Silver and Gold and Cautionary Tales

I’ve been thinking about the Gold Rush lately. And Baby Doe Tabor.

I grew up in Denver, so this is a natural metaphor for me. We spent a fair amount of time in school studying Colorado history, the modern piece of which pivots around the arrival of all the people chasing gold and silver in them thar hills.

One of my favorite stories was always Baby Doe Tabor. Horace Tabor ditched his first wife, the very severe-looking Augusta, for the very beautiful Baby Doe, whose mother would never let her do manual labor, so she could keep her hands pretty and land a genteel husband. They lived a rich, high-spirited life and many opera houses, banks and other edifices bear the Tabor name. One of my favorite bits of the story is how Baby Doe commissioned her dressmaker to dress the nude statues on their property, because the neighbors were offended.

It’s a cautionary tale, too. When the country moved to the gold standard, their silver holdings lost their value. Horace died a poor man and Baby Doe lived out her days in the cabin next to the Matchless Mine, which had once fueled their fabulous fortune.

There’s a decent summary of the story here, if you’re interested in details.

Those are the gold rush stories – the dramatic ascensions, the terrible crashes. Denver grew from a muddy mining supply camp into a major city with diverse industries.

The whole ePublishing thing has put me in mind of that.

There’s this wild scent in the air that there are fortunes to be had. Everyone is scrambling, in their own ways, to stake a claim. Some are panning the streams, some digging their own mines by hand. People are forming groups, new ePubs popping up all over, mining the writers for their talents. Is gold the way to go? Silver?

I’m sure some people will make lots of money – that’s pretty standard for a gold rush. Others will be the colorful tales, the ones who slog away in the hills alone and trudge into town for supplies, not noticing the gold dust on their boots. Others will be like the Tabors, with a glamorous and prolific burst of fortune that fades into nothing. Such is the nature of all cautionary tales.

It’s easy to look at the Tabor’s story and make judgments. If only they’d invested better. If only Horace had listened to his friends’ advice and diversified. If only they’d seen the money wouldn’t flow in forever and made plans accordingly.

Someone asked me for advice the other day and then ignored it. Their prerogative, I suppose, but I won’t claim it didn’t bother me. I worry about what some of my writer friends are signing up for, dazzled by the promise of riches. It’s true that big gains require bigger risks – but that doesn’t mean the risks should be ignored.

Here are my cautions, for what they’re worth:

1. Track record is more important than ever

This feels like an iconoclastic era, and perhaps it is, but anyone can declare themselves an editor, anyone can set up an ePress in their living room, anyone can have a book printed. The only way to predict the future is to examine the past. If there’s no track record, your risk goes up, fast.

2. Anyone can have a book printed (see #1)

Writers want to see their books in print. We grew up holding books, loving books, seeing them stacked around us on the shelves. There’s a legitimacy to print that we long for. But because anyone can have a book printed, and even carried by a legitimate distributor, that does not mean books will get into the stores. Major publishers are struggling with getting books into stores. Major bookstores are collapsing under their own fiscal weight. Print books are doorstops if they’re not getting into readers’ hands. Pretty doorstops, maybe, but nevertheless.

3. Multi-book contracts are not always good for the writer

For years now when people ask me what I want for my birthday or Christmas I’ve been saying “a lucrative, multi-book contract.” We all want it. It’s the brass ring. In this dream, a publisher promises to publish my next three books and gives me a chunk of money up front, theoretically so I can feed myself while I write them. Now there are ePubs offering multi-book contracts, which has that lovely guarantee, but without the advance. So, now you’re committed to the publisher, without money up front, and possibly no track record. (See #1) What happens if your book doesn’t do well? What if the publisher runs into issues – personnel, financial, legal? (Back to track record.) Now your next three books are tied up, possibly for years. There are plenty of cautionary tales on this one. *cough* Dorchester *cough*

4. Easy come, easy go

Okay, this is the one none of us wants to hear, but that fabulous ePub who loves loves loves our baby novel that everyone else says is unmarketable? They could be wrong in that love. We *want* to believe they’re seeing what everyone else missed, but it’s also possible that the new ePub simply doesn’t have the industry experience to see that it’s not marketable. Also, they might not care. More than one start-up has employed the “throw a bunch of stuff at the wall and see what sticks” method of defining what’s profitable and what isn’t. It’s hard to look at this objectively, but bears considering why they want what everyone else turned down. Maybe they’re brilliant visionaries who alone recognize your true genius. Maybe not.

5. Think long term

A writer told me the other day that she would never again publish with a particular ePress because her profits weren’t as good as with another. Sure, this is a legitimate business choice. However, that less profitable ePress has a lot going for it – personnel with established industry track records (I know, I’m harping on this), strong financial and legal backing. I see them as ramping up in a steady, fiscally conservative way that promises much for the long run. Sure, you might not be picking gold nuggets up off the ground, but for a lifelong venture, maybe you don’t need to fill your pockets with gold right now.

As writers, we don’t always like to worry our pretty heads with business. It would be lovely if we didn’t have to. I wonder sometimes, how Baby Doe saw things. Did she try to give Horace business advice or did she while her days away in play and dressing sculptures? Was she bitter that she died poor when she’d once lived so glamorously? I imagine her hands were cracked and gnarled in the end, chopping her own wood, digging through the rocks for silver.

It’s tempting to chase the gold. Without the dream, no one would pack up their lives and head for the hills. Some will strike it rich.

Just remember the cautionary tales.

6 Replies to “Silver and Gold and Cautionary Tales”

  1. 90% of all new businesses fail in the first year. Sad, but true. Hedge your bets. That is all.

  2. Great post. I only hope that more aspiring authors learn all the above, and not the hard way. It's difficult to say if this 'gold rush' will come crashing down in the end. I suppose the old adage "Nothing lasts forever" should be heeded here.

  3. Thanks, MM – I know you've been around this particular block and have the scars to show for it.

    So true, Marcella – thank you for citing that!

    I'm with you, DF. I'm so afraid we'll be seeing some sad tales in the future.

  4. Good analogy Jeff. While this is a great take on the writer's perspective on indie/self-pub, it doesn't take into count the current state of the industry. In your analogy it would be the great depression and your publishers would be the ones jumping.

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