Monday, February 28, 2011

Am I the Man?

So I found myself in a couple conversations last week where I felt distinctly like I was arguing for 'status quo', which, if you know me, you know ISN'T ME... but I still think I had a point... Let me e'splain...

ABNA System

I spoke too soon when I said everyone was a good sport... People (apparently every year) pout and say things that offend OTHER people who are defensive for understandable reasons... the arguments of people who are SAD that it is all basically a lottery... make it look like the people who MADE it didn't deserve to...

Now there are a ton of voices of reason there, both among those who made it and among those who didn't, so I don't want to sound like it's all bad, but the discussion I am referring to here was about the ABNA system being innately flawed. The argument was that we were being judged on our PITCH rather than our writing. (erm... did we not write our pitches?)

But I remember feeling this way... querying agents and feeling put out that my pitch didn't give a good feel for my story. And I think it's true that the pitch is a different skill than writing the book. And some books are COMPLICATED and hard to describe in a few paragraphs.

But think about it this way... a pitch gives the reader a broad feel for what the story is about. And an AGENT wants to know if it's an appealing story before deciding whether she wants to read more. And this makes TOTAL sense.

For ABNA, the trouble is it is a crapshoot for which 'agent' screens. As writers we can target agents who we know represent the genre of our book. THIS is the luck part for ABNA. Now I suspect screeners KNOW if it sounds like a 'pretty good story', then even if it isn't their genre, they should pass it through (in fact I think they assign number ratings on several parameters, so it becomes (sort of) an objective comparison, but the appeal of the story will definitely be colored by the reader's preferences.

That said, though, a bad pitch will not make it through. Some portion of these are inadequate pitches for good stories, but some are also inadequate pitches for inadequate stories. (I happen to believe this is where I was last year. The story hadn't been adequately edited and so I was accurately screened OUT. This year my story is tighter, but in reality, I will eventually be screened out, also... I just learned (and got help) and my pitch was good. (so that gives the portion of screened IN that maybe should not have been--good pitches for not good (yet) books)

The NEXT step is the first 3000-5000 words... just like an agent... and they can see how the writing is... so they judge based BOTH on the story, and on the writing of the story... Now a fair few get passed on here... 250 in each group... Yes, that is only a 5% chance from initial entry... and in both cases people will have their stories weeded when they are GREAT books. But here, while not everyone passed on will have a great book, the query proves a good story and the excerpt proves they can write... everyone to pass on is capable, in my opinion. They (like me) may not be quite done, but I think stories going on at this point are mostly stories that are eventually viable.

That does NOT say stories weeded earlier are NOT. It means stories weeded earlier maybe need to work on their pitch or first few chapters (never bad advice) or in a few cases, have hit bad luck on the match or who read one or the other.

Now at this point, the books are read (and rated...) and again, there might be a mismatch... GREAT books may not get through. But my POINT is, the books that DO get through at this point either ARE great, or have enough proof of potential for greatness.

And isn't that the point? Amazon wants to find a book that will be successful. This is a commercial venture at no cost to the entrants. So can we really cry foul? I don't think we can...

And then the Self Publishing Discussion

I happen to think self publishing is getting more and more viable, and think there are a lot of authors for whom this is a GREAT option. But I ALSO think it is a vast, tempting quagmire for new authors... think about the Dead Marshes in Lord of the Rings... the lights tempting people into the wrong place. It is FAR too easy to press submit LONG before a book is ready.

I don't think this HAS to be the case, but...

Okay, so a writer friend of mine who I hadn't even realized was done with a book posted something about self publishing her book... She wants feedback to see if it is viable for traditional publishing. Are you spotting here all the pits she could fall into. I think the growth of self-publishing makes it way too easy for someone to just think 'I'll see' and think they really WILL see. The reality is, it will be a friends and family venture anyway, unless they do all the networking groundwork... but even WITH the networking groundwork, if the book isn't properly polished, it won't be ready, and there is no gatekeeper to tell us when it IS properly polished.

Now a great step is to hire a professional editor, but that editor STILL works for US, so when they are done, they will believe the BOOK is done. That may be true. It may not.

See... the thing is, I've come to believe in the hoops that it takes to get to traditional publishing. Now I have friends who have gotten through all but the last step... that it is the editorial board buy in that is giving trouble... if an agent and a publisher love it... AND think it's done... then it is probably ready. If a professional editor has seen it and then a panel of readers ALSO do not find significant problems... it is ALSO probably ready.

I had somebody argue with me not too long ago when I stated that novel drafts typically made the teens before a book was 'done'. Now I am talking for a first time (possibly second time) writer... but the person argued '4' for the first book? Seriously? I am willing to believe SOME people can do that, but on AVERAGE, to actually be clean enough to publish? I'm not buying it. I say it is in the double digits before it is actually ready... ON AVERAGE.

And I know my own self well enough to know I would never have waited that long if I hadn't committed to traditional publishing. Traditional publishing ensures that very few 'not done' get through, where self publishing, I'd bet only about 5% are actually done.

That isn't just a problem for those publishing too early though. It's a problem for everyone self publishing, as discriminating readers know there is a LOW percentage all the way done, a medium percentage not QUITE done, and a pretty large percentage (people not HERE because I think this group gets it) but there are a lot of people publishing FAR too early. This means that a lot of people aren't willing to sort the difference. It means people will opt NOT to read because there is too much noise.

My friend ALSO didn't seem to understand that being 'published' meant it was far harder to 'publish' if sales weren't really great. Those of us in this for the long haul, need a long-term plan.

So what is that... when a naked world dominatrix buys into a system?  I'm not sure, but I suppose I do.


Cruella Collett said...

So many good points here. I don't know the ABNA well enough to comment, but I agree whole-heartedly with you on the self-publishing thing. Not that I know too much about that either, but I do know a thing or two about selling books, and there are some very good reasons why "traditionally" published books dominate the market. One of them is that they already dominate the market, of course. So it's easier to put more out there, and get attention for it. The marketing effort a self-published author could only dream of (since traditional publishing has more experience, more money, more manpower). And yes - the screening process too.

Melissa said...

You make so many good points here and articulate yourself very well. It's unfortunate that some people react badly to not getting through and I apologize if you feel like your victory was cheapened at all by their reactions. I wish you luck in the next stages!

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

The problems with the writers at ABNA sounds like sour grapes to me...something that I see more frequently on writing forums than I do in blog comments. Seem to fester on boards and forums for some reason.

I know I'm a better writer for going through the gatekeeping process (and for being rejected a ton of times.) I think that self-publishing can work well for a writer, but probably will work better for one who is very experienced--maybe on their second book, who has sharp self-editing skills, a good crit group or first reader, etc. Those are books that can really take off as far as Kindle sales.

Tracy said...

Fortunately, I didn't get myself involved in all the ABNA drama so I've missed out on any sour grapes there.

I wholeheartedly agree about the traditional vs self publishing arguments. I count myself among those people (as a reader) who has no desire to sort through the drivel to find the gold nugget in self published works. Which is a darn shame for that small percentage of writers who went that route and have truly good books sitting in the pile.

Ted Cross said...

I think you are so right on this process. Too many self-published writers hit 'finish' on their book before it is truly ready. I've only read two self-published books so far, but they both had me cringing inwardly.

Writing query letters sucks, but it's something we simply must master.

J. Allen Fielder said...

Excellent blog, Hart.

Erica Mitchell-Spickard said...

I agree with you through this whole post. There has to be some sort of weeding mechanism out there and I suppose there is, the query. But I have met people with brilliant books that never get past the query because they just can't sum it up in two paragraphs.
I tend to query as I go, not send them out, but make changes to the rough draft as I write so I can keep the great points on point. Not easy!
I'm sorry that a few bad apples bobbed up for you:(

Hannah Kincade said...

Finally! I've been wating for this post for a while now. All good points. I can't tell you how many times I read about people submitting their work before it's been edited (by someone other than themselves). I don't think there's anyone ANYONE who can write something publishable with a first draft. Of course, if you're Stephen King you might be closer to that one draft but he's been publishing for years. I'm sure he has a system.

Anywho, I have to admit, I kept waiting for the bit where you were going to bring up balls or mistake.

Hart Johnson said...

Well said, Cruella! I know here, self-pubbed books don't make it to book stores hardly EVER, and that is another biggie...

Melissa-I guess I understand some of the feelings (though last year when I was feeling that way, I ducked out instead of spreading my opinion at the time)... and I am hard to shake... I can have fun, anyway.

Elizabeth, it IS sour grapes, but not JUST sour grapes... there is also people taking things wrong because they are feeling defensive... oh well... I just try to avoid most of it...

Tracy-very well to have avoided it! I felt my blood pressure spiking on Friday. And I'm one of those readers, too.

Ted-Yeah, I've only read a couple... am reading one now, and it is hard because it is a great story, but it's not done. It really isn't.

Thank you, Jeff! Good to see you here! (Jeff is one of those voices of reasons and a kindred trouble maker of the silly sort, if anyone is curious)

Erica-that write it as you go is a great idea for keeping it focused! I've heard a lot about people doing it before they write to keep the writing focused, and to anyone that disciplined, more power to them!

Hannah-you thought I was cross dressing, didn't you? And I think even Master King sometimes puts out something too early, anymore. He is darned skilled, but if it's too easy, which it can get to be when you're famous.

Old Kitty said...

I'm all for traditional Nakedness!! LOL!!

Now why can't people just be happy when others get a bit of success in this writing industry?!?!!? It's just too petty!! CONGRATULATIONS with getting through this first round of the ABNA!! Yay for you!!!!

Take care

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I could get into a long discussion about self-publishing! First, hire an editor no matter what path you take. Good advice, Hart. But most writers rush into it without studying the industry. There's still no shortcuts. Self-publishing is no more a shortcut than finding a publisher or agent if one does it RIGHT. Thing is, so many do it wrong.

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

i guess the way i always look at it is, if you can't be a good sport (even wehn you lose on round one) then maybe you shouldn't be entering contests. The odds are always against you anyway.

Vicki Tremper said...

Good arguments. Well said.

Deb and Barbara said...

I haven't had a lot of time this year for the ABNA forums (or rather whenever I go in to look and have a chat, everyone I know is off the boards, so I slink away ;) ), but I did notice some of the anger this week. I think this post is excellent, Hart: articulate, fair, thoughtful, and just ... right. Absolutely people need to re-write and re-write over and over to get that story in shape. Because it is a tricky thing. A labyrinth. And it needs try after try to finesse. But well worth the effort, no question.

Sarah McCabe said...

I think the "gatekeepers" are overrated. The fact is that most traditionally published books do NOT sell well. So why do we think the publishing houses are more qualified to judge this than anyone else?

Sure, self-publishing gives a lot of people who are too impatient to properly edit their work a venue for embarrassing themselves. It also gives a lot of really good authors with really good books a chance to not get screwed over by the publishing houses. As usual, the cream floats to the top and the customer base weeds out the good from the bad based on what they want, not on what some high powered editor thinks they want.

Cold As Heaven said...

The world is not fair and never will be, if it's writing or something else.

Compare it to sports. The only really fair and objective sports are those that are timed or measured (like track&field and ski racing). Sports that are judged (like gymnastics and figure skating) will always have a subjective element, but still the best tend to win more often than the 2nd-best.

I guess it's the same about writing, at least in the long run >:)

Cold As Heaven

Hart Johnson said...

Jenny-I know, right!? Happy and Naked. It's what we all should be!

Diane-you're wise! Absolutely on the pro-editor!

Sarah-I think the trouble is people don't know they aren't ready.

Vicki-thank you!

Barbara-I've been there some, and slowly am getting to know people who are there a lot, but yeah--it is nice to see a face I know from elsewhere!

Sarah-I don't know that I buy ALL the gatekeeper functions, as i think they are conservative, but I think traditionally published books that don't do well often haven't had the author legwork. And I know myself well enough to know I need the gates!

CaH--it's true that the subjective element seems to make a lot of things unfair. It would be nice if it weren't so, but it certainly is for all art forms.

Cheeseboy said...

Interesting discussion.

Your Dead Marshes in Lord of the Rings metaphor was awesome!

VR Barkowski said...

Well said.

The ABNA, like everything in publishing, is a crapshoot. That's why you have to keep playing the game, eventually you'll come up a winner. All you can do is make sure the aspect you *can* control - your writing - is as good as it can possibly be. I think you're right, Tarty, many self-published writers jump the gun.

I, for one, cannot write a pitch to save my life. They're all terrible, and I've written hundreds of them. I've never asked my agent, but I'm certain had she only had my pitch to go on (I was a referral), she'd never have read my manuscript.

Participants can bitch and moan all they want about the ABNA putting too much emphasis on the pitch, but whether we like it or not, pitching is a key part of the process.

Carolyn Abiad said...

Excellent points...we need to put on our big girl - oops! You don't like pants - Sorry. :) Yes. People need to stop pouting and do the work.

Simon C. Larter said...

Self-pub *is* rapidly becoming a viable alternative. But I'm not ready to read self-pubbed stuff unless it's on the recommendation of someone I trust. There's not a snowball's chance in the Sahara that I'd randomly download some self-pubbed ebook on the strength of it's blurb. There's too many great authors I haven't read through yet for me to take that tack.

Not that my mind couldn't be changed at some point in the future. But still.

As long as the system continues to produce better quality, I'm pretty much for it.

(This comment wasn't funny. I'll have to ensure the next comment I leave you is funnier and/or more random. I don't want to ruin my rep.)

Colene Murphy said...

Yes! Excellent points! I'm a firm believer in the gatekeepers and the hoops even if, when I start querying they all shut me out, I trust in them. Good luck on your work!

jenny milchman said...

ha ha, I'm not by any chance the poor benighted friend who's run afoul at editorial ;) at any rate, every word on here is true, and wise. I myself have been struggling to come up with an answer for a question emerging writers often ask me: "Does a great book--eventually--get taken?"

this post will go a long way to providing an answer.

Helena said...

As you know, dear Naked Tart, I've been published before and am familiar with the gatekeepers and high standards. Still, after having studied the hell out of self-publishing and flogged my manuscript into what I believe is tip-top shape (with the insightful edits of others, of course), I'm about to embark into that Brave New World. I'll let you know if it goes okay or I end up smashed upon the rocks.

Hart Johnson said...

Thanks, Abe!

VR-yeah, my agent connection was on a referral, too. I did a bang up job on THIS pitch (with a lot of feedback and help) but most of my books are a little complicated and I am bad at finding the main strand of story to emphasize.

Carolyn-glad you caught yourself before recommending pants! teehee

Simon, twins again... we are on the same page.

Colene-they won't KEEP shutting you out. Getting shut out the first few rounds actually makes us better. You'll get there!

Hart Johnson said...

Jenny-funny you should ask that... though you and Helena both. I think some great books just run into obstacles, usually based on the opinion of a board of what the market wants, rather than any reflection on the book.

Helena, I was thinking you, too--with your almost bought... (and I know you've edited since then, so I'm sure you are ready). I think from YOUR end, your book will be FABULOUS. And I hope that the networking you are doing makes it so it is a success!

Holly Ruggiero said...

What a sad tale, but this happen in all types of contests. Too bad really because it’s still a learning experience.

Carol Riggs said...

I definitely think there is (and will be) a lot of writers who go the self-pub route way before they are ready. It's not often a first novel--JK Rowling withstanding--will be good enough for publication.

Nice to meet you, buddy Crusader! You're almost at 400 followers! I was #399. ;o) Happy Monday.

Diana said...

I didn't make it through ABNA this year, but I didn't expect to. I couldn't nail my pitch. All those whiners who want to change the contest rules are the same idiots who clog up the system with poorly written queries that boast of their potential rather than pitching a good story.
They are probably the same people who don't spend the time to make their work the best it can be before rushing to publish.
Good luck to all the first round, abna-ers! Especially my good friend Angela Scott.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Not much I can add to what's been said other than yes, we write our pitches!

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

It’s a tough and a not particularly fair system for traditionally published books, but I agree with you that it’s the best way to go. I recently heard a successful self-published author speak. Her books finally caught the attention of the Boston Globe and New York Times. Both cancelled when they discovered she was the owner and only customer of the publishing company.

Ciara said...

I agree. I've downloaded several free self-published book only to be disappointed. There needs to be a gatekeeper or review board before I have to download and read it.
The second round of ABNA in 2008 was when I was cut. I thought the process was done well, and I have nothing negative to say about it. I think it's a great contest.

Jeanne said...

Good comments on self publishing and agent pitches. I have 2 traditionally published kids books and one self-published women's humor book. It is a confusing quagmire of opportunities and money just sprouting wings and flying out the window. Plus it did not make me feel any better when I read the book of a friend (he self-published at a very minimal fee) and I found over 1000 errors in it. That is what gives self publishing the bad name. But it is a hard road. All publishing is a hard road.

Lauren F. Boyd said...

Thanks, Hart, for this post. I didn't know how I felt about e-publishing until I read your post. Now I know: I'll happily wait for traditional publishing.