Trade Publishing Will Change Or Fade Away. Here’s Why.

This is not a rant on the superiority of self-publishing versus trade publishing. As I’ve said before in comparing the two, neither one is monolithic. It is impossible to call one or the other better. They are different approaches to getting written work into the world, with pros and cons.

Still, I think there’s little doubt that today’s prototypical trade publishing deal is a dead end. Forget about the six-figure advances and full-on press blitzes. Most authors get tiny advances and nonexistent publicity. A mediocre advance isn’t necessarily a problem. If it were the same sum of money, one would rather get paid because she sold to readers who bought, read, and loved the book, than because she sold to a publisher who overpaid and might be upset. The lack of publicity is a problem. Bringing publicity to written work is… what publishers are supposed to do. Moreover, trade publishing becomes a blame culture when a book flops, and the author has the least power and takes the blame, and won’t get another book deal. This doesn’t only happen to bad writers, because there are myriad ways a book launch can go wrong and only a few pertain to the quality of the book. I’ve seen this happen to talented writers as well.

If you’ve had that happen to you, and you’ve given up e-book rights… God help you.

At the high end, book advances have gone way up, even into the seven-figure territory that was once considered an embarrassment (because celebrity books, while they’ll sell enough to justify those advances, are invariably the worst written). This increase in high-end advances is not necessarily a good thing. If you’re a serious author, you’re not as concerned about the advance as where you rank in the season’s lineup, because it determines what you actually care about: how many readers you’ll reach.

In the olden days, a book like Farisa’s Crossing— lead-title material from a first-time author– got a modest advance (often below $25,000, sometimes under $10,000) but massive publicity efforts. If you wrote well, you didn’t even worry about the advance. You knew that if you wrote something good, your publisher would make the right calls, get you the right reviews. If they weren’t prepared to do that, they’d reject you.

Talented writers got rejected– that’s nothing new– but they didn’t get ripped off. You’d gladly take a deal with a $5,000 advance because the publisher had already delivered Charlie Rose and Times Daily, so the advance meant little anyway, as you’d be earning royalties as soon as the book hit the stores.

It’s different now. A few novelists get massive advances and massive publicity. Most– even many talented authors, because authors tend to be poor negotiators and most agents aren’t going to put serious effort behind people without track records– get mediocre advances and mediocre to nonexistent publicity. It’s the latter that’s the problem. The advances matters a lot in 2017, but only as an opening statement about the publisher’s interest in the book. I’d rather have no advance and a publisher that does its job than a six-figure advance and no publicity– this does occasionally happen, when the author does something in the interim to piss an editor off, and it’s a recipe for humiliation. A strong advance on a book that sells poorly (or, worse, is of low quality, should have been rejected, but catches on and gets bad reviews) is a platform for embarrassment.

Advances are backward-looking; writers need to be forward-looking. I’m not afraid to say that I’m good, but I’m not as good as I’ll be 20 years from now. This is a progressive, get-rich-slowly game. The old publishing world wasn’t afraid to build track records over time and set people up to hit big on their fourth book. That doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Three books with four-figure sales don’t lead to serious efforts; that track record leads to oblivion. It doesn’t matter if 25 years pass and the writer becomes a lot better, nor does it matter if trends change; bad sales then make a loser now, as trade publishers see it. You’re better off changing your name, and presenting yourself as a debut, than trying to build off a track record of low or even average sales.

Publishers make advances necessary, because they put so little muscle behind so-called “midlist” authors (a term that, historically speaking, was not pejorative) that the going assumption, today, is that a small advance will come with pathetic publicity efforts. Talented writers, in the past, didn’t demand huge advances because they trusted their publishers. Now, in many cases, the working assumption is that a book without a massive advance– that is, a book that won’t cost the publisher if it fails– will get nothing from the publicity department.

It’s slightly more complex than that, in truth. As an author, I’d probably take a print-only, no-advance deal from a top small press (many small presses don’t offer advances) that showed enthusiasm from the book and convinced me that they could sell copies. I almost certainly wouldn’t take a standard $5,000 deal from a “Big 5”. While Big 5 publishers can do a lot for a book, it isn’t going to happen for a $5,000 book. Traditional publishing draws a lot of soft power from “If you review this book, your kid gets into Harvard” calls at 9:30 pm, but executives aren’t staying after hours to make sausage for the $5,000 books. They save that for the $500,000 books. At a Big 5, six-figure books are career-altering for everyone who works on them; four-figure books aren’t. So which books get the real work?

I do think that there are other solutions to the trust problem than six-figure advances for first-time authors. However, they’re more complex than the current business model allows. Basically, we need a system where authors can set aggressive distribution targets and recover all rights if they aren’t met. I don’t feel entitled to a $200,000 advance (even though I have put over a thousand hours of work into the book). I do consider myself entitled to have my rights back, so I can self-publish or work with someone else, if a publisher isn’t competent enough to sell 100,000 copies of Farisa’s Crossing.

Massive advances generate publicity, envy and resentment– and the latter two of these often make excellent publicity, because while there is such a thing as bad publicity, an emotional enemy often cannot deliver the bad kind very effectively– but they’re an expensive way to market a book. But, let’s look deeper. Why would a publisher throw “a major deal” ($500,000+ advance) at an unknown author, just for the publicity? Usually, massive expenditures for publicity’s sake fail. We learned this in the 1990s with the dot-bombs; the $2 million launch party was failed marketing. We’ll learn it again when the current technology bubble deflates. Business book authors can buy positions on bestseller lists and recoup the losses in their mainline careers, but for a novelist to do that would incinerate money, and publishers need to think the same way. So, why do these expenses happen? There’s a simple reason.

No one knows what sells books.

That’s right. No one’s good at selling books. Most publishers aren’t. If they were, the industry would be different from what it is. Authors wouldn’t have to fight to get appropriate publicity and promotion out of their publishers, because the publishers would know how to spend $1 to make $2; the fact that they don’t is the reason why so few authors get the goodies. Most self-publishing authors aren’t good at it either; there are millions of self-published books, and most only sell a few copies. I won’t claim, for my part, to know how to sell books either. It’s a rather easy observation, from the state of the publishing industry, that no one knows what’s going on. It’s rather hard to know what is going on, and I suspect that anyone who’s figured it out is keeping quiet, like a trader who discovered a workable arbitrage.

No one knows what sells books.

The king-makers in trade publishing are finding it harder to make kings. Books can get six- or seven-figure advances, favorable reviews, and still flop. On the other side, J. K. Rowling got a print run of only 500 for the first Harry Potter book, but achieved world-changing success. It’s not that the trade publishers are bad at predicting what’ll sell; it’s that everyone is bad at it. They’re bad at it; I’d probably be worse. I’ll admit that.

This works to the advantage of self-publishing authors, to the detriment of traditionally published authors, and perhaps to the detriment of trade publishing outright. Why? Simply put, it’s the number of tries you get.

That is, in a nutshell, why self-publishing isn’t going away any time soon. It offers more tries.

If we’re all playing a game that we can agree no one is good at, but that presumably has some cause-and-effect elements (it’s chaotic, but not completely random) that can be learned, then the players who can iterate more stand to win more often, and might develop some skill in it. A quant or an applied mathematician might refer to it as a multi-armed bandit problem, with the additional caveat that there’s some hard-to-predict time behavior to it. One book might soar after a 10,000 e-copy giveaway; another might cannibalize its own sales potential. A romance novel will probably get more lift from bus ads than epic fantasy. These aren’t set in stone rules; they’re true now, of certain types of books, and will evolve.

A trade-published book has to plan its publicity before the book’s even launched. It has to generate “book buzz” that is at best uncorrelated with the quality of what’s on the pages. Why is that? After its launch, the book has eight weeks to sell through, or the bookstores get impatient and shut it down. Readers get some element of say, but only if they can put that cycle of finding the book, reading it, recommending it all of their friends, and their friends buying it, in fifty-six days. “Word of mouth” is a fuzz term that publishers use for the gaps in their knowledge and for chaotic elements of the process, but it’s often mundane issues of distribution, or subtle trends in cover art appeal, or various other things unrelated to the book’s quality (e.g., that Uber got bad publicity, and high-income people are seeing bus ads again) that make or break the first 56 days. That’s just not enough time for the quality of the book (especially, given the profound impact that Manhattan king-making has over short-term sales) to dominate in terms of results.

If a trade-published book disappoints early on, there are two ways to handle it. One would be to give it more publicity so it can achieve a critical mass of readers and discussion and reverse course. The other would be to cut losses, pull out, and let it rot on a back list somewhere. It requires an intelligence that few people have to know which is the right approach. These days, they often take the latter approach. A bad opening week leads to disinvestment and, even if it’s not the author’s fault, the author eats the blame and will probably never get another book deal.

An author’s career is defined, first, by the amount of publicity given to the debut novel, and, second, by events preceding and in the 8 weeks following the novel’s launch. Bad roll of the dice? Bad author, the industry decides, and she won’t get another book deal.

For a contrast, if a self-published book sells poorly in the first 8 weeks, what happens to it? Nothing. No one notices. If the author’s first attempts at publicity don’t pan out, she can try something else. It’s not a one-shot-then-everything’s-over game. Authors can keep playing. That gives the iteratively-playing self-publishers an advantage. Sure, some people who bet big on one moment (one agent, one publisher, a six-figure deal and an October launch and let’s hope there’s not a recession) will win; but sustainable winning streaks require experience with wins and losses over time.

I don’t expect traditional publishing to die completely, and I certainly wouldn’t want for that to happen, because it does a lot of good things. There’s a lot of value for the reader in curation and quality control, and while the self-publishing ecosystem (whose best work now rivals that of traditional publishing) is inventing its own mechanisms for quality validation, there will always be prestige and stability that people see in the traditional mechanisms. Also, traditional publishing, for all the slamming it takes, will put effort into great books that will never sell well. A biography of an obscure 19th-century doctor is unlikely to sell more than 2,000 copies, and would not justify the massive editorial efforts that biographies require on its royalties; these are cases where trade publishers do a great job.

Moreover, most promising writers will try traditional publishing at first– to see if they can land “superagents”, then land the lead title deals that can make careers very quickly– even if self-publishing becomes the way in for 70-to-90 percent of the top talent (which it likely will) in fiction. There will be stubborn writers who can’t bring themselves to overcome stage fright without the support of a six-figure trade deal, no matter how rare those become. The would-be literary hotshots will go back into investment banking when they realize that an Ivy League degree no longer suffices to get big-ticket book deals at 22. Good riddance.

There’s also a lot of corruption in the system. Many awards and top-shelf reviews are unavailable to self-publishing authors. I’m sure there are massive bribes paid every year to keep this the case.

Trade publishing won’t die, but if it wants to retain its current level of importance, it’s going to have to develop a mind for the new game… and in the new game, iteration and learning just might beat king-making and favor-trading.

In the long run, I have to bet that a process of iteration and refinement (self-publishing) will beat out a game where most players only get one or two shots– especially in a chaotic climate where no one really knows what’s going on… including me. All I can do is write a good book. I’m cutting myself off here, because I should get back to that.


“That Was The Culture Then”

Alleged (and probable) serial sexual predator Harvey Weinstein offered a sloppy seconds mea culpa for his record of, if even the smallest bit of it is true, atrocious behavior toward women he worked with. He came of age in a prior era– the Hollywood era in which Roman Polanski could have sex with a 13-year-old girl and (to this day) avoid accountability– wherein bad behavior by powerful entertainment executives “was the culture”.

What he’s saying is correct. That culture existed in an older version of the workplace, and it exists in the modern one. Sexual harassment is far too common. It’s the culture now. The sexual harassment culture of the average VC-funded startup makes Mad Men look restrained. So, yes, that was the culture then and it’s the culture now. People with power abuse it. The people who want power the most are the most likely to abuse it; to them, power is useless if not abused. That’s nothing new, and it probably won’t go away either.

So, Weinstein’s claim is spot-on accurate, and also… it’s no fucking excuse.

This is what I hate about the filth that our society has allowed to take up the most important positions. They legitimately believe that “the culture” justifies terrible actions. As executives, they do terrible things because “the shareholders” will demand it. They soak up leadership positions, but they don’t fucking lead. They do shitty things because the people around them do shitty things, too, and seem for a long time to get away with it. They’re no better than anyone else; on the whole, they’re worse? In that case, why do we keep these expensive, useless people around? Why not throw them aside, with bone-breaking force, so competent people can step up?

Who creates the culture? People do. And some people get a megaphone and their voices carry a thousand times farther than others. No one should rest on “the culture” as an excuse for terrible behavior, but especially not the people with the power to change it. Fuck all these assholes, and fuck the shitty “culture” they hide behind.

End rant.

When Hipsters Went To Work

I’m sick and tired of people shitting on my generation. I’m a Millennial. I’m up at 4:53 in the morning. I’d normally be working on my novel, Farisa’s Crossing, by this time– currently, I’m writing this. That’s not a story that ever gets told. According to the trope dictionary, we’re lazy, shiftless, and jobless. This is the gist of the (well-made, I’ll admit) Youtube video, “Sponsor a Millennial“.

Let’s level on this topic. Yes, there are a few insufferable hipsters who run around eating avocado brioche and doing stupid shit “for the [Insta]gram [post]”. No question. You’re going to find an insufferable 1 percent within any generation. At the upper end of the socioeconomic spectrum, you’ll find a disproportionate number of parentally-funded legacy kids with no work ethic. This isn’t new. It goes back millennia.

What has changed? In general, the Millennials got fucked. Yes, fucked. If you look at the top 1 percent of our generation, then you wouldn’t think so, because indeed there are pampered brats among us. Even if you compare the 99th percentile of our generation to that of the Boomers, then you might see disparity and it’s not in our favor, but you wouldn’t shed a tear. If you compare the 50th percentiles… don’t even get me started. If you really think that the median Millennial is sitting in a cafe munching avocado toast at 11:00 on a Tuesday morning on his parents’ dime, you’re nuts. The median Millennial is the one cleaning up the table for $10 an hour.

Everything bad that can be said about Millennials, the first post-apocalyptic generation in the U.S., can be turned around on the Boomers. Let’s take the hipster “gluten free” fetishism. Yes, it smacks of disability appropriation, which I’m generally not a fan of– you’re not “OMG soooo bipolar” because you lost your car keys. People without celiac disease have no reason not to eat gluten, but what’s the harm in this? As far as I can tell, this gluten-free craze makes life easier for people with legitimate celiac disease, who cannot eat gluten without getting very sick, and need gluten-free products. Okay, maybe you don’t like when healthy 30-year-olds claim to be “gluten-free” based on a fad, but as I said, there’s little harm in that. On the other hand, their Boomer counterparts in the Bay Area fucking kill kids by not vaccinating them. What’s worse, fake celiac or real measles?

We have Spotify Premium and kombucha; they got to buy houses in California for $80,000 that now cost $2 million, and don’t even have to pay proper taxes. I know, it’s weird. All that land that no one can afford unless they already have overpriced land… we must still deduce that it must have once been affordable, because it’s owned by someone. Crazy, right?

Really, who are the entitled assholes here?

Let’s talk about the lazy hipsters, though. They certainly exist, right? There are wealthy shirkers in every generation. Here’s the difference. In our generation, they sit in cafes and eat brioche and call themselves “artists” but don’t really have the work ethic necessary to make actual art. Yeah, I find them annoying, too. They’re apathetic and hedonistic, and they’re not even any good at the hedonism part. What about their shirker counterparts, in the Baby Boomer generation? They went to work. They had corporate jobs.

See, a Boomer could be tripping balls at Woodstock in 1969 and be a CEO’s protege in 1970 and a CEO himself in 1981. They could meander into their 30s and 40s and get their shit together in a week and have executive jobs. Meanwhile, a Millennial who doesn’t have a prestigious internship in his freshman summer in college is fucked for life. How is that fair?

Here’s what corporate life looked like for white-collar Boomers, back in the era of the three-martini lunch. You showed up at 9:45 in the morning, 10:00 if there was traffic. You worked till lunch. Your boss was your friend and he took you out for steak on the corporate account. You’d try not to drink too much, because your boss actually mentored you (he was upwardly mobile, too) and those sessions were usually in the early afternoon. If you were still actually working at 3:30, you were a real go-getter. If you were working at 6:00, executives talked about you in glowing terms and you’d be running the company one day. If you went to work and actually worked, you’d rise up the ladder, no problem. Doing any work at all was pretty much optional. You could hide in your office and do nothing for years on end. It would be noticed; you would be held accountable: you’d make Senior Vice President at 40 instead of 35. Gasp! What would happen if your friends in the Hamptons found out that you were still a VP (no S) at 38? Your kids might have to go to Princeton instead of Harvard, if you didn’t clean that up. That was Boomer corporate life.

In the Boomers’ era, you could actually live that snoozy, brunch-eating life and climb the corporate ladder. You didn’t have to choose.

One could argue that I’m being unfair. The portrait above ignores black Boomers, it ignores Boomers who died in Vietnam, it ignores working-class Boomers, it ignores immigrant Boomers, and it ignores the Boomers today who never grabbed a spot on the corporate jet and are now dying of opioid addiction in West Virginia. Fair. I don’t actually think that all Boomers are entitled assholes who had it easy, because that’s not true. My parents: great people, happened to be Boomers. You can’t paint a whole generation with one brush. That life was only available to the top 15%. Still, you’ve got to compare like against like, and if you think that bottom-85% Millennials today are sitting around in Portland drinking artisanal coffee on parental funds, then you’re a fucking idiot. What are they actually doing? Bagging your groceries, until computer programmers like me figure out a way to automate that job into oblivion, too. (Sorry! Hey, most programmers would rather be curing cancer too, but most programming jobs are just helping businessmen unemploy people.) If you compare like against like, the Boomers had it better and the Millennials got fucked.

To be honest about it, I’d rather have idle rich than any other kind of rich in the world. I think we should encourage idleness in the wealthy; as a mechanism of rotating out legacy and rotating in quality, peaceful aristocratic decline is better than violent overthrow. Let’s be honest: in the corporate world, connections trump knowledge, work ethic, talent and especially integrity (which might be a fetter). Corporate America isn’t a meritocracy; it exists to ratify an existing hereditary hierarchy. If those insufferable decliningly rich hipsters actually had the attention span necessary to sit down and work, they’d push us all down one more peg. I can ignore Instagram. Force those shitty brats to work, and they’ll become bosses. Trust me; that isn’t good for anyone.

On this topic, I should get back to work myself. Putting the “Fuck Off, World” headphones back on in 3… 2… 1….

Publication Thoughts for Farisa’s Crossing: the Trade vs. Self-Pub Debate

I’ve been asked a few questions about whether I plan to pursue traditional publishing for Farisa’s Crossing. The truth is, I don’t know yet.

It’s a complicated decision, and a hard one to make this early.

Let me do the best job I can of explaining the merits and drawbacks of each.

Of course, it’s worth saying that “traditional publishing” isn’t monolithic. There are large corporate publishers and small independent presses that operate by different rules. There are some very good people in traditional publishing, and there are some bad actors as well. Writers often have their careers damage by the bad actors, hence an internet full of horror stories about traditional publishing.

Similarly, self-publishing isn’t monolithic; experiences and strategies are vary greatly.

That disclaimed, here are some of the concerns that factor in the decision:

1. Rights

The most dangerous thing about trade publishing is the loss of rights. This is especially true if you’re writing a series. Your series might be dropped for reasons that have nothing to do with its quality. Perhaps the staff who loved your books are gone, and your 3rd book gets rejected because the new editor just doesn’t like you. What do you do? A good contract will allow rights to the first two books to follow the third, but if your agent didn’t get you a good contract, you’re screwed. Then you’re selling the tail end of a series, and no publisher wants that. It can hurt you for self-publishing, because you’re expecting people to buy an out-of-print trade-published book, just to start your series.

Agents, in theory, protect the author’s rights and reputation. They can, or they can hurt. I’ll get to that, soon enough.

Winner: self-publishing.

2. Timeline

Traditional publishing is full of waiting. Some of it has value. For example, getting books into bookstores is a process that takes months. A good trade publishing contract will not only get books into stores, but offer “co-op” to get the book properly displayed in stores. (Without co-op payments, bookstores set your book up to fail.) Review journals demand months of notice. Press and radio appearances need to happen before the book is launched. Why? Bookstores will consider your book dead if its sales are less-than-awesome in the first 8 weeks, and stop ordering. This means that, in trade publishing, a book must be thrown with great force, so to speak, into the world. A trade-publishing launch is all about short-term buzz but it takes a long time for pressure to build behind the dam; this is worth getting right.

There’s also a lot of stupid status waiting in trade publishing, especially before one has an agent. Some people wait for months to get read, only to get form-letter rejections thanking them for wasting everyone’s time.

With self-publishing, you can publish at any time. You shouldn’t. You must treat the book as you would a real book because it is a real book.

In my case, it’ll still take me several months to get Farisa’s Crossing ready. Writing well takes a while, but if you think of revision, line editing, and research to be wasted time… then you’re not really a writer. If you think of agents’ status waits and negging as a waste of time… well, then you’re right.

If I were to self-publish Farisa’s Crossing, I’d give it a 90 percent chance that I’m ready to put the book out by October 1, 2018. (October 1 is the protagonist’s birthday.) If I trade publish? No way. 2019 would be optimistic, and that’s without the bullshit status waiting that agents throw in the mix; a 2020 launch date would be more realistic.

Winner: self-publishing.

3. Agents

Literary agents have a bad reputation: cranky, snobby, incompetent. Let’s get into that, because it’s actually not their fault. Their occupation has been destroyed by an unethical decision, made about twenty years ago, that was out of their control.

Around 2000, publishers decided that they’d have enough of agents and their negotiating ways, and decided to punish literary agents en masse by refusing to accept unagented submissions. You’d think that this would help agents by making them more important, but it actually made their lives worse. The writing world is full of unsolicited and mostly bad manuscripts (“slush”) written by untalented writers, some of whom respond very badly to rejection. Most of these were bad and could be rejected out of hand within 20 seconds, but someone had to go through them.

Before the ’90s, getting an agent was easy. You called an agent up; that afternoon, you had one. Serious writers did. The non-serious “perma-slush” writers didn’t bother with agents. (“I’m not going to give up 15% of my best-seller, just to work with someone who knows the market!”) They just submitted directly, got form letter rejections, and didn’t really hurt anyone. When the publishers stopped taking unagented submissions, though, the perma-slush went into agent piles.

This hurt everyone. Agents got stuck with scads of work they neither wanted to do nor were good at. Executive sleazebags might have made off, but people who work in publishing lost, because of job losses. When agents realized they didn’t have the resources to dredge slush, they started relying on underpaid interns. This resulted, in addition to long query waits, in a lower-quality curation process. So the reading public lost as well.

Agents want to support careers, not deny them. They didn’t sign up to be the HR Wall that screens out the unqualified. They’re not equipped to handle it, loathe the job, and do it poorly.

Getting a literary agent (“querying”) is a humiliating slog with no redeeming qualities. It’s like trying to get published, except the only thing you get to show for it is… the right to offer someone a job. Agents vary wildly in quality. The best are worth their 15% commission, hands down. The worst are terrible and will wreck an author’s career. It’s hard to know what one is getting, and the most likely outcome for a debut author is to get a low-to-middling amount of attention from an agent without much pull.

Worse, even though agents and publishers nominally work for authors, the culture that has grown up in trade publishing is the reverse. Authors who get dumped by their agents are fucked. This means that authors are often pushed to take bad publishing deals (see above about protecting one’s rights) that damage their careers and reputations, because they know their agents just want to be done with the deal.

It’s a lottery, and the odds aren’t good, even for the best writers.

Also, agents tend to be more conservative in their literary tastes than readers, so manuscripts that are experimental or literary in out-of-normal ways suffer. There are certain “Agent Rules” that you must follow if you want an agent, that don’t make much sense if you’re just trying to write a god book. For example:

Agent Rule #1: No back story in your first 50 pages. No exceptions.

I agree that the first chapter or few ought to, more often than not, be linearly ordered and front story heavy. Does it need to be an ironclad rule? No. Should a manuscript be auto-rejected because a character reflects for one sentence, in a relevant way, on his childhood? No.

The problem with this Agent Rule is that it assumes that back story is implicitly boring. Yet, if it’s boring, does it really belong in any chapter?

Here’s a piece of shitty writing. It would be as shitty on page 157 as on page 3. Sin in bold.

Nalyssa’s heart raced as she ran, but it did no good. There was no escape. Cornered, she drove her dirk right under the orc’s chin, drawing brown oily blood, and sliced its neck. She had broken her commandment. She had slain a living creature.

Orcs branched off from humans eighty thousand years ago, when Vulcan Serafa was still active and sulfurous lahars ran for miles. They weren’t always enemies, though. Humans and orcs lived in peace for seventy thousand years, until the great wizard Pastabol…

Why’s it shitty? Well, it should be obvious. While Nalyssa is fighting for her survival against orcs, she’s probably not going to telepath a not-that-interesting aside about eighty thousand years of orcish history. World-building is necessary; but this is inept, out-of-place world-building.

Whether that bit of sin occurs in the first chapter or the last doesn’t matter.

Now here’s another terrible opening that doesn’t break the Agent Rule. Sin in bold.

My name is Mark Strong. I was born on May 21, 1967 in Princeton, New Jersey to a middle-class family. I got better grades in the sciences than in English, although writing was always my passion, so I studied mathematics at Columbia University in New York. By luck, I was admitted to the Ph.D. program at the University of Illinois. That’s a top 20 program, and I didn’t expect to get in, given my middling grades, but my undergraduate advisor came through with an excellent recommendation. A thyroid condition cost me time in my twenties, so my doctorate took eight years, but I powered through it. I’ve contributed in a small way to the algebraic topology of seven-dimensional complex manifolds. Did you know that there’s a cross-product in 3 and 7 dimensions, but no other finite-dimensional vector space? You do now! Anyway, I met a beautiful graduate student, Alice Stern, in my first postdoctorate appointment, and now we’re happily married with two kids and a dog. I left academia to work for an oil company. It’s not thrilling, but it pays the bills, and I can work from home on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

On September 4th, 2015, my family was away on vacation, but I had a last-minute work emergency and had to be at home. That day, I woke up, I brushed my teeth, and I drove to work. Traffic was light and I was able to go seven miles per hour over the speed limit. My boss is 500 days from retirement and we had a party for him. That day, I came home from work to find a dead naked stranger in my living room, and someone had left excrement in the second-floor bathtub. My dog was fine, but covered in peanut butter.

That’s not a violation of the Agent Rule, since it’s being told in linear order (birth, education, marriage, job). Ergo, he’s not putting back story anywhere, but he is “driving to the story” and it’s insufferable. Before we get to the murder mystery and the unexplained dookie and the peanut-buttered dog, we have to suffer through a character memoir about as interesting as a phone book.

I’m all for removing info dumps, boring passages, and backstory that’s only interesting to the author. Out, out, out. Kill those darlings with prejudice.

However, instead of the Agent Rule of “No Backstory in the First Chapter”, how about the “Reader Rule” of “Nothing Boring, Ever”?

Where, anyway, did they get the idea that back story is boring? If it’s boring, it’s bad writing.

Agent Rule #2: Don’t use exclamation points! Okay, fine, you get one per 10,000 words.

Exclamation points are overused by unskilled writers. They can be very (gasp! adverb!) annoying! The dislike for this, I understand. Again, it’s the Agent Rule I don’t like. If you use more than 1 exclamation point per 25,000 words, you’ll never get an agent.

Some agents will say that it’s OK to use exclamation points, but only in dialogue for a true interjection or expletive (i.e. “O!” or “Zut!” or “Shit!”) under three words. I disagree. Let’s look at the example below:

“It’s time to get going.” Michael curled his lip and bared his teeth.

Now, compare this to:

“It’s time to get going!” Michael curled his lip and bared his teeth.

Or, this:

“It’s time to get going!” Michael said.

All three of those have different effects.

The first shows anger with his facial expressions, although it may be that semi-cliche expression-dictionary showing-not-telling; I don’t care to debate that. The lack of an exclamation point betrays cold, quiet anger. The second indicates hot anger. The third could be anger or excitement; more context is in order.

Let’s just compare the first and second. They’re different. Cold and hot anger are different emotions, and the exclamation point is a compact way of showing the difference. I’d rather have a ‘!’ than “He raised his voice.”

Let’s not even joke about disasters like “he excruciated” or “she shrieked” in lieu of the simple ‘!’. And yes, I’m aware that I misused the word excruciated. That’s the point.

What about exclamation points outside of dialogue? Agents say: a no-no. I say: still OK. In third-person limited, you’re writing “in character”. Is your POV character a seven-year-old girl? Then exclaim! It’s snowing! If you’re a sixty-five-year-old college professor, you might be inclined to avoid such indulgences.

Don’t write this:

It happened AGAIN?!? What on earth…?!? The fucking cat got to the second floor, then the third fucking floor because Tom– Tom!!– forgot to the close the door again!

“Avast, you landlubber Tom!” I cried out. “As you know, Tom, the cat’s not allowed on the second floor?!”

“You stupid horsecunt!” Tom said very angrily. “Don’t you know that Onyx–”

Yes, Onyx. He fucking renamed my fucking cat!!! Onyx! Without my permission?!

“–is a space alien from the planet Loobario!?!”

The general principle is valid: avoid overuse of emphasis, exclamation, and profanity. The exclamation points are some of the least awful bits of that passage. Does it justify the Agent Rule? No, it doesn’t.

Agent Rule #3: Never mix genres. Unless you went to Iowa’s Writer Workshop, three times in five years, you haven’t earned that right.

Want to write a steampunk fantasy novel with feminist, literary, and historical elements, as well as contemporary political and religious themes? Want to write a hard science-fiction novel with realistic vampirism and lycanthropy? Sorry, but how are you going to sell that? (“I don’t know. I could start by writing a good book.”)

You can’t mix genres if you want an agent. That’s a problem for me. “Genre” isn’t bad and “genre fiction” isn’t inferior. So-called “literary fiction” (writing for other writers) is another genre, and one that has produced much work of merit, but it’s not prima facie better. I’m not against the concept of genre, but against the inflexible mandate that one stay within one.

What are genres? They’re tools that can be used to manage readers’ expectations. If you’re writing a thriller, the pace better be 120-miles-per-hour for the whole book. If you’re writing a mystery, your job is to build curiosity around a central question and solve it in a way that provides catharsis. Since Farisa’s Crossing is epic fantasy, readers shouldn’t be surprised when magic appears, but (no spoiler here) I’m unlikely to introduce simulated realities or alien spaceships. As tools, genres are useful. They shouldn’t necessarily be restrictive. When constraint breeds creativity, use it. Shakespeare’s sonnets are a lot better than most free verse, and there’s something to that. When constraint hinders the work, toss it out. Mix genres? It can be done well or poorly, but agents don’t want to see mixing at all.

If an agent said I needed to replace my brown-skinned LGBT heroine (Farisa, if that’s not obvious) with yet-another 16-year-old boy with six-pack abs and a longsword, I’d say no. If she said I needed to introduce vampires who drink menstrual blood because that’s what the focus groups want, I’d say no. My job is to write a fucking good story. That’s it.

When traditional publishers moved the slush-dredging over to agents, it hurt writing. The quality of books being put out has declined, and so have sales. Authors lost because it became competitive to get an agent, agents lost because they got a bunch of unpleasant work (slush dredging) dumped on them, and readers lost because books are worse now, and declining book sales show it, so everyone has lost.

Winner: self-publishing, by far.

4. Expense / Risk

With trade publishing, you don’t have to pay for your editor or book cover. In theory, the trade publisher will market your book and arrange for publicity. To hire your own editor will cost about $3,000. A good book cover can cost at least $500. When you’re starting out as a writer, that’s serious money.

Also, established people in trade publishing get advances. That said, advances these days for most writers border on insulting, and should probably be ignored. If you can’t sell enough copies of my book to earn out ten times a $5,000 advance, then why are you in trade publishing at all?

Writers can’t live on advances, so why have them? I wouldn’t be surprised to see them disappear. At this point, their main purpose is to cause anxiety about “earning out” and the career-killing effect of failing to make an advance (especially a mediocre advance). Personally, I’d rather have a zero advance and get lead-title treatment (competent publicity) than a typical advance and typical (shabby) treatment.

With trade publishing, you pay in time– especially, wasted time in the agent querying stage– but you don’t have to put up your own money.

Winner: trade publishing.

5. Reviews and Print

Reviews matter (“social proof”) and are acquired based on connections that people in publishing houses have and most writers don’t. Print books live for a long time and continue to market your work for decades. Bookstores are inaccessible without a trade publisher. There are tens of little intangible details– like where your book appears in a store– that come down to relationships and various “I’ll get your kid into [Manhattan preschool X] if you do right by my guy” deals. You can’t access that network as a self-publisher.

Winner: trade publishing.

6. Marketing Strategy

If I use trade publisher, I’m going to put a “copy minimum” in my contract. In essence, if they haven’t sold 100,000 copies in the first five years, then at least 100,000-minus-X e-book copies go out, for free if necessary, at the end of five years. I’m willing to make a mediocre profit (or even a tolerable loss) on the first book. I’m not willing not to have my book read. The whole point of publishing is to build an audience.

That’s an unusual term, and it could sink me, but it’s important. Trade publishers, if your book doesn’t start strong, will divert resources elsewhere and let your book die. Your publicity budget gets spent on someone else’s book, or on hookers and blow by some executive, and your book fades into oblivion. They won’t let you give away 50,000 e-copies just to show the world that you actually are a good writer who got unlucky (or was badly published) and flopped in the first 8 weeks. They’ll just stop returning your calls. Even though your rights will be nearly worthless to them, you’ll have a hard time getting them back.

If you self-publish, you need to make $1.43 in sales to justify each $1 you spend on marketing, because you’ll get a 70% royalty from a platform like Amazon; but if you trade publish, you need to make $4, because your royalties are only 25 percent. There are plenty of marketing strategies between those numbers that might lead to word-of-mouth “breakout” phenomena, but that aren’t financially viable if you trade publish.

Unless you get the lead title treatment, you’re going to have to do your own promotion and publicity. At least, when you self-publish, you have more options: you control the rights, and you only need to make $1.43 per marketing dollar to break even.

Winner: self-publishing.

7. Social Proof

No one knows what sells books. I repeat: no one knows what sells books. Publishers don’t, agents don’t, readers don’t, I don’t.

In fact, there are plenty of books that garner excellent advances, favorable reviews, and major publicity budgets, but flop.

There is a sure way to guarantee a bestseller: buy your way on to the list. Business book authors do this, to further their corporate careers, all the time. It’s a bad idea for a novel, though: after shelling out $500,000 to a professional book-buyer to buy your own books, you might generate $100,000 worth of royalties. You’ll be “a New York Times bestselling author”, but you’ll be $400,000 in the hole. If you’re writing business nonfiction and can earn it back in speaking fees, it makes sense to treat the book as the loss leader. If you’re an introvert trying to sell a novel, it’s probably not worth it to buy your way onto the list, even if you have the money (which I don’t).

In general, marketing is of less value than publicity. Marketing is the stuff you can buy; publicity is the stuff that’s free on paper (and is, in reality, the calling-in of chips across a complex network of favor-trading) and appears to be “social proof”. If your publisher puts up $50,000 to market your book, that helps a little bit. However, if your editor’s calling people in the press at 7:30pm and threatening to turn off access (or better yet, making the “next call is from my boss to your boss, so do the right thing” call) unless they cover your book… that drives sales a lot more.

You can’t get reviewed in the New York Times if you self-publish, nor are you eligible for many awards. You won’t be received as “literary”, no matter how good your prose is. This will change, as excellent self-publishing writers chip away at tradition and edifice, but it will be slow.

The social proof of getting a publishing deal is, in my mind, not worth it. A small advance and no promotion? Better to post the letter on your website (to prove you were “good enough” to get published) and then self-publish on your own dime. On the other hand, if you can get lead-title treatment and an all-out publicity/press campaign, it often is worth it. You just have to know what kind of deal you’re getting, an all-out effort or a “might surprise” deal. Don’t take the latter, ever; when you give up your rights for so little, you’re in vanity press territory.

Winner: trade publishing, by far, if it goes well.

8. Outlier possibilities.

Trade publishing, like venture capital, is “rocket fuel”. Either you get fast uptake and momentum, or you blow up on the launch pad and they send you home… in an urn.

The upshot of this is that you can go from zero to “never have to work again” in one phone call. It’s extremely rare, but seven-figure debut advances exist. That doesn’t happen in self-publishing; there’s no advance, so you don’t make a cent until you sell.

Though it’s very rare for anyone to make a million dollars in one year on a first novel, I’d say that it happens more often in traditional publishing than for self-publishers. You’ve got to sell several hundred copies per day to make that. With a press blitz and top executives calling in all sorts of personal favors to get exposure for your book, and with them sending out their subordinates to talk your book up at Manhattan cocktail parties and demanding 1:00am phone pics to prove they were there… it’s doable.

Trade publishing picks winners before the readers really decide. Readers and word-of-mouth can add 50 percent or even 500 percent to what was expected, but reader word-of-mouth (as opposed to Manhattan book buzz) is too slow to rip out in a book’s first 8 weeks.

If you want to get rich quick, you might have a 0.1 percent chance in trade publishing, but it’s effectively zero if you self-publish.

Winner: trade publishing.

9. Getting rich slowly.

What if your goal is to get rich slowly?

Most people fail out of trade publishing on their second book, not the first. (A large number choose not to go through the process again, but it’s the second book that gets people forced out.) Why? Well, the first book had to get through query hell and across a publishers desk, then be accepted, and probably had five years of unpaid work, on the author’s part, behind it. So, the first book is often, at least, good enough to get through the process.

Then, what happens? Once a publisher “picks up” an author, the author is seen as an employee. He has deadlines. An average midlist author’s publisher won’t let him spend 3-5 years on his next book. He might get a year– and that’s while working full time, because he’s not going to be able to live on his advance. The second book doesn’t have the press buzz or excitement surrounding a debut, and it doesn’t get much promotion from the house, so it flops. Two and done. The publisher dumps the author, who becomes “damaged goods”, and can’t go anywhere else.

With the first book, the publisher chose the manuscript and therefore a flop reflects badly on them, at the least, in that they chose poorly. With the second book, they can just say that the author got comfortable (living fat off that $5,000 advance) and underperformed.

Once a publisher dumps an author, the agent starts to see him as a charity case and won’t negotiate for the kinds of terms (publicity, co-op budgets) that might set the third book up to succeed. The agent probably won’t even read the third book, but will pass it on to publishers with a “please help this guy” shrug and it’ll probably never see the light of day.

What if, twenty years later, that author discovers what went wrong with the first book and fixes it? What if his writing skills improved in that time? (You’d think that they would.) What if he self-published a book in the mean time, and sold a not-earth-shattering-but-impressive 20,000 copies? Doesn’t matter. Careers don’t restart in trade publishing. If you’re not a hot new thing, and you been off the mid-list for 5 years, you’re now back list.

Readers don’t care if a 50-year-old author fucked up (or if his publisher fucked up, because most flops are publisher-side) a book when he was 30. Readers don’t care if the author was a shitty writer some time in the past, because even us good writers were shitty writers at some point. Readers will accept a re-invention of a failed book from twenty years ago, as long as it’s good now. Publishers and agents won’t. To them, if you flopped once or twice, you’re “a failed writer” (as opposed to a writer who may have failed) and belong at the bottom of a bottle.

If you self-publish, you’re much more likely to start off slow, and might eat some red ink for the first book, but I think it’s probably easier to get rich slowly (“rich” being a relative term, here meaning “enough passive income to write full time, if one wants”). You don’t lose your career if you make a mistake or get unlucky. You won’t

Consequently, I think it’s probably easier to get rich slowly (“rich” being a relative term, and here meaning “well-enough off to write full time”) as a self-publisher than in trade publishing. You don’t lose your career if you make a mistake, or get unlucky. You won’t sell thousands of books in your first 8 weeks– but you also don’t have to. If your book sales in the first two months are poor, you can try another marketing or publicity strategy, until you find something that works. You can actually build momentum over years without worrying about your agent dumping you, your editor getting fired and replaced by an asshole who hates your book, or your sales tanking because some executive spent your co-op budget on hookers and blow.

Winner: self-publishing.


Trade publishing is, as I’ve said, “rocket fuel”. The right deal, with a competent house, can get a book out to 10 or 100 times as many readers. That can be game changing, career-altering, and worth putting up with agents’ status waiting and negging.

The trick is knowing when to get out, and how to get out. If you’re going to get a lead-title deal and a favorable press blitz, then trade publishing can work. On the other hand, plenty of great authors never manage to convince the small number of people who matter in trade publishing to select them as the pre-ordained winners.

If you’re not a lead title, you’re not going to get much attention from a trade publisher. No one gets promoted if your book sells well, and no one is demoted or embarrassed if they shit the bed and your book flops. You probably won’t get dedicated, full-time people in the publicity office; your book will be that thing they work on if they’re finished up at 4:25 pm (and how often, in any workplace, is a person ever fully done?) and they need to fill 35 minutes.

It’s probably smart to try trade publishing, to play the agents’ stupid querying game for a couple months and see if the lottery numbers hit ya, and if that, see if the lead title package follows. But, one can only wait so long, and there’s a time at which a mature person needs to stop chasing sun dogs and get back to real work.