Ratings and reviews are a game that gets played especially in the beginning of an author’s career whether you’re one the very few who remain traditionally published – try breaking through that impossibly rigid and narrow cult of gatekeepers – and are okay with allowing editors to convince them what chapters to delete, what characters to toss or add, what those character arcs ought to be, what plot lines need to change, what the title of your book should be and how its cover ought to be designed, or you join the free world of indie authors and publish without kowtowing to so-called sales data.
Everybody knows that getting a traditional book deal no longer, if it ever did, means enjoying the benefit of being able to hand over your brilliant first draft of a novel to a professional editor to “fix” while you sit back and bank your advance. More often it meant simply allowing somebody else to tell you what and how to write and what your chances were of ever selling it. Sure, some wannabe authors who happened to be well connected (c’mon, nobody in statistical reality gets discovered from a slush pile) probably really benefitted from handing over their shoddy work to somebody willing to shape it up for them. You hear tales of everyone from Harper Lee to Julia Child having submitted a train wreck of a manuscript to the publishing houses (back then of course there were significantly more than three or four) and having a visionary, lone wolf type editor with enough influence to convince whomever in charge of the purse strings to take a chance on something they saw potential in. And they massage the shit out of the thing and make a book out of it and it pays off for everyone.
If it still happens that way I’ll eat my hat. No. Today, first of all, nobody is submitting directly to publishers. Because you can’t. Well, the slush pile – that ever burgeoning mountain of unsolicited manuscripts that collects in the back room of the handful of a trad publishers – still exists, perhaps, but it simply represents what happens to a wannabe author when they haven’t done their homework about how the business works. Literary agents, another dying breed, whom are something like 75% or more women, by the way, which also reflects the demographic of fiction readers (why men don’t read novels anymore is its own story) happen to be the ONLY way in for anybody with a manuscript to push. Which is to say that no trad publisher will accept any writer’s work unless it is first submitted, hence previously vetted, by a literary agent.
I won’t go into how the structure of a trad publishing house has been transformed over the last thirty years except to say that where a slew of inhouse editors used to reign supreme and drive Mercedes and award six-figure advances to nobody writers, well, let’s just say that things have changed. Those editors are all out of work. Perhaps they’re literary agents themselves now. And ask a literary agent how many manuscripts they’re able to place. And how big advances these days aren’t. And how if you’re an insider with connections and on top of that lightning strikes and you get a book deal that your book won’t end up resembling anything like your manuscript and good luck getting any marketing help. Or anything more than a dollar or two (if you’re lucky) in royalties. And when your book, which now looks like something the publishing wrote, tanks and they cancel your contract and pulp all the copies and now you’ll never get another book deal again because everyone in the tiny trad industry that isn’t knows everybody else and you are book sales poison to them, well, look it all up for yourself. And then you’ll be like me and most other indie authors who have done that legwork and have struck out bravely, yes bravely on their own. Because as a writer, you must. If you ever want to be an author, that is, let alone read as an author.
And, of course, literary agents are inundated with unsolicited manuscripts like the publishers of old used to be. Hence, your submission doesn’t get read even when it’s perfectly packaged according to all the online “submission requirements.” Doesn’t get read? Nope. It might get a glance but I doubt it. Try it. I did. How, then, do any new authors get discovered? We see plenty of first-time novelists from the trads, don’t we?
Um, not really. And if they are new and this is their first novel, you can bet they didn’t submit their manuscript unsolicited to an agent and have it selected like a needle in a haystack from the avalanche of submissions. No. Literary agents aren’t any more efficient or better at discovering new talent than editors at trad houses ever were. They don’t know what’s any good or not. Ask them. Read online about how often literary agents admit they can’t predict what’s going to sell if their life depended upon it. And that the quality, or potential quality, of a story in manuscript form really isn’t even the point. If it ever was. Rather, it has mostly always been about the insiders. People with connections. Writers who know somebody with influence within the business. And too many books, if you didn’t know this already, are essentially commission pieces. They aren’t the vision of a lone talent but rather the marketing idea borne within some committee and then that story gets shelled out to an established author with a so-called “platform” to write it.
Oh, you’re exaggerating, you say, because you got rejected by the trads and you’re bitter. I’m bitter, yes. Bitter at wasting at least a year of my life sending my snippet of manuscript to all the literary agents on Earth and getting form letters back and discovering how fucked up the publishing business is and how silly it is to consider, as an outsider, the odds of succeeding with your work in that way. There simply aren’t any odds.
So, when I receive a mean-spirited and insulting review like that from our friend Flannery who seems to know a little something themselves about editing and how important it is, well, yes, Flannery, it would be very nice to have the talents of not just any editor that I can afford but a top-notch talent with perhaps a couple of decades of experience bringing out the best in manuscript. You said there’s a good story in my story. Now, despite that being a perfect example of a backhanded compliment intended merely to bolster your diatribe against anybody who would dare make the mistake and moreover indulge the hubris to proffer the insult upon humanity that every “self-published” book is, you are perhaps not being entirely facetious. Perhaps you did like something about my novel. Perhaps you could even edit it yourself into a better state, into something, as you say, somebody would be encouraged to continue reading until the end, at least.
Here it is, then, Flannery, my offer to you to edit Time Crime 2: Empire & Oracle, before it hits the proverbial streets next year. I’m fucking serious. Do you want the job? I’m contracted with a professional editor already, but I might consider having it looked at twice over. On my own dime. And you’d be surprised, I might add, that I do take editorial advice rather than just throw my money at somebody and publish the damn manuscript exactly as I wrote the eleventh self-edited draft. Yes, my first book went through eleven drafts. Perhaps twelve. One of which was the final very expensive line editing job. That editor I hired did well. Yes, there were some copy-editing mistakes that ought to have been caught but that’s not what the line editor got paid to do. I know now that proof reading is it’s own skill and talent and is yet another expense the indie author must foot themselves and for Time Crime 2 I am doing that. It’s all in the works.
Flannery, if you don’t want to edit my book – perhaps you aren’t a professional editor yourself, perhaps you just have a knack as a kind of hobby – then perhaps, since you took an interest in my first book, you’ll take a look at the second. Amazon provides a lot of “Look Inside” pages to browse, after all, and you ought to be able to see whether I’ve improved at all and it will cost you nothing except time. I’m not kidding when I said that I think you’ve got some potential for editing. I mean, you got some things wrong about my book because you got pissy and frustrated and went a little too far with your by-the-book criticisms. And I’m not convinced you bought the book let alone read the third state which corrected a lot of typos by way of my diligent efforts at making the book ever closer to perfect. But, I think you have an eye. Perhaps I would agree that I could improve some shit in there. According to your vision for how it ought to be.
Meanwhile, it’s part of the game, I get it, to suffer the dynamics of the ratings and reviews game as it plays out mostly upon Amazon. If you can’t stand the heat then get out of the kitchen, right on. So, I’m game. And as luck or providence would have it, I received a review just a few days after yours, Flannery. Amazon five-stars. “Great book!” So there. Check it out. Thanks goes out to Michelle, an enthusiastic reader – so happy you liked it. It means a lot, it really does, and helps keep me going.
Nevertheless, even in the face of the categorically positive, we all tend to pay a lot of heed to the negative, it’s part of human nature to focus on that, I’m no exception. On behalf of my work and likewise when I’m shopping for books myself. I like to read the one-star and two-star ratings, just see what they say. Too often we assume a five-star rating to be bogus, after all, despite the ruthlessly monitored Amazon ratings system that seeks to prevent the inevitable gamesmanship involved. And then you must use your own judgement anyway, because so much to do with ratings and reviews is opinion and arguable and it’s difficult sometimes for a book to garner a consensus until enough time and attention has been paid to have the statistics work themselves out, so to say. I get it. Time will tell, then, when it comes to my Time Crime series. Perhaps, Flannery, you’ll be correct to assume, as you imply, that “self-published” novels are shit on principle. Then again, perhaps you’ll do me the favor, which would be a gracious thing, to spend some time with Time Crime 2 when it drops. And if you can manage to finish it, well, I’m interested to see your review.