Gatekeepers. The term came up on a Facebook post about self-published books. Someone suggested that since self-publishing bypasses gatekeepers, it is populated by mediocrity – poorly written, poorly edited, poorly conceived novels. Now, I will not deny that there are a lot of mediocre books out there. Some are downright bad.
But I had a job in radio for many years, working closely with record labels on Music Row. Before the digital age, I had accumulated a very large box of CDs (probably 150 at least) by folks you’ve never heard of. They were all professionally produced. All the artists had made it through several gatekeepers – managers, A&R people, heads of labels, producers, etc. – gatekeepers who said they were willing to invest hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of dollars into their career. Each of the CDs in that box of unknowns represented how wrong the gatekeepers had been.
Sure, gatekeepers are pros. They know things. They’ve been around the block a few times. But they cannot predict who will connect with an audience and who will not. Who has that special something that will inspire a following and who doesn’t. Who will create something that people will lay down their hard-earned money for and who won’t.
Gatekeepers are not a bad thing. But they are not and should not be the arbiters of art. They don’t guarantee greatness over mediocrity.
Take a chance on an indie musician. And an indie author. Be your own gatekeeper.
“When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story,” he said. “When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”
“… your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”
That enlightening passage is from Stephen King’s “On Writing”. It was the advice passed on to him by a newspaper editor. And it’s the big lesson I walked away with. Take out what’s not the story. It helped me tremendously while writing my first novel BUKU.
It kinda applies to life too, doesn’t it?
In this unprecedented time, in the midst of a pandemic in which our commitments are canceled and we are forced to isolate, many of us have been given the chance to rethink the story. Our story. Maybe our lives need a little editing to get down to what our story really is. And should be. And can be.
I am something of a do-it-yourselfer. Not the kind of do-it-yourselfer who confidently steps up, assesses the situation, and whips together a solution out of twist ties and electrical tape. I’m more the kind who grunts and groans getting down on the floor, stares at what’s broken for at least ten minutes, spends half the afternoon looking at youtube videos, wastes 30 minutes searching for the right tool somewhere in the garage, and gets it wrong at least five times before success.
Still, I did fix my leaking refrigerator last week by replacing the valve that feeds the water to the icemaker. This only happened after I forgot a few steps, found out the first part I ordered was defective, got soaked because I forgot to turn off the water, had to mess with the new valve to get it to quit leaking, and got up and down from the floor about twenty times. In the end, the refrigerator is fixed and I saved at least a hundred dollars.
It occurs to me that being a do-it-yourselfer around the house is similar to becoming an indie author.
And interestingly, some of the same rules apply.
1. Just try. Sure, appliance repairmen and publishers are experts at what they do. But they are just people with a very particular set of skills, skills they have acquired over a very long career… okay, sorry. Got carried away with my Liam Neeson impersonation there. Sure, experts know more than you, but they had to learn what they know. You can learn it too. I’m not saying there aren’t times when it would be wise to hire an expert. It’s almost always easier and more expedient. Sometimes it’s most definitely the best course of action. However, it also is oftentimes way more expensive, and you give up a lot of control. Why not examine your situation and look into doing it yourself?
The first thing to consider…
2. No matter how simple someone else makes it look, it’s not. Whether you’re replacing a part on your fridge or trying to learn how to format the interior of your first novel, remember that the people who are instructing you have done it before. Probably lots of times. Even if you follow their directions to the “t”, you will do it more slowly, you’ll probably do it wrong at least once, and your end result may not look as slick. That’s alright. No one expects a newbie to look like a pro on the first outing. You can still be good. You can still get the job done. Don’t worry if you take a while to do it, you get dirty in the process, and your results aren’t perfect.
The fact is…
3. The internet contains a whole world of teachers. Whether you’re a handyman or you’re writing a post-apocalyptic romance about space alien zombies, someone has already done what you’re trying to do. And they’ve made a video about it. Or written a blog. Or developed a course. You do not have to start from scratch. The things people used to have to learn in college or as an apprentice can be found online.
A good tip…
4. Always read the comments. Or join the student Facebook group. It is true that you will learn from the teacher. But you will learn just as much if not more from your fellow students. Someone else has already tried it and failed, and then bless their hearts, they shared their failure with the world so you can learn from it. On the video about how to change the valve, one of the commenters pointed out that you had to push down the collar surrounding the tube to pull it out. He said he spent 30 minutes fighting with it and finally found the answer on someone else’s video. I read his comment and saved myself all of that time. While working on my first novel, I took an online course from a guy who makes tons of money as an indie author. The course was great, but the most valuable thing he offers is an exclusive Facebook group made up of all the other authors who have taken his course. If I have a question, I post it or just use the search feature to find the dozens of times it has been asked and answered.
Speaking of the search function…
5. The right tools are vital. The difference between an easy job and a difficult one often comes down to using the right tool. I have found that out as a do-it-yourselfer, and it directly translates to creating a book. Invest in your tools. You can remove a nut with pliers, but a socket will do it much quicker and with less potential damage. You can meticulously format a book in Word, but programs like Scrivener and Vellum make the work a hundred times easier and produce predictable results.
Which brings me to…
6. Know when it’s worth it. Sometimes you just need to hire someone to do what you need done, or at least part of it. My husband used to change the oil on our cars. He probably saved us 10-15 bucks every few months. At the time, he had more time than money, so it was sensible. Eventually, the savings didn’t justify the time he had to put into it. When I got ready to self-publish, I looked into formatting my first novel myself. I researched on the Facebook groups I mentioned above. I played around with the various free programs. Then I decided I was spending way too much time trying to figure it out. So I found a guy on Fiverr who did it really inexpensively. What I might have saved in money I would have overspent in time.
I think the key is…
7. Know your abilities and your limitations. My father was a handy guy. We never had much money, so he was the one who fixed our cars and appliances and lawn mowers. He even built an addition on our house. It was while watching him work that I became familiar with tools and saw how things are put together. When it comes to being an author, I have written for a living. I have a degree in advertising. I worked on websites and social media in my jobs. My skillset is well-suited to becoming an indie author. If it wasn’t, maybe I would have been better off seeking a publishing deal. (Maybe one of these days, I still will.) But I knew, for the most part, I had the skills to handle the many tasks that are required. Just like I knew I could probably change that valve.
8. Be fearless. That is… without fear. Because there’s nothing to be scared of here. What’s the worst that could happen? Yes, I failed the first time I tried to change the valve. Turns out, the part was defective. Yes, I did get sprayed in the face with water, but that was worth the laugh! Yes, I did spend quite a bit of time on it. But, because I learned from youtube and the comments, because I had tools and was familiar with them, because I understood this was a repair I could probably do… I was out $25 on a part and expedited shipping. Pretty sure if I had called a repairman, it would have been $150+.
As an indie author publishing on Amazon (and probably other platforms one of these days), I make 70% on every ebook I sell. If I had found an agent who would represent me, if she/he had found a publishing company willing to take a chance on a 50+ newbie author (and those are really big ifs and would have taken years), I would be getting pennies… pennies per copy. I may never make a lot of money at this. But there are indie authors who are. And many of them are making a lot more than they would if they had gone the traditional route. The cost/benefit analysis is in their favor. Maybe it will be in mine. I’ll never know unless I try.
Doing it yourself can save you money. And sometimes it can mean the difference between having something – whether it be a working fridge or a novel for sale in the largest bookstore in the world – and never having it at all. So why not just try?
Okay, hopefully we’re not hearing real voices. I’m talking about those subtle voices. The fearful, doubting, negative words, perhaps once spoken to us and about us, that we still carry around.
I had a conversation with a woman who had been divorced for over twenty years. She sat there crying, talking about the awful things her ex had once said to her. He had wounded her, and shame on him for that. But it occurred to me that he said those things two decades ago, and yet she still allowed them to have power over her. She was the one who repeated them, who let them echo in her head, dragging her down.
I had someone who meant a lot to me, who tended to be critical. She has since passed away, and I miss her greatly. However, I sometimes wonder if I would have written my novel if she was still around. I have to admit her negativity was a weight on me.
Here’s the thing though. I know that her critical nature was not because of who I am, but because of who she was. So allowing her words to stifle me… is on me. She wasn’t the one who held me back. I was. I was the one who let her voice – my perception of her voice – echo in my head. I was the one who anticipated her negativity… and adopted it. She may have planted the seed – quite unintentionally – but I gave it room to grow, watered it, nurtured it. Her words would have been buried long ago if I hadn’t given them fertile soil to blossom into something they were never intended to be. I did that. Not her.
Now I’m not beating myself up about this, and I don’t expect you to either. What I’m saying is we all need to examine those voices – the fears, the doubts, the criticism — and understand where they come from. And then choose to release them. Or bury them. Or whatever metaphor you want to use. Let’s silence them. In their place, let’s put our voice. Our true voice. The voice that has something to say and wondrous things to create.
Disprove the naysayer. Convince the doubter. Drown out the whispers. Shut down the shouter. Create what you love, no matter what’s said. Silence the critics who live in your head.
I was fired from my first “career” job a year out of college. I was also fired from my third. I won’t tell you I didn’t spend some time feeling sorry for myself, because I did. But now, looking back years later, I’m thankful for it. What I learned taught me how to succeed. More importantly, I think, it taught me how to survive.
It’s why I’m an indie author. I have no intention of failing. But when I have setbacks, I know I’ll recover. I learned how a long time ago.