Spring 2016 Update
Throughout this winter, I’ve been compiling a first draft to a novel I’m calling Skypunch. This novel has gone by a number of titles in the past few years, and has in fact been entirely other books/stories in that time. As of April 2016, my first draft is around 80% complete. It’s a tough thing to measure, so by that I mean I want it to be a 70,000 word story and I’ve got 56,000 words I’d like to include (the total word count with deleted content is around the 80,000 mark). I’m shooting loosely for a June first draft. At that point, I’ll be handing the draft off to an editor, and we’ll go from there.
Unlike with No Chinook (2008) and A Record Year for Rainfall (2011), I’m going to try to publish Skypunch with a separate publisher. It may not work, and if it doesn’t the book will eventually live here and be available to everyone. But I’d like to give traditional publishing a try. I want to go through the submission/rejection process. I want to speak to agents and editors and have help developing this story.
But I have another reason to try out traditional publishing. Over the years, I’ve amassed a good deal of stories and information from other authors, and I’d like to know how much of it is true. Hopefully, very little will check out. I’d like a lot of my misconceptions get refuted.
For many years, I wrestled with the idea of working with publishers. It could just be some leftover punk idealism, but I believe the literary world would be a little better off if authors controlled more steps in the chain of production. I think it’s better if the final product closely resembles what you wanted it to be. And maybe I’m wrong about this, but from what I’ve heard, a lot of things about your work gets altered on the way to a customer.
In the literary production line, the major steps are writing, editing, publishing, distribution, and marketing. The self-publishing market that’s been propped up by Amazon, Createspace, Lulu, and others, have allowed authors to try to do every step on their own. I’ve gone this route with every book I’ve published so far. It has had the benefit of the final product looking pretty close to the object I want, but that’s mostly about the specific layout of words in the book. I’ve never thought highly of their printed products. Cheap glue, thick bright white paper and glossy covers, and rigid size options can limit the potential of the product.
It’s not like there aren’t great printers out there, but they cost a lot and they won’t print your books one at a time. They’ll print it in the hundreds or thousands, which places a lot of pressure on your book to move units. It also places pressure on you to think of your book as a unit.
As for the distribution of self-publishing methods, it isn’t as rewarding as you might think at the beginning. Not to say anything of the almost invisible sales, it simply isn’t a rewarding artistic experience. If you’re looking to control every aspect of the publishing chain, going with these template services can make your process feel cookie cutter. You still have to write a pithy description and put a singular price point on your page. And it has to sit next to more professional and popular works, which can’t help but make your product seem sad in comparison. This method has never caught on past new authors and it’s easy to see why. It’s lousy.
Of course, trying to publish with a reputable house has its drawbacks as well. For one thing, they don’t have to publish you. There is a gate and you have to be let in. And this hurts the ego, because as you see it they’re rejecting this thing that you love. You spent years writing this story, and all you get is a polite no (if you’re lucky). Also, it’s not just a gate but gates. Your book will get painfully rejected by a team of very qualified list of editors and agents before it’ll ever get rejected by a publisher. And it will, because this is how the process is designed.
And if your book does somehow impress an editor enough for them to work on it, your book will change. Your editor will forever alter it. Your agent will get you to alter it. And your publisher will alter it further. They’ll put a cover on it you won’t like. They’ll write a byline that betrays all the themes. They’ll smooth out the rough parts. And this is if everything works out as designed. This is the best case scenario.
This is how the donuts are made, with collaboration and letting the people who know better and have earned a say have that say. Your editor or agent or publisher may not know or care about how you feel about all this, but it isn’t their job to care. You wrote a story that you love, but that doesn’t mean anyone else will give a damn. It’s the job of editors, agents, and publishers to help a total stranger across the world care about your book. And this is what makes them amazing. I can’t do that. I don’t even know where to start.
I wonder if the problem is that it has to become a team sport. It’s one thing if a project starts out as a team effort, but that’s almost never how a book starts out. Writing a book is a hugely personal and intimate experience and there’s a lot of trepidation handing it over to a team of people who will turn it into something that they believe they can sell.
If this is actually how things are, then I imagine I won’t spend a lot of time in that world. I’d love to be proven wrong. I’d love for it to work.
All you can hope for at the end of the process is that the essence of your story is strong enough to survive the transition. That’s the true test of a great story anyway. How well does it fare in someone else’s hands?
I know a lot of this isn’t right, or based on old ideas with poor context. I want to know better.
But if it does work, and I go through this process and it all works out, I’d still like to see a change in publishing for the sake of the author’s original intent. I’d like to see “author’s cuts” of novels where the story as published is 100% author intention, much like how there are directors cuts of certain films. Maybe it would be cleaned up in some copy edited sense, but just without any alterations to story or theme. I’d like to see that text live next to the finished version, the one built out of the original to cater to the widest possible audience.