Who Really Matters: Readers or Gatekeepers?

I’ve been head down, butt in chair for three weeks now working on a book that wasn’t planned, wasn’t even a glimmer of an idea before then. So it came as a surprise this morning when I woke and realized it was Tuesday and I needed to blog. Without an idea in mind, I went looking for inspiration and found it at The Passive Voice, specifically a link PG had to an article by former agent Nathan Bransford about the real threshold for traditional publishing. That article, in particular one swipe at indie authors, got the brain stirring–or maybe it was the coffee–and here we go.

I will give Bransford credit for admitting some traditionally published books are anything but brilliant. In fact, he admits “some read like lukewarm porridge”. Of course, I think that’s probably insulting porridge, but shrug.

However, where I draw a line with him is with this comment:

I personally have long felt authors cast too many aspersions against traditionally published books and underrate how good they really are, particularly if you’ve never read slush to get a sense of the “competition.” If you’re not finding more wonderful books than you could possibly have time to read, you’re really not looking very hard.

As one of those authors he very well could be referring to, I take exception to his comment. For one, he doesn’t define what he feels is a “good” book is. This is something we saw certain folks doing back in the Sad Puppy days. We wanted good books–books that entertained and took us on new flights of imagination. That was condemned and the other side said “good” books were those that uplifted us and spread a message–of course, that message had to be the right message or it wasn’t good.

What I find today when I trawl through the listings of new traditionally published books is too many appear to have the same tickler list of characters that must be included and in what roles. Then there are the approved plot points. 

And let’s not forget those calls for submissions from publishers where you, the author, have to fit certain requirements as well. Because, you know, it really matters what your race, politics, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, etc. are to the reader.

Bransford goes on to say:

If you want to know how good you have to be to get a traditionally published book across the finish line: look to the debuts. Those are the ones that had to get an editor excited enough to make an offer and take a chance on an unknown author.

And again, he doesn’t define “good”. He also leaves out important information like making sure you are writing to what that editor/publisher is asking for. While he admits the criteria is subjective, he leaves so much out. . .starting with what factors the publisher/editor is taking into consideration at the time of submission. What social factors are being pushed or what political ideas are being shoved under the carpet?

In other words, if you want to go for a traditional contract, do so. But by all that is holy, do your homework. Don’t just look at what the submission requirements are. Look at what books the editors are accepting right now and what they have accepted in the past. Google the house and the editors, look for interviews and other news about them. 

Failure to do so can and very likely will lead to rejection. Not because your book isn’t “good” enough but because you aren’t ticking off the right check boxes. 

Then, after you’ve written your book, made sure it is well-edited, have done your homework and identified publishers who at least on the surface look like they accept works like yours, you aren’t done yet. Does the publisher accept unsolicited submissions? If not, your work is far from done. Now you need to do the same sort of research into agents. 

At this point, one of the questions you have to ask yourself is if you are willing to wait months or even years before you hear back from first an agent and then a publishers before you see your book on the shelf (and know it very well be a metaphorical shelf only). Remember, trad publishers only have so many slots a month they can fill and, of those slots, the majority go to established authors. Then there’s the fact that the sort of book they are looking for today might not be the new hotness in a year or two when it is finally published.

For some, and for a number of reasons, this risk is worth it. But for the others, even for those who are willing to take the risk, I suggest you consider this comment from PG:

PG suggests that authors may be best-served by letting readers decide. At a minimum, an indie author with little talent will have more readers and make more money than a would-be traditionally-published author who never gets a book contract.

The question of which path to take is one every author must ask and answer for himself. However, before answering it, make sure you know the pitfalls as well as the benefits of both. Then ask yourself which one is right for you.

For me, the answer was simple. I didn’t want to wait a year or more from the time I submitted a book to the time it was published. I didn’t want to give the publisher a huge chunk of the sales price when I’m the one doing most of the work–including promotion. But that was my choice and one I made after researching and talking with others in the business.

As I said last week, money should flow to the writer. Remember that if you do go the traditional route. Have an IP attorney read your contract. Make sure you aren’t going to be charged “expenses” for the length of the contract. Make sure you aren’t signing over your rights in such a way it become impossible for you to get them back (the old “in print” clause is a mess now with e-books. Just ask some of the authors who have tried to get their rights back and have come up against that particular can of worms.) 

Basically, here’s the thing. Write. Decide how you want to release your book. Decide how much control you want over the final product and how much control you are willing to give up. Then follow your educated heart and brain and cross your fingers because there is no surefire way to get rich in this business. Talent plays a part but so does a hell of a lot of luck.

And now I need to get back to work. Until later!

38 thoughts on “Who Really Matters: Readers or Gatekeepers?

  1. “The question of which path to take is one every author must ask and answer for himself. However, before answering it, make sure you know the pitfalls as well as the benefits of both. Then ask yourself which one is right for you.”

    And before you do THAT, remember that you’ll be commercially publishing with, if you have a GOOD agent, a contract that gives you about 15% of all royalties earned, but only after all expenses and other things that publishers’ accountants can subtract have been subtracted, and if you question the numbers, you must hire your OWN accountant and pay him an exorbitant hourly fee to examine the publisher’s books…

    And meanwhile, if you’re going indie, you get to ensure some idiot editor who was told to cut your 200,000 word novel to 150,000 words doesn’t remove your damned romantic lead… and you keep ALL your rights… and you get the 70% royalties that Amazon pays monthly (even if they aren’t paid the same month the royalties are earned).

  2. There is also a growing anti-promotion problem.
    The other day, I was looking for something new to read and starting going through the Also Boughts of the Also Boughts and stumbled on something that looked interesting. I saw “Hugo Award Winner” and an Also Bought of Ancillary Justice. I ran away without even checking the probably outrageous $8.99 price.

  3. Odd that Mr. Bransford seems to think that debut novels are the bees knees. I understand what he means with the established authors who have fans that will read anything they put out, so they do in fact put out anything, but in general, I’ve found “debut” novels are anything other than absolutely beautiful. On Basilisk Station, for example, was clunky and awkward and more than once completely stopped the story in order to give exposition; it wasn’t until Honor of the Queen that I thought Honor Harrington really hit her stride. Monster Hunter International was okay; Monster Hunter Legion is a book I could read over and over again.

    If you’re not finding more wonderful books than you could possibly have time to read, you’re really not looking very hard.

    For the moment, let’s take this assertion at face value, and assume there really are dozens upon dozens of wonderful, traditionally published books. If readers aren’t finding those books, doesn’t that represent a failure of the publishers? It’s supposed to be the publisher’s job to market these books, after all, and if they’re just saying, “Oh, browse through our entire catalog, I’m sure there’s something in there you would like,” they aren’t doing their job.

    Really, Mr. Bransford may think he’s coming to praise trad publishing, but the further you read into that essay, the more it seems like he’s actually doing the work to bury it.

    1. I think that the idea to look at debut novels was to see where the bar was and also what is currently being purchased.

      I disagree about Basilisk Station though. 😉

    2. For the moment, let’s take this assertion at face value, and assume there really are dozens upon dozens of wonderful, traditionally published books.

      I know exactly where a stack that embodies that is!

      …I just won’t pay $9/book for the “everything Agatha Christie ever wrote” e-book bundle.

  4. When I first got into the indy-author game, I took the advice of a founding book-blogger, Michael Allen, better known back then as Grumpy Old Bookman. His book blog was very well thought of, early on, as he was both a very good writer himself, and had decades of experience in traditional publishing. (A fan of my own stuff was a friend of his, who put me in touch.) Mr. Allen advised giving it a year, tops, to pursue an agent and a traditional deal. After that point, he said, go indy.
    The space for new authors is so limited with trad-publication … but readership is wide, deep and know what they want, and if you can give them their fix, then go for it, and maybe you’ll soon be able to buy your own mountain. Or at least, pay a few bills, instead of sitting on a stack of unpublished novels and a mound of rejection letters.

  5. I spent a year shopping my first book around to trad publishers and agents. I did take someone’s advice and write my next book while I was waiting. When I finished that book, I thought about sending it on the rounds, too, but the idea of waiting two years to see it published was just too sad, so I put that one up myself as well.

    I still send shorter works to magazines, but they reply much more quickly.

  6. The trad system is unbelievably slow. (I’ve seen friends get “trad” published in what seems like no time at all through newer publishers who seem to operate with some alacrity.) And if you weren’t with an agent the publishers expected you to wait patiently while they eventually got around to you and then wait again, and again before being free to submit to someone else.

    And the old model didn’t involve writing books that weren’t sold, not after your first one. And I likely won’t ever forgive one of those trad publishers for taking so long to get their heads out of their asses that they took five years to publish what they’d already agreed to buy so that by the time the author got the whole trilogy in print he up and died before the last paperback was out. But you just didn’t WRITE what hadn’t been sold yet.

    It truly is/was an abusive system.

    1. Andrea k Host used to have – haven’t checked if it’s still up – the tale of her manuscript that a publisher strung her along about for TEN YEARS before she gave up and self published. Never offered a contract, but whenever she checked she’d get back something that gave her hope so she hung in there until it became obviously ridiculous.

      Ah -the tale can be found here: https://sites.google.com/a/andreakhost.com/the-glacier/

      Sums up the abusive nature of the process vividly. Aspiring writers ought to be pointed to it and Kris Rusch’s business musings entries.

      1. Huh. Trad book publishers aren’t the only ones to play that game with writers. I had a short submission to a historical magazine, which was accepted … and then apparently was filed in their stash of accepted articles and never published in the magazine for nearly a decade. I finally withdrew it.

    1. “But if a writer does not entertain his readers, all he is producing is paper dirty on one side. I must always bear in mind that my prospective reader could spend his recreation money on beer rather than on my stories; I have to be aware every minute that I am competing for beer money—and that the customer does not have to buy. If I produced, let us say, potatoes or beef, I could be sure that my product had some value in the market. But a story that the customers do not enjoy reading is worth nothing.

      So, when anyone asks me why I write, if it is a quick answer, standing up, I simply say, “For money.” Any other short answer is dishonest—and any writer who forgets that his prime purpose is to wangle, say 95 cents out of a customer who need not buy at all simply does not get published. He is not a writer; he just thinks he is.

      (Oh, surely, one hears a lot of crap about “art” and “self-expression,” and “duty to mankind”—but when it comes down to the crunch, there your book is, on the newsstands, along with hundreds of others with just as pretty covers—and the customer does not have to buy. If a writer fails to entertain, he fails to put food on the table—and there is no unemployment insurance for free-lance writers.)”

      –RAH, “Grumbles from the Grave”

      “…like Bob said to me once, we’re competing for *your* beer money!”
      –G.Harry Stine

  7. I’ve been given to understand that some agents and even a few publishers have started mining the indie roles for new authors. Having one or a series of successful indie books seems to have a certain attraction with them. What I fail to understand is just what it is they have to offer to entice an indie author to agree to sign with them. Once upon a time I suppose it would be professional editing, quality cover art, skilled marketing, and better access to the major markets. Those first three have fallen on hard times with tradpub, and Amazon the demise of brick and mortar bookstores has put paid to the last.

    1. Prestige, assured money, and not having to do the cover art/editing yourself, mostly, and if you land a contract with a publisher with a strong brand it does help with getting a wider audience reach than you had before.

        1. Scholastic.

          The lack of school book fairs might hurt them– but then, they’ve been openly courting the homeschool population since before I started homeschooling, so it may not.

        2. Depends on who you talk to. I know Tor’s name is mud around here, but in Certain Circles they do have a strong rep, and while Roc is a distant third they do have more brand recognition than “Joe Smith, Indy author.”

          1. They can have more brand recognition, but there are so few that actually have people who buy their books because of the publisher (rather than because of the authors)

            Do people go looking for Tor books? I know I haven’t since I stopped going to bookstore. And even Harlequin (one I thought of after I posted) on the romance side is less of a draw as a brand than it used to be.

            It comes down to Joe Newbie is playing the publishing lotto. The odds of getting trad published at all are astronomical. The odds against getting in with any place that has any kind of brand recognition of their own, even at the ‘oh I liked the last author of theirs I read’ much less at the ‘what does Scholastic have this month’ level is even higher.

            Five with brand recognition (including Harlequin and Scholastic)

            Add in the lack of promotion for new authors and loss of rights, and the odds on a slow build in Indie publishing for Joe Newbie are orders of magnitude better. Not guaranteed, but orders of magnitude better, especially if the goal is a long career not a one or two book career.

    2. I seem to remember one of the New Hotness types got hired that way– I know a couple of the Scholastic writers did*– but I also heard of one of the folks who went from Indy to Big New Hotness publishing contract then went back to indy because they like being paid more than being trad-pubbed.

      * Scholastic is an understandable exception, because they are the way to get stuff to kids, and even now they’re publishing BadThink stuff, because it sells.
      Also a ton of drek, but 90%

            1. What the actual…it’s no wonder so many writers are Marxists. The publishing industry is probably the closest thing to his vision of how capital/labor relations work that exists, outside of outright slavery.

                1. Yep, but it is yet another way publishers often manipulate the situation. If an author, especially a new one, wants it removed from the contract, they are told it is industry standard and not to worry. They won’t enforce it–of course, that isn’t said in writing. Then there is often mumbling about how much it would cost in legal fees to rewrite the contract because everyone gets the same contract with just the names and dollar amounts changed.

  8. With fiction, there are various tradeoffs in terms of time and money spent. a) I’m better hazarding the slush than what seems quality to the folks who run most trad publishing. b) Bought fiction has to beat looking at a targeted subset of fanfic and other stuff. There are specific indy authors who beat that, and imported translations if I’m feeling like a big spender. I happen to know that I have some interest in the earlier iterations of stratemeyer syndicate books, and other such previously published works, potentially more than I could read, and haven’t spent the time to track things down. Modern trad is way at the bottom in terms of ROI for time spent looking.

    Non-fiction, I might want to read several titles on a topic in order to figure out how to better approximate the truth. Looking at modern trad pub there is still a reasonable option for some areas. Of course, trad pub makes its money from non-fiction.

    Jeff B. was tolerable, Andy is not. I’m seriously tempted to shift my purchasing to directly from publishers I don’t hate much. Or sticking to mandatory purchases only.

    I’m normally tight with money. For many years, I was only buying non-fiction, and even then only for projects.

    Lcokdown has me less able to rely on libraries, and more crazy, so I had been buying more. (I was also a little shocked and confused by an increase in personal income.)

  9. I don’t think anyone’s mentioned this yet, but trad has a bogglingly stupid fixation on hardcovers. It’s part of the trad business model, for reasons that are mostly historical and now completely counterproductive. Trad pricing of ebook editions (if they do them at all) is set to protect the hardcover edition. This is why people at trad houses keep saying that “nobody is buying ebooks.” Nobody is buying $25 ebooks, is fersure.
    There’s another modern (if slightly odd) development that hurts trad: Amazon and eBay make it easy for individuals to sell used books. The impatient reader buys the hardcover at B&N, reads it, and then lists it on Amazon for half the cover price. A read-once book might as well be new, assuming no scribbles in the margins. The more patient reader buys the “used” book, reads it, and then puts it on Amazon for a third of cover price. The most patient readers wait until the title is remaindered, and they can get it for two bucks plus shipping. The upshot is that one hardcover sale takes the place of what might have been two or three hardcover sales before the age of fast’n’easy online used bookselling.
    Amazon has trained a whole generation of recreational readers that ebooks should cost no more than $9.99. Only a few of the trad houses are willing to go this low, and almost none of the big ones. Again, it’s all about protecting the hardcovers.
    And don’t get me started on modern trad contracts.
    Ebooks are no longer exotica. Talented people who edit and do covers are out there. There’s very little reason not to go indie anymore, unless you’re really fixated on the idea of having a hardcover with your name on it. As an indie you own it and control it. Some skills are required, but skills can be learned, or purchased on an open and growing market. Considering the hazards, delays, and aggravations of trad publishing, well, hell, you’re nuts not to go indie.

    1. DON’T underestimate the ability to get precisely what you want in used books. Jeff is absolutely right.
      In the nineties we fell in love with an out of print series, after we found one of the books at a local bookstore. We ended up having to do a used book search for the remaining ten volumes we couldn’t find for love or money. This involved registering the books you wanted with a used bookseller, and promising to buy the books if found. (you told them an upper price.)
      It took us 10 years to get the whole series (weirdly just last year Dan yelled at writer online and told him to get the series out in ebooks. He’s a massive leftist, and was trying to get a republishing contract. I haven’t checked whether he did, because frankly his opinions — frequent and loud — make it hard for me to re-read him.) Some of the books cost us $30 for a very beat up paperback.
      Okay, just looked on Amazon. The most expensive used book — should you insist on paper. He did put them up e, or someone did — in this 30 year old series is $9. And they’re all available.

      1. Supporting evidence:
        Yesterday I ordered an entire series for the kids, because they’d picked up one at Goodwill a year ago, and just got around to reading it, and are in love.

        …I am not buying it at $4 an ebook (standard thin kid books), nor at $5 a paperback, although I considered it at something like $3.25 each for the entire set.

        Looked at the used section, found a store’s “the box is roughed up so it looks ugly, and the last two books have a crumpled corner.” For $2.10 each after taxes, shipping and handling.
        It’ll be here next Monday.

  10. > The more patient reader buys the “used” book

    And now, without being limited to the trickle of the tradpub release cycle and the vagaries of logal bookstore stocking, even impatient readers have more to choose from than they can make time to read. So the “buy it now before it disappears from the store” reflex is all byt gone.

  11. Ah. I think I’ve talked before about that “boiled oatmeal feeling” that a lot of first books, and almost all “pushed” first books have.
    And I can explain it. Besides the fact that a writer trying to break in will do endless re-writes on the word level (which is stupid. You don’t know enough to make it better. No really. What you’re usually doing is making it more “like my English teacher would approve of”) the route to trad pub is still through workshops.
    Why? Well, because trad pub is deeply and disturbingly incestuous. So it’s all who you know. Going to a workshop usually gets you a chance to meet an editor/agent who gets you in the door (while making sure you check the requirements that until recently they were afraid to print, you know: you can tan, are female, and of course, obviously are extremely left.)
    The problem is most of the big, well regarded workshops take a struggle session approach to writing. They also confuse depth with “pushes message” but that’s something else.
    As in all “artist” learning colonies/workshops, etc, a bunch of “though shalt” and “though shalt not” have sprang up out of the blue, which make things writers have done, and which have worked since the beginning of time “bad.”
    There is for instance a screaming and gnashing of teeth against “first person.” (Which I’ve recently found a lot of newbies confuse with present tense!) because some old and not very bright writers went on a crusade against it, screaming if you’re writing first person you’re writing yourself. Now, I know at least one of those writers, and all his characters are either himself or people he knows (our brief attempt at working together was hilarious because he couldn’t understand “oh, no. I don’t write people I know, except in minor roles/secondary characters, and even that only if I’m very tired or sick.” Let’s say it just didn’t work.) So he screams you have to get past first person to be a professional, competent writer.
    Well, I like first person. Yes, it has massive limitations, but so does every person. And people who think Athena is me need their heads examined. As for people who think Luce is me…. I can’t help you, but there are professionals for that.
    Robert A. Heinlein wrote first person a lot, and whatever you think of him, he still sells better than most people who are still alive. So did Agatha Christie, at least some of the time.
    So the shibboleth against first person is puzzling. But there are others. There is the war on “anything but said” which is cute. I mean, sure, you can go too far the other way. You know what? I found today’s post.
    But, anyway, when I was running a micro press publisher, I could identify graduates from the big workshops by the first three paragraphs. I made a bet with myself, and didn’t read their cover letter till after. BUT it didn’t matter.
    If the first three paragraphs were perfectly correct and read like boiled oatmeal, I had found one of them.

    1. a bunch of “though shalt” and “though shalt not”

      Actually, autocorrect, that’s a bit funny.

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