There are people to both sides of you. Everyone is in the middle. We’re all part of a continuum.
This is the theme of the book I’m working on right now, a sequel to SAND. The idea is that while we are all looking in one direction — whether with envy or judgement or longing or disgust — there is someone on the other side of us looking our way with the exact same emotion and with just as much cause.
I played with this theme in HALF WAY HOME, where I pointed out that today’s moral progress will seem slow and obvious to future generations, and at the same time some “modern” behavior of ours will one day appear barbaric. It might be the eating of meat. It could be allowing people to drive cars well past the day the technology existed to revamp our fleets and save hundreds of thousands of lives.
A glance at history suggests that it will be many things. All generations crow about how much better, more inclusive, more enlightened they are than previous generations, and then some facet of their culture seems outlandish just a generation or two hence. Slave-owning American Founders who preached equality and freedom come to mind. The institutional racism and sexism of “The Greatest Generation” does as well.
These are some examples of how we’re in the “middle” of generational moral progress. It’s why we should be careful castigating previous generations, be super careful touting our own, and understand that future generations are going to be horrified at our current behavior.
Being in the middle as individuals means that anything we long for in one direction, there is someone behind us longing for what we have. As writers, it means that everyone agonizing over a lack of sales is sitting on a finished work, which someone with a rough draft can’t imagine. And the person with the rough draft is idolized by someone stuck at 80% for what feels like forever. And that person is a hero to the writer with just an idea and a dream.
In the other direction, being in the middle means that any snubbing we do in one direction, we are making it impossible to unhypocritically be offended by snubbing coming the other way. This means is that if you write science fiction and you make light of those who write erotica, don’t complain when someone mocks your genre. And if you write literary fiction and you mock any of the genres, prepare to hear how yours is a genre as well, one no better than the rest.
Glancing in both directions is useful in making sure we aren’t being assholes, hypocrites, or ingrates.
This idea applies to pretty much all facets of life. But I want to concentrate on writerly stuff. Publishing biz stuff. Because I’ve seen a few areas in the past months where I think we can easily fall prey to looking in only one direction without considering the historical perspective or the fact that we’re all in the middle.
The first is KU, where I’ve watched some of my private FB writing groups express very powerful opinions in both directions. Kindle Unlimited is hurting income for some writers. It’s helping income for others. Personally, I’ll be withdrawing most of my titles from KU because of the unpredictable payment structure of the program, the exclusivity requirement, and the way it pays per percentage read rather than per page. And yet I’m also happy that the program is working for some writers, even if it ends up not working for me. Why?
Because this is just what trad-pubbed authors probably thought about Amazon’s launch of KDP. I’ve seen the following sorts of statements issued by indie authors regarding KU: “There’s a flood of short works. This only benefits a handful of genres. Now everyone thinks they are a writer. People are just slapping stuff up there. Everyone is devaluing their work by getting excited over $1.30 payouts.”
This last complaint is rich considering it often comes from indie authors who launched their careers by employing KDP Select to give their works away for free. But what is really disturbing is that the same denigrations tossed at those embracing this new tool for being discovered and hopefully launching careers sound a lot like the same abuses heaped on indies by non-indies just a few years ago.
Trad authors said we undervalued our works, priced them too low, that we were ruining everything, that certain genres had too many undeserved advantages. Now some indies are saying that about subscription models, 99 cent boxsets, and so on. We took advantage of the tools offered to us to break out. Now we see tools that we deem to be beneath us, and yet others are daring to use them, and we’re as critical of them as others were of us.
It’s similar to how seniors can throw freshmen into bushes — when all seniors were once freshmen who got thrown into bushes. We have magical powers of group-think and self-rationalization that allow us to get away with this. What was true then is different now. Why? Because we’ve moved on, that’s why.
Here’s the thing: KU will be bad for many authors. KU will be the best thing that happens to some authors. What concerns me is that I’ve seen a handful of authors make an effort to burn the entire thing to the ground because they might be in the former camp. This is the same attitude people on the trad side had toward KDP and self-pubbing in general. Make it go away so the world can go back to normal. And by “normal,” they mean that thin slice of time where the world benefited them the most.
Being in the middle means being aware of the times when what you’re saying about someone else is also being said about you. You didn’t like it. Maybe this other person doesn’t either.
I see a lot of fear of change from indies, when change is what made their careers possible. This is the same place that much indie and self-pub bashing came from. Trad authors saw sales decline, advances shrink, offers disappear. They watched their small presses go under or stop payments. What program was to blame? Amazon’s KDP. The very thing that gave many of us careers as writers. Helps to understand their anger, doesn’t it, now that indies feel some of the same? And maybe it helps others understand that we can just as easily become the dinosaurs we made fun of.
Another way we should be wary of what we wish for is the fact that our careers as fiction writers may one day be in doubt. I mean this first on a professional level, as in a group of people who can make a living or supplement their income doing this. It’s not inconceivable that ten or twenty years from now, most people will entertain each other for free, just as a hobby or a past time. If this sounds crazy, keep in mind that it’s probably already true. Facebook and Twitter are little more than self-publishing platforms for ideas, images, videos, gossip, news, chatter. How many hours do people spend creating content for zero pay? How many hours do people spend consuming that content practically for free?
Wattpad, Write-On, and fanfic sites already consume a lot of reading hours. Could this grow and swamp paid reading? Dismissing this is the same as dismissing self-pubbing five years ago. We are all in the middle. Look in the other direction. While you’re overtaking a staid and kludgy machine, the person gaining on you is thinking the same thing.
What about those who seem to take glee in the disintermediation of publishing jobs? Agents are threatened right now, not just by self-pubbing but by the ease with which publishers can scout talent and contact authors directly by noticing a blog, a Twitter account, a self-pub bestseller, a YouTube video, or anything that goes viral. Publishers themselves are sometimes viewed as eventually doomed. I occasionally worry about them. But I worry — I don’t find joy in the prospect.
Why? Because every job that feels completely crucial and irreplaceable tends not to be. Travel agents likely said that no one could sort the time tables, understand the various routes, know which carriers had which amenities, and could do the job as well as they do. The idea that computers will ever write fiction sounds bonkers to many writers, who view themselves as irreplaceable, and yet I can see how it might happen.
In many areas of life, we enter as wide-eyed and vibrant rookies and begrudgingly retire as wizened but worn-down veterans. And it’s always the same: The rookie complains about playing time, says it’s “my time now. Get out of the way, old man, you had your turn.” And that same person is one day a veteran saying, “Slow down, Rook. You’ll get your turn. I paid my dues. Let me have just one more year.”
The intern wants to know why they can’t have a corner office. The senior staff think they should be paid well for doing less than they did in their prime, that they’ve earned it. Just as we often look in only one direction, forgetting to turn around, we also tend to look at our current situation, forgetting where we came from. We are in the middle both in space and in time.
None of this is to say that people can’t have it both ways and embrace the contradiction. If you want to say, “I want what’s best for me, and screw the rest,” that’s perfectly valid. It’s even valid to embrace hypocritical stances and embrace that hypocrisy. But those who are unreformable and unrepentant don’t concern me as much as the incurious do. Because the latter probably wants to know about their own blindspots in order to remedy them. There are good people who make these mistakes. Because these mistakes are damn easy to make.
I know from lots of experience. I make these mistakes every day, and I’ve been thinking on these issues for a very long time. I’m not only guilty of everything mentioned here, I’m guilty of much else that I’m completely unaware of. What I really don’t want to be is someone who thinks they’re on the right side of history, because this just isn’t possible. History has no side. It goes on and on. Today’s mammals are tomorrow’s dinosaurs.
If we can’t prevent that, or even bring ourselves to embrace it, we should at least be aware of it. We should at least take a look around now and then, realize where we are, how we got here, and that everyone is on a similar journey. They might be where we were or where we hope to be, but they’re all us. We’re all the same. We’re all right here in the middle.