This is the fifth year since I submitted my first short story to a publisher. Since then, I’ve sold five stories and I’ve had one novel hybrid published and one self-published. I picked up some things about the whole publishing business inadvertently along the way and some I deliberately researched. Here’s what I’ve learned.
#1 The submission guidelines are there for a reason. No, really.
There seems to be a sense among some writing folk that no publisher has the right to constrain their freedom of expression. That’s unfortunately a false sense of freedom. Even falser is the belief you will impress publishers more — stand out in the crowd, as it were — if you ignore the guidelines. You won’t. You’ll end up in their trash.
Submission guidelines are never impossible although they can sometimes be frustrating (I’m looking at you, synopses). But I’ve read submission guidelines exuding such exasperation I’ve taken extra care to make sure I follow them, just to make the exasperated publisher feel better because someone’s read the guidelines, even if they reject my story or book. Yeah, that’s just the kind of nice I am. I don’t want anyone to fell unhappy. Unless they’re bad people, of course.
#2 Rejection is the default setting.
Yesterday I counted 21 rejections of the book I’ve been pitching to agents. That’s 21 verbalised rejections, some form, some personal. I suspect there are at least half a dozen silent ones, so that makes, what, 27? I have an idea about some of the reasons the rejectors are unlikely to share with me (I’m based at the end of the world as far as they’re concerned. This is my second novel. It has characters from the first. It’s a hard sell and I know it) but they are pretty open with the others.
One thing that crops up again and again in their responses is usually formulated as follows “Please remember that ours is a very subjective business and just because I’ve rejected your book doesn’t mean it won’t find a home elsewhere.”
There is no one book that everyone likes and there is no one book that everyone hates. All art is subjective and so is literature, beyond the level of grammar and style (as in, knowing what a metaphor is and what it’s for). This means that bar exceptional luck of the kind I had with my short stories — the second one I submitted got accepted, two months after I started the whole submission quest — we’re all doomed to a life of rejections. Again, only with exceptional luck will we get that one acceptance that matters.
#3 Most agented books flop.
Yeah, that was a diversion tactic above, about the exceptional luck. I read it somewhere: the Big Five make their money from something like a fifth of the books they publish. And, as we saw with the 50 Shades trilogy, these books don’t even need to be good. 50 Shades is my go-to example of this and I’m sure the author doesn’t care her fiction is crap. It made her money and it made her famous. Who cares about quality?
Remember that bit about the business being subjective? It is, and even the Big Five can’t know for sure what the next bestseller is going to be. Sure, they know what books people buy and seek out similar ones, and they do have their big earners but when it comes to new authors it’s as much a game of roulette as, well, a game of roulette. In other words, even getting an agent and selling a book to a big publisher can’t guarantee success. But it will come with a nice advance payment, I imagine, so that’s something.
#4 You can buy your way to the NYT bestseller list.
This is one of my recent discoveries. It appears some authors — those wealthy enough to be able to afford it — just buy a lot of their own books so the books climb up any relevant Amazon rankings and end up on one bestseller list or another, including the notorious NYT list. In case you’re wondering who’d do that, I’m asking myself the same question and I don’t like what the answer implies for the state of humankind.
It also implies unpleasant things about the credibility of bestseller lists but we all knew they weren’t particularly credible, didn’t we? I’m sure this buying-your-way-in is not mass practice, simply because writing people don’t as a rule have a lot of money but it is there. Then there is the practice of asking friends and family members to write glowing reviews for your books or, worse, paying people for glowing reviews. Which brings us to a particularly sensitive topic.
#5 Self-publishing is fine, it’s just not as glamorous.
It’s always been second-best and there are solid enough reasons for this. I’ve read self-published books that are basically first drafts and rough ones, at that. But I’ve also read pretty decent ones — books that the author has taken the time to edit, proof, and polish. In fact I’ve read self-published books that are better than some Big Five products I’ve had the dubious pleasure to read. Self-published is not always second-rate literature.
Of course, it lacks the advance payments and, more importantly I imagine, it lacks the glamour of being traditionally published. Why do you think I’m querying? It’s all about the glamour. To be honest, it’s also about not having to bother with anything apart from the writing itself, especially marketing. I’ve self-published books — two so far — and I know how hard it is to market them without turning into yet another of those writers on Twitter who chronically retweet their book links, complete with the glowing reviews. Nope. Nope. There has to be another way.
#6 Vanity press is fine, if you’re lucky.
I published The Lamiastriga with a publisher that offered me “hybrid” terms. I liked it to mean that we would be sharing the expenses but sadly sometimes I’m not as stupid as I like to be. I paid for it all and I have almost no regrets. I got a wonderful cover for my book and two rounds of proofreading. However, the publisher dropped the ball at the most important stage — yep, marketing.
While I’m aware you can’t force a reviewer to read a book they don’t want to read, I know there are many people such as myself who would read anything, especially anything in a certain genre so that explanation (which is the explanation I was given for the lack of reviews) didn’t fly. Not that it matters because I haven’t pressed the matter. I got my book published and distributed across many a bookseller around the world. I’ll just need to work harder for the reviews.
My only hard decision is I’m not spending another penny on that book, or any other, for that matter. It’s all blood, sweat, tears, and shed skin (and my husband’s free cover design and book formatting services because I’m lucky in that respect) from now on. But for those who can afford it, a good vanity press that will deliver the services it says it will deliver is definitely a way to see your name in print and there’s nothing embarrassing about it.
Speaking of marketing, here are my two books. It feels good when people read the books you write but they have no way of knowing about these books unless you tell them, so here I am, telling you about my books. Reviews are always appreciated. Thus ends my lame effort at marketing my work.
For vampires, witches, and dragons click here.
For a supernatural mystery that begins mid-flight click here. (This one’s free on Kobo)