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Survivor...Publishing Style

I've been crazy busy for a while now, which is definitely better than the alternative!  Thus, I realized recently that I've been so occupied making deals that I haven't stopped to post them.  I'll be rectifying this on Publishers Marketplace et al as time allows.  I'll also get back to posting my Agent Anonymous articles, originally published in the SFWA Bulletin, like this one from the October-November 2009 issue.  I hope you enjoy!

Survivor...Publishing Style!

I was originally going to do this article on what to expect when you hit big, because, believe it or not, there are special complications that come along with becoming a huge bestseller, but I can hear y’all now, “Yeah, cry me a river.  What about surviving in this tough market?”

So here we have it.  Survivor…publishing style.

Be Creative

First of all, in a very competitive market, good enough just…isn’t.  Even if you’ve sold on proposal in the past time and again, you may find that you’re being asked to jump through a few more hoops—tweak or rethink synopses, write a bit more material, maybe even a complete manuscript—as publishers try to assure that each and every book published is truly polished and positioned to sell.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, though it can feel that way when you’re the one writing away on spec. 

It’s very important for publishers to see how your work will stand out on crowded shelves among all the others released that month (not only by them, but by their competitors).  This means working toward really fresh and original voices and ideas.  Whether you’re writing epic or urban fantasy, sf or horror, you’ve got to bring it…a new take, something you feel passionately enough about to pour your heart and soul into. 

I do a workshop at times on the law of threes.  Throw out the first three ideas or characterizations that occur to you.  These are going to be the tried and true.  Your defaults.  The ideas that are easy to come by because they’re, well, old.  Comfortable.  Toss them out.  Comfort is the kryptonite of genius.  If you stop taking risks and pushing yourself, you’ll have a tough time expanding your audience and growing your career to new heights.

But the law of threes isn’t all about the negatives – tossing out the old – but about bringing in the new.  It’s probably true that there’s nothing completely new under the sun, but the way that disparate elements are combined can make things seem fresh and exciting.  For example, you might be the first to conceive of combining Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Think how many times Romeo & Juliet and West Side Story have been redone to modern times.   Director Baz Luhrmann’s version of Romeo & Juliet was an amazing post-modern masterpiece combining an edgy, almost cyber-punk society with rock opera costuming and Shakespeare’s classic language.  The conflicts at the heart of these stories are still relevant today.  The trick is to make them your own.

Okay, so we’ve done Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  We’ve done Sherlock Holmes in Orbit (anthology) and Drop Dead Diva (a new television series that seems to be a synthesis of Legally Blond and Heaven Can Wait).  We’ve even had Space Herpes (in the sf parody Ice Pirates).  What will you think of next?

Be Flexible

Moving beyond your comfort zone may take you into new and uncharted territory.  It’s a brave new world out there, where genres can be combined, as you can tell from the examples above…science fiction, suspense, romance, it’s all good.  You need to write to your strengths, but you also need to be flexible to weather the vicissitudes of the market.  Has the mystery field gone flat?  What about stepping up the relationships to take your work into romantic suspense?  Hearing that you have a “young” voice?  What about YA?  You don’t want to spread yourself too thin, but it’s good to have options and audiences that can feed into each other.

Be Professional

This means hit your deadlines and turn in as polished a work as you can.  Delivering first draft quality work puts a bigger burden on your editor and can make it difficult for him or her to work up the enthusiasm needed for strong promotion in-house.  You want to blow the editor away.  Sure, there will be notes and room for improvement.  That goes without saying, but you don’t want your editor to groan when your work comes in and put it aside for a few months because it’s going to take a time commitment they just don’t have at that moment and they can edit three more polished manuscripts in the same amount of time.  Editors are overworked, more so than ever after last year’s lay-offs.  You want to be respectful of their time as you’d like them to be of yours.

Professional also means that you’re not argumentative or that if you have an issue, you bring it up in a constructive manner…or better, yet, give it over to your agent to deal with on your behalf.  You don’t blog or Twitter or otherwise air your dirty laundry in public.  It’s déclassé.  If needed, SFWA has a grievance committee for issues not easily resolved.

The market is not so big these days that you can afford to burn bridges.  Think of the sf/fantasy/horror field as a very small town, complete with rumors that spread like wildfire.  Just as authors will sometimes kvetch about their agents, editors, copyeditors, agents and editors will occasionally dish about their problem people.  Generally, we’re discreet.  Names are omitted to protect the innocent, but, as I’ve said, this is a small field.  Context is usually enough to fill in the blanks.

Be a Go-Getter

If it ever was possible to sit back on your laurels and wait for good things to come to you or for your publisher to do all your marketing, I’m not sure I can remember back that far.  And no, before you ask, senility hasn’t set in…yet.  It’s important to network.  Develop and cultivate your contacts.  Keep an ear to the ground about anthologies, short story markets, new lines and promotional possibilities.  Most agents will let their authors know about these as they arise, but sometimes we get busy.  Or maybe we have no idea because you haven’t told us yet about that steampunk you have sitting on your hard drive all ready to go.  Make sure to communicate and ask after opportunities rather than simply wait for them to come to you.

Promote the heck out of your work.  I’m not saying jump up and down like Donkey from Shrek crying “Pick me, oh pick me!”  I mean develop a great, interactive website.  The best, most effective that I see give something back to the readers.  Extra content, information, contests, etc.  Be personal, be approachable and be everywhere.  Line up guest blogs, make sure your work is getting out to influential reviewers (be sure to coordinate with your publisher), send out press releases to local papers, your alumni magazine, bookstores, libraries, your first cousin twice removed….  When you’re doing interviews, don’t just dash them off to cross them off your list.  Where’s the good in that?  Give the readers something they can take away from the interview – something funny they’ll repeat or retweet or something that helps them with their own publishing struggles.  I could go on and on, but self-promotion is a whole other article (December-January 2009 issue).  The long and short of it is that you should do everything you can to aid the success of your books.

Is your head spinning yet?  Darn, but I’d like to see that.  Hope all this helps.  I look forward to seeing more brilliant, original ideas from flexible, professional go-getters in the near future.


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( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 1st, 2010 06:48 pm (UTC)
Awesome post, Lucienne! Thanks for taking the time to write it up. I would LOVE to take one of your workshops:) Heck, it would just be nice to finally meet you in person.
Dec. 1st, 2010 08:43 pm (UTC)
'Comfort is the kryptonite of genius.'

Excellent! You should have that put on a t-shirt :)
Dec. 2nd, 2010 01:24 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I have to admit, I'm kinda proud of that line.
Dec. 2nd, 2010 02:18 pm (UTC)
Great advice here. I'm printing it out to remind myself every day. Thanks.
Dec. 3rd, 2010 07:47 pm (UTC)
We’ve even had Space Herpes (in the sf parody Ice Pirates).
Guess who gets the spittake of the day award? That would be you!
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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