JUST SAY NO: A WRITERS’ MANIFESTO

 

Long ago in a galaxy far away, I was a literary agent. One day, a writer who was not yet a client came to me for advice. “I wrote a novel,” she said. “Mr. Blank, of Blankety Press read it and liked it, and he wants to publish.”

The actual publisher she mentioned was a well-known, respected house with a track record that included bestsellers. “Congratulations,” I said. “What’s the offer?”

“They’ll publish the book entirely at their own expense.”

“Of course,” I said. “But what advance and royalties are they offering?”

“None for the first edition,” the writer said. “But if they reprint, they’d pay a royalty on those sales.”

“Say no,” I said.

discontented writer“But they’re such good publishers! And Mr. Blank explained to me that their expenses are so high on the first edition that they would lose money if they had to pay a royalty.”

“Does he get paid? How about the typesetters and the printers and the paper suppliers? Do they donate their services?”

“Of course not.”

“The distributor and the bookstores will take their cut?”

“I assume so.”

“And yet your story is what’s going to sell the book, not the paper or the typesetting. So why on earth should you be the only one to go uncompensated?”

“I know, but it is my first novel. Mr. Blank says it’s a way to get my name out there and start building a readership.”

I refrained from rolling my eyes. “Mr. Blank knows you can do that without giving your work away for free. He controls the price of his books, and he can take your royalties into account, just as he does for every other writer on his list.”

“But what if he won’t pay? I could lose my chance to publish.”

“It’s possible. But if the book is good enough that he wants to publish, there’s a reasonable chance others will as well. You can’t negotiate if you’re not willing to walk away.”

“I know you’re right,” she said worriedly. “But…”

I understood that “but.” I was a writer myself, as well as an agent. I knew what it felt like. Writers need to publish; why else would they write? Writing is an act of communication, a transaction that is incomplete until the work is read. For first-time writer especially, the need to publish can feel as pressing as the need of a woman nine and a half months pregnant to give birth. You’ve carried that story as long and as far as you possibly can; now it’s time for it to go out into the world.

And guess what? Publishers know this, and they use it. They are, after all, in business to make money; so if they can persuade writers to donate their work for free, that’s one less major expense.

That, by the way, is one of many reasons that writers need agents. Having professional representation means that negotiations will be conducted on a more businesslike, less lopsided basis.

arm-wrestling

And that is what happened with that writer from long ago. Rather than tackle Mr. Blank herself, she hired me to do it. He wasn’t thrilled to have me inserted into the mix, but we did a lot of business together, so he didn’t kick too hard. We negotiated a reasonable advance and royalty for my client. The agency’s fee cost her 10% (Yes, Virginia, agents used to work for 10%), but since the novel never earned out, the 90% that the writer got to keep was money she would never have seen otherwise.

I was reminded of this incident recently when a friend — let’s call him Chester, because why not? — called to say he’d received an offer from a magazine that wanted to reprint one of his short stories. It was a fine little magazine, and my friend was delighted; but their effusive note had strangely failed to mention remuneration.

“Ask,” I suggested.

“And if they say there is none?”

hard labor“The laborer is worthy of his hire.”

Chester agreed. He wrote to ask what the magazine proposed to pay for the story, expressing the hope that their response would not include the word “exposure.”

Silence ensued. Weeks of it, then months. Chester put the matter out of his mind, inured, like most writers, to disappointment. It’s not unusual that magazines, both print and e-zines, failed to pay contributors. So many aspiring writers are willing to work for “exposure” alone that they can fill their pages many times over while paying nothing at all for content.

Then, out of the blue, the magazine editor called Chester. They’d hadn’t ignored his question; rather, they’d been thinking hard about whether it was time to start paying contributors. In principle the unanimous answer was yes; in practice, given the magazine’s finances, the payment would need to be modest.

“How modest?” Chester asked.

The editor named a sum.

woman in burqa“You call that modest? I call it full burqa!”

“It’s the best I can do,” the editor said.

“Better than a kick in the teeth,” Chester said philosophically, and the deal was sealed, leaving my friend, as one wit said, well on his way to becoming hundredaire.

And now a third and final anecdote on the same theme. A former student of mine, let’s call her Violet, had struggled long and hard to find a publisher for her first novel. She had no interest in self-publishing; she wanted a traditional publisher, preferably one of the big five. After trying more than 80 literary agents, she’d given up on that route and started submitting to small royalty-paying publishers who were willing to consider work from unagented writers. Finally she struck gold. A small publisher offered to publish her novel in both print and electronic form. They offered no advance, but paid standard royalties on all copies sold.

man reading contractViolet asked if I would eyeball the contract just to see if anything jumped out. After the usual disclaimers (I’m not a lawyer and I’m no longer an agent) I agreed. And something did jump out: an option clause that gave the publisher right of first refusal not only on the next book, but on every book the author wrote thereafter.

“It’s the publishing version of indentured servitude,” I told Violet. “There’s no possible reason to agree to this clause. It would mean handing over control of your entire career to this company. Ask them to limit the option to your next book or cut it altogether.”

“But what if they won’t?” she fretted. “If it’s part of their standard contract… After all this time, I don’t want to lose a bird in hand for a pair in the bushes.”

“This stuff matters, unless you plan to be a one-book author. Options are inherently unbalanced to begin with, because they oblige one party but not the other. But writers and agents generally agree to a limited option on the next book, to incentivize the publisher to do its best for the first book. But this clause, this is just greedy, and it’s got ‘future headache’ written all over it.”

Violet took the advice she’d asked for and went back to her publisher, who promptly agreed to change the clause. Back in the Paleolithic era when I was an agent, publishers had different contracts for agented and unagented writers. They knew what the prospect of publication meant to aspiring writers, knew they’d sign away their firstborn child for the chance, let alone options on future unborn books.

Hence the overreaching. If by chance the writer objects, they amend the clause. Most don’t.

Now, as you’ve no doubt realized, the moral of these three stories is the same. There are times when writers must say no. (For a truly profane and heartfelt rant on the subject, I refer you to this video by Harlan Ellison.)

And so I call upon my fellow writers to take the pledge. Respect yourself and your work, for if you don’t, who will?

Say no to working for free.

Say no to rights grabs.

Say no to onerous option clauses.

Unity

Writers of the world, unite!

 

Caveat Emptor

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

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

The good news first:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Free Clipart Illustrations at http://www.ClipartOf.com/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RESEARCH

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

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

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

GET IT IN WRITING

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

REVERSION

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

 

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

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

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

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

What Sort of Publishing Is Right For You?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

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

David vs. Goliath

Writer Jeannette Vaughan ran an interesting blog post recently, entitled “The Amazon Ripoff,” in which she argues that Amazon And CreateSpace underreported sales of her book, released by indie publisher Age View Press. If she’s right, this is bad news indeed for self-published writers and indie publishers, for whom Amazon is the essential outlet. Even if it’s not true, the allegation itself highlights the fact that in the relationship between a self-published writer and Amazon, the balance of power is so heavily weighted to Amazon’s side that it can hardly be called a balance at all.

If Random House or Simon and Schuster are unhappy, Amazon may not concede the issue but has to take it seriously. But a complaint from John Doe, self-published author of Buy My Book Please, worries the behemoth as much as a gnat worries a grizzly.

I don’t know if Jeannette Vaughan’s accusations are correct or not. As far as I can tell, neither CreateSpace nor Amazon has answered them publicly. It’s not uncommon for writers to overestimate their sales, nor for readers to claim that they bought a book they actually didn’t. Still, any business relationship as lopsided and free from oversight as this one is potentially ripe for exploitation.

“Trust but verify,” Reagan used to say, and literary agents adopted that policy long ago. Their contracts always include a clause that allows writers to audit the publisher’s accounts as they pertain to the author’s work, at the author’s expense if the books balance, the publisher’s if they don’t. That clause isn’t often implemented, but often enough to keep publishers honest. Self-published writers have no such recourse with distributors like Amazon, nor do they, as individuals, have the power to demand the right to audit.

So what’s a self-published writer to do? Not a whole lot at the present, as far as I can see. In the future, though, there is power in numbers when individuals unite. The Writers Guild recently opened their doors to self-published writers who’ve sold a certain number of books in the past year. If such writers join in large numbers, the Guild might advocate on their behalf for an audit clause or some other neutral-party means of conflict resolution. Self-published writers could also form their own trade group, which could gain enough heft to negotiate on behalf of its members.

What do you think? Is there really a problem, and if so, how can it be resolved?

 

A DANGEROUS FICTION is now available for pre-order,  and most vendors are offering early buyers  a 35% discount on the hardcover edition. Viking/Penguin has also released a wonderful Readers’  Guide to the book–do check it out!  Meanwhile, Simon & Schuster has reissued my last three novels as ebooks. If you like mysteries and ghost stories, try  SUSPICION:  it’s both.

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.

Publishing Mosquitoes

It’s a bad year for mosquitoes – or rather, a great year for mosquitoes, a bad one for their prey. On Long Island, where I live, I can’t step out to the garden without being attacked. There’s a wooded park nearby where I like to take the dogs for long, off–leash walks. Last couple of times I tried, I longed for one of those veiled hats that women explorers used to wear. I spent the entire walk waving my hands in front of my face, batting the pests away.

I thought of those mosquitoes when a former student (thanks, Deniz!)  sent me a link to a service that offers, for an hourly fee of over $100, to match writers with literary agents. What’s wrong with that? you may ask. If you do, I’m glad you’re reading this post, because this is also a bad year for purveyors of unnecessary services to writers. It’s money they’re after, not blood; but how much of either can writers spare?

Writers who’ve invested time, effort and emotion in writing a book desire to see that book published with a passion like that of people who long for a child. Desire of that magnitude makes people vulnerable to hucksters. Of course, hucksterism on the fringes of publishing is not a new phenomenon. Long before the advent of inexpensive self-publishing, vanity publishers existed to fulfill the dreams of aspiring writers, at a hefty price. Distribution was never part of the deal, so most often those writers ended up with boxes of unsellable books in the garage. Today, writers can distribute their self-published books through the same online channels as trade publishers, and they have far more tools to communicate with potential readers. The market is booming, and so is this year’s crop of mosquitoes.

I was a literary agent for many years and have been a writing teacher for many more. I feel protective toward writers and I don’t like seeing them ripped off. Today I’m going to look at just a couple of the services currently offered to writers. Take, for example, the submissions service I mentioned earlier, which promises to expedite the (admittedly tortuous) process of getting a literary agent.

In fact there are numerous companies that offer the same service, and they exist for a reason: it’s not easy to get an agent, or to sell your book without one. Unless they have an introduction from client or publishing professional, writers need to work hard just to persuade agents to read their manuscripts. Most submissions are rejected at the query stage…but not all. If the work is good enough, and the writer goes about searching in a smart way, finding an agent is definitely doable. Many of my students and forum friends have found agents in recent years, and several had multiple offers of representation. This, by the way,  is why when agents decide they want a book, they tend to act very quickly: they assume that if they are interested, others will be, too.

Agents are still reading, searching and hoping for the next original voice. (See this interview with literary agent Gail Hochman.) Writers need to learn to present their work professionally: polish the manuscript till it shines, research agents, writes a good query letter. Excellent books and websites abound with guidance on how to do that. (Here is a list of some of my favorites.) Any service that guarantees to find writers an agent probably has some snake oil and a bridge or two for sale. Even the ones that don’t guarantee it imply that their service makes it more likely. Not so.  If the work isn’t first-rate, no intermediary will be able to persuade a legitimate agent to invest time in it. If the work is good enough, agents don’t need an intermediary to point that out.

All these submission services do, in my opinion, is impose an extra layer between writers and publishers. Their expensive guidance is based on free data bases available to any writer with an Internet connection; Agentquery’s, for example.  For more on this topic, see Victoria Strauss’s article on Writers Beware.

There are many species of publishing mosquitoes. Some varieties (Anopheles scribus) specialize in self-published writers. It hurts me to hear about writers paying hundreds of dollars for reviews from bloggers or companies like Kirkus Indie Book Reviews. The purveyors of this service are exploiting a weakness in the self-publishing industry: the difficulty in finding readers when your book is one drop in a sea of millions of self-published works. Eventually, I expect, legitimate reviewers of self-published work will emerge with sufficient clout to sell books. Paying for a review of your own book is no substitute.  Before writing this post, I read a whole batch of these reviews from the better-known sites, which claim to be impartial. I found several things in common. The reviews are primarily plot summaries, as if to prove the reviewer had actually read the book. Then the reviewer said some nice things and some mildly critical things about the writing. No matter how negative the overall review, there was always a line that the writer could extract as a blurb.

Writers, save your money. Paid reviews have no credibility, and I don’t believe they sell books. The only review worth having is an impartial one from someone not paid by, related to, or sleeping with the writer. Better to invest that money in learning the craft. Take a writing class or find an experienced editor with a track record to work on your book with you. (Scroll down on this page for a list of criteria to look for in writing teachers and editors.) The best way to sell a book is still to write a really good one.