Writing Prompt: 05/31/10

"Your phone rings. When you answer it, you make a startling discovery: the person on the other end is dead. What does he/she say and why are they calling you?"

Write for 15-30 minutes. My response will be posted 6/02/10.

Monday, June 7, 2010

A Castigation of the Publishing Industry Part One

This month kicks off a four part series on self-publication versus traditional publication. I've had experience with both. In another life I'm a self-published non-fiction author whose work is actually rather well known and highly rated.

I also have the indistinct pleasure of being accepted for traditional publication twice, once without my knowledge or consent, but I've actually had everything I've submitted be accepted. (This sounds cooler than it is. One stolen short story submitted by a college professor against my will, and one young writer's award published in a magazine that went defunct three days before press is hardly a professional writing career!)

However, I do have experience in writing and publication, and most important, as we'll see in week four, also in published marketing. I think, if you're willing to put in some work, you might be able to not just publish your novel, but market it as well.

Let's begin.

Today I want to kick a few spokes out of your wheels. I know that most of the people reading this blog are writers who desire to become authors. Many of you look to JK Rowling and Stephen King and think, "I want to be like them!"

I am not that way.

For every King and Rowling, there are a thousand authors whose work doesn't take off. For every novel converted to screenplay, there are a million that languish in the mass-market paperback bin for 99-cents.

I'm going to share a dirty little secret with you today. I'm not going to label it like an infomercial, as the "SECRET PUBLISHING COMPANIES DON'T WANT YOU TO KNOW!!!!" In all truth, they don't give a rat's ass whether you know or not.

Here's the secret: publishing companies, editors, and agents don't care one whit about you or your work. They're in it for the money and the money alone. An editor would rather buy a piss-poor book by a known name than a groundbreaking page-turner by a newcomer. (This is how Kevin J. Anderson keeps getting published despite his notable lack of talent. Well, that and his ability to con rightsholders into letting him rape beloved series like Star Wars and Dune.)

I mean no disrespect to the authors who are traditionally published. I know of at least two who read this blog on occasion and who I also call friend. I don't even mean disrespect to the editors and agents-- several of whom also read this blog regularly.

Here's the simple facts of product advertisement for you. Stephen King has published about a billion novels. Some are good (Eyes of the Dragon, IT), some are bad, (Gerald's Game, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon), and some are great, (Bag of Bones).

However, no matter how good a new book by King is, certain things are unassailable to the publisher:

1) There are people who will buy it just because it has his name on the front. They are rabid fans and love his work, or collect everything he's published.
2) There isn't a person in this country that hasn't heard of Stephen King.

This translates into simple terms for publishers: a certain number of guaranteed sales and no need to engage in expensive advertising to get the word out about a new author. It's vastly easier to promote an unknown new book by an author known to be excellent than it is to promote an excellent book by a new author who is unknown.

This is the uphill battle you need to fight. Anything you send in to a publisher or agent has to be of superior quality to whatever they have laying around the office at that moment!

It has to be good enough to overcome the reluctance of the publisher to write checks for marketing materials, and it has to be good enough to overcome the customer's desire for Stephen King. In fact, if you were to submit to King's publisher, whatever you send in must be good enough to guarantee more sales than a Stephen King novel!

Um. Good frickin' luck with that.

I mean, let's be realistic. You're here reading this blog because the writing of Christopher Rivan interests you for some reason. If you had a chance to publish my best book or Stephen King's worst book, which would you choose?

I know which one I'd pick if my business and my ability to feed my family were riding on the outcome. Chris Rivan is a great looking guy (word is, he's a hot biscuit!) but King's name puts asses in theater seats and eyes on pages. I'd publish him. Mama Rivan didn't raise no dummies. I'd publish Stephen King over my own work any time.

There's another way though. I've mentioned several times that I'm also a non-fiction author. My non-fiction is self-published (what traditional publishers derogatorily term "vanity" publishing). I'm going to explain a few things to you about both publication methods so you can make an informed choice.

To start with, in 2007 a writer's group I was participating in had some goob post a bunch of excerpts from the blogs of Robert Sawyer and some chick named "Rappaport". I haven't the faintest idea who either of these people are (Let's be fair, they probably don't know who I am, either.) and I'm so disinterested in their opinions that I can't be bothered to even Google them. (Although I think the Robert Sawyer in question is this one, author of Wake and Far Seer.)

I can tell you that they are involved in the traditional publication industry. They are emotionally validated, financially concerned, and personally involved in publishing professions.

Put it like this: I know there are crappy teachers out there. However, since I'm a teacher, I don't take kindly to people blaming life's problems or even school's problems on bad teachers. I am emotionally validated, financially concerned, and personally involved with the profession of educator, and I tend to turn green and rip out of my shirt when people start blaming bullying and school shootings and MySpace harassment on hardworking education professionals, most of whom work their asses off to teach the little bastards that mommy and daddy can't be bothered to correct or discipline.

Which is why when Rappaport and Sawyer both blogged in 2007 that self-publishing "hurts authors" I nearly hit the roof. Of course they want to deride and undermine the self-publication industry. Their personal fortunes are irrevocably tied to the self-publication industry's direct and most obvious opponent: traditional publishing.

Their claim was fairly simple, and if you streamline the weasel words out of it, it amounts to this:

"Don't tell me that your work was self-published. Only bad authors who write horrible books choose that route. I will automatically reject your work for publication, without even taking the time to read it and form an intelligent and informed opinion of my own."

Ms. Rappaport even went on to claim that she once rejected a novel based on a query letter because the author wrote that he liked bacon. Four lines down she then said, "But try not to make your query letter sound vanilla. We have to wade through dozens of these every day, so make it stand out by being a little quirky."

Um... didn't you just say that using that tactic resulted in a summary rejection of a 350-page novel, not based in any way on the content of its pages or the skill of the author, but on a single "quirky" line from his goddamn query letter?

Now, call me silly, but I still adhere to the concept that a submission editor's entire job revolves around finding good, marketable fiction to publish. If one of those clowns is going to reject me, is it too much to ask that it be on the strength (or lack of it) of the novel and not the damn letter of introduction?!

What's next? Do publishers reject otherwise outstanding novels because the submission envelope was the wrong color? Do they bash out "We're sorry to inform you..." letters simply because a manuscript was was 232 pages and not 235, or whatever today's magic number is?

And what business is it of yours-- Mister Publisher, Sir-- if I choose to self-publish my work? Rappaport and Sawyer both stated, "Don't put 'I'm self-published and have sold XXXX number of books...' in your query letter. That tells me immediately that your book isn't worth my time."

Really? Most people have to actually open a book to make a determination like that. Simply telling you that I self-published and there are 2,000 active readers out there who have already read and enjoyed my work is enough to tell you that it's no good? You must be maaaaaaagic, then, particularly since, in any other industry and with any other product, information like, "There are already XXXX number of happy users of this product!" would be a selling point!

You've probably guessed by now that I don't care for the traditional publishing industry as a whole, and you're absolutely correct. I read once that Harry Potter was rejected nine times. That's nothing. I know a guy who was rejected 130 times before finally self-publishing a great kid's book. Now he's up to four books in print! Here's a list of famous best-sellers that publishers and agents were too damnfool stupid to recognize at first glance--or even second, third, fourth, fifth...

By the way, one of the nine editors who rejected Harry Potter took the time to write a scathing letter of rejection in which he said it was "completely unmarketable drivel." I seem to recall he said she should go back to waiting tables.

I wonder where that moron is today? If I were Rowling, I'd hire that rank bastard to do nothing but wax my: Nestle Smarties Book Prize; British Book Award and Children's Book Award; ALA Notable Children's Books, 2000; ALA/YALSA Best Books for Young Adults, 2000; Booklist Editors' Choices, 1999; Booklist Top Ten Fantasy Novels for Youth, 1998-99; CCBC Choices 2000: Fiction for Children; International Reading Association: Children's Choices, 2000; International Reading Association: Young Adult Choices, 2000; Publishers Weekly: Best Books of 1999; School Library Journal: Best Books 1999; CBC Not Just for Children Anymore! List; British Book Awards 1998 Children's Book of the Year (NIBBY); Shortlisted for the 1998 Guardian Children's Award; Shortlisted for the 1998 Carnegie Award; Nestlé Smarties Book Prize 1998 Gold Medal 9-11 years; Scottish Arts Council Children's Book Award 1999; FCBG Children's Book Award 1998 Overall winner and Longer Novel Category; North East Book Award, 1999; North East Scotland Book Award 1998; The Booksellers Association / The Bookseller Author of the Year 1998; and my Whitaker's Platinum Book Award 2001.

There's more, but I didn't feel like going past the first two books! Besides, that's enough awards to keep someone with that particular editor's limited mental faculties busy for a while.

Here's the rest of the dirty little secret, folks: editors and agents reject about 90% of what they receive. publishers then reject about 95% of that. Never, and I mean never assume that the publisher is looking for good books to print. They are looking for marketable books to sell. They are seeking reasons to reject books, not reasons to accept them.

Now, the good news is that, if you make it past the dragon, across the moat, through the portcullis, around the guards, and into the King's Chamber, you're one of the elite-- the best of the best. (Or you're sleeping with the publication editor. I'm trying to use that method but Lee Boudreaux won't return my calls.) More than that, it means that the massive resources of the publisher to promote and market your book will then be brought to bear. Unfortunately, you'll pay much more for them than you would if you chose "vanity" press, but that's for another essay to explain.

Write on!

Christopher Rivan

Virgins Slain, Dragons Rescued.
Reasonable rates for all budgets!




  1. I love the line "Good frickin' luck with that." Made me laugh. Fabulous post as always, Chris. Informative and thought-provoking. I have no firm opinions yet, but you've given me a lot to mull over. Cheers.

  2. Hey Chris!

    I'm on the traditional plan (i.e., literary agent submitting my stories to publishers). This is not, by any means, the RIGHT way to get published. Self-publishing is an awesome tool of freedom, wherein writers can share their knowledge and insight without waiting for the "guards" to let the words through the gate!

    I'm also a big fan of ebooks and how they allow great works of fiction and nonfiction to be shared with the masses.

    As for traditional publishing, it is like any business with a product. It's all about the sell and making a profit. Book or coffee maker? Same difference... but only one comes from the soul.

    Nice post!

    - Julie

  3. Man-o-man, so accurate and spot on; the same also holds true for script submissions to the studio system on the screenwriting side. Self-publishing is no different than independent filmmaking. Maybe we should call it independent publishing then possibly the writing would get a little more respect? “Indy Pub”, baby!

    Point being if a story is good, it doesn’t matter how it gets to see the light of day; just the fact it does is all that matters. I hate the term “Vanity Press” because most writers that I have met are anything but vain. They just want their work read. I actually think that the term “Vanity Press” is a far more accurate descriptor of the traditional publishing paradigm.

    Independence in publishing is a good thing; society is far more fluid and dynamic today. There are a lot more avenues available to writers at this juncture in time to get their work to a receptive audience. There is an audience for almost anything and I recommend just searching for an audience until you find them by whatever resources and means necessary.

    Lastly, remember writers, Always Get Paid! It doesn’t matter if it’s beads, booze, cigars, or food, just get something; cash still remains king. And, remember you can die from EXPOSURE.

    I agree, write on, nice article.


  4. I have no illusions I will ever finish one of my stories let alone be published but I enjoy your essays just the same ;)