As I write this sentence, it’s June 30, 2018– 300 days before I launch Farisa’s Crossing, on April 26, 2019.
A few months ago, I decided to self publish the book. I realized that I wasn’t even going to try traditional publishing. I have no doubts about my ability to get in. The process is harrowing and random, and even the best writers can expect to be shot down more than anyone likes to think about, but that wasn’t the problem I realized I had with it. In the end, it came down to time. It’s finite. I’m 35; I’ll be almost 36 in April 2019. Anyone who plans to explore all options before doing everything will end up achieving nothing. I had to knock some things off the calendar. I’m not going to skimp on the writing itself, nor research, nor editing. What can I cut that doesn’t affect the quality of the book? Writing a bunch of silly query letters landed high on that list.
Self publishing isn’t for every author or every book; nor is traditional publishing. Each has its advantages and drawbacks. There are books where I would eagerly use a traditional publisher, in spite of the drawbacks.
I thought it would be worthwhile to go through my reasoning here. Below is why I decided not to use traditional publishing for Farisa’s Crossing.
1. I don’t need it– Farisa is fiction.
A friend of mine writes biographies. Of all the genres, I think biography is the best suited by traditional publishing. Generalist copy editors aren’t equipped to copy edit biographies, which require extensive fact checking and removal of bias. Traditional publishing, in this genre, is invaluable.
Opinionated nonfiction, I would argue, is best served by traditional publishing– at least at book length and in print. Author credibility is huge, and can be manufactured if it isn’t there. Here, a self publisher is a guy with opinions; backed by a traditional publisher that’ll line up national TV spots, he’s a world-renowned expert. (Actual expertise optional.) Topical nonfiction– say, a book about a current election– has a short half-life; it will sell quickly or never. New York publishers have the resources to publicize it quickly; self publishers, in general, do not.
Memoir, if it’s at risk of being controversial, needs a traditional publisher. The author puts her personal reputation on the line. She needs a full-time publicist to fend off attacks.
Finally, we have business books. Those aren’t written to sell copies. It doesn’t hurt if they do, but few books make large sums of money, especially by business executives’ standards. Rather, these books are written to advance their authors’ careers. Middle-aged managers can reinvent themselves as “successful executives” and get better jobs– or, if they’re tired of being employees, lucrative speaking opportunities. Prestige, in that game, is everything. Substance, as anyone who’s read a business book or few, is not.
From the above, it should be obvious that I do not think traditional publishing is a dinosaur on the brink of its own extinction. Will its retreat from fiction continue? Yes. Is it dead? No. In fact, it’s exactly where it wants to be. It has decided that new author discovery, at least in fiction, costs too much. In the 1970s, fiction editors read manuscripts (“slush”). In the 1990s, they pushed that job to literary agents. In 2018, unpaid 19-year-old interns do it. A reader is a reader, so I don’t mean to disparage these interns as people; but I would always bet on a larger crowd when it comes to discovery. A hundred strangers versus one Ivy Leaguer? I’m betting on the hundred doing a better job. So long as self publishers can get their work read in the first place, the gatekeepers will be unnecessary.
Nonfiction demands external credibility, because it makes truth claims. I’m more inclined to trust an opinion essay from an expert writing acceptable prose than a stranger who writes beautifully.
As for fiction, the traditional publisher is far more optional. Farisa’s Crossing will be no better and no worse than the 200,000-or-so words I write because it will literally be the 200,000-or-so words I write.
Authors don’t need external credibility to write successful fiction. A good novelist disappears. The reader should get so involved in the story that she forgets that she’s reading one in the first place. The ability to induce this feeling is rare, quite difficult to teach, and does not come from advanced degrees, an author platform, or a reputation built by a Manhattan publicist. It comes from good writing.
2. Thinking about agents led to bad artistic decisions.
Self publishing is hard. Traditional publishing, if the stars align, is easy– seductively easy. Every single one of us humans is prone to the “Prince Charming” mentality, at least a little bit. We’d like the basics to be taken care of.
The traditional publishing fantasy goes like so: you get the first and best agent you query, he snaps together a lead-title deal, your book is reviewed by the New York Times, then the New Yorker offers to publish a chapter (and your publishing house doesn’t object) and it goes viral like that “Cat Person” story, so you sell 2 million copies and you’re set for life. You can literally think (and type) your way to the life you want– if you get the words right. That’s the promise; that’s the dream.
Of course, you can also win the lottery– if you get the numbers right.
The time cost of querying, one can put limits on. I’m 35 and I’m starting a series that I expect to take at least 10 years to finish. My health is better than it has been for a long time (ten years ago, I didn’t expect to be here today) but my life hasn’t been a no-damage speed run. If I thought the expense of 6 more months were worth it, I might put querying on the schedule. No harm in that.
We are all humans, though. When we see something that looks easy– a path of least resistance that seems to go where we are trying to get– we’re built to focus on it.
This becomes a problem if you start to think about agents rather than readers. This ruins a book. One of the major reasons for literary fiction’s decline, if not the main one, is that many of these stories are written to score agents. And not all agents are created equal. In any genre, there’ll be no more than a dozen “power agents” who can snap together serious deals with large print runs, demand aggressive marketing from major publishing houses, and sell screenplays. There’s a lot of terrible fiction written to appeal to the tastes of a small number of people.
An experiment has been performed several times in which an award-winning novel is queried to literary agents and shut out entirely. It’s not that agents are stupid or don’t understand good literature. (I think their tastes are as valid as anyone else’s.) To some degree, it’s just the sheer randomness of the process that produces this outcome. Being read at 9:00 am will produce different results from being read at 3:30 pm– or, worst of all, right before lunch. No one can control that.
Furthermore, great novels take risks. (So do many terrible novels.) Agents pick up heuristics that one must heed in order to get published. An exhaustive list of “agent rules” is not the purpose of this essay, but I’ll give a couple examples.
One of those agent rules is not to use exclamation points, ever. (Some agents allow 1 per 50,000 words.) Are they overused by mediocre writers? Yes. Can they be obnoxious? Of course! Used skillfully and in character, they’re quite useful. In dialogue, they differentiate hot anger from cold anger– there’s a difference between “Get out!” and “Get out.” Likewise, an author using deep POV in the voice of a seven-year-old girl might use exclamation points for weather (“It was hot!”) while a septuagenerian probably wouldn’t.
Another agent rule is never to use back story in the first chapter. Now, like all of these agent-level prejudices, this principle is not without merit. First-chapter time jumps are very difficult to get right. They tend either to bore or confuse readers. If back story is relevant in a first chapter, it should be limited to a sentence or two here or there, and it should be told rather than shown. (Showing costs words; words equal time; always but especially in the first chapter, milliseconds matter.) Why do I hate this as a hard rule? The first chapter, in well-told linear narrative, is always back story… to the rest of the book. In truth, there are times when it’s artistically valid to open at 120 miles per hour, and times when it’s not.
You write differently to get an agent than to write a good novel. If querying is on your mind, you’ll find yourself writing for the 19-year-old unpaid intern who’s been throat-deep in slush since 9:56 am and who’ll decide in eight seconds whether to read beyond the first paragraph. You’ll put that explosion that belongs on Page 32 on Page 1. You’ll find yourself writing for people trying to mirror their bosses’ opinions rather than readers who want to get lost in a story. You’ll write a hook-laden confusing opening, flash and no substance, at the expense of the rest of the book.
Writing for agents is easier than writing for readers– the former is paint-by-numbers, and the latter takes genuine artistic commitment– but pollutes the work. Writing for both is impossible. Sometimes an author will hit both targets– a novel written for readers will land a power agent– but it’s so rare, it’s not worth obsessing over.
I had an agent-friendly opening, for more than one drafting cycle, that I knew was wrong. I found it subtly corrupting other, later, chapters. Readers found it intriguing but pretentious and confusing– which it was. They were right. So, eventually, I decided, “Fuck that agent game; I’m going to write for readers.”
3. Farisa is long.
Speaking of agent prejudices….
What is the right word count for a novel?
The answer is similar to, What is the correct weight for an airplane? The answer: as light as possible to do the job.
In truth, the answer is less satisfactory for stories than airplanes, because an airplane’s duties are, at least, well defined. The metaphor works this far, though: airplane weights range all over the place, because of their different purposes.
Novels range from about 25,000 words (which would, today, be classified as a novella) to well over 500,000. It’s story-specific what number is right; a book can be overweight at 100,000 words or underweight at 200,000. An average traditionally published novel might weigh in at 85,000 words. The sweet spot for contemporary literary fiction seems to be 125,000 – 250,000, which is longer than average.
My guess is that Farisa‘s final word count– in revision, word counts go up, then down– will land in the 175,000 – 225,000 range.
How much do readers care about word count? They don’t. They care about pacing. They care about price– which can make a big book hard to sell on paper. Editors care, but will make exceptions for good books. Agents? You will not get one over 150,000 words. They’ll sometimes represent a long (or short) book as a favor to an existing client, but not a first-time novelist. Acceptable word counts, as determined by literary agents, tend to fall into a tight range: a genre-specific target, plus or minus 10,000 – 15,000 words. For example, first-time literary novels are expected to be between 80,000 and 100,000 words; epic fantasy should be 90,000 – 120,000.
It’s hard to land an agent with a big book because it has to be sold to one’s boss several times. The intern has to sell the book to his boss (the agent). The agent has to sell it to an editor at a publishing house. The editor has to sell it to executives who control marketing budgets. Only established, big-name authors can get through at 200,000, even if that’s the right length for the story.
An option, with a big book, is to split it. Both publisher and author stand to make more money this way. Sometimes this is the right artistic decision. For Farisa’s Crossing, it’s not, although an explanation of why would spoil the plot.
4. Farisa is a genre-crosser: literary fantasy.
What on earth is literary fiction? What is genre? Can a book be both? This is a fun topic. I could write thousands of words on that alone, but I’ll spare the reader.
Conventional wisdom, in some literary circles, is that there’s “real literature” and then there’s “genre fiction”. Literary novels transcend; genre novels merely entertain. This is, I shan’t hesitate to say, complete bollocks.
All literature has genre. What is usually called “literary fiction” is, in fact, another genre. I call it metrorealism. Actually, literary (as often defined) and mainstream fiction are two sub-branches of metrorealism that otherwise have little to do with each other. Metrorealism takes place in the real world and focuses on ordinary characters. If kings and queens, heroes and villains, or geniuses and fools are featured, it is usually ironic in a way that humanizes the subject and equalizes with the reader. Character-driven metrorealism with high-quality prose tends to be received (and marketed) as literary, while plot-driven metrorealism with adequate prose tends to be presented as mainstream fiction.
There’s a lot to be said for metrorealism. It’s a fine genre– especially the literary subtype. I read a lot of it. I’ve written a few short stories in that genre (that I’ll probably try to get published around April, when I launch Farisa). I have nothing against it. It’s not what Farisa’s Crossing is, is all. The Antipodes is an epic fantasy series– with literary style and aspirations.
The meaningful distinction, to me, has nought to do with genre. A novel is not “genre” or “not genre” because all work has genre. (Technically speaking, “novel” is a genre and “fantasy novel” is a subgenre.) Rather, the distinction is between literary and commercial fiction. So, just as commercial metrorealism (mainstream fiction) exists, so can literary fantasy.
I don’t intend to say that commercial fiction is inferior. This is a distinction of purpose, not value. Most commercial writing is perfectly adequate, and I don’t believe the reading public wants substandard dreck. People buy books for all sorts of reasons, and shoddy writing is not a deal-breaker when it comes to commercial (or critical) success, but I don’t think the first wave of readers for 50 Shades bought the books because they were badly written. (The hate readers came after its commercial success.) Would the book have sold better if it were polished to a literary standard? Perhaps it would have sold 100,000 more copies. Compared to the 125+ million it actually sold, that’s a rounding error.
There doesn’t seem to be much evidence that literary novels sell worse than commercial ones, if one compares like against like. There’s an apex fallacy by which literary writers look at the outcomes for commercial bestsellers, rather than hangers-on, and think they’re all rolling in money. I’d actually bet that improving the writing, characterization, and relevance of a commercial novel, up to a literary standard, will only improve sales. The problem? It takes 10 times as much work, and I highly doubt that it increases sales by a factor of 10.
Literary writing is intensive of writing time, calendar time, and life experience. The characters form over years in the writer’s mind. Sentences are revised several times before going in to print. Every decision is questioned over and over again. The second draft is nearly a complete rewrite, now that the author understands the characters more fully. A seasoned commercial writer is about 50 percent done after writing “The End” on the first draft; the literary writer is lucky if she’s 10 percent done.
Like I said, the difference is not in value or quality so much as purpose and process. The commercial writer, once the prose is adequate enough that an editor can take the book from there, stops working on that story and begins the next one. The literary author line edits her own work and often has tens of thousands of unused back story for each of the main characters.
Commercial authors aren’t necessarily bad writers (some are, but that’s true of literary authors as well) and sometimes they’re the best storytellers. They iterate. They publish more often and get quicker feedback, so they can get more experience with a wider array of story formats. They usually have a stronger sense of the average person’s psychology– and let’s be honest, every one of us is average in almost all ways; the exceptional are usually extraordinary in only a few ways– than the literary writers (who tend, in turn, to have a stronger grasp of deep characterization, language, and atypical psychology).
Farisa’s Crossing is literary fantasy. Agents tend not to like literary fantasy (or literary science fiction). Why is that? Any answer would be speculative (pun intended) insofar as I’m not one. The polite guess is that they must believe they’re hard to market– and they might be right about that. The impolite guess isn’t relevant here.
5. I’m writing a series.
Traditional publishing carries risks. One does not sell “a book”; one sells rights to a book. This is important. Most traditionally-published authors rely on their agents to navigate their contracts. They do not use lawyers (they often cannot afford lawyers) and are discouraged by their agents from doing so. Lawyers kill deals, they say. (It may be true, but that says more about the deals than the attorneys.) If they killed so many deals, then why do publishing houses employ them?
Bad things sometimes happen in publishing. Authors get dumped. Editors change houses or quit entirely. Agents burn out and leave the industry. Someone in a distant corner of the world might say the wrong thing and burn a bridge three degrees separated from the author– zeroing the marketing budget and turning that enviable advance into a festering zombie albatross. An author might leave his publishing house after learning that he’s been under-published for years because the house hired an executive who really, really hates Ohio– and the author is from Ohio. Getting rights back, when leaving (or fired by) a publisher, can be a nightmare.
The value of book rights is book-dependent, of course. If you’re writing a book about the 2018 election, the rights are unlikely to be valuable in 2038 unless the title achieves lasting cultural relevance now. If the publisher fumbles, it’s a lost opportunity, but the loss of rights is irrelevant.
For a series, giving up the wrong rights can be deadly. Many authors cannot publish using their world or characters without permission of the publishing house. Even without that, though, taking a series to a new publisher is difficult. No publisher wants to buy Books 3–7 of a series when a rival house owns the first two books, and won’t give them up.
Books used to go out of print if the publisher stopped printing and selling copies. Rights reverted to the author. If the book was ahead of its time, or would have fared better as a $4 e-book than as a $20 block of paper in the bookstore (the author makes about the same money on each) it can be republished.
No one wants to think about their book selling poorly, or their series being dumped by a publisher, but these things can happen and not always to bad books. Good series can be trashed for all sorts of reasons. A self-publisher can try again. In traditional publishing, retries are rare– and if the book fares poorly, it’s always taken to be the author’s fault.
6. Trade publishing takes too long.
Good things take time, and books are no exception.
I could write a 100,000-word rough draft in an 80-hour week. It wouldn’t be worth reading. I’d need to spend significant time on revision. Lining up editors and cover art shouldn’t be rushed, either, and the people doing this work need time, of course. Traditional publishing requires additional lead time, due to the emphasis placed by bookstores on each title’s performance in its first eight weeks; if it doesn’t sell well in the short term, it might not have a long term.
Much of the delay in trade publishing is legitimate. Some it is not– there is some status waiting, too. A literary agent’s turnaround time can exceed 6 months. At my age, I’m not in the position where I can treat it as nothing to spend a year waiting for a “power agent” to grace me with… the right to offer him a job. I’d rather spend the time writing.
Title and cover art are artistic and commercial decisions; pricing is mostly commercial. Guesswork and intuition come in to play.
Traditional publishing houses have expertise, and the short-term winning bet, I think, is to hand those duties over. The problem is that, since the author signs over so many rights, he loses control completely. I’ve known several authors whose books were ruined by bad titles and cover art.
Of course, if a book flops due to bad marketing or a terrible cover, the author’s in no position to ask for it to be released again with better efforts. The publisher will consider itself generous if it offers him to write another book for them.
Self publishers, at least, can iterate and learn. This, I think, is one of the major reasons why self publishing will become the usual way in for fiction. Trade publishers will continue to work with nonfiction, public domain work, and the top hundred or so bestselling fiction others. For novelists, it’ll be a victory lap rather than a career, for those who need to negotiate foreign-language rights and screenplays before the book even comes out.
By 2030, the vast majority of important novelists– including, to the establishment’s surprise, the best literary authors– will not use traditional publishing. Why? sheer numbers. Talent seems uncorrelated with hereditary social class. For every would-be writer whose parents get him representation by a power agent as a 21st-birthday present, there are 1,000 writers who don’t.
8. I want to learn about the business.
By American standards, my politics are left-wing, so it might surprise some people that I’m saying this: I’m not ideologically against capitalism. Business is natural and necessary. I don’t view commerce as inherently dirty, and I think that academics’ outmoded, knee-jerk, leftist pearl-clutching about the material world (in fact, often a social-class humble-brag that reinforces power structures) hurts everyone. The result of the left’s dislike for all things business means that the best people shrink from it– and dirty people disproportionately go into (and end up dominating) the game. It doesn’t have to be that way.
The publishing business isn’t a massive money-maker but, for better or worse, it influences culture.
Our culture is in peril. The danger is not immigration (which refreshes it) or gender equality (on the contrary, gender justice is the strongest indicator of cultural health I know) or scientific advances (again, beneficial, at least when used well). Rather, the threat to our culture is atrocious leadership, both from the perceived right (corporate executives) and left (connected coastal tastemakers). Border walls won’t solve this problem; we did it to ourselves, and the enemy is our own elite.
Right now, too many good people sit on the sidelines. Too many people on the left would rather make a performance art out of being offended than get out there and start doing. We can’t let this happen. Good people need to enter tough, competitive worlds like business and politics– and stand up for intellect, morality, and culture.
9. I wanted to learn editing.
Editing is hard. It can be a slog.
Here’s a dirty secret about writing: quite a few people who are good at it, whether we’re talking about bestselling commercial authors or acclaimed literary voices, don’t especially enjoy it. This is something they rarely admit (and I’m not about to out anyone) and I’m not entirely sure why. I guess they have to keep up the “dream job” image, but for many of them, it has become merely a job. They’re good enough to stay relevant and get paid, but the passion’s gone.
I don’t think they should be ashamed of this. Writing’s hard. It’s not for everyone. It’s not for the vast majority of people. The world needs more readers, more than it needs more writers.
There are probably 50 million people in the United States who want to “be a writer” and will publish their novel “someday”. Not a small number of them have 300-page manuscripts. Some will self publish unready work. Others will query agents and find themselves quoted on Twitter with the annotation, #queryfail. Very few of them will actually write a solid book. Divergent creativity (branching) isn’t all that rare. It’s the fun part. Kids have it. Convergent creativity (pruning) requires taste and skill. It’s painful and detail-oriented. In corporate management, there’s a separation between the “creative work” (which is not all that creative) and the detailed “grunt work”, but that mentality carries over badly to the arts. It’s all about the details. Few people have the grit necessary to write a complete, publishable novel– much less a significant literary work.
I’d guess that 40–60 percent of successful writers still enjoy writing– and, again, I’m not denigrating those who don’t. It’s not a sin that they enjoy Manhattan cocktail parties more than 6:00am writing sessions; it means they’re normal. (I’m not normal.) I’d guess that less than 10 percent enjoy editing.
I didn’t think I would at first, but as my skills improved, I found myself enjoying editing as well. It’s a different pleasure from 120-mile-an-hour rough-draft writing, but it’s a lot of fun in its own right. I studied characterization; scene construction; nuances of grammar; line editing; story structure; and rhetorical devices and when (and when not) to use them. There’s something liberating about going deep into detail, without fear. Not many people do that after college (if even then).
When I finished my first draft of Farisa, it weighed in at 134,159 words. (I remember the number because it’s one transposition away from the approximation of π, 3.14159.) The number intimidated me, and over the next month I discovered plot holes, missed opportunities, dangling story threads and far too much telling. The more I learned about craftsmanship, the more I spotted and improved. For every 500-word info dump I could cut (kill, kill, kill those things) I found a 2,500-word scene needed to strengthen a connection between events that, in my first writing, I had assumed but never stated or shown. Some of the edges I drew, to tighten the story became nodes (scenes, even characters) in their own right. If my sum total, after a bit of line editing to take the word count down, comes in under 200,000, I’ll be happy.
Revising a 130,000-plus word manuscript is a big task. I was apprehensive. “Shit, I’ve got to edit this thing. Maybe twice, even.” (Hahahaha.) I found out, though, that I like it. I’m not a perfectionist– I went through that phase of life, and it’s crippling– but there is a ludic element, a game almost, of seeing how tight I can make a sentence or how good I can make a story.
The inclination to edit well and enjoy it, I think, is rare. Age and life history have a lot to do with it. If I succeed with Farisa (or a later work) I’ll be glad that it happened late. Many writers are ruined by early success; they write a great book at 25, but are useless by 30, because the Manhattan cocktail party scene takes them in and they stop having original ideas. It could have happened to me, and probably would have, had things gone a different way. I’m different, but I’m not morally superior.
At 35, half of my biblical three-score-and-ten, I find that as I get older, I get simpler in most ways. If somehow I beat all odds and sold a million copies of my first book, I wouldn’t hang around the Manhattan book buzz people. I’d move to the mountains and focus entirely on the second book (and the third, et al).
10. I’m realistic.
Outsiders to traditional publishing think that it comes with six-figure advances, national radio and TV spots, reviews in the New York Times, and full-time publicists pushing each other out of the way to line up one’s speaking calendar.
Those deals are rare, but they also have very little to do with literary merit. It may be true that “good writing gets found”, but what makes or breaks a career in traditional publishing is how well a book performs in its first eight weeks, and that has everything to do with how the book gets treated by its publisher, which in turn is driven almost entirely by agent clout. What favors can (and will) he call in? Will someone’s kid not get in to a preschool if the New York Times declines to review an author’s book? Book buzz is like sausage and laws; some things, it is best not to see them made.
The sausage-making component doesn’t require only “an agent”. Querying still works (given enough time) if one’s goal is just to “get in”. The agents who have the power and connections to drive the sort of treatment that makes traditional publishing worthwhile are extremely rare. One doesn’t need only to sign such an agent, but to rank among his favored clients. That outcome is inaccessible without pre-existing social class or extraordinary luck.
Most authors of reasonable talent can get into traditional publishing, even in 2018, even without inherited social connections, if they give it enough time. Their outcomes, though, are uninspiring: mediocre deals with no publicity, that they’re pressed to take because their agents will fire them if they back out, but that lead to lackluster launches that harm their careers in the long run. Querying, of course, isn’t free. It no longer costs postage, but time is the most valuable resource we have, and querying takes too much of it compared to what it can actually do.
I don’t think it’s worthwhile to be bitter about the changes in traditional publishing. Industries evolve. So long as the self-publishing infrastructure continues to grow, literature will improve with time. The few dozen power agents in Manhattan (even if augmented by the thousands who wish to join them) were always a tiny fraction of the reading population, but their proportion is even smaller if one steps up to a global perspective. As for bitterness, which there’s a lot of in publishing, the problem (as I’ve learned, by being embittered in a different career) is that it leads, paradoxically, to magical thinking. Bitter people want to be not-bitter; they want someone (like a literary agent) to come along and solve their problems. This is why they’re so easy to swindle. Bitter people fall for sweet talk– the narrative wherein someone riding higher stops for someone special, just because– and that’s a dangerous weak spot to have in business. There are cases in which to use traditional publishers, and others in which they’re unnecessary. Realism, not bitterness, is what an author needs.
11. Experimentation / flexibility.
No one knows what sells books. It constantly changes. There’s a lot of guesswork and iteration. Traditional publishers get a bad rap for how often they get it wrong, but most self publishers aren’t any better.
Marketing is especially hard for books, because the book’s main advantage over other media is its reputation for (and, because books are less expensive, true advantage in) authenticity. The production values of a film or television show come at a price: executives who control budgets, focus groups, the need to manage an average attention span. People understand this. Popular visual media tend to establish value using social proof: special effects, wide releases, and famous actors. Novels establish value through the quality of writing, characterization, plotting and world-building. The proof-of-value isn’t $30 million but 3 years of a talented writer’s time. The issue is that a reader must spend considerable time with the writing to see these production-like values; they don’t come through in a two-minute trailer. Even for the writer to get a shot, readers must know that the book exists in the first place. Marketing matters.
No one expects authenticity from a summer blockbuster– it may be there, but it’s not mandatory– but we absolutely expect it from literary novels (and, to a lesser extent, high-grade commercial works). Authenticity and marketing/publicity go against each other. If readers knew how much Manhattan favor trading and sausage making went in to “book buzz”, they’d trust it even less. For light summer entertainment, the inauthenticity of marketing is not so self-destructive. Getting people to come to the theaters is, in comparison, straightforward. For books? Most publicity efforts go nowhere, because the nature of public relations is its irreducible inauthenticity.
A publicity strategy that drives sales today might fall flat in 2019. What a publishing house thinks, for good reason, is genius, might pull a zero and take a good book down with it.
In traditional publishing, recovery is next to impossible. A one-shot approach to One way to recover would be to reduce price, give copies away, and publish chapters either for free or in magazines, but traditional publishers rarely do. Once a book is deemed a flop (or worse, a mediocre performer, making the book expensive for the publisher to give away, which might be the best move for the next one) the publisher loses interest in its fate, although the author doesn’t.
A self publisher, when a publicity effort fails, can try another approach. There’s more experimentation available.
12. Not to be an employee.
I’ve said before that more people want to “be a writer” than actually want to write (much less write well) and one of the reasons for this is that people, eventually, want to escape the oppressive stupidity of office life. They think they’ll be their own boss. I’ll admit that this is a contributing motivation for me, as well.
I’m good at many things. I believe writing is one of them. I’m also bad at many things. Because I have a architect’s knack for how things could be or ought to be, my mind under-attunes itself to parochial details of the broken way things really are at any specific point in space and time. As a result, arbitrary authority– like bad legacy software, just another form of sloppy writing– isn’t something I handle skillfully. I’m not good at tolerating bad decisions or managing the childlike needs of people in power. If I could change such traits, perhaps I would. On one hand, I would be a less virtuous person and my life’s total value to the world would decrease. On the other, it has cost me jobs and a lot of money to be less-than-perfect at the less-than-virtuous skill at navigating less-than-excellence.
I was, at one time, in the top 1 percent or so of software engineers. Perhaps I still am, although I’m not as current. These days, I prefer management and data science roles. I had a period in which I hated writing code; I could do it, but it was a struggle, because every keystroke felt like an injection of nonsense into the world. Programming did become fun again, but it took considerable time.
Sometimes it is right and prudent to follow orders (operational subordination) but organizations often demand personal subordination. If you have a backbone, and do anything in that context– anything at all– you will grow to hate it. Writing, programming, speaking… if you do the job in a context of personal subordination, you will ruin it for yourself. You may find excuses not to do it. You might complete the work, but poorly. Perhaps you’ll power through and do it well enough, but nothing you produce will be authentic. For factory-floor corporate work, this isn’t such a tragedy to the product; mediocrity and inauthenticity are not merely survivable but expected and commonplace. For literary fiction, it’s fatal.
I know plenty of people who’ve used traditional publishing: successes and failures; people who defend it and others who loathe it. I know people who’ve been dumped by their agents and fallen to pieces; I know people who’ve been failed by traditional publishing and still defend it; I know people who’ve succeeded but would self publish if they were to do it again; I know bestselling authors with exceptional agents who love what traditional publishing does for them and have no regrets. There seem, at first, to be few similarities between the outlier successes and the horror stories, but there is, in fact, one theme that connects them all.
That theme is: traditionally published authors are employees.
For example, often they give their publishers the right of first refusal, which means they can’t shop work around unless their “home” has already rejected it. Most authors cannot publish, even short stories and bonus chapters, in a world they used without the publisher’s permission. Of course, publishing has elements of a feudal reputation economy, and an author dumped by a publisher or editor will likely find it harder to acquire another one than he did for his debut. And, as bad as it is for an author to lose a publisher, to be dumped by an agent is almost always fatal.
For example, authors who demand their publishers to do their job– to market their books– are deemed “difficult”. Those who turn down career-damaging deals with onerous contractual terms get pressure from their agents to acquiesce and, eventually, will be tossed back in the slush pile if their agents get sick of waiting for ‘dat commission. It’s shockingly easy for a writer to end up worse off than pre-debut, which leaves them out of power.
Agents don’t fear being dumped by authors, because there are thousands more submitting queries every day. Authors know that if they get dumped, their careers in traditional publishing are over.
These aren’t theoretical concerns. I know of talented writers being dumped (and blacklisted) by their agents for turning down crappy deals. I’ve heard of publishers reneging on promised marketing when the author complained about an ill-chosen title. The old system, under which authors knew that their publishers truly backed them, and that after getting published once, they’d continue to get book deals and competent marketing, is gone.
Of course, people who leave traditional publishing can still self publish, but if that were their plan, they ought not to have wasted time and rights on a different game. It would have been better for them to spend those years self publishing.
It is not always bad to be an employee. I want to make that clear. Nor is there anything sinister about employment. I’d like to have my own show in some time, but that’s not everyone’s way; done morally right, employment is a risk transfer. It only becomes immoral when the trade is misrepresented (i.e., the risk reduction is not commensurate with what the employee gives up). I’ll leave it to others to decide, for themselves, whether traditional publishing offers more than it takes away. On an individual level, it depends more on the book and the deal than anything else.
As for being an employee, there are tiers of it. There are seven-figure executives who write their own performance reviews, fly in corporate jets, and have limitless resources for any projects they might imagine, and they are employees; there are also miserable, underpaid, precarious employees. Some people enjoy organizational mechanics, either as a spectator sport or for live-action play; others consider it nonsense and a distraction. Some people excel at the game; others are either bad or, at best, inauthentic when they play. There are as many approaches that can be taken as stories that can be written.
What story do I exist to write? I don’t have a fully-formed answer but, on my own question, I’m further along than anyone else. Clearly no one else knows; I’ve lived half a life to learn that much. My job becomes to figure out the rest.