Chuck Wendig, entertainingly foul-mouthed author of Blackbirds, and something of a doyen of writing advice, posted this on his blog today:
It spawned a lengthy response from me, which I republish here, if you’re interested.
It kind of helps who you know, but not that much
I’ve been trying to get published since I was 18. I didn’t succeed until I was 34. I was a journalist on a scifi magazine called SFX for six years, I edited gaming mag White Dwarf, then I edited another magazine called Death Ray. Bottom line is, I got to meet a whole load of publishers, writers and other associated industry types. The wordage part of the genre was always my thing, so I always kept up with these people. I schmoozed and tickled their ears with risqué babble. Some of them became my pals. This meant that they were more than willing to look at my stuff when I bashfully said I wished to write.
This does not mean they took it. That you do the secret handshake and air kiss and bare your arse at the hungry would-be writers outside who can’t see you through the silvered glass of word-heaven central as laughing nymph girls slip five thousand pound notes into your author’s jockstrap. It means they might look at it, when they get round to it.
This can take a very long time. Years. I had one book that I sent in. It took six months to be rejected. I sent another. Another six months, and there was interest. Two years of writing, and toing and froing, then resubmitting, then a meeting nearly a year after that… To be told it wasn’t what they wanted. The whole process took four years. This was to someone I had met many times, and who liked me, and who had seen my writing and liked that too. Basically, if it’s not good enough, it doesn’t really matter who you know.
And then there’s taste. I’m quite friendly with one of the UK’s biggest agents. He won’t represent me, seven published or about to be published novels or not, because my stuff isn’t to his taste. So there you are.
Sure, I know who to write to, who to talk to, and I stand a good chance of getting to speak to them. But all that took conscious effort to establish. I went into journalism specifically to build these contacts up. I tell all the other aspiring writers I meet that YOU TOO CAN MAKE THESE CONTACTS. Go to conventions, events, author signings. Nowadays, you can comment on blogs, be tweet buddies. Be nice, be charming, don’t attack them with rolled up manuscripts howling your brilliance in their terrified faces in hotel lobbies. Yes, it does help to know people, so then, get to know them. It’s not an exclusive club. It’s not like all my old colleagues are now novelists. Oh, hang on, none of them are, while I have seen dozens of people without contacts plucked from obscurity. See? No guaranteed entry.
Trad publishing is very slow…
We are talking glacially slow, mind-numbing, awfully, horribly slow. The slowness that sees years flicker by in time-lapse haste, and the rise and fall of entire phyla of organisms. They’re not being haughty, a lot of publishers are ridiculously overworked. Getting to know them helps. An agent helps a lot more.
I submitted something to a contact six months ago who said they wanted something off me, and they haven’t got back. I submitted something else to an actual friend, and our conversations trailed off over a year ago. Bear in mind, I am already published.
I was known to Games Workshop, and worked for them. A lot of them are my genuine “Hey! How’s it going? Let’s play Warhammer right now!” friends. It took me six years of pitches to get published by them.
…and then is impatient for success
If you do get published, and your first book is not a success, you’ll be out. There are a roughly a bazillion-trillion writers who want your job, so publishers can keep popping exciting fresh product out on the shelves with minimal outlay until one of them is a raging success. The days when a publisher loved an author, and had the time and money to nurture them are mostly gone. They’re under a lot of pressure to achieve instant megabucks. The world of publishing is currently in a brutal phase. On the other hand, there is more opportunity available for everyone now. Swings, roundabouts, all that.
Trad publishing is not going anywhere
People will always want filters. Trad publishing is a filter for readers. An agent is a filter for publishers. Reviews are filters for everyone. We all use filters, all the time. Google does, our brains do, our coffee does. If a publisher rates it enough to publish, you know it must be at least okay. That’s not something you get through self-publishing. Self-pub is undoubtedly going to get a lot more important, and the industry is changing. But look at music. That took an earlier and much harsher battering than publishing is taking now, and the big labels are still there. It’s sticking around, it will change, use it to your advantage, don’t spurn it.
But the internet really is where it’s at
One thing I’ve noticed is that the new writers who have been the most successful are those with an established internet constituency. Good old Chuck here, or Adam Christopher. Doing cool, engaging stuff on the internet can help, nay! ENSURE, success when you are picked up by a trad publisher, or if you self publish. This is a lot of work in itself. God knows how much time the likes of Mr Wendig or John Scalzi spend blogging. When do you guys eat? It’s a constant struggle for me — write something for guaranteed repo-men repelling monies, or spend valuable time-units connecting with the world. Gah! My head acheth already at the merest contemplation of it.
Trad publishers are only human
I got some very stern advice from one publisher about never, ever writing spin-off fiction, that I’d waste my talent, that I’d never be taken seriously, that I’d not develop as a writer if I yoked my meagre portion of creativity to the every-hungry franchise monster.
This was very bad advice. It was well-meant, and it was true in some respects – people still do look down on tie-in fiction, and I’ve a few examples of this – but it’s not as true as it was. Plus, I need to pay the bills. Franchise fiction offers an instant audience, and a guaranteed return which original fiction does not. On top of that, franchise stuff can lead others to your original fiction. Writing shared-universe material is not hack-work, it’s as hard as and can be as rewarding as spinning out your own world. BUT the same publisher did give me lots and lots and lots of very, very good advice too. You are the arbiter of your fate, not some “gatekeeper.” So, follow your own head.
Trad pub can work for you
I’m dubious of the utopian claims of some pundits who herald the collapse of trad pub and the emergence of a creator culture, as trad publishing provides stability to the whole ramshackle edifice of storytelling, primarily by allowing writers who aren’t bohemian whizzkids with a ton of time on their hands and/or an enormous trust fund to eat by paying advances up front. I pray this does not go away, or I’m out of work.
They’re generally not bastards
Publishers are nice people who love books. I have never had any ideas stolen, or been mocked, or been otherwise humiliated or even discomfited (outside the soul-crush of rejection). Sometimes books come out with suspiciously similar ideas to your own, but that’s almost certainly coincidence (like, I’ve had a lot of ideas I’ve told no one about, and this has happened several times). The publishers I have met have all been lovely, lovely people. Authors, on the other hand… Sheesh. Kidding! They’re pussycats too.
A lot of it is down to you
Every time I do a seminar, I get a crowd of (metaphorical) pitchfork waving people hailing self-publishing as the new god, and about how trad pub deliberately keeps them out. I get the feeling they are impatient (see above comment on slowness). You have to: Keep writing. Keep schmoozing. Keep positive. And be humble. I’ve met more than a few “They don’t recognise my genius!” type aspiring authors. They are generally rubbish, as well as annoying. If you don’t at least listen to the advice many publishers give you in the bar/rejection letter/on the net, you will lose. Listen to criticism, talk to your friends, join reading/ writing clubs, read tons of books, don’t follow the one path, follow them all! And read this blog — Chuck’s advice is among the very best. All these things are surer ways to publication — by whatever means – than whining about traditional publishing houses and their status as Illuminati puppet-theatres. We’re all people, trying to do our thing. Evil rarely enters into it.
Does that help? I hope so.