Publishing: a Status Report
by the Bewildering Stories Review Board
Danielle L. Parker: Ah, yes. Aidan’s letter. I just read it. First, congratulations to Aidan. I’m sincerely glad he made it.
I have to say, though, I’m reminded of a counter-example, a woman who was in a writers’ group I ran for a while. She wrote one of those modern “romances” — lots of hot stuff, lust (oops! love) at first sight clichés; that sort of thing.
And she was the most florid over-writer you ever, ever saw. We cut about a third of her total word count out of her book in the writers’ group. I had a real hard time keeping a straight face through the florid, turgidly over-written romantic scenes, the first time I read them, but I managed.
She then wanted help writing queries, and we — to be frank, I — wrote a draft for her. With her revamped book and her gifted query she made a sale to a small-press, e-book publisher of erotica. Success! If your ambition is to write soft-core porn and romance clichés, that is.
And after that, she was walking on air. I was astonished to read, months later, in her personal blog, how “once I stopped listening to the bad advice of a friend whose only writing credit was publishing a minor book with a small press, I sold my story.” More or less; I don’t want to look it up again for the exact quote. Needless to say, I had some harsh thoughts in response to that.
In other words, once she made it, she was walking on air, and an expert who conveniently blinkered over harsh reality.
I’ve had some things to say in the forum recently about how tough getting published is for most of us. Don and Jerry have an idea just what a painful process it has been for me.
And I just got bad news about DAW: having received a letter from them way back, a year ago, saying my book had passed first reading, I was on air. They were taking a long time. That must mean they were taking it seriously!
I waited patiently a year. Okay... with growing impatience. DAW has not answered — so far — my recent polite inquiry as to what was going on with the two stories I submitted to them, a year later.
So I finally gave up and looked around this week. And lo and behold! I find a site tracking publisher responses, run by the well-known Critters organization, that reports DAW as an average of 496 days for response times, and — here’s the choker — ALL WERE REFUSALS.
Typical other responses stats: Baen, whom I used to think the worst, has an average of 361 days to refuse. Tor, at 88 days the race winner (although my personal experiences with Tor, and those of other friends I know, have been the worst of all: Tor did not respond to any of our submissions or followups. And guess what? My friends gave up after one try, but stubborn idiot that I am, I submitted my manuscript to Tor twice).
That’s reality, at least here in the United States.
I’m happy for Aidan, but as I said in the Forum: some of us get lucky, and others sure don’t. And it’s not necessarily tied to the quality of the writing. I know that I’ve grown as a writer. I might immodestly put my latest “Galen” novel up there with Gene Wolfe. It was too much for Bantam Spectra; the editor there wrote back and said “too experimental.”
At least he wrote back in a timely fashion, and he wrote back a personal note, bless him. But that answer alludes to another problem: the proliferation of no-risk “safe” choices in the Big Publishing world. Could Frank Herbert sell Dune now? Maybe; but he reportedly had a hard time of it even way back when.
In the meantime, I am now diligently looking for a publisher for four complete novels that I’ve had finished and languishing in desk drawers for years:
- My 2009 EPPIE winner, The Infinite Instant, for which I recently received back my rights from its original small press Canadian publisher.
- My maybe best-I’ll-ever-write, Galen the Deathless far-future sci-fi.
- A young-adult alternate-Earth fantasy
- And the Blunt collection that has run here in Bewildering Stories.
Not to mention the three unfinished sequels for the same, and the planned Elvidner series whose first story, “Bats,” also ran here in Bewildering Stories.
Thank God for Bewildering Stories, at least. I know I got at least two readers here for my latest Blunt story, since they were kind enough to write me. And with that, I may need to be content. It’s far better than nothing.
Gary Inbinder: Writing well is tough. Getting published is very tough. Selling what you write in this lousy market is next to impossible. I recently read in an agent’s blog — and this is typical — that he can’t sell mid-list books anymore.
The big houses have done away with their mid-list, and the small publishers don’t pay big enough advances to inspire an agent. They don’t work for 15% of nothing. To paraphrase the agent, the big houses no longer want good books, or even great books. They just want “super books,” that is to say the next Harry Potter, Da Vinci Code, Twilight or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
Here are a couple of examples from my own recent experience. Last year I wrote a novel that got some interest from a few big agents. They liked the concept and the writing samples. They read my full manuscript, but in the end they all passed. One was very encouraging. She liked one character in particular and said she’d certainly read a book about that character. So I re-wrote the novel accordingly and queried the agent. Here’s her response:
Dear Gary, Thank you for getting in touch with me, but I’m swamped with work and am currently not taking on any new clients. I wish you the best of luck elsewhere.
Three years ago I wrote another novel. It too got the attention of some reputable agents. The following was the most encouraging response:
Hi, Gary. You’re not bothering me, I promise. I’ve been busy, yes, as the summer is a crazy time on the agenting side of publishing, but I have taken a long time with your work. This is because I love it; but we can’t represent it.
I know, that makes no sense at all, but I’ve just gotten done talking to my business partner about your manuscript for at least the fourth time, and she is still not convinced we know how to sell it. To be honest, I’m not sure we do either, as it is incredibly literary and reminds me of Orlando. It’s, sadly, a genre that we don’t represent even though I love it.
I debated and debated about this in my own head, and with my business partner, and in the end, I agree with her. I love this book, but because our expertise and network lies in other genres of publishing, I feel we would not be the best agency to represent your work.
I sincerely wish you all the best in your publishing endeavors, Gary. I think The Flower to the Painter is a great work, and I hope you keep me apprised so I can be one of the first in line to buy your book.
She liked the book so much she recommended a publisher to me. I sent it off to the publisher and it’s been gathering dust, mold and coffee stains in their slush pile for six months. I’m not holding my breath. As for the agent, she left the agency and returned to editing.
Lest we forget, Poe and Fitzgerald died drunk, broke and forgotten. After Moby Dick, Melville’s writing career sank like the Pequod. He got a tiny obit in the New York Times and, as I recall, they misspelled his name. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. And if writers like Poe, Fitzgerald and Melville can be rejected, what should I expect?
Here’s a relevant paragraph. This is from a recent interview of the English writer, Frederic Raphael.
“Literature” is what doesn’t sell, which proves it doesn’t matter. The bottom line is now at the top of everybody’s calculations. Everything we need to read, or our betters think we’d like, will soon be clickable on the electronic buffet. Whatever is deemed worth knowing (don’t ask by whom or why) will be only a download away.”
Danielle L. Parker: I love this line: as it is incredibly literary
You know... isn’t that what great books are? “Literary”?
You hit the “super books” lust of Big Publishers dead on, I think. Remember the author of The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger? (I was not overly thrilled with that one). But it apparently did well, so Random House bet the shop on the next one. For a book featuring two incestuous sisters (to me, a gag and barf concept), she got an advance of $5 million.
You know right there, Random House had no money left to dole out to midlist or new authors. They wanted a Big Big Killing, betting on the roulette wheel’s single spin and, like most gamblers, they’re going to strike out. The book did not get good feedback from most readers whose reviews I read.
I would guess that editors are no longer calling the shots on advances or what to buy. The marketing and bean counters are looking at past history, extrapolating — often without thinking too much of what the book is really about: remember the incestuous sisters? — and going from there.
Well, pal, we’d hoist a (cheap) beer to each other in consolation if we could. We writers return to the classic Bohemian lifestyle (as in La Bohème: attic hovels, rent overdue, creditors haunting the corners, cadged beers, etc. You’ll buy this round, right? I’m broke. :)
Marina J. Neary: My cousin recently had a novel accepted by Livingston Press. It’s a small press. She has a PhD from Yale. I have a BA from LaSalle. And we both got our novels published by small presses. I guess publishers don’t care where you went to school. That’s just an observation.
I am very proud to be one of the authors with Fireship Press. We have some of the finest writers in the genre. Some very intelligent, spiritual, erudite human beings. And then you open a bestseller and scratch your head: “How on earth did THAT get published?” Cliché upon cliché.
Bertil Falk: A most interesting discussion!!!
I belong to a blessed but small group of individuals. I have a publisher publishing an annual book (non-fiction, on literature) written by me. On top of that, I get short mystery stories published six or seven times every year in a weekly family magazine, and once or twice on assignment from the literary editor, who knows that when she is in trouble I can deliver a NEW story within 24 hours.
At the same time I am a small, very small publisher indeed, publishing short stories by old writers — many but not all of them dead and forgotten. Most of the stories are collected from rare, out-of-print magazines or given to me by surviving children of the writers. I cannot make a living from that. On the contrary, I have to put money into that business every year. It is more like a hobby. I want my favorites to be read.
It does not matter that some of the collections have gotten fine reviews. Old writers are old, dead writers are dead. What Jerry and Gary have said can be applied to the Swedish market.
It seems to me that readers today only read bestsellers or lousy books written by so-called celebrities. Scandals are fine. The big story in Sweden yesterday — Wednesday — was that the man Princess Madelaine should marry this autumn has spent time in another woman’s bed. How do we know that? Well, the other woman has told the tabloids about it. That will not only sell a lot of newspapers. The gossip mags will have a field week.
Since I have been retired for 13 years and am living on my pension, I cannot complain. But I am aware that the old-fashioned market place is falling apart around me.
Thank heavens for Bewildering Stories.
Don Webb: And thanks to you, Bertil, and all who have saluted the role of Bewildering Stories; you’ve played an essential role in making it what it is.
I’ll leave it to others to scout out the terrain and, hopefully, report back. But one thing is certain: we dominate by sheer weight of numbers; we must be one of the biggest literary websites on the Net. And that’s important to our contributors: anybody who is anybody will eventually come to Bewildering Stories.
I hear and sympathize with those who bemoan print publishers’ spurning quality. You want cold comfort? Go to our Readers’ Guide and scroll down to the Classic Rejection notices. Then do page refresh a couple of dozen times and read them all. That will either buck up your spirits, to quote Stephan Pastis’ Pig, or it will drive you to drink, as one of us has suggested in a comradely fashion. And what was the first publisher of Harry Potter? A small press, not Bigbucks Publishing.
I sympathize with print publishers, as well: their business is not to publish good books, that’s incidental; it’s to publish books that make money. Their best bets: cookbooks, children’s books and textbooks. Profitable fiction is long-shot gravy.
Print publishing is so... 20th century. Print publishers are hoping desperately that the iPad will save their business. No, it won’t. It will only secure the role of the Internet in publishing. The iPad and Net libraries will do for publishing what iTunes has done for music.
A case in point: I’ve been approached to make Cyrano’s The Other World a book in print. I can’t get interested; why put it in a book when it’s available right here, on line? But mainly I don’t see how it could be done: our copy is made for the Internet, and you just can’t put hypertext on a two-dimensional page. But on an iPad? Yes, that is the place for it.
Don: What can I say, Jerry, other than to suggest that “or perhaps” might be “and”? You and I not only always agree, we even like the same books. Yes, Terry Pratchett was an inspiration and precedent for the notes, although not a model, because his footnotes have a somewhat different purpose.
And print is perfectly okay with me; it does have its place. I just don’t know how to convert The Other World to the printed page. And these days, both public and university libraries are going digital to save on space and money. In a sense, Bewildering Stories is a library or at least part of a universal library in the process of being born. Didn’t Gordon R. Dickson tell us this would happen, many long years ago?
What about quality? Bewildering Stories is the Internet in microcosm. Since it is so big, how can anyone find the good stuff? I once asked a colleague in Classics whether he was sorry that 90 percent of Sophocles’ literary production has been lost. His reply: “Hell, no.” (He was pretty blunt-spoken.) “Who’d read it? And can you imagine adding another floor to the library to house all the books, articles, theses and junk about it? Most of the stuff in the library is crap anyway.” (I told you he was blunt.) “The copyists made a good choice.”
And that’s Bewildering Stories, too. Some of it is excellent; a lot is mediocre; and some is downright awful. Our readers know it, and we know it. That’s why we have our Reviews page and the Quarterly Reviews.
Our reviewers and the Review Board take their role very seriously, because it’s akin to that of the ancient copyists, namely providing a reliable guide to quality. In the 21st century, reviewers will be more important than ever, and publishers will function as intellectual and artistic centers — as Bewildering Stories and Bewildering Press do now.
Copyright © 2010 by Bewildering Stories