Tuesday, November 29, 2016


I recently encountered a Salon article titled, "Better yet, DON'T Write That Novel: Why National Novel Writing Month is a Waste of Energy." It might seem to some people that was an article I might have written (sadly, I am not a writer for Salon. I really need more work) but I'm going to go ahead and disagree with some it, and not just because I'm currently trying to finish up my own NaNoWriMo novel while fighting off jetlag and possibly pneumonia. But this section was particularly interesting to me:

But even if every one of these 30-day novelists prudently slipped his or her manuscript into a drawer, all the time, energy and resources that go into the enterprise strike me as misplaced.

Here’s why: NaNoWriMo is an event geared entirely toward writers, which means it’s largely unnecessary. When I recently stumbled across a list of promotional ideas for bookstores seeking to jump on the bandwagon, true dismay set in. “Write Your Novel Here” was the suggested motto for an in-store NaNoWriMo event. It was yet another depressing sign that the cultural spaces once dedicated to the selfless art of reading are being taken over by the narcissistic commerce of writing.

I say “commerce” because far more money can be made out of people who want to write novels than out of people who want to read them. And an astonishing number of individuals who want to do the former will confess to never doing the latter. “People would come up to me at parties,” author Ann Bauer recently told me, “and say, ‘I’ve been thinking of writing a book. Tell me what you think of this …’ And I’d (eventually) divert the conversation by asking what they read … Now, the ‘What do you read?’ question is inevitably answered, ‘Oh, I don’t have time to read. I’m just concentrating on my writing.'”

It really is amazing how NaNoWriMo has taken off. I got involved with it around 2008, and done it more or less every year with some exceptions for family emergencies or because I was busy editing a novel that had a publication deadline. Only one of my November novels was turned into a book that was published, and its admittedly one of my weaker works.

I don't think there's anything wrong with teaching writing being an industry, because I've always understood writing as an act that is very different from reading, and the two are not always connected. It's true that my favorite writing is when I'm doing something that I would want to read and just doesn't exist yet, but I've also written for more professional reasons, or even less professional ones, like I needed to finish NaNoWriMo. The act of writing is very different from the act of reading; they have their own demands and pleasures and are really two separate hobbies, and people can have as many hobbies as they want and spread their energies across them accordingly.

I was probably 11 or 12 when my mother was on a trip and happened on a group of writers, and she expressed concern that I was spending all of my time writing, and therefore cutting back on my reading. They told her not to worry; that happened to all of them, but I would slowly circle back, or that's what she told me they said. They ended up being totally correct. On average, in my adult life, I read around 50 to 60 books a year outside of work or school. A lot of that is thanks to the luxury of being Shomer Shabbat (google it), so I have 25 hours every week where I can't work, travel, shop, or use electronics, and I don't have children, so that really opens my time up for reading, so I confess that I don't read a lot during the week. The overwhelming majority of the books are non-fiction, overwhelmingly history books or books on religion or culture, sometimes as research for something I want to write and sometimes just out of random interest, and I'm very lucky to live in New York, where there are stands full of cheap paperbacks at the same time as non-fiction is so popular, so I always have enough material to find while just walking around.

There are undoubtedly writers with very small worlds who don't read enough and end up producing the same material over and over because their contact with new ideas is minimal (looking at you, Woody Allen, who doesn't read books or watch new movies or really interact with the world at all), but plenty of people get their inspiration from things other than books, and plenty of people get too much inspiration from books and just copy their favorite writers. As I kid - I was probably about 9 - I wrote a 400-page novel, still unfinished, that was basically a Redwall rip-off. But spending so much time writing each night (I wouldn't let myself go to sleep until I'd written ten pages, though to be fair the spacing on those pages was pretty wide) gave me a certain discipline about writing that has carried me through my professional life, and is always why I've never not finished NaNoWriMo, though this year's going to be a close one.

I don't remember seeing submissions at work that were NaNoWriMo books, except maybe one or two. People know that 50,000 words is too short for a book, so the people who do submit books from that month are probably submitting them after finishing them in December or January, at a proper length. Generally people overwrite; I saw many more books that were way too long than way too short. I wouldn't be terribly upset if there's a shift in our word culture towards shorter novels, but that remains to be seen.

I don't see NaNoWriMo as positive or negative. It just is. People want to write, and they now have a more concentrated outlet for that, and people who might not normally try something of this length would be encouraged to. Yes, a lot of nonsense will be written, but that doesn't always translated to a lot of nonsense being submitted, which is different. I don't see writing as selfish. It's a contemplative and difficult personal act done in one's own time, and everyone has the right to decide how to spend their time. Even if it's writing a piece for a blog and then just putting it in your NaNoWriMo file because it's November 29th and you've still got 8000 words to get on digital paper, because you've never not finished.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016


Thank you for the post. I am an author with a finished book looking for an agent. But first, I have to rewrite the outline that one agent was kind enough to tell me sucked (and wasn't in the same league with the query letter). Maybe I am looking for traditional publishing because I want that validation. Maybe because it looks like traditional publishing might offer some help in marketing the book. Maybe I'd just like enough money from this to make up my expenses (so far, besides supplies, that would be $342 for proofreading, which was the friends and family price) and pay off the credit card. You, at least, are not afraid to tell me the truth about renumeration. The self-published among my critique group are not so forthcoming. (Me? If I never make a cent, I'll still be fine.)

 I'm not really sure what "your outline sucked" means. I've never criticized anybody's outline. Usually if the outline has been requested, we just read it to make sure that the book doesn't go on any wild tangents that weren't mentioned in the query and end up destroying the book, which happens more than you'd think (a lot of people don't know how to end a book). Outlines are there to just go point to point to point. But other people must feel differently.

Look, if you want to be published traditionally, go for it. You probably won't make a lot of money, but they'll do a really good copyediting and layout job, they'll give you some publicity, and you'll be more than just handsales. Your cover won't be unbelievably terrible. And you'll have status. Not a lot, but more than unsuccessful (and most self-published writers are unsuccessful) self-published writers do. The industry exists for a reason. Walking into a bookstore and seeing your book on the shelf is something has no real comparison.

But if every agent you query to rejects your book, and I'm talking about more than 40 agents at least, there's probably a problem with the book.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Pissing Off Agents for Fun and No Profit

(shout out to In the Box, a blogger after my own heart)

Some of you may have seen the post going around by an author who was rejected at a pitch conference. I'm not going to repost it in full here, but here's the link for reference. It caught my attention because I actually know several of the people mentioned (Jennifer not being one of them), and they are all insanely good people who love to read and have devoted their lives to promoting authors and their works. There's just a few things I'd like to address specifically.

(1) Agents love to read. Everyone in publishing loves to read. There's no other reason we're working in publishing - it certainly can't be for the money, as publishing is traditionally an especially low-paying industry (because historically, it's had a lot of women in it, and you can pay them less). That's why we're so busy - because we're reading. And we're not just reading submissions. We're reading what's on the market, we're reading what's going on in publishing, and we're reading those classics we should have read in high school but we had that one teacher who didn't assign Beloved. (Oh, and lots and lots of fan fiction) On average, I read 50-60 books a year for pleasure or research for my own writing. When I was working as an assistant, I could knock out as many as five full manuscript submissions a day before my brain would turn to mush.

(2) We don't remember everyone's submissions. There are submissions I'll always remember and probably be telling my grandkids about, like the novel about a man getting raped by his kitchen appliances that was somehow also really good, or some memoir-ish-enough pseudo thriller that made me think the author might have killed a bunch of people in Southeast Asia, but dang if I can recall the names of the authors. I don't remember my friends' names, much less the names of authors whose manuscripts I read months or years ago.

(3) Of course we don't want your flash drive. Dude, cyber security 101, right up there with keeping a sticker over your built-in camera. At the last BEA in New York I asked a guy who worked at a house that imported fiction from China for a catalog, which must be the only time I ever asked for a catalog, and I was horrified when he gave me a flash drive. That he got from China. You know, the hacking center of the world? Plus I've seen Mr. Robot so that makes it all much worse.

(4) I've never been to a pitch conference. I've had some bosses go and managed some submissions. I also once received a submission that said "requested manuscript" all over it and the query specified that he'd met my boss at a conference she didn't go to. She was scheduled to go, and her name appeared in the brochure, but she hadn't actually gone because of a last-minute issue, so he'd just plucked her name off the brochure and hoped that she wouldn't remember that the meeting didn't happen. Who knows if he actually went.

Friday, July 22, 2016


Last night I was at an author reading at the Strand, New York's premiere overpriced used bookstore. I have to give them credit as a store for building and marketing their brand so well that people will work for them despite accusations of discriminatory hiring policies.

Anyway, the author was a favorite comic strip artist of mine who now had her first collection published, by a traditional publisher and everything. She was swamped by fans, and the signing lasted over an hour and a half, so much so that I went down to the main store, bought some books, then came back up, and there was still a huge line. I wish her all the best.

The Q&A was a bit awkward. People were happy about her success, but seemed to be under the impression that because she had one books published, she was rolling in dough and spending all of her time writing new comics to post on Tumblr, and those hand sales of the night were really helping her out. Meanwhile, I was estimating that if she made 7.5% (an average rate, though maybe not for illustrators) per copy at a $15.00 cover price, that meant she made ... $1.13 per book. Given the average costs of living in New York, even if her book is wildly successful, and she got some kind of advance, she'll be lucky to break even the first year, and beyond that, well, here there be dragons.

When I got into fiction writing as a career, I was told that for the first book, I would make about a $5000 advance, then about $35,000 for each additional book, meaning if I put out a book a year (a very reasonable rate for me) I would do okay. In fact I would do better than being an editorial assistant at a publishing company, where the salaries I was offered were from 28-30K, which could move up to 35K in five years, provided I was promoted. So that seemed like a plan.

Instead, my first advance was $1000 (after I talked them up from $500), my second advance was $2500 for a two-book deal, and several books continued in that vein until I was offered no advance at all and started self-publishing. At this point I have about fifteen major publications, between the novels, novellas, and short story collections, and I can't begin to make ends meet. (Skyrocketing health care costs don't help)

What I really wanted to ask this poor author, but didn't, was "So what's your other job?" Because I'm curious. Most writers who are not also English teachers guard their actual source of income from the public as a source of shame, which ends up misleading aspiring authors. I didn't want to shame her; I was genuinely curious myself, as I find myself at a career crossroads. But I didn't ask for obvious reasons, though she did mention in passing that she got started on comics when she was bored on a night shift security job, which got me wondering how I could score a sweet job like that that let me sit at a desk and write all night, because those jobs usually prefer to hire beefy guys and she was not a beefy guy.

What writers are doing for a living now has become a genuinely interesting question to me. An established pop culture writer, whose books I own, recently posted to social networks that he'd been hired to do an article but was posting to GoFundMe because he couldn't afford the transportation costs. In other words, the company had not paid him the money required to even get the assignment done, resulting in a loss for him. What was he writing for - exposure?

If anyone wants to sound off on this, anonymously or otherwise, I would be interested. It would be good for upcoming writers to know what they're getting into. Not that I want to put you off from writing that novel. I just feel that if you're that committed, it'll happen anyway.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Not-So-Old Mail

Hello Anonymous reject, I am a University drop out. I suck at everything I do. In the year 2000 I rejected a publisher that offered me a $10 advance on a short story I wrote. It was a science fiction story. After fourteen years later, I finally picked up the courage to rebuild the story I wrote back in the year 2000 to turn it into an adult fantasy with mild sexual context. I must admit I have not had any luck with any publishers. A few have called my stories fascinating but not really what they are looking for. I feel that my style of writing contains too much strong language and I need advice on writing a better query letter and finding an agent or publisher with a stronger backbone. 

Awww. I don't have any context for this, but I'm sure you don't suck at everything you do.

"Not what we are looking for" is a generic rejection phrase. There's not much to read into there, but it's honest. There was something they didn't like about the book, so they didn't take you on as a client because they didn't feel they could sell it to a publisher. Agents don't tell people why because we're not in the business of kicking people when they're down. (Trust me, you don't want to know our reasons)

I don't think strong language and mild sexual content was the issue, considering sales of erotica on Amazon topping all of the charts, but if you think it was, just write another book that doesn't use strong language or contain sexual content. But definitely write something new; if your old book has been rejected everywhere that's a good sign that you should move on.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I'm Kind of Grouchy)

Welcome back, readers! I decided to make a rare post to promote a fiverr service, only to log in to my old email and discover that Yahoo had decided to stop forwarding my mail about 3 years ago, so I was receiving mail at the Rejecter account and it was just sitting there. Since I used the account so rarely, it passed my notice. For all of you who waited for responses, if your questions are still relevant, I will try to get to them.

I'm no longer working as a query reader. For years and years I was an assistant to various agencies based on availability and their needs, but that time has passed. I was busy going back to school and my job became increasingly computerized, which really cut down the available working hours. Way back in the day, I had to go into an actual office, open up the office, get the mail from the mail room, open the mail, read the mail, then scribble a reply or stuff the form reply in a return envelope, then send it out again. Sometimes there was fussing over there being no SASE or we would get those tickets from overseas submissions that acted as a coupon for American postage but we still had to go to the post office to mail the letter back. Gmail cut all that down to "look at query letter and hit reject." And then my boss stopped taking new fiction clients altogether because there wasn't enough money in it to justify his time, and that was that. Honestly, I was getting tired of reading mediocre thriller after mediocre thriller, as we seemed to have a glut of those for a while, so it all worked out for the best. And now I'm underemployed like all of my friends who also live in New York, and getting by on royalties from my books, most of which are self-published at this point.

But enough about me. What about publishing? Well, there's one big secret in publishing today and here it is: No one knows what's going on in publishing.

Sure, within their niche markets people might think they have a handle on it, but then again I see the signs of people shifting around, out of their traditional markets and into new ones, and old school authors don't do that unless they have to. The sci-fi/fantasy market is traditionally stable, but then again Chuck Tingle got nominated for a Hugo and I'm not totally convinced he isn't a sophisticated computer program. The category romance network, the bread-and-butter-but-you-tell-everyone-else-you're-gluten-free backbone of publishing, is being severely undercut by badly-edited fanfiction that's selling for 99c a pop. I got some contract offers to write novellas that I had to turn down because my desire to make a living (hey, work is work) was slightly overwhelmed by my inability to write anything that I knww will feature a naked guy on the cover. I called one series I was almost hired to write for "Werewolves Don't Know Much About Informed Consent."

On the other hand, some authors are making a bundle. To be clear, for my original three books that were published by a mainstream publisher, I make 3.5% of cover price for digital sales, and 70% for my self-published stuff, so I can afford to make the books cheap and still make the same money. That benefits the reader (who saves money) and the author (who makes the same or more), so it's hard to tell who's losing, but very few people are winning.

It is truly a period for massive creativity and an expansion of available content. I got a contract with Kindle Worlds to write a survivalist dystopia novella and, in doing market research, discovered an entire thriving sub-genre I didn't know about, where ex-military people explain in novel form why they would definitely survive the apocalypse and also be better than the other survivors. The quality of the content varies from author to author, but they sell to each other and their numbers look good.

Meanwhile, traditional publishing is behaving like you do when your fire alarm goes off in the apartment complex at 4 am, and you know the fire's not in your apartment, and you really don't feel like getting up because it's probably someone's burnt popcorn, so you wait fifteen minutes for the fire trucks to start showing up and decide maybe all those fire safety classes you sat through in grade school meant something, so you put on your winter coat over your pajamas and decide to see if the bagel store next door is open while this all gets sorted out. I know that's oddly specific, but I don't think traditional publishing houses are burning down (metaphorically). I just know there are some contained emergencies.

I've been to a bunch of conferences now on new media and new models for publishing, and everyone seems to have their own, and boy are they sure excited about it, at least until someone asks the inevitable follow-up question, "And how are the sales?" Because remember, publishing is a business. It employs people, who work for money that they need to purchase goods or services. A publishing house could employ an entire department of professional designers with the appropriate degrees to design all their books, and give them a low-to-medium salary and maybe health and dental, or each author could hit up people on Fiverr and spend $5 to maybe come up with a halfway decent cover in a few days. I pay out $50 a pop to a friend of mine who's a graphic designer to work on each cover, which is based on minimum wage for the hours he's working, plus the fact that we're friends, plus the fact that I do about 50% of the initial design work myself and he puts a professional polish on it. It's not a lot of money but it's what I can afford and I want my friend to get money for his work.

So while it's fun to be down on traditional publishers in their ivory towers, and watch self-published books take off on Amazon, there's a workforce that's under fire. Most of my friends who worked in publishing either no longer do, now have a second job, or have switched to a different field within publishing as their job transformed. You, the desperate author (because what author isn't desperate? Come on guys) may not see any of this, but it's distressing. And distressed people are less likely to take risks on new books.

No one knows what's going on in self-publishing, either. Maybe it's that Amazon either launches a new program that no one can see the metrics of yet or it's just changed up something complicated about how discounts work in an affiliate program about once a month, or the collapse of Amazon alternatives, but we're all winging it. People sell their eBooks on the sophisticated algorithm they developed to boost their Kindle sales, involving sacrificial roosters and only selling in the coinage of Cappodia on Fridays for all I know, and by the time you get around to reading it the information is moot. There was always a part of publishing that was magic, in that it didn't adhere to logic or reason, and that's carried right over to the self-publishing crowd. At least there'll always be some markers of stability.

Things That Have Not Changed in Publishing:
1. Hiring a publicist is about are useful as tossing your money into a dark pit in the woods, without the excitement of getting to visit a dark pit in the woods.
2. Too much erotica involves a really hot guy essentially raping a young, inexperienced woman but later she's cool with it, so it's okay. (And women write these things! So there's no excuse!)
3. There is not enough diversity in publishing, a problem I didn't really know existed previously, not because I'm white but because I never know what authors look like. Usually I can't even remember the author's name. But apparently I was wrong; it's a huge problem.
4. Book stores make me excited to be a writer, even if my books aren't always in them.
5. There are too many cookbooks.

If You Still Want an Agent
I've had an agent for years and she's been really handy in getting me contract work. She's actually not my original agent - she retired - but I was handed to someone else in the agency so I'm not completely free-floating, career-wise, even if she doesn't rep everything I write because she's not interested in certain categories. If you want to get traditionally published, you still need an agent (or a relative who works in publishing as a high-level editor who is also a cheap drunk). If you've been self-publishing and you're totally sick of doing all of your own publicity all the time because it's the worst, you could probably use an agent. If you've written a novel about the secrets of the universe as revealed to you by a dove sent by Jesus's brother and you need someone to talk you down before you embarrass yourself in public, you should at least be sending queries to agents so that after the first 40 rejections, you can take a hint.

Long story not short: I'm now offering a query letter review service on Fiverr. It's cheap, it's honest, and if you're going to be sending out to as many agents as possible and you're already investing the time and energy in that, it's worth your time. So check it out! (Please!)