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POINT OF VIEW: The Publishing Industry

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Joel Arellano asked me to talk a bit about “Dealing with the volatility of the publishing industry.” I’m going to go a step beyond that and talk about the industry in general. I love publishing. I have been a book fanatic since I was a little kid, and always wanted to be a published author.

When I was in my teens, it was a lot harder. There weren’t nearly as many publishers, and the big ones had the gates locked down tight. Sure, most took open submissions back then, but that was basically an invitation to languish in the slush pile for up to a year before they finally got back to you with a “no.” If they ever did.

Now it’s easy to be published – anyone with a computer can do it themselves. But getting into the big leagues still remains a Herculean feat.

First you have to write a novel. It has to be good, and fresh, with a compelling, easy-to-explain idea and a unique “voice” – publishing speak for “this character sounds like a really cool person who I’d love to hang out with in real life.”

Your first page needs to have a compelling hook – something that grabs the reader, and won’t let go. This is harder to do than it sounds.

And your first five-ten-twenty-five-fifty pages, depending on what the agent wants to see up front – have to sparkle.

Because every agent wants something different. Some want a sample, some don’t. Some have very particular notions about what should be in a query and what shouldn’t. Some open and close for submissions so often it’s like playing whack-a-mole trying to query them. And some ask crazy questions, that – even though they assure you they have no wrong answers – they most certainly do.

I’ve been asked my favorite TV show. My favorite song. Who the audience is for the book. What other books are like mine. (None!). I’ve been asked what kind of food I like and how many copies did my last self-published book sell and what author would I like to take a ride on the Titanic with?

Okay, I might have made up that last one.

Let’s say you get all of this right. You pen a fantastic novel, it’s timely, fresh, perfect. You have your agent materials ready, even the dreaded summary that somehow managed to drain all the life out of your book like some voice-sucking vampire.

One of the agents I recently submitted to posted his query receipts over the last three months. He got almost 800 queries, and had requested fulls for about 33. And that’s not unusual. You are swimming upstream amidst a floodtide of other authors.

So let’s say you snag an agent. Woo hoo! You’ve made it past the first gate. But another one awaits you. I have friends who have great agents, and yes, they’ve seen some opportunities come their way that they otherwise would have missed. But I also know folks who have had their work out with the agent to big publishers without a bite. They haven’t yet cracked that second gateway.

Even if you make it past that one, you might still be a small fish in a big pond – getting into a big publishing house is no guarantee of success.

And every step of the way, you get rejection letter after rejection letter, telling you that your work isn’t what they are looking for. That it just didn’t grab them. Or – and this is the worst of all – you get absolutely nothing but silence.

During my last query phase, a good 40% of the agents queried did not write me back at all. To be fair, most of those say as much on their submission pages – they are snowed under, and only respond when something truly sparks their interest.

Nevertheless, this constant barrage of rejection can eventually pierce even the thickest of writer skins.

So why do I do it? Because I’m taking my shot, I’ve published some great books at some decent-sized publishers. I’ve scored a couple Book Bubs, some top rankings and a few awards. I’ve even become a full SFWA member. But there’s nothing like being a part of that top, shiny tier of speculative fiction authors, something I’ve wanted since I read my first Clarkes’ Asimov’s and McCaffrey’s.

I bear no ill-will toward the players – agents, editors, publishers. They’re good folks, working to put out the best books they can. That doesn’t make the system they have to work under any better.

And how do I manage the pain if I fail, yet again, to clear the first gate?

I told myself this time going in that there was a very low chance that I would get an agent. So I am already planning in my head to self-publish this trilogy. Don’t get me wrong – I still want to level up. But I have a plan if I don’t.

To my writing friends who’ve been in publishing a long time… what drives you crazy about it, and what do you love?

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