Friday, December 5, 2014

The Year of Living Self-Promotionally

THE DREAM

Despite a happy childhood, reading for me has often served as a means of escape.  As an adolescent, when things got rough, I would frequently walk down to the local bookseller (a stationary store, actually), crossing the Shunga-Nunga creek via stepping-stones en route.  I’d pick up a paperback-- Choose Your Own Adventure, or Madeleine L’Engle, or Edgar Rice Burroughs, or some trashy video game adaptation, it really didn’t matter what.  And then I would sit on the bank of the creek, crack open the book, and the world would go away for a while.

My objective in taking up writing was, in part, to pay forward the debt I owe to those authors who made the world go away for me.  I had in mind that I might be the source of the material by which some other adolescent by some other creek might find a means of temporary escape.  That’s dream #1.

There is, of course, another dream to which writers aspire, and that’s the one in which you’re discovered by the industry, a diamond in the rough, and you arise Cinderella-like to international acclaim and vast prosperity, and you tour before adoring crowds and step out of a limo at the premiere of the movie based on your book and then you go live in a castle like JK Rowling.  That’s the dream you get glimpses of when you knock off a chapter that’s really, really good.  That’s dream #2.

I wrote my novel last year and entered into this, my year of living self-promotionally, with the mindset that dream #2 was the means by which you achieved dream #1.  With this in mind, I did the research as to how one “breaks into the industry,” and followed the instructions of the best minds.  I worked on developing a platform in the social media from which I could promote my work, including an author site (you’re reading it).  I started building my brand.  And I went through the process of seeking a literary agent to represent my work.  And I began to learn about how the modern mass-market publishing industry works, and about what it means to be a modern novelist.



THE REALITY

I’ll start with a definition, which is going to be kind of important going forward.  When I refer to “the publishing industry”, I am talking specifically about five New York-based mass-market publishers who produce by far the majority of new stuff that you find in stores.  As of twenty-four months ago there were six of them.  As of ten years ago there were considerably more.  That tells you something about the publishing industry and the market pressures in which it operates.

It is borderline impossible to make a living as a full-time professional writer of fiction unless you are regularly producing content for these five companies.  These are the people with the marketing budgets.  These are the companies who are willing to arrange consignment sales with major retailers and who have the means to agree to buy back books that go unsold.  There are an AWFUL LOT of people—hundreds of thousands--who would like to write full-time, and who therefore want to get their feet in the door of one of these companies.  This writer-y horde cranks out hundreds of thousands of what might reasonably pass for novels every year.  Divide hundreds of thousands by five, and you will gain some insight into the amount of work with which editors are swamped.

Or…WOULD BE swamped, in a previous era in which editors took submissions directly from writers.  As a matter of basic survival, the editors have largely outsourced the job of combing through the glaciers of bad writing to literary agents, a strange subspecies of homo publishus whose job is to sort through the slushpiles while authors scream publish us you homo!

There are a LOT of literary agents.  Here are the qualifications necessary to identify yourself publicly as a literary agent:





That’s the full list.  I was going to include “You have to have a pulse,” but I do have direct experience submitting my work to an agent who turned out to be dead (hopefully not as a direct result of reading my work).  And so, of the 20 million people living in the New York metropolitan area, approximately all of them are agents.   There are a lot of very intelligent people with long track records of guiding great writing to the market who call themselves literary agents, and a fair few people who haven’t been able to get their work to market any other way but who are looking for a new angle to approach the industry who ALSO call themselves literary agents, and there are some baboons in suits calling themselves literary agents and there are some outright overt con artists calling themselves literary agents.  Online communities of writers exist which do a reasonable job of sorting the wheat from the horsesh*t.  But you never know for sure, so it’s wisest to submit your novel to ALL of them.

The idea is that the agents serves both as the gatekeeper for the industry and the advocate for the author.  The agents is the dude (more often the lady, actually) with the connections to get your stuff looked at by somebody who’ll pay you for it; she’ll also be the one who intercedes when the publisher tries to put clip art on your book cover or when the editor advises you that you ought to rewrite your draft to make it “more like the Hunger Games, but with vampires.”  All this in exchange for fifteen percent of your take.

That’s the idea.  The reality, of course, is that the publishers have all the money and hold all the cards, and with FIVE of them around at this point, woe betide the agent who burns her bridges with a publisher in pursuit of an author’s interests.  That’s not an indictment of the profession by any stretch; that’s just a reality that has to be faced, and borne in mind when reading an endless series of articles on the internet about all of the heroic efforts which your agent will be making for you, the valued client.  There are a million more potential clients just like you out there.  There are five (5) big-money publishers.



THE PROBLEM

Here is an experience which demonstrates the point.  I was a recent participant in a Twitter pitch event, the idea of which is that authors crank out a 140-character summary of their work under the appropriate hashtag, and interested parties (generally agents or small publishing houses) favorite your tweet if they’d like you to submit a full query proposal.  I spent the first several hours of the event reviewing the pitches of my fellow writers.  It’s an experience which gives you a real sense of what agents have to go through on a daily basis.  There were some very interesting and original ideas, yes; there was also a lot of really, really, REALLY derivative stuff; and maybe a third of what was presented was just plain incoherent.  Now, I’ve written some bad, bad pitches in my time, and I know how frustrating it is to go through one of these all-day events without a single “favorite” to show for it.  So I published a message of general support and sympathy for my fellow authors under the event hashtag:  “So many fresh and original ideas!  So many publishers who only want micro-variations on the same novel.”

Okay, yeah, I know.  Dumb move.  You don’t talk smack, even obliquely, on the people who you want to be the ultimate buyers of your work.  The vehemence and immediacy of the backlash from the agents themselves, however, surprised me.  “REMEMBER THAT TWEETS ARE PUBLIC!”  “Won’t EVER solicit a manuscript from an author who doesn’t respect the business.”  “Your twitter feed is a professional resource…BE PROFESSIONAL.”  And so on.  The upside, I suppose, is that skilled agents were taking notice of my writing, though it wasn't the sort of notice I'd hoped for.

Again:  I understand.  Completely unwise on my part.  I fully comprehend why literary agents would wish to protect their meal ticket.  And with full recognition of my error, and recognizing that I won’t be making the same mistake again, here is my question:  was what I said true or false?

Was it, in fact, even ARGUABLY false?

The publishing industry seeks to make money, the same way the rest of the entertainment industry does.  And when somebody in the entertainment industry finds a winning formula, that formula gets cloned.  Was last year’s surprise TV hit a crime procedural?  The next season will feature a dozen new crime procedurals.  Did a comic book movie make money?  The next summer will feature eight more.  Are kids reading Harry Potter?  The shelves will fill up with swords and sorcery.  Hunger Games?  Here come six thousand dystopian thrillers.

I get it.  I understand.  I am recognizing, not condemning.  But I was also speaking a very obvious truth, and freaking out when unpleasant realities are mentioned won’t make them go away.  These are, demonstrably, rough times for the publishing industry.  And when I review the general state of the public communications of major publishers and those who depend upon them—literary agents VERY MUCH included—the impression I get is that the whole industry has gone into a protective crouch.  People make oblique references to “challenges”, the exact nature of which nobody wants to discuss.  The public and professional channels overflow with tirades about the evils of Amazon’s alleged attempt to leverage individual publishers; the actual discussion of improved practices within the industry is barely a whisper by comparison.

The true challenge to the mass-market publishing model is the rise, via online marketing and distribution, of micropublishing and self-publishing enterprises.  And the implications that these options have for the mass distribution model are something you DO NOT MENTION in the presence of people who make money through the big five.

Except that sometimes you do.  And when you do, some really weird arguments come out.  For instance:  Publishers base their decision to buy on how your previous books have sold; if you self-publish or go small-scale, you’ll crash your sales average and make yourself unappealing to big publishers.  I mean, that might be true, I guess, but…really?  The people making the decisions are so sclerotic that they will reject clearly salable work if unrelated work by the same author, sold in a different venue, didn’t make the NYT list?  I can’t believe that they’re that dumb, but if they were, why would I even want my work in their hands?  And there are some of them who choose to treat it as a simple issue of us-vs-them:  if you have ever self-published or micro-published a book, I will not consider your work for representation, ever.

These are the people whose entire livelihood depends on the public perception that the gate they’re keeping is the only route to publishing success.  That constant stream of query letters, that sifting through crap in search of a diamond to sell, is the way they make their living.  If the writing public were ever to collectively give up on dream number two, the river of queries would dry up, and the bulk of agents would become redundant—and shortly thereafter, they would need to become something else.

Let me be very clear.  There are a lot of very talented literary agents with whom I’d love to work.  And there are a lot of hardworking literary agents who can clearly make a difference in a new author’s career.  And there are certainly a lot of very smart and capable people in mass-market publishing, a few of whom were even once students in my classroom.  But the general attitude of the mass-market publishing industry towards itself, its audience, and its potential authors does not inspire confidence.   There is a whiff of panic about the whole thing.  Conflation of criticism of the industry’s practices, or even skepticism about the industry’s practices, with “unprofessionalism,” is not the mark of a healthy enterprise.  I see wide smiles on their faces and terror in their eyes.

I think they may fear the same thing about themselves that I fear about myself.  I think they fear their skill set may not make them necessary.

I am sure that literary agents experience the same joy I do in discovering talent and helping it develop.  But they are attempting to evaluate a large number of writers on a very limited sample of their work.  And the rise of online publishing is starting to expose, for the first time ever, just how often they flat-out miss talent.  Just how often they get it absolutely and incontrovertibly wrong.
JK Rowling’s story is instructive.  She shopped Philosopher’s Stone to every big house in London and was turned away from every door.  She went to the agents and got repeatedly slammed.  Opinion was unanimous even among those who bothered to read it:  too long.  Kids don’t have the patience.

Rowling was tireless, and she eventually got her break.  Here is how it allegedly happened:  one of the agents to whom she submitted a paper copy left it lying around the house.  And the guy’s eight-year-old happened by, and spotted a drawing of Harry and Ron and Hermione on the page to which the copy happened to be open.  And she made daddy read it to her, and asked him to read her more.
Daddy had evidently been in the process of writing Rowling a rejection notice at the time.  If JK Rowling were a slightly worse sketch artist, or if she had submitted her query electronically as is now standard practice, the world would probably never have known about Harry Potter.

How many other Harry Potters did we never meet?  How many A Confederation of Dunces went unpublished because the deceased author didn’t have a monomaniacal mom to push the thing via tactics that verged on active stalking?  How many Madeleine L’Engles bailed on how many A Wrinkle In Times after the fortieth rejection notice?  How many Louis L’Amours gave up after rejection number one hundred?

The people whose job it is to know the market know it, at best, imperfectly.  And online publishing is exposing that.  We’re starting to see more and more work like Fifty Shades of Grey, which started online and was broadly scorned by the industry until it was finally picked up, because it had become apparent that whoever put it in print was going to be collecting free money.  But it’s never been more apparent that talent is slipping through the cracks.  And it’s starting to look more like a flood than a trickle.



THE PLAN

So.  That's the world in which I have spent the last year.  Where do I stand?

I’ve learned a great deal in the last year.  I knew at the start that I was no undiscovered genius, and I know more about my flaws as a writer than I did before.  In truth, I haven’t grown all THAT much as a writer, because the bulk of my time has been spent trying to market myself as a writer.  But I’ve learned about the importance of self-marketing to a writer, particularly one who is vying for mass-market acceptance.  And I've learned what I'm good at, and what I'm not.

First:  the status of the novel.

My preliminary research produced a list of 74 agents who appeared both competent and good matches for the book.  I carefully crafted a query letter to the individual preferences expressed by each agent, starting at the top with the single best agent for the book.  This was a serious mistake; my initial queries were full of what I now know were rookie mistakes and I probably cost myself a longer look by some very good agents.  But the queries got better as I worked my way down the list.

Thirty-eight agents or agencies didn’t respond in any way, which is industry code for “thanks but no thanks”.  One additional agent turned out to be dead.  I received thirty form rejections or minor variations on form rejections to the initial query.  Two agents, both highly respected, crafted what were clearly individualized rejections based on the writing sample, and both went out of their way to identify specific aspects of the writing that intrigued them and specific things that kept them from asking for more.  When these two said, “It’s good, it’s just not for me,” I believe they actually meant it.  I can’t imagine how much time it must take to do that for 100+ submissions a day.  These two will be high on my list if I go mass-market again.  Three agents asked to see the full manuscript; one rejected it shortly thereafter for reasons that strongly suggest that she didn’t actually read it.  The other twoagain, both highly respectedstill have the book in front of them.

I probably don’t need to tell you that a sub five percent manuscript request rate is poor by any standard.  But I’ve come to believe that the problem is the marketing rather than the book itself.  First, as mentioned, it took me a while to develop the right skills to write even an adequate query letter.  Second, although I wasn’t aware of it, the very concept of a novel pitched in the afterlife is an immediate reject for most sci-fi agents; the vast majority of work produced under this banner winds up as thinly veiled Christian fiction.  And thirdly, the requests have one specific thing in common:  their query standards all ask for substantially more sample pages than is standard in the industry.  In other words, the more professionals read of the book, the more they tend to like it.

I am not the great writer I’d hoped I might be.  Not yet, anyway.  But the evidence suggests that I am a good one, with occasional flashes of greatness.  Tough peer reviewers with a history of saying things I don’t want to hear have all ranked the book as good to great, with reviews of the revised drafts skewing to the high side.  But that appears not to matter where dream #2  is concerned, because there is a much bigger problem.  I am not a good marketer.  Not at all.  I do not market myself well, and more importantly, I do not craft work that is easily marketable.  People who read my book like it, but people do not seek to read it based on the pitch.  And that is absolutely fatal in a marketplace where the majority of books are bought based on the dust jacket blurb, cover art, and word of mouth.  Agents know what sells big, and they see my book and turn away.

It's frustrating to realize that, where the larger market is concerned, my book may have been doomed at its conception.  I did not take up writing with the idea that I would only write unchallenging books on topics that were guaranteed to sell.  We already have James Patterson for that.  But in a world where people (understandably) print books for the purpose of selling them, my problem is not a fixable one.

But agents and big publishers are not the only game in town anymore.  And there’s a couple of parties to whom the book was pitched whom I have yet to mention.

The online pitch events in which I have participated are not exclusively the haunts of literary agents.  Because, you see, there ARE people who want to publish books who aren’t part of the Big Five.  They’re a motley band, these small presses, and there are some sketchy characters among them.  But there are also some people who are interested in doing business the old fashioned wayin finding good work, in working directly with the author to make it the best it can be, and in selling as much of it as they can manage.  That’s how THEY make their living.  And beyond them lie the operations which will get your book into print and onto the key online retailers and reader review sites, and let you take responsibility for making sales.  A short step up from the vanity presses of the past?  Maybe. But less so for some than for others.  And as mentioned, this is where the Fifty Shades of Greys of the world emerge from.  How much do you believe in your work?

In addition to the agents who’ve taken an interest, I’ve had more than a few solicitations from small presses.  With the majority, a quick google search was enough to reveal them as best avoided.  With others, a quick website visit was enough to demonstrate that I’d found an unreliable partner.  And with others, which passed muster, there was the manuscript submission and the eventual rejectionbut not without what was clearly a thorough read, and accompanied by a series of constructive suggestions that will help going forward.

And then there was that other one.  The one with the consistently positive feedback at Publisher’s Marketplace and others from a list of previous writers.  The one which does actual by-God press runs of new books and puts them in actual brick-and-mortar stores.  The one which hypes its authors’ signing parties and appearances, small-scale as they may be, because every book that’s sold is money in their pocket and they’re after more of it.  The one which said, “Great concept, good skills; here’s what you’re doing wrong; fix it and resubmit to us when you think it’s ready.”  Yeah.  That one.
The one that’ll never get me rich.  The one that’ll expect me to work hard to promote my own stuff.  The one that’ll kill dream #2 dead in its tracks. 

Also the one with a visible sense of humor about itself.  The one that won’t ever ask me to behave like a cultist before the altar of mass-market publishing, and keep my treasonous opinions to myself.  The ones that can live with an author website and twitter feed that keeps veering from self-promotion into sports fandom and weird social commentary.  The one that’ll work with me to get my work a little bit closer to the greatness I seek.  The one that gives every appearance of taking its young readers seriously.   The one that, by God, seems to believe in dream #1 as seriously as I do.

There might be worse fates in the world than being a small-time novelist.

There might be a place for Will, Emily and Jason.  And also for Connor and Amit.  And for the Duchess and her menagerie.  A place for all those weirdos banging away at the inside of my skull, demanding to be let out.   Hell, who knows?  There might even be room for a toned-down Thump at the party.

There might, someday soon, be a happy kid sitting alongside a creek somewhere.  Escaping.  Making the world go away for a while.

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