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ASK THE EDITOR What to Do When the Market Sucks

by Susan Malone

February 2003

Okay, so we know the publishing market is awful. Terrible. In the dumpster. Going down the toilette to hell in a handbasket. All cliches apply here. Every day, more bad news comes out of NY, the AOL Time/Warner decision to dump Warner Books just being the latest.

We've established how terrible things are. So, what can each of us, individually, do about our writing careers?

Last month we discussed what to do emotionally, because until you get your mind right the practicality of all this is beside the point. But once you have gotten yourself through the emotional upheaval, what can you do to stay in the game, practically speaking?

Three main things.

First off, keep doing what you're doing. You know, the most important aspect of all of this—write. What is the status of your craft? Are your characters still a bit lacking? Do your plots sag in the middle? Does it still take you a page to say what you know you should get out in a paragraph? Do your books really begin on page 50?

While I'm not very big on how-to books, many good ones do exist. Peruse them. Do specific exercises to get your work up to snuff, or at least to the next level. Join a writer's group (but do take all critique with a grain of salt. Much of it is self-serving) and see what they're doing, both creatively and marketing wise. Listen. Absorb. Take what works for you and leave the rest. The main point here is to keep at the work itself. The market will come back around, in some form or another, and you want to be at the ready when it does. Many a writing career has been launched because the author was at the right place at the right time.

Second, keep searching for and maintaining your publishing contacts. Just because the market sucks doesn't mean you should shelve your work until things turn back around. While this is always a choice, it's rarely one that will bear any publishing fruit. Though an old cliche, it really is tough to sell a manuscript that's buried in your desk drawer.

But in such a market what you must do is be much more specific as to where you query. So, do your research. Who's selling what and to whom? What's still doing well in the market? Yeah, nonfiction is the rule these days. But THE LOVELY BONES has stayed atop the fiction bestseller list for months and months. And it's "literary," for God's sakes, which of course "they" all say won't sell. Research agents more thoroughly. Find the ones who really are selling your sort of work. Go through the listings on Authorlink. Read the articles there. Go to other sites and see what they're saying (although I defy anyone to find a more informative and thorough site than this one). Check everything out. Go to writer's conferences, because that's where you meet editors and agents. Meet everyone you can. Listen. Absorb. Take what you need and leave the rest. Many an author has broken in by meeting an agent or editor at a writer's conference. This really is a people-to-people business. Enter their contests —if they offer them usually these are judged by big-time agents and/or editors (do check that out first). At least you'll get a read.

And finally, read. I know you get tired of hearing this, but I'm still amazed at how little writers read anymore. I see SO many manuscripts that read as do Movies of the Week, rather than books. Read, read, read, and read some more. You can't do it enough. And read everything, from the classics to the latest mystery series. How do they compare? What are the differences in style? In plot? What's actually pretty good and what's pretty much schlock? Can you tell? Check out the smaller (though still Traditional) presses. Check out the regional folks. Forgo the bestseller list and find the real gems.

Reading does something else as well—it supports the writers who, just like you, are out there everyday banging on their keyboards. Don't borrow a book (unless it's out of print), BUY it. I'm also amazed at the writers who finally do get published and expect everyone to buy their books when they never bought anybody else's. Support one another. Historically, writers have been the best readers (although this has changed in recent times. See above). Book sales were down terribly this Christmas, due, the sages say, to the fact that there was no "buzz book" this year. Used to be, we didn't need a buzz book. Used to be, we read anyway. But we cannot bemoan the dumbing down of America if we're part of that phenomenon.

So, while you're waiting for the market to come back to at least some semblance of sanity, hang in there. Write. Study. Learn. Make contacts. Send your work. List it on the sites that can actually do you some good. And read what everybody else is writing. Talk books up. Give them as presents. We're all responsible for making this business work—for everyone, not just for our own books. So, take what you need from all of that, and go and write yours better.

About Susan Mary Malone

Author of: By the Book (novel); BodySculpting; Fourth and Long; Five Keys for Understanding MenFifteen Malone-edited books have recently sold to traditional publishers! She is a contributing editor to Authorlink.com