Thursday, February 18, 2021

Survival in the World of Publishing

Kameron Hurley's new LOCUS essay reflects on her first ten years as a published author:

How to Survive a Decade in Publishing

Her first series went through three publishers, the last of which folded when one of the owners allegedly absconded with the royalties that were owed. She notes that "publishing is weird," a conclusion supported by her examples from her own career and those of some other writers. Knowing "the one thing we can control in this wild business is the words on the page" (and not always even that, where the finished product released to the market is concerned), we have to accept that the "glorious highs" and "very low lows" of a writer's life depend heavily on many outside factors, including luck.

Her remark that all her adventures as an author since then have been "measured against that first foray into the publishing world" resonates with me. I had two very different publishing experiences at the start of my career. My first two books were mass-market paperback anthologies, CURSE OF THE UNDEAD and DEMON LOVERS AND STRANGE SEDUCTIONS. The sale of anthologies edited by someone with no prior writing or editing experience to a major publisher was an amazing stroke of luck then and would be impossible now. At the time, I thought I would thereafter (1) make lots of money and (2) sell everything I wrote. It is to laugh. The advances did constitute more money than we'd ever received in one lump before, although they were probably modest even by early 1970s standard. One of them did provide the down payment on our first house. Neither book earned out its advance, though, and the publisher didn't buy anything further from me.

As for the second expectation, my next publication was the first full-length book I wrote myself, a nonfiction work of literary criticism on vampirism in literature. After a couple of years of floundering around, still not very knowledgable about the industry, I contracted it with a small press that proved to be disastrous. They printed the book by offset from my typed manuscript, long before word processing, so the thing looked sadly unprofessional. It had a small print run, as typical for academic-oriented works, and it was exorbitantly overpriced. It cost something like $29.00 in 1975, when the average paperback went for $1.25 and most hardcovers for under $10.00. (I checked those figures by glancing at books from that decade on my shelf.) It's a wonder any copies ever sold. Moreover, after the first year or two the publisher stopped communicating with me, and I eventually resorted to a lawyer's letter to get them to disgorge a meager royalty payment. Years went by before my first professional fiction sale, to one of the early Darkover anthologies, and well over a decade between that monograph and my first novel, to a startup small horror press—which treated its authors well and even paid an advance. So, not forgetting that aforementioned ghastly vampire monograph experience, with later publishers I felt good about the deal when they actually answered mail and disbursed royalties on time.

Hurley reminds us that at every stage of a writing career, rejection will happen, and she recommends an attitude of "grim optimism." For surviving in this industry, she advises writers to "create a strong support network. Get a good agent. Understand that everything changes."

I've read that something like 90% of published authors don't live off their writing, but have another source of income such as a day job, a pension, or a well-employed spouse. Of the other 10%, few support themselves by writing fiction; most depend on occupations such as journalism or technical writing. Anyone whose principal goal in becoming an author is to get rich or even affluent is probably doomed to disappointment. To survive the highs and lows described in Hurley's essay, one has to write for its own sake. As Marion Zimmer Bradley famously said, nobody told you not to be a plumber.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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