Writing Life #8: Rejection!

It’s a word and a sensation that all authors are familiar with. I’ve been thinking about rejection lately for a couple of reasons.

One of them is The Monster (a.k.a. The Book That Will Kill Me). I’m not entirely sure that anyone will want to publish this thing, which means racking up yet another rejection in the files for yours truly.

Yes, published authors get rejections, too. Rejection is an ever-present ghost haunting the Writing Life. Don’t think for a moment that your first “yes” means the death of “no.” Whether or not you’re published, there’s no guarantee of acceptance. Ever. Last year, I decided to try my hand at a picture book. I had been carrying an idea for a story around for a few years and it just felt like time to give it a shot. So I worked on the script and gave it to my agent, who sent it off to various folks in the picture book industry. The result? A resounding, crashing wave of “Uh, no, thanks” from all and sundry.

I’m a lot more blasé about rejection these days (as you can probably tell) because I have that luxury. With five books on the shelves and six more under contract, my accept-to-reject ratio has tilted enough to the good that I feel…not confident, per se… Maybe “cautiously not pessimistic” is the right term. I never, ever assume that something I write will be published, but I don’t feel quite as defeatist about it as I once did.

Another reason that I’ve been thinking about rejection is that I just received a rejection the other day…for a short story I submitted SIX YEARS AGO.

Now, long response times are legendary in this business. But still — this is a story I submitted to a magazine more than a year before I sold my first novel, and they’re just getting around to rejecting it! Better yet, the only reason I even heard from them is because the magazine is shutting down. So I imagine some poor intern was tasked with going through the slush and the unanswered pile and sending out form e-mails letting everyone know that the magazine is ceasing publication, so there will be no room for your story, so sorry. (Best of all: There’s a brief postscript to the e-mail saying that they “enjoyed reading” my story, citing the title. This raises new questions for me: Are they saying this to everyone? Or would my story have been accepted six years later if only they could, you know, stay in business? And did they enjoy reading it recently, or six years ago, and they’re just getting around to telling me now? Or — more likely — did they append this postscript to every e-mail, to give it that personal touch? Enquiring minds want to know!!!)

Back when I was submitting stories and novels and other blather for publication, I used to keep a file of every rejection I received. Once I started submitting electronically, this stopped because it seemed somewhat obsessively maudlin to print out a rejection for the purposes of putting it into my three-ring binder along with its analog brethren (oh, yes — I rocked the three-ring Binder of Doom!), but that binder has every printed rejection I ever received, dating back to the 1980s and my very first story submission ever (to Asimov’s). The other day, spurred on by the six-year rejection, I dug out that file and flipped through those rejections. It’s funny — I suddenly remembered a vow I had made to myself, long, long ago: I swore that on the day I published my first novel, I would throw a big party. The guests would each receive one of those original rejections, and at the end of the party, I would light a fire and we would all burn them.

And yet here they are, still sitting in my file cabinet. I had that party, but I never even thought of the rejections. I was too happy. Suddenly all of those rejections meant nothing — whatever power they’d held over me (more accurately, whatever power I’d given them over me) had vanished. Moving forward was more important than burning the past.

At any rate, I’m glad I kept them all because in looking through them, I found my favorite rejection slip EVER. It’s from Hustler magazine. (In high school, I wrote a rather dark yet, er, racy story. At a loss for where to send it, I flipped through my well-thumbed, library-borrowed copy of Writer’s Digest and saw that Hustler accepted such stories. Off it went.)

And since I am a pack rat, I still have that rejection and can show it to you here:

 

Hustler rejection slip

(See? I wasn’t kidding about the three-ring binder, either!)

More next week. Comment below, y’all!

What’s Wrong with Publishing? #3: Free

Welcome back.

The usual disclaimer: The opinions and ideas expressed in WWwP? entries are ruminations, not rants. I’m thinking out loud here. Even if it seems like I’m demonizing some quarter of the industry, I’m really not — I want publishing (every aspect of it) to be stronger and better. Everyone has a role to play. I welcome your thoughts in the comments. I adore just about everyone I’ve met and worked with in publishing; nothing I say here should be construed as denigrating any sector of the industry.

As promised, this time I’m going to blather a little bit about Free Comic Book Day, the comic book industry’s only industry-wide promotional event/opportunity.

Before I begin, some background: There are few things in this world on which I could be considered an expert, fewer things still on which you should blindly accept what I say. I am the first to admit this. However, when it comes to FCBD…I’m da Man. No, seriously. I’m the guy. I was there from the beginning and I made the event happen. This isn’t me bragging — I’m just establishing my bona fides when it comes to FCBD. In December of 2001, the higher-ups at Diamond came to me and said, “Hey, there’s this idea to give away a bunch of comics. Do you think it’s doable?” I said, “Sure.” They said, “Great — you’re in charge.”

And for three years, that’s what I did — I ran FCBD on top of all of my other duties at Diamond, and it was fun, it was grueling, it was rewarding, it was sort of crazy, it was frustrating, and — weirdly enough — it worked.

In the comic book industry, we launched Free Comic Book Day on a budget that could charitably be described as “shoestring” and more accurately described as “non-existent.” And yet we gave away millions of comic books around the world, raised awareness of the art form, gave stores a “second Christmas” in terms of sales, and — best of all — got some great comics into the hands of some folks who wouldn’t otherwise have had them.

The book could benefit from a similar concept. I’m not talking about blindly mimicking Free Comic Book Day and having an annual Free Book Day across the globe (though if someone wants to pull it off, great!). I’m mean leveraging the power of free and the strength that comes from throwing an entire industry’s weight behind a cause and a promotion.

We don’t have to give away entire books. Maybe we could produce and give away special compilations of excerpts or special printed excerpts or special e-books. I don’t know. I don’t pretend to know. There are lots of ideas and lots of possibilities. The important thing is establishing that connection I discussed last time — having publishers see readers as their ultimate customers, communicating with them, even if the sales channel still has a distributor and/or retail store interposed. When publishers understand how to sell to readers, sales will go up. Simple as that. When publishers understand how to sell to stores, sell-in may be great, but sell-through will always be dicey and subject to the time-honored business technique officially known as “crossing your fingers.”

Exactly what we do is less important than that we do something. Sound crazy? Sound wasteful? It is, to a degree, but recall the old tongue-in-cheek advertising maxim: “Half of all advertising money is wasted. Now if we could only figure out which half.” The only way to find out is to try things and see what works.

What I learned from Free Comic Book Day was this: It’s better to try something than to try nothing. I can’t tell you how many boneheaded, idiotic ideas I had when I was running FCBD. But each one taught me something and then I moved on to the next idea on the pile. Since I had no budget and — especially in that first year — no expectations at all, I had the freedom to try whatever I wanted. As long as it didn’t cost money.

That’s all fine and good, you say, but still — Why would any publisher join an organization and/or support an effort that might raise awareness of its competition? Well, let me tell you.

Let’s say you are Publisher X, and you have a terrific new book coming out soon. People who love the books of Big Author are gonna love it. Only problem is, you have no way of talking to Big Author’s fans because Big Author is published by someone else. Unless there’s some kind of cross-promotion going on.

But why on earth would Big Author’s publisher agree to this? What’s in it for them?

I’ll tell you what’s in it for them: Big Author’s publisher has a new book coming out from Newbie Author. And Newbie Author’s book would totally appeal to readers of Author Z. And guess who publishes Author Z?

That’s right: You do. Publisher X.

You scratch my back, I scratch yours. It’s as old as the oldest primates, friends, and it works. A rising tide lifts all boats, or whatever other cliché you prefer. Makes no difference to me.

It’s a notion that the comic book industry — riddled with internecine, juvenile conflicts dating back decades — was never able to fully embrace. But book publishing might be able to because in book publishing the AUTHOR, not the publisher, is the brand.

Free is good. Free works. Amazon gives away free samples — shouldn’t bookstores? Yeah, you can flip through the book in the bookstore, but you can’t take it home with you and think about it. What if you could take home a little excerpt? Read it on the subway, think about it… And when you decide you want it, there’s a code in the excerpt that you can use to tell that same bookstore that you want the book — punch it into a web site and the book will be mailed to you or reserved for you, possibly with some kind of a bonus, but definitely with another FREE excerpt for another book. I would love to see some sort of spinner rack or display at the front of every bookstore in the country, packed with cool little printed excerpt booklets that people can take with them, each one a sales tool not just for that specific book, but also for the next book the customer will buy.

I’m glossing over a lot of details, obviously, and I’m skipping the hard work part and the spending part, waving my hands like a magician and saying, “Abracadabra!” and expecting a new promotional paradigm to fly out of my shirt cuff like a dove. But that’s OK. Remember: I ended up in charge of FCBD because I shrugged and said, “Sure” when asked if I thought it would work. I didn’t know I’d end up in charge of it. And once I was in charge of it, I had no idea what to do and absolutely zero money to do it with.

That first FCBD — the first Saturday of May 2002 — I went to two comic book stores. Neither one had a big crowd. At one store, a guy told me, “Yeah, a few people came in a little while ago looking for some free comics.” I went home despondent, figuring I’d screwed up, I’d dropped the ball. FCBD was an abject failure.

Little did I know that I had picked two of the rare few stores to have a bad day that first year. When I got to my office on Monday morning, my inbox was overflowing with e-mails from publishers, retailers, and readers telling me amazing stories about the day, the success. FCBD was a success, and I was the last person to know. Literally millions of comics given away. Christmas-level sales at the retail level. Truly massive amounts of free publicity for an industry that was hurting.

That was one guy. Before social networking. With absolutely no money and zero experience at running such an event.

Are you going to tell me that the entire publishing industry, marshalling its resources, can’t do something just as effective, if not a million times more so?

Look: Nothing up my sleeve.

Abracadabra.

What’s Wrong with Publishing? #2

Welcome back.

First, what I suppose will become my usual caveat: The opinions and ideas expressed in WWwP? entries are ruminations, not rants. I’m thinking out loud here. Even if it seems like I’m demonizing some quarter of the industry, I’m really not — I want publishing (every aspect of it) to be stronger and better. Everyone has a role to play. I welcome your thoughts in the comments.

At the risk of sounding sycophantic: I have three publishers, three editors, three sets of everyone involved in making sure my books get to you, the reader. They are all tremendous, inspiring, hardworking people, and it would kill me if anything I said herein was construed as denigrating them.

OK, now that that’s out of the way…

Well, no one called me a moron last time, so I guess I’m going to keep plugging along on this. 🙂 One fellow did chime in with some terrific thoughts and insights, so I encourage you to go back to the last entry and read the comments section. I’m going to be talking about a lot of the issues “Joe the Dancing Mule” (is that of the Staten Island Dancing Mules?) brings up in my own sweet time, but he makes several good points. If you want to discuss them, have at it!

As some of you know, for many (many — too many!) years, I worked in the comic book industry on the distribution side. For those not hip to the business lingo, a distributor is basically someone who stands between a producer (i.e. a publisher) and a retailer (i.e. a store like your local bookstore) and facilitates business between them. (Some would say the distributor just adds a needless layer of complexity and skims a percentage of the profits for that, but I’m not here to debate the necessity or lack thereof of distributors today.)

In my years in comics, I saw — I have to be honest here — a lot of really bone-headed, brain-dead business thinking. Oh, I could tell you stories! (But I’m not here to discuss the comic book industry, either.)

What I want to do, though, is talk about some practices in the comic book industry that differ wildly from practices in the book industry. I’m not saying that book publishing should or must adopt these practices; I’m just saying that they’re an alternate way of doing business and are deserving of some firing neurons in your gray matter.

There are no large national chains in the comic book industry. There are some smallish regional chains, but for the most part, the comic book industry is made up of a wide array of small, locally- and individually-owned stores. As a result, it can be difficult to coordinate the sorts of mass promotion that book publishers take for granted. For example, if you want your Latest Big Thriller prominently displayed to the book-reading public, you can leverage your co-op with B&N and/or Borders and you know immediately that your book will be front-and-center at a plethora of bookstores nationwide. That’s without even dipping your toe into the independent bookstore world.

(Sadly, though, there are times when stores take the co-op money and then shrug their shoulders and don’t bother with the promotion. Or shortchange it. Or do it half-assed. So like Twain says, “You pays your money and you takes your chances.”)

In comics, there’s no single point of communication, so you would have to negotiate with each individual comic book store. Which is a nightmare, of course, so no one does it. What the comic book publishers do instead is speak directly to the end-customer, the comic book reader.

See, for the most part, book publishers don’t think of you, the reader, as their customer. They think of the bookstore as their customer. The lion’s share of their promotional, publicity, marketing, and sales efforts do not go into convincing readers that the Latest Big Thriller is a great book. Their efforts go into convincing the stores that the Latest Big Thriller is a book that will make them lots of money…and then let the stores sell it to you.*

In comics, though, the publishers use a different tactic, a more “grassroots” tactic, if you will. They evangelize their upcoming comics directly to the consumers, counting on consumer enthusiasm to goose the retailers into stocking the comics in question. (Of course, they also do outreach direct to the stores, but the level of direct-to-consumer promotion in the comics industry is well above that in book publishing.)

Comic book publishers ultimately see the reader as their customer. Why is this? Quite simply because they HAVE TO. You see, in the comic book industry, comics are sold non-returnably. This means that when a store orders, say, 30 copies ofSuperman, that store is stuck with 30 copies. If the store sells all 30, then, hey, great! But if the store sells five copies, well… Someone’s eating ramen for a month.

Compare this to the book industry, where books are sold on a returnable basis. Your local bookstore can order 30 copies of, say, my book. But if they only sell five of them, guess what? The store can go, “Oh, well,” and send those unsold 25 copies back to my publisher in return for credit. And my publisher eats the cost of those books, and my royalty statement is a little sadder.

So in comics, the publishers have to be more aware of the reader because if readers don’t buy their comics, the stores — wallowing in vast unsold piles of their stock — will stop buying them. In book publishing, though, unsold books just go back to the publisher and become credit in the store’s coffers to use to buy the next book, which may sell better.

Now, neither system is perfect. Far from it. The bookstore model certainly allows greater risk protection, greater experimentation, and greater diversity at the bookstore level. If you know you can return an unsold book, you might be a little more willing to take a chance on this Barry Lyga guy, secure in the knowledge that if his particular combination of words doesn’t sell to the masses, you won’t take quite as big a hit as you might otherwise. But the comics model, I think, gives the publishers more work, yes, but also a little more input into what’s “big” and what isn’t. It also means they have more direct communication with the reader, which means a better insight (though still flawed) into what sells.

I would like to see book publishing take a page (har-har) from the comic book world and be a little more aggressive in speaking directly to and with the end-reader. This is already happening, to a degree, as the Internet has facilitated and — in many cases — necessitated greater communication between those particular groups. But I would really like it if children’s publishers could somehow come together to make a concerted effort to talk to kids where and how they live.**

We’re already seeing publisher Facebook pages and fan clubs, which is a nice start, but in book publishing (unlike in comics) no one knows or cares who a publisher is. Quick — name the publisher of your favorite book! Odds are (unless you’re working in the industry) you can’t do it without looking it up. A Publisher X Facebook page is great, but if readers don’t know their favorite book is with Publisher X, then how much help is it to you, your authors, and your customers?

What is needed is a way to get cool stuff into kids’ hands, stuff that will make them want to go out and buy the books. You can’t do that with the pens and bookmarks and postcards that you give to bookstores. You need fun, creative book excerpts, innovative text messaging, viral video. In short, you need the sorts of things that authors and publishers both have been trying to execute (to more or less success, depending) for years now.

But many of those efforts are underfunded and are of the “Oh, yeah, and we can also…” variety. They’re the also-rans of marketing. I think they need to be more front-and-center, more aggressive. Grabbing readers’ attention and driving them into stores to buy books.

Ideally, there would be some sort of effort across publishers. Now, why would competitors join forces to do this? Hell, it happens all the time. Every industry on the planet (except comics…hmm…) has some sort of industry-wide trade organization whose sole goal in life is to promote that industry to the public at large. I’m talking about a specific organization that would promote books — reading — to kids. Possibly in conjunction with some sort of anti-obesity campaign: “Feed your mind, not your belly.” Something like that.***

Whew! I’m beat, and this has gone on pretty long. Next time, I think I’ll talk about Free Comic Book Day and its possible implications for the book industry. In the meantime, please add to the conversation below. I want to learn from you guys!

 

 

*I suppose I need to add here — lest someone pounce on me for suggesting otherwise — that of COURSE book publishers love, adore, want, need, and cherish their readers. Of COURSE they do. But their primary sales focus is getting books onto shelves, then getting them into hands. The two notions are in no way mutually exclusive.

**Again, to forestall pouncing: I’m not saying that authors and/or local stores should NOT be doing these things. I’m just saying that publishers should get in there, too.

***Yes, indeed, I am aware of the various literacy organizations out there. I think they have a major role to play in all of this and have a wealth of experience to bring to bear.

Writing Life #7: Pirated!

I’m on teh torrentz…

If you punch “Barry Lyga torrent” into Google, you’ll get hundreds of links, leading you to web sites online where you can download my books for free. There’s really nothing anyone can do about this — it’s like fighting the hydra or playing Whac-A-Mole or whatever other metaphor for fruitless endeavor you prefer.

It drives me nuts.

This is not going to be a post about the righteous indignation of someone who’s been stolen from. Nor is it a polemic on the morality of piracy. I’m not particularly interested in that argument for the simple reason that it’s impossible to win. The people on each side have dug in their heels and they aren’t budging. You’ve got guys like Cory Doctorow or JA Konrath who have a philosophy of “free sells,” meaning that when you give stuff away, it gooses your actual sales.

Whatever. That’s not what this is about. Here’s what bugs me:

The quality is shit.

I put a lot of work into my books. My publishers put a lot of work into them. And it drives me crazy that people just slap up a shitty scan or a lousy OCR of my work. In one scan I saw of my first book, the chapter title “The Panty Algorithm” came out “The Parity Algorithm.”

That’s just one example of how a reader will have a less-than-ideal, often confusing experience reading it.

Look, if you want to read my work, but can’t buy it, please don’t download a shitty version of it. Please go to your local library. If they don’t have a copy, ask them to get one — they will. And, yeah, I know it might take a week or so and you want that book NOW, but you know what? Good things really do come to those who wait. Deferred gratification used to be a widespread life philosophy, and I think it’s long past time for it to come back into style. Trust me — you’ll have a vastly superior reading experience and enjoy the book much more if you read the real deal. There are other cool things to do and to read in the meantime.

When I told a friend about the torrents, she empathized, but she also said, “Isn’t it flattering, in a way?”

And you know what? I get that. It is flattering. I am flattered. So, mission accomplished, pirates. I’m flattered.

Now take the books down.

This has nothing to do with legal or illegal or copyright or any of that. It has everything to do with the fact that what I do is ART. Please respect that.

Parnell Hall Speaks the Truth

Ah, the bookstore signing from Hell! We’ve all been there…

(via Tess Gerritsen)