The A'tist and the Businessman

Periodically people - on facebook, via email, through my site - try to get me to read their manuscripts. Unless they are friends or I know that what they really want is an honest critique, I do not read it. This is difficult, because some of these people are quite, quite, quite persistent and keep coming back with "but I'm sure you'll love it if you just read it."

I'm not saying that they're wrong. For all I know, most of them or a significant portion of them are right and their manuscripts would absolutely knock my socks off, set my world afire or rock my aesthetic perceptions.

I've long ago learned not to judge how good someone's work will be by whether or not they're published. Being published involves all sorts of other qualities/events than being a very good writer. For example, one of my best friends was writing much better than I was - or probably ever will - when she was completely unpublished and is still doing so now, when she's only published short stories and I've published several novels. Her novels keep getting rejected, though. Another of my best friends writes so much like me that my own husband can't tell our work apart. She's published almost nothing compared to me.

So these strangers who absolutely want me to read their novel might be amazing writers, much better than what I can buy off the shelf. I'm still not going to read their work, because it wouldn't do either of us any good.

Note my examples above. These are people I like very much and on whom I depend as though they were family. They are still largely unpublished. Why? Because writers don't have that kind of power. We can't do the editor's job for them. It's not OUR job. We can at most - if we love something - recommend it to an editor/publisher/agent. I've now recommended my two friends a couple of times. They've been rejected. Mind you, they got the up close and personal rejection which means my view of their work is correct - they're very good and publishable. But something about the work, something about the timing, something about the editor's/agent's taste keeps them from breaking in.

It might seem to you getting an author's recommend, or a personal introduction gets you closer to the goal, at least, let me disabuse you of that notion. I have a lot of friends, many more - much, much more - successful than I am. Their attempts to give me a hand up have been about as successful as my attempts to get my friends published. Oh, it happens, once in a blue moon, that an author friend - and almost always these are close friends - will recommend you to his/her editor/agent/publisher and you'll get a contract. However, just on percentage, it's easier for you to go through the normal channels of submission. Discovery sounds glamorous, but it's harder than normal acceptance.

Of course, some more creative souls do stranger things, like post samples of their work on my blog comments, my facebook wall or - and this is very creative indeed - send it to my agent/editor with a note that I recommended it.

The first two are at best annoyances. Look, yeah, I have a few editors/agents who, sporadically, read my postings. They do this because we're friends outside of "work" and like to joke or tease me about stuff I post. They do not do this to find "the next best thing." To be blunt, most of them get quite enough submissions to read during their normal work time. In fact, reading submissions is the chore that never ends. They get submissions through the normal channels, they get work from writers they met at cons and social occasions, and they get submissions from people (not always writers) who recommend friends and co-workers. And this is work for them. No matter how much they love reading, no matter how much they tell you, in interviews, that they love "discovering" new work, when they read submissions it's in a different frame of mind than when blogging or reading blogs/facebook/twitter. TRUST me on this. I've edited in the past. When I read with an eye to what might be publishable/needed, it's not the same as reading say Austen fandom, which I often do read.

I'm not saying they might not look at your work. I'm saying that after catching on it's a "sneaky submission" slipped into their leisure time, they're likely to be mad at you and, if I don't take steps to delete it or dissociate myself from it, at me for ambushing them with work during their fun. Ambushing them in that way is as impolite as ambushing a doctor at a party and asking for a diagnosis. I don't have numbers, but I'd bet you a lot of money that you stand a better chance of being ambushed by a meteor in a back alley than you have of selling a book this way.

In fact, some writers will block you/defriend you/shut you out for this sort of thing. I won't, because I can understand where you're coming from. (More on that later, as well.)

The third method - to send something to my editor or agent and telling them I recommended it when I didn't - will get you defriended/blocked/shut out if I ever find out it happened, because frankly it could potentially affect my professional relationship. POTENTIALLY - as in, unlikely, but it could happen. The reason it's unlikely to damage my professional credit is the same reason why this fraudulent action manages to be both dishonest and stupid.

The person who comes up with this brilliant idea doesn't realize that there have been several people to try it before him/her and that therefore there are procedures in place to circumvent it. For instance, unless I send my agent or editor a letter asking "Would you like to see my friend's..." and the editor or agent answers with "sure" any over the transom submission saying "Sarah A. Hoyt loves this" will be seen as a fraud. MOST of the time (exceptions made for writers' group members I HAVE introduced to the editor and even those just in short stories, frankly) such letters from me to editor and answers are followed by MY sending the manuscript I'm recommending to the editor/agent, with a copy to the author, with whom future correspondence will take place.

What all three of these methods will do, in any case, is cause untold damage to YOUR reputation and your chances of publication - if they're noticed. You should pray they aren't. This is because the one thing the publishers fear is "the crazy". "The crazy" might have been a perfectly normal person driven insane by the process of getting published and their fundamental misunderstanding of that process. Or they might be - and very often are - people who think of themselves as artists and tortured souls: people whose work doesn't depend on excellent craft and practice, but on the bolt of lightening of inspiration or the touch of a god of some description. These people just KNOW they're good. (A surprising number of them have 'something' - usually smothered under layers and layers of twitdom and lack of craft.)

For the Touched By The Gods Artist it's hard to endure the fact that they have to go through the same selection process as common mugs. This is reinforced - for practically everyone - by

a) the fact our society's method of educating the young gives everyone, even adults this bizarre idea everything is a class and has an exam/grade. So when your work is good enough and you're still not getting bought it's an "injustice".

b) Stories of strange methods of discovering writers circulated around and highly publicized. I've heard these stories the same as everyone else has and I can tell you nine times out of then when you dig into them you find that they just ain't so. There's always something that's not told, like that the new, amazing star happens to be the best friend of the editor's boyfriend/girlfriend and that's why their blog post got read. Or they went to school with the agent or the agent's best friend. Or...

The stories of sudden discovery are just that - stories, which make for d*mn good publicity. But again, you stand a better chance of being snatched up by aliens to be their king.

The Artist doesn't know this, or if he does, he thinks he deserves that almost-impossible chance. And that means, he tries creative methods. The other things that lie in his path should he not wise up are what will get him blacklisted at the first sign of "artistic temperament" - a lot of these tortured souls will make threats to published writers/agents/editors; they will act unhinged/aggressive at cons; they will at best be nuisances and at worst dangerous.

Worse yet, even if they don't do any of those things, and manage to get published, they're unlikely to be able to bear up under the slings and arrows of publishing fortunes. And if you want to know what I mean by that, let me just say I thought I was uniquely unlucky until - while siting with about twenty other writers, some of them bestsellers - we started comparing horror stories. And then I realized I'd practically been treated with kid gloves by lady luck.

As into every life a little rain must fall, into every writing career - even of those who will end up being bestsellers - a little sh*t happens must fall. And the sh*t includes but is not limited to: horrible covers, dropped publicity campaigns, completely failed early books, disaster doom and lack of sales. The people who go on to be bestsellers end up shouldering these issues, and forging ahead - not matter how much more difficult the road has become.

This is why the best and fastest way to get published is to play by the rules. This shows an even temperament, understanding of the field, and taking a realistic attitude towards the BUSINESS of publishing. It means you have a better chance of persevering, working hard and not causing trouble - all excellent qualities in a contractor, which is what the publisher/editor is looking for.

Nowadays, I agree the process of submission is a mess. I'm not going to advise you on that beyond the barest level: find editors/agents who take slush submissions, or find an agent and leave the process to them. Or if you're absolutely sure you're not a twit but a real writer, publish your own work, publicize heaven out of it and sell enough to then submit to a real house. All of these methods have been proven to work, as has climbing the ranks from small press to major publisher.

Things that will help your path will be attending cons and both making personal acquaintances in publishing (always showing yourself polite and professional, of course), reading in the field to know what people are looking for/like, and - needless to say - work at perfecting your craft, because the great idea must be married to great execution to work.

And then... keep at it. In my experience, a good publishing career depends on - preparation, persistence and professionalism. Luck helps, but it's neither indispensable nor all important. And notice that the "p" of potential or the "g" of genius are not mentioned. Most bestsellers or even mega bestsellers didn't make it on either but on sheer slogging and persistence.

*crossposted at and at*

UPDATE: Welcome Instapundit readers. Feel free to poke around here and at my group blog: as well as my own blog Thank you to Instapundit for the link. (And sorry I'm late in this this. Between thanksgiving and "home improvement black friday" it's been an interesting two days.)

posted by Sarah on 11.24.10 at 11:26 AM


King of the aliens? I think that would be a kingdom of one. Me. I'm going to spend a lot of time bossing myself around today as soon as I think of something useful to do. Procrastination is a king's best friend.

M. Simon   ·  November 24, 2010 1:31 PM

A day later (more or less). I know the above was horribly pretentious. But I just couldn't help myself. I HAD to get in the spirit of what you wrote. Perversely of course.

And I don't do characters. My writing tends more to facts and polemics.

M. Simon   ·  November 25, 2010 8:48 AM

I remember an author writing:
1) manuscript returned no comment.
2) an actual honest to God rejection slip with a check off on why they weren't buying it.
3) A form rejection ship with a single line comment written on it!
4) A rejection slip with a full paragraph on why it sucked.
His said he really learned to appreciate rejection.
Sometimes the time is just not right for a particular genre niche, such as a comedic science ficion short story about a crippled lesbian spaceship captain.

toadold   ·  November 25, 2010 2:39 PM

As a reader -- not an author -- I appreciate your inside view of one part of the publishing world. For better or for worse, with the ongoing shift to electronic self-publishing, the position of gatekeeper (gatekeepers?) to pre-screen writing for the customer will be changing.

CBI   ·  November 25, 2010 2:51 PM

Now that, i would read

matt   ·  November 25, 2010 2:55 PM

Crippled lesbian spaceship captain? You had me at crippled. Genius! The time is NOW for this story.
Send manuscript soonest. Advance check in mail.

Famous Editor

Famous.Editor   ·  November 25, 2010 3:00 PM

"Or if you're absolutely sure you're not a twit but a real writer, publish your own work, publicize heaven out of it and sell enough to then submit to a real house."

Yep. That's what I've been doing, following the example of other indy-writers I know through the IAG. Some of the really good, hard-core indy writers are on their second, or third book - I'm bringing out my fifth historical novel in April 2011. One dear sweet elderly lady and writer of Christian romance in our group has about thirty titles out, and her combined royalties make a nice little income stream for her. Persistence, consistency, constant improvement and knowing our readership has paid off for us, over and over. A handful of our group have gotten traditional publishing deals out of it, too; not spectacular multimillion deals - but very satisfying, and very likely something they wouldn't have gotten otherwise.

Publishing a book yourself, promoting and building a fan base is also pretty satisfying work in itself. Besides, selling so many copies, getting good reviews and scoring a couple of IPPY or other rewards will also establish beyond a shadow of a doubt that your book is worthy of serious consideration. Better - and much more fun - than just letting your unexamined submissions molder away in an agency or publisher's slush-pile, anyway!

Sgt. Mom   ·  November 25, 2010 3:16 PM

Self-publish your magnum opus via the Web. That will give you some idea of the business side of publishing, a dash of grim commercial reality.
- or -
Keep knocking on the NYC publishing door. Persistence often pays. You'll be published and sell a few hundred copies, if typical. That roar of fans you hear will probably be your growling stomach.

PacRim Jim   ·  November 25, 2010 3:38 PM

The combination of e-readers and easier self-publishing may simultaneously democratize and impoverish the market: it may become much easier to be a "successful" writer, in terms of the number of people who read your work, while at the same time becoming much less profitable. The large publishers may go the way of the MSM.

On the plus side, the incredible abundance of 2010+ means writers won't starve -- though they may expect to live on food stamps even with a modicum of success.

I think you're going to see a splintered market develop -- subgenres of Christian fiction, a dozen different kinds of sci-fi and fantasy, mystery, alt-history, sexual fetish material... the consumers will seize the market and demand what they want.

TallDave   ·  November 25, 2010 3:52 PM

Ha! I'm a writer and the highlight of my career thus far has been a very nice, handwritten rejection letter from the New Yorker.

I'm also a physician and your point about getting hit up for a diagnosis/prescription when I'm trying to relax is spot on. If I meet you socially I might buy you a drink, but I'm not going to refill your xanax.

Phred   ·  November 25, 2010 5:30 PM
M. Simon   ·  November 25, 2010 6:21 PM

Captain Yuri's log, USS Fromage:
"I checked my Email dump from the Erandi storage beacon and went straight to the personal stuff. Same damn thing as last time. They either wanted me to quit the deep routes, they wanted to be dom, they weren't willing to travel with me, they wanted me to be part of a threesome, or they had some weird fetish for stumps. I just couldn't find a girl who tell me those six little words, "Tie me up and spank me."

toadold   ·  November 25, 2010 7:10 PM

Tall Dave,

Actually I'm not sure the business will be impoverished. Right now my experiment in online publishing through is ... well, small and my odd stuff -- though I'm talking with them about bringing out my OOP Death of A Musketeer which is more main stream. (So far what I've brought out with them is "odd Pride and Prejudice fandom -- Jane Austen and dragons" and short stories.) And right I'm not selling enough of those to judge. However I know people who are selling their entire backlist and weird one-offs via electronic publishing. Virtually no advance, but the royalties are around 50% . With that sort of royalty, you can make a living on about 5k readers. So my guess is the electronic publishing, once it really takes off, will at the same time destroy publishing houses and make it possible for more writers to live off writing, even if they have a "low mid list" audience of 5k or so readers. It has other advantages to mid listers, such as the ability to continue growing your readership through word of mouth throughout your career, without regard for what is in print or how widely available.
Would there be enough interest to warrant a post from me on the advantages (or potential advantages) of electronic publishing from a writer's pov? I've been giving it a lot of thought.

Sarah   ·  November 25, 2010 7:20 PM

"Would there be enough interest to warrant a post from me on the advantages (or potential advantages) of electronic publishing from a writer's pov? I've been giving it a lot of thought."

Bring it on. The feeling among indies is that e-pub is like cheap paperbacks three or four decades ago: a way to tempt readers to sample a new (to them) writer. If readers like you - yay! Another fan. If not - they had only risked a couple of bucks.

Sgt. Mom   ·  November 25, 2010 7:55 PM

A lot of my entertainment comes off of the web these days and one of the things I have to search for is a source for reviews and recomendations. On something like Kindle Amazon you have readers evaluations but on some stuff it is not always dependable. I take more chances because of the lower prices but I still hate to waste time if not money. I wonder where the review function is going for self publishing?

toadold   ·  November 25, 2010 7:57 PM


1. Look at the business model grown up around the book series "1632" & Eric Flint over at Baen books. They have a continual digest of short stories that help flesh out the world of "1632" that the books in the series further along. And the stories in these digests are mostly done by writers relatively new to the scene with some of the more successful writers being promoted to writing novels on their own.

2. 5k readers? The "long tail" theory is a useful one to keep in mind.

3. What role do editors have in this new e-reader/internet future? As independent contractors brought in to review/edit books by authors? An independent force that maintains his/her own "long tail" of followers who are encouraged to purchase certain books because of their trust in the editor's taste?

While not an editor Oprah does this somewhat with her book club recommendations. With further balkanization of the book industry there might be a place for serious experienced editor(s) to build an independent following.

4. Personally I write my novels for my own pleasure. Mostly the pleasure of writing my own rejection slips because frankly my writing stinks on ice right now. But it'll get better, I hope, but that takes time so I'm going to wait on bothering people to publish until it is better or I go and publish it myself.

memomachine   ·  November 25, 2010 9:46 PM

Dead tree publishing is on the way out.
You post your chapter-a-week on your blog and if you can write, you'll get your following. You start putting ads around your prose, Dunkin Donuts, Coca cola, your revenue starts to come in. You can print one story out and put it on your shelf for your progeny to admire that you were a novelist, writer of whatever, just look here and see in meatspace. Buffers to cut & paste are working their way in -- the NewYorkTimes is an example of this. Paperback Novels are a thing of the past. Write engaging text and present it as you please, you'll have your following. (notice the two dreaded slash-comma sentences)

Anonymous   ·  November 25, 2010 10:53 PM

Toadold, it's going to either internet sites that specialize in reviews, like Midwest Book Review, Internet Review of Books, to PODBRAM, the Historical Novel Society's website, Rebecca's Reads, and those of that ilk. There are a lot of them out there, and at the higher end, are fairly discriminating. (Disclosure - I review for PODBRAM, and for Blogger News Network, as well.) One of the quality gate-keeper functions is ... hey, yourself. Amazon has the 'read inside' feature option, and most indy authors have websites offering a couple of sample chapters. If a book interests you, check out the sample chapters. Usually from that, you can judge the authors' degree of skill. (I've gotten to the point where I want to read a sample chapter before I commit to reading the whole thing for review.)
Memomachine, I've never considered that editors could build a following for their own rep ... could happen, I suppose. A fair number of the indy authors in the IAG also freelanced as editors, or worked in other book-related skills. At least, bounce your stuff off someone who can give you helpful feedback. You may not wind up doing what they advise, but what they say may inspire you to something bigger and better. Find a circle of writers, and look to help each other.

Sgt. Mom   ·  November 25, 2010 11:05 PM

Sgt. Mom
As Kidm du Toit says, "Thankee"

toadold   ·  November 26, 2010 4:41 AM

"horrible covers" - lol. Reminds me of a long thread on an SF writers group - waaaaaaaay back in 1989 (I don't remember if it was USENET - now Google Groups - or FIDONET) about the big blue six-legged turtle on the cover of John DeChancie's Castle Kidnapped. Which creature didn't exist anywhere in the book - and furthermore the persons all tied up on its back were never in the same place at the same time in the book.

Luckily both the author and readers had a sense of humor about it. It became a rather long and amusing thread.

Kathy Kinsley   ·  November 27, 2010 7:12 PM

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