Thursday, December 24, 2015

Paying Your Dues

By Dario Ciriello

Part of the Indie Author Series

Since my first column in this series, two years ago, I’ve taken every opportunity to question conventional beliefs and dogma and to suggest taking a fresh look at things, for three reasons.

First, nothing remains static, and what worked yesterday may not work today; second, I believe that a lot of the so-called rules and dogma about writing and publishing are limiting and often downright wrong; and last, I’m hardwired to question conventional wisdom and think things through from basic principles—I’ve done that all my life. And, really, shouldn’t an indie be an indie in their thinking, too?

The human psyche is hardwired for short-term rewards rather than long-term goals. Studies have proved this without a doubt, and our individual and collective behaviors underscore the fact. Similarly, and consequently, we want to believe in magic bullets, instant remedies, and snake oil. Even when we’re wise enough to see through these fairytales and we understand there’s no formula for instant success, we still want to believe that following someone else’s prescription and way of doing things will get us where we want to be as indie authors.

As usual, I beg to differ. I’m not saying we can’t learn from others—of course we can. But I think we can learn far more through original thinking and by questioning everything we’re told, including the assumptions on which others base their dogma. In my six years as an indie, over which time I’ve published four books of my own, three anthologies (which I also edited), and four books by other authors, nothing has come close to making me think that this questioning is wrong.

I’ve also more than once suggested that the usual rah-rah cheerleading and upbeat backslapping we see in the indie pub community is partly hollow, and serves sometimes to cover up our collective apprehension, even terror, at the sheer magnitude of the challenge—that of gaining enough visibility and traction to be truly successful in a cutthroat marketplace in which the indie is the underdog.

But I’m still indie. Why?

Well, for one thing, the alternative—traditional publishing—is so deeply broken and problematic for someone of my disposition as to be essentially laughable. Beyond that, I refuse to write to a market, especially when the market is defined by a bunch of bean-counters and salesmen who don’t give a crap about writing: this is incompatible with what being a writer means to me. But with the release two weeks ago of my second novel and fourth book (my first was a nonfiction memoir, my third a collection of my short fiction), I noticed a curious thing, something I think may be the first glimmering of something good: I think I’m starting to get just a little real traction.

In past posts here, I’ve mentioned some of the things that have made my own trajectory as an indie author unusual, and which have sometimes slowed my path to fame and riches (joke, people!). Foremost among these is genre-hopping as I moved from writing Science Fiction to Nonfiction and finally settled on Suspense/Thriller as my preferred genre.

And with all my questions and my repeated refusal to drink from the indie Kool-Aid, I confess I’ve had, and continue to have, periods of serious doubt, even despair: not about my writing, I’m secure enough in that, but in my ability, as someone who loathes the whole business of self-promotion, to break through the wall of noise and get my work noticed by a larger audience.

I’m happy to report that may be changing. So what happened?

I could mention a number of minor contributing factors. But I think there are two, simple, over-arching reasons that I’m beginning, finally, to get some traction in the marketplace: (i) my writing is of a reasonable standard, and (ii) I’ve paid my dues.

What does that mean?

Well, for one thing, I’ve kept at it. I’ve kept writing and publishing, even when it was hard, even when we were broke, even when I despaired, even when people seemed utterly unreceptive (my 2014 SF collection, Free Verse and Other Stories despite solid reviews, has yet to break a hundred copies). Because if there’s one single quality a writer needs, it’s tenacity. Tenacity and will, and the courage to keep at it in the face of all odds and pressures. I’ve been writing for a dozen years and seriously for seven, since I began my first long form work, the travel memoir Aegean Dream, in 2008. Curiously that nonfiction first book was a success, selling over 10k copies; but my subsequent return to fiction reset the dials, so that I was effectively starting from scratch.

The second factor to which I can directly attribute my starting to break through is, not surprisingly, the writing itself. I have no aspirations to greatness or literary quality, and I find writing damned hard; but, all things being equal, I know my writing is at least passable, and that I can tell a story, and tell it in a way that others find engaging, even hard to put down (despite my cheerfully breaking a bunch of silly rules). These are prerequisites to building and keeping an audience.

So where is the marketing? Nowhere. I completely suck at marketing and self-promotion, and yet these are the things that 90% of the advice given to indie authors focuses on, often to the point of obsessiveness. I don’t advertise, and my social media presence is slight (Fewer than 500 FB friends, and a very spotty Twitter presence with under 300 followers). But I mentioned that, with the release of Black Easter, I’m starting to get some traction, to get noticed: what does that look like? Are reviews appearing everywhere? Is it selling like hot cakes?

In a word, no. But I sold a good few copies at my recent real-world book launch and, more importantly, pre-order numbers were stronger than I expected. Between that, and direct comments and remarks received on social media and elsewhere, it’s clear that I’ve finally arrived at a point where I have a small but dedicated core of readers who like my work and actually look forward to my next book. Not being an optimist by nature, and a hardboiled realist when it comes to the challenges of breaking through as an indie writer in a world where people have so many choices and distractions, this was a happy surprise.

Another thing—an even happier surprise—is that after six years and four books, some of the professional authors I’ve long looked up to and admired (and still do) seem to be taking me more seriously. Some of them have, to my amazement, expressed interest in my work; one or two have even read it. This change, which manifests in mostly small, low-key ways, feels huge. It’s like walking by the country club you never really expected to admit you and finding yourself invited in, or at least noticing that the door is open and someone’s waving to you.

Why is this last a big deal? Because nobody has to do that. The fact that they are means that not only is my writing itself becoming noticed, but that other authors recognize that I’ve put in my time and paid my dues. I’m not a wannabe anymore, not giving up because my first books didn’t make the NYT bestseller list.

In summary then, after two years of questioning dogma and raising my eyebrows at what I see as writers chasing their tails trying to keep up with the hurricane of social media and marketing advice when what they should be doing is writing the next book, I want to suggest that only two things really matter: writing well and publishing regularly.

The second is not hard if you’re regular in your work habits and keep your ass on the chair. The first—writing well—is much harder, and the best advice I can give is to surround yourself with a critique/beta group of the very best writers you can, people who are better writers than you consider yourself and who aren’t afraid to tell you the truth. The problem of course is finding the right group, and then learning which advice to take. But with hard work and intelligence, it can be done.

(Edit note: This will be a little easier come January when Janice Hardy's Critique Connection Group opens up again for members looking for critique groups and writing partners)

This is my last post in Janice’s excellent Indie Author series, and I want to give her my immense thanks for letting me publicly rant on my crate here. And of course my immense thanks to you, our readers and fellow indie authors. I salute your courage and persistence, and wish you all every possible success with your work. I’ll be back for the occasional guest post on Fiction University’s main site, and of course would be delighted to see some of you at my own blog ( where I’ll be kicking off a high-profile bestselling author interview series titled Six Aces in February 2016.

Have a wonderful holiday season, friends! And once you’ve slept off that big holiday meal, get right back to work. Your characters need you.


Dario Ciriello is a professional author and freelance editor, and the founder of Panverse Publishing. His nonfiction book, Aegean Dream, the bittersweet memoir of a year spent on the small Greek island of Skópelos (the real "Mamma Mia!" island), was a UK travel bestseller in 2012 and has recently been published in Poland. His first novel, Sutherland's Rules, a crime caper/thriller, was published in 2013. Free Verse and Other Stories, a collection of Dario's short Science Fiction work, was released in June 2014. He is currently working on his second novel, another thriller. Dario has also edited and copyedited over a dozen novels, as well as three critically-acclaimed novella anthologies. He lives with his wife in the Los Angeles Area.

About Black Easter

It’s Resurrection Time.

San Francisco antique dealer Paul Hatzis sells his business and rents an old house on the small Greek island of Vóunos. What he doesn’t know is that the house, which has a sinister reputation with the locals, was previously owned by black magician Dafyd Jones who—along with his seer companion Magda O’Whelan, and Klaus Maule, a seriously disturbed colonel in the Waffen SS—made a deal with the demonic, culminating in their planned bodily deaths during the final ritual in 1944.

In return for a lifetime of service on the frontier of Outer Hell, where all the demons of Hell fight a desperate, eternal battle against inconceivable powers that would consume both the human and demonic spheres, Jones and his companions will be reborn on Earth as powerful immortals…if they don’t go mad first.

As Easter approaches, Paul is preparing to celebrate the biggest holiday of the Greek calendar with his girlfriend, Elleni, and Alex, his adored 18-year old niece. But with the biblical threescore years and ten now up, the magician and his two colleagues are being called back from Hell by the ritual artifact they buried deep in the cellar of Paul’s house.

And all they need are three living human bodies…


  1. Dario, please add an email sign-up slot on your site. No way on any planet do I have time to wade through a reader/feedly. OTH, when stuff lands in my inbox, I do (and so will others!) Black Easter sounds wonderful. Already went to Amazon to add to my list.

    Janice, hope the move went slick and we are really looking forward to hanging out with you next year!

    Happy Holidays to both of you!

    1. Thanks for your kind comments, Cordia, and I do appreciate your interest in my work. As soon as I return from the holidays I'll add that sign-up: in the meantime, you can do so here:

      Many thanks, and Happy Holidays!


    2. First I want to say thanks for hanging here and sharing your experience and views. While I may have sounded otherwise, I did agreed with a lot of your views, esp. regarding indie authors have lots of challenges to overcome, and sometimes the "pep rally" self-esteem train surrounding indie publishing overlooks the challenges involved, particularly the financial challenges of essentially being your own publisher.

      I have to admit I'm paralyzed by the words "Paying your dues" mostly because I feel like I'm pulling teeth as an author right now. But that has nothing to do with you and everything to do with my hyper-emotional state of mind.

      2015 forced me to slow down and accept my career path will take far longer than I frankly wish was the case. I didn't expect this to happen instantly, really (and I started when I was 16, and trust me, I knew that even then!), but I did think there'd be some progress from when I started 10 years ago, this month in fact.

      There has been some movement (happily), I sold my first book two years ago, and while there are pre-production challenges/delays I'm dealing with (Which I get into below), I know I'll see it through.

      For the most part my slowing down and being more patient with myself is a good thing, but I believe there is a fine line between "Celebrate every success" versus being "Complacent" and I struggle with that.

      I need to be better about "Celebrating the smallest wins" while at the same time not think so small that I feel I'll NEVER be able or worthy of the big bigger wins (Being able to indie publish at the pro level, all on my own proverbial dime, and not end up in the poorhouse if it doesn't sell, for example)

      To be continued...

    3. Janice's recent post on giving yourself a break and reminding yourself what you did RIGHT and not getting stymied by what didn't go well was something I needed to read as end of year gets me thinking about these things, though happily with a lost less crying than say on my birthday when I think of how far I've come, and what still holds me back.

      On that note, I appreciate you're willing to admit you get scared and frustrated.

      Like you, I get frustrated with the overzealous indie author movement (Something I sometimes debate with Julie Musli, another Indie Authors correspondent, even though I feel she sees it more realistically as you do, but I do feel she can be over-idealistic, and while I might seem like a pessimist at times, I'm an optimist at my core), the biggest issue for me is that some people (esp. authors who have snobbish attitudes to indie authors) is that they make light of what indies like you have to go through and take for granted that you have what most of us still dream of.

      I don't mean winning awards or being on bestseller lists, but having the readership, respect, and ability to choose your publishing path without the financial constraints writers like us (indie or not) have to deal with.

      As much as you lament trad. publishing for your own personal reasons, I had to go with a small press (recommended to me by a writer friend who also worked them, and I trust her judgement) because I could not afford to do it all on my own.

      I would've created an inferior product if I didn't have my current editor, who I could not afford to pay in a freelance situation.

      To be continued...

    4. All the "Must haves" to create a pro-level book, is beyond my ability to pay upfront, it would take me a decade or more just to afford a team of editors and cover designer. I'm not being defeatist or exaggerating, that's sadly my reality right now.

      I've had to seriously fight the urge to get a credit card and charge my way to indie land.

      Not because I expect "Instant Success." I don't. Seriously. But I do believe in my work that much to bet on myself. But given my current point in life, I don't want to risk being in debt for decades, I have enough challenges to deal with as it is, I don't need to add exorbitant debt on top of that.

      Also, some of my books would also need illustrations, an additional cost, and I've had to turn to crowfunding to help get the cover designer/illustrator my publisher can't afford, and despite the odds against me, this was my only option at this point in time.

      Of course, I don't want to turn to crowdfunding for EVERY book I write, but I also don't want my first impression is "I'm tacky" solely on the basis of the cover.

      Even bestselling authors don't automatically succeed the first time out if they crowdfund, and that frankly empowers me once my campaign goes live (I've been over two years planning it out)

      That said, I trust my publisher's editor, and her "Getting the book" especially means a lot to me after years of beta-readers trying to convince me animal stories are not popular for readers past age 6, unless it's paranormal, realistic, or centers around creature-on-creature warfare like "Redwall" and "Warriors."

      Given how you and other indie authors I know snipe at trad. publishing and it's problems, I might be one of the lucky ones in that I've got a great editor for my middle grade novel that I trust, the publisher isn't Candlewick Press (my DREAM publisher) but I'm getting something I simply can't afford to outsource myself.

      The more I learn about what editors and esp. illustrators and/or cover designers do, the more I sometimes fear I'm kidding myself that I could ever be any kind of indie author.

      That said, I know illustrators often feel undervalued and under-respected. They're trying to run a business just like me. So I understand and empathize with their struggles, too.

      Even if I can't afford to hire them out of pocket, I also can't fault them for valuing themselves, as they should, and makes me wish I could pay the illustrators I'd most want to work with pay triple their going rates if I could, because they have a skill I need for my book, that I don't have.

      All that said, thanks for sharing a bit of your journey with us on this blog, and while we have differing views on some things, I respect that you found your way through that while certainly was not easy, it also showed you're not a quitter.

      Neither am I. But I had to take some detours the last few years, and I've finally begun to come to terms with them, as much as they still hurt.

      Anyway, all the best,

      Taurean W.

  2. Congrats on the turning tide!

    The phrase/concept of "paying one's dues" bothers me. What does it mean, to "pay one's dues" as a writer? That can be defined so many ways—and it so easily leads to improper application.

    Consider the Dunning-Kruger effect. (Short version: People are prone to believing themselves skilled in things they lack skill at, and unskilled in things they have skill at. Reason being that if you don't know much, you won't be aware of everything you don't know; but if you know much, you'll be acutely aware of all you don't know.)

    So that leads to some people boasting or complaining, "I have paid my dues, but that person has not"; and then others believing they can't possibly be skilled because they haven't "paid their dues" (because they don't recognize that they have or because it's been defined in a way that excludes them).

    This kind of misplaced pride or discounting of ability happens ALL. THE. TIME.

    So even if you don't use "Paying one's dues" in any sort of manner to puff yourself up or pull others down, the phrase itself warrants (in my opinion) careful definition when it's used.

    After reading your post, I'm still not sure what you mean by "paying your dues".

    The "Well, for one thing" starts off setting up a definition for it, but then in the next paragraph, you change definitions to "second factor to which I can directly attribute my starting to break through"—which is therefore making "factors that caused my breakthrough" synonymous with "paid my dues," but you already said that "paid my dues" was only part of that, not the entire thing.

    You do make some good points in the post, and I'm happy for your news. The logic/definitions don't quite match up, though, so I'm left wondering if there was something you were intending to say that got lost in the page.

    Merry Christmas, and may you have a happy new year!

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. That said, Caradee, sometimes what's "Misplaced Pride" in one writer is just simply frustration in another.

      All writers get frustrated, some just recover faster than others, or hide it so darn well, IMHO.

      I know I'm not great at writing ABOUT my story so that's not me underestimating myself. If anything, I feel more humble than overconfident about most things in general, and writing in particular.

      That can be a problem at times because some level of pride is necessary to keep fear from holding you back, that's still not the "arrogant/overconfident" pride you're talking about that does trip writers up.

      But sometimes people have done all they can think to do and still don't get to the next level (whatever that looks like for them, because every writer's journey is different, as Janice and many others in the field tell us) maybe it's not enough, but it's not nothing, either.

      Still, I agree people can use certain terms of phrase too loosely or overzealously (Dario's usage of "Paying Your Dues") aside.

    3. Hi Carradee ~

      Thanks for your kind comments, and I'm glad you found some meaning in my post.

      I apologize if you found my failure to supply a definition confusing or vexing. The traditional meaning of "paying one's dues" is to earn the right to something through having put in a certain amount of time or work, and that is the sense in which I used the phrase here. To answer your question honestly, I can only say I'm not a logician and I write mostly by the seat of my pants. I'm not pretending to lay down law or argue legalities here, merely rapping. ;-) Like all my posts, this is an opinion piece, and very highly subjective.

      You make a good point about misplaced pride/discounting of ability. In my own long life experience (I had a 25-year career as a decorative painter and colourist before becoming a writer), I've learned a number of disciplines in depth. I've always found it true that as one advances in any trade or craft, so one's awareness of how much one *doesn't* know (and one's admiration for others more skilled) increases: only egotists and fools don't. As Sir Arthur Conan Doyle put it, "mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, but talent instantly recognizes genius."

      Since to me "paying dues" involves putting in time very much in the way an apprentice does, I will add the following, again gleaned from my personal experience and observation of learning curves and career trajectories: that--given a reasonable amount of skill, intelligence, and application--one can become competent at a skill or craft in three to five years; become good in five to seven; and achieve some degree of mastery in twelve to fifteen.

      But again, hey! I'm only rapping. ;-)


    4. > Taurean Watkins:
      > That said, Caradee, sometimes what's "Misplaced Pride" in one writer is just simply frustration in another. […] But sometimes people have done all they can think to do and still don't get to the next level

      Indeed! That's where others' help comes in handy, because we often can't know what we don't know what we don't know. :-)

      That's an distinct situation from belief (or disbelief) that you've "paid your dues," though. That's more a "What am I missing and how do I find it?" situation—and yes, it can be maddening.

      > Dario:
      >I can only say I'm not a logician and I write mostly by the seat of my pants. I'm not pretending to lay down law or argue legalities here, merely rapping.

      I understand how that perception of your own writing could produce such a disconnect, but you may want to evaluate if you're using those details as an excuse.

      It's possible to be a non-logician pantser without those logical disconnects, and rap—or at least rap by folks who know what they're doing—actually is inherently logical/coherent.

      (I'm also a pantser, myself. Not a logician, either, but I do have a heightened awareness of illogic [for various reasons], so I might come across as a logician to the average person.)

      Just pointing that out in case it is a situation where you've convinced yourself you're stuck how you are, rather than an "Oops." (I well know how those oops can happen! :-) )

      In any event, I hope you had a great Christmas and have an even better New Year's!

  3. I always enjoy your posts, Dario. Especially encouraging is the "keep publishing" indie model you present - for a writer who is lacking in social savior faire that is balm for the anxious soul!

  4. Hi Taurean!

    Thank YOU for your in-depth, thoughtful comments--they're truly appreciated. And HUGE kudos on getting that first book published: that's huge. :D

    Also, thanks for pointing out the "shoot-from-the-hip", blanket nature of my comments about trad publishing. You have me dead to rights, and what I *should* make clear is that when I say "trad pub", I'm talking very largely about the majors. There are some, probably very many, terrific small presses that really do care (hell, my own Panverse, during the year I published other authors, was one), and try really hard to do right by every author they publish.

    On the subject of paying one's dues, allow me to say that I've noticed over the years an evolution in your own ideas and attitude, and in the clarity with which you express yourself. Even commenting on a blog post is writing, another few molecules of experience and moments of time that go into that bucket of dues. It all adds up. We're putting in our time.

    Best, and here's wishing you major breakthroughs for 2016,

  5. Hello Julia ~

    Thanks so very much for your kind words, and I'm glad my recommendations resonate for you. It's hard for an introvert, or someone who's not much given to tooting their horn, to be heard, but I really truly believe that--all other factors being equal--good writing and steady output will in the end win through. (Luck is of course also a factor, though in most cases it's probably a minor player.)

    I'm aiming for a minimum of a novel a year starting now, and I think that's very doable. So long as I resist my Geminian tendency to genre-hop, I do believe that slow and steady will win through. And I'd far rather be writing than endlessly advertising my latest Kindle deal on Twitter. ;-)