Van Gogh

Creativity, Sensitivity, Laziness and Courage

by Kassandra Lamb

Please note that this is not a post about the pros and cons of indie vs. traditional publishing per se (I will cover those in a later post). Rather this post is about the “between a rock and a hard place” spot where new writers often find themselves as they explore how to get their words in front of readers’ eyes.

The indie vs. traditional publishing controversy was resurrected in December, 2016, by a Huffington Post article with the rather obnoxious title, Self-Publishing: An Insult To The Written Word? by Laurie Gough.

Quite a few indie authors immediately responded with some eloquent replies. And then the Alliance of Independent Authors published their New Year’s post: Successful Indie Authors 2016: Part One.

These two posts, along with the responding comments, represent the two sides of this controversy, but I noted that one thing was missing from the discussion. Indeed, I have never heard this point made during debates about the issue.

Creatives are, by definition, sensitive souls.

Van Gogh

One of Van Gogh’s self portraits, this one with a bandage where his ear once was. Creatives’ sensitivity sometimes leads to madness. (public domain)

It’s a cliché really—the tortured artistic poet/painter/musician/actor/author who drinks too much, uses drugs, suffers for their art with an angst-filled life, etc.

But like all clichés, this one has a kernel of truth at its core.

So why would we require that these sensitive souls endure months or years of rejection before they are allowed to show their work to the world?

The author of the Huff Post article calls literary agents and traditional publishers the “gatekeepers” of the written word. Indeed, that term is bandied about a lot in the world of trad publishing. The implication is that they are saving the unwashed masses of readers from bad literature by carefully vetting new works of fiction.

In addition to the implied insult to readers, the reality is that all too often these days agents and publishers are not always as concerned about the quality of a story as they are about whether or not they think it will sell.

That’s not just my perspective; I’ve heard agents say this at conferences. With regret in their voices, because they know good stories are being rejected and good writers are being discouraged by those rejections.

No one deals well with rejection. And the more important an achievement or some aspect of ourselves is to us, the greater the blow to our spirits if it is rejected.

During my twenty-year career as a psychotherapist, I wrote and published multiple professional articles. I had more than one editor tell me that my ability to string words together in a coherent and interesting way was well above average. (I mention this only to point out that I had good reason to believe I was a good writer.)

During that same time period, I wrote the beginnings of several novels, plus quite a few shorter stories, all of which ended up in a box labeled “fiction” when I retired and moved to Florida.

I’d considered trying to get my fiction work published many times during those twenty years. What stopped me was not doubt in my abilities as a writer. No, each time I was stopped by the reality of how much rejection I would have to endure before I managed to find a publisher.

statue of baby taking first steps

Karl Hulstrom’s statue, First Steps in Stockholm, Sweden (photo by Bengt Oberger CC-BY 3.0 unported, Wikimedia Commons)

For writers, our works are our children. We build them from scratch, their bones leaching sleep and sanity from us as surely as a growing babe in the womb leaches nutrients from his mother’s system. Then we spend weeks, sometimes months, putting flesh on those bones—editing and fine-tuning every scene, paragraph and sentence.

And then we are expected to send these innocent babes out to strangers, requesting that they please, please let our children live?

And when those children are beaten with a club and sent back to us, we are expected to dust them off and send them out again to even more strangers.

I’m sure this gauntlet of rejection has kept many a good writer besides myself from even trying to get their work published. Having our “children” abused and tossed out into the cold again and again is often more than we can even stand to think about.

I’m also sure that many agents and publishers are trying to be good gatekeepers, but when I think of the traditional publishing industry as a whole today, the image that comes to mind is not of someone standing beside a gate, checking the quality of the work produced by those who wish to pass through it.

Rather I see a dam, an artificial barrier stopping up the flow of creativity, allowing only a limited trickle of new authors’ works to pass through.

Yagisawa Dam (public domain)

Yagisawa Dam (public domain)

Five years into my retirement, I had finally finished one of my novels and polished it to the best of my ability (with the help of many beta readers and a professional editor).

I took a deep breath (several actually) and sent out my first batch of query emails. And then ran to the bathroom to throw up. The thought of the inevitable round of rejections literally made me sick.

This was the summer of 2011. After I had rinsed out my mouth and stumbled back to my computer, I asked myself why I was going through this. Life was too short, especially at my age, to intentionally torture my soul this way.

That summer, I started checking out this new trend of self-publishing ebooks that seemed to be getting a foothold in the publishing industry. That summer, I also met Shannon Esposito at a writers’ conference, and while other authors were schmoozing with the agents and editors at the obligatory after-conference cocktail party, she and I were huddled in a corner conspiring.

I’ve never looked back.

The end result of that conspiring was misterio press, an indie press that operates as an author cooperative. Today, my sister authors at misterio and I are each others’ gatekeepers. After each author’s work has gone through the beta readers, editing, etc. process, we read and critique each others’ stories to make sure we are producing the best quality mysteries we possibly can.

Misterio press is the best of both worlds for our authors, and we believe for our readers as well. They get top quality mysteries at indie prices.

Ironically, several of our authors have been approached by traditional publishers, and two of them are now “hybrid” authors. I haven’t been approached and I’m not sure what I would do if I were.

I suspect I would turn them down.

Those traditionally-published authors who look down their noses* at indies often imply (or outright say) that we are taking the lazy way out or that we lack the courage to submit our work to the “gatekeepers.”

Do not judge until you have walked a mile in our shoes. I have never worked harder in my life! And believe me, it takes a lot of courage to go it on one’s own. We sink or swim on the merits of our writing, and our final judges are the readers.

(*Note: This is not the majority of trad-pubbed authors. And if you are an author who has taken the traditional path, I’m rooting for your success! Each of us has to choose the way that works best for us.)

Book publishing today has essentially gone the same route as the music industry, toward empowering artists to reach out to their listeners/readers directly rather than having the control over their careers resting with big companies.

It’s a brave new world for authors and I am glad to be a part of it!

Your thoughts on the indie publishing revolution?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological suspense series, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please follow us so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )

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  • Reply
    K.B. Owen
    January 17, 2017 at 11:34 am

    An important perspective, Kass! I do think it’s important to an author’s sanity to work hard at creating a bit of psychological distance from her work (at least, it has been for me). Because without it, even constructive criticism is met with resistance: “you are attacking my baby!” – and then the potential for improvement is lost.

    What helps me is knowing this is a business. Before I knew much about indie publishing, I avoided it like the plague. I scored an agent (yay!), did the edits she suggested, and moved on to writing the next book and trying to build my social media presence while she shopped my ms. We had a couple of good nibbles. I even spoke on the phone with an editor from Hyperion.

    In other words, I did everything I was supposed to do.

    But in the end, everyone passed on it, because historical cozy mysteries are a very tight subgenre. The market has a lot of them already, but there’s not as big a readership for it as other mystery subgenres. And I was a newbie, with my first book in any genre. It was a business risk they didn’t want to take.

    I understand that better, now, but it stung at the time. As you know, the mystery world is very traditional. The conventions, organizations, and awards are all set up to validate the trad-pubbed authors and shut out the indies. My works can’t be nominated for an Agatha, a Lefty, or an Edgar. I can’t be an author member of MWA. I can’t be on a panel at a mystery convention, or have a booksigning there. The Big Five (or is it Four now?) run the show. Their names are stamped on all the programs, the goody bags, and the banners in the banquet rooms. So it makes sense.

    The phenomenon still bums me out a little, but not as much. I don’t have a predatory contract with clauses that tie my hands and my creativity. I get a bigger percentage of royalties. I can check my sales online and I get paid monthly. Sure, I pay for my cover art and editing, but I get to decide what things will look like and when it will be released. It’s lots of work, of course!

    Still, I’m not saying it’s better to be an indie. I’m saying it’s better for ME. There are pluses and minuses for each path. The take-away, I think, is to be as informed as possible, and respect each author’s choice. Articles like the one by Laurie Gough don’t contribute anything worthwhile to our journey.

  • Reply
    Kassandra Lamb
    January 17, 2017 at 12:21 pm

    Thanks for sharing your journey that brought you here, Kathy. Your situation proves the marketability point. And indeed with their big overhead, trad publishers probably wouldn’t be able to make a profit on a new author in a limited and already saturated subgenre. So indie publishing gives you another path. Yay!

    And most definitely we have to grow a thick skin so that we can take in constructive criticism and improve in our craft. Not an easy task for us sensitive souls. 🙂

  • Reply
    Shannon Esposito
    January 17, 2017 at 12:57 pm

    Well said, Kass & Kathy. Yeah, there are definitely positives and negatives to both indie & traditional publishing. The important thing is to be informed, assess each project and apply those to see which option would be a better fit. I find I like the control I have on my indie series, but it’s definitely not for the faint of heart. It’s a lot of work and takes a lot of time out of my actual writing schedule. The rewards reflect that work. I wish writers wouldn’t disparage each other’s choices, though. We are all in the same rockin’ boat.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      January 17, 2017 at 1:03 pm

      LOL Rockin’ in more ways than one! Control is a big factor for me. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a control freak, at least about some things.

    • Reply
      K.B. Owen
      January 17, 2017 at 1:11 pm

      Absolutely, Shannon! Why knock each other down? No matter how we got here, it’s a tough biz. We need to be kind to one another.

      • Reply
        Kassandra Lamb
        January 17, 2017 at 3:11 pm


  • Reply
    Vinnie Hansen
    January 17, 2017 at 1:25 pm

    I am very proud of my traditionally published short stories, especially the upcoming one in the well-established Akashic Books Noir series. I am also very happy to work with misterio press.

    A friend of mine had a traditionally published book out in 2015 and has been slaving away on a second book for the publisher. They just keep changing their minds about the direction of the story and demanding more edits. She is going nuts! So even if one gets an agent (like Kathy I’ve been there) and signs the contract, there can be plenty of angst ahead.

    I want to go back, though, to one of Kathy’s comments. Left Coast Crime allows indie-published authors on panels. I’ve been on many of them. Indie-published works can also be nominated for Lefties. Cindy Sample and Heather Haven are both indie-authors, and they have both been nominated for Best Humorous Mystery.

    • Reply
      K.B. Owen
      January 17, 2017 at 1:31 pm

      That’s great news, Vinnie! Wish I lived on the West Coast. I’m excited about my trad-pubbed short story coming out, too. Anything that gets more eyes on my work, where I get my rights back afterward, I’m going for it.

      • Reply
        Kassandra Lamb
        January 17, 2017 at 3:20 pm

        Congrats again on getting your story in the Akashic Books Noir series, Vinnie. I really should have said that you are a hybrid as well, since you have so many short stories in trad-pubbed anthologies.

        And Kathy’s about to join you in that status! Yay!

        I’m going to get out to California for the Left Coast Crime convention one of these days. It sounds great!

  • Reply
    nancy reynolds
    January 17, 2017 at 1:36 pm

    As a reader and never a writer, I say whatever works for each individual is the way to go. I think INDIE writers have as much to offer as the writers who are published with the big publishing companies. There are good books and bad books created in both venues. Actually, who is to say what is good or bad? It’s all in the eyes of the beholder/reader. I LOVE the books put out by misterio press!!! To me your books are wonderful! More power to you – and other indie authors!!!

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      January 17, 2017 at 3:14 pm

      Aww, thanks for your kind words, Nancy!! And thank you for weighing in as a reader. I think most readers these days feel the same way. They just want good books to read and don’t really care what path that book takes to get into their hands.

    • Reply
      K.B. Owen
      January 17, 2017 at 4:57 pm

      We love our readers! Thanks so much, Nancy! <3

  • Reply
    Marcy Kennedy
    January 17, 2017 at 3:07 pm

    I’m in total agreement with the call to stop criticizing other authors for their choices. Indie vs. trad isn’t a right vs. wrong (or wrong vs. right, depending on your side of the debate). It’s a “what works best for me and for my life and my long-term goals.”

    For me, going indie wasn’t about avoiding criticism and rejection. Readers can be brutal in their reviews after all. For me, it was the ability to publish on my timeline (usually quicker than I’d be able to with a traditional publisher), to adapt to a changing market, and to retain the majority of the profit. I’ve never been very good at being an employee where someone else gets to tell me what to do even if it’s clear there’s a better way. Traditional publishing took too many decisions out of my hands. (And yes, I might be a bit of a control freak.) I like the ability to make my own choices about my career.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      January 17, 2017 at 3:17 pm

      Maybe we should start a club, Marcy, called Control Freak Indies. 😀

      I think the royalties issue is another big factor for a lot of indies. It is for me. After working so hard to produce a book, I want to keep most of the financial rewards for that effort.

      • Reply
        Marcy Kennedy
        January 18, 2017 at 11:36 am

        Hehe. I think there are a lot of us out there.

        Royalties were a huge factor for me. I think it’s that entrepreneur/self-employed mindset again. We don’t like to work hard so that someone else can keep the rewards of our hard work. For me, it was also about paying my bills. I’ve been self-employed my entire adult life, so if I was going to write, it needed to contribute in a significant way to paying my bills. I didn’t think that would happen if I went the traditional route.

        • Reply
          Kassandra Lamb
          January 18, 2017 at 2:13 pm

          Same here. I’ve been self-employed more than not most of my life. Just seemed like the natural way for me to go, once i realized it had now become a viable option.

  • Reply
    Prudence MacLeod
    January 17, 2017 at 4:09 pm

    I endured a lot of years ( 15 +) of rejection before I self pubbed my first novel. I had a truly impressive stack of rejection letters, when compressed tightly into a box made a great weight for the back of the van in winter.
    After the struggles of indie world (another five years), I was picked up by a small publishing house. There’s a lot to be said for both sides of this, but I do suggest everybody give indie a shot. Heck, why not let the readers be the final judge?

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      January 17, 2017 at 4:47 pm

      Amen, Prudence! Thanks for sharing your perspective, from both sides of the fence.

      In the next week or so, I’ll be posting about the specific pros of each approach.

  • Reply
    Marcia Meara
    January 19, 2017 at 12:15 pm

    Oh, Kass! You hit the nail on the head with the “sending our children out into the world” analogy. I know had I started to write at an earlier age, I would have soon gathered all my babies into my sheltering arms, and never sent them forth again. As it turns out, I didn’t write my first book until I was 69, and the self-pub industry was becoming well established. At this point in time, I not only would hate the painful rejection letters, but frankly, I don’t have DECADES in which to make it the old-fashioned way. Self-publishing was it for me from the get-go.

    To those who have been successful with trad publishing, I say, good for you, and long may you continue your success. For myself, and many of my friends, I say, do it the way that makes the most sense to you. Especially if, like me, you want to be in control. Of everything. From covers to book lengths, to genres, to marketing, I want my success to hinge on my own decisions, good or bad. It’s a learning experience, sure. (Especially self-marketing!) But it’s a good one, and I’m having the time of my life.

    Great post! And shared!

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      January 19, 2017 at 12:24 pm

      Age was definitely a factor for me, Marcia. I was 59 when I sent out that first and only round of query emails. And like you, realized I didn’t have time for that whole process.

      I remember telling my husband that I didn’t want to wait to become successful as a writer just as I was getting too senile to keep writing!

      • Reply
        Marcia Meara
        January 19, 2017 at 12:34 pm

        A thought that haunts me every day! Hahaha. I’m hoping the mental activity involved in two very different series will keep my mind from turning to mush. Then again, living in my pretend world as much as I do, maybe it will become soggy library paste even sooner. 😯 But hopefully, I can keep right on telling my stories until I fall face down on the keyboard. (I’ll wave farewell to you as I depart!) 😀 😀 😀

        • Reply
          Kassandra Lamb
          January 19, 2017 at 12:44 pm

          😀 That’s my goal, to keel over in front of my keyboard!

  • Reply
    Karen McFarland
    January 19, 2017 at 4:55 pm

    My thoughts on the Indie Revolution. Hmm. At first, I was all over it. Cause I, like you, Marcy and others, wanted more control over my work. But now I can see there are pros and cons to each avenue. It’s not a one shoe fits all situation. And I can see that I sit somewhere in the middle, which is not exactly a good place to be. I write slow. And because of my health, am concerned about the stresses that may come with a trad publisher house. Then again, being self-employed has it’s own quirks and stresses. I know, I’ve always been self-employed. I think it’s totally up to the individual as to what root they choose. It seems there isn’t a perfect solution Kassandra. 🙂

  • Reply
    Deborah Jay
    January 19, 2017 at 6:54 pm

    I was incredibly fortunate to score an agent (in the US) first try, and as the book did the rounds of the (as it was then) Big Six, lots of positive comments came back, but after 6 months, still no sale. In the mean time, I’d secured contracts for two non-fiction books, both of which were duly published and still sell to this day, so I’m pretty certain my writing is up to scratch.
    What I did learn, though, was that I was still expected to do my own marketing. Aside from sending out review copies, my publisher did nothing else to promote the books.
    I wrote another novel, took it to a writer’s conference and a UK agent got terribly excited about it, and asked to see the whole thing. But she turned it down, her enthusiasm apparently forgotten in the interim. I was disappointed, annoyed and deflated by her about face.
    At this point, I became aware of the Indie Revolution, and after 12 months of research, published my first novel, which shot into Amazon’s Hot 100 New Releases and stayed there the whole of its first month.
    I’m totally happy being an Indie. After that initial success, I’ve learned to work hard at the marketing side of things alongside writing new books – but as my experience with my two trad published books shows, I’d be doing that anyway even if my fiction had sold to a big house. And I don’t suffer the pressure of writing what THEY want, or to their timetable. I have friends who did that, and burned out creatively as a result.
    I’m also happy earning more from my indie published books than I do from my trad published.
    If I were approached by a publisher now, I would take a lot of convincing to sign up.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      January 20, 2017 at 2:52 am

      Oh, Deb, I would so like to give a nice balanced response to your comment. Something like, “Oh, isn’t it great that you are a successful hybrid author.”

      But you point out two of the major flaws in the trad-publishing model these days. Less money but one still has to do the very time-consuming task of self-marketing. And creative burnout when pressured to write what is “expected” to a certain timetable.

      • Reply
        Deborah Jay
        January 21, 2017 at 11:52 am

        On reflection, my comment devolved a little more into the ‘trad v indie’ debate than I intended, but to go along with those two points you picked out, I have one very good example to share of the unreasonable pressures traditional publishers are applying to their authors.
        At the World Fantasy Convention a couple years ago, on one of the panel discussions I attended (writing the dreaded sequel), one newly published author stunned us all by revealing that his contract required him to compress his planned trilogy into two books, and produce them BOTH within 12 months!
        I’m pretty sure that put under that intense pressure, my creativity would have shrivelled up and died. I can only assume his publisher was trying to compete with the indies who put out several books a year. If you are capable of that, good on you! I know I’m not, but then I have a time-consuming day job which I have no intention of giving up, and somehow I doubt this guy’s advance would have been anywhere near the magnitude that would enable an ordinary person to quit full time work and devote their days entirely to writing.
        And even if he did, there’s no guarantee that after 2 books he would get a contract for a third.

        • Reply
          Kassandra Lamb
          January 21, 2017 at 12:29 pm

          Oh dear! I can write that fast now (I’m “retired” so no day job), but not when I was newly published. My first few books went through a whole lot of rewrites before they were fit for other people’s eyes. I have to suspect that quality suffered under this pressure.

  • Reply
    Making the Case for Indie AND Traditional Publishing (For Writers and Readers) | Misterio Press
    January 24, 2017 at 1:20 am

    […] And sadly there are a few traditionally published authors who like to judge indies from the other side of the fence. (See Part I of this series: Creativity, Sensitivity, Laziness and Courage.) […]

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