Friday, May 09, 2008

Some Questions From Vincent...

I recently got a nice letter from an aspiring writer named Vincent. He had kind things to say about my work, and was excited to have finished his own novel recently - one that I believe is in the multi-cultural fantasy vein. He had some questions about getting published, including wondering what I thought about self-publishing.

Here's a bit of what I said...

Congrats on finishing a novel! No matter what happens to it that's a great accomplishment. Most writers don't make it that far, so you have reason to be proud. As for publishing advice... Well, I recommend doing things the old fashioned way. Personally, I wouldn't choose self-publishing without first having looked into the traditional agent and publisher route. Some books can certainly work in self-publication, but a multi-ethnic fantasy might be a tough sell.

Frankly, if your material is good, I think you'll find the genre open to it and eager for new writers. Having said that, it's still hard to break in, and you should expect some rejections and dismissals along the way. Just for context, Frank Herbert had a hard time getting anyone to publish
Dune. It was rejected by 23 publishers! It's now sold well over 12 million copies... That's unusual - and it's a terrific book, but I'm just mentioning that rejection is always part of this game. I do think you should seek out professionals first and for a while, even if it means some discouraging times. The fact is that mainstream publishers can get your book to an audience via many avenues. They can also help make sure you're delivering the strongest book possible. That's not something that family and friends can always do for you.

So I suggest getting a copy of the
Writer's Market. They're available at most major bookstores or through Amazon. There may even be some specially for fantasy/sci-fi. Start with agents, looking up different agencies to see who represents material at all like yours. Also, go look at authors you like and check the acknowledgments. A lot of times they'll thank their agent, so you can figure out who represents them. And then, when you have some likely candidates, send them submissions in whatever format they ask for - some will just want a letter to start with, some might want a sample, some might want the entire book. Make sure you follow their guidelines. If you don't they may loose interest before they've even looked at your work seriously. If you sign with a good agent they'll be able to take your novel in to publishers with a professional approach, likely speaking to editors they know and have worked with. They'll also be there to look after your interests - because your interests and theirs will overlap...

And I'll mention that - while I'm very happy for my career to be where it is now, I also began just as unpublished as anybody else. I scanned the
Writer's Market. I wrote those letters. I got those rejections in the mail. It wasn't easy, but it's not supposed to be. That's why it's so wonderful when you finally break through and get that acceptance letter. I hope that happens for you!

And I do. I also remember well the hunger of those lean times, sending my work out into the world, checking the mail, checking the mail, checking the mail... and more often than not finding polite rejections in it. (Insert Sad Face Here.) Think I've got it made so that past rejection stuff must be old history?... Well, it is, and yet it lives with me still. I've got the documents to prove it. Take a look.

Here, for example, is my first rejection from an agent...


Funny thing about this one is that some ten years later - after I'd published three novels and been asked to judge the Pen/Faulkner Awards - I happened to be at an award ceremony function with this self-same agent. I mentioned that I'd submitted to him, which he hadn't recalled. We both laughed. So it goes. I was pleased to be able to say that he'd missed an opportunity, and he was gracious enough to concede the point.

Now, was he mistaken in not representing that novel? Well, no. I did get an agent for it soon after (the wonderful Marie Brown), but it's not a novel that ever sold. I had to write two more before that happened. Instead, that novel began to wrack up rejection notices. Some examples...


Note that passing months. These are just representative, mind you. Each month contained several more just like them...


While I was living in the UK, I even tried repackage some of my material as British and send it to British publishers. I managed to sell a few short stories over there, but the book publishers generally came back with variations of this...


So it goes. If I can end all this rejection stuff on another positive note, however... The same Transworld that rejected me in 1997 came on board several years later. They published Pride of Carthage, are about to publish Acacia, and are set to publish the sequel as well. Were they wrong for not grabbing my earlier novel? Not a chance. It might have felt that way to me at the time, but I'm thankful that this process - filled with rejection for several years - pushed me to write bigger and better. Seems to me that's part of what the process is about...

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8 Comments:

Blogger Steve Allan said...

Looking at those rejections of someone who's actually talented (yeah, yeah, yeah, don't let it go to your head), it seems like there's no hope. Now, if you'll excuse me I have to tell my children that Daddy's a failure. :)

7:37 PM  
Blogger Meghan said...

First off it's so cool (and brave!) of you to share those rejection letters. It gives us unpublished nobodies reassurance that once our favorite authors were once one of us before ascending the lofty stairs to publishing Olympia.

8:44 PM  
Blogger Meghan said...

Er I also meant to have a second thought attached to the first, which was that it was nice of you to give the writer encouragement. That is all. :)

8:44 PM  
Blogger paranoyd said...

Good advice. It is hard sometimes to imagine "Public" persons (I don't want to say famous or celerities) once were no such thing and they had a hard road to get themselves to that point.

2:03 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Steve,

Enough with the self-deprecation! We'll be seeing your books in print soon. Trust me. I know about these things. I'm talented, you know... :)

Meghan,

You do know that I'm still ascending those stairs to Olympia - haven't reached the top yet. And it still seems my legs might give out, or a tempest might blow me over the edge, or the guy behind me might cut my Achilles heel... Oh, it'll be nice to get to the top and grab on to something solid.

Paranoyd,

Yeah, I feel that too. So this is my effort to prove it with evidence. I know it's a vain attempt, though. Writers that are at those early stages don't have the luxury of looking back the way a publishing writer does. But I still have to say it under the "Hear me now, understand me later" approach...

11:44 AM  
Anonymous stevent said...

David, I found the post encouraging. It's comforting to know that all authors go through the stages of disappointment and rejection, but in the end, if you remain determined and dedicated, you can succeed. It's just a matter of staying positive and pushing through those difficult times. Perhaps you could share with us some examples of query letters to agents that were a success for you? I'd be interested to know what all you said in those letters to attract the attention of an agent(s).

6:43 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

StevenT,

Ah, that would be a good idea! Ummm... unfortunately I don't think I have any of those query letters. Geez, when I think back to the tiny, slow, pathetic computer I wrote Gabriel's Story on, and then recall that I had some other computer prior to that - the one that would have contained those letters - I'm aware of how very lost they are. I've probably changed computers fifteen times since then, and I've moved back and forth from America to Europe about six times, and from coast to coast of America just about as many...

All of which is just to say that the query letter part of my early life is long lost. I like the idea of posting such things, though, so I'll try to see if I can come up with some other way of answering that eventually - maybe getting other authors to let me post THEIR successful letters!

Oh, and you wrote "if you remain determined and dedicated, you can succeed". I do agree with that. It would be nice to have talent on your side as well, but I think that's only one factor in success. Determination and dedication really does go a long way. There is never a moment when all of the publishing world declares "Thou shalt never publish!" No, the rejections happen one at a time, and you really can never know when that'll change. It is, though, very much the case that a writer can get rejected by thirty publishers, only to have number thirty-one think he/she is the best thing ever. It has happened, and it will again, too.

All of which is to say I don't think it's the publishing world that has the final say on rejecting a writer. They're may be lots of "No's", but it's the writer him/herself that decides when to pack it in - or decides to soldier on.

8:38 PM  
Blogger Steve Allan said...

Well, my name isn't on the front cover, but I just went to a real bookstore and picked up a real book published by a real publisher that has a story I wrote in it. (I couldn't wait for the contributor copy) It feels pretty good. Maybe there is hope after all.

9:48 PM  

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