Publishing as a Career for Writers

In a recent blog post, Donna Shear, director of University of Nebraska Press, advised aspiring writers not to work in publishing, but rather to seek their day jobs in other fields. She offered a list of reasons to back up her argument, all perfectly sensible.  Recently, though, I mentored a young writer in an MFA program who asked my advice on seeking a career in publishing, and my answer was the polar opposite.

“It’s a great way to go,” I told him. “Not right away: you have to live life before you can write about it. Have some adventures first. Find something that scares you and do it. Live someplace where you don’t speak the language; travel.

“But after that,” I said, “when the time comes to choose a career, publishing makes a lot of sense.”

It’s counterintuitive, I know. Publishing is an industry in flux, almost in crisis; and even in its heyday it never paid well. Still, for seriously aspiring writers, it’s a brilliant choice. Here are ten reasons why.

1. New York. Yeah, okay, there’s publishing in other places, too, but still: New York.

New York

2. Since aspiring writers usually start out as avid readers, publishing as a career has obvious appeal. Even among successful, well-published writers, only a tiny minority can live on what they make from writing, so the day job had better be satisfying in itself.

3. You will learn to speak Publishing, which has its own distinct lingo.

4. You’ll have the satisfaction of helping other writers along the path to publication. Publishing folk take great pride in the successes of “their” books. It’s good karma, too; what goes around comes around.

5. You’ll meet all sorts of people who can help you professionally: agents, editors, publicists and marketing mavens. None of them will take on a bad book as a favor; publishing is a bottom-line business, and professional courtesy only goes so far. But if you’ve got the chops as a writer, having friends in the industry can give you a big leg up.

The_philosopher6. Working in publishing will make you a better writer. Other people’s mistakes are always easier to see than one’s own. Editing sharpens the critical eye you need to apply to your own work.

7. It will make you a smarter writer, too. You’ll witness writers making every possible career mistake. When your turn comes, you’ll be savvier. There’s an old Jewish saying: It’s better to learn to shave on someone else’s beard.

8. punchIt will take you out of yourself. Many writers are natural observers, fly-on-the-wall types. The isolation inherent in writing can exacerbate this tendency. Working in publishing will teach you to speak up, lean in, even land a punch now and then (metaphorically speaking, for the most part.)

9. The people you’ll meet, the places you’ll go! I worked in publishing on two continents before starting my own literary agency. Apart from nearly starving the first year or two, I had an amazing career until I gave it up to write full time. I traveled widely, sold hundreds of books, and met writers, publishers and agents from all over the world, including people I’d admired all my life.

The pay’s a joke, especially in junior positions, but this profession has never attracted people whose primary motivation is money. The publishing people I know are smart, passionate, intellectually curious people who at some point in their lives were gobsmacked by a book and never got over it. You can’t find much better company than that.

10. Did I mention New York?

 

If you’re curious about my publishing career,  this post may be of interest.

 

MANNERS!

Huddle up, writers. This post’s for you.

As social media has eroded the once formidable barrier between writers and readers, it is now commonplace, even expected, for readers to contact writers directly via the writer’s website, Facebook, Twitter or other online venue. For the most part this is a good thing for writers. Hearing from readers is encouraging and a balm to the essential loneliness of the job.

lurkerBut with greater contact comes greater friction. Writers are now exposed to unvarnished reader reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, and other book venues, and therein lies the problem. Stories abound (and rebound) about writers retaliating for bad reviews by outing anonymous bloggers and harassing, stalking, threatening, doxxing, even physically attacking reviewers.

Writers, of course, have a long and storied history of bad behavior, but this particular form of misbehavior is seen primarily (though by no means exclusively) among self-published writers. This makes sense, because at its core, the behavior arises from a boundary problem. Overly reactive writers are like helicopter parents, fiercely protective and unable to distinguish themselves from their offspring. Writers who publish traditionally give their work over to specialists who expertly edit, package, produce and market the book. It takes close to a year. By the time the book is released, the writer has already let go and most likely is working on her next. Self-published writers go through a much shorter process, in which they control every phase. The cord is never severed, so when the book comes out, it is still flesh of their flesh, undifferentiated.

This is not a good thing. There’s a reason we speak of “releasing” books. They are finished works that we send out into the world. However they’re published, once released, they must be allowed to stand on their own. Readers have every right to their own opinions and interpretations, which at that point are just as valid as the author’s.

Much is changing in the publishing world, but some values remain constant. I have therefore taken upon myself the role of Miss Publishing Manners and jotted down a few simple guidelines:

Rogan’s Rules of Writerly Decorum

1. What do we writers owe readers? In return for their investment of time and sometimes money, we owe readers an entertaining and/or edifying experience, preferably both.

What we don’t owe are explanations or justifications. These are not good uses of our time and attention. The book stands on its own and speaks for itself.

2. What do readers owe writers? Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Their side of the contract is fulfilled by reading. Specifically, they don’t owe us reviews, recommendations, accolades, attendance at events, or financial support in the form of book purchases. We are, to be sure, grateful for any of these, but we are not entitled to them.

But writers are not saints, you may protest. We can’t be expected to turn the other cheek when our work is maligned. I agree, being neither constitutionally nor culturally equipped to turn the other cheek.  There are times when strong language is indicated, and writers have great stores of the stuff on hand. We should feel free to vent in private to friends and family about the astonishing blindness and stupidity of certain critics.

But in public? Shtum.

dianagabaldonI have a friend and colleague, Diana Gabaldon, author of the wildly popular Outlander series. Her reply to a post from a critical reader struck me as the epitome of class, economy, and good sense.

“Not all books are for all people.  I hope you enjoy whatever you read next.”

 

For more posts on the business and craft of writing, subscribe to In Cold Ink  via links above and to the right.

WRITERS, LIES, AND FILTHY LUCRE

money

Lately writers have been talking about a piece by Ann Bauer in Salon. Entitled “Sponsored by My Husband,” the essay reveals that Bauer’s writing career is subsidized by her husband’s comfortable salary. “All that disclosure is crass,” she writes. “I’m sorry. Because in this world, where women will sit around discussing the various topiary shapes of their bikini waxes, the conversation about money (or privilege) is the one we never have.”

breaking_upWe don’t? Over the course of my career in writing and publishing, and as a frequent presenter at writers’ conferences, I’ve met countless published writers; and I’ve yet to take part in a conversation that didn’t devolve within seconds to talk of money. It’s an obsession, probably because there’s so little of it to be had in the profession. If you see a few professional writers at a table with their heads together, I guarantee you they’re not talking about the use of metaphor in modern fiction or the latest linguistics theory. They’re dishing about advances, royalty rates, and the monetization of backlists.

Of course, that’s talking writer to writer. When it comes to public speaking, writers have a different agenda. They talk about art and transformation, hard work allied with inspiration.  Bauer attributes this to their desire to present an Olympian image: the Celebrated Author descending from on high to disperse wit and wisdom to the adoring throngs (or semi-throngs; the usual book event draws an average of 8 to 12 attendees, half of them related to the author.)

slushThere are more generous explanations; but even if Bauer’s is right, should we begrudge writers their little affectations? I don’t think so. In real life, most writers are working stiffs with mortgages, kids, and too little money. Once in a while, though, we get to dress up and play rock stars; and what’s the harm in that? Consider the writer’s life. For years at a time, she leads a cloistered existence, laboring in isolation without feedback, encouragement, or paycheck. Then her book is published, and there is a great flurry of activity. The writer takes off her sweats, dons her official writer clothes,  and emerges blinking from her cave to toasts and accolades. It would take a hard heart to deny her a bit of basking and a glass or two of champagne before shutting her up again.

But writers should tell the truth, insists Bauer, though I’m not sure why; no one else does.  “We do an enormous ‘let them eat cake’ disservice to our community,” she writes, “when we obfuscate the circumstances that help us write, publish and in some way succeed.”

Depends, say I. Sometimes a little obfuscation can be a good thing. As a fiction writer, I have, admittedly, an ambiguous relationship to the truth; that is, I think it takes many forms beyond the literal. But in this case, my objection to excessive truth-telling is practical. If authors were to use public appearances to complain about how poorly they are paid (which is absolutely true), how would audiences react? They’d still see the author as privileged, only now they see him as privileged and whiny. Every profession has its drawbacks. Very few writers would swap theirs for, say, coal mining or sausage making. Personally, I’d rather use those rare public outings to shine a light on my work than on the conditions under which it’s produced.

I’m all for honesty and openness, in their place. This blog’s mission is to provide just that sort of honest, down-to-earth guidance to other writers, both published and aspiring. I believe writers need to share information and experience in order to plot our path through the rapidly changing publishing ecosphere.

But don’t cork up that champagne just yet! If we can’t have riches, we can at least have fun. One of the characters in my last book, A DANGEROUS FICTION, makes an appearance at her book launch dressed as Cleopatra, borne on a litter by four strapping young men in togas. Ms. Bauer might think this over the top. To me, it seems about right.

woman in litter

 

Major announcement coming soon, of particular interest to writers. If you haven’t already, you might want to subscribe to this blog through the links on top or to the right.

 

Why I Signed the New York Times Letter

 

On Sunday, August 10, an open letter to readers signed by over 900 writers appeared as a full-page ad in the New York Times. The letter does not take sides in the merits of the business dispute between Amazon and Hachette, but rather protests the collateral damage done to Hachette writers by Amazon’s tactics.

I was one of the signatories.

I signed the letter for a few reasons: First, out of empathy for the writers whose books recently came out or are about to come out with Hachette. Writers only get one chance to launch a book, and if the largest distributor in the country refuses to carry or discourages readers from ordering it, those lost sales will never be made up. So many things can go wrong during the publishing process, and they so often do, that any writer who’s been around for a while must empathize with those unlucky writers. (Or so you’d think…but I’ll get to that later.)

Second, because as a writer myself, I object to writers being used as cannon fodder. Self-serving, no doubt, but there you go.

And third, because what are the odds of me ever again being on the same list as Stephen King, Scott Turow, Barbara Kingsolver and James Patterson?

Kidding. I didn’t know who else was signing the letter when I added my name to it, though I was pleased when it came out to see that many writers with far more to lose than I were willing to append their names.

But I signed the letter with a heavy heart, because the reader in me loves Amazon. I love the company’s customer service and efficiency. I barely have time to think of a book before it is displayed before me, accessible at a click. Obscure backlist books by writers I love? No problem; if Amazon doesn’t have it, they’ll tell me who does. Endless bargain bins, daily specials, and unlimited bookshelf space in my Kindle: what’s not to love? I’m not alone in this. Lots of publishing people who consider Amazon the great Satan read submissions on their Kindles.

As a writer, though, Amazon scares me. I fear that in its relentless quest for low prices and ever-greater market share, it’s morphing into Walmart. It has also taken out whole sectors of the publishing eco-structure. First it discounted most brick and mortar bookstores out of existence. Then it took a shot at publishers themselves. The plan was to siphon off a cadre of best-selling writers, cutting publishers out by offering writers a much larger share of the profits. But the increased e-book revenue came at the expense of print book sales, as brick-and-mortar bookstores refused to carry Amazon’s books. A few writers went over to Amazon, supplemented by several best-selling self-published writers, including some of those currently spearheading the pro-Amazon campaign I talk about below. But on the whole, the attempt to cut out publishers fell flat.

There is, of course, one sector of writers that has been greatly helped by Amazon. The company has been hospitable to self-published authors from the very beginning. They do self-published writers the service (and readers, I would argue, the disservice) of not distinguishing in their listings between published and self-published books. Over 7000 of these writers have weighed into the dispute with their own petition, a pro-Amazon screed denouncing Hachette and “New York Publishing.” I’d like to quote and comment on just a few lines from that long petition:

“New York Publishing once controlled the book industry. They decided which stories you were allowed to read.”

Sounds awful, doesn’t it? Can’t you just see that committee of old white men locked in an airless board room, making their decisions about what you can or cannot read? It’s a good story, if you like dystopian fantasy. In fact, commercial publishing is made up of separate and competing businesses, including the so-called Big Five but also many smaller houses. Each of them is striving to do what all businesses strive to do: make a profit. Each buys the books it believes will be profitable. Each turns down books they deem commercially nonviable for their company. Because there is far more supply than demand, they are extremely picky about what they choose to publish. That is their business and their right.

One might argue that it’s also Amazon’s business and right to do whatever it can to maximize its market share and improve profits. It’s the nature of businesses to expand if they can; it’s what shareholders demand. The big chains Amazon crushed got where they were by gobbling up smaller chains. These are reasonable arguments to have. But point of the letter I signed is not to adjudicate the dispute between Amazon and Hachette, only to protest tactics that scapegoat writers.

 “The establishment media and many big name, multi-millionaire writers are out in full force to spread this propaganda.”

This is also a favorite theme in the comment sections of many articles on the dispute, and it’s both revealing and absurd. Of the 900 or so writers who signed that open letter, maybe a dozen are household names in literate households. Of those, several are millionaires. But the vast majority of writers are working stiffs like me, who earn less from writing then they would have from almost every other field of endeavor they might have chosen.

Marie AntoinetteThis is really one of the saddest parts of this dispute is the pitting of writers against one another. Everywhere you look you see writers bashing writers, or lecturing them on their true interests, which is about as much fun as being buttonholed by Jehovah’s Witnesses. “Amazon has democratized publishing,” wrote one typical commenter, while Big Publishing and its lackey house-writers fight to uphold an outdated, elitist model. Go ahead and picture Marie Antoinette gouging on cake while the people starve; you’re meant to.

Hachette writers have a direct interest in this matter. Commercially published writers do as well, since Hachette is only the first to take on what will undoubtedly be an issue of contention with all the other major publishers. But why would thousands of writers jump into a dispute in which they have no part, taking sides against their fellow writers?

I think the advent of self-publishing is on the whole a force for the good. Many I know have revived careers by reissuing backlist books, while others have launched their careers through self-publishing. It’s a great thing that writers now have options. Nevertheless, some self-published writers, despite impressive gains in market share, harbor enormous resentment against the trade publishing houses who declined to buy their work. They feel they are regarded as second-class citizens in the literary world, and when the opportunity presents to pile onto an embattled publisher, they seize it. This animus spills over to the “privileged” writers who do publish with those houses. Sympathy for Hachette’s unlucky writers? Let them eat cake, those writers scoff. They’re all rich anyway.

I wish! But let’s not go into that again. It’s a little-known but well-established fact that writers, when they meet, spend most of their time discussing, not literature, but money, which comes from having too little of it. Poets are the worst, because they make the least. What helps is the sense that we’re all in it together.

Something to think about.

Here are some good posts if you want to learn more about the Amazon-Hachette battle and what it means for writers.

Mike Shatzkin

N.Y. Times

Jake Kerr

 

Some book news to share: The ebook of A DANGEROUS FICTION is now just $7.99, and the paperback’s available as well, in stores and online. The launch of the paperback is drawing some renewed attention from critics, as well. This terrific review just came out from Joe Meyer of CT News. If you haven’t read it yet, summer’s awasting.

20130821_130753_1

 

WHAT I LEARNED FROM J. K. ROWLING

Good writers never stop learning their craft, and the best teachers are other writers. My most recent lesson came from J. K. Rowling, a.k.a. Robert Galbraith.

silkwormVery few books in a lifetime of reading have delighted me as much as the Harry Potter series, so naturally I was eager to read the adult novels that followed them. The Casual Vacancy was a disappointment, lacking even the ordinary magic of storytelling. But the two books that followed, The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm, published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, showed Rowling back on track. They are wonderfully absorbing novels, hard to put down once begun.

Of course, writers can’t simply enjoy stories without poking and prodding the mechanism, trying to see how the thing works. I recognized some of the standard ingredients of good fiction: tangible settings, the skillful use of suspense, colorful secondary characters, and two exceptionally likable main characters in private detective Cormoran Strike and his assistant, Robin. As I read The Silkworm, it struck me that Strike and Harry Potter actually have a lot in common. They are both orphans, in Strike’s case functionally rather than formally, since he has a living but estranged father. And  both have painful physical problems. For Harry it starts with the scar on his forehead that burns periodically but goes far beyond that.  Everything he does to achieve his goals comes at a cost that is very often dangerous and painful. There’s a line in one of the books in which Ginny, seeing Harry enter the Great Hall, says, “He’s covered in blood. Why is he always covered in blood?”

Cormoran, who lost part of a leg to a war injury, has an ill-fitting prosthesis that causes him great pain throughout much of both novels. At one point in The Silkworm, he is unable to fit the prosthetic onto his swollen stump. Does he seek out medical help, like any normal person would? Of course not. Lives are at stake, a fiendish murderer is on the loose, and an innocent woman stands charged. He continues the chase on one leg.

RowlingCormoran, like Harry Potter, sacrifices himself to save others. I would hardly be the first to observe that the Harry Potter books are imbued with Christian theology and symbolism, or that Harry himself plays the role of Jesus, sacrificing himself so that others may live (although the Harry Potter books have a happier ending.) But Cormoran’s disability is less germane to the novels’ plots, and thus in a way more interesting. Its main purposes, as far as I can tell, are to make the character nobler and more sympathetic, and to create additional obstacles in his path to success. Rowling succeeds in both respects.

When solving a crime is just a job and the process unfolds intellectually, readers can enjoy the puzzle-solving aspect without getting deeply involved with the characters. But when the detective has flesh in the game, it’s a whole different level of story. Because I felt Cormoran’s pain subliminally throughout the story, there was an under-layer of discomfort to the experience of reading that lent a sense of urgency and fed my impatience for a resolution. I wanted him off that leg!

Mark Twain once said that his way of telling a story is to chase his protagonist up a tree and throw rocks at him. The harder we make life for our protagonists, the greater the obstacles they have to overcome, the more readers will care. One of the problems I see in a lot of student fiction (and occasionally in my own) is that writers feel too much for their protagonists and thus take pity on them. But writing requires a certain level of ruthlessness. Sometimes, to be kind to our readers, we must be cruel to our characters.

 

New Mind-Altering Substance Identified. It’s Called Writing.

 

outsiderFiction writers share several traits. Just about all of us were avid readers as children; and most are, or feel like, outsiders. We might have families and active social lives, but there is something in us that stands apart from even the most moving or fraught events: an observing, sorting, shaping eye. I imagine it is similar to the way professional photographers see the world, through movable frames invisible to the rest of us.

I’ll give you one example; every writer I know could cite his own. One of the most distressing days in my life came when my toddler son was acutely ill with respiratory distress. We spent 24 hours in a Brooklyn ER while he struggled to breathe, a tracheotomy kit tacked above his crib, and doctors worked to establish the cause. I was at his side the whole time, exhausted and deeply anxious; and yet, even then, part of me saw the scene through a writer’s eye. Certain things struck me during that long day, and they would provide both the inspiration and the setting for my third novel, A Heartbeat Away.

New research in neuroscience has discovered some interesting objective correlates to writers’ subjective experience. If writers feel different, it may be because they are different. Experiments by researchers at the University of Greifswald in Germany, as reported recently by Carl Zimmer in the New York Times, used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) technology to observe activity in the brains of two groups of subjects: experienced fiction writers and a control group of novice writers. All subjects were read several lines of a story. They were asked to brainstorm for a few minutes about continuing the story and then to write for two minutes.

The results for the two groups were markedly different.

During the brainstorming sessions, the brains of the novice writers lit up in the visual area. It seems as if envisioning an imaginary scene uses the same mental muscles as actually experiencing it.

mad scientistThis, by the way, seems to me to correlate with earlier research, also through fMRI technology, into the brain activity of people reading fiction. Readers’ brains reacted just as they would if the experiences in the story were real. When descriptions evoked the senses, the appropriate sensory areas of the brain lit up. Interactions between characters activated the same part of the brain as interactions with real people, which may explain why readers can form deep and lasting relationships with fictional characters. When non-writers write fiction, they use the same parts of the brain as they would in reading fiction.

The brains of experienced writers reacted differently. During the brainstorming sessions, their brains showed increased activity in the areas involved in language, not vision. To me, this finding relates to my own experience and that of many other writers: that sense of standing outside events, observing, even describing them to oneself. Like photographers, writers frame life, processing it into narration even as they live it.

After the brainstorming sessions, when the two groups began to write their own lines, their brains continued to draw on different regions. In the expert writers’ brains, a region called the caudate nucleus was activated; not so in the brains of novice writers. This area of the brain plays a role in skills acquired with practice, including sports, music, and games. Actions that in the beginning require conscious effort become less conscious with practice, migrating to a deeper level of the brain.

As a teacher of fiction writing, I see this clearly in the development of beginning writers as they learn their craft. Initially, most struggle with maintaining a consistent point of view. POV in general is terrifically hard and confusing… until suddenly it’s not. After enough practice and feedback, it becomes second nature, not something one needs to think about while writing.

Kind of ironic, if you think about it. Remember the old warnings against taking drugs, because mind-altering substances can, well, alter minds? Turns out writing does, too.

brain

For more on this subject, see this post.

For additional, sporadic outpourings from this brain, subscribe to this blog through the links to the right. 

Finally, 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.

 

 

The Orneriness of the Long-Distance Writer

 

Writers with children often complain about the difficulty of combining these two particular endeavors. It’s not easy, but I am here to tell you, my fellow writers, that it can be done. I raised two sons while writing eight novels. True, I could have written 15 without the kids, but I consider that a fair trade-off.

It won’t happen by itself, though. Children are sneaky buggers and will consume all of your time if you let them. If you’re serious about writing, you need to create conditions in which writing is possible. Fortunately, a few simple rules and equipment are all you need. I’ve compiled a little list. I hope it will help.

Things You Need

A Room of One’s Own. If you have not yet read the Virginia Wolfe essay of that title, do so at once. Then designate a room in your home as your writing space. Doesn’t matter what sort of room, as long as it has a door. I knew a writer with 10 children and a tiny house; she worked in her garden shed.

lockChildproof Your Space. By childproof, I don’t mean make it safe for kids. I mean make it impossible for them to get in. Not just a door, but a lockable door.

A Dog. I recommend a German Shepherd – not the American-bred shepherds with the sweet disposition of cocker spaniels, but a European-bred dog with plenty of protective drive. My late, lamented Maya understood and enforced the sanctity of my writing space. She was a sweetheart of a dog, but anyone who entered my office while I was working was greeted with a ferocious volley of barks. She never bit; she only persuaded.

German Shepherd Military Working Dog

A Helpful Partner. Not essential, but highly desirable. Someone has to pick up the slack.

Early Education. When my children were toddlers, I taught them to recite two things: their address and the following mantra.

Me: “When can you interrupt Mommy at work?”

Boys in unison: “In case of fire, flood, or injury with spurting blood.”

The one time my younger son burst in on me, he actually was covered in blood. It was his brother’s, not his own. Basketball accident. Sweat suits aside, the great advantage to working at home is that you’re actually there when you’re needed.

Besides, it doesn’t hurt kids to be independent. It might even help.

angelic childrenGood Kids. You can’t supervise children and write at the same time. Therefore, it’s helpful to have good kids. Of course, good or bad, you might as well resign yourself to the fact that kids will cut into your writing time. For one thing, they like to eat. For another, they tend to take up activities. I drove half the circumference of the earth conveying mine to practices, games, meetings, friends’ homes and various activities. But when I wasn’t being Taxidriver Mom, Dr. Mom, Chef Mom, or World’s Most Embarrassing Cheerleader Mom, when I was working, the mantra applied.

Duct Tape. In case all else fails.

Orneriness. There is no “nice” in writer. There is obsession. There has to be, especially for novelists, because novels take a long time to write. To succeed, you must batten down your inner sweetheart and practice saying no, and not just to your kids.

It’s easy once you get the hang of it. “Could you run the bake sale for the PTA?” “No, I’m working.” “Would you mind watching Cindy for the afternoon?” “Sorry, I’m working.” “Come take a dip in the pool.” Okay, that one I give into.

 

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.

An Overnight Success In Four Years

 

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

sick person

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

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

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

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

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

 

DSC_6046

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

New Author Study Shows Preference for Traditional Publishing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

An Experiment in Genre

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

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

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

 

           Writing to Genre without Selling Out

                        Blog post by C. S. Lakin

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 What Did I Do Wrong?

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

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

 It Was Time I Faced the Truth

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

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

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

 Maybe It’s Just Luck

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

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

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

 I was dying to find out.

 My Genre Experiment

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

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

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

 My Results

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

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

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

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

 Genre Isn’t the Only Factor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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