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On the Recent Brouhaha

10 December, 2009

On the Recent Brouhaha

For those of you who don’t read Whatever, you may have missed John Scalzi’s recent post on the pay offered by Black Matrix Publishing, or his follow-up post that rounds up the responses of lots of pro writers and editors. Today, Scalzi points us to a very cranky response by MFA student and aspiring pro writer Jenn Brissett. The comment thread is wonderful. It’s useful. It makes clear that Brissett doesn’t get it.

So why do I care? Scalzi is not my friend, although I would love to hang out with him some time. I do know some professional sf writers and editors, though, and have been on the fringes of fandom for a long time. I don’t see myself writing professionally, because I think I’m not really imaginative enough to write something that isn’t jejeune and embarrassingly full of the Mary-Sue-ness that, even though it can sell (I’m looking at YOU, Stephinie Meyer), is not really very good. And if I wrote sf or fantasy, I would want it to be good, because I don’t want the people I respect as writers to laugh at me. So yeah. Don’t look for fiction by ADM anytime soon.

Right — so this is why it concerns me at all. There are really a couple of reasons. The first is that, well, I have friends who write, and I want them to be writing for markets that pay relatively well. The second is that, well, I do write. I mean, I write really slowly, and I don’t get paid in anything but CV credit, but in some ways I think that’s relevant to the larger conversation. One of Brissett’s arguments is that publishing with businesses like Black Matrix is still better than not publishing, because it can give a writer pro credits. The counter-argument is that some publishers are better than others; while the publishers who pay well tend to be the best-known and have the big pro reputations (hence good publication credits), many of the smaller and badly paying venues are also not places where the credit will count as much. This is not true for all of them, and I can imagine that, given the right publisher and editor, it might be advantageous for a newbie author to publish for free.

That seems pretty sensible to me, because the same is true for academic publishing. We rank our venues. A peer-reviewed publication is the bottom line, and from there there is a hierarchy of journals and publishers. Oxford UP or Cambridge UP will publish your book? Gold standard for many of us. Non-academic publisher or publisher with no guarantee of peer review? Not so much. There is an assumption of quality based on venue.

The second issue that strikes me about all this, though, is the one of payment. Academics don’t expect to make tons of money from their books (although some do bring in some good royalties). To the best of my knowledge, most sf/f authors also do not make ginormous profits. Brissett argues that, by calling publishers like Black Matrix on their sweat-shop like wages, pro authors are acting as gatekeepers who don’t want the newbies to get a fair shot. I call shenanigans on that. I may be a medievalist, but dammit, I teach the modern survey, too, and passed macroeconomics. I am familiar with Ricardo and his Iron Law of Wages. It’s not about gatekeeping as much as it is looking around us and noting that, when we live in a society that undervalues labor, everybody’s wages suck. This is true whether we look at people working at places like Walmart or in the kitchens of restaurants, or at humanities faculty. When people undersell themselves, they make it possible for employers to underpay them. Not only does it drag the wages of everyone else down, but it also encourages people to see what we do as having little worth. Unions can sometimes mitigate that, but honestly, they can’t prevent state budget cuts and furloughs, which would not pass if people were properly infuriated and placed a high value on what we do.

Yeah — that’s getting a little close to blaming the victim, and I don’t mean to do that. But this also connects back to our discussion of Bennett’s History Matters, in terms of women and their occasionally willing participation in the perpetuation of the patriarchal equilibrium. Actually, it just connects back to feminism, plain and simple. If we aren’t part of the solution, we are part of the problem — and Brissett not only is part of the problem, but her arguments are so self-interested that she seems unable to see the same problem the rest of us do, i.e., that a poor wage structure, especially coupled with a venue that does not supply any particular cachet to its writers, is a sucker’s game.

A final issue, which make it three for the promised two, is that … WHAT? As I said above, I’m really sort of on the fringes of fandom. I don’t drag myself to cons, even though I am starting to explore options there (Readercon, Sirens, and Wiscon are on my radar these days, although often they are not at convenient times for me to travel). But my overall impression, from being on those fringes for the past 30 or so years, is that the world of sf/f writing and editing is really not one of extraordinarily high, multi-bolted gates. There seem to be an awful lot of pros who got their start writing fanfic or editing fanzines. Smart people with something sensible to say seem to get put on con panels, and get worked into the system, although there does seem to be a flexible, but existing, frontier between the pros and the fans. But by and large, it seems to me to be a world where the talented can reinvent and establish themselves in ways that are not nearly as possible in many other professional areas.

You may wonder what all this is in service of. First, it’s my blog and I had too much to say in a comment. Also? I’ve just successfully avoided marking essays for about 40 minutes! Guess it’s time to get on that…

7 Comments leave one →
  1. 10 December, 2009 11:26 pm

    I agree; it's my impression that sci-fi/fantasy readers and editors (especially of the periodicals) are truly interested in hella-good stories. Yes, being known doesn't hurt, but it's not the sole ticket to a publication.

  2. 12 December, 2009 2:07 am

    For context, I'm a newish SFF writer just a little ahead of where Brissett is career-wise. Even been published in one of the same places.While I'm extremely sympathetic to the argument about not undervaluing your own labor, I'm curious how much you know about just how many writers there are out there, and how fierce the competition is. For instance, Realms of Fantasy, when it was active, accepted about one out of every 240 slush submissions. (Interestingly, given all this talk of how little credits matter, I think they bought about one out of every ten submissions they got from "name" writers–people who didn't have to go through the slush pile.)Even several rungs down in the semi-pro and token markets, the rejection rate is easily 95-98%. I haven't spent time researching non-paying markets, but I'd be surprised if even they reject 90%+ of their submissions. That's how many other writers there are out there.With that many of us, many of whom are willing to give our work away for nothing, what can we do to bring wages up? Just not send to places that don't pay well enough? Don't participate–and thus be excluded from the various benefits, however diminished, of being published in the token and semipro markets?I'm genuinely curious, because the answer to a parallel problem in the U.S. is to pass minimum wage laws. That's not something I see happening in the wide world of SFF markets.

  3. 12 December, 2009 3:52 am

    I know a number of professional writers (fiction and non-fiction) and book editors, and have also worked as a writer/editor in the magazine trade, and it has always struck me that *someone* is making plenty of cash out of publishing, but it certainly isn't the writers or editors! Like so many other industries/occupations in recent decades, writing/editing has suffered the general corporatisation of whatever-it-is-possible-to-corporatise (witness the disappearance of many smaller independent presses), and risible wages are being paid to the many to fund the profits of the few. In New Zealand, at least, this has also contributed in no small part to the general decline in the ability of the 'fourth estate' to provide unbiased and informed commentary. Journalism is so poorly paid in this country, most journalists end up leaving the job just as they are developing the experience and maturity to be really effective at it.I don't know what the answer is, but I think that buying into deals such as that offered by Black Matrix is just perpetuating the problem. Surely self-publishing would even be a better option than accepting 1/5 of a cent per word!Also, I'm with you on your assessment of Stephanie Meyer. I tried to read Twilight, but couldn't get beyond about page 80.

  4. 12 December, 2009 5:30 am

    Edward, I think that you have to do what you have to do. It does depend on one's priorities. In terms of acceptances and rejections, though, I'm not sure that the numbers are that different than they are for jobs and publishing in academia, in the sense that there are people who may never get jobs despite being qualified, and who may never be published by a big pro publisher, despite being good.But I'm not sure that the numbers negate the principle that, when people undersell and undervalue their work, it has an effect on the market that allows for payment rates to remain far behind other sorts of remuneration. Publishing with a company that pays so little and then complaining that you don't have a choice is like complaining about how many jobs are outsourced when you shop at Walmart. If one of the problems is that there are authors who are allowed to bypass the slush pile (and this is an issue that came up a few times during the RaceFail earlier this year), then maybe the sensible thing to do is to get readers and writers to pressure the big-name publishers to do blind readings, not to defend people who don't pay a fair wage because 'they're the only people who'll give us a chance.' Not that you said this — I'm referring to the entire conversation.

  5. 12 December, 2009 10:10 pm

    The problem with blind slush reading, intriguing though it is, is that one of the main reasons the pro markets can charge for their products (and thus have real money to pay authors) is because they have something to offer the small places don't: big-name authors with built-in audiences. And I don't imagine many big-name authors would want to push for changes to a system that favors them. I wouldn't blame them for that, either; they earned their reputations, and the influence that brings.Tied up in this, and to my mind a bigger issue than authors undervaluing their work, is that most markets, to my understanding, run in the red: whatever money they recoup through ads and subscriptions–though due to the nature of internet content, most don't charge at all–it isn't enough to cover expenses as-is. Editors end up paying their authors out of pocket.We can demand more from them, but it's not like there isn't already a ton of pressure on them to make more money. Most of them already pay for the privilege to print fiction. I know for a fact the editors I've worked with would pay more if they could, and many of them bust their asses to find ways to do so.All this discussion has inspired me to take more shots at the pro markets than I already do. At the same time, the economy of the short SFF market is what it is. If editors are exploiting their writers, the vast majority of it aren't doing it willingly–they're already making sacrifices of their own just to do so.

  6. 13 December, 2009 5:17 pm

    I was going to say some of that last comment, but Mr Robertson puts it better than I would have. One thing I wanted to get in that builds on it, though, is that with academic journals and presumably SF/F ones too, the favour shown to big-name authors is not necessarily gate-keeping, but marketing of the journal. If you get a short story from Neil Gaiman or an essay from Chris Wickham in your journal you know that you will shift more copies. If you can do that sort of thing often, your journal will become a name and there will be subscriptions and a revenue stream and exciting things like that. If your mission is to provide a forum for aspiring unknowns of high-quality, not only is this an economically-viable way of doing that compared to only publishing such work, as more people will read it and you will make enough back to publish more, but it is also good for the unknowns in terms of exposure.The other thing is that, although I suppose the same constraints don't quite apply in SF/F, the big name kind of passes peer review in the sense that you know people will want to read their thoughts on a given subject, even if they're wild. All the same, one venerable lady of my and ADM's field whose name is incredibly well-known (but not one you've met, ADM, as far as I know) was explaining to me a year or two back that most of her article submissions are rejected these days, presumably because since retirement she's just fallen out of touch with the field at large. So the editors are still sending them out to review even though they, at least, must know that to publish her would be that sort of coup. But in SF/F the editors presumably feel that they're as sound a judge of a story as any reviewers they might engage?

  7. 15 December, 2009 7:06 am

    Ooh — since I think I've met all but one of the venerables, I'll try to remember to take a wild guess at Kazoo

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