March 7, 2019
The Book Graveyard and what you can do about it.
Everyone's happy about their book until no one reads it.
I call this The Book Graveyard—a cycle of the publishing process that few talk about but is a very real thing for many books or most books that get published especially by small presses.
What is The Book Graveyard?
Well, after its first year (when the launches are over, the readings dry up, and the reviewers and review outlets are focused on the next season of books)—if a book hasn't been lauded or won awards, it will die a quick and painless death—although not painless for its author.
The Book Graveyard can be a disorienting and disappointing experience—especially if you are a new author or have very high expectations of what your book can do for you. You will blame yourself and others. You will wonder what happened and why.
Social media will make the experience much worse.
Most authors feel like they are the only ones whose books are in The Book Graveyard.
But the good news is there are few authors who are not in The Book Graveyard—you’ll find even the most celebrated authors there.
It's nothing to be ashamed of. It's part of the industry.
In fact, it’s part of most artistic industries. Out with the old in with the new—except when it’s your book, it can feel tragic.
Before landing in The Book Graveyard, I was in The Film Graveyard where I had my first experiences of having to cope with my expectations and the feelings of loss once a film is done its festival run. Because a couple of my films didn’t get into an important festival, I thought they hadn’t done that well—even though they had played at over 20 festivals and had won some awards and honourable mentions.
A few years later, I spoke with a granting officer who was checking on my eligibility for a grant I was applying for when he made a side comment about how well my short films had done on the festival circuit. I thought that was a strange comment.
Later I was on a granting jury for mid-career media artists, and I discovered when looking at the applicants’ CVs that my films were either on par or surpassed (in terms of number of festivals and/or awards) the applicants I was reviewing.
So for about five years, I had lived with this feeling that the scripts I had written had failed the production and the directors because they didn’t get into a coveted festival. I didn’t enjoy the other festival achievements or awards that the films received because of that one festival. What a mistake and waste of time and energy.
My first book of poetry was published when I was 40. I’m so glad I had that film experience behind me because by the time the book came out, I knew to keep my expectations in check and to get over it and myself.
I knew to enjoy the process, to not focus on the rewards because likely they wouldn’t come or wouldn’t come in ways that I wanted or expected. I knew to enjoy the launches, the readings, and I knew to delight in every achievement or success.
I had poisoned my film experience, and I was not going to do the same with my poetry.
Because I survived The Film Graveyard and The Poetry Graveyard (with four books six feet under), I’m offering some tips for coping with The Book Graveyard should your book find itself among the dead ones.
We don't have to only fixate on the new.
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This is a picture of me when I was around 17 or 18, the age when I first wanted to be a writer.
There aren't many pictures of me as a teenager, so I don't have a lot to choose from.
Yes, that's a scarf and Pink Floyd poster on the wall.
Yes, I'm smoking.
Yes, I look like a stoner.
I know! Embarrassing!
But I wanted to come up with a list of advice for this young fool about writing all these years later in hopes it might help other writers at any stage of their career.
This is a list of things I wish I had known when I was first starting out as a writer and things that I still need to remind myself of from time to time.
It's a work in progress. I will be adding to it, updating it, and occasionally changing it.
Don't expect to be picked out of the crowd. Nobody cares about you and your writing. Insert yourself into the writing community. Or better yet build the community you want to be a part of.
SUPPORT OTHER WRITERS
Read and support the writers that you admire. Show up to their launches. Write reviews or blog posts about their books. Share their books on social media. If you can't afford their books, borrow them from the library. Introduce yourself to them at a reading (if you are able—I know it's hard to do).
VOLUNTEER BUT NOT TOO MUCH
Volunteer for something but don't over-volunteer yourself. Your volunteering should not take over your life or impact your writing. I have made this mistake. Volunteering should enhance and help you connect with your peers. Contact a journal you like and see if they need any editorial help. But show up at their events and get to know them first. Random emails out of the blue seldom pay off.
START YOUR OWN THING
Start something of your own. A blog. A writing group. A chapbook. A reading series. Find ways to connect with writers in real life in your community.
CREATE DEADLINES AND STRUCTURE
If you are having trouble with deadlines take a course. I do this all the time. It is very difficult when you are out of an academic setting or if you don't have a publishing contract to set deadlines for yourself and meet them. There are terrific continuing education courses offered through colleges and universities. Many are online if you don't live in a large community. Many published writers offer private live and online workshops. Sometimes there are free workshops at local libraries or community centres.
DON'T LET REJECTION DETERMINE YOUR VALUE
Try not to let rejection determine your value as a writer and human being. If you are rejected from something you really were invested in know that it will take about a week for the pain to go away. Know that you will be knocked down but you will be able to get up. Acceptances don’t necessarily mean that the best writing has been picked. Best is subjective. Never forget this. Writing is picked for many reasons. Often there are literary trends or the publisher has published too many family saga stories or they don’t like stories about bee keepers. It’s often random. Try not to take it personally. If you find yourself constantly being rejected then do something to get objective feedback (hire an editor, take a course, visit a writer-in-residence, or get a trusted writing friend to critique your work) and try to build your skills and improve your writing.
EARN A LIVING DOING SOMETHING ELSE
You must find a way to make a living that you can live with. Your writing will not support you financially. Your writing will not support you financially.
Make honest connections with people in your community. Be wary of users. Be wary of people who want to befriend you too easily or quickly. On the other hand, don’t treat people as a means to an end. Networking is not about using people. If you do it right, you are just making friends with likeminded people. Once you see people as tools, they will see through that. Invest in people not in what people can do for you.
CONTROL YOUR EGO
No one cares about your career. While self-promotion has become acceptable on social media, no one wants to go to a party or launch and be on the receiving end of your CV list. If someone asks you what you are doing, then tell them but be aware you are speaking to another writer who has their own angst about their own career. You are not the centre of anyone’s life but your own.
TRY TO KEEP JEALOUSY AT BAY
Try not to determine your worth by using someone else’s career as a yardstick for your own success. Jealousy is a waste of time. Everyone will have their own path. There is no age that you should be published by. Focus on yourself and mind your own business. Chances are you won’t win awards for your writing. If you are published, you will hardly be read. Be able to live with not being the most special writer in the room because you won’t be. You have to be in this for something other than external validation. If something good happens, be grateful for it, and be pleasantly surprised but don’t expect it. Support the success of others—genuinely—not because you expect something from them.
IT'S OKAY TO BURN SOME BRIDGES
There will times when bridges need to be burned (i.e. if we are dealing with racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, etc.—then burn them all). Over the course of my writing career I've been so afraid to burn bridges I've behaved in ways I regret. I let people walk all over me. I didn't stand up for myself. Don't be so afraid of burning bridges that you allow others to harm, use, or take advantage of you. Your writing career is not worth more than your dignity.
BUILD GOOD RELATIONSHIPS
When working with people, know there will be disagreements. Know there will be people that you don’t like. You might not agree with an editor’s note for instance. Avoid sweating the small stuff when working with editors. Avoid preciousness. Pick your battles. Control your ego. This is especially true in the film community. If you are difficult and self-important, then people won't want to work with you.
DON'T BE PASSIVE
Don’t be passive. Being overly passive or polite or approachable can be as harmful as having an out-of-control ego. The key is to live somewhere in the middle. I have shot myself in the foot many times out of the fear of ruffling feathers or feeling like I don’t deserve to exist as a writer. When you need to, speak up. Try to remember that you are of value even if it doesn’t feel that way. Your work is of value. Your opinion is of value. Your concerns are of value.
LEARN TO SAY NO
I used to be a yes person and now I'm a no person. I encourage more people especially women to be no people because usually what you get asked to do is work for free for someone else. I used to say yes all the time for fear I would lose some great opportunity. But usually there is no great opportunity, and you end up feeling depleted and resentful. No one is going to pay you more or respect you at your job or in your career because you constantly work for free or say yes to things you don't want to do. A small medical crisis forced me to say no a couple of years ago, and at first it was terrible. I was filled with guilt and was distressed all the time. But after the first few times saying no, I realized just how liberating it is to say no and to only spend time on things I really want to and are able to do—no matter who it is—my employer, a friend, someone I admire. When you say no the world doesn't fall apart because, hey, you're not that important. And the person asking will just ask someone else. I wish I could shake my younger self and say stop it. Stop saying yes all the time.
DON'T UNDERESTIMATE PEOPLE
Don’t underestimate people. I have been on the receiving end of being underestimated. It does not feel good. I have underestimated people too and I deeply regret it. Underestimating people is about wanting to feel superior. Don’t do this. People can learn and grow and develop and change. We are never just one thing at one time. Give people the room to be better and to surprise you.
TAKE CREATIVE RISKS
Don't do the same thing over and over because it worked and you liked the praise. Try something new and be willing to fail. You'll learn more from your failures than from your successes.
DON'T SIT AT A DESK ALL THE TIME
Make sure that you get exercise and leave the house at least once a day. Strengthen your core. You will have a bad back if you don't.
This list is a work in progress. I will be adding to it, updating it, and occasionally changing it.
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Check out my online courses: Introduction to Short Fiction (a 4-week self-paced online course) and Kathryn Mockler's Fiction Workshop (a live 6-week workshop-based course via video conferencing).
Originally posted by Kathryn Mockler, October 1, 2018
Kathryn Mockler, the Eastern Canadian Editor of Joyland: a hub for short fiction and the Publisher of The Rusty Toque has some behind-the-scenes tips for writers sending out their work to literary journals:
1. DO YOUR RESEARCH
If you want to publish in a certain journal, then it’s a good idea to read the work they publish before you submit anything. For instance, if you write science fiction, you’re wasting everyone’s time by submitting to a journal that only publishes poetry about beetles or haiku.
Target journals that you feel will be the best fit because your share their taste or style or tone. Avoid sending blanket submissions.
Read the publishing guidelines for things like format, submission length requirements, and genres. Don’t guess. Each journal is different. Some take online submissions and some don’t. Some journals have themes. You won’t know unless you look.
2. GET THE EDITOR’S NAME
One way that you can indirectly let editors know that you’re professional and have done your research on their journal or magazine is to mosey on over to the journal’s Masthead and get the name of the editor(s).
When you write “Dear Fiction Editor,” you’re indicating that you don’t know the journal you’re submitting to very well. It’s not going to make or break a submission, but small things like this can frame how editors will read your work and how much time they will spend on it.
Make sure you thoroughly proofread your letter before sending it. Sometimes submissions come through addressed to the wrong editor or journal or have several typos. Not a great way to make an impression.
3. DON’T PAD YOUR LETTER
Editors actually want to read less than more. By adding unnecessary information to your cover letter, you run the risk of irritating the editors before they even have a chance to read your submission.
Fun fact: it’s okay to be inexperienced or unpublished. No one is going to judge you for that.
What they will judge you for is a desperate attention-seeking letter that is filled with shoddy witticisms and unnecessary information. Harsh, I know, but it’s true.
Don’t add unnecessary personal information to your cover letter like the fact you live with your cat in your mother’s basement or that you suffer from depression. Many writers suffer from depression. I mean we’re all living in a nightmare for goodness sake! Of course you’re depressed. We all are! But that’s not the kind of information editors need to know.
Many editors are writers and have their own memories of starting out. In fact many editors like the idea of discovering new voices. So rather than trying to pad your letter and to look more experienced than you are—just say that you’re new to writing. It’s okay. I promise.
On the other hand, if you’re a well-published writer and have 100+ publications. Don’t list them all. That is obnoxious. Only list the publications that you think will fit with the aesthetic of the journal you’re submitting to.
A short bio with just a handful of publications is sufficient. Editors don’t have time to read your life story or every magazine you’ve published in.
4. AVOID HUMOUR
Of all the submissions I’ve read over the years, there has only be one writer who attempted to use humour in her cover letter that was actually funny. While her cover letter was genuinely witty, her submission didn’t live up to that initial humour of the letter. Too bad!
If you are hilarious, then put that humour in your story or poem. Leave it out of the cover letter. If your humour doesn’t fit the editor’s humour then you could inadvertently frame your submission negatively.
5. AVOID SUMMARIZING THE STORY
Some editors may feel differently about this, but I recommend not summarizing your submission in your cover letter. [Submitting cover letters for full-length manuscripts is different and they do often require summaries.]
If you have some contextual information then it’s fine to include that. For example, you may want to mention if the submissions is part of a series or if it is an experimental piece that needs some framing. But if you are just submitting a short story, then avoid summarizing it.
If your writing is strong, your readers should be able to come to their own conclusions about what you are trying to say.
When you frame a story before someone reads it, you are setting up expectations. What if your summary is better than your story? Or what if you are terrible at summarizing but terrific at writing?
Your best bet is to just let the editors experience the piece for themselves the same way readers will should your work get published.
6. DON’T ASK FOR FEEDBACK
Many, if not most, literary editors are working for free or for very little money. They hardly have time to read all the submissions they receive, let alone offer critique. Therefore, it is just not feasible for them to give feedback on the hundreds or thousands of submissions they get.
Sometimes if an editor feels strongly about a work then they might provide some words of encouragement or invite a writer to resubmit. If that happens to you, consider yourself very fortunate and resubmit as soon as you have written something terrific. But otherwise be grateful that someone is taking time out of their short life to read your work and publish it. If you want feedback start a writing workshop, post in online forum, or take a class.
7. INCLUDE NECESSARY INFORMATION
Many writers forget to include the basics such as the genre that they’re submitting in or the titles of the works being submitted. Some journals like to know if the submission is simultaneous (meaning it’s being considered by other journals) and others like to know some brief biographical information.
Some editors advise indicating writing you’ve read and enjoyed from their journal. I tend to not like this because it often feels forced and like filler. But I’ve seen that advice around, so it might be something to consider if your cover letter is on the short side.
When writing your bio, keep it short and write it in third person. Don’t include any value statements about yourself or your writing. Don't say things like "you'll love my story" or "I think my story is a good fit". That's for the editor to decide.
Just include the following:
That’s it. Try to keep your bio length to around 50 words.
9. KEEP GOOD RECORDS
Most literary journals now use online submission management systems like Submittable and most journals accept simultaneous submissions (but not all so read the guidelines for each journal before you submit).
These management systems are great for keeping track of your submissions. It’s important to let journals know right away if your work has been accepted elsewhere.
I also keep an Excel spreadsheet of all my submissions because not all journals use the same online system and some still require hard copy or email submissions.
9. PROMOTE YOURSELF
If your story gets accepted and published, share it on social media and with your friends and family.
Some writers feel uncomfortable about this as they may feel like they are bragging. However there are ways to share your work so that it feels like a share and not a brag. For example, share the link to the journal or the issue you’re being published in and thank the editors or prop up the other writers in the issue. That way you’re helping to promote a journal and other writers while at the same time presenting your own work.
10. TAKE REJECTION IN STRIDE
Should your work get rejected, try to take in stride. It happens to us all. You’re in good company.
Never email an editor back to ask why you’ve been rejected or send a nasty note. That just burns bridges and doesn’t help you in the long run. I’ve been published by journals that rejected me for years. It’s just part of the process. All writers go through it.
Avoid letting rejection determine your value as writer. Often editors have to reject perfectly good stories and poems. There is a lot work out there and not enough space to publish it all. A rejection doesn’t mean your writing is terrible. It just means it might not be a fit for a particular publication.
Remember the publishing process is completely subjective. That’s why doing your research is such an important part of the process. The better you know a journal, the better you’ll be able to determine whether or not they are right for your work.
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