I have been meaning to write a post about this ever since I spoke with an author friend about how I got my short story collection Spirits Abroad published and realised how opaque the process is. This is an author who is way more established than me and has published a bazillion short stories, and yet I don’t think it had occurred to them to do what I’d done.
Mind you, this is because they operate in the US/UK market and I was focused on another market altogether. After I broke through the Block, I wrote about 20 short stories, felt I’d got a bit of a handle on how to do them, and decided I wanted to shift my focus. What I really like in stories is character, and short stories don’t give you a whole lot of space to explore your characters. I wanted to write novels: it was the one thing I felt I couldn’t do, and it was the one thing I felt I had to do in order to be a Real Writer.
I know this is a complete lie and directly contradicts #1 of my mission statement. (The thing that really drove in the fact that it is a lie for me, by the way, was reading a Dorothy Parker biography and finding out that she felt the same about novel-writing — that she had to do it, or she wouldn’t count as a writer. But the novel just didn’t seem to be her form. Like so many others, I’ve rejoiced in Parker’s scathing wit and perfect turns of phrase, and she didn’t need a novel to persuade me she was a writer for the ages.)
Unfortunately I have yet to work out how to make my feelings line up 100% with my opinions, and anyway I did want to know how to write novels for the sake of it, leaving aside all status-related insecurities. So I decided I’d try to get rid of my short stories at one go, as a collection, so I wouldn’t be worrying about editing them, submitting them, etc. while focusing on the longer-form stuff. At least I would be getting rejections at much longer intervals!
(Now I have been away from them a while, I am of course convinced that I have forgotten how to write short stories. I think I would have to relearn it. And I want to — I never meant to jettison the form forever! But one only has so much time, and figuring out novels is where my brain is at, at the moment.)
I wanted the collection to be published in Malaysia, because most Western publishers aren’t interested in single-author short story collections unless you’re already famous, but I was aware of a few that had been published in Malaysia. Also, my short stories had mostly been published in US/UK markets, and I wanted to reach Malaysian readers.
This is how I did it.
1) I put together a proposal which included:
- A description of the collection (very similar to what ended up being the back cover blurb);
- An author bio highlighting award nominations, copies sold and nice things People Who Ought to Know had said about my stuff — I included quotes by published authors and review sites, not my mom, basically;
- A proposed Table of Contents;
- Publication credits for the stories that would be appearing in the collection; and
- Of course, the stories themselves. I included only 3 short stories in the proposal as a sample, since I was planning on sending this to publishers without any prior contact.
2) I went to MPH and looked at the Malaysian fiction shelf and identified the three or four publishers in Malaysia that published English-language fiction. I then used Google and prodded my contacts to get email addresses for those publishers. (The Malaysian Anglophone book scene is very small and everyone is on Facebook.)
3) Going in the order of “I like their covers and think they might publish things like my thing”, I picked a publisher to start with and emailed my proposal to them, asking if they’d be interested in publishing my collection.
In retrospect, I could probably have done simultaneous submissions, and should have done. Simultaneous submissions are generally frowned upon in the SFF short fiction markets I’d been submitting to, which was why I avoided it, but I don’t think the Malaysian publishers I approached would have cared.
4) I waited for a response. Publisher 1 responded quickly and asked to see the manuscript. After a month they emailed to explain that they’d decided to focus on nonfiction, as fiction wasn’t working out for them.
Publisher 2 never responded. I’m not sure they actually monitor the inbox for the email address I used! (This was one of my Google finds — I should’ve asked around for a person to email.)
Publisher 3 said yes — eventually. This is how it happened.
While the manuscript was with Publisher 2, I was visiting Malaysia and a Readings event happened to be on during the couple of weeks that I was home. I’d been to Readings before: it’s a free monthly event, open to all, organised by Sharon Bakar, where local writers read their work. There’s usually cake as well, and it’s in an interesting house belonging to an architect, with a fountain and ornamental chickens. Almost exactly a year ago, I had read Prudence and the Dragon at Readings and met some nice people, including writer/publisher/director/bit of everything-er Amir Muhammad.
Amir’s press Fixi was pretty new and was starting to publish English-language fiction as well as Malay, but I wasn’t sure if they’d be up for a single-author short story collection in English, as opposed to a novel or anthology. So I went to Readings and had the following exchange with Amir.
Me: Hey, Amir, how have you been? Are you open to single-author short story collections? I’ve got one to publish but [Publisher 2] isn’t answering my emails.
Amir: (amiably) Sure, send it to me, I’ll look at it. Who are you?
Me: … I’m Zen … you’ve published two of my short stories …
4) I sent the manuscript. Six months passed in silence. (To be fair, I’m sure I could have chased and got a response much sooner — it was shortly after this that I finished Sorcerer to the Crown and started querying agents, so I was a little distracted!) I prodded after six months and Amir confirmed they would like to publish Spirits Abroad. Around nine months later, it came out!
So to use some horrible corporate jargon, what are the takeaways here?
1) Be persevering and thick-skinned.
This one is self-explanatory la. I can’t say I never felt embarrassed or presumptuous during the above process, but one good thing about believing that it’s about the work, not yourself, is that it depersonalises the whole thing a bit. If you get rejected or ignored, never mind. Find another route!
2) Know your market.
There is no point being persevering and thick-skinned if you have a really nice apple you want to sell and you go and pester fishmongers about it. You will just annoy the fishmongers. Knock on doors and talk to people — you might not know who is a fishmonger and who is a purveyor of apples until you ask them — but make sure you have an idea beforehand of who might want your apple.
I didn’t think a lot of Malaysians would want to read my book — my mom’s yet to make it through the first story — but I thought there would be a few for whom it would be just what they were looking for. And I think I was right about that.
3) Contacts are important.
I don’t mean that you can only be published if you have connections — that is totally untrue. But knowing people who know people, who understand the market you want to enter, is really helpful because you can learn stuff from them and find out about opportunities. It’s like any other industry. And as with any other industry, the best way to make connections is to do good work in that industry. Many of the writing/publishing connections I have, I made through writing stories and submitting them to editors I didn’t know. Anyone can do that.
4) Know what you want out of it.
I didn’t particularly expect to make money or become hugely famous by publishing a short story collection. All I wanted was to: get some short stories off my hard drive; have a book by me I could put on my shelf; and have something I could submit for awards and so on. Spirits Abroad has ticked off all of those boxes!
It’s good to have a clear idea of what you want to achieve, because then you can adjust your strategy accordingly. E.g. I knew I wanted to make sure there was an ebook for readers from outside Malaysia, since the paperback wouldn’t be easily available (it’s pretty much only available on Amazon.com for people outside Malaysia), so I retained ebook rights. Fixi was fine with this as the market for ebooks in Malaysia is/was pretty miniscule. I self-published Spirits Abroad as an ebook a few months after it came out in paperback, and that’s worked out fine.
But that’s a story for another post!
Previous Publishing Journey posts