Friday, October 16, 2015

Not swinging for the fences

            I’ve missed writing an entry over the past couple of weeks because I’ve been working on a short story for a journal. The deadline for the story was October 15, and I got started on the story a bit late in the game. As such much of the time I would usually dedicate to putting together a blog entry was turned over to developing and refining the short story instead.
            The reason this particular story took on such importance for me is somewhat complicated. I finished a novel this spring and over the summer began figuring out how to get it out into the world. In the process I have come to understand what people mean when they say the work of writing a book is only half finished when the writing is done. After that you have to convince several layers of people that what you have produced is interesting enough and marketable enough for them to dedicate their resources towards publishing it. Not having any immediate contacts, I went about trying to stir something up. I identified over one hundred agents that were open to queries from new authors. I put together the requisite materials to send to them along with a letter that was both professional and inclusive of some individualized details. I mailed out the queries ten at a time and then waited, hoping someone would take a flyer on me.
After going through this cycle a couple of times, I began to feel like I was playing the lottery. There is a big prize out there and to get to it you have to play the game, but the numbers are such that your odds of breaking through are ridiculously small. It’s not a matter of quality. There are many stories out there. Some are great. Some are horrible. Both types get through the process and into publication. But for a person like me without any other contacts, credentials, or previously published work, it’s mostly a matter of dumb luck.
This is a horrible position to be in because you have to keep doing the same thing over and over again with the hope that at some point it will produce different results. This creates a feeling of powerlessness that leads people to consider all kinds of desperate measures: phone calls to agent and publisher offices despite explicit instructions not to call, ambushes on agents at writers’ conferences, repeated spamming of agents and publishers in hopes of getting through. Some agents used to exploit this desperation by charging fees for even reading a query and its associated materials. While this practice has faded, it seems that they can still get away with charging for face time at writers’ conferences (one in my area was advertising fifteen minutes of one-on-one time with an agent for $25).
In September I began looking for ways to change the balance of power. Agents and publishers need good material from authors. They can’t make money without it. The question is how to become known as someone who is producing good material and thus someone the agents and publishers want to have working with them. The answer, I’ve decided, is to get material out almost anywhere I can and then use those publications to leverage further publications. It’s basically finding the bottom of the writing ladder and methodically working my way up. One could also think of this in baseball terms as going for singles and doubles instead of swinging for the proverbial home run.
What this means practically is that I am backing away from my agent query efforts in favor of two other strategies. The first is to find a smaller regional publisher for the novel I’ve already completed. It isn’t doing me any good sitting around on my computer. Better to get it out and have a few people in my area read it than have it grow stale waiting for a big break. The second strategy is to try to publish short stories in journals of increasing importance. This strategy is a long term effort, but it has the upshot of getting me more practice at creating and crafting stories and regularly engaging in the process of publication. Whether this will ultimately get me where I want to go is uncertain. However, I like the idea of working on something much more than sitting around hoping that someday somebody will stumble upon me.


  1. This reminds me a bit of my husband, looking to get a job at a certain large company. This and others get thousands of resumes a year and only a few of those people get responses. Yet, on the other side, now that he works for the company he sees how difficult the search is to find talented employees. Of the people who get through the initial blockade, some are great, some terrible, some average. In my husband's case, his "cold call" happened, shockingly, to work. But many others seem to have success by essentially advertising themselves online with well written blogs, contributions, social media, etc. It's a huge job! Good luck on your publisher hunt.

  2. Thanks. I think the ease of electronic communication today makes finding/filling positions much more of a lottery than ever before, particularly at entry levels. Increasing your odds of getting what you want requires you to think more strategically about how those kind of choices get made and what it takes to get a foot in the door. There is still plenty of luck involved, but you have to figure out how to make your own luck as well.