade goods and services to their mutual benefit.

It is a far, far cry from the publishing system as it has historically existed - and as it is, still, today.

There are some agents and editors who get it. But we still have a long ways to go before most (or even many) people in the industry realize the power balance has well and truly tipped. There are too many (and I include any company who thinks Author House has acceptable business practices) who think writers are people to be taken advantage of, not worked with. Or at the least, disposable. Because if one writer isn't willing to sign that contract or accede to those edits or wait for months and months for an answer on a manuscript, there are still legions of other writers lined up behind them, willing to sign up for the bad terms and give up their power.

But this doesn't actually concern me.

All it takes is one toe dipped in the cool waters of indie publishing, and that writer will feel the empowerment for themselves. And they'll tell their friends. And another will try. And another.

It's a slow, but inexorable, avalanche of transformation. And I'm patient.

For me, personally, I continue to discover the effects of the transformation. As I mentioned to my husband this weekend, the longer I've been indie published, and the more I understand how bookselling in the digital age works, the more clearly I see the inflexibilities that hinder large publishers. For example, Amazon just recently changed its categories, as well as the way they are assigned. This is something that every indie published author (who is aware of it) is scrambling to take advantage of.
now ranking in Cyberpunk, Genetic Engineering, and Coming of Age

Why? Because indie authors understand that visibility is huge, and are thirsty to use any tool at their disposal. And because we can. 

I also told my husband that, as my backlist grows, I better understand why publishers are hindered from taking advantage of every new thing that comes on the block - because they have thousands of titles, not one or five or twenty. I now have twenty-one titles associated with my author name. Of course, putting out a nine-part serial, with collections, will move you along quite quickly in the title-count. But my point is that managing that many titles quickly becomes a lot of work - especially when you have to go back and re-tool the categories for all twenty-one.

So I understand why publishers lag in doing this. They will never be as nimble as an indie author in charge of her own backlist. And as an author's backlist grows, the author becomes more like a small publisher unto themselves. I'm already thinking about ways I can streamline my production systems (formatting, publishing) - and I think we'll see more services available to authors in the years to come that will facilitate them acting as small publishers. Professionals like upload assistants or marketing/PR people or formatting experts who lend a hand to authors who need support for their growing business. But empowered writers will also be savvy about which services provide good value (like NetGalley) and which cost far more than they're worth. Because the terms have irrevocably changed on how business is conducted for indie authors - they are empowered now.

Eventually, everyone who works with writers will realize this. In good time, the transformation will reach every corner of the ecosystem. 

And I see that as an unqualified good.


  1. I think it's great that writers are becoming more empowered. The more I read about indie publishing, the more I think about pursuing it as an option when I'm ready to publish my own work. I especially like the idea of having more freedom, because I always thought I'd have to bow to the opinions of agents and editors.

    1. It's amazing how much the freedom makes a difference, once you have it. Of course, we should always listen to voices that have something worthwhile to add - critique partners, readers, reviewers, as well as agents and editors. But having the final say on your own work (or not) changes the way you view it (I believe). You have ownership on a whole different level.

  2. This year at the London Book Fair, the change was palpable. There was an author's lounge that was full to overflowing. Stall holders had already begun to retool their sales pitches because the authors are gaining power. We're moving to a model in which everyone subcontracts to the content creator. It's very exciting to watch!

    1. Oh, that is awesome, EM! I haven't attended conferences in a while, but I have two indie-friendly ones lined up this summer. It will be interesting to see what the atmosphere is like!

    2. Yeah, this is the first year that it occurred to me to go. Authors didn't really have a place in these huge publishing events before, but when you're talking to Abbi Glines about how she needs multiple publishers for paperback deals because of the speed at which she writes, you're in a whole new era.

  3. Thank you, Sue, for another really great post. I so appreciate your insight into indie publishing and what it means for authors. I've still got visions of someday seeing something with my name on the cover at the Scholastic Book Fair, but now I see there's more than one way to get over the wall.

    1. Thanks Rebecca! I've been meaning to write something on this for a while,so your prompt was just what I needed!

  4. This is a wonderful post, Susan! I'm so impressed you have 21 titles out. Wow! I feel like we authors are lucky to be publishing at a time when so many options are open to us. I think the most important thing is to follow your dreams to your own definition of happiness. :-)


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