The event with Ed Schubert yesterday at the Regulator Bookshop went great! About twenty folks came out. I had a rough outline to follow for the discussion, though almost immediately we started taking questions from the audience and the discussion became more free form. Still, we started by presenting the following six paradoxes about publishing:
- You need an agent to get your novel published by a mainstream publisher. You can't get an agent until you've been published.
- Editor's at publishing houses are looking for fresh, original voices; the marketers and publishers are looking for books that are just like other books that are hot at the moment.
- It's easier to write a great book and get it published if you aren't obsessed with getting published.
- Most writers are introverts, but building a successful career is easiest if you're an extrovert.
- Nothing will sustain you more than stubborn faith in your own talent; nothing will hold you back more than stubborn faith in your own talent.
- Every rule about how to make money as a writer has already been broken by some highly popular writer.
Expanding on these further, should you be interested:
You need an agent to get your novel published by a mainstream publisher. You can't get an agent until you've been published. Neither of these statements is categorically true. Baen Books is a major publisher that looks at manuscripts without requiring an agent, and I know half a dozen people at least who are represented by agents even though they have yet to sell their first novel. I think there are three good strategies for escaping this paradox: First, schmooze. Go to cons and meet agents and editors. Don't harass them, but do introduce yourself and talk cleverly about something other than writing. Then, when you get home and write your query asking them to look at your novel, you can mention enjoying your discussion at Worldcon, or whereever. Second, go ahead and publish anyway. Short stories don't need agents. Small press book publishers don't need agents. Build a track record in these smaller venues. Third, just be brilliant. Believe it or not, stories are found in slush piles by publishers and agents that they just have to share with the rest of the world. The great stuff can rise to the top. How to become great is a problem I'll leave to you to figure out.
Editor's at publishing houses are looking for fresh, original voices; the marketers and publishers are looking for books that are just like other books that are hot at the moment. I think it helps if you know how to pitch your book in terms marketers understand. Editors at a lot of houses aren't the final decision makers on what books get published. They have to present their cases to others. I think it helps from the start if you learn the shorthand for pitching your book. Ed Schubert describes Dreaming Creek as a mystery with a Twilight Zone twist. My agent pitched Bitterwood as Robin Hood with dragons. I now mostly talk about the series as Planet of the Apes with dragons. In marketing, originality boils down to your work being like some famous work, only different. I'm pitching my new novel proposal as "like Moby Dick, only with a dragon instead of a whale."
It's easier to write a great book and get it published if you aren't obsessed with getting published. This was true in my case, at least. Early in my career, I spent to much time trying to figure out what it was that publishers wanted and trying to adapt my writing accordingly. So, of course, the novel that finally caught an editor's eye was Nobody Gets the Girl, a superhero novel that I wrote almost as a dare, and that I considered unpublishable. I wrote it for the sheer psychic release of writing the damn thing, and once I wrote it I put it away and didn't think about it for a whole year until I won a Phobos award, and Keith Olexa, the editor at Phobos, asked if I had any novels written. So, despite all the advice about knowing the market, and understanding how to pitch your book as being like other books, the biggest lesson I've learned is, if you're not under contract, just write the book you most want to write and worry about selling it later.
Most writers are introverts, but building a successful career is easiest if you're an extrovert. I hate crowds. While I'm not anti-social, I only have a small core of really close friends I hang out with regularly. I'd be perfectly content to live in a log cabin high up on a remote mountain, writing in isolation, maybe seeing friends once or twice a month. I am by nature someone who would rather sit and think than someone who would rather go out and talk endlessly about trivia. If you want to sell your books, you have to go out and put yourself and your book before large groups of people. You need to be bold enough to approach newspapers and magazines with article ideas that feature you and your books. Shyness is not your friend.
Nothing will sustain you more than stubborn faith in your own talent; nothing will hold you back more than stubborn faith in your own talent. I wish I'd realized this about five years before I did. My belief that I was good enough to be a professional writer sustained me through many hundreds of rejection letters. Unfortunately, it also left me deaf to many valid criticisms of my early work. By thinking I was good enough, I wasn't striving to constantly be better. I hit a plateau of mediocrity sometime in the mid-nineties that it took me six years to work through because I honestly believed I was a good writer. And, I was... I just wasn't good enough for publication. Yet, if I'd been less stubborn and confident, I don't know if I would have toughed it out through all those rejection letters. Often in the arts, the aspects of your personality that make you strong are also the ones that doom you.
Every rule about how to make money as a writer has already been broken by some highly popular writer. Every one I've ever talked to who has built a career in writing has reached the top through very different paths. I think it's important to draw lessons from the journeys of others, but with the awareness that your own journey is going to be completely different. You can't follow anyone's footsteps, and no one will be able to follow you. Sometimes, though, it's enough just to see that the journey can be made. People do reach the promised land. Keep moving.