Thursday, April 24, 2008

Learning Today’s Publishing While U Wait

Elizabeth Zelvin

I first said I wanted to be a writer in 1951. I got my first rave rejection, for a children’s story, in 1970. (“So the next sentence should be an offer of contract. Unfortunately, Mr. Nixon…the economy….” Some things never change. And some things a writer never forgets.) I had an agent but failed to sell three mystery manuscripts in 1975 or so. I began my current journey toward publication in 2002, and my mystery came out just ten days ago.

What’s changed in publishing since 1951, or even 1991? What hasn’t changed? Small companies that cherished their authors and readers have become conglomerates focused on the bottom line as calculated by computers. Some have stopped publishing mysteries as a result. I know personally at least two award-nominated authors whose series have died because houses whose names were synonymous with mysteries—Walker for hardcovers, Pocket Books for paperbacks—stopped putting out that kind of book.

Thanks to the Internet, I know dozens, perhaps hundreds of mystery writers trying to break into print. I was one of them for five years between completing the first draft and getting an offer for Death Will Get You Sober. The process is rigorous and discouraging. The odds against are enormous. The pool of writers is vast and the pool of publishers small, even including small presses. My mantras throughout those five years were, “Talent, persistence, and luck,” and, “Don’t quit five minutes before the miracle.” May you never experience such a long five minutes!

Waiting was agony, and so were the many, many rejections. It was hard not to take them personally, even though thanks to the Internet I was in touch with others getting the same scribbled notes on their query letters, the same coffee-stained manuscripts returned; even though, in the long run, I came to agree with and learn from some of the criticisms offered.

Looking back, however, I can see that not a single day of that interminable wait was truly wasted. I used it to learn the craft of today’s mystery writing, which differs from the standards of twenty-five years ago in structure and pace and point of view and how people interact and what’s a viable motive for murder among other elements. And I served a priceless apprenticeship—in Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, e-lists like DorothyL and Murder Must Advertise, and social networks like CrimeSpace—in the business of 21st century publishing.

As a result, I'm arriving on the field well equipped to beat the odds. Will I succeed? As Dick Francis has written, anything can happen in a horse race. The same is true of the gamble of mystery publishing. But at least I’m not starting out with blinders on. I find that when well-meaning friends offer suggestions or ask questions, I can bring a lot of knowledge to my answers. Just a few:

Q. Why don’t you go on Oprah?
A. That would be great—do you know anyone who has a contact with her? You can’t send her your book—it doesn’t work that way. She has to find it for herself.

Q. I’ll wait for the paperback to come out.
A. Unfortunately, if we don’t sell enough of the hardcover, the publisher won’t bring out a paperback. The book will go out of print, and in most cases, no other publisher will take the series.

Q. What about John Grisham and J.K. Rowling?
A. The odds are about the same as winning the lottery.

Q. The publisher doesn’t arrange your book tour?
A. No, not for a debut fiction author unless you’re a celebrity or have written a blockbuster. But that doesn’t mean the publisher’s publicity department does nothing. My publicist at St. Martin’s has worked actively with me to sell the book to booksellers, make sure reviewers get it, and make the most of any kind of hook so I’ll stand out from the crowd.

Q. Isn’t MySpace just for kids?
A. Not at all. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the process of building up to 1160 friends on MySpace. They include fellow writers, mystery lovers, and people in recovery from alcoholism, other addictions, and codependency—the very people who might get a kick out of Death Will Get You Sober. There’s a culture and a community on MySpace, and it’s fascinating. You can learn so much about people—their interests, their dreams, their heroes—as well as what they read and whether they drink. What a great way to find readers!

1 comment:

L.J. said...

I thought I published this comment yesterday, but here it is again.
Thanks for sharing that. Many of us can completely relate. There's nothing as frustrating as having an editor a a major publisher say she "loved your manuscript" and read it in one sitting, then not buy it. The only thing that makes the waiting bearable is to keep writing.