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Fiction-maker survival in the post-fact world: Part 3

Part 1 and What Is This Again are here.

Q21 Will you read/edit/blurb my manuscript, recommend agents/editors/publishers/other, schedule a conversation to plan my career?

No, sorry. All the best with your work.

Q22 So the thing is, I’m very upset about the marketing of my books. I don’t have an agent, I submitted to [ ] directly, and since then I can’t help but feel that they haven’t taken me seriously enough as an author. I mean, I have yet to walk into a single bookstore and find my book there. I’ve only found it in [ ], and that’s about it. As far as marketing goes, there’s nothing that these guys really do, and I’m quite upset about that.


I spent a lot of time in my 20s feeling angry about situations like this, ended some friendships, wrote several stinkery emails and so forth. It was mostly a waste of time and quite embarrassing to remember.

There’s no point feeling upset about this, it’s likely to be counter-productive. There are things you can do to make the situation better.

1. Understand that no one cares about your feelings or, unless you’re lucky, about your work. Publishing, like any other ‘creative’ industry, has no feelings. It’s a business and while it’s a field where many amazing people work, it’s as cold as any other business. When your stock is high, you can do no wrong, when it’s low, you find yourself in situations such as the one in your question. It’s not you. It’s not even them. It’s market conditions plus new-world or old-world feudalism. Actually, sometimes it could be them. Or you. Everyone wants to write, no one wants to read, everyone wants to be a star, no one wants to figure out how. If your publisher or agent or manager or whoever aren’t doing anything for you, it’s because you are not one of their top earners and their top earners are the ones keeping their jobs safe. Also, remember, while creative fields are full of wonderful people, they’re also full of complete assholes. The ratio is no more or less than any other industry, but if it ever feels like people are enjoying not giving you what you feel is your due or you’ve been going on about things and there’s no sign of change, it’s entirely possibly that someone in the equation is being unprofessional. Sometimes everyone is. If no one is being unprofessional, then it’s the market.

2. Remember that top sellers – and this is especially true in unstructured, developing publishing industries – may or may not be good writers by whatever your standards are, but your feelings about the quality of their work is irrelevant, because often what they do have – and you probably don’t – is a business plan. A carefully selected demographic. A strategy beyond ‘Write. Rule the world.’ There’s a lot going on under the surface of the industry that you don’t know about. In today’s world, people come into the field from other fields, knowing that to earn Y, they have to spend X. Many authors around the world spend huge amounts on advertising, promotions, buybacks, retail space, events, brand sponsorships, networks, including very unethical spending on fake reviews on various platforms. Many others simply lie consistently and loudly. But it’s not some kind of Mordor. Many bestselling authors don’t, and have never needed to do any of these things. And there’s no reason to judge those who do – It’s an investment in fame, access and personal branding. We live in a post-truth world, and publishing isn’t killing people, only careers.

In today’s climate the onus of promotion has shifted on to the author, unless the author is a sure-shot high earner, in which case publishers are happy to invest. This leads to many publishers taking it quite easy when it comes to promotion for new work, or for authors they have dumped in the midlist, because their high earners are taking care of their own shit and the effort/output ratio for new work/don’t-know-how-to-sell-it work isn’t favourable. Yes, I know, new work needs nurturing and promotion and all of that. It doesn’t get it. This is not going to change.

3. There are many people out there trying to rip off newcomers – and old-timers – with pay-for-promo schemes. I don’t know about that scene but I’m not good at gaming systems. Unfortunately. I wish I was. I also have no particular interest in that scene. If you’re good at jugaad and spotting jugaad, find them.

4. Sometimes it’s not a business plan, sometimes the other authors are just sexier to the publisher than you are – easier to slot, easier to sell. In one of the earlier posts I’d talked about things that make authors more marketable. Read that. Think about what you can do to make publishers, journalists, other humans more interested in you. Some people achieve this with makeovers and new shoes. Others change names, genres, countries. Try not to commit crimes.

5. Some authors try to be relentlessly abusive and obnoxious and bully everyone else in the system until they get the attention they want. This route is quite effective if you’re okay with everyone hating you and laughing about you behind your back. Many are. The little people you are stomping on now will grow up and end your career when you are old, though, so time your exit wisely.

6. You can leave publishers if it isn’t working out. It’s a business and no one will murder you. If they are not interested in you, and you are not interested in them, then, you know. Everyone’s time would be better spent doing things they are more excited about.

7. It’s a stamina game. If you want to play it the old-fashioned way, remember: hard work, talent, and luck. You need all three. Often – nearly almost always – they do not line up. Sometimes they do. You can either keep at it and hope for the best or just drop it. Either is fine.

8. Also, every now and then, the playing field changes. At least once every seven years. The business is cyclical, trends come and go, and there are permanent cultural shifts, so change is guaranteed. Technology changes, readers change, tastes change, markets change, companies change. The next shift might be exactly the right opportunity for you. But don’t sulk if it isn’t. I’m horrible when I sulk. So are you, probably.

Q23 I’ve been down the road of the self marketing author, and it hasn’t been pleasant. I don’t believe in spamming random content to generate interest, and instead I’ve tried to slowly build an online presence using elements of the book, even a live action book trailer and everything, but it hasn’t really worked. The second book has been even worse; it’s pretty much sitting dead in the water with zero marketing.

[Same Anon]

Marketing is work. Marketing is also skill. But mostly it is work. Some people really enjoy it. Other people genuinely hate it – or claim to hate it, I have my doubts – but do it relentlessly. I admire both these types of people because they have excellent survival skills and come the apocalypse I shall be hiding out in their bunkers because they will make sure everyone knows the location and that it is the Best and Most Exclusive But Also Universally Popular Bunker.

If it is not something you are naturally good at or enjoy, and if these are things you cannot change about yourself, then it will never be pleasant. The important thing then is to make peace with doing the amount of marketing/promo work you are willing and able to do, to the best of your ability, to recognise that no one else is going to do it for you – you might see it as other people’s jobs, but they see it as yours – and to accept the consequences of this.

Good for you for not spamming relentlessly in the absence of a unique plan. I wish more people were like this. The waterline for acceptable behaviour on the internet has been rising steadily – even massively successful authors are now retweeting praise from possibly-bots like failed Bollywood actors. And when they do it, everyone else feels like they HAVE to, I guess. So figure out what you’re comfortable and happy doing in the promotion of your own work, find the smaller subset that’s things you are actually able to do, and do those things, instead of feeling bad about opportunities other people are getting, or spam that spammers are generating.

The thing with books and films and shows and comics and all the other stuff is that when we’re outside the city we only see the really successful people waving to the assembled masses from inside the highest towers. But life in the city is fun too, and it’s easier than ever before to get in. You are probably never going to be JK Rowling or Salman Rushdie. You might be even bigger some day, who knows. But writing is really fun, so don’t waste too much time being angry and resentful. My biggest regret of the last 15 years, writing-career-wise, is time wasted feeling angry and resentful about walls I did not build and cannot break but remain determined to find interesting ways to crack.

Q24 …my publisher is undermining what the book could possibly become.

[I have an option clause, how can I leave?]

…there’s also the matter of splitting up the last book of a trilogy, giving it to a new publisher. I have no clue how viable that is, or how that will affect things.

… Could you help me out here?

[Same anon]

No, can’t help you out here. But while not helping you, I can tell you that your publisher is not undermining anything, it’s just that they’re not seeing good RoI on spending time and resources promoting you and they have other books that are more important to them than yours and other things to do with their time. Ultimately, you have to decide whether you want to carry on – in which case finish the trilogy – or start afresh, which involves taking your rights back from your publisher for the entire series and either finding a new publisher for the whole thing or going indie. Two publishers on the same series will only mean each will only blame the other for the whole thing’s failure while not doing anything to fix things. So do one of the previous two options. People have done both of these things many, many times in publishing, which, again, is a business, and succeeded.

Q25 How do you decide what to write about? Every moment you can have a new idea. And you never know which one is the one. So how do you decide?

Ani Dalal

Make a list. Just pick one after either thinking about it or using arbitrary chance-based methods like tossing coins. If it’s the right one you’ll finish it. If you abandon it then make a new list. If you picked the wrong one and finished it anyway then make a new list. Or start several and do them all simultaneously. Do what you feel like doing. There is no universal answer to this question and anyone who tells you they have one is lying. Or. There is a right answer to this question but I’m deliberately not telling you because it’s my secret. Or I’m lying. Who knows, really.

JUST PICK ONE. But take as long as you need to figure it out. Don’t rush it. Don’t take too long.

I could keep answering this question for days without helping you at all so I’ll stop. Write what you feel like writing when you feel like writing it.

Q26: Do writers need to get their work edited before submitting it to magazines? If so how does one find an editor? What’s the format for a cover letter when submitting a draft?


No, as far as I know. Magazines have their own editors or freelance editors that they work with. But I don’t know too much about how this works because I haven’t worked in the submitting-to-magazines space. Usually the good magazines can figure out if you’re a good writer who just needs an edit, so I wouldn’t really worry about finding an editor pre-submission. Cover letter formats : Google.

Q27: What about writing which is in an unconventional format? I’ve written scripts for a web series. Do not know what to do with it…)


In general, unconventional formats = Unstructured market information/access/payment/strategy problems + Developing market early entry/easier access/faster rise advantages. You need a LOT of hustle because it’s all uncharted and There Be Dragons. See Things Which Make Writers More Attractive – it applies to creators across the board. The usual risk/reward potential advantages apply but if you were risk-averse you wouldn’t be writing scripts for web shows. Or writing at all.

Good luck! If it’s Bombay, none of the real information exists in written form but try read up on news in whatever the field is. Go do do a lot of meetings. Talk to everyone you can find. Don’t believe anything they say. Leave the door open behind you when you get in.

Q28 In case of speculative fiction, is it better to contact literary agents or directly publishers (only those that accept unsolicited submissions)?

Riddhi Mukherjee

Always better to go through agents or anyone who has a financial/emotional stake in your success, doesn’t charge you upfront and can help you avoid rookie mistakes. In developed markets, agents are specialised so spec-fic has its own set of agents, as does every category that books or other media can be artificially divided into. In developing markets everyone does everything all the time and no one knows what’s going on. Remember that developing markets are created in imitation of developed markets, but the arbitrarily transported rules and categories don’t usually apply. So if you look at some of the biggest success stories of Indian publishing – say Chetan Bhagat, Amish Tripathi – they broke the market and built their own after trying the traditional way, failing, and realising they were far smarter than the people they were submitting manuscripts to. Interestingly neither has had much success in developed markets so far, though if they want to figure that out I’m sure they will. Other interesting people who pretty much made up their own rules are Devdutt Pattanaik, who built his own field, and Sarnath Banerjee, who spent years educating traditional publishing about graphic novels and then published his successfully. None of these people fit any kind of traditional publishing type. Neither did I, but here’s living proof that survival is possible. So follow all rules as long as you want to, but if you have the ability to make your own, do that immediately.

Q29 I’ve heard there is no market for short stories or poetry. Why? Should I not write these?

(Anon, a well-known short story writer and poet and friend)

I’m sure someone told Jhumpa Lahiri not to write short stories when she was starting out. Now she’s writing books in Italian because she feels like.

‘There is no market for X’ means a few things. It means that there’s no absolutely 100% multiple-time-successful formula for massive, easy commercial success for X. It means that the person saying this doesn’t know how to sell X or has failed at selling X before. It means that someone else might have told him/her this and he/she believed it because it was easy. It means you need to either talk to someone else or prove this wrong. Or find a different platform. Or a different medium. Or a different market.

If you want to write X, write X.

There’s never a market for anything until suddenly there is. When you create a market for X, suddenly everyone will have always known that X was the next big thing.

Each time my career has moved upwards – in India, in Europe, in the US – it’s because a set of people were willing to try something new. Usually this was after other people had refused to try this because no one had done it before. Just keep asking until you find such people, and then hold on to them for dear life.

Q30 Have a question you haven’t covered: how do you handle rejection from publishers/agents as a young writer? I mean, sure, by not taking it personally etc. but does it feel like a punch to the gut every time or does it, to use a cliché, get easier with time?

Vedashree Khambete-Sharma

Vedashree is very successful and smart and funny and writes books and other things. Go read her here.

Rejection gets much easier to deal with over time because the older you get the more you understand that it’s not you as a human person that’s being rejected, or your talent, or your time, but that the profit-seeking business organisation across the table does not find your product or service suitable to its financial/branding needs and goals and plans at this time. Yes, these are ugly words to describe the process, and entirely the wrong words to describe your art. You know what else is a wrong word? Rejection. Likewise acceptance, selection, whatever emotionally-laden words are used to mess with artist heads during business transactions. Put the emotion into the creation of the art. What happens when things go well is that you have a match, a good fit, a collaboration.

I infinitely prefer rejection to unenthusiastic/uninspired/uninformed acceptance. Rejection tells you you need to try harder, or try something else, or try somewhere else. All these are fine.

My first rejections were from very polite British publishers in 2002 who told me they found the work interesting or straight-up liked it, but didn’t know how to sell it so bye, try again. I didn’t understand what any of that meant, and was really sad because no one loved me and obviously I had failed at everything. I have faced many more rejections over the last 15 years, but the only ones that hurt are the ones where you forget to remind yourself that loving the work and selling the work are different things. It gets easier. Sometimes it doesn’t but mostly it does.

Okay! That’s Part 3. Pretty much all the other questions I have are covered by the 30 so far. When I have 10 new ones I’ll do those in a post, but it might be a while.


About Samit Basu

Novelist. Best known for fantasy and science fiction work. Most recently, The City Inside (Tordotcom)/Chosen Spirits (Simon and Schuster)


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Copyright (c) Samit Basu. Images copyright respective holders.
December 2016


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