Mark Terry

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


September 29, 2010
A friend of mine has a problem. She's probably a genius, and she's pleasant enough, but one might say she doesn't take direction well. I've seen her have problems with this in ways that are really blowing up in her face. She just doesn't--or can't--seem to deal with the fact that within any organization there are ways of doing things, and if she doesn't like it or thinks she's too smart or whatever, that going over the person's head above her and complaining and generally making a nuisance of herself isn't really helping her cause much. And she does this with EVERYTHING. Last night it came to my attention that she had managed to self-destruct (again) within an organization we're both in and this time I definitely saw the pattern: I want to do things my way, even in an apprentice/assistant situation, and it doesn't matter if you broach this to me diplomatically, it's all YOUR fault, and if you don't let me do what I want I'm leaving, so THERE!

And I'm just on the periphery here.

And I do realize that there are often good reasons to move outside the chain of command, etc., or go off on your own. (I don't believe this was one of those situations, for what that's worth). And in this particular case, I don't see this being a good thing for her unless she learns something from it (unlikely, based on the way she started rationalizing things). It's her loss, really, things will go on fine without her.

And I was thinking how this relates to the current trends with e-publishing and the Kindle DTP and all that. Hey, I've done my fair share of self-publishing and imagine I will continue to do so for a variety of reasons throughout my career, when it seems appropriate. Still...

Erica Orloff commented recently about the level of hostility she's seeing leveled at mainstream publishers in the context of e-publishing and it reminds me precisely of my friend's reaction. And perhaps that comes down to: I don't want to play by the rules.

I think there are plenty of stupid and pointless things in the publishing industry, but I've now been knocking around in it long enough to realize that much of these things exist for a reason. For instance, the query letter. Many aspiring writers get all pissed off because an agent, most of the time, rejects their query letter. And they say, "The agent didn't even give me a chance."

There's a fairly fundamental ignorance about the laws of supply and demand as it applies to people trying to get an agent to read their crap. First, the reason you need to craft an enticing query letter is because agents can't read 3,000 manuscripts a year, especially if they're already reading their own clients' materials. Ever thought about that? If an agent has 50 active clients they may already be reading 50 or more manuscripts annually, just for their clients who already make them money. Then they're dealing with emails associated with those clients. Then they're looking to pick up maybe a couple new clients that year. How to do it?

Start the weeding process. 1. Insist they contact me with a short, to-the-point query letter describing their work and introducing themselves. If it's boring, if there are typos, or it just isn't my cup of java, well, that eliminates maybe half of those potential new clients. Will I miss a diamond in the rough? Maybe, it happens. But back to supply and demand--there's always more manuscripts.

2. Send a sample of the manuscript, say 10 pages or 3 chapters, whatever. I can honestly say from my experience that I can tell what's wrong 99.9% of the time with a manuscript within the first 5 pages. If I'm interested beyond that, hey, you'd have to screw up to lose me, and I'm not even an agent or editor. But also, you start to see if the aspiring client understands the mechanics of writing and manuscript format--are there typos? grammar problems? cliches? is it boring? is it slow? do the characters do stupid things? is the writing smooth or awkward? Is it fixable if the story and characters are interesting enough? This easily strips out another 98% of manuscripts.

3. Ask for a full manuscript. By now you've got an idea if the writer can write, if the story is good, and you're getting a sense of what it might be like to work with this writer. Are they an egomaniac? Do they follow directions? Will their personality mesh with yours? Are they easy or difficult to work with? Go back to supply and demand. Think of the fact that an "average" advance on a first novel is probably about $5,000, maybe $10,000 if you're lucky, or a lot less. The agent's cut is 15%. If the person doesn't "get" the "culture" of publishing and your agency, is it going to be worth the $750 or $1,500 you MIGHT make to deal with them or educate them on how the real world works?

Anyway, this has gone on rather long--I'm promising myself to write shorter blog posts--but one of the things I keeping seeing and hearing with the self-publishing e-publishing trend at the moment is a "if I can't do it my way, I'm going to do it myself." I don't like the corporate culture, the way it's set up is stupid, but now I can do it myself.

Which is fine, really. It's an attitude like that that's probably behind wealthy entrepreneurs. Do you think IBM wishes they'd bought DOS from Bill Gates? Do you think Bill said, "Screw it, they're idiots, I'm going to form my own company?" Yeah, he probably did.

But it does tend to put all the blame for your lack of success or progress on someone else.



Blogger Erica Orloff said...

To me, it's really the level of venom or hostility that I am seeing. The idea of "Who the hell is an agent or editor to tell me whether I am good or not? And really, they are pathetic since they are dumb/paid too much/don't know shit" etc. If the people spewing this had ANY idea (any . . . one iota) of how much truly God awful crap gets sent to publishers, they would maybe understand that barriers to entrance exist. And as I posted somewhere this week . . .

People who are self-pubbing who are TALENTED (!!) and good and can edit their own work, or hire someone to edit their work and design a cover . . . SHOULD want the differences between schlock and good writing to surface. They should be wanting people to see the difference. It only helps the talented. They have nothing to fear, in essence. And they sure don't need to be hating on others.

As I posted in the comments at some point this week on my blog, a writer who had a traditionally published book out recently self-pubbed her next book on SMASHWORDS. So I checked it out, and I was stunned . . . it made no sense, was stilted, awful and truly amateurish. So did she feel that because she was traditionally published, she had no need of crit groups, betas or an editor? Because any beta with eyeballs would have, I presume, showed her some basic, basic construction errors there.

But in the meantime, as she has been promo-ing this book, she has really been badmouthing her traditional publisher. So the whole dynamic there is very odd. If you have the goods, then GREAT. But the loudest voices are often . . . sorry to say, not very good.

7:31 AM  
Anonymous Jim said...

I think your point about the attitude behind wealthy entrepreneurs is a valid one but your historical example is not quite accurate. Bill Gates and Microsoft had been in business about five years (mostly selling a popular version of Basic) when IBM came to them looking to have a version of Microsoft Basic for their planned personal computer. IBM was also looking for an operating system. Gates bought an operating system from someone else and licensed it to IBM but retained copyright ownership apparently because he guessed that lots of companies would copy IBM's computer and would also be looking for an operating system.

As for IBM's failure to outright purchase DOS... For many years I thought IBM had really screwed up in that deal (and I was not alone in that) but upon further reflection, I am not so sure. IBM has backed out of consumer markets. In fact, IBM sold its PC business to Lenovo five years ago. Today IBM still makes computer hardware -- they own the mainframe market and lead the supercomputer market -- and if you own any one of the leading gaming console, the chip at the heart of it was probably designed and manufactured by IBM -- but IBM makes its real money from software and services. (And the software it sells is not end user stuff but rather the systems and tools used by businesses and governments, not by consumers.)

But to return to your point, many fortunes have been made by somebody who was frustrated by the corporate world and decided to start their own company. (Or, in the 21st century twist, start your own company and have another company pay you a billion dollars for it.)

On the other hand, not every entrepreneur is successful and I am certain that much of the direct-to-e-book publications is of less than stellar quality.

However, given a potential worldwide market of billions of people who are literate in English, the potential in sales for e-books that interest a tiny infinitesimal fraction of a percent of that group, is astonishing. The problem, of course, is how will those potential readers learn of the existence of that book. (Ah, whoever solves that problem will be another Internet billionaire!)

8:04 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I'm not sold that e-books will kill traditional publishing. I think there will be many people who won't buy a Kindle or whatever. But traditional publishing might be smaller (or even more consolidated than it already is).

I don't see any reason to trash my publisher. They're doing a great job and maybe I can have the best of both worlds.

10:17 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I always wondered if that story about IBM and Gates was apocryphal, sort of like his quote about why anybody would want the Internet.

But you got my point. Sometimes it's that frustration with "how things are" that generates greatness. And as you said and I didn't (wasn't it long enough already?), many an entrepreneur have failed, too.

10:19 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

And it still, to me, feels like most of this insanity and bashing is within the confines of the writer-blogosphere. When I meet ANY person in real life (without exception so far) who finds out I am a writer, the FIRST thing they (non-writers) ask is "Legitimately? Are you self-pubbed? Or are you in bookstores?" I think, unfortunately, in the real world, too many people have been cornered by someone's Uncle Myron who tried to sell them his self-pubbed memoir.

11:10 AM  
Blogger Spy Scribbler said...

Yeah, the bashing goes both ways, and I dislike it on both ends. I try to steer clear. I don't mind the challenge of the query process or agents or editors at all. It's all just another challenge. I write better when I'm imagining that I have to pull a reluctant reader into a story.

Honestly, I think the business side is kind of fun. I wish I wrote faster. That's my major complaint with a writing career. *thinks* At least that I can think of right now.

4:42 PM  

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