Caveat Emptor

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I’ve worn many hats, and with the exception of one ancient riding helmet, they all relate to publishing. I’ve been an editor (Fawcett Books), a literary agent, and a teacher of writing, in addition to writing my own books. Having sucked up that much experience, I am now an inveterate giver of advice.

I encourage my students and editing clients to stay in touch, and many do. In the past few weeks, I’ve heard some wonderful news from them, and also some worrisome news.

The good news first:

DSC_6046 Janie Chodosh’s first novel, DEATH SPIRAL, was published by Poisoned Pencil Press, a new YA imprint of Poisoned Pen. She tells how it happened in this guest post.

Jenny Elliott was a student in one of my Next Level workshops, so I got to see her novel, SAVE ME, in its infancy. It was a gutsy, controvJenny Elliottersial novel in which the central romance is between a student and teacher. This made some of the other writers in the workshop uncomfortable, but Jenny, though wide open to constructive critique, was determined that this was the heart of the story she wanted to tell. That passion, and a lot of hard work, won her a contract with Swoon Reads, a new imprint of McMillan Children’s Publishing Group. SAVE ME will be coming out in January 2015.

PreciousbonesMika Ashley-Hollinger’s wonderful novel PRECIOUS BONES, published by Delacorte, was featured by the Scholastic book club. Although it’s marketed toward younger readers, PRECIOUS BONES is a book for all ages to enjoy, and if you haven’t read it yet, you’re in for a serious treat.

The most recent bit of news I’ve heard is not yet for public consumption, but I will say that another talented, diligent former student has had some interesting offers lately. Can’t wait to share that one with you!

Of course, not all of my students go on to publish commercially. Some choose to self-publish, and recently I heard from several of them as well. Those were the worrisome messages.

Readers of this blog know my opinion that in most cases, publishing commercially is a better choice than self-publishing for emerging fiction writers. But not everyone has that choice, and some writers are unwilling to jump through the hoops required to gain an agent and a trade publishing deal. There is nothing wrong with self-publishing, so long as it really is self-publishing. By that I mean that while the writer may contract for specific services from various providers — editing, cover design, formatting, for example — the writer retains control of the book and is the publisher. Companies who will publish for you, for a fee, are known in the industry as vanity or subsidy publishers, although they will never call themselves that.

The trouble is, many writers cannot tell the difference between companies that offer services to self publishers, as opposed to vanity publishers. It’s not their fault; vanity publishers do all they can to obscure the distinction. Many of them call it a “new model” publishing. In the world of large commercial publishers, writers invest their time and talent to write a book, which either sells or does not sell. That’s the risk they take. If the book does sell, they get a nonrefundable advance on royalties and the services of top professional editors, designers, production, marketing and sales people. They don’t pay for those services. The publisher invests its own money, taking on some risk of its own and putting its money where its mouth is. The publisher has much to gain if the book sells well, and something to lose if it doesn’t.

In the world of vanity publishing, writers invest their time and talent in writing a book, then pay someone to publish it, doubling down on their investment. If the book sells, the publisher profits from each copy sold, but the publisher takes no risk and makes no investment in the book. All costs are covered by the writer, and the publisher builds in a hefty profit as well. Nice business model…for the vanity publisher. Not so nice for the writer.

Instead of publishing themselves, naïve writers often sign on with vanity publishers that offer a full package of services, supposedly akin to what a commercial publisher would provide its authors: editing, design, production and distribution. Marketing and PR are on the menu as well, for additional fees, naturally. Writers often sign on for minimal packages — production, distribution — that cost several hundred dollars; but once that deal is inked, the hard sell begins. What’s the point of publishing a book, writers are asked, if you don’t support it with marketing and PR? And the publisher just happens to have a handy dandy (and thoroughly useless) marketing package to offer for a few hundred or thousand dollars more.

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One of the largest vanity publishers revealed that its average customer spends $5000. Very few writers would sign on for that amount of money; the vanity publishers’ trick is to get them to commit to an inexpensive package and then upsell them.

This is exactly what happened to a former student of mine who chose to self-publish his book with iUniverse, a subsidiary of Author Solutions, which was purchased by Pearson and is now owned by the Penguin Publishing group. When his book was published and failed to sell, as most self-published books do, he was convinced by the company to buy a marketing package for over $1000. This produced no results at all. A short while later, the writer was contacted by another iUniverse salesman who offered him the opportunity to display his book at the Frankfurt Book Fair. He’d been told that his book was “specially selected” by the company’s editors for display because of its quality, and because of that he would be charged only $900 for the privilege.

meteorKnowing that I was a literary agent for many years, the writer contacted me to ask my opinion. Now, I went to the Frankfurt Book Fair every year for eight or nine years and I know it pretty well. The purpose of the book fair is for publishers and literary agents to sell translation rights of upcoming books. No one really looks at printed books—they’re far too busy interacting with colleagues and making deals for the upcoming books on next year’s lists. I doubt whether in the entire history of the book fair anyone has actually plucked a book off a shelf of a vanity press and said, “Hmmm, I think I’ll buy the rights to this one.” Writers have a better shot at being hit by a meteor than selling a book in that way, and of course the vanity publishers know that. They profit, not on book or rights sales, but on the hopes and dreams of writers who simply want to be read.

The salesman also told my writer that since the company now belonged to the Penguin group, their books were virtually indistinguishable to buyers. That would be news to esteemed imprints like Random House and Viking, who do not edit, sell, promote or market those books.

I told him what I thought. He’s not going ahead with the offer from iUniverse. I hope he spends that thousand dollars on a wonderful vacation instead.

Just a few days later I got a Facebook message from another former student. She’d had no luck querying agents and had decided on self-publishing. But the company she picked, Xlibris, is notorious for the same practices detailed above, and no wonder, since the two companies are both owned by Author Solutions. In this case the writer decided to go ahead anyway. I hope I have at least forearmed her against attempts, sure to follow, to sell her useless promotional and marketing services.

This month, the law firm Giskan, Solotaroff, Anderson & Stewart filed suit against Authors Solutions, their various imprints and their corporate owners for fraudulent practices, including “selling worthless services, or services that fail to accomplish what they promise.” They’re acting on behalf of three aggrieved writers but are seeking class action status and have asked other clients of Authors Solutions and their many imprints, which include iUniverse, AuthorHouse, Xlibris, Trafford, Palibrio and many others, to contact them. It will be interesting to see how that goes. Meanwhile, I hope that Authors Solutions corporate owners take a good hard look at some of their practices.

whack a moleBut really, trying to knock down these predatory companies is like playing whack a mole. No sooner do you knock one down then another Springs up in its place. As long as there is money to be made from writers’ fervent desire to publish their work, there will be unscrupulous people determined to profit from them. Writers have got to look out for themselves. Here are a few basic ways to do that:

RESEARCH

Learn everything you can about any company you consider before you contact them. That means going much deeper than just looking at their website and reading their promises. Look at their books as well: order at least one printed and one e-book from the company and see how professionally they are produced. Contact several of their writers and ask them about the experience. That’s easy to do; writers are very accessible these days. Go into detail. How did their publisher deal with problems that arise during the publishing process? Are they accessible and responsive? Do they pay royalties in a timely fashion? Ask about sales numbers, if the writers are willing to share that information. If they’re not, that’s an answer in itself.

Check the company’s distribution and sales record. What distributors carry their books? (Don’t ask the company; look for yourself.) How many (if any) books have they had on the Kindle bestseller list? If the answer is few or none, ask yourself what they are doing for you that you couldn’t do for yourself.

man reading contractCheck complaints about the company. There are industry watch people who keep a close eye on these sort of predatory companies; take advantage of their hard work. The Absolute Write forum, Predators & Editors, and Writers Beware  are good places to start.

GET IT IN WRITING

It sounds obvious, but the salespeople from these predatory companies are experts in creating a sense of urgency. Don’t ever pay anyone anything without a contract in hand, and make sure you vet that contract carefully, or pay a professional to do it.

REVERSION

Any contract you sign should be time-limited. Even if the company you’re working with is a perfectly legit small publisher and not a vanity press, small publishers often go out of business, and writers can have a hell of a time regaining the right to their work.

 

If you’ve ever worked with any of these imprints, or if you have useful experience to share or questions to ask, I invite you to comment and join in the discussion.

And please do subscribe to the blog via links to the right for all sorts of useful stuff about writing and publishing.

If you’re interested in more information about my online writing workshops, drop me a line at next[dot]level[dot]workshop[at]gmail[dot]com.

One final note: I wanted to share this wonderful blog post by Professor Emeritus Mary Sisney, in which she compares my work to that of…actually, I’m embarrassed to say. You’ll have to read it yourself to believe it.

Posted in Mainstream publishing, Scams, Self-publishing, Vanity publishers, Writers beware | Tagged , , , , | 11 Comments

An Overnight Success In Four Years

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 It’s been a while since my last post, due to a combination of issues. I had a “quick, easy” medical procedure that turned out to be quick and easy for the doctor, while carving a month out of my life.

sick person

Since recovering, I’ve been immersed in the sequel to A DANGEROUS FICTION, which exerts a strong gravitational pull.

But I’m back now, with one of my favorite sort of posts. As some of you may know, I offer this evaluation service to writers who want thorough, stringent feedback on the openings to their novels. The cost is minimal, and I don’t advertise the service for fear of being swamped, but word gets around; I probably evaluate 18 to 20 novel openings each year. When Janie Chodosh’s pages came in, I sat up and took notice, big time. The writing was polished and accomplished, and the pages did just about everything one wants in the opening to a novel, including making me care about the protagonist and want to read more.

Janie and I ended up working together on an edit of the full book, a YA thriller called DEATH SPIRAL. It’s the first in a series about Faith Flores, a Philadelphia teenager who, when the story opens, is reeling from the recent death of her heroin-addicted mother. By the time we finished, I knew she had a very strong prospect in hand; so it was no surprise, but a very great pleasure, when Janie informed me that her book had sold. The offer came from The Poisoned Pencil, a new YA imprint created by the venerable Poison Pen Press, and it will be out on April 1—no fooling! I recommend the book whole-heartedly, and PW gave it a splendid review as well.

Janie was kind enough to share her publishing adventure with readers of this blog, many of whom are also aspiring writers. I’ll let you read it for yourselves, and I hope you’ll notice one salient aspect of her journey. She didn’t dash the book off in a month or two, then rush to put it out on Kindle. Instead, she worked it, revised it, workshopped it, submitted it to a stringent editorial review (that would be me), and revised some more. That, ladies and gents, is how it’s done if you’re serious about getting published.

And now, without further ado, here’s Janie’s account:

 

DSC_6046

 

             April 2013 and I’m in a hotel room in Hawaii, four flights up, overlooking the Pacific—a brief siesta after a day of snorkeling and exploring with my family. My daughter and stepson are happily checked out in front of cable, (a novel experience, not having TV at home), and neither one is whining about seconds on ice cream or who gets to pick the show. My husband and I are relaxed. All is quiet, and I do the unthinkable: check my email.

I am not normally a compulsive email checker, but three days before we left for Hawaii the main water line at the top of our driveway burst and flooded our home (another story entirely). So being in touch with the mainland was somewhat of a necessity: Had the driveway been grated? Had all the furniture been put in storage? Had the remediation crew gotten in…

I scroll through various spam, junk, non-important, and not interesting emails, causally pressing delete as I go. Not a word from the contractor about drywall or mold. I’m about to turn off my phone when something catches my attention. The words ‘Poisoned Pencil Press’ (the young adult imprint of the Poisoned Pen Press, one of the largest independent publishers of mysteries in the world) are in my inbox. My finger lingers over the trashcan icon. Two months ago I’d submitted the manuscript for my YA mystery to the Poisoned Pencil. I am in no mood to ruin the day with a rejection.

Again, something catches my eye. The usual rejection, shown in the first line of the email goes something like this: ‘thank you, but…’  This email starts with thank you, however, there is no ‘but.’ In fact, after ‘thank you’ I see the word ‘loved.’ Loved? This does not sound like a rejection.

I open the email to find something akin to the following: Dear Janie. I loved your manuscript and would be thrilled to publish it.

I scream. I jump up and down. I shout my husband’s name. He wakes from his nap, notes my enthusiasm, and groggily says, “What, the house didn’t really flood?” (I picture time-lapse animation in reverse, the water going back up the hill.)

“No. Better! The editor at The Poisoned Pencil Press loves my book and wants to publish it!”

index The acceptance of my manuscript did not happen overnight. I started writing my young adult novel, Death Spiral, A Faith Flores Science Mystery, four years before landing a publisher.  I must’ve written three thousand pages of notes, revisions, edits, scribbles, thoughts, and scratches. I diligently listened to the generous feedback offered to me by my writing group peers. I asked anyone who’d ever read a book if they’d be willing read my manuscript and comment. I worked with Barbara Rogan and absorbed her every suggestion. (Her feedback was some of the best I received, and I don’t just say this because I am writing on her blog!)

Eventually I got to the place where I trusted my story and I became more protective of my work. At this stage if I asked for feedback, I was specific on what I was looking for. I learned to trust my work, to stand behind a scene or a passage even when someone else had a critique. Then I started to submit. After a handful of rejections, I got the contract with The Poisoned Pencil, and despite four years of hard work, my editing was far from done.

I started working with Ellen Larson, the editor of the press. We talked about the characters in the story as if they were real people. She “got” and loved what I was doing. She showed me where in the story I could expand, where I could go deeper, what I could cut, and what I could develop. We went through three rounds of edits together. Even when, on the last round of edits, she said something along the lines of, “You’re going to hate me” (referring to all her markups) my reaction was just opposite. What Ellen gave me was the most valuable thing a writer could ask for: someone who believes in what you’re doing and wants to push you to make it better.

I am now working on the second book in the series, though I am taking a different approach to getting the task done. I want book two on the shelves before readers have totally forgotten about Faith Flores, the protagonist. In order to accomplish this goal, I cannot take four years and three thousand more pages of musings, notes, and scribbles. These days I go for mileage. I try to tap into the part of my brain that doesn’t edit every word and just get the plot on the page. Once I’m confident the plot works, the clues are in place, Faith has encountered sufficient obstacles and overcome them in her own particular way, then I will obsess, edit, ask for feedback, and turn my baby over to the gifted eyes of my editor.

 

Thanks, Janie, and congratulations! For lots more publishing stories, writing tips, and interviews with industry figures, subscribe to this blog via the link on the right.

 

Posted in Craft, Interviews, Mainstream publishing, Submitting, the writing life, Writers | Tagged , , , , | 11 Comments

What Sort of Publishing Is Right For You?

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In my last post, I wrote about the results of a large though unscientific survey of authors, which revealed a high level of dissatisfaction around the areas of marketing, sales and income. This struck me as profoundly unsurprising, almost a tautology.  Dissatisfaction goes with the territory. During the 15 years I spent as an agent and editor, I never met a writer who was completely satisfied with his or her publisher’s efforts, whether they were great or small. It’s like inspecting a house after a cleaning crew has come and gone. No matter how good a job they’ve done, you always notice what they missed.

So that aspect of the survey was not at all surprising. What struck me as I read is the fact that writers today have so many more choices than they had in the past. More writers are making a living than ever before, particularly “hybrid writers” whose books are both published and self-published. Mid-list writers dropped by their publishers are no longer silenced forever. Backlist books don’t recede into memory; they can live forever in e-book form. Short stories and novellas are no longer unsellable. Writers with an entrepreneurial bent can now publish their own work, undertaking the risks but also standing to reap much greater reward if the books do well.

overcoming barriersBut having choices can be confusing, and aspiring writers need to think carefully about which choice is most likely to get them where they want to go. If you read that last post and wondered what to do with that information, I’m going to suggest some guidelines here. They will vary according to writers’ goals and the genre in which they write.

The simplest case is the writer who aspires to write literary fiction, to be reviewed and discussed in mainstream media, and to be considered for the major literary awards. That writer needs the validation and support of a mainstream publisher who can get his book reviewed and sold into bookstores and libraries, because serious review attention is necessary to make those books discoverable. Literary fiction published independently has not been shown to sell well at all, and those writers may end up losing money after paying for editing, cover design and other necessary services.

The question becomes more complicated when it comes to genre fiction writers. Most writers, I believe, are still best served by trying first for mainstream commercial publishing house via a literary agent. It’s not an easy road. The search for an agent can take many, many submissions and often a number of rewrites; and finding an agent is only the start of an even longer process. Some writers are drawn to self-publishing out of fear of rejection, but that’s a fear that really should be overcome. Most published writers have gone through multiple rejections and lived to tell the tale; sometimes those rejections have worked to their benefit, as I discuss in this post. But the advantages of being commercially published are many. Most books will be published in multiple formats, not just e-books, and sold into brick and mortar stores. The more outlets one’s book has, the more chance it will be discovered and read. Being published by a major house is a learning experience and an opportunity to create a loyal readership that will carry over to self-published work should you decide to go the hybrid route. There are other advantages to mainstream publishing as well, too many to reprise here; if you’d like to see them, check out this post and this one.

Things are changing rapidly in publishing, and I don’t claim to be ahead of the game. But here is my current best advice for aspiring writers of romance, science fiction, cozy mysteries, Westerns and the many subgenres within those categories.

  1. Write the absolute best book you can, and then follow the steps outlined here to improve it.
  2. While writing the book, begin researching literary agents and put together a list of at least 50 to 60 agents who would be suitable for your book.
  3. Write a killer query letter and start submitting. (See also Agent Query and Janet Reid’s blog.)  Don’t submit to all the agents on your list at once. Submit to 5 to 10 agents at a time, to allow for tweaks to the query letter if your first try isn’t getting a good response.
  4. While your book is on submission, work on the next book.The_philosopher
  5. If self-publishing is a path you would consider, start educating yourself. There is a tremendous amount to learn if you end up going that route, and many writers have been generous in sharing their process and results. The Absolute Write forum is a good place to start. What you learn may help you decide whether self-publishing is right for you.
  6. Put together a list of smaller commercial publishers who accept submissions directly from writers.  By commercial publishers I mean those who publish your work at their own expense, whether or not they pay advances. In some cases, those books will come out in e-book form only, some with a POD option as well. But be careful! There are now many so-called publishers who require that writers cover the expense of publishing. They like to claim that they have come up with a new model of cooperative publishing, but in fact they are all variations on vanity publishers who have been around forever. Seek out publishers who consistently have books on Kindle’s bestseller list.
  7. If you have submitted to 50 or 60 agents and found no takers, it’s time to make a choice. There are three basic ways to go.fork in roadA.  If you’re determined to be published by a major house or to build a career as a hybrid writer, you should withdraw the book, hire a good editor, do some rewriting and resume submitting to agents. Or chalk that first book up to experience and go on to write the next, which will be better.

    B. You can submit directly to that list of smaller commercial publishers, aka indies. This is a good option for writers who feel their forte is writing, not publishing. Small publishers can usually do more effective promotion and marketing for your book then you can on your own, and they usually pay a larger royalty on e-books than the big five houses: 50% versus 25% currently. But self-publishers keep about 70% (the distributor, Amazon or other, takes the rest), so you should be clear on what exactly those small publishers will be doing for your book to earn their share. A similar possibility is to enter a contest that offers the winner a publishing contract with a reputable publisher. If you win, the contract you are offered may be less than optimal; but it is a foot in the door. In addition, some major paperback imprints like Tor have “open submission“ windows during which unagented writers can submit directly.man reading contract

    Writers who choose option B need to be wary of sharks in the water. A lot of vanity publishers present themselves as “publishing partners” or the like, and many contests exist only for the sake of the entry fee. Writers Beware and Absolute Write have good websites to do that research.

    C.  You can dive straight into the pool of self-publishers. By the time you make this decision, you should have spent months researching the field, so that you know how to proceed, what to watch out for, and how to give your work the best possible chance.  Generally speaking, self-publishing is a good option for entrepreneurial souls who are willing to learn or contract for all the services that a publisher would normally provide, including editing, proofreading, design, promotion and marketing. It works best for writers of genre fiction series who can write very quickly and put out multiple books per year. If you choose option C, and you are writing a series, I would strongly recommend that you don’t start publishing until you have three books finished and ready to go. A singleton, tossed into the vast sea of self-published titles, doesn’t have much of a chance; but you can build readership by publishing books in series released just a month or two apart. You can also discount one title to promote all the others.

    When  I first started out, the only option open to writers was the traditional route of literary agents and commercial publishers. I still think that for most writers, it is the best way to go if they have that opportunity. But it’s no longer the only good option; and the existence of other possibilities and paths open to writers will ultimately tilt the balance of power between publishers and writers just a little bit toward the writers’ side; and that’s a good thing.

     

    Subscribe to this blog via links at right for irregular but, I hope, interesting stuff about the writing biz. Better yet, read A DANGEROUS FICTION, which is both a mystery and an insider’s guide to publishing.

Posted in Digital publishers, Hybrid authors, Mainstream publishing, Marketing, Self-publishing, Series, Submitting, Writers beware | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

New Author Study Shows Preference for Traditional Publishing

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An interesting study about publishing and writers recently came out, and one thing is clear: writers are not a happy lot.

The study, called the 2014 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Study, is based on responses from 9,210 aspiring, published and self-published writers to a survey conducted in the fall of 2013. The lead researcher was Dana Beth Weinberg, professor of sociology at Queens College in NYC. You can download the report in full from Digital World for a mere $295; if that seems a bit steep, you can get the gist of the results from Digital Book World’s post and this one by Dr. Weinberger herself.

A survey based on responses from over 9000 writers sounds quite impressive; however, the numbers are deceptive. The majority of responders are aspiring writers who have not published in any form; most have not yet completed a draft of a book. Their opinions on the advantages of publishing versus self-publishing are not informed by experience and I couldn’t see the relevance of including them in the study, unless (a cynical thought – put it down to my having the world’s worst cold) it is to increase the likelihood of their buying the complete $295 report. Among the others, 1636 were self-published, 774 were published commercially, and 598 were hybrid authors– that is, writers whose work is both published and self-published. Respondents were recruited through notifications from Writer’s Digest about the survey, which accounts for the preponderance of unpublished writers: the magazine is geared to aspiring rather than published writers.

The author of the report herself calls it unscientific, since it is based on voluntary responses rather than a random sample. Nevertheless, the results were interesting. A few things popped out at me.

discontented writer1. Writers are discontented lot. I said that before. It bears repeating. My advice to aspiring fiction writers is and has always been that if they can imagine themselves happy doing anything else, they should do it. Almost nobody makes a living from writing; and those who write well enough to be published commercially could generally make more money doing almost anything else. Of course, if you are independently wealthy, money need not be a factor. But writing is frustrating and difficult in many ways, not just monetarily. The world is not clamoring for new writers.

For those who cannot imagine themselves doing anything else but writing, despite the difficulties and lack of clamor: welcome to the fold, and the best of Irish luck to us all!

2. Unless you’re one of a small group of perennial best-selling writers or you write salable stuff incredibly fast, the money is absurd. This is true for both trade-published and self-published writers, although trade-published writers make more on average. According to the survey’s data, the median income for unpublished writers is under $5000, with a significant number earning nothing at all. Commercially published writers had a median income between $5000 and $10,000. On the higher end of the scale, the differences  are even more stark. Only 1.8% of self-published writers report an annual income of over $100,000, compared to 8.8% of trade-published writers and 13.2% of hybrid writers.

One advantage of this report is that it refutes the exaggerated claims of many self-publishing advocates. The trope I hear most often among aspiring writers is that publishing with a commercial house is confers prestige, but the real money is in self-publishing. According to the figures in this study, the percentage of writers who earned over $100,000 last year is five times greater among published than self-published writers.

3. If you must write, it pays to be a hybrid writer. Hybrid authors did best on the median income scale, between $15,000 and $20,000. They also scored highest in satisfactionhybrid with many aspects of their career. They were the most likely to be happy with their book’s pricing (44.4% compared to 24% among traditionally published writers) and most likely to be satisfied with sales figures: 9.7% compared to 8.2% among commercially published writers and 4.6% among self-published writers. This tallies with an earlier study conducted by Taleist magazine that showed hybrid writers outselling exclusively self-published writers by a large margin.

Still, it’s clear that even among hybrid writers, 90% are disappointed with their sales. Of course any number can be disappointing if your expectations were higher. In the case of self-published writers, I fear that many of them drank the Kool-Aid dispensed so liberally by self-publishing zealots with get-rich-quick promises. The truth is, it’s very hard for unknown writers to get noticed and to sell books in any quantities, even with the might of a Random House or Simon & Schuster behind them; and it’s far harder for do-it-yourselfers. But published writers, too, are disappointed with their sales; only 8.2 reported themselves “very satisfied” with sales, and 10.4% said they were happy with their publishers overall marketing and promotion of the book.

In fairness to publishers, I will interject that based on my years as a literary agent, there is never enough marketing from the writer’s point of view. However much the publisher does, writers tend to focus on what they haven’t done.

4. Across the board, writers still prefer commercial to self-publishing. That preference emerges clearly in this study. Only 35% of self-published writers would prefer to self-publish their next book; among hybrid authors, who’ve tried both methods, 30% would self-publish by choice. Among published writers, the figure is 7.5%, indicating that despite their dissatisfaction with the industry, the vast majority would still choose it over self-publishing.

 

For more on the hybrid route, see this eye-opening interview with bestselling author Lorraine Bartlett. Subscribe to this blog via links at right for irregular but, I hope, interesting stuff about the writing biz. Or read A DANGEROUS FICTION, which is both a mystery and an insider’s guide to publishing.

 

 

Posted in Digital publishers, Hybrid authors, Mainstream publishing, Self-publishing, the writing life, Writers | Tagged , , , | 19 Comments

An Experiment in Genre

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When I was 22 and fresh out of college, I got a job as a copywriter with Fawcett Books, one of the top three paperback houses of the time. They published several lines of romances that sold very well and paid well, too, for what seemed to me not too  much effort–much less effort than waiting tables at night, as I did to supplement my meager publishing pay. From childhood I’d been determined to become a writer, not of pulp but of the sort of novels I myself admired. But I knew that writers need either a private income or a day job. Lacking the former, I would need the latter–and what better day job for a writer than writing? I had a college buddy who also worked at Fawcett; we talked it over and decided to experiment by writing a paperback romance on spec. We had an obvious “in” with the editor; if we produced a novel up to her standards, we knew she’d buy it.

Romance novelWe read a few of the bestselling romances, analyzed the formula, and set about constructing one of our own, hashing out a plot, then writing alternate chapters.  But it was harder going than we’d expected, largely because neither of us had any real interest in the genre. And after a few weeks, our experiment came to an abrupt end when my writing buddy’s wife decided she didn’t like the idea of us collaborating.

I tell you this story by way of introducing my guest today, C.S. Lakin, indie author of 14 novels and conductor of a far more successful writing experiment.  A short while ago, I ran across a fascinating blog post about an experiment she did to test the importance of genre in marketing self-published fiction.  Her results surprised me; I think they surprised a lot of longtime writers.  As a former agent, I was particularly pleased to see a path for writers to support themselves and more by taking smart advantage of the opportunities in the self-pub market. What she did should replicable, too, by writers who are good, fast, and savvy, which makes it all the more interesting. Here is her own account of that experiment.

 

           Writing to Genre without Selling Out

                        Blog post by C. S. Lakin

 

 CS-LakinWriters who love to write fiction often eschew the idea of crafting a novel or novella solely to target a specific audience—especially if the primary goal is to sell a lot of books in order to make money. To many, putting money-making or the goal to top the best-seller lists ahead of writing “genuinely” or “from the heart” is a sellout, a compromise. It shows lack of scruples or integrity. It paints the writer as a cheap, spineless hack just out to make a buck. At least, that’s how some purists feel.

Aren’t we novelists supposed to be holding up the flame of truth and quality to shine in the world? Isn’t writing to a specific best-selling genre a sacrifice of quality and an affront to our muse? Good questions.

For years (decades) I wrote novels based on ideas I was passionate about. I created stories with deep, rich themes, and spent endless hours honing my craft in order to write the best, most compelling books I could.

And I wrote many of them, in numerous genres, but always honoring the purist’s oath, which might go something like “First, do not compromise.” I felt if I were to compromise my integrity by writing something just to sell big, I would bring shame to myself and my writing profession.

 “It’s Fine for Other Writers to Sellout . . .”

 Sure, I knew plenty of wonderful writers who wrote just to make money. They sometimes wrote books or magazine articles they didn’t like in order to get those checks and pay their bills. They had families to support. I didn’t judge them. In fact, I wholeheartedly supported what they were doing.

 But it wasn’t for me. I wanted to write books that meant something, that moved hearts, that changed lives. And I’m glad I spent those twenty-plus years writing beautiful novels that indeed did mean something, move hearts, and change lives. I’m very proud of those books.

 What Did I Do Wrong?

 But they’ve never really made me any money. Why? At first I thought it was just bad luck. And then bad marketing. I did everything my successful friends said to do. I build a huge online presence and engaged in social media. I paid for publicists and marketers and did blog tours.

 But even though I spent a fortune in time and money, nothing paid off. I joined the hundreds of thousands of authors who lament they just can’t get discovered. My novels won awards and got terrific reviews, but they didn’t sell.

 It Was Time I Faced the Truth

 I didn’t want to admit the truth to myself, so spent two years contacting successful indie authors, inviting them to share their stories on my blog Live Write Thrive, asked them endless questions. Finally the truth glared at me in the face.

 What truth? That genre matters. I had to admit that although my books were getting terrific reviews and winning awards, they were not strict genre novels—in fact many of my books were a bit experimental and couldn’t be easily categorized.

 With indie publishing, authors like me have been able to publish our “unusual” or “different” novels and find readers. Some do make that break into best-sellerdom, but not many. When I took a look at my author friends who were making easily five figures each month, often off one title, or would release a book and it would hit the best-seller lists off the bat, I paid close attention to what genre they were writing in. And that revealed the key.

 Maybe It’s Just Luck

 I thought they were just luckier than me. I thought perhaps they were doing something special with their marketing and author platform that I wasn’t. But when I interviewed them all, I found out the truth. They were not. Many had little author platform. Some (yikes!) had none. I mean—no website, no social media, no previous novels out, no name, nada. Huh?

 What I did see was that these hugely successful authors were writing to a specific genre, and often a niche genre. What do I mean by that? I mean a subgenre that has a particular readership—one that is very large and one that has few (compared to other main genres) books available for sale. What I was seeing was a manifestation of the old economics “supply and demand” rule.

 But could that really be true? Could an unknown author write a novel with no author platform for one of these subgenres and sell big, with no additional effort other than putting her book up on Amazon, carefully using the same kind of description, cover, etc.?

 I was dying to find out.

 My Genre Experiment

 So, here’s what I did, in a nutshell (I plan to write an entire ebook soon on this experiment/method called From Idea to Selling in Three Months, so others writers can do this too!):

  • I picked the subgenre I was told “sells itself” without any author platform
  • I came up with a pen name so I would be an unknown, unpublished author
  • I chose one novel to deconstruct. [NOTE PLEASE: I did not plagiarize or copy the plot, writing, or tried to mimic this author. I just deconstructed the structure. If you don’t know what that involves, buy my book when it comes out!]
  • After deconstructing the novel, I plotted and constructed mine
  • I hired the same cover designer to brand my look for my series
  • While writing the novel, I copied and pasted 30 Amazon descriptions of books in this genre in order to create my own in the same style and fashion [NOTE: this was a genre I had never even read, so had no clue how this differed from the genres I already wrote in]
  • I got a couple of well-known author friends and a reviewer for the Examiner to read in advance and write me reviews/endorsements, so I’d have something to put in the book and on the Amazon page
  • I did set up tweets (not as my pen name but via my real Twitter account) to get some exposure
  • I set up a Facebook page for the author, but did nothing to promote it. Even now it has maybe 25 likes. So no big influence there
  • I hired an assistant to find bloggers and reviewers, but only had three people blog about the novel when it was released

 So, essentially, as far as author platform goes, I did almost nothing to build or prepare for this book release. I felt I should do a minimal amount of promoting, just as many of my successful author friends do when releasing a new book. And of course, their subsequent books sell very well too, since they have, inadvertently, build a bit of author platform just from the sales and buzz of the earlier novels released.

 My Results

 Lakin's ExperimentThe novel has only been out a month. Within the first two weeks, the book jumped to paid #247 on Amazon, and hit the top-ten genre lists: Historicals, Historical Westerns, Western Romance. My genre is Historical Western Romance (and more specifically sweet Western—meaning no sex or heat).

 In those two weeks, the book sold more than 1,500 copies at full price ($3.99 US), while all the top twenty on the lists were sale priced. I wanted to start out the gate with the novel regularly priced and not discounted, based on Mark Coker’s research (Smashwords) that $3.99 sells better than any other price. I also wanted to imply “quality” because it is a long, rich, quality book.

 My novel has been on the genre lists’ top 100 ever since, selling about 30-50 books a day. Way more than I ever made on any of my other dozen novels. Here’s the interesting thing. I made $3,600 or so in three weeks. I was told by writers of that specific subgenre that they make about $3k a month off each book. Which is what it looks like I’m making. Why? Supply and demand.

 One author sold 80,000 copies of her first novel, with no Internet presence, website, or author platform. She still doesn’t have a website, and her books are all selling in the tens of thousands. Is she a terrific writer, better than anyone else out there? No. She writes good books for the genre, as do the others who are selling well.

 Genre Isn’t the Only Factor

 I can’t emphasize enough that first and foremost an author has to write a terrific book. And it now looks to me that a terrific book in one genre just may sell a whole lot more than a terrific book in another genre. Authors who lament that their “terrific” book (if it indeed is one) is not selling, may need to consider genre. Maybe they might even want to try their own genre experiment.

 My novel has been getting mostly 5-star reviews, and what pleases me most is when reviewers say I wrote a book that perfectly reflects the genre. I did my homework and it paid off. The strict genres I’ve noted sell well in addition to romance, romance, and more romance are paranormal, thrillers, and mystery (and YA versions of all those).

 I don’t read or particularly like romance, but the RWA (Romance Writers of America) recently noted statistics showing that 40 percent of ALL ebooks sold are romance. And I actually had a blast writing this novel, with two more in the series slated to come out in 2014. I love Lonesome Dove and always wanted to try my hand at Westerns.

 You Don’t Have to “Sellout” to “Sell Big”

 I don’t think writers should “sellout” and write something they don’t want to write just to make money, but hopefully I’ve given you food for thought. And it does feel nice to be able to pay the bills. Surely there is some big-selling genre you can tailor your writing to and even find enjoyment in the process.

 Barbara here again, with a special bonus. As I read Susanne’s guest post, a few questions presented themselves.  I posed them to her, and her answers are below.

Q:  Your genre for the experimental novel was an historical one. How much research did you have to invest to write this book?

A: I spent a couple of long weeks doing the research. I’d never written a historical before and the thought intimidated me, since I really dislike seeing historical errors in manuscripts or novels and know the author has a burden to be as accurate as possible. But since I had lived on the Front Range for a few years, I had a personal feel and experience of the locale at least. I contacted the curator of the Greeley Museum and was given a five-page list of bibliography that I drew from. I ordered a dozen or so books on the history of the town and region and took a lot of notes. I really had a lot of fun doing this and asked a lot of questions.

Q: As you had little or no platform and no publisher working for you on the experimental novel, how do you think so many readers discovered and continue to discover your book? (The more specific you can be on this point, the happier I’ll be. “Buzz” alone, though surely a factor,  doesn’t edify.)

detectiveA: I don’t think buzz really had much to do with it, if at all. The author I modeled after said she, as well as the other authors she knows who write in this subgenre, put her book out and it went right to the top of the genre charts and sold nearly 100,000 copies in the first year. She didn’t do any marketing or promotion. As I said in my post, there is a supply and demand at work, so I’m assuming readers of this genre go online and search for new books. I do believe, though the best way to be discovered on Amazon is for your book to come up in the top twenty (best to be in the top six so it shows at the top) when search words are typed in. I was careful to put in a lot of keywords in my product page and choose the keywords that readers would use to search for a book like this. Contrary to what Amazon recommends, I feel putting in the genres as keywords is crucial. Readers looking for a historical western romance are going to type those words in the search bar, not words like Colorado or horse vet or something obscure. Amazon feels people search by interests and would type in “strong female lead” or “grief.” To prove my point, before I even sold one book, the book came up on the top ten in lists (for the genres Western and historical Westerns) under new releases tab on the first day. I’m sure if readers were online looking for a new historical western and clicked on new releases, that’s how they found my book. The key is to be up at the top of the lists. The author I mentioned kept her book at 99 cents the whole year, never raising the price. Back a couple of years ago many thought that was the way to go, modeling after Amanda Hocking’s success. I notice usually all but about three on the top twenty of these genres on any given day are priced between 99 cents and 2.99. So that’s something for me to consider. I’ve sold nearly 4,000 copies in six weeks at 3.99. I did put the book on sale last week for a promo at 1.99 to see what would happen and the book jumped back up the lists. So I have to decide if I want to sell tens of thousands of copies to say I have a best seller or whether I want to make more money and sell less. I haven’t decided yet. I know I got off topic here, but feel the whole trick to selling is to be noticed, and this is the way you get noticed.

3. You say that you’ve invested a lot of time in building a platform for your other books with disappointing results; yet the book tailored to a carefully chosen genre sold extremely well without any platform. Given that time is a writer’s capital, what value do you now place on platform-building for writers?

I think platform is essential. Being a writer is all about connecting to your fans and readers. I don’t know whether extreme effort to blog and promote a book will pay off in terms of sales compared to the time spent, but to me the marketing and promo is important along with social networking. But I hear a lot of authors say similar things that I’ve said—that they’ve tried everything to promote their book and they are not getting sales. In contrast, many of my clients releasing good first-time novels in the big-selling genres often sell big right out the gate with no name or platform. I like the idea that I can write a book and get good sales right away while I continue to build a reputation. I do believe that writing book after (great) book is the way to keep sales going and draw in new readers. That is advice I’ve heard for years from every quarter. And really, if someone wants to be a writer, they should keep writing.

Susanne, thanks so much for this thought-provoking post. Readers, your reactions?

  Bio: C. S. Lakin is the author of fourteen novels and while she writes two novels a year, she works as a freelance writing coach and copyeditor, specializing in manuscript critiques. She offers deep, free instruction for writers on her award-winning blog Live Write Thrive and provides critique services via Critique My Manuscript

 Her novel, Colorado Promise, is written under her pen name Charlene Whitman (nickname Charlie), and you can buy her “experiment” here!

Posted in Book Jackets, Genre, Marketing, Self-publishing, Series, Writers, Writing tips | Tagged , , , , , , | 47 Comments

Editing: Brain Surgery for Writers

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brain surgeonsIf you needed brain surgery, how much time would you invest in searching for the right brain surgeon? Knowing that outcomes vary, experience and dexterity matter, competence is paramount, and an incompetent practitioner can leave the patient in worse shape than when he began, I guess you’d spend as much time as it took to find the right person.

Writers in search of an editor need to exercise the same rigorous search, because editing, especially editing of fiction, is a sort of brain surgery. The editor operates in the gap between the book the writer envisioned and the one that actually made it onto the page. Thus the editor must see clearly not only the imperfect story on the page, but the story it wants to become, its ideal self. If the author has taken chances in the writing (as good writers tend to do) some of these will have succeeded and others will have failed. If cutting is inevitable, the surgery must be performed delicately – because the last thing any editor wants to do is to excise healthy tissue.

What I mean to do in this post is to talk about some of the decisions writers face with regard to editors: whether to hire an editor and if so, what sort of editor to hire; at what point in the process; how to recognize good ones and avoid bad ones. But I should begin, in the interest of fair disclosure, by saying that I myself am an editor and writing teacher as well as a novelist. You can, depending on your disposition, take that as an admission of vested interest or as an indication that I have had occasion to think seriously about the intersection of writing and editing.

Types of Editors

First off, we need to define terms. There are different types of editing. A novel acquired by one of the large commercial publishers typically undergoes four layers of editing by at least three different people.

Developmental editors look at the big-picture items: pacing, structure, characterization, style, point of view, theme. They track plot and subplots, consider the arcs of the major characters and the novel as a whole, examine the opening and ending of the novel as well as its structure.

red penLine editors examine the novel on a line to line basis. They look for continuity, logic, clarity, consistence in POV and tone. They will also address grammatical and style issues, though not to the extent that a copy editor does. In publishing houses, developmental and line editing are usually done by the acquiring editor and may be combined.

Copy editors focus closely on language. Their job is to rid the manuscript of any grammatical, spelling, usage and punctuation errors, as well as stylistic inconsistencies.

Proofreaders are the last line of defense, the final readers. They read typeset proofs to look for the same mistakes that copy editors do, including errors introduced by the typesetting process.

In this post, when I refer to editing, I’m talking primarily about developmental and line editing.

Should Writers Hire Editors?

Some should, some shouldn’t. It depends on the writer’s intentions. I believe that writers who intend to self-publish should, in fairness to themselves, their books and their potential readers, have their books edited. Few self-published writers can afford the four separate layers of scrutiny given to books published by commercial houses. But many editors offer combinations of developmental and line editing, and some offer copy editing as well, although ideally that should be done by someone other than the developmental editor. In editing, as in surgery, two pairs of eyes are better than one. If the writer at that point is confident in her ability to spot any deviations in the proof from the copyedited manuscript, she can do her own proofreading.

Having one’s manuscript edited is a learning experience. As writers grow more experienced, one thorough edit in addition to their own careful revisions may well suffice. But every writer has a tendency to make certain types of mistakes, everyone is blind to their own worst prose; and writers who publish without an editor do so at their own risk.

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Writers who aim to be commercially published have a different set of calculations. On the one hand, all four levels of editing are provided by the publisher at no expense to the writer, and the editors who provide the services are usually first-rate. Good editing is one of the great perks of being professionally published. On the other hand, the bar to acceptance is very high, and if the book is almost but not quite where it needs to be, a good editor can make the crucial difference.

I advise writers who are trying to make their careers in traditional publishing to do everything they can with their manuscripts before they consider hiring an editor. Writing is a craft that takes a great deal of practice to master. Learning to revise your own work is very much a part of that process. Writers can take classes, which I highly recommend, the more rigorous the better. They can join critique groups and seek out skilled, savvy beta readers; they can read books by great practitioners about their craft; they can study the work of writers they admire; and they can apply all that they have learned and are learning to their work in progress.

Foetus_in_the_Womb_detailA novel is not written in one go, and first drafts are still soft clay. I think it’s dangerous to turn an embryonic first draft or incomplete novel over to an editor. It should go through serious revision and refinement before that step is considered.

In fact, it’s not a bad idea for a writer to begin submitting that final draft to agents and seeing what sort of response she gets before deciding on hiring an editor. If the response is positive, she may never need to hire her own. If, on the other hand, she gets a significant number of rejections, it may be time to consider enlisting a freelance editor or manuscript evaluator (basically the same thing as a developmental editor), someone savvy and objective who can help her see the book as she could not see it herself.

Qualifications

Anyone can call himself an editor. He may as well call himself a “professional editor” too, while he’s at it; it sounds even better and means just as little. Anyone who’s ever corrected a child’s school essay is an editor, but not necessarily one who would be useful to an aspiring novelist. Academic degrees do not necessarily confer competence in the field of editing fiction. What qualities should a real editor have?

I’m going to respond to that from the point of view of a novelist whose books have been greatly enhanced by smart, sensitive editors. These are the things that I would look for in an editor.

Experience. This can come from several different areas. Some freelance editors have experience working for publishing houses, and if I were in need of an editor, I would take a good look at anyone who had edited for a major house. Those jobs are highly competitive and you have to be good to get them. Ive worked with editors from Simon & Schuster, Morrow, Doubleday, Atheneum and Viking, and I never had one who didn’t contribute significantly to the finished book. Be careful, though. I’ve seen editors who claim to have publishing experience… but when you check out the companies they worked for, you discover that they are merely fronts for the writer’s own self-published work.

A lot of writers moonlight as editors, myself included. The advantage of having a writer for an editor is hands-on experience: they’ve wrestled their own novels into shape, and they know the tricks of the trade. The disadvantage is that these editors can be tempted to impose their own taste and style on the work to a greater extent than editors who are not writers: one reason that a sample edit is essential. (More on that below.) Writers who offer editing services should have solid achievements in their own fields; otherwise, you have to wonder how can they help you succeed if they couldn’t help themselves. For the same reason, I would never hire a writer to edit a novel if I didn’t know and admire his own fiction.

A solid track record.  Everyone has to start somewhere, but you don’t want anyone cutting their teeth on your book. Editors should be happy to provide you with a client list. I would want to see that some of those clients at least had been published commercially. If the editor specializes in a particular genre, and you write in a different genre, that is at the very least a matter to be discussed. Many fiction editors don’t specialize, however, because while conventions may differ, good writing is good writing.

ArethaRespect. A good editor enters into what you are trying to do and helps you get closer, rather than trying to squash your work into preordained parameters. Part of respect is honesty. The editor has to be frank about what’s working and what isn’t. Soft-peddling problems to spare the writer’s feelings does that writer a great disservice.

Communication. The best editors are natural teachers; but every editor should be willing and able to explain the reasons for his recommendations. Honesty is important, but so is reasonable tact and the ability to point out what does work well, so writers can build on it.

Mad_scientist_02_by_LemondjinnEducation. A degree in English is a useful credential for a copy editor, but has no bearing on that person’s ability to do developmental editing. I would look favorably at an editor with an MFA from a good writing program. Someone who has studied writing seriously can be a very discerning critic. But I’d also want to see evidence of practical experience and/or achievements. Otherwise, it could be like hiring an astrophysicist to fix your toaster.

Regardless of academic degrees, a good editor is widely read and conversant with the literature of the day, including the best genre writers. A wide frame of reference is a necessary prerequisite of the job. Editors also need a solid knowledge of the publishing industry, to be able to help writers who aspire to break through.

How to Recognize Good Editors…

1. They possess the qualifications listed above. I realize that this is a tall order, and that by the time you finish eliminating all the editors who don’t measure up, you may be left with only me. This is purely coincidental.

Kidding, of course. There are many editors out there, and some of them are excellent. Others aren’t. That list of qualifications can be a useful tool in looking beyond the hype on a website.

2. They come recommended by or have worked with writers whose work you admire.

3. They are willing to provide a sample edit for a nominal fee.

4. They are discriminating. The hard truth is that some books are too rough to edit. They need to be substantially rewritten, which is not an editor’s job. Even when the writing is creditable, there’s also a question of fit. Not every editor is right for a particular writer. Good editors know this and do not take on all comers. The sample edit is an essential way to assess how writer and editor would work together. I never take on an editing job unless I’ve first done the sample edit offered on my website, and I would be wary of editors with set rates who accept work blindly.

5. The sample edit knocks your socks off. It may sting a bit at first, because there’s a part of every writer that wants to hear nothing but praise. But there’s another part of every serious writer that strives constantly for better tools and more facility with the craft. Once the sting wears off, a good edit should enunciate things about the work that the writer sensed but couldn’t articulate, as well as showing a way forward. Of all the criteria, the sample edit is the most important in choosing an editor.

… And How to Avoid Bad Ones

1. They don’t meet the qualifications listed above.

2. They make inflated claims. Anyone who promises that with his help, his clients will go on to sell their work is either a huckster or shilling for a vanity press. There are no certainties in publishing.Free Clipart Illustrations at http://www.ClipartOf.com/

3. They solicit you. Good editors tend to be backed up with work. Anyone who solicits you is suspect.

4. They don’t offer to provide a reasonably priced sample edit, but press instead for a larger commitment.

 

I hope  you find this useful and welcome your comments. I wish I could append a list of recommended editors. I do know several who are excellent for nonfiction, and I’ve referred writers to them; but unless I’ve worked with a fiction editor myself, or seen their work, I don’t feel comfortable referring novelists. I invite readers who have worked with first-rate freelance editors to share that in the comments section, as well as any other experience you might have had with freelance editors.

 

As I mentioned above, I do some editing myself when I’m not in the midst of writing a book, as I am for the next few months; but my special offer is still valid for any fiction writer who cares to take it up. I also teach writing workshops several times a year. These classes are small, rigorous and intense. The best way to get in them, or to keep that option open, is to get on my emailing list for workshops. Writers on that list get the first notification of new workshops, which usually fill up from that list alone. The next course I will teach will be One Good Scene, followed by Revising Fiction. Drop me a line at Barbararogan at gmail dot com for more information or to put your name on the emailing list.

For more on this topic, see What to Do When You’ve “Finished” Your Novel and Good Writers Are Good Editors.

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Tis the season to remember that books make the best presents. If you agree, I hope you’ll consider A DANGEROUS FICTION,  called by San Francisco Books a “terrific mystery novel, told with warmth and snarky wit.” You can read the opening chapter here.

Posted in Editing, Editors, Revising fiction, Self-publishing, Writers, Writing tips | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Rejection: Good for the Writer’s Soul?

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There’s a schism in the writing world. Messianic advocates of self-publishing tout its benefits; skeptical opponents counter with the lack of all the services provided by preacherpublishers. As a novelist, blogger, and former literary agent, I’ve read countless iterations of both positions, which keep changing as self-publishing evolves. Just a few years ago, publishing and self-publishing were separate worlds; now they’re developing a symbiotic relationship, each feeding off the other. Success in self-publishing can lead to multi-book contracts with major publishers; while many published authors, formerly sidelined as “midlist” authors, are reviving their careers and making good money through self-publishing. A new species is emerging: hybrid writers with a foot in each camp.

As the tools available to self-publishers continue to develop, they may overcome many of the industry’s current deficits. But the greatest drawback to self-publishing is one that can never be overcome, because it is intrinsic to the enterprise: the lack of rejection.

Before the advent of simple, do-it-yourself e-publishing, when publishers ruled the planet, rejection was an inescapable part of the writer’s existence. Most published novelists were turned down many times, often on multiple books, before breaking into print. Most “first” novels passed through a gauntlet of rejection by agents and publishers before finding a home.  No one got through unscathed.

Rejection isn’t some sort of japish frat hazing we can all laugh about later. It hurts badly and over time has a cumulative effect on the writer’s psyche. Many give up. Depression is common. John Kennedy O’Toole committed suicide at the age of 31, due in part to repeated rejections of his novel, A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES, which was published years later and won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize. Some writers go a little crazy, or a lot. I wrote about one such writer in A DANGEROUS FICTION, but it happens in real life, too. Last year, a West Coast literary agent was stalked and attacked by a disgruntled writer.

Connoisseurs of rejection, aka writers, know that not all rejections are the same. They fall into three basic categories:

crazyHomicidal. One publisher called Nabokov’s  Lolita “overwhelmingly nauseating” and recommended that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years. Another predicted that Mailer’s The Deer Park would “set publishing back 25 years.” When Hunter Thompson was responsible for evaluating submissions to Rolling Stone magazine, he wrote one rejection letter that started with “You worthless, acid-sucking piece of illiterate shit! Don’t ever send this kind of brain-damaged swill here again. If I had the time, I’d come out there and drive a fucking wooden stake into your forehead,” and went downhill from there.

Unhelpful.  These include form letters (“We regret that your work does not quite suit our list…”) and, cruelest of all, silence.

 “Close but no cigar.” These “good rejections” come with useful notes from the agent or editor and sometimes an invitation to revise and resubmit. They’re a sign that the work is almost but not quite where it needs to be.

Rejection hurts. The more you’ve put into a book, the more it hurts. And yet I suspect that rejection is the cod liver oil of the writer’s diet. It tastes vile but can have salutary effects.

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First, insomuch as it acts as a spur to revision, rejection is a functional part of the artistic process.  Good writers are always just a hair’s breadth away from becoming better writers, and the necessity to go back time and again at a piece of writing can be precisely the impetus that’s needed.  I had the rare opportunity, early in my career, of sitting down with an editor who had rejected my second novel, CAFÉ NEVO, and learning exactly why. It was the first real editorial feedback I’d ever had, and though the meeting didn’t last long—half an hour or so–the conversation opened my eyes. I rewrote the novel. It  sold it to another publisher and received wonderful reviews and praise from writers like Alan Sillitoe, Madeleine L’Engle and Alice Hoffman–none of which would have happened without the input  of the editor who’d rejected it.

The lure of self-publishing can abort this process, to the detriment of both writers and readers. When J.K. Rowling started writing the Harry Potter novels, self-publishing was not an option. She spent five years planning the series and writing the first book. A literary agent made editorial suggestions, which she implemented. The revised book was rejected by a dozen publishers until Bloomsbury bought it for £1500, at which point it underwent further editing. The book so many millions of readers came to love, which launched a series and an empire, was a much improved version of the draft Rowling had finished years earlier. What would have happened, how much would have been lost, if she’d self-published her first draft straight to Kindle?

tigerSecond, the gatekeepers so despised by self-publishing advocates serve an essential role in the publishing ecology. Acting as super-predators, literary agents and editors thin the herd of writers, eliminating those who lack ability and/or stamina— both are needed—and toughening the hides of the survivors.  “Talent is helpful in writing,” Jessamyn West wrote, “but guts are absolutely essential.”

The_philosopherThird, not all novels need to be published. Writing’s like any craft: it takes talent, time and a lot of practice to get good at it, and there’s usually a period of apprenticeship. Most published writers have an early unpublished manuscript or two tucked away in a drawer, and they’ve lived to tell the tale. The brilliant writer Edward Whittemore completed seven novels before selling one: not an apprenticeship one would wish on any writer, but it demonstrates the devotion bordering on obsession that characterizes the breed.

One might argue that self-published writers have had their share of rejection; that’s why they self–publish. That’s not entirely true, since some writers are self-publishing by choice. Most first-time novelists, though, have indeed tried and failed to find publishers. If rejection is an unpleasant but salutary part of the writer’s journey, why hasn’t it worked its magic on them?

The answer is that there are limits to what rejection and revision can do. A fairy godmother can turn a pumpkin into a coach, but you’ve got to have the pumpkin. A person can pour heart and soul into a novel and still end up with something only a mother could pumpkinread. As anyone who has ever sloshed through an agent’s slush pile will tell you, most first novels can’t be salvaged. If it pleases those authors to self-publish electronically, at least no trees will be killed in the process, and no one will stand between their books and potential readers.

The fundamental problem with self-publishing is not that bad books are published, but that good ones are published prematurely: books that could have been better, even great, if the writer had worked harder on them, for years if necessary, until they were good enough to sell, and then worked on them some more with the help of a first-class editorial team.  Self-publishing offers instant gratification. You write a book, and a month or two later it’s in your hands or on your screen. The process of selling to a mainstream publisher takes much longer, risks rejection, and often requires multiple revisions, but the result is a better book. Isn’t that what writers want?

 

Well, that and sales, too. As the holidays roar down on us, I will join in the chorus of heavenly pitches and mention that books make the very best presents; and I happen to have a few out there for the readers on your list. I’d also like to thank the San Francisco Book Review for their early present: a wonderful 5-star review of A DANGEROUS FICTION that called it “a terrific mystery novel, told with warmth and snarky wit.”

Posted in Rejection, Revising fiction, Self-publishing, Submitting, the writing life, Writers | Tagged , , , | 20 Comments

An Unorthodox Path to Publication

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I love it when my students go forth and publish. They do all the work, and I claim all the credit.

Well, almost all. All except part where they work their butts off and never give up and spend years learning the craft every way they can, until publishers are clamoring to publish them and agents to represent them.

On that note, allow me to introduce my guest blogger, Amara Royce, whose first novel, NEVER TOO LATE, was published in May 2013 by eKensington, and whose second is under contract to the same publisher.  It’s a pleasure to welcome her to In Cold Ink.

 AmaraRoyce2

First, thanks so much, Barbara, for inviting me to be a guest on your wonderful blog! I always find your posts valuable, and I hope I can provide even a fraction of your insightfulness from my newbie-ish perspective in the publishing industry!

Note: I took one of Barbara’s fiction writing courses online through Writer’s Digest a few years ago. She’s an amazing teacher, as well as a fabulous author!

Never Too Late e bookI readily admit that my experience in publishing thus far probably doesn’t appear typical. My historical romance, NEVER TOO LATE, was my first completed novel. In June of 2012, I began querying agents for NEVER TOO LATE. By September, a mere three months later, I’d obtained both a two-book deal with eKensington and three offers for agent representation. It was quite a whirlwind. In fact, I still haven’t really recovered.

But as we writers know, the devil is in the details. Taking a look at my own writer’s journey thus far, I’ve arrived at three observations that are not especially new or *cough* novel but that I think are important for me and perhaps for other writers to keep in mind on the road to getting published.

Writing is hard work

hard laborWhile it’s true that my first completed novel garnered a book deal, I actually began writing in 2006 in a completely different genre. Learning to be a good writer is hard work! And it’s not a linear process. I’ve had a lot of false starts and done a lot of writing just to learn the craft of writing. And knowing about the craft of writing isn’t the same as actually doing the writing part well. For instance, I now know that some newbie writers tend to start their story in the wrong spot, with backstory that would really fit better later in the story, if at all. In some cases, writers could cut the first three chapters of their manuscript and find that the event in chapter 4 is really a more compelling place to open the story, a much more engaging draw for readers. Still, knowing that tip is very different from writing the story. I’ve had to cut and restart more stories than I want to recall!

And, as a learning process, it never really ends. I look back on some of my early efforts and have to laugh at their roughness. Frankly, I look back on something I wrote last month and know I’m going to have to fix it! And I know that everything I write, as unfinished and raw as it might be, helps me improve as a writer. Sure, I had to shelve that short story or gut this chapter or set aside that stale idea for my next novel, but that’s all part of the process.

There’s a heck of a lot to learn about the craft of writing and even more to learn about the way publishing works. Learning to write query letters, for example, is a whole different process than learning to write fiction. That subject would require a whole separate post!

Writing makes me vulnerable

shameAt every step of the writing and publishing process, fear and doubt have been my constant companions. I teach English at a community college so getting published actually strengthened my sympathy for my students. Whenever they submit essays and other writing projects, they leave themselves open to judgment, to grading. Even if they aren’t writing something personal, they are subjecting themselves to criticism (which I try to do as gently as I can). The querying process crystallized that vulnerability for me in new ways. Thanks to querytracker.net, I now know that I had a 30% request rate from agents so I know exactly how much rejection I received along the way (28 rejections from 41 queries). Do I have a compelling story? Is my writing any good? Is my story sell-able? Am I just deluding myself? Oh, so many self-doubts reared their ugly heads as those rejections rolled in.

Moreover, sharing my manuscripts with beta readers, with my agent, with my editor, and finally with the reading public lays that work out for judgment over and over and over again. (I use the present tense here very deliberately. I continue to face this judgment daily.)

I thought the self-doubt during the query process was bad, but having my work out there for readers to *buy*…is absolutely terrifying!  Even after all the editing and feedback, I can’t help but wonder what I missed, what I did wrong, what I should have done better. People who know me are inclined to be gentle with their criticism; readers who are spending their hard-earned money and reviewers whose job is to serve those readers and not to mind author’s egos have no such compunction about gentleness. Nor should they. NEVER TOO LATE has received some really lovely reviews that I treasure; it’s also received some harsh reviews that are painful, that cut to the heart of my worst fears as a writer, but that will help me continue to grow as a writer. All the self-doubt, the vulnerability, is just part of the experience of being published that I have to manage for myself.

Writing is worth the effort

VictoryAs difficult as the journey to publication may be, I have to say that, for me, it’s worth every second. Every stage of publication has been wondrously surreal for me.

Note: What I did is generally not recommended. After querying agents for a couple of months, I got a teensy bit impatient and queried some publishers that accept unagented submissions. I still don’t recommend it. Yes, it’s a case of “Do as I say, not as I do.” If you want an agent to represent your work and to strive to sell it to the best publisher possible, focus on that first. I just happened to go a slightly different route.

My “The Call” story is a little unusual in that I got “The Call” from my editor at Kensington with a two-book offer for their eKensington imprint before I had agent representation. In fact, when Kensington’s editor-in-chief, John Scognamiglio first called me, my mother was coming to visit my family for a week and I was on my way to pick her up at the station. Yes, I was driving. I know, I know. My only excuse for picking up is that I thought maybe it was my mother with an important travel update. When it turned out to be John, I must have sounded like total stammering flibbertigibbet, one who had to get off the phone immediately because I’d answered while driving. Fortunately, John was kind and understanding, and we scheduled a phone call for the following day. As an avid list-maker, I had lots of questions about the deal, and John patiently answered all of them.

This was during the week prior to Labor Day and John needed an answer in time for the next editorial meeting, so I had a short time in which to update agents who had requested my manuscript with the news that I had an “offer in hand.” Sure, I could have taken the deal without an agent. I could have just had a literary attorney review the contract for me. But I’d started querying agents for a reason: I wanted agent representation to guide me in my writing future. So, after sending out updates, I received emails from three agents to schedule “The Call.” That was a stunning and hectic couple of days! Again, I had a long list of questions, and each agent patiently responded and gave me detailed information about their agencies and their practices. To say it was difficult to choose from them is an understatement.They each had their strengths and appeals, and they each talked not just about the deal in hand but about helping to foster my career. In addition to the nitty-gritty provided in these conversations, two additional things in man reading contractparticular helped me decide: (1) looking over their sample contracts, which two of them provided without hesitation (the third doesn’t use contracts—which isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker—it’s just how some agents work), and (2) talking with other authors they represent, who generously shared with me their time, experiences, and perspectives. I’m sure I would have been in good, competent hands with any of these agents, but based on all of the information, my scale ultimately tipped in favor of my agent, Jessica Alvarez of BookEnds, LLC. Everything about her, about BookEnds, and about the authors Jessica represents, conveyed a sense of generosity and support and togetherness that really spoke to me, reinforcing the all the data I’d gathered. Those aren’t necessarily qualities everyone dreams of in their literary agent, but they were the key to the “right fit” for me. And I’ve been thrilled to work with Jessica and BookEnds ever since!

Looking back, it’s hard to believe all of that happened within, essentially, a week. And it’s been a dream ever since.  Working on edits; reviewing page proofs; seeing NEVER TOO LATE listed on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other e-booksellers; getting my first royalties statement—it’s all been breathtaking.

And it starts all over again with my next book, ALWAYS A STRANGER, for which I will likely receive edits this month! Wheeeeee!

This is the part that makes writing—all the hard work and fear and doubt—worth every second.

 

Thanks, Amara, and congratulations!

You can learn more about Amara Royce and her books on her website.  For more on my classes, please visit my Next Level website; and don’t forget to subscribe to this blog for irregular updates, writing tips, and real life stories from the publishing world. If you enjoyed this interview, there are lots more here, including chats with OUTLANDER author Diana Gabaldon, Simon & Schuster president Marysue Rucci, and literary agent Gail Hochman.

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The Biology of Fiction: Putting Stimulus Before Reaction

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Before we were writers, we were readers; and to understand how fiction works, we must first understand what happens to us when we read fiction.  When we immerse ourselves in an absorbing story, the real world fades out and the fictive world fades in. We are not conscious of reading; rather, we feel as if we’re inside the story, experiencing its events through a character, or watching like a fly on the wall as they unfold. To say we are transported is to express a literal truth.flying carpet

How does this transportation happen? Not by accident, flying carpet, or magic, but rather by art, the writer’s art. I couldn’t hope to summarize in a blog post even the little I know about the craft of fiction. But I can address (and do, when the pedantic spirit overcomes me) very  specific issues, those small things that, taken together, make the difference between the talented amateur and the professional. Previous posts have addressed settings and the use of body language. Today’s topic is chronology, aka putting the stimulus before the reaction.

Below are two versions of the same scene. The first one is an example of the sort of writing I often see in classes.

Version 1:

As Lola descended the basement stairs, bile rose in her throat, and her nose wrinkled at the stench of something rotten down below. It made her sick, but she kept going. At the bottom of the stairs, she moved into the open center of the room and shined her flashlight around the perimeter. What she saw filled her with revulsion.

Three dead squirrels, dressed in doll’s clothes, had been arrayed in miniature chairs around a dollhouse table, tiny cups and saucers in front of each. Lola’s flashlight clattered to the floor and the light flickered and died. She screamed in horror as an icy hand clasped her own, and a cold little voice said, “How lovely.  Lola’s come to play.”

 

What do you think? Nothing wrong with it grammatically, nothing glaringly wrong at all…but are those chills running down your spine, or prickles of irritation?

Now consider this alternative.

Version 2:

basementLola descended the basement stairs, one cautious foot after another.  The stench of rot intensified with each step, but she forced herself to keep going. She reached the bottom, moved into the open center of the room and shined her flashlight around the perimeter.  The beam snagged on something unexpected, moved on, came back.

Three dead squirrels, dressed in doll’s clothes, sat in miniature chairs around a dollhouse table, tiny cups and saucers in front of each.

Lola screamed. Her flashlight clattered to the floor; the light flickered and died. An icy hand clasped her own, and out of the darkness, a cold voice spoke.

“How lovely.  Lola’s come to play.”

Are you feeling the difference?

The reason Version 2 works better is clear when you consider it from the reader’s perspective. For the writer, words are the medium; but the experience for the reader transcends words and involves all the senses. The reader is in the story;  it’s happening all around him. Writers, working behind the scenes, create that world. We paint the scenery, write the dialogue, give the characters conflicting agendas and set them into motion. And we do all this to draw the reader in and keep him immersed in our invented world. The last thing we want to do, then, is to get in the way of the reader’s direct experience of that world. Nor do we want our POV character to interpose himself as a filter.

In the first version of the cellar scene, the writer tells the character’s reaction to something before showing the thing he’s reacting to. The reader’s experience is thus second-hand, channeled through the intermediary of the POV character, whose reactions, spelled out by the writer, are meant to dictate the reader’s own.

In the second version, readers experience everything first-hand. This allows for the elements of surprise and suspense that the first version lacked. Equally importantly, it allows the reader to react directly to the sights and events of the scene, rather than cuing him with the character’s reaction. The POV character is still there—readers see through her eyes, feel through her skin—but she doesn’t stand between the reader and the action. Things happen in the proper biological order: stimulus first, then reaction.

But notice what else happens when we put the stimulus before the reaction. Some lines from the first version were cut from the second: “bile rose in her throat, and her nose wrinkled,” “It made her sick,” and “What she saw filled her with revulsion.” Lola still screams, but the words “in horror” are gone. None of these explanations are needed in the second version. By allowing readers to experience the events directly and viscerally, we no longer need to tell them how Lola reacted. They feel it for themselves.

Screaming_In_My_Head_by_Etherhel

For writers interested in improving their craft, I teach several online workshops.  The next one I’ll be offering is “One Good Scene.”  Classes fill up quickly and the first notice goes to folks on my emailing list; so if you’re interested, drop me a line at next.level.workshop (at) gmail (dot) com and I’ll put you on the list.

My latest novel, A DANGEROUS FICTION (Viking Books), is available in bookstores and online in print, ebook, and audio. If you haven’t read it, here’s a sample. Try it, you’ll like it.  

Posted in Craft, Editing, How we read, Revising fiction, Writing tips | Tagged , , , | 14 Comments

Looking For Friends In All the Wrong Places

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In a recent interview with Publishers Weekly, Claire Messud was asked a question about her novel, THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS, that she didn’t like. Would you, the interviewer asked, want to be friends with your protagonist, Nora?

ClaireMessudByLuigiNovi1Messud exploded. “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? … If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?’”

Reactions followed swiftly.  A panel of writers was assembled by the New Yorker and asked to weigh in on the issues raised by Messud’s comments. Let us assume that the tactful tone of their opinions was uninfluenced by the fact that Messud’s husband, James Wood, is the literary critic for the New Yorker. Jonathan Franzen’s admirably brief remarks began, “I hate the concept of likability,” which will come as no shock to those who remember Franzen declining Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement on the grounds that her viewers were not the right readers for his book.

Margaret Atwood allied herself firmly with Claire Messud. “Intelligent readers do not confuse the quality of a book with the moral rectitude of the characters.… We love to watch bad people do awful things in fictions, that we would not like if they did those things to us in real life. The energy that drives any fictional plot comes from the darker forces, whether they be external (opponents of the heroine or hero) or internal (components of their selves).”

Donald Antrim seemed to suggest that concern over a character’s likeability arises from the author’s personal insecurity and need for approval.  “The author maneuvering for love is commonplace and ordinary, and the work of fiction that seductively asserts the brilliance or importance or easy affability of its creator is an insubstantial thing. I have no problem with liking a character. But if that’s the reason I’m reading, I’ll put the book down.”

jennifer_weiner_042011Next, in an article on Slate, best-selling author Jennifer Weiner weighed in on the side of likability, as one whose characters are often accused of same. She delivered short, devastating critiques of Messud’s latest novel and a memoir by Donald Antrim, along with a cringe-making quote from another Messud interview. “Don’t go around asking the question, ‘Is this character likable?’ and expect that to be compatible with serious literary endeavors,” Messud declared. “That’s not what it’s about. If you want self-help that’s going to make you feel good, or you want the Ya Ya sisterhood, fantastic, that’s a great thing to read, I have no complaints about that. But it’s not compatible with serious endeavor.” Weiner went on to deconstruct these words as “the latest code employed by literary authors to tell their best-selling brethren that their work sucks.”

crayonsHer argument is against what she calls the “imagined popular/literary dichotomy.” The dismissive attitude of some female literary writers toward their more commercial sisters is not only pompous and self-aggrandizing, it also distracts from the real problems women writers face getting critical attention and respect. When publishers adopt the same attitude, the result is a narrowing of the field for all writers. “Authors are placed on one side or another of that pop/lit divide, and prohibited from using all the crayons in the box. They’re stuck with their particular color palette: pretty pastels if they write commercial fiction, and darker browns and grays to be considered literature.”

So where do I stand on all this? With one foot firmly in each camp, as it happens.

I agree with Weiner about the fallacy of the commercial/literary divide. My own books have been categorized variously as literary fiction, women’s fiction, and mystery. Those labels don’t define me as a writer; they’re just publishing shorthand for the convenience of booksellers and reviewers. Those of my novels critics deemed “literary fiction” are no better written than the ones called  mysteries. A poet is no less a poet for experimenting with different forms. Neither is a novelist. There is no dichotomy between literature and popular fiction; rather, there is a continuum calibrated not by genre but by the quality of the writing.

SerenaOn the other hand, I agree with Messud and Atwood that the demand of some readers for likable characters is problematic for writers with a harder edge. I found Gillian Flynn’s GONE, GIRL to be a brilliantly crafted novel and totally compelling read. It sold like hotcakes, too, so millions of people must have agreed with this assessment. But on Goodreads and many other online forums, one criticism came up with surprising frequency: “I didn’t like any of the characters.” Well, duh! Flynn’s protagonist was a psychopath, the equivalent of a Tom Ripley. So was Ron Rash’s Serena, who for pure evil could spit in the eye of Hannibal Lector.  You’re not supposed to like such characters; you’re supposed to watch in fascinated horror as they operate. Their difference from us—rule-abiding, housebroken, socialized us—is sort of the point of books like that.

But there are all sorts of books, and it’s nonsense to say that great literature is incompatible with likable characters. Elizabeth Bennett, anyone? Jo March? The Glass family? It takes a jaundiced soul to dismiss a protagonist like Huck Finn on the grounds of excessive likability.Huck Finn

It also disturbs me when writers instruct readers on how to read. Readers and writers occupy separate spheres. Reading and interpreting is the reader’s domain, writing is the author’s. As much as I appreciate my readers and value their feedback, I follow my own muse while writing. Writers who don’t want to be told what to write or how to write it  should extend the same courtesy to readers, including reviewers and interviewers.

As it happens, I was interviewed by Publishers Weekly about my novel, A DANGEROUS FICTION, within a week or so of Messud’s interview. The questions were not, perhaps, what I would have chosen, but unless we go around interviewing ourselves, they never are. I answered courteously and as thoughtfully as I could, which I’ve always seen as part of the job. I could be wrong—snarkiness gets more attention—but it’s my own form of noblesse oblige.

Finally,  I would respectfully suggest that it’s better to let others praise one’s work as a “serious literary endeavor” than to do so oneself.

 

Thanks for reading! I post on my own irregular schedule, so the best way to stay up to date is to subscribe to the blog via RSS feed or email—links to the left.

Also, I’m delighted to announce that A DANGEROUS FICTION is now available on Audible.com.

Posted in A DANGEROUS FICTION, Genre, How we read, Reading, the writing life, Writers | Tagged , , , , , | 20 Comments