So, the other day–nearly a week ago–I was in one of those situations where I was asked a question that really needed a long answer, but I didn’t have unlimited time in which to do so.
The question was, given that I never expected any editor to even buy Ancillary Justice but that I had turned out to be oh so very wrong, what lesson might there be in that for other (maybe new, aspiring) writers?
So. On the one hand, in one sense there isn’t much of a lesson there for anyone–the ways of publishing are mysterious, no one really knows why any particular book does or doesn’t sell, etc.
On the other hand, there are some instructive aspects, at least in my opinion. It’s just that they’re complicated(ish) and full of caveats. And I’ve given some of this advice before, but I think it’s worth repeating.
Part of my answer at the time I was asked: there’s a narrative about what sorts of books (and authors) are likely to sell to major publishers and what sorts aren’t, and I feel ambivalent about that narrative. On the one hand, it’s entirely accurate to say that there’s a huge amount of systemic prejudice operating (there, and in so many other areas of life) and yes, it’s going to be really difficult for certain kinds of authors (and certain kinds of books by those authors) to grab editors, or at least to go all the way from grabbing to “buy this.” This is absolutely true.
On the other hand, I’ve more than once seen someone say of their fabulous book that they didn’t see any point in even trying to sub certain places–major publishers, for example–because of course it would be hopeless. When, you know, yeah, it’s an uphill battle, and it’s emotionally draining to go through that, and when it’s on top of everything else you’re enduring day after day, any given person might very legitimately decide it was too much to deal with. But it’s not necessarily entirely hopeless.
Hence my ambivalence–the difficulties are real, and I know every writer has to make their own decision about what to go through, how much rejection to deal with (and whether or not they can handle cluelessly–or maybe intentionally–hurtful comments along with that rejection, including offhand remarks about certain sorts of people not really existing or not being interesting or worthy of stories, when that would include you, yourself). At the same time–if you can do it, if you can stomach it, well, the chances may be really small, but you never know.
And there’s a thing that Mark Tiedemann said to me a while back that I thought was really smart. He said that really, when you submit to an editor over and over (we were mostly talking about shortfic here but still), you’re teaching them how to read your work.
Part of that systemic prejudice, part of what upholds it, is the way people are only familiar with certain kinds of stories. Other kinds feel off, weird, unrealistic (no matter how accurate and realistic they may be). It’s that incessant repetition of the “right” kind of story that keeps reinforcing itself. And this didn’t happen by accident–we’ve many of us been trained from small to appreciate certain kinds of stories, just like we’re taught from infancy to appreciate certain kinds of music. Most of the work, most of the training, is exposure to a high volume of work that fits the culturally approved model.
The way a reader learns to appreciate other sorts of stories, from other points of view, is to be exposed to them over and over. Editors and agents and slush readers–every time you submit, they are being exposed to your work.
Now, like I said, I can’t blame anyone for just not sending to places where they know they’ll get hurtful rejections. I don’t blame anyone for sticking with places they think they’ll have a fighting chance at. I’m just saying, if you can do it, it’s very possibly worth submitting to those places anyway. Not the editors that send abusive replies, those exist and no, they’re not worth it. But the “that place? It’d be awesome but nah, they never buy stuff like mine, by writers like me.” Well, maybe not. But if you can, give it a shot. If nothing else, you’re exposing the editor, the agent, the slusher, to your kind of thing. Every little bit, right? And besides. You never know.
Relatedly–write your story. I mean, write your story. Write it the way you think it needs to be written, don’t worry about whether it’s going to appeal to guys or White people or straight folks. Don’t worry about things you’ve heard that editors like or don’t like, buy or don’t buy. First of all, nobody knows, least of all editors, what will make them buy something or not. Second–and I’ve said this before, and other writers have said this before–you can make your work as smoothly, blandly, perfectly commercial as possible and it might not sell. There are no guarantees. You can rip your heart out trying to pretend to be the right sort of writer and get nowhere. But you know what you can guarantee? That the work you do is yours, that it’s what you want to be working on, that you’re proud of it. Do that work, and no matter what happens you will always have that.
Once it’s done, send it out with as much ambition as you had writing. No guarantees. But that’s no guarantees of failure either, right? Send it out to the publishers of your dreams, wherever those may be. Every little bit, every drop of water against a stone.
I’m not gonna lie, it’s not easy. No guarantees. And maybe it’s not you who’ll benefit, maybe it’s that next writer the editor sees whose work will suddenly seem more familiar because they saw yours already. Or maybe not, but. Do the hopeful thing, if you can find it in you. That’s my advice. That’s what we have, as writers, we have the work we do, and the completely ridiculous hope that sending that work out will be worth it. And sometimes? You never know when, exactly, but sometimes we’re right.
NOTE don’t point to this as me saying that imbalances in who gets published is just a question of who submits. It’s pretty manifestly not. My advice for editors concerned about those obvious imbalances is very different. And until you’ve had the experience of being someone who endures prejudice every single day and then gets more of it in the face reading and hearing advice about what’s publishable (somehow never you, as yourself), maybe even getting rotten feedback from clueless editors–until that’s your life, don’t be telling folks what should or shouldn’t be easy for them to go through or what they “should” be feeling or doing.