Publishing . . . and publishing well

[August 2008] I have published something on the order of fifty short stories since I began writing seriously at the beginning of the millennium. Some of the early stories appeared in what are disparagingly referred to as “for the love” (or “4theLuv”) markets. A few were published in “royalty only” anthologies (which are but a smidgen better than 4theLuv markets in that in rare cases some of them have delivered a pittance in revenue—my current record is about $18). Most of the recent ones have appeared in professional markets, some with distribution to tens or hundreds of thousands of readers.

Every now and then, someone asks me when I’m going to release a collection. Choosing from among those fifty stories (plus the twenty or so that are currently seeking homes), I could probably put together a decent volume of my short fiction. Over the past few years, I’ve been approached by reputable small press publishers to do just that.

A couple of years ago, when I was in New York on vacation with my family, I had lunch with my literary agent. Among the topics on our agenda to discuss was a then-recent proposal to do a collection. When I broached the subject, he asked me what I thought it would do to grow my readership. In other words, who would buy this collection beyond people who already knew of my work, either by direct exposure or by reputation?

As much as I would love to see a handsome volume, artfully designed by a specialty press, with an eye-catching cover illustration and a signature page for my John Hancock, I got his point. He was looking at the big picture of a career in publishing, versus the quick and easy gratification of a limited edition.

Single-author collections are a hard sell, especially for an unknown author like me. Few people are going to splurge on a $30-$50 edition from someone they’ve never read before—assuming they hear about the book in the first place. The total print run would logically be something on the order of 250 copies, enough to satisfy the people already familiar with my writing and maybe a handful of others. As my agent asked, how would that expand my readership? The book might satisfy readers looking for more of my work, but what would it do for me?

Instead of rushing into faster but lower-reaching deals to get a novel or a story collection in print, I’ve decided to be patient. I’m not young—but I’m not exactly old, either, so I have time to improve my skills and come up with something that New York wants to publish. Maybe it will be the novel my agent is currently reviewing, or maybe it won’t be until three or four more manuscripts down the line. Maybe ten—who knows?

Perhaps I have delusions of grandeur, or think more highly of my writing than reality might suggest, but I have decided, for better or for worse, to aim as high as possible for my books. Perhaps I have the luxury of doing this because I’ve already had my ego fulfilled by publishing one book through a mainstream publisher. If I never succeed at that level with my fiction, at least there’s that.

If I were to achieve some success with novels, then it might be time to think about a story collection, when it could actually appeal to a wider group of people who’ve heard my name, perhaps read things about my work, and want to test out my writing in smaller doses than committing to a novel. That could actually benefit my career. All in a best-case universe, of course. There are many hurdles to leap before that joyous day. I accept the possibility that some of these hurdles may be insurmountable.

I’ve been involved in discussions about authors who may have published too early—writers who appear content to only publish in the small press, or who seem too impatient to try to break out at a higher level. Robert McCammon ultimately withdrew his first four books because he felt he had been published too soon, when he was still learning his craft. I’m not sure I agree with his assessment of his early novels, but I respect the high standards he has decided to set for himself.

As I said, maybe I’m deluding myself about the potential for my writing. My agent doesn’t think so, which is encouraging. Everyone in this business has different goals, different reasons for doing what they do. Different needs they want to have met. I already have a shelf full of anthologies that prove to my ego that I can be published. My goal at this point (subject to change without notice) is to be published well.

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