The Plight of the Clueless Writer

A few years ago, during one of the wanks surrounding Publish America, I got into a heated discussion with a group of writer friends about the naiveté and ignorance many of the writers on the PA boards. They were of the opinion that those writers were all stupid jerks who were too stubborn to listen to reason. I am of the opinion that a lot of those writers don’t have the same benefit of knowledge, experience and luck that writers who are part of a community have, and we shouldn’t be too harsh on them.

For those of you who don’t know, Publish America is a vanity press that disguises itself as a traditional publisher in order to make money off the hopes and dreams of wannabe authors. They claim to have an editorial process, but will really accept anything sent to them, and pay their authors an advance of $1. They then proceed to mark up their (non-returnable) books about 15-30% for retail sale and offer the authors themselves a discount of about that much, cleverly raking in at least normal retail price no matter what. The people that PA attracts tend to be folks that believe that big publishing houses are out to get them, will only publish insiders, are afraid of the truth, and any number of other similar sentiments.

The message boards were, at the time, filled with people who were almost religiously devoted to PA and who were convinced that they were a legitimate publishing company whose detractors were part of a vast publishing conspiracy to squash them. You may think I am exaggerating, but I am not.

Though I took part in a lot of PA and PA author bashing, in the aforementioned discussion I said that I felt a bit sorry for those people. A lot of them weren’t particularly net-savvy, many of them had fallen prey to scam agents who pointed them to PA, and most had no clue how publishing really worked. Nor did I believe it was for a lack of trying. There is a lot of information on the Internet and in books about how to go about getting published, and a lot of that information is wrong. Horrendously wrong.

About five years ago I was browsing the Writer’s Market book and decided to read one of the informative essays at the front about how to write a cover letter when submitting short fiction. The article instructed writers to include a summary of the story, a short paragraph on why the writer is best qualified to tell said story, and a few other pieces of stupid advice I’ve forgotten. Anyone who has ever read slush knows that neither of these things are necessary or desired in a cover letter. And remember: this was not on some random website, this was in the Writer’s Market, a supposedly reliable source.

How are new writers supposed to separate the wheat from the chaff when there’s a wealth of information at their fingertips? Even if you eliminate online stuff, there are the hundreds of books about writing and publishing, many filled with inaccurate, outdated, and contradictory information.

If an aspiring writer is lucky, she or he might find a community of well-informed and more experienced writers who can give them sound advice and keep them from making stupid mistakes. I say lucky on purpose, because a lot of time it is just luck that a person hits upon the correct group at the correct time. (It certainly was for me.)

Though I was roundly mocked for feeling sorry for clueless newbies (not to mention having folks pissed because I brought up the nasty bug-a-boo of how privilege comes into any examination of net access — lordy!) I have not changed my opinion. I have seen a lot of crazy stuff since that conversation — writers who don’t follow guidelines, who have an entitlement bug up their ass, who threaten editors via email or phone, who show up in person at a publisher’s office, who put videos on YouTube with text of their story or novel set to music and then send it to agents — and I still can’t bring myself to condemn them all outright.

Sometimes it’s tempting, though.

What depresses me most is that I’m not sure what can be done about it. Sure, I could write a book, or write an essay, or create a website for new writers, but what would distinguish me from all the other books, essays, and websites? What would make me or anyone else authoritative on the matter to someone who doesn’t know any better?

18 comments on “The Plight of the Clueless Writer

  1. S.J. says:

    Not sure if you wanted an answer, but one angle that would distinguish you from the rest is your experience on these “new-fangled” online magazines. Every “writer how-to” I’ve read seems to ignore the emergence of high-quality, respectable online publishing, which leads to not only taking a lot of publications for granted because they are online, but causing new writers to fumble on basics like manuscript formatting.

  2. Thanks for this. As a clueless writer myself, it’s good to get a bit of sympathy and understanding instead of the constant harranguing from publishing insiders.

    I imagine the vast majority of writers are like me – isolated, ill-informed, desperately seeking information, and hopelessly swamped with it. Advice and guidance are not in short supply, but there is so much contradiction – along with vagueness, or excessive detail! – that discovering what to do and how the publishing world works is one of the hardest researches I have ever undertaken.

    And I am not an idiot. I did a PhD in psychology and worked for years in industrial R&D. I have about thirty published academic papers. You’d think I would have the skills to sort the wheat from the chaff and make some headway in this field. Yet I spent decades writing fiction and getting nowhere. I even got scammed by a fake agent!

    Then I had the good luck to meet with a group of people who were themselves insiders. Since then – just seven months ago – I have published four short stories. My first ever.

    Good luck, not talent, or persistence, or cleverness, is perhaps the essential ingredient. I had joined writers groups, I had read the books, pored over the websites, and it took me nowhere. I had written stories, novels, and screenplays and sent them to editors, publishers and agents, without a glimmer of interest from anybody. Then I happened to hear about a competition to win the chance to have a publisher look at an unpublished novel, entered (with a ‘what can I lose?’ shrug) and won. At the writing retreat that was part of my prize, I met publishers, editors, agents, booksellers, and successful writers for the first time face to face. It was a revelation and it has kick-started my writing career after all these years in the wilderness.

    But you’re right – there is no way to pass on the insights I gained. I started a blog to chart my experiences in achieving whatever success comes my way but it is just one among hundreds – probably thousands. How can anyone else out there know whether my experiences are worth reading about? I know full well that anything I say will be contradicted by scores of other (possibly equally sincere) writer’s blogs, editor’s blogs, and agent’s blogs. All I can really say to anyone is, ‘Keep at it. Keep trying. Maybe one day you’ll get lucky.’

    Oh yes, and try not to let it hurt that people on the inside can be so arrogant and even rude about your failure so far.

  3. Looking back on my life, I’m honestly surprised I didn’t fall into the self-publishing trap. I spent quite a long time relatively isolated in a very un-intellectual part of the country. For instance, my local Barnes and Noble had more magazines about the care and feeding of Alpacas than literary magazines of fiction or poetry. (They had two litmags, and three different Alpaca publications.)

    To this day, I’m not even really sure what makes something an Alpaca instead of a Llama, nor do I care to know.

    I didn’t go to my first sci-fi convention until I learned about them from other writers on the internet, after I had some publications to my credit.

    Regardless, not even the professors of my writing programs really had two clues to share between them. Of the five professors I had, only one dealt with a publishing house that had major distribution. We weren’t really smart enough to ask her how to go that route instead of the micro and uni-press route that seemed prevalant among the professorship.

    I look back and I wonder how on earth I didn’t fall into that trap. There was no way for me to know better.

    But, especially now, even cursory investigations into self-publishing don’t seem like a good idea on a gut level. I wonder if that’s what kept me from falling for the trap. I must have smelled something in the air, or witnessed something memorable to shape my opinion, though I can’t remember it now.

    I think the real question about self-publishing is why more “pro” writers don’t fall for it early in their career. I don’t know the answer to that, but whatever it is, it could be the solution to spreading the good word about what kinds of self-publishing work (very, very few kinds) and what kinds of self-publishing don’t work (nearly all).

    Also, no mention of Atlanta Nights? Nothing nailed the coffin shut in the evidence against PA like that did.

  4. MattD says:

    One thing you might be able to do, if you do know of any accurate online sources of up-to-date knowledge, is link to them in posts like this. In general, the more outside links to a resource, the more that resource will be considered authoritative by Google and other search engines, and the more highly it will be ranked in lists of search results. The higher an accurate resource is ranked, the more likely it — rather than Publish America and their like — will be seen by aspiring authors searching for advice.

  5. Bill Ectric says:

    I remember reading A. Scott Berg’s Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, years ago, and thinking how cool it would be to have someone like Maxwell Perkins in my corner. Not that I realistically expect any publisher to provide that much attention – I just felt like sharing that though.

    But I know what you mean about contradictory advice.

    One “how-to” manual says that I should compare my novel to known books that have sold well, because publishers ultimately need to make money. Fair enough, I thought. Certain parts of my book might appeal to people who liked The Da Vinci Code, but when I told one college professor that recently, he remarked, “You’ll never be accepted as serious literature if you say that!” But I wasn’t saying my book is exactly like The Da Vinci Code in either style or plot.

    Many publishers want outlines. Outlines are good for summarizing plots, but they don’t really demonstrate one’s writing ability. To remedy that situation, I started including excerpts, samples of my writing, within the outline, but after including so many passages, I wondered, would it not be more effective to simply send the entire manuscript? I mean, literary people are supposed to be able to read fast, right? What better way to tell if a book is good than to read it? Then again, I get asked to read a lot of stuff and I don’t have time to read it all, so I’m sure most publishers are in the same boat. Fast boats. With black sails. Sailing with valiance and integrity into a storm of swarming pterodactyls.

    I talked about my experience with iUniverse recently on this very blog. I don’t blame iUniverse, because they delivered exactly what they promised, but I have since realized that with them my profit margin is so small that any advertising I do will almost certainly cost more than what I can recoup from book sales.

    So, K. Tempest Bradford, by all means, tell us more!

  6. Benedict says:

    Outlines are all very well, but there’s a lot of wonderful books whose main selling point is the prose style & atmosphere with the plot being more of a secondary consideration, if they need a punchy outline of the plot before they’re considered they’d never get looked at.

  7. Bill Ectric says:

    Benedict. Thank you.

  8. Mark A. says:

    “The article instructed writers to include a summary of the story, a short paragraph on why the writer is best qualified to tell said story, and a few other pieces of stupid advice I’ve forgotten. Anyone who has ever read slush knows that neither of these things are necessary or desired in a cover letter.”

    Up until now I’ve taken The Writer’s Market more or less as a bible of publishing (perhaps consequentially, I’ve never had a single piece of fiction accepted and/or published anywhere, nor have I ever been compensated in anything except cordial gratitude for any journalism I’ve done). Not to sound snippy, but if these things are not desired in a cover letter, then what is? Are there any essentials at all? Of course you study the publication itself and attempt to phrase yourself in a style befitting theirs– I’ve got quite a bit of experience doing that in my job applications to every magazine and newspaper in the tri-state area, but what to say of content, if anything?

    I definitely hear you about the conflicting information thing. The talk about cover letters that reaches my ears ranges from “they’re a straight and narrow evaluation of how well a writer can follow directions and adhere to conventions,” to “bend or break every ground rule they set down in the guidelines– they’re looking for assertive iconoclasts and trend setters.”

    “Big publishing houses will only publish insiders.”

    This conception is born of the image of publishing as a very small niche industry where all the CEOs are old friends and chat with each other. Ergo, reputations in publishing travel extremely quickly and one can find himself firewalled out of the business after trying to push his luck. I have my doubts that any industry still alive and kicking today, especially the hyper-competitive battle royale most all publishing business inhabits, could be so insular(inbred?).

    In another way, though, it’s just the nature of business. And let’s face it, just like supposedly unfettered, impartial mainstream American journalism, lit publishing is a first and foremost a business endeavor. Which proposal has a greater probability of a good return on investment: taking the dive on a new, unpublished author who cold-called your anonymous email account with a digital cover letter and manuscript, or picking up the pitch thrown to you by a published author with a pre-existing fanbase, maybe a mid-level award or two to his name and an existing relationship with one of your agents?

  9. “Not to sound snippy, but if these things are not desired in a cover letter, then what is?”

    Cover letters for different types of submissions are different. In fact, the cover letter that particular edition was telling writers to craft was far better suited to non-fiction magazine submissions.

    For short fiction, your cover letter should be something like:

    Dear [editor/s],

    Enclosed/Attched please find my [wordcount] story, [name of story], for consideration in your magazine. My work has been published in [list 3 or fewer publications. If you don’t have prior publications, skip this part.] Thank you for your time and consideration.

    Sincerely,
    [your name]

    Seriously, that’s it. Unless the guidelines ask for more. Some want a bio, some ask that your email or physical address appear under your name. If submitting via snail mail, the cover letter should have your address and email and phone # at the top in the header. If you have professional stationary (that is not some weird color, uses some completely crazy font, or is scented) that’s fine to use for the cover letter.

    This differs from the cover letter you’d send an agent, btw.

  10. Writer’s Market is no Bible. It is too broad to be useful to most niche markets.

    I’ve always felt like Preditors & Editors is a better resource for agents and publishers. Also, it is free and on-line.

    When I was trying to publish my short fiction through Writer’s Market, it was a total bust. When I started using Ralans and Duotrope? Much success.

    The thing about Writer’s Market is that it was very useful before the internet. Now, it is not particularly useful as anything but a doorstop for the majority of writers.

    I also noticed that Writer’s Market, for a long time, was afraid of legal harrassment, and thus kept some borderline operations listed. Preditors & Editors is not afraid of hawyers. In fact, I suspect Dave K. would relish the opportunity to open the accounting books in open court for quite a few of the shady operations out there.

    Also, for a long time – and I don’t know if this is still true – web-based magazines were unlisted, as well as very respectable zines. Publishing a story in Electric Velocipede, Lone Star Stories, Farrago’s Wainscot, or Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet would be a feather in your cap. I didn’t even know these places existed until I abandoned Writer’s Market.

    I suspect the real value of Writer’s Market lies in the non-fiction trade magazines. I hear such relatively unexciting operations pay quite well, but have such specific needs that it can be difficult to find good content for their audience.

    Anyway, that’s my take on Writer’s Market.

  11. Brendan says:

    I don’t mean to be a contraa..umm what’s that word?

    But in my far from humble opinion, the real problem is that there are too many writers. Or should I say too many people writing for the wrong reasons. Somewhere along the line, some hungry professor decided to teach a creative writing class. Ever since then….

    If someone is writing for the right reasons, who cares if there stuff is on Publish America or YouTube? If someone is writing something good or meaningful, what does it really matter? Because the thing is an end in itself.

    If someone is simply writing to make money. Well, then they need to quit doing that, because there are as many more lucrative ways of making money as there are snake charmers in India.

    Maybe ‘professional writers’ should come to grips with the fact that writing isn’t a profession and let desperate gutter snipes enjoy themselves in their lime-flavoured angst?

  12. Andrew Cooper says:

    I actually started out in Writer’s Market, which is where I found my first publication, one of the few e-zines they actually do list. I’ve since then published two other stories in webzines and in print. However I did have a clue before I started submitting and did not self publish. I also knew cover letters only contain a brief thank you, and publishing credits if you have them, and that they aren’t necessarily required at all. I think Absolute Write and the advice of insiders steered me in the right path.

  13. Kater says:

    I agree with Tempest’s cover letter for short stories.

    As for agents and publishers, asking for the “right” cover letter is like asking for the “right” recipe for chili. Ain’t no such thing. What one agent thinks is perfect, another will think is overblown. Fortunately, most agents and editors will tell you what they want, if you take the time to look at their website.

  14. Bill Ectric says:

    Can anyone shed some light on the relative merits of loose-page manuscripts vs. bound “unpublished” advance copies?

  15. Robyn says:

    Thank you for this. As someone who has never published anything, and who sort of suspected that the Writer’s Market was a waste of money for the last ten years or so,. Of course, I haven’t actually sent out a manuscript in about ten years, either, so maybe Writer’s Market was good for something, if only to encourage me to keep trying. The internet hasn’t done that to me, but then I just lurk on it.

  16. Bill Ectric says:

    To clarify my question: A friend of mine said that before she even obtains as ISBN #, she has several copies of a new book printed & bound inexpensively, then sends these out to people in hopes of obtaining blurbs & reviews. Is it the case that sometimes one should send these bound advance books, and other times, one should send the traditional loose-page, double-spaced on one side standard manuscript in a box.

    Or is it really a matter of just asking the intended recipient what they prefer? Maybe I’m making it too complicated?

  17. sinema says:

    ents of its own. Its most recent filing involves a gift card which allows the buyer

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