How long have I known I wanted to be a writer? I can trace it back to Mrs. Shea’s fourth grade class when she gave us a short story assignment. As I sat at my desk drafting the piece, first in pencil and then rewriting it in ink (no computers back then), I knew. As I read it aloud to my fellow fourth graders, I knew. As I proudly beamed at the three red stars Mrs. Shea put at the top, I knew.
But it was more than just knowing that I wanted to be a writer. I knew I had to be a writer. See, there was something magical about the connection — pen to paper, me to my audience, my audience to me. I wanted “it” — I wanted to write stories and to share them with readers. It was quite simple. Or so I thought at ten years old.
The Early Years of The Dream
How to become a writer? I was clueless on that part. I figured, for a long time, it would just happen. At some point in my early twenties, it became my dream to land an agent and a book deal. For some reason, I had it in my head that that would validate me; I’d be a writer.
But then life happened, and I took a ten-year detour in radio at Boston’s Magic 106.7. I learned a lot about writing while I was there and spent those years devouring everything there was to read on publishing. After I left radio, I did some freelancing for my hometown daily, started my own copywriting business, and wrote and wrote and wrote. A lot. Two novels. Lots of short stories. A thesis (yep — I went back to school for my MFA in Creative Writing at Lesley University). I got published a few times in mostly small, mostly respectable places you’ve probably never heard of. I even won a short story contest. (Maybe 50 people read that winning piece.) I received very encouraging rejection letters, personalized and welcoming from agents and editors alike. And so I plowed on, the dream still there, but growing a little dimmer with each passing year.
“No one makes a living writing short fiction, that’s for sure. And unless you’re one of the big-name heavy hitter novelists, you won’t make a living writing novels, either,” I’d remind myself, because I’d heard it since forever from every corner of the publishing and literary world. But never before had I questioned it.
Until very recently.
Validation & Eyeballs
First, some background. I subscribe to many writing-related blogs, listservs, news aggregators, etc. And one in particular keeps posting stories about e-readers — how they’re booming and are only going to continue to do so. How brick-and-mortar stores are going to be a thing of the past (not all of them, but many of them).
I have friends with Kindles, Nooks, etc., and they love them. I’d been resistant to the whole e-reader concept, but then I stopped and asked myself why. I read because I love stories, because I want to be transported, because I want to learn and feel. The smell of books, the feel of ‘em…it all adds to the experience, sure. But I don’t read because I like the feel of paper or because of the smell. I read because I love stories. And I want to be read because I feel I have stories inside me that need an audience, that want an audience. The audience doesn’t have to be J.K.-Rowling huge — but it needs to be my own passionate little tribe that enjoys reading my work.
All this got me thinking. As luck would have it, I was re-reading one of my all-time favorite books on writing called Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. She has a section on publishing, including all that it is, and all that it isn’t. She borrows a quote from the movie Cool Runnings about the Jamaican bobsled team where the coach says, “If you’re not enough before the gold medal, you won’t be enough with it.”
In essence, Lamott explained, “being enough” has to start from within. I’d lost sight of that, thinking instant validation would come with the call from an agent and a deal from a publishing house. And the truth is, it wouldn’t. Validation needs to start with me. I work hard at my craft and I do believe my stories will resonate with a certain readership. I want those eyeballs. I’d lost sight of the fact that THIS had been the dream of the fourth grader from so many years ago. Back then, it wasn’t about agents and publishing contracts and advances and book tours. It was about writing something that mattered to people, to my readers.
Validation Comes from Within. And e-Readers = Eyeballs.
See, unless you publish something in a widely circulated publication like The New Yorker (and fewer and fewer of those publish short stories anyway), you’re not going to get in front of a ton of eyeballs. Don’t get me wrong: if you get published in lit journals, it helps with the validation issue (somewhat), and the lit journal’s name is often worth its weight in gold when you’re querying agents.
Of course, there’s a whole lot of B.S. that goes into getting your story published in a lit journal: the endless waiting (sometimes as long as nine months), the rejections letters, the radio silence, the occasional acceptance and then the long wait to publication. To wit, last November, one of my short stories was accepted by a print pub for its spring 2010 issue. That piece came out ten months later in September 2010. When I was accepted, I felt validated for about 30 seconds, even though I knew the eyeball “reach” would be small. Today, that validation is long gone. But the desire to be read persists. I want readers. I want eyeballs. And I want them now.
And this brings me back to the epiphany I had over the summer: the beauty of e-readers and the self-publishing platforms that places like Amazon have set up is that it’s easier than ever to GET in front of those eyeballs and even make some dough while you’re at it.
Sounds presumptuous, doesn’t it? I agree. I mean, c’mon. Who the hell am I to say my writing is good enough and that people will not only want to read it, but will also be willing to pay for it, even if it is on the cheap (only 99 cents!)?
And here’s my answer: you decide whether my writing is good enough. In essence, I’m an indie artist. This website and blog? This is where I jam. All of the e-reader devices out there? Those are my venues, and the cover charge is reasonable. As for the “music”? The music might be good. Damned good. But I don’t decide that. YOU do.
I’m simply one writer returning the power of discovery over to you. But I’m not the only writer doing this. There are lots of us out there. Amazon has a “short stories” category in its Kindle Store, and if you scroll past the obvious names and titles, you’ll find other indie artists like me. So even if you don’t end up liking my work, you’re bound to find someone you do like. (As of the writing of this post, B&N does not have a short stories category, but I’ve made the request via Twitter.) And if you do like my writing, I welcome you and your eyeballs. For me, that’s what it’s all about.
e-Reader Short Stories – The Great Comeback
On a larger scale, I think e-readers could transform the Art of the American Short Story. Fewer and fewer print publications issue short fiction. When was the last time you could read one short story, without buying a whole anthology or a whole magazine? With e-readers, you can, in theory, buy one and only one short story (which is why I think all e-reader stores should include a short story category…and writers out there would be smart to issue their short stories one by one at low cost).
Short stories are immensely satisfying. You can read them in one sitting, which is perfect on so many different levels. You can experience so much in such compact space, and all the while marvel at how the author accomplished this enormous feat. They’re great learning tools — for kids, for adults, for students, for everyone, really. I think the right short story can actually help reluctant readers discover the joy of reading. A reluctant reader is liable to take one look at the size of a novel like Great Expectations and his or her stomach will turn. But a 10-page short story? Okay, the person might say. I can give that a try.
e-Readers, Agents, and Publishing
By the way, I still believe (quite strongly, in fact) that agents still play (and will continue to play) an important role in publishing (both print and digital). Your smart ones — people like Nathan Bransford and Rachelle Gardner and Janet Reid — these are folks who are embracing the digital age and who understand that it’s changing the business, not dooming it. Agents like these guys are the ones who are going to help writers navigate an increasingly difficult world of digital rights, print rights, film rights, foreign rights, etc.
Publishers need to embrace the fact that digital is changing the game. Many are. Some are stubborn. At the drafting of this post (9/26/10), the writer Jodi Picoult still has a note on the home page of her website. The note reads in part: “Due to a conflict in business practices with Amazon, my publisher – Simon and Schuster – recently made a policy decision to delay e-books by many bestselling authors for 6 months, including me. I AM 100% OPPOSED TO THIS POLICY.”
Writing is not going away. Reading is not going away. Readers aren’t going away. A study that was widely circulated over the summer shows that people who own e-readers read more. On a personal, anecdotal level, I can attest to this truth. It’s weird, and I don’t understand the why, but I’m reading more and longer, and not simply because of the novelty of my Nook (I’ll expound on my thoughts in another post). There’s still plenty of money to go around for everyone. But publishers need to yield and adjust their models.
Let the Eyeball Search Begin
So if you end up buying one of my short stories (thanks in advance!) and liking it, here’s how you can help this indie artist and her (possibly crazy) venture:
- Sign up for my Story Alert newsletter. I plan on releasing a piece of writing once a month. I’ll be starting with short stories, but I plan to release my first novel sometime in 2011.
- Become a fan of my Facebook page.
- Subscribe to this blog.
- If you have an e-reader, buy this month’s short story for only .99 cents or $1.00 (price varies slightly, depending on where you buy it from).
- Tell others: re-post to FB, re-tweet, etc.
Oh, and let me know what you think. I love comments and will respond — promise!