The Signs of Vanity Publishing

Last week, I reached another milestone in the querying of my novel: a vanity publisher made me an offer. Oh, it called itself a hybrid publisher, to cloak itself in respectability, but it was clear enough what it was. For several thousand dollars, it would publish my novel. What it would do in return was vague. The letter I received talked about how the publisher had distributed previous books, and about various rights, but never explicitly said what it would do for me.

Naturally, I refused.

I might have considered a hybrid publisher. A hybrid publisher can be a publisher too small to give advances and royalties, but that is still willing to take the risk of publishing your work. So long as you are willing to accept these limitations, nothing is inevitably wrong with hybrid publication. By contrast, a vanity house makes you assume all the risk. As soon as you sign and pay, it has made its profit. Chances are, you will never make any, although you are encouraged to think you will. There is no mutual risk, as there is in legitimate publishing.

It was not difficult to see the sort of offer that was being made. To start with, the publisher’s priorities were clear when this business letter included adds for the publisher’s other publications.

Other warning signs included:

  • A rush to sign me, although my novel is not tied to any recent events. The hope, I suspect, was that I would rush to sign with taking some thought or consulting anybody.
  • Extravagant praise. Obviously, a publisher making an offer must like my book, but the tone was exaggerated. I am as vain about my writing as any other author, but I just couldn’t believe what I read was genuine, especially when the publisher showed no willingness to negotiate or modify the contract. Instead, all I got was an explanation of why the contract had to be that way.
  • The contract gave me no control over editorial changes. I would be foolish not to listen to an editor’s suggestions, but I would likely want to discuss and explain some points, even if the final decision were not mine.
  • The payment was based on the medium I wanted, with different costs for just an ebook, and higher ones for hardcopy and audio books. Besides the fact that I was expected to pay, the media for publication is set by the expected market, not the authors preference.
  • A promise of high royalties. A first book rarely receives royalties over ten percent. But a high royalty is easy to promise when sales are negligible.
  • A discussion of how profits from other rights would be divided, such as foreign or film rights, but no undertaking by the publisher to pursue these rights. A promise of splitting these rights is easy to make when they are not pursued.
  • A promise not to publicly criticize the publisher. Why insist on that promise if the publisher did not expect criticism?

In short, this contract was as far from the SFWA’s model contract as it is possible to get — and clearly not negotiable. Should you receive a similar offer of publication, you can safely assume that it is not made in good faith.


My First Lessons From Querying

Your first queries, I’ve been told, are for practice. Your first choices of an agent or publishers should wait until you’ve made mistakes and learned from them. Usually, I’m skeptical about conventional wisdom, but I followed this advice, and I’m glad I did. After half a dozen queries, I have not received any personal rejections I could learn from, but I have learned a lesson or two about querying, and found reason to revise the start of my novel.

The first lesson should have been obvious: the smaller the sample of the manuscript requested, the quicker the response. This tendency matters, because for all everyone knows about the importance of a hook, a small sample and quick response may mean that a submission was not taken seriously. I worry that, rather than looking for quality or a story that will seller, agents with such criteria are most interesting in clearing their desks. So, unless someone proves otherwise, such agents will go to the bottom of my preferences.

My second lesson is more of a suspicion. My manuscript contains snippets of four to twelve lines of poetry. I believe that those snippets are a useful way to convey backstory and atmosphere. However, when I stop to think, mentioning poetry in my query might cause agents to believe I was offering an overly literary manuscript. What agents want, of course, is a saleable manuscript, and seventy years after Tolkien, many readers shy away from poetry. Because of this likelihood, I revised my query letter to omit any mention of poetry. Let the agents actually encounter my scattered bits of poetry, and I believe they will find that it works. At the very least, my manuscript will not risk being rejected out of a blind preference or prejudice.

However, it was when I looked at my novel from the perspective of trying to sell it that my first queries helped me the most. The story begins with a pivotal event in the past, and how it effects the protagonist, his mother, and his sister. I have always worried about the prologue, mainly because it starts with the mother, which might make readers think she is the main character. But I kept it because a professional writer who was a trusted friend suggested I keep it. But it was only when I started to query that I decided to change it. The prologue wasn’t the best sample I could offer, and meant less of the much stronger opening chapters could be included. At first, I wondered if there was a way to start with the main character, but, I was unable to find a way to give the necessary backstory.

Then a revelation struck: why mention his mother and sister at all in the prologue? Both are introduced later, so their inclusion in the prologue is unnecessary. I re-wrote the prologue entirely from the main character’s perspective, and the result is a much stronger story, and one which shows my writing to greater perspective, since I use the limited understanding of a child to reveal things of which he is not wholly aware. And, as an added bonus, I cut two thousand words. As a result, I believe that the manuscript now presents me much more strongly.

These improvements are largely assumption, but they show how querying can focus your mind and give you a new perspective on your own work. I look forward to further insights, both into querying and my writing as I plunge back into the maelstrom of submission.

General Writing, Queries

How to Improve Your Odds When Querying

Writers who are querying love to drive each other into despair by citing the odds against them finding an agent. The odds of success vary – two or three out sixty, or even a hundred I’ve heard – but they are never in a writer’s favor. However, citing the odds on social media is always an occasion for despair laced with stolid determination to push on through. Yet while the despair is understandable, and I admit to sometimes succumbing to it myself as I prepare to query, I believe that it is based on a fallacy: that each writer is a fallacy. After all, a statistic is not a prediction – just an average.

I first learned this fact from science writer Stephen Jay Gould. Gould was diagnosed as having peritoneal mesothelioma – cancer of the abdomenal lining – and was told that he could only expect to live another eight months. But Gould was a researcher and a trained statistician, and instead of preparing for an early death, he researched his condition. He soon found out that his own odds were much better than average. Even more importantly, by making some changes in his lifestyle, he could improve his odds. He made those changes, and lived another twenty years. Gould’s example showed me that while the statistics are useful to know, they are not all you need to know.

A querying writer can learn a lot from Gould’s example. Sure, the odds are not good. For every writer who finds an agent, there are dozens who never do. But browse the online writer groups, and you soon notice that the average is low. Many writers are working on stale ideas borrowed from anime, and many more struggle with grammar and spelling. Few have any sense of how to develop a story, and react to suggestions for improvement with hostility. Under these conditions, becoming above average is easy enough so long as you are willing to do the work.

However, the struggle to stand out only begins with the quality of writing. Look at blogs like Query Shark, where pitches and queries are criticized and improved, and you soon realize that most writers are not very good at the query process, either. Despite no shortage of blogs where we can learn, most of us have no idea of how to structure a query, or what its structure should be.

So not only can the quality of your writing lift you above average, but so can mastering the query process. As long as you are willing to put in the work, whatever statistics you hear are not a prediction of your failure. Rather, they are a sign of how many people are querying ineptly. Make up your mind that you are not going to be average, and your odds can improve significantly.