publishing 101, part 2

I was asked, regarding my last blog entry, if I thought Susan O’Neill’s story* was a ‘typical’ publishing experience and how my own Publishing 101 experience compares. In my answer I rambled on to such an extent that I figure, hey, might as well ramble on a bit more and use it as today’s blog entry:

I think her experience is typical in that, even without the tide of events working against her, a book of literary short stories by an unknown writer is destined to be a very tough sell, all the more so when you’re asking readers to plunk down hardcover prices. (Difficult enough to get readers to invest the time and $6.99 for a mass-market paperback by a writer they’ve never heard of…)

(Which means the fact her book attracted such a notable agent and sold for such a good, solid advance and came out as hardcover really is a rare and formidable accomplishment that, if anything, she’s seriously downplaying.)

And because the book didn’t earn out — sell enough copies to make back the advance — it made the sale of a second literary novel even tougher. Computerized sales records mean that in today’s publishing world, you as a writer are judged not necessarily by the content of your book but by how many copies your last book sold. So you have way fewer chances to prove yourself, yes. (But there’s nothing to prevent you from changing your pen name and starting all over again as a ‘first time novelist’ with NO pesky sales record, just endless sales potential.) In other words, a writer who scores a million-dollar advance is a major success one moment, a major failure the next when the book comes out and sells very few copies despite a huge promotional push. (A book like BELLADONNA, which came out some years ago, is, I believe, a case in point.)

Also, I’m not convinced it’s somehow ‘easier’ to get and stay published as a genre novelist — there are a lot of genre writers who could tell you some real-life horror publishing stories of their own, and I know some amazingly talented genre writers who, after years of effort and doing everything right, still haven’t managed to break through to that longed-for mass-market audience. There are also stories of writers who made it huge in one genre, then encountered a lot of flak and difficulty when they embarked in a whole new direction.

To put it plainly: writing and getting published — and staying published — is just really, really hard.

But I don’t think this should be discouraging or depressing, even if that seems a bit of a contradiction in terms — if anything, it can help put your own struggle into better perspective — I mean, who’s going to deny that climbing to the top of Mount Everest is extraordinarily difficult (and possibly stupid and life-threatening to boot)? Lots of people start the journey, few people manage to finish — and very few of *those* few manage to do it on the first try. Instead they will come back again and again, weathering all the effort and training and massive expense and sheer bewilderment of their families who are way too sane to even begin to understand why they’re so obsessed with such a quest in the first place.

When I get discouraged, it helps to remind myself of that: I am trying to take on Mount Everest here. Of course it’s not easy. But look how far I’ve climbed already. I’ll just ignore that dead body in the ravine below, thank you very much…

As far as my own story goes, in sum: by my late twenties I’d written about six or seven practice novels. One in particular came perilously close to publication. I had landed my first legitimate literary agent who couldn’t, however, sell the book in question, and finally suggested I write something else. I was burnt out on fiction-writing and mighty discouraged by then and so decided to write what I really wanted to write, which turned out to be BLOODANGEL. Pretty early in the process I could tell — from reactions at workshops and early readers — that I was on to something, which allowed me to trust myself more, even though I really wasn’t sure what, exactly, I was writing (only that it seemed kind of weird and was only getting weirder) or where, exactly, it would fit in the bookstores. (This was just before Laurell K Hamilton and Kelley Armstrong took off, and the genre of ‘urban fantasy’ or ‘dark urban fantasy’ yawed open enough to allow me to enter. At the time, I had this sense that BLOODANGEL fell somewhere between Neil Gaiman and Emma Bull, which still seemed much too vague to be helpful.)

The book went through several big revisions, found an agent with astonishing speed (a young hungry whipsmart type at a first-tier agency**).

She sent it out to three editors: two of them wanted it, one of them was actually able to come through with a modest but still-thrilling offer. (When an editor wants to acquire a book, she still has to sell it in-house to a committee of other people. This is where you really need a bit of luck and timing on your side.) And the upside to a modest advance: the book sold decently and ‘earned out’ in a few months, which means I am now a) collecting royalties and b) finishing a sequel, which my publisher bought on the basis of an outline and 50 pages.

So you could look at my experience with BLOODANGEL and say I’ve been ‘lucky’, or you could look at the decade of practice novels and near-misses and constant rejections that prefaced BLOODANGEL and say I’ve ‘paid my dues’. Both are true. And you could say that my real stroke of luck was that I started writing seriously as young as I did, and never got sidetracked, thanks in part to supportive life circumstances and an incredibly stubborn, competitive personality, shot through with youthful arrogance.

And just to say — it wasn’t until AFTER my book sold that anybody cared about either my age or my author photo.

So I think it’s good to be aware of realities of the industry, in the same sense that knowledge is power and all information is good information. I also think it’s crucial to take the long-range view (while still enjoying the immediate pleasures and satisfactions offered up by the process itself). I’m often struck by how bitter some aspiring-writers get because they’ve been at this for two or three years of hard and earnest effort and haven’t been published yet. Truth is, it often takes a whole lot longer than that. Not for all writers, of course, but for most. That’s just the nature of the beast. And the climb. If you don’t mind me mixing metaphors.

*Also want to stress that I did use excerpts for my own space restrictions and purposes…for her complete take on it, go here.

**When hunting for an agent, pay special attention to the newest, youngest members of the top-tier agencies. They don’t have the sales record yet, but they are actively building their list, and are backed up by the mentorship and connections of their big-name agency. Also, they won those particular jobs over many many applicants — these are smart, ambitious, competitive, well-educated people who shouldn’t be taken lightly even if they are disconcertingly younger than you.

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