Magical Words: who pays whom?

I’ve been doing what will, I imagine, turn into a four part series over on Magical Words, all prompted by a reader question “who pays whom?” Part one, discussing the editor/agent/author relationship and the differences between an editor and an editorial service, is here. Part two, discussing vanity presses, is here. I expect I’ll be talking about POD and ebooks over the next two weeks, and I’ll link to those later, maybe.

For the moment, though, I thought I’d bring up what turned into a very long comment from the second part, and post it here. It’s a little about what drives people to vanity press, and a little about other stuff, and probably none of it’s news, but I think it probably also bears repeating. And it’s long, so I’ll put it behind the cut.

(a Magical Words reader) wrote: THAT’S why people seek out vanity publishing – desperation when there is no one who will take the time to even explain, yes this is good, or no that is bad. Rarely do they even mention that they are unable to categorise a book

The reason I used the “unable to categorize” example, actually, was because I had that experience myself, repeatedly, with a book that my writing partner and I wrote. And the reason I /know/ it was uncategorizeable was because we have about fifteen rejection letters saying, “Man, this is really good and we have no idea what to do with it, sorry, we have to pass.” If you’ve written something good (and I mean ‘you’ as a generic term here), somebody will take the trouble to tell you.

mostly (as far as I’m aware) the better and therefore busier agents don’t even read stuff from unknowns unless they’re really stuck for something to sell.

My agent, who I think is quite splendid (and so do other people!), does, in fact, read material from unknowns, to the tune of hundreds of queries a week. Most agents are constantly on the prowl for the next new hot thing. They’re just as happy as we are to sign somebody talented.

Published authors repeatedly tell us they had 20, 30, 40, 50 or even more rejections before they got their first book accepted. Most unknowns give up WAY before that

Aaah. Okay. Again, I want to be very clear I’m not directing this at anyone in particular, but as a general statement:

If you give up before you get your first book accepted, you don’t have the stuff to be a published writer…and that’s okay.

This is, as we’ve said dozens of times, not an easy business. It’s a fairly terrible way to make a living–nerve wracking, uncertain, frequently desperation-filled. If the repeated rejections take you out of the game, then you’re probably not suited for this job. There is *nothing wrong with that*. It’s like not being suited to be a surgeon or a golf pro or a concert pianist. Not everybody is cut out for it. Not everybody wants to go to fifteen years of medical school or practice their swing shot every day or spend hours a week playing scales.

The difference is that we’re all taught the physical act of writing in school, and we’re not all taught to hit a birdie or play piano. There appears to be a connection in our society between the physical ability to write and the ability to tell a story, but they’re not any more the same than being able to swing a stick means you’re able to hit a home run four out of five throws. There’s also the fact that humans use stories to relate to one another, so we all tend to believe we can tell a story. Being able to relate, to great laughter, the tale of Great Aunt Maude’s trials with the water company, is not actually the same ability as sitting down to write an entertaining four hundred page novel. We correlate these things, but we often do so falsely.

It’s true that there are books out there on the shelves which I can find no reasonable explanation for their publication. In fact, it was one of those books that made me say, “God, I can do better than /this/,” and write my first book at age 19 (no, I won’t tell you what the book was, but only because I can’t remember). It’s true there are books out there which appear to have never been seen by an editor, much less improved upon by revisions. It’s true that we *all* think, at one point or another, “God, I can do better than that!” And I really truly can, at least on some level, understand the impulse to say, “Okay, if nobody in New York will buy my book, I can self-publish it and at least it’ll be out there, and it’s better than this crap! Surely people will see that!”

If you’re a hobbiest, or [a poet on MW who opted to self-publish a book of poetry for gifts], then yeah, that’s a perfectly reasonable way to go. You’re getting what you expect out of the deal. If, though, you want to do this for a living, professionally, day in and day out, and you quit before you get that acceptance letter…then you don’t want it enough, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all.

I have probably related here before the story of meeting Anne McCaffrey, one of science fiction’s grande dames, who asked if I was a writer, and upon being told I was, said, “If you can do anything else, do it.”

I was just barely twenty years old, and I had no idea what she meant, not really, because, well, of COURSE I could do other things. I could–and did–work as an archivist, a web designer, a Pokemon salesman, and a ton of other things. It wasn’t until I was holding URBAN SHAMAN, my first published novel, in my hands, that I really understood what she’d been saying.

She’d been telling me that if I could be content, even happy, doing something that didn’t pile up the rejection letters, that didn’t require spending years of my life at a keyboard when I could be doing something else, if I could get ten or twenty or thirty rejection letters and say, “No, this isn’t worth it,” then it wasn’t worth it. I would be happier doing something else. If I could walk away from writing, I should, because it would make for an easier and more comfortable life.

Some people can walk away. Some people get that thirty-second rejection letter and say, “No, screw it,” and put it all away. I don’t envy them, because I love my life and my job, but if they can do that, I think Anne was right: they’ll be happier.

If they can’t, then I will forever stand the line and say do not go the vanity press route. If you want it this badly, keep going until it’s real.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Moonlit Glade » Why I’m a Writer

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