Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Guest Post by Macaulay C. Hunter

Confessions of a Former Pinhead

A long time ago, ducklings, I had an oddball friend who wanted to be a bestselling author.

Lest you suspect this ‘friend’ is going to turn out to be ‘me’ in an explosive revelation at the bottom of this post, be reassured. We were indeed two separate people, who met in college, bonded over a love of books, and stayed in touch for a year or two after graduation. I was substitute teaching and writing; she was living off a small inheritance and contemplating what she wanted to do for a career once the money ran out. And what she chose was bestselling author. With her debut novel, she was certain that she was going to explode onto the world stage and leave a mark on literature that lasted centuries after she turned to dust.

You were going to know her name, children. All of us were.

We were in our early twenties. I had just finished editing my second book and was earnestly studying The Process of how one arrived at publication. My free time was eaten up in selecting prospective agents and publishing houses, writing a third book, and adding rejection letters to an ever swelling file. There was only one way to make this happen, and I was giving it all I had.

She also wanted to make it happen, but much faster. Having scribbled three chapters of a novel in an afternoon, she was leaping ahead to querying publishing houses. I implored her to follow The Process as I was, but to no avail. She declared that they were going to be so amazed at the brilliance of her sample that they would call her up, offer her a massive advance to complete it, and then rush her book to shelves at Barnes & Noble for eager readers to snatch up. Her apartment would turn into a mansion, her rattletrap into a racecar. There would be book signings and interviews and articles, fawning fans and awards and movies. It was going to be glorious.

Of course, it didn’t happen that way. For either of us.

Despite her overabundant confidence in her future success, no one was amazed at her three hastily written, unedited chapters and a query comparing herself to the American Greats. Soundly rejected from all quarters, she decided in outrage and bafflement to pursue another career. And I? I followed The Process doggedly. I knew it would work eventually if I just kept at it, and I did. I only lost if I gave up, and I wasn’t ever going to do that.

I wrote more books and got better at it. I searched and searched for the perfect agent or publishing house and sent off reams of queries. Although I got many nibbles, I never made it to a chomp. When I was 23, a top agent signed me on and then never sent out my work anywhere. When I was 25, one of the Big 6 burst with enthusiasm over a YA novel I had written, and then the editorial staff got culled and my book went with it. When I was 27, a small publishing house accepted that YA novel – and then filed for bankruptcy immediately after publishing it. The books were lost.

I was 30 by then. Heartbroken to have to explain to excited family and friends that The Book was not to be. And I was back to square one.

I turned 31, 32, 33, 34, and 35. Still writing more books. Still looking for agents and publishing houses. Still getting nibbles that never panned out. I had countless frustrating experiences that I will not relate here, except for my favorite of the acquisitions editor at a famous agency (which I won’t name, but if you’ve ever searched for an agent, you would recognize it). One day, he called me up to rave about my book. He grew more and more excited until he was fairly spitting with glee. Rambling that we had something amazing on our hands here, something different, something new, something incredible, he wanted us to get this show on the road.

It was everything a writer wanted to hear. And then . . . nothing. I found out why later. A heavy drinker even at work, he had landed himself in rehab. The book was passed on to a junior paper-shuffler, who sent it back with a complaint that she didn’t like big words or science fiction.

It had been fifteen years now, and I wasn’t any closer than when I had started. I was tired. Bone-crushingly tired of The Process. My old friend from college had done it all wrong and lost; I had done it right but was losing just the same. Self-publishing had never, ever been an option along the way. It meant I wasn’t ever going to get into the club. It meant I had no talent. It meant I had given up. But after a decade and a half of going nowhere fast, I was at the breaking point. Something had to give.

So I gave up and self-published.

I’m not writing this guest post from a lovely cherrywood desk in my seaside mansion. In my first year of self-publishing, I made only $170. In my second year, $1700. In my third year, $5000. I don’t have a story to tell you about my wild, runaway success. I wish I did. I love those stories. But mine is quieter.

I want to do better, yet at the very least, I’m doing. The Process, the painful, painstaking, and ultimately fruitless process, has ended. My books – albeit in small amounts – are being read. Some people love them. Some people hate them. But they are no longer collecting virtual dust within my computer. They are out there and that is an inexpressible relief. My only regret is in not self-publishing them sooner.

But I wanted to join the club so badly. I wanted that stamp of validation that comes with traditional publishing. If they chose me, it was proof that I was a good writer. I was holding out for that pat on the head, and I had a hard time accepting that it was never going to happen. It made perfect sense back then to just keep waiting for someone (anyone) to ask me to dance, and now I wonder what that younger me was thinking. I get validation every month when Amazon sends a check. It’s small, but it pays for the gas and some groceries. It’s more than I earned while running desperately on the query-mill, and I get occasional fan mail to boot.

If any of you reading this is at that point of giving up, I encourage you to do so. Give up and self-publish. What you’re giving up are things you don’t need. The cover art? I hired someone off the Smashwords list and can get a good cover for less than a hundred bucks. The editing? I’m lucky to have several people in my life willing to edit my work for free, and they aren’t kind about my sensitive writer feelings. The promotion? You were going to be doing that for yourself anyway if you published traditionally.

The pat on the head? Oh, darling. Here you go.

I grew up being told that self-publishing was for losers, but I was losing in all that time I chased traditional publishing. In the months (and often years) I waited to hear back about fulls; in the stacks of queries where so many went unanswered (still waiting on a few from 1999); in frustration and aggravation, and devastation to finally have a book published the traditional way only to have no one be able to buy it. As the stigma around self-publishing gradually faded out in the world, I clung to it with a death grip in my own head. One way. There was one way to do this right. Even if it wasn’t working for me.

But there is more than one way, and I’m not losing because I finally picked an alternate route. I write 2K-7K seven days a week and don’t spend a minute of my time looking up agents or adding fresh slips of paper to my Big File o’ Rejection. I’m done with that. I’d rather write stories. I publish my sci-fi/fantasy/horror novels as Macaulay C. Hunter; sci-fi/fantasy erotic romance and LGBT romance as Jordan Reece; and sweet contemporary romance as Serafina Lyndon. My latest Macaulay C. Hunter release is Hold the Salt, a Jack Daniels/Cassandra Salter thriller on Kindle Worlds. So I’m busy, very busy, and loving it.

Giving up on traditional publishing turned out to be the best thing I’ve ever done. It may be the best thing you’ve ever done, too. Even if you’re not ready to make a move as drastic as this one, just keep it bobbing about in the back of your mind. To me, pressing publish on Amazon for the first time felt like the end of the world. It was raising the white flag. Career suicide. I could never hold my head high again when people asked what I did.

*mumble self-publish mumble*

But I couldn’t have been more wrong. I have people asking when the next book is coming out, and writing fan fiction based on my Zombies series. I can go out for a steak dinner once a month that my books have paid for. I’m moving forward, with very tiny steps, but forward all the same. After so long spent running in place, that is a magical feeling indeed. I don’t need a pat on my head.

I just need to write.

Joe sez: This is a realistic, even-headed approach to reaching readers. It doesn't happen over night, or even over decade. It's slow, steady, and methodical. Learn your craft, make mistakes, improve, keep trying, focus on the positive, never give up.

For the moment, big publishing houses still exist as an alternative to self-publishing. If you write a gigantic bestseller, they'll come calling. But it doesn't make any sense to waste time trying to catch an agent's ear, or submitting to one of the Big 5, unless you've already mastered your craft and shown some reasonable success.

How much success?

Enough for them to come to you.

Back in my day, there was no choice. You submitted to agents and waited.

Things have changes. Now, readers can discover you on their own. If enough of them do, agents and publishers will start sniffing around.

You don't have control over that. You don't have control over readers, either. But you do have control over writing as many great books as you're able to, marketing them to the best of your ability, and keeping at it until you can quit your day job.

This isn't a sprint. It's a marathon.

Buy Macaulay's book, and keep at it.


19 comments:

Joshua James said...

One of the best guest-posts ever.

celtgirl68 said...

I chose the self publishing route many years ago, when there was still a lot of stigma attached to it. Like Joe said above, it's not a sprint, it's a marathon. It's really only started to 'pay off' for me these last two years. For a long time I hated it when people found out I had self-published and then about two years ago, I realized that I simply didn't care any more. Now that things are so much more open and it's easy to get things done- covers, editing, etc. I kind of feel like it's the Wild West in the indie publishing world- anything can happen and it's very freeing. I know another writer who has been in the querying/rejection loop for years now. I suggested self-publishing to her in a comment on her FB post about how discouraged she was by the whole process. Several other writers chimed in saying 'Don't do it!' as though I'd just suggested bathing in the blood of newborn kittens or something. I felt bad for all of them, because I sell books every day, while they continue to traverse that same path over and over and I know how discouraging that is. I'm so glad I'm not doing it any more. Plus even if a writer does get published by the traditional route, it's rarely a happily-ever-after sort of story.

Alan Tucker said...

So true and indicative of many, many of us who frequent Joe's blog I think. Congrats to you, Macaulay, for giving in and joining the Dark Side. I've heard we have cookies, but someone's been hoarding them!

Wishing you all the best and crawling back to my cave to practice, er, quit some more ;-)

Jill James said...

Wonderful guest post. I would love to be a Kindle millionaire, but I'm thrilled to be making more each year. That is my success yardstick.

AnonymousWriter said...

just took a look at your books...Hold The Salt is by way your best cover..

i don't think you should have the same cover for the Zombies series, makes it look cheap for some reason

good luck...nice post

BRYAN HIGBY said...

Excellent post Macaulay! I'll be picking up the eBook this week. Good luck!

Jm Cornwell said...

Macaulay, my story is very much like yours, except I started later in life than my twenties. I have been struggling for the past couple of years, but I keep going. Thanks for your story. It helps me keep on track because I know I'm doing it right.

Sean McCartney said...

Great post. It reminded me of some of the things I have been through. I had my series The Treasure Hunters Club published with a small publisher in 2010. When they went out of business in 2011, out of the blue, I was stunned. I spent the next four years doing the query letter route. I received some interest but eventually they said no. Finally, I got a call from a school that was reading my book. They asked me to come for a visit. I went and had a great time. They inspired me to forgo my query letters and go indie. It has been a great beginning. The school bought three class sets of the second book. There was a place for my books. It just took some time to find them. I know that this is a marathon and not a sprint. Which is good because I am too old to sprint. :)

antares said...

My old friend from college had done it all wrong and lost; I had done it right but was losing just the same.

Wow!. Just wow. The most succinct summary of the traditional route I have ever read.

This Girl said...

Thank you for this post. After years of being unpicked by traditional publishing (including competitions and submissions to literary magazines), I decided (in the words of Seth Godin) to pick myself and self-publish. Six months in, I'm just about to publish my 6th non-fiction book and I've published three short stories, with more on the way. But it's been slow and disappointing and I thought I'd have made more inroads than I have with readers. And that's why I say thank you. I'm glad that I'm not the only one who has had a slow (very slow!) start, and your post has reminded me that success is incremental, and often not measured purely in monetary terms, although that would be nice!

Alan Spade said...

Your story, Macauley, is the one the average reader of this blog should hear. Not the many tales of success we hear all the times. What you experienced with your sales as an indie is what happens to the great majority of indie authors.

In 2010, I wrote a blog post titles "How Dreams can be costly" (in french, un rêve, cela peut coûter cher), which related very much with your trad pub experience: how much an author can sacrifice to cling to a dream that has been imposed on her (in fact, it's not really the dream that was imposed on you but the way to achieve it).

In my blog post, I also told about the very huge waste represented by all those manuscripts sitting in the slush pile, all those hours of work leading, for the most part, to nothing.

It was really time that big companies like Amazon understood the value of the slush pile.

Sean Mc Cartney said: "Finally, I got a call from a school that was reading my book. They asked me to come for a visit. I went and had a great time. They inspired me to forgo my query letters and go indie. It has been a great beginning."

This is very interesting. Why? Because I believe that school, for a part, and childhood and the relation with our parents, shape very much the way we function in society.

The pat on our head we received as a child, in school or at home, we research it once we have finished our novel. Hence the imposture complex if we don't receive it, or if we don't receive it from the people we think are really "allowed" to give it. The establishment.

In order to become an indie, we have to reject this formating process of our brains, and to think outside the box. This can be both frightening and liberating.

But if you really really want to experience traditional publishing before going solo, why aim too high? Personaly, I tried just with one small press (in fact, I had already self-published before that, but I wanted to have a traditional experience in order to be able to criticize trad pub with a knowledge gained on the ground), which allowed me to tour my book (I signed just for one book, a collection of short stories) and to gain precious experience.

It turned out that the small press was really deceiving and I quickly got back my rights, but even with distance, that experience was the good move for me. I needed to remove the mystique surrounding trad pub.

For most authors, of course, you don't have to go through all that. The Internet (and Joe's blog) is full of authors' bad experiences with trad publishing.

Donna White Glaser said...

Loved this post. NEEDED to read this post. I'm on Kboards a lot and although I appreciate the learning available there, it can be discouraging to read about people who are making so much more than me every single day. My story is a lot like Macauley's, a slow but steady progression. When I stop comparing, I'm very happy about it.

BRYAN HIGBY said...

This is such a great post. I have many books for sale through Amazon but currently I still work a 40 hrs a week gig. I write and learn from others everyday. I change and get better. If not for blogs like this and Joe Konrath in general I would be speaking with one of the legends in the field, Joe Lansdale. Lansdale was good enough to read my novel Pizza Man. Blogs like this gave me the confidence to continue writing after dozens of rejections. Amazon gives me the venue to publish my eccentric work. Copy editing, book designs and covers have all been outsourced to freelancers who are quickly becoming like my family unit. There is nothing like it. I hope one day soon to say I write full time but until that day I will continue to write, improve and PUBLISH!

Debby Carroll said...

I suspect many reading this post have envy of your "5000-aire" status from self publishing. I was published by two big houses in the 90s. Then I didn't have much to say for a while and when I did, of course those same two houses had no interest in me anymore because the whole platform thing passed me by. Sure, I could have sent out a boatload of queries to agents (mine had retired) and to other publishing outlets but I just decided to bypass the boatload of subsequent rejections and go the self-publish route. I like the connections with readers I didn't have before and I'm enjoying the ride and even the work of self promoting. (which I didn't do last time around and that may be why both of my former books pretty much faded away quietly) At this point I may have made a few bucks beyond what I spent on design, cover, etc. but even if not, I'm very pleased with my choice to go the independent route. I see some success ahead but much like you, I've greatly lowered my expectations.

Ceri Clark said...

It was/is slow for me too but I keep plugging at it. I started in 2010 after querying publishers and agents. I was asked for the full manuscript a few times and one publisher said they loved it but their schedule was full for 2 years. Did I mind if they kept it until then?

Well, that was all the pat on the back I needed. I self-published Children of the Elementi and the following year I started my A Simpler Guide Series.

The only thing was I had a child in December 2012 and I took a year out which derailed my plan but I'm at it again.

I've got several Simpler Guides on the go and a fiction story. I love writing too much to stop now!

Lou Cadle said...

Great post and not terribly different than my experience. (Though I had short story sales, and I never had The Drunken Phone Call.) Now, every sale is a gift and a joy.
A cyber-hug to Macaulay for this.

Macaulay C. Hunter said...

Thank you all for your kind words! (If this double posts, I apologize - my computer skills leave much to be desired.)

This blog was what gave me the final kick in the butt to self-publishing, and I have never regretted doing it. Even in the first year when there were months I made all of $3. It used to be a rare day that I looked at my reports on Amazon and saw a sale – and now it is a rare day that I don’t see one. But it has taken three and a half years and dozens of short stories, novellas, and novels to get here.

So just keep going, and good luck!

W. ADAM MANDELBAUM said...

Having had the full blown trad experience once, I was happy to play the part of author for my fifteen minutes of fame. Nice advance, lunch with the editor after a good PW review, a publicist assigned, radio and TV interviews, book signings...everything you think it would be it was.UNTIL the books started coming back from the stores, the sales tanked, and the Janitor at St. Martins wouldn't answer my calls. I was literary leprosy. Couple more agents after that who couldn't get me a deal putting grafitti on subway cars. Sic transit gloria mundi. So now it's the kdp route, a few bucks a month, and it is still pretty cool. You wanna write, nobody can stop you,you wanna make a pile of cash, look elsewhere for the most part.

Dan McClure said...

Thank you Mac and Joe. This is sound advice. Write and release and build your audience! They're out there. It might take many years to build any sort of sizable customer base, but if you are committed to writing well and sticking with it, they will find you and follow! A marathon, indeed.