Today I’m so pleased to have Denny Upkins on the blog talking about his individual road to publishing. You may not have heard or Denny but he’s a very wonderful human being that has been writing for year and I’ve known him for just as long. He is publishing his second novel and has a slightly different journey into publishing in the US and I thought it would be nice to see how the US industry differs from the UK publishing world. Over to Denny:
1. How many publishers did you pitch to with your first book?
Pitch my first book? To publishers? What is this crazy talk? Publishers pitched themselves to me. Much like my milkshake, my books brings all the publishers to the yard and they’re like it’s better than yours. Oh yes when publishers learned I finished my first book, they lavished me with money, diamonds, pearls, and jet rides all over the world, and then POOF, I woke up.
Actually a rough estimate, nearly 40 or 50 publishers I pitched to at minimum. When it came to publishing my first book, I left no stone unturned. As far as I was concerned, if I failed to get published, it wouldn’t be for lack of trying on my end.
2. Did you try to get an agent before or just went directly to publishers?
I reached out to both publishers and agents simultaneously. Agents can be invaluable in that they can get your foot in the door with major publishers who won’t even look at a submission without representation. Agents can also procure an excellent deal for an author. On the flipside of that, many agents won’t represent a writer unless they’ve already landed a contract on their own and have one in place. They want the surest bet. Many writers like myself were able to land a publisher without an agent so my advice would be to aim for both but don’t let the lack of one stop you from pursuing the other.
3. Did you get any rejections; what was it like and how did you deal with it?
I’ve never been rejected, ever. Milkshake….boys…..yard. Where do you keep hearing these rumors about me? They’re all lies. LIES I TELL YOU.
Seriously, did I get any rejections? Boy did I! To be honest, they ran the gamut. Some were standard form letters, some rejections were along the lines of great story just not a fit for us; some were along the lines of excellent story but we just just bought something similar to this; some publications and editors, well to this day I still haven’t heard back from.
I wish I could say they were all professional or legit but then I’d be lying. Sadly even in the 21st century, having a novel written by a gay author of color that features an African-American teen and a white bisexual female teen protagonist will incite all manner of bigotry.
I’d be lying if I said it didn’t get to me at times, but when you know you’re fighting for something bigger than yourself (in my case diversity), it motivates you to step your game up and fight that much harder.
4. How long was it between completing your novel and signing on the dotting line?
God, it feels like it all happened in the span of a week but in actuality it was probably a couple of years. I first penned Hollowstone for my inaugural (and I’m proud to announce victorious) foray into NaNoWriMo: National Novel Writer’s Month in November of 2007. I revised and polished the novel throughout 2008 and made the submission rounds. During that time, I came upon Parker Publishing and I was sold by their tagline: Quality Fiction For Readers of Distinction. I learned later that Parker has a talented roster of writers including the late L.A. Banks.
I remember when I submitted to Parker, I kept saying to myself, if I get picked up by a publisher, I truly hope it’s someone like them. Their mission statement epitomized the type of stories I’m striving to tell.
So it’s about 2010 and it’s been a year since I submitted to a publisher or agent. I hadn’t heard anything from Parker or anyone else. Not only was my writing career not where I wanted it to be, but I was also facing some other major life decisions. Stuck in a dead-end town, working in a call center that was proving to be taxing on my mental health, I wanted to escape. I also wanted to travel abroad and gain new skills. Desperate, I considered going into the Air Force. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the rights and laws stateside, the United States is not as progressive as it likes to boast; in fact quite the contrary. Key parts of the voting rights acts that were landmark victories for blacks and other people of color having the right to vote during the Civil Rights movement were struck down last year. Gay marriage and same sex unions are not recognized on a federal level and at the time Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was still in effect making it illegal for out gay and lesbian soldiers to defend a country that frankly despises them. So for me to join the Air Force at that time, I would’ve had to go back into the closet. It was October of 2010 and two weeks before I was scheduled to sign my enlistment papers, I received an email from Parker informing me that they wanted to publish Hollowstone and they attached a contract with the email. I don’t believe in coincidence and to me receiving that email right before I was scheduled to enlist was a sign of what my true calling and true purpose is, being a storyteller. Hollowstone was released in June of 2011 so while it may seem that long, in many respects it really wasn’t.
5. Were there any lessons you learned during the publishing process that you didn’t know beforehand?
One thing that’s definitely been instilled in me repeatedly is that your gut instincts/inner voice is an invaluable resource and to trust in it. Whether it’s regarding a contract, the theme of an anthology, whether or not to work with a certain editor, or plotting of a story you’re outlining, your inner voice is speaking to you for a very important reason. Listen and take heed.
6. Did you get any tips before you went about publishing your work that you found beneficial?
The best advice I’ve received to this day came from my good buddies Cherie Priest and Caitlin Kittredge. This was back in February of 2010 prior to Hollowstone being accepted by Parker and it had been virtually radio silence in regards to the other publishers and agents I submitted my manuscript. I was visiting my friends in Seattle at the time and while we were having lunch we inevitably began talking shop. Knowing that they had both been in my position at some point, I asked them if they had any advice for me. They told me that every writer who’s made it have one thing in common, they never gave up. While I understood what my friends were saying when they shared that wisdom, it was some time after Hollowstone was released before Cherie and Caitlin’s words REALLY registered.
There’s no one standard path to becoming a published writer. Each path is as unique as the storyteller on it. But if being a writer is something you believe you’re meant to do, you will fight for it. It takes a high degree of fortitude, mental discipline, and a bit of a masochistic streak. Actually a huge masochistic streak. I won’t lie to you, it isn’t easy to stay motivated when you receive rejection after rejection letter. I’ll let you in on a secret, while there are some amazing publishers and editors out there, there are just as many myopic imbeciles out there who pass on brilliant manuscripts everyday. Don’t let those idiots or any force short of divine intervention hinder you from sharing your story with the rest of the world.
The OTHER best advice I’ve received to this day came from my other good buddy and fellow novelist, Pauline Trent. We were chatting one day and she made a most profound point about writers and artists in general. There are generally two types of artists in the world. Those who want to be known as great artists and those who genuinely want to produce the best art that they can possibly produce. There’s a world of difference between those who have these different mindsets. More often than not, it is the latter who inevitably come to be known as the former.
7. What advice would you give to those wanting to get published?
-To those wanting to get published, I would say congratulations, and welcome to Hell. LOL.
-Seriously, it is one hell of a rollercoaster ride and brings more than its share of excitement, frights, and rushes. Never a dull moment.
-First and foremost My advice would be to love what you’re writing and love what you’re doing. Write the stories that you want to write and be a kid and explore and have fun. Make sure you’re having fun and having the time of your life while writing for reasons I expand on here.
-Never rest on your laurels and always look for ways improve your craft and step your game up. Give your art and your audience the respect they deserve in giving nothing less than 100 percent effort.
-Don’t break the bank trying to promote the novel or enter it in prestigious awards competitions. It’s not worth it.
-Be a consummate, gracious and humble professional and the very definition of a class act. You would think this goes without saying but much like common sense, it’s so rare it could be considered a super power. When fellow writers/artists are doing excellent and notable work, I try to pay it forward by promoting them and their endeavors. I never do it for quid pro quo but I do believe the universe rewards me just the same.
Because I’ve been polite and professional and have gained a favorable reputation with respected peers, many editors, publishers and con promoters have wanted to work with me repeatedly which has led to other opportunities. Opportunities others have missed out on because they allowed hubris to rule them.
-Contrary to the age old expression, people do in fact judge a book by its cover. Make sure it is first rate. If you have to spend the money to hire an artist, do so. It is worth the investment.
-If your debut novel isn’t a huge financial success, guess what that’s okay. It is certainly the norm. Many if not most full-time authors have a day job so trust when I say you’re in fine company. Also, think of your debut novel as an investment into a lifelong business opportunity because that’s exactly what it is. I didn’t make a lot of money with Hollowstone. The book sold very well but I wasn’t exactly about to retire to Whistler and live as a gentleman of leisure.
What you were expecting me to mention retiring to some magical place like Tahiti? I love Canada. It’s a thing with me. Or as I refer to it as Canadia, the Magical Land of Awesome. Seriously, it’s a thing.
Where was I? Oh yeah. Advice. Yes. Investments. What I didn’t make in money, I was well compensated for with publicity and other rare opportunities that prior to Hollowstone I was practically killing myself in trying to procure. By simply having a novel under my belt, I was viewed by many to be “legit” and was invited to be a guest at sci-fi cons, do guest posts, book signings. This led to face-time with new people during panels or signings who became new fans and bought my books from me. Which by the by, always carry enough print copies on you to sell on the spot at cons. Your wallet will thank you for this.
Most authors don’t establish their core audience and don’t really hit their stride until after their fifth or sixth book. Each time you release a new book, keep improving your art, keep building your audience that’s only going to lead to better deals and contracts. I got a far better deal with West of Sunset than I did with Hollowstone. Sales weren’t the other factor that led to the West of Sunset contract being better. At every con I was a panelist at, I constantly praised and promoted Parker Publishing and promoted other Parker authors on my blog. Little things like that can make all the difference in your career.
-Don’t rule out smaller publishing presses, especially for your first book. Many of them are eager to work with new and promising talent and one of the advantages with working with a smaller press is that as an author you get to have more of a voice in editorial decisions, bookcover designs,etc. A few colleagues started their career with smaller presses, established themselves and then later signed with a bigger publisher and are doing very well.
-Stay hungry, stay humble. The late and brilliant Steve Jobs offers similar advice in this commencement speech.
-As you progress in your writing career, there is a good chance that you’re going to have to part ways with people and there’s the chance that you’re going to discover that not everyone is going to be happy for your success and people who you thought were friends were vipers in waiting.
I don’t say this to be a Cynical Sid, a Danny Downer, or a Negative Ned but I do say this to prepare you. In both cases where I released Hollowstone and West of Sunset, I lost friends, even other writers who made it abundantly clear that they resented the success I had garnered. Never mind the fact that I’ve sacrificed countless nights, weekends, holidays, working towards gaining the blessings and the opportunities I’ve received. Because they aren’t happy with their situation, their careers, and because they aren’t willing to do the work it takes to make the hard (and often painful) changes towards progress, they want to try to sabotage others so they can feel better about themselves. Don’t let them. When they show their true colors like that, cut your ties and move on. Let them wallow and drown in their own cesspool while you ascend to new heights.
-On the flipside, always be appreciative of the people who have been in your corner, weathered every storm with you and have been a Ride or Die through every triumph and tragedy, be it family, friend, colleague, fans, whomever. Because you didn’t have to have them in your life and there’s no guarantee that you’ll have them tomorrow. Don’t take them for granted and never hesitate to tell them and show them how much you appreciate them while they’re with you now.
-Think about your branding and how to market yourself. In the age of web and social media, your stories aren’t the only things that are salable, the person behind the story is as well. Stephen King, JK Rowling, Oprah Winfrey and Joss Whedon are perfect examples of people who are as marketable as the media they produce. They fully capitalize on that fact. If you’re not sure what your brand is, this is a great opportunity to reflect. Ask yourself, what makes you marketable? What makes you unique? For example, as you may have guessed, I am a sarcastic, snarky nerd much in the spirit of say Dr. Gregory House or a young Rupert Giles. But I’m also a social justice/equal rights activist and I regularly speak on those issues. So we’re looking at a snarky queer author of color who tackles diversity and other equal rights issues in his fiction and articles. So for other PoCs and LGBTQs who are looking for stories featuring characters like them, stories that are presented with respect, stories that the mainstream continues to shun, that makes me very marketable to a virtually untapped and ignored market. See how this works?
This is article goes more in depth about author branding:
Regarding other essential writerly truths, bookmark this page, it will serve you well:
8. What are your thoughts on self-publishing versus traditional publishing?
I am going to take a very unpopular position here. One that you weren’t allowed to take just a few years ago without catching heat. I fully and totally support self-publishing. I have always supported self-publishing and if that’s the route a fellow author wishes to take (and more than a few of my friends do) they have my 100 percent blessing and support.
For those of you who aren’t aware, there’s been a long standing elitist and very cliquish hivemind in publishing, specifically when it comes to speculative fiction. Self-publishing has long been viewed as vanity publishing and if you self-published, it was akin to wearing a crimson A on your chest. It makes no sense because if you’re an aspiring actor, you audition for parts, do theater work, compile a reel, take any bit role you can until get a solid contract either through an agency or a studio. If you’re a musician, you perform at bars, stadiums, you produce your own EPs and sell them until you get a major deal with a record label. Yet writers are expected to twiddle our thumbs until the Big Publisher in the sky picks us and deems us worthy.
The unspoken accusation has been that if you self-publish you’re vanity publishing because you couldn’t hack it in the industry. You’re not a “real” writer because a publisher didn’t pay for your work. Because publishers and editors are like God in that they’re infallible. Bollocks.
We’re not going to even delve into any of the legitimate reasons someone may self-publish: they want full control and responsibility for their product; the gatekeepers have a notorious track record of discriminating against minority writers and stories featuring minority protagonists.
After all, there is a reason why #WeNeedDiverseBooks is trending something fierce right now.
This goes back to power. It’s always about power. If too many writer starts self-publishing then that takes the power (there’s that word again) from the shotcallers in the mainstream industry. Can’t be a gatekeeper if no one wants in.
On top of all of that, publishing continues to utilize an antiquated business model that has long since been obsolete.
Factoring all of this in, it’s little wonder why the industry is in the disarray it’s in. More than that, with the internet and e-books, the landscape has changed, there are more available resources, and indy authors and small presses can hold their own with the big boys if they’re strategic in their approach.
Many people have gotten wise to this and surprisingly self-publishing is losing the stigma it once had. More than that, many traditionally published authors who have released books and short stories for decades and have either had bad run-ins with certain publishing houses or have amassed a collection of work and want to re-release it are embracing self-publishing as well.
As with anything there’s pros and cons to both traditional publishing and self-publishing. With traditional publishing, you are working with other people and the bigger the house, the bigger the resources. With a traditional publisher, there’s a marketing dept., there’s an editor, there’s an art department for the book cover. You don’t have as much of a voice or control on many of the decisions that happens with your work, because ultimately it’s the publisher’s call. However with a publisher, it’s a safe bet that you’re going to be nicely compensated for your work.
Self-publishing, you have all the control, but as the old saying goes, heavy is the head that wears the crown. That means EVERYTHING is on you. Editing, printing, e-book formatting, and while yes you can hire people to assist you in this, it can get costly.
There’s really no right or wrong answer. Every writer’s situation is different so it really just depends on what works for him or her.
For me personally, I decided to go with the traditional route so I could learn the ropes, have others help me and being on a fixed income, it keeps me from breaking the bank. Down the line, I may consider going the self-publishing route.
Whether it’s traditional publishing or self-publishing, I support any writer who is about their art and about their business.
9. How do you balance your work/social life with your writing/publishing work?
What is this social life you speak of? I think I heard of it once. I may have even had it once upon a time but it’s been so long ago my memory fades thinking back that far. 😉
I’ve always been a workaholic and an overachieving perfectionist, especially when it comes to this. So I have no qualms about putting myself in solitary confinement, so to speak, to be productive. However over the years I’ve learned the importance of balance and why it’s a necessity to keep one from being burned out.
It is sometimes necessary for me to take some time off from writing for a few days or even a few months, in order to recharge my batteries and return stronger and better than ever.
Time management is definitely something that a writer has to learn. If I have a busy week and all I have time to do is outline a new story or edit an old one, I’ll do that on a lunch break. If I’m working on a new novel, I’ll commit myself to write for 2-3 hours after work either in the break room or at Starbucks. Yes, writers actually write in coffee shops on Macbooks. It is really that cliched.
While writing takes precedent, in the last couple of years I’ve managed to develop this “social life” you speak of, and I will say that real life is often the best inspiration for stories. Truth being stranger than fiction and all that.
As Sisterspooky knows I’m a huge comic book nerd, and what’s hilarious is that with the last two guys I’ve dated, I didn’t tell them initially about my double life as a novelist and an equal rights activist. When I did….well……those conversations weren’t unlike Clark Kent revealing his secret identity to Lois Lane.
Denny: Beau, we’ve been dating for quite some time now and there’s something I feel the need to tell you.
*removes glasses in a dramatic fashion*
Denny: The truth is by day I may be a mild manner office worker, but I’m also a published urban fantasy novelist and an equal rights activist. Tru fax! Tru fax!
Beau: Wait, huh, what?
*hands Beau a copy of my novel and shows him my website. Watches his eyes widen in amazement as if I just revealed myself to be a superpowered crimefighter.*
Like I said earlier, when it comes to being a writer, never a dull moment.
10. Final comments, Thoughts.
First and foremost an immense THANK YOU to Sisterspooky aka She Who Beyond Amazing And Awesome For Words for having me back here.
Thank you for taking the time to read this and hopefully my experience and advice was beneficial and will help you on your path to becoming a fellow published author. Stay hungry, stay humble, have fun. Best to all of you and maybe I’ll be reading your novels some time soon.
Oh and yeah. I have a new book coming out from Parker Publishing. West of Sunset: it’s an action packed urban fantasy featuring gay wizard detectives, witchy heroines, vampire biker gangs all of which collide during a Spring Break trip to Los Angeles. And that’s just one half of the book. West of Sunset, excellent stuff, tell your friends, make me money. Good times. Good times.
Thanks to Denny for this fab post and to keep track on Denny, follow his twitter and website for more news!