When Steve Lowe signed on with the New Bizarro Author Series last year, he brought nearly a decade of networking experience to the table. His experience has given him the chance to get to know writers and editors in the small press world in personal and professional capacities. While networking has admittedly provided him with a plethora of insight into publishing, at the core Lowe’s success stems from his personality, and his ability to treat fans, friends, fellow authors and editors as they should be treated: like people, a feat which is surprisingly difficult for some beginning authors to grasp.
The fact that some authors struggle with networking shouldn’t come as a surprise though. Rumors and stories of famous authors who flourished prior to the internet era generally construe writers as introverted, socially awkward, and wholly reliant on their publishers for promotion. Those days are gone, and without proper networking/marketing skills, the next J.D. Salinger could be left by the wayside. The internet has forever changed the face of publishing. Steve watched this shift take place, and his survival in the evolving market is testament to his intuition and ability to adapt.
I had a chance to sit down and chat with Steve about his experience writing, publishing and networking on Friday, September 1st. Throughout the conversation we discussed the evolving market, our experiences after the transition from print to electronic submissions, and the mistakes commonly made by beginners after the transition took place.
KJ: When did you start writing fiction?
SL: I’ve always written fiction since I was a kid, but I didn’t really start trying to get anything published until about 2002.
KJ: Do you remember some of the first places you submitted to?
SL: Man… not really. I had a short story I wrote as a teenager (and extensively rewrote later) published on a long-defunct webzine in the early 2000s, but I don’t recall the name of the pub. After that, I subbed some children’s stories to pro-type publications. That was brutal – mailing stories off and not knowing if they even got the submission until 8 months later when I would get a rejection back in my mailbox. I welcomed the advent of email and electronic submissions.
KJ: Agreed. The response times were nightmares. SASE (Self Addressed Stamped Envelopes), reprinting query letters, what a nightmare. At least we don’t have to worry about getting mustard stains on our submissions anymore, and editors don’t have to deal with submissions garnished with perfume.
Do you remember your first acceptance letter?
SL: My first acceptance was actually for something I hadn’t written yet. I pitched a national high school sports magazine a story about baseball base running, with tips from University of Notre Dame head coach Paul Manieri (who went on to win a national championship at LSU…). The magazine only lasted about a year, but I still have it somewhere. It was my first experience with being published in something aside from our local newspaper, so it was a good experience overall.
KJ: What was your first acceptance for fiction, and when?
SL: That would be the aforementioned story from my younger days. I think the ezine was called Dark Horizons or some such thing – really low tech looking website in around 2002ish. It was a story about a guy who thinks he’s reliving the same dream over and over only to realize that he’s actually dead and reliving the moment when he caused his younger brother’s death in a sort of purgatory or hell all his own. It was pretty weak from what I remember, but I got $5 out of it, so that was my first fiction pub and also my first paid piece of fiction. It also prominently featured a big wheel, one of my cherished possessions from about age 8 or 9.
KJ: Prior to the internet, authors tended to stick to a particular genre once they became established. Today many authors are starting to branch out and explore multiple genres. So far you have dipped your fingers in multiple genres. Do you find yourself focusing more on any particular genre right now, or do you foresee yourself sticking to a particular genre as you move forward in your writing career?
SL: I don’t rightly know, to tell you the truth. My way of writing has always been just writing the story that comes to mind, which tends to be down a darker path more often than not. I like writing horror but I don’t really consider myself a horror writer because most of my stories don’t necessarily fit within the recognized confines of one specific genre. I love writing humorous fiction that makes people laugh, but I’ve also found that to be extremely hard to do on a consistent basis. Above all else, I want my work to be entertaining. And I also subscribe to the “wife response factor.” Every story that I’ve written that has produced audible laughs or groans of disgust from my wife have eventually found their way to print, so she’s a fantastic barometer. If I can’t move her in one way or the other, I have a pretty good idea that it’s not up to snuff.
KJ: You have a pretty extensive network in the writing community. Every time I break ground with a new publisher or editor, you have had encounters with them in some capacity, and generally know exactly who I’m talking about. I mention a publisher and you can tell me which editors work for them. My estimation is that you’ve been networking for some time. When did networking become an integral part of the writing/publishing process for you?
SL: The moment I joined Coppola’s Zoetrope writers community back in ’02. The main part of the site was random people reviewing work and posting their own, hoping for some feedback and I stayed there for a long time. But in 2007, I discovered a vibrant community within the site’s private office feature, where people could make their own private message board groups (usually based around genre or poetry, short stories, novels, etc.). That’s where I made probably 90% of my contacts and met some truly talented writers and genuine friends. It’s a much looser vibe in the private offices, especially the Liquid Imagination office. LI is also a webzine run by John Miller (JAM to his friends) and filled with some outstanding folks who work very well with each other. Lots of critiquing and suggestions and feedback that has made the difference between an acceptance and a rejection on basically all of my work that has been published since I joined. Which is to say, the vast majority of my work that has made its way into print. Finding a writers group, whether online or in your local community, is a fantastic way for writers to not only improve what they produce, but as you mentioned, network and make contacts with people all over the publishing spectrum.
KJ: I had no idea how interconnected the small publishing world truly was before I started shopping my material around. The more I submit and get to know people, the more I realize how deep the ties are. We’ve both had quite different experiences in that you networked around the time you started publishing, and I’m just starting to establish a network now.
I have had the opportunity to watch you broaden your network on Goodreads. You move fast, and work with genuine interest in networking with people, not to further your career, but because you’re interested in people and getting to know people. I’m trying to find a way to prompt you to give the folks on my blog the same advice you gave me, but damn it, it isn’t working!
Hmm. Well, I’ll just ask this: what are some tips for networking you can provide to beginning authors?
SL: Definitely find other authors and join a critique group of some kind. Not only will you get the benefit from others’ opinions, you’ll also learn where they’ve subbed or been published, who responds quickly or doesn’t, who responds with advice or feedback, etc. Also, using sites like Duotrope to find not only pubs in the genre they’re looking for, but also contact names, information about the publication, if they’re even over for submissions. These are great places to start from.
KJ: I’ve read a few blogs on the topic of networking blunders that authors sometimes make. The most notable I’ve heard mentioned is the ever-popular Facebook spam approach. There’s a pretty interesting discourse that crops up on Facebook from time to time, in which authors will post the link to their book, blurbs relating to their book, etc. Then other authors will respond in their own posts, lamenting the lack of tact fellow authors exhibit. Can you add any networking blunders that you have encountered or heard about?
SL: Blogs can be dangerous things for writers, especially the comment section. The worst thing a writer can do is seek out a bad review of their work and get into a pissing match over it with the reviewer. Childish arguing with someone over their opinion of your work will travel around the Internet and the writing community at light speed and could destroy years of positive networking and relationship building in an instant.
There was one such incident a few months back involving a self-pubbed romance writer who did just this on a reviewer’s blog. It did not end well and that writer has no one to blame for it but herself.
KJ: I remember that. It’s legendary now. Whenever there is mention of disputes between reviewers and authors, this incident always comes up. I have heard about it several times on numerous threads on Goodreads. For the rest of us, it’s like watching a fight at a high school dance. You just feel awkward and nervous.
SL: indeed, and sad for the writers, who seem to have no clue the kind of damage they are doing to themselves.
KJ: The internet really has changed things for writers. In high school and college, we hear about these socially awkward, reclusive writers who end up being extremely famous for their great work. But that doesn’t happen much, if at all, anymore, especially online and in the small-press world. You have to network and you have to be a people person.
SL: And it continues to evolve as more traditional publishers and book stores go down and more independents come into play, not to mention the self-publishing side of things.
KJ: Probably one of the best pieces of advice I’ve acquired from you is to treat potential readers like people. It’s amazing how often this can be forgotten by some authors. I remember when our books first got published, I was posting updates about my book on Facebook too often. It finally occurred to me that I could sell more copies by just being myself and not mentioning my book. The information is there if people want it, but shoving it down their throats isn’t going to work. I don’t think I ever went as far as force feeding my friends, but I got a little too enthusiastic for a while.
. . . then of course, there’s the awkward entry into a network. Remember that fellow who spammed the NBAS group on Goodreads with his book?
SL: There have been a couple who have done that, actually. One realized the mistake right away and took down her post, and has made an attempt to be part of the community, which is what she should have done in the first place. The other simply made one post and then disappeared. You want to earn yourself a bad reputation really fast? Post-and-run spam about your book. Another recipe for failure.
KJ: I’ve been seeing this on various groups on Facebook as well. There’s a writer’s group on there that has been issuing warnings on their page due to the heavy spamming.
To raise the bar on lack of tact, some authors spam groups that discuss genres not related to their work, science fiction writers spamming horror groups, for example.
Facebook can be rough because it blends a lot of the social frames that used to remain separate and distinct offline. One’s professional life, personal life, life with family and their life as a writer, it all gets mixed together. An author makes a post with people from one of those frames in mind and loses sight of the others.
SL: I’ve definitely struggled with how much is too much when it comes to Facebook. There is a point where constant posting just becomes spamming, and I’ve probably been guilty of that on FB. But at the same time, it’s a great resource if you can connect with people who would be genuinely interested in your work, so it’s not perfect, but it can’t be discounted either.
KJ: Well, our books hit the shelves for the first time last October, I think we all posted a lot about our books at first, but we pulled back after a month or two.
It was exciting!
SL: I tried to pull back, but not stop completely, adhering to the advertising rule that someone needs to see an ad 5-7 times before they act on it. I try to post a little something every couple weeks or so, but nowhere near what I did in the beginning. That’s been part of the learning process as well – finding out what works and what doesn’t and then adjusting my approach.
KJ: Any closing words of advice for new writers?
SL: You absolutely MUST develop thick skin. If you can’t take criticism, you won’t last long, especially on the Internet.
This concludes my first interview with the NBAS crew. I have a few more authors who have signed on as well, meaning this series should at least survive for a few months and hopefully longer. I’m hoping to bring publishers, editors and reviewers into the mix to get viewpoints from all sides. Next up is Nicole Cushing, who I hope to discuss marketing strategies with.