Here’s the thing about fiction…

I received a very thoughtful and passionate comment on my Gaining Perspective blog post and I ended up using parts of it in a subsequent post. It was so wonderful, I decided to use another part. So, Vanessa, if you’re reading this, send me your address, and I’ll send you a copy of The Writer’s Essential Tackle Box as my way of thanking you for sharing your thoughts so succinctly.

Vanessa wrote:

From a fiction writer’s perspective, traditional publishers are tough as a nut. Even with a big-name agent representing me a few years ago I couldn’t crack it, with rejection letters saying “not convinced this is a best seller”, “this may not be her break-out novel”, and “too mid-list for me”. I would have gladly settled for midlist.

So here’s the thing about fiction:  it’s vastly impacted. So impacted, that it’s incredibly hard to sell…even for the the big guys. Everyone has been hit in the financial un-funny bone, and taking a chance on an untested novelist is a dicey proposition. Please keep in mind that I’m talking in generalities because many debut authors are published every day.

I adore fiction, and my personal library is overflowing with novels. But I know I can’t sell it in numbers large enough to keep the beagle in designer chewie bones because I feel that I’m too small a publisher to drive a novel to the top. The competition is fierce with fiction, and I can’t compete with the big guys. To do otherwise would be financially irresponsible and achingly reckless to the author. So my expertise remains in nonfiction, where I can compete quite nicely.

Because of financial strains, publishers have to go with the sure thing – or as sure as we get in this business – and that cuts out a LOT of authors who write fiction. The big guys have big overhead and are owned by corporate masters who demand big results. Therefore, they’re looking for a bigger payday – and yes, the midlist author has taken a hit with the big gun publishers.

This is also why genre fiction has hit it big. First off, it’s developed a loyal readership. As it is with most things, writers jump on the bandwagon.

“I can write vampire YA!”
“I can write vampire Romance!”
“I can write Steampunk!”

This goes on until those markets become saturated as well. Publishers can’t afford to be on the back end of a trend – they/we have to be always “fashion forward” with big books.

Vanessa also said:

And here’s the clincher. Because of the difficulty of breaking into the traditional publisher’s world (as described above), I decided the smaller town of e-books might be the way forward. But again, after requesting my entire manuscript, a newly established e-publisher came back recently with his response, and I paraphrase: too literary for e-books which tends to be fast-paced (I’m assuming like the murder mysteries now on his website). He recommended I go only to traditional publishers where my literary style would be more suited! Arghhh! I want what’s left of your beagle’s margarita.

The beagle is more than happy to give you the entire blender. And I don’t agree with their analysis that e-books tend to be “fast-paced.” E-books are simply another publishing format, and there are no parameters that differentiate an e-book from a print book. Silly to suggest otherwise.

But more importantly, your comment brings up a vital consideration: Consider the reasons for rejection – especially if you’ve received a LOT of rejections.

Opinions are like bellybuttons – everybody has one – so it’s impossible to consider every opinion when reading a rejection because it’ll drive you batty. I may reject something because I find the pacing slow, yet someone else may feel the pacing is fine, but it’s over-written. We all read submissions through our own filters, and the result can yield a lot of contradictory opinions.

But what you can probably take to the bank is that there is this: if you’re getting a slew of rejections, chances are there’s something fatally wrong with the story. I see many stories that I know will never be ready for publication because, face it, not everyone is a good writer. As tough as it is, one needs to consider whether they have the talent to be published. That’s why I recommend writing many books and not spending years trying to sell that one book.

Frustration = Making Unwise Choices

The by-product of endless rejection is frustration – something that I see happening to new writers who are trying to make a break into publication. And frustration can lead to making unwise choices.

My months’ long search for the perfect hairstylist led me down the road to a disastrous fashion choice that dogged me until the horrible mistake grew out. It made for some unbearably awful family pictures, which, of course, will haunt several family’s photo albums forever. I don’t mean to diminish this conversation with something as trivial as a bad hair day, but rather to convey the emotion behind looking like an over-aged circus clown with a serious addiction problem. Even the beagle growled at me.

And that’s what publishing is – emotional. We’re exposing something that came from our soul while trying not to take rejection personally. I get that. We all do. But in experiencing abject frustration, it’s unwise to let that frustration lead you down a path that will take your literary career from bad to worse.

I’ve seen many cases where new writers reach their maximum capacity for frustration and reach out to someone – anyone – who will read their book and tell them they rock the earth and moon. People who fall into this category are:

  • New publishers who mean well but have no background in publishing and don’t really know what they’re doing
  • Vanity presses who will love anything provided it’s wrapped around a nice fat wad of cash
  • POD model presses who need a constant influx of new meat because they make their money from selling to their authors, not the marketplace due to lack of distribution

And what’s worse is those authors had no idea what they were getting into. I know this because I hear the horror stories all the time.

Whatever you’re feeling at the moment, or even the long haul, don’t make any rash decisions that will result in your losing something you love to someone who doesn’t care, and can’t get the job done. Honor yourself and your book enough to be smart about your next steps…even if that step is putting it under the bed.

Fiction is hard, it’s very impacted, and it’s a buyer’s market. Because the market currently favors publishers, they have the choice of picking the very best, or what will sell very well (no, those aren’t necessarily synonymous…hello Snookie)

Sadly, I have no magic bullet to offer you novelists. You can attend any number of writer’s conferences and hear famous authors talk about how to write a NY Times bestseller, and it always makes me gag. They have no clue as to what makes a NY Times bestseller. No one does. They know what works for them. Just like I can’t take one of Paula Deen’s recipes and expect my dinner to come out tasting exactly the same, no author can use a famous author’s recipe and expect to have a winner book.

In short, the platitudes are the same – write a darn good book, know the marketplace, be in touch with your targeted readership, blah, blah, blah. It’s all sound advice, yet it doesn’t guarantee success.

On the flip side, I know many novelists who didn’t bother wasting time on being frustrated, but instead put their heads down and wrote other books while learning more about the industry. And sure…I’d be remiss if I didn’t plug Tackle Box because I wrote it for exactly this audience with the intent of helping authors increase their chances for success. The more you know, the better able you are to make wise decisions that will favorably impact your writing career.

So for all you novelists, don’t lose heart just because this is a very tough genre. If you love writing, take pleasure in it because it’s no small accident that fiction is the largest selling genre. We love it. Don’t give up, but do know how to navigate a bumpy road.

15 Responses to Here’s the thing about fiction…

  1. NinjaFingers says:

    Yeah. I’ve taken to writing some non-fiction to pay the bills. I believe I am a talented enough writer that I WILL sell a novel. The question is which one. The question is when. And the question is how well.

    And if you want a genre that’s hard to break into; try comics. In THAT area I may end up self publishing because it doesn’t carry the same stigma and it is just so hard to break in, especially for writers.

    I don’t know about writing a non-fiction BOOK, though. And I already have my copy of Tackle Box.

  2. Angela Perry says:

    I agree with what you’ve said here, but I’d add one other thing that fiction writers need to do: know why they are writing.

    So often I’ve met writers who write because it’s fun and publish because “that’s what writers do.” They never think beyond the accepted paradigm. Okay, so you wrote the book. Now what do you want from it?

    “Lots of money.” – Wrong profession.

    “People to read my work.” – You don’t need a publisher for that.

    “Just for fun.” – You don’t need a publisher for that either.

    “I need validation.” – How much? Because you’ve picked the worst profession for it.

    I want to be published because I want to change the way people think, even a little bit, and thus change the world. I want to broaden minds and plant questions. Most writers don’t know why they want to be published; all they know is that’s what writers do.

  3. Mark says:

    After a slew of rejection slips I wrote this to myself to keep the faith.

    So, there you have it; another rejection slip. Another piece of the wallpaper that is building piece by piece and you think to yourself ‘enough’. Maybe you are not a writer, maybe you are deluding yourself and maybe you should just get a proper job.
    God knows you get enough earache from your beloved one.
    And a few days, or weeks pass and all you can do is concentrate on what you have decided to do instead of hunching over a keyboard and living a life where your fiction is more real than reality.
    Build up a business, stack shelves at Tesco, go on a training course, drive a van or regurgitate those old skills or qualifications you once earned.
    And now the world is grey, flat and boring but you persevere because there is nothing else to do. Your bolt has been shot, you’ve done your best and it all amounted to nothing but that damned wall of rejection.
    And then …
    The wonderful, magical, indescribable ‘What If’ breaks through the scudding dark clouds and illuminates that special part of your brain developed by imagination.
    What if that brick wall had a secret door that could only be opened by tracing the graffiti? What if the sky suddenly turned as black as ink and it was not an eclipse? What if there was a shadow moving out of sync with the crowd. And then that is that with reality – this NEEDS to be explored.
    Rushing back to that tired keyboard we wave away the dust and fire up the screen and off we go again.
    There are new characters to know and love and new villains to deplore. There is a story to tell and you are the only one who can tell it.
    The world is now filled with colour and depth.
    Your blood sings in your veins and your imagination fills a cosmos where anyone can be a hero or a heroine, where tragedy can strike at any time but the baddies must fail (not always) and rewards can be won.
    This is your universe.
    Don’t let anyone take it away from you.

  4. Ninjie, I think we are driven to write a certain genre. it’s the voice that sings the longest and loudest. That’s something few can fake.

    Where I see the most frustration is with authors who have assumed a lot at risk – meaning they quit their day jobs, or they’re depending on making a living at writing because they hate their day jobs.

    Those gigs are few and far between, and no one should ever put their livelihood at risk in the hopes they’ll hit the big time.

  5. NinjaFingers says:

    I don’t have a day job, actually. I’m trying to make a go of it from article sales, from web content, from stuff that isn’t much fun to write but which beats any day job I have ever had. But I also have a very supportive spouse.

    I would certainly need one if I was on my own…but I have never managed to find a day job that I didn’t hate to the point where it destroyed my ability to write. They’ve ranged from ‘I wish I could get out of here’ to ‘one more day of this and there will be either homicide or suicide’. So…but we can afford to maintain a decent lifestyle on his income plus what I do manage to make.

    I’m not aiming to make a LOT of money, either. My goal is about 2k a month…and it would be lower if my husband’s job didn’t trap us in an area with a hideous cost of living. But I wouldn’t recommend trying it if you are dependent on the income, because it’s hard to find people who don’t consider 1 cent a word to be a good rate they grudgingly pay :/.

  6. Vanessa Russell says:

    Weeeell, admittedly I did have trouble letting go of my first two manuscripts – they’re my first babies and they’re still mighty pretty to me. But I’ve started a third book and your latest comments have pushed me to get back to it, so thank you. And thank you very much for the Tackle Box; I can definitely use the tools and it’s always best to know which screwdriver will work. :~) I’ll send you my address via email.

  7. Thanks, Vanessa, for being such a good sport and writing such good comments.

  8. Kim Kircher says:

    I read Vanessa’s earlier comment and I’m so glad to see your response here. As always, your advice is well-thought out and spot on.

  9. jsurycz says:

    Lynn, I love your blog. I read it for your brilliant writing. I think you should write another book!

  10. Pelotard says:

    Isaac Asimov remarked once that if an angel had come down on the evening he sat down to write “Nightfall” and informed him that this story would be agreed by most authorities to be the best science fiction story ever written, he would have been too terrified to write a single word. I’m not really like that. I would have nodded and said “Good. That’s exactly how I intended to spend my evening.”

    I know it’s hard. I don’t really care. I’m not sitting down by the keyboard to type a halfway decent novel. I’m sitting down in order to write the best one of its kind ever, and when I hit The End, I will get up for a pot of coffee and then sit down to write an even better one, because no matter if I just wrote the best one ever, it’s still never really good enough for my inner editor.

    “We choose to [do these] things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

  11. Lev Raphael says:

    Lynn, thanks again for your mix of candor and encouragement.

    I was shocked when a friend who has had fiction on the NYT best seller list, full-page ads in the NYTBR, and been on NPR got a funereal phone call from his well-known agent. She had been talking for five hours to various clients, telling them the fiction market had collapsed–even for people with great numbers!

    All we can do is keep writing, keeping informing ourselves, and keep balance in our lives so that life isn’t only writing,

  12. danholloway says:

    Great post, Lynn.
    As a writer I know I write the kind of thing that publishers just aren’t in a position to take on. As you know, I self-publish. Comparing sales figures between my various books is a real eye-opener. I’ve written an Oxford-based crime novel that’s – imho – pretty good but I wouldn’t say I’m ever going to be Thomas Harris. It’s sold 6000 copies on UK Kindle now with very little marketing and very few reviews in 6 months. I’ve also written what I consider to be a very good literary novel in the Murakami style. It’s had a stack of rave reviews – heck, even Jane Smith read the whole thing and recommended on her self-publishing review. It’s sold 300 in 18 months. And my very best work is a short story and poetry collection, each piece of which has either been selected for somewhere or won a prize, and all of which are part of my live show. It’s sold 30 copies in 18 months. Those figures are fascinating.

    As a publisher, I’ve taken on 3 books by amazing writers whose work is completely not what a regular publisher would take on. Each of them was fully aware of what they were getting into, I should add. One is a collection and two are full-length at 30k words – unsaleable in current parlance. It’s incredibly hard in many ways, but surprisingly easy in others to get people reading. If I published as a job, or they wrote as a job, we’d be bust. But doing it for essentially an hour a day, but using completely unconventional means- a lot of live shows and a lot of front, basically, we’ve managed to get a surprising amount of coverage that’s starting to translate to good reviews and sales. It’s doable, but very hard – and that’s the thing. No big publisher is going to bust their ass over months and discover whole new ways of working for a few hundred or couple of thousand sales when they could take on genre fiction they can sausage out the other end for tens of thousands of copies.

  13. Aw, go on with ya, Julie.

    Lev, now that shocks me. I would have thought an author with those kinds of street creds would be safe. Will she look for a smaller commercial press?

    Pelo, as always, I love your attitude.

    Dan, thank you so much for commenting. I always enjoy hearing about your experiences because I know how hard you work. And booya that Jane gave you a thumbs up. She’s one tough nut to crack. Keep up the good work.

  14. Lauren says:

    This may be a dumb (or ignorant?) comment, but I wonder if writers ever hang out at readers’ forums like Dirda’s Reading Room or BookBalloon where readers gather and talk about books they love, hate, are reading, or plan to buy? It strikes me that while writers are readers they may use their “hang out” time online to spend time with other writers. Do they spend it with other readers? Do they talk to them about their thoughts on what they are reading now, and do they share, in a strictly readerly way, what their thoughts are on what books they are reading? Would such a thing bring any insight as to why some books are hated by some and others beloved by many?

  15. […] Editor Lynn Price with advice on navigating the competitive and turbulent fiction market. […]

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