Filthy Lucre

The Vantage Disadvantage

So, we’ve been discussing Jeff’s awesome History of Fail in terms of rejection letters I’ve gotten along the way to my stunning … is “success” the word we’re using? Anyway, yes: Rejections. I have many. This one actually isn’t a rejection. And it made me very angry. And if you’ve ever met me, you know it’s really difficult to make me angry. Like, people have stabbed me and I’m all like “Oh, no worries.”

Subsidize This

If you were submitting novels to every single listing in the Writer’s Digest back in the Day, you probably came across Vantage Press. Founded in 1949, sued for millions in 1990, they finally shuttered in 2012 and were for a time the most recognizable and well-known “vanity” publisher, or subsidy publisher. This was in the Dark Times before POD and easy eBook self-publishing, you see, and it worked like this:

  1. 17-year old Jeff mails a photocopy of his novel Cravenhold (previously discussed) to Vantage Press via the listing in the Writer’s Market, which does not mention the words “vanity” or “subsidy”.
  2. Jeff receives the following letters, informing him a) they love the novel and want to publish it! b) it will only cost Jeff $14, 675 to do so [the fact that I would be paying them and the actual amount wasn’t in the letter; it was in the contract] ! c) wait, what?
Why yes, I *am* pleased.

Why yes, I *am* pleased.

That’s right: A mere $15,000 (that’s about $30,000 in 2015 dollars, BTW) and my book would be published! Along with this list of absolutely hilarious promotional efforts:

"Study additional promotional steps after publication." UH, *sure*.

“Study additional promotional steps after publication.” UH, *sure*.

Yes, an advertising announcement not in The New York Times, but the “The New York Times”! And they will “suggest” “autograph parties” (what in bloody hell is an “autograph party?)! But the best is the “Production Specifications” section at the bottom, which assures me the trim size will be “about” 6×9, and that it will be printed on “quality” paper.

I mean, seriously. That this place operated for more than 60 years is a crime. I was 17 but not stupid, so I wrote them back a nasty letter telling them to return my manuscript or I would burn their place of business down. And this is what I got in response:

Just THIRTY THREE easy monthly payments of $350.

Just THIRTY THREE easy monthly payments of $350.

Yup – a fucking discount. They were sorry to hear I wasn’t incredibly stupid, or rich, or both, so they generously double-tapped me by suggesting I was so fucking talented, they could swing publication for just $11,675, saving me $3,000 over the suckers who didn’t bitch and moan. Even better is the suggestion that I could make monthly payments of $350 and they “would work on your book as we received the payments” so my book would publish three years later.

Oh this was rich. So I wrote a second letter demanding they return the manuscript or I would show up at their offices and perform the Daffy Duck Gasoline Trick He Can Do But Once, and they finally relented and returned my manuscript … but included this final gem of passive aggression:

"we do believe it would be worthwhile for you to make the effort."

“we do believe it would be worthwhile for you to make the effort.”

Holy hell. “You might be one of the fortunate few.”

I mean, seriously: My fault for not knowing any better, but assholes like this are why people think publishers are evil gatekeepers. Don’t worry; a few years later in 1990 they were successfully sued and ordered to pay $3.5 million to 2,200 authors who had paid them for services that were never actually performed, and the business moved to Massachusetts. Still, they stayed somehow in business for another twenty-two years, and apparently when they closed up shop they left a lot of authors in the lurch. Just goes to show: I’m dumb, but I ain’t that dumb.

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How to Annoy Your Agent

Your Anti-Monkey Rhetoric Makes Me Sad.

Your Anti-Monkey Rhetoric Makes Me Sad.

When you’re a young writer seeking an agent, you always think getting an agent will be like it is in the movies: They’ll buy you an expensive lunch and then start sending you plenty of contracts. In other words, we all think getting an agent is pretty much the same as becoming rich and famous. And then you get an agent and you discover what it really means is there’s someone to tell you how incredibly annoying you are, and that if you weren’t such a genius writer they would certainly have a restraining order against you.

This past week I tortured my lovely agent excessively with a series of oddball contracts, opportunities, and mysterious contacts from mysterious people. I had the following conversation with her at least three times:

<phone rings>

ME: Hello I am required by court order to inform you that I am not wearing pants.

AGENT: What in the sweet sainted hell is this?

ME: A short story contract.

AGENT: Who wrote it? Monkeys? DID MONKEYS WRITE THIS CONTRACT?

ME: Uh —

AGENT: IS THIS A JOKE? ARE YOU PRANKING ME? I Swear if you are pranking me I will have you killed.

ME: Uh — No prank. Is it okay to sign?

AGENT: Jebus. Yes, I’ll mark a few changes and you can sign it. Tell whoever wrote this contract they should plan carefully to never meet me in a dark alley.

And so on.

I did earn the ultimate compliment from my agent, though, when I sent her something on Saturday night around 10PM and happened to catch her still checking email (and a version of the conversation above did in fact occur), when she said “You really do provide the most entertainment of any client I have.”

Frankly, if I make you swear and then tell me I’m entertaining in the same breath, I figure I am doing my job as a writer. Right? This is why you need an agent: A lot of people out there think they know how to write a contract, or how to run a magazine or publisher, or how to do, well, anything. As a writer I have realized that the ONLY thing I know how to do competently is write (and believe me, there is a long string of Day Jobs where world-weary bosses will back me up on that). There have been plenty of contracts large and small that I would have signed without hesitation, only to pause when I spied the rictus of horror my agent’s face had taken on.

Am I saying that without my agent by now I’d have signed a contract written by monkeys and would be, in fact, working for Monkey Overlords and being paid in abuse and grooming sessions? That is exactly what I’m saying.

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The Art of Rejection Part Deux

Here we are in the second installment of essays about rejection letters I’ve received, because it’s educational and also because this blog is a hungry time-devouring beast that demands content, content, more and more content! until I lay awake at night wondering how in the world I will attract eyeballs tomorrow, and the next day, and the next until sleep is a distant memory.

Also, going back through these rejection letters has been eye-opening. First of all, I don’t recall being this industrious. I’m typically a lazy, lazy man. Secondly, I don’t recall being this hilarious.

Back in the Day I bought a Writer’s Market and read all the advice within and then promptly ignored it all and wrote these sloppy, funny, shaggy-dog type query letters based on the theory that I didn’t want to work with an agent or editor who didn’t “get” me or my sense of humor. This has proven to be excellent advice from my younger self, which is an unusual condition as my younger self’s advice is typically horseshit along the lines of “Sleep more” or “Dude!” – that’s it, just the word dude.

Anyways, here’s a query letter I sent out to a small publisher in early 1997, which was sent back to me with the handwritten notes on it, requesting the manuscript, and then my follow-up letter delivering the manuscript and the handwritten notes rejecting the book. I thought I’d share these because the query letter is a disaster in many ways, and yet it got a request for a full solely because I amused everyone in the room – in fact, I have another rejection somewhere that tells me flat out they would publish the query letter but not the book.

Yet Another Query letter from a Desperate and Violence-Prone Writer of Fiction

Yet Another Query letter from a Desperate and Violence-Prone Writer of Fiction

reject_97_Page_2

My God You Want to See the Book

The book itself was title Shadow Born (yes, yes, I know – my titles are awful and everyone knows this) and is one I still quite like, actually, although it is definitely juvenilia. It’s set at a college party where something terrible happens, is told from various POVs and employs some minor experimental things (experimental for me, not, you know, literature itself). The bit about my brother’s feedback is true. When he read the MS he complained that the final chapter, which was the MC ranting in a stream-of-consciousness way, should be titled “Lord Kincaid’s Farewell Address” because of its pomposity, so I promptly re-titled the chapter “Lord Kincaid’s Farewell Address” in a fit of pique. BURN.

Anyways, I had a lot of success getting responses from agents and editor by sending humorous, self-deprecating queries. I also had a lot of blank, form, and slightly negative responses to this tactic, so Your Mileage May Vary.

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Being Charged for Submissions

I have cats to feed, you know.

I have cats to feed, you know.

The other day, writer Nick Mamatas mentioned pulling a story submission from a magazine because the magazine had instituted submissions fees (see the Storify here: https://storify.com/NMamatas/against-submission-fees). As it happens, I’d spent the day before seeking markets to submit stories in my typically semi-incompetent, shaggy dog kind of way, and I’d gotten frustrated after hitting three markets in a row that required submission fees of $2-$4 or thereabouts. It’s not a lot of money, maybe, but I didn’t submit to those magazines, because I agree with Nick: Submission fees are exploitive, and demonstrate that the market in question doesn’t value writers very highly.

It comes down to this: My work has value. The essential belief involved in fiction markets is that people (readers) will pay magazines and publishers money to read the things we write. If a magazine charges readers for the privilege of reading my genius, they should pay me for the right to publish it. If no one pays the magazine, that’s not my fault or my problem. They’re free to stop buying my work if I’m not bringing in eyeballs.

And I am free to not submit to markets that charge a submission fee, so what’s the problem? Well, I know that a few decades ago when I was just getting my legs under me, I might have paid some submission fees, because I was dimwitted and desperate for some professional street cred. And $2, even in those ancient days, was low enough that I could have considered it the cost of doing business. And all that would likely mean today is that I would have spent $500 on submission fees and likely not sold a damn thing, because the stories I was submitting weren’t all that great.

Being inundated with awful slush from idiots like me isn’t a good reason for submission fees, either. As Nick points out somewhere in there, a) reading slush is the price you pay for accepting submissions, b) there are ways to throttle down submissions if you’re being crushed by crappy subs (most easily, reading periods or very tight guidelines) and c) fees won’t stop the awful, it just monetizes it.

Money should flow to the writer, because we created the shit you want to read. It’s that simple. Yes, publishers get a cut for providing infrastructure. Others might get a cut for facilitating or assisting, who knows. But writers shouldn’t pay to play, period. As Nick points out, everyone else associated with getting a magazine out to its readers gets paid – why shouldn’t writers? And if people choose to volunteer for a magazine out of love for words, that’s great, but has nothing to do with submission fees.

Now if someone wants to talk to me about paying me for my submissions, I am open to that conversation. I’ve got a lot of stories, people. A lot of stories.

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Forever Twelve

This sweater was likely a hand-me-down and probably cost $1 AS ALL SWEATERS SHOULD.

This sweater was likely a hand-me-down and probably cost $1 AS ALL SWEATERS SHOULD.

ANYONE who knows me knows I have a distinct inability to comprehend that the universe evolves and changes around me. This is most evident in my attitude towards the prices of things: To me, everything should still cost as much as it did in 1980, and when I’m confronted with $3 coffees I am outraged, convinced I am being screwed. You don’t even want to know my reaction to discovering that a modest new car can cost as much as $15,000. My first car, the much mourned Laverne the 1978 Chevrolet Nova, cost me $1.

A moment of silence, please, for Laverne, best car ever.

Another aspect of this can be identified in my artistic identity, to an extent: As a writer I’m often still that 12-year old who feels ridiculously grateful when anyone bothers to read my work, much less actually pay me for it. When presented with offers and deals for publication or something else, I am a terrible negotiator because at some level I’m still that kid, and I think I should be happy just for the attention. On phone calls with people who want to do something with my work, I’m breathless, nervous, and supremely uncomfortable with the idea of insisting on getting paid. It’s not because commerce defiles art (Ha!) but rather because I immediately regress to that 12-year old kid who made his own book covers out of construction paper.

If Amazon-style self-publishing had existed in 1983, my friends, the world would be littered with my juvenelia (complete with my own cover art) and I would have earned about $50 in the ensuing 32 years. There would be regrets.

Kids: This is why you want an agent. This. Because if you’re like me, you need someone who will laugh in the face of piss-poor offers and fight tooth and nail for every right and every sub-right. If I were doing this on my own no doubt I’d actually owe publishers money simply because they half-heartedly published my work.

Now, writers do tend to be at the bottom of any entertainment budget, it’s true. Films that have budgets in the hundreds of millions will be paying a novel author a few hundred thousand for the source material. That’s a lot of money, but when you contextualize it, it’s a tiny percentage of the total. But of course, nothing happens unless a writer first creates a story and characters, does it? Slowly, I’ve come to realize that giving away work for free doesn’t make sense – it takes me time and energy to write this stuff, it will make someone else some money when they publish it or adapt it, so I should absolutely always get paid. It’s taken me decades, but I’ve come to own that.Still, put me in a meeting or a conversation about getting paid for some writing, and I’m instantly twelve years old again, demanding that a new pair of sneakers cost $10 and shocked to the core that books cost more than the $3 they cost in 1983 – and somehow conflating my writing career with the chores I did at the old Somers homestead in exchange for a $10 weekly allowance.

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CHUM’s Cover

Designed by Frank Rivera

Chum by Jeff Somers

Here’s the Fab cover for my next novel, Chum, due out from Tyrus books on 9/18/13. Chum is a darkly comic novel about marriage, mayhem, and murder, told from multiple points of view and revisiting events from different POVs throughout the book.

When I first saw the cover I wasn’t sure what I thought, frankly – it seemed very stark and the roughness of the art on the bottles threw me. But then I got it, and realize how great this cover is.

It’s stark so it stand out as a thumbnail when people are scrolling on web sites or their phones.

It’s rough because the story is rough. The characters have jagged edges. The language is, er, salty (would you expect anything else from me?). There are literally – literally – no good people in the whole story. One or two people think they’re good, but they … aren’t.

And the off-center “U” in CHUM? Genius. It’s drunken and unpredictable.

So, my gratitude and respect to Frank Rivera who created this cover, and to Tyrus Books, for packaging my work so well. We’re gonna be good friends, I think.

 

And, without further comment:

Chum by Jeff Somers

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Rookie Mistake: Juvenilia

Drunk Jeff Working Hard at "writing"

Drunk Jeff Working Hard at “writing”

You’d think that by now I’d have this writing game down pat. Six novels with two more due out soon, over twenty-five short stories published, a few anthologies – I may not be a genius, or a bestseller, but I’ve done this for a while now. You’d think I’d have figured out how to not humiliate myself any more.

You’d think.

You have to remember, I am a lazy man. Lazy, lazy, lazy. Like, seriously lazy. Lazy Men like me have a lot of really bad habits born out of this laziness and we’re always getting ourselves into pickles because we try to be lazy and shit gets real and then we end up working twice as hard in order to pull things back together. Lazy Men are probably pretty much responsible for every tragedy and horror in history, just a long series of guys who’ve been wearing the same pants for six days shrugging and neglecting to do something.

So, my most recent laziness-related humiliation came from submitting a story. I write a lot of stories. Most are crap, but a few linger in my memory as pretty good. Sometimes I go back through the archives and find a few gems — pieces I didn’t appreciate at the time, but which have something to them. A more mature, diligent author would revise these. I prefer to just submit them.

Sometimes this works out. I’ve sold a few, much to my surprise. But then I’m always surprised when I sell something. When my agent called to tell me we’d sold Trickster last year I spent several weeks chuckling at her excellent joke. When the advance check arrived I was puzzled for a while, then assumed it was a hoax. So selling a few pieces of juvenilia doesn’t rattle me: Sometimes I think the central idea is good, but the execution is kind of meh, so I can see how it happens.

Recently, though, I submitted an old story with a nice idea and I didn’t really read it through very closely. I’m far too Rock Star for that, as long as we agree to define Rock Star as very drunk. It was recently rejected, and the comments from the editors were … not kind. They were also: Not inaccurate. I re-read the piece and frankly I’m a little ashamed of myself. Note the emphasis on little. I remain pretty much in love with myself.

The story can be saved with a bit of revision, and I’ll be dumb enough to submit it again. Lessons: none. I make it my business to never ever learn anything. So far it’s worked out remarkably well. And if you allow yourself to learn lessons from your writing career you’ll end up giving up writing because the lessons are always along the lines of you will never be able to quit your day job or your author photo makes you look like a dweeb because you are a dweeb. Still, this could be a lesson for all of you: Be careful when submitting your juvenilia, kids. There’s probably a reason you let it rot all those years.

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First Review of Trickster

Trickster by Jeff SomersThe author is always the last to know: Apparently there are real live galleys of Trickster out there, because someone just posted the first review. Five stars on GoodReads, baby!

“I loved the world Mr. Somers hsa created, and his perfectly IMperfect characters, and I WILL be reading any sequels the moment I can get my greedy little hands on them.”

Score! Go buy ten. Papa needs liquor monies.

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Book Trailers

A few weeks ago, I started a little side business making Book Trailers (and writing and editing and picking up laundry – you know, FREELANCING! Hire me for something. Please. I’m begging you). I’ve made a bunch of book trailers for my own books over the years, as well as other videos, and I really enjoy it. Something about taking pieces of video or photos, some music, and some text and making a coherent thing out of it appeals to me (heck, I made an entire music video out of scraps of stock video). I figured, I enjoy it, people need Book Trailers made (I mean, seriously – have you seen some of the trailers out there?) – why not put out my shingle?

Since then, I’ve made 3 or 4 trailers for money and had a lot of fun doing it. This, of course, forces me to think about Book Trailers in a more specific sense. As in, what is my Philosophy of Book Trailers? There’s a group of words I bet you thought you’d never see. There’s a lot of debate about the effectiveness of Book Trailers, of course. Personally, I think Book Trailers are useful tools, but you can’t expect them to work miracles. They’re basically cheap, persistent advertisements. If you think of them that way, there’s no reason not to do a book trailer. For pennies you post a ad for your book, and it’s there for years and years, keeping your name and title out there.

Book Trailers can be very dumb, of course, and there’s a lot of miscalculation out there, so here’s my basic philosophy of Book Trailers:

1. Be short. I think going forward book trailers will be a replacement, in part, for the act of browsing through a book on the shelf, since there won’t be any books on shelves any more. No one spends more than a few seconds flipping through a book, so your trailer shouldn’t be much longer. A minute is a good sweet spot. Longer than that and people will just quit watching anyway. Shorter and you may not have time to set a tone and get some meat in there.

2. Be entertaining. Everyone wants a viral video, but Virals aren’t made, they just happen. Just shoot for entertaining. If you’re talking about a one-minute trailer you don’t have to be experimental or edgy or anything, just keep people interested. In fact, you probably don’t want to go too far out there in a quest to be cool, because

3. Be informative. Don’t mistake informative with dull, but people are watching your book trailer because they want to know about the book. Images and music can set the mood, the tone, the basic setting. Give your audience a taste. Actual lines from the book help, but a summary of the premise isn’t a bad idea either. You want to give people a reason to buy your book, after all.

Book Trailers aren’t an exact science. If they were I’d have a factory in Mumbai cranking them out and be a billionaire. They’re sort of a long-tail approach to marketing; your trailer may not blow up on YouTube overnight and get 30 million hits, but it will be there six months from now, getting hits, making people aware of your book on a steady basis. Keep them cheap, simple, and entertaining, and it’s well worth the investment, I think. Of course, I would say that now that I hope to make money from it. I’ve never claimed to be anything but a selfish, self-centered ass, so there.

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