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Thursday, December 7

Discriminating Against Quality: the New Low of Traditional Publishing

By Dario Ciriello

Part of the Indie Author Series


In the last few months I’ve had the good fortune to see two extraordinary manuscripts.

One of these was a developmental edit on a novel I’d critiqued the opening chapters of last year. The work is an intensely dark suspense novel set in a remote tavern in the Northeast at the time of the Revolutionary War. The piece is saturated in atmosphere, the narrative and character voices terse and spare. It’s as startling a novel as I’ve ever come across, the sort of thing agents and editors at publishing houses claim to live for. I had been impressed by the chapters I’d critiqued initially; now, weeks after returning the edited manuscript, I find myself still thinking about it.

The second piece came to me for critique. The author, whom I later discovered has been writing seriously for thirty-five years, has queried over sixty agents and not even had a request for a partial: he wanted a reality check on whether the novel had merit.

As I read through the work, a 155k-word fantasy bordering on the epic and set in what feels like an alternate world in a period with clear elements of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century North America, I realized I was looking at a my second unique work in two months: the story, beautifully told in omniscient with a nineteenth-century sensitivity of style, and so clean you could have published it there and then without editing or proofing, was of a quality and breadth that I associate with World Fantasy Award-winning novels. It was astonishing.

Both these novels contain supernatural, mystical, fantastic elements; both incorporate larger-than-life, fully realized characters who drive the action; both are beautifully written, seamless, impossible to put down; and both still resonate long after I returned the annotated manuscripts.

My point in telling you all this is that both these authors will almost certainly, as I advise readers at the conclusion of my recent writing craft book, Drown the Cat, be going indie. In fact, I advised both clients to do so after critiquing/editing their novels; I suggested they go indie, I confess, with the greatest reluctance.

Why? Because I know all too well from experience – mine and others’ -- just how hard the indie publishing road is (as, perhaps, do you). Because authors writing at this level would, in any sane world, or even this world two or three decades ago, at least get a fair shake from an agent or publisher. The fact that none have shown the slight interest in either of these fine novels, not even requesting partials, shows just how broken and, frankly, creatively bankrupt, trad publishing is.

I do understand the dilemma faced by readers at literary agencies and publishing houses. The slush pile1 is a slathering, poison-fanged, all-consuming monster, and the only way to survive it is by rejecting as many manuscripts per hour as is humanly possible in the (frequently vain) hope that there’s a story worth your time buried in there somewhere…if you could only get to it.

Unfortunately, the way the industry approaches the problem of first cut selection – rather like the mania for testing in schools – is by standardizing and unreasonably weighting the importance of synopses and query letters. We all know very well that you can be a terrific writer and yet suck at queries. What a first reader should really be focusing on initially are the prose skills shown in the first few paras of a story; if these are good, glance ahead. The synopsis is important, but only insofar as it needs to show that the plot hangs together (so many don’t) and that necessary character arcs are there; the query letter should be ignored: a good one only proves that the writer can write query letters. A simple cover should suffice. And don’t get me started on the industry’s obsession with categories.

So which new authors get asked for fulls? In the main, those who can write amazing queries and synopses, and who write formulaic and easily categorized stories that fit nicely with the industry’s ideas about what readers like. And there’s plenty of those manuscripts going around. I recently asked one award-winning author friend if they could suggest any agents who might have a look at these authors’ work. Their reply was that they don't know a single agent in the field who’s actively looking for new authors, and that they believe the chances of success today are as good for the indie as for the trad pubbed author.

And there you have it. Go indie and don’t look back.

Are you going, or have you considered going, indie because you believe traditional publishing system is completely broken?

Dario Ciriello is a professional author and editor as well as the founder of Panverse Publishing.

His fiction includes Sutherland's Rules, a crime caper/thriller with a shimmer of the fantastic; Black Easter, a supernatural suspense novel which pits love against black magic and demonic possession on a remote, idyllic Greek island; and Free Verse and Other Stories, a collection of Dario's short science fiction work.

Dario’s 2011 nonfiction book, Aegean Dream, the bittersweet memoir of a year spent on the small Greek island of Skópelos (the real Mamma Mia! island), was an Amazon UK travel bestseller. Drown the Cat: The Rebel Author’s Guide to Writing Beyond the Rules (Panverse, July 4 2017) is his second nonfiction work.

In addition to writing, Dario, who lives in the Los Angeles Area, offers professional editing and copyediting services to indie authors.

Website | Facebook | Goodreads

About Drown The Cat: The Rebel Author's Guide to Writing Beyond the Rules

Drown the Cat is a complete guide for the fiction writer who wants to develop an individual voice and understand the reasons underlying the so-called rules of writing. Although a few rules really are necessary, the vast majority are either dogma or passing fads. Worse, so much advice like “show don’t tell” and “open with action” is often poorly explained and entirely misunderstood, causing writers no end of problems.

Drawing on fifteen years of writing, critiquing, editing and mentoring experience, Dario Ciriello explodes writing myths, shreds conventional wisdom, and dissects the often misleading advice and diktats shouted at writers by books and blogs, agents and publishers. Drown the Cat gives authors the necessary tools and insights to retake control of their story and make it unique.

Whether your interest lies in novels or screenwriting, Drown the Cat shows you how to tell your story in your voice and place it before your audience, eschewing formulas and cookie-cutter fiction to remain true to your own, exceptional vision while adhering to the few rules that actually matter. Because writing isn’t about prose wonks and industry insiders: it’s about the reader, and most of all it’s about telling a story. Your story.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | | iTunes | Indie Bound | Kobo | Panverse

Notes

1I had three years of experience with my own slush pile when I was publishing the Panverse anthologies series and, later, taking novel submissions

21 comments:

  1. Thanks Dario for this reality check. After a lot of research and thinking, I decided hybrid is the way to go for me. I have no doubt great stories get overlooked. Some indie writers are amazing and doing great on their own. Some published books stay on the shelves only a few months and then are forgotten. I believe quality is always recognized, even if it happens slowly and organically. The problem is when traditionally published, the work we have invested years in are lost forever. It's a gambling. With Indie, we can always rework a story and relaunch it. I think traditional publishing will have to come up with new ways of helping writers. They will, given time. I believe agents will need more and more gate keepers in the form of contests and mentoring. Too many writers query when they are not ready, which gives less chance for books like the ones you mentioned to be spotted and recognized. These books you referred to might do more than well as indie publications. Good luck to them both.

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    1. Sussu, thanks for that great comment. I completely agree.

      Traditionally published books have a very short shelf life. Unless a title takes off, it's typically pulled from the bookstore about three months after release. Couple that with the little or zero marketing and publicity given a new author, and they're perfectly set up for failure.

      I do understand the pressures facing agents and publishers, and I think you're right that they're going to have to evolve if they want to survive. What I wonder though is why they're taking so damned long about it. If you want to survive in the 2010s you can't move at the pace of the 1950s.

      As with TV, I think Amazon publishing is one of the few lights in the growing darkness settling over the industry. As well as seeing various articles praising their plain English contracts, I know from one author friend that they are very different to work with than the other majors, and put real muscle behind their authors. Of course, given their dominance of indie, that could prove a double-edged sword.

      Thanks again, and all the very best with your own work!

      Dario

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    2. You wrote, "I believe quality is always recognized, even if it happens slowly and organically."

      I believe this too, FWIW. But visibility is a tremendous challenge, especially so for the reluctant self-promoter, the slower novel writer, or those who write in more than one genre.

      Best,
      D

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  2. Hi Dario

    Over a year ago you advised me(quite rightly)that going indie with my 'Titanic' story manuscript was like shooting the story in the foot. I understood but felt I had little choice, and I self-published. Crickets... No surprises.

    But I think it was the only choice for me. At least going Indie holds within it the prospect of serendipity. It's likely the best unknown authors can hope for in a publishing business run afoul of being enslaved to the public's demand for a risk-free golden Netflix entity between the covers of a book.

    Sadly, I believe your analysis today is the truth. Which makes indie authors damned if we do and damned if we don't.

    Still we pitch at conferences and send pages and... more cricket.

    In some ways, it's a mugs game but we writers play as it's the only show in town, and write because we love to write.

    Thanks for your, as always, honest reality checks.

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    1. Hi Vero :) Always good to see you here, and thanks for your kind words.

      You did the right thing. Even though I've been indie for six years, I've always tried to remain objective and not slam trad publishers just because. I'm not ideological, and really believe in keeping an open mind where possible, and I do try to give nuanced advice. But the industry today is in my opinion so deeply dysfunctional with regard to selecting and nurturing new authors through the pupa stage and helping them out of their chrysalis that we have no choice.

      I would feel better advising people to go indie if not for the fact that many of us are INFJs and INTJs, and suck at marketing. But since a new author who gets a trad pub deal pretty much has to do all their own marketing and promo anyway, the choice seems inevitable.

      Warmest,
      Dario

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    1. I think so, too, H.R. Like the music industry back in the early oughts, when Napster and filesharing had the industry in turmoil, trad pub seems to be unable to adapt. Oh, they're still making money, but that's largely by putting all their weight behind a few bestselling authors, celebrity memoirs, and the like, at immense cost to new authors and the midlist.

      Best,
      Dario

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    2. I guess that's their idea of adapting.

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  5. My guess is that the protagonists in those books were middle-aged or older — a nearly impossible sell these days.

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    1. Hi Karen! Thanks for commenting.

      Point understood, but that's not the case here. In the first, one of the key protags, and really the one who is the primary focus of the story, is eleven. In the other, although there are several primaries, the couple who open and close the story are young, probably in their early twenties.

      Rejectomancy is such an imperfect and chancy science. I think there's a lot going on, but mostly we have an industry that has a narrow comfort zone centered on what they think is a winning template, coupled with an insane expectation and reliance on query crafting because it takes too long to consider the actual submitted material.

      Best
      Dario

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    2. That's another problem, the Young Adult market is completely oversaturated. It's like adults don't even read adult stories anymore and agents just want to force all characters into the 15 - 18 age range which simply does not suit many amazing stories. They don't even often want characters that are 19 - 30, still very young characters but they don't fit the mold of the teen characters. There needs to be a resurgence in adult characters over age 18.

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    3. I think a reality nobody wants to deal with is that so many people who used to read are reading less or not at all. This is to some degree offset by new readers -- younger ones, maybe -- coming along; it's hard to get metrics on this. nother question that needs answering is how many books, especially low-cost ebooks, which are bought actually get read?

      There is some evidence that baby boomers and gen Xers -- IOW, people 40 and older -- are more addicted to device use, social media, etc., and their attention spans more fragmented, than youth. I might posit that digital natives transition better between tasks and can live online 24/7 and still read as part of their online life. I don't know.

      What I DO know is that as long as trad pub's decisions and policies over what gets published are increasingly dictated by suits for the benefit of shareholders to the detriment of creatives, literature will suffer.

      Best,
      Dario

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  6. This is very true! I also feel like traditional publishing especially the agents have gone overboard pushing their own agendas and silencing/filtering out the voices and stories the world gets to hear based on their own biases. A lot of it is very political, racial, and other agendas now in the last several years. No matter how amazing the stories are if they don't align with some real world view they want to force into fictional stories, then they don't stand a chance. Not everything needs to be political or racial or discriminatory or propping some kind of agenda. Stories are also needed and enjoyed by so many for the point of ESCAPING all the terrible things happening right now. Also I know of two writers who had their ideas, titles, and so on stolen, one by beta readers and another by actual agents who then gave the ideas and titles to their current clients! It's outrageous and terrible for writers with true skill and ethics and talent when also many stories are published traditionally that can't hold a candle to some of these indie authors' works.

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    1. Anon, Thanks. I do agree that social and political agendas can be a factor, and more so in some genres than others, in shaping editorial decisions.

      As to your second point, about ideas etc. being stolen, I'd be cautious on that. First, agents and publishers absolutely don't do that. Second, this is extremely hard to prove.

      Zeitgeist happens ALL THE TIME. We all swim in the cultural and media currents, and it's very common for ideas to surface in several places at once. As Charles Hoy Fort said, "A social growth cannot find out the use of steam engines, until comes steam-engine-time."

      Some twenty-plus years ago I outlined a Fantasy/magic novel about a group of radical environmentalists led by a chap called Horst Schtaller trying to incarnate the Earth Goddess Gaia to fix the ecosystem. About three years later, a famous SF author wrote a novel about a band of ecoterrorists taking hostage an L.A. TV station and making impossible demands. Their leader was named Horst (something).

      What are the odds? It was just zeitgeist.

      Best,
      Dario

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  7. After trying to query with various agencies for my first novel, and getting only rejects (one of the more famous ones at least sent me what I considered an 'encouraging' reject -saying that the submission stood out from the many they received, even if they would not represent it - the majority of the rest didn't even bother to answer) I decided to put publishing on hold all together. I write because I like to write, I am fortunate that I do not need to get published to make money. But still it itches that I cannot get my story past the many 'filters' without getting told why. Perhaps the book is simply not good enough, perhaps it just doesn't fit the 'formula' for success, perhaps the age (15th c) or the characters are not interesting enough to readers. It is not your traditional YA quest - rather a simple story, of how a man struggles through his life, escaping time and time again to the sea, away from everyone who attempts to become close and losing everything he has by doing so. There is no female heroine (apparently a killer these days), no lgbt relationships or minorities represented (in 15th Century Portugal, there were Portuguese, and very few others).

    So I concluded that they were not interested in my story and decided to move on. I put the manuscript into my drawer, and started something new. Because after all, I want to write, not necessarily to be read... (or at least I try to convince myself of that)

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    1. Inge, thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      That's a very good attitude, and kudos to you. It's very important to understand why one wants to write and be published, given how very hard the whole business is. Few people have the knack of introspection and self-honesty to ask these questions. I actually have a chapter on this very thing in my book, "Drown the Cat."

      Best, and good luck with your work!
      Dario

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  9. Dario, I'm so glad you wrote this post. I have yet to get to the final draft of my first novel but, periodically, have thought about how I want it published. I admit, having it go through a publishing house would be wonderful but I'm a realist. I believe my best hope is with a small press company, which will require me to be more involved in the process. If need be, I will go indie, although I'm not sure if I am up for the work it entails. When I read the title to your post, I was hoping there was good news for me somewhere in your piece. I can't say there is but that is exactly why I thank you. I need truth to carry on in my endeavor.

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    1. Glynis, thank you so much for you comment. I'm glad you found this post helpful. I try to be a realist, and God knows there's oceans of wildly sunny and upbeat motivational stuff out there for the writer. But, like you, I prefer to live in the real world, and be realistic in my planning and choices.

      Small presses can be terrific. The best really get behind their authors, and honestly that support is more valuable than a larger advance with a publisher who just throws your book out there to sink or swim on its own, possibly crippling your chances of selling your next work. Just be sure to research them very well, and steer especially clear of publishers who offer ANY paid service. Victoria Strauss's "Writer Beware" site (http://www.sfwa.org/other-resources/for-authors/writer-beware/) is an especially valuable resource.

      Best of luck to you with your novel!
      Dario

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  10. Outstanding article. Back when I was querying agents regularly, I had this idyllic picture in mind of a John Steinbeck/Elizabeth Otis type relationship. Those expectations gradually deteriorated to the point when I would have been happy with, as you put it, a fair shake--and when I was pretty sure that wasn't going to happen, I went indie.

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