Jeanne: Bloody, but Unbowed


On Sunday, Justine posted about her decision to publish independently.  One of the factors, she said, was watching me win the 2015 Golden Heart® for Paranormal Romance, only to fall short on getting a publishing contract.

Just for the record, I have to confess that I sent out a grand total of 12 queries. That included two requests for full manuscripts that I received via contests I entered in preparation for entering the Golden Heart®. From conversations with other GH finalists, I gather 12 queries constitutes a pretty lame effort. One of the 2015 group told me she made over 400 queries and/or pitches before she secured a contract.

Four. Hundred. Attempts.

By that standard, I gave up without a struggle.

I have to tell you, though–I found the querying process soul-destroying. The crazy hope when someone likes your work enough to request to see it, followed by dwindling confidence as months and months tick by in silence. Once, after a year, I got a note from an editor saying she was cleaning up her files and “thanks, but no thanks.” No explanation of why she decided against it, or why it took her a year to reach that conclusion. One agent said she really liked my voice and found the premise of the story intriguing, send her the full. A year later I followed up. It’s now been two years and I’ve never received a response.

After working in business for many years, I found the level of rudeness in the traditional publishing industry appalling.

As all this was happening (or, more accurately, wasn’t happening) I observed the publishing industry essentially implode. It became clear that publishers had no idea how to deal with a paradigm shift on the scale they were seeing. I watched as they tried stupid stuff–getting into wars with Amazon, doubling-down on pricing strategies that make no sense (e.g. pricing ebooks as high or higher than paperbacks; pricing ebooks for debut authors higher than titles for superstar authors). Several times I’ve seen statements from major traditional publishing figures suggesting that ebooks were a fad that are now on their way out.

Haven’t any of these people seen Singing in the Rain?

There was one (sort of) bright spot. One agent requested a full from a chapter contest. I sent it, she read it, and a week later she sent me a very nicely worded rejection, saying the book lacked sexual tension.

I knew that. What I didn’t know was how to fix it. After putzing around with it for a while, knowing it still wasn’t right, I bit the bullet and paid a substantial amount to a freelance editor to help me understand how to address that problem.

And then I read the statistic that was the coup de grace. Once I signed a contract, my publisher would keep approximately 90% of the revenue from my work. Out of my 10%, I would pay my agent, if I had one. If I was smart, I would plow every remaining penny back into marketing my book.

In law, there’s a term for contracts formed between two parties with vastly different levels of power: contracts of adhesion. It was increasingly clear that if I signed with a traditional publishing house, I would be signing a contract of adhesion, giving up nearly all rights to my work in return for whatever crumbs they chose to toss my way.

So I was faced with a choice: I could try sending out my new-and-improved manuscript, hoping for a nod from an industry that had given up nodding at debut authors, or I could take the project management skills I honed during my working years and build a plan to publish my own book.

When I was a kid, my mother used to quote the poem, “Invictus,” by William Ernest Henley to me and my sisters.

“I am the master of my fate,” she would declaim, “I am the captain of my soul.”

No one other than a handful of friends may ever read my books. I don’t have any control over that. But it feels like, with this approach, I’m at least the master of my own fate.


14 thoughts on “Jeanne: Bloody, but Unbowed

  1. Thanks for sharing your decision-making process, Jeanne. Everything you said resonates with me. Like you, I only sent out a handful of queries (maybe a couple of dozen over two or three years), because I didn’t want to get any agent, I wanted one who I thought would be a good fit for me and my stories. That was probably naive, but it’s the approach I was accustomed to after 30 years in business.

    I don’t regret the time I spent researching traditional publishing, but I’m also now firmly on the indie train. I might post about my reasons on Sunday, to offer another perspective alongside your post today and Justine’s from last Sunday.

    PS It may take time, but I am confident that your books will gain a considerably larger readership than just a handful of friends 😉

  2. I went through a similar process before deciding to go indie. I haven’t made much money—I think I earned something like $.60 yesterday—but I have managed to get my book in the hands of thousands of readers, so mission accomplished?

    Support for Indie Authors in Goodreads is a good resource for things like editing, promoting, etc. on your own.

  3. Getting my books into the hands of thousands would be mission accomplished for me. Making money would be nice, but what I really want is to be read. (Which is probably another way I’m a bad fit for traditional publishing.)

    Thanks for the tip! I’ll check it out.

  4. Traditional publishing does a lot of good things. They do act as gatekeepers, which can be helpful for readers. There is the fear that wading through indie lists is going to be like wading through slush piles of unsolicited materials, and readers will fall back on old, reviewed, tried-and-true free materials that are in the public domain.

    But traditional publishing can’t handle the onslaught of trash and tripe. I think Sturgeon’s Law is in effect: 90 percent of everything is garbage. But these days, 90 percent is a lot bigger than it was back when Sturgeon was around, because computers and emails and the internet make writing a novel and then finding a publisher’s address a whole lot easier. Trad-Pub slush piles have to be huge and full of muck, as well as full of gems.

    So, self-publishing blossoms. I think we’re going to see reviewing boards that help readers sort through all the offerings, and we may even see a new sort of publisher made up of a cooperative of independent publishers who work together to provide press and support.

    (-: Heck, we at Eight Ladies are sort of-kind of one of those new collaborations. We look at each others’ works, we encourage each other, and we combine our forces when asked to help promote a book. We’re a very small force for good, but I think there’s no denying that we are a force for good.

    • I’m less convinced than you are that they excel at the gatekeeper role. The unfortunate corollary to that task appears to be filtering out originality and diversity.

      (But I totally love the discussion we have going here!)

      • Oh, I am definitely not saying traditional publishing is perfect. But . . . Baen did an interesting experiment when they had a magazine (I think it was “Baen’s Universe”, now defunct, I believe). They had an open slush pile, where anyone could submit, and anyone could comment, leave advice, etc. etc. That was quite an eye-opener! They’d get lots of submissions daily, and some of those submissions were just horrible. Plotters without writing skills, writers without plotting skills — those were the middle of the road submissions. At the top, they had some amazing stories that just weren’t quite right for Baen’s Universe. And at the pinnacle, they had maybe four or five stories that were perfect for Baen’s, but there was only space for one or two of them per issue.

        I read erotica on a website that is basically a slush pile; anyone can submit stories. You see some of the same dynamics play out, except the best aren’t competing for a limited slot — readers have as many stars as they like to give out, so it’s not zero-sum. Of course, I don’t think anyone is getting paid for this. But someone with odd tastes can find non-top-rated stories that, um, hit the right buttons. (I’ll add, after going through several stories that the individual reader rejects for various reasons — some abandoned after a disastrous opening paragraph, some read all the way through, and the reader is just grumpy afterward. TMI: it can take hours to reach orgasm at this rate. Or one might get lucky on the first story one clicks.)

        So, yeah, I do appreciate the role that traditional publishers play in reading ALL the stuff, funneling some good stuff through, and labeling things properly. They aren’t always successful, but I don’t have to do it.

        (-: Of course, the best situation is to gather a group of like-minded friends, and write stories for each other.

  5. I’d just like to speak up for editors who don’t write rejections. They don’t write them because they’re rude, they don’t write them because they don’t have time. When I was a computer magazine editor, I used to get 200 submissions a month, from which I could accept three (or fewer, if we’d commissioned anything). If I wrote a 10-minute reply to each author telling him why I couldn’t use the article, in a 20-day work month, I’d be rejecting 10 articles a day, taking me almost two hours. It’s common for editors and agents to get more than 5,000 submissions a year, of which (statistics vary, but…) they accept fewer than 1%. That’s a half-time job, rejecting all that stuff.

    In fact, I did write an email to every submitter, but it was a form letter saying that “we couldn’t use the article at this time.” It’s just the best you can do and still keep the publication running.

    • Form rejections are fine, and in this hi-tech age should be do-able at the press of a button, as soon as the editor or agent decides it’s a no. Some really popular agents, like Kristin Nelson, do this (or used to, it’s been a while since I queried anyone), so it must be feasible. Janet Reid puts a date on her website saying ‘queries current up to…’ and saying if you queried before that date and haven’t had a response, to check the guidelines and re-query. That works, too.

      I think it’s different if an agent or editor requests a full, maybe asks for outlines for the rest of the series, maybe sends enthusiastic follow-up emails, and then when he/she decides to pass, never sends even a form rejection or replies to follow-up nudges. Given that radio silence for months can be business as usual, it’s hard to know whether one’s query is still alive or long discarded. I think that’s what Jeanne described above. Happened to me, too, a couple of times, before I decided life was too short.

    • I was fine with form rejections, especially to unrequested submissions, and with automatic “if you don’t hear within x days/weeks/months, consider it a rejection.” What I had an issue with was, “This sounds great, send it,” and then crickets.

      Just before I retired, I noticed a trend in the business world of simply ignoring any requests you couldn’t fulfill. I continued to call or email people to let them know I couldn’t help them. That way, they knew to move on.

  6. I could be way off base, but I think you ladies are in a zone where the agents/editors want to keep their options open. “Gosh, this is good. Maybe I can fit it in . . . maybe not. I’ll hold it in reserve.” And then who knows what happens.

    Have you ever dated one of those guys who never really ended it with any of his former girlfriends? They were all “friends”, just in case he changed his mind and needed a girlfriend again? That’s the kind of zone I’m talking about.

    (-: It’s a better zone in some ways than outright rejection, but it’s still a mindfuck.

    • It helps knowing there are other writers, like you, in there fighting the same fight! We will get there, because we won’t give up until we do.

  7. Pingback: Jilly: Taking the Long View – Eight Ladies Writing

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