Yesterday I was told that, since I have already self-published my work, I will never be picked up by an agent or have a traditional publishing deal. Not just for the books that I’ve self-published, but ever. Because the only self-published authors that get agents are ones who sell a zillion copies of their stuff, thus proving it’s market worthy. In other words, only the self-published authors who don’t need agents ever get them.
My books are of solid quality. I know this thanks to (a) good reviews from professional sources, and (b) feedback from agents. The “problem” with my books is that I write stuff that doesn’t fit neatly into any one genre* and/or stuff in unpopular genres. Basically, what I’ve been told by agents is that, while my work is good, it’s not marketable.
Which is why, I suppose, I don’t sell a zillion copies.
And therefore I will never get an agent or a big publishing deal for anything I write, no matter how good it is or how marketable it may actually be.
This is what I’ve been told. By traditionally published authors, mind. Maybe I should ask an actual agent? Pretty much every one that I’ve submitted to has told me to try them again with other works. I used to think they were just being polite, but I later heard at a conference panel that, no, that’s a line they only add to their rejection letters when they mean it. Which should mean, just maybe, that even if I self-published that book, they might still be interested in something new by me?
Publishing seems to be contracting and expanding in strange ways. There are more authors than ever, more books out there than ever, and yet fewer and fewer authors seem to be able to get agents and traditional publishing deals. Or maybe it just seems that way when one stacks traditional authors next to all the indies. But it does feel like agents and publishers are actually narrowing their focuses rather than widening. They seem to be less comfortable taking a chance on someone new. (Just like movie studios these days, leaning heavily on known IP rather than being willing to try anything original.)
It seems like certain genres do well in the indie market (romance, thrillers). Well, that’s also like indie films, isn’t it? Indie drama is pretty common, but how many indie action movies are there? Not many (if any) because indie filmmakers can’t usually afford to make a big budget film. At least with books the cost is more or less the same regardless of genre. It’s the ability to reach the various markets that causes some indie genres to stall, I think. Romance and thriller readers are typically voracious and will pick up a wide variety of titles in their preferred genres. More literary reader, though… are harder to reach via indie outlets. Underserved markets are more willing to go indie, assuming they can find your books in the piles of content out there. (Hey, if you like historical fantasy gay romance, try Faebourne! Yeah, again, my oddly specific books keep agents from picking them or me up…)
I guess the question eventually becomes: Do I want an agent and traditional publishing deal? And the answer is: I’d like the option. Maybe it’s that old need for validation, but… Yeah. I’d like an offer someday. At the same time, I won’t waste too much time chasing agents. Because I might like to have an agent, but I’ve learned I don’t have to have one to be happy or satisfied with my work.
Most media, barring things that are biographical or autobiographical, are designed to be consumed in the absence of the artist. When you read a book, the author is seldom there to explain his or her work. When you watch a film or television program, the actors and directors and screenwriters and producers are not whispering in your ear… unless you’re playing the commentary track, I suppose. The musician shouldn’t have to explain the song’s meaning. Even stand-up comedians, who often pull from personal experience, are editing the stories they tell; as the audience, we laugh, but we never really believe we’re hearing the whole thing.
However, with the rise of social media, and with greater access to authors and actors and comedians, etc.—with the popularity of those commentary tracks, and with the growing sense that the person with the most trivial information somehow “wins” because it proves he or she is the biggest, best fan—we seldom consume media without knowing something about those who make it. Sure, some of these creators remain coy, but many more have embraced Twitter and Instagram and whatever else is popular these days. One can communicate with them, one can chase them and their work all over the Internet, collecting facts and tidbits like squirrels collect nuts.
But what happens when an artist or creator is an asshole?
“Never meet your heroes,” the old saying goes. The unspoken conclusion being that you’re bound to be disappointed by their simple humanity. But when your favorite author or actor is not only human but in some ways seemingly subhuman… What then? Are you allowed to like their books or movies or TV shows any more?
It’s the age-old conflict: separating the art from the artist. Can you?
Art isn’t created in a vacuum; each contributor puts something of him- or herself into the work. Why else do we spend high school lit classes deconstructing things like The Great Gatsby? Every time we had to read a book in school, didn’t we also have to read that little biographical paragraph about the author? And who decides what to tell and what to leave out of those?
Back in the day, it was okay to like Woody Allen movies. Now you can like them, but only if you feel guilty about it. Many more people would rather just not watch than have to feel that way. But they can’t erase the fact that they have seen some of those movies. Do they say, “Well, I watched those before…”? Does watching or reading something by a disgraced artist make you complicit in whatever caused their downfall?
It’s an honest question. I’m not defending Allen or any other condemned creator. I really want to know how people feel about this.
My understanding is, largely, that not buying books by, or watching movies by, artists who have behaved badly is a form of boycott. “Don’t give them your money,” seems to be the underlying notion. Of course, most of them have plenty of money already, so… But what if you borrow the book from the library? Or watch the movie on a streaming service you subscribe to? Are you not meant to patronize these artists at all because to do so suggests tacit endorsement, not only of their work but their life choices?
I, for one, end up having a tough time enjoying work by “bad” artists because I can’t forget what they’ve done (if I happen to know). It lingers in the back of the mind. It taints the things I used to enjoy, like food that’s starting to go off. You might still can eat it—it’s not so far gone—but it tastes wrong. I mean, even if it’s something as minor as having read that this or that author was rude in a situation… Maybe I can excuse them, depending on the circumstances, but if I hear that it happens regularly… When I read a book by them, I won’t be able to not think that this writer is a jerk. And knowing a jerk has written the book I’m reading definitely dampens the enjoyment. Sometimes I might even transfer those feelings to the book’s characters and think they’re all jerks, too, because of course a jerk writer can only create jerk characters, right?
Well, no. Of course not. Writers create all kinds of characters. But knowing something about the author creates an overlay to anything you read by them. Same with actors; suddenly, every role they play is colored by that personal knowledge. Instead of diverse characters, you begin to see them all as similar because they are connected by this mental tint.
It’s enough to make one not want to ever know anything about their favorite authors, actors, etc. Isn’t it?
How do you feel about these things? Do you refuse to support certain artists because of their past behaviors? Is ignorance bliss? Is ignorance even possible in a day and age in which information moves so fast?
PepperWords is pleased to feature the author of No Accounting for Destiny
PepperWords: Easy stuff first: Who are you and what should we know about you? Where are you from, etc.?
KE: I’m Kimberly Emerson, a lifelong writer and newly published author. I live in L.A. with my cat Zoe, who loves me but still needs her space.
PW: Tell us a bit about your writing history. Have you been doing it long? What inspired you to start writing?
KE: I’ve been writing for most of my life. I remember doing my creative writing assignments in fifth grade as a series, basing characters on myself and all my classmates. In sixth grade I started a new series, using the daughter of the character I created in fifth grade. I don’t think I was actually trying to be clever—I seem to remember it was a way to use the same characters over and over so I didn’t have to make up new ones.
PW: Ha! It was a generational saga!
What about this book? What sparked it? What genre is it, and what draws you to that particular genre?
KE: This book is based on a plot that’s been in my head for probably thirty years. I fell in love with London many years ago and was sure I was supposed to spend the rest of my life there, and of course that I would meet someone incredibly famous who would be so impressed by how unimpressed I was by his fame. I live in Los Angeles and I’ve never lived in London. Maybe I got the first letter right but got distracted during the rest of the prophecy? The book is a mystery because those are my favorite kind to read. I love puzzles and logic problems. Plus, it gives me an excuse for anything weird in my browser history.
PW: I’ve always wanted to live abroad, and London is one of my favorite cities. Alas, it’s never happened for me either. Maybe that’s one of the things I love about this book, that I identify with it.
Speaking of famous people and Los Angeles, in Hollywood we write log lines for scripts—one sentence that sums up the story, a bit like the write up in TV Guide. For example, the log line for Back to the Future might read: “A teenager gets sent back to 1955 where he must contrive to get his parents to fall in love else risk never being born.” What would the log line for your book be?
KE: Hmm… Maybe: “An accountant and an earl find out getting kidnapped isn’t as much fun as you think.” I’ll keep working on it.
PW: And if you were casting your book as a movie, are there any particular actors you’d envision as your main characters?
KE: If I had to cast this book as a movie, I’d put Reese Witherspoon as Emmy. The problem is I’d want to play Jane myself.
PW: What are some of your favorite books? Favorite authors?
KE: So many favorites. My favorite genre is mystery, but if I had to pick one book to read for the rest of forever it would probably be William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, so I guess my taste is a little eclectic. Well, Princess Bride or Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. I love Jane Austen, with the favorite being a toss-up between Pride & Prejudice and Sense & Sensibility. I also read just about every book Erma Bombeck ever wrote and I own about eight books of Fox Trot comic anthologies. (Bury My Heart at Fun-Fun Mountain is a pictorial account of my childhood.) J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books are a nearly perfect series. Oh, and I will always have a special place in my heart for L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables stories. I could go on.
PW: I should know better than to ask authors to name favorite books. My oldest son is a huge Fox Trot fan, and I love me some Agatha Christie and L.M. Montgomery, so we have that much in common. What are you currently reading? What’s on your TBR list?
KE: Right now, I am re-reading David Casaret’s The Missing Guests at the Magic Grove Hotel. It makes me want to visit Chiang Mai in Thailand. I love novels that teach me about new places. The book also makes me wonder if I missed my calling as a medical ethicist. I can imagine myself spending my days scouring patient records to figure out whether the right ethical choices were made. After I finish that, I’d like to read Anne Lamott’s Almost Everything: Notes on Hope. Her blend of spirituality and self-deprecating humor inspires me, and I think we all need more hope in our lives these days.
PW: Tell us about your writing process. Is it very structured? Do you have a favorite place to sit and write, or a favorite food or drink while writing?
KE: I wish my writing had something as sophisticated as a process. Usually, I start with a snippet of dialogue that pops into my head. I work outward from there. It’s kind of like I can hear the sound of a movie and gradually I can start to see the picture. Once I’ve started on a story, I try to carve out time every day to write something, even if it’s lousy. Sometime my discipline fails me, though. Writing is like trying to exercise and eat right. It’s a commitment you have to make over and over again. I just remind myself that any little step I take in the right direction is better than nothing.
PW: I think most writers would say discipline is the most important thing. Alas, we all need undisciplined days. Except maybe Stephen King. I hear he never takes a day off. Guess that’s why he’s so prolific.
How long does it take you to write a book? How do you know a manuscript is ready to send out to agents and publishers?
KE: The length of time to write a book depends on the book. With No Accounting for Destiny, I started and stopped a lot, so it took me a couple of years. With the book I wrote after that, I finished the first draft in four and a half months. It depends somewhat on the story and somewhat on what else happens in my life at the time. I try to make time whatever else is going on, but sometimes life gets in the way. The important thing is just to try to get back to it again once you get your head back above water. After I finish the first draft, it needs to go out to my critique partners and then the beta readers. Then once I feel content with it, it needs to go to the copy editor for spelling and grammar checks. If I didn’t work full-time, I think I could do a book a year. As it is, it takes at least two years. I try to start on the next one before the last one is completely done, in order to tighten things up.
PW: What are you working on now?
KE: I’ve started working on Fate & Other Terrorists, the sister novel to No Accounting for Destiny. I’m looking forward to calls from the FBI once the title makes the bestseller list. Together with my mystery writer’s browser history, I expect to spend a lot of time in conversation with government entities. Please start collecting bail money for me.
PW: We’ll start a crowdfunding campaign! Aside from not getting arrested, what advice would you give to young writers, or writers who are only just starting out?
KE: The only advice I can give to any writer, to any kind of creative person, really, is to know your own worth. Fame and fortune land where they choose to land, and if there’s any logic to their destinations, I haven’t found it. As one of my mentors at acting school used to say, “If you’re not enough without success, you’ll never be enough with it.” You have something to say. Say it, the best that you can. That’s all you can ever do.
PW: I really like that quote from your mentor; I’ll need to keep that written down somewhere… Where do you see yourself in five years?
KE: In five years, I see myself buying a lake house, ideally with proceeds from my books. I write better at the lake.
PW: I do love lakes and lake houses. My best friend’s grandparents had one and… Oh, but this isn’t about me! Now a little about you in general. Favorite quote or inspirational saying?
KE: My favorite quote is from theologian Frederich Buechner: “The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.” There’s more to the quote than that, but that’s the part that sticks with me. The idea that I in my insignificance bring something irreplaceable to the world has gotten me through some dark days.
PW: Favorite color?
KE: I love lavender. I also love sea green. My house has a lot of both. They make me feel creative and relaxed at the same time.
PW: Favorite TV show?
KE: My favorite show changes, depending on the day. All-time favorite is probably Murphy Brown. Current favorite is The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
PW: Okay, weird confession from me: I used to have a crush on Jim from Murphy Brown. That’s right, Jim. Maybe I have a thing for older guys? But I married someone younger so… ??? Oh, and I adore Kimmy Schmidt. What a great show.
KE: My favorite movie is The Princess Bride. I had to stop watching it because I could say virtually every line along with the actors. Second place is Clue. For things I’ve watched lately, Ali Wong & Randall Park’s Always Be My Maybe made me laugh so hard I almost broke a rib.
PW:Clue is so quotable, and a perfect stormy night movie.
Someone (living, dead, or fictional) you’d like to meet?
KE: Eleanor Roosevelt has always fascinated me. She came from privilege and spent her whole life working to use that privilege to make everyone’s lives better. She also dealt with a monumental amount of judgment from people who disagreed with her. I would love to have a cup of coffee with her.
PW: I always wondered how she felt about her husband’s infidelities. She certainly seemed to handle things with true grace.
Last but certainly not least, where can we find you and your book?
KE: Please find my book, No Accounting for Destiny,on Amazon! You can also find more of my thoughts on life at www.kimberlyemerson.com (where there is also a handy link to Amazon to buy my book).
Back when I would devour Victoria Holt books, there was another author whose works I likewise snapped up: Sara Hylton. She seems to have quite a bibliography to her name, but at the same time, I’ve never heard anyone talk about her. So I don’t know if she’s less well known, or if I just don’t talk to the right people.
I discovered Hylton’s books when I found The Talisman of Set at the library. It was exactly my kind of thing: an Englishwoman who keeps having dreams of Ancient Egypt and then is given a talisman that connects her to (if I remember correctly, though it’s been a couple decades since I read it) a past life. Oh, I adored that book! Found a copy of it in a thrift store and bought it, and I still have it on my shelf. (Well, we’re moving, so my books are packed, but it will be on my shelf again when we unpack.)
I also have a copy of Easter at the Lakes, which is another book by Hylton I enjoyed. Truth is, I don’t often come across her books in libraries or even used-book stores. Not these days, anyway. When I was younger, our library had a number of books by her that I read, often more than once: Caprice, The Crimson Falcon, The Whispering Glade, Jacintha, The Hills are Eternal… I’d say if you enjoy Victoria Holt and Daphne du Maurier, you’d probably like Sara Hylton’s work as well.
I don’t know much about Hylton herself, but her most recent books seems to have been published almost a decade ago, and she started in the 80s, so she must be older now.
What authors have you enjoyed that you’ve never heard anyone else mention? Are there any you wish more people knew about? Or maybe an author you read years ago that you only recently rediscovered? I’d love to hear all about it!
So I have a YouTube channel now, and I recommend you subscribe to keep up with all the videos because I won’t always be posting them here. The link to the channel itself is on the sidebar to the left. (Scroll down to all my online media buttons.)
I’ll try to get more sophisticated with my recording and editing methods. But for now, enjoy this short video about author Tom Cox’s work. And if you watch long enough, you’ll catch a glimpse of my cat Minerva.
I was fortunate enough to be asked to participate in a roundtable with my fellow authors and led by Stormy Corrin Russell. She’s posted our discussion here. You’ll see me as “ALP” in the conversation. (People who know me personally will know why.)
Come read what I and other great authors have to say about the subject, and please comment and leave your own thoughts too!
I noticed something the other day, and now that I’ve noticed it, I can’t stop noticing it.
There’s a tendency, when asked about our favorite authors, to reach for the big names. The names people will recognize. Is that why we do it? What I mean is, whenever an author is asked something like, “Who do you like to read?” or “Who influences your work?” we go straight to Stephen King or Neil Gaiman or whatever big author applies. I’m as guilty of it as anyone.
But here’s the thing: as indie authors (or, in my case, hybrid), shouldn’t we at least try to include our fellows on that list? Stephen King doesn’t need any exposure, but if we were to mention someone else—another indie author, for example—mightn’t we perhaps cause readers of the article or interview to be curious and go look them up?
I’m not suggesting we do this as a marketing ploy. I want, honestly, to know which indie authors, or lesser-known authors, people read. It’s far more interesting than hearing you, like a billion other people, read Anne Rice or whatever. At the very least, mention a couple big names and follow with a couple smaller ones? (There are no small names, just small authors?)
The great thing—well, one of the great things—about this conference was the number of opportunities to talk to industry professionals and gain some insight. In particular, I was trying to figure out what to do with my YA novel Hamlette. I’ve sent it out to some agents, and there have been nibbles, but so far (barring one incident I’d rather not rehash) no real feedback that I could use. Here’s the little bit I have received:
One agent was “afraid to fall in love with it” because it was too close to something else on his wish list, and so if he took mine on he wouldn’t be able to take on that dream manuscript if it were to ever cross his desk.
One agent said she didn’t have time to read this manuscript but was intrigued by my description of planned follow-up manuscripts and said she’d like to read those if I didn’t find representation.
One said she thought it was “a crazy fun concept” but the way the narrator directly addresses the reader didn’t work for her.
That last one gave me pause, of course. She didn’t say, “If you change it, I’d love to see it again,” so I guess it wasn’t a revise and resubmit.
Okay, so I while at the conference I met with Rusty Shelton and asked him whether I should just scrap this blog and my existing author identity and start over. He said no. (I was honestly surprised by this!) He said, “You have a half-built house. Why start over and have to lay a whole new foundation?” When you put it that way . . . He and I brainstormed some ideas that I look forward to putting into practice soon.
Then I met with independent editor Amelia Beamer and poured out my story of woe. She was so kind to listen, and so sympathetic. I told her I just didn’t know whether to keep trying to find an agent for my manuscript, or if I should self-publish it, or maybe just trunk it entirely. I told her about the agent that didn’t like the one aspect of the manuscript. “I’ve received a number of rejections,” I told her, “but none have specified why. Maybe they all hate the direct address and just didn’t bother to tell me?” Amelia pointed out that that could be true. Or not. I could try to change the manuscript for this one agent, but as she didn’t ask for revisions, I should be sure I’d be changing it because I honestly thought it was good advice. (I’m still not sure about that.) Then she told me, “The publishing industry will take your little piglet that you’ve nurtured and turn it into sausage. So be sure you’re okay with that. Else, write something you’d be okay with seeing turned into sausage.” Which I thought was a very good and vivid metaphor.
Next I had a chance to speak with an agent who shall remain nameless. Sufficient to say she’s an agent who only handles children’s and YA. I laid out my dilemma, told her the feedback I’d had from other agents. I wasn’t trying to pitch her so much as understand what wasn’t being said, or what the market might be for my book. She pulled up her email and showed me that she had 11 queries in her inbox referencing Hamlet. In short, Hamlet is overdone. I mentioned that one of the agents (the one with the wish list) had suggested Merry Wives of Windsor, which I have in fact outlined as a potential project. This agent told me that might be a good way to go because it’s a much fresher, lesser-known play. “Sit on the one you have, and maybe it can be published later.” I asked if it would hurt my chances if I self-published this one. She said no, since the books I’m considering writing—these Shakespeare updates—aren’t really a series with the same characters throughout.
So now I’m really trying to decide what to do here. But I least I have a clearer view of my options.
This morning I went to a session about children’s book marketing and was flattered when Penny Warner remembered me. (She’s delightful btw.) She asked me what I was working on and I told her, then also told her what the agent had said about there being too many Hamlets. Naheed Senzai was sitting next to Penny and said, “Find another agent.” Penny pointed out that everyone in the room could write a version of Hamlet and they’d all be different. “Figure out what sets yours apart.” But I don’t know what sets mine apart since I don’t know what those other 11 manuscripts look like! Still, the encouragement was much appreciated.
Other takeaways included the idea that my paperback books should be made by IngramSpark while my ebooks should probably be Kindle exclusive. Many thanks to Penny Sansevieri for that.
I realize much of this relates specifically to me and my project, but it goes to show how key these conferences can be, how important. Here is information I would otherwise not have had. Here is fresh support. Here is new perspective. I still have many decisions to make, but it’s so nice to learn and connect and get a bigger picture. If you are an author and have an opportunity to attend a conference, I highly recommend you do so.
Here’s a question for you: Which authors’ books do you buy—preorder, even—without question? You’ll pick up their next book no matter what?
I have three at the moment.
1. Tana French
I love her Dublin Murder Squad series and click “preorder” without hesitation whenever a new one is announced.
2. Ben Aaronovitch
Yeah, the last couple Peter Grant novels were wobbly, but I’ll still read them.
3. Kate Morton
She has a definite formula, but I enjoy her books anyway.
I enjoy a lot of authors on a regular or semi-regular basis, but in most cases I’m still pretty selective. Like, I won’t read every Stephen King novel. And I fizzled out on Neil Gaiman. And I haven’t enjoyed the most recent stuff by Anne Rice.
So which authors inspire your loyalty and why? What is it about their work that you keep coming back to? Let me know in the comments!
P.S.Brynndeis still free, but today is the last day!
I’ve written before about my particular connection to this novel, which is about rabbits in search of a new warren. I read it in sixth grade. I was attending a private school at the time, one so small that the fifth and sixth grades were together in one room, and even still there were only 11 of us.
This was the kind of school where girls wore skirts (though there was no set uniform, just many rules), and each morning we had to kneel to be sure our skirts touched the floor. We had to memorize long passages from the biblical book of Proverbs. We took a character-building class that featured a lot of Zig Ziglar. Physical education for the girls consisted of ballet. Lots and lots of ballet. And cheerleading. I won academic awards in Science and History as well as one for “Thoroughness,” whatever that was supposed to mean. That I did my homework completely? Seriously, no idea.
My classmates liked that I could draw (Garfield and a dog based on the same general idea as Garfield) and asked me to show them how.
And they wondered about this big book I was reading. So one day, as we were sitting outside, I told them the story of Watership Down. They were intrigued and began to call me Hazel-Rah. Then they began adopting rabbit names for themselves, too, until every recess was a game of running up and down the playground hill pretending to be rabbits. The boys were Efrafa and raided our warren and we chased them away, again and again.
The teachers and administration were disturbed. There was nothing really wrong with the game, or the book, but that it had created such furor, and that it was so out of the ordinary . . . bothered them.
The next year I was moved to the public school system. An unmitigated disaster. But later some of those students who’d been in sixth grade with me joined me again in high school. (The private school had suffered some schism in its congregation and been unable to sustain itself.) They remembered me as Hazel-Rah, and I remembered them by their rabbit names, and it felt like a small victory. I had outlasted the place that had condemned me for my broad imagination and my desire to spread it to the masses.
2016 has been a crap year on a number of fronts, but its harshness is most quantified by the long list of famous people who have passed away over these 12 months. Just today we lost Carrie Fisher, but we also lost Richard Adams, author of Watership Down. The Black Rabbit of Inlé has come to fetch him home. May he enjoy green fields and primroses everlasting.