Well, it started as a sunny day…
Really… the sun was shining in Clackamas as I roused myself for another day at the 2016 Northwest Tarot Symposium.
So Sunday… after breakfast…I headed to the presentation rooms to see where I might slip in. The fact that my waiter had messed-up my breakfast order and then chosen to ignore me at the hotel restaurant had made me late for the morning session kickoff. …Truth be told, I wasn’t particularly interested in anything that the morning sessions had to offer. Nothing scheduled piqued my personal desires for knowledge. And, no harm or foul there. Part of this situation had to do with who I am and my background. While open to various studies in the tarot, I have a particular interest in the side of things historical, researchable, theory-based, and applicable to virtue ethics through visual pedagogy. So if I had sat through more sessions on the “essence” and “archetypes” and “energy” of the cards, it really would’ve exhausted what little woo-woo effort I had left to muster. Sorry…but that’s my deal. What’s more, as a Benedictine religious, I don’t have much use [anymore] for discussions about the reader’s profession, marketing yourself, or how to make peace with money. Those are important discussions; but not for someone in the consecrated religious life. (Am I saying I wished the presentation sessions had been a little bit more diverse? …Maybe.)
But by chance of fortune (sly tarot inference intended), one of the first session presenters never showed up. (Gasp!) And Jamie—one of the event committee members—made a call to my new friend, Lis, to see if she was interested in filling-in as lead for the session. And, bless her heart, Lis jumped right into the opportunity. So, being comfortable with the session presenter, I joined the group to hear what she had to say about the topic: The Empress (Major Arcana III).
We had a great time with our small group and some good reflection about the Empress and her role. I was the only guy in the room, but I know how to get in touch with my feminine side, so everything was cool. Lis was a trooper to fill-in on the spot and we got a real-life example of the Empress’s nurturing character when Lis’s partner, Joe, came in with a to-go box breakfast for Lis because she had been forced to abandon breakfast with her family in order to do the presentation. Awwwww…
Unfortunately there wasn’t much to hold my interest during the next presentation period session either, but that gave me time to go check on my merchandise in the vending area and do some writing and personal time.
And well… I gotta tell ya: my merchandise did not do well in the vending area. I thought that I had arranged all of it pretty well; I had created support signs that provided additional information about my products to accompany the merchandise; and my stuff was really colorful! All to not much avail. I don’t believe I sold a single pair of gloves, and I might have sold one or two tarot bags. Unfortunately, that means it cost me more to ship that merchandise out here to Portland (and pay for the vending space) than what I made. So I lost money participating in the vending aspect of the Symposium. Bummer. What’s worse? I now have to spend the money to ship all the merchandise back home. Hopefully, they can be sold in the gallery shop back at my monastic community, and if nothing else can be donated to the poor. I have to wonder how other vendors fared over the weekend. Sometimes I wonder if my knit items are overpriced; but I’ve done a lot of comparative pricing on similar products and determined that they are not. What’s more, I use quality natural fibers in order to make my knit products, and I have formulated my prices based on the cost of the materials—on which in turn I try to lower costs by always looking for sales on wholesale yarn supplies and stocking up for future projects. Sometimes ya just gotta admit that the market ain’t there, I guess.
And here was actually another disappointment that I shared in my weekend review sheet… Not just as someone trying to sell merchandise, but someone willing to buy merchandise. One of the reasons tarot conferences are awesome is because attendees have the opportunity to view and purchase out-of-the-ordinary tarot decks. Many of us come from small or remote towns where we don’t have access to amazing selections of decks. Vermont—where I live—doesn’t even have many esoteric storefronts where decks are available at all.
…Which brings me to the point that the Northwest Tarot Symposium seemed devoid of the product that conference attendees are most anticipatorily and anxiously interested in buying: tarot decks.
So why weren’t major deck retailers and publishers there? Where was the Tarot Garden? Where was Schiffer Publishing?? Where was Llewellyn Publishing??? Where was New Renaissance Books and Gifts with their selection of merchandise? Where were other deck and book publishers? That absence was sort of a little bit of a fiasco in my mind.
Yeah, yeah, I know, the Guiding Tree—the business owned by the Symposium organizers—was there with a “unique selection” of tarot merchandise. And I bought a deck off them. But I didn’t have the chance to pick up a couple of the decks that I’ve had my eye on for a while that I thought would be convenient to buy at the event and support a local business or community publisher at the same time.
And since we’re on the subject of publishers and publishing…
I dunno who’s gonna broach the disastrous elephant in the room that was the Sunday afternoon Discussion Panel about Self Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing. …So I might as well start.
I’m not trying to “attack” or disparage anyone here with this commentary. If anything, I’m simply trying to describe impressions from that particular session, and perhaps leave the floor open for improving the opportunity to discuss such an important category—publishing—in the community in the future.
That said, I’m not really certain how to approach this discussion without mentioning names directly and without naming who was on the panel. Frankly, I’m going to do my best not to mention names, and be as delicate as possible… But the task is a challenge for a presentation that was anything but delicate. (Ironically, during the panel conversation, one of the panelists made innuendo about another tarot community member and artist without naming the individual directly…but implied that he didn’t need to name the referenced individual in order for those assembled to know about whom exactly he was speaking. To which I must self-reflectively exhort in light of my own challenge: “Touché.”)
Let me state right off from the beginning of this discussion, that I, myself, worked in the international book publishing industry in the 1990s—it was my career profession at that time—and that I have several years of experience as an editor, and copyeditor, a proofreader, a freelance writer, and also as an international publishing house marketing executive. …And, unfortunately, with that experience and from that perspective, I did not really appreciate any of the panelists who presented information during this session.
From the very start of the panel discussion, the panelists took a stance of speaking “down” to session attendees in the audience from the high horse position of their devastating publishing experiences. Their tone was dismissive, haughty, disdainful, aggressive, irate, and victimized. The authors were scornful of the publishing industry as a whole, and the one publishing house representative on the panel was scornful of the authors with whom he was forced to work. The general consensus was that you were a fool if you wanted to try to self publish anything; and that the “traditional” publishers were going f*ck you over, burn your lifeless corpse, and then f*ck you again if you went the route of trying to get a publishing deal or contract with a publishing house.
One panelist was so egregiously and superciliously exaggerating his distain for virtually “every publisher in the United States” that one audience attendee—another member of the publishing industry—tried to ask for a clarification on the panelist’s claims about copyright, ensuing in a rather heated and uncomfortable shouting match.
The one person on the panel who held the power to publish potential authors’ books, was so pejorative and wearisome of what authors’ expectations were that one wondered who would put up with his onerous rules and shift of responsibility upon the author. Why would anyone submit to “working” with someone like that? It rather seemed that he was so invested in protecting himself that… Well, I’m not sure what needed protecting so much. Perhaps more telling is this quote from the panelist’s own website describing his personal spiritual practice and inspiration: “[I] finally found a spiritual system that enabled me to be the ultimate authority of my life…” Which, no judgments at all on your chosen spirituality system, is…well…great, I guess. Very self-empowering. Except, of course, if that ego-centric “ultimate authority” leaches over into how he conducts business as a publisher and editor. Because, it shouldn’t be about a power trip; it ought to be about collaboration with his authors. The American conditioning of autonomous promotion, autonomous self-improvement, and autonomous “success” is a false god. If you look at everything as “me against the world,” you’re not likely ever going to be successful at, much less enjoy, collaboration.
Another hard-nosed panelist insisted that unless you were willing to go the distance and make your sacrifices, and get some balls, that you might as well “sit at home in your closet and pet your cats or whatever.”
Brava. Because one needs to either wage war on the world, or admit you’re so weak that you’ll never amount to anything—that “you can’t compete in this cutthroat world, honey.”
With less than two minutes to spare in the session, the one panelist who had demurely kept quiet during the majority of the panel session—probably wisely, in order to dissociate from the lowbrow commentary—decided she’d verbally spring an ad hoc list of “publishing contract pointers” out to everyone which she read from her personal notes journal. She slammed through them without taking a breath, terrorizing everyone in the room with words and phrases and legalese vocabulary that would have dissuaded any poor soul with a last glimmer of hope of sharing his or her knowledge with the world through the scary, domineering world of publishing.
Okay… Let’s just take a step back and down a notch, can we?
Part of the problem here is that the publishing industry is so huge and so varied and is in such a malleable, transformative condition at this point in time, that a short panel of five members (and only one publisher) is hardly a definitive—or fair—representation of expertise. Further, what this presentation session could have used was a topic agenda and a moderator—someone familiar with the publishing world but who was objective enough to guide discussion from facet to facet while tempering both panelist egos and audience meandering.
There are certainly good and bad experiences that can be had on both sides of the publishing table. But it doesn’t have to be hell or take years off your life. Frankly, I’m a little disappointed that the Symposium organizers didn’t vet this session of presenters more thoroughly. Because you know what? Just like how a bad tarot reader can really do damage to an individual who is looking for some relief from their mental strife and agony, having a panel of bitter, victimized, condescending panelists scare a bunch of hopeful amateur authors into discouragement can be just as awful and debilitating to a young writer or artist.
Here’s the truth about the publishing industry: Since the advent [and explosion] of the internet—and even though it’s really easy to forget that we haven’t always had the internet, it’s only been around for 30 years—the publishing industry has changed dramatically. I can’t even express to you how dramatically. Twenty to thirty years ago—longer than some of you whippersnappers have even been alive—we would never have been talking about “self-publishing,” because in it’s current incarnation, there was no such thing, other than xeroxing your zine at the corner copy store. Do you know what “self publishing” was called in another time? It was called using a vanity press. In other words there were printing houses you paid to have your book printed in as many copies as you wanted to pay for. Forget advances and royalties with vanity presses. It was simply a means to an end for someone desperate to call him- or herself an “author,” and to have the ability to say that one was “published.”
Vanity presses don’t exist, for the most part, any longer because like so many other industries, they’ve been forced out by the autonomy offered by the internet and by advances in technology and printing that allows anyone to do the things vanity presses used to do. Today you can publish your book for free on things like Amazon publishing and other places willing to allow you to post your unedited drivel online for anyone to see and read…or purchase on their kindle, or have printed on a copy-by-copy basis. How do you think Fifty Shades of Grey got published? Um… It DIDN’T. That is, until millions of sex-obsessed idiots were willing to slog through the most atrocious grammar, syntax, and writing on the planet, and bumped the Amazon rating up to a point where Hollywood vultures took notice. Sex sells. If you want to be published right away, go into porn. (I’m not gonna help you with that, though.)
You, as an author, have a-million-and-twenty-two options for getting your work self-published. All you have to do is look on the internet. And have time to spare. If you’re not good at doing your research, or know how to use a proper internet browser, then yeah, that onus is on you. The reason that “traditional” publishing houses are—seemingly—having to be so cutthroat is that the ball has dramatically shifted into your court. There is so much competition out there…not only competitive ways to self-publish your material, but competition from untrained authors trying to get their sh*t published because it’s suddenly free to do on the internets…as well as paper cost increases, and legal cost increases, etc., etc. Because of all of these things, publishing houses stand to loose their shirts. In days gone by, authors never had to be their own marketers, promoters, and salespeople before. Publishing houses used to make huge budgets to fly authors—first class—to do a grand reading tour in tiny book shops around the country. Now publishing houses can’t even afford to keep a proofreader in the company office; they tend to contract services out, or don’t even bother with edits.
Greater responsibility does fall on the author these days, and large advances are generally a thing of the past, and large first print runs—ka-blooey—out the window they’ve gone, too. It’s a changing world in publishing; and it will continue to change. The best defense is not necessarily a good offense; it’s adaptability.
So what message do I have that’s different from the NWTS session panel on publishing?
Take heart. It’s not as disingenuous and debilitating as all that…
But… instead of being adamant that the world will collapse unless your spiritual philosophy of the Morroccan-kitchen-witch-cat-familiar-scratch-n-sniff tarot deck is released to the masses…sign up for some philosophy classes or writing seminars at your local community college.
Instead of demanding that your newly created tarot deck “gets out there” in the consumer throng, and before you spend your life savings or sell your house or start living out of your car to “buy” your 15 minutes of publishing fame…show your artwork on the wall of your local coffee shop or to your buddies at a comic book convention or to your third-grade art teacher.
Instead of obsessing that someone is going to swipe your work out from under you and publish or produce it themselves—and, yes, that has happened to me personally—start thinking about your work as a dialogue with the world. If someone plagiarizes or steals your work, keep active in the discussion and keep building on your premise or work. Eventually people are going to realize that you are an authority in the field and you’re going to get the recognition you deserve (if that’s what you’re looking for). But if you sit in a corner, burned, and never again contribute to the advancement of your ideas, how does that help the world?
Instead of considering your one-off inspiration as precious collateral that needs to be protected at all costs… collaborate on it with another enthusiastic contributor and expand on it. Maybe it’s not the finished product you thought it was. Maybe it needs additional input and collaboration.
Try taking a more humble approach to releasing your ideas or art or words to the universe. Because you don’t know that someone in your community writing group isn’t a former international book publishing executive with close ties to an editor at Harper Collins. You don’t know that your third-grade art teacher doesn’t still take summer vacations with his old college buddy who just happens to own one of New York City’s premier art galleries. You don’t know that having your work plagiarized isn’t going to force you to take your ideas to the next level and become the next international sensation…
You are tarot readers, so you know and understand that synchronicity is a wonderful and powerful occurrence. The thing about synchronicity, though, is that you have to notice it for it to happen. So start noticing.
The single most important thing I can say about publishing is no different than the advice that you’ll hear about almost every other industry: network, network, NETWORK. As I mentioned above, the American capitalist-meritocratic philosophy is a red-herring. If you want to knock yourself out struggling autonomously to promote and publish your work, scrambling and scratching from nothing…have at it; I’m sure that you’ll have a statue built in your honor as a model American success story—and you can brag about it from your pedestal forever.
But what I’m saying is that the best (or better) alternative is to keep doing your amazing creative work while making connections…and keep making connections. An editor at a major publishing house doesn’t want to slog through eighteen million manuscripts or look at the portfolio of another struggling art student. What she wants is for her friends and associates to give her good word-of-mouth about the next big author…someone they can recommend to her with confidence, someone that is going to make her job a lot easier and knows how to effectively communicate with their peers and others and ultimately the reading or viewing public.
Geez, look…you’re already making a first great step—you’ve made it to a tarot conference to talk to your peers and associates, and connect with your new network contacts on a more intimate level. You’re doing it! Keep doing it. You might even run into that new network contact who knows someone in the publishing biz… (Hopefully, it won’t be anyone that was on that publishing discussion panel, though.)
(Note: If I were to read the cards collectively that I individually chose to illustrate this blog post, I might notice that the majority of suit cards represented are either Cups or Coins—dealing with a LOT of emotional attachments and with an obsession over money or “worth.” Unfortunately the one suit that is missing happens to be Swords—the writing product itself—which is bound to get ignored in the fray of so many emotions and obsessions. The higher ideals of the initial and primary product have been obscured or sidelined by too much focus on the minutiae of the commercial process…)
There was more to the 2016 Northwest Tarot Symposium… and I’ll continue my reflections on the conference weekend in another blog post.
Feature image at top of post with apologies to the original artist.