Writer’s Digest October Issue Affirmed My Life as an Independent Fantasy Writer

I’ve read Writer’s Digest for years. As a teenager I used to pour over its articles about how to write query letters and dream of having novels published. Then as an adult I would dutifully study the advice in the magazine about how to get published. Although I find no fault with the advice provided by the magazine. It is honestly provided by industry experts, but everything in the October 2010 issue was decidedly discouraging from the point of view of a fantasy writer.

Writer’s Digest did not intend this, but the fact was painfully obvious in the article “The Hot List” that was about 27 agents who are actively looking for new manuscripts.

Of these 27 agents…

— One actually stated an interest in fantasy.
— Four asked for urban fantasy, which is popular but not what I write.
— Two agents were willing to look at “light fantasy” or “fantasy that does not take itself too seriously” whatever that means.
— Here’s the heartbreaker: 7 agents specifically said they did NOT want any fantasy.

Judging from this article you would think selling a good fantasy novel is impossible. You’d think bookstores had purged their shelves of fantasy books and that George R.R. Martin was panhandling on a street corner instead of watching hot chicks act out his bestselling novel A Game of Thrones for HBO.

In reality I suppose that agents who work in the fantasy genre felt no need to be a part of the hot list article. They are likely deluged with queries from fantasy writers that need to be promptly ignored.

I don’t know who gets to actually scout out new fantasy writing talent. But obviously only a mysterious few on the planet guard the gates of mainstream fantasy publishers. I suppose I’ll never know who they are.

I realize it is not Writer’s Digest fault that agents can’t sell fantasy novels. Apparently only readers buy them. However, this hot list article certainly validated my decision years ago to stop banging my head against the closed door of literary agencies. I spent four years writing query letters. My only satisfaction was that 98 percent of them rejected me without ever reading my fiction. This means that my fiction was never given even a passing glace. Rejection is much easier to bear when you know it is not caused by an assessment of your work. I’ll grant that maybe I’m not very good at writing query letters, but how am I supposed to explain in a couple paragraphs how someone can make money off an unknown writer of fantasy novels?

I’m so glad I now concern myself with marketing my fiction directly to readers because they are much more open to giving a novel a look.

More items in this issue of Writer’s Digest confirmed my life as an independent fantasy author. Take these examples from the article “The Evolution of the Literary Agent”:

— Wendy Keller of kellermedia.com said, “It’s horribly true that advances are down and so are the number of books publishers are buying.”

— Richard Curtis of Richard Curtis Associates, after acknowledging that advances were holding steady for already successful authors, said, “Where we definitely feel the shrink [in advances] is in the resistance to new authors. The wall is far higher than we’ve ever seen it, and sadly that means we must turn more newcomers away than we want to.”

I found these quotes to be very affirming of my business decisions as an author. Essentially the publishing industry has little interest in investing in new authors, and, when it does, the pay will be low. I can be treated like that anywhere without the bother of writing a novel.

Once again, I am relieved that I have already developed my novels for the market and have been selling them for years to readers. I guess the only way the publishing industry would become interested in my fantasy fiction is if I become wildly successful on my own. Well, I’m trying, but it’s in the readers’ hands.

  • Did the article mention how the publishing industry geniuses intend to publish new books when all the currently published authors retire or die?

  • LInda Reed Gardner

    “I can be treated like that in lots of places already, without the bother of actually writing a novel?”
    Oh that is very funny. Hey, I’ll buy one, and I don’t even read in that genre, but you sound delightful and I like to support other writers. Hang in there.

    • Thanks for noticing my joke. Maybe someday I’ll dare to self publish my works of humor…

  • My only satisfaction was that 98 percent of them rejected me without ever reading my fiction. This means that my fiction was never given even a passing glace. Rejection is much easier to bear when you know it is not caused by an assessment of your work. I’ll grant that maybe I’m not very good at writing query letters, but how am I supposed to explain in a couple paragraphs how someone can make money off an unknown writer of fantasy novels?

    That was my problem too, except I wrote sci-fi. With no other choice other than condemning my novel to silicon oblivion, I self-published. While I’m not Konrath, I’m still happy that I did it.

  • I subscribe to Writer’s Digest and found that issue interesting too. Usually, I have short delusional moment after reading an article such as that and think about trying to find an agent to prove I can do it. To snap out of it, I go back and read Writer’s Digest Issue of “Get Your Book Published.” Here were the thoughts from traditional published authors posted in that issue on the things they learned in their journey:

    * You don’t have much control over your cover.
    * You can be shifted from editor to editor.
    * You could be asked to make drastic changes to your story from minor to major according to their demands.
    * The post-publication work, i.e. selling your book, is the most daunting task. You’re expected to promote it with your time, money, and effort and receive little help from the publisher.
    * Your book is kept on a store shelf for two to three months and then it must be ordered.
    * If your book doesn’t sell well, the publisher can take it out of print no matter how many “kudos” you receive from readers or reviews.
    * They own it and you’ve lost all control to take it elsewhere.

    That’s the article that brings me back to reality and tells me I’ve made the right choice.


    • From long, long, long sad experience, I hereby testify as to the sad accuracy of the whole litany of issues Vicki has listed. And theft as well as a whole raft of other stuff designed to make an author feel stupid and subservient.

      Footnote (and WOW): Here’s the example my online dictionary served up when I checked spelling of subservient . . .

      “editors and journalists who express opinions in print that are opposed to the interests of the rich are dismissed and replaced by subservient ones”

      • Agree completely. I’ve been on both sides of the editor’s desk, and have had five books published by Kensington Publishing. They did nothing more for me than to put my books in their catalog. I asked for help with a book tour, and didn’t even get the courtesy of a reply.

        Now that I’m writing fiction, I’m finding that, despite the fact that I’m a published author five times over, most agents and publishers won’t even look at my manuscript. All the ones that have, rejected it. All my beta readers, on the other hand, freaked out and thought it was the best thing they’d ever read and literally begged me for more. Maybe it’s because they want to read a good book, and aren’t buying it for “a grabby first two pages.” I’m not Michael Bay, for crying out loud, I don’t have exploding vampires having sex with biker zombie robots.

        And I’m not alone. I know of other authors, previously published, one of them with FOURTY other books out (really!), that cannot sell anything to save their lives. Nobody’s buying anything but horror right now, and even that’s a slim chance in this market. Traditional publishing is a dinosaur going extinct. I’m glad I gave up on it as early as I did — it saved me a lot of time, and I’ll be at the head of the wave, not behind it, when this vampire fad is over.

  • I think perhaps that online dictionary might have a former journalist on staff…

    Anyway, I should mention that I enjoy Writer’s Digest. The interviews and articles on the writing craft generally offer good things to ponder. I have noticed in the past year or 2 that the magazine has very much switched its focus to the self publishing and independent and freelance perspectives. I suspect that the magazine needed to stay relevant to its market. The current issue however went Old School because it likely has a big segment of readership still interested in that information. But, as I said, this issue was very affirming of my decisions to stay in charge of my own creative/business interests.

  • I also spent a good deal of time sending out query letters. I finally signed with an agent a year ago and have since only received rejections from publishers for the reasons listed above. I agree, it is encouraging to know that the cause is more from an out-of-date business model issue than anything else.

    I was fortunate enough to see it coming though, and have been furiously working on self-publishing (graphic design, copy-editing, forming an LLC) as a parallel effort. My first novel (also Fantasy) should be available for sale online by the end of November. And while I’m completely excited about it, my excitement is tempered by the reality that I won’t be able to get my novel in front of as many people as a major publisher would. That, as far as I can tell, is the only thing that the traditional publishing industry can do better. It’s a shame because everyone who has read my manuscript, including my agent, thinks it’s amazing.

    So, my question is—how can we self-publishers start REALLY competing with the major publishing houses for potential readers?

    I think this could be a game-changing battle over the next few years.

    • Well, to really compete with publishers, there would need to be some kind of self publishing association that pays for the premium shelf space in bookstores that the big companies buy. Almost all the books you see prominently displayed in bookstores are paid placements. Of course, then there would only be a select few self-published titles that got displayed. There’s just not enough room for everybody to be in a bookstore.

      Also, we could start a fund to pay Oprah her fee whatever it is. I find it impossible to believe that the books she pumps aren’t paid for handsomely. The women is NOT stupid.

      • This shelf-space issue is irrational. Unless a book is a breakout bestseller, it’s only going to be on a chainstore shelf (but not in every store the chain runs) for 60-90 days, then nevermore. What that comes down to is you sign away a year or years of your life for a hoped-for quick buck (that never gets to you) and many years of regret.

        The ONLY good reason for an unknown fiction author to sign with Big Publishing is so you can accept an advance that is way more than you believe you can earn on your own over five years, which is roughly the time it’ll take before your book qualifies for reversion. Do the math! Can you command a large enough advance to make it worthwhile to put on blinders and put up with a raft of shit that makes you hate your own book?

      • I don’t want to be in the big bookstores, because they purposefully over-order books so they can make money on their returns (called “churning”), which is driving small presses out of business.


  • Your last comment gave me an idea. Too bad we can’t start bookstores for the self-published only. Now, wouldn’t that be a novelty!

  • It’s a stunning reality I have come to face recently. When you keep getting great reader reviews, yet you query dozens of agents and they aren’t interested in representing something they probably would never bother reading in the first place, it can really deflate any pride in yourself you may have.

    “So, my question is—how can we self-publishers start REALLY competing with the major publishing houses for potential readers?” Jason Tesar

    Network, recommend, Website links, Blog reviews everywhere, network, network etc. Shameless promotion gets the word out fast IMO.

  • Linda Reed Gardner

    I am enjoying this little dust-up. I wondered for years why writers can’t wait to help support someone who likely lives in New York City, and pays for yet another space as an office. Most of us must be living for a fraction of that cost, not to mention the usual every day expenses of food, heat, transportation, medical care, and on and on, in a major city.
    I remember seeing several web site agent descriptions of what they wanted from an author, a “detailed three-page market analysis describing the competition for one’s book, the target audience, the success & failure of each competitor in the marketplace, another detailed analysis of the ways in which proispective author intended to market the book, the professional organization he belonged to and who might buy it, in what quantity, could one promise “advance sales in large numbers to professional organizations,,” and on and on. In the end, one agent said she only wanted “to get on the phone and start selling.” um…um…being that that was apprently all there was left to do, get on the phone and say “meet me for lunch at a New York City restaurant so I can tell you about this book over some godawful expensive lunch, I did wonder what I was paying for, and why I should contribute to this kind of high-end lifestyle.
    I’m thinking I can live for a YEAR in a sub-zero climate for less than it costs Faceless Agent to live on either coast for a month. And I’ll bet they even have health insurance and gym memberships.
    Doggone, what a deal, and all for their “contacts in the business”?
    A tiny advance, if that, and the news that all publicity is up to the writer?
    I’m still trying to digest the Justin Cronin deal for a book in a genre that everyone insists was worked to death some time ago. Apparently not quite. However did he do that? I must read the book. Nice work, Cronin.
    Meanwhile, too bad agents and writers can’t trade lives for a bit. No doubt the other side feels overworked and unappreciated.

  • I think we need to take a serious look at Barnes&Noble’s new effort to compete with Amazon.com. The Pubit! publishing Indie authors directly is an attempt at head-to-head. Why didn’t they just buy Smashwords? There’s something up. And now at their website there are more forums, like Kindleboards,with not so many groups but more people logging in everyday. Indie authors can set up pages there in the Book/eBook section and do their own promotions. This seems to say that B&N knows it can’t survive without access to Indie authors, and that for the Nook to compete, you need a lot of low price new works available. You can only read Classics so many times.