Getting Your Foot in the Door

A friend of mine just got an encouraging rejection from a large indie publisher of mysteries. The acquisitions person went far beyond a few boilerplate “atta-girl” comments. She offered some specific observations about the book. Getting a rejection that praises your book from a publishing industry person who actually read it and thought about it is still painful, but I guess it’s a good kind of pain.

A week or so goes by. My friend does some rewriting and resubmits the book, and now the signs are even more encouraging. This could be a terrific breakthrough for her! But I’m going to leave the rest of this column mostly as is, because I used her experience as a springboard to highlight larger issues.

My friend’s novel (which I haven’t read) is a paranormal mystery. There’s a ghost, and some revenge and danger, I gather. The indie publisher to whom she submitted it specializes in mysteries. Their main categories are historical, thriller, and cozy. There’s no paranormal category. I pointed this out to my friend, and she responded, “No, they do publish paranormal.” She included a link to one of their titles.

Ah, but the book she linked to is part of a series of paranormal cozies. Also, that author has written other cozy series that are not, as far as I can see without dipping into them, paranormal.

Either of these factors may have influenced the acquisitions editor. First, my friend is not already a successful author with a track record. Second, her book isn’t a cozy, so it doesn’t fit neatly within that publisher’s marketing mechanism.

The publishing business is brutal. You have to have exactly the right set of ingredients. A publisher is very unlikely to wing it by trying something that they aren’t sure they can make a profit on. (If the publisher is making money by charging fees to wanna-be authors, the equation changes. In that case, they don’t give a rat’s ass whether the book sells. Right now I’m talking about legit publishers.)

The acquisitions person suggested to my friend that she pull back on the paranormal element in her story, but my friend had to struggle to find ways to do that. She feels that the ghost part of the story is essential. I suggested to her that in that case she needs to find a different publisher — one who is enjoying some success with serious paranormal mysteries. But perhaps I was too quick to recommend changing the channel. Sometimes there are ways to keep what’s important to you in a story, while also adjusting certain elements. Sometimes it can even be simpler than you thought at first.

The publishing business is brutal. (I think I said that already.) If you’re hoping for some success in a writing career, your best option is probably to set your ego off to one side, maybe on a corner of your desk where you can pat its cute little head once in a while, and write what they’re publishing. Give them exactly the manuscript that they’re hungry for, or find a way to whip your story into the shape they’re hoping to see. As the Dolly Parton song put it, “I’m takin’ what they’re givin’, ‘cuz I’m workin’ for a livin’.”

Either that, or find a publisher who wants exactly what you have to offer. Or self-publish. Those are your options. There aren’t any others.

I tend to write long. That’s a slightly different problem than having paranormal content, and probably a more difficult one; it’s not that my content is off-key, it’s that there’s too darn much of it. I have great difficulty imagining how I might cut 50,000 words out of a 150,000-word novel. As I plan what may turn into a new novel, I’m definitely aiming at keeping the length under control, but no guarantees.

Another friend of mine made significant money for a few years writing simple string orchestra arrangements suitable for middle school orchestras. (This was back before the internet made hash of music publishing.) He once said to me, “Jim, I’m a pro. I do it for money.” He meant that to sound exactly as cynical as it sounds; he was talking about prostitution.

Sometimes it comes down to that. How keen are you to be a pro?

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