Monday, 25 March 2013

Electrical and Scattered by Susan Price

Sue Price
          I am a member of the Scattered Authors' Society. I have been for about 27 years. Way back then, the internet was only just staggering to its feet, and I worked on an Amstrad, with a printer that used tractor-feed paper, and connected with the world via a dial-up modem.
          A letter arrived from the author Malcolm Rose. He said that he and a couple of author friends had decided that being a children's writer was too lonely a business, and they wanted us to connect up via e-mail. There was a paper newsletter for those who hadn't yet made the leap to computers.
          I'm a grumpy so-and-so, not a willing joiner, but for some reason, I did join. And eventually I was persuaded - by Celia Rees - to show my face at some of the local lunches where SAS members met.
          Linda Newbery suggested that we hold a 'Conference' (code for 'shindig') at Charney Manor. I signed up for one of the first, and I cannot tell you how exhilarating it was to spend four days with a crowd of writers, talking about anything and everything, but especially writing. It's been a highlight of the year ever since.
          Another member, Cindy Jefferies (who used to keep sheep who wore welly-boots) set up the SAS posting board, Balaclava. This was an instant success, and proved to be a constant, never-sleeping source of support, advice, jokes, wisdom, practical help and new directions.
          Many good things have sprouted from the SAS. Anne Cassidy, the mover behind the SAS most of the time, suggested we set up a multi-blog, the Awfully Big Blog Adventure, or ABBA, which has gone from strength to strength.
          The excellent History Girls blog is organised by SAS member Mary Hoffman - and, of course, this very blog that you read now, the Authors Electric's blog, was founded by Katherine Roberts and myself, who met and became friends through the SAS. Several other SAS members are also Authors Electric. We are, in many ways, the self-publishing arm of the SAS.
         But why am I blogging about the SAS in Author Electric's time and space?
          Well, because an A-E - possibly because of my enthusiasm for the SAS - thought she would like to join them. So she went over to knock on their on-line door - and saw this notice:  
We welcome new members as long as they have a contract in place with a traditional publisher.

           Our A-E hastily left, feeling hurt and angry. When she reported back to the other Electrics, they were angry and hurt for her - as was I. The A-E in question is a hugely talented writer, who's produced well loved and classic books. She just doesn't happen to have a contract in place with a traditional publisher at the present moment. Or perhaps, like many, has given up on traditional publishing.
          But I was also hurt for my friends in the SAS when they were called hide-bound and snobbish, and accused of looking down their noses at self-publishing writers, and thinking that the only proof of good writing is possession of a publishing contract. I've known many of these people for more than 20 years. I know they don't think like that. I know they are, possibly, the warmest, most sympathetic, encouraging group of people I've been lucky to fall in with.
          So what's their excuse?
          Simply, that things were very different way back then, when the SAS began. There was no such thing as indie-publishing. Brace yourselves now, but there was no such thing as Amazon.com. There were Vanity Presses, but they were a very different thing from indie publishing.
          The SAS started as a social club - which it still still is. Its members were very clear that this was what they wanted - a meeting place for writers, where they could talk frankly about agents and publishers, and about their struggles and failures and successes. So, no agents or publishers could join. Only writers.
          The question came up: what about unpublished writers? And, again, the members were very clear. No unpublished writers - which didn't, then, mean talented mid-list writers who couldn't get a contract for love nor money.
          The reason for this apparently heartless rule was that nearly every member had, at some time, been pestered by people who wanted them to read and comment on their manuscripts and help them to get published. Many had been members of writing circles where, unfortunately, a certain amount of jealousy had been generated by other members' success in finding a publisher. They wanted to escape from this in the SAS - they wanted to enter a club where all were equal, where there was no fear that someone would ask you to 'just have a quick look through' a 300,000 word manuscript, or badger you for an introduction to your agent.
          The simplest and fairest way of preventing this was the rule against writers without contracts. Even then, members were aware that it was clumsy, and that some of those excluded would be writers every bit as good as those clutching a contract. But as a rough rule of thumb, it worked. And, at the time, there was more reason to think that a good writer would, in a year or two, find a publisher.
          That's why those words were there, on the SAS website. They just hadn't been rewritten in 20-odd years - because the SAS is run by volunteers, and everyone was too busy with other things to remember this unfortunate wording.
          After our A-E member was rebuffed, I went over to the SAS gaff and had words. (I know which flowerpot they hide the key under, so I got in the back way and was amongst them before they knew it.) The members were shocked that someone had been hurt. It hadn't been their intention.
         However, changing the offending wording was difficult. The members still want a quiet life, and though the SAS posting board buzzed with discussion of this matter for some while, no one could come up with a real solution. They know very well that there are excellent writers among indies - many of them are SAS members already.
           They would welcome indies - but they also know that some indies are, well, let's be honest here, not so good. The only way to tell the difference would be to vet potential members in some way - to download and read free samples, for example. But no one has the time to commit to doing that.
          So, in the end, the page on the website was altered to read:
We welcome new members as long as they have a contract in place with a traditional publisher or have been traditionally published in the past.
          I'm not too happy about this solution either. Despite having been a published writer since my teens, I've never actually thought traditional publication equalled excellence. After all, I was just as good a writer the day before I got my first contract as I was the day after. Also, I think I'm a better writer now than I was then - but if I was starting today, I don't think I would get a contract.
          And, (if I needed convincing), no one could be a member of Authors Electric without quickly realising that a good writer is a good writer is a good writer, publishing contract (past or present) or not.
          This divide between the good writer, old-style published and the good writer, indie is a sad thing, I think, but I don't know how to end it.
          Does it matter? What do people think?
 

17 comments:

Chris Longmuir said...

I think authors and publishers are in a time of great change, and it's unfortunate that when change is happening as we speak, or in this case write, there will always be some who have trouble catching up, and indeed some may never catch up. It is also unfortunate that there is so much, shall we say, not so good books being indie published, that it makes the doubters even more doubtful. On the other hand there are some wonderful books out there but the doubters are unwilling to weed through the chaff to find them, and as is often the case they are unable to accept that these good indie books exist. I know a lot of authors, still being traditionally published, through my membership of the Society of Authors, and the CWA, and I am sure there are a few who are sniffy about self publishing but are too polite to say so. On the other hand some of them are dipping their toes into the indie world, so it's maybe just a matter of time before the sniffy ones accept that this is a brave new world. Long live the revolution!

Reb MacRath said...

Well, Susan, I think this post will generate some lively discussion.As a writer who's been on all three sides of the fence(!)--unpublished/traditionally published/now indie--I think AE has made the right decision in opening its doors. But I understand SAS's position. So much of writing is learning to behave like a true professional that SAS seems, to me, more a sanctuary than a snooty club. Even on Twitter I receive pitches to collaborate with or read poems by people I've never met. And some of them look under twenty. I can only imagine how often more popular writers are hit on. I don't blame SAS and think their new wording may be a step toward still greater inclusiveness. Even so, I've found the spot that feels like home to me. Right here.

Susan Price said...

Cheers, Reb!

Catherine Czerkawska said...

It's such a thorny problem, isn't it? And this is such a thought provoking piece. Chris is right - whenever we have a Society of Authors get-together in Scotland it's clear that there are opinions right across the spectrum from the sniffy to the wildly enthusiastic. And there are indie published books from appalling to wonderful. But then, some of the most successful indie books haven't exactly been literary masterpieces, either! I remain in print with a very traditional publisher of plays - but sometimes even that is viewed as 'not quite the thing' by certain purists. I do sense a sea change in organisations like the SoA though, perhaps because so many of us despised midlisters are long term members and sheer frustration has resulted in us taking indie action! I know a number of people who are indie publishing extensive backlists and making handsome pensions for themselves.

Dennis Hamley said...

I've been in the SAS for more years than I care to think of and I joined at a a time when contracts were coming out of my ears. I would still just about qualify according to the old criteria but only by the skin of my teeth. For them to make an all-inclusive definition seems to me now to be pretty well impossible, which just shows the confusion we're now in. My only contact with the SAS now is Balaclava, to which I occasionally add a post if something turns up which interests/elates/annoys me, and an occasional local and always hugely enjoyable lunch. But I don't go to conferences these days because everybody is talking about things which just don't seem to concern me any more. I went to the last CWIG conference at Reading and came home very depressed because, if it hadn't been for Sue's (and others') last session on indie publishing I would have felt that my time was completely wasted. The centre of my writing life with which I identify most strongly and gives me the greatest sustenance is no longer the SOA or CWIG (Children's Writers and Illustrators Group of the SOA) or even the SAS but Authors Electric, because that's where my interests and ambitions now lie. By the way, I'm indie epublishing an extensive backlist as well, Catherine, but where's the handsome pension, answer me that? Well, one day, who knows?

madwippitt said...

Difficult, innit? I suppose that ultimsately the acid test is whether people like the free sample of your book enough to pay to download it, and then to recommend to friends that they do so too. So, sales. Bums on seats - or in this case, eyes on pages.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Think you just have to give it time, Dennis. The people I know are still to some extent trad published but have reclaimed their back-lists and made the transition. Seth Godin had an excellent little piece of analysis on his blog today: http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2013/03/most-people-most-of-the-time-the-crowd-fallacy.html

Dennis Hamley said...

Thanks, Catherine, for that link. I've just read it - and what good sense it makes. Then I read FOMO, his previous piece - and what a lot of sense that made too, as well as being funny. I'll have to follow the whole blog now. That's OK, I love finding new avoidance strategies.

Dan Holloway said...

VEry interesting. The big writers' group in my local area has a similar rule, and I have always somewhat resented it. Or rather, obviously it would be churlish of me to resent any group having its own rules, but I resented the equation of published (presently or in the past) with quality. I don't mind people saying I can't be in their club. I do mind people saying I can't be in their club because I'm not good enough - or rather, most of the time I'm probably not good enough, but the assumption I'm not because of how I choose to publish without looking at what I write I do resent. So for me, it's all about how it's worded.

Lynne Garner said...

I belong to the SAS and have done for some time. At the moment I'm working on a book for a publisher and on my own ideas which I intend to self-publish. I voted to stay with the ruling that people had to be traditionally published. I was't being snobbish or saying someone who has self published is less professional than I am. I just wanted a place to discuss 'stuff' with others who understood my frustrations with the industry. Something I don't feel a self-published author would understand. Just like any author who has only ever been published would understand most of what I discuss with the members of AE. Each group serves the same purpose for me (support, advice, an ear-hole to bend) but are made up from a different knowledge bank. Perhaps the lines will blur in the future but at the moment I don't think this has happened.

Debbie said...

I'm curious at what SAS defines as "traditionally published" given that anybody can set up a publishing business these days. Do they mean "big 6" traditionally published?

I'm just arguing because I'm miffed that I probably wouldn't qualify, despite having had a very good agent for a long time ... :-)

julia jones said...

There are usually defining criteria in the small print Debbie. The same as for entry to literary awards. I tried getting the Costa to define their criteria but they didn't trouble to answer my emails despite the fact that I made it clear I wasn't trying to enter, simply to understand and clarify. Now isn't it characteristically proactive and kind of Sue to take up this matter and think it through and persuade others to think about it as well. I'm sure that all societies should do this from time to time for the good of their own health as well as for those of use with our little noses pressed up against the window pane. I admire the SAS for being prepared to have the discussion - whatever the outcome

Dennis Hamley said...

Dan, I think you are referring to Writers in Oxford. I've been in it for six years and have been on the committee for four of them, though I think I've done enough and am resigning tonight. The criteria for joining are a bit vague - even membership of the SoA, once the defining test, seems to have quietly slipped away. Every time new applications come in, the committee spends much time in discussing each one. Sometimes they are borderline and we end up investigating the publishers they mention. I know for a fact that there are aooplicants who, to my mind, haven't published by anyone I would regard as a proper commercial publisher by the generally accepted criteria. Yet they've done some terrific books. I believe that standing, influence and reputation within the province of literature should be at least as important. I know one or two members who, as far as I know, have only self-published, including pretty well my best friend in the society. I don't remember an application from you in my time on the committee: if there had been I would have argued strenuously for you to be admitted and strong advocacy by a member usually wins through. So even this bastion of privilege is cracking! I believe you should be in and have said so. If you have any ambitions, if that's the right word, left to join, I'll use AOB this evening as a last hurrah to support you. How's that for an offer? Run off an application quickly and I'll send it to the membership secretary in time for the meeting.

Lee said...

Ugh, Blogger just swallowed a long comment, so I'll summarise it with: who really cares? Certainly not my readers. There was a time I'd be irritated by such rules, now I just laugh them off. Or, if anything, I just tell myself, as I did when a teacher once warned me that I'd not be able to cope in the accelerated program in this new school to which I'd transferred: I'll show you. And I did.

Read and write better: that's all I care about. The rest is noise.



Susan Price said...

Lee, I recognise that kind of bloody-minded, 'I'll show you.' I've done a lot of that kind of showing myself.

Debbie asked, what is the definition of 'a publisher' used by the SAS? - Well, again, things were very different when the SAS started and first drew up their rules. There were far more than 6 publishers then, and far more small, well respected ones. The SAS always knew that their rule about 'a publishing contract' was a pretty rough, rule-of-thumb one, and they didn't care what publisher. It was only ever an attempt to keep the SAS as a writers' social, rather than somewhere people could schmooze for agents and publishers.

Lee said...

Susan, I suppose bloody-mindedness fits, but I prefer to think of it as tenacity. Talent aside, tenacity - plus stamina - must surely be key to success in any creative endeavour - or any endeavour, for that matter.

Dan Holloway said...

Dennis, that's very interesting. I have always been put off applying by the website (whenever I have looked there hasn't felt as though there's any leeway there). You are very kind but I don't think I would apply unless the place felt less exclusive as one looks in - I have a very thick skin but how it looks to other people may well put them off. It's always hard to know with these things whether to campaign from the inside or the outside.