Monday, March 28, 2016

Writing Part 2: Dodging Bullets

In my experiences with publishing my writing, I feel that I dodged some bullets in that I failed to get published. Had I gotten published by a legacy publisher, I think I would have gone down a bumpy road of frustration, disappointment, and ultimately failure. Failing to get published was actually a good thing. Each failure on the road to publication was like dodging a bullet. Yes, some of those bullets might have missed me by inches and others by miles...but the important thing is that I didn't get hit.

In 1991 I was a senior in high school when I completed my first novel. It was a fantasy novel that I had written for the fun of it, and was heavily influenced by my interests at the time: epic fantasies like The Silmarillion, with a tiny bit of the questing and character banter from The Belgariad, and a healthy dose of battles inspired by the wargame Warhammer Fantasy Battle. Attempting to get my book published was the next logical step, but I had no idea at all of how to go about it.  One of my parents saw an ad in a magazine from a publishing company, and so I submitted my manuscript to them. A few months later, I got a response. The publisher offered to publish my novel for a fee of $15,000. The publisher was in fact a vanity publisher, and in my naivety at the time I did not even know what a vanity publisher was.

Even at the young age of 17, I thought the pitch smelled fishy. The publisher's brochures were two-color pamphlets that looked like they were produced in the 1950s. In it was an illustration of a guy at a drafting table, with the text stating how they would design an attractive jacket for the book. I thought to myself that if the jacket was developed with the same care as their brochure was, then no thanks.  The publisher said the book would be printed in a hardcover format and retail for $17.95. This was emphatically not what I was interested in. As a reader I exclusively read mass market paperbacks, and since I envisioned my writing to appeal primarily to those of my own demographic, a hardcover edition seemed a complete waste, and in any event far too expensive for the average teenage boy. They also pitched that they would create press releases for local media and organize events at local bookstores for book signings. To my mind a press release seemed...inappropriate. Why would my local TV station or newspaper even care about this sort of thing? As an introvert, the idea of a book signing event horrified me. More than that, I had envisioned book signings to be for established authors who already had a fanbase. Offering to arrange them for a new author was simply an appeal to my vanity. I was beginning to understand the concept of vanity publishing.

A few days after I received the response from the vanity publisher (contract included and ready for my signature!), my parents sat me down and told me, sadness in their eyes, that there was no way we could afford to pay for the publication of my book. I could tell they were afraid of breaking my heart, as they knew how much work I had put into it. I told them up front that I didn't mind. If this was how publishing worked, then I didn't want any part of it.

So I dodged my first bullet by not succumbing to vanity and trying to scrape up the money to buy into this scam. I reached for the prize, but snatched my hand back once I got a better look at what I was reaching for.

*  *  *

Soon after my mother bought me a book called The Writer's Marketplace, which provided a list of publishers ("real" publishers) and their submission guidelines. Some only accepted submissions through agents, so I ignored those, and looked specifically for publishers that accepted unsolicited manuscripts. Armed with that knowledge, I submitted my novel to several fantasy publishers. Response time was measured in months, so I tried to forget about it and continued to write.

Over the next four years, I attended college and wrote two more novels. I felt them both to be far superior to my first effort, and they were. They still sucked. Using an updated edition of The Writer's Marketplace, I submitted these manuscripts to publishers as well. As time went on, the rejections trickled in, with rejection letters ranging from the obviously photocopied form letter, to one standout that was not a form letter, but said that my writing had promise, and encouraged me to send them more work. Nowadays I look back on that and can't imagine what they were thinking in encouraging me. What I had sent them was ghastly.

The bullet I dodged here was of my own making. My writing still sucked, so notwithstanding the encouragement, my submissions probably came nowhere near to being accepted. But what if they had been?

I had submitted out of the wilderness of complete ignorance. I assumed that if by some miracle my book was accepted for publication, we'd have some friendly negotiations, I'd sign a contract, there would be some editing, the book would be published, the royalties would roll in, and everything would be grand. It never occurred to me that a publisher might not have my best interests at heart. But the evils of legacy publishing are a story for another time.

*  *  *

In 1997 I started graduate school, and any time I had for writing was quickly swallowed up by the workload. It was years and years before I would seriously look at writing again.

I had been a fan of Games Workshop's games since the 1980s (see above), and was most deeply interested in the grimdark future of Warhammer 40,000. I played the games, read the novels, painted the miniatures, wrote up battle reports (q.v. this blog), and so on. Then I found out in 2010 that they were accepting submissions for potential new authors for the Black Library (their fiction publishing wing). The Warhammer 40k universe is a big one, and I thought there might be room in it for some of my stories.

I talked with my good friend Jack Badelaire, who also expressed interest in making a submission, and so the two of us worked on stories in parallel. However, he ended up losing interest and focusing on something else--writing his own stuff and submitting it to Kindle Direct Publishing. I thought he was missing the boat. Here was a great opportunity! We had the opportunity of writing for the Black Library, alongside the likes of Dan Abnett, Graham McNeill, and Aaron Dembski-Bowden. In the end, I submitted proposals for one short story and two novels.


Or were they the sounds of bullets zipping by in the distance?

Again, I thought that if my work was accepted, I'd be writing stories for fun and living the high life.
Now a little wiser, I've come to learn that had my work been accepted there, I would have been involved in writing books on spec, with deadlines, not very much money... and everything I wrote would be the property of GW for the life of the copyright. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was fortunate to be rejected.

*  *  *

In the meantime Jack had opened the door to Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). His success would spur me to revisit my old writing and try it myself. KDP would be the magic bullet.

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