“I’m still in the middle of writing my collection of short stories, but I’m wondering which is better, getting an agent or self-publishing.” Someone’s comment in a writer’s group.
Last week I joined an online writer’s forum, figuring I should rub shoulders with other literary folk. You have to make the effort, otherwise you end up talking to your dog. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. once said, “I tend to spend too long on the rug chatting with the dog. He eventually moves away, looking thoroughly embarrassed.”
I’ve embarrassed a few dogs myself — not to mention cats and hamsters — so I’ve decided to stick to embarrassing people. Not that I take any particular delight in embarrassing people, but it seems hard to avoid when you read some of the comments on these forums. My favorite came in the other day: “I WILL HAVE A BOOK PUBLISHED IN 2017. I don’t know what the story is going to be; But I will do it; that’s a Promise.”
For all I know, she’s writing query letters now, getting a jump on the silly stuff. Sort of like the guy who wrote: “I’m still trying to turn my amazing dream into a book. Will publishers accept point form?”
Now, we’re all anxious to be published — even if we are published. Some of us are currently on the bookshelves (even in public libraries). But that doesn’t stop our anxiety. One book hardly represents a career, although that’s cold comfort to people still wanting to be published. To read some of their comments, though, you get the impression they wouldn’t mind embarrassing a few dogs if it gets their names in print.
I’m quite concerned with the impatience out there. It used to be “You learn to write by writing,” Today, it’s “You learn to write by publishing.” How we got to this stage is a bit of a mystery. I know it has something to do with the ease of self-publishing today. Why waste time waiting for a publisher when you can publish right now— before dinner, if you like.
In our mad dash world, this seems utterly practical. With one simple keystroke, you’re a novelist. You can stand with other novelists and say you’re a novelist. If someone doesn’t believe you’re a novelist, you can pull out a copy of your book and prove you’re a novelist. Then it’s only a matter of time before a publisher sees your book online and snaps you up, right?
Well, first of all, publishers rarely snap up self-published books. I know you’ve heard stories (yes, “Fifty Shades of Grey” was self-published first), but most are like romance novels. You’re more likely to get kidnapped by a handsome pirate (and you know how few pirates there are out there — even in Somalia).
Authors lucky enough — and talented enough — to get snapped up by a publisher usually aren’t “snapped up” at all. Most publishers only accept agented manuscripts. Agents are rarer than hen’s teeth. In fact, you’re more likely to run into a hen with teeth than an agent with teeth.
Even if you’re lucky enough to find an agent, this isn’t the end of the publishing process. You’re only at the beginning. By the time you finish with the agent, you’ll wonder which is harder, writing a book or publishing a book.
Here’s essentially how it works (and I’m giving you my own experience since I’m the only one here besides the dog and he isn’t published — at least not yet)
Between the time I finished my first novel and found an agent, it was well over a year. In that time, I rewrote my novel four times. When my agent (Peter Riva of Transactions International) took me on board, my novel had to be rewritten before it went to the Frankfurt Book Fair (this is the largest trade fair in the world).
The rewrite required me to change the location of my novel. Peter said he couldn’t sell Canadian locations, so I had to relocate to Chicago (not me personally, just the book; I couldn’t afford to go to Scarborough). I ended up using topographical maps along with four virtual real estate sites (I plan to do the same thing when I vacation in the Azores next spring).
All of this had to be done in three weeks (that’s when Peter left for Frankfurt). There was no interest in my book at Frankfurt. That meant two more complete rewrites with an editor who tried to join all my paragraphs together.
At the same time, I had to write book cover copy, hire a book designer, a proofreader, then apply for copyright through the Library of Congress. The book title was rejected twenty times and the cover design four times.
When the book was officially launched, five years had gone by. And, again, this was just the beginning. In most publishing contracts, you’re required to spend at least 6 hours a week promoting your book. That includes having an official website, and turning the side of your house into a billboard.
You also have to do some giveaways, which means handing over all eight of your author copies to people who are more interested in getting something free than writing a review. Out of those eight copies, you might get back two reviews — and some can be pretty nasty.
Now, okay, it’s nice to see your novel on the shelves. It’s even nicer having people call, saying they read it. But, by then, you really don’t care anymore. The anxiety you felt worrying about getting published, is now replaced with the anxiety of being published. Every day, you check the sales rankings, waiting for that moment when it skyrockets into the best seller list.
Trouble is, people pay for the best seller lists, just like publishers pay to have certain books put on the tables at major bookstores. I tried cozying up to one of the salespeople, but obviously it takes more than two subway tokens to sway these folks, and that’s all I was prepared to offer.
If you’re saying now, “Well, that’s why I’m self-publishing. I don’t have to go through that hassle. I just send Amazon my manuscript, they print it, throw it up online, and the next thing you know, I’m replacing “Fifty Shades of Grey” and getting interviewed on Charlie Rose.”
Look, even my dog knows it’s not that simple (and he’s a dog). Self publishing requires just as much forethought, attention to detail and promotion as any published book. And forget those companies claiming they can put you in a million homes. All they’re doing is selling mailing lists to each other.
Not that I’m discouraging the self-publishing route. Just don’t expect miracles. It’s like Hollywood where every car jockey and waitress is an actor. Most remain car jockeys and waitresses. The few who make it (and it’s a very few) make it because they work harder than anyone else (yes, even Tom Cruise works harder than anyone else).
And remember, writing isn’t about your life story, or your feelings, or the great dream you had. It isn’t about going on a writer’s forum, saying, “I’ll be published in 2017.” It’s a process of persistence, of writing every day, giving up weekends, giving up friends, giving up everything. It’s a constant, unrelenting struggle. Those who make it rarely describe how much they’ve lost financially and emotionally.
“You learn to write by writing,” Hemingway once said, and even my dog knows that’s the truth. Not that he cares anymore. If he has to listen to one more complaint from me, he’s threatened to become a hobo (and I’ve seen him look out the window with just that intention in mind).
Fortunately, a small royalty check came in yesterday, so he gets to eat, or he thinks he’s going to eat. I don’t have the heart to tell him it’ll probably only buy two cans of dog food. Once he realizes he’s getting more Kibble than meat, he’ll go back to the window, dreaming of life on the road with other hobos (probably more than a few former writers).
So please, everybody, stop worrying about being published. Learn to write first. Then at least you can say you’re a writer. That’s what my dog believes as well (but he thinks he’s getting a full can of dog food tonight — the fool).
Robert Cormack is a novelist, blogger and freelance copywriter. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” is available online and at most major bookstores. Check out Yucca Publishing or Skyhorse Press for more details (you can also buy my book from them).