writers and publishers

Why Do You Write?

The other evening, poet and creativity mentor Ahava Shira, speaking to the Victoria Writers’ Society about writing and performing poetry, mentioned that one of her clients needed advice on what to do with her poems. She also spoke of her own experiences with self-publishing a collection of her poems and producing a recording of herself performing her works.

Last week, out of curiosity, I peered into a book by Mike Nappa with the rather cumbersome title 77 Reasons Why Your Book Was Rejected {and how to be sure it won’t happen again!}. Mr. Nappa, as we are informed on the cover of his book, is the “founder and chief literary agent of Nappaland Literary,” and knows a good deal about rejections.

These encounters, one with a self-published poet, the other with a book of advice for writers, led me to today’s topic. Many writers are driven to write by an irresistible impulse, even obsession. Once that first act of creation is completed and the chaotic and glorious adventure is over, the writer has to decide what to do with the results. Many writers think they must get their works published by a “real” publishing company. Then they will go on a book tour, do readings and signings and be interviewed by the CBC. If they can’t accomplish this, they will be failed writers. The thing that was a source of joy becomes a burden and a source of disappointment, shame and bitterness.

Mike Nappa’s book lays out the facts about what a writer needs to do in order to have a chance at being published by a large corporate publisher, or represented by the agents who work with these publishers. The writer who really wants a shot at this would benefit by reading the book and jumping through the hoops so thoroughly described by Mike Nappa. (Hint: take a marketing course or become a celebrity).

Financial planners ask their clients about their risk tolerance when presenting investment options; writers should honestly assess their rejection tolerance. Perfectionists and people who have a tendency to beat themselves up have a hard time with rejections.

So what about the writer who has no interest in jumping the hoops? Or the one who has given their best shot at the submission process, received rejections and doesn’t know what to do next? It used to be the case that there were only two categories of writers: published and not published, with the self-published in an unmentionable category labelled “vanity.”

Things have changed. Any writer can now be published, and is free to market their work as much or as little as they please — or not at all. The crucial thing is to adjust expectations accordingly.

Don’t consider yourself a failed writer if you don’t meet the criteria of the industrial publishing machine. As Mr. Nappa emphasizes in 77 Reasons…  there is only one reason a book gets published — profit. If an author measures success or failure only by that criterion, fine. But there are so many more possibilities.

First, learn to write well. This is an absolute requirement, no matter how, or even whether, you publish. Take courses if you find them helpful. Read books about how to write, or (even better) just read. Read as much as you can and pay attention to how it’s done. Then write, write, write.

Find a group of writers who will read your stuff and offer good criticism. By good criticism I don’t mean unconditional admiration, but sincere suggestions that may help to improve your work. Aside from actual criticism, such readers will reflect your work back to you, helping you to see it from unexpected angles.

Find congenial opportunities to bring your work out into the world, however limited their scope. Self-publish in e-book form, in print or both, depending on how much money you want to commit to the project. Read to friends, family members, fellow writers or the general public. Record your book and turn it into a podcast. Make a video of yourself (or someone else) reading from your book and post it online. Create your own book trailer. Make a video of a friend or fellow writer interviewing you about your book, and post that online. All of this is doable at low or no cost, and without a degree in marketing.

Above all, write. The only failed writers are those who give up and kill the creative part of themselves because its creations did not meet the harsh criterion of profit.

Do You Submit? Really?

Submit? Who does that? Again and again, the more the better. Wimps?  Masochists?  Writers, that’s who. We submit a lot, and when we don’t we tell ourselves that we should. So does that mean we’re submissive?

Words have power, especially for those who use them as tools. Since I began sending out pieces of writing for consideration by editors and publishers (and yes, getting rejections in return), I’ve found myself thinking about the words used for this process. Many publishers have “Submission Guidelines” on their websites. Writers are sometimes advised not to send out multiple submissions. My writing colleagues speak blithely of their “subs” to critique groups and elsewhere.

So what is it about submitting a submission that bothers me?

I think it’s that “sub” business.  Think of other words that begin with it: subterranean, subculture, subordinate, subterfuge, subversive, subjective. There’s something low, sneaky or suspect about them. Let’s see what we can learn from the dictionaries.

The Random House Dictionary gives these definitions of “submit”: 1. To yield in surrender, compliance or obedience, as to a conqueror. 2. To subject (oneself) to imposed conditions, treatment, etc. 3. To refer or present for the approval or decision of another or others.

The OED (online version) has the following: 1. To place oneself under the control of a person in authority or power; to become subject, surrender oneself, or yield to a person or his rule, etc. 2. To yield, surrender, be submissive. 3. To surrender oneself to judgement, criticism, correction, a condition, treatment, etc.

Submit! What a word!

It’s interesting that neither dictionary explicitly mentions the specific meaning that pertains to writers, i.e. putting a piece of work out to a publisher or editor for consideration. The definition that comes closest is the third of the Random House ones:  to refer or present for the approval or decision of another.

Both dictionaries give the etymology of the word “submit” as Latin sub (low) + mittere (to send). Hence, to lower, reduce, yield. It’s clear that submitting something for the approval or decision of another is done from an inferior position. The person doing the submitting is perforce a supplicant.

I think we writers need better words for a process that’s a major part of being a writer. It’s challenging enough already, without all the connotations of lowness, deference, yielding and surrender. I can understand the use of “submit” or “submission” in law, where deference before the authority of courts and the state is inherent, but writing is an act of creation, and the results of this act should not be seen as something that must be presented from a prone position, cringing and grovelling before an all-powerful authority.

Certainly there must be conventions in the dealings between writers and publishers. Certainly writers should observe these conventions and present their work in a professional manner. Yes, rejections are part of the process and we have to deal with them gracefully (most of the time). But I think we can do without words that imbue the whole business with such a negative connotation.

What might be an alternative? The one I favour right now is “offering.”  To offer, instead of to submit. Here is my offering. I present it to you, a fellow human being, standing on my feet, looking you in the eye. You may accept or reject it, but not with your foot on my neck.