I started this blog On August 30, 2011, almost ten years ago. When I recently realized this anniversary was coming up, I thought I should do something special to commemorate it, but what? Some kind of contest or maybe a retrospective of some sort? Then it occurred to me that 2012 will mark my fortieth year since I dedicated my life to becoming a writer. So what if I wrote about how the publishing industry has changed during those four decades, at least from my perspective, and talk about the lessons I learned? Sounds good, I thought, and started writing. And writing, and writing . . . This has turned out to be the longest entry I’ve ever produced for this blog (slightly over 8,000 words), but hey, it’s the tenth anniversary, right? Might as well do it up big. Hopefully the length won’t put you off and you’ll find something of value in my trip down memory lane (and hopefully I won’t come across as a cranky old man who doesn’t understand these young kids today and their newfangled ways).
I’ve been making up stories one way or another my entire life, but I mark the autumn of 1982 (my first year at college) as the time when I fully devoted myself to writing. I was eighteen then. I’m fifty-seven now. For those of you who aren’t math wizards – and I count myself among your number (god, believe it or not, I had no idea what a terrible pun I was going to write when I first started this sentence) – that’s thirty-nine years ago. The world of publishing has changed so much in that time, but in many ways, it hasn’t changed at all. So at the risk of being viewed as a cranky old man yelling at kids to get off his lawn, here are my thoughts on my (nearly) four decades as a writer.
There was no Internet as we know it in 1982, and while personal computers were on the way, people didn’t have them in their homes yet. This meant two things: 1) I was an extraordinarily lazy researcher. You had to go to a library to do any sort of decent research, and I often didn’t know what I needed to know until I was in the middle of writing a scene, and I damn sure wasn’t going to stop and drive to the small library in my town or head back to my university to consult its far larger library. And 2) I wrote my first stories and first couple novels on typewriters. Manual at first, then on an electric one that my mom and dad got me for Christmas that year.
Since there was no email, writers had to type a clean copy of a story or novel, mail it to a publisher with a self-addressed-stamped envelope (abbreviated as SASE and sometimes pronounced as say-see). We’d wait for few weeks to a couple months, and then you’d get an acceptance letter or, as was the case for me until my late mid-twenties, you’d get your manuscript back, and you’d submit it to the next publisher on your list. You’d keep sending the same copy out until it became too ratty – which meant editors could tell it had been rejected a lot too – and then you’d type up a fresh copy and send it out.
My first rejection slip! (I forgot to send a SASE.)
Since there was no Internet and social media, writers got their information about markets from Writer’s Digest and The Writer, and by subscribing to market newsletters individuals put out, such as Janet Fox’s Scavenger’s Newsletter and Kathy Ptacek’s legendary Gila Queen’s Guide to Markets. We also bought Writer’s Market, a big book Writer’s Digest published every year with tons of market listings. We usually only bought it ever few years, though since it was a bit pricey and the info within tended to remain good for a while. I also read every interview with a writer than I could find in magazines, often in Locus, which I subscribed to as well. I ordered sample copies of magazines to get a feel for what editors were looking for. (No stories posted on websites to read back then.) All this searching, reading, sifting, selecting, ranking of markets took time, but it also meant that I had a really decent knowledge of what markets were available.
Responses from editors were faster back then, practically motherfucking lightspeed in some cases, and you got more personalized responses with feedback or, failing that, a checklist with a number of reasons for an editor’s rejection, with your particular areas marked. More book publishers were open to reading manuscripts from unsolicited authors, and they’d write a short letter explaining the reasons for your rejection. I sent three sample chapters of my first novel – a fantasy titled A Wizard’s World – to Del Rey. (I sent three random chapters that I thought were the most interesting because I didn’t know editors preferred – and still do – to see the first three consecutive chapters.) My folks had a PC by then – an Atari computer – and I used a primitive word-processing program to print the manuscript. The program didn’t have a spellcheck function (I don’t think any of the word-processing programs back then did), so I’m sure my manuscript was rife with typos. (Throughout my undergraduate years, I wrote all my papers on that computer, and professors used to beg me to buy a spellcheck program – once they were available, they came as a separate disk, but they were something like $100 in 1980’s money, and that seemed like a lot to me at the time, so I struggled along without spellcheck until it came standard with word-processing programs). I put the manuscript (all 249 pages of it) into a box that had once contained a shirt bought at a department store and used the tear-away strips on the sides of printer paper as packing material.
I sent my opus – unagented – to Del Rey, and two months later, I received a personal rejection. I continued sending unagented novel manuscripts to publishers like Del Rey and Baen for several years and received short personalized rejection letters every time.
After I received one or two rejections on a story or novel, I figured they must not be very good, put them away in a drawer, and never sent them out again. I then started work on the next project, whatever it might be. I continued with this pattern for several years, until I read an article in Writer’s Market called “The Rule of Twelve,” in which the author (whose name I can’t recall and haven’t been able to find on the Internet) advocated sending stories out forever until they sold. (When she tried this, she discovered her stories sold on the twelfth time out, on average, hence the article’s title.) I started selling regularly to small-press magazines after I adopted her practice. (And I sold my stories on the ninth time out!)
When I was young, I was a horror kid. I loved horror movies and comics more than anything. Then in junior high I got into superhero comics, so I began to love all sorts of genres, since comics – especially superhero ones – would tell stories that fell into all kinds of different genres, changing from month to month. One month Spider-Man would face a crime lord, the next month a vampire, and the next he might have to deal with an alien invasion. Television was like this too. No cable or VCR’s back then, so we couldn’t confine our viewing to one specific interest. We watched whatever was on, a detective show one hour, a variety show the next, a science fiction show after that. I think the combination of not having a wide choice in TV programs along with reading comics helped make my generation of writers more liable to write in multiple genres and to write cross-genre fiction.
In high school, I started reading a lot of quest fantasy novels. New editions of Lord of the Rings came out then, along with The Sword of Shannara, and Lord Foul’s Bane. It was early in Stephen King’s career, and the 1980’s horror boom was just beginning, but at that point I envisioned myself as a fantasy writer, and it never occurred to me to try horror. I wish to hell I had! Maybe I would’ve broken into the horror boom back then. I still read horror and watched horror, but it wasn’t my focus.
I finished A Wizard’s World when I was nineteen. I finished my second novel, The Adventures of Professor Peacock – a rip-off of Doctor Who – when I was twenty-one. For my third novel, I thought it might be cool to write a contemporary fantasy novel using horror tropes. I wrote Lycanthrope and sent sample chapters to Del Rey. They told me it was too much like Piers Anthony’s Incarnations of Immortality series and that I should be careful if I didn’t wish to be labeled a plagiarist. Horrified, I put the manuscript away and never sent it out again. I wish I had. I’d essentially written an urban fantasy several years before the genre became popular, and my novel wasn’t anything like Anthony’s series.
When I first started submitting short stories and novels, I went for the largest, more prestigious markets in the genre. After a year or two of rejections, it occurred to me to try the small-press markets. I still got a lot of rejections from them, but I got a lot more personalized feedback, which I used to help improve my writing. And I began selling stories, from time to time, at least.
During my senior year of college, I served as the editor of the school’s literary magazine so I could learn what it was like on the other side of the desk. I think every writer should have some editorial experience. It’s an excellent way to improve your own writing.
I continued writing fantasy novels through college and into graduate school. For short fiction, I wrote mostly fantasy, but some science fiction and horror. In grad school, I decided to try writing humorous fantasy. Absurdist stuff, really. One of my grad thesis advisors told me to tone down the absurdity and helped me revise the book. Up to that point, I’d been a lazy reviser. I found – and still find – the greatest energy in creating fiction, not in revising it. But I learned to tolerate revising.
My first year out of grad school, I decided to look for an agent. I sent a query for the novel I’d written in grad school – Y3000, a humorous fantasy about a computer that was God and the Devil who was a cable TV magnate – to the Scott Meredith Agency. I had no idea that the agency had two aspects to it. One was a legitimate literary agency, and the other was a scam agency that charged reading fees and never took on any clients. I paid the fee (I think it was something like $700 in 1990 money), sent my book, and lo and behold, they took me on as a client. (Evidently this almost never happened, but it did for me.) I was super excited and while my agent – a man named Mark Jolly – sent my book around, I wrote two more humorous fantasies in the vein of Y3000. Mythopotamia, about a world where ancient gods and contemporary gods who were versions of Darwin, Freud, and Einstein clashed, and Newz, which was about how all the weird stories in tabloid papers were real. But after two years of my agent not being able to sell Y3000, we parted ways. A few years later, I submitted Mythopotamia to Josepha Sherman at Baen. She loved it but the publisher passed. I never sent it out again. I never sent Newz anywhere.
I decided my weird contemporary fantasies were a dead end, so I moved on to writing humorous traditional fantasies. By this point, I was twenty-five/twenty-six, and I’d established a secondary writing career as a horror short story author. I considered trying my hand at a horror novel, but then I read Harlan Ellison’s (in)famous essay in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction titled “Horror is Dead,” in which he correctly predicted the collapse of the 80’s horror boom. Discouraged by this, I wouldn’t try to write a horror novel for several more years.
Since graduating from grad school, I’d been teaching composition classes part-time for colleges while I wrote and my wife at the time was finishing her doctorate in psychology. Once she graduated, I continued writing and teaching, selling stories here and there (this is around the time I read “The Rule of Twelve”) and writing fantasy novels that got rejected. I started exploring different genres such as mystery, nonfiction, and humor, still without much success. I was finding it more difficult to persevere, and I wanted to quit plenty of times.
In my late twenties, I started going to local conventions (I lived in Columbus, Ohio at the time) such as Context and Marcon. I attended every panel on writing that I could, and I made friends that became my writing support network. There was still no Internet yet and no YouTube, so this was the only way I could get access to writers, and it made a huge difference. Through my friends, I learned that you didn’t have to be the world’s most successful or experienced writer to be on panels, so one year I wrote to Marcon and asked to be a panelist, and I was shocked when they said sure, and put me on several panels. On one of these, I sat next to a newly published writer named J. Calvin Pierce. After the panel, he invited me to have a beer with him and fantasy novelist Dennis L. McKiernan. Eventually, the two would ask me to join their writers’ group, which also included award-winning science fiction author Lois McMaster Bujold. They became my first professional writer mentors.
Me at a WFC. Yeah, I'm wearing a wig. So?
Around the same time, I joined one of the first online social networks, a service called GEnie (started by General Electric, hence the capital GE). Since there were no websites yet or no other social platforms, writers flocked to GEnie – especially because professionals got to use the service for free, and they got access to private areas on the service where they could talk business. Once I sold three stories for professional rates, I was able to upgrade to a professional writer GEnie account and had access to the private areas. Everyone in science fiction, fantasy, and horror was on GEnie back then, and I learned a metric fuck-ton from reading their posts and interacting with them. I started building a different aspect of my writing support network then.
There were a couple incidents on GEnie that I still remember to this day. One was when George R.R. Martin (pre-Game of Thrones) posted that new writers should stop writing because they were making it hard for established writers such as himself to make a living. I couldn’t tell if he was joking at the time.
Another incident was when someone who had access to Zebra Books’ information posted the advances horror writer Rick Hautala had made for several novels. Why this person did this, I have no idea, but I thought it was dick move. That sort of information wasn’t shared between writers back then, and it was illuminating to see how small the advances a writer I admired got. Rick, perhaps embarrassed or just pissed off, left GEnie and never returned.
In the private areas on GEnie, writers would be open about their struggles to pay bills and afford medical care. They’d talk about writers who died broke and mostly forgotten at a relatively young age, and about writers living with all kinds of painful health conditions because they didn’t have insurance. This was when I realized that the whole teach until you can write full-time might never work out for me.
Dennis once told me during a writers’ group meeting that he expected me to have two or three books out in the next few years, and that I’d be able to quit teaching then and write full time. I doubted that then (although I didn’t tell Dennis because I wanted to believe it), and it never happened.
Dennis introduced me to his agent, Jonathan Matson, who took me on as a client. The first novel of mine he represented was a light fantasy called True Thief. He was never able to sell it. I was with Jonathan for nineteen years, and during that time, he never landed me a book deal. I found all the deals and brought them to him. He negotiated the contracts and did a better job than I ever could, but this wasn’t the way I’d always thought author-agent relationships worked.
In this general period, I started going to the World Fantasy Convention because all the SF/F/H authors on GEnie said it was the absolute best convention for writers to go to business-wise, as only publishing professionals attended. I learned a lot from going and made even more connections, both for business and for my writing network. I would land deals to write stories for anthologies at WFC’s, but no book deals resulted. I started going to the World Horror Convention around this time too.
People talk about branding and platform as the keys to writing success these days, but back then it was networking. I read articles on networking and did my best to put that advice into practice when I was at conventions, but I felt uncomfortable doing so. I was attempting to make connections to people only because they might be of use to me in furthering my writing career. That wasn’t who I was, and if that was the kind of thing I had to do to get ahead as a writer, then to hell with it. I decided to just be myself and make connections naturally, to treat people as people and not as stepping stones. I felt a lot better about myself, and my networking improved because it was natural and genuine. I still see people – usually on social media – attempting to curry favor with writers, editors, publishers, and agents, often in very clumsy and obvious ways. I’ve also seen people who, once they’ve set their sites on someone higher up the literary food chain, forget about the people they were so desperate to network with before. However you may feel about networking, I’ll tell you this: People can usually tell what your intentions when you try to connect with them. You can’t fool anyone, especially if they’ve been in publishing for any length of time, so why bother trying?
Gary A. Braunbeck eventually moved to Columbus and we become friends. From Gary, I learned a ton about how horror publishing worked, and his passion and dedication to making his fiction the absolute best it could be, inspired me to the do the same. I started selling stories more regularly after this.
I was selling short fiction to pro markets, including Cemetery Dance magazine (which to me was the most important market for short stories). I’d already been changing direction in my writing and moving more toward horror – and developing my own weird brand of it – so I thought I’d try my hand at writing a horror novel. The result was The Harmony Society. I sent it to Jonathan and worried over what his reaction would be. After all, it was very different than anything I’d ever sent him before. But one day his assistant called and told me he liked the book, which was a relief. Back then the game company White Wolf published original horror and dark fantasy fiction alongside their tie-in novels, so I asked Jonathan to send the book to them. He did, they said they loved it, and offered me a contract with a $4000 advance. I was thrilled! I’d taken an artistic risk, followed my own muse, and it had resulted in my first book contract.
But then for some reason, White Wolf pulled their offer, saying they were “no longer comfortable” with the book. When I asked Jonathan what that meant, he said it didn’t mean anything. A no was just a no. I don’t know if he ever sent the book out again, but I eventually got a small-press publisher to take it, but they folded before bringing it out. Prime Books eventually brought it out, and some years later, Dark Regions brought out a new edition. It’s still available from them in print and ebook versions if you’d like to check out my very first horror novel that’s recognizable a “Tim Waggoner” book. (And while I don’t make a big deal of this, The Harmony Society is the foundation of a mythos upon which all my horror fiction is based, especially my novels.)
After this disappointment, I sat down and wrote the first version of what would eventually become Nekropolis, a series people still email me about to this day. (And no, I doubt there will ever be a fourth book, unless I decided to self-publish it someday, and right now I have too many other book contracts that I need to fulfill.)
My first daughter was born around this time, and I didn’t go to big conventions anymore for a while, just local ones. I started exploring the possibilities of writing media tie-ins, and Michael A. Stackpole was kind enough to introduce me to some game publishers at an Origins convention, as well as give me advice on how to break into the field.
He urged me to start going to Gencon, and since it was in Indianapolis every year, only a four-hour drive from where I lived in Columbus, I started going. Once I began presenting at Gencon’s writing symposium, I was lucky enough to get my hotel stay comped, which helped a lot financially. I started writing books for Wizards of the Coast and White Wolf, but eventually White Wolf stopped publishing fiction altogether, and while it took more years, Wizards of the Coast cut way back on their fiction lines once Hasbro bought them. (The mandate was to focus on toys and game product, not books.) I did a few tie-ins for other publishers – Black Flame, iBooks, and eventually Titan Books. Only Titan’s still in business.
Signing books at the Wizards of the Coast booth at Gencon.
Around this time, ebooks weren’t a thing yet, as there weren’t any decent ereading devices. People tried selling electronic books to be read on computers (you’d buy a disk and insert it into your PC), but these never caught on. I never tried this route. It seemed like a dead end to me. I didn’t like reading at my computer, so why would anyone else?
Something else that started this time was “royalty-sharing” instead of advances. Small-press publishers began offering higher royalty percentages in book contracts in lieu of a traditional advance. Supposedly, authors would ultimately make more money this way. The original edition of The Harmony Society was a royalty-only deal, as was my first collection All Too Surreal and later my Samhain novel The Way of All Flesh. I doubted royalty-only deals would result in any money, but I decided to give it a try. Of course, I never made a dime from these deals. (I have no idea if anyone else ever did.
The Internet became a thing, as did email, and word processing programs continued improving. Ereaders came into existence, and while the ebook market didn’t take off for a while, eventually it became a normal part of publishing. The advent of ebooks freaked out publishers, and for a while they were trying to grab rights for any technology that could be conceivable but didn’t exist yet. I literally had several contracts that asked for rights to versions of stories or articles published in any technological form, whether it currently existed or any that would one day be invented, now and in the future, throughout the universe. (I’m not making a joke here. I’ve paraphrased, but this is what the clause said.) I signed those contracts at the time because I doubted the clause would come into play, and it never did.
Other publishers tried to buy all rights to stories and novels, meaning that you’d sell all rights to the work to them forevermore, and they could do whatever they wanted with it, just as if you’d sold them your car or your home. It would be theirs, and that way they would own the story when a new unforeseen technical development like ebooks happened. This shit I didn’t put up with and never signed such a contract. It’s one thing to write a work-for-hire book when you’re doing a media tie-in. You didn’t create the movie, TV show, game, whatever the book is based on. But never sell all rights to your original work.
Publishers settled down after a bit, and whereas ebook and audio rights used to be negotiated separately in contracts, now they were bundled in as part of the overall deal. That sucked, but there wasn’t anything to do but accept this since all publishers started doing it.
As technology advanced, writers got websites – crude ones at first since web design was a field in its infancy – but they rapidly improved in quality. GEnie died when writers began migrating to the web and setting up their own message boards on their sites. I still miss GEnie. Everything became so fragmented after that. MySpace began and writers created profiles there. Facebook supplanted MySpace, and then Twitter (arguably) replaced Facebook. Then came Instagram and Pinterest, etc., etc. The social media landscape began to resemble what it was like on GEnie, and writers were able to connect with each other, share information, get feedback and support, like never before. I used Facebook the most for a long time, but once I learned that there was a strong horror community on Twitter, I began spending more time there. I still use Instagram, but I gave up on Pinterest. Three social media accounts are enough for me to take care of, and unless a new platform comes along that’s absolutely incredible, three is where I’ll stay at.
Horror began to have a resurgence in the late nineties and early 2000’s, with Leisure Books being the preeminent publisher and Don D’Auria the editor for horror. I loved Leisure’s horror output and was determined not to miss this boom (or more of a boomlet, I guess). I wrote Like Death specifically for Don at Leisure. I pitched it to him at a World Horror Convention in Chicago, and he asked to see it. I also pitched it to Melissa Ann Singer at Tor and Jo Fletcher of (naturally) Jo Fletcher Books. Both of them asked to see it as well, but I could tell neither was very enthusiastic about the book. Jo began our pitch session by saying that horror as a market was crap right now. I wanted to ask her if that was the case, why did she bother flying all the way from England to listen to pitches in Chicago (but I didn’t).
Don D'Auria and me back in the day. (Yeah, I know my eyes are closed. Deal with it.)
Don took Like Death, and I wrote two more novels for Leisure: Pandora Drive and Darkness Wakes. I thought I had made it, man. Sure, Leisure’s advances sucked, but I was proud to be part of their horror program, proud to work with Don D’Auria, and happy to be writing my brand of horror fiction and finding readers who enjoyed it. I didn’t do much marketing back then. I had young children, and I’d taken a full-time, tenure-track job teaching composition and creative writing at a community college and didn’t have a lot of time for marketing. Plus, I was still of the old-fashioned mindset that publicity was the publisher’s job. It was my job to write. (I took a full-time job – and I was lucky as hell to land it – partially because of what I’d learned about a writer’s finances on GEnie, and partially because my psychologist wife came home one day and told me that just as I had a dream of being a writer, her dream was to work part-time, so she was going to quit working full-time. I realized then that I was stupid – and selfish – to expect someone else would support me while I worked part-time and wrote. And I realized I never wanted to be dependent on another human being for my income again, especially not when I had kids.)
After the publication of Pandora Drive, Don told me the sales weren’t so good and that he might have to let me go after Darkness Wakes. I tried making Darkness Wakes less batshit crazy than Pandora Drive (which is probably the most fucked-up thing I’ve ever written, which is saying something) so it might appeal to a wider audience, and I suddenly found the value of self-promotion.
Reading from Pandora Drive at the World Horror Convention in San Francisco.
I was unschooled and clumsy at it, and my efforts were too little too late. Darkness Wakes would be the last book I published with Leisure. This would turn out to be a blessing in disguise, because I asked for my rights to be reverted to me before Leisure died and went into bankruptcy, so I didn’t get tangled up in that mess (and it got pretty damn messy). One bad thing did happen to me because of Leisure’s death, though. The company sold a lot of their assets to Amazon, which began putting of their own versions of Leisure’s books. For some reason, Amazon put out audiobook versions of my three Leisure novels, even though they didn’t have the rights to do that. I’ve tried on and off over the years to get Amazon to quit selling these unauthorized audiobooks, but no one ever replies to my emails about them. (Although Amazon has fixed other problems for me, such as when a small-press publisher dies and one of my books with them is still available for sale on the site.) Amazon has never paid me a cent for my audiobooks, and I have no idea how much money I’ve lost because they keep selling the damn things. (Don’t feel guilty if you bought any of them or buy any in the future. I’d rather have you enjoy my work. (Besides, this kind of thing is another reason I have a day job. Financial setbacks in writing don’t have much impact for me.)
After my time at Leisure ended, I mostly wrote tie-in novels for a while. I wrote horror short stories still, but I didn’t know when, or if, I’d write horror at novel-length again.
Somewhere in all this, agents upped their percentages from 10 percent to 15 percent, and editors stopped reading unsolicited manuscripts and began unofficially using agents as first readers. This situation continues to this day.
I started getting more invites to submit stories to anthologies as well as invites to be a guest at conventions. I loved teaching, so I started presenting writing workshops wherever I could – and especially at cons. Sometimes I’d get paid for them, sometimes I wouldn’t. It didn’t matter. I loved helping people, it was good promotion for my writing, and – as I keep saying – I had a day job.
My first wife and I divorced, and I moved to an apartment. The plan was for us to divide our debt equally, except for the house, which my ex would keep. She’d live there with our daughters. But her lawyer convinced her to file bankruptcy, which my lawyer said would force me to do it too. I tried to talk her out of it. She, working part-time, would be free and clear if she declared bankruptcy, but I made too much money and would have to still repay a certain portion of our shared debt. She said that was ridiculous and it would never happen. My ex knew nothing about bankruptcy law, and I did indeed have to make debt payments while also paying child and spousal support. I’d begun paying both types of support the moment I moved out, but the official payments didn’t begin until a year later, and since there was no record of my having made payments for a year, the amount of those payments suddenly doubled. It was a rough few years, but I made it out of bankruptcy, restored my credit rating (with the help of my current wife who is a literal genius), and things have been sailing smoothly enough for the last decade financially. It was during the hard years that I depended on my writing income (as well as the money I got from teaching in Seton Hill University’s MFA in Writing Popular Fiction Program) to get by. If I’d been a full-time writer, I don’t know if I’d have made it. Yeah, the financial details of my situation after the divorce would probably have been different in that case, but still . . . Thank Christ for my day job.
Eventually, Jonathan stopped responding to my emails and not answering my calls. He hadn’t really been doing much for me for several years at that point, so I sent him a certified letter ending our business relationship as cordially as possible and began to look for a new agent. I was talking to Jonathan Maberry at a con one month, and when I told him I was looking for an agent, he suggested I query Cherry Weiner. I did so, and she’s been my agent ever since. She works her ass off for her clients, and she’s a wonderful person to boot. I couldn’t be happier with her.
A while later, I found out that my former agent Jonathan had died. I don’t know if he was sick toward the end, and that’s why he stopped responding to attempts at contact or not. He was always good about chatting with me when I called, and he was happy to answer any questions I had about the publishing industry. I learned a lot from him, and I’ll always be grateful for that.
When Don D’Auria started a horror line at small-press publisher Samhain, I jumped at the chance to work with him again. Samhain died not long after that, and when Don started another horror line at Flame Tree Press, I jumped at that chance to work with him too. I love working with Don, and while Flame Tree may be a small-press publisher, they work hard to promote their authors and their books. I’m not getting rich from them, but that doesn’t matter to me (day job).
Debut Flame Tree Horror Authors at Book Expo! In the back: Me and Don D'Auria
In the front, Hunter Shea, Jonathan Janz, John Everson
For decades of my career, self-publishing was looked down on by everyone in the publishing industry. It was called vanity publishing, and it was for writers whose work wasn’t good enough to get a traditional publishing deal. With the advent of ereaders and software that allowed for greater ease of formatting books, self-publication really took off. It’s now referred to as indie publishing, which is a much more positive term, and it’s considered a viable career alternative. There are still some people that see indie publishing as second-best or as a path that impatient writers take, and of course there is a wide spectrum of quality in indie work. Traditional publishers may have acted as gatekeepers, but they also acted as quality control (to a certain degree – not everything they published was Great Literature, of course). I still enjoy the challenge of traditional publishing, but I’ve dipped my toe into indie publishing a little, and it’s something I might do more of as the years go by, if for no reason than to see what I can learn from it.
Right now, I’ve still got a dual career as a horror writer and media tie-in writer. Tie-ins pay better, but I couldn’t live on that money alone. I’d still have to have different incomes streams, as so many artists do. My day job does all the work of arranging classes and finding students for me and paying me regularly so I don’t have to work at finding money. I just have to teach people (and do some administrative-type stuff as a full professor). I love it, so it doesn’t feel like work, and I still have time and energy to write, and my writing ties directly into my teaching. I’m in a constant state of professional development for the teaching part of my life.
Writing articles on writing craft topics and writing this blog led me to write Writing in the Dark and The Writing in the Dark Workbook. Cherry says maybe we’ll get a second career going for me as a nonfiction writer. Maybe so.
To avoid giving you a false impression, my writing life isn’t all roses. I often question whether I should try writing more mainstream material – like thrillers – that would appeal to a mass audience. Then I think maybe I should only write for art’s sake and write whatever satisfies me the most creatively. Then I think about trying a film script or giving up writing entirely. I’ve come to believe that a state of perpetual dissatisfaction is normal for creative people, and it may be a big part of why they’re creative in the first place.
So where’s publishing now? The midlist – where most writers earned a living in the past – has mostly died, making it a lot more difficult to write full-time. As technology advanced and entertainment options wildly proliferated, fewer and fewer people read for pleasure, meaning everyone’s competing for a smaller audience these days. As home computers became a thing, more and more people started writing. It was easier now than in the days of using typewriters, and the number of aspiring writers increased exponentially. (As a teacher, I think this is a good thing. As a writer, I sometimes think George R.R. Martin was right about competition from newcomers.) Increasingly over the years, accountants and salespeople have started making the final decisions about what books get published, so it’s much harder for newer writers with interesting, offbeat, original work to get book deals. Because editors have to fight so hard to get any book published, they only take on books they feel passionate enough about to go to battle for. So they take fewer chances on stuff they know the numbers people won’t like. (This is also why editors are obsessed with comp titles. Comp titles are how they convince the money people a new book is a good investment.) Established writers used to be able to get three-book deals on novel pitches. Then publishers started offering only two-book deals, then one. Now even if you’re established, editors often want to see a complete manuscript, especially if a particular editor has never worked with you before. This is another reason it’s hard to make a living in traditional publishing. Writing on proposal means you don’t write a book until it’s sold. Writing a complete manuscript without a contract means it may take a long time to find a publisher for it, if you ever do.
The small press has become a far more powerful and influential force in publishing, especially in horror, over the last decade. It was able to react far more nimbly and effectively to the challenges posed by Covid than traditional publishers were able to. I think of the small press as the tiny mammals that will outline the big, lumbering dinosaurs. I still publish with larger presses, but I publish with the small press too, and I often think about saying to hell with larger presses and sticking with the small press for the rest of my career.
Social media is a great way to find support and get publishing information and writing advice, but I also see people giving incorrect or even damaging advice to others, and I fear there’s so much useless noise in social media that it’s difficult to tune it out and find the good stuff. (This may just be me in full-on angry old man yelling at cloud mode, though.)
So, in what ways has publishing changed since 1982?
· Traditional publishing is much more business than art than it was then.
· Agents are even more important if you want to get your book seen by an editor.
· Increased popularity of audiobooks.
· Indie publishing, baby!
· Rise of the small press, in horror especially.
· Writers are expected to do a shitload more publicity than they were back then. Editors and agents check writers’ social media presence as part of deciding whether to take on a writer. So being an asshole on social media can really hurt your chances of getting a publishing deal.
· Everybody and their brother wants to write a book (even if they don’t read them).
· The Internet has made research so simple that even I like doing it now. There’s no excuse for writers not doing as least a basic minimum of research for their projects.
· It’s more difficult than ever before to make a full-time living just from writing (and it’s never been easy).
· Having different income streams – especially ones that pay more regularly than writing – is hugely important.
· Having a day job really helps – if your day job doesn’t make it too emotionally or physically difficult to write at all.
· There are exponentially more creative writing programs in colleges and universities than in 1982, especially graduate programs. Unfortunately, those jobs are highly competitive and get snapped up fast.
· The ACA has made health insurance more obtainable by writers, and the Horror Writers Association and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association now have insurance options for members.
· Branding is a huge focus (probably huger than it should be).
· Greater interaction with readers, other writers, and publishing professionals, but being so reachable can have big downsides in terms of trolling or harassment.
· Big cons like World Fantasy and Worldcon aren’t as important to doing business as they once were. There are no “must-attend” cons anymore. You can find all the craft and publishing information you need online, and you can connect with people online as well.
· People are much more aware of race, gender, LGBTQ+, and diversity issues than they were in 1982.
· It’s far more competitive than it was when I started out. There are fewer big publishing houses and a lot more people writing and competing for fewer publishing slots.
What hasn’t changed in publishing since 1982?
· Writers are still neurotic as hell.
· Writing is still an artistic pursuit at its core. If we only wanted money, we’d be in some other profession.
· Writers struggle with what kind of stuff they should write.
· Writers still struggle with the tension between art and commerce.
· Editors and agent still love books or else they’d be in some other profession.
· Never pay reading fees. NEVER.
· New writers often believe there is some kind of magic key – a hidden technique, a piece of coveted knowledge – that will grant them the success they desire so much. There is, but professionals will never tell it to you. (Just kidding – there’s no magic key, just hard work and persistence.)
· The small press is still the place where the coolest, most interesting stuff is published.
· New technologies may come and go, but a good story is still a good story.
· The basic genres have remained the same since I started out. Romance may have grown into a behemoth, for example, but people are still reading and enjoying the same genres as in 1982.
· Networking is still vitally important.
· Agents still don’t always find deals for their clients, and writers have to find the deals themselves and then bring them to their agents to negotiate contracts.
· There are emotional and economic ups and downs.
· Dealing with rejections and bad reviews is still a thing. (Only now bad reviews can be sent to you directly as email or IM’s or you’re tagged in them on Twitter.)
· Writers still like getting together and meeting readers, so even if cons aren’t as necessary to networking and doing business as they once were, they’re still here.
· Things may be better in publishing when it comes to race, gender, LGBTQ+, and diversity issues, but the work has really just begun.
· If you’re an asshole or abuser on social media, you can tank your publishing career. Assholes and abusers used to be tolerated if they could write. Not anymore.
· I think it’s important to try all kinds of different things with your writing. You never know what you might enjoy or what will be the most successful for you.
· Writing and publishing have always been competitive.
· Day job.
· Writing is still the greatest profession on the planet.
· Writing can save your life, and sometimes your readers’ lives.
· Never stop learning.
What have I learned from my nearly forty years working at a writing career?
· All the stuff I’ve listed above.
· Writing is as natural to me as breathing. I have to do it to survive.
· There will always be ups and downs. I think of them like bad weather. They will pass. And they will come again. I just need to keep writing.
· I set out to create a life in writing, not so much so have a specific kind of career. In this, if nothing else, I’ve succeeded.
· I get as much joy from helping others as I do writing.
· The most beautiful phrases in publishing are “check enclosed” and “light revision.”
· I’m terrible at believing good things about myself or my writing. It’s almost as if I literally cannot comprehend or process them. So I’ve learned to assume these good things are true, even if I can’t feel they’re true.
· The work is everything. Nothing else in a writing career happens without doing the work.
· As the I-Ching says, “Perseverance furthers.” It’s one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned as a writer.
· Always strive to improve.
· When I started out, old-timers used to say, “The first million words are practice.” With the rise of indie publishing, this may not be true functionally (since you can publish anything you want whenever you want), but I still think it’s a good principle to keep in mind when it comes to improving your craft.
· Identify your strengths as a writer and work on making them even stronger. Do you best to get better at the stuff you’re not great at, but don’t kill yourself trying to be great at everything. No one can be.
· Creatively challenge yourself, at least now and again.
· It’s okay to take breaks from writing (although I never seem to).
· I stayed with my second agent for nineteen years, which in retrospect was way too long. An agent should be an effective partner, advocate, and advisor for you. Don’t change agents ever couple years looking for the one that will suddenly make you wildly successful, though. Agents need time to build their clients careers.
· Markets come and go. You are the only stable element in your writing career.
· Networking doesn’t mean you have to cold-bloodedly use people.
· Promote, promote, promote! Don’t spend all your time doing it, of course, but don’t ignore it either.
· Writers are often afraid to share certain information – how large their advances are, how effective their agents really are, etc. Editors and agents don’t want you to share this information, but the more we share with each other, the stronger negotiating positions we’re in. And if writers are going to share this information, they won’t do it in public usually. That’s what hotel bars at conferences are for.
· Establishing a building a writing career is a marathon. It’s a life-long endeavor, so you need to be prepared for the long haul.
· When I told my wife how long this blog post was, she said, “I love you, sweetie, but that’s insane.”
Which is probably a good place to stop.
DEPARTMENT OF SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION
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