Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Lessons learned from the trenches: Part 5

Sending out In His Shadow

After Houghton-Mifflin turned down In His Shadow, I bought a copy of Jeff Herman’s ‘Insider’s Guide to Book Editors, Publisher & Literary Agents’, which was a great guidebook back then. It listed agents in each publishing houses, with the type of books they were looking for, and the same for literary agencies. This was the end of ’92, and it was a completely different world as far how publishing houses dealt with unagented material. Back then the Internet was in its infancy, and because of that PCs were costly and were mostly being bought by hobbyist and software engineers. Writing a book or short story using a typewriter required a far more serious effort than writing on a PC, and publishing houses weren’t yet being flooded with manuscripts. Once the Internet took off and PCs got cheaper—sometime around ’95-’96, all that changed, but back around ’93 when I started sending out query letters to publishers and agencies, what I found was a large number of the editors at the large NY houses that I contacted responded to my query letter and requested my book, maybe 10 in total over the year I spent sending out queries. Not too many agents did—only 2. Both agents ended up telling me the same thing—that they enjoyed my writing and the book, but I needed to write a different book, that I would never sell “In His Shadow” as a first book, that it was too different and too dark for the publishing houses. Over the course of a year, the editors I heard back from told me basically the same thing—that a book with the private eye as a psychotic killer would be too hard to sell, that I needed to write something more conventional.

I should’ve listened to them, but I was too stubborn. At the time, Jim Thompson was making a reemergence, and in my heart I knew In His Shadow was a good book and that noir readers would like it. Also—and I think this is a common problem with a lot of first time writers—writing that first book was hard, the thought of writing a second book without first selling the first book seemed insane. But here’s what I’ve learned over the years:

1) Writing the second book gets easier, and writing the third gets even easier.

2) You only get a chance to be a first-time novelist once, and you have to make the most of it—and that has to be writing a book that a large house can sell. A first novel gets treated differently, there’s more excitement for it, it’s eligible for different awards and reviewers look at it more enthusiastically. But that’s only if your first book is getting into a house that people pay attention to.

So it turns out both the agents and editors I heard from were right, as were my gut feelings. In His Shadow eventually did get published as Fast Lane, and the reaction to it from the readers who found it was what I was expecting—but I would’ve been much better served writing something more conventional that a large house would’ve been able to take on.

Anyway, at the end of 1993 with a large pile of rejection slips for In His Shadow, and having just joined new computer network startup where I was going to be working over 60 hours a week, I quit writing to focus on my career.


sandra seamans said...

Just wondering. Do you regret publishing "Fast Lane"? or just the fact that you wished you'd waited for a bigger publishing house to pick it up?

This from a old lady who's never written a novel, mind you, but I'm curious about why the smaller houses get less respect. Is it just about the money or do writers get looked down on by publishing with a small house first?

I'm still trying to learn the business and your posts are very helpful.

Dave Zeltserman said...

Sandra, it's hard for me to have regrets since I ended up with a terrific house with Serpent's Tail and I'm writing the types of books I want to write, but I definitely would've had an easier path if I had written more commercial thrillers books first--although I might've been miserable doing that.

sandra seamans said...

Somebody on SMFS this morning said that you can't write the book you want, you have to write the book that will sell if you want to get published. I found that very depressing, so I'm happy that even though you took the long way around you're getting to write what you love. To me seeing that you could achive that makes it possible for the rest of us.

Dave Zeltserman said...

Sandra, thanks, but it's been a long road with a lot of frustration, and I've come close several times to throwing in the towel for good. I also know some terrific writers who also have so far refused to compromise, and they're struggling now the way I had been. Writing the best book you can doesn't always lead to publication, maybe it's better to write the best commercial book you can--at least until you establish yourself. I don't know. But what I'm doing this these "lessons learned" is just documenting what I went through and let the chips fall where they will.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I know that if I don't place this novel I will stick with short stories. At my age, it's too late to fool around with novels. When I think of how long the process takes even if you sell it, it scares me that I'll be dead before it's out.

Dave Zeltserman said...

Patti, the reality is it does take time. It takes time to find an agent, it takes time for the book to sell, and then it can take up to 6 months to get the contracts, and then another year or longer for the book to get published. Sometimes things happen in a lightening bolt, and the book sells quickly, contracts get done fast, and the book gets fast-tracked and is published in less than a year, but I think that's rare. I also think there's some ageism in the publishing industry, especially with new authors trying to break in--this is just my own observations and I've got nothing concrete to back it up--but it makes sense with larger publishers looking at books/authors as more as a package--it's easier in this country to sell youth. But ageism is not universal--I know there are publishers who don't factor age into their decisions.

But as tough as it can be, as long as it might take to sell that first book and see it published, your other books can end up going out quickly after that. I recently met a woman in her 50s who had been writing books for a number of years without much luck in breaking through, then she sold a book to Berkely Crime, and very quickly that became 3 books out in less than a year.

In my own case, after I sold Small Crimes to Serpent's Tail, they ended up pushing the book out to over 2 years from when they made the initial offer. I was disappointed by that, as was my editor, but I understood the reason for it--they bought Small Crimes because they thought it was a great noir novel that deserved publication, but they also looked at it as a tough sell that would require word of mouth since it's a crime novel coming from a relatively unknown writer. But with Pariah, they scheduled that as quickly as they could, because they look at that book as being a potentially literary break-out book for them. So even though it took forever (okay, 5 years... ;)) to get Small Crimes sold and published, I'll now have 3 books out by Serpent's Tail in less than a 3-year window, and it's now looking good for a 4th book to be added.

Patti, it is hard--and things are made even harder by writing noir--but I've read your short stories, you have talent, and I wouldn't get discouraged if I were you. And your second book will be a lot easiter to write than your first.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks, Dave. I'll be buying your book on these issues when it comes out.