News Flash: Mike Stackpole Knows What He’s Talking About

I just got back from World Fantasy Con in San Diego, at which one of the highlights for me was not just getting to re-connect and talk with my pal Mike Stackpole, but also to talk to other writers about the stuff that Mike’s been ringing the gong on for some time now. That is, of course, the revolution in indie ebook publishing and what it means for writers.

Mike’s the guy who initially hipped me to what’s going on, after I had been out of the writing game for several years, mainly due to my rising level of disgust with the traditional publishing industry. If you haven’t read what Mike’s saying about the e-publishing revolution, you need to start following him over at his Stormwolf blog. Tons of great info and insights there, vitally important for all writers.

That being said — and this is more a comment about me than Mike — I hadn’t realized the complete degree to which Mike is correct about a certain mentality on the part of a great many writers. He’s catching some flack at the moment for his use of the term house slave to describe the mindset of writers who base not only their careers and finances on an unquestioning devotion to the traditional publishing industry, but also their own perception of themselves and their worth. Apparently, Mike’s house slave language has seriously gotten under some people’s skins — which is just fine, as far as I’m concerned. If they’re nettled by it, they probably should be, on a Truth hurts basis.

What I didn’t understand until I had the experience of talking to several different writers down at WFC is the literalness of the house slave designation. I had previously thought that Mike was using his typically colorful language as a metaphor for that kind of mentality. Guess what? It’s not a metaphor; it’s a precise and literal description of how some writers view the relationship between themselves and the traditional publishing industry. In just about as many words, I heard writers tell me that as far as they were concerned, not only were they dependent on the trad pub industry, but that without it they were nothing. They weren’t even writers — their self-definition came from the validation of the trad pub industry, not from anything they did themselves. If this isn’t the literal definition of a subservient house slave mentality, then what is?

And don’t think there aren’t people in the traditional publishing industry who are perfectly capable of exploiting this mentality on the part of beaten-down writers. Mike’s got his own WFC report up on his blog and I urge you to take a look at it.

I’m confident that Mike’s going to continue nettling those who should be nettled. Some will get the message — and some won’t. If you haven’t already, either from him or one of the other people talking about the indie e-publishing revolution, then you very likely will, at which point you get to decide which type of writer, house slave or independent, that you’re going to be.

12 thoughts on “News Flash: Mike Stackpole Knows What He’s Talking About

  1. It’s really kind of scary how a broken industry can command that kind of hold on otherwise intelligent people. I know a few of them myself, so what you heard at WFC doesn’t surprise me. Mike has been instrumental in helping me see what’s different now, and also giving me words to explain it to others.

  2. Hi KW, nice to read your piece.

    FWIW, I’m a fan of Stackpole, I think his ideas here are spot on, & agree that being a thorn in the side of those who think they’re nothing without trad-pub is a worthy goal. It might even save some livelihoods.

    But we’re writers. Can we respectfully agree words mean something? While I won’t speak for some of those who’ve been vocal about their dislike of the house slave analogy, there are many of them. Some of them wedded to trad-Pub & some who explore ePub, self-promotion & alternate revenue streams like Kickstarter.

    So while I believe it is trad-pub who is nothing without writers – and most definitely not the other way around…

    …and while I agree a slap in the face is sometimes necessary to bring a hysterical person around (like, say, someone unable to conceive of validation & succes without a big publisher’s to ring to kiss & check to cash) — sometimes a good slap is necessary to calm down a pregnant person on the verge of harming their new baby.

    Yes, by that I mean the most vitriolic parrot of the ‘house slave’ line.

    First of all nobody put them in chains. Svengali’d maybe. Conned maybe. Not. Enslaved.

    Why does this have to be an all or nothing proposition? I think the publishing industry will have to reform from behavior ranging from arrogant to reprehensible -not a slave owner but an abusive and ignorant boss. And not all of them either.

    I think those authors now finding their way are stronger for publishing their own work & finding a direct line to their supporters. I think Amazon is Doing a great thing but they’re only doing it as long as it’s in their best interest.

    So what I’m saying is, keep the lines of communication open. Be opinionated but don’t let someone else’s bad behavior excuse yours.

    The landscape in publishing WILL change in many ways. But jerks are jerks no matter the geography… So don’t be one of them.

    Let’s call the worst offenders what they are: the 1%’ers of pub maybe? Corporate thugs? Paper barons?

    But don’t tar the whole industry past present and future as slavers. It’s over simple, over harsh… And by now far too overused a term.

    Thanks KW!

    John Mierau

  3. As an indie author who attended WFC, I was surprised by the lack of dialog regarding the changes in the publishing industry and the options opening up for writers. I couldn’t determine whether it was due to ignorance, fear, or a widespread case of head-in-the-sand.

    This whole controversy surrounding the term ‘house slaves’ – especially by those who have not read Mike’s original post – is nothing more than an attempt to diffuse the message behind the words and reinforce the status quo.

    Writers who fail to pay attention to the turmoil in the publishing industry will have no one else to blame should they find themselves chained to inequitable contracts, or worse, buried beneath the rubble of a collapsing house.

    I, for one, prefer the risks of following Spartacus.

  4. The house slave mentality is, for my money, one of the core reasons why artists are one of the most preyed upon professional classes in the world. The hopelessness and Stockholm syndrome that accompanies it leaves writers, musicians, performers, and artists of all kinds to refuse to 1) fight for good contracts, 2) decline to enforce breached contracts, and 3) demonize their peers who do either, or worse, decide to go it alone.

    The fundamental con trick is turning what should be a tactical decision (where you publish, and under what terms) into an emotional/moral/identity-based decision (I’m a bad/selfish/inadequate writer if I’m not loyal to my publisher)–and make no mistake, it is a con trick. Publishers (in any media) don’t have the power that artists think they do, they’re not above the law, and it’s not impossible to bring them to account when they misbehave. I’ve been doing a blog series on business and contracts aimed at helping people bust the slave-and-sycophant mentality.

    Reading posts like this from writers I respect and enjoy gives my heart a great boost. I hope more people listen as time wears on, rather than getting swallowed up by their own fear and insecurity.
    -Dan Sawyer

  5. I think the important thing to remember is that when an author has no leverage then of course the publisher is going to have the upper hand.

    For me I don’t care if you self -publish, go big-six, or use a small publisher like Ridan, as long as your goals are aligned what each can bring and you don’t end up signing something that is not in your best interest because you feel as though you have no choice.

    All authors, regardless of the path they take are benefiting from the shock waves going through the industry. The six-figure advance my husband got was BECAUSE of his self-publishing success and the changes we were able to get to the contract was because he had VIABLE alternatives.

    All authors need to be educated on all aspects of business and decide what is right for them – and realize that they are not powerless due to the numerous options (both self and small press) that are open to them in today’s publishing climate.

  6. “House Slave”…wow, that is succinct! Way to go Stackpole! I’m impressed, and thanks for the head’s-up to Stormwolf.

    I suspected as much, and this may be just one of the reasons (aside from my own procrastination and laziness) I never did manage to get my foot in the door, during the 20th century: Something deep and vital within me just balked. . . *(I graduated from Emerson college in ’87 with a BFA in Creative Writing, hint hint.)

    As far as I’ve been concerned, ever since the first Kindle appeared–the ‘e’ in ‘eRevolution’ stands for “equilibrium”, that is to say, The Playing Field Has Been Cleared! The Reset Button has been Hit.
    The ‘e’ may as well stand for the ‘everyman’–because, the vital aspect of this massive eRevolution, is that now ANYone and EVERYone has, more or less, the same Stab at proving their merit as writers as anyone else, be they Established or not.

    This is an exciting time to be a writer. Despite my having endured nearly a quarter-century of waiting on the sidelines, I am as ready as ever now to take my place on this levelled playing field.

    Thanks for the updates, Kevin.

    1. I hereby decree that your procrastination and laziness are OVER. There’s never going to be a better time for writers; finish up the book projects you’ve got going, start new ones, finish those up, and publish them, dammit. Now!

  7. Mike Stackpole knows exactly what he is talking about. I remember reading the original article. The “house slave” reference was referring to Roman times, something that appears to be lost in the current hubbub.

    And his response to the recently-whipped up furor was excellent. A thoughtful, thought-provoking piece.

    I haven’t seen anyone engage with his points – you know, the substance of what he said. I find these arguments can attract very emotional responses and we rarely get to the issues – which is a pity.

    But, for the record, he was right the first time. And he’s still right now.

  8. @johnmierau, I have to disagree that “no one put them in slavery”. If you wanted to be a published writer, you sold yourself to the publishers, end of story. They had a monopoly through their complete control of distribution.

    In the Roman times, which Stackpole was referring to, one might sell oneself or ones children to avoid starvation. This is exactly what happened with authors. Once they had done this, it was in their best interest to identify totally with their new owner.

    I recently seriously insulted an author by accusing him of having Stockholm Syndrome, a very similar thing. I apologized because I didn’t want to have a fight but I still believed that was what was happening in his rabid defense of publishers.

    Authors have gone through a very long period when our very existence (eating, paying the rent, even BEING authors) depended on selling ourselves in service to publishers and recovering is going to take time.

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