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How Do I Keep My Head Up while Finding a Publisher?

13 November 2017

From Korean author Leonard Chang via The Booklist Reader:

My latest novel, The Lockpicker, had a tortuous history, and made me question the sanity of agents, editors—and even myself.

I will start by being so bold as to quote a rejection by an esteemed former editor, publisher, and literary agent who shall remain nameless, but who read The Lockpicker in manuscript form. He wrote a brief letter of praise, but ultimately rejected the novel. The line from his letter that shouted back at me was thus:

What fails for me is that it [that] virtually nothing is made of the fact that these guys are Koreans. I suppose in the alleged melting pot of America that might be a good thing, but for the book it doesn’t lend anything even lightly exotic to the narrative or the characters.

Before you get shocked or wince sympathetically, I must confess that this was not the first time I’d receive this kind of rejection. I won’t get into the identity and racial politics of why this critique is so pernicious, but it’s enough to say that exoticism for exoticism’s sake, especially from a Korean-American writer who sees himself as American and not exotic, is just, well, antiquated.

Another rejection for another novel, another, longer quote from a legendary editor:

The characters, especially the main character, just do not seem Asian enough. They act like everyone else. They don’t eat Korean food, they don’t speak Korean, and you have to think about ways to make these characters more ’ethnic,’ more different. We get too much of the minutiae of [the characters’] lives and none of the details that separate Koreans and Korean-Americans from the rest of us. For example, in the scene when she looks into the mirror, you don’t show how she sees her slanted eyes, or how she thinks of her Asianness.

The Lockpicker is my eighth novel. Through the years, I’ve learned you cannot educate a hegemonic editor in power; you ignore him and move on. You find another editor, and you keep writing. There is no practical advice other than moving on. All my books have outlasted those naysayers. Quite literally: Those two editors above have since passed on, may they rest in peace. Meanwhile, I continue writing, no matter what the rejections may say.

Being a novelist is very, very difficult, but I would argue that the journey of getting published is even more treacherous. Everyone gets stupid rejections, but there’s a special reward for those who soldier on in spite of them.

Link to the rest at The Booklist Reader and thanks to Elaine for the tip.

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54 Comments to “How Do I Keep My Head Up while Finding a Publisher?”

  1. The aforementioned book is published by Black Heron press, a “literary press located in Seattle, Washington.” The Kindle edition is $15.99 and even though the publication date is May of this year, it has not received even one Amazon review.

    He has a trilogy that does not list a publisher and those are offered on Kindle for $4.99.

    Another Black Heron published book (Triplines) for the Kindle is priced at $9.99. It has received 5 (count ’em) reviews since 2014.

    The older books, also from that publisher, don’t appear to be available electronically.

    • Dexter von Dexterdorf

      One has to wonder how he even got to the “editor phase” in the traditional publishing realm.

    • I am not impressed with Black Heron Press so far. The cover and the synopsis for “The Lockpicker” are lackluster. The synopsis has no sizzle. What exactly is the problem? What’s the complication? What are the stakes? It reads very meh. Even if the book were reasonably priced at $3.99 I wouldn’t buy it. The cover, the promotions, those tasks are supposed to be the selling point of tradpub, and Black Heron is sucking at it here.

      The trilogy that appears to be indie (the Allen Choice books) have better covers, and the first one has a somewhat better blurb. Still not “Take My Money Now!” quality, but way better than what Black Heron did. I’d skip the editors and continue with indie if I were Chang.

      • I had to go look these up now. Wow, talk about an uninspired cover. “It’s called The Lockpicker. What should we do for the cover?” “Find a picture of some lockpicks and call it good.”

        And $17 for the e-book? What is this publisher thinking? That’s “we’re trying to make sure no one buys the e-book so they buy the paperback” pricing. Yikes.

    • His lack of books or selling books doesn’t really have anything to do with his statement. Which is HIS experience.

  2. This is the same problem I have with one of the books I’m working on. All of the characters are African American, with no other ethnic group, so there is little or no mention of that fact.

    The Reader is not being hit in the face, over and over, that the characters are “Black”, thus it gets the same response from people. They want me to kick up the “Blackness” of the characters, add some “Jive talk”, etc…

    When I point out that it is a small community in New Mexico, late 50s early 60s, they look confused, and say, “There were Blacks in New Mexico?”


    COLORES | Blackdom | New Mexico PBS

    • Yeah, it’s funny how some people just can’t understand that not everything they see today wasn’t done (or even a ‘thing’) in yesteryear.

    • It wasn’t until I was half-way through the third Alex Cross novel that I realized he was black.

    • It’s always too little or too much. When I look in the mirror, I don’t notice that my eyes are slanted, or my hair is black. I check for running mascara and bed hair. It’s okay for a Caucasian person to get on with a story, but a minority always have to navel gaze about their “exoticism.”

      I once had a Caucasian reader say my Chinese character is whitewashed because she didn’t speak with an accent in my book. Why would my character speak with an accent? Because she’s old and Chinese? When I become a little old granny, am I magically going to develop an accent?

      • When I become a little old granny, am I magically going to develop an accent?

        You might, just for the fun of it. HA!

        I’m 61, thinning silver hair, and calling anybody younger as “Kids.” I’m playing the age card to the max, and would have an accent if I could swing it. I’m getting away with murder, as best I can. “You kids have fun now.”

        I go to a Chinese restaurant that is family owned. The older woman owner plays the accent to the max. She had a young niece or granddaughter running the lunch hour for a while. She was clearly college age and didn’t want to be there. She was sharp as a whip. It was fun watching a “Dragon Lady” in training.

        I just bought Amy Tan’s memoir. Look at her author photo on her Amazon page. Wow!


      • “When I become a little old granny, am I magically going to develop an accent?”

        Oh man, I wish this was a thing that really happened. To everyone. Whenever anyone hits a certain age, they suddenly develop a foreign accent. Preferably a totally random one, which may or may not be related to their actual heritage.

        • Thank you, I am now imagining an old granny in a rural village in Siberia, speaking Russian with an upper crust Charlestonian southern accent. It’s great.

        • I cultivate my southern accent when I go back north to see family. It’s fun as all get-out to watch the expressions on their faces. The closer I get to 60, the more I play things up.

          Why not? Young people adopt age-appropriate slang. Why can’t I? 😉

      • Well, there were indications that the Grandpa in Jack Chan Adventures was pouring on the “Aiyah!” thing a little thick, particularly when he magically became selectively deaf. I miss that show; it was fun.

  3. Step 1: Locate Amazon KDP.
    Step 2: Upload.
    Step 3: There’s not really a step three. But for a lot of people, this is the part where the profit happens.

  4. Maybe it’s just me, but I was kind of offended that he would quote correspondence b/t himself and someone he tried to sell the book to. Were I that correspondent, I would be well and truly P.O’d at this guy. Think about it…

    Now every author correspondence can be blown all over the web, huh? Yeah, I know, it happens… but I just find it…well sleazy in this particular case. Gonna be tough for other authors to get feedback from this editor I’ll bet.

    • “… by an esteemed former editor, publisher, and literary agent who shall remain nameless …”

      Wasn’t named, and for all we know might have been made up.

      And yeah, we’ve seen correspondence blown all over the web – even lawyers making foolish threats. 😉

    • Especially since the author of this article was being critical/negative about what he quoted.

    • He didn’t name the editor. He specifically says they shall remain nameless. So there’s no problem here, especially in the case of the dead ones. They’re not being subjected to a two-minute hate because no one knows their name, and defenseless dead people aren’t having their names tarnished.

      He quoted enough for a “this is what you need to look out for” kind of post, which is how I took this. The editors do indeed have their heads up their butts, and it’s a nice way to call out their idiocies without instigating a digital lynch mob.

      What were the options here?

      • Yeah, I know… I believe that the editor in question is probably already aware of this post, and I’m confident that he’ll recognize the quote.

        The options open to the creator of this post to avoid quoting correspondence are many.

        • Post does say both the quotes are from people who have died, so unless he’s got a good Internet connection…
          I don’t see them as being at all bothered. Now their estates…

          ETA: clarity

          • I didn’t read that carefully enough to realize the OP was talking about someone who’s dead. My bad I guess, as far as that’s concerned. Still, I don’t agree at all that he did the right thing.

        • Okay, so you’re going with the idea that the editor is alive: So what if the editor recognizes it? Was he fairly quoted? Truth is the defense Chang has. Did the editor believe what he wrote? Then he stands by it. So what’s the harm here?

          And, if a living editor suddenly realizes that he sounds like he has his head up his butt, no one knows who he is. What harm is there, other than to his pride? Is his pride something that others need to protect? Why? It’s not as if his reputation is damaged.

          If you read blogs and advice columns often, you know right now that Chang eliminates one big headache just by quoting the letter: “Would anyone really say that? Oh, you’re exaggerating.” And, “Are you sure didn’t misinterpret this rejection? Are you sure it’s not just sour grapes?”

          But with the text, you have to deal with the text. You said his options are many, so feel free to name a few.

          • Nahhh…I’m also free to let this go, sport. Carry on…

            • Okay, so he’s not sleazy for quoting someone accurately in a forum in which their identity is disguised. That’s what I was establishing.

  5. Gonna be tough for other authors to get feedback from this editor I’ll bet.

    What’s the editor’s name?

  6. For some times I’ve read about the discrimination happening in the publishing business against minority writers. And this is “shocking” considering that the publishing and literati community believe in equality of sexes, races, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious beliefs or not, equal opportunity, even freedom of speech as long as it is not hateful, and all that other feel-good-stuff. But who are these editors who say one thing and do the opposite. Here is a link to an article about the Huffington Post –as liberal as it can get– editorial staff picture. I don’t know if this is true, but if it is here is the answer about discrimination:

    • Don’t forget health status, Mit.

      Disabled, ill, and handicapped writers are also minority writers – and it is not feel-good stuff.

      They have to do what all other writers have to do – only it’s physically harder.

      When there are complaints about lack of diversity, there is rarely an understanding that diversity can make what others take for granted nigh impossible.

      None of the women in this photo link is visibly disabled, either. Or very old. Pretty homogeneous bunch.

      • It could be argued that they are pretty representative of BPH’s core market. After all, how many frontlist books have come out in the past few years with “Girl” somewhere in the title?

      • My main series is about a paraplegic woman who builds a suit of armor (ala Iron Man) to find her missing parents. I’ve gotten a couple of comments like,

        ‘Why doesn’t she fix her legs’


        ‘This should be more about her disability’

        And I’m like, this is just who she is. No different than anyone else, we all have our challenges in life. This is hers. I can only imagine the tradpub backlash I would get if I tried to have it tradpub’d. Of course, if they even looked at superhero fic.

      • I was going to comment on the age of the group. I don’t see a single gray hair.

        • When I was younger, I worked for peanuts. I’d rather have no money than work for the wages I got in my twenties.

    • But who are these editors who say one thing and do the opposite.

      People whose priority is making money, like the management and owners of the company they work for? As in everything else to do with publishing, follow the money.

  7. So glad I’m an Indie! If I were traditionally published I’d be in a real bind – should I play up my Hungarian-ness? Or my Australian upbringing? Goulash vs kangaroos…

    • Why not both? Goulash made with Kangaroo. 😉

    • Outside of the US, I am always the foreigner. Skin too light to be anything but European, beard too red to be anything but Scandinavian / British Isles, face too round to be anything but Slavic, etc etc ad nauseum.

      It can come in handy to play the foreigner card, though. A few years ago, I was teaching English in the Caucasus mountains with a native co-teacher who was quite an attractive 20-something lady. Some of her teenager students from another class (I only taught grades 1-6) cornered me at a festival and asked if I thought she had a nice rack. I smiled and told them that I don’t speak Georgian. They tried again, using hand gestures this time. Again: “bodishi, arvitsi kartuli.”

  8. Those quotes from the rejections are just crazypants. That’s the kind of thing you get from seeing characters from the outside instead of seeing a character from his/her own perspective. It’s how you get nonsense like a female character (from her own POV) noticing the bounce of her tiny breasts as she walks normally (*cough*GRRM*cough*).

    Dang, I’m glad I don’t have to get the approval of people like that to get my books published. ;-D

  9. just responding to the ‘critiques’ of the editors/agent advising this author about what ‘they’ think asian- american culture OUGHT look like.

    Substitute words, ‘american woman’ of any ethnic background. Or african american. Or just woman. She has to be more what ‘attractive’ –more what?

    Or a man? He has to not be a wormy looking complected creep in his jammies even at the super market, but what? A 2017 version of 1940 de-boy-nyer guy around town.

    Good writing is not dependent on ‘ethnic’ although for sure, there is some weird thing in usa and europe it seems about who is enough… ‘something enough exotique’… That if one has a mentally ill asian african character who keeps macaws like his grandma did, then… ok

    Its funny, that’s also a communist notion, that a person, character in a book has to be ethnically defined by and to ‘beloved leader’s’ lackluster points of view

    I have to go slop the hogs. Ethnic enough for NY? Prob not. lol

  10. This type of thing irritates me almost as much as so-called cultural appropriation. Identity politics gone mad. In this case the US has had migrants from all over the world, including Korea, for a long time. Is it too much of a stretch to think that many if not most of them, whilst proud of their ethnic heritage, identify as Americans first and don’t choose to base their whole identity around the “exotic” culture of their forbears.

    Great writing is great writing. Does anyone else see the irony inherent in followers of this particular type of philosophy engaging in this type of racial stereotyping? One could argue it was racism. It is certainly most condescending.

    • Does anyone else see the irony inherent in followers of this particular type of philosophy engaging in this type of racial stereotyping?

      It could be a simple calculation that there is a market segment that wants what the editor describes. Regardless of what they say, or what we might want, they are trying to make money.

    • I worked with an American guy when I was living in Melbourne, and he’d often express frustration at being referred to as African American, or some subset of American.

      His option was something along the lines of he’s never been to Africa, he’s never going to go to Africa, why is he always qualified in that way?

      I think we all know the answer.

      • In college I walked into the school newspaper one day, where I was immediately accosted by a classmate. We’ll call her “Fatima.” She wanted to know about the term “African American” and whether it should apply to her.

        After my eyelashes stopped fluttering — I mean really, I hadn’t taken off my coat yet and she just leapt up at me — I explained what the term was supposed to mean politically. I asked why was she interested. She had a fresh-off-the-boat accent, wore a hijab, and was obviously Middle Eastern. Up until then the only Arab-Americans I knew were from the Middle East.

        However, she was from Senegal (they have a Lebanese population) and therefore she should be called African, right? Well, right? I smiled and said that I’d encountered enough Africans, both black and white, that this was why I consider the term inaccurate. I never applied it to myself. But she was welcome to it; anyone from Senegal is more African than this American.

        If Chang’s “insufficiently Korean” characters confused his editors, Fatima would make their heads explode. Don’t let them meet any Berbers … “But, he looks Irish! That’s not exotic enough!”

  11. Doesn’t PG (kinda) commit the same mistake as the editos mentioned in the OP by presenting it (the OP) as written by “Korean author Leonard Chang”, when said autor speciically states that he “sees himself as American” ?

    • If the author’s name was O’Brien, the editor might figure he didn’t know anything about Korea, and wouldn’t ask.

    • OP explicitly says he’s “Korean-American” (that only views himself as just “American”).

      The point is that these editors saw him as “Korean” – not “American.” He’s supposed to note his “exoticness” (and that he’s not a real “American”).

      “Exotic” is in the eye of the beholder. Slanted eyes are “exotic” to the oh-so-correct New York publisher who actually lives his life in a white bread world. Round eyes are “exotic” to the oh-so-correct Beijing publisher who actually lives his life in a rice bowl world. Either way, they are hypocrites of the first order.

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