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Good To Know

Rejection is Inevitable

It's happening again. The day before 2021 and I still get nothing but rejections.


I've been writing and submitting for over 30 years now. My first was in 1979 to Alfred Hitchcock Magazine, and it was all single spaced. I got a better rejection then than I did from that same market just a few years back. Since then, the writing world has changed -- a lot.


I've turned down bad contracts, and put up with bad agents. I've won bad awards. I know there's potential in my work and I love listening to comments and suggestions.  One novel I changed a lot after listening to all the advice—get rid of the alien storyline, rework the past life musings, minimize the personal first person chitchat.  


One publisher, Divertir, asked me to remove the backstory from the beginning and weave it into the rest of the story. Divertir was the first publisher I chatted with over the phone, and because I couldn't comply with ALL his requests, he no longer considers anything I write. It's shame that I didn't understand that one change I couldn't do at the time, because I've since done that. It was published by a lesser publisher in 2016, whose contract I allow to lapse after the three years were up.


Now as a series with a new title, I can't find another publisher. I have the second in the series being read by Story Plant. I don't know if they're any good either, but he did reject Dinner at Marshall Fields because he thought the lead was too boring. I'm doing another intense edit to fix that. He said he couldn't read the one that had been published but might consider putting it out again if the series itself is good. Still waiting for a response, but I think I can trust him. 


The rejection just this morning was on a short story from my Grimm's anthology, where he wanted anthropomorphic animals. Now that I know he doesn't need it to be under 1,000, I could try another one I have.


Do we just sit and wait to be rejected? Of course not. Until I have a contract, I keep circulating. You do yourself an injustice if you just sit around and wait. I know a gal who was also published by ATTMP (my publisher of my other two novels in 2016 and 2017) and she waited for over a year for them to accept her second novel. I told her that's too long to wait, so she contacted them and was told they rejected it six months before. Lesson learned.


I canceled their contracts because they were just that bad. Even if the contract looks good, it doesn't mean they are. But I only reject contracts that look bad, and hope for the best. There has to be some good small presses out there. Right?


Here's the funny thing. The guy at Divertir said that because of my unwillingness to listen to him, he didn't plan to offer comments to authors anymore.  At first I felt guilty about that, but you know what?  If a publisher doesn't want to listen to an author's reasons why such a thing is as it is, then maybe they should just go with things that feel perfect to them right off, and not bother with anyone else. But yes, I do feel bad. I appreciated his help and told him so. I wish we had been able to communicate. But don't work with someone who talks sideways at you. 


I've had publishers who tell me within two days of receiving something that they'll publish it. That's a warning bell, too. ATTMP did that. You need to ask them what they liked about it. You need to ask if they thought the ending was strong enough. You need to wonder what would make them accept it so quickly. Are they that hard up for a book that appears to have proper punctuation?


Rejection hurts. We all know that. And for someone writing as long as I have, it feels like a piece of me goes missing with every one. But if I can continue to learn from them, then maybe someday I'll stop getting so many.


Learn from rejection, from publisher comments, and from your own inner sense of when something needs another edit. Because in this climate of anyone can get anything published, we still need to strive to rise about the hash and spam of so many people thinking they're writers to provide those novels and stories that make reading a worthwhile event.


Learn from comments given. But if a publisher wants you to change everything, is it really the right publisher for you?

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Taking No For an Answer

Writers write what they know.  Editors reject what they don't know.  How do the two manage to find compatible ground?  The answer might be in figuring out when they're not rejecting you, but testing your response to criticism.  Maybe sometimes their 'no' is checking your passion.


I used to accept rejection. I'm sure I don't know anyone who's been rejected more than I have.  I once thought that if someone said no to one of my novels or queries, that's the end of it.  They said no and there's no bargaining anywhere.


They would say things like "not for us," and I'd say, "Hey, but I studied the market and I'm sure you take this kind of stuff so what gives?"  And then I started to think that they were only saying nice things so that I didn't shoot back one of my dreaded "you're an idiot" emails -- you know, the one frustrated writers can't resist sending, especially after the coffee pot breaks and the computer eats their latest Pulitzer worthy article.


Yeah, I used to send angry email responses. But I have evolved into a more compliant being --just shed a few tears, file the rejection and move on.


And along the way I've learned to notice the potential "yes" embedded inside the "no."


Sometimes editors write nice things.  Sometimes they mean the nice things they write. It's up to us writers to become confident in our work as professionals so that we can see the difference.


Here's my suggestion: Find encouragement in every kind word used in a rejection, and follow up with a nice thank you specially worded to give them a chance to reconsider, even if you don't believe there's a chance they will reconsider.


Because there's a chance they might.


Recently I got a rejection on a novel that ended with how they liked my writing but didn't feel they could do the marketing that would guarantee its success.  I immediately responded with "Tell you what -- publish the book and I'll do all the marketing."


This brought them back, encouraged by my passion, to request the novel. They were confused by the genre, or the way I had positioned it, and with their response I realized I may have been marketing the novel wrong all along.  

Of course, I still want help marketing.  More on that in a minute.


Does this mean you should follow up on every "no"?  I wouldn't.  A lot of rejections come in the form of form letters, and that means the submission had nothing for them.  


Once I asked one of these if they could share a reason for the no.  One publisher happily responded with:  "I don't like your writing."


We know writing is a subjective business.  But there is always the possibility that some rejections that are nicely worded came really close to being acceptances.  I had another publisher request a series of six changes to my novel, and five of them I agreed with.  He rejected it again because I didn't agree with the sixth. That's okay, too. There's only so far we can go when changing our vision to match someone else's, after all.


Another publisher that responded to my "passion" may ask for changes. They may still reject it.  I had a rejection recently that "the main character was boring." Okay, fine. I told them maybe I should make her a reflection of  me, and I offered him my vampire series. He's now looking at that. As writers we have to be open to change, to realizing that we are sometimes too close to our work to see its flaws. That boring character is getting some shots of adrenaline.


But we also have to be sure enough in what we've written to know when a suggestion crosses the line.  

Once I got a contract for a novel that said that I was going to allow them to make so many changes that the book's copyright could be taken from me.  I had another contract that said that if I backed out for any reason (i.e. didn't like the cover), they would expect me to pay them $1,000 for their trouble. Both contracts were rejected.


Once I signed with a publisher for my second novel with them and they proceeded to put out a badly covered novel -- one guaranteed to keep its readers away. I didn't criticize the cover of my first book with them enough. Now both books are unpublished.  


A contract I signed for a nonfiction had a clause guaranteed I'd have an editor in six months. Then he said he couldn't find an editor for such a large task. So yeah, that got cancelled, too. 


All kinds of things can go wrong with a yes, but getting that yes and finding out if you can work with them is 3/4ths of the submission battle.  Maybe this new publisher for my vampire series won't do any marketing.  But maybe they do.  I'll never know until I get a yes and see a contract. And I'll never get anywhere, in my mind, if I'm just a self-published author.


Taking "no" for an answer keeps a lot of fledgling writers away from traditional markets.  Most self-published authors I know could not bear up under repeated rejection, and did not recognize the slightest encouragement.  One did not realize that they could have been testing her when they told her not to set her novel in Brownsville because it wouldn't attract a big enough readership.  Had she responded with all the reasons it was the perfect location, she might have ended up with the contract.  She could have said: "But I wanted to write what I know and love passionately.  And Brownsville, so close to Mexico, really is an exotic location."  She could have made her readers love Brownsville, but first she needed to make an editor love it.


I'm going to be making that big change in my 3rd vampire book. It'll be set, not in a fictional town outside of Madison, but in Sauk City. It'll bring a lot more realism to an already realistic vampire.


Be realistic.  Following up on a query like this might help, and it might not. If it doesn't, just cross them off your list and move on. There is not harm or foul in the follow-up, if done with respect and care. You can sense if it was the wrong market. Don't pester, because someday they could be the right market.


Publishers like to see if we're going to be an author they can work with. They test our passion.  Rejections can be part of that test. So if there is any kind of personal note in the rejection, more than just a form letter, respond.  You have nothing more to lose.  


Your goal as an author should be to find someone who believes in you.  Take every rejection seriously, and be proud of yourself for putting your work out there.  


The end result is a better book.

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Yeah Yeah Yeah: Rights to Song Lyrics

(new edit of a 2013 blog - as I'm doing a final edit on Dinner at Marshall Fields)

I entered the world of usage of song lyrics in a novel as a babe in the musical woods. Could they object to a line or two? Or even a whole stanza? I couldn't imagine why, and in fact really didn't give it a thought when I started writing Dinner at Marshall Fields.

As a historical writer who put together a huge nonfiction book complete with quotes and photos, many of which need permission or at least complete footnoting, I'm not sure why this would escape my attention. Songs are still an artist's creation, even if the artist doesn't always retain their own copyright. But since I lift quotes from other works, with proper recognition, why couldn't I do that to songs? Well, for one thing, if you use more than a small percentage of an author's work, they could come after you for payment. So okay, what about just a line? And who do I ask?

That's the rub. I didn't have to ask John Lennon's widow for right to quote a few of his lyrics in my book. I had to ask Sony/ATV Music, who owns the Michael Jackson estate. My publisher, Arline Chase of Write Words, Inc., told me of an author who talked to John Denver personally, who said he'd be honored to have her refer to his song, and so she did, only to find out he didn't own the rights.

I find this process to be quite arbitrary. For one thing, I am not playing the song without permission on a radio statio, and making money. Or recording the song and claiming it as my own. Do DJs who play at weddings have to get permission for every song they play? Why not? They're making money. I'm going to ask next chance I get, unless someone here knows the answer and can fill me in. I am merely quoting a few lines of lyrics, by far not the whole song, and giving proper credit. What is the problem?

The problem is someone wants money. And it's often not the person who created the piece at all. We're not paying for the literary endeavor, but yes, in a round-about way we are, because they had to sell their rights and did so, we might expect, willingly for some monetary need.

But these creative artists feel they should get something off my work, if it includes a clever reference to theirs. They might make money off my reference if it gains them another fan through that reference -- someone who finds a quoted lyric intriguing, or likes the way I used it. But aren't the lyrics you find online owned by someone who paid to own them, not the one who wrote them? Same difference. No matter who owns the rights, they stand to make money on them through my reference, even if just a digitized copy sells.

How does Amazon do it? I could pay for a music subscription and get to listen to all kinds of music, most of which I'm sure I wouldn't like. Do they buy a blanket approach?

Odd business, music.

I don't know all the details as to why the Beatles would have sold their copyrights to Michael Jackson in the first place. Were they not making enough money from the songs anymore? And I'm just talking about the use of a few lyrics, not the whole song. You can find complete lyrics online to just about any song you want. That enables you to sing the song out loud, and you can do that karaoke without paying a fee, as long as you don't make money doing it. Or don't get caught making money on it.

Why would I begrudge these copyright owners a use fee for these lyrics? Few writers, unless they're of the Stephen King category (and I bet even he wouldn't attempt to write a novel that involves the evolution of music from the '40s to the '60s) can afford to pay an exorbitant licensing fee.

Even with my nonfiction, I only paid for a few photos I felt it had to have. Otherwise, I sought out the free use ones, and got permission wherever I could. In a few instances, I couldn't find the permission holder and published them anyway. You have to take a chance in this business sometimes.

So my first stop is to find out how much a few lines of lyrics will cost me, and then let the publisher decide if they think they are worth being used in the book. Because I do not want to self-publish anymore (I'll save that for my death bed). I figured this kind of research should be up to me, because it might be hard to find a publisher if I haven't done this research. They might be leery of any book that relies on music lyrics to help tell its tale.

And that could be the problem I've had with submissions. So finally I cut the lyrics down to just the title. Which is a shame, because some will not be aware of how well that song fit the situation. In "Legend of a Kiowa Son" I used Shakespeare quotes. That's fun, and no copyright to worry about! But it wouldn't fit here, because Holly Day was a singer in the 40s, while the story is set in '68. In some places I used made-up lyrics for her. (See cover and blurb for novel somewhere on my website.)

I have purchased rights in the past. I paid $200 for a map that's in my Pensaukee environmental nonfiction, now making the circuits. Another $200 for one I used in the Civil War book. I became the only authorized Bonanza novelist by gaining permission to publish two novels direct from creator and producer of the series, David Dortort—permission that some people to this day believe I never got. I didn't pay anything up front, but Bonanza Ventures gets 20% of my net royalties—only 10% until I decided to use the official licensed map on the cover. (It hiked up higher in my 2nd and 3rd editions recently published.)

A major goal for this new novel ws getting the rights to the Beatles song, "In My Life." With an online search and a phone call, I learned that Sony/ATV held the rights. I found an email and they responded promptly with a form to return with the contextual pages of the book where the lyrics would appear.

The form wanted me to name the publisher.

It would appear that this is a job most publishers undertake, but undaunted, I told them I didn't have one but might have to re-do the work if the cost was prohibitive. While waiting for a response, I went through a movie script I'd written and noted that I was using lines from other movies. So in this draft, I removed them, thinking it could be stopping the script from getting noticed. I thought the same could be true for this novel.

Sony/ATV responded later that day, though I wasn't sure they would. They said it would cost me $300. That's not bad, I reasoned. Until I saw the next part. For 500 copies. I thought maybe they missed a couple of zeroes. Okay, so this means they think I'm going to self-publish. And while 60 cents a copy doesn't seem so bad, really, it's only for one song. What if the book needs 20 songs? It can become exorbitant.

In my major nonfiction, back in 2013, I got a publisher and then set out to get all the rights to the photos, before the publisher asked me to because he didn't even read the book before accepting it. In that process I found there were some photos I could do without, many that could be replaced with something that was free, and then the ones I needed to pay for I got the prices so that the publisher could decide if they were worth buying. But I cancelled the contract from lack of work on his part, because I felt he didn't have a clue what to do with all these photos and maps.

I wrote back to Sony/ATV asking for a third option, because the only options they gave was either to pay the amount or remove the lyrics. I told them I just wanted an idea of cost, and that I will keep this form and have a publisher decide if I need the lyrics. Then I went through the book and removed whatever lines weren't needed to tell the story. "Yeah yeah sigh." Well, there's at least one potential lyric problem I solved.

Just mentioning the song title by name, which is legal, had to be enough.

The nice thing is that with lyrics, as with photos, you can say that all attempts were made to find out about licensing, and if they don't ever respond, you can go ahead and use the lyrics.

But keep a paper trail, just in case.

The good thing about working with Sony/ATV is how prompt and reliable they are. She also told me that they approve the context use of the lyrics in my novel, but I still have to pay the licensing fee. At least now I know, and will be careful not to be frivolous with lyrics in a novel that depends a lot on how music changes from the 40s to the 60s.


But something will be lost in the transition, and that's too bad.

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