Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A Fistful of Writers and a Few Prima donnas

A few years back I managed to sell a story I had been sending to various editors for almost eighteen years. Yep, you read it right: eighteen years. I’d always thought it was a good story, and finally a couple of professional editors agreed with me and so it was published (“Visitation” in CHILDREN OF CTHULHU, Del Rey Books).

Now, I have to say that I lost count of the number of rejections that story had received over the years. Dozens, yes. Not a hundred—at least I don’t think so—but it’s possible. I kept sending it out, and editors kept rejecting it. It was obvious that I disagreed with them, because I kept packing it back up and finding a new market somewhere else. (You truly had best develop a thick skin in this game.)

Through it all, despite the rejections, I never let any editor who had rejected it know that I thought that they were wrong to have done so. If anything, I perhaps let the odd editor here and there know that I appreciated the time they’d spent with my story. Because that’s what editors do. They are devoting some of their time on this mudball to reading your story, and by Jove they may very well have much better things to do. So the least one can do, if anything at all, is thank them for that time.

Some time after “Visitation” saw print, it occurred to me that the premise of the story (that being that Poe had returned to this mortal coil) could make a decent basis for an anthology. So I whipped up a proposal and started looking for a way to sell such an anthology. No matter that I had never sold an anthology, and no matter that I didn’t have the foggiest idea how to go about it. I came up with a title (Evermore), and a nice pitch (starting with a quote from a Lovecraft poem), and began sending it out.

No one bit.

After a year or so of this, I thought that perhaps I would have better luck if a professional editor worked with me to sell it. So I wrote to John Pelan and asked him. He thought it was a good idea, but he didn’t have the time, and put me in touch with Peter Crowther. Crowther also liked the idea and we began to send it out. A few publishers rejected it, but one thought the idea had promise and wanted to sit on it for a bit. A bit turned into months, and months into...well...a couple of years.

As already stated, I’m pretty patient and damned well tenacious when it comes to selling a project. But one small-time publisher sitting on an anthology pitch for two years was too much even for me. I asked John to pull the anthology from said publisher and Crowther and I amicably parted ways. The anthology pitch for Evermore returned to my office where it sat again for some time, as I had pretty much run out of publishers to whom to pitch.

Then, one day I was exchanging emails with my old pal, Stephen Mark Rainey, and I asked him if he’d like to hang his name on the anthology with me and we could try to sell it. He agreed. Mark sent the pitch out to a house with which he had a relationship and we waited. No dice.

Then, it occurred to me that I had not yet tried Arkham House. Yes, it seems so darned obvious, but for some reason that option had escaped me. I had once submitted a novel there, and it was rejected. But I had written to the editor at Arkham to thank him for the time he’d taken to review the manuscript. Since I had their name and his address, I sent the pitch for Evermore to them.

Arkham House accepted it. Hoorah!

Budgets were discussed and contracts were signed. Mark and I set about searching for stories. The word went out that we had a deal and a new anthology and the tales began to come in.

Ah, yes, I read a number of very fine stories, and these we accepted. In addition, I wasted my time reading a lot of very bad stories, and these we rejected.

Back to the subject of manners.

Some writers assumed that I would accept their work based on the fact that I had known them for a long time. That I would pay them money for our friendship in accordance with some kind of professional nepotism, if you will. These writers were wrong. I rejected the stories of some long-time acquaintances. Most took the rejection with good nature and thanked me for my time. But a few were upset to the point of complaining that I was unfair in some manner. Oy.

Then there were the cases of the prima donnas. There were a couple of these in the stew, whose work I examined and found wanting. These, too, Mark and I rejected for good reason, to be met with reactions that I can only term petulant. How dare we reject their excellent tales? (Keep in mind that on at least one of these stories, I had been sorely tempted to let the author know they’d penned a 9,000-word sleeping pill. But out of good manners, I held my tongue.)

My own reaction to these unfortunate instances of very bad form was to remain silent. Well, yes, I’ve got a little list, but that’s beside the point. The main thing was to be professional.

In the end, though, these writer-folk did not understand that the world does not owe them a sale, and that Mark and I do not engage in any kind of favoritism. I don’t care how long I’ve known you, nor what your present reputation among other anthologists might be. All I care about is that if you send me a lousy story, I’m going to reject it.

Currently, I have a line on selling another anthology to a much higher end market with far deeper pockets. As with my first anthology editing experience, I’ll be searching for excellent stories by writers who know how to spin a good yarn. I won’t care how long I’ve known the author, and I won’t care how special they think they are. All I’ll care about is that they deliver the goods.

But I’ve got a certain list.

(Look for Evermore, co-edited by James Robert Smith and Stephen Mark Rainey to appear very soon--hopefully by October--from Arkham House Books.)

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