It has been much on my mind this week, what with one thing and another, mentions of old stuff on my blog, and explaining to a friend about how ways of breaking in have changed over time.
You see, publishing has never had just one door and just one career path. Coming in as I did from completely outside, with no contacts to the publishing industry was almost unheard of in my time. I had a heck of a time finding what was the way in at that time. Because it changes. Biographies of published authors and other available material were out of date and useless.
It hadn’t been that difficult for an outsider, once upon the time when the publishing industry was more …. profitable, more competitive, more vibrant. Sure, you could still get completely blacklisted for stupid stuff, even twenty years early.
Publishing, until our present day, has always been a market with more sellers than buyers, if you understand buyers as the publishers who actually made the decision on whom the ultimate buyers got to see.
Even when there were a lot more publishers, and they were truly independent, they probably didn’t match the number of writers toiling away hoping to make a living from this stuff, anywhere close. Probably writers were always a hundred to one. I don’t know.
I know by the time I got in it was way narrower than ever. Once, at a con, a bunch of writers with alcohol calculated the chances of a first book getting published, and they were something like one in ten thousand. And because these were the days of ordering to the net, the chances of each subsequent sale thereafter diminished. And that was for books submitted at about the same time as yours.
Anyway, the thing is because I came completely from outside the field, I didn’t even have any idea where to learn. I eventually got hints in fiction books, of all places. But first, I tried to get how to write books Which usually came with how to sell books.
The books in the library were old and came from a time of a much more vibrant market. Which means the path they advised was to write a lot of short stories and sell a lot of them. Start with the for free markets and progress to professional, and then you’d be taken seriously.
I’d been in the states less than a year. I’d written two novels (in English) but I had no idea how to even submit. I’d never felt any need to write short stories, other than short shorts, which were more like poems. But if that was the way to break in, well, by gum, I’d pull my pants up and practice till my fingers bled.
This was 1986. Took me till 92 to sell semi-pro short stories. Lots of things fed into this. I really was not a natural short story writer, and had to learn it step by step. Second, during that time I had jobs, and also had a baby and moved across the country. Somehow through all that I wrote five novels, and about 20 short stories. One of which finally sold, only the company went under without being published. It wasn’t till 96 my first pro sale came through and the story was (eventually) published.
Meanwhile, more or less blindly, I’d sent novels out (and got rejections) and submitted to a couple of contexts that were a bit of a take-in. (I can explain at length sometime. Not now.)
More or less at random, reading a fiction book (a mystery) I found one of the characters mocked for trying to break in by sending in books over the transom, instead of going to conferences and meeting editors.
Well, I didn’t have a money to hit the con circuit, but a friend found a workshop, and at the workshop we both met the editor who bought our first novels. But you know, it was actually an unusual result, even then.
After you’re in, it’s a little different, and I found myself meeting publishers, talking, finding out opportunities.
But for about the next fifteen years, I got put in “how to break in” panels, and honestly, I had not even the vaguest clue how one broke in THEN.
For a long while it seemed to be a matter of knowing someone. But then, so it’s always been. For other ways to get in, I didn’t know. I passed on “practice and try to meet editors” but you know… that’s not a lot of help for people as deeply outside as I was.
Which brings us to…
I figured out the “new new way to break in” around 2007 because I was put in those beginner panels. More and more, I started running into young authors who had self published — yes, when there was still a stigma — and done really well were given an above average advance, pushed with enthusiasm, and if they had it in them at all, became much bigger sellers than I almost immediately.
In retrospect, the process is all part of a narrowing, a losing of the open book market. ordering to the net means that the publishers needed bigger sellers up front, and some idea that the people they pushed would be winners. What best way to predict those who would sell than by buying people who’d already sold. (Not that big publishers couldn’t still screw it up, since a lot of the early indie sellers were bought trad and disappeared without a trace.)
In the same way the houses, attempting to run leaner, had outsourced reading of over-the-transom stuff to agents, and even those who theoretically took over the transom submissions (the exceptions being Baen and I THINK DAW for a long time.)
What is the way into the traditional publishing now? I’ll be honest, I’m not 100% sure. I mean, I know two ways from other people, and one seems to work better than the other, but meh. Between morality clauses and copyright snatching, I think all traditional publishing is a bad idea at this point in time. But if getting in is your ambition, I suggest you try to publish indie first and be massively successful. You start in a much higher place and with much more push.
But here’s the thing. Remember how I told you that things have narrowed and narrowed since about the thirties or forties, when the way in was through short stories. When there was a vibrant pulp market, where you could make money from writing short stories, people did this until they had a name, and then book publishers picked them up and they had a better chance of selling there because they had a following already.
Or they could continue publishing short stories. It wasn’t an amazing living, but it was an income.
Then as the merger madness TM hit in the eighties and the pulps were a thing of the past, things narrowed and the whole industry became far more psychologically unhealthy: from the publishers pretending their push and publicity had nothing to do with the outcome on the book, to the publishers expecting the writers to be a kind of lottery ticket,and getting rid of them when they didn’t, to writers all watching each other and being afraid of giving the wrong impression (and the less scrupulous writers knifing others in the back.)
The market now, whatever you choose to do is far, far more healthy. In indie, you have an eternity of beginning. Yes, you might not lift off. Though I’ll be honest I don’t know anyone who is competent and writing and improving who doesn’t see their money improve too. But you can continue trying. There is no such thing as selling to the net, no ruined career. There isn’t even any genre bar anymore. You want to write urban fantasy AND mystery? Go for it. Have a ball. No one cares.
It’s kind of amazing that now is the time trad pub people talk about silencing voices. Who is going to silence you? Sure, they can give you bad reviews, but all writers have bad reviews. They can’t tell you that you can’t have access to the public anymore.
And if you’re spectacularly strange and ruin your name, say, by writing things about how your fans suck (mine don’t. The example is only because it’s the only even remote chance of ruining your career. Well, I suppose being a murderer or something would do it too.) start another name, and even if you wish another imprint. Who is going to know?
And sure, if you want to, when trad pub comes calling, go for it. But for the love of heaven de-fang that contract first. See an IP lawyer. Don’t be a fool. And be prepared to be disappointed. They do very well for some people, of course, but a number of the indie mega successes fizzled in trad.
If that happens, don’t despair. Come back to indie, under another name, if need be.
You have infinite chances and no one can tell you not write anymore, or that you can’t reach the public anymore.
Twenty years ago I’d have thought it was paradise.
Now go write. May your next book be your best one.
The gate is standing wide open.