publishing

Just One More Fact…

I can relate to this from the Chronicle of Higher Education:

“And then there’s the reference manual on amphibians and reptiles that first crossed her desk in 1994, during an earlier stretch of her career at the Kentucky press. The author in that case, Ms. Salisbury wrote, had spent more than 30 years collecting data for the book. But every time publication seemed imminent, the author would discover a new data point — say, a new span of territory that a lizard might inhabit in the state.”

At some point you just have to declare a book done.

Writing, Risk and Reward

There is an interesting article today on Teleread that aggregates some of the comments flying back and forth between authors and Steven Zacharius, head of Kensingon Publishing. Among the comments from authors trying to explain the gulf between how writers and publishers view the business, was this one from Kathlena Contreras.

Okay, here’s the thing. Every single word I write is “on spec,” to borrow a contracting term. Every word. No matter how many hours, days and weeks I spend writing, there is no guarantee that anyone will ever buy my work, paying for my hundreds of man hours, much less whatever I spend on covers and so forth. I am taking 100% of the risk that I will ever see a dime of payback for my efforts.

Publishers, on the other hand, see manuscripts as fruit from a miraculous vine that never ceases producing. They go to the vine and select the most beautiful and succulent fruit, spend hours and money preparing it, then serve it for consumption. (Thanks to Kris Rusch for the metaphor of stories as produce.)

Does the publisher take risk? Yes. Does the publisher take as much risk as the writer? I don’t know. But if those hours and investments were added up, I suspect not, especially if you include all those manuscripts written that are never accepted by a publisher.

If I could have done so without causing the people in my immediate vicinity to give me strange looks I would have shouted “Hear! Hear!” 

When I first got a literary agent (I had sold my first books, including my best selling book to date on my own) I was initially thrilled with the work he did on my behalf. He got me a contract with a major publisher fairly quickly and after that he followed up with leads on proposals on a regular basis. These were not ideas I originated, but concepts pitched to me by the agent on behalf of an editor somewhere. I felt optimistic. I had never churned out as many proposals in my life– proposals for my own concepts, revisions of proposals to tailor them to specific editors, and proposals requested of me.  The good news was, I had constant work. The bad news was, none of it came with a salary. Few of the proposals actually panned out and became books. When I started to be a bit reluctant to keep doing full proposals, and asking how likely the lead was to have a result before I did the work, I got the sense that my agent thought I was lazy. I wasn’t. I was hungry and burnt out. I realized that if I was going to survive, I had to pace myself, monitor my energy, and make some money for the writing I did.

I have had almost as many proposals requested of me, for book ideas I did not generate, which were subsequently rejected by the very people who had come up with the idea in the first place, as I have had published books. (See also my previous article “You Weren’t Expecting to Be Paid, Were You?“)

Unless you are at a J.K. Rowling or Stephen King level, publishing contracts are generally designed to mitigate the risk on the side of the publisher. Let’s face it, the publisher has the upper hand when dealing with starving writers. It is standard, for example, for a contract to get first right of refusal on the author’s next work, and for the publisher to wait until the first book is published to see how much it makes before even looking at the next proposal. This makes complete sense from the publisher’s perspective, they want to hold on to the author if they have a hit on their hands, and they don’t want to be committed to publish a second book by an author whose book goes straight to the remainder bin.

“It is your advantage,” I have been told. It would be if it meant that they were going to snap up the next thing I sent them.  “Refusal” though, usually means exactly that– refusing to buy your next proposal.  It can be as much as a year between the time an author finishes a book and the time the publisher is ready to release it. After that, they want to wait until the first royalty statement and sometimes until the second to see the results.  That means it can easily be a year and a half or more before you know that you’ve been refused, a length of time that you are unable to move forward on your next project as an author. (You can, of course, always work– writing and saving up proposals and manuscripts. What you’re not able to do during that time is try to line up the next payment for your work.)  By the time the publisher does get around to first refusal, the fact that they have refused tends to remove some of the luster from the proposal and the enthusiasm on the part of the agent. Even if your agent remains enthusiastic and sends it around, it can be months before you hear back from everyone. It is a long time to wait between jobs.

The publisher is taking a risk with your book, and gambling on whether or not they will want to keep you. The writer is gambling with her ability to have a stable career, housing, food. If the risk the writer takes is not financially greater than that of the publisher, it is certainly more personal and deeply felt.

The idea of the artist as a risk taking entrepreneur is an important one. I don’t know if acknowledging the investment of the writer and the amount of risk she brings to the table will do much to change the dynamic between writers and publishers. It seems to me that businesses trying to capitalize on labor by minimizing their risk and keeping salaries down is not something that is going to go away any time soon. Changing the dialogue and the way we value ourselves, though, is a good first step.

See also:

Be Favorable to Bold Enterprises

Why Writers Choose to “Go Indie”

A Facebook friend of mine drew my attention to an “Opening Day Party” at Awesome Indies that posted independent authors’ responses to the question of why they chose indie publishing over traditional publishing.  My novel, Angel, is listed and reviewed on the site so I gave some thought to the question “Why did you choose to go indie?”

If I were to answer honestly I would have to say that I did not choose to go indie.  I sold my novel to a very small publisher because I was not having much luck convincing larger publishers that my book was commercial enough to warrant their investment in it.  I hasten to add that I do not mean to imply anything negative about Itineris Press because they were not the first publisher I thought of.  I am grateful to them for having the vision to take a chance on Angel and they did a great job with editing, cover design and everything you could want in a publisher.

I suspect this is the case with most indie authors, at least as they start out.  If they are not overwhelmed to begin with by not knowing where to start to query publishers, they send out their proposals and wait for feedback. Depending on how invested they are in finding a traditional publisher, an on how they respond to rejection and criticism and so on, they circulate the book for a longer or shorter time and then decide that they don’t want to A. wait B. change something C. have to deal with these publishing idiots any more.

To me there is not a great deal of difference between indie and traditional publishing.  They are simply two different ways to make your material available. In one method someone else is the publisher, in the other you are the publisher.  I prefer working with traditional publishers because I like having a team.  (I’ve always found the reasoning a little strange when people say they don’t want to go with traditional publishers because they don’t offer enough promotional support, instead they want to go indie which guarantees they will have no support at all.)

I also know that there are times when the best way to make a work available is to go it alone.  Experience and experimentation will tell you which will work best for your particular writing.  In either case, what you are trying to do is to find an audience for your work.  In neither case is this easy.

The key to building an audience, I find, is the same regardless of how you put the work out there.  You need to do a lot of marketing and you need to have a consistent voice and style that carries over from one book to another so people who like one will stay with you through the next.

Indie success stories are extremely rare.  The ones who do make real money tend to write in a recognizable genre and have a consistent voice.  Big publishers want to hire people based on their past work and how it performed.

The type of writer who has the worst time of it is the one who is terribly eclectic.  I am one of these unfortunate creatures.  I know that the audience for my novel Angel is entirely different from the audience for my next book with Reader’s Digest, Don’t Screw It Up.  It is hard to use one to build on the other.

The answer to this problem does not lie in indie publishing or non-indie publishing.  It is a marketing challenge.  Even so, as an artist, if I may use this word, it is important to me to keep exploring all of my literary interests and to try to get the things I write to the people who would respond most to them.

So why I chose to go “indie” is that on some titles I am the best publisher for my work and for others I can get better results with someone else.  It depends on which “Laura Lee” is writing and whether or not I’ve found a champion for a particular project.

You Weren’t Expecting to be Paid, Were You? (The Worst of Being a Writer)

Over at the blog Written Words, Scott “the writer” Bury hosts a series of guest posts in which writers share the best and worst parts of being a writer.  Andy Hollomon, for example, likes interacting with readers and dislikes the editing and revising process.

I thought I would take my own stab at a best and worst of being a writer post.  I can honestly say that I like the entire process of writing, including editing and revising. I like the alternating rhythm of flow and what is called writer’s block.  I like to go back to what I’ve written and to try to make it just a bit better.  When I relax, for fun, I write articles in my head, going back over the sentences I just dreamed up to find just the right turns of phrase.

What I dislike about being a writer is just about every part that does not involve the actual writing. There is no part of building a literary career that is not insanely difficult. The main reason for this, I have concluded, is that it is one of the rare fields where a person is considered to be a professional and yet is not expected to make a living.

You may think this is an exaggeration, but I assure you it is not.  Accidents do happen, and you occasionally get a Twilight or a 50 Shades of Gray, but for the most part publishing, including books and magazines, operates on the principle that the writer is either married to a primary breadwinner, holds a tenured teaching position that provides time for writing, is retired and collecting a pension or works full time at some other occupation.

Paradoxically, when a writer is negotiating a contract and expresses a desire for terms that might provide the kind of security regular job fields provide, the publishers and agents in the process tend to take it as proof that she is an amateur and doesn’t know how the system works.  If you know how the system works, you know that real writers do not expect to be paid in a timely fashion, or the amount they negotiated, or maybe at all.

Let me give you an example of the experience I just had writing for a major magazine. I believed I was incredibly fortunate when the publication requested an article from me.  I did not query them, they suggested the article based on a book proposal I’d sent to their book division.  This magazine is one of the holdouts that still pays writers a decent amount for articles.  (This may change. It is part of a company that is going through a bankruptcy, and the money managers may decide this whole paying writers thing is a bit unnecessary.  After all, not paying has worked well for The Huffington Post. In any case, I was assured that the parent company’s filing did not impact the editorial department.  I do not know if it did or not.)

I felt fortunate, as well, to be given a standard contract that stipulated payment “on acceptance” rather than “on publication.”  Writers only control the quality of their work.  They have no control over when a magazine chooses to publish.  “On publication” could be a year down the line.

Here’s the thing, though.  As a writer you also have little control over how long it takes an editorial team to get around to “accepting” your work.  When I have done magazine articles in the past, it was a fairly straight forward process.  I discussed what the publication wanted with the editor in advance, I wrote based on our discussion, turned it in and the editor said it was fine and had the office people start the process of cutting a check.  (I believe publishers still do this on antique letter presses with custom characters for each job.  I assume this because of how long check cutting tends to take.)

This article would cover a number of different subjects and I went back and forth with the editor on how many it would be possible to cover and do justice to given my assigned word count.  I thought that fewer topics would be better.  She wanted to put about ten topics into the article, which meant that each only would be only a few lines.  I went off and researched the topics, wrote the article, sent it off and waited for feedback.  And I waited.

After a couple of months I ventured to ask where the article (and payment) were in the process.  I was told that it looked good, and that I could expect acceptance and payment “soon.”  And I waited.  I started to believe, with childlike innocence, that a substantial check would arrive in the mailbox any day.

At which point, the editor got back to me to say that the editorial team had suggested that the entries in the article were a bit slim and needed a bit more material to give them depth.  This is what I had said originally, but I followed my instructions.  Now I had new instructions which meant that my check was not in the mail.  In fact, I needed to re-work the article and start the process again. So I cut some topics in order to keep the word count and expand the entries.  I resubmitted the piece, confident that now that I had written it as requested (twice) I would soon be getting my paycheck.

Time passed.

The next communication from the editor was a request to send a list of potential topics for the article so that the editorial team could decide which ones I should write.  In case you did not get the nuances on this request– after asking for direction, discussing the topics to be included, writing and rewriting the article– they now wanted to start from scratch and chose new topics for me to research and write.

I may not have been as diplomatic as I would have wanted when I asked if writing a new article based on some of the suggested topics would result in getting paid at some point.

The editor responded with something about the terms of my contract.  I sent a list of potential topics for the twice written article.

Time passed.

I followed up.

“Good news!” said my editor. “The article has been slated for the December issue.”

This, I assumed with the innocence of a child, meant that the article would have to be accepted soon and I would have to get paid.

A week later, the editor wrote back to say that the magazine had decided to change its editorial focus and my article no longer fit their style.   They would not be paying me the full amount but a 25% kill fee.  The editor expressed her hope that we would work together again an suggested that I send ideas for more articles.

But now that my anticipated income for the work I already did has been reduced by 75%, I must admit I lack a certain motivation to suggest any new projects for this publication.

I did have one question though: “How long will it take for the kill fee to arrive?”

I am told it will come “soon.”

The Crash After Finishing A Literary Work

For me, the process of writing a novel or a play is one of daydreaming. I imagine little scenes, episodes. I write them down. At some point there are enough of them to string together, to create a big picture. There is a moment, a brief moment, when it is done and I see the characters as separate beings for the first time and I fall in love.

And then, shortly after, I move from creation to the thought of publication. How do I sell this? Who will buy? Will anyone ever see it?  My writing job is done, and I mourn a little. I finish my work, and I mourn.

Resistance is Vital or When is it Time to Self-Publish?

I know I run the risk of offending indie authors when I say this but here it goes: most self-published books are not novels but drafts of novels.

Most is the operative word in this sentence.  There are certainly excellent indie books, and there are good reasons and bad reasons to put out a book on one’s own.  As the publishing world contracts into one big corporation, independent publishing is the way that new voices can be heard.  It is wonderful that authors who are not deemed commercial enough can still find an outlet and an audience, and I do suspect that many of the literary stars of the near future will come from outside the traditional publishing industry.  (Let us assume, my fellow writer, that your indie book is an example of the good ones and it is those other people I am about to talk about.)

Let’s face it, self-publishing is also a way for people to avoid taking criticism, to avoid revision, to avoid learning.  If you’ve ever gone to a site that reviews indie books and looked at its guidelines– “no poorly laid out books, no shifts from third to first person narration, no characters that aren’t fleshed out, no bad grammar, no excessive typos”– you get the sense that most of the books that come to them are not of a professional quality, perhaps they could become so with a bit more effort, but they are not there yet.

In the past, readers were spared the author’s learning process.  Today new writers often publish books first and learn how to craft them later.  Young writers publish their first drafts, endure public pans, “unpublish” and put the book out again.

There is a joke that frustrated writers tell about publishers and agents.  They say editors separate the wheat from the chaff and publish the chaff.  They can be a frustrating barrier to entry, and they are not always right.  More often than not, I am afraid to say, they are.

Getting a novel right is a long term proposition.  It is a marathon, not a sprint.  Someone once wrote (I say it this way not because it was someone eminent, but because I can’t remember who it was) that runners do not have Boston Marathons in them waiting to get out.  A novel, like the marathon, is a peak experience that comes as the result of lots of tedious work.  In the case of the novel, that means lots of tedious rethinking and revision when you thought it was all done.

To jump to yet another metaphor (really where are those editors when you need them?): As stones are polished by the friction of ocean waves, novels are polished through resistance.

I have often said that I am glad that self-publishing was not an easy option when I started writing fiction, because I would not like to have done all my learning in public.  I surely would have published my first completed novel because at the time I was proud of it.  Why wouldn’t I be?  It was a lot of work to write a whole novel.  It expressed my point of view.  Looking back on it, I can even say that it had little flashes of something not entirely humiliating.  (The best bits have been scavenged for other things over the years.)  The fact of the matter is, though, that it was autobiographical in the worst way, self-indulgent, and probably boring too.  I still have affection for the novel.  I am still proud to have done it.  It was part of my process.  I am equally grateful that no copies exist anywhere on earth– at least nowhere that I can’t delete them.  I am grateful for every publisher who rejected it, and especially to the few who were kind and generous enough to take the time to explain exactly why.

I was fortunate enough to get published (in non-fiction) quite soon out of the gate.  The first book proposal I sent out (using Writer’s Market) was accepted about a month later.  I had the advantage of having a writer father who mentored me and taught me how to write strong proposals. My first book came out in 1999 and I published three more the following year.  By 2001 I had moved up to a midsize publisher.  That book sold quite well, (85,000 copies) allowing me to get an agent.  (Before I had sold that many books, I found it much easier to be accepted by publishers themselves than by agents.) I can’t tell you why this process went so smoothly for me or how to replicate it.  I can only tell you that’s how it started for me.

The only bit of advice I can give on how to get a foot in the door is that you have to kick your leg out.  A lot of beginning writers get so intimidated by the process that they don’t even try to query mainstream publishers.  If you try (in a systematic way with a strong query) and persist it might be easier than you think.

So for nearly as long as I can remember, I have had access to publishing professionals– publishers, editors and agents– who were willing to take me seriously and give me honest feedback when they rejected things like my terrible first novel.

Publishing professionals are not literary gods, they do make mistakes.  Their views are subjective.  But they do read more than just about anyone.  They do know what tends to sell and what doesn’t.  They do know what has been done too much or not enough.  They know how you compare to the other things in the slush pile.  They can tell the difference between a finished novel and a first draft.

I get frustrated with rejection, as any human being does.  But I have come to approach it with the following assumption, if an editor or agent doesn’t get what I am trying to do it is not because she is dense.  It is because I didn’t convey it well enough.  I need to go back and fix the problem.

You need to learn to interpret the feedback, of course.  If you just incorporate any suggestion anyone gives you you’ll be bashed around like a ping pong ball and I can’t imagine any good writing coming from that.  When you start getting reviews you see clearly that the aspect of a book one person loves is the very thing another hates.  So you need to make value judgments.  Sometimes you have to trust your instincts that something in your book is simply not that person’s taste, but is vital.

Even in that case, you might realize that the editor is telling you something important.  For example, an editor might say that she didn’t respond to something a character did in the second half of the book.  The problem might not be with the plot at all, it may be that you didn’t set something up well enough early on to make it clear why this had to happen.  Maybe there was some aspect of the character’s personality that made this action inevitable, but which you assumed rather than put on the page.

Rather than listening to the specific suggestion, listen to what the editor isn’t getting and then figure out how to make it clearer. You know that angry e-mail you wrote about how block headed this editor is to reject something so fabulous?  (Yeah, you know you want to, go ahead and write it– just don’t send it.)  Go back when you’ve got that off your chest and read your explanation of exactly why you made your artistic choice, then go back to your novel and make sure everything you just said shows up in the writing.  If you have to explain it, it probably doesn’t.

The process of revising a work to a professional level could be easy and swift or it could take years.  You may have to put it aside and come back to it with fresh eyes.  The point is, I think this is a part of the process that is vital and it risks being cut short by the easy availability of self-publishing.

There tends to come a time, though, when the feedback from the pros has less to do with flaws in the writing– things you can fix as a writer– and more to do with marketplace considerations.  “Books on skiing never sell.”   Once you start getting feedback like, “I loved your style but we just haven’t had luck with books with African-American firefighters as protagonists” it might be time to think about self-publishing.

As much as it pains the artist inside, and as much as it pains many in the industry, publishing houses are businesses that need to acquire properties that can turn a profit.  It is a difficult business, no one can predict the future or be a perfect diviner of readers’ tastes.  It may be that your lovely, little book is just not the type of thing that publishers think can find the kind of audience they need to survive– large and swift.   Just because you can’t move Harry Potter units doesn’t mean no one will buy the book.  You may not need a huge Random House audience to be satisfied as a writer.  Just remember that getting anyone to buy your independent or tiny press book will be a hard slog.  (See my “nothing works” series.)

I find that I am in exactly this position at the moment.  My most recent novel (It is strange to call it “recent” as it is actually a novel that I’ve been revising over the course of nearly 20 years with the help of negative feedback) has gotten to the point where it is no longer being rejected for its quality but for other market concerns.  For the moment, I am still trying to get it into the hands of someone inside the big old publishing world who sees its commercial potential.  (I, in fact, believe it has commercial potential.)  Selling is often a matter of persisting until you find the person who gets excited about your proposal.  On the other hand, now that I feel as though there is no more for me to do with it as a writer, I have left the indie option open.  Not yet, not yet, but if I have to I will.

Nothing Works Part II: Indie/Small Press Book Marketing Assessed

This is the second article in my series on the various book marketing techniques I tried and which produced actual sales (none did) and which were worth doing anyway. (See the previous post for more on my purpose in writing these.)

Doesn’t Work #7:  Blog Interviews.

I love doing interviews about my book. I hate talking about myself in general, but I love to talk about my work and the ideas behind it.  Doing interviews is great for your writerly self-esteem because it creates the impression that people are really interested in what you have to say about your book.  I manage to maintain this illusion even when I am sent a form interview by someone who has specifically done so because she has no interest in reading my book.  Occasionally I’ve seen comments posted after interviews I’ve done, although most often these were there when the interview was combined with a giveaway and that is what you had to do to win.

In any case, I love doing interviews about my work and its themes, and who knows, maybe the six books I sold in a given quarter went to people who liked what I had to say.

The main thing about interviews is this:  I repeat (from my previous post), people who do not already know you do not care to read about you.  Unless you are a member of a boy band, no one wants to know what your favorite color is or what food you like to eat for breakfast.  The only reason anyone would read an interview with a person he has never heard of before is to learn something about how to get his own books published, or about your book’s subject, or about the creative process.  If you are to have any hope of people being engaged in what you have to say, it can’t be about you and your hobbies.  If a blogger sends you a list of questions about whether or not you have pets, try to do what the politicians do when they do not want to answer something.  Change the subject.  “You bring up an interesting point about pets, I’m glad you asked that.  It relates to a problem I had in the third chapter of the novel…”

I will not say that interviews in general fail to sell books.  When my book The Pocket Encyclopedia of Aggravation came out in September 2001 I did not expect it to sell at all coming out, as it did, in the wake of a national tragedy.  My publicists advertised my availability for interviews in Radio TV Interview Report.  I was doing as many as three radio interviews a day for about a month and the book went on to sell 85,000 copies.

If you have a large budget I would recommend Radio TV Interview Report.  I have never had enough money to buy an ad there myself.  I have been successful with radio friendly books setting up radio interviews myself, and I did even line up a couple for my novel Angel, most notably the syndicated show State of Belief.

Radio interviews, mainstream press interviews if you can get them, will help.  Blog interviews certainly do not hurt.  Internet radio interviews are usually heard by 1-2 people, including yourself, but they are fun and decent practice.

None of these things resulted in a measurable uptick in sales for the novel, but again, you never know when something you put out there will resonate with the person who will become your greatest fan.  So it’s worth doing anyway.

Doesn’t Work #8: Guest Posts

I did a fair number of guest posts when Angel first came out.  A few were on blogs with larger circulations such as The Good Man Project.  I saw absolutely no evidence that it resulted in any sales or even any increased activity among my social media followers.  I have not had an article appear on the Huffington Post, and perhaps it would make a difference if I had.   The fact that most indie books sell fewer than 100 copies tends to suggest that all of that guest posting is not resulting in many new readers.

I am old enough to remember when writers were advised to write spin off articles on their books in order to sell them (that is sell– for money) and make a living wage.   Because of this, I am wary of spending a lot of time writing articles for free.  It is time consuming, and it is writing that is not going toward something more creatively fulfilling or lucrative, such as a proposal for a new book.

I am advised constantly by bloggers and even people in the industry that the key to selling books these days is doing lots of guest posts.  I am convinced that this is one of those things that is passed along without much reflection and that it simply does not work.  It is cheaper than buying paid advertising, but only if you ignore the fact that your writing time has value.   If you are blogging already, the best way to approach guest posting is to take subjects you feel compelled to write about anyway and post them somewhere else instead of your own blog.  This has the potential to make a few people aware of you who weren’t before.  On the other hand, it could just make your own blog less interesting because all your best stuff is posted elsewhere.   Indie writers often get in a hamster wheel of writing constantly and never getting paid.  You take the advice that you need to have a compelling blog, entertaining tweets and lots of guest posts.  You produce more writing than a full time journalist of days gone by but without the salary and then you try to write books on top of that and somehow also earn a living probably with a day job.  Something is not going to be done well, and there is a decent chance it is your next book.

One reason I suspect that guest posting is not very effective is the same reason paid print ads tend to be ineffective for books.  Professional advertisers know the key to a successful campaign is repetition.  GEICO does not run one ad and hope you act immediately.  They hit you over the head with their lizard.  Most writers don’t have the money to buy an ad campaign with enough repetition to have an impact and they do not guest post on a single blog regularly enough to become familiar to that blog’s audience.

There may be a savvy way to make guest posting work and shift some units.  The way it is usually done generally does not.