I thought I would share the laundry list of reasons for choosing to undertake the publication of my three-volume SF novel, In the Shadow of the She-Wolf. Though some aspects of the situation I found myself in with this book are probably uncommon, I’m sure the issues I’ve considered here may strike a chord with many other authors. Some of those issues relate to market-related challenges, others are mostly personal, and some are a combination of both.
There are at least two things that make the situation surrounding publication of She-Wolf unusual. The first is the amount of time I’ve spent working on this story; I’ve been pulling this book out and rewriting it on and off throughout my entire adult life — ever since I wrote the first sparse draft during my last year in high school — and that affects both my relationship with the novel and how much patience I have for the process at this point. The second is that I’m one of the owners and editors of a small press. Although I started the press last year with a couple of my siblings (and we’re beginning by publishing several of our father’s books as we learn the ropes), it is a bona fide independent press that will hopefully publish the works of many authors over many years.
While it was in the back of my mind that it would make it easier if I chose to go that way at some point, the business was definitely not created for the purpose of publishing my own books. So in a sense, having our press publish this novel is a hybrid between being published by a small press and self-publishing, making it like becoming a hybrid of a hybrid. (Maybe that’s a ‘double hybrid’? Or a ‘hybrid squared’?) In any case, it also means I’ve already started to acquire a bit of experience in book publishing, and I’m not doing it on my own.
Most writers are very curious about statistics when it comes to querying (and anything else involved in the pursuit of publication), so I’ll attempt to recap the querying history of this novel. If I go all the way back and include my first attempts at querying early drafts of the manuscript (starting when I was in college), I believe there have been four different times when I sent out at least one query for the manuscript and then stopped querying it. In the first instance, I quit after about half a dozen queries because I realized I could make the book better and I wanted to do more revisions (which is a wise decision when you’re only twenty). When I next tried querying again, the first (and only) agent I queried at the time (who was my ‘dream agent’) gave me detailed feedback on the full manuscript. Although I agreed with most of her concerns, I couldn’t figure out how to tackle a couple of the essential ones, and it took me over a year to get the inspiration I needed (and that led to one of several major rewrites).
And in the most recent round, (after many more drafts in which the story grew longer and was eventually split into three volumes), I pulled the first volume from querying after going through only a quarter of the fifty agents on my list. (Incidentally, that list included some long shots, as it wasn’t too easy to find that many agents who rep adult science fiction — many spec fic agents are now focused on YA.) The total count in the final round was fourteen queries sent, with eight form rejections, five non-responders, and one request for a full, which was ultimately rejected with some brief feedback (and that feedback implied that the agent was actually unfamiliar with the authors I’d used as comps, and consequently had expected a different style of SF). Then, for the last time, I stopped sending out queries when I realized that continuing to put the time and effort into the querying process for this novel just didn’t feel right — and what follows are some of the reasons for that.
1 ) We’re not immortal.
That may seem like a pretty obvious statement, but when you have elderly family members and want to make sure they get to see at least one of your books in print and enjoy it, the glacially slow pace of the publishing world, on top of the uncertainty, becomes a pretty big incentive to find a different way to make it happen. (Not to mention that when many people who know you are aware that you’ve been working on a novel for many years, it’s only natural for them to start wondering why they’ve never seen it.)
2) You can’t spend your whole life writing one book.
After having spent more time on this project than anyone should ever spend on one novel, being able to put it behind me and call it ‘done’ has become a major priority. Most people agree that one of the best ways to grow as a writer is to write lots of books and not dwell too long on any one project. Although I’ve also worked on a number of other manuscripts over the years, the fact that I’ve always kept coming back to this one, (and kept thinking about this one), has definitely slowed me down a great deal. I need to get out from underneath this book and shift my focus to all the other novels I already have in the queue (in various stages). So the sooner I can finish this one for good, and no longer have it hanging over me, the better. (The title is apparently appropriate on an extra level, as I think I’ve been living ‘in the shadow’ of this book just as much as the hero lives under a shadow in the story!)
3) An author’s style evolves — especially a young author’s. (Or ‘This one needs to be first’.)
One suggestion that’s often made when something about a book makes it difficult to sell as a first novel (such as the word count) is to set it aside until you’ve sold another book or two, and then come back to that one. With this novel, I realized that wouldn’t be a workable solution for me. In addition to the fact that I’ve been visualizing this as the first one I would publish for many years, the evolution of my style would make it seem a bit odd. I’m not wild about the idea of putting out a couple of novels that are more mature and sophisticated, and then following them with a work that represents an earlier phase in my development as a writer. Sure, I know that’s happened with many author’s books, and it’s also possible that many readers wouldn’t really notice — but I would.
I do need to make one thing clear, however. I am not recommending that anyone publish something they wrote when they were young and expect its shortcomings to be excused because it’s a first novel and represents their early beginnings as an artist; many writers regret getting carried away with youthful enthusiasm and publishing something that becomes an embarrassment to them down the road, especially now that self-publishing is so easy. The reason I couldn’t put this manuscript behind me by ‘trunking’ it was that I’m sure it’s a darn good book (in spite of its painful and protracted birth), and even if it might not be something I would write today, I’ll never look back at it and be embarrassed by it. (Incidentally , it evolved from my third attempt at a novel, not my first, so I’d had a fair amount of practice at novel-writing even before I started the first draft.) In short, I would not be doing this if I weren’t confident that the writing and editing are at a professional level, and that this novel is every bit as good as the majority of the science fiction novels put out by the big publishers.
4) Agents and editors need authors to be open to revisions.
This is an issue that normally shouldn’t be a bone of contention. The only reason it’s a problem in this case is that ‘I’ve already spent so much time on this book’ situation. As I thought about the process, it occurred to me that if an agent were to request any structural revisions, I probably wouldn’t want to do them, even if I felt they were really good ideas. Because this book has already undergone multiple rewrites involving structure and content, I really don’t want to do it all over again with the same manuscript (refer back to #2).
Part of what makes repeating that kind of editing unappealing is that each time you think you’re done with that phase, you subsequently spend a lot of time and effort polishing the language (especially if you’re writing literary fiction or genre fiction in a literary style). So it’s a lot like building a brick wall and then painting a beautiful mural on it. If you keep taking the brick wall apart and rebuilding it, you’ll have to do parts of the mural over again. If you do that too many times, pretty soon you‘re not going to get any more artists who want to sign up to paint that mural; they’re going to look for another wall to paint on.
So while I knew I’d be fine with ordinary copy edits — i.e., suggestions for changes to the wording here and there, or perhaps toning down the invented slang — I realized I didn’t even want to think about more significant changes. (And to a certain extent, any time you show a manuscript to someone new it means the possibility of stirring up the pot.) But I definitely wouldn’t want to start off on the wrong foot with an agent or editor by being inflexible. Obviously it’s very important that when an author begins to work with an agent, they show that they’re open to suggestions, and the agent is also going to want to see the writer demonstrate strong revising skills. (I’ve read that some authors spend a year or more doing a major overhaul of a book under their agent’s guidance before the agent decides the manuscript is ready for submission to editors.) So that seemed like a pretty compelling argument for no longer trying to get an agent involved with this book.
5) Unless an author has already published a few novels and gained some clout, many sources say it’s impossible for them to sell books that fall outside the accepted word count limits and equally impossible for them to sell multivolume books such as trilogies. (Though evidence suggests this claim may be partly mythical.)
It’s no secret that word count limits are very restrictive in publishing today. I’m pretty sure that nobody talked much about word counts back when I first learned about the basics of querying, because it wasn’t considered such a big deal; a novel was as long or as short as it needed to be, and all you needed to know was that anything over 40k words qualified as a novel. But, undoubtedly because of publishers’ current emphasis on economic concerns, they’ve figured out what length of book is most cost effective to produce and distribute, and they want to avoid books that fall outside that range unless they’re written by an author whose works are guaranteed to be big sellers regardless of the length.
And while some folks will suggest breaking up a longer work into multiple books, plenty of others say that’s no solution either. Now I’m a bit suspicious that this is one of the countless myths perpetuated on writer’s forums, because whenever I look at the new releases in the SF/Fantasy section in bookstores, there are quite a few that are clearly presented as a debut for that author and also say right on the cover ‘The Saga of So-and-So, Book One ’ or ‘The First Installment of the Chronicles of Such-and-Such.’ Granted, these tend to be in fantasy more than in SF, but some are SF books as well. Based on that observation, it seems it’s not as difficult for a new author to sell a trilogy as many would have us believe. Still, it does give one pause when so many people keep insisting that it can’t be done.
6) Many editors (and consequently agents) are wary of anything that doesn’t fit into conventions and norms of structure or style.
The obvious stumbling block with this novel is that it consists of three volumes (I don’t personally consider it a ‘trilogy’, but that’s another issue). As discussed above, some people are adamant that the privilege of being allowed to spread a story over multiple volumes is only granted to well-established authors. But added to that issue is the fact that the opening section of She-Wolf (the first several chapters) takes place twenty years before the rest of the book, and has a different POV character. (Though the main character in the novel is present in those chapters, he doesn’t do much — it’s pretty hard to do much when you’re very small, enclosed in a dark space, and mostly sleeping!) And when you consider the current widespread prejudice against prologues, I can easily imagine that some people would have a very negative knee jerk reaction to this. (The fact that it’s not exactly a prologue — or, it’s a lot more than a prologue — might only make it worse.) But the last thing I want to do is to argue with anyone about it now — it is what it is. The opening grew out of the natural evolution of the story, and once I realized that the novel tells the story of the hero’s mother as much as it tells his story, I knew it was there to stay. (I talk more about this aspect of the story here, and also in the comments I posted here.)
One way I like to describe it is to say that Jem’s story is framed by his mother’s story. Even though it doesn’t shift back to her POV, the end of the novel is focused on what happened to her and why, and on her son’s role in uncovering the truth behind her fate. And no doubt the people who would object to this structure even if the entire novel were in one volume are probably going to object to it even more when it’s spread over three books, since the reader doesn’t learn the full significance of everything in the opening section of the first book until they get to the end of the third one. But I still feel that this structure works for this particular story, and in any case, there’s no way I’m changing it at this stage of the game (once again, refer back to #2).
Another thing that could be considered a challenge to traditional publication for this novel is simply the issue facing most of my work: I write speculative fiction in a style that’s generally associated with literary fiction. Most agents and editors like to see books that are sure to have widespread appeal, and in SF and fantasy that often means fast-paced action-adventure stories told in a very plain, accessible style. (Let’s face it — people may gush over writers like Le Guin and shower them with awards and accolades, but authors who take after Suzanne Collins instead are going to sell a lot more books in the short term, and short term profits appear to be the primary goal in publishing today.) So while this is something I’ll always have to deal with — and I can only hope there will always be some people who truly appreciate literary speculative fiction — when you add that hurdle together with the ‘undesirable’ structural elements of this novel, the reality is that there’s a good chance it was going to be a hard sell for many agents.
7) There are some advantages to being ‘in control’.
On top of not having to worry about the possibility of getting embroiled in more revisions, taking on the publication of a book yourself means not having to deal with things like having the title changed or ending up with a cover you don’t like. (In the world of traditional publishing, authors typically have no say whatsoever when it comes to the cover.) So while this is a minor issue for me, it is kind of nice to be able to make those things fit one’s own vision for the book. For instance, selecting the cover myself means I can choose an elegant image that I feel would also be appropriate for a literary novel, and in the end I think that will fit the story better than a conventional SF style cover that might give some readers the impression that the book is plot-driven space opera.
Being in control of the process also seems like a good option for a three-volume book for this reason: you can bring the volumes out one right after another, and not worry about frustrated readers losing interest when they have to wait a year for the next installment. Though there are now some exceptions, in which the publisher speeds up the release of multiple books in a series, the traditional publishing schedule has usually meant that it takes a year or so to produce each book, even if the author already had the next book written before the first one was released.
So there you have it. Is it scary to dive into such turbulent waters? Absolutely. In some ways it’s terrifying. Especially since I believe that this novel is far too good to not be taken seriously, and that’s a real risk here. But the most important thing at this stage of my career as a writer is to move on and put my energy into working on all those other books.