Category Archives: publishing

Agents and Publishers Do Not Require My Permission

I spent several hours today, yes HOURS, reading through blogs and blog comments about the recent Twitter-prompted discussions regarding agent pay and advances to writers. Links to most of it are conveniently collected over at agent Colleen Lindsay’s blog, which was nice of her. When I was done, I had a massive headache. Literally. Which made me angry.

Why angry? First of all, I didn’t really learn anything new. No one was talking about how to bake new and bigger pies, just arguing about finding new ways to slice the same old pie. The economy sucks and everyone wants to get paid more money for all the long hours spent doing tough work.

And I get that. Hey, I’d love to get a raise at the day job too. And yeah, cut out the mundane and tedious tasks while we’re at it. I work damn hard and I deserve higher pay. But it’s not going to happen until the corporation I work for starts baking more pies, er, making more profit. That happens by increasing income or cutting expenses. Usually both. That’s pretty basic. It’s also pretty tough to accomplish in a prolonged recession.

The other reason I felt angry, apart from the truly nasty headache, was the slow realization after reading all this same-old angst that I do not need to know this. Really. Nothing in this discussion matters to me personally. Might it eventually change the manner and amount of compensation I receive for writing? Sure. But letting all this divisive discourse into my brain will not change anything. Other than, you know, my consumption of Advil.

I’m a writer. I have no say in these decisions. None whatsoever. It’s not up to me.

It’s a business decision. Publishers will pay their suppliers (writers) what they think they can afford or get away with. Agents will do the same with the percentage they charge. Those decisions are based on profit and loss. Too much of one or not enough of the other, businesses are going to make changes. Apparently there’s an excessive supply (of writers) right now and not as much demand. That influences business decisions too.

And for some odd reason I don’t claim to understand, but which people seem to insist on calling industry standards rather than monopolistic control of the market, publishers and agents will pretty much hold hands with their respective colleagues and all decide to do the same thing at the same time. Yes, it’s a quirky industry, but we love it anyway. Suppliers (writers) will either accept that change or find something else to do with their product. Doorstops, maybe. I don’t know.

Nothing in that decision-making process makes me angry. When I’m ready to sell my product, I’ll enter the market as it exists at that time. Or stay out of the market until it improves. Or find another market. Those are my choices.

But I was angry with myself for allowing all this irrelevant-to-me discussion muck up my brain. And then I remembered an excellent essay Jenny Crusie wrote a while back about protecting the work. So I tracked it down and dragged the link over here. Go read it. It’s a great essay with an important message, even if you’re not a writer:

Taking Out the Garbage: How to Protect Your Work and Get Your Life

As a writer, the only thing I control is my writing. Whether that’s the novel or query or synopsis or blog posts or comments on other blogs or stuff on Twitter. It’s all writing. I control all of that. Really, I do. Might not always seem like it, but I do.

Everything else is controlled by others. Everything. And sure, it’s a good idea for writers to have some idea of what’s happening in the industry. So they know what to expect from others once the writing part is done. But it was not necessary for me to wade through hours of discussion about something over which I have no control. It was a huge waste of my time and energy and I blame myself for allowing it. I should know better.

So this is my reminder to any writers who might be over here reading yet another blog post about these issues. Stop it. You do not need the headache.

Focus on what is important. Your priority as a writer is to put your effort and creativity into the one thing you can control, that thing only you can produce. The writing. Everything else is a distraction.

Protect the work.

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We’re looking at different horizons

My daughter sent me an email the other day, telling me about her boyfriend’s Phi Beta Kappa initiation ceremony:

…the guest speaker was Nobel Prize winner Oliver Smithies, so that was pretty cool. His two main messages were: no matter what you’re doing or how unimportant it may seem, it’s important to learn how to do it well; and try to find something you love doing so that when you’re old and retired you still do it because you love it so much you can’t stop. Another fun thing he said was “think outside the box…but know what’s inside it too.”

I read that and thought, This Smithies guy may be a science geek, but he understands what it means to be a writer. And that’s when it hit me, when I realized just what exactly has been irritating the hell out of me about this whole debacle with Harlequin and its new vanity press.

Everyone is missing the point.

People have claimed to be stunned and perplexed by the swift decisive condemnation of Harlequin’s vanity press and its stated intent to steer rejected writers to its coffers. They’re confused by the vehemence of writers who are angry and indignant. A few writers have even said they’re angry but can’t quite put their finger on why. Yet everyone has been busy speculating.

I’ve read a variety of reaction from people on the publishing side of the business, very smart people whose experience and opinions I’ve come to respect. I’ve read blogs and comments from writers, including those who are published, not yet published and self-published. Readers have weighed in as well.

Some people have concluded the furor is due to an inability or unwillingness to accept change. Others think it’s because Harlequin betrayed their brand or presented the change ineffectively. Others fear readers will become disillusioned by a glut of newly inferior books. Some writers worry their work will be diminished in the eyes of those who might see no difference between it and that of those who choose the vanity press route.

Disturbingly, much of this rhetoric also has a subtle yet pervasive overtone that presumes most unpublished writers are rather dim-witted uneducated fools in need of protection from blind ambition and who will be easily duped by the lure of a vanity press.

I’m tempted to say, “Bullshit on all counts.” But that sounds so rude. Besides, it’s not that these people are wrong, necessarily, so much as that none of the commentary really addresses the heart of the problem.

The truth is, most writers I know are cautiously open to the idea of change in publishing, especially if it means getting their work into the hands of more readers. Most writers I know don’t give a rat’s ass about Harlequin’s “brand” and whether they change it, however inelegantly done. Most realize full well that books (we’re talking fiction here) produced by a vanity press and lacking marketing and distribution won’t ever make it into the mainstream of readers and will be read only by a handful of the writer’s friends and family members. And the vast majority of writers I know are already quite aware that vanity presses exist and are not about to be deceived into subjecting their work to that process. Really.

So, why the anger and condemnation?

Writers give all sorts of advice to other writers. It varies widely and usually comes with the disclaimer to pick and choose what works for you, disregard the rest. But there is one consistent message you will hear from every single writer who has achieved publication. Every single one of them will tell you about their multiple rejections, about the quantity of books they wrote and the number of years it took before they got published. Every single one of them will tell you the same exact thing: Don’t give up and don’t stop writing. Your work will improve with practice.

This is not mere hopeful wistful dreaming or a platitude to soothe desperate yearning (yes, that’s how writers have been characterized, of late). It’s a simple fact. Look at the backlist of any writer who has been around for more than a few years. Pick up any early book and compare it to something recent. There will be a difference, a distinctive improvement in quality but also in tone and confidence. Writing improves over time.

Writers know this. We accept it for the truth it is. In spite of what you may have heard, most writers are levelheaded, clear-eyed professionals who know hard work and time spent learning and practicing craft are the bricks paving the path to publication. Unfortunately, in our impatience and inexperience, we tend to misjudge the length of our individual paths.

This is why what Harlequin proposes to do is so offensive and just plain wrong, regardless of what they call it. Have you read the verbiage on the website of their newly renamed Dellarte Press? It claims to be all about you, the writer. It talks about the next chapter on your journey and achieving your dreams and indulging your passion. About taking control of your dreams and not wasting your precious time. About reaching your goals with the book of your dreams.

Oh please. Harlequin and their new business partner have missed it by a mile if this is what they assume to know about our “dreams.”

Sure, there are writers who are exceptions, and good for them for making their own informed decisions and realizing a different dream. But for most of us, the “dream” is not just to hold a book in our hands. The “dream” is not merely to see our name on a glossy cover.

The dream is to be good enough. Good enough to be published, to gain recognition for all our hard work, good enough for our stories to be purchased and enjoyed by readers. Good enough to receive monetary compensation, as professionals.

Here’s an analogy, though perhaps not the best one: Imagine you’ve signed up with a matchmaker, or a dating service if you prefer, with the goal of finding the perfect mate. After a few attempts that didn’t quite work out they suddenly declare you to be unlovable. For your send off, as a consolation, they show you a selection of truly fine wedding rings, since they know that’s what you really want more than anything in the entire world. Aren’t they lovely and sparkly? The more you’re willing to pay, the bigger and shinier a ring you can have. You say, but what about a partner? What about love? They say, oh no, trust us, no one will ever love you. But look, you can even have the wedding you’ve always dreamed about, just pay a bit more. And you say, that’s nice but I was looking for love and a life with someone. They say, sorry, never gonna happen, but look, here are the designs for invitations– it only costs a bit more for those, how many people do you know?

And here’s where the analogy breaks down, because you can’t really make yourself more lovable by working at it. Or maybe that’s just me. But you can and will become a better writer with hard work and practice.

Will you ever become good enough that people will pay to read your stories? Tough question. One for which there is no single correct and true answer. The odds say some of us may never be good enough, yet can’t predict which ones. It’s one of the risks we live with as writers. But there are answers to that question that are wrong and harmful and completely unacceptable and one of them is to tell a writer who is not yet quite good enough, “Here, buy something shiny instead.”

It is wholly inappropriate for anyone, let alone a major publisher, to blithely offer a vanity press as an alternative to — or worse, present it as a step to achieving — publication. It is the antithesis of our efforts and our “brand” as writers, a slap in the face of our professionalism. It’s a message that says, “Not only are you not good enough now, you never will be good enough, no matter how hard you try. The only way you will ever see your work in print is to pay for it.”

Damn it, Harlequin, you don’t know that.

If there is a message that should be sent with every rejection it should be one based on truth and integrity and respect, offered with a genuine tone of encouragement. Perhaps it should be the same message we writers give each other, time after time, without hesitation, without deviation:

“You’re not there yet. Go work on your craft. Practice. Write five more books. Read extensively. Learn all you can from your peers. You will get better. Just keep writing. And please, keep trying.”

We say it because it’s true. Because we understand what it means and what it takes to be a writer.

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The Facts of Life, redux

I spent most of the weekend writing, revising and re-writing my current ms. I’m so deep into that mess, when I tried to think up a blog topic my mind went blank. Then my older sister called and we had a conversation we’ve been having in some form or another for three years now. Yes, three. Many things have changed during that time; her tenacity is not one of them.

I hung up and remembered a blog post I wrote about her back then and wondered whether it would still resonate with me today. It does, perhaps even more so. Because when the words won’t flow and you’re convinced they’re the wrong ones anyway and the whole damn thing seems to be taking forever, I think it’s easier to deal with the frustration if you can find humour in the situation. So here it is (with apologies to those who read it three years ago), my irreverent view of this thing called publishing:

The Facts of Life

I have an older sister. I also have two younger sisters, but I’ll probably get around to them another day. They all live in another state. My older sister (I’ll call her Babs because that isn’t her name and, even better, she can’t stop me) has been calling me on the phone quite a bit lately. Maybe once a week. A noticeable increase from the usual once every month or so. Stoic Minnesotans that we are, that seemed quite sufficient, thank you. And during these conversations she invariably asks how the writing is going. Yeah, silly me, I told her I’m writing a book.

I’d reply with something like: Just fine, thanks. And how are the kids?

So the other day I finally asked her about it: Babs, what is with all the recent interest in my writing progress (or lack thereof)?

Babs [in her bossy yet supportive oldest sister voice]: Well, I want you to hurry up and finish it so it can get published.

Me [after a stunned silence]: Okaay, but you’re asking ONCE A WEEK. Just when, exactly, do you think this is going to happen?

Babs [impatient with my inability to see things her way]: I don’t know. Soon. Next spring?

So after I stopped laughing, I shared with her my take on the publishing business. It goes something like this:

Publishers of mass market fiction are a bit like pimps. Unlike the heroes in romance novels of olden days, they are just not interested in virgins. They want writers who have done it a few times. Writers who can do it consistently, time after time, and on schedule. Writers who can make the next time seem as good as the first time and look good doing it, no matter that they have a headache and hungry kids to feed and a dog grown fat and lazy from lack of daily walks.

Babs interrupted at this point to chide me for not walking the dog.

I continued, undaunted: They don’t care that you really want to do it, that you’re sure you’ll be good at it or at least get the hang of it after a few tries. Enthusiasm and good intentions don’t count.

Babs: But I’ve read some of your stuff and it’s pretty good.

Well, thanks. I think. But teasing and flirtation and short excerpts don’t count. They want finesse and polished technique and proof that a writer can make it all the way through to a completion that leaves the customer satisfied and ready to pay for it again next time they’re in town. And most of all, they want writers who can rake in the big bucks from lots and lots of happy repeat customers.

And the truth is, I’m a virgin with no regular customers. Haven’t even done it once yet. And those publishers, they’re going to want to see some proof. Word on the street is that I’ll probably have to do it quite a few times for free before they think I’m good enough to get paid for it.

It’s going to take a while.

And I’m working on it.

Between. Phone. Calls.

OK, so maybe I got a little testy there toward the end of the conversation.

Come to think of it, I haven’t heard from Babs since I explained to her the facts of publishing life as I see them. She’s probably walking her dog and counting her blessings that she doesn’t hear voices.

Either that or she’s devising a way to speed up the whole publishing process. I’m confident she’ll tell me what to do once she figures it out.

Hang on, the phone is ringing…

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Connecting on the dark side

Has it been a month since I posted? Gasp. Well, I’ve been busy. Mostly up to no good.

Yes, the rumours are true: I’ve lost my mind and gone over to the dark side. I’ve entered the Twitterverse. An evil scary place with glowing green faces and random beeping sounds and constant updates 24/7. Just what a pressed-for-time, easily distracted writer needs, right? Um, yes actually.

Twitter has become a significant part of what is called “social media.” The persistent buzz in publishing lately — where is that flyswatter when you need it? — is that writers need a presence in social media arenas. Publishers and agents increasingly expect writers to find their own “fans” and market themselves and their books, not just after publication, but before they’re even under contract. Before they’re even done writing the damn book.

One agent went so far as to comment recently that she was seriously considering not reading submissions of any writer who did not already have a significant social media presence. I’m not going to get into how short-sighted I think that is, because this does seem to be the current reality for writers. Especially those as-yet unpublished. A fiscal sign of the times.

So I researched the likely alternatives: MySpace and Facebook. By “research” I mean I asked my 21-year-old daughter whether she’d “friend” me if I had a Facebook page. Her answer was an emphatic NO. Then she warned me about the dangers of MySpace and how no one even goes there anymore.

So I’m Twittering. I feel foolish just typing that. The tweeting itself isn’t time consuming. I’m having fun with that. It’s the following that’s going to kill me. There are an awful lot of funny and informative Twitterers out there, linking to articles or people I’d never have found on my own. I did stop following one person, not because he wasn’t interesting, but because he updated EVERY TWO MINUTES and I couldn’t keep up. I have limits. Really. Trouble is, I could easily wander around, lost in information intake mode, for days.

But the really odd thing, which I’m having trouble reconciling, is my dual, er, triple identity. My Twitter ID is “BCB_” because it’s short (plus I’ve kind of grown attached to it) and my name over there is “w/a Katherine James” (w/a = writing as), which will be my pseudonym once published. But I’m following people I know and who know me only by my “real” name. A couple of them are now following me in return and I have no idea whether they know that I’m, well, me. It’s weird. But my real name is reserved for the day job, the one where I’m a responsible adult in charge of other people’s money. I don’t want the two linked, and certainly not out here on the intertubes.

It’s a dilemma. Because it leaves me feeling somehow fraudulent. Yeah, I know, I’ll get over it eventually. And really, I guess it’s just another instance of being a writer, making stuff up and hoping people enjoy it.

So, want to follow me into the darkness?

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