The Velveteen Writer
Every month or so I get a pm on facebook, or an email, usually worded something like this:
“I hope you’ll forgive me for disturbing you, but I have written a book, and I would like your advice on how to go about publishing it.”
Sometimes it’s a spouse or a friend who has written a book. Sometimes it’s three books, or five books, or ten books.
There are several problems with this inquiry, none of which has anything to do with bothering me or with my feelings in the matter. I don’t in general mind being bothered if I can help, and if it were a simple answer I would just give it. (Requests for me to read either for a blurb or for a critique are more trouble — and I just realized I forgot a request for a blurb from a new Baen author, d*mn it. I wish they’d keep at it, when they ask. It tends to get pushed out of my head by work and deadlines, and they think I hated it and never ask again — and the last three years I haven’t been able to do it even for people who are my primary readers and whose primary reader I’ve been for years. Never mind, that is changing.)
But the problem starts with — if you’re asking about breaking into the traditional publishing market — “Heck if I know.”
Understand, I was first published in 2001, first accepted in 1998, almost 20 years ago now. Even without the turmoil induced by indie publishing, pod, and various other developments, the main of which is Amazon, the way you “get in” to a house would be changed out of recognition. Twenty years before I broke in, the way to do it was to send out a lot of proposals or queries to publishers. In my day that structure technically still existed, but I knew exactly two people bought out of the slush pile in my day: one at TOR and one at Baen. The other houses, the under-editors had the option of reading their slush pile, but since they weren’t paid extra nor given time to do it, what they actually did was switch envelopes and return proposals.
You could also send proposals and outlines to agents, and it was more normal to be accepted that way. I was accepted by an agent before my manuscript was accepted by a publisher, but those are unrelated. You see, the first manuscript to get me an agent was Darkship Thieves. The first manuscript to be published was Ill Met By Moonlight.
My agent back then was a dedicated agent for Del Rey. Not that she wouldn’t sell to other houses (they all do) but her contacts/interest were at Del Rey. And Del Rey had a moratorium on purchases lasting six months starting about the day the agent accepted me.
So I went to a workshop and pitched a Magical Shakespeare Biography at the editor who taught. (I had other novels, finished, while that one was a bare outline. But my other novels were space opera. So.) And I sold it on outline, two months later.
I suspect sales are still being made through meeting editors at workshops and conventons, but I also do know, from friends that editors are going to fewer workshops and even conventions.
I don’t know if people are still making sales through cold proposals to agents. The last time a friend got a positive(ish) response was six? years ago.
I suspect there are sales being made through becoming friends (and none intrusive) with agents and publishers on facebook and other social media. If I were trying that route, I wouldn’t even try to pitch for a year or so. Without being stalk-erish I’d make friendly and preferably funny or interesting comments on their pages and posts, every now and again: say a couple of times a week. Then if I could, once they knew me “by sight” I’d either go to a con and meet them in the flesh and hit them with an elevator pitch (and elevator pitch is one that can be said between floors, and is the novel reduced to the highest concept, say “Romeo and Juliet on Mars and they’re both uplifted dolphins.” With the details coming later, when the editor says “tell me more” and forever holding their peace without such encouragement.) or do the same in an extremely brief facebook/whatever pm that would run something like this “Dear so and so, I have been working on a novel that boils down to Romeo and Juliet on a terraformed Mars, and they’re both uplifted dolphins. Do you know anyone who might be interested in such a property?”
I don’t know if this would work, nor even if it’s the done thing for a very simple reason: I don’t have to do it, nor do I have any however remote connection with it.
Currently, I’m published by one house: Baen. I have a smaller house to whom I’ve promised a book (it’s run by a friend.) And other than that? Well, the other houses wouldn’t take me, given my notorious libertarian (and loud) convictions and my participation in the dastardly Sad Puppy affair.
But even if they had, I would not take them. I will confess I did propose books to each of the houses after I finished the series I was under contract with them for, after I discovered indie. But I did that because each of them had right of first refusal, and it was easier to put paid to that clause before moving on.
The fact is that I knew the time would come when I’d open my mouth — keeping it closed was killing me — and also that what I’d been seeing in contracts from houses-not-baen was getting increasingly more alarming. In fact each of my successive contracts was a little worse, and we were getting well into the realm of signing stupid contracts, which tried to control how many and what kind of books I could write per year, and when my books WITH OTHER HOUSES were coming out. Also, I was following advice from David Drake who had told me to stop doing business with people I couldn’t respect.
So as soon as indie opened up, I decided to step back to a position of greater comfort and more artistic freedom.
Even if I wanted to reenter the lists (I don’t know. It’s possible, given the kind of property they pay real money for) I wouldn’t go cold calling. I know agents who would still consider me for something of that size, and I’d just approach one of them.
There are other means to become a traditionally published success, and one of them I became aware of even before indie was a thing. I’d be on panels with writers who had self-published (which in my time was the kiss of death) and who’d hand-sold two thousand or more of their books, and who got a contract far above what I, with then 20 books traditionally published, could aspire to.
This path to success is still active. It has been used by none other than Larry Correia, but also by Andy Weir, as well as, earlier, Amanda Hocking.
I suspect it’s still open, and if you take that path the one thing you have to be careful of is selling your birthright for a mess of pottage. IOW, you’re selling them a known quantity, don’t sell cheap and make sure you have warranties of advertising and pushing, and cover consultation and all the goodies. Don’t assume you don’t have anything that isn’t very clearly written out. Particularly with the publishing field the way it is right now, and cuts occurring more or less at random in places no one expects, make sure you have EVERYTHING IN WRITING.
And now that we’ve talked about the option of indie publishing: I can’t really give you a lot about how to do it, though if you hang around here you’ll learn a fair bit. However, it is an option, it is a path to publication, and it is real.
I have friends who are published indie-only and who are making more than I am, and certainly more than I was making when I’d been published five or six years, as they have.
If making a living, reaching people with your craft and acquiring an audience for your tales is your purpose, indie will do as well or better than traditional publishing.
Sure, at first you will have very few readers, it’s a frightful amount of work, and will cause you to have to learn all sorts of skills, like enough of art to evaluate a cover, and enough of publicity to get word out.But as you work, so will your audience grow.
The key to indie is that you get out of it what you put into it.
But, you’ll say, you want to be traditionally published. You want the fame, the fortune, the huge audiences, the interviews on TV, the mansion, the secretary and, oh, yeah, to be on shelves in stores from coast to coast.
Well… we all want that. (Be fair, I don’t. TV interviews would be a chore, I have as big a house as I ever wish to have. I would like an assistant and a cleaning service, I guess.
Your chances of getting it from traditional publishing are about the same as your chances of getting it from indie. The amount of time required is about the same. You have a bit more control over indie, and a bit more chance to go on store shelves (a diminishing asset to a writer, actually) with traditional. Six of one half a dozen of the other.
You will not get publicity without work, you will not get promotion without effort and only a very select few (and not by quality of work) get what we call “the easy ride to the top.” They usually have either a proven sale strategy, a concept that JUST hits with what the editor was looking for, OR friendships within the house. And the fact is that publishing houses are losing their power. I’ve now seen three “highly pushed” (how pushed? well, very elaborate graphic adds on every social media, advanced reviews everywhere and an ad in frigging times square) fall flat on their faces. And the numbers confirm that publishers can no longer “push” a book into the bestseller list, as they could for decades.
Also, because publishing is slower through traditional houses, even a book that they plan to give the full ride to is often — inexplicably — dropped on the floor as conditions change.
But Sarah, you hypocrite, you say, you still publish with Baen. Yes, I do and there are several reasons for that, none of them monetary (my indie book made me again 50% more than Baen books do.)
Baen has a dedicated fan base. This means that even if you feel like writing something a little weirder, it will have at least THAT much readership. Baen has in several occasions saved my bacon by coming through with the mortgage well in advance of my delivering (or even pitching) a book. And Baen is family, meaning there is a collegiate group of authors on whom I can call for help, support or friendship. This makes the current somewhat scary turmoil less scary, as it gives me people to take the journey with.
If you’re writing the sort of thing Baen buys, and they show the slightest interest, do give them a try, but remember Baen is still a smallish house, which has a limited number of releases, and a very large slush pile (which they still read.) Even if your book is very good and their kind of book, it might not fit what they need RIGHT THEN. (They try for a certain balance between sub-genres, a balance dictated by how those sell, which I don’t have a clear knowledge of.) Or it might be too similar to something they bought which hasn’t come out yet. Be prepared to wait one to two years for an answer, and not to be discouraged if you fail.
But as for the rest, I’d encourage you to go indie. Learn, study, improve, both in craft and in all the other tasks, and go indie with all your heart and soul. It doesn’t mean you close the traditional route. These days no one holds a self-published/indie career against you when going traditional.
More importantly, done right (yeah, I know, but I’ve been d*mn sick for about five years) an indie career can have the same reach as traditional.
You don’t need gatekeepers to make you a real writer. They’re not the blue fairy and you’re not made of velveteen.
If you’re working really hard on being a writer, and if you improve, and learn to do at least some publicity, your audience WILL GROW. And you’ll be as real a writer as you’ll ever be.
You have my permission. If anyone asks you how you dare call yourself a real writer, tell them you have Sarah Hoyt’s permission, and if they don’t agree, that’s too bad.
Now go and work.