1/20/2017

Getting Published is Hard

I got off to a somewhat atypical start in this writing business. My first collection of short stories was picked up by an independent publisher which then folded almost immediately. So in a sense, I'm a traditionally published author, but as the book is now out of print, I don't have much to show for it.

Luckily, I'm difficult to discourage. I've soldiered on, making a few measured forays into the self-publishing world, and having some moderate success. But because I'm not satisfied with anything less than the undying adoration of all of humanity, I've been trying to shop my stories around the world of traditional publishing. And so far, I have a 100% failure rate.

The traditional path for a fiction writer frequently involves writing short stories at first. It's a great way to cut your teeth as an author, and getting published is quicker than it is with novels, especially in the digital age. Writers submit short stories to print or online magazines, who then put those stories in front of their readership. Some magazines pay professional per-word rates, some pay semi-pro rates, some pay a nominal acceptance sum, and others don't pay at all.

Each genre has its big names. For Sci-fi, it's Asimov's Science Fiction, Analog Magazine, and several others. For Literary Fiction, The New Yorker is huge, as well as Glimmer Train, and dozens of others. But to get into those magazines, you have to be a) very lucky, b) a genius, or c) have experience publishing in smaller magazines.

These days, most publications are a mixture of print and online content. Some publish more online than they do in print, since it's cheaper. Web-only publications generally offer lower rates, and many offer nothing at all--and still turn hundreds of authors away. Given the proliferation of markets, and the difficulty of getting published, one might think the best strategy is to put one's stories out to as many publications as possible.

The problem with shopping stuff to multiple outlets is that the vast majority do not take simultaneous submissions, meaning if you submit something to one place, you can't submit it anywhere else until you get an acceptance or rejection letter. From an author's standpoint, that blows bigtime, because response rates run as long as six months. But from an editor's standpoint, I get it. I'd hate to write an author to accept their piece, only to find out it's already been accepted somewhere else, and I've wasted my time. If an author did that to me, I'd probably never read anything of theirs ever again. And that is, in fact, how it plays out. From what I'm told. So it's a long, arduous process. A lot of authors ignore the simultaneous subs rule, but at the risk of burning bridges. I try to be more patient and cautious.

As frustrating and outdated as this system sounds, I'm a big believer in it. Because the world needs gatekeepers. I mean, just look at all the garbage that gets self-published on Amazon. Trying to rise out of that scrap heap is like trying to weave a rope out of sand. Money helps, but unfortunately most authors don't have money to throw at an advertising budget.

Online-only publications have gate keepers that are as tough as any. Those editors reject the majority of the material they see, but since most of the magazines don't pay, getting published in one doesn't really earn you much respect as an author. Unless someone is willing to shell out hard cash for your writing, you're in the bottom 99%. If you want to be in the top 1% (actually, fiction writers who earn any money from their work probably make up less than that), your writing and self-marketing skills have to be good enough to get someone to pay you to write down junk from your imagination. As much as people love to read, there just isn't that big of a demand for authors in this world. We could probably get by with, what, fifty at any given time?

Networking is, of course, massively important. Once you get accepted to a particular publication, you form a relationship with that editor. The door to that publication typically remains open to you, and other doors open as well. If you're savvy, this is the time when self-promotion really matters. But until that point, passing muster with an editor is far more important than self-marketing.

There are other ways to get a break, but this is by far the most common path, and you can't count on being the exception. For my novel, I plan to seek representation from a literary agent, but agents get as many query letters as editors, and if you're the agent, you're gonna go for the author that has a solid resume in publishing, nine times out of ten. So aspiring authors are always on the lookout for ways to distinguish themselves, and one of the most popular is by blogging. Heck, that's part of why this blog exists.

Blogs are great. Social media makes it pretty easy to get noticed, and if nothing else, a blog keeps you writing. But the thing is, you generally won't see writers sharing fiction on a blog. You see them doing what I'm doing right now: writing nonfiction about the art of fiction. Which is good. It's a great way to stay immersed in the craft, and you'll wind up teaching yourself a lot. But at the end of the day, you're not really displaying your skills as a fiction writer. So why not just post your stories on a blog? Well...

The problem with posting fiction on a blog is that people read fiction and nonfiction differently. Blogs, news, Medium articles, and Buzzfeed posts can be read a few words at a time, on a commute, or even while doing something else. Heck I can carry on a conversation while reading and still get what I want from the average blog article.

Fiction is meant to be immersive, and it's difficult to enjoy and appreciate it without giving it your undivided attention. If I'm, say, in the bathroom for a while, I will typically read Reddit, or something like that--something I can take in small doses. If I don't finish a given article, I don't really care. I read fiction too, but chances are I'd never start a short story, even if I had time. I don't usually settle in to read fiction unless I know I've got time to really get into it. I have to be able to allow the possibility that it will suck me in and keep me glued to the spot for hours. If there's a chance I won't have time to read to a stopping point, I won't start. And that's pretty typical, from what I see. Fiction is probably the toughest sell when it comes to how people shell out their attention.

Therefore, the media that work for nonfiction don't work as well for fiction. I'm not saying it can't be done, but again, you can't count on being the exception. Fiction readers prefer fiction packaged in books and ebooks, just like they prefer music packaged in albums and streaming services. Putting fiction in a magazine is like getting a song on the radio. Putting fiction on your blog is about like broadcasting your song on a CB radio. It's going to have a lot harder time making an impact.

Editors like to see a history of effort, so self-publishing and blogging are great things to have on your resume, and if you can find some backdoor to build an audience (like publishing fiction on Medium), that's great. But it's about like having volunteer work on a traditional resume. All it really shows is that you're a go-getter. It doesn't necessarily prove you can do the job.

It's a tough path I've chosen, but it's the only thing I'm any good at, so here I am. No regrets.