Desperation and Impatience

[May 2012] Several years ago, I wrote an essay for the HWA handbook On Writing Horror titled “For Love or Money: Six Marketing Myths.” While I called them “marketing” myths, in fact they were really publishing myths.

Recent events which you may already have heard about via the blogosphere inspired me to write this entry. The moral of that story is the thesis of the above-mentioned essay.

The concept isn’t new, and I’ve written about it in various ways over the years, but it bears discussing again. Novice writers (and all of us were novices sometime) share a burning compulsion. Perhaps more than one, but one applies here: the need to see our name and our work in print. (These days the definition of “in print” is a little different than the classical definition, but there are analogies to be made: some e-zines aren’t so different from the typed, mimeographed zines of a few decades ago.) We’re willing to do almost anything to see that happen (deals with the devil aren’t out of the question), and this desperation can lead us to make bad publishing decisions.

Neil Gaiman writes about Yog’s Law on his blog, inspired by the same event. The law is simple: money flows toward the writer. In one form, this is a warning against paying to get published: paying for representation, paying the publisher for editing services, etc. From another perspective, though, it is an admonition to insist that you be paid for your work, regardless of the venue in which it is published. Among the six myths I wrote about, two are particularly applicable: 1) Payment in exposure and 2) Royalty-only markets.

Novice writers believe the myth that simply having something “published,” and the concomitant exposure they will receive, has some intrinsic value. They will no longer have to write cover letters where the paragraphs listing previous publications are blank. Now they can write, “My story, Title of Story Here, was published in Slapdash eZine.” This will guarantee that editors will give submissions extraspecial consideration because, after all, they’re reading something submitted by published authors. Editors might even remember those previous publications and the new submissions will get gold stars and go to the top of the stack. Woo-hoo!

Chances are: 1) The editor didn’t see that publication because it’s nothing more than a post on a blog in a dark and rarely frequented corner of the internet, or 2) Even if the editor is aware of that publication, it won’t have any impact whatsoever at best and, perhaps, a negative impact at worst. Being poorly published isn’t better than not being published at all. If your resume is a list of non-paying markets that have come and gone like the spring rains, it will make you look unprofessional.

Here’s the second sad truth: Royalty-only markets are non-paying markets 99% of the time. These books (usually anthologies) sell so poorly that they never recoup their publishing costs, let alone generate any income down the line. If they do bring in a few dollars, that will be split 10 or 20 ways, usually with half of the profits going to the editor off the top. Expect pennies at best.

Desperation—a force as strong and nearly as irresistible as gravity—allows us to delude ourselves. The only exposure that is worthwhile is appearance in a market that people 1) see and 2) respect. With the exception of literary magazines, these are almost always paying markets. Almost always pro-paying markets. Why? Because these are the markets that have major distribution channels and (generally) good reputations. With so much material out there, who do you think reads Slapdash eZine? The contributors and a few of their friends, that’s who. And that royalty only anthology that contains work by previously unpublished authors? Who will pay $18 for the trade paperback (did you ever notice how pricey those books tend to be?) or $9.99 for the e-book? Your friends and relatives might be counted on the first time or two, but even they may stop ponying up after a while.

Another issue with exposure/royalty markets is that they won’t teach you anything about your writing. In the best case scenario, your story will be published exactly as you submitted it. If you’re lucky, someone may catch your typos, grammatical errors and continuity flaws. In the worst case scenario (see above), the editor may decide to do something abysmal to your story, and you’ll have no recourse. Those of us who’ve been around a while probably would have smelled something bad about the market discussed above. One look at the web site, replete with typos, bad grammar and questionable layout, would have been enough to tell us that we wouldn’t be dealing with a pro.

With a pro market, if your story has a few flaws it will either be rejected (with or without comment) or—best case—the editor will accept the work and offer some suggestions to make it even better. Experienced writers learn the value of a good editor, one who encourages a writer to improve (not one who arbitrarily rewrites a story in his own image).

There are many codas that attach themselves to this message. For example, if, in your desperation to be published at all, you aim low and submit to a non-paying market, you’ll never know if you might have done better by sending it to a pro-market.

I know it’s hard to have the level of patience required to develop to the point where you can be professionally published. I was in my late thirties when I scored my first pro sales. I made a few mistakes in the beginning. Not many people are totally immune to the temptation to settle for something less in order to satisfy that gravitational pull, that vanity appeaser. My message is this: resist with all your might. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that it will be different for you. Listen to and learn from the experiences of others.

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