Monday, July 5, 2021

Why I Won't Introduce You to My Non-Existent Agent


This is how too many strangers react when I tell them I have no agent (Lithograph by Edvard Munch)

            I received this email several years ago:

Hi, Derwin, you're an author, so you should have an agent. Mike is an author and needs an agent as well. Can you assist?

            Although I knew the email's sender, I did not know Mike. I count this as yet another total stranger asking me to help him get his book published. The email's sender also cc'd Mike on the email to put me on the spot.

            Note that the email's sender said I should have an agent, as if it were a legal requirement for all writers to have an agent.

            Imagine the shock and horror when I told the email's sender that I don't have an agent.

            Mike and his buddy aren't the only people who think I have an agent. Every year, I get several emails, messages, or in-person inquiries from strangers asking me to give their unpublished books, scripts, and even short stories to my agent (It's always strangers who ask. My actual friends don't bother asking me to give anything to my non-existent agent). Why do they always ask me? I'm hardly the most famous and successful writer in the world. Why don't they ask someone like Robert J. Sawyer, Stephen King, or J.K. Rowling?

            (Yes, I know J.K. Rowling is transphobic, but I bet these wannabe writers are willing to overlook such problems if they think she help them become rich celebrities like her.)

When I tell people that I have no agent, some of the reactions have been priceless, such as:

            But I thought you were a real writer!

          Are you a fake? You didn't actually get anything published, did you?

            That's not be true. How did you get your stuff published if you don't have an agent?

            You're keeping him all to yourself, aren't you? Afraid of the competition?

            These are actual reactions of strangers when they find out that I don't have an agent. And yes, I felt insulted by them. I don't care how disappointed they were that I couldn't introduce them to an agent who could magically turn them into famous celebrities overnight, like a fairy godmother did to Cinderella. Telling me that I'm not a "real" writer or accusing me of lying is insulting, and they knew that.

            Here's the unbelievable truth: you don't need an agent to get published. I sold all my short stories, my two novels, and my non-fiction articles without an agent.

            People have asked me how much of a percentage my agent takes for short story sales. You don't need an agent to submit a short story. You can submit your short story directly to the editor or the slush pile. Also, agents don't want to sell short stories; short stories make so little money that an agent's commission would be only a few dollars.

            The same goes for non-fiction articles. You can send those directly to the editor or the slush pile. Again, the money from a non-fiction article is so low that they're not worth any agent's time and effort.

            What about the novels? Believe it or not, there are publishers who will read manuscripts submitted without an agent. They aren't be the largest, most prestigious New York publishers, and some of them are small presses, but they are out there (If you're interested in finding them, you can find them on the internet).

            Many of these strangers who ask for my help have not actually completed their book. The book was usually only partly completed or still just an idea. They're under the impression that there's no reason to finish writing the story unless they get an agent. This is absurd; it is untrue that publishers buy every book submitted by an agent. Publishers can and do reject books represented by agents.

            Also, agents want to see that you are capable of completing your book. None of them want to represent someone who can't deliver a finished book.

            You might be wondering whether I would like an agent. That's a fair question, and the answer is yes. I've tried to get an agent before but couldn't interest one. That's possibly because agents weren't interested in my novels or I tend to write short stories. Nonetheless, I did get two novels and many short stories and articles published without an agent. Maybe if I write another novel, I'll shop it around to agents, but for now, I'm still writing short stories.

            Note that I didn't quit because I couldn't get an agent. I kept writing and sending my stories to slush piles. I asked editors what they wanted. I finished writing my stories and sent them away.

Many stories I wrote never got published, some got rejected many times before they sold, and the money did not make me a millionaire. It's not an easy business, and if you can't take the hard work and rejection, you should quit now and do something else.

Ah, I can hear some of you wondering whether all that hard work and rejection disappears when you get an agent. From what I've heard, no. As I've mentioned, there are no guarantees even with an agent. Agents are also not fairy godmothers who magically get every book published for their Cinderella.

Also remember that the agent-client relationship, like any business relationship, requires hard work and mutual respect. If you come into it with an entitled attitude, it might not work out. Some authors have fired their agents, and some agents have dropped their clients. 

Your end game as a writer should have two parts: first, finish writing your story, and second, get it published.

I'm not saying don't get an agent. If you can get an agent, great. What I am saying is that you should still keep writing and trying to get published even if you don't have an agent.

            Also, do not insult a writer when you find out that he or she doesn't have an agent. People talk in this business, and they have long memories.

Friday, July 2, 2021

Don't Play Mind Games With the Editor When Submitting a Story


Public domain image

I've edited two anthologies and a special science fiction and fantasy issue of a magazine. Maybe I'll get a chance to edit another anthology and put out an open call for writers to submit to my slush pile.

If that happens again, do yourself a favour and read the submission guidelines before you submit. I'm surprised by how many (usually unpublished) writers don't know standard manuscript format, use weird fonts, use weird formatting, or submit a story that is completely unrelated to the theme of the anthology. All these signal that working with the writer could be a problem. As an editor of one of the major science fiction magazines once told her audience at a convention, "I need to get through a big slush pile, so I'm looking for any reason to reject your story."

There is plenty of info online on how to submit your story. This article doesn't need to repeat that advice. Instead, this article will be about extra-stupid things that people have done when submitting a story to me. All involved what the military calls psyops or psychological operations, in other words, mind games.


I had put out an open call for short stories up to 6,000 words. One of the submissions came a cover letter (email) that read:

My story is 12,000 words, which I know is above your word limit. However, I hope you evaluate my story based on its storytelling merits instead of arbitrary word limits.

 Those two sentences made my job immensely easier; I simply didn't read the story at all and rejected it.

But wait – I can hear all the unpublished writers shouting at me to give that guy a chance. That story could've been gold. Certainly, I could've made room for a future Hugo Award-winning novelette?

No.  Anthologies are supposed to contain a selection of stories by different authors. The readers want variety. That's one of the reasons why story word limits exist.

Anthologies come with total word limits too. No publisher is going to give me an unlimited budget of advance on royalties to buy as many words, i.e., stories, as I want. If I buy a story that is twice as long as the individual story word limit, I have to reduce the number of stories in the anthology.

The writer was trying to manipulate me to buy his story; he wanted me to think that if I rejected his story for length, I am a bad editor who doesn't care about "storytelling merits." But I saw through the psyops and rejected his story. He played a game, and he lost.


I had an anthology call for the Speculative Fiction issue of a magazine. Speculative fiction is an umbrella term for science fiction, fantasy, horror, alternate history, and genres that do not take place in the "real world". The term has become an accepted and well-known term in the literary world. The Alberta Book Publishing Awards has a category for Speculative Fiction Book.

The submission guidelines clearly defined speculative fiction. Nonetheless, a writer submitted a story that didn't fall into any speculative fiction category. I rejected it on that basis. He replied:

I thought speculative fiction meant writing on spec, which is what I did. Your terminology is misleading and incorrect. You should read my story and consider it for publication.

I did not read his story a second time, but I had the pleasure of rejecting it twice, thanks to his reply. One story submission, two rejections from the same editor within 12 hours: now that's an achievement!

First, he obviously did not read the guidelines before submitting the story. Second, he should have just stayed quiet after I rejected the story. Instead, he had to go ballistic, thus ensuring that I always will remember him for all the wrong reasons.

Again, a writer played psychological warfare and lost. Using guilt and shame to force an editor to read a story does not work.

By the way, for a change, the writer was not a complete newbie. He self-published a series of detective novels and promotes himself as an exciting hot-shot author. That still didn't get his story into the magazine.


            One story was slightly overlong, by 300 words, but showed some promise. The plot was interesting, though it needed some work. I also wanted one scene rewritten so that the science as accurate (Hey, this was a science fiction anthology). I thought he could reduce the word count by 300 words if he tightened the plot, so I suggested some changes sent the story back to the writer with this email:

            "Your story shows some promise, but I'm going to ask you for some revisions before accepting it. Please look at the comments. Can you reduce it by 300 words? And in the scene where the main character launches fireworks in space, can you think of another way he can have a light show without fireworks? Fireworks depend on oxygen to light up their fires, and there is no oxygen in space."

His reply:

Your comments and requests are not what I expected, and I wish to withdraw my story from consideration.

Note that he did not explicitly withdraw his story from consideration. He "wished" to withdraw his story.

Reverse psychology in action! He knew I thought his story showed promise. And I knew he was trying to manipulate me to beg him to let me publish his story unrevised. However, instead of surrendering to him, I told him that I'm granting his wish and pulling his story out of consideration.

I'm not the only editor who will win this game. Every editor I know will not chase after a writer who says that he is withdrawing his story. There's always going to one other story that's better than yours and written by someone who cooperates with editors.

If he had shortened the story and rewritten that one scene, he would have made his very first professional fiction sale. Instead, got nothing published.

Most rejections come as a short email saying that the editor is going to pass on buying the story and rarely have any feedback or advice for the writer. If you get any reply that either gives specific feedback or asks for the story to be revised and resubmitted, do not treat it as an insult. Treat it as gold.


I saved the best for last. This incident did not happen on one of my anthology calls. It was something an acquaintance of mine did when submitting a story to a magazine.

After I made my first professional fiction sales, word spread amongst friends in sci-fi fandom. An acquaintance of mine, someone I knew but who wasn't close to me, phoned me and asked about my stories. She had been writing stories too but hadn't submitted them to magazines or anthologies.

This was back in the time when editors and publishers still received and sent paper through the mail, before most of them switched to using email and electronic submissions.

She subsequently submitted a story to a magazine, but she put her roommate's name on the byline. I asked her why she did that.

"So when the rejection letter comes, my roommate will get rejected, not me," she said.

"It's actually your story, not you, that's getting rejected," I said.

"But the rejection letter gets sent to the person who wrote it," she said. "If I say the story is by her, she'll receive the letter."

That was one way to avoid rejection; trick the editor into rejecting your roommate instead! The hilarious part of this plan is that it doesn't have any psyops to convince the editor to buy the story.

I didn't ask her what would happen if the story got sold. Whose name would the publisher put in the byline? Who would get the money? But those were hypothetical questions anyway. I knew she would never sell a story.


            I'm always amazed by how many writers think that they need to play mind games with the editor. All of these psychological operations fail. I've never heard of anyone selling a story by shaming the editor, making the editor feel guilty, or using reverse psychology. All these tactics will make people remember your name (assuming you didn't use your roommate's name), but they won't get your story published. 

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

A PublishAmerica Author Accosted Me at Hooters


Hooters, where all the famous science fiction writers dine.


Until the pandemic started, I used to be a regular customer at Hooters. Most of the Hooters Girls in Toronto know that I write science fiction. One Friday night, as I had dinner at table 36 (yes, I know the table numbers), my favourite Hooters Girl said to me, "There's another science fiction writer here. Do you know him?"

I looked around the restaurant. I didn't see anyone I recognized. Who could it be?

The Hooters Girl left me and returned a few minutes later with the writer and a friend of his. I had never met either gentleman. The writer introduced himself. Let's call him Joe (Names have been changed to protect the embarrassed). Joe and his friend were celebrating the release of Joe's first novel.

Joe asked me, "Who is your publisher?"

"Who is your publisher?" is a question for which I have no easy answer. My stories get published by whoever wants to buy them from me. All my short stories and anthologies have been published by different publishers. My two novels were both originally published by the same company, but when it went out of business, the novels were republished by other companies. Like many writers, I don't sell exclusively to just one publisher or magazine. We'll take the work when and where we can get it.

I had co-edited an anthology, The Dragon and the Stars (with Eric Choi) recently, so I said, "DAW." 

"DAW?" he said. "Never heard of them. Who are they?"

I was baffled. How could a science fiction writer not know about DAW Books? "It's a publishing company in New York. Who published your book?"

Joe's grin was so wide and the glint in his eyes so bright that his face was sickening to behold.

"PublishAmerica," he said.

I was horrified. PublishAmerica, also known as America Star Books, was one of the worst scam companies exploiting new authors. There's plenty written about it online, so I won't repeat all the gory details. In short, PublishAmerica promoted itself as a royalty-paying publisher, not a vanity press. Technically, it did pay royalties (advance on royalties) ranging from $1 to $1,000. However, the contracts came with terms that ensured that money flowed from the author to the company. For example, authors had to guarantee a certain number of sales, and PublishAmerica urged its authors to buy their own copies or get their friends and family to buy copies. Since PublishAmerica printed its books on demand, it printed only enough copies to sell to the authors and their friends and family.

PublishAmerica also had a reputation for publishing books without any editing, lying about placing books in bookstores, and defaulting even on its $1 royalties.

The internet had hundreds of articles and blog posts about PublishAmerica, the lawsuits against it, and warnings to writers. How could Joe have fallen into the trap?

 "PublishAmerica?" I said. "I heard of them. Congratulations. When will the book be released?"

"Two weeks from now."

Joe's friend was going to be his public relations guy. Since Joe was going to be a famous celebrity soon, the friend wanted a piece of the action. 

Joe asked me a lot of questions. He wanted to know if I had ever been on a book tour (Answer: yes, for a young adult anthology, and the other authors and I had to do all the work to set it up). He wanted to know if I had ever been interviewed on TV (Answer: yes, once, on Omni TV's Cantonese news. That did not impress him.). He wanted to know if "my P.R. people" had set up any meetings with celebrities for me (Answer: "What P.R. people? I do everything myself.").

He said, "DAW seems like a small company. Maybe you should get a bigger publisher, like PublishAmerica."

I said that I was lucky to get one book published at DAW and I would feel extremely lucky if DAW wanted anything else from me. Joe smiled in sympathy. I guess he felt sorry for me as I fervently defended a small, unknown publisher (sarcasm!).

Joe said that PublishAmerica had an extensive publicity department that would get him media interviews, put him on a national (U.S. and Canada) book tour, and give his novel to celebrities in Hollywood, who, of course, were going to buy the movie rights. PublishAmerica allegedly had an agency that sold movie rights for its authors. His friend would accompany him to meet important people like Steven Spielberg and James Cameron.

I listened silently as Joe told me of all the wonderous things PublishAmerica would do. Joe didn't ask me anything about the art of writing or the publishing business. He was interested only in becoming a celebrity and meeting others of his new social strata. His one takeaway from our conversation was that DAW does not hook up its authors with either Steven Spielberg or James Cameron.

Joe asked for my contact info so we could keep in touch, now that he had entered the glamorous profession of science fiction writing. I gave him my card. I really didn't want to talk to him again, but I was sadistically curious about how Joe's experience with PublishAmerica would play out. 


A few days later, Joe phoned me. He had looked at my website and seen that I would be appearing at the Ad Astra Science Fiction Convention, a literary-oriented convention in Toronto. He wanted to know how I had gotten invited to Ad Astra.

"I've known them for years, and I asked if I could be a panelist," I said.

Joe said he would tell his P.R. guy to get him into Ad Astra.

Joe had never heard of science fiction conventions before, so he asked me about them. He asked if there were any besides Ad Astra in Toronto. I mentioned Fan Expo, saying it was a big media-oriented convention revolving around movie and TV celebrities and not much literary content.

            "I would rather go to that one," said Joe. "How do you get invited to Fan Expo?"

            "I don't know. I've never been a guest at Fan Expo. I think you contact them and ask."

            "I'll get my guy to do that," he said. "You go to Ad Astra. Fan Expo is mine, though."

            "Joe, we're science fiction writers," I said. "We don't split up conventions like territories as if we were the Mafia families in The Godfather."

            "But it makes sense, though, doesn't it?" he said. "We don't want to compete against each other. You be the star at one of them, and I'll be the star at the other."

            "Now that you put it that way, sure, have fun at Fan Expo," I said.

            He thanked me for telling him about Fan Expo, and we ended the call.


            Joe called me again six months later. He wanted to know how he could get his novel republished by DAW.

"Joe, what's going on?" I said. "You're with PublishAmerica."

"It's awful," he said. "The novel came out."

"What's it like?" I asked, knowing PublishAmerica's reputation for zero editing.

"They didn't fix any of my grammar and spelling errors! It's a mess!"

"What? You knew you had errors and you submitted it anyway? You didn't correct your manuscript before you submitted it?"

"That's not my job. I'm the author. I write the novel. The editor is supposed to correct for grammar and spelling."

Joe's tale of misery got worse. PublishAmerica had put no copies of his novel in bookstores. PublishAmerica's contract forced him to buy copies for himself and his friends and family. PublishAmerica wanted him to pay money to send his book to Hollywood celebrities. PublishAmerica did not put him on a cross-continent book tour. PublishAmerica ran no advertising campaign for him. PublishAmerica didn't get him on any TV or radio interviews.

"What about your friend, the P.R. guy?" I said. "Get him to set up the TV and radio interviews."

"He quit!" Joe said. "He said he needed a job with a salary, so he quit on me!"

"Aw, that sucks," I said. "I guess you'll have to do it yourself."

"Can you connect me to another publisher?" he asked.

"No, and that's for your own good," I said. "You signed a publishing contract with PublishAmerica. PublishAmerica has the rights to publish your novel. You can't sell those rights to anyone else unless PublishAmerica agrees to it. If you do, you're breaking the contract, PublishAmerica will sue you, and you'll wind up owing more money to them."

Joe went silent. I think he finally realized that all the money would flow from him to PublishAmerica. He had also lost control over his magnum opus.  At that moment, his dream of fame and fortune crashed and burned like the Hindenburg, a bag of gas engulfed in flames.

"See you at Fan Expo," I said as I ended the call.


            Joe's book appeared for a while on Amazon. It got one review, which said it awful.

Joe did not appear at Ad Astra, Fan Expo, or any other science fiction convention. He never went on a book tour or gave an interview on TV or radio. He disappeared completely from the science fiction community, of which he was never a part.

Joe's writing career died before it started for several reasons. First, he was too lazy to do the work of a writer. For example, writers should fix their own grammar and spelling errors before submitting their stories. The less work you make for the editors, the higher your chances of getting your story accepted, and the better your reputation as a talented writer. He also thought he was not responsible for promoting his novel and expected his friend and his publisher to do that. As most of us know, all that work falls on the author.

Second, Joe was obsessed with celebrity status, which made him vulnerable to PublishAmerica's lies of fame and fortune.

Third, despite all the online warnings about PublishAmerica, Joe still signed with the most notorious scam publisher in the world. What was he thinking?

PublishAmerica changed its name to America Star Books, also known as ASB Promotions, after one of its founders sued the other founder. In 2017, America Star Books announced that it would stop accepting new submissions, although the submissions page on the PublishAmerica website (still using the old name) is still active. The rest of the website hasn't been updated for years or goes to dead links. American Star Books still exists as a corporation. It might still hold all the contracts, thus holding the rights to its authors' books forever.

Although PublishAmerica is mostly inactive, others like it have sprung up. Be sure to check out Writer Beware on the SFWA website ( )

"At that moment, his dream of fame and fortune crashed and burned like the Hindenburg, a bag of gas engulfed in flames."

Monday, June 14, 2021

Science Fiction Publishers Do Not Want Your Memoirs of Garrison Duty at Petawawa

The Blitz of London. science fiction publishers do not want your memoirs of the Blitz either.

 I belong to a so-called military organization that is actually a private non-government society for veterans, serving officers, and some civilians (No, it's not the Legion. This one has better beer.). There are a lot of military history buffs in this organization, and of course, some of them want to write books. Some of the members know that I write science fiction, so inevitably, they ask me how to get their book published.

One of the conversations ran like this:

UNPUBLISHED WRITER: I heard you got a book published recently. I want to talk to you about the publisher.

 ME: Why?

 UNPUBLISHED WRITER: I want to write a book. I want you to introduce me to the publisher.

 ME: Is it science fiction?

 UNPUBLISHED WRITER: No. It's a memoir of my childhood growing up during the Blitz of London.

 ME: The publisher won't be interested in it. It publishes only science fiction.

 UNPUBLISHED WRITER: Can you talk to them about publishing my memoir, though? They should expand the type of books they publish.

 ME: No, they won't. They've published only science fiction and fantasy for 40 years. They've never published anything else.

 UNPUBLISHED WRITER: You won't know until you try. Talk to them.

             ME: Why don't you try to a publishing company that publishes military history or historical memoirs?

            UNPUBLISHED WRITER: Do you know anyone in those publishers?

            ME: No.

            UNPUBLISHED WRITER: Then talk to your sci-fi publisher. Get them to publish history books.

I did not talk to the publisher about expanding its product line just so this guy could publish his book about the Blitz. And shockingly but maybe not surprisingly, he was just one of several members of this distinguished organization to ask me to get a science fiction publisher to publish their history books.

Here's the hard truth: DAW, Baen, Del Rey, and any other science fiction publisher do not want your memoirs of garrison duty at Petawawa (or Borden or Shiloh or anywhere else). They do not want your 1,000-page analysis of the Prussian-Austrian War of 1866. They do not want your book about bomber aircraft of World War II. They do not want your history of ships' badges of the Royal Canadian Navy (or any other navy).

They're also not interested in books about divorce and family crises, corruption in government, assault rifles, or anything else that is unrelated to science fiction and fantasy.

Science fiction publishers want only science fiction and fantasy. Don't waste my time or their time by trying to get your irrelevant book to them. And don't ask them if they know any publishers who would publish your book. Publishers, editors, and agents tend to have snarky opinions about wannabe writers who don't do their homework.

Do your homework: research the writers' markets and look for publishers that might want to see your type of book. Do you know of books about similar subjects? See who has published them. And for the love of God and yourself, find out and follow their submission guidelines.

You have to do your homework by yourself. Nobody is going to hand you a publisher on a silver platter. If you survived nine years in the Canadian military, you can figure out how to find publishers of books like yours.

And if you didn't do any time in the military, still do your homework. There are no exemptions for civilians.

Note: the conversation about publishing the Blitz of London book occurred in 2010. The book has still not been published.