Editing: Brain Surgery for Writers

 

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; but my special offer is 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 next course I will teach will be One Good Scene, starting April 2, 2015. At the moment I have one spot left, so if you’re interested, drop  me a line at ASAP:  Barbararogan (at) gmail (dot) com .

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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I’m delighted to announce that A DANGEROUS FICTION is now out in Penguin paperback.  (It’s perfect for book clubs, if you belong to one–I’ll even skype-bomb the discussion if I can.)  NPR called it a “clever exploration of our capacity for self-deception… an absorbing mystery that keeps its secret until the very end.” You can read the opening here.

Completing the Circle: From Idea to Book to Audience

ElizabethLyon-fIf 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.

pink elephantThe 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?Crystal_Ball

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?

WritingSubtext-variation21AFINALEL: 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.

 

Interview with Marysue Rucci of S&S

I was rummaging through some old files the other day and came across an interview I conducted with Marysue Rucci, now editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster. Marysue was kind enough to answer my questions back in 2002, when she was my editor at S&S, in aid of a keynote speech I was giving at a writers’ conference. Bear in mind that her answers represent her thinking at that time, which may have changed in the interim. Nevertheless I think it’s an extraordinarily  useful piece in showing an editor’s insights and  priorities, as well as what writers can do to help themselves and their books.  I hope you’ll find it as helpful as I did.

Q:  What can writers do to help their editors publish their books successfully?

A: Join writers’ groups, make friends with their local booksellers, create a website (and develop mailing lists), and publish “off the page” pieces, ideally just before or when their book is publishing – in magazines, newspapers, etc.

Q: How important is the personal relationship between editor and writer?

A: Respect is extremely important, in both directions.  The book will always have the author’s name on it, and is the author’s baby, and I acknowledge that.  It’s a waste of time, though, if the author doesn’t respect the editor’s ideas (or they simply don’t see eye to eye), for both author and editor.

Q: Describe  the ideal writer, from the editor’s POV.

A: Timely, original, open to guidance but with a firm knowledge of the five W’s of his/her book (W’s being, who, what, where, when, why).  And always generating ancillary article ideas/publishing stories to keep his/her name in the public eye.

Q: Describe the writer from hell, from the editor’s POV.

slush A: Personally affronted by edits; argumentative, evasive and lazy when it comes to deadlines.  The author who drags his/her feet makes an editor’s life hell, because the editor is the conduit to all other areas of the publishing house.  The production, marketing, publicity, teams are hammering on your editor’s door.

Q:  What are the questions you most dislike getting from writers?

A: How many cities will I be touring?  Will you run ads?

Q:  How does an editor balance the sometimes conflicting interests of writer and publisher?

A: Delicately.  Your editor is your advocate in-house, which is another reason a good working relationship is important. The editor is supposed to gracefully navigate the publishing process and agitate for the author and the author’s interest while still understanding financial and/or other publishing limitations.

Q:  What fallacies do writers harbor  about editors?

A: That editors want to receive your manuscript before the editor goes on vacation; or before holidays; or at home.  Also, that we speed-read.  A normal manuscript should take at least a week to read; far longer to edit (well).

Q:  To what extent are your decisions based on publishing trends and to what extent on personal taste?

A: Personal taste rules the day.  It’s pointless to buy a book you don’t love.

Q: What do you see as the editor’s primary mission (apart from making money, which goes without saying.)?

A: Understanding an author’s vision and helping the author best realize that vision.  Delivering a great manuscript to the in-house people so they can sell it well.  Attempting to get quotes, and buzz.

Q: Are there agents you won’t work with? Why? What are their names? (Just kidding about that one.)

A: There are agents I’ve vowed not to work with, but I’ve gone back on my vow. Either because the agent is impossible to converse with in a realistic manner or because he/she did something underhanded (like shop an offer that shouldn’t have been shopped).  When you’ve been burned by an agent, it takes an extraordinarily special project to make you come back to her/him.

Q:  What makes editors stick to the job despite the ridiculous hours and notoriously low pay?child reading

A: Love of reading, of course.  The thrill of discovery, or potential thereof.

Thanks once again, Marysue!

 

News update: Lots of excitement as A DANGEROUS FICTION heads into the final stretch before pub date, July 25. Publishers Weekly gave the book a terrific review, and on May 20 they featured an interview with me. (Here’s the  link, but unfortunately you have to be a subscriber to read the whole piece.) Viking’s wonderful PR department has set up several talks and signings in New York and Long Island venues. If you’re in the area, please put it on your calendars and stop by.  If by chance you plan to buy a copy, you can save 35% on the hardcovers by preordering on Amazon, B&N  or your online bookstore  of choice.  Viking recently gave away 100 galley copies in a sweepstakes.  If you’re one of the winners, congratulations, and I hope you enjoy the book! If you weren’t, keep on eye on this blog. There will be other opportunities.

What To Look For When You’re Looking For an Editor

 

Suppose you’ve written a novel, submitted it to literary agents and publishers, and found no takers, Chances are you’ve had little or no substantive feedback of explanation of where your work fell short. Because they receive such daunting quantities of submissions, agents usually stop reading as soon as they determine that a book is not for them. Not only do they not have time to write critiques of books they’re rejecting, in most cases they haven’t even read the whole book. The result is an enormously frustrating Catch 22 for writers. It’s difficult to get good enough to publish without smart, detailed feedback; but you don’t get that feedback until your work is sold. Writers can end up with enough rejections to paper a room and no idea of why.

At that stage, many writers pack it in. Either they shelve the book or they self-publish it in its current form, just to get it out there. Other writers double down by looking for an editor or workshop to help them hone the book before starting a new round of submissions or self-publishing. My last post, Have Red Pencil, Will Travel?, considers whether and when it makes sense to seek out professional help in the form of an edit, an evaluation, or a writing workshop.

Full disclosure: I’m a writing teacher myself, and I also do fiction evaluations and edits. I’m not drumming up business, though; in fact, I’ve put my workshops and editing work on hiatus while I work on the sequel to A DANGEROUS FICTION.

When it comes to hiring an editor, it’s buyer, beware. Anyone can call himself an editor. There are no official credentials, so it’s not like calling yourself a lawyer if you haven’t passed the bar, or a doctor if you never went to med school. Before spending money on a hired gun, better make sure he can shoot. Make sure, too, that the work you submit to the editor has already been edited to the absolute best of your ability. That will ensure that you get feedback on things you didn’t see yourself, instead of on stuff you already meant to change.  This post will provide some criteria to use in choosing an editor or writing teacher. The guidelines are similar but not the same, so I’ll present them separately. First up: what to look for in an editor.

1. Substantial, verifiable experience. Ideally, the editor will have worked for a major publishing house, or written for one. Academic credentials help—a professor of English will catch your grammatical mistakes—but the most helpful editors also have a background in publishing. And don’t just take their word for it; google them.

2. Track Record. Your goal is to get published, so you want an editor who’s helped other writers get there. There are no guarantees of success, but why not choose an editor whose students have sold books to commercial publishers? Note the word “sold.” Students who self-publish don’t count as a teaching creds. Many editors have testimonials and lists of published work on their websites. If not, feel free to ask.

3. No Inflated Claims. Any editor who promises or even implies that with his help you will sell your work is either a huckster or shilling for a vanity press. No one can make that promise, and no reputable editor would. All he can reasonably claim is that the book will be better than it was, and you will learn something about writing in the process.

4. R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Look for an editor who enters into what you’re trying to accomplish, rather than imposing his own style and ideas onto the work. Editors have to be frank to be effective, but they shouldn’t run roughshod over their clients. You should come away from an edit feeling energized and enlightened, not steamrolled. Part of respect, though, is honesty. A serious critique from someone with professional standards can sting, especially at first; but if it’s too soft, you’re not getting value for money.

5. Expertise in your field. There’s no point hiring a brilliant science fiction editor if you write romance. Look for an editor who’s worked in your genre. If you’re not sure, ask.

6. Sample. Most important! Not every editor is right for every writer, and the only way to find out is to ask for a sample edit. Serious editors don’t take on every job that comes alone, so they’ll be happy to do this; they may even require it. The sample can be anything from a couple of pages to the 5000 words I read in my “Special Offer;” the cost should be nominal. Look for an editor who isn’t just making changes or correcting mechanical errors, but also teaching you something you didn’t know about writing. Send the opening pages; the feedback you get on those will be the most valuable. If you get a sample and you’re not sure the editor is right for you, keep looking.

One alternative to hiring an editor is taking a writing workshop, as rigorous as possible. Look for one that allows you to work on and share parts of your novel. In my next post, I’ll list some criteria for choosing a writing teacher. With the explosion of online classes as well as those offered in brick-and-mortar institutions, writers these days have many good options to choose from.

If you find these posts useful, you might want to sign up for the URL feed or subscribe via email. And now I’ll say goodbye for a little while. I’m going on vacation, and will be back posting on the weekend of November 17. But I’ll check in for comments, and would love to hear your thoughts about and experience in working with an editor.

 

Have red pencil; will travel?

 

Should writers hire freelance editors? It’s a vexed question, much debated on the writers’ forums and blogs. My own opinion has evolved over time with the changes in the publishing industry, and it may surprise those of you who know that I myself have worked as a fiction editor. My default position is that they should not… or at least, not right away.

Whenever this question is discussed on other blogs and forums, invariably someone will say, “It’s the writer’s responsibility to edit his own work. It’s part of the job,” to which I say, Amen. First drafts are not finished novels, and shouldn’t be regarded or presented as such. They are the imagination’s playground: rough, and meant to be.  Revising is where the real art comes in. That’s where writers deepen their characters, vet the structure of the book, deal with unruly subplots, refine the language and imagery, and find ways to bring out the theme, which often presents itself to the writer only after the first draft is written.  “Every writer,” Jane Smiley wrote, “has to learn to…come at each piece of work again and again with as close as he can get to a new mind and a new sense of joy.” Rome wasn’t built in a day, and novels are not written in one pass. Most of the published writers I’ve known spend at least as much time revising as they to writing the original draft.  “I am an obsessive rewriter,” Gore Vidal once said, “doing one draft and then another and another, usually five. In a way, I have nothing to say but a great deal to add.”

Nevertheless, writers need editors. As writers we can only see what we see; we don’t see what we can’t see. It sounds simplistic but it’s true. Every artist gains through smart, objective feedback. Beta readers can be helpful if the writer chooses well and gets lucky, but it’s not at all like feedback from a professional editor with professional standards. A good editor knows not only when something isn’t working, but also why and how to fix it. The result is a better book, and that, I believe, is what every true writer wants most for his work. The process is also educational, since learning from smart editing is one of the primary ways in which writers grow. What they absorb through the editing of one book, they will apply to the writing of the next one.

Why, then, if editors are so essential, do I advise writers against hiring their own? For purely financial reasons. If the book sells, it will be edited at the publisher’s expense. Edits are not forced down the throat of writers, by the way, contrary to propaganda put out by some self-publishing advocates. Edits usually come in the form of questions or suggestions. The final word is always with the writer, although in extremely rare cases, when communication between writer and editor totally breaks down, a publishing house does have the right to withdraw from a contract if the book is not, in their view, publishable. (The reason such occurrences are rare is because publishers don’t usually buy books that need tremendous amounts of work unless they’re by celebrities, and in those cases there is usually a professional ghostwriter attached.) Paying out of pocket for the same level of editing would be exorbitantly expensive. First-rate, experienced editors charge a lot; $10 and upwards per page is common, and that is just for the first edit. To duplicate the services provided by trade publishers, you’d also have to pay for an edit of the revision, as well as copy-editing and proofreading: maybe $18, $20 a page. (Let me anticipate objections by conceding that yes, you can hire editors for less; but as is usually the case, you get what you pay for.)  That’s a lot of money to invest in a book that may never sell. And the sad truth is that the vast majority of first novels, edited or not, do not sell.

That’s why I recommend that when writers have finished a novel (by which I mean they’ve edited it thoroughly, shared it with a trusted beta reader or two, and revised again to implement whatever useful feedback they receive), they send it out to test it in the market. Of course, to give the book a fair chance, writers have to bone up on submission protocol,  write a great query letter, and assemble a list of suitable literary agents. Having done all that, it’s time to let the book go forth and seek its fortune in the wide world. If it attracts an agent who then sells it to a publisher, the publisher will provide editing services at no cost to the writer. That’s a big part of what they do, along with production and marketing.

But such a scenario is the best of all possible worlds. Suppose it doesn’t go that way? What if you’ve written a novel, sent it out, and gotten nothing but form rejections from agents:  no encouragement, no criticism, no feedback at all. It happens. Agents stop reading the moment they determine that a book is not for them; they don’t finish the ms. and write thoughtful critiques. Writers can accumulate a stack of rejections without an inkling as to what went wrong and how to fix it. Or they might come close—requests for full mss. from agents, even an offer of representation followed by no sale. What do they do then?

Once, for lack of any other alternative, these unwanted works would have been shelved, mourned over, and eventually forgotten. These days, writers have choices. They fall into four categories:

Option 1. Writer decides that agents are bums and stink at their jobs; tells himself that no one gets published without knowing someone in publishing; concludes that the game is rigged; and, rather than deprive the world of his work and himself of the glory, decided to self-publish. None of these suppositions, by the way, is true. Celebrity authors aside, publishing is one of the few remaining meritocracies. In the past year alone I’ve had the pleasure of seeing four of my Next Level students sell their first novels, and none of them had any connections or “platform.” (If you want to learn how they did it, two of them, Tiffany Allee and Mika Ashley Hollinger, answer that question in interviews on this blog.)  Writers who choose to self-publish are well-advised to hire an editor, and not just any editor but the best one they can find and afford. Sending a book out into this market without editing is like dropping a toddler off to play in Times Square; it will be squashed flat in no time at all. It makes economic sense, too, to invest in editing. In a recent study of self-published books by the Taleist magazine, researchers found that edited fiction outsells unedited fiction by a wide margin.

The advent of inexpensive self-publishing and the rise of the ebook has given writers options they never had before. I do think self-publishing is a very difficult road, especially the marketing aspect. In the U.S., over 300,000 books were self-published in the last year, and they are all competing furiously for attention, reviews, sales. But that’s a whole other topic, and if you want to hear my take on it, you’ll find it in a post called “What If J.K. Rowing Had Self-Published?” My point here is that having choices is a beautiful thing. Over the years I have read some brilliant early novels by writers who didn’t have instant commercial success. Maybe they get to publish a second novel, maybe not; but an awful lot of wonderful writers disappear from the market because their sales figures killed them in the eyes of the increasingly monolithic (and well-informed) publishing industry. Who knows what they might have written had they been able to continue? Today such writers have other ways to find readers, and readers to find them.

Option 2. Writer concludes that the book is not good enough yet and goes back at it again. In this case, it makes sense for the writer to consider hiring an editor to provide skilled, objective feedback. It’s also possible to find professionals who will do detailed evaluations of the book or part of it, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of the work in a very specific way without actually doing the edit for the writer. Evaluations are usually much less expensive and possibly more educational, because the writer has to do more of the actual work of revision, rather than having it done for him. It must be said that making this investment of time and money does not assure publication. It will result in a better book, but whether it’s publishable or not depends not just on the quality of editing but the quality of the original material. What the edit is bound to do, I think, is teach the writer a lot about the craft. I see it as an intense, detailed tutorial that focuses on the writer’s own work; and given the uncertainty of publication, this may be its greatest value.

Option 3. Writer gives up on that book and goes on to the next, building on what he learned from writing the first. Most published writers have an early unpublished work or two in their drawers. (For current and future generations of writers, that may become “an early self-published work or two.”)  One novelist I knew—Ted Whittemore, author of the brilliant Jerusalem Quartet—wrote seven books before selling his “first” novel.

Option 4. Writer gives up on writing and takes up another pursuit. It happens, and not necessarily for lack of talent. To succeed in this tough business, people need also need fanatical perseverance. (As Richard Bach said, “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.”) They need another source of income, too, since only a small fraction of writers support themselves through books alone.  And let’s not forget the luck factor, lest it forget us.

Writers who choose Options 1 or 2 might also consider as an alternative to editing putting their books, and themselves, through a rigorous writing workshop that will allow them to work specifically on their novels. There are quite a few available, both in brick-and-mortar institutions and online. In my opinion, if a first round of submissions has not led to a sale, it’s worth delaying a second round, or self-publishing, in order to do your very best to improve the book in hand.

Whether you choose a course, an editor, or an evaluator, it’s essential to do your homework and find someone who’s both well-qualified and suited to your particular project. In my next post, I’ll set out a list of criteria for writers to consider before making that choice.

The Third Way

 

It’s always nice for a writing teacher when her students go forth and publish. Tiffany Allee didn’t even wait for class to end. She was in the middle of one of my Next Level courses when she got her first offer of publication. The fact that she sold her work did not come as a surprise (I’d read it), but the speed of her success was startling. One year later, she has three novellas in print and, I believe, a full-length novel in the works.

 In this blog, we had several interesting discussions about the merits of trade publishing versus self-publishing. But there is a third way, one that takes advantage of the digital revolution but doesn’t place the whole burden of publishing on the writer, and that’s the way Tiffany Allee chose. I’ll let her tell you about it in today’s guest blog.


From the desk of Tiffany Allee:

 

During the last few years, writers have argued the merits of commercial versus self-publishing. There are strong lines of division, with (I think) most writers seeing the potential good aspects of both methods.

My road to publication has been a little different. I’m not published with a big New York publisher, although that is definitely something I will be pursuing in the future. But I’m also not self-published. I’ve gone another route, which is to publish with smaller publishers that concentrate on the digital market.

Keep in mind while reading this post that my experience is just that, my experience.

 

The Beginning

The first writing project I finished (beyond a short story here and there in college classes) was a novel I wrote mainly during NaNoWriMo in 2010. It wasn’t the best novel in the world, but it gave me confidence that I could finish a novel—a first draft of one, anyway. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end. And it all sort of worked together into a fairly cohesive story.

But I knew that before I could fix that story—never mind writing something better—that I really needed to concentrate on important craft skills. Doing that while working on a 90k word novel was daunting. So I decided to write shorter—novellas.

The Problem

Novellas proved to be a wonderful way to learn (and they’re quite addictive). I was able to pick up critique partners to help me even more. I also took a fabulous online workshop with our host here today, Barbara Rogan, that really helped me to build a revision process.

But then, when I had a couple of shiny novellas on my hands, I wasn’t sure what to do with them. Novellas don’t generally sell to traditional publishers, and I wasn’t confident enough in my abilities to self-publish. I needed someone in a professional capacity to agree with me that the works were good enough before I would be willing to put them out there.

After researching digital-focused publishers, and submitting to a few of them, I found homes for my novellas.

But…Do They Edit?

Something I’ve seen touted out there in reference to publishers, especially digital ones, is that they don’t edit. Well, I can say that’s not the experience that I’ve had with any of my publishers.

While the process varies from publisher to publisher, I can speak to what I have seen. I’ve published most of my work through Entangled Publishing, so I’ll focus on my experience with their process here. It is quite similar to what I’ve heard about and seen elsewhere.

Entangled uses what I’ve heard referred to as a three-step editing process, meaning that a book goes through at least three rounds of edits prior to copyediting. Each of these rounds may actually involve more than one exchange of the MS between editor and author, particularly the first round.

Starting with an edit letter detailing content or big picture edits, and ending with line edits, the editing process can be very involved. While an author can push back on some of these suggestions (and I have, on a couple of things here and there), these changes are what bring the story to the next level.

Whew.

And it’s still not done. Then the story goes to the copyeditor. Again back to the author for change approval. Then galleys come out and the author and editor both comb through the story to make sure nothing has slipped through the cracks.

Now that’s a process that would be very difficult to replicate for a self-publishing author. And I suspect that it’s on a level similar to the bigger publishers out there. I don’t know that all digital or small publishers processes are quite so thorough, but that’s one reason why researching the right place to submit to is so important.

At every step in the process, I have never been short of stunned at the level of professionalism I have seen, and the sheer editorial talent that my stories have benefited from.

The Good Stuff

There are definite advantages of going through a smaller publisher, especially one with a digital focus.

Length: Although accepted lengths vary by publisher, they are almost always more lenient than your average NYC house. I’ve seen acceptable ranges from 5k to 120k, and everything in between.

Royalty Rates: Royalty rates with digital publishers tend to be much higher than at NYC publishers, particularly for ebooks.

Timelines: It is feasible for an author to see his or her book published within a year of submission. This isn’t usually possible in the agent to big house route. I will say that wait times on submissions aren’t fast by the definition I would have had prior to learning about the publishing industry, but waiting only a few months on a submission is quick in this world.

Editing, Cover Art, and Marketing: I’m listing these as an advantage, not over a NYC house, but over attempting to self-publish. Cover art is expensive. Good editors are expensive. Marketing is…you guessed it, expensive. And cutting corners in any of these areas is a good way to make sure no one ever hears about your book, let alone reads it.

Promotion: The type of promotion you get varies by publisher, but most excel at guiding their authors on what to do themselves to promote (and it’s a far more complex process than one might think). I have been lucky with Entangled because they provide me with a publicist who helps get my name out there, and who schedules blog tours and promotions for me. I can’t tell you what a timesaver that is.

The Not-So Good Stuff

Advances: Few digital houses offer advances. Most who do offer advances that just aren’t comparable to big houses.

Cover Art and Marketing: Larger commercial publishers may have larger budgets for marketing and cover art.

Distribution: Larger publishers also have distribution networks that not all smaller or digital publishers can compete with. And the importance of shelving books where readers can see them cannot be minimized. It’s huge. (I should also add that some of the larger digital publishers do have excellent distribution in place, and their print lines can be found in bookstores.)

Self-publishing: Pubbing yourself will still offer higher royalties, faster timelines, and even more flexibility with length and genre than a digital publisher. Of course, this comes with a lot of additional cost and risk.

Things to Keep in Mind

 Research is your best friend when looking at any publisher or agent. Check online at reputable sites. My favorite site to start researching is the Absolute Write forum. Keep in mind what is important to you in a publisher, and what your expectations are. Talk to other writers. Look at things like sales, publisher reputation, and the backgrounds of the individuals behind the publishing company.

For example, if you want to see your book actually shelved at the Barnes & Noble by your house, you’ll probably want to look at the traditional agent to big publisher route, or to the print lines at Samhain, Entangled, or other smaller publishers whose distribution might make that possible.

While smaller and digital publishers may have higher acceptance rates than some bigger houses, they’re still not easy to break into. Most of the more established ones who sell well have acceptance rates well below five percent. So you still have to make sure to put your best foot forward when querying.

Some genres sell better through digital publishing. There is no question that romance and erotica sell better than other genres, likely in part because some of the pioneers of the digital industry were romance and erotica publishers. But other genres are becoming more common. Publishers like Carina put out all sorts of genres and do not require romantic elements in what they publish. Samhain now has a horror line. Digital publishers of non-romance genres may be more difficult to find, but they are out there.

In Closing…

Digital titles are becoming very popular. My own publisher has had wonderful success, as have others, with multiple titles hitting the New York Times and USA Today lists.

I can say that I am extremely happy. Not only have I learned so much more than I can communicate via a single blog post from my editors and my publicists, but I feel like my stories have only benefited from the brilliant people who I have worked with along the way.

 

Thanks, Tiffany! I think it’s important to remember that the Big Six are not the only game in town, nor is self-publishing the only alternative. Writers have more choices today than ever before.

Tiffany’s books are very fun reads in the paranormal genre, original and well-written. I hope you’ll give them a read.

              

The Best Part of Publishing

The problem with living in the golden age of anything is that you never know it at the time. It is what it is, that’s all. Only much later, when it’s over, do you realize in retrospect what an extraordinary period it was.

I thought about this the other day when I came across a piece in the New Yorker, “Editors and Publisher” by John McPhee: an affectionate appreciation of his two great New Yorker editors, William Shawn and Bob Gottlieb, and his publisher, Roger Straus Jr. It occurred to me that I had known and worked with two of these men, Bob Gottlieb when he was editor-in-chief of Knopf, and Roger Straus Jr. during his long tenure at the helm Farrar, Straus and Giroux. I was, at the time, a young literary agent based in Tel Aviv, representing Israeli writers abroad and American and European writers in Israel. I had moved from New York to Tel Aviv at the age of 22, worked for an Israeli publisher for a year, saw a niche into which I might fit, and at the ripe old age of 23 launched the Barbara Rogan Literary Agency.

The need was there, and within a year or two I was selling rights for publishers like Random House, Morrow, Knopf, Doubleday, Bantam, and Farrar, Straus and Giroux, which is how I met Bob Gottlieb and Roger Straus Jr. To them, I must have looked like a kid who ought to be working in the mailroom. But they treated me with the utmost respect and collegiality, considered my submissions seriously, and talked up the books on their current lists. Knopf shared quarters with Random House and its sister imprints in a handsome, modern building on Third Avenue in midtown, and I would spend whole days meeting various people in those offices. At some point I would be ushered in to Mr. Gottlieb’s office. He was an august presence to me, head of one of the best imprints in the US, and editor of a long list of writers I greatly revered, including John LeCarre, John Cheever, V. S. Naipaul, and Edna O’Brien.  He never took me to lunch – he saw publishing lunches as a complete waste of time, and usually ate in his office – but he was unfailingly gracious and would spend an unhurried hour or so talking about books and publishing with a young agent. He never bought any of my Israeli writers, but I sold a great many of his in Israel, in part because they tended to be very good writers, but also because he spoke of them so compellingly that I was infused with a missionary-like zeal to go forth and find them a home in the Promised Land.

I had something closer to a friendship with Roger Straus Jr., one of publishing’s great characters. I saw him every time I came to New York, and once a year at Frankfurt. He was wonderful to look at, still handsome in his 60s, with a great mane of white hair swept back from his aristocratic forehead; but he was even better to listen to. When he talked about the latest book that had captured him, it was with the passionate enthusiasm of a boy, informed by decades of reading and publishing the best of world literature. I particularly remember him proselytizing about Nobel prize winner Elias Canetti, whose Crowds and Power Roger had published: one of the most important books ever written, he told me, which for once was not the usual publishing hype.

His language was famously profane. “Fucking” was his favorite adjective, which amused me no end. I wasn’t offended; this was the vernacular of my 20-something contemporaries, but it seemed wonderfully Bohemian coming from a man my grandfather’s age. His accent was unusual and reminded me of screwball comedies starring Cary Grant and Lauren Bacall. “Darling” he called everyone, but he pronounced it dahling; every new book on his list was mahvelous. As McPhee wrote, “his words wore spats.” It wasn’t an affectation; he’d been raised that way. His mother was a Guggenheim; his father’s family owned Macy’s. Playing superego to Roger’s id was his longtime assistant, the always elegant, always kind Peggy Miller. I loved going to their offices on Union Square, a warren-like space they’d outgrown long ago, crowded and dusty, with stacks of books everywhere. Random House’s offices were elegant, and I was always on my best behavior there, but visiting FSG felt like going home.

Roger was particularly loyal to his writers, whose backlists he kept in print regardless of economics. He liked to say he published writers, not books, and he must’ve said it often, because I remember hearing it, and so, in his memoir, does John McPhee. Roger meant it by way of contrast to his corporate competitors, bean-counters, he called them, and ruder names. He sought out great literature to translate, befriended the great publishers of Europe, and saw himself, I believe, as a leading citizen of the wider world of ideas. Certainly I saw him that way.

I was also a great admirer of Barney Rosset, head of Grove Press and the American publisher of T. H. Lawrence, Samuel Beckett and Henry Miller.  The first time we met was for lunch, not in one of the usual upscale publishing hangouts, but in a funky, blue-collar eatery near his office. Knowing of his epic court battles against censorship, which in the case of Henry Miller went all the way to the Supreme Court, I expected a fire-breathing dragon of a man; but Barney was a warm, bookish man with no interest in rehashing old battles. We started out talking enthusiastically about the Israeli writer whose rights he’d just acquired from me, and ended up commiserating with each other on the scarcity of translated fiction in the US and the provincialism of American publishing compared to European and Israeli.

Today there is, to put it delicately, a different publishing climate. Back when I was an agent, some important publishers, including FSG and Grove, were privately owned, and even those with corporate owners operated more or less autonomously. Now, after a generation of mergers, buyouts, and consolidations, we have the Big Six. I was representing Bantam in the ’70’s  when a marketing man was elevated to the post of publisher, instead of someone from the editorial side. The publishing world was shocked. “It’s the beginning of the end,” editors whispered. “It’s the writing on the wall,” others said. That sort of dichotomy hardly exists anymore, and to the extent that it does, the balance of power has shifted completely. In the past, publishers and editors like Roger Straus, Barney Rosset, and Bob Gottlieb decided what they wanted to publish and tasked their marketing departments with selling those books. Now, acquisitions are made by publishing boards that look hard at every prospect’s commercial viability.  There is less scope, it seems, for individuality and eccentricity, less loyalty to one’s writers, less time allowed for writers to find themselves and their markets.

And yet some things haven’t changed. I realized this over lunch some weeks ago with Tara Singh, my editor at Viking Penguin, who’s not much older than I was when I started my agency. She told me that what she loves most about her profession are the amazing people she works with. I always felt the same way. Though never been a particularly lucrative profession, publishing  has always drawn smart, well-read, intellectually curious people who are passionate about books. You can’t find much better company than that.

Don’t Bury Publishing Yet: 8 Self-Publishing Canards

Last week, David Vinjamuri wrote a thought-provoking piece on the future of publishing, entitled “Publishing Is Broken, We’re Drowning In Indie Books—And That’s a Good Thing.” The article is nuanced and non-partisan, the comments less so, as respondents tend to line up behind one barricade or another…but even Vinjamuri’s article contained several canards about mainstream publishing that I see everywhere and feel compelled to address.

Let me start by saying that I’m as excited as any writer by the advent of self-publishing and the opening up of some distribution networks, as well as the ability of writers to reach readers more directly than ever before through social media. There are already several excellent applications for self-publishing, including:

1. Niche nonfiction. Books on very particular subjects with a defined readership that is too small to attract mainstream publishers can do very well as self-published books. I have worked in and been published by mainstream publishers throughout my career, but if I ever get around to writing that book on editing fiction I plan to write, I would definitely consider self-publishing.

2. Genre fiction series. Good writers who can write very quickly and keep churning out a consistent genre “product” can build a following, provided they are also smart entrepreneurs and social media pros—not a very common combination of talents, but there are some. Amanda Hocking is the poster child for this sort of writer.

3. Backlist. This is my favorite application, for purely selfish reasons. As a writer, I had two dreams: to be the answer to a clue in the New York Times crossword puzzle, and to see all my books in print at once. The first of these remains, alas, unfulfilled; but the second is happening as we speak. Simon and Schuster just released my three last novels, and another publisher is preparing to release e-books and paperback editions of the earlier titles. If my publishers hadn’t, I would have. A privilege once reserved to the top 1% of writers is now accessible to all.

No doubt as this infant industry develops, additional applications will arise. In its current state, however, it’s a more problematic choice than its advocates admit. If a writer goes into self-publishing with his eyes wide open, then good luck and more power to him. What I don’t like is seeing writers lured into an enterprise that will cost them dearly, in time and/or money, on the basis of false claims and misleading arguments. When I look at self-publishing in its current incarnation, I have to conclude that for fiction writers in particular, mainstream publishing offers important advantages over self-publishing, for reasons that self-publishing advocates gloss over or occlude. Here, in no particular order, are some of the canards I see bruited about, followed by my own take.

1. By signing with a mainstream publisher, writers give up the rights to their work forever.  Not true if the writer has an agent, and most fiction writers who sell to mainstream publishers do. Their contracts include reversion clauses that return the rights to the writer if the publisher is not selling an agreed-upon quantity after an agreed-upon period of time.

2. Publishers dictate what writers can write. This claim is based on a misunderstanding of the author–publisher relationship. Publishers cannot dictate what a writer writes; they can only dictate what they will publish. That’s their right. It doesn’t stop writers from writing for other publishers and/or writing under different pen names.

3. Self-publishing is free, or almost free. Yes and no. It is free if you do it on the cheap: no design, no editing, no paid services at all. But such a book is unlikely to be worth reading and, according to a recent Taleist survey, unlikely to sell. Edited books, especially books that were previously edited and published by mainstream publishers, outsell unedited books by a wide margin. Of course, self-published writers can hire freelance editors, and many do. But good editors tend to be expensive, and a single editor cannot duplicate the multi-layered editing process of trade publishers. There is also the sad fact that many self-published novels are not really editable. One would have to basically rewrite the book to make it readable. So, while writers can always find editors willing to take their money and correct their grammar, they will never find one who can make a silk purse out of the sow’s ear.

4. Mainstream publishers don’t edit their books any more. The story I hear most often is that trade publishers, in order to cut costs, have stopped editing their books and now simply proofread them. This is certainly not the case with my current publisher, Viking/Penguin, which has put my upcoming novel through three rigorous stages of editing, both concept and line editing, to its great benefit. Nor is it the experience of the many writers I know who are publishing with mainstream publishers, large and small. The level of editing is the one thing that most (not all) published writers, an obstreperous lot, are satisfied with. Duplicating that kind of attention to detail by top experts would cost many thousands of dollars. At the price-point of most self-published e-books, the great majority of writers would never earn that money back.

5. Good writers will rise above the dross of the many inferior self-published books. How is this supposed to happen? How are readers supposed to find these needles in a haystack? This year 211,269 titles were self-published, according to Bowker. Last year it was 133,036. Next year it may be half a million, and remember, the older books do not go away, so these numbers are cumulative. Most of these books are dreadful, though you wouldn’t know it by the frenzied self-promotion and circle-jerk cross-reviewing of some misguided self-published writers. There is a reason that literary agents reject 95 to 99% of submitted work. Unless you have read through the slush pile of a literary agent, you would not believe how many people who cannot write a single grammatical or coherent sentence nevertheless undertake to write a book. Many of these people are now self-publishing. I don’t doubt for a moment that there are some excellent writers in the mix. But how, in the relentless barrage of self-promotion, and given the lack of creditable reviewing of self-published books, can readers hope to find the pearls among them? In his article, Vinjamuri acknowledges the problem but predicts that reliable indie reviewers will soon arise, replacing the “gatekeepers” of mainstream publishing and reviewing. Maybe so; at least, I agree that this is what needs to happen for the industry to advance instead of implode. But given the vast quantities of inferior books flooding the market, I wonder how any reviewer could possibly sift through them all.

6 . Distribution is now open to all. True for e-books only, not print. Self-published books are seldom carried in brick-and-mortar bookstores or the other chains that now sell books, including Target and Walmart. Libraries rarely buy self-published books, and that is a huge factor, because for many mid-list writers, library purchases make up the bulk of their hardcover sales.

7. Writers make more money self-publishing than by being published. This is a complicated question that will vary from writer to writer and case to case, but most self-published writers will never earn as much as a writer with one of the Big Six publishers makes as an advance; and self-published writers have to pay out of their own pockets for services, including editing, that published writers get as part of the deal. Of course, most published books don’t sell enough to cover their advances, but the writers still get to keep the money. It’s true that self-published writers earn a larger percent on e-book sales, typically 70% of retail price as opposed to 25% for published writers. But while royalty rates are higher, book prices are lower. Which is more: 25% of $10 or 70% of $3.00? And that leaves out print sales, which are still nonexistent for most self-published writers.

8. Writers grow by putting their books out there and testing the market. This might be true if the writers were getting detailed, informed feedback on their work– not the sort they get from Amazon readers’ reviews or the paid reviews that some self-published writers resort to. The only real feedback most self-published writers get is from sales, a very blunt instrument that doesn’t necessarily correlate with quality and does nothing to show them what went wrong or how they could make their work better. Good writers thrive on detailed critical feedback from editors and serious reviewers, and they grow by doing the hard work of writing and revising for as long as it takes. My greatest concern about the ease of self-publishing is that the temptation to shove a book out into the world in its first or second draft is enormous. Even good writers succumb. The result is many bad self-published books that might have been good, and, worse yet, a few good books that might have been great.

It’s hard to see into the future, but a few things are already clear. Self-publishing will continue to evolve. It will alter long-standing trade publishing practices. It will change the balance of power between writer and publisher by providing writers with more options. But self-publishing still has one inherent flaw that will not be easily overcome: the temptation it provides writers to rush prematurely into print.

It doesn’t take a weatherman to see change coming. There’s an old Jewish curse: “May you live in interesting times.” Me, I look forward to seeing what happens.

Coming soon: an interview with prominent literary agent and e-book pioneer Richard Curtis.

The Five Qualities Writers Need

Today I’d like to start by introducing you to a wonderful writer, Mika Ashley Hollinger, whose first novel just came out with Random House. I have a very personal relationship to this book and its author. Mika was my student for several years while she worked on PRECIOUS BONES, so I feel about this book as a midwife feels about the babies she helped deliver. But friendship and admiration aside, I think Mika’s own publishing story is an instructive and inspirational one for all writers.
Barbara:   Tell us a little about your novel, PRECIOUS BONES.  What’s it about?

Mika: PRECIOUS BONES is a young adult historical fiction, about a ten-year-old girl growing up in the Florida swamps of 1949.   I did extensive research on the life cycle of Florida’s swamps and inhabitants. It was at one time an incredible wildlife habitat and I wanted that time to be forever remembered.

The book’s setting feels entirely real.  Did you grow up in the Florida of that time?  Is the novel based on your own life?

Yes, I was born and raised on the east coast of southern Florida.  The book is loosely based on my childhood memories.  I chose 1949 because that was just the beginning of Florida’s drastic changes, both environmentally and socially.  After being away many, many years, I returned to visit where I grew up and was devastated by the changes that had taken place.  It woke up all those memories.

Did you read much as a child?  What were your favorite books?

I loved to read stories about animals and about the South.  Some of my favorites were;  The Yearling, Charlotte’s Web, Gone With the Wind and of course To Kill a Mockingbird.  I was fifteen years old when I saw the movie and it had such a profound effect on me, I knew from that moment on I wanted to write books. I wanted to tell stories from the innocence of a child, but with the wisdom of an adult.

When did you first start writing PRECIOUS BONES?

About twenty years ago I started compiling memories and facts about Florida and my childhood.  It didn’t actually become a story draft until I took an online Writer’s Digest course in 2004 with you, as my teacher!  From that experience I gained the confidence and knowledge that I could actually write this story.

When was it published?

It was published by Random House in May 2012.

How many drafts of the novel did you write?

I would say there were at least three or four along the way, I don’t really remember.  Of course, my most serious and extensive re-writes were with my agent and then my editors at Random House.

Was the path to publication smooth?  What kept you going?

The path to publication was a long and winding road filled with speed-bumps.  I have a folder filled with rejection slips.  I had two different agents, at different times, but neither one knew where or how to sell the book to a publisher.  There were some very discouraging times and on more than one occasion I thought about just giving up.  But through the support of my husband, and your support and encouraging advice, I stuck with it.

Before the book sold, did you ever consider self-publishing?

No, that was not a consideration.  I held true to my own conviction that it had go through the proper channels and be published.

What sort of strategy did you have before selling PRECIOUS BONES?

In hindsight, one of the problems, from 2005 to 2010, was I didn’t have a strategy.  I was so new and naive that I just sent queries out to any agent.  I got a lot of positive response, which led me to believe I did have a good story, but no one knew how to sell it.  After one particularly discouraging event, I told my husband I felt like it was a hopeless situation.  His advice to me was, do some research and find agents that represent the type of story you have, and that is exactly what I did.  I read young adult books with a southern theme, and stories with the same type descriptive writing style I was using.  I sent out a few more queries.  There was one agent in particular whose work I so admired. Within six weeks, I got a phone call from her and I had the agent of my dreams:  Catherine Drayton of Inkwell Management.  She was wonderful to work with, she understood what needed to be changed or added to make the story bigger.  We worked together on a couple of rewrites and within one year she had it sold to Delacorte Press, Random House Children’s Books.  A true dream come true!

Tell us about the phone call…was it a call?…in which you learned the book had sold.

Catherine kept me informed on all transactions, which relieved a lot of anxiety on my part.  On February 24, 2011 she emailed me with the wonderful news that Michelle Poploff of Delacorte Press, loved the story and wanted to publish it.  It’s one of those moments when you have to read the sentence over and over again to let the true sense of its meaning sink in. Working with Michelle and her assistant Rebecca Short was also an incredible experience.  These ladies were so professional and accommodating.  Getting published with a house like Random House was well worth the wait.

What have you learned as a writer from the evolution of your first novel?

Believe in yourself.   Be prepared for those rejection slips and just file them away.  And when you do sign with a publisher, be ready and willing to listen to their advice and suggestions. There may be some major changes taking place with your story.  Work with them, it’s what they do; they know how to take your little story and turn it into a bigger one.

What advice do you have for other aspiring writers?

Persevere. No one is going to come looking for you, you have to look for them.  Do your research and find agents that represent your genre of writing!

What comes next for you?

I am working on another young adult historical fiction, set in Georgia in 1969, during the height of hippies, The Vietnam War and integration.

I can’t wait to read it. Thanks, Mika!

 

I wanted to bring Mika and her novel to your attention for several reasons. First, because PRECIOUS BONES is wonderful, one of the best young adult novels I’ve ever read. Over the course of its evolution I read it multiple times, and it still makes me cry. It’s a book that children and adults can enjoy equally, and I recommend that you buy it immediately. It’s available as an e-book, but I’d suggest getting a print copy, because I have a feeling that first editions of this book will someday be valuable.

The second reason is that Mika exemplifies the five qualities I believe writers need if they aspire to be published, as her story illustrates.

Talent is the first requirement. Anyone can learn craft, and even the most talented writer needs to do that; but talent is a gift, just like athletic ability and perfect pitch. Mika had talent in spades. The first time I read her work, when it was little more than a gleam in its author’s eye, she was in a class of 10 or 12 writers. Even in  its embryonic form, I still remember how her language, descriptions and characters jumped off the page.

Craft is the second. Serious writers study the craft. Mika invested in her dream and became a better writer than she was. These days, with self-publishing as popular as it is, there are lots of people offering all sorts of services to writers. In my opinion, the only thing a writer ought to pay for is good instruction in the form of classes or manuscript evaluation.

The ability to learn from good criticism is the third requirement. You can only go so far on your own. At a certain point you must seek out discerning readers, learn to distinguish good criticism from bad, and implement the good advice. Criticism is like fertilizer; it can be hard to abide, but it grows the writer. Mika was open to that process.

Perseverance is the fourth requirement. Mika’s novel was 20 years in the making, eight years in the writing. She had agents who failed to sell the book and many disappointments along the way. She could have given up at any point. She didn’t. She believed in her book. If the author doesn’t, who will?

A focused goal is the fifth. Mika was determined to be published by a trade publisher. She did her homework and focused on agents who represent her type of writing. Agents and editors bring real value to their books. Because Mika held out for commercial publication, PRECIOUS BONES is a much better book than it would have been if she had self-published an earlier version–and I say that as someone who read and loved the earlier versions.

PRECIOUS BONES is available on Amazon and B&N. Order it now, or at least read an excerpt and decide for yourself. What was that Sandra Bullock line? “You can thank me later.”

If you’re a fiction writer willing to work hard to improve your craft, give me a shout. I offer several online writing workshops through my Next Level website.

Gail Hochman Interview, Part 2

Have you ever wondered what happens behind the scenes in a literary agency? There’s not a lot of transparency in the business. Most agents erect high walls to protect themselves from constant interruption and to preserve their ability to actually do the work they’re hired to do. Many of the busiest agencies don’t even have websites. Clients have open channels of communication with their agents, but aspiring authors in search of an agent will never even get to speak to one until and unless an agent decides to offer representation. If none does, the writer may never even get a response to his query; and if he does, it’s usually a form rejection letter, very brief, with no real explanation.

What are literary agents looking for? Are they even reading the reams of submissions they receive? What makes them sit up and take notice, and what makes them stop reading? Today, in the second half of my interview with Gail Hochman, the veteran literary agent answers these questions and more. Gail speaks for herself alone, of course, and every agent is different. But she is one of the savviest agents I know, and one of the frankest. Gail is the president of Brandt & Hochman Literary Agency and longtime president of the Association of Authors Representatives (AAR.) Her clients include Scott Turow, Michael Cunningham, Julia Glass, Bob Shacochis, Ursula Hegi…and me.  You can read the first half of the interview here.

Barbara: What does a query letter have to do and be, to convince you to ask for pages?  

Gail: Good credits, maybe a connection to a contact or client or writer we respect; a good, succinct pitch of a novel that seems to have a “hook;” not an annoying personality or pushiness. A letter that is interesting to read means the writer might have something interesting in his ms.

How important is it for a fiction writer to have a platform?  

To me not at all, unless it is a nonfiction project that demands this kind of platform.

What credits do you consider worth mentioning in a query letter, apart from publishing credits? For example: membership in RWA or like organizations, writing groups, contests won, previous self-published work, college degree?

I think publishing credits, educational achievements, any awards, any interesting other career the writer may have or passionate hobby that is relevant and interesting. If the person sounds interesting and reasonable and the story sounds good, I might well ask to read.

If a writer has self-published previous work that has not sold well, does that hurt the writer’s prospects? What sort of sales figures would get your attention?

I really don’t care about other numbers or self-published books. But I don’t want to be asked to read and represent a self-published book for the commercial marketplace. To me—and this could be short-sighted, but I only have a 24-hour clock—if a book has been self-published, it has been “published.” I want to see new work.

Given the writers already on your list, what makes a first novel stand out enough for you to offer representation?  

Incredible voice, fresh idea, something that tugs at my heartstrings. If it is well written and makes me cry, that is the perfect formula!

What makes you stop reading?

If a book drags or gets redundant; if the pacing is so slow that nothing new happens chapter after chapter; if I lose sight of what I am reading to find out—then I have to stop.  An editor friend said once that he reads till he feels secure he is not going to buy this ms.  My husband put it clearly, some years ago when he saw my incredible  piles of reading.  “What is that book about?  Do you love it? Are you going to make the writer any money? Is it going to make you any money? Can you help the writer? Can the writer help you? No???  Then get it off the desk!”

Apart from the quality of the work itself, what other factors do you weigh in deciding whether to offer representation?

If I have met the writer and he seems helpful and mature; if my clients rave about the writer. If I sense a difficult personality, I may think long and hard before offering representation. But usually the book wins out, if I like it enough and have some good ideas for trying to sell it.

If an agent offers representation, what should writers ask before signing on?

The writer has to make sure that he understands and agrees with what the agent intends to do with the ms.  He also needs to know how the agent will communicate, and that the agent won’t dump the ms. on an assistant.  The author may have to sign an agency agreement, and for me (we don’t have agreements) this is an important moment. He should read and study the agreement and know just what he is getting into. I think the writer needs to know how he can get out of the agreement in a certain amount of time if things don’t go well.  Some contracts say that the agent is the agent of record and will take a commission on this book forever, in any form, in any deal, etc. The author may think hard before signing with that particular agent, might try to change some of the wording if he feels it is necessary. (Some excellent agents may require this; but some under-performing agents could also demand this, and in the latter case the author would not be well served.)  The client must understand what the commission situation is for all sorts of sales, and what other charges may be sent to him for payment.

What do most writers not understand about agents that you wish they did?

We are only people, mere mortals. The more we are in demand, the more we have to read, the more contracts we have to work on. We represent other people as well, and we have scores of people who are not yet clients sending us mss. We want to read your work fast, but there is only so much time in the day.

At times, agent and author disagree. I don’t know that the agent is always right, but there should be a calm way to discuss the situation. An unsold book is a distress to both parties, but there may be a moment when the agent thinks he has sent it out enough, and author may disagree.  Instead of playing the guilt card, both parties should try to find a way to talk through this.

The most important thing that I wish authors knew is that our day-to-day work lives have become incredibly more intense in this current difficult market. We work long hours, we try to make connections.  I feel very close to most of my mss but realize that the author feels even closer, more protective, more pro-active.

What happens when a book doesn’t sell?

There is a point, alas, when an unsold ms. is taking up much more of an agent’s time than it should be, and perhaps at this point the author should take over any submissions to small places.  When the author keeps pushing new small houses to send it to, the agent is in effect being asked to spend more and more time on an unsaleable ms. that will never pay the agent back for any of this time.  It is interesting also to know that sometimes  a tiny press contract is more difficult  to negotiate than a corporate contract, because the buyer is that much more stubborn, unknowing, maybe naïve. They may not do things in the standard way. Since the house is an unknown, we don’t want to let author sign a contract with clauses we’re uncomfortable with, because we don’t know how it would play out if we had a disagreement. And there may be a lawyer behind it all, or a university press board of some sort, so we actually work many more hours on a tiny deal from a tiny place, spending much more time than this contract is worth, because we don’t want the author to sign anything that could hurt him.  And remember, all we can offer in the first place is our time and expertise. When that time and expertise are taken up with work that really does not help anyone very much, it is frustrating . Some agents don’t want to spend the time to work through a self-publishing contract, though that may be something we all have to start doing.   We don’t want to complain to the client, whose work we really do support! It is the invisible use of our time that gets so frustrating—no one has yet invented the 28-hour clock, but that is the Xmas gift I hope to receive someday.

Having been in this industry for a couple of decades, what would you say are the most significant changes you’ve seen as they affect agents and their clients?

Just briefly—the technological revolution has changed everything. The internet as a place to promote and sell books, the digitization which allows for print on demand and self-publishing has opened up a huge new area. Anyone who wants to publish can now publish, can now promote, has a chance to find his own audience.  The big question people seem to ask is do we still need publishers, and I think resoundingly we do. But there are more options, and the conventional houses are harder to crack, and it seems everyone is writing and making multiple submissions, so we are all working longer hours than we ever bargained for, just to keep in place. Then, with all these properties out there in the marketplace, it may seem more difficult to distinguish your own amazing work to the buying public. I think this is a difficult time for an “Emily Dickinson” type of writer, who may be really talented but really retiring.

No doubt; but the upside, as Gail  points out, is that writers now have opportunities and tools they never had before.

Thank you, Gail!

A personal note: I have been blessed with several excellent agents in my career. Gail Hochman took over my representation several years ago and since then has not only sold my new book to Viking/Penguin, but also negotiated the reissuing of my backlist in ebook and paperback. SUSPICION and HINDSIGHT are now available in ebook and paperback; ROWING IN EDEN will be coming out on July 17, 2012. I’m quite proud of those books, and I hope you’ll give them a read. Click here for links to your bookseller of choice: Amazon; B&N; and Indiebound.