The Writer's Survival Guide: Chapter 9: Stepping into the Publishing World

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Now we come to the stage which, to one degree or another, most writers view with a sense of apprehension: sending their work into the world. If the work gets accepted, as we all hope it will, we know we will be thrilled. If the work gets rejected, as we pray it won't, then we think we will be sad at best, and crushed at worst.

We feel apprehensive for a variety of reasons. Fear of embarrassment is a main one. An apprentice writer might feel distress over what his friends or family will think if he can't sell his work, particularly if he feels pressure from them to justify his time and effort: "What? You've been writing for (fill in the blank) years and you still haven't sold anything?! Maybe it's time you give it up."

For the experienced writer, embarrassment has more to do with people in publishing, as she frets over editors and agents and reviewers — people who are no longer strangers, but now business associates and maybe friends — losing faith in her because her new work isn't eliciting the excitement her older work once did.

Another reason we are anxious about submitting our work is a concern about how rejection, or a less enthusiastic or lucrative response than we desire, might affect our moods. We fear the growth of bitterness, or maybe a shift in our character toward the more cynical and unhappy. We have fueled ourselves through the writing process with our optimism and faith; we are concerned that rejection might revive our pessimism, or turn our faith inside-out into distrust of the process, and doubts about ourselves. And, of course, no one wants to feel even a trickle, let alone a flow, of disappointment or sorrow.

Submission derives from the root submit, which means to yield to the authority of another. In submitting our work, we sometimes feel that we are in a submissive position. We think others have power over us. We think, Please, please want us, or otherwise something inside us might die.

Or so we fear.

But submission fears — and fears of all aspects of stepping into the publishing world — can be combated. They are their own battles, but in many ways are no different from all the other emotional battles you have already fought through. This is as true for the beginning as for the advanced writer. There are times when these skirmishes are easier to enter, others when they seem excruciating. But it can be done. In fact, it must be done, if you are to keep going as a writer.

This chapter begins with a discussion of how to get through the experience of rejection. My belief is that if you see that what you are feeling is typical, you will get through this time with no more cynicism than you originally possessed, and no reduction in your literary libido. Indeed, you will persevere — and do so with a lot more wisdom about yourself, humanity, and the world. The second half of this chapter addresses the business side of writing, and how to handle your paperwork and people contact with professionalism. By the end of the chapter, you should be aware of how to hear No without letting it drive you into anything other than continued persistence, and how to how to handle yourself in the business arena with confidence.

Rejection

it begins with the mailbox.

Whether it is our fiftieth book or our first story, we must mail the thing out. We slip our manuscript into an envelope and make our way to the mailbox, knowing that we have toiled, applied egolessness, patience, and our inner voice, sacrificed a season of dinner parties and sleep, worshipped on the altar of revision. We know that what we have is good. Not only that, but our trusted readers agree that it is good. So it is with hope that we let the blue handle of the mailbox swing closed and return home, eager to receive a response.

Sometimes, we get what we want: the editor phones us and in an ebullient voice announces, Incredible story. Where have you been hiding out, Mr. So-and-So? I'll take it! Or, better yet, the agent calls and, in a voice fairly cracking with ecstasy, squeals, Five places are dying to have it — we're going to auction!

But sometimes we receive a rejection letter and, most likely, then, some degree of disappointment will descend. If we're feeling resilient, we immediately stick the manuscript in a new envelope to send to another publication. But even if we go through those steps, we might still feel the sting. Maybe softly, mild enough to need no social or psychological Bactine, but still there.

For some writers this experience leads to extreme reactions. A poet who had previously won a grant from the NEA became so frustrated by her failed attempts to get her book of poetry published that for a long time she stopped writing entirely. A writer of three celebrated novels was mired in such shock that his fourth book wasn't accepted that he almost dropped out of his marriage.

I myself have suffered greatly over some of my rejections. When five publishers turned down my second book (and first novel), I pulled it from further submission. I was so distraught and despondent that I did little but mope about for four months, going so far as to not even get out of bed some days. I washed the dishes, read the newspaper, and occasionally paid bills from my savings account, but beyond that I accomplished nothing.

Clearly, my book's inability to entice a publisher had set off a depression in me and, as frequently happens during depression, I engaged in illogical thoughts. I believed that I was talentless, that I'd deluded myself into thinking I'd written a good book but that in reality I was incapable of writing one. I imagined that when my name came up in the publishing world, it evoked snickers and rolling eyes.

My ten-year college reunion was, coincidentally, scheduled at the end of these four months. I tried to prepare myself to face my classmates and admit that, no, I hadn't "made it" as a writer after all. I dragged myself to my old campus, and there I meandered to the office of my former advisor. Fortunately, Professor K. happened to be rummaging through his papers. He was pleased to see me, and when I broke down and tearfully admitted that my current book hadn't sold, he did the last thing I expected and the first thing I needed: he laughed. Not at me, but over how seriously I was taking this development in my life.

Suddenly I saw how ridiculous I was being; this rejection was nothing more than a rejection by these particular publishers of this particular book. It was not a confirmation of my worthlessness as a person, or as a writer. Nor was it even a confirmation that this book was worthless. Professor K. then added that he failed all the time in his attempts to accomplish things. As I mentioned in Chapter 2, he told me that feelings of failure are normal, almost to be expected, and that the higher we strive, the more we will fail, because the closer we get to the top, the fewer doors there are and the greater the competition to open them. To be successful, we must learn to overcome the feelings of failure — because they will strike us, inevitably.

It was then that I realized that a lot of my problem had been that I believed that no one else was as miserable about rejection as I. I thought I was alone with my feelings of failure. But after that conversation with my professor, I stopped seeing myself as an anomaly. All people experience failure at all stages of their lives. Our task is to learn how we, given our unique strengths and interests, can face the failure and keep going instead of letting it destroy us. Overcoming failure is just another fact of life.

And it helps not to take it all so seriously.

Soon after this encounter, I began writing again. Not the troublesome novel, but other projects, both new and old. This return to the writing process, and consequently to the wizardly powers of writing, proved enormously reassuring. Yes, it does work, I realized, I am still a writer. After several months, I felt stronger, and picked up the novel again. Two years of rewriting later I sold it — this time after it had been with an editor for less than two weeks.

As with most other aspects of writing, the first step to facing rejection is to acknowledge that it happens to everyone, and that your feelings of being a failure are normal. You are not an exception. You have vast amounts of company. You just feel as if you are the only person to have suffered rejection, to think you are inadequate, to struggle with disappointment and shame. You are not.

The next step to facing rejection is to address any twisted thinking. Now that you understand that your feelings are normal, that the world is not out to get you, you can examine your thoughts more clearly. Use your process journal (See "Warming Up" in Chapter 6). See if the rejections are bringing up old thoughts about being dumb, or stubborn, or lazy, or whatever. Then, using the cognitive therapy techniques discussed in Chapter 6, see if these are logical thoughts which can trigger a set of logical actions, or illogical thoughts which need to be countered by logical responses. It is quite possible that you are feeling like a failure not because you have failed, but because you believe, somewhere underneath, that you are deeply, conclusively, a flop.

The final and most complicated step is to figure out a course of action. This falls into two major categories: action if you believe the editors who rejected your piece are wrong, and action if you believe they are right.

You believe the editors are wrong to reject your piece. If you have really worked your story before submitting it — employed egolessness, patience, and your inner voice — and you have polished every word hundreds of times to the point where you are absolutely certain that everything, from the most macro to the most micro of elements, is exactly as it should be, then you might have grounds to believe that the editors are "wrong" — i.e., that they should have accepted your great piece of writing simply because it was a great piece of writing.

But you need to understand that editors make decisions which are based on many factors beyond whether or not a piece is well written. A piece might be supremely well written and still get rejected if the editors feel that, given their tastes or needs, it is not appropriate for their publication. Perhaps they have just published a story set, as is yours, in a nursing home, or they are tired of stories set in a nursing home, or because of their sour relationship with their grandfather, they cringe at the very notion of a story set in a nursing home, or they believe that their audience is not interested in stories set in nursing homes. Or maybe they are so inundated by worthy stories that they simply lack the opportunity to print all the good ones they get. Or maybe your story is too long for their space restraints, or in the first person when they have a personal bias toward third, or has a sad ending when their market research indicates that their readers prefer happy endings.

In other words, if you believe that the publishers are wrong about the worth of your story, recognize that their rejection may have to do with the story's worth, but it also might have to do with other considerations or flukes.

You may not be able to figure out why your story wasn't taken. In fact, you will probably have no clue. This makes it hard to process the fact of the rejection, and to determine if your perceptions of your story's value are accurate. But if you truly believe in your story (and I must stress: with a very good basis for such belief), then you can proceed in any event, even without processing.

Proceeding in this case means figuring out what you can do to get this story published. Here you have several options.

1. Keep trying different editors.

2. Sit on it awhile until you meet an editor and then hand it directly to him/her.

3. Forget editors. Try contests. Try grants.

4. Rework the story in a new form (script, novel, etc.).

5. Write new work so you don't overemphasize the importance of this one piece.

6. Find other angles. Try to publish excerpts (useful only if your work is book-length). Speak to theatrical and film people about adaptations. Have someone use it as the basis of a song or a musical. Try editors abroad.

7. Do something no one else has done. Richard Brautigan became known as a poet in San Francisco by typing his poetry onto pieces of paper which he sold on the street corner for a dollar. The editor of this book knows a writer who bakes his poems into fortune cookies. A newspaper reporter turns his personal commentaries into short radio programs which he then sells to a local radio station for filler pieces. A poet has embroidered her poetry onto t-shirts. Another has sold his poetry to a major athletic shoe company to use for their advertising.

8. Publish online. This might not lead you to earn money on the piece, but it can get the work out there, and that's a very positive outcome indeed.

The editors are right to reject your piece. When my novel didn't find a home the first time out, I initially believed something was wrong with the editors, not my novel. But eventually I came to realize that I wouldn't have wanted to read that novel, either. It was too long for my tastes, too somber, too vague. I preferred books that were tight, comic, specific. When I'd been writing the book, I hadn't cultivated my inner voice enough to know my own standards, let alone pay attention to them. It should have been rejected, because I needed to revise it into a different book, one that was more satisfying to me.

I also decided to become more savvy about the needs of the publishing industry. After all, publishing is a business. I can ignore that fact and blunder along, getting increasingly p.o.'ed when my work doesn't find a home, or I can acknowledge that fact and be informed by it. This doesn't mean selling out, or chucking all my integrity. It means studying the market and understanding, as best as I can, what it will bear that resembles what I can and want to do. Furthermore, it means writing well while mindful of these market considerations, and seeing where, and how, my skills and interests overlap with the market. It's possible, as it was with the revision of my novel, that it isn't so awful to think about the market. It forced me to get my novel to a workable length, and to make it a much tighter and more exciting book — one that I myself liked a whole lot better.

In short, if you think, after a considerable amount of deliberation, that the editors were on target when they didn't accept you, then rewrite. You can do it immediately, or years later.

All the above is a lot of detail for what are really the two fundamental principles of coping with rejection. And these are true no matter what — even if it's been years and you have never published a single word, and even if you have published seven books and can't get anywhere with the eighth:

1. Don't take rejection personally. It's about your work or their publishing needs, not about you.

2. Don't stop writing. If you love to write, keep writing. Rewrite the rejected piece, or write something new. Just keep your pen on the paper. More than anything else I have said here, that will go the furthest toward keeping up your hope and faith.

The Writer In Business

When you have been publishing awhile, you will begin to see that writing is a business — not only for editors and agents and book distributors and stores, but for you as well. You are a businessperson in that you are creating an object which you are trying to sell and disseminate. This is true whether you are striving to create the highest art or the most ordinary of pieces, whether you could care less about the size of your writing income or you are obsessed with making a million. When you send your work out into the world, you are entering the marketplace and engaging in commerce. As such, you need to be aware of some basic rules of business which will make your efforts more likely to be effective.

1. Maintain excellent records of your submissions. Woe be unto the writer who is multiple-submitting manuscripts and keeps no records. When she gets her acceptance, how will she know who to contact? What if, before she racks her brain enough to remember, she gets a second acceptance? She has inadvertently committed publishing adultery, and there can be no escape short of alienating one place or the other. All because she failed to keep records on what she was doing.

2. Learn the phrasing of business correspondence. When you don't receive word on a story for a long time, forego the impulse to write a letter that sounds off about what a bum you think the editor is. Be polite and diplomatic when asking about the status of your story, perhaps noting that you're concerned because sometimes your postal service isn't as efficient as you might like.

That is, be succinct and careful. If you aren't used to writing such letters, you might want to look through a few reference books on business correspondence to learn how it's done. Remember: be professional at all times. No editor wants to know he's dealing with a hothead or a whiner. You can be as irked or distressed or nervous as you need to be in private, but your business contacts should not see that. Remain dignified and becoming. Show others only your best.

3. Along those lines, be sure to observe the most oft-cited writer rules: Don't call an editor on the phone; don't neglect your SASE; don't send an illiterate cover letter; don't burn bridges.

4. Send thank-you notes. This applies to anyone you meet for networking purposes (see "Networking," below), places that have hosted your readings, trusted readers, and anyone who has done you a good turn. Make them short and warm-hearted. I've spoken with more than one millionaire who said that thank-you notes were the single most important thing they began doing early in their careers — and they're still writing them.

5. Regularly keep up with all your business contacts — editors, readers, agents, anyone to whom you have sent a thank- you note. People are eager to follow writers' careers, if you invite them to do so. Send them new work and notices of your next reading, or announcements of your latest success. (You might even want to maintain a mailing list so you'll have the addresses ready whenever you write or accomplish something new.) If the relationship is more personal, make a call now and then to touch base, especially if you find yourself visiting the city in which they are located. If you do nothing else, you might want to mail holiday cards every year, saying what you've been up to. Sure, it takes some time, but holiday cards can be good business; it is said that Jacqueline Susann's great success had a lot to do with the fact that her Christmas card list was seven thousand people strong.

6. Remain optimistic during down times. Remember that no business rockets right to the top, and some take many, many years to make a profit.

Networking

We used to call it "meeting people in your field." Now we call it "networking." It is what we do when we connect with people who have an association with writing. A writer in your class. Your teacher. An agent you meet at a conference. The owner of a bookstore. The editor who is a cousin of your neighbor's father's ex-wife. The reporter covering your township meeting.

Networking is enormously valuable for you and the other people involved, and if you are at all gregarious, it can also be fun. Recently, an unpublished writer attended a literary event in a bookstore at which several authors and an agent spoke. After the agent was through, the aspiring writer came up to meet her, explaining that he was completing a novel and a screenplay. They discussed his work, she asked him to send her some manuscripts, and two weeks later she was representing him. Before that encounter, the young writer hadn't known any agents, and had been wondering how to go about getting one. But as a result of that encounter (and the quality of the work he submitted to her), he landed an agent swiftly.

And that is just one story.

Networking happens at any time, with anyone who has any relation to writing. But, you may be wondering, that aspiring writer knew the agent was an agent. How can I figure out who I should talk to?

Often the answer is obvious. The owner of a bookstore. An author at a conference.

But what about the cousin of the neighbor's father's ex-wife? Or a person at a party who, we might later learn, runs a writers' colony? How do we know who is connected to writing?

By letting others know that we are connected to writing. Maybe we offer that we love to write, or are reading a particular book we admire, or attended a recent appearance by John Updike. Whatever we say, we present a conversational opening to the other person, so that she can add that her daughter loves to write, too, or that she took a writing class by the author of the book we're admiring, or that her brother is a major league fan of John Updike's. Then we have a conversational thread to follow, which might, one way or another, lead us to meet or learn about people who are involved in writing.

I realize that some writers are uncomfortable with what they see as the moral dilemma of networking: they view networking as meeting people just to get somewhere — i.e., using people. Networking, however, is not about using people. It is about opening up your life to the lives of others who share your affection for writing, and then mutually helping each other progress, both creatively and professionally, in your writing careers. This is the same thing you do with potential friends — and, in fact, networking is often no more than another word for making friends who share your writing interests. Indeed, you can even view it not as a social encounter which might lead to a networking opportunity, but as a social encounter which might lead to a social opportunity. Because networking is no more than a social interaction which focuses on your passion for writing, and which, if you let it, can ultimately lead to writing opportunities.

The basic attitude you need to employ when it comes to networking is to be friendly and forthright. Ask questions about what the person does. Describe what you do and want to be doing. Offer your phone number or email address. (Maybe carry a business card.) If possible, arrange to speak later.

I also always extend as much help as I can to the other person. If they need to network into certain areas, I tell them I will speak to people I know who are involved in those areas, and then I do. A few months ago, I met a writer who was looking for an agent who handles thrillers. I didn't know of any such agents, but I did know a romance writer who might. I gave the romance writer a call, and learned that she did indeed know a thriller-oriented agent, and then I passed the information along to the thriller writer.

With this approach, networking will, indeed, spread a net far and wide, connecting people who would otherwise never know each other. It's like matchmaking for business. And what fun it is to see if any of the "couples" I put together end up working out as successful business pairings.

You can maximize your chances for networking by going to places where writer-types are likely to be. This includes writing classes, conferences, colonies, readings, cafes where writers tend to cluster, parties thrown by writers. It includes any place where your writer radar says to go.

I am not specifying a particular style for networking because it is as unique an interactional pattern as the way we approach new friendships (with which, as I've said, it has much in common). There is no exact script. But you will stand a chance of doing it well when you approach your networking opportunities with a sense of genuine enthusiasm and openness, curiosity and respect. (If you know the writer by reputation, you will improve your networking chances tenfold if you have already read his books, or at least some of his work, before you meet him.) And when you allow yourself to be yourself throughout the encounter.

That's the most important part of this: be yourself. The more you enter conversation by commenting on a piece of jewelry or turn of phrase that you genuinely like, the more you sustain conversation by pursuing a topic in which you are geniunely interested, and the more you express any positive feelings you genuinely have toward the person — the easier networking will be, and the more of it you'll want to do.

Agents

When I give seminars, the question-and-answer period always includes numerous inquiries about agents. Although there are entire books devoted to getting an agent, I felt that I should review those questions here, so that you can get a good overview of the whole agent side of the business.

1. What is an agent? An agent is the person who handles your business. She reads your book manuscript to make an educated guess as to whether it is marketable. If the decision is yes, then she sends the manuscript to editors who she feels are likely to appreciate your work. And if an editor makes an offer, your agent will make every effort to negotiate the best possible money, as well as the most remunerative deal on all subsidiary rights (which includes reprints, book clubs, dramatic rights, and foreign editions). This way, you don't have to spend your time figuring out who's who in the publishing world, and you don't have to face the potentially awkward task of negotiating your own fees. In fact, many authors feel that writers should never talk money with anyone in publishing except their agents.

2. How do agents get paid? Agents receive a certain percentage of all the money paid to the writer. For most agents, that is fifteen percent, though for a few it is still ten percent. Some agents will also request that you cover the costs of their duplicating.

A few agencies charge reading fees to look at your work. However, the Association of Authors Representatives, which is a professional association of agents, doesn't condone this practice. I recommend to my students that they consider submitting only to agents who are members of AAR.

3. Whom does an agent work for? The agent works for you. Not for the editor. Essentially, agents are hired by you to do your business. They may be friendly with editors, but they are not editors, nor do they get paid by editors.

4. Are agents ever wrong? Sure. They work on the basis of instinct and prior experience. Sometimes circumstances change, or editors' tastes change, and the agent's educated guess doesn't pay off.

5. How do you get an agent? The best way is to meet one directly. This is why it is important to attend conferences and parties. The second best way is to network, because even if no one you know has an agent, someone will know someone who has an agent. The third best way to get an agent is to write to one whose name you find in Literary Marketplace (LMP), or Guide to Literary Agents, annual directories available in most libraries. This is particularly effective if you have done the following research: look through books which are topically or stylistically similar to yours, and see if agents are mentioned in the acknowledgments or dedication. Often they are. Then go to the LMP to get the address of the acknowledged agent, and send a query letter. Many people have found excellent agents this way.

6. What is the best time to get an agent? Agents prefer to be contacted by writers whose work is ready, or almost ready, to be submitted to editors. This means that you have a finished proposal for a book, or a novel which is substantially completed, or enough short stories to make up a collection.

7. Do agents edit your work? Most agents will make general, market-driven suggestions, but do not make comments as detailed as line edits. Some agents will do more intensive editing, though that is the exception rather than the rule.

8. Besides book manuscripts and proposals, what kinds of work do agents handle? Many agents prefer not to submit individual stories, articles, and poetry, as the process is too time consuming and costly, especially with pieces destined for low-paying markets. As a result, the general expectation is that agents send out only books and finished collections of stories, and let writers market their other work. This is not universally true, however; some agents do submit everything, especially if the writer is already a client they're representing for a larger project.

9. Is it a good or a bad idea to have an agent? For writers of books, I think agents are a necessity. Not only will they be more likely to sell your book than you would be on your own, but they can arrange for a lot of subsidiary rights that you wouldn't have even considered. My first book was sold to Italy for translation; one of the stories was sold to television and radio for adaptation; my novel was optioned for a movie. I could never have initiated these transactions on my own, let alone pulled them off successfully.

Generally, if you are writing stories and are not moving in the direction of a collection, agents are not as eager to take on your work. And agents almost never want to take on poetry, unless you are already well known.

10. What happens if I don't like my agent? First, try to work things out. Maybe you need to initiate a conversation about your concerns, or find a way to handle your talks so you feel less uncomfortable. If, though, you have tried to work things out and feel the situation is hopeless, you might want to let the agent go. Often, this can be done through a discussion in which you mutually agree to end the relationship.

11. What's the number one piece of advice you can give about dealing with agents? You need to trust that they are handling your business in the most effective way possible. You need not be best friends with them, but you do need to feel that they appreciate your work and want the best for you, and are doing everything they can on your behalf.

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