Sunday, June 25, 2023

Queries and Colorless Flowers

It's been a little more than a month since the launch of my debut novel, and I've had some time to reflect. Generally, I feel like I don't know what I'm doing, and just trying, every day, to do a little something with the tools I have to promote this book, to get it in front of readers and get them to share it with others, via reviews or social media or recommendation.

And it's a lot, frankly.

But as overwhelming as it's been, I know that I have good people at my publisher, Indigo River Publishing, ready to help as much as they can, and I also know that I'm learning a lot about the industry. One thing I'm learning is not to listen to certain people.

For instance, one saying that really scared me from the very start was "Never pay to get published." I just read a whole Reddit thread on that subject. It was mainly about hybrid publishing, which was my path to getting published, and the reason I was reading the thread. Overall, the responders really seemed to think they had ended the conversation with that old mantra - "Never pay to get published." 

And I know, I'm still a novice in the publishing industry, still learning a lot every day. After publishing Thy Father's Glass (available now!), I decided to try to get an agent for my next novel, aim for the majors.

So I wrote a query letter, a bad one, then hired an editor and former agent to help make it a good one. I hit the query trenches, which I learned is a very apt metaphor for that aspect of the writer's journey. I say that because querying really does feel like a defensive position, like being inundated with wave after wave of rejection, looking for brief opportunities to shoot your shot before hunkering down in the trench again, next to your comrades in arms. 

Another way to describe querying is that it's like a poem titled "La Flor del Aire" by Gabriela Mistral. In the poem, the speaker encounters a mysterious woman of the meadow. The woman tells the speaker to climb the mountain and bring her white flowers, which the speaker does. Upon giving the woman the white flowers, she turns white, just like they are. Unsatisfied, however, the woman sends the speaker after red flowers, then yellow flowers, each time taking them and changing color, and each time remaining unsatisfied, until she makes one final, impossible demand, "cortarĂ¡s las sin color," cut the ones with no color. And somehow, incredibly, the speaker does it! She cuts flowers from the air, creating them as she collects them, to satisfy this demanding, enigmatic woman of the meadow.

There are two reasons this poem reminds me of querying. The first is that I'm pretty sure I don't fully understand either one. The second is that querying makes me feel like the speaker in the poem, constantly catering to a demanding audience, all the while wondering if they really know what they want, or if what they want is even possible.

So, I followed all the rules and stipulations about query letters and cover letters and ten, twenty, or fifty page samples - also sometimes five, for some reason. I sent out a lot of queries, an even hundred over the course of three months, and now, I'm just watching the rejections, with some smattering of interest, roll in. At the same time, I'm getting an education in different paths to publication. And, while I admit that I'm still green here, all of this experience has taught me at least one thing.

If you want to get published, you are going to have to pay someone.

The old saying, "never pay to get published," is misleading, and downright impossible. There is no question, if you get published, you will be paying someone. The real question is who you'll be paying, how much, what for, and for how long.

For instance, you could self-publish. Some writers have been very successful this way, and some have simply put a bad book in print so they can add that "accomplishment" to their resume. But assuming you really have a great novel you want to self-publish, and I know of many, you will have to pay a lot of people to make that happen. You'll pay editors to polish the manuscript, graphic artists to design the covers and pages, printers to actually bring the book out of the ether into the physical realm. You'll pay for marketing and promotion and everything that a traditionally published author would expect their publisher to cover. Did you know it costs money just to get an ISBN number? It's a lot of work and expense, and I respect anyone who has the patience and the faith in their work to go this route.

At the other end of the publishing spectrum, you have the big five. Or is it four now? Things change so quickly. If you are one of the chosen few who actually leap out of the query trenches, charge the cannons, and get an agent to represent you, that agent will shop your work around to a very small group of editors and aqcuistions departments at a shrinking number of major publishers. If they are good at their jobs, and the market is starving for the genre of novels you write, and your word count isn't too high or too low and your inciting incident is in the first ten pages and the stars align in your favor, then you have a chance at getting an advance from the publisher and a contract. Unlike a self-published author, who would generally get all of the profits from sales, you'll get royalties to the tune of five to ten percent. 

And out of the meager share of the profits from the book you wrote with your own brain, you'll pay your agent ten to fifteen percent for their (genuinely crucial and difficult) job of selling your book to pubishers and possibly managing your career. While that sounds like a scam, consider that while the publisher is taking the lion's share of the profits, they are also paying for all those pesky bills that pop up when a book makes its way to readers - editing, design, marketing, distribution, among others. It's a long shot, but it's generally what we think of when we imagine the life of a career writer. 

But don't be fooled. You are paying to get published. You pay your agent, in perpetuity, for selling your book, and very often, they really don't have to do much else after the publishing contract is signed. Some do, some don't.

Somewhere on the road from self-publishing to traditional publishing with an agent's help is hybrid publishing. This is where the idea of paying for publication gets tricky. Hybrid publishers, and there are good ones and bad ones, like to say that they partner with authors. What that means is that when the publishing contract is signed, the author puts up some money, generally nowhere near enough to actually publish a book, but enough to take some of the initial burden off the publisher. Essentially, you are publishing with a smaller press, definitely not one of the big five, or four, with fewer resources. You shouldn't have to pay for everything, just one negotiable sum at the beginning, and in return, you generally get far more control over your work, and much higher royalties.

As an example of the difference between royalties in hybrid and big five publishing, let's just say that you're concerned that a smaller, possibly hybrid, publisher could never market as effectively as one of the majors. You'd be absolutely right, but here's the thing. That agented author, who gets about five percent royalties, has to sell ten times the number of books that I do to make the same money. 

And I don't have to share mine with an agent.

So, in response to someone who says "never pay to get published," I would say that everyone pays to get published. Every path to publication costs the author money at some level. Not everyone is going to get picked up by one of the majors. There just aren't enough positions in that league, and their algorithm for choosing books may actually exclude some of the best novels people are writing today. I'm still waiting patiently for all of my queries to get rejected or just wither on the vine of no response, but in the meantime, I'm watching the sales of my debut novel through my hybrid publisher.

And I'll admit, I had concerns about getting scammed. But the one thing that put my mind at ease about the legitimacy of my publisher, even when it drove me crazy, was the sheer number of times they had me edit that novel before they set a release date. It was nerve-wracking to get the criticism, but it not only made me a better writer overall, by a factor of about a thousand, it also assured me that they were a serious publisher. Every time my editor said, "It's not quite ready," I knew they were trying to put the best possible book on the shelf. If they hadn't cared about quality, then I would have been suspicious.

And hybrid publishing, done right, is traditional publishing. My novel is distributed by Simon & Schuster. Small press does not automatically mean vanity press. And while perhaps more of the marketing tasks are falling on me, the publisher is still promoting the novel as well. And anyway, I'm hearing a lot of writers - agented and big five/four contracted - complaining that the publisher is pushing a lot of the marketing on them as well.

So if a writer is skittish about hybrid publishing, I get it. There are scammy presses out there, just like there are scammy agents and scammy editors. We writers make vulnerable targets, quivering in our trenches and praying that someone, anyone, would rescue us from the front lines. If I had one piece of advice for anyone looking to follow this path, from an admitted novice, it would be to ask questions about deal-breakers. In other words, ask questions that point towards what you'd have to do to get this publisher to drop you. Ask what would happen if you refused to make edits, or failed to meet a deadline. What is their acceptance rate? Kind of like the dating world (which is a trench I'm so glad to be out of), if there's nothing you can do to get the other person to lose interest, it's a scam.

Just don't ask me how I know this.