Let me know when you get fed up with these misleading or obscure titles. Why am I talking about gambling? I think it’s a card-game reference, looking at the dealer’s hand to see what they’re holding. Anyway, let’s get down to business. This is a post about publishing novels (feel free to substitute for poetry, short story collection, memoirs from your days as a unicorn hunter, etc.).
What are we talking about?
Writing is an activity where you put words on a page. Simple.
Creative writing is the process of making up a story and putting it on a page, using words. Understandable.
Publishing is a multi-headed beast that occasionally takes the finished product of the above and sells it to readers. Complicated.
Who’s in charge here?
This might be the most important question to ask. Who’s in charge: the writer or the publisher? There’s a very clear answer to this question from the perspective of an unpublished writer. The publisher holds all the cards.
So we know the deck is stacked against us. It always has been. What’s important to find out is by how much? Just how impossible is this task we’ve set ourselves?
I’ve had a glimpse at the dealer’s hand.
I’m fortunate enough to know someone who knows someone who knows about such things. I’ve had a brief peek inside the mind of a publisher. So how does it work?
We all know that the publisher receives a mountain of manuscripts each month. With that in mind, we can accurately assess our chances of our work being picked up. It’s mathematics and statistics. You know the standard format of a rejection letter “Due to the high volume of submissions etc. etc. etc.” It’s a needle-haystack situation.
That’s the basic rules of the game, but it gets worse.
You’re aiming for the top 1%, but those odds are just the beginning. The publisher (or agent) is building a list of books they’re going to try to sell. Think about this, everyone involved in the process is a gambler. You’re gambling on your book’s quality, the publisher is gambling on its success. A good gambler minimises their losses by spreading their bets. They’re not going to pick up four historical crime novels in the same month, they’ll pick one from each genre.
“Yeah, but my flintlock fantasy novel is better than that guy’s historical romance novel.”
That doesn’t seem to matter. The publisher has someone who reads things for them. Once the reader is done reading this month’s submissions, they don’t say “These ones all look promising, pick your favourites.” That’s the exact opposite of what appears to happen.
A conversation between publisher and reader.
Publisher: “I want one historical romance, one crime and one cookery book for my list. Hit me!”
Reader: “But what about this excellent alien – zombie – Elizabethan drama novel? It’s better than all of those.”
Publisher: “Sorry, I’ve already got a period drama sci-fi novel.”
Reader: “It’s the best thing I ever read.”
Publisher: “Quota full. No dice.”
What are the odds?
You’re playing blind. It’s like sitting down at a card table with a pair of kings and not knowing whether the dealer is playing poker or blackjack. If their list has nothing in your genre, you’re back to the 1% chance of success. If they already filled their quota for flintlock fantasy, you start at 0% and stay there.
What can you do about it?
This is only going to change for the worse in mainstream publishing. Digital self-publishing is a growing trend (Kindle Direct Publishing, Wattpad, fanfiction forums, etc.). Publishers are less keen to risk money on unproven authors when another unpublished writer already has 10,000 followers on Twitter. But you should still try to go the mainstream route because that’s probably your goal. 1% isn’t the same as having no chance at all.
There are other things you can do while you’re shooting for 1% though. I recently said you should just write stories and publish them, without worrying about quality (Tip #13: Write A Bad Story). In that post I talked a lot about the literary tradition, but there’s another aspect to it.
It’s about going on the offensive. If the deck is stacked against you, it’s time to start counting cards. Publish blogs, ebooks, tweets and whatever else to get yourself noticed. Maybe if you have enough Twitterers you’ll raise your chances to 25%. Get an army of loyal readers on Kindle and it could be 50%. Anything is better than the 1% – 0% scenario.
Self-publishing is a good way to get yourself noticed. And in my opinion, it doesn’t need to be taken as seriously as sending a manuscript to Mr Penguin Publishing. So what if it sucks? At least it’s out there and has your name on it (if it really sucks, consider publishing under an assumed name).
P.S. I am a terrible Twitterer. In fact, I was doing it so wrong that my account was blocked for excessive levels of spam. Do you know how I can not become a social media exile? Do you have any Twittering tips to share?