Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Swimming With Sharks, Part One

It seems like I end up giving some variation of this lecture every summer. Maybe because I have so many former students graduating and anxious to turn their talents to non-school projects, or they’re home from college for the summer and want to show me their new comic or story or whatever. But sooner or later, it comes down to the same thing… they want to publish, or submit their work to a publisher, but they have no clue how to go about it. And because I’d just as soon save them the heartbreak of learning all this crap the hard way like I did, I generally have words of warning for them. MANY, MANY words of warning.

So in the interests of efficiency, I decided I’d just write it up here so I’d have it where I can just point them to the link. I know that at least two others here at the Junk Shop can chime in with cautionary tales of their own, as well; I suspect many of our regular readers can too.


First of all, let’s get one thing straight. If you are doing fan fiction or personal zines or a webcomic or something that brings you joy, well, you go right ahead and do that. Hang out on DeviantArt or Tumblr or whatever, join an online community of like-minded folks if you want, and have a ball. Get down with your bad self. None of this lecture applies to you.

But if you are going to try and make money from your creative works, even just to cover your costs, that is a whole different ballgame. At this point you are not an artist or a writer. You are an entrepreneur running a business out of your home.

This is daunting, especially for creative types who tend to be daydreamers who are easily distracted, bad at math, and pathologically shy. The thought of acting as one’s own accountant, agent and legal advocate generally freezes the blood of most of us. Moreover, when you are just starting out, the hunger to see your dream project realized in print can blind you to the ugly truth that you are making a really bad deal.

Here’s the thing: Publishers know this, and they will exploit it ruthlessly. This is especially true in comics, and has been since the day a starry-eyed Siegel and Shuster signed away Superman. I have lost count of the number of young writers and artists I’ve met over the years who regretted agreeing to spectacularly shitty terms just because a publisher told them how much he loved and believed in what they were doing. Honest to God, some of these predatory outfits are operating at the exact same moral level as the porno producers telling runaway teenage girls, “Sure, baby, I’ll get you into show business.”

The hell of it is that this sort of thing works on creative people. (Which is why there are so many sleazy publishers out there– it’s a very workable business model, just in terms of dollars and cents.) When you are starting out, you are starved for validation, often more than you are for money. So you sell yourself all sorts of rationalizations about why it’s really okay to agree to idiot terms like bearing the cost of marketing and editing your book, or agreeing to let an agent charge a ‘reading fee’ before he agrees to represent you, or other ‘nominal’ charges that come up in the course of talking to someone about getting your book in print.

Then there are the guys who explain that they just can’t offer money right now, but once the book’s out there, the exposure will be sure to get the offers flooding in. Um… no. As my friend Jim MacQuarrie is fond of pointing out, “People die of exposure.”

Worst of all are the guys that milk a friendship to get you to give them something on spec. Maybe you met them at a convention or something, a few tables down at Artist’s Alley. They talk about how awesome it would be to work together, maybe they’ve got a couple of other folks lined up, some books in print even. You agree to do a project with them, beat your brains out writing or drawing it, but when the agreed-on payday comes, suddenly you can’t get him on the phone and emails are ignored. You have bills looming and no payment from your good pal. After getting desperate enough to track him down (which often involves a level of detective work that would be daunting to Sherlock Holmes) and demand what was promised, the response is a hurt, “But I thought we were friends!” They probably even believe what they are saying. Because they’re still coming at it like amateurs, thinking that it works the same way as the fanfic or zine culture that they originally came from, where it’s all about the love of the art; money’s for corporate whores and sellouts, not real artists.

Horseshit. Whether they admit it or not, every creator loves to get paid for what they do. And every publisher is looking to make money. It’s not inherently evil to want to support yourself with your work, whether you are the creator or the publisher. That isn’t a sin. When it’s for real, it’s business. So the key question for a publisher is never, Do I love this? It’s Can I sell this?

I can hear the protests already. “Wait, are you saying that all we should care about is MONEY? B-but… what about art? Integrity? Love of the craft?”

Of course you should care about those things. You are the creative person.

But publishers don’t give a shit, at least not as a primary concern. Nor should they. They are in business. Of course it’s about the money. Submitting a story to a publisher is something between going for a job interview and auditioning for a play. You don’t get the gig by being a beacon of purity. You get it by being good and, more importantly, being professional. Publishers want to know if you are talented, sure, but more, they want to know if you are competent.

It’s amazing to me how hard this stuff is to put across to neophyte writers and artists. (It took forever for ME to get it through my head… I assure you, I made all these mistakes myself.)

So here are the things you need to be thinking about as you shop around your as-yet-unpublished masterpiece.

Who Wants It?
If you are reading this website I think it’s probably a good bet that you are a genre fan of some kind and you are doing genre material. Okay, so who does what you do? Look at the market– and always remember, when you submit a story or pitch an editor on a project, you are asking them to bet on you. You need to show them why you are a good investment. Even if you have written a brilliantly innovative occult thriller, that won’t mean shit to a company that specializes in cookbooks and travel guides. Do some research — if you can see these words, then the internet is available to you. Use it. Find out what’s out there, who’s looking for new work, what the submission guidelines are. And if they say no phone calls or email query only, assume they mean it. You are not special and they will not break their rules for you.

What’s Important To Me? This isn’t something I can answer for you. I can tell you that a great deal of my own freelancing is governed by whether or not it’s easy to deal with a particular company. I have done a lot of work for Airship 27 Productions over the last few years and that is because I never have to stress over them or badger them; they are scrupulously fair in how they treat their creative people. They tell you up front what they are looking for, royalties are paid in a timely fashion, and editorial interference is at the barest minimum. The editor responds to emails within 24 hours and stories are accepted or rejected within a week, generally. (Longest I ever had to wait in the last four years was three weeks and that was for the new novel, not a short story for an anthology.) Granted, the money’s not huge, but reliability and honesty go a long way with me. Considering that in small-press it’s usually a side venture for everyone involved from the top down, I’m more interested in working with people who act like adults than people who are promising to make me rich. Pretty much no one gets rich in small-press anyway, so I might as well work with people I like who keep their promises. Checks that show up on time for the correct amount is a HUGE incentive for me to stick with a particular publisher, believe me. It’s possible I might make more money with a different publisher but there aren’t that many who put out the kind of stories I like to write, and of those, I have had very bad experiences with one and heard horror stories about a couple of others. In the end, it’s not worth the aggravation for me; I’m happy to stay put as long as I keep getting treated well.

But your answer might be different than mine. The important thing is that you need to be aware of your needs on a practical level and if they are not being met by the publisher you are working with, then you made a bad deal.

What Am I Willing To Give Up? If your answer is “nothing,” then go back to doing zines. Because when it’s for money, you just don’t have control over a lot of the things that go into producing a book. I am willing to give up the responsibility for dealing with printers and designers and art direction, for example, even though there have been a number of times I haven’t been thrilled with how a finished piece appeared in print. I have spent decades in book production and printing and I know the headaches involved in just manufacturing a paperback book. I’m very happy to let that be someone else’s problem in exchange for giving up any say in how a book is going to look when it’s done.

Then there are the editors that hate my titles. I can think of two in particular who invariably changed the titles of my magazine pieces when they saw print. It always annoyed me, but since the rest of the prose generally made it through intact (and they paid promptly on acceptance) I decided the right to keep my original title wasn’t the hill I was going to die on. Pick your battles is what I am saying. There have been times I’ve withdrawn a piece from consideration rather than let it be mangled in print, but only twice over the course of some two decades of writing for money. It doesn’t happen that often. Apart from all that, being willing to consider changes is part of that grown-up behavior you need to learn if you are going to be a working pro.

How Do They Treat Other Freelancers? Again, you have the internet to check this out. If something sounds like an impossibly good deal, it probably is; see if this shiny smiling offer was ever made to others and how it played out. Five minutes on Google will probably be enough. If a publisher has a history of reneging on agreements, there’s very likely an online footprint documenting it, and it’s good to be aware of it. There are a great many online resources for this… Writer Beware is the one I make it a point to keep up with, but there are others.

Sorry to be such a buzzkill. There’s a good chance that after reading all of the above you are throwing your hands in the air and muttering that if it’s that much hassle to submit your work to publishers then screw it, you might as well self-publish.

We live in a world now where that is a viable option, certainly. But that comes with all kinds of hazards, too. I was going to go through those for you as well, but this is getting kind of long so we’ll say that’s Part Two, and we’ll come back to it next week. See you then.


  1. Le Messor

    When I switched on my computer just now, I was seriously thinking about how I just spent the last two weeks swimming with sharks.
    … and that the only part of that sentence that can’t be taken literally is the second ‘s’ in sharks. (Okay, I only did it once over the two weeks, not the whole time.) (Also: keep calm and look up ‘Port Jackson shark’.)

    There have been times I’ve withdrawn a piece from consideration rather than let it be mangled in print, but only twice over the course of some two decades of writing for money.

    There was one time I wished I’d withdrawn a piece rather than let the editor mangle it. (See your point about needing validation.)
    When that story was reviewed – several times – as the worst, most bland in the anthology, my only feeling was vindication.
    (I do think, though, about what it did to my rep as a writer.)

    1. M-Wolverine

      Yes, I came prepared to be very jealous, as I took the title and pic literally, and I’ve always wanted to go cage diving. I’m certainly in no way jealous of swimming with these sharks.

      But while not what I was expecting, it was certainly a good article with advice that needs to be heard. I can’t relate completely, but to add what you all were saying below I’m telling faculty all the time to not fall for publications that want you to pay to have your articles published. In this aspect the Internet is worse because all these “e-journals” that are popping up that aren’t worth the paper they’re not printed on. I would imagine with actual creative writing there aren’t too many websites trying to snooker people, because it’s pretty easy to tell how much traffic they get, and not that much more work to start your own website to publish your stuff if you’re only trying to get an E-version of your work out there.

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    I’m sure one you are planning to list is that you are not a published author if you have to pay the publisher to print your work. “Vanity press” is is beyond a shark tank; they are on a whole ‘nother plane of predators. In 20 years of bookselling, I dealt with a lot of people who had a “book” via a vanity press. Yeah, it can be ordered through distributors and e-commerce platforms; but, you have to work your backside off to get anyone to notice a copy and then your royalties are still a pittance. meanwhile, booksellers like B&N don’t want to deal with you because vanity press means “print on demand,’ which means non-returnable. B&N went to prepayment on that material years ago because of so many fraudulent orders from vanity press “authors” (and publishers). They also don’t like to do book signings with authors of vanity press titles; heck, lot of legitimate small press, too. They prefer to do an author night, where they have a whole panel of authors, to attract a bigger crowd. many is the lone author I have seen sitting at a table, waiting for someone to ask about their book. We also couldn’t necessarily give them a prime location, either, due to fire codes, ADA compliance, and paid placement of books within the store (though we could temporarily work around that).

    The other thing would be that no one sane wants to read you book about Princess Diana’s message of peace, which was channeled through you, from the great beyond (yes, that was an actual book for which we were approached to do a signing. Most hideous cover you’ll ever see, this side of a Bosch painting or a Rob Liefeld anatomy textbook!). The only thing more insane than that “author” was the time my clueless boss agreed to let Bridge Publications come in and do a presentation about Dianetics. Yep, as in Scientology. In the military, we referred to what occurred as a CHARLIE FOXTROT.

    1. Le Messor

      Vanity press also have a bad rep because anybody can print any drivel that way; you’re not as likely to get a good book as through a reputable publisher.

  3. I’ve written most of what I have to say on the subject over at my currently dormant professional blog.

    I’m a big proponent of working for free; I believe in ‘pro bono publico’ (“for the public good”) and admire professional organizations like the Bar Association that require their members to do it. I hope you will choose to donate your talents for free to make the world better. But please do it on your terms to benefit the people and causes you support, and not to benefit a corporation that can well afford to pay but chooses not to. I talk a lot more about that here:

    On dealing with non-creative management types:

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