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19 June 2009 @ 10:16 am
Magical Words: who pays whom?  

I’ve been doing what will, I imagine, turn into a four part series over on Magical Words, all prompted by a reader question “who pays whom?” Part one, discussing the editor/agent/author relationship and the differences between an editor and an editorial service, is here. Part two, discussing vanity presses, is here. I expect I’ll be talking about POD and ebooks over the next two weeks, and I’ll link to those later, maybe.

For the moment, though, I thought I’d bring up what turned into a very long comment from the second part, and post it here. It’s a little about what drives people to vanity press, and a little about other stuff, and probably none of it’s news, but I think it probably also bears repeating. And it’s long, so I’ll put it

(a Magical Words reader) wrote: THAT’S why people seek out vanity publishing – desperation when there is no one who will take the time to even explain, yes this is good, or no that is bad. Rarely do they even mention that they are unable to categorise a book

The reason I used the “unable to categorize” example, actually, was because I had that experience myself, repeatedly, with a book that my writing partner and I wrote. And the reason I /know/ it was uncategorizeable was because we have about fifteen rejection letters saying, “Man, this is really good and we have no idea what to do with it, sorry, we have to pass.” If you’ve written something good (and I mean ‘you’ as a generic term here), somebody will take the trouble to tell you.

mostly (as far as I’m aware) the better and therefore busier agents don’t even read stuff from unknowns unless they’re really stuck for something to sell.

My agent, who I think is quite splendid (and so do other people!), does, in fact, read material from unknowns, to the tune of hundreds of queries a week. Most agents are constantly on the prowl for the next new hot thing. They’re just as happy as we are to sign somebody talented.

Published authors repeatedly tell us they had 20, 30, 40, 50 or even more rejections before they got their first book accepted. Most unknowns give up WAY before that

Aaah. Okay. Again, I want to be very clear I’m not directing this at anyone in particular, but as a general statement:

If you give up before you get your first book accepted, you don’t have the stuff to be a published writer…and that’s okay.

This is, as we’ve said dozens of times, not an easy business. It’s a fairly terrible way to make a living–nerve wracking, uncertain, frequently desperation-filled. If the repeated rejections take you out of the game, then you’re probably not suited for this job. There is *nothing wrong with that*. It’s like not being suited to be a surgeon or a golf pro or a concert pianist. Not everybody is cut out for it. Not everybody wants to go to fifteen years of medical school or practice their swing shot every day or spend hours a week playing scales.

The difference is that we’re all taught the physical act of writing in school, and we’re not all taught to hit a birdie or play piano. There appears to be a connection in our society between the physical ability to write and the ability to tell a story, but they’re not any more the same than being able to swing a stick means you’re able to hit a home run four out of five throws. There’s also the fact that humans use stories to relate to one another, so we all tend to believe we can tell a story. Being able to relate, to great laughter, the tale of Great Aunt Maude’s trials with the water company, is not actually the same ability as sitting down to write an entertaining four hundred page novel. We correlate these things, but we often do so falsely.

It’s true that there are books out there on the shelves which I can find no reasonable explanation for their publication. In fact, it was one of those books that made me say, “God, I can do better than /this/,” and write my first book at age 19 (no, I won’t tell you what the book was, but only because I can’t remember). It’s true there are books out there which appear to have never been seen by an editor, much less improved upon by revisions. It’s true that we *all* think, at one point or another, “God, I can do better than that!” And I really truly can, at least on some level, understand the impulse to say, “Okay, if nobody in New York will buy my book, I can self-publish it and at least it’ll be out there, and it’s better than this crap! Surely people will see that!”

If you’re a hobbiest, or [a poet on MW who opted to self-publish a book of poetry for gifts], then yeah, that’s a perfectly reasonable way to go. You’re getting what you expect out of the deal. If, though, you want to do this for a living, professionally, day in and day out, and you quit before you get that acceptance letter…then you don’t want it enough, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all.

I have probably related here before the story of meeting Anne McCaffrey, one of science fiction’s grande dames, who asked if I was a writer, and upon being told I was, said, “If you can do anything else, do it.”

I was just barely twenty years old, and I had no idea what she meant, not really, because, well, of COURSE I could do other things. I could–and did–work as an archivist, a web designer, a Pokemon salesman, and a ton of other things. It wasn’t until I was holding URBAN SHAMAN, my first published novel, in my hands, that I really understood what she’d been saying.

She’d been telling me that if I could be content, even happy, doing something that didn’t pile up the rejection letters, that didn’t require spending years of my life at a keyboard when I could be doing something else, if I could get ten or twenty or thirty rejection letters and say, “No, this isn’t worth it,” then it wasn’t worth it. I would be happier doing something else. If I could walk away from writing, I should, because it would make for an easier and more comfortable life.

Some people can walk away. Some people get that thirty-second rejection letter and say, “No, screw it,” and put it all away. I don’t envy them, because I love my life and my job, but if they can do that, I think Anne was right: they’ll be happier.

If they can’t, then I will forever stand the line and say do not go the vanity press route. If you want it this badly, keep going until it’s real.

(x-posted from the essential kit)

Current Mood: cynicalpassionate
Kari Sperringla_marquise_de_ on June 19th, 2009 10:17 am (UTC)
Yes. With bells on.
One thing I will add on the vanity presses, though is that in the UK at least, there is a small category of books for which the vanity presses can be the right place. These are the very small print run, very specialist works with an existing but minor audience -- typically books on the history of a village church or pub, on local folklore and so forth. There are a handful of small publishers who ask for financial input but only handle this kind of book, and they are useful and responsible.
All Over The Mapjemck on June 19th, 2009 10:24 am (UTC)
I would modify that by making the distinction very clear between

A - the true vanity presses, who take people's money in return for a heap of impossible promises and deliver boxes of unsellable books


B - the small/self-publishing presses, author services outfits etc, who are indeed ideal for this kind of local and/or niche interest books, where payment is for clearly defined stuff like the editing, printing, binding etc, at verifiable market rates.

Not least because I see the former are increasingly trying to masquerade as the latter!
Kari Sperringla_marquise_de_ on June 19th, 2009 10:36 am (UTC)
That's a very sensible distinction.
Jim C. Hines: Rejectedjimhines on June 19th, 2009 01:51 pm (UTC)
Heh ... I *wish* I could have gotten my first book published after only 50 rejections!

Actually, strike that. Looking back, I'm glad I never got that first book published, because it was horrendous. I *thought* it was brilliant, of course -- and my girlfriend liked it! -- but I just wasn't ready.

Good post!
All Over The Mapjemck on June 19th, 2009 02:37 pm (UTC)
oh boy yes, if the Definitive Blockbuster Fantasy Masterwork that I wrote back in the day had ever been published, my development as a writer would have stopped there, coz I'd have thought I knew it all!

Whereas the resulting tome would have had not only the heft and dimensions of a housebrick, but about the same literary merit as one.
16:9 1.78:1 OAR: Ryusixteenbynine on June 19th, 2009 03:05 pm (UTC)
Your first horrendous book was my first SIX. I threw a lot of my initial work into the trash for a reason.
Harold Zablehzatz on June 19th, 2009 02:38 pm (UTC)
Watching from the sidelines, it seems like you didn't follow your own advice about Chance. Is there something about comic publishing that's different? Why did you choose an approach that ended up with you putting out a lot of money?
kitmizkit on June 19th, 2009 02:52 pm (UTC)
Oh my god, that's an insanely good question and I will address it in a blog of its own soon. :)
16:9 1.78:1 OAR: Ryusixteenbynine on June 19th, 2009 02:45 pm (UTC)
My own take on it is a little different. I decided to do the self-publishing thing for one reason: to be able to connect directly with my fans and sell my work face-to-face. It has been extremely low volume, but it has also been immensely rewarding.

I put it to myself this way. I could go the route of an agent / publicist, and spend a lot of time tossing and testing. Or I could go right out into the field, as it were, and sell my work directly to the people who I wanted to read it in the first place.

I know that conventional publishing means you get to reach that many more people at once, but I wasn't fixated on that. With me, it was a question of wanting a different kind of satisfaction.

I apologize if any of this repeats previous posts of mine, but I felt it was worth repeating. Certainly in this context!
kitmizkit on June 19th, 2009 02:55 pm (UTC)
See, if that's the approach you took and you understood at the outset that you were not going to be making bucketloads of money or cracking some kind of major market, but were in it for a different kind of reward, then I'm *okay* with that. That's a whole different mental place to come from than the one that ends up with garages full of unsellable books and a writer who has no idea what went wrong.
16:9 1.78:1 OAR: Ryusixteenbynine on June 19th, 2009 03:05 pm (UTC)
Precisely. I know some people who have the closet-full-of-unsold-books thing going on. I feel bad for them, because they sold themselves a bill of goods.

My tactic was different. I kept my expectations modest, and so far it's worked out nicely. I like knowing I have total control over what I'm doing.

If it came to accepting a contract from a major publisher somewhere down the line, I'd think about it, but I would still be very hesitant -- I'd want to see what kind of terms I was being offered. And even then I still wouldn't bank on it.

And thank you for understanding :D I have talked about this with a couple of other writers, and the reactions have not always been this positive.
kitmizkit on June 19th, 2009 03:36 pm (UTC)
Eh. It's not a decision *I* would make, but my goal all along has to be a successful commercial author. You're clearly coming from a different place. It's very possible that ten years ago I'd have argued and ranted and waved my hands and said YOU'RE WRONG YOU FOOL YOU FOOL YOU FOOL, but I'd like to think I've grown up a bit since then. :) If you're accomplishing your goals and are making informed decisions about how to pursue and achieve them, I don't figure I've got much room to tell you ur doin' it wrong. :)
16:9 1.78:1 OAR: Ryusixteenbynine on June 19th, 2009 04:02 pm (UTC)
Oh, of course. I don't say everyone else should do this -- and you've done spectacularly well going that route, so I'm the last person in the world to criticize.

Ten years ago I was trying to get one of my screenplays produced and was all too willing to sell out to anyone who was buying. The problem was, I just wasn't very good.
kitmizkit on June 19th, 2009 04:45 pm (UTC)
The problem was, I just wasn't very good.

That is, of course, the baseline problem with most writing. As newguydave just said elsewhere, "A violinist doesn't pick up an instrument, learn their first piece, and think they're ready for Carnegie Hall. Further to that, if they're not ready to play in the orchestra, they don't start their own.

Why do writers then believe that if they finish a novel, it should be published, and if nobody wants it, they'll print their own. I can think of very few industries where if you're not good enough, you can go out and do it anyways.|
16:9 1.78:1 OAR: Ryusixteenbynine on June 19th, 2009 05:03 pm (UTC)
Actually, I have my own theory about why and how that happens. I'm going to develop it at length in a separate post and link back to it here when I'm done.
16:9 1.78:1 OAR: Ryusixteenbynine on June 19th, 2009 06:06 pm (UTC)
kitmizkit on June 19th, 2009 07:19 pm (UTC)
silkiemom on June 21st, 2009 05:35 pm (UTC)
How much do you want to bet that if there were companies that set up "vanity orchestras" for a fee, you'd actually see a bunch of people doing that? And actually, there is a pay-to-play orchestra out here, which is disguised as a "Youth Orchestra". I believe parents pay a fee for their kids to participate. I don't know if there's a tryout. I wouldn't underestimate the ability of people to overestimate their abilities. In any field. Like 80% of drivers thinking they're an above average driver. :)

Also, there are lots of fields where people who aren't good enough to be pros (or just don't want to put in the effort to be pro) can do things at an amateur level. Al used to do community theater, my neighbor plays on the racquetball club's tennis team, lots of Kate's softball coaches play on their companys' softball teams, also, they coach for free (one team we played had a coach who used to coach softball for a college team before she had kids), the kids' karate teacher sings in a band that's performed a few times in local bars, Robert's friend's mother maintains the PTC website, a friend of mine who loves cooking (hosts sit-down dinners for 16, runs the choir breakfast and the monthly teacher appreciation luncheon) resists efforts of friends to talk her into becoming a caterer.

Although, I suspect the difference is the level of expectation. A lot of the vanity press types aren't getting their book printed just to be published, they're doing it with the expectation that they will then sell a lot of them. There isn't really an expectation that the softball coach will get paid anything, except for possibly a nice gift certificate at the end of the season party from the team.
A large duck: Child of Fireburger_eater on June 19th, 2009 04:26 pm (UTC)
If the repeated rejections take you out of the game, then you’re probably not suited for this job.

Hell, yeah. My first book isn't even out yet, and the time after I signed that contract has been way more stressful than anything before it. The rejections were miserable and frustrating, but I could deal with them in my own way in my own time. That's not really the case anymore.
kitmizkit on June 19th, 2009 04:48 pm (UTC)
Oh yeah. Hands down the most terrifying stretch for me was between selling the first book (not having it on the shelves yet, mind you, just selling it) and having to turn in the second in the series. I was so scared I was practically ready to give the money back.
Laura Anne Gilman: madness tollsuricattus on June 19th, 2009 05:56 pm (UTC)
whereas I'm having that OMGeeePanic RIGHT NOW.

*flails, panics, squees panics*
rfrancis on June 20th, 2009 12:14 am (UTC)
I missed this when you posted it, for which you were probably grateful, except now I saw it, so ha.

I see a bit of a conflation between out and out vanity press and self-publishing. Anyone who's done business with the comics industry should know the difference, frankly. Vanity press are jerkwads who take the money and give the creator all the risk. That's just wrong, and I hope everyone in that line of work goes out of business tomorrow if not sooner.

But self-publishing... well.

I understand the desire for gatekeepers. Heck, I depend on them myself... sometimes. On the other hand, I've seen a lot of damage done by a manic insistence that they're the only game in town. Without a little pirate media philosophy (to borrow a bit from Mason's _The Pirate's Dilemma) you probably wouldn't have Scott Sigler, or Mur Lafferty, or J. C. Hutchins, etc etc. You may be fine with that. Let me tell you something: I've never read, or listened to (since they all started as podiobook folks) any of their stuff. But despite my ignorance of what they're doing, I think how they're doing it has merit.

The truth is that the world is full of people using Lulu or their blog or whatever else because they can't get anything published in the mainstream way, whatever that means, just like there's plenty of indy musicians who can't get signed, deviantart is full of people who definitely aren't going to get a gallery showing, so on and so forth. And for many of all of these, most of us are probably happier for that fact.

But... so what? Doesn't success depend on your goals? I've DJed a podcast for tens if not hundreds of thousands of subscribers and, lo and behold, I learned it didn't make me any happier than doing one for a hundred. Granted, someone throwing money at me might have made me happier, but that's not the only reason anyone does anything. My dead best software work has been given away, and in turn I depend on a bazillion nutjob hackers who give their stuff away. And heck, successful folks like Cory Doctorow and Trent Reznor persist in giving away some of their stuff, too. Sure, maybe that's that they can afford to. But I think it's also that at least some of the time, they have different goals.

Honest to gosh, Kit, you know that I love my writer friends, yourself included, but I scratch my head on a regular basis when one of you has a hint of the "what IS it with people who aren't doing what I do the way I do it for the reasons I do it calling themselves writers?" And I'm sure I'm no different at all -- if I told someone I'm a sysadmin (which I am, of course) and they nodded and said "Yeah, me too, I have a Linux box on my desk at home!" in the best case scenario I'd laugh at them. I guess the thing is that I don't know that I'm in the right, there, you know?

I guess this is why labels like "professional" and "amateur" were created in the first place; it's just that they've gotten pretty blurry now with folks finding ways to micropublish (books, music, whatever the heck) and thus being, I dunno, amateurs with candy money? Semi-pros, like in football and short stories? I dunno. I just think that there's going to be more lateral thinking on people getting their creative on, not less, regardless of professional advice to the contrary, that's all.

I was going to stop there, but then I saw this at the top of my screen in a separate thread: I can think of very few industries where if you're not good enough, you can go out and do it anyways.

There's more such industries every year, Kitling, at least for people who aren't good enough _by some standard_ but are some combination of good enough _by some standard_ and determined enough to find a way: Magnatune, Lulu, Threadless (or Shirt.Woot, for that matter)... Just wait until stuff like the RepRap starts to spread out and get totally practical. "Amateur" sculptors (or pirate sculptors, I guess, as Mason would have it) posting open source busts you "print" and put on your desk instead of paying Marvel $100 for one.

Yeah, I think a lot about this kind of thing.
kitmizkit on June 20th, 2009 08:35 am (UTC)
I'm going to talk about PoD/self publishing next week on MW. There's a reason I was only out after the vanity presses with this one. :)

To be fair, I do still have sort of a hard time wrapping my brain around the idea that people /do/ want to write (particularly write; other creative aspects make more sense to me) as hobbiests, but I swear I wasn't trying to make this sound like "why don't you all do it my way"...
mmegaera on June 20th, 2009 01:46 am (UTC)
I'm here via suricattus who quoted from this post. I find it fascinating, but I don't agree with: "and you quit before you get that acceptance letter…then you don’t want it enough, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all."

There's a not-so-fine line between wanting something very badly indeed, and being an out-and-out masochist. I don't think most people who write about the publishing industry understand the distinction, or if they do they simply dismiss it as irrelevant. It truly isn't, though. Publishing does appear to be a zero-sum game -- for every book that does get published, many more, which may be equally worthy, are not. And that one book that gets published? Was as much about being in the right time at the right place with the right person as it was about talent. So those who weren't "didn't want it enough." They're just not masochists. It's a distinction that matters.

Now to go send out Yet Another Query [sigh].
kitmizkit on June 20th, 2009 08:41 am (UTC)
*sigh* Yeah, that was a sweeping generalization, and you're dead right, luck has something to do with it too. I suspect part of what I was trying to avoid saying is "look, possibly if you've been writing and submitting books for thirty years and you're still getting form rejection letters, you are in fact just a terrible writer".

On the flip side, assuming you *are* a good writer and quit before the acceptance letter comes, I'd still kind of argue it's not wanting it enough. It may *also* be not being masochistic, but I think there's a sort of bullheaded masochism to doing/trying to do this job anyway... :)

Good luck querying. :)
mmegaera on June 20th, 2009 11:30 pm (UTC)
Thanks [g].

I think there's a sort of bullheaded masochism to doing/trying to do this job anyway... :)

Certainly more than with a great many other careers I know of. But that's inherent in any creative or performing career because there are so many more people trying to break in than there are spots for them to slot into. It's certainly not unique to trying to write for a living. There are many, many jobs that don't require a lot of competing to get, too (except in this economy, of course). They're just not the desirable ones.

What needs to change but probably never will is the relative supply and demand for creative work. Then I would be willing to agree with you that if you don't make it you don't want it badly enough. But until then... No. It just adds insult to rejection letter and doesn't do any one any good.

Oh, and on a lighter note, can't something be done abou the highly un-PC language in use for the querying process? Submission? Rejection? No wonder it makes people grumpy [g].