Doors and Entrance

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 Biographies of published authors and other available material were out of date and useless.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.









  1. Some folks are still having a problem wrapping their heads around the simple truth that if you put your work up for sale you are your own small publishing company.
    And as the old joke goes, “Madam, we’ve already established what you are, all we are now doing is negotiating a price.”
    I all comes down to do you trust some entity to have your best interests or do you retain control yourself?

  2. (sorry this is a bit incoherent… have not yet slept and unlikely to for several hours)

    There really IS the ‘you can write anything, you’re gonna find someone interested in it’ vibe to the indie pub scene now. Webtoons seem to be a thing in Asia right now (judging by the number of fan translations I keep seeing) and there seems to be a resurgence in the Mythical Ancient China-esque isekai (other world/universe) setting, a lot of which is really eye catching because of the gorgeous artwork. I’m wondering if any of the other forms of popular fiction media that have shown up elsewhere will become popular in the West (though, I’m not sure if the serial phone-sms fiction one will come across, though it’s a fascinating concept.)

    Even so, just on Amazon alone, there are lots of really professional looking books (ebooks especially) that I’m seeing that cater to a large variety of tastes and concepts. It’s really baffling that the self-declared tastemakers are calling for silencing, when really there is no barrier to the supposedly minority voices to be heard.

    And, on a somewhat tangential note, I’m curious: Yaoi genre is hugely popular to a lot of women (I will confess it’s not one I am particularly interested in, but has that translated across to similar-themed lit in English? (I’m not sure what it’d be – LGB romance?)

    oh the baby’s asleep yay *faceplant into desk*

      1. phone text message. Apparently in either Japan or China, there are some digital authors whose paid subscription serials are essentially 1 text message = 1 installment of the story.

        I think it’s more successful in that because of their use of Chinese characters, so more is ‘crammed’ into a standard text message. I guess the equivalent would probably be like getting a chapter per current size Tweet.

  3. It took me from December 2012 to August of 2018 to “break out,” and even then I’m still not certain it’s real. [Velveteen sales, kinda like a velveteen rabbit?] Granted, I did everything wrong short of mouthing off on social media as far as generating sales, but sometimes, if you pound your head against the wall long enough, you DO start to make a dent in the wall.

  4. Speaking as someone trying to break in, I wonder if those around here would mind if I asked for a bit of advice on something not related to the post:

    As part of trying to get my first novel up for sale, I’m trying to decide on a pen name. I’m thinking about using “Zsuzsa” as the first name, but I’m wondering if that’s a bad idea and I’d be screwing myself over by having a name that those who heard it couldn’t spell and those who saw it couldn’t pronounce. Thoughts from anyone?

        1. Yes, Sue-za. Basically. Maybe with a bit of Zoo shadowing the Sue, but I don’t feel like it’s hard to pronounce. So long as it’s not supposed to be a K sound in there anywhere.

    1. Sarah is probably right, but I don’t think that I’d necessarily think “ethnic”. I guess that to me it sounds made-up, which is different and I don’t know if that’s good or bad either. I was thinking of using Bic Avery, and if that doesn’t sound completely made-up to someone they are hopeless. But anyhow,

      What I like in an author name isn’t that I can pronounce it, but that I can remember it well enough to look up the author. And I think that Z-somthing-a followed by an easy to spell and very simple last name would probably work very well.

      What were you thinking of for the rest of it?

    2. I hereby assign thee the pen name Zeus Montgomery Savage, upon my authority as a dispenser of pen names for right wing extremist publications.

      Synova. What do you think of Sanosuke Genryuusai Hijikata? It’ll confuse people, or your money back.

      1. “Synova. What do you think of Sanosuke Genryuusai Hijikata? It’ll confuse people, or your money back.”

        I’m going to look those up. I’m sure it’s funny and I have my suspicions.

        But the point was “easy to remember” or “memorable”. And maybe for only certain sorts of stories that are a collaboration with my husband. “Confuse people” wasn’t on the list of goals. 😉

    3. I’d recommend perhaps one of the more familiar form of Susan. For one thing, some people will think it’s a pen name that would be suited as a character name if it’s too odd.

    4. As the saying goes, “If I can’t pronounce it, I can’t remember it.” Which is a terrible truth for mono-lingual history students looking at their non-native languages, and explains the rapidly glazed eyes when they start looking at places on the map with non-western names.

      It bleeds over into publishing – if you look at romance, where pen names abound, you’ll see that they’re chosen specifically to be short, easy to remember, easy to say, and just slightly different enough to be memorable. Obviously, I would never tell someone they can’t use their name (I rarely tell anyone they can’t this or can’t that), but when it comes to pen names, I would only recommend a, well, non-standard or non-easily-pronounceable pen name if you feel you have enough people that recognize you by that online handle it would be a boost to your sales. (Like LawDog of the LawDog Files, or CloudDancer of CloudDancer’s Alaskan Chronicles, who both also stick to handles to avoid issues with their job over their social media presence.)

    5. Just wanted to thank everyone for their feedback. It pretty much confirmed what I’d already been thinking: that however much I might like Zsuzsa, using it as a pen name is a bad idea.

      So now that I’ve decided what my pen name isn’t, I just have to figure out what it is (I’ve also been considering Arianne Tillay, but that feels like more like a romance writer than a fantasy writer to me for some reason).

      1. Whatever you do, google-search your various prospective names before you decide – I did this with my legal given-at-birth name, and discovered that there was another writer with that name, who had a raft-load of scholarly publications and an internet presence that absolutely dwarfed mine … so, I took a pen name not far removed from the legal one, and went to press and presence with it.
        In the last couple of years, there has bubbled up another writer – she does contemporary rom-coms – with my pen-name, which is amusing, because we are mixed up on Amazon and in fan-ship and on Goodreads constantly … sigh.
        I really wish that the other writer and done a simple google search first…
        But I understand that the writer Elizabeth Taylor had the same kind of problem … there was this actress with the same name, constantly in the public eye!

        1. IIRC, the British politician and author Winston S. Churchill actually encountered this problem, as when he began publishing there was an American novelist Winston Churchill who was active at the time, and that is why he used the middle initial when he published.

        2. When I first looked for a pen-name, I found a wonderful one. Until I did a search, and discovered a prominent lady attorney with the same name. She specializes in tort and related suits as a plainteff’s attorney. Not the person to borrow a name from!

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