Ask Not What a Publisher Can Do For You

It’s an extraordinary realism for aspiring writers: many publishers and agents often seek authors who already possess a substantial following.

The search for publication can be akin to seeking that crucial first job — employers want experience, but how does one gain experience without a job? Traditionally, writers begin with shorter works, offering their skills for free, then progressing to paid assignments. With luck, perseverance, or a blend of both, they may eventually see longer works accepted, though not always or often with a major publisher. Many first publish with midstream or small press; indeed, it’s possible to manage successful careers with smaller publishers, and most writing credits improve a writer’s chances. Like with any job application, the writer builds a resume.

By saying publishers and agents seek writers with an audience, I’m not only referring to their preference for published authors. They have a keen interest in sales figures and, therefore, followership. Today, social media presence is an important and complex challenge. Writers often struggle to balance writing with networking, which, while occasionally enjoyable, can also be time-consuming, demoralising, and a tempting excuse for procrastination. Also, the effectiveness varies.

Accurate statistics to determine what works and what doesn’t are problematic. Success hinges on too many variables including but not limited to genre. A large following doesn’t always translate into sales, while some authors with modest audiences enjoy sturdy trading.

Publishers and agents naturally prefer writers with an existing readership. They desire assurance that taking on an author will lead to worthwhile sales. They’re increasingly interested in writers who can bring their own audience. Today’s publishers are asking not what they can do for the writer, but what the writer can do for them.

This shift partly explains the rise in self-publishing, and it has contributed to the perception that publishers prioritise writers based on what they can offer. But remember, this is not an absolute rule, and it’s important not to view the industry as heartless; we all share a love for the written word. Still, with this perspective, rejections become less shocking.

Sadly, these days some publishers do nothing, and writers will, at some point, need to ask the right questions. While tempting to sign the first hint of a contract, depending on the size of the publisher, it may be important to enquire about career prospects, potential sales, and marketing support. Understanding what questions to ask and when is more important than pressuring the publisher or asking obvious ones.

Consider Setting

Often a story’s need dictates setting, but think of your setting as a character as much as any of the beings that populate the story. Setting can be more than just choosing a place and time. Setting creates atmosphere and the writer can use it obviously or in contrast, or even to tell the reader something about the characters within the story world.

Consider a spooky old house. Straightaway, this conjures up images of darkness, bats flapping around the attic, spiders hanging from their webs and something menacing hiding out of sight around the corner. A house may bring to mind specific films or characters from the movies. In Psycho, the physical setting in which Norman Bates lives represents looming danger and his twisted mind, although the film sets out to mislead us. His home speaks of isolation, abuse. We feel sympathy for Bates, believing him to be a victim (which he is as much as those he kills). However, placing unusual happenings against a more mundane backdrop can have an equal or greater impact.

Or use a haunted house setting to tell a completely different story. Write a comedy, and deliberately use the unlikely setting as part of the joke. Whatever the story concerns, remember the atmosphere. There’s no need to be overly descriptive to build a story world, either, although sometimes writing the perfect, concise description takes longer than a meandering passage, but it’s worth practicing.

Often, the reader only needs to know the exact colour of a room or the pattern on the wallpaper if it has a direct bearing on the story or a character. That said, the way a character sees his or her room after returning from an absence of many years can give the reader a clear idea of the type of childhood this person has had. If the room is unchanged, kept as a shrine, this could tell the reader much about the character’s parents, or it could turn the story upside down and provide another unexpected and surprising reason for the room remaining untouched. Either way, the room itself becomes a tool to give us insight and therefore provide atmosphere. The room becomes as much a part of the story as the people the writer places in that world.

So, although it’s unnecessary to do this meticulously for every scene, when building the world around characters, consider settings carefully. Don’t simply erect a house with four featureless walls. The type of home the character lives in says much about him or her as much as the more obvious details do. Conversely, a character might live in rented accommodation where the roof constantly leaks and the walls are so thin arguments next door may as well be going on in the same room. If the character has a personal reason to be miserable, the accommodation can reflect their emotional state, cause it, or be the reason they’re forced to interact with others.

In one book of mine, I specifically choose to place several scenes in a garage where my MC (main character) works. At first glance, it’s easy to think my character simply needed a job, but the career I chose has always had a masculine persona, and this reflected his personality. The first evidence of his feelings comes to light in the garage, when the other men are trying to joke around. My other character’s sister confronts him in the garage more than once, and ultimately, something nasty happens there to make him face his feelings. There’s plenty of other action that takes place elsewhere in the book, but I deliberately set several pivotal moments in this setting because this is ‘his space’. It’s where he feels most comfortable, doing the thing he loves (taking care of cars), and where he feels most secure. In the garage, he’s a bloke’s bloke, and in charge. Suddenly, he’s insecure in the one place where he should feel safe. The sister’s wrath is an attack and his emotional state can find no solace in the one place where he’s always felt confident. He’s lost his sanctuary. His self-assurance takes another blow. He’s unanchored, insecure, and unable to find a moment’s peace from his emotions, even when working.

As with all writing, choose words carefully and deliberately, but this is especially true with setting. Light that glints ‘wickedly from the sharp edge of a blade’ leaves a distinct impression as opposed to a ‘soft amber glow of the sunset, made the knife gleam’ even though the second option may be as deadly — For example, this option also makes me think of two people preparing dinner about to have an explosive argument where the sharpest weapon will be words.

Don’t overdo adjectives and don’t forget to include more than one sense. People don’t just see; they touch, taste, smell, and hear, too. Apparently, smell can be one of the strongest things to invoke memory, so use it well. Likewise, music can create memory-recall more vividly than a photograph. Note: when using things like music, don’t simply use a favourite song. The story isn’t about you (the writer) — unless it actually is — it’s about the character and in this a writer has to consider age, context, history. If it’s a song she remembers from a time when she knew someone she’s never stopped loving, what age would she have been, and how long ago was it? What year? What played that year, in that month? Why did it resonate with her then and why now? Choose something historically accurate. Do the homework.

Such things also spark tension. If calling on a fastidious neighbour, and the putrid smell coming from the bin rankles your MC’s nose, the reader will surmise right away that something is wrong. An outside bin not pushed to the curb for collection can do this as effectively as an indoor bin a neighbour accesses with the use of a spare key when dropping off a regular shop, an errand run out of neighbourly goodness. In both cases, if this naturally clean neighbour hasn’t emptied the bin, then there must be a reason. Is the neighbour ill? Dead? Murdered? Does the rank smell coming from the bin herald the conditions in which they will find this person?

You can also use setting to place your story in time, but if writing a period piece, especially do your homework. Readers will know a writer has just made it up and guessed. It’s one thing to make a mistake, but quite another not to try at all.
And don’t be lazy. Don’t simply tell a reader that it was a rainy/sunny/cold/windy day. Describe the day and use it to bring something your character is doing, or feels, vividly to life. Is the weather that day in tune with your MC’s feelings, or irritating in contrast? Use setting to establish the scene or even to misdirect.

The Writer as Typesetter

Typesetter used to be an actual job. While I’m sure professionals typically handle book layout at major publishing houses, writers at mid-size and smaller publishers must now do it themselves. The days of huge mechanical machines are gone. Machines where someone had to lie out each word for printing, a job which must have been horrendous. So much of publishing is now electronic and I’m not referring solely to e-books. Writers handle the writing process, manuscript submission, edits, and layout.

At heart many object to this. I understand this is more cost-effective for the publisher. With new companies, a tiny publisher, and those offering a larger percentage split, it’s even crucial. Still, it leaves a lot to chance and sometimes can be a complicated process. The writer often has to work a day job, raise a family, have a life, AND write, AND promote. To lie out a work for publication can feel like the last insult. One reason this bites is a writer can go to all the hassle of formatting work to submit to a specific publisher, only to have it rejected. They then have to re-format the work to submit elsewhere. That’s why I firmly believe in the old Standard Manuscript Format. I certainly believe no publisher should require a writer to format a work any other way prior to acceptance, and not, necessarily, even then. Since when has a writer had to be a typesetter?

Likewise, most publishers have a house-style using a particular punctuation system and spelling rules. It’s impossible for writers to keep up with these ever-changing and differing systems. For any writer working with more than one publisher, it can be a nightmare, especially if the house-style updates. I’m a UK writer who often writes for a US market, so whether my books appear in English or American, spellings vary. Usually, I have no option but to at least accept a different punctuation system. I’ve had to come clean with these publishers, to tell them I only know one punctuation system: the one I grew up with. The more I tried to learn another, the worse my punctuation became. Some of these things are too much to ask of the average writer on an average day. It’s something any would-be writers out there need to be aware of. Typesetter is also commonly now part of the job.

To the Person who left me a Comment

To the person who left me a comment saying they may look like spam but assuring me otherwise, your site looks like… well, spam. You say you’re not a publisher and yet you’re making money selling free ebooks. This is an oxymoron. If you are selling books, they’re not ‘free’. Second, you say you’re not a writer, so from where are you getting these books? Are you selling other people’s free ebooks? If you’re doing so without their permission, you violate copyright law. If you are buying ebooks and selling them on, you violate copyright law. On both counts, I advise you to read the statement re copyright on this site. If you are doing something else that I don’t understand, my apologies, but no, I will not download your report file from a site that says little. For all I know, it could be a virus. I’d advise everyone else not to do so either. This isn’t personal. I’m just being sensibly cautious. Sorry.

Look, copyright law on ebooks is simple. It prohibits the copy, distribute, resale or loan of an ebook. Saying that, most of us wouldn’t object if we heard readers have made a backup copy purely for personal use. We live in a wonderful age of technology, but technology fails us from time to time. We hear of someone selling our work and we’d like to come down on them like the proverbial tonnage. Writers and publishers are getting better at locating piracy sites and law enforcement are finally taking it seriously.

A common question is “If I can resell or loan a printed book, why can’t I, as a reader, resell or loan ebooks?” To be honest, even the reselling or lending of some printed books is a grey area. However, it tends to be overlooked because of several reasons:

  1. Most people hate the idea of printed books being destroyed. If you’re finished with them and cannot pass them on in some way, they are only good for recycling.
  2. When a printed book is passed on, someone may find an author they like and start buying new books by that author regularly. It’s sort of free advertising and yes, perhaps this would apply to ebooks but a major difference and reason exists why this doesn’t work so read on.
  3. Many second-hand books are sold for charitable purposes.
  4. The reader gives up the physical edition of the book and will no longer own it.

Point 4 is the major one. When you give, sell, or loan a printed book, you give away the item you purchased. Even when lending it, you risk not getting it back. You are not making a ‘physical copy’ of that book to pass it on.

When you pass on an ebook (and some people do this in innocence, not piracy, but they are still in the wrong) the reader tends to keep their version and simply send the file on, making a ‘copy’. This is as illegal in both electronic and printed works.

Imagine taking one of Stephen King’s novels, dissecting it, scanning it in, printing it up either by POD, or via the printer at home, and trying to give it away, sell it, or hand to a friend. Should SK find out, do you think he wouldn’t sue? Do you think he’d be flattered?

The point is no one may make a ‘copy’ of any written work, be it printed or electronic. You may (usually) print off an electronic book to read it in that form should you not wish to read on screen, but that printed form has the same laws. You may not sell it or pass it on. If you wish to pass on an ebook, the best way is to buy an extra copy, and what’s so wrong with that? We all have people to buy presents for.

Oh… and to those who think they can file share their ebook library, has nothing I’ve stated sunk in? An individual’s collection is NOT a library and even if it could be, there is such a thing as the ‘public lending right’. This means an author can, if they wish, claim a small payment every time a library lends one of their books.

  • You are not a publisher, and the author has not signed a contract with you. You do not have the right to sell.
  • You are not an official state library. You do not have the right to loan (and let’s be honest — a loan in electronic format means copy and give away).
  • You are not friends with thousands of strangers online that you simply ‘must’ lend your books to (and we’ve already established that you are not lending but copying) and authors and publishers will not turn their back on you giving their work away.

I’m not speaking to those who are deliberately committing an act of piracy. They know they are breaking the law, damaging authors and the publishing industry, and they don’t care. The most we can do is assure them that while there will always be crooks, there will always be those willing to fight criminal activity. I’m speaking mainly to those that do this in innocence, not understanding they do anything wrong. Readers claim to love writers. They claim to love our work. We do work — hard — at this. Most of us have day jobs, families, lives just like everyone. We have to find time to write on top of all that. We often forsake sleep. Many don’t make as much money as people think and even if we did, haven’t we earned it? Readers say they love our characters, our worlds, our stories. They claim to love our work and even to love us. Why do something harmful to someone or something you love?

Happy Halloween

When discussing all things unnerving, it occurred to me there are many things ‘scary’ about writing. One of those is the fear there will come a day when someone devours all the plot bunnies. Often the writer struggles to kick the furry little blighters back because they’re rampaging and demanding attention as much as any zombie on the march for brains. I’m sure my bunnies have nasty sharp teeth and claws — they sure enjoy nipping at my ankles — but many ask: where do they come from? So let’s concentrate on the scary ‘how’ and ‘howl’ of plots. How does one make the magic happen?

I doubt there’s a writer in existence who won’t one day be asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” There is no spell book. No magic shop one can go to. Authors wish there were, but in some ways we conjure ideas up out of thin air. A writer is someone who can connect two or more seemingly dissociated events, can play the ‘what if’ game, and perhaps add an extra twist.

Here is a brief example. I wove my short story Bitter and Intoxicating for the anthology Red Velvet and Absinthe (editor Mitzi Szereto; foreword by Kelley Armstrong) in answer to a submission call for gothic erotic romance. Although the call provided a list of example work, I had nothing written that fitted, and worse, I had no ideas. I went online and began running searches for red, velvet, and for absinthe.

Although the stories didn’t need to have anything to do with these items, I needed a place from which to start. I certainly didn’t expect to write anything on those topics. I was just searching for a spark.
I came across a painting by Albert Maignan, La Muse Verte, which seemed a good portrayal of what the effects of absinthe supposedly had on the artistic mind. Inspiration! What if a distraught painter came across a seductive woman in a bar, one with flaming red hair clad in a diaphanous green gown, and she was to take him home to try absinthe, promising that it would be the answer to all his woes?

The resulting story is part BDSM, part gothic horror, part sensuous seduction ‘painted’ with words — something fitting to read on a dark October night in front of the fire with the wind blowing outside.

From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository

LOST the Plot?

I never watched LOST the first time around, so recently went through all six series, and I couldn’t help viewing some of the show through a writer’s perspective.

Warning: Spoilers.

Imperfect? Perhaps. I certainly had issues with the way certain characters died. I couldn’t quite believe Charlie’s death. What? He couldn’t make it out of the room, close the door, and fastened it somehow from outside? If the door had an outside wheel lock, he had the time. Failing that, he looked small enough to swim out of the porthole once the glass exploded and the room filled up with seawater. Escaping was definitely worth a try. Likewise, Jack’s attack of John Locke/not Locke was reckless where he appeared to give the extremely obvious, present and enormous bladed weapon no consideration at all. No human half gutted with that thing would have carried on to save the island. I have an issue with shows where they have characters slice their hands open for a splash and dash of blood, wrap any old rag around the cut (infection anyone?) and carry on with a perfectly useable hand apparently in no pain at all, so knife in the gut and twisted… I never understand why the public is supposed to swallow such rot.

And though we’re shown Caleb’s origins towards the end, that never explains the mystical elements of the island. At one point, we’re shown a hidden crypt with Mayan or Egyptian type symbols, which appeared to the home of the smoke monster — so I was prepared to believe in an ancient god, but then we’re shown the pool of golden light with no clear connection between the light and the symbols. Is this an ancient worshiping ground? Worshipped by who and why? Is this the source of good and evil? If so, why did in manifest in two boys? If the island needs protection, why doesn’t God make it untraceable? One minute it’s difficult to find or get to and yet seems to be more easily reached by sub than aircraft. Alas, LOST leaves us with far more questions than answers.

The major problem for most viewers seems to be the ending, with the question of were they dead all along. I never thought so, and I have no major issue with the show’s end. Not one large enough to have spoiled the experience for me; however, I feel that an alternative timeline where something Desmond did in the pool to alter the outcome yet left them all with the memories of what happened would have felt far more satisfying.

And on that note, the writers negated the specialness of Desmond. Sure he ‘pulled the plug’ and that made not-Locke mortal, so he could die, but he was trapped on the island, anyway. And what was he? The devil? One of the devil’s minions? Pure evil? Or simply a hurt little boy inside? Desmond might have destroyed the island and says he made a mistake. After all he’d been through, that seems poor recompense.

The afterlife idea leaves too many questions. Why would Sayid end up with Shannon and not Nadia? Which woman was the love of his life? Things like this and more pop into my mind, when presented by the ‘we created this space as a way to meet up once we all died’. When did they all make this decision? Does heaven automatically bring you all together with the people you spent the most important time in your life with? What was the overall purpose of the island? For it certainly wasn’t where good and evil battled it out for all eternity to keep the world turning — not if the end is the end and the island was at last safe. What was the light? And when the water returned, why didn’t Jack turn into a smoke monster? Viewers certainly saw someone else get thrown in and changed, so why not Jack? Because he had a virtuous heart? Questions, questions, questions.

This is a great illustration of a problem all writers face. It’s often too easy to come up with a fabulous idea and then write yourself into a corner. At the end of all drafts, the writer must look to see what questions the narrative raises and whether they can answer them all…. Although sometimes the writer may not wish to answer and may leave it to the audience to speculate, but it’s a tricky thing to pull off. I like some open-ended stories, but LOST isn’t one of those, and so I would have preferred a few more answers.

But, having said all that, the storyline spaced out all my niggles, and at least the show had an end, unlike so many. It remained consistent and I love well-plotted, non-chronological story-telling. I imagine some viewers might find that kind of narrative difficult to follow, but I had no trouble following the storyline at all. It’s an action series, a mystery, and, like all the best stories, heavily character driven. I enjoyed the show despite every glitch because I invested in those characters.

In all good character stories, the people populating the work MUST go through a transformation. They must change, to emerge a different and (in most cases but not all) better person. In that I found LOST to be a captivating show, especially when one realises that it’s not a story about people being lost on an island, but a group of lost individuals who discover who they are and what they’re capable of together and when facing adversity. But that is why a different ending would have been far more satisfying. An end where they got to live new lives, yet remember what they went through and thereby complete their transformations in a way more satisfactory than meeting again after death.

When writing, try not to get lost of where you are in your work and when typing THE END weigh up whether you’ve not only answered all the questions you wish to against reader/viewer satisfaction. It’s still fine to go against the grain if you feel that strongly, but make it an active decision, not a mistake.

Alone/Not Alone

Don’t automatically rely on family and friends to support your writing endeavours. They may be wildly interested and want to read everything you produce, but equally writers face indifference to outright ridicule. Bad enough writers must tolerate this type of apathy or attack from strangers (I’m not referring to your average reviewers), but when it comes from people we know, it’s personal and painful.

In my case, many of my family and friends don’t read. Many restrict their daily reading material to newspapers, a few to newspapers and magazines, and fewer to their choice of summer beach reading material, meaning they may read 2-4 books a year. For these and others, I don’t always write in their preferred genre. Them not reading my books isn’t personal. While one might think some would or even should at least give a book written by a friend a try, it’s still an unprejudiced decision on their part if they choose not to. Their preference has no bearing on my writing, or my wish to be a published author. I may sometimes feel disappointment, but it’s a bearable regret.

I’m happy to say I have four people related to me by kinship or friendship who want my work. My husband, my sister-in-law, and two friends. Out of these, one cannot afford my work so I provide it for her. Two only read print, so ebooks present a problem. One buys everything I produce, and my husband gets to read for free because… well, why shouldn’t he? He supports me most of all and reads anything and everything I write and is happy to do so. In that I consider myself lucky because there are many writers whose spouses resent their writing even when they reach publication, showing annoyance, irritation and jealousy because they don’t wish to share your time with something you love as much as you do them. And there are other reasons those closest to you don’t like writers’ writing. There are people who remain shocked to hear I’m still writing, as though it’s a phase I should have long grown out of. Some even treat it as crass a pastime as picking one’s nose. “I suppose you’re still doing that writing thing,” is one thing I’ve heard often.

Of course, most writers don’t earn a lot and still need at least a part-time if not full-time job, though that’s something I’d like to address separately. One can understand some basis for resentment if a loved one is neglecting all those around them, leaving jobs not done, and bills unpaid, but this is rarely the case. Usually resentments stem from a lack of shared interest, and the type of high expectations amateur writers often share when they first approach the writing market — that of success equaling substantial payment, media interest, and red carpet premieres.

But whereas writers love their craft and soon learn they need patience and perseverance ever to have a chance of making the hoped-for success of a best-selling author, while realising and accepting it may never happen and that success in writing comes in many forms and levels, those around seem far less able to cope with this reality. I’ve heard of writers’ families who have only come around once their writing spouses, daughters or sons, manage a major writing deal. Even then, success does not mean they’ll want to read your work. If family and friends are as excited about your book release as you are, congratulations, but don’t expect it. This can come as a tremendous shock to some new authors.

In short, to be a writer there are many reasons the craft can be a solitary pursuit, but if one of this is a lack of interest from those you love, and worse, ridicule, then although you’ll feel profoundly alone, I’m saying many writers suffer the same and in that you’re far from on your own.