The Great Big Hairy World I refer to is that of Publishing in all its wondrous forms and varieties. I have some friends in my writing group who have completed their first novels, and have begun the self-flagellation of seeking agents and publishers. I feel so sorry for them, I can't even express it! Now, let me hasten to add that these are friends of mine. Friends. I root for them privately and publicly, and would like nothing better than to see them succeed, but I know what they're up against, for I too sought a traditional publishing contract.
Back in the 1990s, I brought my first completed novel to fruition, and began to cast about for someone to publish and/or represent it. The internet may have been around at the time, but it was in its infancy, and we didn't have it. You found publishers by buying a book, published annually, that listed every agent and publisher who chose to contribute in a three-inch thick tome that gave a mailing address, the name of the contact, and a little blurb about how they wanted their submissions done. You pored through this thing page-by-page until you found a promising listing, prepared the first three chapters (almost always what they asked for), a well-structured cover letter to the individual listed in the book, and of course the infamous Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope for them to return your rejection slip in.
And make no mistake, rejections were going to accrue. You see, writing fiction is one of those things, like being a disc-jockey or managing a baseball team, that everybody on God's Green Earth thinks that they can do. Consequently, each morning, a dump truck backs up to every agent's and acquisition editor's mail box, and drops off 10,000 unsolicited manuscripts from hopeful young Stephen Kings and J.K. Rowlings. There are going to be rejections, and you have to pay to get them back, because these agents and publishers would operate at a net loss if they had to provide postage for all the rejections they send out. I myself collected enough to wallpaper a small bedroom during the five years that I was seeking tradition publication for the five novels I completed during that period. Had I thought to buy frames for them, it would have driven me into bankruptcy. That's why when a friend is down in the dumps about receiving his third rejection, I try to cheer him or her up and help them feel better, but what I really want to say is, "Dude, call me when you get to 100. I'll schedule the ceremony to inaugurate you into the Centurions' Club!"
I have received a rejection on my birthday. I received one that was mailed on my birthday. I once sent a three-chapter submission to a publisher in New York (I'm in San Diego), and received the rejection slip four days later! Kudos to the Postal Service for getting it there that quickly, but seriously, the receptionist had to have stopped the mail carrier, taken out my self-addressed envelope, put the rejection slip in it, and handed it back to him. One agency, obviously full of themselves for placing their first book, returned in my envelope an ad for that book, along with a letter suggesting, I swear, that I purchase that book, because it would show me "the way how" plot and dialogue are supposed to be constructed. I swear! This was shortly before I gave up on traditional publishing; enough is enough!
So this is what you're up against, friends. I sincerely hope the next place you approach buys your book and turns you into the next Stephen King, but I don't recommend that you hold your breath while you're waiting.
I stopped wasting time on these guys a long time ago, well before I became aware of self-publishing, so I've been out of touch with the industry for a good many years. But I heard recently in an interview that the new model for publishers is that they throw out their new releases every so often (it varies by publisher). Whatever gains a little traction is what they support, and the rest of it goes by the wayside. If that's true, and you do get a publishing contract, you'd better have the dough to do some high-intensity PR work, because the books that do are the ones that are going to take off. If yours isn't one of them, now you're in worse shape than you were before, because now you have a failure on your resume, instead of simply being unpublished. It sounds like the traditional publishing industry has become more similar to indie publishing in that they'll give you the big contract as soon as your book "proves" itself without them investing a dime in its promotion. I have to say, publishing is the only industry I can think of where everyone burns the midnight oil to figure out ways to drive those that provide their income deeper and deeper into poverty. It's reminiscent of professional sports in the 1970s when the athletes that made it all happen were being paid no more than an assembly line worker while the fatcats were raking in billions and trading them like cattle. Players' Associations and some really damaging strikes put an end to that. Of course, that's a model we can't use, because if a decent writer says he's not going to write anymore, the next guy down the tier will see that as an opportunity, and step in to fill the gap. Something needs to be done, but that's a subject for another post.
And that brings us up to independent publishing through providers like my own publisher, CreateSpace. Now we come to the other side of the pendulum in which anyone with an internet connection can sit down and write anything he or she wants, of any quality on any subject, click the mouse, and presto, they have a book for sale on Amazon. This is what I did, and most of the authors I know. The downsides? First, your book just sits there in a catalogue of at least ten million books. I know. I have seen books rated lower than 10,000,000th on the best-seller list. There is no support other than what you give it, so the internet is awash with everything from author blogs to Facebook pages, all aimed at getting people to notice your book. Second, and of much more importance to readers and writers alike, over 90% of self-published books are unreadable crap, so the chances are that when a reader decides to lay down his hard-earned cash to try an indie, what he receives for his money is a disjointed mash-up of incomplete plot tangents and incompatible genres that put him off indies for the rest of time, and that's another thing that needs to be addressed, although I'm far from the genius it's going to take to figure out how.
Finally, this is why you won't hear me badmouthing Amazon. Yes, they're a big monolithic corporation that bullies their competitors and providers alike, yes, they make unilateral decisions that hurt me as an author, but if it weren't for their subsidiary, CreateSpace, my voice would never have been heard. And while it's true that it hasn't been heard by many, its quality has proven itself with the few who have heard it, and for that I will forever be grateful to the Big Bad Bully of the 'net. Once again, I wish those friends seeking traditional publishing the best of luck. People break out and succeed in the industry every day, and there's no reason it shouldn't happen to you. Just don't invest so much in it that it will rip your heart out if it doesn't happen. And if it doesn't, independent publishing waits to welcome you. It might not be all you hoped for, but it beats nothing, and there are indies who have broken out as well. If nothing else, the dream lives on.
In news of one of my other hobbies, tabletop gaming with family and close friends, I got a nice surprise in the mail yesterday: Lovely Daughter had ordered me (us, really) a copy of Lords of Waterdeep, a splendid game of intrigue and cutthroatiness in the infamous city of the same name, and it arrived yesterday. Readers and players of Dungeons & Dragons will know whereof I speak. It's gonna be awesome!
Footnote: The title is a line from the 1963 movie PT-109, about President Kennedy's war service. After the boat had been run over and cut in two by a Japanese destroyer, the forecastle is spotted by searchers, but the crew has long-since abandoned it. Someone asks Commander Ritchie, admirably played by James Gregory, whether they should take the risk of recovering it.
"Hell no," he replies during the heated discussion that ensues. "I don't want the deck back, I want the men who were on that deck, and that's the only thing that matters in this great big hairy world."
I've always loved that line, and am glad I've finally gotten the chance to use it.