There’s this feeling among many authors and editors that there’s some sort of quiet dignity in having your work rejected. Stephen King likes to relate that he received so many rejection notices on his stories that he pounded a nail into a wall and he’d add the rejections to the nail until he filled it completely up and then he’d pound another one in and start filling it up. I’ve read blogs from writers who wrote a book and had so much faith in it that they kept trying and trying to sell it, going through rejection after rejection, rewrite after rewrite, frustration after frustration, only to finally sell it and have it become a bestseller. We’ve all heard the stories, and let’s face it, there are more writers than there are publishers, and until recently, the only real way to get your work out there was to wait until one of those publishers decided that there was value in your work and decided to share it with the world. You would send your work (always printed out double-spaced and with a self-addressed stamped envelope) to some monolithic corporation where some faceless gatekeeper would deem your work worthy or not. And there’s this common belief among established writers that this process of beating your head against these walls, often times for years, somehow makes you a better writer.
I know that what I’m about to say is going to irritate some of my professional writer friends, not to mention that it goes against what so many people have been told for such a long time, but I think this attitude is utterly ridiculous!
I was at a convention a while back where a fiction editor was explaining that if your first book was self published, your odds of selling your material to a “professional” publisher are automatically diminished. The perception was that if you couldn’t sell your work and you had to do it yourself, it probably wasn’t good enough, and probably isn’t deserving of notice. This same person went on to say how writers who decide to self publish should do so under a pseudonym to avoid damaging their careers.
I’d argue that the advice that this person gave was spot-on, if we were talking about a decade or two ago. Back then, your only options for self publishing were to take your manuscript to a printer, have them produce X number of copies (where X was usually in the thousands), and then go find some way to hawk them yourself. Of course there were self publishing companies that would exploit a writer’s dreams and offer to do it all for them, for a price. How many success stories came from that particular model? I think I can count the number on one hand but no fingers.
Yes, today things are different. I’m not pulling any big surprises out of my hat when I say that e-publishing is where I’m headed with this. We already know that all the remaining Borders stores are going out of business soon, and we also know that Amazon.com is selling more e-books than they are physical books these days. We also know that anyone can publish their own books and bypass these publishing monoliths and faceless gatekeepers who dig through the slush piles and, presumably, find the diamonds among the coal. Forget the fact that the real way to get things published in that environment is to have your nicely polished manuscript printed out, take it to a convention, and buy a few rounds of drinks for the editors who work for the publishing houses you want to work for. I mean, let’s be honest, getting your manuscript is exactly like sales – you have to schmooze people, and those people buy things from people they like. The fifteenth rewrite of your masterpiece may not be fifteen times better than your rough draft, just as your fifth edit may not be any better than your third rewrite.
My belief is that there once was a time and a place for dealing with endless rejections. That time has passed. The giants in the playground are falling right in front of us. These days, new writers aren’t getting book deals. Publishers are only signing people with established track records and are guaranteed to make them money. And do you blame them? The industry is in trouble and they’re the ones laying money on the line to bring these books to the public. They can’t waste money on authors without audiences and stories that don’t fit neatly within established genres. They aren’t even looking for the best works of fiction. They’re looking for the most marketable ones. Odds are that your book isn’t one of them.
So forget them.
Yes, I said forget them. There is no quiet dignity of having your manuscript rejected time and time again by people who only see what they have to gain from your work. Remember that writing is subjective, so it’s entirely possible to have some people love it while others hate it.
This doesn’t mean that I’m saying that your work is automatically good, nor am I saying that it should be published. One thing to keep in mind is that once you’ve written something and published it, it’s out there in the world, and anyone who has read it will remember it and make buying decisions based on how they felt about it. There are authors who have been around for a long time that I consider unreadable because I picked up their book, didn’t enjoy it, and put it aside in favor of something that was more in line with my sensibilities. This can easily happen to you. And I’ll be honest, I’ve picked up e-books that were self published by new authors, found them to be… not good… and chucked them, never to pick them up again.
So what am I advising here, exactly? It’s simple really.
1. Take your time. Don’t be in a rush to publish. Polish the book up as much as you possibly can before sending it out into the world. Make it be the best representation of you and your storytelling ability that you possibly can.
2. Get an editor. This one can be tricky, especially now. I tend to buy into the notion that you can just go out, hire an editor, have them polish up your stuff, and then you can release it. Not so. What you need is someone who is willing to read your stuff as you write it (or in my case, after I’ve written it and given it a good solid editing pass). You need to pick someone who is well read, knows a thing or two about writing, and isn’t afraid that they’re going to hurt your feelings with their criticism. This is harder than it sounds. I’m lucky. I know people. I have friends who are professional writers as well as English professors, as well as some really sharp people who are neither of those but can still pull a piece of work apart and help you improve it. Some people only have their best friends. Those are the people who might want to consider hiring a professional editor. It won’t be cheap.
3. Don’t skimp on the cover art. Your cover is your biggest advertisement. Sure, you can farm something out to an art student, but I’ve seen a lot of uninspiring art come from such people. I’ve read a lot of uninspiring pieces of fiction from people getting their degree in English. See the similarities? There are professionals in the field who can make excellent covers for you at very reasonable prices. Just as an FYI – I was able to get an amazing piece of art from an established artist for a book for $300. I’ve heard of others getting comparable quality for less than $100. The way I recommend doing this is that if you’re a roleplaying game fan and you’ve seen cover art on a particular product that you like, don’t hesitate to contact that publisher and ask them who the artist is, and if they can put you in touch with them. Most publishers are willing to help you out, and most artists appreciate the referral. Once you contact them, be sure to understand that they’re probably busy, and it’s entirely possible that their rates are beyond your budget.
4. Have some sort of marketing plan. You need to showcase your strongest material, so try to put some of that up front where people will see it. Use social networking to get people’s attention. Do you know people who run websites? Maybe they’d be willing to help you advertise. If you don’t have a plan then e-publishing is about as effective as taking boxes of your freshly printed book and storing them next to the dumpster at the book store. At the very least, get an excerpt out there (preferably at the same place you have your e-book for sale) and solicit reviews from people. A few good reviews can push people over the edge and convert them into buyers.
5. Don’t expect to get rich by putting just one novel up for sale and waiting around for something to happen. I have it on good authority that this market is a marathon and not a sprint. In other words, it will take time for the sales to trickle in. The more books you have out there, the more money that will be trickling in. The other side of that, of course, is that you’re going to make more money by putting short titles out there are a low price ($2.99 seems to be the agreed upon price point for independently published novels) as opposed to larger works for a higher price point. My novel, Echoes of Olympus, will be roughly 100,000 words, and I’ll be selling it for $2.99. In other words, I know that I’m leaving money on the table by putting something out that’s three times as long as many e-books while charging the same price (I’m willing to do it to maintain artistic integrity, if nothing else).
So by now you’re probably thinking, “Wow, there’s a lot of risk involved with this.” That would be true. First you have to invest the time and creativity, then you have to take all of those other factors into consideration, and then you aren’t guaranteed that people will like or purchase your book. But you’re left with doing it yourself and hoping you do well, or suffering through the dignity of rejection while you search for a traditional publisher who’s willing to take a chance on your work. It’s your choice, but if you’ve read this and really considered it, then you should be able to make whatever the right choice is for you. If you choose to publish it yourself, don’t let anyone shame you into thinking that the work is somehow lacking because you didn’t go through the process of repeated rejections. If you truly do good work and your finished project is up to professional standards, then own it, present it to the world, and don’t be ashamed of it.