Sunday, December 02, 2007

I Venture Away From My Computer

Today I went to a small press/independent press book fair. It's been a good six months since the Book Expo of America, so I guess I'd forgotten that most small presses that rent booths at book fairs seem to be lower quality fantasy, erotica, Christian fantasy, or erotic Christian fantasy. There were some Marxist and/or conspiracy nut presses, legitimate translation presses, and the few remaining children's books not produced by Scholastic. Personally, I think if South Park took an entire episode to make fun of your conspiracy theory, you should probably call it a day.

But seriously - small presses are important. Yes, Barnes & Noble has made sure that their hopes of widespread distribution will be squished like that weirdo bug near my bathtub drain, but the internet has made it so that if they manage to correctly title the books, they might be found by a search engine and actually bought. I did recognize some titles, but only from Amazon browsing. I am a small press. I published a book last year using Lightning Source that was a public domain work and made a few thousand bucks by doing my own distribution. In 2008 I'll do it again with another book that hasn't seen the light of day in 100 years. It's a labor of love, not a career.

Unlike the BEA, which charges a steep admission fee and makes you have to come up with some industry job on their form to be admitted, this one was open to the public, which meant to say the talks were geared towards unpublished writers. As an unpublished writer myself (the book's in development but it's not on shelves), I've tried to stay away from writer's conferences, because I find the information provided in them to be misleadingly optimistic and the air of desperation to be stifling. The speaker on how to query agents, who shall go unnamed, was not only there, but hocking her own book on the subject, which made me glad I wasn't her client. She did give good advice. It was obvious advice, but you gotta start somewhere. I was actually sort of surprised that I agreed with most of it, because it is true that agents have differing opinions.

The really sad part was, of course, the writer's questions. It takes something to stand up to a crowd of desperate people longing for that one nod of approval from an agent or that one call from a publisher that changes their lives, much less tell them the truth, so she softened her answers to the point where they became totally useless answers that didn't address the main problem, which was that the author was a pretentious asshole or has written a book that no one would ever want to read. (How did I know? Oh, trust me, you know. If they say they're too unconventional and fantastic for normal publishing and that's why 70 agents rejected them, you know)

I don't have a huge fear of public speaking, but I tend to be much nicer in person, which I think would eliminate my ability to say anything useful. Yes, there are people who just need to be pointed in the right direction, or assured that no, the agent will not get pissed if they send 52 pages instead of 50 because that's when the chapter ends, and no, we don't throw out an entire query letter because of one typo, and yes, if you have written an excellent book, our job is not to crush your hopes and dreams. It is to fulfill them. The bad news is that most people haven't written a good book.

She did draw the line at endorsing self-publishing. That was for the next speaker to do.


Anonymous said...

In a similar vein, I went to a songwriter's co-op in Los Angeles last week, and the guest was a woman who places songs for film and television (and video games and everywhere else musicians make money these days that is not CD sales).

I was really impressed with how she managed to be kind, and still honest. "I don't think there's any market where I could place this song, but you shouldn't write for what can sell, you should write for yourself."

I don't think I could have been that positive and cold at the same time. One or the other, maybe, but not both.

lisa said...

Ah, the small press fair. I want to get there next year, all the way from Melbourne, Australia.

I don't really know what the indie publishing scene is like in the US but a lot of it here is literary and/or politically driven. As far as I can tell though, we face the same issues/problems as you guys, and then some because it's harder to make contacts in the worldwide industry when you're just so far away.


Lorra said...

Rejecter - This has to be one of the most honest, insightful posts I've ever read on a "writerly" blog with respect to the value of writers' conferences.

I believe they do have value for the writer just starting to learn about the publishing industry and I did attend a couple at the beginning of my quest to become published (i.e., to become a good writer with something to say who also understood the business end of publishing.)

Like you, I sensed an air of desperation and found it creepy and offputting. However, because I was new to the process, I did learn enough to send me in the right direction as far as researching the business and, hopefully, avoiding scammers.

And as far as the small presses: thank heavens so many continue to put out great books.

Anonymous said...

The most unnerving thing about writer's conferences, though, is that they play up their "pitch appointments" with editors to such a degree. As if editors are LOOKING for new, unagented writers. Editors complain about being stalked at such events -- not really realizing that the information ABOUT the event is always geared toward which editors are taking pitch appointments, etc..

Later, you sit bleary-eyed in a room with 300 other desperate writers in a roundtable Q&A workshop where the editor/agent you signed up for a pitch for states she's NOT looking for new authors.

Mmm hmm...

Timothy Fish said...

I believe it was Randy Pausch who said, “experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.” I think that part of the reason writer’s conferences tend to be more upbeat than is realistic is that the organizers seek out successful authors rather than experienced authors. The hope is that a successful author will be able to tell other people how to become successful. Most of them really don’t know how they became successful and they certainly can’t tell other people. It is doubtful that they would draw the crowds, but he ideal speakers for conferences are probably those authors who may not be highly successful but have gained experience by struggling to get agents and publishers to notice them. But, I figure conference organizers are as lazy as the rest of us. It is a whole lot easier to do an Internet search for someone who has written a book about how to get noticed than it is to find a good speaker among the mid-list authors.

Austin Williams said...

"erotic Christian fantasy."

Now there's a niche market if I've ever heard one. I do, however, find myself wondering whether any of my own pieces might work in this genre...

Anonymous said...

Totally true. Small presses have about the same chance of getting out a bestseller as a rotten tomato has of flooding the earth with delightful smells.

In brief- not much.

- JustABand

Anonymous said...

I agree. Small presses have about the same chance of spewing out a bestseller as a rotten tomato has for filling the world with delicious smells.

In brief- very little

- JustABand

Anonymous said...

My only pro publication so far has come from a small press (Twilight Times) -- a sampler anthology of Catholic-themed SF that B&N refuses to stock ("all stocking decisions are made by our Headquarters in NYC"). And Walden, B.Dalton, and Crown are no more.

So we have to build the buzz ourselves, in between having jobs & lives. (I suggested we draw straws and the loser changes his/her name to "Paris Hilton" so we could put that name on the cover for a guaranteed best-seller; my editor wasn't impressed...)

Despite trying to build buzz at specialty bookstores (Catholic and SF), so far our best source remains


Ken Pick
Co-author, "Mask of the Ferret"
in Infinite Space, Infinite God
(avail from

Niteowl said...

"I find the information provided in them to be misleadingly optimistic and the air of desperation to be stifling."

So true it hurts.

Lorra said...

Rejecter - I had another thought/question about writers' conferences. Is somebody making money on them? Are they in some ways just another way to scam a desperate writer out of his/her money?

I honestly don't know. That's why I ask.

Anonymous said...

"The bad news is that most people haven't written a good book."

If we all write the best we can four or five hours a day, every day, for ten years, couldn't we all write a good book? Am I being naive, or isn't that how it's supposed to be done?

Robin S. said...

I went to one writer's conference, for one reason. To see one agent speak. Not to speak TO the agent- just to see him speak, see what he was like, and decide if my "internetted" impressions of him were on target, a someone I'd want to query. They were, and he is.

Now that I've done that, unless there's someone else specific I want to see, in a place I can get to relatively quickly, I'm finished with conferences.

ORION said...

Writers Retreats affiliated with writers conferences can be extraordinarily useful. I know the Maui Retreat and conference was for me- Did it get me an agent? No, but it got me educated about how the process works, allowed me to network with other writers and the retreat connected me to one of my mentors jackie Mitchard. Yes I had to keep writing and yes i had to write a good book. I took advantage of everything the retreat offered. For a writer to think they will get an offer of representation - it is naive - but for one who wants to network with other writers and see how the system works - it can be great.

Timothy Fish said...

Lorra, there are easier ways to make money, so I think the intentions of the people running conferences are good, but they do not always accomplish their goals.

Anonymous, it is not practice that makes perfect, but perfect practice that makes perfect. If you write poorly and you practice writing poorly for five hours a day for ten years then you only become very good at writing poorly.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of advice, your blog is most excellent. I suppose it wouldn't be publishable as a book (The Rejecter just isn't optimistic enough...). But have you considered turning on Google Ads for your blog? I'm a regular visitor, and I'd love to see you compensated financially for your efforts.

Anonymous Peon

Lorra said...

Hey Timothy - glad to hear that. Although I haven't been to one in a while, it's good to know they are mostly worthwhile for the people still attending. I'd hate to see them throw their money away. Thanks for the answer.

Robin S. said...

Hi orion,

I agree about the education part. It was an enlightenikng experience, attending the conference. I sat in on a few discussions other than the one I went to see, got a feeling for maybe a bit of background, etc.

And I also absolutely agree with you - the bottom line is - a readable, publishable book has to be written in order for any of it to make a difference to an author. So, once I saw what and who I wanted to see, it was back to the laptop for me.

Michelle said...

I have found that writer's conferences are slightly more useful if you are writing genre - simply because the conference usually includes market updates and discussion about current trends. I worked the registration table at a recent conference and I'll never forget one woman checking in. She'd taken a bus all the way from a few states over and she looked like she'd slept in her clothes for weeks. Desperation came off her in waves. I happened to be a finalist in a genre contest that's pretty highly regarded and my badge had a special ribbon on it. She treated me like a rock star or a Nobel winner. It was strange. Really strange. You know what else I found out at that table? Erotica writers are mostly old ladies.

Anonymous said...

The thing I love about writers' conferences is about how all the editors get up there in a panel and tell you what they're looking for. Then you query them with one of those types of books and their standard rejection letter tells you they're not looking for THAT, thanks very much.

Anonymous said...

It's a tough biz. I think the internet and blogs like this one have replaced some of the burning desires to attend conferences for answers.
My reasons to go now would be to have fun and hang out with friends. But.. I'd go prepared. Manuscripts ready. And perfect.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Anon 6:48... and I think that editors/agents aren't really looking for writers. Most as a general rule have more clients than they can sell/keep up with, yet they all like to keep their options open in case some mysterious demi-god writer happens to appear before them.

It would be more honest for writers' conferences to state in their brochures that the agents/editors in attendence are only there to educate you, not potentially sign you. Sure, if you've been to a conference before, you've got that figured out, but for all the newbies that go every year it's downright painful seeing that hope in their eyes as they're talking about their pitch appointments -- in their eyes they're about to get a book deal.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous Peon, I'd love to see the Rejecter get compensated, too, but the Google ads for writing topics are mostly for the kinds of scams the Rejecter is trying to warn people away from. It's one more piece of proof that the market for writing-related services is almost entirely made up of desperate authors.

Rejecter, I'd be interested in hearing more about the small presses you saw. Why do those three genres predominate?

Anonymous said...

Timothy Fish: How do you know good writing from bad writing? How do you refine your sensibilities to recognize what works? You just keep going at it. Nobody is completely blind. You always improve a little bit when you practice, and you know what improvement is, if you're a reasonably intelligent person. I think the problem today is most people don't have enough time to practice.

Anonymous said...

"...they all like to keep their options open in case some mysterious demi-god writer happens to appear before them."

So how do we become demigods?

"...for all the newbies that go every year it's downright painful seeing that hope in their eyes as they're talking about their pitch appointments -- in their eyes they're about to get a book deal."

Now I want to kill myself. How many of you share my sentiment? The best writers have to be suicidal because we're practically doomed from the start. I'm already dead. I'm already dead. I'm already dead. I don't care. My only options are absolute freedom and eternal darkness. Take nothing personally because you're not a person. We have to be prophets to survive. It's the only way to compensate for all the discouragement. Alternating currents of gold and black. Become obesessed with big and outlandish ideas, and by virtue of distinction, you'll get more attention. The system favors the kind of personality that demands a readership. The rage to master. Plus perseverance.

Why doesn't the Rejecter ever discuss the difference between good literature and bad literature? I think that would be more useful than explaining the publishing process. You need something worth publishing to be published. How do we get to that point? Is there an objective standard? What is it? What makes a good story? What makes a clever plot? How far are you willing to stretch your imagination? What role does realism play? How important is character? Should we seek to be original or merely copy the styles of others? Where do we find inspiration? What should we read? What's a common story we should avoid? What are the principles of beauty? How do we know if dialogue sounds right? All of these things. How can we learn to teach ourselves? We have only ourselves to count on. We are all individuals and all of us should act like it. Where do we begin?

These are just casual ideas. Don't take them too seriously, although I do believe any serious writer would seriously consider them, but please, do so in your free time, if you have any. And if you don't have enough free time, you can't be a writer.

Rick Bylina said...

Anonymous said: "If we all write the best we can four or five hours a day, every day, for ten years, couldn't we all write a good book? Am I being naive, or isn't that how it's supposed to be done?"

Sadly, I believe you're being naive. You might be able to write a coherent book, but it may not be a good book. Just as in any human endeavor, there are people who can make the grade, and some who can only watch from behind some wall they can not scale.

Anonymous said...

Rick, I must split my decision. Any writer learns to write primarily by reading, but then at some point he or she must begin writing.

You can't learn to do it by reading how-to books, attending conferences, listening to endless prattle about "we just want the best book you can write." They don't. They want the best book SOMEONE ELSE has written. And a whole swackload of money.

And the agents aren't there at the conference to listen to your pitch, much less to sign you. They are there to schmooze with the editors, other agents, and clients they are already working for.

Yeah, go to the events if you want to, but don't think you're going to learn the secret handshake. And Tim's not quite spot-on either--you do learn to write by writing many nasty, naive, stupid pieces of writing. Those you shove into the box under your bed, and keep writing until you can write something good.

Anonymous said...

"Just as in any human endeavor, there are people who can make the grade, and some who can only watch from behind some wall they can not scale."

And the people who make the grade always have the same attitude of, "You can do anything. Overcome all obstacles. Ingenuity prevail!" It takes a ridiculous amount of endurance to put up with people always telling you you can't do it. Even if you're a genius, people will still discourage you, because that's the overall trend. The slushpile is overwhelming, and so the assumption is you automatically suck. This may be more of a systemic problem in our culture, (and I know school has a lot to do with it.) We're manufacturing idiots. I've never met a bad writer in possession of that indisputable spark of enlightenment you see, that you often imagine, and you're always looking for. (School kills the spark.) In my experience, bad writers think nothing is good or bad, nothing is true or false. The reason they write badly is they eschew the whole idea of bad writing. They think everything is beautiful. So it seems to me, and this is my best guess, that the first step is to be able to distinguish good writing from bad writing. I estimate about half of all aspiring authors don't get to that point in their intellectual development, not by any fault of their own, but because their oxygen supply has been cut off. I remember, and I think this is the root of the problem, I had a lot of high school teachers who were so open-minded they had no taste. They would be willing to reserve the possibility that true=false. Many many educators have mutilated their minds that they have no rational foundation on which to build a single judgement. I'm not entirely clear on the causes of this, but it's apparent to me that before we can reclaim literature, we have to overthrow the school system and replace it with open academies that value individual distinction instead of uniform obedience. That probably sounds impossible, but it's insane enough to be right.

Anonymous said...

Holy Crapazola Batman; This is one depressing set of comments! And just in time for the holidays too. How nice.

And you thought writers' conferences were a depressing concept? Read some of these comments and you'll want to swallow your own tongue.

Geez! Go write your damned books and try to live your life while you're doing it.

Anonymous said...

To date, I haven't attended a writer's conference. I guess I'd better get moving. On a side note, I am a bit surprised that a genre such as Erotic Christian Fantasy even exists. Each day I learn something that blows my mind.

Anonymous said...

"If we all write the best we can four or five hours a day, every day, for ten years, couldn't we all write a good book? Am I being naive, or isn't that how it's supposed to be done?"

Sorry, I think some people are no more likely to write a good book--no matter how hard they try--than an infinite number of monkeys sitting at an infinite number of typewriters.

I'm a lazy, published writer. I'm not sure I ever wrote for five hours in a day. (Although I probably could be better if I worked harder.)

I'm also amazed at how people can work so hard--much harder than me--to produce some astoundingly bad writing.

I doubt that any reader of a slush pile will disagree with any of what I said--even the part about some lazy writers being good writers.

Anonymous said...

Practice plus philosophy. You need to have the right framework for the practice to do anything. What kind of framework? What makes good writing?

You'd have to explain the bad writing you mentioned. What was wrong with it? My suspicion is we can point at something and say, "That writer had a false pretense at the root of their brain. They didn't understand beauty. If only they had a better education."

Anonymous said...

The reason they write badly is they eschew the whole idea of bad writing. They think everything is beautiful.

Well, that explains ERAGON (TM)!