Wednesday, July 16, 2014

My Own Cautionary Tale for Aspiring Writers

Confession time. I've been hemming and hawing about posting this piece for over a week now, and had decided against it. However, in the past view days I've seen other writers offering their own warnings about the perils of publishing or advising aspiring authors about becoming overconfident, so I thought I'd grab my cautionary clarinet and jump onto the band wagon.

I recently received a rejection letter that pissed me off, and not because it was a rejection letter. I'm used to those. If I could translate every one I've received into a book sale, my Amazon numbers would be rocking. It was the condescending tone of the letter that irritated me. What the publisher (hopefully) intended as constructive feedback came across as lecturing and, at one point, included a sly insult. The piece was an erotica short story that the publisher derided as pornographic. This made me laugh because the line between the two is so thin, yet the publisher had this attitude that one side of the line was noble and the other shameful. It reminded me of the alcoholic who accuses the stoner of being an addict. The letter also contained an admonition on the exploitation and objectification of women, which I found hypocritical coming from a publisher of erotica.

Why do I bring this up? Because the current state of the publishing industry is a double-edged sword for writers, especially those who are aspiring to the craft. The rapid growth of independent publishing houses has allowed many authors access to the market that they would not normally have had before. That expansion, however, means the industry now contains numerous personalities that were rarely found when a few major publishing houses dominated the field. While most independent publishers are honest and look out for the interests of their writers, sadly there are many examples of those whose goal is to take advantage of new writers or exploit them.

I've been very fortunate in my career. I've never contracted with a publisher who disrespected me or my work, or who tried to cheat me out of royalty or intellectual property rights. However, I have had numerous encounters with so-called professionals who have been sanctimonious (see above), shady, or downright crooked. I want to pass along some of these stories to writers hoping to break into the business as a cautionary tale on not grabbing at the first publishing opportunity that arises. [NOTE: I will not be naming any person or company. My goal isn't to fling accusations or start a flame war, but to offer some sound business advice to the newbies.]

Don't feel like you have to take the first contract that is offered to you. This is especially hard for aspiring writers who have been querying and getting rejected (or ignored) for a year or more. I know. I had pitched The Vampire Hunters for over three years without success, and then one afternoon I received a response to a query saying the editors loved the manuscript and were forwarding me a contract. The contract was ridiculous. The publisher wanted me to give up all rights to the book for ever for a royalty of 10 percent on all sales. In essence, if I became the next Suzanne Collins or J.K Rowlings, 90 percent of all profits from my franchise would have gone to the publisher. The only thing not included in the contract was me having to pledge my soul to Davy Jones for one hundred years. When I rejected the offer, that publisher felt insulted. But I refused to accept a contract that was clearly detrimental to my career. The good news: One month later, I signed The Vampire Hunters with a different publisher.The current publisher of the trilogy, Emby Press, is very supportive and proactive, and the editor and I are constantly exchanging e-mails to discuss marketing ideas that will not only help my sales but the sales of the press' other writers.

Realize that some publishers have a hidden agenda. Unfortunately, most writers don't discover this fact until well after the ink on the contract has dried. I know a writer whom I am close to who signed a three-book deal with a new publisher. In the beginning, the relationship progressed well, until the publisher tried to force this writer to accept cover art that looked remarkably similar to the cover art of another established writer within the house's cache of authors and who wrote in the same genre. This established writer had ended her relationship with that publisher because of undisclosed contract disputes, and brought her series with her to a new publisher. By attempting to force my friend to accept these covers, he ran the risk (or perhaps intended to) deceive readers into thinking my friend's books were a continuation of the popular series to which the publisher no longer had the rights. While this move would have generated sales for the publishing house, it also had the potential of creating distrust between the writer and the readers, thus ruining my friend's career from the outset. My friend eventually convinced the publisher to go with a different cover art design.

Finally, beware of the con artists who troll this industry. These are the parasites who will blatantly take advantage of aspiring writers for the own gain, even at the expense of the writer's career and/or reputation. I encountered one such individual back in 2011. He had read The Vampire Hunters and asked if I would provide a historical piece on vampires for a book he was writing. Being young and naive (well, at least naive) I agreed without first checking into his background. The moment that I announced my intention on my blog, several people contacted me to warn me that this individual was a serial plagiarist who had developed an infamous reputation within the industry, so much so that every few months he had to close shop and re-emerge under a new alias (at last count he had twenty-four aliases I was aware of). Needless to say, I opted out of that arrangement. If I had not been warned by others about this individual, associating with him could have done irreparable damage to my reputation.

So how do aspiring writers (and even established ones) avoid these pitfalls? You can't. Sure, you can do your due diligence, conduct Google searches, ask other writers if they have heard of this publisher, but in the long run you can never be one hundred percent certain. What you can do is rely on your instincts. If you've been offered a contract and your heart is doing a happy dance, but your gut is telling you otherwise, listen to you gut. There are hundreds of independent publishers in the industry. If your work is solid, you'll eventually get picked up by one that is worthy of your talent. Do not sell yourself short.

And a note to those independent publishers who like to flaunt their status: Please remember that there are hundreds of companies like yours out there. If you continue to talk down to authors, take advantage of them, or exploit them for your own personal gain, then best of luck in finding and retaining a cache of good, prolific, successful writers who will sustain your operations in this industry.

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