New Horizons In Fear

Kage Baker initially tried for several years to get her work published sans agent. Not that she had anything against agents – she just didn’t know any, and was unsure how to acquire one. So she submitted work “over the transom”,  as the industry euphemism runs: which means, taken literally, throwing it blindly over the door through an unguarded window.

The only reason anyone does this is because, historically, it does sometimes work. Traditional publishing is a very odd field, full of peculiar little rituals and superstitions and rites – and one of these is the slush pile, which is the ever-changing stack of unsolicited manuscripts that every publisher receives constantly. Some publishing houses automatically discard them; others assign their perusal as a fill-in activity for people who don’t have enough to do; and there is usually one editor hanging about who is in the habit of mining this feral resource for tameable writers.

Ultimately, Kage got a manuscript almost bought. This is a normal and healthy step in a writer’s career; at the end of this kind of examination, one either has a contract, or a detailed analysis of what’s wrong and right with one’s story. When Kage got this far, she dutifully went through The Writer’s Guide, sent letters and samples off to agents whose names pleased her, and was accepted by one within a month. And sales to magazines and publishing houses began almost at once.

Actually, she first threw the returned manuscript off our balcony and toward Pismo Creek. But she failed to get the distance required to sink it, and I went down and retrieved it from among the traumatized ducks. Then she went about getting an agent, etc.

This is the traditional method (barring attempting to drown your book). Variations usually revolve around whether or not one needs (or bother to get) an agent. Some writers never do. Orson Scott Card doesn’t. Cory Doctorow doesn’t. Mr. Card advises new writers not to burden themselves with representation; Mr. Doctorow even advocates putting one’s work out on the Web and seeing what Creative Commons and Net Freedom are willing to pay, rather than trusting a publishing house to set the price … but. You know. This is, like,  Orson Scott Card and Cory Doctorow. They’ve already made it.

There has always been the self-publishing route – what has been called for many years (by people who don’t use them) the “vanity presses”. The author pays a publishing house to print their book; the author then markets the finished work, and all the profits go to them. The method is unfairly viewed as an outlet for poor writing, grammar and punctuation; I think we’ve all come across dreadful examples of those.

Lately, though, this has improved in efficiency and style: an author can now publish their work with Amazon, who lists it on their site and (I think) handles and distributes the money. At the very least, this is a fantastic opportunity for exposure, which is especially vital for a first-time author, And, judging from the examples I personally have read, someone on Amazon’s staff is applying good editing skills to what they publish.

Still, then comes the waiting to see who your agent will find to actually buy your book. You hear stories about bidding wars producing beaucoup bucks for the lucky author, but there are no instructions on how to initiate that process – other than faking being a publisher one’s self, and that will automatically devolve into a Warner Brothers farce. But (hopefully) an offer does come in, with some dazzling 5 or 6 figure amount attached, and you are off! But then you slowly begin fretting over the cover art, or whether or not you can get any blurbs. And then you get to worry about whether or not it’s selling, and how long it will take you to earn out your advance and start getting paid a percentage of sales …

And then you finish your second book – and you make the horrifying discovery that the whole process starts over again. Except you usually don’t get a new agent (unless your first one turned out to evil, which doesn’t really happen very often) but all the rest of the waiting and fretting just recycles. And thus you enter this perpetual up-and-down road of waiting, then rejoicing, then fretting; rinse, repeat, and use some of your new wealth to upgrade from cheap wine to good whiskey for comfort while you wait and fret.

Kage never got blase about any of it. She did learn to ignore it, though, and finally let the whole thing go on without her so she could write in peace. I handled the correspondence and the bookkeeping; I read all letters first, so I could translate if they were nasty. I got Kage to sign things when she needed to. We made events of mailing things back – ice cream cones and a trip through the Post Office. Kage would usually begin plotting the next book on the way home. Sometimes it took us a couple of hours to get home from the Post Office, because Kage liked to plot out things on the road.

The only thing she never had to fret over was whether or not she could write. She might put off eating or sleeping in order to write; but writer’s block was the one thing she never had to fear. I envy her that – always did, and more so now when I am left trying to do it on my own. I never was as creatively obsessive as Kage was. She was a wonder to behold; my most comfortable writing comes now when I envision her sitting behind me, writing furiously in a green college-lined notebook.

These blogs, Dear Readers, are my wind up and my place holder. I am still going at this intermittently, but at least I am writing! Who knows what will burst into my mind while I sleep, and demand that I get to typing even before my morning coffee? It’s happened like that before; it can again. And I will be grateful and glad to fret through all the steps once again.

Life needs new horizons, even of fear.

About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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