CONVERSATIONS ABOUT GETTING PUBLISHED

 

Marcia Butler's first book, The Skin Above My Knee, is published by Little, Brown and Company.

Marcia Butler's first book, The Skin Above My Knee, is published by Little, Brown and Company.

MARCIA BUTLER has agreed to lead discussions about the many phases of publishing, from getting published to marketing your work and everything in between.  Marcia's first book arrives on the scene in February 2017, a memoir about her life as a professional oboist. She's had a long career as a creative person, from music to her own  design firm.

 



Topic No. 1 -- the first time 10.15.16


QUESTION: Let’s start with a discussion about one of the best days in a writer’s life. You get to be a debut author only once. Can you tell us about the day you got that call or email from a publisher saying that they will publish your book? Where were you? Who did you tell first? Dig a bit into the emotion of this accomplishment. 

MARCIA BUTLER: Well, I’m the newcomer to this group, having started writing about 6 years ago. And my experience with publishing my memoir has been a bit of a miracle; but not really, because nothing happens in a vacuum. I wrote, rewrote, tossed out the darlings, killed the chapters, and on and on, for the requisite gazillion hours before I even dared to query agents. All though the writing process I knew that I would not let this thing out to anyone until I felt it had legs. And I am, and always have been, a killer self-critic. The facts are these: I received the email from my editor at Little, Brown (she bought my book) while I was in Aspen in June 2015 while taking a fiction workshop with Richard Russo. Yes, they would be publishing my memoir! So midweek I walked into the workshop to tell everyone what had just happened. Of course everyone was happy for me and really supportive and Rick Russo could not have been kinder. Yippee! Then the next day we work shopped my fiction, which was the beginning of a “novel”. Oh dear. It was all over the place with multiple points of view pinging from here to there (Russo, bless him, said, “Um, you really don’t want to do that.”), over written - just kind of a mess. In short I had zero craft dials. So I even though I’d sold to a big publisher, I felt semi-crushed – or like what we say in the music business: “fake, fraud phony”. I remind myself often that my quick publishing experience is the exception, not the rule. However, I’d like to think that I’ve been preparing to be a writer all my life, just through different art forms – through my ears with music, and with my eyes in design. The artistic flow feels very much the same. But writing keeps me very humble every single day. That’s the hell of it.

CHANCE OPERATIONS AND THE I CHING OF SUBMITTING:

MARCIA: One thing I just thought of is the similarity in getting published through submission and getting a position in an orchestra through audition. Someone did research for this once and it was determined that you'd get into the finals with every 40 auditions and you get the job only after about 70 auditions. Daunting. Yet the determined artist does do this, over and over. How many stories are there of submitting the same story 40 times and the 41st was accepted and then won an award? I bring this up because it's not fairy dust. It is all very hard work. Of course Geeta and Man and you, Nancy, know all of this much better than I, in the field of getting published.

NANCY ZAFRIS: Yes, a really important part.  I have a couple anecdotes about that and friends who can speak to it as well.  I hope they’ll join in. One year a friend in class and I had a 400 dollar bet.  She had to do 100 submissions and I had to only read mss for pay.  Her high school class in Alaska kept track of the submissions.  She came to visit me during spring break and was up to 75 submissions with no luck.  Her high school class was charting her submissions on the blackboard. They were kind of rooting for her to lose (teenagers!) because I had already lost my part of the bet and paid up.  Anyway, during her week’s visit she heard from two places, two days in a row -- acceptances!  The other people in the our class started pairing up to hold each other accountable, and I said, the bets have to matter or you won't do it. When I was in the early years of sending out, I figured out once that I was getting accepted every 34 submissions and I was ecstatic because it had taken me 4 years to get the first acceptance.  From then on it just became a game of mathematics.  

MARCIA: That's what I call maximum thrust from a parallel universe, which intrudes at the exact right time. And I do believe that a specific intention can, in some ephemeral way, determine the outcome. I suppose that’s where the fairy dust comes in. 

MAN: YA author, Valerie Storey taught me “The Rule of Twelve:" submit to twelve places at once, and one will get a positive result.  Like any magical system, it depends on adherence to rules: the submissions must all be made on the same day, and "positive result" doesn’t necessarily mean acceptance; it might be a personal note and sincere encouragement or guidance. 

Astonishing how these breadcrumbs keep us coming back for more.  

I applied the Rule of Twelve when seeking an agent for Endless Corvette.  I sent a cover letter and the first fifty pages to twelve reputable agents on the same day.  (And what a satisfactorily heavy lump the envelopes made in my arms as I carried them into the post office - this was in the days of SASEs.)  From most of the agents, I heard nothing but silence.  One or two others said I was interesting, but not ready for publication.  One - Sorche Fairbank - came back and said she was interested in seeing the rest of the manuscript.  

Even though it brought home the bacon, the rationalist in me doubts The Rule of Twelve really delivers in the way it claims, but this is not to dispute its value.  The point is, it keeps you working and submitting and reminds you that you’re the genuine article, not some dilettante writing haikus to the sunset in a spiral-bound notebook you’ve bedazzled with gold glitter and rhinestones.  I’ll always remember how it felt submitting Endless Corvette - the weight of those crinkly manila envelopes – what a valuable tactile experience we’ve lost because of email submissions.  I needed no other confirmation that I was a writer, and published or not, that I deserved to be published, and I would be back at it again.

GEETA KOTHARI: I don't have much to add, other than this: the year I decided to hit 100 submissions, I ran out of things to submit; by submission #56 or so, everything I was sending out--that I could send out--had been accepted. Many of these things were short pieces--very short--which is not my strength but in order to meet my quota for each week (I had to submit twice a week), I was forced to include these in my submissions. One piece I sent out at midnight on a Friday; by the following week, it had been accepted for publication (Superstition Review). And then, about a year later, Judith Kitchen asked to reprint it in her new anthology. I only tell this story because I would have fussed over that essay forever and might have even forgotten it if I hadn't set myself that 100 submission goal. 

This was also the time when I began sending out my story collection. As rejections rolled in, I became less and less troubled by them. My only job was to keep sending out my work, and the constant stream of rejections made me less sensitive. Again, I would have kept adding and subtracting stories, rewriting them (even though most of them had been published), if I had set myself that submission goal. I feel I had to get through the rejections on the collection in order to find the right place for it. But it's hard to talk yourself into that when you're focused on publication as a goal. Focusing on submitting your work as a goal simply makes more sense; it's the only thing we have control over in the process (besides the writing itself). You can't force the New Yorker to take one of your stories. But the New Yorker can't stop you from sending them in. 

NANCY:  R.IP. Judith Kitchen, such an intelligent and exciting essayist. Here's a post by Karin Lin-Greenberg about rejections.

JANE MCCAFFERTY:  Thanks to everyone for the discussion about rejection, and also the link to the essay about rejection. I love the idea of 100 submissions! I confess I am the worst of all submitters, but am working on changing that little by little. I stopped submitting when I had no time to read the magazines I was submitting too--- it seemed ridiculous. So now I'm attempting to read a journal before I submit, and while this takes a while, it seems saner, and more respectful of the journal.   I don't have much to add, other than  I remember when my first novel was accepted for publication, and the editor said she wanted to cut about 100 pages out of the novel. This was hard to hear. But after some thought, I saw she was right. I changed the character's voice (she was far too internal and stopped the forward motion of the novel in her sections) and also cut her sections in half. I felt so lucky when that novel got taken. I'd worked on it for years while raising young kids, and I can't remember how many rejections it got, but it was a  LOT.  i was so busy with kids I didn't really have time to get too upset about it. Now rejection is somehow harder for me, so I really appreciated hearing about making the whole submission thing into a game. I'd say writers who work their craft, who have good readers telling them a book is ready, just need to be patient., AND need to surround themselves with people who support them as they WAIT, because the whole thing can move very slowly, and it is so easy to lose confidence and sense of purpose.

MARCIA: Jane raises a great point regarding when she was first published. An editor at the publishing house buys your book and then says: now please change it. I had that experience as well. I was asked to change the last fifty pages, which I agreed to do. And it was tough because I had to come up with a totally different perspective on the material. She did make a compelling case for her request, obviously. Yet, it seems counterintuitive to agree to publish and then ask for big changes.  I’m wondering how other authors feel about this and if anyone ever stood their ground. My feeling is that a great editor is there to give both a cold eye to the work and at the same time ask the right questions that will help ease the boundaries that the writer has surely built up throughout the writing process. These questions are meant to illuminate weaknesses in the material.  Then, of course, this brings up the topic of trust. 

GREG MICHALSON:  I’m not sure what to say here, there are so many variables and scenarios and contingencies to the issue. When an editor buys a book, it obviously doesn’t mean he or she thinks it's perfect or that it doesn’t take a wrong turn down a dark alley somewhere along the way.  It means that something about the manuscript has made the editor believe in the writer and the story. Or at least in the story’s novel driving engine. 

I’ve always been extremely hands-on as an editor. Sometimes I make a lot of suggestions before or without buying a manuscript. Sometimes after. There can be a whole range of reasons for how that goes, and occasionally a tricky situation arises from the process. 

But Marcia is right: there absolutely has to be trust.  It sounds to me her example represents a simple failure to communicate early in the process. That’s crucial to any author/editor relationship. I almost always have a conversation with an author before making any final decision, trying to make sure we have a meeting of the minds before going forward. If there is, that’s great. But if not, that’s fine too, and we can both go our separate ways. No blood, no foul. No hard feelings.

The bottom line is that every author should expect to be edited especially after a book is sold. And at least hope for a thorough, careful editor who might ask for major changes, but only in the service of the story the author is trying to tell.


topic no. 2

social media: a LIKE?


MARCIA: What about the dreaded social media elephant in the room? Can we discuss? This aspect of publishing is, it seems, here to stay. Some of us detest and eschew it. Some of us don’t mind it and thereby embrace it. I’m 61 years old, so did not exactly cut my eye teeth with an iPad in the crib. But I see social media in the category of – well, it can’t hurt, so why not? My publisher told me they didn’t care about Facebook or Twitter, and this surprised me. That said, I want to be smart about reaching the largest audience possible for my book. So I do post fairly regularly but only when I have something I think will be of interest. Nothing frivolous or rabidly political. It might be an author quote, an article, an image I’ve taken, a concert I’ve heard, an opera I’ve gone to. Or just something I think is beautiful. And my own rule about my writing or anything having to do with my book, is to post once in every ten posts. This way, the saturation is managed. I’ve also found social media a nice way to support other writers. I find out about readings in NYC through Facebook. So, yes, most of Facebook is strange, idiotic, bizarre at times, not worth the look, and on and on. What say you all?

NANCY: My own opinion is that having tried very hard, I think social media doesn't help to sell your book.  There are too many people trying to do the same thing and it's too easy to just click LIKE rather than BUY NOW.  If the internet was created for pornography, as the joke goes, then Facebook was created for the humble brag.  Like pornography, one post after another of writer friends humbled and honored by their next publication or award gets repetitive, numbing, and kind of icky. I'd love to hear other people's thoughts on this.

MARCIA: I completely get your take on this. There is a huge degree of ick/humble with the gratuitous “likes”. And I agree that it doesn’t necessarily sell books. That said, it worked well for me for Pre-order because when I announced this on Facebook, a design client (librarian) emailed me to tell me that my book was 34th out of 100 on Amazon after only a few days. Supposedly this is good for all the stuff that Amazon does behind the green curtain. The strong presale might put my book on some kind of list. It’s a mystery and I’m not holding my breath! But repetitive posting is something I’m very careful about. And when I read a great book, I post it, and just hope it will make a difference for an author.

GEETA: Here's my take: with social media, you have to build an audience, and it can't just be when you publish your book or for the purpose of selling that book. It's like all networking -- you create connections over time, in a give and take manner. And beyond social media, there's the whole world of the internet, sites where you can blog or post an essay that will hopefully take readers to your book. So being visible on line is not just about FB or Twitter. 

My publisher seems very confident that FB sells books, which might be because the demographic most likely to buy a small press collection of short stories is active on social media. Marcia's publisher doesn't seem to feel that way, but Little Brown's reach--to booksellers, mainstream press--is broader. I am not going to be getting any mainstream press coverage, and it's clear that most of the marketing of this book is going to fall on me. So I'm trying to figure out how much to use social media and in what way.

I like Marcia's schedule, and her sense of what her social media territory is going to be. It seems necessary to figure that out and post consistently within your own guidelines. You're creating an online persona as you post and people will come to expect certain things from you--and enjoy them. For people who are interested in expanding their reach on social media, I highly recommend reading Jane Friedman's blog and taking a class with her. Not everything will apply to literary writers, but she's very good at breaking things into manageable chunks. Some things are intuitive--master a couple of platforms and be consistent on them--others are not--using Tweetdeck to schedule posts (I'd never even heard of Tweetdeck). I also think it's helpful to study other writers who use social media and figure out what they're doing that you like and what you don't like. Plus, it does help to create community -- which I like.

Does all this sell books? I have no idea. 

MARCIA: I think a lot of authors who will take your workshop will find all of this really helpful. Because it is the topic that most agents and editors yammer on about at pitch conferences. And it can be very disheartening. But it does not have to overshadow the WRITING.

MAN MARTIN: We all know what it is to be hectored by unwanted emails, Facebook pages and blogs clogged with humble brags, and that sort of thing.  But using social media in such a heavy-handed way isn’t just counter-productive, it’s soul deadening.  You need to be more committed than anyone else on the planet to getting your work out there and read, and if you’re not, you have a serious problem, but remember your vocation isn’t finding an audience, it’s writing.  Those two are conjoined twins, but there’s a hairline distinction between them, and you forget it at your peril.  Basically, if you spend all your time pimping your book, you’re no longer a writer.  You’re a pimp.

My own approach – and this isn’t to say it’s brought me everlasting fame; to paraphrase Mark Twain, I’m widely renowned in Brookhaven, Georgia – is to focus not on what I have to sell, but what I have to offer.  For example, I draw a daily comic strip, “Inkwell Forest,” through Gocomics Online and post it in various media.  I get no money for the strip; indeed, with materials and time, I’m out of pocket.  I do believe the cartoon creates a sort of promotional synergy with my written work – my third novel, The Lemon Jell-O Syndrome – comes out this spring - but more importantly, it entertains my readers, keeps my work in front of them, and lets me do something I love.  Cartooning.

Of course, I’m unique, I’m a cartoonist as well as a writer, but that’s my point.  You’re unique, too.  You wouldn’t be a writer if you didn’t know that and if you didn’t think your creativity is valuable and should be shared.  What is it you have to offer?  Figure that out and offer it.

What you’re reading right now is a good example of this.  I’ll pull back the curtain to reveal the little man hiding behind it and say this very blog is social-media promotion.  But our modus operandi isn’t to take turns climbing on a little stool shouting “Me!  Me!  Me!”  Rather, our moderator poses thoughtful questions that she thinks would be of interest to other writers, and we give thoughtful replies that we genuinely think would be helpful. 

All this isn't to say I don’t post updates on my book, reading appearances, favorable reviews, and so forth on social media – I do.  (And by the way, did I mention Lemon Jell-O comes out this Spring and makes a dandy gift for all occasions?)  But good, really good social-media promotion isn’t Me, Me, Me.  It’s not an act of selfishness.  It’s an act of generosity.

NANCY:  Another good way to build an audience/community, is to join us in our discussions.  You can email me and I'll post it.