Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Wordcraft -- So you want me to make you a writer?

Don’t ask Clay Reynolds to go all mealy-mouthed about the writing business. “A lot of what I have to say is not going to be very positive,” he told his audience at this month’s meeting of the Writers’ Guild of Texas. “I’ve been doing this for some time and the last thing I would want to do is mislead anybody just starting out.”

When he says “doing this for some time,” he’s not joking. He’s been writing (and teaching writing, and talking about writing, and writing about writing) for more than 30 years. He’s a professor of creative writing at the University of Texas at Dallas (where he’s Dr. R. Clay Reynolds), a writer with nearly a thousand publications to his credit, including award-winning novels and short stories. In addition, he consults with writers, although I’d recommend reading his “so you want me to make you a writer” page at
www.clayreynolds.info before daring to approach him.

There are, he told his audience, six basic avenues for publishing: commercial publishing in the United States, which he referred to as New York publishing “although a lot of it is no longer in New York”; commercial publishing outside the U.S.; university press/small press publishing; print on demand (POD) and e-publishing houses; online publishing; and self-publishing.

Although Reynolds stated that only about 20 percent of current books are published by the large houses, he concentrated on them because of the advantages they provide to authors. “They actually pay for books, they pay before a book is published, and their books are generally reviewed somewhere.” In addition, large publishers generally keep books in print about 12 months and are able to keep them on shelves in bookstores about eight to 12 months. Similar benefits apply to books published by large European publishing houses, but these are not generally reviewed in U.S. media.

Unfortunately, those big publishing outlets are becoming fewer. When he began writing fiction, there were 60 major U.S. publishing houses. Now there are six, and four of those are actually owned by non-U.S. corporations. University presses and non-university small presses are also dwindling. (Three large presses that describe themselves as university presses¾ Oxford, Harvard, and Cambridge¾ Reynolds explained, are now affiliated with the big six publishers.) Outside of the large publishing houses, marketing and publicity for books depends almost entirely on the author. And even within the big six, “author development, the carrying of marginal writers, disappeared by the end of the 1980’s” when big bookstores started marketing book like groceries.” From what he sees, this state of affairs is only going to continue.

Which raises the question: “Why do you want to do this? If you’re doing it for the money or fame, you’re in the wrong business.”

In case he hadn’t scared everybody away yet (although all of us hearing Reynolds speak had gotten very, very quiet), he went on to talk about what to do with any money an author might earn. “Everybody needs an agent. Without an agent, your chance of receiving commercial publication is nil. Agents effectively are clearing houses.”

The good part? “You don’t have to pay an agent until the book sells. Honest agents are not hard to find,” with listing in such publications as Literary Market Place,
www.literarymarketplace.com/. Book fairs and conventions are also good places to meet agents, he noted. (For more about upcoming Texas writing conventions with agents in attendance, see www.writersleague.org and http://dfwcon.org/.)

“Writing’s a funny business,” Reynolds mused. “You can write the best book in the world and nobody will buy it. You can write the worst book and it may become a best seller. Write from the heart and write honestly. Don’t pull punches. Don’t plan to give me a shock, don’t plan to make me laugh, don’t plan to make me cry¼ and you just might do it.”

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