The Curse of Self-Publishing

These days many authors see an easy way to get published. Hook up with Lulu or Publish America and you too can have your own book! And look, it even gets listed on! It must be legit!

Well, if all you care about is having your novel available for your friends and family to buy, that’s a fine way to go. But if you really want anyone else to consider you a real writer, avoid these things completely.

Here’s a true example: Last year I went to a writer’s conference. It was the first I had ever attended and was not sure what to expect, but knew I could learn something. The conference had a number of guests who had published novels and more than a hundred participants who were, like me, there to learn and receive critiques. Quite a few of these people, I discovered, had already published their own books. One fellow was very proud of his Publish America novel.

On Sunday, they set up a question and answer period where the published authors would sit in front and discuss whatever the participants wished. I was honored when the organizers came to me and asked me to join in. The people with the Lulu books and the Publish America books were ignored completely. Even though my novel is with a relatively minor publishing house, the editors and writers who organized the conference considered it worthy.

After all, unlike these self-published books, mine had gone through the process and had been accepted. It had then been edited by a professional editor and I had worked with them to make changes. It showed a level of professionalism that the others did not.

And that’s the image you want, after all. Your work could be great, but if you publish it yourself, the message professionals get is that it was so bad that no one would publish it and that you were forced to put it out yourself.

Of course there are exceptions, which the self-publishing industry will point out as they try to get your business. There’s always that one-in-a-million time when a self-published book grabs the attention of the public and does well. Then there are the other 999,999 books that didn’t. You want to play the odds?

There are times when self-publishing works just fine. The books I edit for my live action role-playing game, for instance, are all self-published. However, I didn’t use a vanity press, because I wanted it to look more professional than that. I set up my own publishing company, paid for a bunch of ISBN numbers I could assign my books, and had them listed in Books in Print. Amazon sends me orders every now and then and Double Dragon (my publisher for the novels) has been distributing the e-book versions of them. But those are non-fiction rule books geared to a small but significant audience. They’re not the kind of thing you’d necessarily find in your local book store. If you’re pushing a novel, that’s not the way to go.

So don’t give up. There are publishers out there who might just love your book, but you may have to take a very long time to find them. And if you get absolutely nothing but rejection letters, maybe your book needs some more work. Maybe it shouldn’t be published yet.

Even by you.

Interview with “Space and Time” editor Hildy Silverman

Hildy Silverman is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Space and Time, a 43-year-old magazine featuring fantasy, horror, and science fiction. She is also the author of several works of short fiction, which can be found in Wild Child, Phobos, Dark Territories (ed. Gary Frank and Mary SanGiovanni, Garden State Horror Writers, 2008), Witch Way to the Mall? (ed. Esther Friesner, Baen Books), an as yet-to-be-titled vampire anthology (ed. Esther Friesner, Baen Books) and Bad-Ass Fairies (ed. Danielle Ackley-McPhail). She is a member of the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society and the Garden State Horror Writers. She lives in New Jersey with one husband David, one daughter Rayanne, and one Bichon Frise, Frosty. She is a freelance consultant who writes corporate training, marketing communications, and SEO articles for major companies throughout the U.S.

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: First of all, Hildy, how did you end up with this position, following in Gordon Linzner’s footsteps?

HILDY SILVERMAN: It was a spur-of-the-moment decision. I had met Gordon at a convention and saw him a few times due to mutual friends. I started reading Space and Time and really liked the unique fiction he ran. He told me that he was looking to sell the magazine and had some possible buyers interested, so I didn’t think much more about it.

Later, at a SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America party), Gordon told me that none of the buyers had come through, so he was just going to shut down the magazine. Maybe I had a few too many Cosmos, because my response was, “Well, what if I wanted to buy it?” Long story short, we talked it over, I performed my due diligence, and in the end we were able to work out a good deal. Thus my career as a small publisher began.

VENTRELLA: When reviewing submissions, what will send a story to the slush file quickest?

SILVERMAN: Well, pretty much all of the stories start in the slush file anyway. Space and Time has six associate editors, who serve as first readers of the slush. They weed out the stories that aren’t up to snuff then forward the “goodies” to our fiction editor, Gerard Houarner. If he gives the story his blessing, it’s usually in…I just look them over and, except for a few rare occasions, rubber-stamp his choices.

If what you mean is what will get a story rejected quickest, there are a few obvious (or what should be obvious) things. Stories that are mailed to the business address without first requesting to do so are rejected out-of-hand (we accept electronic submissions only). Stories that clearly haven’t been proofread – full of typos, spelling and grammatical errors, formatting problems, etc – are also Right Out. Also, if the story doesn’t contain some sort of speculative fiction element, it is not for us. Those are the kinds of things that get weeded out first and fastest.

VENTRELLA: Do you advise aspiring writers to begin with short story submissions or do you feel that in today’s market, it is no longer necessary as a way to make a name for yourself?

SILVERMAN: I’ve heard conflicting advice and statements on this subject for awhile now. If a writer ultimately wants to make it as an author of full-length books, I’d say that writing ANYTHING until you’ve perfected your craft is a good idea. There’s certainly a lot less of a time investment in practicing your craft perfecting short stories for submission than if you write full-length manuscripts over and over. If you’re good enough to have you short stories published in a number of respected short fiction magazine and anthologies, perhaps win an award or two, it certainly wouldn’t hurt your reputation when ready to peddle a longer work to agents and editors. Credits are credit – they always look good on a submission letter.

VENTRELLA: Is there a talent needed for short stories that is separate from the skill needed for novels?
SILVERMAN: Oh, yes. Some people mistakenly believe that because short stories are – well, shorter, they are faster and easier to write. Not true. You need to be able to convey an entire story – full plot, characterization, world building, etc. – in 10,000 words or fewer (usually fewer). That takes a great deal of skill. Your writing has to be tight, your use of language precise. Folks who write novels may have those abilities, but others will tell you they just can’t fit everything they want to say into the short story form. By the same token, there are short fiction writers who can’t “go long.”

VENTRELLA: Are there any taboos that would prevent you from accepting a story? Any trends you’re sick of?

SILVERMAN: I’m pretty hard to offend, especially when it comes to often-taboo subjects like sex or religion. In fact, I daresay I have or will publish some stories that are bound to get me into trouble with a few readers! As long as the story is well-written, with involving characters and a plot with a beginning, middle, and end I will give it fair consideration.

That said, pure “snuff” fiction holds no interest for me, mostly because there’s no plot there, just a vignette showcasing the abuse of one character by another. If someone sent me a piece featuring abuse, rape, or torture that is clearly all about wallowing in some disturbing fantasy, that’s not getting published, mostly because such work has no character, plot development, or anything of interest to say (except, maybe, “I need help.”)

As for trends I’m sick of, nope, haven’t run into any yet. We only open for submission windows, so I don’t see what a lot of other editors do, which is the same vampire plot or the same space opera story repeatedly throughout the year. There was a funny mini-trend I noticed last time we were open, though. Several stories about Quetzalcoatl came in all at once. I assume there was a planned anthology that didn’t go through; that’s usually the reason for an odd theme to suddenly rear its head in multiple submissions.

VENTRELLA: What do you personally like to read? Does that influence the choices you make as an editor?

SILVERMAN: I am a big fan of dark urban fantasy and horror these days. However, my tastes have changed over the years…I started out reading only hard science fiction (Asimov, Bova), transitioned to fantasy (Tolkien, McCaffery), and went on from there (King, Butcher). I also enjoy some literary fiction (Russo) – referencing the category here, not my personal opinion that it is more “literary” than other fiction. I supposed personal taste always comes into play when making editorial decisions, but I try to focus on how engaging a given story is, rather than be distracted by it not being my “thing.” If I feel unqualified to judge the merits of the story, I’ll leave it up to Gerard or one of the associate editors who is into that kind of story to make the final call.

VENTRELLA: Does having an agent make a difference to you?

SILVERMAN: No, not for short fiction. In fact, I would find it odd to receive a piece brokered by an agent. There’s simply nothing to negotiate with a magazine publisher – our payment offerings, the rights requested, they’re all pretty standard. I can’t remember every getting a piece that was submitted by someone’s agent, though many of our authors do have agents to represent their longer works.

VENTRELLA: What’s the best piece of advice (other than “learn to write better”) you can give an aspiring writer?

SILVERMAN: Don’t forget to send your work out. It does you little good to write a huge number of short stories only to let them pile up in a drawer because you can’t or won’t get around to sending them to a market for consideration.

Also, learn the business side of writing. Too many writers are so focused on the craft – which IS important – but they never bother to learn the rules of the trade. You need to know how to research a potential market, understand guidelines, adhere to those guidelines, read a contract and understand the rights you are signing away, things like that. There are resources all over the Web and in how-to books that can tell you how to manage the money-making side of your career as well as the creative aspects. You should be equally versed in both.

VENTRELLA: As a writer yourself, what are your long term goals and what are you doing to make them happen?

SILVERMAN: Long term, I would like to see my novel published. I’ve been shopping it around to agents and have gotten some lovely rejections. Oh, that’s another thing for aspiring writers to remember – you’re going to get rejections. A lot. And some more. So has pretty much every major author you’ve ever heard of. The key is how you handle it. You can’t take them personally…it is your work being rejected, not your baby, not you. Everyone rejects work for a huge number of reasons, most of which are not because you suck as a writer. This is something I have to remind myself of all the time, because it is easy to be stung by rejection, even if you have a thick leathery skin like me.

In the meantime, I’m continuing to submit my short fiction to a variety of markets and have been enjoying some success there. I currently have three pieces published or about to be published in three different anthologies this year, plus a couple more pending.

I need to set some time aside to do more writing and submitting, but between running the magazine, my “day” job, and family life, time is a factor. I need to push past that and get on the stick, though, especially when it comes to sending out the next round of queries on the book.

Me and Hildy at the Philcon 2010 convention

The Curse of Enthusiasm: “Don’t Get Cocky, Kid.”

You’ll never get anywhere in this business if you don’t have a healthy ego and believe that you are indeed producing good work that people want to read.

But in the words of a famous pilot, “Don’t get cocky, kid.”

The biggest mistake I made when I began was in being too confident in my abilities.

A few years ago, I finished writing my novel ARCH ENEMIES. Filled with enthusiasm for my baby, I rushed it off to every agent and publisher listed in the traditional resources. Surely they would see it for the masterpiece it was! How would I decide between the multiple offers that would flow my way?ArchEnemies-510

As you have guessed, I spent a year collecting rejection letters.

One reason for this, which shall be discussed in a future blog, was due to poor query letters (an art in itself, I have discovered). But the real reason was that the book deserved to be rejected.

After some time, I went back and re-read it. And found that while the characters and plot were fun, the writing itself was clumsy and pedestrian. I was so excited about my story that I had basically submitted my first draft.

I rewrote it, almost line by line, and not wanting to embarrass myself further, submitted it to the small (but growing rapidly) publisher Double Dragon, who accepted. It has since done quite well with them. But even now, I want to rewrite sections.

So today’s lesson is this: Slow down. Don’t be so enthusiastic. Take your work and set it aside for a while until you calm down, and then go over it line by line. Get that first draft out quickly to get the right feel and flow for the material, but never forget that it is a first draft.

Coming to a later post: Ideas aren’t everything. Everyone has them.

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