This is the last of a series about the Anthology Workshop run by Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith, a week-long look into the inner workings of traditionally published short fiction. The first post in this series outlines the event itself and provides links to the rest of my discussion, so if you’re new to the series I suggest checking it out first.
If you’ve been reading these you know that my daughter (Brigid) and I are editing Face the Strange, an anthology in the Fiction River series that comes from the workshop. You may even remember me saying what an awesome set of stories we’ve got lined up. Have I mentioned that before? Yes, I think I have. [still grinning]
Let me start by being clear about something: nothing I’m writing about here is on the workshop’s actual syllabus, meaning this post is about the things that happen in the cracks of the event.
It also means that when I first thought about this installment, I expected it would be a breeze to write. I was wrong. After thinking about it more, I realized this aspect of the event is much bigger and more complex than I first thought it was. Throughout this narrative, I’ll give you a bunch of things to think about, a couple business cases, and even a comparison of a writer’s world and the world of someone doing a “real job” (whatever that is). That’s the plan, anyway. In the end I’m going to show you how that business case changes based on your own perspective.
So, to get on with it, I’ll kick this topic off with an interesting question.
Question #1: Why Do Writers Come Back To The Workshop?
In earlier installments I’ve mentioned that several attendees (like me) come back year over year. Given that the workshop’s syllabus is static—that the learning inherent in the classroom doesn’t change much—you might ask why we do this. I mean, how often do I need to hear six editors bicker among themselves to get the point?
I start with this question because, ultimately, this entire post is made to answer it. Naturally, I’ll have lots of thoughts about it in a moment, but I first want to address what I consider to be an elephant in the room.
Is Fiction River a Market or Workshop?
An underlying buzz around the workshop is that some people outside the workshop think writers come to it merely because it’s a chance to get published—and, for those asking that question, the conversation can carry the tone of “isn’t it sad and manipulative that these poor writers pay for their admission, hotel room, meals, and any other travel expenses, just for the possibility of being paid $.06 a word for a couple measly short stories?”
Yes, I’ve heard that chatter. And, I get it, too. I get it because I understand the limited business case embedded in that conversation. I’m an engineer by degree (and—say it ain’t so, Joe—just the teensiest bit analytical). If I draw my system diagram in such a way as to look at Fiction River as only a market, things can get squishy.
* Aside: note the term “limited business case” there. I’ll come back to it later.
I’ve seen writers draw the lines exactly this way, too. I know a writer with a very handsome 6-figure business in the indie world who came to the event with this mindset, and left somewhat … uh … unhappy because they didn’t sell a story. That writer has never been back, which, as I’ll note in a moment, makes sense if that’s your business model.
I get it, too, because I’m human. I’ve fallen into that thinking in the heat of the moment. Focusing on the market rather than the workshop is an easy crutch—especially if I’m feeling a deep need for some kind of validation. And, really, has there ever been a writer who couldn’t use a quick pick-me-up?
That’s on me, though. When I get to thinking that way it’s my fault.
The guidelines are clear as the pre-session instructions. Fiction River is a market, but it is not the workshop, and the workshop—despite the market attached to it—is not a market. This is helpful to separate, you see, because I totally agree that if you view the workshop as only a market, the business case sucks.
Let’s do some quick math here: If I sell six stories of 6,000 words for .06 a word, I can make north of $2,100. That sounds good, but any reasonable person can see issues with that projection, not the least of which is that—as mentioned in the early stage of the series—only two writers in workshop history have pulled off this double hat trick. It’s not going to happen. Even if it does, your word count could wind up lower, and you still have to subtract all those expenses.
Seriously, the best you can do with this view is to break even—and even that’s a sucker’s bet. Bottom line: if you’re using the limited business case of selling to Fiction River to represent your sole reason to attend the workshop, you should stay home.
So, Again, Why Do Writers Come Back?
Look, we’re not stupid. The writers who return over the years are all business people. We understand this math, and we understand that we’ve already gotten the base learning. Given, however, that we do return—there must be greater value here than merely the workshop or its role as a market.
So, what is that extra value?
At the end of the day I’ll call it Community and Networking, which sounds simple but is really quite complex—so complex that in reality it’s hard to see.
There is actually something different about what it means to be a writer, and the mix of writers that attend the workshop, that makes this environment so interesting. The networking, learning, and everything else that happens between the cracks of the Anthology Workshop happens because of this inherent difference.
Okay. I admit, that sounds like a bunch of hokey, new-age hand-wavium—but it’s true.
To do a good job of explaining what this difference is and why it matters, I’m feeling the need to take a longer, more winding path. Because being a professional writer is the anti-case of doing a corporate job, and because I figure most people are at least somewhat familiar with working for a company, this path I’m going to take will touch first on the world of “real work” and compare it to the world in which writers work (both traditional and indie). It will then propose a few rules of Writer Club that may not be so obvious on first glance, and eventually transition back to the specific flavor of the community that’s grown around the workshop.
So, bear with me. This will get somewhere, I promise.
Work Environment: A “Real Job”
In my experience, the best thing about having a company job was working with other people to achieve things bigger than I could do myself. This can be a lot of fun. To this day I take pride in things my work teams accomplished. Ultimately, though, the fact that your work in a company relies on others defines the environment. Working in teams means you’ve got a bit of a safety net around you, after all. To be blunt, it means you can be blazingly good for a while and half-ass it at other times. Things will still work out because there’s a momentum to an office. Other people can pick you up. Sometimes you surf the wake of other great people and sometimes you drive the boat while carrying them.
Either way, you succeed or fail as a team.
There’s a certain beauty to this situation, not the least of which is that being with a team of great people can help you ignore a lot of the rest of the environment. Not every team, however, is so great—and even in the best of situations a corporate environment can suck your soul. There’s a tax associated with getting too far from norm, right? And certain controls exist in corporations that, assuming you look closely enough, you realize will never really work in your favor. Corporate teams—especially the bad ones, but sometimes even good ones—can be riddled with in-fighting, back-biting, and other difficult interactions.
This is because there are only so many spots in the organization, and, at its root, the corporate game is organized as a tournament system. If I want to advance I have to fight over my co-workers. If I get a juicy role there’s one less for them. The higher I go, the more rugged the competition gets—and that’s before we even begin to open the lid on the jar of the numerous unintentional (or not) biases inherent in power structures when it comes to how organizations distribute opportunity.
This dynamic exists in even the best corporate environments. Succeeding and advancing in a company is about both performing and balancing dog-eat-dog politics in a way that’s deft enough to get ahead and stay ahead.
When you work in a corporation, there’s almost always someone around to help you learn the ropes (at least enough to help them), but there will also be folks who do not want to help you. You’ve worked with them, right? People who see training you or giving you the spotlight means they risk their current or future job. Ever wonder why most mentoring in a company is done top-down? Think about it.
At its heart, working a “real job” means working with people who often see that it’s in their best interest that you don’t … um … optimize your success.
I’ll leave this conversation here, though, because the point I want to make is that even though writing for a living can feel competitive like this, especially for writers in traditional publishing, it has never been completely true. Or at least not true in the same way it is in the corporate environment. And in today’s world where writers can go straight to the reader, it’s not true at all.
I say that because the rules of Writer Club are ultimately different from the rules of Corporate Club.
Welcome to Writer Club
I mean, yes, traditionally published magazines have only so many words, and book publishers only so many slots. Yes, getting into the traditional publishing is a tournament gig. The “Fiction River as a market” concept has this aspect to it, right? There are only 70K words in any anthology, after all. Sit through the workshop and you’ll feel this dynamic to the root of your bones. And, with traditional book publishers, it doesn’t stop there. There are only so many marketing dollars in a Big 5 publisher’ budget, only so many top slots, only so many book tours, only so many …
Some writers get a bunch. Others don’t.
So, given that traditionally published writers are competing for limited resources in this way, it’s easy to envision the idea of a writing career as a zero-sum game. If you win, I lose, and vice versa. There is a truth there, and the fact that the relative quality or value of our product is so much harder to define than the relative quality or value of a corporate worker’s output adds another even more horribly complex conversation to the writer’s world. (note the dangerous word “value” there, eh?)
But that view ignores the very real rules of Writer Club.
What are the rules of Writer Club? Well, since you asked…
1. The First Rule of Writer Club is that long-term success is always about building readership.
2. The Second Rule of Writer Club is that any success you have in achieving the first rule does nothing to hurt the chances of mine.
3. The Third Rule of Writer Club is that it’s okay to talk about Writer Club.
Don’t believe me?
Let’s take a look at them.
The first rule of Writer Club is that long-term success is always about building a readership.
In the indie world, this is obvious. Your cash stream comes directly from your readership. Sure, you can package things to your advantage, or play pricing games, or do all sorts of other stuff that might improve your sell throughs, but at the end of the day those things only go so far. If people don’t like reading your stuff, you’re back to square one. If they do, they’ll follow you.
It’s the same in the traditional world. A publisher can do things to manipulate opportunity, but that only forms the process. Readers still need to like your stuff well enough to say “hey, I wonder what else this writer’s done?” When that happens often enough, you’ve got a career. Otherwise, you’re back to square one.
That’s a stressful thing in the traditional world because you have to play the tournament game just to get to the point where you have an opportunity to find a readership—in other words, as a new writer (or even a not-so-new writer) you struggle to get past the editor, then you’re subject to the corporate resource grab, and finally, when your book is published…and only when your book is published…you get to the point where you begin to find out if you might have a career.
How many writers on three book contracts have been dumped when books one and two didn’t garner them readership? To get that far, and then “fail,” can be depressing.
* Aside: I was talking with a friend of mine some years back, a very good writer whose debut book had just been published. Book two was in the pipeline. I asked how things were going. “Okay,” the writer replied with this oddly complex expression. “I’m just waiting for the numbers.” A few months later this writer got a new contract. The numbers, in this case, were very, very good. That writer is a biggish name today, but at that time was in the limbo land of waiting to see if they had the beginnings of a readership.
Okay, now let’s look at the Second Rule of Writer Club: that any success you have in achieving the first rule does nothing to hurt my chances of having success.
Like the first rule, the truth of this is most easily seen in the indie world. I have many friends who sell lots of books through their independent publishing houses. None of their sales will ever affect one of mine–unless, of course, I get some extra readers due to good word of mouth between our readerships (there’s that word “readership” again, eh?). In the indie model, a sale by another writer will never hurt me, and might even help.
The traditional model is no different when it comes to the second rule of Writer Club, either. To see this, you have to once again ignore the fact that a writer is forced to play the tournament game just to get the opportunity to find a readership—which is shitty, but not relevant—and focus on what happens after they are actually accepted into the game. Once a writer is published it’s easy to see that when Stephen King sells a book it doesn’t change much of anything as to whether that new writer will or will not sell a book. If anything, if your name is “Kings” there’s a chance you’ll sell more books because of Stephen King rather than despite him. At least that was the thought back in the big brick and mortar days. [grin]
That said, I know writers who would disagree with me, writers who carry scars from the struggle against the tournament model of traditional publishing and are now bitter toward and even jealous of those who have been passed through the system to arrive at their opportunity. It is a truism to say the traditional publishing model is competitive. For those writers, the idea behind the second rule of Writer Club is sometimes impossible to see, better yet accept. Yet, there it is.
* Aside: This is a reason I do not like the Kindle Unlimited subscription model (and other subscription services). They blow the Second Rule of Writer Club out of the water. These systems pit writer against writer because Amazon (or any other coordinator) sets a defined market size, then tells writers to go compete for it. If my books are in KU (which they aren’t), and I get a read, I get a slice of the pie and every other slice gets smaller. My sale hurts you, and vice versa. This is a huge change in the base dynamics of the market that I don’t see a lot of writers talking about, and a reason I will refrain from using that market unless it literally becomes the only one available.
The second rule of Writer Club is a big deal, though, because it’s something that completely separates the life of a career writer from the world of a corporate worker.
Gathering readership is not a tournament game.
When writers understand and accepts this second rule, it changes everything.
Which brings us to…
The third rule of Writer Club—wherein the Anthology Workshop community steps up.
That writing can be lonely is obvious. It’s nice to have human companionship. This is the root of writers’ groups. It’s a reason for attending conventions.
The community around the Anthology Workshop (The OWN) does have a social net aspect to it, of course—an aspect with a flavor strong enough to be intimidating for first-time attendees. But the community here is different in critical ways. The community here, you see, not only understands the rules of Writer Club, but wields them in all their glorious wonder.
The writers who come back to this workshop do it because they fully understand these three rules and because they deeply accept that the best way to increase their own readership is to fully embrace rule #2, and deeply engage Rule #3 to leverage each other’s success.
Like I said at the beginning, this part of the workshop happens in the breaks, during lunches, breakfasts, dinners, and late-night gab sessions.
Almost everyone who comes here has at least one toe in the water of independent publishing. So, while the classroom is totally dedicated to the traditional side of the fence, and while off-room conversation may well include discussions about the traditional world, pretty much everything else gives you the chance to talk with writers who are all over the map when it comes to how they are becoming (or have become) professional writers. This means that you’re almost guaranteed to come away having learned whatever it was you needed to learn at this moment in time.
What you should learn
That’s a strange sentence, really, “whatever you need at this moment in time.” But I meant it. While at this workshop I’ve learned things that I didn’t even realize I needed to learn, merely because I came to the environment in a frame of mind to learn it and happened across someone who was at the right moment in their own journey to help me figure something out.
Things happen when they happen. That’s a wonderful thing about this process that I’ve come to love. I figure a writer’s career evolves more than it develops.
If you have questions, ask them. If you don’t have questions (or are afraid to ask them), then just listen to conversations. It will be hard to not come up with a bunch of questions by the time you’re done. You’ll hear conversations about almost anything you can imagine: book design, cover assessment, the best tools to package books with, use of ISBN, the many ways people schedule their lives, how to deal with disappointment, promotions, easy marketing steps, podcasting, the use of audio, the grind of the long tail, the big bump release, how short fiction sells (and doesn’t). Series. Stand alones. Amazon algorithms. Kobo promotions. The use of universal links. How to incrementally make things work. Hiring copy editors.
I mean…seriously, you name it, you’ll hear it.
For the uninitiated, perhaps the most important thing about this environment is that you’ll see 50 other people who are making it work in their own fashion.
Re-read that last sentence.
When I speak with other independently published writers, one of the biggest reactions I get is that the process is too big. I feel that, too. You go to the internet to get advice or ideas and it’s like a wave of 10,000 “Have to dos!” whaps you upside the face. 10,000 things! I mean, geez. I’m lucky if I can remember to get dressed some mornings. Don’t tell me I have to do 10,000 things just to have a chance to be successful. That’s stifling.
This opportunity to see and speak with other writers—real people in various stages of getting their minds around what the publishing industry means to them—is valuable because it can change the feeling of being a writer from overwhelming to achievable.
At this workshop you’ll see a visceral example that shows you that, no—you don’t have to do everything to succeed. You just need to find a place to start that feels right for you, and then put one foot in front of the other. “Yeah,” you’ll hear someone say. “I think I’ll try that.” But you’ll also hear “that’s not for me” or “I’m not ready for that” or something else that will show you without doubt that there are very few “have to dos” in this world except for that first rule of Writer Club.
Eventually you have to find a readership.
Perhaps a few personal anecdotes from over the years would be valuable here.
My first year at the workshop I was still working a corporate job. I found a person who was maybe a year ahead of my situation—a guy who had just come from a lifetime of success in a corporate job but who had just became a fulltime writer. I walked away from that workshop with three important things to think about (1) a confirmation that it was okay and even normal to be a little angsty about changing my life like that, (2) the image of this writer’s smile as he talked about what life was like now, and (3) a firm idea of how to plan for the transition that I was likely to make. That was valuable. It’s not going too far to say that this single workshop helped changed my life.
Beyond that, I sold two stories and collected two invitations to new projects that created future revenue. Two of the stories that didn’t make the anthology they were written for sold to high-profile markets.
Which of those elements do you think made the bigger impact in my career?
The next year’s workshop brought me into contact with the artist who later did a fantastic job on the covers for my entire fantasy series. Those are kick-ass covers, too. Without the workshop, I’d have never had them. Without them, maybe my work doesn’t sell as well. And, yes, four of the stories I wrote for the workshop either sold there, or to other high-profile markets. Selling those stories was great, but I’m willing to say that this contact made at as much of an impact to my career, and probably more.
Are you getting the idea, yet?
A year later I reached out to several writers I had first met at the workshop to help me plan the launch of that 8-book fantasy series. To each I described the project and asked “what would you do?” Then I sat back and listened—taking lots of ideas that worked for me, leaving the rest. Each one of those conversations added to my plan. Every one of those books made the top 10 of its category on Amazon, and still sell today.
Of course, one of the reasons that series still sells today is that a year later, at the next workshop, one of the more experienced indie publishers in attendance looked at me and asked why I wasn’t boxing them. “Tell me more,” I replied. A half hour’s conversation later I had an easy to follow strategy laid out for how to bundle, price, and release three different box sets in such a way as the stand-alones would still be viable.
I can go on like this for several more pages. In addition to the classroom learning and the writing I’ve done for the workshop itself. I’ve acquired contacts at the workshop. Invitations to cool projects. Access to helpful resources. Literally hundreds of lessons that I wouldn’t have otherwise received.
Ultimately, this part of the workshop is almost its own little cooperative. Every night is a business meeting.
I already mentioned meeting a cover artist there. But you’ll also find people who can help you publish, or who might trade labor on covers for copy editing or formatting or whatever. You give a strength, someone else will probably offer theirs. You never know what’s going to happen. You’re limited only by your imagination. A year ago I gave an interview to a writer who was doing a business book on project management—which, essentially, is my only real corporate skill. That writer brought me a copy of that book this last year. Very cool. If you haven’t experienced the workshop, the classroom experience alone will hold enough value to make it worth the investment. But the full business case for the event is much bigger than the classroom activity.
This, and the fact that the people who attend are fun to be with, are the reasons I keep coming back.
THE FINAL BUSINESS CASE
Some 4,600 words ago, I promised a comprehensive business case at the close of this installment, so here it is.
Let’s start with the basics: Admission, Travel, Hotel, and Food. Since everyone’s approach to travel and nutrition is different, I’ll leave you to do your own math—but it’s not an insubstantial cost.
Add in the time commitment (which, if you’re going to be a writer, you’d best think of simply as a life style, but assuming you’re new this could be a cost). Depending on what you do for a living, there’s the cost of vacation days or time away from work. Depending on the support you have at home, there could be a cost in family disruption or day care.
The value side, however, is just as multi-faceted. Like many such opportunities, what you take away depends on where you are at the time, what you put into it, and, yes, who else attends. Without rehashing details I’ve just spent eight segments fixating on, I’ll bulletize the upside here and leave them for you to decide how to apply weighting factors.
1. Your growth as a writer.
2. As many as six marketable stories
3. The opportunity to dissect 240 stories
4. Classroom Learning (short, traditional publishing in a one-week nutshell)
5. A Market (opportunity to sell and be published)
6. Community (Emotional Support)
7. Professional Networking (Diverse depth of experience)
8. Pure fun
Your mileage may vary, of course, and I encourage you to make your own judgements. But for my money, the newer the writer, the more your benefit will be in the initial items. If you buy my arguments here, you’ll understand why, as you get more established, the benefits shift down the list (and to my mind gets bigger). For me, the second, fifth, and seventh items provide direct financial return, while all of them contribute to emotional balance and long-term growth. Despite the fact that you can’t predict it with any accuracy, that long-term growth can also have financial benefit.
So, there you have it: The Anthology Workshop, sliced and diced to an extent that wound up being a lot deeper than I expected when I first sat down to write these.
If you’ve waded through all these installments, well, wow.
I hope you found them as interesting to take in as I found them to write. As always, feel free to drop questions or comments in the comments section or use my contact form to get in touch with me off-line. If you’re considering attending for the first time next year, please do reach out and let me know. I’ll be there—this time as a writer—and I’ll be happy to get in touch early and even help you with that awkward first day.
I should note that I’m planning to be there again the following year as an editor again (2020). I’m guessing the second time through will be twice the blast that the first time was.
And, speaking of this first time…have I mentioned how awesome Face The Strange is going to be?
Yes, I’m sure I have.