Monday, May 7, 2012

On Writing — They Call It "Submission," Don't They?

I could be flatteringly described as a “mid-list” writer. I am pretty sure it’s below middle.  I am also of a “certain age,” about which I have mixed feelings. The downside is: I’m too old to be considered promising. The upside t is: I need no longer worry about mid-life crisis.

Recently, after a dozen or so years safely and lazily in the arms of a good UK publisher who regularly publishes my mysteries, I found myself back in the market place with a manuscript they didn’t want. They liked the book — said it was the best of the three — but the numbers for books in this series didn’t add up for them. It was understandable but disappointing news

What I’ve been doing lately is what I haven’t had to do in long time — jumping from web site to web site, searching for possible homes for a new manuscript — Death on the Great Highway. I’m not asking for pity, or even compassion, just emphasizing that’s it has been awhile since I’ve had to deal with the real world and I’m a little rusty. To make matters more interesting, I’m back out there looking for a way to get published during this, the biggest change in the book business since the invention of the printing press. What do I do?

One of the first warnings I encountered was the “We only accept manuscripts from licensed literary agencies.  I thought maybe this was a good idea.  Wouldn’t I need an experienced guide, someone who knew more about the “business” than I did. A friend suggested I check out a high quality agency out here on the West Coast.

According to the web site, this agency represented some highly regarded authors.  I picked out an agent in the group who specialized in mysteries and who wasn’t the agency’s principle owner, thinking that the owner might be too busy for a lesser light like me.  There was a complicated, yet precise format for submission before the applicant (supplicant) could earn consideration a potential client.  I followed the procedure. After getting everything all properly formatted, I pushed the send button.  I did notice that there was this little phrase:  “If you haven’t heard back from us after six weeks…” it wasn’t likely I would.  And I didn’t.

Perhaps I gave up on agents too early. But how many six-week periods, stretched end-to-end, could I endure?  Having to wait for agents and then wait still longer while the agents worked with publishers seemed like a poor use of limited time. I call your attention to the actuarial tables.

When I went back to the Google search, I decided to go directly in search of a publisher.  What I found was that the Internet is full of publishers “not accepting submissions at this time.” I understand.  Given the dramatic changes in the publishing field, it’s likely that I’m not the only one going through reevaluation. At least I didn’t have to jump through hoops and wait six weeks to get the message. After a few moments cursing them, I end up blessing them for not wasting my time. 

There were still publishers who appeared to entertain submissions, even those directly from a writer. Most of them have their own set of standards.  No serial killers, for example, was one admonition.  Books focused on car chases and improbable heroics are no-nos on another.  One publisher warned that they wouldn’t accept any books written in the present tense.  Interesting. Maybe even a little strange; but I completely understand. Publishers who are still in business know what they do well. I wouldn’t expect a vegetarian restaurant to serve lamb shank.  It is also helpful for the writer to know what’s what up front.  Why bother a bunch of nervous, probably overworked professionals in the clearly discombobulated publishing industry with something they clearly don’t want?

Yet, there are standards and rules that strike me as more than a little foolish.  One is that after a cover letter, a sample chapter and a synopsis, and a history of previously published books, the publisher wants a detailed outline of the book.  I maybe tripping over excessive, unearned hubris here, but I don’t do outlines.  There are no outlines for my books.  I have the book.  To make matters worse, some publishers want outlines of different lengths — some prefer a three-page outline, others a five-page outline, some a chapter by chapter outline.  I have the book!  Right here, the whole damned thing. If you liked the writing and the story, why not read a little more.  You can stop anytime you get bored.

However, the one rule that I truly find off-putting is that adding to the cover letter, sample chapter(s), synopses, outlines, publishing history (including reviews), there are publishers who then say,  “Please attach your marketing plan.”  What?  That’s why I’m going to a publisher.  I can do the rest myself if I have to. Sure I want the talented editor.  Sure I want the great book design and sure, I want the legitimacy bestowed upon a book marketed by some respected publisher, but a marketing plan? Would you like me to vacuum your office?  And my question to publishers who want a marketing plan is: what do you do?  I fear that is the problem.  They don’t know anymore.  Who does?

Obviously, I’m not making friends with the traditional publishing community with these complaints.  It is particularly foolish for me to be talking like this when I’m trying to get books published.  No doubt, touchy writers are the reason some publishers demand their authors have an agent.  They don’t want to talk to us.  In this case, I just want to say that in this changing market place, it’s the marketing and sales resources I need.  In the case of printed books, distribution is an important role best filled by a reputable publishing house as well.  If publishers don’t do these things, what do they do?  And if I do all that, when do I write?

Perhaps there is a reason on both agents’ and publishers’ websites, there is a button called “submission.”


Teri said...

Well now. I'd never thought of "submission" in quite that way before.

Here I am just moments from trying to get my first mystery published, aglow with optimism and atwitter with questions about the value of my efforts... and there you go, being all realistic.

Thanks for the head's up. It's a faceful of ice water, but I need it.

Ronald Tierney said...

Teri, What this post related to was the mid-list writer having to go back through what most everyone had to deal with. The post was supposed to tie in to the confusion that exists now -- the federal government going after Apple and the Big Five Publishers, while Barnes & Noble becomes sudden pals with Microsoft and all of the above angry with Amazon.

Actually I am pretty optimistic about myself, just enjoying the humor of submission guidelines; but I am even more optimistic about you. You are very, very, very good and, at the moment, new talented writer like you have a better chance at publication than some of us with a spotty track record.

Keep going!