The Amazon Iowan

Blog of Author Heidi Cullinan


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Reality 301 with @heidicullinan

 

Tonight Twitterverse roared with outrage over Kendall Grey’s post on Authors for Life where she bemoans the fact that sometimes, publishing is hard. Grey spent four years writing and a great deal of money and effort promoting an urban fantasy trilogy; it tanked. She wrote an erotic novel she describes as a “piece of trash” in two months, spent much less in promotion and gave it much less effort, and that book made some decent money. She’s angry that she wasn’t rewarded for her “beautiful, artistic” book and that by selling out she made money. Grey writes:

I know it’s depressing to hear that in order to find success, you may have to compromise your principles. I’ve come to grips with the fact that in the current market, trashy smut sells, and urban fantasy does not. Tough shit for me. If you want to sell books, you have to feed the market what it craves.

Grey goes on to state that

once you’ve done your part to feed the reader machine, and you get paid ridiculous amounts of money for publicly shaming yourself and lowering your standards, you’ll be armed with the power to write what you want.

I think the best place to start in response is to take a moment to acknowledge where this kind of selfish, angry thinking comes from, and like most things gone awry, it starts from something well-meaning. We could build several acres of affordable housing out of the stacks and stacks of books, blogs, and inspirational memes urging writers to write from the heart, to follow your vision, to let your voice ring out and be heard. The problem is that almost always after that advice comes the promise that should a writer (or any artist, really) follow this path of purity, success and happiness will unquestionably follow.

It’s not that this promise isn’t true, exactly. It’s that for far, far too many writers “success and happiness” gets equated with “lots of money and fame.” Here’s the reality of making art: the brass ring is BRASS, not gold. To believe even for a moment that simply producing the work of one’s heart means one will now be a bestseller is beyond naive. To proceed as if commercial success is due because of one’s effort or expenditure is embarrassingly foolhardy. But most of all, publicly ridiculing readers, especially one’s own, is a hanging offense, and anyone who commits it will very quickly feel the cinch of a brutal noose.

Without question, it would be wonderful if every time an author produced a work of her heart it met with commercial success—or if not wonderful, it would at least be very tidy and cute, like a toddler league of tee-ball where both sides go home convinced that they won the game. It’s understandable that writers approach publication with the conceit that if they write it, it will sell, and probably a little of that bluster is necessary to get through those initial rounds of trying to get published. It’s an incredibly conceited idea to put words on a page and ask other people to pay to read them. Hell, even asking for their time is arrogant. Requesting payment is graduate level self-importance, and being part of a corporation allowing many people beyond the initial author to make livings off these sold words is a doctoral thesis of hubris. To even consider stepping into the hot mess of being an author takes some serious mental jujutsu, and yes, imagining one’s story as some kind of messianic tome likely cuts through a lot of white hot terror.

Writers may live in that rose-colored bubble, but authors cannot. Anyone who puts words on a page and calls it a story is a writer; authors are those who intend to make at least a subsidiary living off their works, who write for more than themselves and their besties. Authors do not write because they believe they have innate truths they must impart upon the world but because they would like to be read. Most importantly, authors, true authors, quickly shed their writerly crutch of predestination and come to terms with grizzly truth: authors exist entirely at the pleasure of the reader.

Some genres sell better than others. This isn’t because best-selling books are more artistic or even better written than their peers. This is because the books that sell well are the books which more readers wish to read. Only in literature classes are books read because they’ve been put on a pedestal. Even the snottiest, the-smell-of-a-book-makes-angels-weep erudite societies read because the books they’ve chose to elevate give them pleasure. Every reader believes the books she loves to be the most holy of texts, and the truth of the matter is that every reader is absolutely correct in her conviction. What happens in this little thing we like to call a market economy is that when a great number of readers all happen to find the same kinds of books or titles of books pleasurable, the authors of those books make money.

A failure of a book to make money might be a failure of marketing, but it also might simply not be a book which gives a large number of readers pleasure. That’s as deep as this shit goes.

I understand that it’s disheartening to pour effort and money into a work of art and find that others do not value it with the same intensity. I’ve been to this rodeo more than a few times, and yes, it’s painful and hard on the soul. It is also the sort of thing that grown-ups do every day. Anyone deluded enough to think they are owed monetary success because they bled for their art is in for some hard, hard knocks and buckets full of tears. There will be many cries of “unfair” and much jealousy and hatred. And to be fair, all authors go through this every time they watch their books ride the waves of bestseller charts and the ego torture chamber known as Goodreads reviews. Even the most well-adjusted of us watch that horrible piece of shit book beat our baby to pieces and gnash our teeth and shout at our monitors demanding to know what brain-donors are shopping on amazon.com these days.

But holy Smart Bitch on a cracker, Batman, to write a post about how stupid readers are and worse to actually put it out there on the internet is so beyond the pale there’s a special hell for that kind of idiocy. Let me repeat: authors exist at the pleasure of readers. Without the people who buy and read my books, I am just another dizzy broad writing shit down. Readers aren’t just an author’s audience; they are her lifeblood. Yes, we make up characters and worlds, but readers are the magical, ephemeral beings who give their time and money to our work, who sing praises of our stories to their friends, who make this whole game possible. Readers are the holy ground where authors’ egotistical nonsense transforms into story. Readers are to be treasured and worshipped, and if an author has an urge to type a nasty review in reply to a reader or write a snarky post, she’d cause so much less harm to herself if she’d cut off her hand first.

Yes, it’s true, one can phone in a book in a popular genre and make more money than one can by bleeding out in a less popular one. However, “the market” is not some craven, slobbering beast created by men in smoky rooms twirling their mustaches. The market is made up of readers gathering without prompt or organization to purchase what authors write. The market is the reason writers are able to even dare to dream of getting paid for creating story. The market isn’t here to prop authors up so we can write what we want and tap our toes until our work gets the kind of attention we think it deserves. The market isn’t here to serve us. It’s here for us to serve.

Ms. Grey, what you’ve dished out for the market tonight might have come from your heart, but much like your urban fantasy series, it isn’t something anyone has a taste for. The market, your readers, and the internet have heard your scorn, and we won’t forget what you truly think of us anytime soon.

That isn’t just a promise. It’s reality. And yes, it’s going to follow you all the way to the bank.

 


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Big news about the Special Delivery series: Old Blue is taking a drive

If you go to Amazon, B&N, and the usuals right now and try to buy Special Delivery, you’ll only have the option of picking up a handful of paperbacks, and before long those will be gone too. The book is, as of today, out of print.

PLEASE REMAIN CALM.

Special Delivery and Double Blind are on the move–today the contracts are in the works between my agent and Samhain, and that’s where the series is going. This includes, as some of you have been hoping, book three, Better Than Love. There might yet be more, but for right now, let’s take it one book at a time.

To be clear, though, there WILL be a third book, and it is for real coming, and its production is 100% my top priority right now. I’ll be delivering it to my editor by June, straight-up.

Let me anticipate some of your questions.

When will the books be re-released at Samhain?

I forget which months exactly, but basically this time next year. As I understand it, the releases will be 1-2-3 in a row, one month apart for each.

Why is it going to take so long?

Because I really, really care about these books, and I want to do it right. This production schedule will help Samhain give the books wider exposure, do solid, solid editing, get new covers, the whole works. Also, to clear three months of release, we had to look a bit ahead.

OMG DOES THIS MEAN YOU’RE CHANGING MY FAVORITE BOOK EVER???!!!!!

NO. Absolutely NO. The edits, I swear on Sam Keller’s cute peach-shaped butt, will not eat your favorite scenes or even one-liners. I’ve already cleaned up a lot of “and thens” and some stupid spacings and other things that always get left over. Sasha will push me to clean up any other bits and pieces, and we’ll clean up things that you’ll never realize were change and yet will make the whole thing smoother and sharper. If you notice what we did, we didn’t do our jobs. I promise, we will be good at our jobs. This goes for Double Blind too.

What about the audio book? Is it going to go?

Yeah, sorry. My agent is looking into that, but for now, yes, it’s not hanging around.

Why are you moving your books?

That was probably your first question, but it has the longest answer, so I put it later in the queue.

The why is very complicated, but the short answer is because it’s the right thing to do. There is no dramatic behind-the-scenes story here–moving the series is what was best for it, and this was a decision reached after discussing things with my agent, Dreamspinner, and Samhain.

Editors, publishing houses, agents–these are all relationships, and as in all relationships, it’s important that everyone is happy and feels good. Everyone needs to want the same thing and share the same vision. It’s not okay for one party to need something different and have to not get it because another party can’t give it, and when that happens, it’s time to go. It says nothing about any of the individual parties’ worth, and polite, professional partings are a sign of strong individuals who are good at their jobs. Consider this one of those moments.

So you really are going to write Better Than Love now? You’ve been saying that for three years, you know.

Yeah, I know. Thankfully, George R. R. Martin has set the bar really high for how long you can let a series go. Though while we’re on the subject of long breaks…

One of the biggest reasons there hasn’t been a book–in addition to needing to be at the right place–is that I have had a bit of a hellish three years. Health, professional stuff, personal stuff–it’s been a ride. I have, actually, worked on this story the whole time, sometimes actively, sometimes just in the back of my head. Being in the right place, having a solid plan, and having cleared my desk for the project is going to help a lot.

The thing to remember is that Special Delivery, Double Blind, and Better Than Love are what I call “big books.” Big in that they’re not just lengthy but full of meat. I do, truly, work like the devil to make them sing, and I am, frankly, relentless in my standards for them. Special Delivery took over two years to write, and I have probably about 200k (not exaggerating) of dead manuscript beneath what you currently read. Double Blind is a bit of a fluke–It took 25 days to write and has the least editing ever in any book I’ve ever done, but I wrote it under extraordinary circumstances and spent three months prepping the research. I also wrote it in the dark. When that book got birthed, none of you knew who I was. That you do now? That you’re watching? Yes, it changes everything, and it makes it very hard at times. It makes it slower, because I have to keep shutting off my head.

The current reality of publishing, especially in indie, is that we must produce with incredible speed, speeds that ten years ago would be considered inhuman. In 2004 I went to a national writing conference where authors (NYT bestsellers) were angry that their publishers were beginning to require a book a year from them. Please enjoy that fact a moment when you consider how many books in m/m most authors crank out right now. I produce on average three a year, and I’m one of the slower producers. I’m not when you consider that a “short” book for me is usually 60k. Not only is a 100k book (my preferred length) longer, it’s more difficult. It’s not simply more words. It’s more complex plot, more to hold in one’s head, more pacing to make sure doesn’t flag. I do not make more money for that length, either. In fact, were I to crank out 20-40k on a regular basis, I’d make a lot more money.

At moments this reality–too fast a production, too unstable a landscape–has been very hard for me to come to terms with. I suffer too from too many ideas and too many fingers in too many sub-genres, and while I’ve corrected that a bit, it came at a financial and branding cost. When you add how visible and connected authors have to be to fans to stay relevant–social media, conferences, etc–I sometimes wonder how I have managed to do this at all. I think, weirdly enough, my unstable health has helped, because it becomes a sort of laser focus, making me constantly assess.

But yes, there will be Better Than Love by spring next year. It will be as big, if not bigger, than SD & DB. It will be worthy of your fandom and pleasure. It will be worth the money you’ll pay for it and the reviews you’ll leave on social media sites. I will give it, and you, the gift of my full authorial attention.

This is how, honestly, I’d prefer to proceed from here on out. I’m open to some fun small projects, but my meat, my core, is this sort of thing. I honestly enjoy taking a big, crazy idea and taming it. I love taking subjects we shouldn’t write about (trucker fantasies, casino heists) and making them beautiful. I love inserting painstakingly detailed research and real things into works so that they feel so real they take your breath away. I love hiding little plot devices and structure you won’t notice, ever, but will make works stronger and smarter and better. I love crafting art out of same-sex romance, better yet when I can put a bit of dirty sex in it to boot. I love taking what is a rather extensive and expensive education on writing and story and how to do this job and writing not a staid piece of LITERATURE but a raunchy, riotous ride.

That, however, takes time. And energy, and focus. It’s why I moved the books, so I have the best opportunity to reach for those things. It’s why I have an agent to sell my books and advise me where to go. It’s why I have started saying a lot more NO to everything that is not writing and supporting the writing. Because the writing is what I want to do, always, forever. Without it, the rest of life is so tasteless I cannot bear it.

So this is the big Thursday news. Books are moving, new book is coming. Heidi is getting her game on, and we’re ready to go.

There actually is other news, which sort of steps on what was a nice closer there, but whatever.

  • Let It Snow, the first book in what will be the Minnesota Snow (I think that’s what I called it) Christmas series, will be available this year in November from Samhain. I think the 26th. My plan is one of those every year.
  • Hero is also out of print. I’m looking at probably self-pubbing it this summer just so it’s available, but more on that later.
  • Love Lessons, a new adult, almost-sweet romance is in the hands of my agent. She has Plans. I will let you know about them when they are firm.
  • Tucker Springs is on my radar, but right now I so very have to finish BTL and it’s the only thing I’m allowing myself to process. Though I’ll confess, I have a few characters talking to me from that town.
  • Damon Suede and I have many crazy cowriting schemes together, but first he has to finish his book, and I have to get ankle-deep in BTL before any of that gets serious.

I think that’s about all I have for news. So there you go. Ask whatever other questions you have, and I’ll do my best to answer them. Just don’t expect much detail on BTL yet, because the story is hot and doesn’t want attention. I can’t even tell Damon or Saritza about it right now, it’s in that kind of state. I’ll just say there are some high awesomes, and I’m excited. As for a Randy POV? Maybe. Only if it works and adds to the story, but so far, he seems to be determined to make himself essential.

Can’t say that surprises me at all.


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Some Thoughts on Puddles: Advice for Authors and Readers of the M/M Community

One of the best things about the m/m genre is that it’s close-knit and interwoven like a family. Naturally, that’s also one of the worst things about it. It’s true of any small genre though, I think, and right now just about everything about the world of books is either becoming small genre or at least learning to share our pains. Publishing is changing, no matter how hard New York shoves its fingers in its ears or how loud it yells (or how high they price their ebooks in an attempt to render them DOA). Up is down and black is white. The wheel is spinning round and round, and what our industry will look like when it stops, nobody knows. Which means we all get to try to guess what will happen, and it also means that many people will set themselves up as knowing which way the wind is blowing and will expel a lot of wind themselves saying so. This is fine and to a large degree expected. But authors and readers both should speculate with care, remembering we’re here to read and write, not predict the future, and that family is a lot more important than being right.

The Internet, bless its cotton socks, is like a small town on crack, heroin, and some seriously moldy weed at once. It creates communities and allows networking in ways we didn’t even know to dream of. It allows conversations that quite literally can change the world, and in the case of small genres like m/m fiction, it weaves an entire universe out of sexual politics, gender identity, a yen for something different and a bit of fanfic tossed on top for texture. And like all good universes, ours is ever-expanding and changing. Literally the whole world participates. There isn’t just one watering hole; there are hundreds, with more popping up every day. Our little puddle universes overlap and expand into others in ways we can’t even fathom, let alone see. These communities can become so powerful they take on their own life, puddles with surprising depth. But like small towns, they can be full of suspicion, power-mongering, and a healthy side order of crazy.

By and large this is just part of human nature strutting its stuff and is probably healthy. We are all nothing if not walking egos; why would we be otherwise on the Internet? For many jockeying for whose blog/book/review is more influential, who is the book-of-the-month on what site and who wins what award is part of playing the game, and watching this stuff play out makes for interesting TV. But sometimes catty remarks on twitter have a razors in them, and they cut deep enough to bleed. Sometimes friendly competition becomes a brawl that leaves not just bruises but scars. Sometimes one person’s offhand remark or dismissal or generalization cause serious wounds to our community.

I know readers who have stopped reading and authors who have stopped writing, for awhile or forever, because of community gone awry, and not just in this genre. I have literally and virtually held the hands and dried the tears of many who have been battered by accidental and deliberate swipes by Internet communities, and I have become a snotty mess myself over the same. My own experiences, personal and observed, have caused me to engage in Internet communities much differently than I used to, and most of it comes down to engaging less. Attempts to be more active usually find me flat against a wall of panic and remembered sorrow and a fierce determination to never get cut in the same ways again. I try to push myself beyond that, because I’d rather be a fool twice or thrice* or a million times than just hide out with a blanket over my head.

My desire to renew my attempts at engagement swelled to new highs after attending GayRomLit in New Orleans. Itwasn’t just going home; it was that universe-expanding thing again, a world I hadn’t quite realized was that formed and that big and that amazing. Prior to NOLA the m/m genre felt like my community and my place of work; now it feels like my family, my posse. Oh, yes, it’s still a small town on various mild-altering substances. But connecting with people live and in person, seeing faces and watching the way corners of mouths turned up and eyebrows waggled and hearing accents from all over the world—well, all my Pollyanna came swelling back, wanting to hug everyone and drown them in rose petals and kisses. Obviously that faded into something more sane pretty quickly, and after some percolation and imaginary Dunhills, this is my attempt to be a bit more active in the community conversation.

And my plea to the community conversation is this: Play nice.

Yes, let’s all splash in the puddles together and make a mess, but let’s remember that this is a puddle, and even growing like it is, it’s still a puddle, and there’s less room in here than we think. When one splashes, we all get wet. If we want to keep it a puddle and not just make it our footprint as we launch into a bigger pond, we need to watch ourselves. If someone starts lumbering around mucking up and upsetting people, we want to protect the community, yes, but we don’t want blood in the water, either, especially if our egos are more focused on a vendetta rather than keeping the peace.

The world of authors and readers is changing, and we don’t know how just yet. What we do know is who supports us and who is toxic to the air we breathe. In a puddle, sometimes those latter two are standing side-by-side and are different things to different people. Right and wrong are always subjective, but in close quarters that subjectivity can start a war.

Nothing has prompted this post, except possibly Sir Terry Pratchett. Anyone attempting to knit a conspiracy of this post being prompted by this-or-that flame war or review or blog post or twitter comment or sneeze or bowel movement or whatever is engaging in what I hope is at least a pleasant bit of fiction for themselves. I like communities, and I like to see them healthy and strong.

I dislike power plays a lot. I dislike anyone hogging the hill or the mic or anything and trying to make themselves out to be Top Dog, and I dislike whisper campaigns about who is currently too big for their britches as well. Oh, we all do it off on the side. We all have our foxholes where we vent and bitch and cry. That’s normal and probably healthy. But anybody doing it to get more power is a Mean Girl and deserves the karma they knit.

I don’t like bullies, either. Like Randy Jansen, I  know how to play poker, at least metaphorically, and it isn’t important to me that I walk out with the pot, just that the asshole doesn’t. I will defend this genre and this community with everything I have, and while my body is a bit of a mess and I get awfully tired, my tongue has a few edges left on it. I haven’t felt the need to get my bristles up much, thank goodness. I don’t ever really want to.

But sometimes I feel like we get too close to trouble in River City. As we get bigger, I suppose that’s natural, and eventually our puddle might splinter into different puddles. That’s evolution and the way of the world. What I hope never happens is that we get so caught up in games and ego that we send out all the water altogether, that this amazing family gets destroyed over something foolish.

I’ve been thinking about this blog post for several weeks, and before GRL my metaphor of choice was going to be curtains, that authors should remember they can shut theirs and keep their eyes on the keyboard while readers (or authors ready to play) muck about in Oz. I’m of the opinion that drawing the curtains (and respecting the need for them) is not a bad plan. But after GRL, I’m thinking more about the puddles. Because this is not a pond. This is not, thank god, New York publishing. This isn’t RWA or any of the usual romance sub-communities. This is us. This IS Oz, and it’s damn hard to keep yourself curtained off when you know there are yellow-brick roads and other wonders out there.

I hope no matter how we grow, no matter what the future of publishing brings, that we stay a community. I hope we work hard together to keep ourselves strong. I hope we keep looking out for each other and for our puddle as a whole, even if it gets too large to be called that anymore.

I hope that as other genres and pods of publishing and readership look around and see our community, they find themselves wanting to model their own communities after ours because we are that awesome, or better yet they join ours and enrich the conversation. I hope that magical feeling of connection and family and wonder we felt in NOLA is not an anomaly but just the tip of the rainbow. Yes, cheesy, but how could I resist? My Pollyanna is back, and man, rainbows? She’s shitting them. Because yeah, probably eventually somebody’s going to send too much water over the edge.

But we made this puddle once. I’ve decided to focus less on how much of a miracle that was and more on that no matter what, once managed we could do it again. And again and again and again.

Pollyanna, over and out.

 

 

*My husband will see this word and think “intrauterine!” and frankly, you should too.
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