Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Back Door To Publication

I doubt there is one writer who hasn’t thought about or dreamed of some variation of the above when dealing when a rejection letter at least once in their early efforts to get published. Except maybe authors who never got a rejection letter, but we’ll leave them out of it, because they are exceptionally few and far between.

Today comes word of another method of getting published. It’s called Slush Pile Reader and is similar to the Media Predict experiment a few months back.

I already shared my thoughts on Media Predict and this is why I’m touching on this with some caution.

One of the things writers have to deal with is that sometimes, they aren’t ready. As much as I know rejection is tough, completely dismissing all rejection letters as invalid or the editors/agents as ‘idiots’ is a way to stunt your growth as a writer. Have there been times I’ve disagreed with a rejection letter? Absolutely. My personal favourite is the editor who had a partial manuscript who rejected it because of something they said I did that I didn’t do (and since they only had the opening chapters I was baffled about where they got the idea). That one got the big “whatever” response from me.

However, with every rejection I put a mark of consideration down. Characters, plot, writing, marketability. If a number of rejections start to show that there’s a consensus that one area (or more) is weak, then I would be a complete idiot not to address this.

I don’t think it surprises anyone that I’m speaking as someone who sort of crawled in the back door of the publishing world. I couldn’t get an agent initially, my rejection letters not touching on work but on the fact I’m Canadian. Those were decidedly unhelpful, except on one point: I developed a list of agents I didn’t think I’d want to work with, if they had such an issue with my nationality. I actually had my sights set on getting a Canadian publisher, but the consensus from the Canadians was that what I was writing was too ‘grim’, ‘realistic’, etc.

That left me looking at small publishers. And I ultimately ended up with a very new one, one that only had one book to its credit at the time, and no real way for me to check them out beyond assessing contracts. Believe it or not, a legitimate and well-known Canadian agent recommended I take the contract.

Coming out on the other side of that, I would caution anyone thinking of trying their luck with a completely new publisher. Unless there is someone attached to it who is known in the industry, who has a solid reputation, be very careful.

The reality is, you may think that being published is enough. That may be all you think about, as many aspiring authors do prior to publication. But there is a whole other side to the equation, that has to do with distribution, rights, foreign sales that factors in. You will not just be published and suddenly be a millionaire.

There have been some excellent small presses to crop up in recent years - Capital Crime Press has done an exceptional job with their books, with their authors garnering award nominations and wins and plenty of attention from the industry, for example.

However, they’re the exception, rather than the rule.

Before you sign any contract you need to have proof that the publisher not only has distribution in place, but is pricing the books affordably so that stores will carry them. That they make an effort to get the book into bookstores. Estimates show online book sales are about 10% of total book sales, so if you’re only online, you have a very limited market.

In reality, a recent discussion on Crimespace demonstrates that even writers successful in selling a manuscript to a legitimate, well-known publisher and selling short fiction to high-profile magazines can have difficulty getting an agent.

So why is it so many aspiring authors think they should be the exempt, they shouldn’t have to go through that?

I guess we all want to believe we’re the next big thing. That someone will read our work and sense our greatness, just waiting for a chance to be exposed. Perhaps whatever insecurities we push down within ourselves we hope to bury completely by instant success.

Truth is, I’ve learned a lot from rejection letters, and the whole process of going from aspiring author to editor to published to having an agent to, well…

I’ve been working on this for over three years, and now just feel as though I’m actually on the path.

I realize it sucks to long for validation for your work and not have it. I know it’s hard, wondering if your dreams will ever come true. The three months of manuscript shopping this year… Hell. Pure and simple, with every email putting my stomach in knots. I understand how discouraging every rejection letter is.

And I’m not saying this to tell you whether or not to consider trying Slush Pile Reader. In all honesty, I’m saying this because I don’t know enough about them to recommend them. They say they’ll publish you. I don’t know who they are. They’re new. There’s no track record to fall back on. All I can tell you is, sometimes, taking the quick road isn’t the best way. A year ago I didn’t think I was doing that. I thought I was doing what I needed to do via a small publisher to build enough profile to get an agent and a deal. But even with profile you may not always be successful in achieving your long-term dreams.

One other note from me on all of this. I have dreamed more of one thing than anything else in my pursuit of a book deal – a great editor. One who believed in my work enough to nurture it, but who would kick my ass whenever necessary. A great editor does not tell you everything is flawless, but hones in on your weaknesses and pushes you to do better.

Don’t settle for less, because when your book comes out the reviewers won’t slam your publisher, or your agent, or your editor. It’s your work on the line.

Surviving in the publishing business requires the patience of Job. If you decide to take unconventional routes to publication I urge you to do your homework, enter no legal agreement without consulting a lawyer, never pay anything to be published, and wherever possible talk to authors who’ve been published by the press you’re considering. Whatever decision you make, have your eyes wide open.

It’ll save you a lot of heartache on the other side.


kris said...

I couldn't agree more about rejections, Sandra. I often think that if I published enough work to go on the creative writing lecture circuit, the first thing I'd say to the students would be something like this: "Realising what a bad writer you are is the first step to becoming a good one."

I wasted six or seven years fuming about 'myopic' publishers, and it was only when I opened my mind to the idea that maybe some of their rejection comments had merit that I started to get more positive responses.

To offer a specific anecdote, I had been shopping around a story called 'Trouble with the Locals' for years. Finally, one slush reader said it took too long to get started. I applied his feedback and chopped 2,000 words out of it. The very next market I sent it to, Back Roads at 1018 Press, accepted it.

I'm not saying all slush reader feedback is worthwhile - I got two responses to a now-published sci-fi comedy story where the readers had clearly missed the fact it was a comedy - but you have to give it due consideration if you ever hope to improve. I wish someone had pointed this out to me back in 1997.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Great examples Kris. Indeed, not all slush feedback is useful, but if you don't have an open mind you'll potentially miss out on critical advice. I needed someone to tell me my weaknesses to help me find my strengths. Which fits right in with your "realizing what a bad writer you are is the first step to becoming a good one". Best English teacher I ever had was the first to tell me I didn't walk on water.

angie said...

It is interesting how many writers think they're thick-skinned, but aren't. Y'know, "tell it to me straight," followed by "but I did this because...that's there because...etc., etc." If ya gotta get explanatory and defensive, something ain't working. While it's important to be able to tell the difference between someone who doesn't know what the hell they're talking about & one who does, it's almost always more useful to get over the pissy/hurt thing and open up your ears. Chances are you'll learn something.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Timely post as I think about how to get this plane in the air.

Brian said...

I signed up at the site out of curiosity and they don't even have any material to look at right now.

They will send me an email notification when the full site is up and running.

Moreso then participation I just wanted to see the quality of the writing. But hey there is no writing.

Anonymous said...

I've sent out a lot of short stories over the years and even though I didn't receive a lot of feedback, the rejection letters themselves provided feedback. I kept sending out the same stories over and over and over, each time revising, polishing and rejigging, while also writing new stories. Eventually I realised what wasn't working because it didn't go anywhere and how to fix it because I kept writing and getting better at it.

People who think that rejection letters are a waste of time are wasting their time. Maybe their writing is perfect and their stories amazing, but if editors aren't picking them up there is a reason, even if the worst case scenario is that the world isn't ready for their story at that time.

The whole thing about writing is you have to keep trying new things, adapting, and learning from the past. You can't keep pushing ahead with the view that you're right and the whole world is wrong. You won't get anywhere like that.

Writing is about getting to the truth about things. You can't do that if you won't look at the truth of your writing journey.

Great post and great food for thought.