Thursday, January 16, 2014

Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail or What does Independent Publishing have to do with Blazes?

Back in 1998, I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail (AT)—six and a half months of grueling, sometimes pleasant, and sometimes even euphoric backpacking from the northern end of Georgia to the middle of Maine, Baxter State Park.  The two thousand mile journey was life-changing and lately I've been comparing my thru-hike to my journey as an independent author.

The trail taught me everything I need to know about life, but I’m still sorting those lessons out.  I find myself returning to the experience every time I have a quandary or when I’m trying to understand myself and my life journey.  And lately I've been pondering why the independent author is still reviled, even after they have proved that an indie can write a great book and be financially successful. Independent musicians aren't told they are ruining the music industry, are they?  Even well-known actors like to get involved in independent films, right?
So what is it about independent authors that sticks in the traditional book world’s craw?  I know it’s not everyone, but enough is written and spouted on a daily basis that it’s hard to throw a virtual stone without hitting an online diatribe against the independent author movement.  And then I remembered what the thru-hiking community refers to as the “purist”.  This is a person who has very specific rules about how to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail and he doesn't consider another hiker a “real” thru-hiker if she doesn't follow the exact same rules.

For example, the basic rule among purists is that you have to hike every single white blaze along the AT.  The AT is marked with 2 x 6 inch white rectangles called blazes.  Side trails are marked, usually, with blue blazes and non-AT trails are dubbed “blue-blazes".   Most mornings a thru-hiker will look at his or her map and plot out their hike for the day, sometimes choosing a side trail for various reasons.  I’ll be the first one to admit that its usually because the blue-blaze is shorter, but sometimes it’s because there’s a feature, like a nice, cool water fall or swimming hole that would be damn satisfying on a hot, sticky day.

When that hiker takes the blue-blaze and does not hike past every single white blaze, the purist no longer considers her a thru-hiker and will often refer to her as a “blue-blazer”.  Okay, are you seeing the similarities here?  Traditionally published are the purists, because that is the “right” way to publish a book, and the independent author is a “blue-blazer” because she will on occasion wander off the official trail. 

I say on occasion because honestly, you can’t get from Georgia to Maine and really hike the Appalachians if you don’t take the Appalachian Trail.  And think of the publishing process as a trail.  There are certain milestones you just have to meet:  write the damn book, for one.  Not a single independent author has made any money without writing the book, just as it is for the traditionally published. 

Next, edit.  Then edit again.  And just for good measure, edit again.  Whether you’re an indie or a trad, this step is not to be forgone.  Grant it, I've read a few books that were in desperate need of a good editing job, but most of the successful indies hire professional editors and proofreaders, spending money out of their own pocket to do so.  Now, I know aspiring authors also hire professional editors to help them produce a sale-able product, so the only real difference is the way the two writers go about trying to get published.  They take slightly different paths, don’t they?

Another milestone on the journey:  marketing. We all are working our butts off on building platforms, creating buzz for our books, getting press release kits out, submitting ARCs for reviews, and delving into the fray on social media.  I’m exhausted just writing about it and I do it every single day.  And we still have to write the books.  And edit them.  And proofread.  And format.  Etc. Etc. Etc.  I won’t get into what publishing houses do for the author because it goes without saying; I just want to make it clear that an indie that has any chance of being successful is not likely writing a book a week and throwing them up without any professional process.  There are millions of books on Amazon, but only a fraction of those are actually selling at any significant rate.

And you know, on the trail, there were thousands of people who started out in the spring on Springer Mountain in Georgia who had high hopes of reaching Katahdin in Maine that fall.  Guess what? Only ten percent of the people who attempt a thru-hike each year actually complete the journey.  And I would venture to guess that it is something similar among writers.  How many wanna be writers are there in the world? And how many of those actually submit anything they've written to anyone, traditional publisher OR online self-publishing venue?  And of those who do, how many give up after the first rejection, the tenth, the two hundredth?  Indies get rejected all the time. It’s called no sales, poor reviews, and no reviews.

The difference between the hiker who completes a thru-hike and the one who quits is mental fortitude.  Ask any thru-hiker how she did it and she’ll say, “I just did it. I got up every morning and put my boots on and packed up my pack and hiked.”  She hiked through the rain and the cold, sometimes snow and rime ice falling on her head.  She hiked through the heat and over mountains so steep she had to grab onto the vegetation to keep from falling over backwards. She hiked no matter what and that’s how you finish a thru-hike.

And just like the trail, becoming a writer and getting published is 5% heel and 95% head. In fact, it’s one of the secrets to life that a lot of people gloss over.  It sounds nice as a slogan, but it doesn't sink in.  Any writer can tell you there is a lot of blood, sweat, and tears in the writing game, but you do it any way.  You don't whine...well maybe you wine...but do the work no matter how hard it is. You get up and you face the blank page and you write. You get your rejections out of the mailbox, and you try to glean some nugget of what went wrong with this manuscript. Does anyone think the indie author doesn't do this?  Maybe the mistaken belief that we skip the hard work is what keeps the rants coming our way.

But we don’t.  We work hard, so hard that our families complain we’re always on the laptop, that our backs hurt and our heads throb.  But we do it anyway.  We get stronger with each project, learning more about our craft and writing, writing, writing.  If we’re not doing that, we won’t succeed.  Just like the hiker who doesn't strap on his boots and put in the miles will never get to Katahdin, no matter which color trail he chooses to follow.

Whether you’re going the traditional route or choosing to hike your own hike, you will work as hard, my friend.  I guarantee it.  This journey is yours and you need to decide for yourself how to hike it, so don't let me or anyone else tell you how to do it.  I know I will never convince those who hold to the conviction that the only right way to publish is through the publishing houses and I’m okay with that.  I just wanted to paint the picture the way I see it…with my own colors and in my own words.


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