Yes, I have used the dreaded g-word here on Catherine, Caffeinated. Do not adjust your screens. (And prepare yourself for what is quite possibly the longest post in the history of this blog. I do apologize.)
Now before we go any further, I demand you hop over to JA Konrath’s fantastic blog and read this guest post by UK author Stephen Leather immediately. Go on. I’ll wait.
Two things stopped me in my tracks in this post. The first was Leather’s observation that all self-publishers seem to talk about – or want to talk about – is how to sell more books, and not how to write those books better.
The second was this line about UK (and, let’s say for sake of this argument, Irish) agents versus US agents:
“Literary agents in the UK are actually quite nice people, but they are a totally different animal in the US … I’ve only met one decent human being working as a literary agent in the States – the rest have been horrible, self-centered, arrogant s—s … They seem to take pleasure in denying writers access to publishers.”
Let’s talk about the first one first: why is it that on all self-publishing blogs, generally-speaking – my own included – all the talk, discussion and advice is about selling books, and not about writing better books or even writing well in the first place?
I think I’m a good writer and people whose job it is to know have told me that I at least demonstrate some talent in this regard. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that there may have been chocolate-based bribes involved.) But I believe that my ability to write came from two things: (i) reading constantly since I learned how and (ii) something innate, a natural talent written in my DNA. I don’t believe you can be taught how to write. You can learn to write better, certainly, and practice and experience helps. But there needs to be something there to work with, and not everyone has it. You can’t go from being a terrible writer to a Booker Prize-winning one, in the same way that if you have a decent singing voice you can be trained to use it better, but you can’t take someone whose attempts at tune-carrying sounds like a bag of strangled cats on helium and turn them into Charlotte Church. So that’s Reason #1 why I don’t give writing advice: because I think if you have the ability to write well, chances are you’re already doing it.
And who am I to offer advice? I publish my own books. Other than sales (which, personally, I don’t see as a sufficient qualification – and in the world-wide scheme of things, mine aren’t anything amazing anyway), if I got up on a soapbox and started telling you how to write, I wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. You’d think, what does she know? Who is she to tell me how to do this? Who does she think she is? And if our roles were reversed, I’d be the first thinking that too. A published author can stand tall at writing workshops and confidently write articles about character and dialogue because someone we trust has said, This person writes well. They have said, This person is good enough. But as a self-published author, I have no such backing. And the only writing advice that is worthwhile is that which helps you channel your energies away from writing whatever might take your fancy (unless that’s all you want to do, of course) and into writing with an eye on getting published – like Nicola Morgan’s new book, Write to Be Published, for example. But I can’t tell you how to write to get published because I haven’t been. So that’s Reason #2 why I don’t give writing advice: because I don’t feel qualified to.
Why do I give advice on how to sell books? Is it because I’m obsessed with or only focused on selling them? No, although what good is a book if no one reads it and, as I’ve said before, I treat self-publishing like a business. I have to because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to do it full-time. So unromantic as it may sound, I do need to make money. But that’s not why I blog about how to sell books. First of all, I enjoy sharing my trials and tribulations and I think you enjoy reading about them. It fascinates me; I find the whole subject endlessly interesting. Why does one book sell and another doesn’t? What did I do this month that made my sales dip? How did that guy manage to sell millions? How come this guy has an amazing book that isn’t selling at all? And because I only try to sell my books in ways that could apply to all books, both traditional and self-published (I don’t go on e-book forums or exchange tags with other e-book authors or any of that, for example) this information, theoretically, is useful to everyone, i.e. all writers. For me and my blog, that’s a win-win.
And so it’s not that I don’t value writing, or think that the only thing that matters is learning how to sell, sell, sell. I love books more than anything else in the world and I would rather suffer some horrible fate (a bad perm, for example) than put a book out into the world that adds to the ever-growing pile of stinky poo the vast majority of self-publishing authors are churning out every minute of every day. But I don’t think there’s any point in me talking about writing because I think you either know how to or you don’t, and because I don’t feel qualified to anyway.
Now onto the g-word. If you are a regular reader of my blog, you’ll know that my least favorite word in the publishing/books/writing sphere is – ugh – gatekeepers, because it makes agents and editors, human beings like you and me, sound like evil, horned demons, and that I think that the easiest way to make sure you are not self-publishing poo is to try and get traditionally published first, and then only self-publish if you are getting full manuscript requests, at least. (And if you’re not a regular reader, you know that now.) But do I think this because I live in Ireland and thus have only dealt with Irish and UK agents and publishers, who seem to be really nice people who love good books and always respond?
I have met some bitter bunnies in my time as a self-publisher, let me tell you. I’ve even written about some of them in Self-Printed (PLUG ALERT: out today!) and on this blog. These are the unpublished writers who are so angry about the treatment they perceive themselves to have received at the hands of agents, editors and other publishing professionals that they are gleefully sticking pins into voodoo dolls which look not entirely unlike them in the dead of night, constantly saying, “But they didn’t even give my novel a chance!” with a crazed look in their eyes and exclusively reading self-published e-books as a one-man stand against Big, Bad Publishing.
I never understood these people because I believed that if your book was good, it would get published eventually. And if it didn’t get published, was that really reason enough to feverishly hate someone whose job it was to weed out the great from the sucky? Hardly. But maybe I just thought this because on this side of pond, people are nicer.
Let’s take my novel for example, which has been around, completed, since February 2010. It’s been shopped to both UK/IRL editors and US agents.
Let’s compare the experience, shall we?
I write a query letter for the novel following all the “rules.” The novel is set in the US so I figure I should test the waters of the wonderful United States first. I draw up an initial list of favored US agents: three who accept e-mail queries and two who require the synopsis and first 50 pages to be sent by mail. The responses:
- Agent #1 at New York office of major US-UK agency responds by e-mail (to e-mail) within 24 hours, saying she appreciates my sense of humor and clever concept, but doesn’t think she’s the right fit for me or my work. (She’s absolutely lovely to me but her first name is Catherine so I wonder if that’s why!!!)
- Agent #2 at NY agency responds by e-mail (to e-mail) within 24 hours saying thanks but no thanks.
- No response to e-mail sent to Agent #3.
- No response to synopsis/chapters mailed to Agent #4.
- No response to synopsis/chapters mailed to Agent #5.
Same novel gets sent to:
- Irish office of major publishing house. Editor #1 reads entire novel, gives extensive feedback by phone and e-mail. Response time: a fortnight. Says lots of lovely things about me as a writer, but feels book isn’t suitable for market here. Wants to see something else. Arranges meeting where she and I talk about what this something else might be. Says she’d like to see this something else when it’s done. We keep in touch.
- Irish office of another major publishing house. Editor #2 reads entire novel, gives feedback by e-mail. Response time: less than 3 weeks. Loves my writing, voice, etc. but doesn’t love the book “enough.” Unsure about its subject matter but says she’d be happy to see something else from me that isn’t about same thing as she feels that is the only real problem.
- Irish office of another major publishing house. Editor #3 reads entire novel, give feedback by e-mail. Response time: less than a month. Loves my voice and humor, unsure whether novel is suitable for Irish/UK market but would like to see something “more mainstream.”
- As above for major UK publishing house and editor #4.
- Same for medium-large UK publishing house and editor #5.
And then there was my experience with trying to get Mousetrapped traditionally published, a year before that again and before I decided to do it myself. I started this when I had just a proposal and 2/3 sample chapters, which would be the norm for a non-fiction book.
- Send out queries to 9 UK/Irish agents. About 4-5, if I remember correctly (this was 2007!), respond with a “thanks but no thanks.” One says, “This sounds interesting. Send me what you have.”
- So begins a year of back and forth with this agent, who works at a well-respected London literary agency. When she finally reads the finished book a year later, she has to say no, but she sends me a lovely e-mail saying how much she liked the book and my writing, and says she’d like to see something else in the future, especially fiction if I’d ever consider writing it. (I’m still in contact with this agent, as a friend, through e-mail and Twitter today.)
- I decide to try Irish publishing houses instead. Editor #1 requests the full manuscript after reading the proposal & sample chapters and then e-mails me to say he liked the book and my writing, but that there is no market for a book like it. So: no.
- Same happens with Editor #2.
- Same happens with Editor #3, except she calls me on the phone and offers some additional feedback on how I could improve the book (which I listened to before I self-published it).
- Editor #4 says “this isn’t for us” based on proposal and sample chapters.
- Same with Editor #5.
(And they were all right about Mousetrapped. It took self-publishing it – publishing it without any financial risk and selling it to a global readership as opposed to just Irish/UK readers – to sell copies. And the fact that I have a novel, polished and ready-to-go, sitting on my computer for over a year now should tell you how slow I am to self-publish work, how I don’t take the decision to release it lightly.)
So for reasons that should now be clear, I have nothing but a case of the warm and fuzzies for every publishing professional I’ve encountered in my part of the world. Excluding the initial queries I sent to agents about Mousetrapped, every single agent or editor I’ve sent material to has responded to me. Every single Ireland or UK-based editor who has received a sample of my novel has taken the time to read the entire thing, and then more time to give me feedback about it. But the same can’t be said for my (very limited, admittedly) adventures in querying US agents, who I don’t think I’ll be sending Christmas cards to this year.
But in defense of US agents, can you imagine how many queries, manuscripts, etc. they get? A few months back I got a sneak peek inside the offices of an Irish publishing house, and it seemed to me that the piles of manuscripts were taking up more space than the furniture. The population of Irish is 4.5 million. The population of the United States is 309 million. No wonder they use the query system (as in, sending just a brief letter about your book instead of our standard practice of synopsis plus three chapters) – if they didn’t, they might be buried under there. So I can totally understand why they don’t have the time for the personalized rejections or even encouraging feedback we might get from our agents and editors over here. (But that still isn’t a good enough reason for voodoo dolls, people.)
And there are some wonderful US agents. One of them has written my favorite book on being a writer ever in the history of the world, Betsy Lerner (the book is The Forest for the Trees) and one of them writes one of my favorite writing blogs, Nathan Bransford. (Although in recent months he left the agenting world.) There’s the likes of US Agent No.1 above. And then there’s the US agent a writer friend of mine has, who would go to the ends of the earth for her, and has. So it’s not these individuals who are the problem – they are just operating within a system which seems to be the only feasible way to deal with the never-ending influx of unsolicited work. Aren’t they?
Konrath says that nowadays, readers are the gatekeepers. They vote for the good stuff by spending their dollars on it and weed out the bad by not. But while this is fine for Konrath – who writes great books – I don’t think it’s a creed all self-publishers should live by. When you put a book out there with a price-tag on it, you are selling a product, and that product has to deliver on its promise (i.e. be good) in exchange for the money customers hand over for it. Even if it’s just 99c, that’s still money. You can’t use readers as a test audience unless you are giving your book away for free, and you explain to them that that’s what you’re doing.
Anyways this blog post has gone on for way way WAY too long – I really should’ve broken it down in two parts but I’m off on holidays at the end of this week and so don’t have the time – so let me stop myself here and ask you what you think.
How would you feel about a self-published author telling you how to write? Do Irish and UK authors have an easier time with agents and editors? If so, what alternate method can US-based self-publishers use to gauge whether or not their book is good other than putting it out there and seeing if it sells? And where are people getting these voodoo dolls? Are they making them themselves, do you think? Feel free to weigh in below.
(And apologies again for the length of this post!)
My whopper of a book that was originally supposed to be a little pamphlet, Self-Printed: The Sane Person’s Guide to Self-Publishing, is out today. (Fancy that!) Its e-book costs about the same as a tall latte at Starbucks (i.e. it costs $2.99) and by buying a copy you help keep me in coffee which, trust me, is a selfless and necessary act indeed.