with Victoria Strauss
Victoria Strauss is the author of six fantasy novels, including The Arm of the Stone, The Garden of the Stone, and her most recent, The Burning Land, just out from HarperCollins Eos. Sheís a regular book reviewer for the online journal SF Site, and her articles on writing have appeared in Writerís Digest and elsewhere. Sheís an active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, where she serves as vice-Chair of the Writing Scams Committee and maintains the Writer Beware literary scams warning website (www.writerbeware.com). She welcomes visitors to her own website: www.victoriastrauss.com.
understand correctly, you wrote your first novel right after you graduated from
high school. It took almost a decade, but that novel (The
Lady of Rhuddesmere) was published and well-received. Tell me about
those nearly-ten intervening years: were you just an amazing writer when you
were 17, or did you do a lot of editing and revising over the years to make it
I wrote and revised it as best I knew
how at the time-- which, given my age and lack of writing experience, wasnít
very well. In many ways, it was a terrible novel, with an improbable plot and
awkward dialogue. But there was at least a spark of talent, because it nearly
was bought by Faber & Faber (a UK publisher); and though no one else came
close to picking it up, the rejections I received were all the kind that say
ďWe want to see more of this writerís work.Ē
Meredith Charpentier, the editor who
did eventually buy it, was an old-fashioned Maxwell Perkins kind of editor who
was willing to work intensively with an author to turn a flawed manuscript into
a publishable book. Under her guidance I completely rewrote it (among other
things, she wanted me to shift from a third- to a first-person viewpoint), and
then rewrote it again. It was a tough experience, and I had to put my ego on
hold. But it was also incredibly rewarding, and I learned a huge amount about
writing by doing it. Iíll always be grateful to Meredith for being so generous
with her time and wisdom.
What made you
stick with it? Did you ever get discouraged or stop writing?
I did stop writing for about five years
after I graduated from college. I was convinced that Lady would never get published, and Iíd realized that the short
stories Iíd been dutifully turning out in order to hone my craft were terrible
and would never get published either (I was wrong about the first, thank
goodness, but not about the second). I decided my hopes of a writing career had
been foolish, and made a conscious effort to set them aside. Itís
unfortunately very easy for me to stop writing, since I find the process
difficult and often unrewarding-- but Iím not a whole person without it. Those
were not happy years.
Then, out of the blue, my agent called
to tell me that Lady had been sold.
Since then Iíve been writing pretty much continuously-- though unfortunately
not publishing continuously. There was a long period between my second and third
novels during which I started and abandoned a number of projects (at least one
of which, a novel about Hernando de Sotoís exploration of the southeastern
U.S., I hope to pick up again one day).
Tell me about
your agent-- how did you find her and why is she the right match for you?
I found her entirely by accident. One
of the publishers Iíd queried for Lady
(this was back in the 1970s, when being unagented was not a liability for a
first-time author) was going out of business. She was an editor there, and was
planning to start an agency. My manuscript landed on her desk; she liked it, and
offered to represent me.
Publishing really has changed a lot in
the past 20 years. An agent is essential if you want to sell fiction to the
large houses, and agents are far more ruthless than they used to be about
jettisoning unproductive or non-selling clients (I know of some well-established
agents whoíll blow you off after six months if your book doesnít sell). I
donít think itís very likely nowadays that an agent would a) take on a novel
that obviously needed a lot of fixing in
order to be publishable, or b) keep sending it out year after year when it
didnít sell, or c) carry a client who showed no signs of ever producing
another book. But thatís what my agent did, and Iím eternally grateful to
I write fantasy, and my agent, though
she does represent several speculative fiction authors, is not a fantasy/science
fiction specialist. This gives me the flexibility to move out of genre if I
want--for instance, for the Soto book mentioned above, which would be a straight
historical novel, perhaps with a few fantastic elements. I value that, and
itís one of the important reasons I remain with her-- as well as her fabulous
sales ability, ace negotiating skills, and the fact that sheís a warm and
You didn't go
full-time with your writing until a few years ago. What took you so long
to make the leap, and how is your life different now? Is there anything
you miss about the 9-to-5 world?
Iíll be honest-- I donít make a
living from my writing. Iím not prolific enough. A mid-five-figure advance for
a duology sounds nice, but if you spread that out over the five or so years it
takes me to write those books, itís not a lot of money. So though I wanted for
a long time to quit my day job, I just couldnít justify it financially. It was
my husband, a generous man who has always been incredibly supportive of my
writing career, who finally convinced me to do it. Iím at least as
time-crunched now as I was before, what with freelance writing projects and the
volunteer work Iíve taken on; that, and my tendency toward procrastination,
means I still have to make a conscious effort to create a space each day for
writing. But Iím able to focus on it much more intensively now, and that has
improved both my productivity and the quality of my work.
What do I miss about the 9-to-5 world?
Nothing. Not a thing. My network of friends has always existed apart from work,
so my social contacts havenít really changed--also, Iím solitary by nature,
so the isolation that troubles some writers isnít an issue for me. Itís
bliss to set my own schedule. Itís ecstasy not to have to attend business
meetings, or deal with office politics. Best of all... no pantyhose, ever again.
working on a novel for a year or two, how do you keep your perspective? Do
you ever feel you're "too close" to your story?
Even if I donít feel Iím too close,
I know I am. By definition, if you live with something day in and day out
youíre going to lose perspective, at least to some degree. Thatís why itís
so important for me to have other people read my work as itís in progress
(Iím lucky to have friends who arenít afraid to give me criticism, and whose
opinions I trust) and to talk about it. One of my best friends is also a writer,
and we brainstorm together about our books. I also talk with my husband, whoís
very good at helping me out of the plot corners I sometimes write myself into.
I get stuck pretty often, usually on
plot points or details of character motivation, so in the short term Iím
constantly losing perspective and scrambling to find it again. But I also work
my novels out pretty thoroughly in advance, and the basic concept doesnít
change very much-- so even when I get lost in an alley, I know where I am in the
city, so to speak. A novel is a whole other world inside my head, where I can
escape whenever I want. It becomes very real to me.
How is the
publishing world today different for novelists than when you began?
Iíve already mentioned the importance
of an agent if you want to sell fiction to a major publishing house. This
wasnít true when I was first submitting-- it was pretty normal for new writers
to get in over the transom. Back then, though, most publishers were what we
today would consider independents. Thatís another thing thatís changed: the
enormous conglomeration of the industry, and the ownership of publishers by
companies that have nothing to do with publishing. This has led to an increasing
attention to profit and the bottom line, which makes publishers less willing to
carry authors who donít ďbreak outĒ after their third or fourth book, and
agents less willing to keep clients whose books donít sell within a relatively
short period of time.
Thereís a lot of discussion among
aspiring writers about how much harder it is now to break into the publishing
industry. But I donít think that breaking in is really any harder than it ever
was-- whatís difficult these days is to sustain a career. A modest-selling
author whose sales remain flat after several books is often less attractive to a
publisher than an unknown, who could bomb-- but who could also do very well (and
who will also probably settle for a lower advance). In the 1980s, when I was
first published, steady sales and good reviews were enough to sustain a writing
career. Thatís not true anymore.
Another enormous change: the emphasis
on self-promotion. Itís commonplace today for writers to support their
publishersí marketing efforts with their own activities-- arranging interviews
and local publicity, setting up readings and signings, maintaining websites. But
as recently as two decades ago, this concentration on post-publication publicity
was very definitely not the norm (even among publishers, who do far more now in
the way of author-marketing than they ever used to). Self-promotion is still
optional: publishers donít require it (good publishers, anyway). I know quite
a few authors who do no promotion at all. But most pay at least some attention
encountered any "genre prejudice?" That is, I hear that some
genre writers feel they don't get as much respect as those who write
"literary fiction," whatever that may mean. Do you think that
"literary" and "fantasy" are mutually exclusive genres?
Yes, I do encounter genre prejudice. I
think every genre writer does. Many people assume that genre writers are not
ďseriousĒ writers, or that the fiction they produce is by definition
inferior, or that itís somehow easier to write than ďrealĒ literature.
There are also the people who are surprised when I tell them I research my
novels, because they think that with fantasy you can just ďmake it all up.Ē
Itís irksome not just on a personal level, but because it closes off potential
audiences. For instance, I think that anyone who enjoys historical novels would
enjoy my latest book, in which history, culture, and tradition is as important
as magic and adventure. But most mainstream readers never go into the sf/fantasy
section of the bookstore.
ďLiteraryĒ is exclusive of
ďfantasyĒ only if you use the term in the genre sense (which most people do
when they talk about literary fiction, usually without realizing it). The
literary genre is not as easily definable as fantasy or mystery, but itís a
genre nonetheless, where the books share certain characteristics, goals, and
audiences. But ďliteraryĒ is also a quality of writing, irrespective of
subject or marketing niche. Many people, unfortunately, conflate the two,
assuming that literary quality is a more or less exclusive property of the
literary genre. This isnít true; genre fiction can be as literary as anything
else. For instance, John Crowley, who is widely acknowledged as a literary
writer but whose major works have been published as fantasy, and so havenít
gained the wider audience they deserve. Another literary fantasist is British
writer Ian MacLeod. Iím sure that anyone who likes Gabriel Garcia Marquez or
enjoyed Mark Helprinís A Winterís Tale would love MacLeodís most recent book, The
Light Ages. But again, itís published and marketed as fantasy, which means
that a wider audience will never see it.
Interestingly, prejudices within
speculative fiction mirror the wider prejudices outside it. There are those who
think that science fiction is literature and fantasy is a creeping commercial
plague. There are those who celebrate tiny literary sub-movements within
fantasy, such as the so-called ďNew Weird,Ē and consider the rest to be more
or less beneath notice. Reviews in a number of print and online venues devoted
to speculative fiction reflect these prejudices.
Tell me about
your latest book. Why did you write it, and what are your hopes for it?
My latest book is The Burning Land, first in a duology I call Awakening. The idea for it actually originated from research for my
abandoned Soto book. I did some background reading on the Spanish conquest of
Mexico, and one of the things that fascinated me was the part that Hernan
Cortezís completely coincidental resemblance to a figure of Aztec religious
prophecy played in his success. I started a science fiction story based on this,
which I never finished because I couldnít decide how it should end. I stuck
the story in a drawer, but I never forgot it, and years later, when I was
casting around for ideas for a new project, I returned to it. The Burning Land is fantasy rather than SF, and the premise is a lot
more complex, but the core idea-- of an explorer encountering an undiscovered
community and precipitating conflict and tragedy because of his accidental
fulfillment of their religious expectations-- remains.
The hero of The
Burning Land is a young priest, Gyalo, whoís sent into an unexplored
desert (the Burning Land of the title) sacred to the sleeping god ¬rata, in
search of a group of refugees from a recently-ended cycle of religious
persecution. After many trials, he finds the refugees-- and also the amazing
secret they guard, which seems to indicate that the central prophecy of
Gyaloís faith has been fulfilled, an event that heralds the destruction and
rebirth of the world. Gyaloís appearance out of nowhere, which at first seems
to answer the refugeesí heretical beliefs, later begins to contradict them,
and heís forced to flee, along with a young woman named Axane who has also
defied her peopleís faith. But the church leaders to whom Gyalo returns are as
threatened by his discoveries as the refugees were by his arrival. In the crisis
that follows, all beliefs come into question, and both Gyaloís courage and his
deepest-held convictions are tested to their limits.
I did a lot of research for this novel.
The story features an invented religion (to the people who said when I declared
my college major, ďA degree in Comparative Religion? What can you do with
that?Ē, I say ďSo thereĒ), a complicated cultural and historical
background (which Iíve tried to invest with an Eastern, rather than a Western
European, flavor), and a number of very different settings (the Burning Land,
for instance, is based on the Australian outback). I hope the book offers
something for everyone: interesting world building, adventure and magic, a love
story, and a serious exploration of themes of faith and repression.
You devote so
much of your time and energy helping writers to avoid scams and deadbeats.
Why do you do this?
This is corny... but itís a way of
giving something back. Iíve been lucky enough in my career never to fall into
the clutches of disreputable people, and I wish it could be the same for
Then again, when I started out there
wasnít anything like the scam industry there is now, and the cons are getting
slicker all the time. Itís much, much harder for writers these days to thread
their way through the maze of people who want to take advantage of them. Even
writers who take the time to educate themselves and who do careful research into
agents and publishers (and I have to say that many writers seem to want to skip
this step) often wind up querying at least one or two disreputables. Thereís
also a plethora of new publishing alternatives-- some of which arenít really
alternatives at all, but you wouldnít know it from the way they present
themselves. If I can offer something to help writers steer clear of the scammers
and the pitfalls, or to gain a better understanding of their options, Iím glad
to do it.
observations are to be trusted, scams that prey on writers are on the rise.
It's so hard for inexperienced writers to know who to trust, and often, they
want to jump into the arms of the first person who shows an interest in their
work (even if the "interest" comes with a price tag). Why must
writers never trust agents or publishers who ask for money up front (reading
fee, evaluation fee, representation fee, etc.)?
The basis of both the author-agent and
the author-publisher relationship is a shared financial interest in the
authorís success. An agent who makes money only when her client does is highly
motivated not just to sell her clientís book, but to get the best possible
deal for it. A publisher whose profits come from book sales to the public has a
vested interest in putting out the best product it can and making sure it sells.
A fee disrupts this relationship. If you pay your agent up front, youíre
diminishing her incentive to sell your book. If you hand over a fee to your
publisher, or agree to buy something as a condition of publication, youíve
just turned yourself into a customer-- and if a publisher can make customers of
its authors, why should it spend time and money trying to make customers of
others (i.e., readers)?
Not all agents who charge fees are
disreputable. A few reasonably well-established agents do ask for something
upfront to cover initial submissions expense (and requiring authors to assume a
direct financial burden-- by providing all full manuscript copies, for
instance-- seems to be on the rise). But most reputable agents donít ask for
upfront money. If they do pass on submission costs, theyíll let the them
accrue and reimburse themselves from the clientís income. By contrast, nearly
every scam or amateur agent in existence wants some kind of upfront or adjunct
fee. So even though there isnít an absolute, 100% correlation between
fee-charging and disreputability, the association is strong enough to justify
avoiding fee-chargers on principle.
For publishers, thereís no ambiguity.
Some small publishers canít afford to pay advances-- but I donít know of a
single reputable publisher that asks authors to contribute financially to
publication, whether on the front end through reading or setup fees, or on the
back end through pre-sales requirements or heavy pressure to buy their own books
for resale. (Note: Iím not talking here about self-publishing services or
straightforward vanity publishers or book producers, but about companies that
claim to be ďtraditionalĒ or independent publishers.)
Writers also need to take a careful
look at the agentís or publisherís track record. An agent should have
verifiable sales to commercial publishers. A publisher should be able to get its
books into bookstores. Fee or no fee, fancy websites and aggressive PR aside,
thatís the bottom line.
Itís important to note that many
fee-chargers arenít deliberate scammers. Rather, theyíre people who donít
really know what theyíre doing, or marginal folks whoíve never managed to
break in. Because they arenít successful, theyíre forced to charge fees to
keep their businesses afloat. Theyíre often very well-intentioned and
enthusiastic, and it can be tempting, if youíve gotten a lot of rejections, to
settle for someone like this. But in the end, the result is the same as youíd
get with a scammer: a lighter wallet, and no sale.
There are some
companies that notoriously misrepresent themselves to writers (like Poetry.com,
which sends out glowing letters to everyone who enters their poetry contests,
declaring them all semi-finalists... then trying to sell them everything under
the sun). How do companies like this stay in business, and why does the
BBB still list them in good standing after so many writers have complained?
The BBB is not a reliable source for
writersí complaints. Writers rarely seem to file complaints with the BBB-- the
notorious Deering Literary Agency, whose owners are doing Federal prison time
for fraud, had a clean record with the BBB at the time it was shut down, and the
same is true of most of the agencies and publishers about which I get repeated
complaints. The BBB has no regulatory power-- it canít sanction businesses
that are complained about, or apply any meaningful pressure to get writers their
money or rights back. I always encourage people to file a BBB complaint, because
if complaints are on file it may make someone think twice about hooking up with
a questionable agent or publisher. But itís really only useful as a public
Companies like Poetry.com stay in
business because theyíre smart. They keep their promotional materials right on
the edge of literal truthfulness (while working hard to make sure that
everything is phrased in the most misleading possible way). They fulfill the
letter of their promises, if not the spirit, and if cash changes hands, the
buyer does receive something. Itís not like Publisherís Clearinghouse, where
people are enticed to spend huge amounts of money in pursuit of a figment. With
Poetry.com, your poem really gets published, and if you pay for the anthology or
the coffee mug or the conference, you really get those things. Same with the
many book ďpublishersĒ that employ similar deceptive tactics-- if you buy
your own book for resale, for instance, the books do get sent to you.
These outfits donít tell you, of
course, that you and authors like you are their best-- and often only--
customers. You do get what you pay for, however, and for law enforcement
thatís apparently enough to keep these businesses flying below their radar.
Also, it has to be said that law enforcement just isnít very interested in
prosecuting literary fraud. The individual amounts of money involved are
relatively small, and literary fraud is a niche activity rather than something
that affects the general public. So it isnít considered a serious problem.
I think many
writers are afraid to "go public" with their complaints against
deadbeats/scam artists out of fear of retaliation-- libel/slander suits,
industry blacklisting, etc. How cautious should we be, and how can we find
out if others have been scammed if we can't feel free to come out and talk about
I think writers are less nervous about
going public than they used to be, simply because the scams have become so
common. You can hardly find a writersí forum or message board on the Internet
that doesnít have a message or two from writers whoíve been ripped off or
who want to know if itís ďnormalĒ to have to pay for publication. Still,
many writers donít complain, and
thatís a shame, because I agree that thereís strength in numbers. If you
name names, you may steer someone else away from the agent or publisher. If you
ask questions, you may get good advice, as well as support and sympathy from
those whoíve been there.
So I encourage writers to name names,
but I think itís sensible to be aware of liability issues. Some scam artists
are quick to threaten legal action against writers who speak out. These threats
can be scary (which is the point: theyíre meant to intimidate), and writers
are understandably nervous about this. But the truth is that the deadbeats
donít want their day in court, because they donít want to have to expose
their nasty business practices to the light of day. Even if they threaten a
suit, theyíre unlikely to pursue one. Also, truth is an absolute defense
against accusations of libel. Itís not smart to say ďSo-and-so is a raving
scam artist and a dirty double-dealing dog,Ē because thatís a value judgment
that canít be proven (and also a personal insult). But saying ďSo-and-so
asked for $650 to represent me and when I checked I couldnít find any evidence
that heíd ever sold a bookĒ is fact. You donít have to be afraid to state
One thing no one should fear is
industry blacklisting. Some disreputable agents/publishers do threaten this--
and itís a frightening threat. But hereís the secret they donít want you
to know: they are not part of the industry. The world of scam, marginal, and
amateur agents and publishers is a kind of shadow-world that mimics the real
publishing industry, but has few actual points of connection with it. A scammer
or marginal could no more get you blacklisted than they could sell your book...
and you already know they canít do that.
Let's say I'm
a writer who just can't seem to get published. I've been at it for years
and am convinced I'm good. But I still have no agent and no publishing
deal. Is it ever a wise idea for me to self-publish or go through a vanity
press or e-publisher if my goal is commercial success? What steps would
you advise me to take before I do that?
I would advise all writers, right this minute, to give up the goal of commercial
success, if commercial success is defined as ďmaking lots of money.Ē Book
writing is not a lucrative trade. I know a lot of professional writers, but only
a few actually support themselves with their writing (and they work hard).
Iím not saying you canít make money-- just that itís one of the most
difficult things to achieve, and there are enough other things to worry about in
pursuit of a writing career. If you take money off the table from the start,
youíll be a lot happier.
If commercial success is defined as
ďlarge numbers of readers,Ē the best way is still via commercial publishing
(a.k.a. ďtraditionalĒ publishing, but I donít like this term because
itís been so abused by disreputable publishers trying to mislead naÔve
authors). Thatís not to say commercial publishing guarantees wide readership--
many fine authors have tiny audiences-- or that you canít achieve it with e-
or self-publishing-- some people do. But your odds of success are far higher
with commercial publishing, which for all its much-discussed problems and
inefficiencies has decades of experience and elaborate and fairly effective
systems in place to accomplish this.
If youíve gone the agent route and
the large publishing house route and are banging your head against a wall, you
might look to a good independent publisher (by ďgoodĒ I mean an independent
that can get its books into bookstores. Many small Internet-based independents
arenít able to do this). Indies donít have the promotional budgets or the
distribution clout of the large houses, but they can do an excellent job.
Another option: a well-established e-publisher. E-publishing is still an
emerging field, and its audience is small compared to the audience for print
books-- but itís a dedicated and enthusiastic audience, and itís expanding
every year. E-publishing used to be the same professional kiss of death that a
lot of POD-based publishing is today, but thatís no longer true, and e-authors
and the larger e-publishers are gaining respect.
Self-publishing (whether true
self-publishing, where you contract everything out yourself, or publication
through a book producer or one of the POD-based self-publishing companies) can
make sense in certain circumstances-- if youíre a nonfiction author with a
niche audience you know how to reach, for instance, or if sales and readership
isnít important to you, or if you have a difficult-to-market project that you
want to see in print, such as a poetry collection. But for the average author in
search of readers, self-publication is a very tough way to go. Self-pubbed
authors do succeed, and thereís periodic hype-ish news coverage about this--
but one reason these stories get so much attention is that theyíre so unusual.
The one route I wouldnít advise is
one or another of the hundreds of print-on-demand-based publishers that have
sprung up all over the Internet in the past few years. Such publishers are often
well-intentioned, but too many of them are run by people without any
professional experience, and have no idea how to select, edit, design, or market
a book. Not only does this make it less likely that your book will count as a
professional credit, these publishersí shoestring budgets encourage them to
price their books high and make them nonreturnable (both of which severely limit
bookstore placement), and to rely on their authors as an unpaid sales force. In
a lot of ways, itís the worst of all worlds: the disadvantages of
self-publishing combined with the restrictive contracts of commercial
you'd like to add?
My website is at www.victoriastrauss.com.
There are articles, interviews, book reviews, contests, and a section on
building and publicizing an authorís website (very important: all authors
should have a website). The newest addition is a feature on The Burning Land, with excerpts, a lot of background material about
research and world building, and a scene that didnít make it into the final
version of the book. Pay me a visit, and drop me a line-- I love to hear from
readers and other writers.
How to find a book publisher
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