Friday, June 6, 2008

If I'd wanted to go into Marketing, I wouldn't have been an English major.

I hate Marketing. Don't get me wrong; I love coupons, free samples, "buy one get one free," those Bud Light "dude" commercials.... I'm used to being the target of marketing. I've learned to tune out what I don't want to hear and take advantage of what interests me.

No, it's marketing my own work that makes the business of writing so miserable. I mean, revising Chapter 2 for the umpteenth time can be frustrating, but at least it offers the potential of immediate reward when I find just the right word. (If you're a writer, you know that can be a wonderful feeling--if one that doesn't happen as often as you'd like.) Trying to sell a novel? Well, that has the potential for future reward. More often, though, I wonder whether I'm like of those spammers sending ads for "che@p vi@gr@!" to my in-box--barking up the wrong the tree. (Barking, in fact, down an empty well, confounding the slugs who live there into wondering what the noise is all about.)

When people ask me, "How's the writing going?" I hardly know how to answer. It's easy enough to reply, "Oh, I'm two-thirds finished with my third novel," but what they really want to know is when they're going to see one of these mythical novels in a bookstore. There's no short reply, unless I want to get into the details of what the Marketing Department is up to. And since I find marketing my work boring and frustrating, why should I bother you with it? Well, because now I have a blog and I need to write something in it. So I'm going to give you the long answer, by sharing the history of my attempts at selling my first novel.

I started my fantasy A Mage and His Dog so long ago I can't quite remember when it was, but it's well over 15 years by now. It started out as a novel for adults, with the main character in his early 20s, so my first attempt to sell it was to an adult fantasy imprint. This was around 1995, and although I was only halfway done with the novel, I sent off three chapters to the publisher with a hopeful cover letter. (I rather naively thought that if they did want to see the whole thing, I'd be close to finished, and the request would give me the impetus to finish writing it quickly. Now I laugh at people who think this way.) Anyway, the chapters seemed to have vanished into some alternate dimension, for months went by without getting my SASE (that's a self-addressed stamped envelope) returned. Finally, over a year later, I got a package via UPS. I'd only sent a small SASE for a response, telling them to recycle the manuscript, but they paid to mail the whole thing back to me. It seemed like a lot of effort when they included nothing but a form rejection in the package.

So, a few years went by. I finished the novel in 1998, shortly after going freelance, and around that time I also joined the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, a professional union that sponsors some great conferences. I got a little wiser to the business aspect of fiction publishing, and also rewrote the novel in 2002 for the children's market. (Thanks to Harry Potter, the fantasy children's market remains very hot, although not for me.) Still, I had learned that it wouldn't be easy. A lot of publishers won't look at manuscripts unless an agent submits them. Others will, but those "unsolicited manuscripts" end up in a slush pile that can have hundreds or even thousands of submissions. So I tried a couple of "first novel" contests run by children's imprints, thinking at least they were open to unpublished novelists. The first one was in 2003, and never even sent a rejection; I had to search for the announcement that no one won that year. The second one was in 2004, and they were at least kind enough to send a form rejection after two months.

It helps if you can target a specific editor, and if you attend conferences you can hear them speak and get an idea of whether they might be a good fit. So my next attempt was to one such editor at a new children's imprint. This kind of submission is not quite the same as submitting to the slush pile, since they "invite" you to submit, but there can be 100 other writers who were at that conference, too. So it took five months to get a form rejection from this editor.

Another conference, another editor. And this time ... an invitation to send the whole manuscript! (For novels, you generally only submit the first 2 or 3 chapters, although I suspect most editors only need to read a few pages to decide whether they want to see the whole thing.) This invitation was exciting--I'd made it to the next level! I was willing to wait, give her time to consider it. Editors are busy people, I know this. After six months, I hadn't heard anything, so I sent an e-mail. "I need more time," she told me, so I waited some more. And after six more months, I sent another e-mail. No reply. Still, no news is good news, right? Not necessarily. When I finally followed up again, I got this reply: "Oh, I remember the piece, and I replied quite some time ago. I wasn't quite enthusiastic enough to take it on. My [devastating, heart-crushing] reply must have been lost in the mail."

Aggggh. "Can I just shoot myself now?" I was thinking by now. "Why don't you just get an agent to do the marketing for you?" you may be thinking by now. Well, you have to market to them, too. While Mage was sitting with that one editor, I tried a couple of agents, hoping to tantalize them with the info that an editor was considering the whole manuscript. One such agent turned me down in a quick two months. Another, after saying by e-mail she was willing to look at a sample, never got back to me.

And that's just the history of one of my works. Another novel has bounced through several editors and agents, as has my picture book manuscript. At this point, I might be forgiven if I gave up. After all, can two dozen editors and agents be wrong? Am I only writing crap?

Well, I don't think so. My lovely, helpful critique group doesn't think so. I continue to believe that someday, somehow, I will find that editor or agent who loves my work. It may take a lot more marketing (ick), but it will happen. It's just a matter of serendipity. And there! I now have the short answer for people who ask "how's the writing going?"

I will answer, "I have yet to achieve serendipity, but I'm still trying."


  1. Wishing you much serendipity in the weeks and months ahead!!!

  2. You are not writing crap.
    love, a representative from your critique group