Sunday, February 06, 2011

Publish Small?

Publishing is a good thing. Really, it is.

But I have felt myself wondering about what feels like a new variation on an old question lately. Namely, I’m seeing more and more folks - in many cases students I’ve been in contact with in various programs - publish works in online magazines that that I’ve never heard of, and that I’m not sure have much of a readership or hope for a lasting reputation. Now, the fact that I haven’t heard of a site doesn’t mean a thing. It could just mean that I’m lame, uncool, out of it. May be a great site, no doubt, with just the sort of readers the writers are looking for. I’m absolutely sure that’s the case sometimes. But I’m just as sure that it’s not the case other times.

I know some established authors that advise aspiring writers to write, revise, submit. Publish and move on to the next thing. I generally agree, but I also think that to that mantra one should add caveats, like 1) submit selectively after doing your homework about what publications might like your work and introduce you to the readers you really want to have, 2) know that you might need to return for a second or third or fourth round of revision to a story, even if you’ve also moved forward with other ones, and 3) remember that publishing isn’t the end of the game - it’s the start of it, and you’ll want to make sure that start is a strong one.

Please understand that I’m not talking about established sites/magazines with a core readership. There are lots of ways that publications with modest readerships are great places to be published. I’m talking about sites that have newly appeared and are hoping to find a readership - and looking to use your words to do it. I’ve heard students lament having “published” a story with a site that promptly vanished - taking the story and the rights to republish it with them into the netherworld. I’ve also seen some sites that seem to need content so desperately that quality is secondary. And I’ve heard people admit that they published something on a site that they personally had no interest in reading. Hmmm. Come on folks - if you don’t like a publication enough to read other stories published in it, why would you want to put your own work in it?

This all got me wondering if the plethora of places to publish is a good thing, or if it’s actually something of a pitfall that’s not ultimately going to benefit the writer. I have an opinion on this.

Before I get to it, though, I’d ask you to consider this post by Ann Leckie and the comments that follow it. I read this a while back, and it speaks directly to what I'm talking about. She lays some of the fundamental issues out and talks with a lot of clarity about them. And, as you’ll note from the fact that her discussion jumped off a John Scalzi-sponsored discussion about another related topic, this question has real significance in our changing publishing landscape. So go take a look and then come back.

Okay, you’re back? Very glad. So what do you think?

My short thoughts are that emerging writers should be mindful of where they publish, at least in terms of what their expectations are. I can see lots of reasons to enjoy engagement with an online community that's far from the mainstream and that's hitting an audience - however small - of like-minded readers (most of whom are probably aspiring writers themselves). That said, I also believe aspiring writers should be very careful where they publish for two reasons - one artistic and one career-oriented.

Artistically... Sorry say it, but being rejected and having to face what that means is a very important part of developing as a writer. It's got to happen. It should happen. Through the process of offering fiction and being turned down we grow more and more into who we are as writers. I'm not suggesting that every editor knows what's best or anything like that. That’s not the point. I believe that writers should face rejection no matter how brilliant they are. It's working and facing obstacles that pushes us to get better, to linger longer with our characters and themes, to grow a bit older, to find more effective ways to communicate. Or to decide that you’ve done it just right, and just need to find the right person to agree. Or… to face the fact that not every story needs to find a publisher; sometimes they should stay unpublished; that’s not always a bad thing.

I've listened to the news of publication success for some stories in the last few years with mixed emotions. On one hand, I'm happy if the writer is happy. On the other hand, I've also felt, "Oh, that's a shame. That story would've been really good after another revision." Instead of being locked in to a marginal publication, it might have found a home someplace that got it noticed by people with the capacity to move a career forward.

Oh, and that's where the career side of things kicks in. I agree completely with Ann's assessment that a history of small publications doesn't mean much to the people that remain in charge of publishing mainstream books. If you don’t care about those folks, fine. If your objective isn’t publication for the widest audience possible that’s fine too. There are lots of ways to enjoy your life as a writer. Small venues can be just the sort of thing to keep you going - and keep you happy. But if what you’re after is your own personal world domination… then I suggest that you be as careful with where you submit your work as you are with how you craft it.

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Anonymous Elizabeth Moon said...

Wholeheartedly agree that it's better to aim high and learn to cope with rejections.

When I started submitting fiction seriously, I chose to submit only to markets that a) paid on acceptance and b) paid well (for the genre.)

Yes, I got rejections. But my first fantasy sale was to an MZB anthology and my first SF sale was to ANALOG. The first two stories in ANALOG caught the interest of the agent I still have...and resulted in the sale of the first books. I never sold to some editors; almost always sold to others.

Now, some 23 books and many stories down the line, I'm glad I didn't short-change myself and spend time and effort sending stories to those very minor markets. It can be scary to test your writing against the big markets--but if that's what you hope for in the long run, that's what you've got to do someday. Might as well be now.

11:58 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Thanks Elizabeth! Very good to hear your thoughts on this.

12:00 PM  

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