I went to the Twitter mailbag today to see what kind of questions were out there in the ether. I received four. I will be updating the blog as I answer them.
Question #1 (from my guy Alan Mills @alan_uplc) —
"I wrote a brilliant memoir of my life, but no publisher will even look at it. I know it will be a best seller. What do I do?"
Ok, this is kinda like Ruth’s question that I’ll be answering shortly. So if this is relevant to your life and you like skimming, now isn’t the time to skim. Later on, when I try to go Broadway answering it, dragging it out to ridiculous lengths, go ahead and let your eyes glaze over. But for right now. It’s you, me, and Alan Mills (and Ruth) and we’re serious about this.
I’m going to assume this question is being asked one particular way and in its most literal form, but then I’m going to circle back and answer it again from Mt. Vague at 30,000 feet.
It’s possible a publisher hasn’t yet looked at it because it hasn’t been submitted to a publisher in the expected (now is not the time for me to tackle conventions) manner, and so even if it were a perfect fit and a captivating story that would make it to the top of the best seller list, none of us will ever know.
Publishers have preferred manners of submission (ooh, that sounds…not exactly like I mean it to sound, but I continue). In the abstract, they want to receive manuscripts/pitches from people they trust or, in the very least, who they trust know what they’re doing. That’s where agents come into the picture.
If a publisher only takes submissions from an agent (as a matter of stated or implicit policy) no amount of phone calling, emailing, door knocking, etc. is likely to produce good results for an author. It’s sometimes very stupid and inefficient, but then I’ve had raccoon skulls sent to me by authors and weird propositions that, if not completely illegal, treaded in murky waters—so I get why something had to be put in place.
If you haven’t already tried to secure an agent, that’s the way to go. If you’ve tried to secure an agent by sending out query letters to three or four or a dozen people, realize it might take a little more than that to find the person who gets your project, is enthusiastic about advocating for it, and has the connections to make magic happen.
This element of the business is slightly confounding when viewed from most other business transactions in our life. If we want to hire somebody to fix a leak, we look up plumbers. The exchange of money pretty much governs the whole thing. In the case of an agent, there is no guarantee of a payday for the agent until the book is sold to a publisher, and because a lot of time can be spent trying to sell that book to a publisher, an agent has to be discerning with his/her time. And because time is a finite resource in all of our lives, that means that an agent (and later, a publisher) have to rely on gut instincts, hunches, and guesses—none of them scientific—hoping to get the least amount wrong.
Not knowing all of the particulars related to the above question, I’ve got a couple of suggestions, all of them with varied caveats, lists of pros and cons abound, etc.
(1) If you’ve got access to groups of people through speaking engagements, social media, late night infomercials, etc. and you’ve got the capital to produce your own book, the technology we’ve got today makes it pretty cheap to self-publish both in print and electronically. The important consideration here is the reach to interested buyers and your ability to at least light the fuse (even if you can’t guarantee it’ll blow up into something big). Big media probably won’t pay much attention (because they’re inundated with a million ideas for stories on a daily basis) but if you can get a critical mass of cheerleaders and bullhorns, they’ll pay attention, as will those stubborn publishers who didn’t open the door earlier.
(2) Keep trying to find an agent! There are hundreds of them and they all have their own interests and passions. It’s possible your book would * ahem * have a synergistic pull (just trying to litter in some buzzwords so my credibility as a publisher/businessdude isn’t questioned more than it already is) with one of the esteemed agents of the world who you haven’t yet contacted. Find books like your own, find out who the agent is, figure out how they want things submitted, and do it.
(3) Find a small press. There are a lot of great small presses who publish across a wide spectrum of topics, geographical concerns, professional specialties, etc. They may not have the long arm of Big Five Publishing, but the good ones among them can get books on to shelves, can get the attention of the media, and, can get you paid good soup money.
Did that even come close to addressing the question?
Question #2 (from the awesome Ruth Thomas Hansen @ruththansen)
How can someone "not take rejection personally" when her reality is a big part of her story?
This is a tough one. Any answer I might give comes with a sympathetic nod and an “it sucks, doesn’t it?” I can’t pretend to have a cure all for this particular ailment. Objectively I know what I’m supposed to say—it’s just business. A company needs to devote its time/resources to the production of goods that will generate the revenue that will sustain it into the future. It is also headed by humans, humans are not machines, but sometimes they have to pretend they are.
When it comes to books, many authors spend months and years breaking their spirit to tell their story, painfully going over detail, exposing vulnerabilities, straining for the right turn of phrase to get it as close to as exact as possible. They do all of that only to be told, “we don’t see the market for your book.”
What the publisher/agent is saying – “We don’t think we can sell enough units of this thing to make enough money that it will contribute to our bottom line in such a way that we will be able to continue operations into the foreseeable future.”
What an author hears—“This isn’t good. You’ve wasted your time. Have you considered taking up another hobby?”
And that sucks. It sucks for a variety of reasons. Here are some of those reasons:
(1) It’s not productive for us to think those kinds of thoughts about ourselves or our art. It’s a toxic thing to have in our brain and it not only erodes our desire to create, it can erode our joy in living and that, it goes without saying, is not a good place.
(2) From a publisher’s standpoint it sucks, too, at least in my case (the only case I can really speak for) because I don’t want to tell anybody anything that hurts their feelings or makes them doubt their worth as a human being. NOT. MY. GOAL. It doubly sucks when I read something that I truly and genuinely love but that I know I can’t publish because either I don’t believe it will sell enough units to justify the cost OR even if I do, I know my boss and those above me, people critical to the process, will disagree with me.
It’s a shame that art and commerce get tangled like they do, and on my side of the fence when it comes to creative matters (as opposed to the businessman hat), I often refer to Zooey’s speech at the end of Zooey (the second novella in Salinger’s Franny & Zooey). He lays into Franny about it not being her business to consider the reaction of audiences, that the artist’s duty is to the art and making it as perfect as possible, as though it were a gift you’d present to God (however you want to understand God).
And that ain’t always easy, but it’s sometimes the only thing that keeps me sane.
Question #3 (from the super awesome Karen Feldman @unseelieme) –
How much harder is it for a small publisher to get their books shelf space in big retail stores?
Oh, I could probably write some kind of article about this that would stretch on for, like, I don’t know maybe 70 internet pages. What I mean to say is that it’s a topic I’ve had plenty of experience dealing with, I’ve got theories, I’ve seen all kinds of results from people all over the spectrum, it’s the kind of thing that keeps me up at night, and, in case it isn’t already super apparent, I like the sound of my own typing.
We need to do some dissection here. Because though you think the question is straight forward, there really are a lot of variables.
(1) How small is this small publisher? Is it being run from a garage/basement, putting out one or two books a year by a company that doesn’t have distribution and an inability to get editorial coverage in known media? Because if it is, it’s going to be nearly impossible, except maybe on a local level, to see a book on a bookshelf in a big retail store.
I should someday discuss what we mean when we say “small publisher” because it’s a term that gets thrown around all willy-nilly but it really means so many different things to so many people to the point that it almost becomes meaningless. It’s all relative.
If I say “Little, Brown” or “Simon & Schuster” you, as a reader and as an author, know immediately, that’s a big publisher. The larger companies in charge of those publishing stalwarts are multi-billion dollar entities.
By contrast, I know many award winning, highly respected, major award winning publishing companies who might gross between a million to ten million dollars a year. They’ve got books on shelves of bookstores.
And when we talk about them, relative to Hachette (Little, Brown’s parent company) they are less than 1% of the size. 1% is, I think it’s safe to say, small in consideration.
But I know approximately a bajillion authors who would LOVE to be published by any one of those companies. Those houses make up some of the more vibrant neighborhoods in this industry.
Then, between those “small” companies and non-existent companies, there is plenty of space. If we measure in percentage, you might see as precipitous differences between the “small” houses and the Big Five.
But in terms of raw dollars, the gap is significantly smaller to the point of being a rounding error to the biggest of the big houses.
Industry professionals might say a company making two million dollars a year is a small, independent house.
That’s why it gets confusing then, when somebody decides to start a publishing company in their garage and says, “I’m now a small publisher.”
Same two words, hugely different meanings, hugely different capabilities, hugely different legitimacy.
To your question—you can, as a general rule of thumb, probably evaluate a publisher’s ability to get books on the shelf of a major retailer by (a) checking to see if any of the publisher’s titles are currently on the shelf, (b) what sort of media attention are the books generating? (blogs nobody has heard of, Publishers Weekly, The New York Times), (c) how long they’ve been around.
If you’re a new publisher—and I can talk about this from experience (started two publishing companies from the ground up)—it is a super hard thing to get your books shelved in major bookstores. You have to have been around for a few seasons before they’ll meet with you (because they’re waiting to see if you’ll collapse), you’ll need to prove that the sources they trust validate your books, you’ll need to work on their terms which typically would mean discounts nearing 50% and making books fully returnable. That last part is some precarious witchcraft when operating capital is thin/non-existent.
And it’s also important to keep in mind that my experience was probably easier than a company starting today because Barnes & Noble and Borders were fairly healthy when I was trying to con them into carrying our books.
The terms we use and the expectations we have about publishers are in this gauzy new world. The technology changes, the evolution of the retail market, the emergence of social media—all of these things have made publishing in 2014 significantly different than the many decades that came pre-2000. We’ve got multiple generations saying the same words, but understanding different things by them.
Oh my God! Do I ever shut up? I believe I’ve hammered this point well into the ground and will claim this tent to be solidly staked. If something I said isn’t clear, please don’t blame the word count, just my use of them.
Question #4 (from @McVladie) –
How do you know? Example – Two publishers say great but… change beginning…two others say the beginning is great change ending. Ahh!
Frustrating right? I wish I had a magic wand to give to you to figure out who knows what and what the best course of action to take would be.
But I don’t.
One of a publisher’s (more accurately, the editor at a publishing house) jobs is to act something like a Building Inspector. They come in and say, “well, your foundation isn’t even” or “the electrical system is going to short if it stays as is.” It’s up to the writer, as general contractor to open up the tool box and fix the problem.
When assessing the feedback and suggestions, especially when they are as different as “the beginning works, fix the end” and “the beginning is a mess, but the end comes together nicely” it’s important to evaluate the Building Inspector. What are his/her credentials? What are the potential gains of heeding his/her instruction? If somebody says they’ll publish your book if you’d just fix the front end, that’s a reason to do it (provided you want to be published by that company). If they give you a vague “that didn’t work for me” and they aren’t in a position to publish your work even if it did, then you might not immediately run down that trail.
Writing a book is a pretty involved endeavor and the audience isn’t a monolith. If somebody asks you to stack ten boxes, you can do it and know how to do it in such a way that everybody (except the contrarian jerk) will say, “Yes, that’s how that job is supposed to be done.”
The same does not hold true for publishing.
Ultimately, like I mentioned to Ruth in the answer above, the answer, for me, is found at the back end of Zooey and Buddy’s discussion of Seymour’s Fat Lady. I can’t recommend, enough, that people read that bit when they get frustrated about their art and what to do about it.
In the unlikely event you've got another hour you want to kill reading my nonsense, my blog is filled with more ofi it. Some of it publishing related, some, not so much. www.benjaminleroy.com