Snowed Under, Bowled Over

icetrees

As some of you may have heard, the Northeast has been experiencing a spot of weather over the past few weeks. A handful of blizzards and a couple of feet of snow might not seem like much to any of you who may live along or over the Canadian border, but for the Boston area, this winter has been one long ice cream headache.

We’ve been setting and breaking records this month, but the charm of being the best at everything (including that football thing, suckers) has left us with nearly 100 inches of snowfall to contend with. That means a lot of disruptions to my usual routine. Working from home, shoveling out my car, white-knuckle driving to the grocery store, continuing to lose sleep, and missing medical appointments has left me a little confused and agitated. Oh, yeah…let’s not forget that I spent an entire week curled up in bed with a knock-out bout of food poisoning.

For Inkless, that has meant another one of those pesky silences for which I have to issue my standard apology. Oddly enough, however, this whole snow globe shakeup has left me in a pretty good place, writing-wise. I’ve picked up the process of editing Dark the Dreamer’s Shadow, the second book in the Arran Swinn series, thanks in part to the little bits of extra rest I can get on a snow day.

I also have to thank the fact that I received a little bit of encouragement from the publishing industry last week. After indulging in a whim by submitting Dark the Night Descending to an agent pleading for queries over Twitter, I had my first ever request for a partial. This is awesome because a) it’s always nice to feel wanted, and b) the fact that the book was self-published already didn’t deter this agent from being interested in reading a bit more. I consider that a bit of a victory for all of us, regardless of the outcome.

I don’t know when or if I’ll hear back, or what the verdict will be, but the request was a much-needed shot in the arm for me. The dark and cold and endless digging with frozen fingers and fogged up glasses has left me feeling more than a little under the weather (literally), and it’s been a tough few months trying to keep my chin up. And when you’re so focused on trying to slog through each day without breaking down in the middle, you tend to forget that good things can happen in the world outside your ski goggles.

So whether or not spring is ever going to make an appearance, and whether or not I have a shot at traditional publishing, I’m going to keep pursing the things that make it worthwhile to dust off the car every day. My day job is going really well, archery continues to bring me much happiness while improving steadily, and Oliver has been beside himself with joy now that the snow has kept me home so much. And my birthday is next week, which brings with it all the artificial pleasantries the Internet has to offer.

The goal will be to stay warm, stay motivated, and work on my release, because follow-through is everything no matter what target you have in your sights.

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The great debate: Traditional press vs. self-publishing

Uh, I don't know, guys.  This maze looks pretty hard.

Uh, I don’t know, guys. This maze looks pretty hard.

Dear readers, I have a confession to make.  I have been having impure thoughts.  Late at night, when the lights are off and no one is watching, I find myself browsing through QueryTracker.  My Google search history is full of despicable phrases like “literary agents” and “fantasy publishers,” which I quickly erase in case anyone sees.  I can’t seem to control my urges, and it’s starting to worry me.

You see, I’ve been getting my new series written and ready for launch, and I can’t help wondering about which path to take.  As someone who runs a blog focused on self-publishing, someone who has published several books on her own, and someone who strongly supports indie authors in their quest for equal recognition in the tough literary world, it seems so wrong to be setting my sites on New York.  It seems like the ultimate betrayal, no matter how often I stress that self-publishing and traditional publishing are not enemies.

Before I go further, let me reiterate that I don’t believe that traditional presses are evil, and I don’t believe that indie publishing spews out an unmitigated stream of untested, unedited crap into the world.  I think both have their merits, and the fight going on in my head isn’t about recognition and prestige and legitimacy.  It’s about what tools this new series needs in order to succeed, and who can provide them for me.

As a (relatively) experienced self-publisher, I have a lot of skills at my disposal.  Not only can I write the thing, but I can format a book, edit it reasonably well, create an attractive cover, and bring my work to market quickly and efficiently.  I can produce an adequate product with the minimum of fuss.

I know all about marketing, too.  I know exactly what to do with my blog, and with Facebook page, and with Twitter.  I can write press releases and send my book to review sites and urge my local stores to stock a couple of copies on a back shelf somewhere.

I can do all of these things myself.  But I’m pretty darn sure that literary agent, professional editor, and publishing house can do them better.

The thing is, I turned to self-publishing because I’m an independent person.  I like being in control of my work.  I like doing things on my own.  I like quiet and solitude because I don’t always get along with other people, and taking charge of a project from beginning to end means that no one else will have the opportunity to screw it up and do it wrong.  Self-publishing is great for people who demand control over their own choices.

But being a solitary control freak also means that I lack the most important skill set for a self-publishing author: the ability to be likeable, outgoing, and engaging.  In short, I don’t have the ability to network and manipulate that network into something that can produce real results.  I don’t have the time or the energy to give my work its due.

I lack the ability to sell books.

I’m well aware that publishing houses do not do many favors for beginning authors who haven’t proven themselves a lucrative investment yet.  There are no whirlwind book tours and giant posters and TV appearances for the average wordsmith – or even for a relatively well-known one – these days.  But there are books in big book stores.  There is word of mouth.  There are tweets and posts and all the social media savvy of someone who has absolutely no task other than moving copies of new titles.  There is some degree of help.  And sometimes, I wonder if just a little bit of help isn’t what I need.

Dark the Night Descending is a good book, and the beginning of a good series.  It has potential, and it has appeal.  And while I would love to be able to push it to market in a matter of days instead of waiting weeks and weeks just for a literary agent to reject me, I just have this nagging feeling that self-publishing it with my limited scope will be a waste of something that could be great.

I just finished drafting Book Three out of Four, and I’m doing final checks to ensure that Book One is ready for public viewing.  I guess there’s still time to wrestle with the issue, but I would like to start moving things along, if I can.  So I put it to you, dear readers, for your opinion: what do you think should I do?

If you’ve finished a manuscript, chances are you’ll self-publish

...and if you haven't even started a manuscript, Digital Book World still calls you an author.  Congrats!

…and if you haven’t even started a manuscript, Digital Book World still calls you an author. Congrats!

Guys.  If you can’t tell by now, I really love surveys.  I love being asked for my opinion, and I love multiple-choice tests, and surveys sit happy at the intersection of the two.  I also love what they can tell us about ourselves as a whole.  Human beings can be so incredibly diverse, but there are such strong rivers of similarity that run through the cold, impartial world of statistical analysis, and I enjoy stepping out of my nebulously subjective, emotionally-based existence to examine the patterns that emerge when you strip away opinions from the hard, cold core of fact.

When it comes to something as deeply personal as nurturing a novel from the first little embryo till it’s ready to ride a bike without training wheels, statistics tell us more than who is making money where.  They tell us about the fear of rejection and the wild, breathless abandon of flinging a cherished work towards a stranger, hoping they’ll care.  They tell us about how people create stories and how they consume them, and how technology helps and hinders the process of understanding ideas that are as old as the first word.

This survey from Digital Book World took a look at 9000 respondents from all walks of the publishing life.  Only 58% of them had actually finished a manuscript (and 8% of participants hadn’t even started one, so let’s take the word “author” with a grain of salt here).  A third have started but not completed their work.

Just over half of the 58% of people who have finished a manuscript have made it all the way to publication, whether through traditional or self-publishing means.  Twenty-six percent have submitted their manuscript to an agent or editor, but without success, and they stopped there.  Basically, of the 9000 people who took part, just 3400 are able to hold a book (or e-book) in their hands.

Now, of those 3400 published authors, 39.9% are traditionally published, and 60.1% are self-published.  You’re 20% more likely to choose self-publishing than you are to scale the walls of the traditional industry.  Additionally, ten percent of self-published authors consider themselves “hybrids,” while 36% of traditionally published authors have gone down both paths.  It’s not rocket science to think that it’s easier to self-publish after getting accepted by a mainstream house than it is to get accepted by a publisher after using KDP, but it is interesting.

Why does any of this matter?  Well.  It’s cool, right?  But more importantly, it gives authors something to be proud of and readers something to think about.  Put nine authors in a room, and only three of them will have conceptualized, written, edited, and polished their work enough to be seen by other people.  Only one (and a bit) of those three will have a traditional publishing house’s imprint on his or her work.  Think about how many times each of those authors has started a novel and thrown it out the window.  Think about how many stories it takes, how many tries, how many months and years and decades of practice and luck and hard work is necessary to make it as far as your local bookstore’s shelf.

It’s both discouraging for those of us who hit the doldrums with alarming frequency and amazing for those of us who are determined to navigate our way out of them again.  It’s awesome for readers who might not realize just how much blood, sweat, and caffeinated tears they’re looking at when they pick up a novel, even if it’s found its way into the bargain bin or the free Kindle books section of Amazon.

I love surveys because they let you see all that work boiled down to a couple of fascinating little numbers, and I love authors for putting in all the effort and love and determination it takes to become part of one of those figures on the page.  So keep at it, my writing fellows.  You can get there if you try.

And readers, don’t forget to show a little appreciation for the people behind the stories that keep you entertained.  This is certainly not a gentle reminder to leave your favorite writers some Amazon reviews or anything.  Not at all.  I’d never do that to you.

Anecdotal Evidence

On a whim, last night, I sent out a query to an agent.  First of all, I hate querying agents.  It’s not that they’re scary or mean, it’s just that I always feel like my letter is half-baked, no matter how many how-to sites I read or how many times I rewrite it.  And as I’ve mentioned before, I’m not someone who does very well with standing up and shouting “look at me, look at me!”  Not that that’s what you’re supposed to do in a query, but that’s the general underlying idea.

But I decided to do it anyway, because I’ve been sort of down this week and yesterday I had a string of unrelated setbacks that wasn’t helping matters.  Doing something bold and conquering my dislike of an activity usually helps perk me up, and sending out an email seemed like an easy way to accomplish that.

So I looked at my list of possible fantasy agents and picked one at random.  Agent X (hey, that sounds kind of cool, actually) asked for a query letter, the first ten pages, and a two page synopsis.  I had all of these prepared, of course, and sent out the package at 9:21 PM, not expecting to hear back for the standard 4-8 weeks.

At 9:44 PM, I get an email.  Thinking it was my sister, or something equally routine, I opened my Gmail and was shocked to see a reply from Agent X.

It was a rejection, of course.

Now, that on its own didn’t bother me.  I’ve sent out a handful of queries before, and I wouldn’t be sitting here talking about it if any of them had come back positive.  That’s fine.  Rejection is part of the process, and a familiar occurrence in my life.  And honestly, the promptness was remarkable and laudable, in a sense.  I’d rather wait twenty minutes than six weeks to hear back, no matter what the decision.

But X said the following in the two-paragraph form letter:

[Manuscripts]…must have stellar world building, characters that leap off the page, pacing that is relentless and a story that entices the reader to take its journey with the characters. I know that’s a tall order, but if your writing is lacking in any of those areas, I must pass on it.

I get it. I do.  That’s what I look for in a story, too.  But you don’t know that my book lacks any of those if you only take ten seconds to look at the first ten pages of a 145,000 word piece.  Say you want to pass on it – fine.  That’s absolutely within your rights, and I’ll move on and look for someone else who gets a good vibe from it.  Great.

But don’t tell me that my writing lacks any of those things if you haven’t even read it.  Don’t pretend to be giving me a legitimate reason when you can’t possibly have one.  That’s the part that annoyed me.  I feel like it’s disingenuous, and a little condescending.  “A tall order”?  Well, we won’t even go there.

Would it have bothered me so much if X had taken four weeks to send me that letter?  I don’t know.  Maybe not.  At least I might have gotten the impression that any care and attention had been given to my work at all.  But maybe that’s not really an agent’s job.

I know I’m probably getting myself in trouble by writing this.  No one wants to work with a whiny little girl who can’t handle being told “no”.  But that’s not what’s happening.  There’s no hard feelings about the “no”.  All I’m trying to say is that even though you’re an agent, even though you’re in a position of power and probably do deal with a hundred people a week who can’t take no for an answer, that doesn’t exempt you from being considerate to the pool of authors who are, after all, the way you make your money, whether you want to work with them or not.  I know there’s a million of us and you can afford to be picky.

But even authors are humans, and most of us have hearts and souls.  We’re giving you our babies to hold for a minute and asking if they’re worthy of notice, and that’s an emotional investment that sound be respected.

I’m probably being overly sensitive.  Me and my big mouth.  But I really felt nettled by that.  I’m not saying who Agent X is on purpose, and please don’t guess.  There’s no point.  What you should take away from this little rant is that yes, agents really do only spend a split-second looking at your materials, so make them better than mine.  The end.

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Please don’t forget that there’s still time to win a paperback copy of my unpublishable, undesirable book!  (That’s a joke, guys.)