Exploring Publishing Options: Part 1 - The Traditional Route

As I get closer to completing Avenging Glory,  you’d think I would have the path ahead mapped out.

After all, I’ve been writing for decades, have researched the markets exhaustively, have lots of friends who are published authors, and know a few publishers and agents personally.

But the truth is, only a few of those people I know are happy with the paths they’ve taken. And number of people who used to be happy, are no longer satisfied. The number of potential routes have multiplied to the point where it’s fair to say that all or any of us can get published – but hardly any of us will get noticed outside our circles of friends, or adequately paid for all the hard work we’ve put in. Many of the publishers are flying by the seat of their pants. Or doing it as a labour of love. And there are almost as many publishing models out there as there are publishers.

Before submitting the book to major publishers, I need to think seriously about getting an agent. There are publishers who accept over-the-transom queries and submissions, but it would be good to have someone (an agent), who is known by the publishers, pitching and negotiating on my behalf. If a book has impressed an established agent, publishers are more easily persuaded that taking a look might be worth their while, and on the off-chance that one of them does show an interest, it would be good to have someone knowledgeable, and maybe a little bit money hungry, negotiating on my behalf.

For my first time ever with a novel (I’ve had a few short stories I’ve felt this way about), I’m not the least bit worried that this book isn’t good enough to get picked up by a major publisher. But the quality of a given book is only part of what traditional publishers are looking for. Whether or not any of those publishers decide to take a chance on a first novel by a late career writer is another story. This is where I’m thankful for Jeff Vandermeer for showing that it can be done. But Jeff’s career has been much more illustrious and prolific than mine from the get-go – so while he may have opened the door a crack, I still have to come knocking with a novel that’s good enough to open that door the rest of the way. And not many writers have the ability to create something audacious and well-written enough to do the trick. Riding the zeitgeist is harder than riding a mechanical bull dialed up to 11. And just because one veteran writer managed to hold on, doesn’t make it any easier for the next one.

Not that I’m putting my book in the same league, but we’ve all heard the stories about works of genius like Confederation of Dunces – which took decades and miraculous patience to find a publisher (from the authors mother after he committed suicide) – or even huge bestsellers like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – which went out to over a dozen publishers before finding a buyer. There are undoubtedly countless good novels that never managed to make it to print at all! And as fraught with hazards as the process of finding a publisher was in the late 20th century, it’s almost certainly much harder today – with more competition and fewer publishers than ever – and on top of that, most publishers are less willing to take chances!

In the end, all the sizable publishers have their eyes on the bottom line – which encompasses not just breakout potential but follow-up potential – and no one has ever accused me of being prolific, so it seems unlikely that I will turn on a dime and suddenly start churning books out – although I may have a few surprises in store – in fact, I promise I do.

But before I start tilting at those particular windmills, I have to ask myself, “Do I really want to go there?”

I’ve never had much success in the American mainstream or genre markets. Other than a nod, a wink, or an acknowledgement here or there (mostly from American writers as opposed to publishers), most of the success I have had is with Canadian small publishers. No matter how exceptional this particular novel may be, throwing myself at the same markets that have been blithely turning me away for 40 years, seems like a recipe for disaster. Their expectations –based on my publishing history – are likely to be quite limiting. Getting turned down by a succession of agents and/or publishers is unlikely to boost my self-confidence. 
I just have to cling to the conviction that it may well have little to do with the quality of the book. It may be better to write under a non de plume and hope to be “discovered.”

On the astronomical chance that my tactics (whichever ones I use) actually work, what then? A multi-book deal? Hmmm. I’ve known too many exceptional writers who have been published by established genre publishers and been totally trapped in the mid-list – working in every spare minute to produce to unreasonable deadlines and expected to outperform the previous book each time out, in the face of decreasing support from the publisher, distributors, bookstores. Print less, sell more! Yikes! Charles Dickens would blanch. I can’t count the number of writers I know who have been trapped in this sort of puzzle box, with grave concerns about promotion, distribution, and the publisher’s dedication to helping their books succeed. It’s really hard to keep their careers going as publishers “cut back.” And what large publishers these days are not cutting back?

Writers picked up by big “mainstream” and or venerated “literary” houses seem to do far better on average than those picked up by genre houses. Small publishers can be a good entry point for prolific or early career writers – but the quality of their books vary widely – as does their power in the marketplace. Small genre houses are another story, since even the best of them tend to get nothing but disdain from the literary elite. There is nothing any of those publishers can do in the face of that disheartening phenomenon, except keep publishing the best work they can find and watch as their more successful authors are poached by the bigger players.

Prolific small publishers don’t seem as well regarded as the more selective ones. And many of them expect the Earth, the Sun and the Moon for an e-mail handshake and “future royalties.” Uh huh. And then they’ll add it to their website as one of the 22 books they’re “publishing” this month. There are so many good writers hoping to see their works in print by any means, that these pirates on the Sea of Crushed Dreams have no trouble filling their slots (no doubt by killing off the galley slaves they’ve already been bleeding dry for months or years).

I have been cautioned in the past by some well and fairly well-published friends about taking the self-publication route with a first novel. And I have seen for myself – as a consumer, a writer, a publisher and a competition judge, that there is automatically less respect given to projects that are clearly self-published. Funding bodies like Canada Council and Ontario Arts Council regard self-published work with more than a little suspicion.

But the world is definitely changing – it keeps changing and changing and changing. What was wrong 2 years ago is going to be right 20 minutes from now (maybe for a duration of about 20 minutes). All of which leads me to believe, quite strongly, that there are no wrong or right answers, approaches, philosophies or attitudes.

All any of us can do is apply some of the lessons and methods we have learned in our lives, and hope we’re using them right, and that maybe we stumble onto some new and effective ways of doing things.

I’ve seen as many examples recently of people getting rich from self-published projects as the folks who have entered the front ranks through traditional publishing routes.

So what conclusions have I come to? Well, none yet, to tell the truth.
Every publication route out there has major problems and concerns. And entering into a traditional contract with traditional publishers in the traditional way – seems like the least promising and least rewarding conceivable path for those who aren’t already among the acclaimed new voices in any field. For some writers, they’re perfect, but for the rest of us, there’s probably a better way.

So my first step is going to be getting the novel in the best shape I can get it into – then simply putting something out there in the pre-publication stages in an attempt to create a buzz. With the advent of print-on-demand, I think I can come up with some pretty snazzy looking galleys and beta-versions that I can send to a select group of readers, critics, publishers, agents, random readers, tv studios. (Anyone who’s interested can drop me a line – through the comment section –  although I will definitely be selective, since each pre-publication copy represents money out of pocket for me.) I’d like to fuck around a bit with the process – produce galleys and beta-copies with different covers (future collectors items, should miracles happen). If I’m going to do a marketing experiment, it makes sense to do it with a book that I feel genuinely has the potential to take off. That way, if I do stumble into something brilliant – I’ll be in a position to reap the rewards.

And if it doesn’t take off – I’ll have one of the most interesting failed vanity projects around – and some really nice copies of a book that I’m genuinely proud of. (May even be able to sell enough of them to make my money back). Ain’t nothing wrong with that.

Please stay tuned for future developments.


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