Publishers, Magazines and Agents Are Not Trolling You

Author and editor Jason Sanford did a piece about the perplexing complaint from writers who had submitted stories to a prominent horror/dark fantasy magazine, The Dark, that they were getting a response too quickly and that rejections they received clearly indicated that the stories hadn’t been read at all.

This was a familiar issue to me because when I was a literary agent, our agency used to get the complaint all the time, and indeed, magazine editors, literary agents and book editors who deal with unagented submissions will tell you that they regularly receive it, and usually when they have managed to response to submissions quickly. It was a somewhat more understandable situation when it comes to novel manuscripts. After all, authors do know that when they submit sample chapters to an agent or book publisher that the person may not read all the chapters, but may make a decision based on reading just the first chapter alone or even on a few first pages. The biggest commodity publishing folk have to deal in is time, and they will try to get through submissions quickly to find stuff they think they can use. Ninety-eight to ninety-five percent of what they receive they won’t be able to use — it doesn’t work for them, and they know it pretty quickly because they aren’t engaged by the material or it’s not their area of fiction. But they are willing to look at that large pile of submissions to find the small percentage of ones that could and do work for them, for whatever reason they have for that decision.

So it would not be entirely surprising for a writer to accuse an agent or editor of not giving their work enough of a read or proper careful consideration — though agents and editors owe submitting writers neither. But there is no real logic behind the accusation that editors and agents are purposely asking for submissions and then not reading them at all. To what point is there in these publishing people having submission piles in the first place with that assumption? For simply the thrill of rejecting people, usually with a form letter? Authors who make these accusations seem to be claiming that entire publishing operations are wasting their time in an elaborate trolling exercise of strangers with no discernible purpose.

The reality is that no fiction magazine, no fiction publisher and no literary agent intent on selling fiction to fiction publishers needs to be open to submissions from authors if they don’t want to do it, if they don’t think it will pay off with the occasional good find. They can instead keep a closed process where they contact and solicit chosen authors out there for material and only look at that material. Even operations that do take open submissions also do this as well and they can easily find more than enough material by soliciting known authors or authors they happen to spot in the market. Which is why the larger book publishers, finding that keeping increasingly large open submission piles didn’t provide enough returns for the time and expense of having their staff go through them, simply shut the piles down in the 1990’s, and limited their allowed submissions to solicited ones from agents and authors they chose.

Given how low and depressed the payments for short fiction have been over the last thirty years and how much the market for such fiction has shrunk even with the more recent self-publishing and anthology booms, SFFH magazines have no problem soliciting short works that well known book authors happen to have lying around, paying them a few hundred for the stories and reaping the benefits for their circulation numbers. Even the newer, smaller magazines don’t actually need to bother with newbies if they can swing a decent payment by market standards.

Yet the magazines do often have open submissions, or open submissions part of the year, because finding new talent also brings smaller, long term rewards, including pleasing their readers, and because it’s a tradition certainly of the SFFH field to find and bolster what they feel is new talent. But you can’t actually find “new talent” if you do not actually read what new authors submit to you. If you don’t read submissions, having them at all is a colossal waste of time.

In the “old” days a couple of decades ago, the open submission pile was a huge time investment as well as costing some money. Submissions arrived in packages and had to be unpacked, which was hours and hours of time. They had to be logged in to a record system of some sort, which was hours of time. They had to be read, which was hours and hours of time. They had to have rejection letters or requests for more material letters printed, even if they were form letters, which took hours of time. And they had to be repackaged as returns in the self-addressed stamped envelopes and gotten to the post, which took hours and hours and hours of time. The claim that editors and agents and their staff, if they had them, would spend all that time in the processing and mailing of submissions but skip the critical reading part made no logical sense. Yet it happened from submitting authors all the time. They seemed convinced that agents and editors were spending the better part of their days engaged in a non-profitable prank operation.

Everybody in publishing was a little slow to adopt electronic submissions, not because of a distaste in technology but because they feared the submissions would swamp their networks and also leave them exposed to viruses in attachments. But eventually most places taking submissions were able to do so electronically and send the responses electronically as well. This not only saved an immense amount of trees and postage and print costs for authors, but cut down considerably on the amount of time needed to process submissions by editors and agents. The submissions have to still be logged in, which still takes hours, but now story files can be opened with a click. The stories still need to have return responses crafted and sent, but that takes much less time than doing it by mail with packaging. So now the main time requirement is reading the stories. This has meant that editors and agents can get through and respond to submissions in half the time or less than back in the only paper days. And authors in short fiction definitely can hit a lot more markets with their submissions in the time it used to take to get a response from just one submission, which greatly increases their odds of finding a publication that will want their work.

But this improved situation has instead been received by many authors as further proof that they are being tricked by editors and agents who lure them in with open submissions, ignore their work and reject it. Why would they do that? Because, that’s why, seems to be the main response. Submissions to agents and book publishers are free — they aren’t making money off submissions and yet are still spending hours processing those submissions if they take them. While many literary magazines seem to have taken up requiring submission fees, which is deeply ethically problematic and usually not worth an author’s time, submission to major magazines and SFFH magazines is also usually free, and those magazines are again still spending hours processing those submissions. So what exactly is the allure here for publishing people if they aren’t really going to read the submissions, searching for material?

One reason occasionally floated is that book publishers and magazines urge authors considering submissions to check out what they publish before doing so. This is mainly because editors hope to cut down their time spent reading material sent to them that plainly doesn’t fit their lists or publications. But some interpret it as the editors trying to get authors to buy books or subscriptions, or in the case of free online magazines, get their views for the advertisers. But there are many problems with this notion. First off, it doesn’t apply to literary agencies or most anthology editors, and yet those folks still get the same complaint that they aren’t reading submissions. Second, although they ask for it with hope in their hearts, editors know full well that nine out of ten authors won’t buy books from their list or buy/read issues of their magazines before submitting to them. As a way to profit and raise circulation numbers, it’s largely a bust. Third, there are dozens of other types of promotions they could try that would have a much greater return in customers and viewers and do not cost them the hours and hours of valuable time processing submissions, or lead them to have buyers/viewers who are then very unhappy with them and will do no further business due to submission rejection. You get the idea here. Unless some sort of reading fee scam is involved, it simply doesn’t make much sense, and well known agents, publishers and magazines are not running fee scams. What profit they manage comes from the other end, when they put out product into the market. Which is why they are willing to slog through a lot of stuff they don’t want in search of what might be the best thing for them that they’ve ever found.

So the claim seems to come from deep mistrust that some authors have of the very institutions with whom they are trying to work. Even though there is no viable reason for believing that a returned submission has not been read and considered, they tend to treat it as if a blind date has stood them up entirely. But when an author is rejected by an editor or agent, it’s important to remember that all it means is not this story at this time with this person/organization. It doesn’t mean all selling options are closed or that circumstances won’t change. And quite often it can turn out to be a good thing as a better opportunity may come up that would have been missed if the author hadn’t gotten a rejection. Writing fiction is creating, but selling rights to it or placing it is resilience. And understanding that even your best work, which someone will love, may still leave the brightest editors and agents cold because the field is subjective.

After they read it. Really, they read it.

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Well, What Do We Do Now

So it’s been a wild couple of months again, including some unexpected medical crises. And we really don’t know what’s going to happen in the future except that it’s looking bad and probably will involve another global recession. So I’m thinking about what I am going to do/need to do and that includes how I want to handle this blog, which has gotten rather intermittent the last couple of years. For now, I am chugging through the end of the year, and I hope all of you chug through it too without disaster.

In the meantime, I enclose this very sweet piece by author Maureen Johnson about dealing with one’s spoons, this up-lifting quote from Kurt Vonnegut Jr. from his work A Man Without A Country:

“The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”

And lastly, the latest video from OK Go for their new song “The One Moment,” which includes all their favorite things: paint, explosions, Rube Goldberg machines, geometric patterns and umbrellas, plus you can check out the charity causes being supported by their sponsor, Morton’s Salt. And if you don’t want to do that, if you can, support your local food bank.

 

 

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Briannah Donolo Followed Me on Vacation

So we’re on a vacation trip and my husband and I are eating lunch in a restaurant and pop songs are playing on the restaurant’s sound system. And my husband stops eating and says, “Isn’t that Briannah’s song?” And I listen more closely and realize, yes, that is Briannah Donolo’s single, which has been doing pretty well, being played along with singers like Drake and Lady Gaga. It was a rather weird experience, to be sitting there eating shrimp while listening to the kid I used to know sing in the background from whatever satellite channel they were using.

The entertaining music video for the song “Fake It Till You Make It” seems to no longer be available online. I believe it’s probably been pulled because an album is in process that will include it. However, Briannah, who also goes by Briia on the music scene, does have an official audio video for that song still up as well as one for her other single, “Back to You.” Both songs are good and so I put them up for folks to enjoy until there is a full album out there. Briia has been running around performing, mostly in Canada, and doing some modeling. More power to her. I expect her music will be lurking behind me at even more places as time goes on.

 

 

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The Internet Amuses Me

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Spectral Cafe — More Books I Have Read!

Post-apocalyptic fantasy novels! They are endlessly varied for such a single-mindedly destructive idea.

 

RADIANT by Karina Sumner-Smith:

Radiant is the first book in Canadian author Sumner-Smith’s Towers trilogy, and the world is an imaginative one. Set in either a far future Earth or another world entirely, the civilization of her novel survived the long-ago mysterious apocalypse as two communities. In this world, the currency is light energy magically generated by people themselves. Those with lots of magical light live in towers floating above in the air called the City, powered by their inhabitants’ energy, rising and sinking in orbit or joining together depending on their success, with lots of resources and machines. Those without a lot of light energy and wealth, or who choose to hide from the City, live on the ground below the City in the ruins of skyscrapers and buildings past called the Lower City, scrapping out a living with little ability to grow crops in the blighted soil. At night, the inhabitants of the Lower City hide in buildings from roaming zombie-like attackers who come out after dark.

Xhea is an unallied orphan in the Lower City with no light magic at all, only a strange dark energy inside her that causes her to see in black and white. That darkness lets Xhea go down into the ruined subway tunnels and underground places that those with light magic cannot stand to enter, and retrieve old world artifacts to sell for food. It also allows her to see ghosts — the core remnants of dead people that sometimes haunt their loved ones, attached by a tether to their victims, which Xhea can help detach in return for temporary bits of light magic. A rich man from the City above comes down and pays Xhea to take on the tether of the ghost of a young woman. But the ghost, Shea, is a Radiant — a person who generates huge amounts of light energy, and her home Tower desperately wants her ghost back to put into a body. Trying to help Shea and keep herself alive causes Xhea to start learning some new things about her own form of magic and truths about the society that is in a state of flux.

If that sounds complicated, Sumner-Smith actually lays it out very clearly and with lots of high action sequences and good description. She mixes mystery, science fiction elements, horror, politics and action fantasy together into a nice blend. Xhea is an appealing heroine, traumatized but stubborn, and Shea is definitely an interesting twist on the concept of the princess fallen from the high tower. Some of the other characters are maybe a little bit under-cooked, but there’s clearly set-up for lots of exploration in the next two books, and the society itself is really fascinating. So I’m definitely going to read through this trilogy.

 

THE WARDED MAN by Peter Brett (Originally THE PAINTED MAN in the UK):

This is the first book in British author Peter Brett’s bestselling Demon Cycle series that started in 2008. Some folks see him as part of the grimdark lit movement while others don’t. Having read the first book, I’d say that he isn’t quite in grimdark territory and is closer to something like Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars series. The world of the Demon Cycle is pretty grim, however. It’s been through the apocalypse, twice, in history and now human beings struggle to survive and hold on to what civilizations they’ve got because the apocalypse occurs every night when the sun sets. At that point, strange monsters with magical powers emerge from the ground/core of the planet (and another dimension,) and attack any living creature they can get ahold of, especially humans, until disappearing in the morning.

The monsters, called demons or corelings and deemed by many to be sent as punishment on humans, are intelligent, but they can be shielded from by means of wards, signs etched into stone or metal or drawn or burned into wood that create a magical barrier. The wards were designed long ago and passed down, but over time, the demons have been winning the war and no one has figured out how to more effectively stop them. The bulk of the remaining human population lives in cities with big warded walls and guard forces. Others live in villages that often get wiped out, vulnerable and largely cut off from one another, but critical for producing food supplies. Small caravans and messengers travel dangerously between them, using portable wards. This lets Brett put a neat twist on a sort of zombie apocalypse landscape, except his demons are much faster, more varied and really quite scary (some of them fly.)

The novel focuses on three main characters — Arlen, a driven young man who trains as a messenger and seeks to find the long lost combat wards that will allow humans to better fight the corelings rather than just defend against them; Leesha, a young woman who flees scandal and an abusive family by becoming a healer and learns that herbs have more uses than she thought; and Rojer, an orphan who is adopted by a bard-like entertainer and takes up that trade, and learns that his fiddling might have an unexpected effect on the corelings. Arlen is the protagonist and a fairly strong character who travels the most, exposing us to different communities. The novel might have been a little stronger if it had just been about him. Rojer is a wonderful character, though, and Leesha has a number of interesting aspects. However, she is the weakest of the three because Brett has some material that is just not really believable for female readers, in my opinion. His women characters overall tend to be a bit one-dimensional in a society very oppressive to women — because they need them to produce a lot of new babies — and Leesha’s village folk aren’t maybe as fascinating for me as Brett would like to make them.

But the writing overall is good and the world and its demons is fairly interesting, with some very emotional scenes. Further books in the series seem to branch out into that world, so I may be reading more in the series. I’m curious to see what else they learn about fighting the corelings and why and how they exist.

 

 

THE FIFTH SEASON by N.K. Jemisin: 

This is the first book in American author Jemisin’s new trilogy series, the Broken Earth, and it’s garnered the most attention of her career so far. The Fifth Season just won the Hugo Award for Best Novel, is nominated for the World Fantasy Award and was nominated for the Nebula Award. (In fact, it’s been running neck and neck with Naomi Novak’s Uprooted, which won the Nebula but lost the Hugo, through most of the major SFF awards.)

Do I consider that justified? Oh yes. It’s a lush, brutal, psychological adventure of a novel that uses different timelines that follow different types of stories, all connected. The world in it consists of one known massive continent that stretches from pole to pole. The land mass is full of volcanic and seismic activity that regularly causes natural disasters — boiling lava, tsunamis, etc. — that kill people off or wipe out settlements, so apocalypse is pretty much on-going. However, every few hundred years or so, a really big eruption/quake disaster happens, with ash fall blocking the sunlight and other deadly destruction that can last for years or even a decade, which they call a Fifth Season. So the human communities are sort of feudal with moderately rigid caste systems, but highly independent and ruthless, storing food and water for when a Season comes to their region, according to the stonelore — ancient texts on survival from past civilizations. Above them also float large magical metal obelisks, mysterious artifacts of long ago that sometimes move around.

The continent is mainly ruled by an Empire that solidified its hold over other nations during the various past fifth seasons and benefits from more stable areas near the equator, allowing it to have tarred highways and electricity. Part of the empire’s strength lies in its slaves, the orogenes, who magically have the ability to control, disperse and shape seismic forces by drawing from the heat in air, water, under the earth and all living things and sending it into the earth to do their bidding. Orogenes are blamed by the populace for the seismic instability of the world and are usually highly dangerous without training, so when one shows up in the gene pool outside of the capital, villages often kill the person in fear. Otherwise, young orogenes are taken to or bred in the capital city and then sent out on missions to keep things more stable or advance the empire. They are controlled from an early age by the Guardians, those who have the ability to still the powers of the orogenes.

A powerful cast of characters starts peeling back the facets and secrets of this world, which include the stone-eaters, a dangerous non-human species that are made of and travel through solid rock, and seem to have particular interest in the orogenes. All events lead towards a massive rent in the earth that may cause a Fifth Season that is going to be beyond anyone’s ability to survive.

Further along in her career, Jemisin’s writing is even more assured and sneaky. The world she paints is tragic and has obvious connections to our own (she got a lot of the disaster material directly from NASA.) But the story doesn’t wallow and is about the decision points where humans choose who they are going to be in extreme circumstances and what connections between them they are going to allow. It tackles themes of interest to Jemisin — the nature of identity, the dynamics of oppression, the connection of humans with their habitat, and notions of family and how they change. Plus people who can make or stop earthquakes and eruptions, etc. It’s a rich stew and I really enjoyed this one, though it may not be for you if dealing with serious trauma with superpowers is not your cup of tea. I will be getting to the next work, The Obelisk Gate, fairly soon, I think.

 

 

 

All three of the books above do sound pretty desolate with their apocalyptic wastelands at various stages, but they all also offer a lot of beauty in weird inventions and landscapes, complicated cultures, puzzling secrets to investigate and elements of genuine warmth and human resiliency. They are good representatives of what apocalyptic novels can explore and quite different from each other. (That being said, maybe don’t read them straight in a row.)

 

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Spectral Cafe: Books! Science Fiction I Have Read

While my blogging has been sporadic, doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading stuff. Here are three different but related visions of the future:

 

PERSONA by Genevieve Valentine 

I became a big fan of Valentine because of her first published novel Mechanique, an absolutely beautifully written book that skillfully blended violent action, steampunk and suspense with meditations on art, love, loss and death. Persona has that Valentine touch but it’s a different type of story with a style that is more straightforward, less poetic, more brainy spy thriller. The novel is set in the near future when technology has advanced in various areas, notably surveillance, and global issues dominate. Countries, including some new ones on the scene, negotiate it out in a fishbowl of diplomats who are mostly just used as celebrities in the world reality show, called Faces. There are official journalists and black market journalists (snaps.) The novel centers on Suyana Sapaki, a third rate Face for the newer United Amazon Rainforest Confederation angling for a better deal for her struggling young country, and secondly on Daniel Park, a former journalist on the run, trying to become a snap, who happens to interrupt a mysterious assassination attempt on Sapaki. Everybody is hiding lots of secrets that are likely to get them killed by one group or another. The paranoia is ramped up to eleven, and it’s wonderful. It’s a crisp, punchy novel about a future that, while a few things might not fully hold up, has some scary parallels to what’s going on today and how they could be worse. I enjoyed it a lot and am looking forward to reading the sequel that came out this year, Icon.

ZEROES by Chuck Wendig

I’ve also been a fan of Chuck Wendig’s Miriam Black series, which are contemporary fantasy thrillers. (He is better known now as the guy who is doing the funky new Star Wars tie-in bestsellers.) In Zeroes he turns to science fiction in the contemporary to near future time range. In the novel, the tech involved is of the cyber variety and also has a lot of stuff about surveillance. Wendig sets up the classic hackers story: five disparate types of criminal hackers are grabbed by the U.S. government and forced to work at a secret complex as cyber spies to avoid federal prison for the rest of their lives. And of course there are conspiracies within conspiracies that the thrown together group are forced to deal with in order to survive. But from there, things get weirder and weirder, because that’s how Wendig rolls. He also has a brilliant ability to take a stereotype frame and play with it, turning them into buyable and fleshed out characters, and has interesting side characters as well. While I didn’t enjoy the novel as much as the Miriam Black books, I did very much like the combo of extrapolating where cybernetics might go with Dirty Dozen face-offs and chases. There is a sequel/spin-off that involves ants just out called Invasive. I don’t even want to think what Wendig might do with ants.

TERMS OF ENLISTMENT by Marko Kloos

Everybody started talking about newcomer Marko Kloos and so I got around to reading his first novel, the start of the Frontline series. The novel is set in a farther away future that is bleakly dystopian. The Earth is overpopulated, trashed and food shorted, with tons of poor folk kept trapped in giant city camps — pretty much a standard scenario. Some try to escape it by joining the military, with the hopes that if you survive service, you’ll get a pension and maybe the ability to settle on more breathable colonies out on other planets. That’s what the novel’s protagonist, Andrew Grayson, decides to do. The tech here is military, also involves methods of surveillance, and some of it is interesting. The novel is really two stories together. The first involves Grayson’s training and service on Earth where they put down “threats” both foreign and domestic as hated enforcers. The second part has Grayson going up into space on a military patrol vessel that encounters a totally new threat to humans. Kloos makes a bit of a first-timers mistake in the first part, for me, of believing that detailed descriptions of military training and procedures are both fascinating and totally unfamiliar to his reading audience. So the first part doesn’t move along quite as well as the second part, though it gets more exciting as it goes. The second part of the novel offers us more of a new world, better pacing and Kloos’ aliens are neat. Overall, it’s a bit of an uneven book that is nonetheless free of bombast, has lots of action and knows its military hardware. And has a protagonist who isn’t a total saint but does have a strong emotional core. So I’m interested to read the next one in the series and see what Kloos does with his wider landscape.

 

 

 

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That Was a Summer That Was

So I had another gap, because family stuff this summer got a bit crazy. Not always in a bad way, mind, and I got to go on vacation, which was 95% part pleasant (I may have gotten a little food poisoned.) And returned to Trump and white supremacists parading around, and the fainter echo of bigoted nonsense going on with planning for the World Fantasy Convention and at the recent WorldCon. (The good news being that MidCon II, which hosted WorldCon, apparently rocked at announcing and enforcing their code of conduct, having access for all, and generally prepping stuff. Which is really quite a bit of progress. And was achieved by people being pushy, loud and undeterred about bringing up the issue so that people couldn’t pretend it wasn’t an issue anymore.)

But I really, really don’t want to spend all my days ranting about this stuff. (Although I did some ranting at Whatever and Jim Hines’ blog if you want to go read that.) So next post will be about books. In the meantime, enjoy Scott Bakula being totally silly in a Quantum Leap sketch with Stephen Colbert on Colbert’s show:

(I just remembered the sketch makes a lot of fun of Trump with a very good kid actor. Oh well, but it’s not me specifically ranting. Technicality counts.)

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