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Saturday, July 23, 2011

From Writer's Purgatory to the American Dream

Granted, this topic has been hashed and rehashed ad infinitum...but not on the Two Fisted Blog, okay?

In the late 1990s I did not envision the revolution in publishing that is taking place before our eyes. But I wanted to write. The only respectable route to publishing for a non-celebrity who had no contacts in the biz then was the traditional method: send out hundreds of queries, receive hundreds of rejections and maybe, if the stars were aligned just right, somebody who mattered would read your query and sample chapters. If it was great stuff, and it just happened to be read by someone who liked it, and they just happened to push it up the food chain when the suit above them was having a good day, and a bazillion other variables all clicked in your favor, you just might wind up, a few years down the line, getting a book published by one of the Big (insert number here) of the New York Publishing Cartel.

"Tradpub", or traditional publishing, was the only game in town. So I prepared to play the game. Having learned in college the value of having others read and critique my written work (ripping it, and my ego, to shreds if necessary), I joined a writer's group.

I suppose all writer's groups consider themselves the best, most talented collection of literary geniuses the world over, but the group I was fortunate enough to be accepted into did have plenty of bragging rights. Several of the members achieved tradpubhood, accruing accolades from hoity-toity authorities like Kirkus; and the founder of the group attracted Hollywood interest with one of her books. I mention this not so much to boast, but more to provide perspective on some of the experiences I intend to share. And one reason I intend to share is that I'm convinced that the attitudes encountered in that writing group are very similar to some of the attitudes prevalent in the big publishing houses.

The first attitude I'll mention has to do with trust in the author.

Not everyone who reads fiction about cops and crime are themselves cops or criminals, and yet we know a lot of police jargon and procedures. Terms like "rap sheet" and "APB" were not always universally understood. How did we learn it? Not because we went to a police academy, or took a class about it, or read expository paragraphs in which the author spoon-fed us the information up front in most cases. Most likely we learned it from context--whether in a book, a movie or a TV cop show.

I've never been a medical professional, but I know what "scrub in" means. Not because anyone overtly taught me, but because the missus likes medical shows and I've watched enough of them with her to pick it up via context.

For those familiar with Star Trek, you didn't come to understand "beam me up" or "set for stun" or photon torpedoes or dilithium crystals because Kirk, Spock, Picard, Ryker or Gene Roddenberry lectured you on what it all meant. You picked it up by context. And if you're like me, you can learn stuff like this about subcultures that are new to you simply by reading a book set in that subculture by an author who will reveal these tidbits by context.

If the author's name is Stephen King, Tom Clancy, J.K. Rowling, etc., members of a writer's group will also learn this way. If the author is unknown, no matter how competent a writer, typical writer's group members will not trust them, and will demand the explanation of this new term, procedure, technology, whatever, be spoon-fed in full to the reader up front. (If the unknown author follows their advice, the red ink will fly again for insulting the reader's intelligence. But that's another story.) Ever notice how some people won't believe you, until they hear or read the same thing you said from some "expert?" Same principle in effect, here.

The next attitude I'll call "finding excuses to reject." I was accepted into the aforementioned group because the founder loved my prose (in a manuscript I as yet haven't published, BTW). There were no membership dues at the time, so I didn't doubt her sincerity. Plus, it was pretty doggone good, if I do say so myself. Ahem. Anyway, when I submitted that very same manuscript for a critique session, the critiquer I was assigned was all over me from the first sentence. (I could say quite a bit about this individual, and probably will one day, but don't want to get off-track here.) My competence came into question because I made a time reference, and the person assumed I meant pm when I meant am. Indeed, assuming pm made my introductory passage ludicrous; am was the only way it made sense. Now me, as a reader, I would have simply accepted the passage in the way that it made sense and read on. I tend to give people (politicians excepted) the benefit of the doubt, and there really wasn't much doubt to be found there.

Well, therein lies the distinction: They weren't reading it--they were searching for faults to criticize. This was a mild omen of things to come during this critique of a manuscript which did, honestly, have problems in need of correction. Unfortunately the actual problems, as I see them now in retrospect, went largely unaddressed by this person so intent on nitpicking everything they possibly could.

I once had an otherwise great, helpful critiquer in this group take issue with my use, without explanation, of the acronym "GPS". Correct me if I'm wrong, somebody, but GPS is a household term that civilians and everyone else is familiar with. (In case I am wrong, it stands for Global Positioning System, though the term is routinely misused, referring instead to a device that accesses the GPS. OK?)

When a member of this same group looked at my first draft of Hell and Gone, they raised the red flag when I wrote that one of my characters dove "to the prone." Granted, that's not Oxford-approved English, but it is exactly how that term is used in the military. She must have caught me during an insecure moment, because I wound up changing it to "the prone firing position."

Ah, insecure moments. I've had plenty, as a writer. In another manuscript, I mentioned that my protagonist sat down to breakfast. One group member, who undoubtedly read one of those "how to write fiction" manuals, thought I should reveal what he ate. I changed it so that the reader knew he was eating biscuits and gravy. The next person who gave me feedback wanted to know why he ate biscuits and gravy. Well, what he ate and why he ate it was not crucial to the chapter or the overall plot, but in another insecure moment I revised, figuring I could use it to work in some character background (after all, that's why those "how to write" manuals drill these things into critiquer's heads) and decided that biscuits and gravy was a habitual breakfast choice from when the character was going through financial difficulties, since the meal is both cheap and filling. The next person who gave me feedback thought, by reflecting on this, my character was wallowing in self-pity. At this point I considered omitting any mention of breakfast or any other meal altogether.

This maddening, time-consuming process was probably an effective orientation for the publishing biz at that time. Agents, editors and assistants don't read manuscripts; they search for excuses to reject them. Pick any 50 of them and each one will find a whole different set of excuses to reject Gone With the Wind. That's not entirely a sarcastic exaggeration--experiments like that have been conducted by frustrated writers, illustrating the mercurial subjectivity in the tradpub lottery.

There are reasons why the suits in New York have this attitude: They are buried under tons of manuscripts (most of which are garbage), they have very little time, and they're under constant pressure to pick only winners. Stamp your approval on too many books that don't sell enough to cover expenses and you're out of a job.

Valid reasons to be picky, right? So then, even with their Remorseless Rejection Machine set to Maximum Filtration, why do they still wind up publishing so much crap? Including crap that doesn't even sell? And non-crap that doesn't sell, despite all their marketing clairvoyance and gatekeeping wisdom?

I once had a publishing insider explain something about the selection process to me. I can't remember all the percentages she gave, but the gist of it is educational. This was a minority woman, BTW, who had worked for a major publishing house, and a major literary agency.

During a given fiscal year, a tradpub house only has so many books it can publish. First dibs go to the proven heavy hitters like Stephen King, whose grocery list would become a New York Times Bestseller as long as his name is on it. Next in line (and this is nauseating, if not surprising) are the writers who "know people" inside the industry. There is a little more scrutiny/quality control here than for the big name authors, but this is where a lot of the worthless drivel comes from. Next on the pecking order are female minorities. Then male minorities. (Homosexuals have been given quota parity with racial minorities for quite a while. Now they are one of the most powerful special interest groups in existence and I have no doubt this is reflected in the current pecking order.) Then women in general (which sometimes includes men who write for female audiences and/or who write female protagonists, plus men who use female pseudonyms). Everyone not heretofore mentioned is at the bottom of the slush pile, competing for the very smallest portion of the publishing pie.

And for those fortunate few whose manuscripts are actually opened by somebody with a modicum of decision-making authority, the axe chops something like this: First to get the axe are those manuscripts that fail qualitative inspection. Fair enough. Next are those with a low Crystal Ball Factor ("This is about a rogue submarine captain. It's never been done before. There's no market for it." "Rogue submarine captain stories have had a good run, but the market is now saturated with such fare. I sense the popularity of this genre will wane by the estimated print date." "Mysteries concerning racehorses aren't trending well right now." "A school for witches and warlocks is just plain silly." And so on.) Somewhere in there (unless the author is a celebrity with clout), the book must pass the ideology test--the politics must resonate with that of the New York Publishing Cartel, and any characters in the book who believe differently had better be either from the Archie Bunker/Frank Burns/Denny Crane cookie cutter or, better yet, the next Hitler or Darth Vader. Next on the chopping block are the books that offend the personal tastes of the gatekeeper ( "I don't like the main character's name."  "This character reminds me of my ex-husband." "The hero drives a car that I hate." "Happy endings are stupid." "Sad endings are depressing.").

Yech. I just depressed myself. Enough about the old regime.

That's one of many fantastic aspects of the indie author/POD/E-Book revolution: none of that can keep a book from being published anymore! It's all up to the reader now. If the book is gonna be rejected for some unfair, subjective reason, it will be case-by-case. If it's rejected for political reasons, same deal. The reader gets to decide, instead of some suit in New York deciding whether or not the reader should even have the opportunity to decide. Now there is a big step toward true democracy!

Yeah, there's a whole lot more literary garbage available to readers now, just like there's a whole lot more video garbage on the internet. It's a trade-off I and most readers will gladly take. With free sampling, we have as much chance of avoiding purchase regret as we did before. And there are refunds. I've bought some horrible tradpubbed books over the years, but I never, ever, asked for a refund of a book purchase until a couple nights ago, when I realized I could get a better E-Book value from a different edition. My refund was granted promptly, with no fuss at all.

So far, reactions to my own books have been overwhelmingly positive. That's because (as an example) readers who buy Hell and Gone actually want to read a paramilitary adventure. They're not looking at it because it's their job or because they're fellow members of a writer's group (but would rather be promoting their own erotic lesbian vampire coming-of-age diary).

I'm idiosyncratic in many ways, but in one aspect I believe I'm in synch with book lovers everywhere: I would much rather enjoy a book than find reasons not to enjoy it. Readers would prefer to read than nitpick line-by-line.

BTW, I quit the writing group earlier this year, mostly due to my schedule and an inability to keep up with group email, exercises, etc. I left on good terms, and was assured I would be welcome back. Maybe I will re-join some day if time permits. I did learn some important things there. But at this stage of my life/fledgling career in fiction, I believe I'm learning more by being a published author than trying to get New York's blessing to become one. I hear from readers, listen to their opinions (on my books and others), likes and dislikes, plus what interests them outside of fiction.

I have no interest in even attempting to be tradpubbed anymore. I could spend the rest of my life trying to win that lottery. And if I did, I'd lose the rights to my own creative work indefinitely, and, statistics suggest, be making less money than I am now. That ship is sinking, anyway. What's happening to Borders Books is a harbinger of what's coming to the industry as a whole. Maybe the New York Publishing Cartel will adapt and survive in some form (I hope not via more criminal misuse of my tax dollars), but certainly not as we have known it.

It's hard to believe how close I came to never taking the indie route, but my eyes are open now. I don't plan on closing them again.


  1. Great post Hank. A few thoughts:

    In Hell and Gone you took a pretty strong pro-Israel view, or at least one of your characters did. That is the kind of thing that I think a big publisher would have edited out in a heartbeat. To controversial and all that. Although I disagree with some of the views presented I would never want you to strip that character or that point of view out of the book. If you did you would be stripping your personality out of the book and than what would make Hell and Gone different from everything else out there?

    With my book I have a high degree of certainty that all the stuff I wrote about Bohemian Grove, the Bilderberg Group, ect, would be the first on the chopping block.

    Some great advice for new writers here. It's important not to talk down to readers. As you say, people who read this stuff want to read military-type adventures and already know some of the terminology. What they don't know they will more than likely be more than happy to learn. It's a risk, but a worth while one.

    Speaking of risk, this wild west e-book market is really exciting. Old school publishing doesn't interest me in the slightest but with POD and KDP there is a lot of risk. Anybody can write anything and to me, that is very interesting! Hell and Gone was the first Indie book I bought. It's strange because I remember the initial hesitation I had about Indie writers. I gave some really hard thought to buying your book that I never would have to a traditionally published book. What if it's crap? What if it's full of typos? Like I would be a sucker or something if I got taken for a ride by some Indie and lost out on a whopping 2.99. Finally I bought and read the book. Needless to say, my view on Indies after that were: IT IS ON!

    Another thing about writing manuals...throw those things out! Listen, human beings take what they like and toss out everything else. That is what every artist does and no human being needs a manual to do it. You take the things you enjoy and throw them together in a manner that makes sense and disregard everything else. I will probably think of some more comments about this later...

  2. Even though this topic is oft written about, I found your post unique, original...and funny. The realities of the writers group you describe are spot on. The current editor of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine wrote a very thought-provoking (to me) explanation of why. It boiled down to: pages between covers are accorded a sort of legitimacy and so the same flawed prose in a finished book just isn't questioned as ms pages are. She was musing on how this stayed the same or changed for "pages" on an e reader.

    Anyway, I am a writer who was lucky enough, after 11 years, to win the literary lottery you speak of. I am very, very happy with my traditional house and beyond wonderful editor. However--my book won't be out for 18 months. There are definite cons when you go this route.

    My feeling is there are up and downsides to both. Some of it comes down to the type of person you are. How important is speed, independence, and control? How good are you at juggling all the elements? You still have to juggle a lot as a trad pubbed author, but there are a few key ones you get to (or have to) give a miss.

    My hope is that the e-volution will open up a whole new world for many writers we otherwise would've missed--ones readers will love and not critique, just as you say.

    But I don't discount the wisdom, however flawed, of traditional publishing. I have learned so much in only a few weeks--it's just a different set of things to learn.

    Thanks for the post.

  3. It's too cool that H&G was your first indie book, Jack. And I know what you mean. I tend to be a bit more egalitarian, but I find myself struggling over the same kind of buying decisions sometimes. I'll spend a small fortune to take the family to see a movie I expect to disappoint, but become all cautious and frugal when considering buying an ebook by an indie author for less than the cost of a Big Mac.

    Unfortunately, there is a lot of unreadable pap out there by indies, and we suffer by association. I hope we are able to overcome that stigma in time.

    Dude, there is NO WAY a book would ever be traditionally published that takes a shot at the CFR insiders the way Reflexive Fire does. Perfect example of the political censorship I mentioned. I mean an editor could love everything about it, but that alone would guarantee it would never see print in the old system. Yet another reason to celebrate the publishing upheaval!

  4. Hi Jenny. Thanks for visiting and taking the time to comment!

    Well, first of all, congratulations on your publishing deal, and getting a great editor. Your tenacity over 11 years is commendable even had you not yet breached the wall, so to speak.

    I have no doubt there are some fantastic professionals in the tradpub world, with wisdom and instincts writers are fortunate to benefit from. Not only that, but I'm sure they're overworked and maybe underpaid, too. I certainly don't want to paint them all as stuffy, arrogant beancounters. Many of them probably do the best they can inside a seriously flawed system. It's the system that deserves criticism, more than most of the individuals trying to make a buck within it.

    Yeah--I totally agree there are trade-offs/pros and cons with either system. To me as I see it right now, the advantages of being tradpubbed are these: 1. My paperbacks could be displayed on a store bookshelf where traditional book shoppers could easily find it (though another writer from the group also won the lottery and her book can't be found anywhere around town--I had to order a copy from Amazon). 2. The fact that it was tradpubbed would lend me some credibility so that what Jack mentioned wouldn't be such a disadvantage. 3. If I won the lottery-within-the-lottery and the publisher committed to promoting my book, that's that much less marketing effort I would have to put forth, and more time to work on my next one. #1 is still a big one at this stage of the game, I think.

  5. Solid article. I just put up a review of Mike Newton's "How to" for Action-Adventure writers. I think it's actually a pretty solid work, but as mentioned in my review, his advice on how to get published just makes you want to look for a short pier so you can take a long walk.

  6. I tend to get up on my high horse when the subject of "how to write" books comes up. Mostly because, after reading them, people become Formula Enforcement Nazis.

    From a purely economic standpoint, I understand why so many editors/agents prefer formulaic fiction: in general, proven formulas consistently make money, even though some of us have to hold our nose.

    But the assumption that straying from formula now and then ensures failure really drives me up the wall.


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