It’s no secret; I’m no fan of some of traditional publishing’s practices that include doting (mostly) on authors making lots of money while offering little to the rest. Yes, I know. It’s a business but writing is an art form first and like most artists, we don’t write for money. We write because we have stories that need to be told by us, the artists, so when we are treated like commodities (or aren’t), our feelings can get hurt.
Since the industry began its down-size years ago, even fewer authors are getting published and of this group, many are not writers. They’re celebrities of some kind or another. Celebrity sells; more reason to have a chip on my shoulder about this industry whose roots are not very deep when you consider that the first publishing house was established in the early 1900’s. Whatever economic forces in the last decade caused traditional publishing to shrink from grand to boutique, the only authors sparred are those already earning out or those who may be new to publishing but not new to the buying public.
I began dabbling in Indie publishing soon after Hugh Howey’s wave crested landing Indie’s most famous (so far) author in traditional publishing. I’m sure that was Mr. Howey’s goal from the get-go and why not? To be published by a house that may have published literary luminaries you grew up worshipping is a quite a feat for any writer to accomplish. Unless you have the added cache of some kind of celebrity status, most writers don’t get through those hallowed doors simply because most writers aren’t good enough at story telling.
My time in Indie has not softened my disappointment in traditional publishing’s lopsided take on who should be published but it has shown me that not every author out here has editorial eyes. Writers with editorial eyes would not let drafts get past them. Writers with editorial eyes would not push the ‘publish’ button just because they can.
In the last year, I’ve worked with two writers who have no intention of pursuing the Indie publishing route. Helping them first editorially and then in other ways, agent introduction, social media strategy suggestions, etc. has boosted my spirits about traditional publishing. Why do these writers both aspire to be traditionally published? ‘Author Credibility’ is why. They are both masters at their craft and masters want that prize.
One client who I have permission to profile here comes from the old guard in journalism. His time goes back to the 1970s when the old way was the only way to get published in newspapers, magazines or books. His name is Tom Huth. He showed up in my workshop at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference in 2013. I’ve got a good ear for story and Tom told a portion of one that made me ask for the opening pages that I submitted to that session’s contest. He earned an honorable mention for a piece that has grown into his memoir, Forty Years Stoned: A Romance. So far, he’s pitched to 100 plus literary agents. He’s pitching to new and old agents alike, leading with the letter we love to hate, the query letter. He (with some help from me) is also rapping on the e-doors of long-time contacts, working all the avenues that lead to traditional publishing.
So far, Tom Huth’s memoir has hooked six agents’ interest; all have asked for the manuscript. A few small small presses have it, too; one has already green-lighted Forty Years Stoned: A Romance.
Of Tom’s rejections? Here’s the sweetest one so far:
Fantastic writing, unique story, powerful message, hilarious encounters with celebs (we loved the Brokaw story) and some great adventures….But very sorry to say that we’ll have to pass. Memoirs are a tough business…To be honest, most don’t deserve to be read by anyone beyond family & friends. Those are easy for us to decline…Yours falls in the unfortunate category of being a deserving memoir but also one that just won’t sell right now. We’re a small agency and can only take on projects that we know will sell. But maybe another agency has a different assessment? We truly hope that our assessment is wrong and that we find your book on the shelves soon.
So my clients’ aspirations inspire me. Historically, only good story tellers get these kind of sweet rejections; critiques that mean something because they are penned by expert eyes. You might disagree with their assessment but these Pros don’t take the time to tell you just ‘how sorry they are’ unless your story merits it. Out of respect, they do this when writers’ works are worthy. Of all the arrows I fling at traditional publishing, that’s not one of them. In my twenty-five plus years of knocking on traditional publishing’s door, I believe most all bow to good storytelling.
As for Indie publishing’s current state, this avenue has been open long enough for newby writers to realize there’s no quick money to be made out here, at least not for most authors. What I see is the ‘cream rising’ in Indie publishing’s future. Good story tellers will attract attention of literary agents now recognizing what they wouldn’t just a few years ago– there’s talent to mined in Indie publishing. Writers worthy of a wide audience can find it in Indie publishing by attracting readers to their works. Hugh Howey did it in 2011. Other writers can, too. That’s what I will say when writers ask for my take on Indie publishing as it enters its growing years.
I will also tell my clients and workshop attendees that traditional publishing is still breathing. Though the opening is constricted more than ever, some of us are squeezing through.
“Looks like good story telling trumps all after all” is what I will say.