My decision to concentrate on my career as a history professor was the main reason it took so long for me to publish Maids of Misfortune, my historical mystery set in late Victorian San Francisco. However, my experiences with the traditional publishing model played a major role, and informed my subsequent decision to self-publish. This post will describe some of those experiences.
At the start, my relationship with the world of traditional publishing seemed quite promising. In 1989, the first draft of Maids completed, I joined a newly formed writers critique group. All of the members were women who were writing mysteries, three of whom had already obtained agents and were on their way to getting their first contracts. The group’s advice proved invaluable. As suggested, I bought a copy of Publishers Weekly, researched agents who seemed to specialize in mysteries and women’s literature, and sent off a raft of query letters. Almost immediately one of those agents (I shall call her Ms. X) contacted me and agreed to represent me, enthusiastically comparing my book to those of Anne Perry, who had by then already successfully published ten Victorian mysteries since her debut in 1979. After I rewrote the book along lines that Ms. X recommended, she began to send the ms out to various publishers, who systematically rejected the book. While all of them were positive in terms of the character and plot, the general refrain was that they already had one historical mystery at their house, that they were not sure that the market was there for more, and that the writing did not grip them enough.
The last of these complaints was certainly warranted, something that I did go on to address during the rewriting of the novel. (I am afraid was still at the novice stage where I thought I had to get my characters into and out of every room and every scene.) But the first two reasons reflect one of the problems of traditional publishing-a reluctance to commit resources to new genre trends, unless there had already been a proven bestseller. (Then, of course, publishers will commit enormous resources trying to duplicate that success, busily ignoring books that don’t conform.)
In fact, in 1990-1991, when my ms was being circulated, there were only a few historical mysteries that had had any significant success. Apart from Anne Perry, there was Peter Lovesy’s Victorian series (1970), Elizabeth Peter’s Victorian/Egyptian series (1975), Ellis Peter’s medieval Brother Cadfael series (1977). In addition, there were a few other historical mysteries who had just been picked up, for example, the first of Lindsey Davis’s Roman series, Silver Pit (1989); Amy Myer’s first Victorian, Murder as Plums (1989); Alanna Knight’s first Victorian, Blood Lines (1989); Carole Douglas’s first Irene Adler book, Good Night, Mr. Holmes (1990), Emily Brightwell,’s first Mrs. Jeffries book, (1993); and Laurie King’s BeeKeeper’s Apprentice (1994).
While I am not comparing my manuscript to any of those in terms of finished product, it certainly had the same potential. But the sub-genre was relatively new, and few of these series had yet reached their full potential in terms of sales, and none of the published historicals were set, as mine was, in the United States. And no one was willing to take a chance on this new variation to an unproved genre.
Of course, anyone who follows the historical mysteries knows that the 1990s the field exploded. For an exhaustive listing check out the following website on historical mysteries. I feel confident that if I had circulated a rewritten draft of my ms just a few years later, that it would have been picked up. But here lies another problem with the traditional route. I discovered that once a ms has been rejected by a publishing house, an agent is reluctant to resubmit it. My only recourse was to write a second ms, hoping that if a editor became interested in that book, they would reconsider the original ms as well. But by 1992, despite having outlined a second book in my planned series, my day job became too demanding, as I embarked on ten years as a faculty senate leader at my institution, in addition to the heavy demands of teaching.
Again this was my choice, but a choice reinforced by the lessons I was learning from the women in my writers group. First, I learned that unless you are fortunate enough to publish a best seller, publishing houses spend virtually nothing on publicity for your books. Second, I learned that if your book’s initial print run didn’t seIl out in the first 4-6 months (and increasingly the window narrowed) then book stores returned (remaindered) copies, which meant that it was practically impossible for future readers to find your books. Third, I learned that if your second or third books didn’t sell significantly better than your first, then the chances of getting an advance beyond the “beginners” three to four thousand dollars became slim. Fourth, I learned that once a publishing house determined that the demand for your books was insufficient, that they took them out of print, and often even if another press wanted to reissue, this was difficult, because as author you didn’t have the rights to your own books. Fifth, I learned that is was nearly impossible to support yourself year after year as a midlist author, no matter how excellent or critically received you were.
I watched as these lessons came home to the writers in my group who struggled to maintain the integrity of the writing process that had produced their excellent first novels, while simultaneously spending their own time and money to publicize their last book. I watched as by 2002, they were unable to get their most recent works published, even though the work itself was the best they had done- because their agents and editors weren’t willing to back them anymore with publishing houses that were being gobbled up by multinational corporations. And I watched as these brillian writers began to loose confidence in their own writing. And as I watched, I became less and less willing to sacrifice the time and energy I needed as a teacher, wife, mother, friend, to pursue the admittedly glorious experience of fiction writing.
In 2001 and then again in 2004, I did make two more forays into the world of traditional publishing, and both of these experiences added to my growing belief that the traditional road was not going to be the best route to follow if I wanted to ever see Maids of Misfortune published and enjoyed by readers. This will be the the subject of my next post.