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Of slush piles and indie and tigers and bears, oh my!

Sorry for the delay this morning, everyone. I have had an upper respiratory infection for the better part of a week that is laying me low. Because of that, I’m taking a break from the formatting series. I will pick it up again, hopefully, tomorrow on my blog. Today, however, I’m going to take my cue from JL Knapp’s comment earlier about his friend who had made it through the slush pile but who did not make it to publication.

As most of you know, there are very few publishers (other than small and micro presses) that still have a slush pile. Most of those who don’t, require submissions through an agent. I’m convinced a big part of this is because they are using the agents as the first guardians of the gate. After all, by using the agents to winnow out those manuscripts not worthy, the publishers don’t have to hire as many readers, editors, etc. It also makes the agents more of an, well, agent for the publisher than for the writer. That sort of incestuous relationship can lead to some questions of where loyalty lies. But that’s not where I want to go with this post.

For those publishers that still have a slush pile, publishers like Baen, you don’t have to have an agent. In fact, if you talk with some of Baen’s writers, you will find a number of them no longer work with agents. After all, why give an agent a percentage of their money if they don’t need to? Tor/Forge is also open to unagented submissions. There are others but most require an agent and, as JL Knapp said, that adds time to the submission process and takes money out of the author’s pocket if a contract is signed.

So what is the submission process for a publisher like Baen. Our own Pam Uphoff can probably discuss it in more detail than I can but here’s what I remember from my own forays into the slush pile, both as an author and as a slush reader.

The first step is having your manuscript in the best shape possible. Baen offers various slush conferences where an author can post their work for critique before submitting to the slush pile. Once you are ready to submit your work, you fill out the online form, upload your work and wait. There are volunteer slush readers who, if they think something is worthy of publication will send it up the chain where, iirc, Gray Rinehart takes a look and decides whether it needs to go further up the chain. If you are lucky, you manage to make it through all that and your book lands on an editor’s desk for consideration.

All of that can happen in a couple of months, if you’re lucky. It is longer for other houses. But, once your book hits an editor’s desk, there is no solid timeline in which to hear back. That’s the truth whether you are with Baen or Tor/Forge or some other publisher. Your book may sit there for a few months or a few years.

So, do you go indie, even if your heart is set on traditional publishing?

There is no easy answer. My immediate response is to say, yes. Go indie and never look back. But that’s the course I chose and, yes, I would still go with Baen if the opportunity presented itself. Why? Because I respect the house and, more than that, I respect Toni Weisskopf. That isn’t something I can say about most other publishers.

So, here’s my response to that person who is set on traditional publishing but who doesn’t want to sit around waiting months and years to find out if they have made the cut. Submit that one work, consider it a sort of throw-away novel, and move on to something else, something unrelated. Indie publish that second work. Then continue writing and publishing until you either hear from the traditional publisher or you decide that isn’t the path for you.

What we all have to remember is that there are several different paths open for us now and we aren’t tied into one path only. Just remember if you are offered a traditional publishing contract to check the terms very closely. Some of those contracts include a right of first refusal clause — often without a solid time period in which to respond — for any of your work for as long as you are contracted with that can prevent you from shopping your work anywhere else, including indie publishing.

There are a couple of other items to keep an eye on. Thanks to the Passive Voice for the links:

The first deals with author’s payments and, in a roundabout way, whether those e-books we’ve been buying are really only licenses or actual e-books. A class action lawsuit has been filed against Simon & Schuster because S&S is reporting those purchases as “sales”, which mean a lower royalty rate for authors, instead of as “licenses”. Funny that, if you read what most publishers say we are buying as readers, it is licenses. We don’t “own” the e-book.  It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

The second deals with Elora’s Cave. There have been rumblings for some time now about whether or not EC is paying its authors what they are owed. Some months back, EC filed suit against the blog Dear Author for reporting on this. If I remember correctly, the suit was decided in Dear Author’s favor. Now, it seems, EC is threatening RWA for taking action to warn its members about the problems EC is apparently having. If true, things are going to get interesting — and entertaining — before it all plays out.

  1. Reality Observer #

    I have to admit I was going to go 100% indie too. The main line SF series is some 30 projected books now – and I probably wouldn’t live long enough to see all of them published traditionally.

    Then a sword-and-sorcery plot took root in the brain the other week; it is far more limited in scope (only three, well maybe four, so far). I will be putting that up on the Baen slush forum as it develops in between the main line work – and, yes, won’t be particularly expecting it to go anywhere.

    May 24, 2016
  2. “. . . won’t live long enough to see them all published . . . ”

    Trust me, we will all die with a New Idea hanging on our lips. And who knows how many story ideas jotted down, rough drafts waiting their turn (noisily and obnoxiously), and series with potential future volumes . . .

    I try to keep my series as discrete stories in the same universe, some of the same characters, just in case I drop dead. I dunno if it’s kindness to readers, or consideration for the family. 😉

    May 24, 2016
    • Reality Observer #

      Kind of like that – I have five “cycles” in one universe. Between four and seven novels in each, though (right now; by history, the “shorter” ones will probably “breed” when I get around to thinking seriously about them).

      Yes, I expect the family will be gathered around my deathbed – and then be asking “What did he mean by that?” when they hear my final words…

      May 24, 2016
    • Draven #

      “hey, I’ve got this new ideeee…” *HURK* *plunk*

      May 25, 2016
      • “I’m so sorry I had to kill her.”

        I expect a hunky policeman by my hospice bed, taking down my every word. Mind you, by 103 years of age, my standard will be pretty low. Under 90, male. Yep. Hunk. And finally, a secretary to record my brilliant last idea. I just hope my kids, grandkids, great granddogs, whatever, can get a copy from him. 😉

        May 25, 2016
  3. A reader at my original blog had a personal friendship with Michael Allen, of the Grumpy Old Bookman lit-blog, back when I was first dipping a toe into getting my first novel published.
    Mr. Allen very kindly advised that I should give a go for a year to go the trad-pub route, which involved trying to attract the interest of an agency – and then, if nothing came of it, going indy. I tried again with my second novel – still no takers. Apparently, my first few books all classed as Westerns, which to the NY agencies, were about as popular as cooties or bedbugs.

    Eleven books later, and still indy.

    May 24, 2016
  4. Christopher M. Chupik #

    Hope you’re feeling better soon, Amanda.

    Good post.

    May 24, 2016
  5. I went Indie first and then, once a had a four book series with a some positive reviews, looked into selling it to a publisher. Right now it’s made it through the “worth checking out” cut and has been sitting in “we’ll be in touch soon” for about six months. I’m okay with that, even without much promotion I’m still getting sales while I wait.

    May 24, 2016
  6. I’m still undecided as to if I want to ever try to go with a publisher or not. The advantage is better promotion (if I ever go with a publisher, I’ll only sign if they guarantee to promote on their dime) is an interesting one, plus the larger distribution.
    But the lower royalty rate is the downside of that coin. All of my books have ‘earned out’ the typical advance that a publishing house gives, working as an indy. So I’m really not sure that I’m going to be making that much more money if I go traditional.
    So yeah, it’s a tough decision from where I sit.

    May 24, 2016
    • Publishers will only promote on their dime if a book is a monthly or quarterly list leader – i.e., a book by a Big-Name Author for which they have paid a top-dollar advance. The only promotion they will do for thee and me is to put our books in their catalogues, and issue press releases that nobody will ever read or print.

      In recent years, publishers have begun pretending that the advance is meant, not as payment to the writer, but as a generous loan to fund the writer’s own efforts to promote the book. If you complain to your publishers that they did not promote your book, they will tell you frankly that it was your job. If you didn’t spend your entire advance on promotion, you didn’t spend enough; and if you did spend your entire advance, you spent it ineffectively. Either way, it’s your fault your book didn’t sell.

      Meanwhile, the idea that royalties are payment to the writer for the right to publish the work – this has gone by the wayside.

      You can find many, many reports of this kind of treatment on this invaluable blog:

      I cannot recommend it too highly.

      May 24, 2016
      • just more proof that going trad is making less and less sense with every passing year.

        Strongly second the recommendation for the Passive Voice. That’s a must-read blog for anyone considering a writing career, indie or trad.

        May 24, 2016
      • And this is why I probably won’t ever sign with a publisher. Because I’m making more on my own then I’ll probably make with them.
        Which is there loss really, because if I can sell 5K to 10K books on a $200 advertising budget on Amazon, imagine what I could do with ten grand spent by someone who knows what they’re doing

        May 24, 2016
  7. I never considered trad-pub for my fiction, because of being between genres (the Cat series). And I write too short for most publishers (65-75K words for the Colplatschki series).

    I would seriously consider trad-pub for my non-fiction, but the odds of my writing something good and broad enough to attract the attention of an agent and a Big 5 editor are quite low.

    May 24, 2016
    • That’s the other advantage of indie publishing: you don’t have to follow the guidelines (the ever-shifting guidelines, might I add) of the trads, whether it is a demand for massive doorstopper fantasy novels, or having to inject vampires/zombies/whatever the flavor of the month into your story, or even making sure the characters are “diverse enough.” You can write whatever you want, and chances are that if the writing is good there’s an audience out there that is not getting serviced by trad publishing.

      Finding that audience may take some work and skill at marketing (and yeah, some luck as well), but that’s another story.

      May 24, 2016
  8. C4c

    May 24, 2016
  9. The manuscript for my novel *The Cunning Blood* has been in a publisher’s slush pile since March, 2001. No responses to queries. I haven’t heard a word from them at all, about anything, and withdrew it at the end of 2002. No points for guessing which publisher.

    May 24, 2016
    • 2001? It’s probably turned into compost …

      May 24, 2016
      • …or attic insulation. (I wouldn’t mind that so much.) Or maybe it’s still in the back of some closet somewhere, with lots of other stuff piled on top of it. My best guess: It’s a libertarian novel, and nobody there wanted to lay hands on it, much less deal with it in a professional manner.

        May 24, 2016
        • Everything I’ve heard about Tor has persuaded me that they have no office procedure for tracking manuscripts. Every time I look at a picture of their offices, it’s a mess.

          Look, I understand messy offices. But either you have a physical way of tracking files and keeping them on schedule, or you have a person who knows where all the files are and their stages of processing. Preferably you have both. They don’t seem to have either one.

          So they probably lost your mss, and it will be found twenty years from now when they move.

          May 24, 2016
          • When I had staff of editors and was publishing 120 computer books a year, manuscript tracking procedures were mandatory, and losing a manuscript was a firing offense. Oddly, we never lost one.

            May 24, 2016
  10. Bjorn Hasseler #


    May 24, 2016
  11. I tried going the trad pub way at first. Didn’t want to hunt for an agent, so I submitted my novel to Tor and got a form rejection letter five months later. I then thought about Baen, but their website said the wait time for a response was 9-12 months. I’m no spring chicken, and the idea of waiting for a response for another year after having already wasted five months didn’t sit well with me.

    (And yes, I could have – should have, really – sent out the book and started working on something else. But I was already busy writing the sequel and was in lose with the setting and characters; I didn’t want to wait).

    So I went indie. Raised some money via Kickstarter, published the book about five months later. By the time I would have gotten an answer from Baen, I already had the sequel and a short story collection out. Two years and six books later, I had earned more than any likely advance I would have been offered, assuming the book would have been accepted.

    That doesn’t mean going indie is always the best solution. I was lucky enough that my first book found an audience early on, very likely because it was in a relatively uncluttered genre. When I tried writing a horror novel a year later, I only sold a few dozen copies out of the gate, and that was with an already established fan base in the low hundreds (they didn’t follow me into a different genre, as it turns out); if that had been my first publication, I would have vanished from the sales charts, never to be seen again. There are no guarantees. The indie slush pile can be found in the million-plus rankings on Amazon, the books that sold a handful of copies in their lifetimes and effectively ceased to exist unless someone is taking the time to look for them. Whether those books are just bad or just haven’t connected with an appreciative audience (assuming such an audience exists), they are as invisible as the novels cluttering up an agent’s or intern’s office.

    I’m thinking about trying my luck with Kindle Scout for my next series. It’s sort of an intermediate step between trad publishing and going indie, and worst case I’m only risking about two months of my time before being able to publish the book myself. And if I ever write something in pure fantasy I may give trad pub a try. But overall, I’m happy with the way things turned out.

    May 24, 2016
  12. Laura M #

    I have a short story in Analog’s slush pile. It’s been there a little over two months, and the wait is killing me. I could have had it up by now.

    May 24, 2016
    • I should try Analog. I struck out three times with Asimov’s (although one was a poem.).

      May 24, 2016
      • I once got one of those FTL F&SF rejections from Asimov’s. It was a response to If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love where a dinosaur was a patron at a honky-tonk, and nobody drank gin. There was a gay couple there, too, who worked in the oil shale fields and didn’t swish one little bit. Didn’t shoe-horn them in; they were just regulars.

        I don’t think they liked it at all. 😉

        May 25, 2016
        • That would be a fun story! 🙂 And yeah, I can’t think of anyone I know who goes to bars to drink gin. I’ve ordered tonic water and lemon to hide that I wasn’t drinking the hard stuff, but 1) I was fluffier back then and 2) it wasn’t in oil-field or other normal-folks bars. (Yuppie fern bars, I knew you well, back when that’s where people held parties.)

          May 25, 2016
  13. One thing that I have noticed, is that the initial response from a publisher means nothing. When I first tried submitting “Catskinner’s Book” I noticed a particular pattern in the correspondence.

    Me: Submits manuscript

    Publisher: “Wow, this is the greatest thing ever! We’ll get back to you real soon.”

    …three months pass…

    Me: Follows up on submission

    Publisher: “We love it so much! We’ll get right back to you!”

    …three more months pass…

    Me: Follows up on submission

    Publisher: Nothing

    …three more months pass…

    Publisher: “We don’t have any interest in this book because it’s nothing like anything we have ever published or ever would publish. Try writing something more like [hot book of the month]”

    Me: ???

    After a while I figure it out–the initial positive replies were to keep me from submitting it to anyone else, just in case it happened to be a hot property. At the time they were saying, “We love it!” no one had actually read it, they were just staking a claim on spec. So I have learned to ignore most of what comes from publishers–unless it’s a clear “no” or it comes with a check, I assume that it’s just blowing smoke.

    May 25, 2016
  14. The submission process reminds me of this:

    May 25, 2016

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