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A Request from a Formulaic Hack

I've talked before about different types of publishing, from self-publishing to small press to the big NY houses. I've done my best to keep things fair and respectful, even when I'm playing Publishing Mythbuster. We're all writers, and I'm one of those naive "Can't we all get along?" types. Besides, I've got no room to look down on folks working with royalty-paying PoD publishers, since I've been there myself.

But I woke up earlier this week to find a merry little chat on one of my mailing lists, talking about publishers. Folks were complaining that they couldn't get published with the big NY houses because they didn't write the formulaic crap those publishers wanted. This was annoying, but at least they apologized when I mentioned I was one of those formulaic crappers writing for a NY house. Then today I turned around to find folks in an Amazon discussion reading from the same sour script*.

I've seen this kind of ranting a lot, but for some reason, it pissed me off this time. Blame it on lack of sleep. So anyway, I have a request for the writerly portion of the Internet. When you're out there making public excuses for why you can't sell your precious book, could you please find a way to do it without slamming those of us who have managed to sell ours?

Commercial publishers aren't perfect. The waiting is frustrating as hell, and sometimes they reject books that might have been publishable. But the next one who complains that there's a great big publishing conspiracy trying to stifle your new voice, your creativity, your brilliant and original storytelling, is going to get a goblin boot up the ass.

Harsh truth time. If your book's been rejected by a publisher, that doesn't mean anything. If a dozen publishers and thirty agents have read and rejected your manuscript?† Well, it's possible your book is a precious and unique flower, and those New York people are blind to its beauty. But the odds are, you wrote a crappy book. There's no shame in that, and we've all done it. Some of us have done it multiple times. (I've got three completed crap manuscripts, and about a half-dozen partial novels that should never again see the light of day.)

When you start going on** about how those NY publishers only buy formulaic crap, and the real future in publishing is with your particular e-book or PoD or self-publishing outfit because you're better than those hacks and their unimaginative, repetitive garbage novels, I'm left with a few thoughts.

1. Bite me.
2. If you actually believed that, why did you submit to the NY publishers to begin with?
3. And then why, when I mention that I'm with DAW, do you turn around and ask for my advice on how to break in?
4. Bite me.

Being a nice guy, I'll still answer number three. Write another book -- a better book*** -- and keep trying. Here's harsh truth number two: if you want to break in with the big publishers, it's going to take time. As in years. An average of a decade or more, from chatting with some of my fellow writers. Some of that time is because the process is pretty damn slow. But it's also because most of us need a decade to learn how to write decent books.

There are exceptions to every rule, but the odds are, you're not one of them. That's why they're called exceptions.

Publishers buy books they think they can sell. Period. They're a business, remember? There's no conspiracy to stifle new writers. They want new writers ... but only if those writers are writing good books that they can sell. There are a ton of submissions coming in to every publisher, and most of them are crap. Even if your book is good, it might not be right for what that publisher sells. If your book isn't right for that house, they're not going to sell it, any more than Burger King is going to start marketing lawn mowers. If you're pissed off because you tried to get BK to buy your tractor, maybe it's not BK that's to blame.

I will admit the possibility that you are a brilliant writer, and your book is the best thing since someone put fudge on ice cream. It's even conceivable that every respectible publisher out there has somehow missed this brilliance. But even if that's the case, do you think you could find a way to vent your frustration without bashing the rest of us? Alternately, please feel free to help yourself to a nice steaming cup of STFU.

*Yeah, I know I need to cull a lot of my online discussion time.

**In public, at least. Say whatever you want in private. Curse us all, if it helps you maintain your sanity. But get it out of your system, and move on.

***Whether or not the last book was any good doesn't matter. You should always try to make the next one better.

ETA: It's been pointed out that this sentence originally conflated rejections where the query letter is returned with rejections of the actual manuscript, which are two different things. My bad. I rephrased the sentence to clarify. Heck, when I stopped to think about it, Goblin Quest had well over 30 rejections, most of which were at the query letter stage...



( 79 comments — Leave a comment )
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Feb. 1st, 2008 04:27 pm (UTC)
Feb. 1st, 2008 04:53 pm (UTC)
(applauds too)
Feb. 1st, 2008 04:27 pm (UTC)
Responses #1 and #4 almost made me shoot coffee out my nose.

Worth it...
Feb. 1st, 2008 04:32 pm (UTC)
Only almost? Hold on, let me do a rewrite...
(no subject) - reudaly - Feb. 1st, 2008 05:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 1st, 2008 04:28 pm (UTC)
*stands, starts 80s John Hughes teen movie slow clap*
Feb. 1st, 2008 04:34 pm (UTC)
*Goggles at Anton doing a John Hughes big*
(no subject) - rhonawestbrook - Feb. 1st, 2008 04:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 1st, 2008 04:29 pm (UTC)

I don't think I've ever seen you in a "bite me" mood before.

But what you said? Yeah. For every actual unrecognized genius, there are a thousand people making excuses for the shortcomings of their books. People want instant success, not a long hard slog.

And yes, it might be good for your blood pressure if you stayed away from those kinds of discussions.
Feb. 1st, 2008 04:57 pm (UTC)
Yeah, it's been a bad week.

(Deleted the rest of my previous comment. Didn't recognize the icon, and my brain was thinking of someone else. I shall be over here feeling stupid if anyone needs me.)
(no subject) - swan_tower - Feb. 1st, 2008 05:11 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Feb. 1st, 2008 05:14 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - swan_tower - Feb. 1st, 2008 05:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 1st, 2008 04:31 pm (UTC)
HAAAAAAAAAAAA. You're awesome. For future reference, there is also an abundance of differnt possible two-word answers to irrefutably defeat this particular sad-sack argument, and here are just a few choice options:
1. William Trevor
2. Sherman Alexie
3. Marisha Pessl (debut author!)
4. Patrick Rothfuss (debut FANTASY author!)

etc. You can usually follow up any one of these possibilities with a snappy, "I rest my case."
Feb. 1st, 2008 04:33 pm (UTC)
I listed a number of debut SF/F folks at the end of the entry I did on self-publishing myths a while back. Good to have a few from outside of my genre, though :-)

(no subject) - tinkrbellicoptr - Feb. 1st, 2008 04:38 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 1st, 2008 04:35 pm (UTC)
Brilliant! This made my day. Thanks, Jim.
Feb. 1st, 2008 04:36 pm (UTC)
Here here. If half the people ranting would learn to "Show don't tell" and clean out the passive omniscient POV they'd have 100% better chance of publishing.

A great story isn't enough anymore.
Feb. 1st, 2008 04:39 pm (UTC)
Nice post. Sometimes idiots need to be called on their idiocy, which you seem to have done.
Feb. 1st, 2008 04:43 pm (UTC)
Exactly what you said, a thousand times yes. It's so unbelievably frustrating to hear this kind of thing.
Feb. 1st, 2008 04:54 pm (UTC)
Sing it, brother!

(memo to self: use the phrase "bite me" in my next rant)
Feb. 1st, 2008 05:05 pm (UTC)
It's a useful little phrase :-) Evocative without being too crass.
(no subject) - beth_bernobich - Feb. 1st, 2008 05:14 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 1st, 2008 04:56 pm (UTC)
Feb. 1st, 2008 04:58 pm (UTC)
You're not the only one. It's hard to have sympathy when someone does the wrist to the forehead "Oh, everything published is SUCH crap, I just have to throw it against the wall, and I'm so brilliant they dare not publish ME!" routine.

Especially when, um, the brilliance is only perceived by a very, very few.
Feb. 1st, 2008 05:05 pm (UTC)
"Especially when, um, the brilliance is only perceived by a very, very few."

Nicely phrased, as always :-)
(Deleted comment)
Feb. 1st, 2008 05:04 pm (UTC)
Thank you. I was wondering if anyone would comment on the goblin boot line :-)
Feb. 1st, 2008 05:03 pm (UTC)
Yep, it's hard for everyone, including the publishers. Twice now I've persuaded a publisher (Five Star) to buy a book of mine. Now they (we) have to persuade actual readers to buy!
Feb. 1st, 2008 06:28 pm (UTC)
Tell me about it. Five Star is nice in a lot of ways, but distribution to the everyday reader is not their strength...
(no subject) - bookuniverse - Feb. 2nd, 2008 07:03 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Feb. 2nd, 2008 02:41 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 1st, 2008 05:09 pm (UTC)
Good for You
For those who seek publication - you are EXACTLY right - writing is a business - not an ego trip. You want your ego stroked - publish yourself!!! (a metaphor) - you produce a product, and we all know that not everyone wants the new, improved produce.

Good you you, Mr. Hines - sometimes the ego writers need a good bite!
Feb. 1st, 2008 06:30 pm (UTC)
Re: Good for You
You know, I don't even care if you're only writing for the ego, if that's what you want to do. Some people just want their name on a cover, and if that makes you happy, then that's great! Head over to Lulu and go for it!

It's the bitter, backhanded smacking of the rest of us that pisses me off.
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( 79 comments — Leave a comment )


Jim C. Hines


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