I don’t remember the exact quote, because I first heard it in Portuguese, so what I remember Heinlein saying is this: Only a fool or a sadist tells the unvarnished truth in a social situation.
I don’t know to what extent a blog is a social situation, but hold on to your hats, because I’m about to be a sadist. I’m going to tell the unvarnished truth about traditional publishing.
I think it’s important to say it and to say it now, because not only are a lot of you pining for that traditional publication without knowing how the system works, and thinking it will all be skittles and chocolate because you’re “good,” but a lot of you are judging the (relatively) good with the bad and demanding a perfection the system can’t provide. Or demanding that people within the system act in a way they can’t do and survive.
So, let’s talk about publishing. I’m going to use my career. It’s neither unusual nor particularly bad. I used to think I was fate’s punching bag until I found myself in a circle of authors who’d been published ten or twenty years longer than I have, some of them have had the craziest things done to them: like the well known female writer whose book sold out in three days (in paper before indie) and the house printed no more because it had met their sales expectations. I’ve never had anything like that. I’ve had more normal “your first book sets your destiny.” Which…. never mind. Normal. Stupid, soul-grinding and painful, but normal.
Before I start I want to point out everything I say here is MY observations, MY career and the things I’ve heard and inferred about how the system works. None of my co-bloggers are responsible or deserve blame if any of this upsets you. None of my co-authors. None of my — largely undeserved — friends in the field.
I’m being the sadist, not them. And frankly, I’m completely out of … you know what to give. By the light of all my burning bridges I can sit and read a book. And I don’t care anymore.
I started writing thirty three years ago, when my husband told me that writers wrote every day. It’s a vice as well as anything else. It helps me keep the imagination corralled. My husband wasn’t wrong in that — and I’ve forgiven him, anyway — when I’m not writing I’m a witch spelled with a b. And I can’t sleep at night for the vivid dreams.
My first short story I sent out got back a personal rejection and a copy of the magazine so I could see what they actually published.
I was shocked and upset. I was raised on the myth of genius. Given a sufficient amount of genius even Time magazine would publish a fairytale (besides politics) and Baen would publish a mystery. That’s how I was raised, not that I knew who published what or how crazy it was to send an sf to a horror magazine. Nor did I realize how STILTED my writing must have sounded.
I put the magazine and rejection in the drawer and didn’t submit again for seven years. In my defense a lot of this is because I was writing novels (left to my own devices, I’d write a short a decade. It’s not natural to me) and we couldn’t afford the $8 postage to send them out. Also most houses wanted a “3 chapters and outline” submission, and I had no clue HOW to write an outline. Not a SELLING outline, which has rules and codes. (I eventually learned because someone next to me was writing one in her pad at a class. Yep, I cribbed the rules from something seen over someone’s shoulder.)
In that time, most houses stopped taking submissions and started going through agents. Those also wanted three chapters and outline. I still didn’t know how to do it.
To make things worse, my novels universe was ALL ah…. gender fluid characters, which in the mid-eighties to mid-nineties was as welcome as a fart in church. Remember Misty Lackey’s books had sticker-warnings that it had homosexual characters?
They probably still wouldn’t be welcome, because… well, because they weren’t “gender-fluid” for any political reason, but because I like biology and bio-engineering and wanted to explore a true genderless society.
Somewhere along the line, I think seven years in, in my mad quest for rules, I found a book that said one broke into SF/F by writing shorts. Well, I don’t write shorts naturally, but if that’s what I needed to do to get my words out there, I’d do it.
I was so determined to do this, that over the next years I wrote something like 150 stories. And got rejected. Boy, did I get rejected. It took me till 94 to make a sale, and then I sold that story (which I’d already sent out 80 times) 8 times (the magazine or the editor died. Some stories are like that) before I sold anything else.
After that I sold a short story or two a year, which sounds fricking great, except, you know, I was getting 100 rejections by March, and most of my sales made me under $50. We established a tradition of blowing my earnings on pizza.
In 1998, so 13 years after I started writing every day, I wrote Darkship Thieves. It got me an agent, but the agent couldn’t sell it. (It also got me some interesting rejections, including an eight page one where the guy seemed to be mad at me for reasons I never understood, and which ended with “but send me your next one.” Yeah, no. Even I am not that crazy.)
In 1998 I went to the Oregon Coast Professional workshop. An editor from Ace attended. At this workshop they contrived to have a time for each of us to present what we had finished, and a brand new, written there in outline.
I had by then twelve novels written, some of them fatally flawed, the others in a world no one wanted. I had won two contests, one local and one national.
The editor wanted what became Ill Met By Moonlight (which was titled Down the Rushy Glen.) I had a chapter and a very sketchy outline, because there was no access to the net, and I couldn’t get details. But writing Shakespeare was kind of a natural thing to me. I have a degree in literature (it came with the languages) but the only ones I ever loved were Shakespeare and Austen (of the ones they inflicted in school, mind.)
So I went home, bought 40 more books on Shakespeare, finished the novel in two months and sent it to my agent. I assumed — as a sane person would — that she’d sent it on. It wasn’t till a friend ran into the editor at worldcon, that she heard that this editor had never got my novel and wanted to know if I’d lost interest.
I called the agent. She told me I didn’t want to sell to that editor (yes, names will be given but in PM. Though it’s not hard to find.) That editor had a reputation for killing series either through malice or lack of due diligence. Even the occasional bestseller she launched didn’t want to work with her.
Yeah. The agent was right. And wrong. Sure, that publisher killed series, but back then your odds of being published were the odds of being hit by a meteor who’d lain in wait in an alley. Even a crappy deal was better than no deal. The proper strategy I now know would have been for that agent to make the deal then send the other two books of mine she had — Darkship Thieves and The Years Undone (mil sf, Red Baron) out and really push them on the strength of “she just sold a book.”
Why didn’t she do it? My theory is that it’s because those two books were Baenish and she didn’t like Baen. (Which was not unusual, as we shall see.)
I figured changing horses in the middle of the stream was bad, which might have been stupid, and told her to send it in. Two months later I went to world fantasy and found another agent and dropped her.
Before that she made the sale and got me $5k which was the standard advance for a beginner. Should she have got more? Probably. I figure she wasn’t a top flight agent though, but I only figured that years later. And your agent (and your agent’s idea of you) determined your advance.
Coincidentally a friend sold her book two months before me. (More on that later.) She had a top flight agent (she got him after the workshop, on the strength of “I have this book all but sold.” I had one before, so inferior. She also got $5k. However, her agent started immediately trying to sell foreign rights. Nothing came of it, but he tried.
$5k wasn’t amazing, but it was money. It was the first significant money I made from writing.
My next agent sold two sequels to the now retitled Ill Met by Moonlight. But before he sold them, he made me completely rewrite the second book. That agent (not just a writer himself, but the author of apparently now 2 or 3 books on writing) had a formula. You had to write to his formula, which is thrillerish and fits about as well with a Shakespearean fantasy concoction as a model’s dress on a cow. NEVER let anyone who is also a writer edit you. EVER. Particularly NOT if they have a ‘formula.’ I try really hard to make people figure it out themselves, but it’s fairly rare. I should not have rewritten to specification. That book, All Night Awake, remains my worst-selling book ever.
Mind you, he was right on a TON of things, like the fact I tended to have pages and pages of thoughts with no anchoring physical action, and if he’d just made me change that, he’d have improved the book. Unfortunately I had to write it to his formula. He promised if I did that it would sell for over 20k, and I’m an idiot. Oh, he probably didn’t PROMISE as such, but there was a ton of talk about “a year’s wage” which at the time in my head was about 20k. Because it’s what I’d made as a college lecturer in NC in 1989.
I sent the second book and proposal and outline in July 2000? There abouts. Maybe August. Two weeks later I got a phone call. We had an offer of 10k a book (whoo-oo) and he advised I take it, because then I’d sell a lot more to that house.
I was stupid and took it.
Why stupid? Because I KNEW better. In the workshop, I’d been told the house will put into your book what it pays out. I.e. if they have 50k (back then the magic was 25k) invested in you, they’ll do actual promo and push you. Less than that, and you’re disposable: a loss leader. You’ll be in “we also have this” in the reps presentation to the bookstore, and you’ll have maybe 2 books in most bookstores. Which means if you sell one, you just entered the hell of to-the-net and your next book will have a lay down of one, and the third of none.
I KNEW this, but I thought “this agent has a great reputation and he’s the professional. He tells me this is the way to do it, I’ll do it this way.” No matter. My stupidity and boy have I paid for it.
Meanwhile remember the first book, now titled Ill Met By Moonlight? Its winding its way through and 2000 or so I hear it’s scheduled for October 2001, and oh, by the way, they figure it’s that good it will be hard cover.
More whoo whoo! right? Yeah. I was a dumb ass. Hardcover just meant they’d recover my advance faster and without doing anything for the book, really.
To make things worse, they decided the book being “literary” had cross-marketing potential, so they wouldn’t have even FICTION on the cover, much less FANTASY.
My friend’s book came out Mass Market Paperback in May 2001 and it went to reprint and reprint and reprint, ending up selling 60k books.
I won’t blame Ace for 9/11 or the fall out from that. And as a professional friend told me “it would have been worse to be on the planes.” Maybe. Well, yes, because I had kids to raise. Emotionally… it’s another matter. And career wise, my career died that day. Or at least my traditional career.
Most of my books didn’t get unpacked. I know, because we talked to the bookstores. I was new, remember? I did drive by signings. Part of it was that the publisher had paid for a dump before deciding not to invest in the book (maybe when the next two books sold? Who knows?) So they had orders to put it in a cardboard display, but there was no display and they only had at most two copies. Most bookstores didn’t unpack them.
The ones that did didn’t know what to do with it, and it ended up anywhere from Theater to History to mystery.
I’m not going to tell you it was the best or most saleable series in the Universe. One of my friends who is a lawyer said it was too difficult to read for her. (Lots and lots of Elizabethan language.) Some people love it. It was fun to write. Though by the third it was palling.
It also earned out its minuscule advance and about 2k more.
Whoo Whoo. Not.
The next book also earned out its 10k advance. And was taken out of print the day after. Same for the next. (The only house that did NOT do that at the time was Baen, and though I’d sent DST to Baen, I’d not heard in three years.)
This brings us to 2003 when Ace tried to fire me and I refused to understand and kept pitching. The editor told me I could sell mysteries, then (somewhat peevishly) and to send her five proposals the next week.
So… I did. The Musketeers series came from that.
Before that a friend at Baen whom I will not name, the same way I didn’t name my workshop instructors, because I don’t want them to have to take responsibility for either my career or this post, got me in to collaborate with another author. That collaboration came to nothing. In fact, every time I’ve worked with that author, he’s turned the manuscript down with no explanation. Since I first started selling novels those are the only ones I’ve had flat rejected.
BUT I’d started emailing Jim Baen, mostly with jokes (he started it) and one day he sent me an email saying “Sarah, I have a hole in the schedule. Want to sell me anything you can have ready by end of month?”
I’ve written books in less time, but I had small kids, and was remodeling a house for sale (three so far, over 20 years. Why?) Still, I could sell sf/f again. And it wasn’t literary. Oh, yeah, I’d dumped the agent because he straight up blocked me demanding I write to formula, and I was shopping. But all the agents who were interested wanted me to write “literary” because that’s where the prestige is. Conversations that went “you can get a college teaching job and–” ended in “click” on my side.
This was a chance to write non-literary. So I jumped to it. Only I THOUGHT — remember I was still green as grass — that Jim Baen must have read DST (it was on his desk for years). So I sent him something I’d just started writing: an urban fantasy called Draw One In the Dark. I sent him an outline proposal and three chapters and went for an hour long walk with my family. When I came home, I had a contract in email. 12k.
Whoo Whoo, a raise. Yeah…
Jim Baen was dying, which is the reason I don’t hold the cover against him. He was probably having micro-strokes for days. So I got, bar none, the most atrocious and inappropriate cover you can imagine. (The hard cover and paperback covers are almost completely different.) I can’t seem to find the JPG, but my kids were then in elementary and this cover looked like it was drawn by one of their less talented classmates. It was very dark and for a light fantasy set in a diner it was a guy (for reasons of crazy wearing a sea shell) standing in front of castle with lightening rays behind.
My friend Kate bought a copy and her husband asked her if she’d taken to reading about zombies with an udder fetish. It was that bad and more. I didn’t want to be seen holding it and it was MY book. The only thing I can say for it is that it was better than the other cover (same artist) they wanted to foist on it which I nicknamed “anime butch lesbian with cats under her shirt.” I actually fought for the horrible cover, because it was better than the other horrible covers.
The book hit the stores in hard cover with predictable results. I think I sold 1500 copies. I want to point out right now in ANY OTHER HOUSE I’d have been fired. Yeah, none of it was my fault, but it’s always the author’s fault.
Baen gave me one more contract: for the sequel to the first book. (Spot the reasoning flaw, but my fault, as I submitted the outline. And most writers have a limited number of series, and they’re not psychic.)
Meanwhile the first musketeer book came out and was picked as a book club alternate. I’m actually mentioned in one of Carolyn Hart’s bookstore mysteries. Things were looking up. Whoo Whoo.
Only the house wanted to bring out three books a year. And meanwhile I’d sold Heart of Light and the Magical British Empire trilogy which was written before 9/11 and when I was trying very hard to be liberaltarian. Yeah. This matters. But they paid me 17k a book, baby needed shoes or books, or whatever.
This left me in the enviable position of delivering six books in a year. “Sure, I can do that.” Even though they were all heavy research.
Before I sold MBE something interesting happened. The house asked to see faxes of my statements on Shakespeare. Remember, green as grass. I thought nothing of it. I sent them. It was maybe two years before I realized that any house could, at the push of a button, see my actual numbers: ie. what I’d sold. So why did they want to know WHAT WAS REPORTED TO ME? I have theories, but they’re just theories. Plot it yourself. I’m also NOT going into the fact that I sometimes got reports from different houses and all the numbers matched for books the same age (Different genres, different publishers, different covers, etc.). They matched to the last digit. It’s not even deliberate fraud (probably.) It’s using 19th century methods and incomplete figures to estimate how much you sold. Like most of the industry it’s out of date and set in its ways. It’s not even worth bitching about.
Meanwhile my friend with the 60k first book had sent in another, which went bigger and was a book club alternate selection. The house then asked her for a bigger book. She had no idea HOW to do that. She floundered. In the middle of this, they suggested she write a Shakespeare book. I objected through my third agent (who never sold anything for me and quit when I insisted on selling to Baen, so by the time DOITD came out, I was on my fourth agent. Who tried to get me to quit Baen and write more “literary.”) They dropped the idea. I want to publicly apologize to my friend for this. The house found another person to do “discount Shakespeare.” She’s a best seller.
My friend fired her agent and turned in a book, in that order. The book was larger, not bigger. Not only was it rejected, but despite her STELLAR sales, they didn’t ever buy from her again. I know she thinks I somehow did this, because I continued selling and she didn’t. But other than object to Shakespeare from the same publisher, all I ever did is try to push her to every publisher I worked with. To this day her walling off from the field makes no sense to me. It’s possible the mega agent she fired poisoned the waters. He was really big. She insisted on firing him before getting a new one. It was a kind of lethal honesty.
Meanwhile not only did the sequel to Draw One In the Dark flop (remember, sequel. Ordering to the net.) For reasons inexplicable to me, Musketeers came out with the third cover identical to the first. Same tone, same general impression. Sure the letters and actual picture were different, but to this day I have to pay attention to figure out which one I’m signing. There was also some weird revision in the text that makes me sound historically illiterate. MIGHT have been in the page proofs. I was writing six books that year, and who knows? That book tanked badly. The house “solved it” by changing the titles of the next two books out of “the musketeer” format. The next one came in second (or won category? I no longer remember) the Colorado prize for the book. It was called A Death in Gascony and is now The Musketeer’s Inheritance. But it didn’t sell for crap, because no one knew it was in the series. So by the fifth book I was asked to submit a substitute to the sixth book. Hence, Dipped Stripped and Dead, under yet another pen name: Elise Hyatt.
Sometime before that, I’d started posting what I considered an unsaleable book — Darkship Thieves — in my conference in the Baen bar. I got a letter from the publisher telling me to stop putting it out in installments, she was buying it.
I was really excited — I love mystery, I can write fantasy, I can make vague hand gestures at hard SF but I LOVE space opera. I love the future history, the expansive universe, the life and death decisions. — until I found out how and when it was coming out.
It was coming out trade paper back in January. Both of these were, under trad publishing rules at the time the kiss of death. I realized then (and have said this sitting right next to the publisher, who made a face but didn’t deny it) that Baen had decided to let me down easy.
My sales sucked. They felt forced to buy more books because — being more ethical than the other houses — they knew the first cover for them sucked rotten eggs. HOWEVER they didn’t want to keep throwing good money after bad, and by that time I had THREE failed series with other publishers. (Yep, MBE disappeared without a ripple. Though they earned out. Of course they earned out.) I was a bad risk. But because they liked me, they didn’t want me to go away mad. So a sacrificial book: space opera (which sells worse than fantasy and my fantasy was tanking,) in trade paper back which sells even worse than mmpb does now, and in January which was known as “the lethal month” (this has changed somewhat due to gift cards.)
Inexperienced people, some of them with the best intentions think that was terrible. Well, it was certainly unfair, but by then ANY SANE PUBLISHER would figure either I stank or I had the world’s worst luck. Which since the business is highly unpredictable, comes to the same. Bad risk.
The book sold. And sold. And sold. It stayed on the shelves. The sane thing then would have been to buy the second ASAP. But remember I had not just a bad, but a spectacularly bad track record. And luck or lack of ability, the publishers are a tight margin business and can’t throw good money after bad. It took a year and a half to buy the second book. Which I know now (having published indie and seen numbers) means without serious promo, the SERIES was dead in the water. And was a REALLY bad prospect for serious promo, so it never happened. The series has limped along, though. Not wonderful, but the first three have earned out and the last two (except Darkship Revenge which for reasons known only to the publisher isn’t listed on Amazon as part of the series) are going there, eventually. Very slowly.
Nine years ago, I told my husband I was going to quit. You can’t fight that long. He said, fine, but give it another year. Which brought us to DST winning the Prometheus, my first ever foreign sale, indie and firing my last agent, in a rather noisy and public display. (I TRIED to make it amicable.)
The furniture refinishing series, under Elise Hyatt ran three books and then stopped. BUT the house refused to give me the rights back. My statements on those books are the most amazing thing, as the print run sometimes changes DOWNWARD. Also when I started asking for my rights back, first the editor lied (she told me I had to go through the agent that sold it) and when I got an IP lawyer, started paying me just enough to keep the books in print. (like $150 a year.) I got them back two years ago and the re-releases made me 2k a piece, which never happens. (Yes, they need paper editions and I need to finish the fourth.)
I have had some luck along the way, too — all my luck is my friends — and have now collaborated a couple of times with amazing writers. I’m in the process of learning a ton from Larry. Seriously. He’s actually writing half the book, and beyond that, he’s one of those gifted plotters who can look at something I did and say, “this will take it to the next level.” (Or as I’m told he used to call it “awesome it up.”) Larry Correia is one of those writers I feel would be as big even with my luck. Beyond the energizer bunny levels of work (yes, part of that is youth, but my damn stupid fault I took thirteen years to break in. Most do in three years. Yes, ESL is probably part of it, but honestly the different culture and terminal geek are worse.) he’s just gifted at reaching the audience.
Which I’m probably not. I mean, beyond all the spectacular bad luck, and the fact my first series set the tone for the follow up, it took me a while to even write in a way that didn’t get in the way of the story (mothers, don’t let your daughters be ABTD in English. Even if it’s ESL. The literature classes are LETHAL.)
I found recently (and was surprised) that one of the under absolute seal of secrecy novels I wrote for someone else made her a bestseller and made her career. (Others I don’t know about. These were work for hire, contracted double-blind, and paid like crap but no one was buying and we were paying on two houses.)
So, do I suck? Is it just bad luck?
No clue. My indie book, an odd duck indeed, part regency romance part multiverse fantasy made me 20k, but that’s not crazy numbers because indie has a higher ROR.
I think, though, just based on records, how trad pub works, and the fact they’re becoming tighter and tighter and shedding midlisters like water, much less a midlister with my history, my only option now is indie. So, we’re going to see. I never wanted much. Only to help support the family, and save for retirement. I mean, the boys are grown up.
Is indie better? I have no clue. For all I know I’ll stink on ice. But AT LEAST I’m not going to be held responsible for things like covers, poor distro or any of the other things I have no means of controlling.
I also will no longer have to be paranoid. I still have no clue why my friend got dumped, without their even looking at her proposals again. Other than “writers are widgets and trad pub can make them or break them at will. Someone who dumped a high flying agent is likely to complain in future and will be unbearable if she becomes a bestseller, which she has the chops to. Dump her now.”
Of all the houses I’ve worked for, Baen is by far the best, and I might have been able to make a career there if I hadn’t come to them with the stink of failure on me.
There is a village in Portugal that specializes in the Roman delicacy of Suckling Pig. The mother pigs there give birth to litter after litter without having a single one last more than a day. I used to feel very sorry for them. Hell, I still do. For the last twenty years I’ve been one of those pigs.
Worse, the fact no piglet survived clings to me and is now part of my resume. Publishing is uncertain. Houses do the equivalent of tea leaf reading before they buy and before they invest one red cent in promotion. And no house, particularly in this day and age will invest in publicizing me. Because it doesn’t make sense, whether my failures are bad (unsaleable is bad) writing or bad luck.
Knowing this, I know the ceiling of my career. And I’ve been fighting like mad to even FINISH books, besides trying to die from auto-immune (which is stress caused) till I’m put on prednisone every three months.
I know what it does to my system (besides making me gain 45 lbs over a couple of years) and I also know that the progression of my auto-immune is dangerous, with the next step probably involving loss of kidneys or pancreas, neither of which are worth losing over this.
No, this is not a “I’m quitting” letter. I have a collaboration that won the Dragon. And one almost finished that I’m really invested in and love. (Besides learning a ton from Larry Correia.)
I’m saying “it’s time I invested in indie and actually published regularly there.” Which is what I’m going to do.
As for you, look to your interests. But don’t expect trad pub to be fair. It’s a highly risky business. It can’t afford to be. And don’t expect it to be school. There is no such things as a “good” book. There’s those that sell, and those that don’t.
And don’t condemn the good houses with the bad. The good houses AT LEAST try. Most of them haven’t adjusted to new publishing, because it’ hard to change institutions, but at least they try.
Well… the good house, though I’m sure there are others, probably in other fields.
Treat publishing as a business. Look at what you’re likely to get from Trad Pub. Don’t treat them as the king who picked the servant to be his bride. These days you can go it alone, and trad pub should be used STRATEGICALLY only.
Don’t sell indie short. My fledgelings are making more than I did in total in my first five years of publication in one year. And that’s when they’re doing middling.
Maybe that’s not your metric. Maybe you want to be in the bookstores (trad gives you a better chance, but it’s not guaranteed). Maybe you want critical acclaim. PICK your adventure, and pay the price.
Ultimately the only judge of success is who gives you their beer money. And how much. Now go write and forge your own path.