THE INSIDER’S GUIDE TO PUBLISHING
( Writer’s Digest Books)
Eighty years ago, during the Hemingway-Fitzgerald-Faulkner golden age of American fiction, perhaps a thousand novelists were competing for publication. The numbers today rival the national deficit.
The New York Times reported that, according to a recent survey, 81% of Americans – 200 million – say they have a book they’d like to write some day. Thankfully, few get around to it. According to a 2002 NEA survey, 2 million Americans published creative writing.
New York Times executive editor, Bill Keller, complains that he is losing his staff because like “cliff-bound lemmings… everyone who works for me is either writing [a book] or wants to,” in spite of his strenuous effort to persuade them that the process is “agony.”
“Call me a pessimist, call me Ishmael, but I think that book publishing is about to slide into the sea,” writes Garrison Keillor. “18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives.”
Literary agencies receive hundreds of submissions a week. Their stated rejection rate is 95 to 99%. Three decades ago the U.S. had 50 MFA programs in creative writing; now there are 300. 20,000 apply annually, 95% are rejected. The New Yorker magazine logs up to a thousand unsolicited stories per week. None have been published in years.
Meanwhile, the demand for serious fiction is in severe decline. In the 1920s, 6 of 10 bestselling titles were literature. By the ‘60s, 3 of 10. In the last decade, 3 of 100.
Responding to the literary population explosion and the long odds of its dark horses, countless self-helpers have been released by industry bookies. Amazon currently lists 1,636 titles in fiction writing reference (up from 668 in 2009). They include “Essential” guides on how to put your passion on paper, the 100 ways to improve your writing, the 38 most common fiction mistakes, the 28-day bestseller, the damn good novel, writing the bones, bird by bird, on both sides of the brain.
Marketing manuals by “insiders” also proliferate: how to land a dream agent, write the perfect query and bulletproof proposal, and how to escape the slush pile. Making the writer’s self-help genre even more irresistible are American Idol offerings such as Damn! Why Didn’t I Write That? How Ordinary People are Raking in $100,000.00.
While some guides admit the difficulty of the profession, many are so gingerbreaded with optimism and pep talk that the SASE scribe goes postal when he or she still can’t get published.
So, the question for the struggling scribe of the 21st century boils down to this:
Do I want the truth?
Or, do I want more smoke blown up my ass?
R.R. Bowker reported 316,480 new traditional book titles for 2010. 15% — 47,392 – were novels. Statistically, about nine of ten novels do not sell out their first printing and are remaindered.
The 4,700 successful titles almost equals the number of times Mt. Everest has been summited (5,104 since the 1953 Sir Hillary ascent). Nearly ten times more competitors (43,000) finish the annual marathon in New York, the capital of publishing.
So, today’s Dickens is well advised, for the sake of his or her own sanity, to lower great expectations about winning the Publishing Clearinghouse and becoming the next King or Rowling. But even these talents had to overcome formidable obstacles, as did their predecessors from Dante to Daniel Steele.
The stories of climbs to the top by these masters and others will be told here. In search of the practical truth about how to storm the literary Bastille, we will not depend on the commentary of sideline quarterbacks, but on the words of historic authors themselves who lived and died for literature.
Writers –journalists, screenwriters, speech writers, ad copy writers, catalog writers, greeting card writers — have always been, on average, the lowest paid professionals in the work force. Novelists and poets are at the bottom of this food chain.
Said Mario Puzo: “For hundreds of years, writers have been giving it away like country girls in the big city, and it is not astonishing that their lovers (that is, the publishers) balk at giving a mink coat when a pair of nylons will do the job.” He got nylons for his first three novels, then a $5,000 advance from the Putnam godfathers for Godfather, which paid them about $200 million (not counting movie rights) for the 12,140,000 copies they sold in six years. But from Godfather on, Puzo got mink coats, earning $2.55 million alone for the paper rights of his next novel, Fools Die.
Which brings us to the historical disparity between the haves & have-nots. In 1667 publishers paid Milton £10 for Paradise Lost; in 2002 Zondervan tithed $30 million to Reverend Rick for The Purpose Driven Life. In 1841 Graham’s Magazine fronted Edgar Allan Poe $56 for the world’s first detective mystery, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”; in 2010 Little Brown paid former advertising exec, James Patterson, $150 million for more Alex Cross retreads.
So .001% of today’s scribes have indeed gotten raises. But as one, James Michener, complained, “In America you can make a fortune as a writer, but not a living.” Even so, the less fortunate are still on the Poe pay-scale. With no health insurance, retirement, or golden parachute even in Right to Write states.
What about editors, many of them writers themselves? They average $50,000 for their day job – or about $15 an hour for 60-hour weeks. Some throw in the towel and become agents. Now, as Jerry McGuires, they work longer hours for 15% of their authors’ 7.5 to 12.5%.
According to a PEN survey, the median annual income of a published novelist is $4,700. Meanwhile, the unpublished work pro bono. Yet more than any other professional, the author is bled for his or her pennies by editorial services, PR and marketing consultants, vanity publishers, MFA and online instruction programs. Literary training now appears to be more popular than dieting: an “Online novel writing” search yields 50,600,000 hits; an “Online weight loss” search an anorexic 40,200,000.
Though, since Homer’s day, scribes have been the most exploited labor group, no united protest has been made, only individual ones.
When he thought he’d been cheated on a movie deal for his novel, An American Tragedy, Theodore Dreiser threw hot coffee in his publisher, Horace Liveright’s, face at the Ritz restaurant. Upset with Alfred Knopf, Shirley Jackson — who had studied witchcraft for her famed story, “The Lottery” — made a voodoo doll of him, impaled it with pins, and the publishing patriarch soon suffered a serious ski accident. When an Irish publisher cancelled his contract for Dubliners, Joyce complained fruitlessly to more than a hundred newspapers, then to King George himself. At last, he threatened to buy a pistol and “put some daylight into my publisher.”
But Dreiser, Jackson, and Joyce never tried to rally their colleagues for a mass Mutiny on the Bounty. And their successors have never collectively demanded a piece of the publishing Occupie.
But hope springs eternal. The masses are restless. The tectonic plates of publishing are shifting. As today’s queen of agents, Binky Urban, predicts: “I think we are in the midst of a revolution. Bad things happen in a revolution, but revolutions always give rise to opportunities.”
So, writers, throw off your chains. Unite. And remember Thoreau! The penniless Walden author refused to pay more taxes. Visiting him in the Concord jail, his friend, Emerson, demanded:
“Henry, what are you doing in there?”
To which the fed-up Transcendentalist replied: “Waldo, what are you doing out there?”
The Insider’s Guide to Publishing is cross-genre. It marries History, Self-Help, Horror. And Humor.
“If we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane,” said Robert Frost.
Beyond genre, this manual is the first 99% solution for fed-up, starving writers – debut literary novelists in particular.
To this end, it is an MFA Gonzo Crash Course. Covering every dimension of publishing reality and problem-solving, it provides a full revolutionary curriculum: in Lit, Linguistics, History, Econ, Psych, Poly Sci, and even Religion. In short, it will deconstruct the Bastille brick by brick, each chapter being a super-condensed book in itself.
Who is behind this madness and what are her credentials? the reader rightfully demands.
Your humble Deep Throat – your host and moderator — has spent thirty years in the belly of the literary beast, and decades perusing publishing titles, periodicals, blogs, biographies and too many novels. He gives the floor to her superiors, his guest Che Guevaras, the most celebrated novelists of the last five-hundred years. Having long awaited this open-mic forum to air their views, caveats, and grievances, Nobel and Pulitzer laureates, as well as their esteemed editors and agents, will be doing the lions’ share of the debriefing and deprogramming.
This self-helper, as promised, is the first no-smoke or spin zone for survivalists. Those who tough out our school of hard knocks and save two-hundred grand for an MFA will take the Bastille, claim its cake, and eat it too for the Occupy ala Mode.
At commencement, the graduate, even if still unpublished, will throw his or her cap to the sun and repeat after Gustav Flaubert: “Writing is a dog’s life but the only one worth living.”
On that note, the call-to-arms of another revolutionary member of our faculty, Henry Miller:
“For a hundred years or more the [literary] world, our world, has been dying. And not one man, in these last hundred years or so, has been crazy enough to put a bomb up the asshole of creation and set it off.”
This book is dedicated to that challenge.
THE INSIDER’S GUIDE TO PUBLISHING
I. PUBLISH & PERISH: Into Belly Of Manuscript-Eating Beast 10
1. THE AGE OF INNOCENCE
3. CANARIES IN THE CONGLOMERATE COAL MINE
4. SURVIVORS: THE ROBINSON CRUSOES
5. SUPER PACs: THE PUBLISHER CONGLOMERATE CASTE SYSTEM
6. CATCHER IN THE STY: (Shit, My Editor Says)
7. THE PUBLISHER’S FICTION LIST: THE BULL OF PAMPLONA
II. WRITER 911! Burned, Banished, Blocked 50
1. THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME
2. SAVE A TREE, BURN AN AUTHOR
3. MS.CARRIAGES & HYSTERICAL PREGNANCIES
4. WHY SHITTY THINGS HAPPEN TO IRREGULAR WRITERS
5. THE SACRED DISEASES
III. THE DUES TO PAY THE MUSE 72
1. THE LIONS
2. THE WONDER
3. PINK SLIPS
4. THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE
IV. LUCK, SUCK, & PLUCK: Secrets of Literary Success 97
• The Joyless Luck Club
• The Top 10 Literary 69s
4. LSP TRIFECTA
V. “THE BUILT-IN, SHOCK-PROOF, SHIT DETECTOR” 131
2. “AN APPEAL TO THE GULLIBLE”
3. THE ELEMENTS OF BILE
• Top 10 Style Tips from the Masters
4. THE KENTUCKY FRIED BESTSELLER
• KFB Recipe
VI. SCHMOOZING THE MUSE 155
1. THE MFA MaFiA
2. HEADS WE WIN, TALES YOU LOSE: Contests & Grants
3. KUMBAYA CONFERENCES
4. % OF YOUR BACK-END: Hollywood’s Return of the Screw
VII. THE MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WRITER 176
Introduction: THE CUCKOO’S NEST: AN OVERVIEW
2. MISERABLE & MANIC
VIII. BARDS BEHAVING BADLY 200
Introduction: WRITERS ROUGHHOUSING
1. POE vs. ENGLISH
2. LEWIS vs. DRIESER
3. HEMINGWAY v. CALLAGHAN
4. MAILER vs. CAPOTE vs. VIDAL
• THE LAST WRITER STANDING: Bon Mo’s, Broadsides, & Sucker Punches
IX. AGENTS OF NORTH AMERICA 225
1. AGENT GENTS
2. AGENTS AND GENTLE WOMEN
3. THE AUTHOR-AGENT MATING RITUAL
4. THE BIG FOUR: A Sporting Writer’s Bestiary
5. HOW TO BAG AN AGENT WITHOUT GUNPLAY (Romancing the Stone)
6. THE QUERY FAIRY SPEAKS
7. ON THE ROCKS: Agent-Author Divorce, Alimony, & Child Custody
8. HOW TO DIVORCE A REP WITHOUT REALLY TRYING
• The Agent’s 10 Commandments
X. MS IMPOSSIBLE: The Challenge for Today’s Novelist 250
1. BRAVE NEW21ST CENTURY BLOCKBUSTER
2. BRAVE NEW MASTERPIECE QUERIES
3. PUSHING THE SAS ENVELOPE: The New Myth of Sisyphus
4. CRASHERS AT THE VIC LIT GOLDEN GLOBES
5. 99% GUERILLA MARKETING
6. THE MAD SCIENTIST OF M.I. PUBLICATION
XI. TAKING IT IN THE SHORTS 279
1. BACK STORY TO THE BIG BREAKS
2. THE GREATEST STORY NEVER SOLD
3. GOTHS AT THE GATE
4. THE NEW YORKER NOSEBLEED
XII. MOONLIGHTING 300
1. ODD JOBS OF THE MASTERS
2. YOU WANT FRIES WITH THAT? Best 9-to-5s for Today’s Novelist
3. THE PEN AWARD: Of Lit & License Plates
XIII. VANITY OF VANITIES? THE P.O.D. AND E-REVOLUTION 316
1. DEMAND FOR PRINT ON DEMAND
2. E-GOLD RUSH
3. BDSM CINDERELLAS
4. LUCK, SUCK, & PLUCK 2.0
5. E-ROMANCE: THE NEXT CHAPTER
6. THE FINAL FICTION E-FRONTIER
XIV. $UCCE$$ 350
1. DANTE’S HONEYMOON
2. THE SEVENTH CIRCLE OF SALES
3. THE GOD ALMIGHTY DOLLAR
•Fiction Freakonomics: How Much The Masters Made
4. THE NOBEL JAR
5. THIS SIDE OF PUBLISHING PARADISE
6. IN DEFENSE OF FAILURE (Or, How Success Is Overrated)
•Failure: The Silver Lining
XIV. CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE SOL 376
1. PROMETHEUS’ LIVER
2. I DRINK THEREFORE I AM
•The Old Man and the Seagrams
3. WRITER’S PSEUDO-ANONYMOUS: The 5-Step Program
4. THE WRITER’S 23rd PSALM