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Breaking In (Part 4): What’s in a Name?

March 4, 2010

Over the past few days I’ve been sharing my observations on what it takes to break into the world of writing and get your work published.  I’ve been especially focused on writing novels, and I’m also more squarely focused on the fantasy and science fiction genre markets.  All of these observations are those of an outsider: someone who has yet to really be published.  Some would call me a wannabe, an appellation which is technically true as I do, indeed, want to be a writer.  More specifically, I want to be a professionally published writer, and I want to be able to make a living off of doing that.

But there’s a wide gap between where I am and where I want to be.  So, I’m trying to learn everything I can about the industry and gain some insight on how editors makes the decisions they make on who and what to publish.  So, let’s think about things from the editor’s point of view for a minute.  An editor’s job is a hard one.  There is no shortage of people like me: wannabes.  We love writing, have what we think are great ideas, and want desperately to do this professionally.  Most of us, quite frankly, are awful at it.  Some of us have latent talent, but not the skill and experience to make things work.  From the editor’s perspective, there is a potentially infinite source of manuscripts.  The editor has to tackle that infinity of manuscripts, wade through a sea of crap (remember, if we need to write a “million words of crap” before we’ll start producing anything of quality, if there were only a few thousand wannabe writers that would be billions of words worth of crap; the estimation of only a few thousand wannabe writers is probably, in my experience, unrealistically low), and find the work of true quality that can be polished until presentable and published.  It seems a daunting, even impossible task.  How does an editor do it?

Lesson 3: Editors don’t want to read crap.

The only answer I can see to the question above: an editor needs heuristics, rules-of-thumb, to help him or her quickly eliminate the vast majority of the crap.  If you’ve seen one crap manuscript, you’ve pretty much seen them all.  Many crappy stories and half-baked novels, at least from the editor’s perspective, share certain traits and qualities in common.  So, I believe editors start from the lowest-common-denominator and work their way up, applying new filtering heuristics to each set of manuscripts that passed the last test.  They may start with simple things: manuscripts that don’t follow their manuscript format guidelines are summarily discarded without further ado.  Then they’ll get into the details: does the opening paragraph grab the editor’s attention?  No?  Discard it without reading further.  Does the story provide some new or interesting perspective on the genre?  No?  Discard it.  Each editor will have his or her own tastes and specifics on what she is looking for. 

Mostly, at least, that’s what I surmise about how things work in the short story market.  It is not a real leap of logic to suggest that things are similar in the novel market.  An acquiring editor at a novel publisher may give you more than a single paragraph to catch his interest, but only just so.  The idea, I imagine, is the same.

One of those filtering heuristics, based on some things I’ve read, may be one which the wannabe writer would least expect: the prominence of the wannabe’s name in the industry.  In other words, has the editor heard of you?  One answer to that question can be addressed in part in my previous “Breaking In” post on developing a “Writing Community”.  If there are a lot of editors in your “network” of people you know and interact with, chances are better that an editor you want to do business with will have heard of you.

In the novel-publishing market, there is one other potential source of “name recognition”: the short story market.  At least, this seems to be true in the speculative fiction world.  If you get a half-dozen short stories published in the magazines or short-story compilations that the acquisition editors are reading regularly, they’ll start to notice your name cropping up.  When your novel manuscript ends up on one of their desks, the editor is more apt to think to herself: “now where have I seen this name before?”  If your story was one he or she liked, more the better for your chances of holding that editor’s eyes long enough to give your manuscript a fair read.

Ideally, of course, you would be able to use both of these tools in tandem: growing your network to include editors and gaining some name recognition in the short story markets.  However, one or the other of these may be just entirely infeasible to one writer or another.  The drawbacks of the networking were mentioned last time.  For short story writing,  however, the drawbacks are different.  A writer who is great at long-form writing (such as novels) might be terrible at short stories.  And the reverse can also be true: a great short story writer may be a sub-par novelist.

Ultimately, the lesson for wannabe writers comes back to this simple rule: to be successful at writing as a career, you need to be exceptional at the craft of writing.  That one factor, more than any other, will do the most to improve your chances of launching  a career.  However, it’s really not enough.  Success also takes marketing savvy, developing a rapport and name-recognition in the industry.  You’ll need to find some way to get past an editor’s crap-meter and get your beautifully polished prose in front of his or her eyes.

The sad part about the crap-filtering heuristics is that, inevitably, they are imperfect.  The vast majority of what will be rejected by these filters will, certainly, be crap.  But they will also filter out gems that, on first pass, look like crap.  By the same token, there will be some crap that manages to pass through all these filters without setting off alarm bells.  The bad news for writers-to-be: there really isn’t any better or more reliable system imminently available to editors that will allow your gems to rise to the top (unpolished or otherwise).  For us, it stands only to learn the ropes of the business and do our best to improve our craft.

On Friday I’ll tie these “lessons” together and summarize my plan for developing my writing career.

Happy writing.

Back to  Part 3: Writing Community

Continue to Part 5: My Plan

9 Comments leave one →
  1. March 4, 2010 9:42 am

    Hi! I invite you to visit my blog, beginning with my blog launch posting on November 4, which will give you another perspective on the process.

    Then I’d love to hear from you and begin a dialogue.

    All the best,

    • March 4, 2010 10:11 am

      Actually, I’ve already visited. On your first post, my comment is the one from February 9th, which followed your first comment here on my blog on the same day. I haven’t had time, yet, to make it up-to-date on your blog yet, but I found your thoughts on the issue to certainly be fascinating. They definitely informed some of my thinking. In my post yesterday, for instance, I talk a bit about the value of going to writers conferences and workshops, something that I gleaned from the experience you shared in your first post.

      I’ll say, though, that I’m not terribly keen on utilizing a “self-publish first” strategy as a means of marketing my novel to traditional publishers, for two reasons: first, self-publishing requires a lot of time, effort, and investment, to do well, that I simply don’t have available to me while I’m pursuing a day-job career as well as starting a family. While there are definitely stories of success in this way (in the fantasy and science fiction world, I am reminded of Christopher Paolini’s Eragon which was first published by his parents’ publishing company), I just don’t have the resources to make this work. Second, self-publishing obviously uses up your first publication rights. In normal book acquisition contracts, these are the very rights the publishers are looking to buy. By taking them out of the equation, that complicates the contract negotiation process. Obviously it’s not a deal-breaker (vis-a-vis the aforementioned successes, in spite of this), but I imagine it definitely makes things tougher at that stage. Which gets me back to the first reason: if I don’t have the resources to make a self-publishing venture successful, I’m not going to be able to effectively demonstrate to a traditional publisher that my book is worth their investment.

      But I do have other options. At least, due to the peculiarities of the fantasy and science fiction genre markets (which are the markets I’m interested in), there is at least one other demonstrated path to eventual success to which I allude above. Fantasy and science fiction writers who make a name for themselves writing short stories stand a better chance of catching the eye of editors at traditional publishers who publish books in those genres. And, though still not easy, that’s at least a path that’s feasible for me.

      Thanks for stopping by again!

      • March 5, 2010 9:07 am

        Good morning, Stephen! Please forgive me for not recognizing you right away yesterday.

        Yes, I recall our first conversation, and I’m still hopeful that you’ll be able to find a way to squeeze in a writer’s conference sometime soon. Once you do, you’ll find that you’re highly motivated to squeeze in more. Regardless of which one you attend the first time around, you’ll be exposed to so many valuable elements of the business that will be unbelievably eye-opening and inspirational.

        Regarding your thoughts about the time involved if you travel some form of the self-publishing path versus the traditional, I understand again your perspective. Unfortunately, though, in today’s publishing climate, the traditional path now requires just as much time from the author. We now have to carry all the load for sales, marekting, and promotion, unless we’re famous/celebrities.

        New authors get stuck with everything–and that comes after at least two years of work after a publisher has agreed to take your book–and the years of production follow the years you’ve spent years finding an agent who agrees to represent you, who will then spend at least a year finding an editor in a publishing house who’s willing to take a serious look at your book.

        So, the bad news is that, no matter how we approach this dream, a huge amount of time is going to be required if our dream includes having our books reach a wide audience. And the purpose–the experiment–behind my blog is to see if I can utilize my skills and experience, coupled with a comprehensive use of social media, to create a buzz about a self-published book that will catch the eye of a traditional person.

        Everyone following me will learn this year whether I can make this idea work. And, if I’m successful, this blog will turn out to be a primer for anyone else who wants to try. If things don’t work, we’ll all learn about that together as well. (If you can find the time to catch up on all my blog posts, you’ll see that I’m trying to include tips and references about utilizing our time as well as improving our writing.)

        In the end, through all the information I’ve gathered of late, I’ve come to the conclusion that sending out queries without already having a following is no longer to generate any positive response from agents and editors in the traditional world. Once I have a quality book in hand, and once I’ve established a following, then I’ll begin querying again.

        And regarding your point about giving up first publication rights, that isn’t true. No matter how good your book might be, or how beautiful the self-published product, today’s traditional publishing folks still will not consider you officially “published” unless you’ve gone the traditional route. And that remains true regardless of how many thousands of people have purchased your book. So, official “first publication rights” remain available.

        And, if you publish with an organization like iUniverse, you retain all of your rights to absolutely everything with respect to your book. And believe me, iUniverse is absolutely thrilled and incredibly cooperative if a traditional publishing house becomes interested in an iUniverse author. I encourage you to check them out at to more thoroughly understand all of the options there.

        If you’re able to attend a few writer’s conferences, Stephen, the current state of the traditional publishing world will become a lot clearer to you. So, I do hope you’ll try to find a way to go to one/some soon. Maybe you could make that a New Year’s resolution for 2010–to attend at least one. Knowledge is power, you know. And you’ll need first-hand knowledge to effectively map out a realistic and relevant path to the realization of your dream.

        Thanks so much for your thought-provoking comments! I’m looking forward to hearing from you again, and I promise that I’ll recognize you right away the next time … 🙂


      • March 5, 2010 10:53 am

        No worries! I’m a pretty obscure fellow with a pretty common and unremarkable name (that, in itself, is a challenge for eventual publishing success; I’d write under a pseudonym, except despite the unremarkability of my name, I’m still proud of it).

        At some point in the future, I expect there’s a chance I’ll make it to a conference of some kind. It’s not feasible now because of the impending demands of a new baby in our family and the fact that besides holding down a full-time day-job, I’m also pursuing my MBA in evening classes. I won’t graduate until May of 2011, so until then my time will be very precious, indeed.

        Which is a part of the reason I’m pursuing publication along the path that I’ve outlined. By focusing my attention not on the novel markets (where my heart lies) but on short story markets, I have the potential to develop a name and a following for myself well in advance of ever completing a novel or sending out queries. And I can do so in a time frame that fits into my existing schedule. Writing short stories and trying to get them published is like taking small bites – more easily chewed and digested – out of the publishing industry rather than trying to swallow the whole hog at once. (Obviously for many others, my way won’t be the right way, but for me and my future I think it makes the most sense.)

        The bigger challenge for me, if I ever do get published, is what you suggest about the difficult burden put upon authors who actually succeed at breaking in. I’m not sure about most authors, but I plan to still be working at a full-time job before I ever get published, and to be doing quite well in whatever field I end up in. (I’m not pursuing an MBA because I enjoy spending my evenings in class instead of at home with my wife or writing!) That being the case, the full-time committment that becomes hitting the book tour circuit and tring to promote your own work to readers is going to have to make up for a lot of potentially lost income. I’ve read some credible statistics that suggest that a first time author (in the fantasy and science fiction field) will usually earn an advance of somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000. Assuming I’m closer to the higher end of average, I estimate I’d have to earn that advance back within two or three weeks to make this a viable career transition. Accomplishing that would mean (assuming a 20% royalty rate on a $25 hardcover) I would have to move around 2,000 hardcovers of the book within the first couple weeks of my book’s release. And to be sustainable, I’d have to continue selling in the neighborhood of 100,000 books (hardcovers and paperbacks inclusive) over the course of the book’s first year. It’s hard to be certain (because exact numbers are fairly closely guarded) but though I don’t think that’s NY Times Bestseller level, there, it’s still pretty impressive for a first-time author. And I’d have to repeat that again every year.

        As much as I really want to be able to do this for a living, that’s going to be a serious gamble for me, my wife and my children (baby and dog, or more by the time I break in). I’m not sure how willing we will be to make that leap, and it worries me that the economics of risk may be the factor that casts a darkening pall over the possibility of a career. Giving up a relatively secure day job and career path for something that, at least right now, is a complete unknown is a scary thought, no matter how much I love writing.

      • March 5, 2010 2:29 pm

        Note: something else I just read today suggests that a total of 100,000 books sold over the course of a year may, in fact, be exceptionally high after all (though 2,000 in the first few weeks apears not to be). So… I guess that means a number like that is actually really hard to achieve, and few books can do so.

      • March 5, 2010 8:55 pm

        Hi, Stephen. If you have a minute, check out the blog I posted this morning for a link to an established, seasoned author’s perspective on the numbers. But, after you read that, remember: artists never start out on the top–but when they get there, they are always “overnight successes.”

        The key is to first evaluate your odds of success by getting lots of outside input on your work. And then, if everyone says your work is authentic/sustainable/impressive, etc., you and your family need to decide how seriously you want to shoot for the star. Nobody ever reaches their dream without total commitment, a ton of work, and a boatload of sacrifice.

        Time will guide you through the process and the decisions. And I’ll be happy to weigh in whenever you call upon me.

        All the best,

      • March 8, 2010 10:32 am

        Yes, the perspective from that link pretty much jives with information I’ve been seeing out there. What I’m going to have to figure out is, if I can pretty much bet that success in a writing career does not equate with the ability to support my family on that career (which it appears that it does not, unless you can break that best-seller barrier, at which point it becomes not only possible, but pretty quickly propels you to the upper levels of earning potential… I guess writing is kind of an all-or-nothing career), that means I will have to have a regular, day-jobby type career to fill that function. But writing is a pretty time-consuming activity, so the key then becomes finding a day-jobby career that can do the heavy lifting on supporting my family but which provides sufficient flexibility to pursue this side-career.

        Thanks for pointing me to it.

        And here’s a little ping-backy attempt to see if this comment will automatically cross-post to your blog.


  1. Breaking In (Part 3): Writing Community « The Undiscovered Author
  2. Breaking In (Part 5): My Plan « The Undiscovered Author

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