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Sir Hugh and the Snail

21 February 2014 iStock_000018949465Small photog MassonStock 2 [1]

When Mollusks Attack

We don’t know why images of armed knights fighting snails are common in 13th and 14th century illuminated manuscripts. 

Through a tweet from one of my favorite authors, William Gibson [2], I found my way to a post by Sarah J. Biggs [3] at the British Library. “One of our post-medieval colleagues noticed a painting of a knight engaging in combat with a snail.”

Knight v Snail V:  Revenge of the Snail (from the Smithfield Decretals, southern France (probably Toulouse), with marginal scenes added in England (London), c. 1300-c. 1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 107r) | Medieval Manuscripts Blog, British Library, Sarah J. Biggs [4]
Knight v Snail V: Revenge of the Snail (from the Smithfield Decretals, southern France (probably Toulouse), with marginal scenes added in England (London), c. 1300-c. 1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 107r) | Medieval Manuscripts Blog, British Library, Sarah J. Biggs

Images of knights fighting snails are all over these priceless books, Biggs writes. “But the ubiquity of these depictions doesn’t make them any less strange.”

Her brief essay, Knight v Snail [4], fraught with gastropods and gallantry, refers to an article by Carl Purdym. He proposes [5] that the imagery was a joke. “Medieval readers thought there was something funny…but none of them bothered to write down what that was.”

So we have the setup. But we’ve lost the punchline. And our poor, peculiar, and staggered business—the focus of this month’s Inside Publishing theme here at Writer Unboxed—has earned a chance to take comfort in the obscurity of such a medieval meme.

Our authors at last may be pulling up alongside those snails and gaining the right to a little modern mysteria of their own: making creative decisions without the bias or prejudice of the publishing realm.

And yet we’re still trying to work out the punchline, to decide what it all means.


Howey the Traditionalist

If you were standing right now in the London offices of Random House’s imprint called Century (this century), you probably would not call Hugh Howey [6] a self-publisher.

Cover art: Jason Gurley @JGurley [7]
Cover art: Jason Gurley @JGurley

You might call him Sir, but you might also call him a traditionalist. Yes, this is the same Hugh Howey, Defender of DIY, Patron of Entrepreneurials, and Mammoth Among Woolly  [8]Booksellers.

But he’s also into a deal with Random UK [7] for the print and digital publication of his new novel, Sand [9]. And that’s not a secret. I, for one, reported it on the fifth of the month, in The Bookseller [10].

So wait a minute, wait a minute. Hang on.

Howey now has released not one [11] but two [12] detailed ebook sales-and-rankings reports showing what he interprets to be the power of self-publishers in the market today, right? Barry Eisler [13] calls each report a “bombshell” of the best kind. Joe Konrath [14] is performing sprightly jigs at his blog site. And it all centers around Howey’s controversial new AuthorEarnings.com [15] site.

AuthorEarnings asserts that success may be as feasible for the hardworking self-publishing writer as it is for the hardworking traditionally publishing writer.

So how do we reconcile the traditionalist Howey with the self-publishing firebrand who sallies forth under the fluttering colors of “organized advocacy” and “change within the publishing community” and “better pay and fairer terms in all contracts?”

Easily: It’s not self-publishing vs. traditional publishing.

It’s something else.

Author Earnings [15]If you haven’t seen the AuthorEarnings [16] site yet (only 10 days old), I hope you’ll break out some time this weekend to have a look. Consider adding your input to that of more-than 950 people who so far have contributed to its voluntary, self-selective survey. You can peruse what those respondents are saying; have a look at the site’s petition; download some of the raw data; poke around.

Howey has earned his man-of-the-moment status. With more than 2 million books sold, this man can speak to power. He’s safe. He’s one of a handful of articulate, committed leaders talking from the entrepreneurial-author corps today, and he’s parlaying his own success into dialog and perspective far beyond his own career.

I’ve been asked if he’s making any money from the AuthorEarnings site. The answer is no. In interview, he told me: “I’m spending my own money on hosting and web design. I won’t do any advertising, and I don’t hope to gain a thing from this for myself. The writing community and profession have already given me more than I deserve or know what to do with.”

Hugh Howey [15]
Hugh Howey

Certainly, some sparks have flown. You bet.

With the help of an unnamed technologist who’s good at scraping data from online book-sales sites (Amazon so far, Barnes & Noble next), Howey is fencing with some in the establishment who may not appreciate seeing self-publishing as what Dublin’s Eoin Purcell [17] calls in his Bookseller #PorterMeets [18] interview (on the stands today in London) “a clear, viable, and sustainable alternative” for authors.

And Purcell goes on today to write in a sterling new essay of his own [19]:

The self publishing war wasn’t and isn’t real. Just like Amazon, in many ways the growth of self publishing is an inevitable outcome of the forces that are powering digital change.

And here’s another voice speaking reason, Smashwords’ [20] Mark Coker [21] in his Publishers Weekly [22] piece, Hugh Howey and the Indie Author Revolt [23]:

I think the business of Big Publishing is broken, but the people of Big Publishing are not. Although it would be beneficial to my business for big publishers to collapse, it’s not the outcome I desire. I think the world is better served with more publishing options.

Meanwhile, Howey is taking it from both sides. “Why would Hugh sign over his digital and print rights to Random?” one self-publishing author asked me in a tweet of pique as soon as the Sand deal was announced.

“I love the team there” at Random House UK, Howey answered when I asked him.

And how does he know he loves that team? Because his Wool [8]Shift [24]Dust [25] trilogy—both print and digital—was handled by the same group at Random’s Century for his UK release. He learned then just how good that particular publishing-house crew can be to work with. So good that he was ready to sign up again for his next book, while the “Silo Saga,” as it’s known, is being touted in Random’s London ads in the Underground as “the next Hunger Games.”

In talking to me about it, Howey called out members of the RH-UK team by name: “I love Jack Fogg and Jennifer Doyle and Natalie Higgins and Jason Smith,” he told me. Those are, respectively, his Random House UK editorial director, senior marketing manager, publicity director, and senior designer.

When was the last time you heard an author get into the press to praise a publishing house staff that way? It can happen.

Our Snail-Moderne

Howey has said before that he likes working with publishers if they treat him as a partner. These Random House contracts are proof. And this gives us the singular effect of seeing a thoroughgoing “hybrid” at work: this hero of the self-publishing world is, when it makes sense to him, shaking hands with the publishing barons.

[pullquote]Our goal should not be to point fingers or humiliate, but to lower barriers, to work for contracts that treat people like people, and to allow the great folks in publishing to do what’s right instead of what’s handed down from on high. — Hugh Howey[/pullquote]

And as we watch the pause his AuthorEarnings initiative has created in the industry’s ever-obsessive dialog about itself, don’t fail to keep an eye on what this guy is doing in his own career. Because it may not be what you, or they, or I expect him to do. And this may be his best lesson of all.

In fact, why does Howey have 30 foreign publishers for Wool? “Overseas publishers are so nimble and creative,” he tells me. “They get putting the reader first.”

So he works with them. But he’s not afraid to self-publish when that makes more sense.

This makes us queasy because we really like everything and everybody to be predictable, don’t we? Well, of course we do. That’s why it might disappoint some folks to know that Howey not only hasn’t rejected traditional publishers but he’s signing contracts with them when he likes their terms.

Case by case. What’s good for the project? What’s good for the readers? What’s good for any self-respecting knight in Authorian armor at the conference room round table?

Send in the snails.

Knight v Snail VI:  The Gastropod Conqueror (from the Gorleston Psalter, England (Suffolk), 1310-1324, Add MS 49622, f. 162v)  | Medieval Manuscripts Blog, British Library, Sarah J. Biggs [26]
Knight v Snail VI: The Gastropod Conqueror (from the Gorleston Psalter, England (Suffolk), 1310-1324, Add MS 49622, f. 162v) | Medieval Manuscripts Blog, British Library, Sarah J. Biggs

What’s starting to form is the shell of a contemporary creature, a mystery to us still, something not well known or understood: the author who fits production to content.

Because every joke must find its own audience, every laugh line needs its own timing, every book deserves a fresh look.

Your work needs its own best chance. That best chance may be what traditional-industry pundits tell you is your best shot. (“Get thee to Random House!”) Or it may be something else. (“Self-publish thyself!”)

Again, this is not about self-publishing vs. traditional publishing. It’s about finding the right mode, gear, speed, and process for each of your projects.

Howey has just written, in a new post, More Pie, Please [27]! his basic agreement with what Purcell is seeing, with what I’m seeing, with what a lot of us are seeing: the fracas is a figment:

There’s no war here. There’s nothing to fight over…When we in the publishing business come at each other with trust, love, and respect, I believe we will find there’s plenty of pie to go around. Our goal should not be to point fingers or humiliate, but to lower barriers, to work for contracts that treat people like people, and to allow the great folks in publishing to do what’s right instead of what’s handed down from on high.

It’s about the author deciding what is right for him or her, and for the readers.

So traditional publishing, in the right situation, can be the right choice, yes. Robin LaFevers [28] wrote well this month at WU to the reason that self-publishing simply isn’t for her. See Some Economic Straight Talk [29]. She’s making an educated, careful assessment free of somebody else’s insistence that one way or the other way is the only way. Perfect.

Needless to say, you’ll continue to see some in the publishing establishment struggling with this change. They’ve had decades of clear, dependable ways and means laid out for them. It’s disconcerting to have those paths and procedures blur. It hasn’t been the norm for authors to call the shots. Be patient with them.

On the other hand, you’ll see some self-publishing enthusiasts looking perturbed, as well. They’ve grown too fond of the fray, these fight-club swells. Peaceful productivity might not be so dashing. And, hey, it’s a lot more work to sort out your own best course than it is to have it handed to you on an agency rejection note.

The most effective burghers all over the the industry! the industry! today?—are getting squishy like snails.

Flexibility is everyone’s friend now. Choice. Options. Agility. Nerve. Luck. Hard work. All those. But the greatest of these may be flexibility.

If Howey rides out onto the field of debate, his visor down to meet the Shatzkinians or the Caderians or the dreaded Corporati—or even to rally the Self-Publishing Faithful—it’s not because he’s anti-publishers. It’s because he’s siding with the new opportunity the creative workforce now owns.

Choose your own mode, take your own risk, he tells you, estimate your own chances, and flex your own potential.

Eoin Purcell [30]
Eoin Purcell

Our good colleague Purcell at Dublin’s fine independent publisher New Island Books [31] gave me my favorite quote so far on this whole affair:

It’s essential that selfpub realizes that tradpub doesn’t have to die for selfpub to succeed.

I am no scholar of 13th or 14th century illuminated manuscripts. But I’ve looked at quite a few takes on the knight and the snail this week. And you know what? I’ve yet to see a single instance of that standoff in which either the knight or the snail is vanquished.

Whatever the joke might be, the knight lives, the snail lives, everybody survives. No one has to go.

We’re all going to be okay.

And hey, you in that dented armor: what do you think? How (or Howey) can we, as an industry, get past this idea that we’re in a fight? How do we move beyond this War of the Poses and simply walk among our associates as colleagues looking for the best ways to reach readers with each book, case by case?  

Main image – iStockphoto: MassonStock 

About Porter Anderson [32]

@Porter_Anderson [33] is a recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [34], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Priors: The Bookseller's The FutureBook [35] in London, CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, and the United Nations' WFP in Rome. PorterAndersonMedia.com [36]