Friday, 25 January 2019

A modest proposal

Publishers.  Don’t they just make you want to crawl in a ball, tuck your arms behind your knees and bounce about screaming?  I don’t mean professional operations, like anybody on SFWA’s good books or the too-many-to-name that we all know we can trust.  My gripe this fortnight is aimed squarely at hobby publishers who set up a website with an ominous-looking spacecraft or sword-wielding wench partially clad in leather and rivets, give themselves a logo and portentous name, and call for submissions.

I sometimes wonder whether it’s just an elaborate ruse to get reading material.  What’s wrong with a bookshop?

I had intended to produce this sober and reasonable mini-tanti in any case, but a rather bizarre coincidence has recently highlighted matters.  As a writer of short fiction who occasionally places pieces in the pro market, but whose level of success seems to be more consistently semi-pro and lower, I’m regularly sending pieces out to magazines and publications that I may not know that well as a reader, and whose reputation, unlike James Bond’s, does not precede them.  The pattern is fairly well-established: you send in a piece, await a response in the time stated on the website, maybe a week or so more, check your spam, chase by email, wait a couple of weeks more, then record a no response on the Grinder and find a new market.

What happened to me earlier this month followed that pattern exactly.  A story was submitted in July 2018 to a publication I won’t name, but which pays a token rate (and doesn't state a response time).  The silence of deep space followed.  I chased after what, I felt, to be a reasonable timescale, in early December, and then waited until the 18th January before declaring the market dead and recording a no response on the Grinder, alongside about half of all other submissions to that site.  I then found another market, an SFWA-qualifying market, to submit it to, and off it went.

A mere three hours later, an email drops out of the ether from the first publisher, not responding to the chase, not apologising for the delay, but accepting the story with contract attached.  Not even the whiff of an acknowledgement that I’d been in contact a month before to try to find out what was happening; indeed, whether the operation was still functioning.

What to do?  Well, apart from record the acceptance on the Grinder because I like it when my names floats down their list, nothing as yet.  I’m certainly not going to withdraw the story from an SFWA-qualifying market, although it’s been kicked aside from most of the rest of them so far, but you never know, it may be just what they're looking for right now.  And I’m not going to sign the contract whilst it’s under consideration by a better customer.  It’s a Mexican standoff, albeit one that the two other pistoleros don’t know they’re in.

(Just as an aside, this is the self-same story that, in 2017, I withdrew having been accepted by Allegory, and was accepted in 2018 by G Allen Cook for an anthology which then folded due to health reasons.  Cursed story?  Who knows?)

Much of the source of confusion to my mind are those websites, the ones with the spaceships and the tart in leather and rivets, that look as fresh as the day they were uploaded.  Even when their creators have decided that the whole thing's a bad idea, moved to Boise, Idaho and become spoon salesmen.  I think there's scope for a story with some future Indiana Jones uncovering a website looking as fresh as the day it's HTML and CSS were conceived, like a digital proxy for some Mayan gold relic. 

A suggestion, if I may, a Swiftian ‘Modest Proposal’ of my own, but one that is intended in all seriousness.  It’s also one which is far more universal in its application than just semi-pro sci-fi publishers’ websites.  It’s this: that all webpages should slowly fade, wither and die – unless properly maintained.  That way, the fresh webpage of the operation that ceased to function a year ago will grey and crumble.  Ivy will climb over calls for submission that merely appear to be still open.  Maybe ravens could peck at the eyes of those sword-wielding maidens with the leather and ironwork who now stand for nothing?

And then we could tell which sites are open, and which merely look open.

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

End of year report

Yes, it's time for the annual look back at a year of sometimes writing, but mainly procrastinating and prevaricating and finding ways to avoid hitting the keyboard.  Say, by updating this blog.  So let's check those targets and see where the arrows lie:

Send a submission a day
Well, the Grinder tells me that I sent 339 submissions out in 2018, so a miss, but a near miss.  I was actually on track until October-ish, when I started living away part of the week to work in London.  This severely curtailed my writing time - but, as I've just said, boy, do I find reasons not to write - but two other factors came into play as well.

Firstly, noticeably fewer markets started to appear on the Grinder late on in 2018; sometimes it seemed a whole week would go by without any being added.  Lower demand means constricted supply.  Secondly, as stories were sold they - obviously - couldn't be sent out again, thus diminishing the stockpile of stories.  That said, I sent nine stories to Clarkesworld this year, albeit a couple were old stories re-engineered; Clarkesworld being the venue to which I send stories first, so it's not as though I wasn't producing content.

Sell three stories
So, what about the stories that sold, that fly in the ointment as far as the first target was concerned (only joking, this is the one that counts).  Well, the Grinder reports 11 acceptances in the year, so a hit:

So, nine or ten real sales, but three reprints (of which one looks like a non-runner), and two are a hundred words or less.  That's about 13,000 words of new material.  Not that impressive.  But add in an honourable mention in L Ron Hubbard's Writers of the Future competition, a couple of near misses with Daily Science Fiction, another with Shoreline of Infinity, and stories still held by Galaxy's Edge and James Gunn's Ad Astra, and it's looking like a year to build on.

Sell a novel
A miss.  Baen decided to pass on my YA Harry Potter-meets-Doctor Who (figuratively) novel after being "selected from the slush pile for further examination" for over two years.  Haven't got any remaining irons in the fire; at least, none with any sort of glow.  I guess I need to pick myself up, dust myself off and get back to marketing.

Write a novel
Or, more specifically, finish writing a novel.  Big miss, particularly as the short stuff is meant to help market the bigger pieces - like 2084 - that pay by the sale rather than by the word.  I've taken 'Toefoot', my sci-fi thriller, from 16,300 words to 18,800.  Please don't extrapolate a completion date from that rate if progress...

Publish a novel
I have a novel written thirty years ago, juvenilia, that will never make the cut professionally, but I have ambitions of putting it out as an ebook.  It's written, just needs an edit, a polish, formatting and epublishing.  Have I?  No.  Miss.

Oh, and for regular readers, yes, that's right - I am still awaiting my kill fee from Carrie Cuinn at Lakeside Circus...


This year's targets?  Same as last year's, with a recognition of the need to focus on the long pieces, plus to complete my SFWA qualification, which I think I'm about thirty percent of the way to (or, possibly, put negatively, to disqualify myself from Writers of the Future).  A third straight showing in Best of British Science Fiction - or one in Best of British Fantasy - would be nice too, but there's nothing I can do about that any more, those submissions are in.  Watch this space.