Storms and Secession and Other Bad Ideas

I’m currently reading Ron Chernow’s bio of Alexander Hamilton and it proves how prescient some of the framers were. Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison were at the Constitutional Convention and, as the authors of the Federalist Papers, were the chief defenders of the ultimate social contract. In the conflicts they saw around the 13 fledgling states, in the Continental Army mutiny that forced Congress to flee Philadelphia, they foresaw everything we’re dealing with now. 

Other so-called framers, (status based on signing the Declaration of Independence or the Articles of Confederation or serving as on the Continental Congress) were far less sanguine. Thomas Jefferson, (the man who penned We hold these truths self-evident, that all men are created equal…) and Patrick “Give me liberty or give me death” Henry were FAR more worried for their rights to keep slaves. I cannot quote Henry’s actual words. His statement is too offensive.

In truth, I only cite the anti-Constitutionalists to illustrate the threat that Hamilton, Jay, and Madison perceived and sought to counter with a sacred document, a contract between leaders and the people who chose them. 

Without a strong federal government states fall to petty fiefdoms of corruption. Ironic considering that New York Governor George Clinton accused Hamilton, (but not Jay or Madison) of aristocratic ambitions. Without a federal government made up of, and held accountable by, constituents from across the country, the people are at the mercy of regional hookups or pay-to-play access. Meaning, in a crisis, the common people, without familial or financial access to power, suffer and ultimately turn to factions or mob rule. 

This is what Texas Republicans toy with when they play at secession and deregulation. Abbott can’t keep the lights on, can’t reliably keep the water safe to drink and he knows it, but posturing at TEXAS INDEPENDENCE plays well with the rabble. Even after his deregulation policies resulted in catastrophic industrial disasters including an explosion in West, Texas that resulted in 15 deaths and 200 injuries.  

“The mark of an educated mind is the ability to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Aristotle

While I did warn there would be politics on the blog, there is also a lesson here for writers. It is perfectly acceptable to assign a philosophy or viewpoint to a character that is different from your own. Often, it is necessary for the sake of the story. However, you cannot credibly do so without working that idea to its logical conclusion. 

In Firefly Joss Whedon writes characters on the losing side of a war. Whedon’s inspiration (paraphrased from his statements in an interview) was reading Michael Shaara’s historical novel, The Killer Angels about the three-day battle of Gettysberg. He envisioned the vanquished champions of a lost cause. Whedon thought the idea through enough to qualify it “without the horrors of slavery.” But not enough understand that the central focus of the fabled “lost cause,” was the confederacy’s bedrock, hewn from slavery and genocide. He also ignored the net effect of the fabled “lost cause,” (confederate statuary, another outbreak of the klan like a crowd disease, another generation indoctrinated in lies) that we continue to pay for today. Read Jon Meacham’s The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels for full impact of the “lost cause,” myth.

Rather, Whedon simply composes a trite conflict hinged on individual liberty and central-authority oppression. By contrast authors James S.A. Corey (aka Abraham and Franck) explore the logical progression of an unchecked central authority and unrepresented colonies in The Expanse books and TV series—without turning it into The Dukes of Hazzard in space.

You have a racist/homophobic/misogynist protagonist or antagonist? Great. You better take the reader right along with that bigot on his/her journey to a logical conclusion: evolution or stunted socialization. Anything else is flat writing, (at best) or, more likely, agenda writing, (perceived or actual). No one expects (or necessarily wants) an ABC Afterschool Special on bigotry in your fantasy/sci-fi book. But nobody wants The Turner Diaries, either. 

Now, I don’t think that the (supposed) leadership in Texas seriously intends to secede. Nor do I believe that they’re cross-burning klansmen. But as Texas continues to trend more brown/black/other and less white, I do believe that the white-male-conservative party here intends to stoke the regional pride and maybe, maybe, maybe get a little extra tailwind from racist-ish code speak. 

“We are what we pretend to be…” Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night

They think it’s harmless, (to them) and that they can control it. But as Kerouac and Tolkien and Burgess found to their frustration, once the story is in the hands/minds of the consumer the intent is easily blurred if not twisted. As much as every word we use must be thought out, so must every idea. Fiction has consequences.

Photo at the top: Hurricane Ike approaching the Texas coast on September 12, 2008 as a Category 2 hurricane by NASA. Public domain use and details, here.

Seeds Make Stories

Where do your stories/characters come from?

Few questions provoke so much rage, (really it’s fear) in writers. No, the inspiration fairies don’t leave that complex protagonist, dynamic antagonist, and/or mind-bending plot for us under our Wonder Woman pillow cases. What? Don’t be jealous. 

Firstly, I don’t know myself where the ideas really come from, what makes them come, or whether one day they‘ll stop. Neil Gaiman

Nope. Most writers simply notice things other people don’t. Mostly because most writers don’t get out much. A creative-writing prof I once studied with told us a story of a novel he was on fire to write. He’d been going through another writer’s research for a story of a weapon handed down generation to generation. My prof could see his character, obsessed with constructing the perfect weapon…to murder his wife with. While I don’t think he ever published that story, I’m fairly certain he was divorced within a year of telling us that story.

Just look in the mirror

Hemingway was notoriously autobiographical (emotionally, at least) in his fiction. Though hardly the first, (really, read Dashiell Hammett or Jack London) Hemingway spurred a generation of wish-fulfillment writers. Having read and seen interviews with Robert B. Parker, I know exactly where he got Spenser.

Magic all around us

The late-great Donald Westlake, a near-life-long denizen of New York’s seedier (see what I did there?) neighborhoods knew men like his hoods, Parker and Dortmunder. He had repeated “interviews” with New York police based on how well he knew men who inspired his master heister and ne’er-do-well thief. David Cornwell, (aka John le Carré) based his spymaster, George Smiley on a series of mentors while Smiley’s shoddy clothes (Smiley is described as dressing like a bookie) were no-doubt inspired by Le Carré’s con-man father.

…when fighting monsters

Many writers “find” inspiration in the things that haunt them. Thomas Harris makes no secret that Hannibal Lecter is largely inspired by Robert Stroud, the fabled Birdman of Alcatraz, who wrote scholarly journal articles chronicling avian diseases previously unknown. He also wrote violent rape porn and was considered a pscyhopath because, to steal from Harris, they had no other term for what he was. But if you read Harris closely, (particularly, the Red Dragon) and you’ve chewed some of the same dirt, you can’t help but wonder about abuse in his childhood. 

Equally, when Tom Ripley opins, “I’d rather be a fake somebody, than a real nobody,” you hear Patricia Highsmith SHRIEKING for an identity beyond society’s pejorative labels. Equally, the nightmarish violence in Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister the Serial Killer is simply a reflection on the soul-crushing violence that women face all over the world.  

In short, don’t shy away from those colorful, loud, and/or obnoxious friends, family members, and/or mild acquaintances. The drunk who mowed lawns but could solve for X with two variables, without a calculator? Your babysitter who smoked/drank at 16 and read Highsmith in east-Texas hell? Your uncle who was court marshalled three times before he finally pensioned out? They’re the life, breath, and blood of your characters.  

As for the story, you have it. You probably know it, it’s why you started this horrid road to begin with. If you don’t know it, you might fiddle around with prompts, dance around with ideas but you got what you need. You have a life and experiences and questions (maybe answers, too) that just don’t sit right. I promise that your take is at once old-friend familiar and other-worldly new to the reader. 

As for me, my stories are based on an obsession with good and bad who decides. My obsession began when I was nine-years-old and watched two east-Texas cops beat my stepdad into an all-liquid diet before stealing several-hundred dollars from him. Now, make no mistake there was nothing honest about that money or my stepdad. The cops knew that. The old man knew they were going to keep the money the moment they pulled him over for a traffic violation. The beatdown was because he got mouthy but also because he was a three-time loser and wouldn’t risk trouble with his parole officer to report the cops. 

All my fiction springs from factual incidents that have nothing to do with me. But all my conflicts spring from the basic question of good and bad and who decides. All my protags and antags are based on men and women from my neighborhood who faced similar conflicts and incidents.

Photo by and (c)2008 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man) and Chanticleer Garden. Details of GNU Free Documentation License and use here.

Supporting Characters

No matter how compelling your protagonist, no matter how thrilling her/his quest, and no matter how daunting the challenges, your story needs a supporting cast. Not extras for crowd scenes but real people with real lives, who challenge, brace, and (at times) impede your protagonist’s journey. In short, your supporting players will do a lot of heavy lifting.

John Sanford’s Detective Lucas Davenport is a complex, multi-layered protagonist. He’s also an industrial-sized asshole. However his friends Elle Kruger and Dale Capslock humanize him, focus him, and challenge him. Occasionally, they endure him right along with us. 

But the supporting characters also often round out your story in ways that your protag and/or antag cannot. A scribble sib of mine wrote a fantastic fish-out-of-water story about a young girl traveling to her ancestral home, (Pakistan) where all she understands is the language and just barely that. She is the readers’ lens on a forbidden love, deadly politics, and class/gender dynamics. However another girl (who the protag becomes fast friends with) is our visceral connection to all that the character witnesses. 

More than just straight men and eye candy

One of the reasons Sherlock Holmes still resonates with so many readers is the rich cast of characters who support Doyle’s consulting detective. Doctor Watson, the Baker Street Irregulars, and even Mrs. Hudson add depth to Holmes’ shallow life. One of the reasons the pretenders fade to obscurity is a lack of side men/women to pick up the beat for their one-note character. Instead, the imitators all-too often churn out a series of narrative cardboard cutouts for exposition or serve as dames in distress.  

Your characters (all of your characters) should have a want independent of the protag, even if not stated. In short, they should also have an identity. The difference between supporting characters/subplots and sidekicks/scenarios is agency and ambition. When Dennis Potter’s Philip Marlow (The Singing Detective, a masterpiece of storytelling) is caught in a fever-delusion shootout, he learns that the hitmen are after him because he never gave them names in the stories he wrote. So, yeah, don’t do that.

This transcends genre

Delilah Abraham is indispensable to what works in How Stella Got Her Grove Back. More than the comic relief, Dee is Stella Payne’s reality check in Jamaica, (finding a life apart from what we do to live) and back home (when the fairytale comes to an end and we have to live with the direction our heart takes us). She is the adult in the room because she has interests, goals, and problems that have nothing to do with Stella. 

Donald Westlake/Richard Stark’s taciturn heister, Parker works with men and women who, just like him, are in the game to support their dreams. Alan Grofield, who slacks Parker up on numerous scores and steals to support his addiction. Sandra Loscalzo steals to support her girlfriend and their daughter. Parker is a black-and-white character who is anything but compelling. Without his companions to colorize the world he moves through we’d quickly grow bored with him and his tones-of-grey life. 

So if your story reads flat, check your cliqua (gang) for what’s going on with them. Maybe instead of just a guy named “Bob,” who flies the plane, you need a hotshot pilot with a massive debt to a deadly gangster. You got a true-blue paladin, (not named “Bob”) who fades into the shrubbery when a battle isn’t afoot? What say he harbors an identity and destiny WAY beyond bodyguard/guide? Most importantly, that girl-Friday in your gothic mood-piece—who is NOT the romantic interest—might just be the smartest, most courageous player at the chessboard. 

Each of the “what-ifs” cited are based on actual supporting characters who transformed the story and added gravity beyond the baggage our protags carries. Wade into the rabble. You’ll be surprised what may spark your fancy—and help your protagonist seal the deal.

The above artwork, Sherlock Holmes in “The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez,” by Sidney Paget was originally published in Strand Magazine c.1904 and is used by right of public domain.

Stories That Sustain Us: Babylon 5

We all have those stories that get us through hard times, (I see a recurring theme coming on). Maybe was Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale while going through a painful breakup or divorce, (or Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, you know, whatevs). Or, maybe, it was reading Pat Conroy while processing, or simply surviving, a rough parent/child relationship. Stephen King is good for that too, I’m told.

But for most of the stories that sustain us are more comfort-based. To paraphrase Robert B. Parker, plebeians need therapy, too. It is also important to define terms. Rough times are not always the BIG events—divorce, abuse, and/or trauma. Sometimes, it’s just short money and long days. That’s how it was for me in 1995 and the story that sustained me was Babylon 5. 

Yes, this about a television show and not a book. Guess what, TV programming doesn’t spring from the ground. A team of writers and other creatives produced this show with love and dreams.

So, Babylon 5…

I worked the night shift at Saint Joseph Hospital, five-to-six nights a week. I attended class during the day. Everything was comfortable if not certain. Then my mother’s last business misadventure failed along with her health and she moved in with me. 

Overnight, my money got so tight, on payday you could hear George Washington scream. My full-time job paid most of my bills. Student aid paid for tuition and books. Part-time work between semesters filled in the gaps for my mom. But the extent of my entertainment budget was basic cable (my dear-departed Mutha’ McClellan LOVED sports) and a library card. 

Of course on the rare night off I just wanted to veg-out in front of the TV. The mid-90s was great for sit-coms and night-time soap operas and, thankfully, for science fiction. It was then that I discovered Babylon 5. 

The saga of an intergalactic United Nations, set on a space station, Babylon 5, (B5 to the devout) was written by J. Michael Straczynski. The series starred Michael O’Hare, (first season) Andreas Katsulas, and Peter Jurasik. But the heart of the show was Mira Furlan. 

Many dismissed B5 as a Star Trek knock off. They never watched the show. Well adjusted, clean-cut, and righteous you’d think that Star Trek characters crapped diamonds. Babylon 5 was populated by sketchy diplomats and alcoholic cops, drug-addicted doctors and sexually conflicted military officers, as well as dying alien races and assassins of every variety—all trying to save the universe from itself, often while turning a buck or two along the way. 

Sure, there were common themes: cool spaceships, aliens who demonstrated greater humanity than the humans, and conflicts both personal and galactic. And, yes, there was some cheesy writing, hammy acting, and goofy episodes. But quite simply, there was nothing else like B5 on television.

I am Centauri and I am unafraid…

There was also brilliance. The budding relationship between John Sheridan, (Bruce Boxleitner, the lead from season two on) and Minbari Ambassador Delenn, (Mira Furlan) the long-hemorrhaging cold war between Ambassadors Mollari (Peter Jurasik) and G’Kar, (Andreas Katsulas) and moments of heroism from the most unexpected sources  all gave me a sense of a life beyond my hand-to-mouth existence. 

All of my endeavors yielded a night off about every three weeks. Those nights off, when classmates and workmates were out on the town, I was at home in front of my TV catching up on three weeks of taped B5 episodes. Which was always a crapshoot with VCR limitations, (ancient technology, ask your grandparents) and the NBA schedule which preempted everything else on UPN. And, it was always worth it.

Even the obligatory character-development episodes for Sheridan and Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle) featured pitch-perfect scenes of Jurasik and Katsulas’ sparring. Then there were the episodes that focused on Ambassador Delenn. Mira Furlan infused her character with warmth and courage, passion and sensitivity, gentle humor and a commitment to life that burst through prosthetics and dialogue that would’ve fell flat from a lesser actress. 

Over the ensuing years, there has been talk of a new series and/or reboots that never came to fruition. The problem with being like nothing else on TV is no one knew quite what to do with it and Babylon 5 never had the accessibility of the Star Trek franchise. B5 fans liked stories with arcs and hard stops. While B5’s DNA is apparent in current science fiction, (The Expanse) what was so groundbreaking about the show would seem quaint if not antiquated by today’s standards. 

How do you recast lightning, in another bottle?

Mira Furlan died last week. She is just the latest cast member who left us too soon. Richard Biggs, (Dr. Franklin) Stephen Furst, (Vir) Jerry Doyle, (Garibaldi) Jeff Conaway, (Zack Allan) and Michael O’Hare (Sinclair) all preceded Mira in death. Each death feels like a friend lost. 

I remain grateful to J. Michael Straczynski, the cast, and the crew who gave us a great show to look forward to at the end of exhausting days and long nights. If you haven’t seen B5, it’s available on Amazon Prime and it’s well worth your time. If you have seen the show, look for the books and comics. 

What’s a television story that you cherish?

The image above: Babylon 5, season 4 poster; fair use of non-free material here.

Self-Publishing: Opportunities and Obstacles

As previously stated, here the publishing business is in flux. That the book business is harder than ever right now is due largely to COVID-19. With the obvious out of the way it’s important to state that, as with the virus itself, the vaccine is not an automatic return to normal. Book sales will continue to ebb and flow based on economic currents. 

The good news is that people have an appetite for stories that all the streaming services in the world cannot satisfy. Or, as agent Laurie McLean predicted, fiction is poised to make a big comeback. Read the entire list of Laurie’s predictions, (a real shot in the writer’s arm) on Anne R. Allen’s excellent blog, here.

Meanwhile some of us have taken the low tide to take a reading of our position. 

Please note: this is not criticism of publishers, agents, or readers. This is about deciding to go your own way and some of the challenges you’ll face. 

The last 10 months have given me time and space to see that I want my story out there, as I wrote it. In short, I’ve decided to self-publish.  

That’s not a decision I came to easily. In fact I’ve down-nosed the idea of self-publishing for years. It’s not a road I take up without trepidation. There is a long (and varied) history of self-published authors and their books. However a wrong step can sink your book like a stone beneath the waves.

When I first broached the idea to my scribble sibling, Angela Ackerman, she said the most important thing I could have possibly heard, (and I paraphrase) “Self-publishing is a lot of work. It should suit your story and your objectives. Most importantly, it should not be a plan B.” 

By the way, if you don’t already, you should be following Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’ excellent blog, here

So, you just upload that bad boy into Amazon or KOBO and the book fairies take it from there right? Not quite. Here’s some things to consider about self publishing:

You will pay, one way or another

A scribble sibling of mine wrote a children’s book and had a child illustrate the book. The idea was cute. However the execution looked cheap and readers rejected it. After two decades of author-published books on Amazon, readers have become far more discerning. You can do it yourself—if you have a degree and several years of experience in design, art, or desktop publishing. But the reader can spot a slapped-together cover in a field of professionally assembled books in a second and will likely reject it just as fast. The other stuff—ugly font, margins and breaks that are too large, too small, or inconsistent, typos/misspellings—are less obvious but will annoy readers. So, pay for professional help or watch your book languish, unread.

You can’t pay for it all, you will work or your book will fail

Here’s an example. An old scribble sibling of mine did it right. He hired a book designer who understood print and digital book formats. He hired a good cover artist, paid for ads in the trades, and landed a starred-review in Kirkus. He even sent a copy to his hero—a legend in thriller books—and received a personal letter of praise with permission to use the letter in promotion. And then he did nothing else. No appearances, no blog tours, no interviews, not even a webpage. Without promotion, sales stalled. 

Set up a webpage. Get an author account on twitter and/or Facebook. Commune with other writers. You will sell or your book or your book will not sell.

You will be careful or you will get ripped off

No, twitter, email, and facebook solicitations for book design, cover art, and digital formatting are not the place to start. Do your research. This is where writing communities come in handy. There are also countless books on self-publication and marketing for the anti-social (or uncle social) among us. Invest the time to educate yourself or get screwed out of your money. Or, worse, pay to turn out a sloppy product. 

No matter your 50 Shades and/or Twilight fantasies, you’re highly unlikely to get rich

The average first-time novelist makes about $10,000 from their book. Much of that is the advance they receive from the publisher. Fantasy novelist Jim Hines said he was on book six, before he could consider giving up his day job. But, but, but, if you net $2000-$5000 a year, this is also a really fun, part-time job.

Whichever road you take, go at it with your eyes open and prepared to work like hell. Whatever you do, do not give up.

The photo above, Hampstead Heath The writer, used via creative commons, details here.

Subversion: How Stories Become Weaponized

Like many (most?) of you, I was appalled by the terrorist action against the U.S. Capitol Building last week. One of the most heartbreaking aspects of this attack is that 80-90% is based on lies. If Democrats conspired to deprive Trump of office why in Yoda’s name would they leave McConnell and Graham (left-cheek-and-right-cheek pain, respectively) in office? Why would they leave Georgia hanging out there for a runoff? No, the election was not stolen. Full. Stop.

The stories we tell have a big part of what we ultimately accept as truth. For a while now, I’ve questioned the roots of ideals the hate groups aspire to. Sure, there is tradition—or the lack thereof—as Thomas Harris wrote in Hannibal, (and I paraphrase from iffy memory) instead of academic, industrial, or entrepreneurial traditions in the south, in many cases, all they have is the Civil War.

But those even those stories are based on a lie.

John Meacham’s book The Soul of America is an exploration of the effects of “lost cause of the confederacy” mythology, 150 years on from the Civil War. There was nothing “noble” in shoeless-poor whites marching off to kill and die for wealthy whites to maintain slavery. There was nothing noble in the proliferation of confederate monuments at the turn of the 20th century. It was a terrorist statement aimed at race-control.

But current vogue myths—also distorted history—are just as insidious. White-supremacists have seized on viking lore going back to Hitler’s model of nordic superiority. More recently (irony is lost on bigots) other white supremacists latched onto the Spartan mythos with nary an eye to facts. 

First let’s dispel with the genetic superiority myth. This lie has been slayed repeatedly throughout history. If you doubt it, take a basic anatomy and physiology course. 

So, the vikings… I grew up in a biker household with family members who styled themselves as road vikings. Then I went to school and studied actual history, composed by thoughtful people who analyzed historical records, anthropological records, and archaeological records. As a result the goofy depictions ring distinctly false, (means “stupid”).

Myths:

  • Peerless warrior elites
  • Genetically superior
  • Undefeated
  • Warrior culture imparted to descendents 

Facts:

  • Employed hit-and-run tactics, rarely fought without clear advantage—you only get to play those tricks a couple of times before people get wise to your schtick
  • Really, a basic A&P class is cheap at your local community college
  • Defeated? They were absorbed into the cultures they sought to dominate, (i.e. Irishmen named “Neeson” and “Anderson”)
  • By the end of the viking era, (c. 1200CE) they were more merchant princes than sea bikers
  • Bonus fact—if you wear a helmet with horns into battle, your enemy has convenient handles to twist your head off

Next up, the spartans. If you live in Texas at some point you’ll see a Jeep with a spare-tire cover emblazoned with Molon Labe. A laconic phrase attributed to Sparta’s King Leonides, it translates to “come and take them” and was directed at Persian King Xerses who demanded that the Spartan Army surrender their weapons. While the phrase resonates with extremists of all shades and white gun nuts specifically, the extent of what they know of Sparta is limited to a comic book and/or ridiculous movie. Both are massive handjobs for white-male-fascist fetishism. Distinctly NOT my kink.

Myths:

  • Peerless warrior elites
  • Genetically superior (see a trend?)
  • 300 against 1 gazillion were defeated only by the great (ethnic) masses and/or betrayal
  • Warrior culture imparted to the faithful

Facts:

  • Warrior elites who built, created, advanced NOTHING—we know Rome and Athens by their achievements
  • Maybe an online A&P course…
  • 300 Spartans vs. WAY more than 300 Spartans, the math is not that difficult—no documented betrayal, no racist subtext
  • This is one is true, just join the Army and train, all day, every day, forever
  • Bonus fact—Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson refers to the phrase as “moron lube,” and that’s how I shall read it forever more
  • Bonus-bonus fact—if you restrict yourself to <1000cal/day and workout twice a day, you too can have spartan abs…and faint…often

Bottom line: there is nothing heroic or noble about terror and intimidation. No history, real or subverted justifies the actions we saw on January 6, 2021. We live in a democracy and the people have spoken. Violence has as much place in civil discourse as horn-helmets and zip-tie restraints have in the halls of civil representation—that is to say, none at all.

The photo above is by Blink O’fanaye, (used by creative commons license) details, here.

In Publishing the Route Dictates the Pace

As I stated last week, publishing is currently in flux. In November, Simon and Schuster sold to Penguin/Random House, (the deal is still pending regulatory approval). Sales are down against 2019 figures. Where sales are up is in non-fiction. And, to top it all off, some agents are coming up with really goofy reasons to reject query letters. See Morgan Hazelwood’s recap of the last one, here. So, where does that leave the fiction writer aspiring to publish?

Believe it or not, it’s not all doom and gloom. While deals are slow, Publishers Weekly is still announcing contracts on books. Sure, sales are down, but Amazon and KOBO are still offering new titles. Writers still have options. Again, as I stated last week, there is a deep strata beneath the big five. Big four. However many there are. 

There are mid-sized presses that service a spectrum of genres: Baen and DAW, (science fiction) Harlequin and Avon, (romance) Down & Out Books and Hard Case, (crime) just to name a few. Many mid-sized publishers work across genres. Many mid-sized publishers have similar reach and resources as the bigs but are often more receptive to a first-time author. Many accept direct submissions (typically, the big four-ish only accept submissions through agents). They look for previously published writers ready to expand to a larger audience. However they are looking for sure-things and cinches and only slightly less risk-adverse than the big guys.  

Then there are small presses. The benefits of working with small/boutique publishers are numerous. Most are looking for first-time authors. Some are willing to sign previously-published authors whose work didn’t set the world on fire—if they believe in the current book. Most small presses accept direct submissions and if they sign an author, they are motivated to get the new work out there.

Of course there are downsides. Small publishers seldom have large budgets and you’re not likely to get the developmental support that the mids and bigs provide. A small press may fundamentally change your story. A former writing coach signed with a small press that cut out the coarse language and sexual content from a scandal novel, (think Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) and in the process cut the heart out of the book. When the book—against all expectations—sold out the first run they published an “uncensored” version…for a chunk of his royalties.

An author is not likely to get anywhere near the size of advance with a small press, (if an advance is offered at all) that the mids/bigs routinely offer. Presuming you’re gainfully employed and don’t need the advance for food or rent, why does an advance matter? Promotion.

For a long time now, promotion has been limited across all publishers. 

Typically, a first time-author with the mids/bigs can expect a quarter-page ad in the trade magazines, a profile in the publisher’s newsletter, and occasionally, a book-club promo. Of course, with fewer bookstores, the ad stuff is subject to be completely wrong. So, that’s why the advance is important. An advance enables you to get a website up, make promotional appearances, (once we’re all vaccinated) and maybe buy an ad or two yourself.

The small press is not likely to have the budget for any of that. They pay for editing, book design, and cover art but promotion is often minimal-to-non-existent. And ~sigh~ the audience can’t buy your book if they can’t find your book. 

Note: no legitimate publisher should EVER ask you for money. If you decide to spend your money to promote your book, on your own, that is one thing. A publisher asking you for money to promote your book, (or for any other purpose) is a MASSIVE RED FLAG. 

So where can you start? It just so happens that Writer’s Digest (among others) publishes an annual guide to novel and short story markets, (publishing houses, magazines, et al). Another important starting point is QueryTracker. Even if you think you’re done with querying agents, the forums contain a treasure trove of conversations on publishers.

I must mention there are downsides to working without an agent. First and foremost, an agent’s most important function is to represent your interests. They will guide you past the scam artists. They can also keep you from signing away your life while negotiating a book contract. Contracts are no joke. Authors representing themselves regularly make mistakes on contracts that cost them dearly in time, rights, and money. Most famously, Richard Hooker signed away his film rights to his novel for a few-hundred dollars. The movie, (M.A.S.H.) was a blockbuster, ($81mm against a $3mm production budget). The television series ran for ten seasons. Hooker never saw a dime from either. 

More commonly are publisher/author disputes. An agent can smooth those rough edges and save you from the publisher and yourself. Big four, mid-size, or small publishers, agented or self-represented, tread carefully.

Oh, yeah, there is also self-publishing, which we’ll discuss next week.

The photo, “Interstate 5 paving project,” is by the Oregon Department of Transportation. Details and use, here.