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.






  1. Another great article. The time factor was what finally convinced me to stop trying to look for an agent/publisher and go indie. I still want to try my luck with Baen one of these days but my inner accountant cringes at the thought of keeping a book out of circulation for a year+, now that I have some idea how much money it can generate if I put it up on Amazon.

    There are a couple of other alternatives between trad and indie, including one I’m going to try later this year. One is Inkshares (, which combines crowdsourcing with publishing. The writers sell If your book generates enough interest and backers/preorders, Inkshares uses the funds from those preorders to do a publishing package. Not something I would do myself – a few things about the setup bother me, including the high price they usually ask for the ‘preorders’ – but it’s an option for the writer who still wants the backing of a publisher but doesn’t want to spend years playing agent whack-a-mole. Some writer testimonials swear by it. Caveat emptor applies, since you are in effect paying for the publishing package (perhaps a little too much like vanity pub) except with other people’s money.

    The other one is Kindle Scout ( Superficially the setup is similar to Inkshares – the book is published by an Amazon imprint if it generates enough interest (readers who vote for the book will get a free advance e-copy, so it’s a better deal for backers than Inkshares) *and* if Amazon’s decision-makers decide the book is a good fit. There is a small advance ($1500, which apparently isn’t all that small in modern trad publishing, sadly enough), and Amazon gets exclusive rights for at least five years, with automatic renewals as long as certain thresholds are met. The whole contract is at I still haven’t gone over it with a fine tooth comb (and consulted with a lawyer first, which is part of the plan), but at least it’s out there for everyone to look at.

    The potential payoff lies in the big-Z’s marketing machine – even at the reduced royalty rate (50% versus 70% as an indie), when Amazon pushes a book, it usually sells. A lot.

    I’m planning on submitting the first book of my new series (by December or January, depending on my writing output) to Scout as an experiment. Submissions get a response within 45 days, so the time investment is also a fraction of what is expected from a trad publisher. Worst case, I waste a month and a half before I publish the book myself, which makes it a small enough wager to try. When I do, I’ll post about my experiences with Kindle Scout on my blog (or if Mad Genius Club is interested in a report, I’d be happy send you one).

    1. The old system is way more wasteful than that. If you submitted and were rejected, or the property was with an agent who wouldn’t send it out, it could take a decade or more.
      Yes, I edited, DST before Baen published it, but in essentials, the book was finished Summer of 98. It came out 2011.

      1. Yikes. Yeah, I’m too old to play that sort of game (even 2-3 years is way longer than I’m willing to sit on a finished novel, now that there are alternatives).

        1. And finally it was accepted by Baen by accident, almost. I’d decided no one wanted it, so I’d give it away for free on my conference in the Baen Bar (2009. JUST before indie was a thing.) Toni liked it and told me to stop excerpting it, she’d publish it. But think of that journey.

  2. Dang it. That comment about being real, and blue velveteen… Somewhere in the depths, I said, The Blue Velveteen Rabbit! And I remembered my mother talking about a book with a blue fuzzy rabbit, that I wore the fuzz off of rubbing it, ages and ages ago. Looking up the blue velveteen rabbit on google, I think I might, vaguely, remember that book! And Wikipedia has a summary of the plot… Oh, okay. Wow! Talk about a trip down memory lane. Except it’s right there on the edge of forgotten.

      1. You’re right, the title according to Wikipedia is just the velveteen rabbit. Not sure why it’s stuck in my head as blue. Oh, well. As a result of this trip down memories, I had a dream last night with the blue velveteen rabbit, Pinocchio, the straw man, the tin man, and the cowardly line doing a kick line dance on a stage, singing about what they all need to be real. A theme for Nanowrimo, I guess?

        1. Earlier today I revisited the notes from my ‘magical girls in Special Task Force Unicorn’ project inspired by the question of what PUFF magical girls would be worth in Larry Correia’s MHI setting. I realized the ‘magical girlfriend’ character works best as a clockwork doll that had become a real girl after a hundred years. I was also pleasantly surprised to find an explanation for a catgirl idol singer that makes sense of history and motivations.

          1. Tell me when the project is completed, so that I can give you money for it. Because I loved Vathara’s Count Taka and the Vampire Brides, and this sounds like it’s going to be right up the same alley. (I can’t claim that it’s my alley, since there are thousands of people camped out here in Anime Satire Alley at any given time. But I’m one of those who love it here.)

  3. 1998-2016? Heck even between 2011, when I first started lurking around the edges of fiction publishing, and 2016, things have changed in so many ways.

  4. The only way I would consider a traditional publishing deal is if they came at me with one of those ‘seven figure’ deals – for the current book, the debut novel, the one which is already finished and published. Not likely.

    Knowing that – I’d been studying SP since 2011 when I finally finished Pride’s Children and published it late last year – saved me so much time and energy and angst. I’d already decided it would not fit anyone’s catalog, however well written my book was, and that it wouldn’t get the push few books get (without the big money), and that I’ve never been a lottery player.

    Not having angst which depends on other people – agents, editors, publishers – is the key. Plenty of angst, plenty of learning, going on, but none of it related to gatekeepers. I tried that years ago with the previous novel, and I am not cut out for the additional pain waiting for ‘them’ to get back to you causes. Waiting interferes with writing; for me, it brought writing to a standstill.

  5. > “…I would like your advice on how to go about publishing it.”

    Make up a FAQ to send back to them.

    Back in the ’90s I was on a radio show. I was supposed to be talking about memory management software. The host mentioned I’d written a couple of books on programming.

    I don’t know how the call filtering went, but half of the calls I wound up taking were about “how do you sell a book.” The gist was, “I got lucky.”

  6. My wife published her first book on Amazon Kindle two weeks ago.
    I contacted one of my favourite sites and asked them to mention it in their weekly book blog, and it was cool to see some copies sold that day! Plus the KU reads have been climbing every day since.

    But what I find was the most unexpected impact of that mention, is that her book is showing up in the “Customers Also Bought” lists for other books being sold on Kindle.

    And if someone searches for “Into Thin”, her spelling of “Ayre” instead of “Air” is the third or fourth prompt.

    Amazon publishing is the way to go. The only downside, for me as a Canadian, is that the book is not available on Indigo, the Canadian equivalent online book store. And so many people up here seem to have the Kobo instead of the Kindle. A lot of that is because the libraries do not support the Kindle format for borrowing library books.

    It’s early days, and she has only the first book of the series out in the wild, but I am finding this to be a highly enjoyable experience. It’s a nice change to be actually doing it instead of just following the experience of others.

    1. I contacted one of my favourite sites and asked them to mention it in their weekly book blog, and it was cool to see some copies sold that day!

      The first Sarah Hoyt book I bought was Witchfinder, after a mention on Instapundit. I haven’t bought and read everything else she has out, but I have gotten several of her e-books.

      Until then, I was mostly re-reading Heinlein, McCaffrey, Kurtz, etc., or picking up classics I had never gotten around to reading. Safe stuff. The only newer books I’d gotten were freebies on Kindle, so I wouldn’t be out any money if I didn’t like them. Since the Instalanche, I’ve bought not only her books, but by other authors appearing on or recommended by her blog (either in posts or comments).

      I guess what I’m saying is that a blog mention can be like a word-of-mouth recommendation for potential customers, which can be very useful for people skeptical of the general state of published works nowadays.

  7. > If anyone asks you how you dare call
    > yourself a real writer

    The way I look at it, if you’re getting paid for your work you’re a real writer, even if your money is coming directly from customers instead of being filtered through the publishing industry.

    “Not dealing with customers” is the keystone of traditional American business; that’s what the retail system is for. Back in the day a “real publisher’s” only customer was his distributor, who sold to a downstream distributor, who sold to bookstores, who made the actual sales to customers, who probably had bad breath and carried diseases. Nobody wanted to be anywhere near a customer.

  8. Yup. I tried to go the traditional route in the early oughts, without much luck at all, although another milblogger did refer me to an agent (an independent one who was very well thought of, apparently.) The agent did like my first novel, and said all sorts of nice things about it, but regretfully said that he didn’t think it was “marketable” – to a New York establishment publisher, as it appeared. Regional historical novels set in the US just weren’t something on their event horizon.
    So – with the encouragement of another professional writer and a couple of fans for the milblog I went totally indy. It would be a blast to suddenly appear on the establishment event horizon, and get some serious offers, but … well, I’ve gotten used to being indy.

    (PS – Sarah, thanks for the link on Sunday to Luna City 3.1. I got a link on the Ace of Spades HQ Sunday book thread as well, and not only did sales for the Kindle version of 3.1 zoom up, but the figures for the previous two Chronicles as well.)

  9. My biggest piece of advice for ANY creative endeavor that you would like to put out into the world is that you should learn to read and understand contract language. If you put your creation into another’s hands, please know exactly what that transaction entails. There are good contracts out there; there are very many bad ones in unique ways. Learn what goes into a good contract and what you should never accept.

    And believe that your work is worth remuneration. While not all remuneration is monetary (plaudits are nice, and charitable donations are good), you deserve to eat and pay bills as well as the entity you have contracted with. Exposure is what you die from when you don’t get paid.

  10. Quote: You will not get publicity without work…

    Self promotion is not a thing that I can do. It’s embarrassing. Painfully so. Rejection and criticism, ya, well, Ima Recluse for a reason.

    So I have eleven books up on Amazon; first edition badly edited, second editions have been run through Grammarly, which might not be that much of an improvement. The number of errors Grammarly flagged was embarrassing.

    I came to a decision point several months ago; get off the internet or get a new computer. So, getting a new computer, I might as well get Microsoft Office. MSWord was all I wanted. The previous Rube Goldberg machinations I had to do to get something Amazon would take near drove me crazy. I’m retired, you see with nothing else to do. Well, nothing else I wanted to do.

    I’m calling it a hobby; an activity that interests me.

    The last piece of work I put up an hour ago (available tomorrow) violates the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule. It’s more like a shaggy dog story with at twist at the end. “Congratulations, you have been chosen”.

    I think there are some chuckles in it.

    Getting ‘published’ on Amazon is a matter of trial and error until you figure out the software. Then it’s a matter of trial and error finding an audience, and fighting through the criticism, and rejection.

    That’s the way I see it.

    1. My sympathies – my last Kindle version book had some formatting howlers in it, which really affected one reviewer very badly. Oddly enough, the other two didn’t notice. But I went back and …omg.
      They’re fixed now, but, geez, is my face red.

      1. Just got notice from Amazon. My new book is up, “Congratulations, you have been chosen.”

        The ‘Look Inside’ feature shows no paragraph separation, and no first line indent, yet my source file does, and that is my default.

        Is this the format glitch you had? You have any idea what causes it?

        Another of my books has the same problem and I complained to Amazon. It will take them a week to respond.

        1. No – it was more to do with indenting in a chart, and in converting from a layout with a gutter and mirror margins.
          I think I got a good fix by just resetting all the margins to a normal one inch.

    2. (Site peoples, feel free to delete this if it’s out of line.) I’ve been trying to weasel my way into indie editing for a bit, and I’d be happy to go over anything you might want to publish or revise. I do have to charge a bit, but at the moment it’s negotiable because I need momentum. I’d love to talk it over with you if you want to drop me your e-mail, or send me one at aggrokitty-at-gmail-dot-com.

  11. I have written four novels, all up at 3MPub, Amazon,and Smashwords, and occasionally consider working on number five. I also wrote some textbooks, which actually bring in enough money to keep me in coffee. Most recently I sent a novel off to I shall not say which house, the Supreme Editor has it on the desk and is reading it, and I have only been waiting for four and a half years for this actually very nice person to finish.

    Meanwhile, I am going to HonorCon, and will hand out books for free. Realistically speaking, at this point I am mostly an investor

    With respect to software, most recently I upgraded to WIndows 10, whose big upgrade totally totally crashed my machine, and may have crashed my RAID disk backups. I also have at least most things on separate disks, but the number of CDs that correspond to a largely full 1Tb Hard drive is dismayingly large.

    1. I have found that Windows is not very good at keeping a RAID disk setup. We tested it back when Win8 came out, out of curiosity. I don’t know the technicals but the disks would be unaligned very quickly.

      I’ve personally had enough burns with Windows losing data that I refuse to keep data on a non-Debian machine without a back up to a Debian system with a RAID array of at least Western Digital Black drives. That’s me though and the RAID is professionally set up by Housemate.

  12. Ms. Hoyt,
    Thank you for all the hard and useful work writing your remarks here. The warning about contracts is most appreciated.

    The novel at the editor is not Eclipse, it is a rewrite of The One World. Five is indeed Eclipse. My offer of sending you the current material form the Eclipse novel is indeed open, so soon as my computer is back. Eclipse is solidly backed up on DVDs.
    However, this weekend I dump a major time sink that was not accomplishing anything useful. Having no computer has meant that a whole bunch of other things I had been postponing instead got done.
    I suppose that my next “writing” effort will be to do my duty as Editor of “A Sea of Stars Like Diamonds”, the N3F 75th Anniversary fiction collection book.


      1. Bob,

        Thursday was just after Windows 10 ate my computer. The techs are still trying to fixing the disaster, Send an email to, and I will investigate resending via my UNIX machine, assuming it can read the backup disks, made on a windows machine, which I have not investigated.

        And recall you are getting a piece of the novel but not just the front piece.


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