Yes, I stole the title of this blog from one of my favorite Annie Dillard books, but it suits my topic and Dillard fans may smile!
So…I’ve been thinking this week about the challenges writers are confronted with every day. I’m a writer myself and my biggest challenge is finding time to write as I scramble to keep Pronghorn Press moving forward in this mystifying market.
But for most writers I think the actual writing (and finding time to do it) is the easy part of the equation where—when all the variables fall into line—ends with a sum of success. Don’t get me wrong. I know many writers struggle for ideas, for ways to express them, through many revisions and endless questions about characters, plots and decisions that tie them all together. But once that painful process is complete—and it may take years as many of us know—once a writer is satisfied with what she’s created, she then finds herself standing before the formidable fortress of publishing which is surrounded by a high wall. It’s a wall many of us visualize as always in the construction phase, adding height, brick by brick!
The wall is thicker than writers can begin to imagine when standing on the outside for the first time and there are very few entrances to the “courtyard of consideration.” I liken it to the structure of any ancient monarchy: a series of minor bureaucrats whose notice you must somehow attract in order to work your way up to someone with the power to assist you. Come to think of it, this seems to be the business model these days in many areas of commerce. Have you noticed? Everything from computer troubleshooting, to online ordering, to your local shopping center seems to have adopted this method.
But I digress.
So, does my metaphor for the publishing industry sound fanciful? Overly dramatic? Ask any writers you know. The frustration of being unable to actually reach and communicate with anyone is a common thread.
At the other end of the business, where the actual readers are, I also see frustration. I’ll address this in another blog. For the moment we are looking at the creative end where something is brought out of the void and into manifestation through the efforts of the writer.
So our writer sits with finished manuscript in hand. There are still doubts, if not at this moment then in the near future when she begins to second-guess herself. Nonetheless, she’s ready. But is the world—read “world of publishing”—ready for her? She’s attended the lectures and seminars, she’s bought the books, she feels she has a reliable map for the next step on her journey, i.e. finding a publisher All the information out there is basically the same. How hard can it be? Uh…sadly she’s about to find out! NOTE: Those how-to books become outdated almost as soon as they hit the shelves in this current market which is morphing so quickly these days, and in ways impossible to predict at the moment.
If she’s absorbed what she’s heard and read, she might begin by checking The Writers Market for publishers accepting unagented work. (This too could be outdated by the time it reaches the shelves. Best check online!) Through that research she may decide she’ll need an agent after all, depending on what it is she has to sell. (HINT: Try Googling “agents actively seeking”) Either way, agent or publisher, her next step is writing a query letter.
Now, on the other side of the in-out box, as a publisher I can tell you that I receive a bewildering array of query letters—emails being my preference for ease of response (yes, I actually respond!). These range from business-like and to the point to absurd. I can understand why big publishing houses can become disgusted by the amount of really sub-standard queries they receive, the volume of which must be unimaginable. But from my double perspective (writer AND publisher) it seems to me that if those big boys in New York say they accept queries, the least they can do is respond to them. Can’t those mega-corporate budgets find room for some low level people to hand this task? The struggling writers often feel they’re just sending those queries out into the ethers where they must all end up in some sort of black hole (along with those missing socks from the dryer!).
And excuse me writers, but if you can actually write a book, could you make an effort with those queries? Nothing fancy, just the facts. Forget trying to make it overly exciting and flashy (as many books suggest). A good idea is intriguing in its own right. The proof comes in the execution. If the publisher can instantly understand what it is you have, you’re more likely to receive a response…at least from those of us who actually respond.
Something else all writers have to remember is the importance of matching your queries to the right publisher. It does little good to query a romance novel to a publisher who specializes in books on the Civil War. Target your approach. And remember, even a good match may not be what the publisher wants or needs at that time. You have to harden your artistic little hearts to rejection. (Believe me, I know how difficult that is!) I did read a great article quite a while ago where one writer had papered her power room with rejection letters! Others save their rejection letters so when they succeed, they can wave them in the faces of those who refused to acknowledge their talent.
And so query letters flow out from writers to publishers and from writers to agents. This is an amazingly one-way stream with only an occasional backwash of a response. When I first started sending my own manuscripts out (a very long time ago) many of the big publishing houses still accepted unagented manuscripts. I sent queries. Some agreed to read my work. And then came the wait. The how-to books in those days said don’t dare to contact anyone to see what was going on until after six months. I remember one publisher had my book for 2 YEARS before they finally responded by rejecting it. And of course you could only submit to one publisher at a time, so my enthusiasm faded, as I’m sure it does these days for many others. Mind you, I never stopped writing, but the slowness of the submission process meant very little happened. I have to say that experience did influence the way I work now. I schedule the reading of individual manuscripts so that writers receive a response in 4-6 weeks. This let’s them know their work won’t end up on the bottom of a pile. and at the same time keeps that pile off MY desk!
So now we find ourselves in the second decade of the new century and many things have changed in the publishing world. For a start, media giants like Time-Warner have absorbed most of the big publishing houses in New York. As an example, a German conglomerate now owns Random House, along with their associated houses like Knopf, Crown, Doubleday, and DelRey. They distribute for another fifteen or so book producers like National Geographic Books and the New York Review of Books worldwide. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation purchased Harper Collins, along with William Morrow, Hearst and Avon. You all have a vague notion of the size (and direction) of Murdoch’s holdings. I feel these mergers in the publishing industry account for the change we have been feeling for a very long time but which, to me, seems to be coming to a head in this strained economy. What has happened to books we actually enjoy? Another topic for another blog.
So back to our beleaguered author. As the big houses morph into media giants, many opportunities for smaller and even very small presses have emerged. Finding them is not always easy, but it is worth the effort. Many specialize in certain genres and others, like us, have eclectic interests.
The advent of the internet and all the online opportunities for self-publishing offer many alternatives for authors. These options require authors to really focus on what it is they want to achieve (hint: fame and fortune is not the right answer) and then, how much they are willing to spend to do it. The opportunities for self-published authors are many and varied and success is dependent on commitment and follow through and the opportunities for exploitation of authors are many and can be devastating. They keyword is CAUTION!
Please feel free to share this with your writing friends. I’ll address the benefits and pitfalls of self-publishing next time around.
Meanwhile, enjoy …!
A writer’s lot is a tough one,
and lonely is her art.
Her master is an editor
who often has no heart.
And yet she strives for symmetry
with every word she pens
and despite the worst reviews
will take it up again.
Sometimes she shares her work with friends
whose comments kindle doubts
until she wonders if they know
just what her work’s about.
And editors feel mighty free
to ask her to revise
which often makes it seem as though
their main concern is size.
Rewrites keep her up at night
and plague her in the day.
She’s seen the words so many times,
she’ll often lose her way.
A phrase will oft repeat itself
until it seems the norm
and word groups such as “had had”
take on a foreign form.
So here’s to fearless writers
who boldly ply their craft,
who burn that midnight oil and write
though others think them daft.
With words they’ve sought to save our souls
no matter what it took.
So thank long suffering writers!
Go out and buy a book!