Tag Archives: Writers

Discriminating Editors

30 Sep

Editors should be discriminating, but rather than discriminating taste in literature, some seem just to discriminate. Now, while I support the right of editors to run their little fiefs as they wish, I believe, as I’ve stated before, that the only legitimate reason to refuse to publish work should be the quality of the writing (with the exception of the behaviour of the writer as it impinges upon their relationship with the editor – abusive or fraudulent writers deserve to be banned). Of course, I have sympathy with editors who worry that association with someone with extreme views may taint them, but I think most people are sensible enough not confuse the publication of fiction with an endorsement of views held by their author (and, where the writing expresses uncomfortable ideas, the editor is, of course, free to reject it on those grounds).

But, even allowing that an editor may choose to ban a writer for their personal sins, there is absolutely no justification for barring writers from publication for any other reason. Indeed, I’ll admit I’m not comfortable with anthologies and competitions that are only open to certain groups – I’ve declined to submit to such where I was eligible for that reason – but, they are, at least, intended to promote less-represented groups rather than hold back others.

(I must stress that there is a difference between these and anthologies and magazines, such as Black Girl Magic, that focus upon minority characters: while people from the represented group are likely to predominate as writers – after all, who else is better placed to write about a group than members of the group? – anybody can submit to them and they seek to encourage inclusivity rather than ghettoise writers.)

Given my feelings, you can imagine my disgust at discovering an editor openly declaring they had banned Israeli writers from submitting until ‘Israel gives the Palestinians a state.’ I found it almost laughable as the editor is an American and the USA is one of those countries that refuse to recognise the Palestinian state, while its meddling in the region is a major reason why moves towards a solution are stalled. Further, USA has failed to give the native Americans or Hawaiians their own states. By his reasoning, the editor ought to ban American writers. (And, why are no other nations’ writers banned, such as Chinese writers over the occupation of Tibet?)

But, I have to wonder if there’s more to it than Palestine. While Israel is home to Arabs and Druze who identify as Israelis, to most people the country is synonymous with Jews and has become an acceptable means for anti-Semites to express their racism. It would certainly explain the apparent hypocrisy in failing to ban any other nationalities if the editor is actually a racist.

I don’t think anyone should be excluded from publication for their nationality, nor due to racism.

Still, regardless of his reasons, I refuse to patronise a publication that discriminates, even if it’s a paying market, and I hope other decent writers would do likewise.

However, I wouldn’t ban the editor from submitting to an Atlantean publication; everyone is welcome to submit and I won’t be asking for their race, religion, gender, sexuality, nationality, politics or any other details that might exclude them. I will consider their work on its merit alone. Which is how it should be.

Contracts

29 Jul

There is one area of writing that I really don’t enjoy: contracts. It’s not the contracts themselves that is the problem, but the fact that so many are badly written and most are irrelevant. Of course, one might expect a contract where a lot of money is involved, but I’ve found absolutely no correlation between the amounts involved and whether a contract exists – I’ve had to sign contracts for stories where the odds of ever earning anything (such as an editor’s choice award) are low, while the highest paying stories I’ve sold didn’t involve a contract at all.

Given the small amounts of money involved, many contracts are effectively unenforceable due to the cost of court proceedings (especially as I’m usually on the wrong side of the Atlantic), making the signing of them a waste of time. (I’ve had one publisher apparently fold without sending the complimentary copy or payment specified in a contract, although the book remains available on Amazon, and been unable to do anything about it.)

Unfortunately, not only do many publishers insist on writers signing this pointless agreements, but a lot of them are badly written. Now, the vast majority of publishers are decent people who don’t intend to scam writers, but I’ve encountered more than one contract that, unintentionally, was worded so that I would lose control over my story, and some that are just plain incomprehensible or contradictory.

The problem is that very few writers are contract lawyers and, for most of us, writing is either a hobby or a very-low-paying occupation, making consulting a lawyer for every contract a financial impossibility given the amounts involved. However, there are three things you can do before signing a contract. The first is to ask a professional writer. Of course, we’re not contract lawyers, but we have the experience to spot the more obvious problems and offer advice. The second thing you can do is post your question in an online legal advice forum (just make sure you choose the right country, as laws may be different elsewhere). The third is to ask the publisher to clarify any points in writing and keep a copy (save a screen grab if it’s an email or online message); although this doesn’t override the contract you’re signing, if they later claim to control rights you didn’t realise you were granting, it may help prove a case of fraud if they misled you when directly questioned about the contract.

I hope any editors reading this will give consideration to whether they need writers to sign a contract and, if they do, whether it needs to be complicated. If all you want are first publication rights and a period of exclusivity, why do you need a dozen clauses? Nor does a contract doesn’t need to be written in legal jargon, so keep it simple!

Set In Stone?

12 Jan

Reading Comedy Rules by Jonathan Lynn, I was struck by his oberservation that filmmakers tend to shun the test audience as interfering with their vision, whereas a new play will be given a test-run before being unveiled in London or on Broadway, allowing any flaws to be corrected before the big premiere.

This reflects a difference between film, television and novels on the one hand and stage plays and short stories on the other (although television once fell on this side of the equation, as any Doctor Who fan can tell you). Of course, any writing will go through some degree of polishing before being revealed to the public as the author redrafts it, test readers feedback and editors edit, but the first set aim at a permanent creation to which little change can be made, while the second set are more ephemeral and allow change to occur over time. (Of course, you do get ‘director’s cuts’ of films and, sometimes, revised novels, but these tend to reflect the effects of ‘executive meddling’ or, for films, changes in technology, rather than changes in the creator’s vision.)

The difference is that a film, television show or novel is intended as a finished product and, after being presented to the public, isn’t expected to change. A play, on the other hand, is effectively a new entity every time it is performed and as is a short story when published anew. The feedback of cast and audience may cause the playwright to rewrite their opus as they search for perfection, just as the edits imposed or suggested by individual editors and reader feedback can lead the short-story writer to modify their piece before it reappears in print. Unless a play is recorded or made into a film, even a version regarded as ‘definitive’ is just one among many, a suggestion rather than an immutable form, just as only a collected edition of an author’s stories offers any permanence of form (and, even then, may be superceded by a later collection).

This is not to say that one way is superior. While reworking a piece over time may lead to perfection, it is to be hoped that the road to publication or release for a novel or film will be rigorous enough to have much the same effect. (Although, of course, the lack of such a process is a risk that self-published novel authors must be aware of and compensate for.) Nor is it necessary that more feedback is always a good thing – sometimes a minority opinion may echo louder than it deserves or the taste of the majority of the audience may be at odds with what the author wishes to produce, and they will have to make a decision about how far to follow such suggestions.

But, it is worthwhile keeping in mind the differences between the two camps if you produce work in each, or are contemplating doing so, as some people are best suited to working in one way or the other. And, if nothing else, it’s an interesting comparison!

So, you want to be published? Part Two

26 Oct

So, you want to published? Well, if you’ve read part one, you ought to have a suitable manuscript to submit. Time to send it off! But, where to? And, what does publication entail?

The following sections seek to cover the main points, but can only constitute a broad overview. Laws vary between countries, guidelines vary between publishers, and things can and do change over time. If you are uncertain, query or research further before submitting or signing a contract.

Markets

The first thing you need to do, is research where to send your manuscript. There are many publishers out there and it is a waste of both your time and theirs if you send it to the wrong one or submit it in the wrong way, and that’s before you consider which publisher would actually be the best one to approach.

Of course, while the structure of this two-part article has assumed you have a submission ready to shop around, it is equally possible to write one aimed at a specific market, for example, to meet the theme of an anthology. Neither approach is the ‘right way’ and even if you aim your writing at a specific publication, the odds are that it will be rejected and you’ll be shopping it around anyway (and, if you have something that suits the theme and length already written, it makes sense to submit it and direct your energies elsewhere).
But, whether you’re writing for a specific publication or trying to find a home for something you’ve already written, you do need to make sure you properly research the market to ensure your piece fits and that you understand issues such as rights and payment.

You may be surprised to learn how often people do something silly, such as sending a short story to a novel publisher or a horror story to a romance anthology. Of course, sometimes publishers are to blame, if their guidelines are vague or so dense that it’s difficult to locate specific details, but that generally results in errors like sending a 4000 word story when the cut-off length is 3000 words, rather than the sort of egregious errors I’ve mentioned, and a sensible writer will query if they cannot find the specifics they require.

Rights

Rights refers to what you are allowing the publisher to do with your work. Many publishers, unfortunately, insist on First Publication Rights – that is, they only want work that hasn’t previously been published. Sometimes, this may be more restricted – they may want work that hasn’t been published in print, but accept work that has appeared online (or vice versa), or work that hasn’t appeared within a specific geographical area (so First British Publication Rights would mean work that hasn’t previously been published in the UK); this latter is less common now, thanks to various print-on-demand (POD) platforms that allow a publisher to release a book in multiple regions at no extra cost.

Self-published work is considered published and most publishers consider work that has appeared on a blog or website or in publications with a limited circulation to be published, too. They usually state this in their guidelines, but, if in doubt, as always, query.

Because few publishers are interested in reprints (or, at least, unsolicited reprints – that is, reprints they didn’t ask for) and usually pay less, you do need to be sure that the publication is the right place for your work. Or, to put it another way, it makes sense to start with the better paying and more prestigious publications before trying lower or non-paying publications or posting it on your blog; you can always seek to have it republished or decide to put it on your blog later.

Of course, that decision has to be balanced by the marketability of your work. Some genres have spawned large numbers of magazines and anthologies, others are quite niche, and if your work falls into the latter, you may find there are few options open to you (just as there are fewer paying outlets for poetry than fiction).
Publication rights cover both print publication and electronic/digital publication and many publishers will seek to acquire both as they release their publications in both formats. Although many publishers, as mentioned, are seeking works that haven’t been published in any format, if they only acquire the rights to publish it in one format, then you may be able to find a publisher of the other who will regard it as unpublished. Print publication can be subdivided into various formats, such as periodical (magazine), paperback, hardback and large-print. These are seldom referred to when it comes to anthologies as most publishers are acquiring the rights to your work for an anthology that will only appear in a specific format, but will come into play where novels are concerned as it is fairly common for different publishers to handle different formats (meaning you either sell them individually or sell them all to one publisher who then resells or leases the rights to other publishers).

As well as straightforward publication rights, the publisher may also be seeking such rights as audio (that is audiobooks) and translation rights (in order to translate it into other languages). Other rights, such as film and stage rights, also exist, but publishers will not normally seek to acquire these. If you retain the audio rights to your work, you can freely record it yourself or sell it to an audio publisher (it is debatable whether this would be regarded as published, but you may find it easiest to have it published first before selling the audio rights, as most audio publishers are happy to accept previously published work). Translation rights exist for each language and do not impinge on the English language rights (so if you have had your story translated into German – or wrote it in German and then translated it into English – you can offer it as unpublished in English unless the publisher specifically mentions translations; but, note that competitions may ban or restrict the entry of translations). Naturally, film rights allow the story to be made into a film and stage rights allow the story to be adapted for the stage and performed, and will usually be sold to those in those fields (you are unlikely to have a say over how the work is adapted).

When granting rights to a publisher, you need to be aware of how long you are granting the rights for and whether or not they are exclusive. One-time publication rights is most common with periodicals and means that a single print run will be produced – although back issues could potentially be available for a long time, once the last copy is sold, no more will be produced without a new agreement being negotiated. Exclusivity refers to the work being restricted to appearing in only that publication (or, for novels, only with that publisher). One year from publication is the most common period for exclusivity, although it may range from three months to three years. Some publications only ever seek non-exclusive publication rights (although they may request the courtesy of exclusivity for a short period). Longer periods of exclusivity should be considered carefully as they will prevent you from reselling or republishing the work elsewhere. Non-exclusive rights refer to how long the publisher may keep the work in print.

In the past, you might sell a work for a single printing or allowing reprinting within a certain period, but with print-on-demand publishing, a publisher can keep an anthology or novel in print indefinitely and this presents something of a problem for the writer as many publishers are now asking for open-ended non-exclusive rights, which may affect the ability to resell work in the future if a publisher is seeking exclusivity. Of course, if you are receiving royalties, this isn’t a bad deal, as you’ll receive royalties for as long as the book sells, but if you sold your story for a one-off payment, the publisher is far more likely to benefit from the deal than you.

Payment

Payment can be a contentious issue! The sensible writer will, of course, avoid vanity presses (those publishers who charge you for the pleasure of seeing your work in print) and will generally avoid those publishers who offer no payment or contributor copy of any sort, as you’ll be paying them if you want a copy (although I do not class with these those webzines and ezines that are freely available to access or download, as you can get a copy for free). But, should a writer submit work to a publisher that only provides a contributor copy or to publishers that offer only royalties (or those webzines and ezines I mentioned)? That is a decision the writer alone can make.

When deciding where to submit work, the writer needs to consider multiple factors such as rights, length, effort, exposure, prestige, personal satisfaction and saleability. Firstly, the more rights you’re offering up, the better the payment you should expect. If a publisher wants audio and translation rights in addition to print publication rights, they should be prepared to pay more. The longer the period of exclusivity they request, the more they ought to offer, and an open-ended period of non-exclusive publication should offer more than one-off publication rights. If the publisher wants to wants to acquire the copyright to a piece outright, the payment ought to be good as you will lose all rights to exploit it yourself in the future.

When a publisher pays by the word or line of poetry, length will, obviously, have a direct effect upon how much you are paid (and allows you to easily compare payment – 2c per word is more than 1c per word). But, you also have to consider length and effort (frequently, but not always, closely related) when deciding what a piece is worth. You may be happy to put a limerick you dashed off in five minutes on your blog, but the epic poem that took you months to get right should be given more respect. Generally, the more time and effort that has gone into your work, the more you want to earn from it.

While the size of the readership will affect pay rates, as small presses with small readerships generally lack the income to pay well, if at all, you might equally be willing to accept lower pay for the opportunity to get your name out there. I’m not talking about those publishers who offer ‘exposure’ under payment (every publisher should be offering that!), but situations such as having a poem on a non-paying webzine that is read by lots of people or in a local newspaper for free. It may be that not being paid or paid less might help you to generate a readership that will increase your income in the long term. Equally the prestige of a publication may affect your decision – is it better to earn $50 from a midline publication or $10 from a prestige publication that will look good on your writing CV? Again, you’re making a call based on long term gain – can a publication credit leverage you better pay rates or more readers in the long term?

Personal satisfaction is that nebulous element of just how happy you are to see your name in print. Some writers are only really interested in writing as a hobby and will be more than happy to see their poem or story in print (although, no matter how pleased, I would recommend they should avoid paying for a copy). Some writers are full-time professionals and would place a paycheque far ahead of any sense of satisfaction. Most are somewhere in between. Only you can decide how satisfying any given publication credit is. This may even change over time. A beginning writer may feel that building up a portfolio of publication credits is their main aim, but once they are established will look mainly at the income they make. Equally, a beginning writer may be hardnosed in pursuit of money. It’s entirely up to you.

Saleability is the last thing to consider. That is, the question of how much would you expect the work to make you. Generally, a reprint will earn you less than an unpublished piece, but a piece that has proven popular may sell better as a reprint. Often, the more niche a piece is, the less it is likely to earn you due to the smaller audience, although if there is sufficient demand and few writers, the reverse may be true. The actual quality of the writing will affect the saleability – the better you are at writing, the greater your chances of being accepted by the higher-paying markets as you will usually have far more competition. And, of course, the more popular and famous you are, the more people will be willing to pay for your work.

By considering all these aspects, you can decide what a reasonable pay rate for any given piece of work is (and you may decide that different pieces are worth different amounts).

The same issues apply to self-publishing when deciding how much to charge for your book. Obviously, you’re keeping your rights, so they don’t factor in, and exposure will either be guesswork or based on experience, but you will need to balance your sense of satisfaction, the book’s saleability and the amount of time and effort (and any costs, such as paying for a cover image) that went into it.

Contracts

The problem with publishing contracts is that 90% of them cover amounts far too small to make enforcing them worthwhile (especially when publisher and writer are in different countries). Only if the writer goes on to become famous or the book sells really well is it worth pursuing any breach. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop publishers from issuing contracts for piddling amounts, often with pointlessly complex language and more clauses than necessary, meaning that you will almost certainly have to deal with them.

Of course, where larger amounts of money are involved or specific duties covered (for example, the publisher has promised to provide a certain level of publicity or the writer has agreed to write a novel to a set deadline) then a contract is a must, but many are nothing more than an inconvenience.

Unfortunately, whether a contract is offered and how complex it is has little to do with the amounts involved. Most small press publishers that offer only a complimentary copy work solely on an informal basis of acceptance letters or emails, but you could still receive a lengthy contract for exactly the same offer.

Generally, you do not need to have a lawyer look over publishing contracts, as the issues are straight forward – what rights are you granting the publisher and for how long, what format will it be published in, when it is due to be published, what happens if publication is delayed or cancelled, and how much will you be paid and when.

But, you do need to read them carefully to be certain nothing slips by you, especially if the language is convoluted and flowery. The last thing you want is to discover you’ve given away more rights than you intended. Most publishers are decent, honest folk, but this might happen unintentionally if the contract is poorly worded (I had to ask for one contract to be reworded because if implied I would have to pay the publisher if I wanted to reprint the story in my own anthology).

Given that most contracts cover such small amounts, the cost of having it looked at by a lawyer will be prohibitive. But, if you aren’t sure a contract is legit or you just don’t understand it, you do have options that don’t cost a penny. If you know a professional writer or publisher, they may be willing to look at it for you and offer their opinion (but bear in mind they aren’t an expert and can only offer a layman’s advice, and remember they are busy people and may not be able to spare the time). If you are a member of a body such as the Society of Authors, you are likely to have access to professional legal advice provided by the body. There are also sites online where you can post legal questions to get lawyers’ opinions (some are free and rely on whoever, if anyone, looks at your question, others charge but guarantee your question will receive an answer; of course, there is no guarantee that the person who answers your question will be an expert in contract law, but they should at least be able to offer some guidance).
If you are lucky enough to be offered a substantial amount of money, then do seek professional legal advice to make sure everything is legitimate.

Today, it is common for contracts to be signed electronically, using Adobe, or for scanned signed copies or even a typed, emailed declaration to be accepted. These methods are held to be held legally binding.

Go, submit!

You now have a basic understanding of all the key points, so what are you waiting for? Go, submit your work.

So, you want to be published? Part One

29 Sep

So, you want to be published? I’m assuming you are capable or writing something and, indeed, have done so. If not, go away and write a story, poem or article, then come back to learn about the next step. Lots of people dream of being published who never finish a thing.

Check Your Work

Before you do anything else, check your work over and make sure you’ve got your spelling and grammar correct. If it’s a poem, make sure it scans. Thanks to spell and grammar checks, there’s little excuse for submitting a document riddled with errors, but do check that you haven’t typed (or the computer has autocorrected to) the wrong word and that no words are missing; and do not so slavishly follow the computer’s corrections that you insert the wrong word or bad grammar by mistake. If in doubt, double check.

Just as it’s good to leave a gap between drafts in order to check how a piece reads, it also works when it comes to checking your grammar and spelling: it’s easy to read what should be there rather than what actually is. A little distance can help you spot errors.

Layout

Once you are reasonably certain your work is free of error, you’re ready to lay your manuscript out. It can be a good idea to create a template so that you don’t have to reformat every document you type as most editors request a similar layout.

Selecting your font is easy – almost all editors who have a preference ask for Times New Roman. A few prefer other fonts, but usually also accept it, so you will almost never need to change your font if you select Times New Roman from the outset. Keep it black on white and choose size 12. Even though, occasionally, you may want to use more than one font (such as including non-English text), this is problematic as, should you or an editor changing the font as a block, this can easily be lost (I’m speaking from experience here!), while some specialised fonts may not be available to everyone; thus such mixing should be avoided if at all possible and be flagged in the covering letter or as a note in the document.

Your document should have your name, address and email at its top. You will probably find it best to locate these on the upper left as, while many editors have no preference, those who do usually follow the so-called standard manuscript layout and will insist that they are located there.

Next comes word count (generally, unless writing flash fiction, you need only round this to the nearest hundred words for a short story or thousand words for a novel; for poems, you may wish to include the line count). This can be placed below your personal details or in the upper right, to conform to standard manuscript layout (personally, as an editor, this really annoys me as, when cutting and pasting a name and address, I end up with the word count in the middle of it).

Then comes the title and your byline, which should be centred. Your byline is the name you will be published under, which may be your real name, a variation on your real name or a pen name. If using a pen name, you may wish to include a note beneath your name and address or in your covering letter that you are ‘x writing as y’, just to make clear which is which.

Finally, we reach your actual submission. For poems, articles and short fiction, this will usually start directly below the title and byline. Novels, non-fiction books and competition entries usually have a front page with all the above details and the submission proper starts on a fresh page – this will be titled with the relevant chapter or section number or the submission title (but not byline) for a competition. Remember to use a page break if creating a front page.

Prose should be left aligned (not justified). Poems should be laid out as they are intended to appear in print (but bear in mind that complicated layouts may be lost during pasting, do try to keep it straightforward).

Fiction and non-fiction paragraphs should be indented using the paragraph layout tool in your program, not indented using tab or spaces. There should be no line after the end of the paragraph. (It should also be noted that you should only ever include a single space after a full stop.)

Section breaks are usually indicated with a star or hash, but you could equally leave a blank line.

Prose should be concluded with The End or Ends (although one publisher I have worked with insisted on x-x-x). Unless very long, poetry doesn’t require its ending to be indicated.

It is acceptable to include multiple short poems in one document, but, normally, you should only have one piece of prose in a document. A good generic document title is the title of the piece itself (so Lord of the Rings, not Fantasy Novel). It is best to save your document in as a .doc or .rtf file as they are the most widely accessible file types.

Any illustrations you may want to submit with your story should be submitted as separated files, not within the document.

Your Bio

You will also need a bio. Occasionally, especially with competitions, you will not need to send one, but most publishers like to see one. Keep it short (80-100 words) and to the point. Primarily, you want to tell them about your writing career and anything relevant to your writing – for example, if you are writing about education and you’re a teacher, tell them. Don’t worry if you have no writing credits – all writers start somewhere and you can spend a little more time describing yourself.

Do keep it interesting and relevant. You don’t have to tell the editor everything about yourself! In particular, avoid personal details that are unrelated to your writing or achievements. Relevance can boost your chances of being accepted, but irrelevance risks making you sound odd, boring, offensive or as if you are either attempting to drop names or force them to accept you so as not to appear discriminatory.

Try and imagine you are an editor receiving this bio from a complete stranger and you have just a few seconds to take it in – how does it come across? You want them intrigued not bored, and you definitely don’t want them confused, abused or offended.

Links and your twitter ID are best listed at the end of the bio, not within it – editors may not want to include them. Do not include more than two.

This will be a separate document – again .doc or .rtf – or pasted into the submission email.

Covering Letter

Your covering letter should be straight to the point and pasted straight into the submission email (ahead of the bio and any pasted submissions).

For most submissions, something like “Attached for your consideration is an unpublished short story called x (y words) by z” is perfect. Editors are busy people and don’t want to have to wade through the verbiage to reach the point of an email.

Generally, you do not need to provide any sort of description of a short story or poem (at most you may want to mention the genre or, for poems, the specific type). For articles and novels, an introduction and/or synopsis will likely be required. You may find it easiest to attach the synopsis as a separate document.

Generally, you don’t need to mention anything about yourself as you’ve already put that in your bio – only if something is very pertinent or if submissions are only open to a specific category of writer should you do so

Editorial Requirements

Okay, so you have your story laid out, you’ve written your bio and you either have a draft covering letter or, at least, a short, generic letter in your mind, and you’re ready to submit.

Go to the publisher’s website and look at their submissions guidelines. (These are not always easy to find – look for Guidelines, Submissions or Contributors – failing that, email them and ask them for their guidelines).

Many editors are quite easygoing – in some cases, there are no real guidelines at all, just an email to send work to – and, if you have followed the above suggestions, you should be able to submit with little or no further effort. Some are stricter, and you may find you have to tweak your layout or provide specific information in your covering letter (pay particular attention if entering a competition – some will insist that no personal detail is included on the story, some will accept a front page; some require entry forms, and so on).

A few editors have very specific requirements – most of these are obsessed with the so-called standard manuscript layout; if your work is entirely or mostly laid out in that style to start with, you will have fewer modifications to make. Of course, some do just have idiosyncratic ideas, and if you want to submit to them, you will just have to suck it up and make your work match their requirements.

As well as ensuring you have the right email to submit to, make sure you have put the right subject in the subject line of the email, attached or pasted into the email your work as requested, and made sure to include anything else required (for example, a few editors request a keyword be included to prove you have read their guidelines, while others request a photo).

Congratulations – you are ready to submit now!

Next time – I’ll discuss markets, reprints, rights, payment and contracts

Minority Report

29 Jun

Concern for the number of minority genre writers being published, or rather, the lack thereof, seems to go in waves. For a while, people worry that not enough minority writers are being published and whether straight white males ought to lay aside the pens to make space for them. Then, the concern dies down with little or nothing practical having been done to encourage more minority writers and the publishing world goes on much as it ever did until the next wave.

Of course, when we talk about minorities, we’re usually talking from an American point of view, where the disproportionate number of white as compared to black or Latino genre writers is more of an issue. From a British point of view, minorities really are minorities and although encouraging more to read and write genre fiction is good, seeing more whites in the field doesn’t smack of injustice in the same manner (instead, issues of regional voices to counteract metropolitan dominance is likely to be more of an issue). If we were to look at the issue globally, then there probably is a dominance of WASP (and particularly American) writers in the English-speaking world, but there are other language markets, some of which English-speaking writers have penetrated in numbers and some they haven’t, and we are seeing more and more translated into English. In terms of sexuality, even when publishers and broadcasters avoided blatantly homosexual characters, genre fiction had always attracted a disproportionate number of LGBT readers and writers, so that inclusivity on their part is far less of an issue than the inclusion of non-whites. As for women, although the same issues apply to them, it seems almost an insult to include them when talking of minorities, given that they aren’t, although we may perhaps think of them as a minority in terms of representation in the field rather than absolute numbers, for the purposes of such discussion.

Now, I think there may be genuine barriers confronting minority writers. For example, science fiction, traditional fantasy and some types of horror (as opposed to, say, urban fantasy and paranormal romance) do tend to be perceived as male arenas, meaning woman won’t be as likely as men to read or write the genre and there may be some resistance from editors and readers to female authors. However, I don’t think that perception is very strong and it’s only likely to be a significant impediment if the woman herself believes it. Then, there is the fact that black people tend to be disadvantaged in education, but the same could be said of the white working class and they are usually lumped in with the rest of the straight white males – nor is it a hurdle that can be directly addressed by publishers or readers in the field of publication, being an educational issue (although they may, of course, involve themselves with initiatives to improve literacy rates)..

The real issues that apply for getting minority writers published fall into the areas of exposure and publication. Many people have little awareness of genre writing and some will not think it is something respectable or that they can do. If someone has little awareness of fantasy or thinks it isn’t for them, they are unlikely to write it. Thus there is valid reasoning behind increasing the number of minority characters in genre fiction and ensuring that plots and settings are attractive to minorities (although such things must be done with care to avoid token characters and making patronising assumptions about groups – a lot of women might enjoy romance, making adding romance to fantasy a good way to attract more female readers, but assuming that all woman only enjoy romance and little more than romance would be an effective way of putting lots of women readers off the genre).

Not that offering up such characters, plots and settings need exclude the traditional straight white male reader. Although some people want to only read the same things rehashed over and over again, most readers enjoy variety and have interests in other viewpoints and cultures. Broadening genres beyond the usual conventions offers more for everyone.

The second element of exposure is actually making people aware of what is available. For major publishers, this isn’t a problem, as they have the budget and personnel to get the message out (unfortunately, they tend to shy away from doing anything new). It’s much harder for small presses as they are generally run on a shoestring by just one or two people, often as a hobby, so are not placed to publicise themselves as widely as they would like. Indeed, the small presses often struggle to publicise themselves to the limited readership of those likely to read their product, let alone try and reach new readers beyond their usual. This is where readers and contributors come in. If you want fresh blood added to genre readership and writers, it is vital that readers and writers themselves play their part in spreading knowledge of the presses (especially where they fall into a minority category).

The other issue is publication. Now, the vast majority of editors welcome anyone who writes the sort of work they publish. Most would be happy evaluating submissions anonymously as the identity of the writer is of no relevance unless specifically-relating to their authority on a topic. Those publications that are restricted as to who may submit are usually aimed either at new writers or minorities, so do not adversely impact minority writers. Of course, there may be some issues of style, but I cannot say I have detected any reliable difference between male and female or black and white writers. There may be stereotypes we tend to associate with certain groups, but like all stereotypes, they are only applicable in the broadest and crudest of ways.

It could be argued that readers tend to associate certain types of writer with certain genres and would avoid reading stories by writers who don’t fit their preconception. That may be true of some readers, but I cannot say I’ve ever encountered any when it comes to speculative fiction. Most readers, like most editors, select fiction they enjoy, rather than judging fiction by the author’s identity. (They may, of course, favour or disfavour individual authors on experience, but that’s nothing to do with this issue.) Outside of some of the big publishers, playing things carefully out of fear of losing revenue, I doubt any editor of speculative fiction would turn down a writer because of their gender, race or sexuality out of fear of losing readers.

No, the real problem when it comes to publishing minorities is getting them to submit in the first place (and, although not an issue I’ve encountered, getting them to submit as frequently as the straight white males). Although I haven’t conducted a proper study, a look over recent issues of Bard showed more male contributors than female (although, of course, I’m going by name – for all I know, they could be pen-names and, in some cases, I’ve assumed a writer to be one gender and then discovered they’re the other, while some I have no idea, not needing to know it). As far as race goes, it is more difficult to tell from names alone, although it is probable I publish more whites than non-whites, and sexuality is something I could only know if they tell me directly or indirectly. However, I cannot publish submissions I don’t receive and I do receive more from men than women. And that is the real hurdle that needs to be overcome – under-represented writers need to submit more work in order to stand a chance of being accepted.

But, even if all the odds were stacked against the minority writer, and I don’t think they are, there is no excuse for them to sit back and bewail their lot. In the past, when publishing a book or magazine was a costly exercise that took up a lot of time and probably also required storage space, minorities had little opportunity to set up magazines or self-publish for the simple fact that they tended to have less money, smaller homes and less free time, as well as often a poorer education and even legal restrictions on them. Today, none of that matters thanks to epublishing and print-on-demand (POD) books. It is easy to create an ezine or anthology aimed at minority readers and writers and if a minority author felt they were being overlooked because of who they were, they can self-publish their work. Of course, there is no guarantee of a readership, but there is no guarantee of a readership for anything that is published and a passionate editor or author can achieve phenomenal success.

All of which essentially brings me to the point that success is largely in the writer’s own hands. Submit your work if you want to be published and keep submitting, as much as you can as often as you can, and if that fails, publish it yourself. If your work is any good, you will find success eventually; it may not always be great success – millionaire authors with huge readerships are few and far between, after all – but it’s success nonetheless.

So, whoever you are, don’t let myths put you off forging ahead as a writer – everyone’s welcome!

Critiquing the Critiques

22 May

Writers can expect to see their work critiqued by editors, both when rejected and sometimes with an acceptance. Of course, not all editors do supply such feedback – many are busy people who just don’t have the time to respond to every submission, while others perhaps have no concrete advice to offer – but many do. Unfortunately, while some supply very good advice, others… don’t.

Feedback almost uniformly divides into helpful and unhelpful feedback – there’s not really such a thing as indifferent feedback, unless the writer has submitted something that doesn’t fit their guidelines and is told so, and even that is helpful in its way.

Unhelpful feedback can be divided into three types. The first sort is the factually inaccurate. This is where the editor identifies a flaw that doesn’t actually exist and is the most unhelpful sort as a lot of effort may be wasted attempting to locate a non-existent plot hole or trying to work out what they’re actually on about. Of course, given that it probably results from them skimming the submission, it may indicate they found it boring, but the most you may glean from this supposition is what stories not to send them. A subset of this category I’ve encountered recently is the editor saying the exact opposite of the point they apparently intended to make, which, again, tends to waste time as you attempt to decipher their meaning.

The second sort of unhelpful feedback you might encounter is one with no context. As an example, one reader once offered the comment of ‘Boring’ beneath one of my gaming reviews. The problem with this (besides the lack of any further detail) was that it didn’t define what exactly they found boring? Was it the review? Was it the game I was reviewing? Was it gaming in general? Who knows!

The third kind of unhelpful feedback occurs when the editor effectively wants to tell their own story in place of yours. Instead of actual feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of the story, they supply an outline for one completely different to it and suggest you write it. Which is all very well if you want to take on the commission, but not much good if you just wanted feedback on your work; and, as the editors that tend to do this don’t pay, you probably don’t want to take on the challenge, anyway…

Although not a specific class of unhelpful feedback, a special mention must go to those editors who insist on giving detailed feedback whilst demanding you never resubmit rejected work to them. Thank you, I now know exactly how to craft the story to your specific needs, but you’ll never see it. Unfortunately, other editors probably don’t share your exact same requirements! So, not terribly helpful.

Balancing the equation, there are three types of useful feedback. The first sort is technical and only really applies where a writer has significant failings with their spelling and/or grammar. All writers will make mistakes and possess idiosyncrasies, and there will always be a question of ‘house style’ and spelling convention (primarily British versus American), but these are minimal concern from a feedback point of view, mainly being covered during the proofing stage. But, if a writer makes a lot of errors, putting the editor off their work before they’ve made much progress reading it, they can expect to be informed in order to improve their writing.

The second sort of useful feedback tells the writer more about the editor than it does about their story. Some editors may believe their opinions reflect an objective reality and some may even be giving advice that applies to a significant portion of publications, but on the whole, editorial opinion is subjective. What one editor believes constitutes a good story is not necessarily an opinion shared by other editors. I’ve had stories rejected by one editor with a savage critique only for the next editor I submit it to accept it and rave over how good it is. Neither editor is wrong; they just have different tastes and different aims for their publications. But, while you may not wish to follow an editor’s advice and rewrite a story that, in your opinion, has achieved what you wanted it to, you can learn what they do or do not want. If an editor tells you your story is slow, you won’t send them another slow-moving masterpiece. If an editor complains that your story is full of sex or swearing, you’ll know not to send that type to them again. And, so on. You could even try rewriting the story to match the style they do want and resubmit it to them, while sending the original one elsewhere in the hope of finding an editor who will appreciate it. Many editors can supply this sort of feedback, but it can be drowned out if they are obsessed with providing details that aren’t terribly helpful. Simply stating that a story is slow or tends towards telling than showing is more useful than an attempt to analyse its flaws at length, in my opinion.

The third type of useful feedback is the sort that makes you think. Not many editors can do this, but there are some who possess the ability to dissect a story and explain exactly what they think in a clear manner. Because they do so in such a concise manner, it is easy to discern where they are offering good advice that is worth taking. In addition, I find that when I disagree with their assessment I’m forced to clarify why I disagree, helping me to better understand my story, which is incredibly useful when deciding whether or not to make changes as, sometimes, you may discover that while you disagree, it’s not a good enough reason to resist a change that might make the story work better for a wider readership. Such feedback is the rarest, but most valuable of all.

Hopefully, this will help you to discern the advice worth paying heed to from that best ignored. Perhaps, too, any editors reading this will consider the feedback they give and just how helpful it really is.