Monday 7 December 2009

Unpublished Writers: To Pay or Not To Pay?

Hi guys,

I read with interest that The Board of Mystery Writers of America voted unanimously last week to remove Harlequin and all of its imprints from their list of Approved Publishers. MWA states that it did not "take this action lightly." The decision was made because "Harlequin violates MWA's rules regarding the relationship between a traditional publisher and its for-pay services." This means Harlequin authors will no longer be considered for The Edgars Award and new writers signing with Harlequin will not be able to use this as proof that they are published authors, which is a prerequisite for acquiring Active Member Status.

The row has been brewing for a while. At the heart of the matter lies Harlequin's policy of directing prospective authors whose manuscripts they had rejected, to resubmit those manuscripts to Harlequin's self-publishing imprint, DellArte (formerly known as Harlequin Horizons.) DellArte charges writers a fee to read their manuscripts in preparation for self-publication. In a letter to MWA, Harlequin's Publisher and CEO, Donna Hayes, confirmed that this is Harlequin's standard practice and that they make rejected writers aware that Harlequin editors are monitoring DellArte titles for possible acquisition. To put it very bluntly: pay us (or at least our imprint) and we may consider your manuscript afresh.

Pay-for editorial services abound. My previous editor at Penguin is now a freelance editor and for a fee, will help you whip your manuscript into shape. There is nothing wrong with this: she is a professional with a track record of editing successful authors. She will not make you any false promises that your manuscript will get published, but she will offer you the opportunity to have your work reviewed by someone with experience in the field and you will receive from her a serious commitment to help you raise the standard of your work.

What Harlequin is doing, is different. I can not comment on the standard of editing that writers receive at DellArte as I have no knowledge of this. But I am concerned that the carrot that is dangled in front of people who are desperate to see their work in print, may be fake. Writers who have not made the cut at Harlequin, flock to DellArte not because of the editing service, but because they think they will be given a second chance. This second chance is not guaranteed, of course, and the author may part with a substantial sum of money and still not have the manuscript taken on inhouse.

The fact of the matter is that we writers are easy targets. We all yearn to be published. I remember well that incredible hunger that gnawed at me as I sent out The Midnight Side to twenty-seven agents over a two year period who all turned it down on the spot. Once I managed to find an agent, my ego received yet another round of battering from editors who sent me charmless rejection letters in which they bothered not at all to pull their punches. One memorable response stated: "Oh, please. This is all too woo woo confusing for me." Another editor reprimanded my agent for submitting a novel, which "although startling in its conception, is nevertheless far from ready for publication." By that point I would have been willing to take out another mortgage on my house if it would have helped me get my novel accepted.

Of course, if you're simply looking for feedback of your work without any strings attached, and if you're willing to write a cheque for this kind of service, that's fine. The need for feedback is a very basic one for unpublished writers. Published writers want feedback too, but we have editors who slap us around the head and tell us exactly what's wrong with our prose. And once the book is on the shelf, we receive reviews - sometimes brutal, sometimes nice. Published writers have it covered. Unpublished writers, on the other hand, are constantly looking for the attention of a sympathetic but knowledgeable reader. And this is tough to find because it is a big commitment to read someone's work and to give a considered opinion.

I receive on average around twenty-five such requests a week. I am contacted through social networking sites, through my discussion board and increasingly by letters sent either to my agent or my publisher. I feel dreadful every single time I don't respond but it is now my policy not to respond to any such request -- regardless. Whether it is a poem or a novel - it takes time and creative energy to formulate a response. It would be easy to shoot off a few stock platitudes to someone who asks for my feedback but I have too much respect for anyone who writes and I am far too aware of the emotional investment that goes into writing, to do so. A few years ago I listened to Sandra Brown at The Edgars Awards saying that she no longer reads any-one - published or unpublished. I remember how shocked I was, and how disapproving. How on earth can you call yourself a writer and not read? These days I am not quite as judgmental. After writing eight to nine hours every day, I am drained. All I feel like doing is kicking a bag or punching my long-suffering kickboxing instructor, which is why most evenings you'll find me in the dojo doing just that.

My advice to unpublished authors who are searching for feedback is to do what I did and to build a circle of first readers --one precious friend at a time. Don't just rely on friends who are bound to be uncritically supportive - that is not going to help you. Find friends who are avid readers and who are able to articulate both likes and dislikes. Beware of toxic readers. Sometimes friends who may be wonderful friends in all other circumstances - looking after your dog when you're going out of town, making you chicken soup when you're feeling poorly, sending you funny e-cards when you have a crisis in your love life - will devastate you with their unrelenting criticism of your work. Often these people harbour a deep seated - even unconscious -- envy of your ability to express yourself creatively. However, it is also true that you need to build up a tolerance to unkind comments. Once you get published and those reviews start coming in, you will need the hide of rhinoceros, trust me.

And finally, when you ask someone to read your work, don't ask for a blanket opinion. Send your reader questions: Which character was most convincing? Why? Any characters that you found irritating? Was there a particular chapter where the narrative tension slackened and you were tempted to leave the story and go bake a cake instead? Did the ending move you? Leave you stuck in neutral? Disappointed? Did you lose the plot at any point? Were any of the transitions between chapters fuzzy?

Right, on to other things! Hope you guys are enjoying the holiday season and are making merry. I am getting ready to lift anchors in a few short days. As always I will be spending Christmas in South Africa and this year is going to be memorable. My youngest brother lives in the States and he, my American sister-in-law and my adorable six year old nephew, Carl, will be joining us. (They will be flying for nineteen hours - yikes!) This will be Carl's first visit to South Africa. We plan on doing all the touristy things such as taking a cable ride to the top of Table Mountain and attending an ostrich race. We may even introduce this little Yank to the glory that is rugby. I have another brother who lives in South Africa and the two brothers have not seen each other in seven years. My mother is quite overwhelmed to think she will be waking up to find all three her children under the same Christmas tree. Aah...

Thanks everyone! Wishing you all happy holidays. May 2010 be the best year yet!

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