If you’ve ever gone to a writers’ conference, chances are you’ve met Elizabeth Lyon. As the author of half a dozen widely-read guides to the craft and business of writing, including The Sell Your Novel Took Kit: Everything You Need to Know About Queries, Synopses, Marketing, and Breaking In and Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write: How to Get a Contract and Advance Before Writing Your Book, she is in great demand as a workshop leader and presenter. I had the pleasure of getting to know her at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference near Vancouver, where we were both presenters, and having many interests and pursuits in common, we’ve stayed in touch and followed each other’s careers ever since.
Many of her books are about breaking into the publishing market. As a freelance editor, she works hard to find agents for her editing clients. Her own books have been published by Perigree/Penguin. So I was surprised to hear from Elizabeth recently that she’d self-published her latest book, WRITING SUBTEXT. In this interview, Elizabeth talks about why she made the switch. She also has some really smart, sensible advice for writers contemplating their options.
BR: After a career spent helping other writers get published, and having been commercially published yourself, you have now taken the plunge into self-publishing. What led you to that decision?
EL: Actually, self-publishing is a homecoming. In 1980, I published my first book, Mabel: The Story of One Midwife, about a Ghana-born woman who “caught” my two children when I was doing the baby boom in Corvallis, Oregon. Handling all aspects of the book—interviewing, writing, editing, book production, and promotion gave me the publishing bug. It’s immensely satisfying to make all the decisions, feel all the responsibility, and earn all the rewards—or lack thereof.
No doubt, having a book accepted by a publisher is heady. When my agent, Meredith Bernstein, called with a four-book contract for writing books from Perigee/Penguin, I thought I had “arrived.”
“For everything there is a season.” When friends began “going indie,” with their e-books and POD (print on demand) books, they became my Sirens, calling me back to my roots.
BR: Many aspiring writers imagine doing what you’ve done, publishing multiple books with a major house like Penguin, as the height of aspiration. Why change a good thing?
EL: My editors at Penguin were and are highly skilled and lovely people. Yet, I’ve always been uncomfortable with corporate publishing policies that put most books on a conveyer belt. Most have a short life. Others, like my own, become slow backlist sellers.
While publishers don’t make giant profits, except from the mega bestselling authors, the standard publishing contract sucks. They are not written for fairness; they’re rigged for the publisher—in money and in rights.
The royalty in the contract is seldom what one receives. Almost all books are heavily discounted pushing the royalty rate to 5% of retail or even less. That’s 64 cents on a $14.95 paperback, subtracting my agent’s 15%. Publishers don’t promote non-best-selling books, and bookstores can’t possibly have midlist instructional books that span decades taking up shelf space.
I am grateful that I had that experience. I gained prestige and support for my teaching and editing work. My best publishing experience, however, was with Blue Heron Publishing, my first publisher. The owners, Linny and Dennis Stovall, nurtured writers and their careers and their publishing contract was modeled after one recommended by the National Writers Union.
BR: What have you learned from your venture into self-publishing that might be helpful to others contemplating that route?
EL: With “Writing Subtext,” my first booklet in a new series, I feel the weight of responsibility, which I’m also happy to have. I’m hyper-aware of accuracy, quality of content, and proofreading. That’s a good thing. I rely upon my critique group’s suggestions and corrections, perhaps even more so than in the past.
As I learned with my first book in 1980, there is a daunting number of skills to master when you DIY—“do it yourself,” including knowing when to job something out. I turned book cover design and digital formatting over to others who do those tasks well. With just a few hiccups requiring advice, I was able to upload my digital files and cover image files to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo, for sale as e-books and to Amazon’s CreateSpace for print-on-demand.
The big pink elephant in the room for all writers who publish is promotion—reaching the targeted audience. If a writer is content with selling (or giving away) books to a circle of friends or family, that’s easy. But if a writer wants to build a name and following, and even make a part-time or full-time living, then book promotion skills will require as much time as writing and revising the book, and maybe more. Writers with money can hire publicists, and these days that means someone who knows how to use the Internet for book promotion in addition to more traditional publicity.
BR: If an aspiring writer asked for your advice on whether to self-publish or to seek an agent and try to get published commercially, what would you answer and why? Would your advice differ for fiction and non-fiction writers?
EL: My answer is the same for fiction or nonfiction writers: What is your dream? Most writers I know, and who come to me for editing, would like to see their books published in a traditional way, whether with a large publisher or a small press. I call this Plan A. The possibility of acceptance is slim. My job, however, is to support, help, and encourage any writer with a Plan A dream. Some do succeed. Realistically, novelists (and memoir writers) typically underestimate the amount of revision needed to reach a polished and professional book. Often it will be a 3rd or 4th novel that will be well enough written to succeed with Plan A.
Writers of other forms of nonfiction may reach the high bar of outstanding writing and a unique book that contributes to the literature. However, to fulfill Plan A, these writers face expectations of a strong author platform. Platform refers to how broadly a writer is known and whether he or she can guarantee strong sales through ambitious actions such as speeches, workshops, interviews, book signings, blogging, and other Internet-related promotion. Most nonfiction book writers either have to stop marketing and build that platform or move to Plan B.
Plan B recalibrates the GPS to a small, specialty, or regional press. For instance, I’ve had one editing client whose novel was published by an LGBT press. A health and medical press published a client’s nonfiction book. But all too many unpublished writers receive offers of publication from companies that are essentially print-on-demand publishers who, like the vanity publishers of old, make the writer feel as if the book is “acquired.” I always caution about these offers because there may be smoke and mirrors. In these situations, the writer can self-publish with more rewards in all ways.
Plan C is self-publishing. The long-ago stigma over “vanity publishing” is mostly gone. Producing a book with new technologies is now easy and inexpensive. For some writers, Plan C is their Plan A.
I’ve always believed that all writers deserve to complete the circle—from idea to book to audience.
BR: Positing a reasonable facility for writing, what other abilities does a writer need to make a success of self-publishing?
EL: Every self-published writer has to decide how to quantify or qualify success. I’ve worked with writers for whom a dozen copies given to friends and family constitutes success. Memoir writers, for instance, may be writing to leave a legacy as well as to reach other people who have experienced something similar to what they have.
When a book is well-written, it stands a chance of word-of-mouth recommendation, which is the most potent form of sales. Readers buy books that are recommended and books written by authors they have heard of. For the self-published author, there is typically no access to distribution, to bookstores, beyond being listed or having a page in an online bookstore. The good news is that online book sales continue to expand.
Writers seeking a large audience must devote regular time to promotion, and to the degree the writer is comfortable, learning the ropes of the Internet, and pursuing opportunities for talks, book fairs, and any face-to-face sales.
I should have said earlier that most self-published books could have benefited from more development and revision. And everyone who self-publishes should seek professional line editing or memorize The Chicago Manual of Style. I also recommend asking three eagle-eye, grammar- and punctuation- smart friends to do final proofreading.
BR: The e-book revolution has already changed publishing profoundly, in part by leveling the distribution playing field for self-publishers. Would you venture an informed guess on the future of publishing as we know it?
EL: People will continue to buy books for their e-readers or tablets, in ever-greater numbers. Instant gratification, the impulse buy, is not only going to increase readers but it favors the self-publisher. Our price points are typically lower, much lower, than traditional publishers. In that sense we are more competitive.
Many types of books are not presently suited for electronic format, although that hurdle is sure to be overcome. Even so, I can’t envision books featuring art and photography, for instance, offering sustained pleasure in any other form but paper. Any book that invites consideration, a chance to grasp a whole, to flip pages back and forth should if not will be preferred in paper.
Yet, my opinions may be a function of living six decades plus. When books owned in most households are few, libraries are Red Box outlets, or an aisle of Office Depot, the mega conglomerate publishing industry may no longer exist as it is.
BR: What is your new book about, and where can readers find it?
EL: My newest work is “Writing Subtext,” a booklet of 50 pages available in paper at CreateSpace/Amazon and as an e-book for Kindle, Nook, and Kobo. “Writing Subtext” is the first booklet in a series that features one technique or topic at a time. Subtext is a subtle, often confusing concept and technique. Writing it, developing it in revision, makes all the difference in boosting suspense, deepening characterization, and supporting theme. I consider it one of the “super techniques.”
My next booklet will be “Crafting Titles.” On first blush, choosing a title for a book seems easy. I’ve seldom had an editing client or writing friend who hasn’t struggled to find the best title. So much goes into the choice.
Thanks so much for a really informative interview, Elizabeth. With so much hyperbole on both sides of the publish/self-publish divide, it’s a pleasure hearing and sharing your balanced take on the topic. Writers looking for a first-rate editor can contact Elizabeth through her website.
If you enjoyed this interview and want more like it, please subscribe through the link on the top right. Lately In Cold Ink has been overrun with news about my new release with Viking Books, A DANGEROUS FICTION, and I guess that’s forgivable, seeing as my new books come around as often as cicadas. But as you can see, I’m slowly getting back to my usual subjects: writing and publishing.
That said, I do want to thank Book Page for its wonderful review of A DANGEROUS FICTION, which they pronounced “a thoroughly entertaining and engaging mystery,” and to Zan Marie Steadham for the interview on her engaging blog. If you’re looking for little frisson in the last hot days of summer, I hope you’ll give it a read.