Then and Now — Breaking In


Okay, I have an idea.  I’m going to write a series of posts here, focusing on “then and now” — how things were done *then*, back in 1998 when I sold my first novel and *now*, fifteen years later and seventeen-or-twenty-depending-on-how-you-count books later. 

And the first topic I’m going to discuss is breaking in — launching a career in speculative fiction.

THEN:  Conventional wisdom was in the process of changing, but the most common “how to get published” advice I received was:  Write Short Fiction.  “Professional” short fiction markets paid three to five cents a word (as they had since around 1950), and they published in print (as, ahem, they had since around 1950) in digest format (small “paperback book” type publications, with the footprint of Reader’s Digest) or in a traditional magazine format (larger publications, sometimes glossy, like Time or Newsweek.)  Magazines were sent to subscribers, and they were widely available in bricks-and-mortar bookstores — certainly in Borders, Barnes & Noble, B Dalton’s, and Waldenbooks, and often in the multitude of independents that thrived in cities that weren’t fortunate enough to have one of the 20 or so Borders stores in existence.

In addition to professional markets, there were dozens of semi-pro and “for the love” markets.  Writers interested in publishing short fiction subscribed to mailing lists to find out about possible homes for their beloved stories.  (Speculations was a great one, and I’m still friends with some of the folks I met through that publication.) 

All stories were submitted on paper, by U.S. Postal Service (with the added fun of International Reply Coupons for our international friends), and editors returned rejection slips in the authors’ self-addressed stamped envelopes (SASEs), along with the manuscript, if enough postage was included. 

Certain publications had great cachet, and New York editors of novels regularly read those pubs to find new writers.  Writers who had won Hugos or Nebulas, or whose work was regularly featured in one or more of the key magazines could expect to be contacted by editors, asking if they had anything novel length.  Even if an editor didn’t reach out directly, an author who had successfully sold a dozen or more stories could recite those credits in his/her query letter and get solid attention from an editor.

NOW:  It’s a new world, baby.

There are very few print publications left, and they rely primarily on subscriber lists for distribution, because bricks and mortar stores are dying out.  There *are* online publications, and some of them are making great names for themselves as discerning homes for fine speculative fiction.  Professional markets generally pay around 5 cents a word, but some pay the princely sum of ten cents a word.  (Don’t even *think* about what’s happened to the relative value of a dollar, from 1950 to today…)

The vast majority of editors accept submissions by email and return their rejection slips the same way.  No trees are sacrificed for manuscripts. 

Hugos and Nebulas continue to be awarded, but there are very few authors (I’m not thinking of one from the past five years, as I type this, but I’m sure you’ll correct me in comments) who are “discovered” by way of their short fiction.  New York editors might read short fiction in their spare time, for their personal enjoyment, but they are overworked and stretched for time to such an extent that they do not rely on short fiction markets as a screen.  (Rather, they rely on agents; we’ll get to that in a future week.)

In short, there’s a vast gap between short fiction and novels, and the number of authors who straddle both arenas is vanishingly small.  (Nancy Kress, um, um, I know I’m missing several, but again, I’m sure you’ll correct me in comments.)  Short fiction is no longer an entree into long fiction.  Short fiction no longer provides enough money that it is a viable alternative to long fiction, even for people who are willing to live like starving students.

I know I’m painting with a broad brush here.  The Internet has transformed distribution so completely that short fiction can (and does) become viral.  With the cost of distribution so low, authors can generate multiple novellas and distribute them electronically, directly collecting real money.  (My Jane Madison/Fright Court crossover novella, Capitol Magic, which I wrote to promote both of my light paranormal series has sold over 6000 copies, generating four-figure income despite my writing it as a loss-leader.)

But I think the bottom line is clear — there’s been an essential change between then and now, in the ways new writers “break in” to our field.  Do you agree?  Disagree?  Do you write both short and long fiction?  Do you consider those fields to be parts of one whole, or separate?

And do you think this concept — then and now — is interesting enough to continue as a series?  I could write about the role of agents, the way books are distributed, the structure of publishing houses and whatever other topics you suggest below!


14 comments to Then and Now — Breaking In

  • sagablessed

    And it is such sorrow. Wandering a book store is a lost art and way of life. This response is a bit off topic, but Mindy’s quote “It’s a new world, baby” begs this.
    Yet we forget on thing that led to the demise of local bookstores and such changes in the publishing world.

    We expect immediate gratification.

    In London there is movement called “Sow Down”. They are not a religion, but a group of people exhorting the benefits of slowing down, stopping, and taking time. They encourage bookstores.

    Such wonders are being lost.

    People. Stop. Smell the flowers. Enjoy the crisp bite of the fall air. Slow down and see the leaves changing colors to Autumn’s fire. Sit and sip your coffee/tea/whatever.
    Find a local bookstore and wander. Even if you buy nothing (but I hope you would) just wander and explore.

    Yes, the old ways are gone. But their wisdom remains.

    Publishing and contacts and the online world have altered the world of writing.
    But while some things change, and we lament a few of them, we can make a difference. Even if only to ourselves.

    Sorry to go so off topic. I need a vaca.

  • Mindy, the publishing world is changing so quickly that I think you could write posts on this subject all year long. 🙂
    And I took a trip down memory lane as I read. I remember working with foreign pubs and having to go to the local print-it shop to make photocopies of the the most current stage of a book. At .25 a page. For a four hundred page ms.

    Postage was exorbitant. Sending books out to be read by an editor and then the many-months long wait for a reply was dreadful. And the copy that came back might have coffee cup stains on every page, or might just as clearly not have been read. Requiring another copy. (Until printers were created by the magical electronic wizards on the west coast. And then one had to sit and print that next copy. Sometimes all day. Oy.)

    I much prefer the current model of electronic work, and yet, I too miss other things from the distant past.

    Like Saga — Bookstores. I remember spending hours in the stacks with books piled around me, picking and choosing the three or four I could afford on my babysitting money.

    That first amazing phone call from an agent or editor to say a book was sold. Jumping like a frog in my mom’s front yard in sheer excitement. (I never did learn how to be dignified.)

    Going into a book store and seeing my book on the shelf. The internal squeee of delight.

    I can’t wait to see where you go next with this.

  • I think this is a great idea for a series, though it will provoke some debate, as memories of the “good old days” take on different forms. I actually think that an exploration of this broad topic will yield some surprising results. I think that while certain things have changed a great deal — self-promotion more than any other, probably — others have changed less than they appear. And to that end . . .

    I broke into the business in 1994-5. That’s when I signed my first contract. My first book came out in 1997. My first book. I didn’t sell a short story until I was three or four books into my career. I’m pretty sure that Faith started with books, too. And on the other hand, we have today people like Ted Chiang, who are known almost solely for short fiction. We have Will McIntosh who built his reputation on short fiction and then turned to novels. We have Seanan McGuire who writes (and excels at) short fiction AND novel length work. I think there is some truth in what you’re saying. The conventional path to professional success has changed, but I think that the arc of that change actually pre-dates my pro debut (and yours) by at least another decade. And I think that we live in an era now where short fiction is enjoying something of a renaissance. True, there are fewer journal/magazine based markets. But with small-press publishing and kickstarter growing, we’re actually seeing more and more anthologies. Not sure where that will lead, but I do think it may offer new opportunities for those writers who wish to follow a more “traditional” path. Just my $.02.

  • When I was a teen, one read Writers Market to figure out who to query. Now I use Duotrope (for shorts) and the AAR (for agents.) I love electronic submission. I really love that the words “no simultaneous submissions” have all but disappeared.

  • Back in the late 80s, the first time I decided to write for publication, I was advised to start with short stories by everyone I talked to–admittedly that was mainly college English professors, but it also seemed to be the general theme of all the writing guides. So I did. Nothing got published but I did get some good handwritten notes from editors at several different magazines, none of which exist any longer. I didn’t stick with it for long at the time. I haven’t submitted anything yet since I started writing seriously again and switched to novels, but the actual process looks easier now.

    I worked for Borders for many years, and I remember sitting in the backroom of the store special-ordering books for customers. We got tons of special orders in the mid-90s, since customers couldn’t order for themselves on the internet. At that time only the major distributors and a few publishers were set up for electronic orders. For most publishers, I had to call and place the order. It took forever to go through a stack of orders, but it was often entertaining. I quickly learned that there’s a wide range of professionalism and organization among small publishers 🙂

    This sounds like a great idea for a series of posts.

  • LinHutton

    As someone actually trying to break into the field I have to say that your words struck a chord with me.

    People who haven’t really looked at the market recently are still offering the advice to submit short stories (some so-called self-help books which claim to be up to date). But to be honest, unless you write *romance* the markets for shorts have shrunk to such a degree as to be not worth it – I mean that in the sense of using them as a means to become visible in the publishing world. But another huge frustration is that publishers of the conventional type are all over the place in terms of how they want submissions. Only this summer I screwed up the courage to submit one of my fantasy novels to a US publisher of some repute. However, they wanted it printed out double-spaced and one side only! This all by itself cost me an arm and a leg, as you can imagine, but then add on the postage from the UK to the US and it became so hideously expensive I shall never do it again! The only reason I gritted my teeth and did it this time was because I figured if I didn’t try I would be missing an opportunity, and they were a very well known company.

    So folks like me who are struggling to break into the field get confronted with a baffling array of submission requirements, and I have to say that some of those who ask for e-submissions still don’t even reply to say yes or no (even with emails being so quick and easy). And I do get that editors don’t like to be sent an actual printed book because it’s not so easy to flip through on a desk. But from the standing point of the one who’s submitting (and on a very tight budget!), it’s way cheaper to order a copy of my book from CreateSpace and send it, than reprint the whole damned thing in a format I will never use except for that one submission. So although I’m sure that, as an established author with your publishers, you get to submit the easy way, sad to say those of us on the outside are still yoyo-ing between the 1950s and now! And I also fear that it’s the luck of the draw whether the publisher who ends up wanting your work is fully in the 21st century technologically or not.

  • Vyton

    Great idea for a series. We had a great local bookstore that had great long rows of shelves crammed with books, boxes stacked in the aisles, tall piles of out-of-town newspapers, and people sitting around in chairs and on the floor reading. It was open late. On the mezzanine, there was a small coffee shop where people sat with books — no laptops. All gone.

  • I was trying to follow that model, back in the day when I first started writing with an eye toward publication. I managed to place several short stories – I can’t say I sold them since I was only paid in copies. But there was an immense thrill seeing my work in print, and knowing some stranger somewhere out there was reading and (dare I hope?) enjoying it. And I made brief connections with a few names in the business. I still have my rejection letter from Patrick Swenson and Talebones Magazine. He liked my story although it was a little too bloody for Talebones, but he wanted me to send him something else. That, too, was an intense rush. I don’t think it would have been quite as exciting to me via email.

    But I left the short fiction behind when a certain fantasy author of our acquaintance (who was then writing mysteries) convinced me to spend my time on novels instead. 🙂

    Anyway, I think a series of posts on Then and Now would be helpful, especially since things are changing so quickly these days. It’s no longer a case of “ten years ago we did such-and-thus” but more like “last Tuesday”.

  • Saga – I hope you get a break soon and get a chance to enjoy that vacation!

    Faith – Yep – I can write “January and Now”, year after year after year 🙂 And yes, I remember paging through printed mss, evaluating whether that smudge was *really* there, and if it made the ms not-re-submittable, when that decision often turned on whether I was having ramen for dinner that night!

    DavidBCoe – You know, I neglected to clarify my own history with short stories. Despite the fact that folks were telling me I needed them to break in, I didn’t have much luck selling the ones I wrote. I had about a dozen in circulation, without a single sale. I *finally* sold one (a nasty little SF piece, set in a dystopic future, where a sociopath first-person narrator was hired to be an online friend for people who longed for contact with others) to a publication that paid $10 for the story. I was pleased by the sale, but also rather embarrassed by it — I knew it wasn’t professional. When I told my agent about it (I had him by then, although I hadn’t sold a novel yet), he just made a little mm-hmm noise, which confirmed my embarrassment. Ultimately, I’ve sold three two professional short stories, and that’s it… As for Kickstarter as a path to the rebirth of anthologies… I’m not sure that there’s an audience there, beyond the immediate supporters of the project. And I don’t think any one project has enough supporters to help an author break through to professional levels. But there are certainly new models to explore, twist, try, etc. (Seanan just raised what? A thousand dollars? Setting out a tip jar for a single story she wants to write?)

    Sarah – “No simultaneous submission”, especially to agents, always seemed to stack the deck unfairly. I think it’s important to be honest and clear about a project’s status, but I don’t think anyone should be obligated to query anyone seriatim. There just isn’t enough time, and the pay isn’t good enough!

    SiSi – I remember similar phone orders in my earliest library work, when I was a library clerk in middle school. (I wasn’t placing the orders, but I was watching them placed.) I hadn’t thought about how much special orders have changed, now that we can each essentially place our special orders on our own — or pull most things out of “current” stock from Amazon…

    LinHutton – (Apologies for the delay in clearing your post — I was traveling yesterday! Welcome to MW!) In romance, there aren’t a lot of markets for short stories, but there *are* markets for novellas. (Plus, category romance, at 50,000 words at the lower limit, is short relative to other genre novels.) I’m astonished to read that a major US publisher is still requiring print mss — I don’t know anyone who has submitted in print in well over five years! (I *have* seen a great deal of variation in how publishers handle edits — some of my publishers are entirely electronic; others still require paper edits.) Sigh… (Of course, the companies that function in a modern fashion are more likely to receive a greater range of submissions, positioning themselves to make great discoveries more quickly and efficiently than the dinosaurs…) As for the people who don’t respond at all — I consider them lazy; there are electronic tools for managing massive amounts of email, and it doesn’t take much to implement an “I received your email; please consider this a reluctant rejection unless you hear otherwise from me in X days” auto-reply.

    Vyton – Obviously, a glimpse of bookstores then and now will have to be the next topic!

    Misty – I, too, have a file of my printed rejection letters. I had just about decided to wallpaper my office with them when I made that first, non-professional sale!

  • Megan B.

    Mindy, I’m curious as to why you were embarrassed by that non-professional sale. Was it the story itself, or where it was published? Or was it the simple fact that it was non-professional, and if so, why was that embarrassing? Sorry if I seem to be prying, but your comment piqued my curiosity.

  • Megan – I think the embarrassment was because I was putting so much time and effort and energy into my writing, and I fully expected to see my name on books in bookstores. When the only thing I had to show was a pamphlet-size magazine and a $10 check, I think I felt that *others* would think that I was fooling myself.

    (The story itself was a nasty piece of work, with an alienated character doing antisocial things. The story isn’t kind to a certain type of manipulative woman, and it relies too much on violence. I recently re-read, considering it for submission for a collection of SF stories by women (all reprints), but I decided not to submit it because it’s not a great representation of what I can write now, and what I choose to spend my creative energy on.)

    Make sense?

  • Megan B.

    Yep, that makes sense. Thanks for answering! (It’s so great to be able to interact in the comments here. I love it!)

  • […] I’m over at Magical Words today, continuing the series I started last week, about how the writing and book worlds have changed from THEN (1998, when I received an offer on my first novel) and NOW.  (My first post was about Breaking In.) […]

  • […] from THEN (1998, when I received an offer on my first novel) and NOW.  (My first post was about Breaking In and my second was about Bookstores.)  Today, I’m talking about frequency of publication […]