Thursday, September 22, 2022

A Cautionary Tale

 Of all the people involved in getting material to readers, the writer lives at the bottom of the food chain.


Today’s case in point:


Bingeing Homicide: Life on the Street inspired me to write a short story that takes place entirely in a police interview room, hence the title: “The Box.” I am as proud of this story as I am of anything I have written, including the two Shamus-nominated novels.


I submitted “The Box” to [magazine name redacted], figuring I might as well start at the top and work my way down. It was a pleasant surprise when they accepted it right away, as is. For reasons unclear to me now (and this is my fault), I expected publication this fall.


A few weeks ago I saw a new issue of [magazine name redacted] was available and I wondered if “The Box” was in it. It was not. I poked around and found the story came out earlier this year. Way earlier. So early there are no print copies left.


This was news to me. I wrote the publisher and asked if, in fact, I was reading this correctly and the issue containing “The Box” had already been out for over six months, and, if so, why I wasn’t notified.


He replied the same day to tell me “we can’t promise we will reach out to everyone although sometimes we try to do so. It’s a matter of bandwidth… only communication with authors would run into hundreds per month (400+ to be exact).


“In the past we have encouraged our dear authors to follow our newsletters and check our shop.”

Follow-up messages revealed “The Box” was published in the February-March 2022 issue. 

I never claim to be a big shot. I don’t ask for special consideration. Writers understand that all the industry shit that rolls downhill comes to rest on our shoes. I get that. But is it not enough that publications no longer feel the need to extend the basic courtesy of a rejection (the general attitude is “Submit and fuck off. We’ll call you if we want you.”), but they no longer even feel it necessary to tell you when the story they accepted will be in print? Honest to God? For him to cite “400+” authors to reply to, he clearly meant those who submitted and were rejected. That’s bad enough, but I made the cut and it was still on me to divine their publication schedule?


I would have bought a print copy; they’re gone. (The Beloved Spouse™ found one for me online. Said purchase exhausted what I was paid for the story.) I can’t even self-publish it or put it on my web site, as [magazine name redacted] owns the “exclusive rights to publish” for “the full term of copyright,” which, as I understand it, is my lifetime plus 70 years. That’s my fault for not reading the contract more carefully when I signed it. My life plus 70 is a lot to give away for $25.

I have never made money from a book. Not one time. Author’s copies for promotion and consignment sales, web site maintenance, and marketing costs have overwhelmed all proceeds. My average monthly royalties from Amazon for the five self-published books averaged $1.75 over the past year. Bookstores won’t stock my books because they can’t return them.


I wouldn’t mind if my average rating on Amazon for all 13 books wasn’t 4.6. Of course, that’s based on only a total of 144 ratings. Don’t misunderstand me. I am grateful for all my readers. (Especially since I appear to know most of you personally.) I am flattered when asked to sit on panels or contribute to anthologies, especially when I see who I’m surrounded by. I will not ever dispute that I have been fortunate to have such respect and I want you all to understand I never take any of the good things for granted.


Still, it’s tough. The excitement of an approaching release is now tinged with the anticipation of the disappointment to ensue when the book sinks like a stone. More than one person told me White Out, released July 11, is my best book; it has six reviews as of this posting. They’re all five stars.


I never expected to earn a living as a writer. Mostly I hoped it would pay for a conference or two each year. (I can’t write off the trips, as the IRS considers my writing to be a hobby.) I write because I enjoy the challenge of crafting a story. Finding the right tone, getting the dialog just so and fixing the descriptions so I can say, while not perfect, “this is the best I can do.” All of that remains as true as it ever was, but there is a point where the satisfaction derived is overcome by the frustration endured. I’m not there yet, but I can see it from here.


I’m not asking for sympathy. I went into this a grown-ass man with his eyes wide open. Consider this a detailed PSA for fledgling writers: don’t kid yourself. Do your homework. Take pride in the fact that you provide the raw material that drives an industry, and understand that industry will treat you no better than a mining company treats topsoil.



Anonymous said...

Dana, thank you for your self/flagellating honesty, especially where numbers are concerned. Those of us at the bottom of the pool don’t know where to begin estimating profit or loss or just how far we are from success, however we define it. I hope part of your definition includes the admiration of your readers and your peers.

Dana King said...

Thank you. Your comment is much appreciated.

Scott D. Parker said...


Just wanted to let you know that I read your post yesterday and riffed on it today over at Do Some Damage: