Our Uphill Battle as Writers, Part One

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman of Writer’s Digest (and former President and CEO of HarperCollins) passed on a somewhat horrifying statistic bandied about at BEA this week:

“7% of books published generate 87% of book sales. And 93% of all published books sell less than 1,000 copies each.”

Now the encouraging part is that those statistics were quoted during a panel discussion on DIY (Do It Yourself) publishing and how it’s changing the publishing world. Here’s the complete article from Publishers Weekly. If you’re

J.A. Konrath

feeling hopeless about ever getting your book published and into the hands of readers, I encourage you to read the whole article. Apparently, there is life after self-publishing. What kind of life is still up for debate. If you’re an established author like J.A. Konrath, it sounds like the life can be pretty good.

Here’s my quandary: I went ahead and self-published my first novel. Many traditionalists in the publishing industry will say I’ve pretty much shot myself in the foot…I’m branded forever. Any agent reading my query letter for my next novel will note my first book, look it up, and see it didn’t sell anywhere near 10,000 copies and pretty much assume that I don’t have what it takes. (Unfair, I know, but all they need is one little excuse to throw my query away.) So…do I try to publish traditionally under a different name (and does that even work?), or do I continue the self-publishing route? After all, if I can gradually build my own audience, who needs the elite publishing houses of NYC?

But then that statistic smacks me in the face again. Obviously, that 7% is represented by those very houses.

So, on the one hand, we’ve got authors like Konrath paving a DIY way for the vast majority of us writers…and, on the other, we’ve got the likes of Garrison Keillor bemoaning the fact that “book publishing is about to slide into the sea” with self-publishing because “when everyone’s a writer, no one is” in a column in yesterday’s Baltimore Sun.

Here is what he said in part:

We live in a literate time, and our children are writing up a storm, often combining letters and numerals (U R 2 1derful), blogging like crazy, reading for hours off their little screens, surfing around from Henry James to Jesse James to the epistle of James to pajamas to Obama to Alabama to Alanon to non-sequiturs, sequins, penguins, penal institutions, and it’s all free, and you read freely, you’re not committed to anything the way you are when you shell out $30 for a book, you’re like a hummingbird in an endless meadow of flowers.

And if you want to write, you just write and publish yourself. No need to ask permission, just open a website. And if you want to write a book, you just write it, send it to Lulu.com or BookSurge at Amazon or Pubit or ExLibris and you’ve got yourself an e-book. No problem. And that is the future of publishing: 18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives. Average annual earnings: $1.75.

Back in the day, we became writers through the laying on of hands. Some teacher who we worshipped touched our shoulder, and this benediction saw us through a hundred defeats. And then an editor smiled on us and wrote us a check, and our babies got shoes. But in the New Era, writers will be self-anointed. No passing of the torch. Just sit down and write the book. And the New York Times, the great brand name of publishing, whose imprimatur you covet for your book (‘brilliantly lyrical, edgy, suffused with light’ – NY Times) will vanish (Poof!). And editors will vanish.

The upside of self-publishing is that you can write whatever you wish, utter freedom, and that also is the downside. You can write whatever you wish, and everyone in the world can exercise their right to read the first three sentences and delete the rest.

Ouch!

I’d like to think that the stories I write are worth more than the first three sentences. But he does have a point. There are so many more novels being written today, so many more queries being sent out today. The odds of getting picked up by an agent, not to mention a big publishing house, have grown so long that it really does come down to a matter of luck and timing…and that’s only AFTER you’ve written something truly worthy.

I wish I’d started up this path 30 years ago, but I didn’t. Am I going to give up? No way. My knees may be weak, but I’ve got strong fingers. Besides, the higher the mountain, the greater the achievement.


Originally posted 2010-05-26 17:02:24.

Mom’s Sense of Adventure

My mom turns 84 this year (on July 4th) and shows no sign of slowing down, despite the recent insertion of a pacemaker. Last month she tap danced for more than three minutes at the ward talent show. (If you don’t believe me, check out my Facebook page…I uploaded the video.)

So, what’s she got going on this month? She’s jetting her way to Serbia, followed by a quick visit to old friends in Greece. You see, her older sister (who is something like 88) insisted on flying over to witness her granddaughter’s traditional wedding, but wanted company. So my mom, along with her sister’s other daughter and son-in-law, volunteered to make the trip. Knowing my mom, she’ll have a blast and take plenty of pictures of everyone, whether she knows them or not.

Here I sit beginning to feel the effects of arthritis in my shoulder, and Mom, who is about 30 years older than me, is off galavanting around the world. I know I inherited my writing genes from my father, but I sure hope I got some of Mom’s energy and sense of adventure to go with it!

Originally posted 2010-05-25 17:35:33.

Help With Social Networking

Last week I promised to share information on Social Oomph, a website designed to help save you time and effort in your social networking efforts. Originally, it keyed in on Twitter (and, in fact, used to be called Tweetlater, I believe), but now it’s set up to help with Facebook updates and Google Buzz (though the latter is in its first stage of development), as well.

I happened to run across mention of it when I was researching Google Friend Connect etiquette (which, by the way, still hasn’t been addressed to my satisfaction) on this blog by marketing guru Matthew Neer. If you’re not already familiar with it, it’s well worth a look.

If you’re a Twitter beginner, like me, and feel as if you’re setting foot on foreign terrain every time you tweet, Social Oomph provides a type of passport, as it were, easing your way into Twitterland and allowing you to set some automatic responses for new followers who come your way. After all, one of the worst things you can do on Twitter is not acknowledge new followers…you’ll lose them fast if they’re more diligent than you about checking in on a regular basis. As authors, that’s the last thing we want. We need to KEEP our readers, not lose them.

Also, as this video by the same marketing blogger (Matthew Neer) demonstrates, you can point new followers automatically to your FB site, your website, or your blog…as long as you don’t act like you’re selling anything.

There are several YouTube videos posted by others that also address how to work with Social Oomph, and you may want to check them out, as well.

Basically, the free website allows you to do several things, including the following:

  • Schedule tweets (plan for the day, set them, then forget them)
  • Track keywords (especially helpful if you’re into a particular niche)
  • Extend your Twitter profile (promoting yourself more)
  • Send DMs to new followers (automatically)
  • Track your clicks
  • Follow those who follow you (automatically)
  • Vet new followers (semi-automatically)
  • View @Mentions and Retweets
  • Purge your DM Inbox
  • Secure Twitter and Buzz access

There is an alternative to Social Oomph. It’s called HootSuite, but according to one reviewer, they are really complementary programs and he couldn’t recommend one over the other. In his opinion, Social Oomph has “awesome automation abilities” while Hootsuite offers “customization, tracking, and user-friendly features.” I haven’t checked it out yet, but since he recommended both, I may have to give it a look (particularly because they have an iPhone app).

I would love to hear from any of you who have had experience with either sites.

Originally posted 2010-05-24 09:44:14.

Distractions

I had planned to post about socialoomph today, but I’m having major problems with one of my email accounts that I need to get resolved. Also, I can’t sign into LinkedIn any more. Could the two problems be related? I don’t know yet, but it’s thrown a wrench into my writing plans for today.

That’s why it’s always a good idea to have a backup schedule–activities you can fall back on while you’re waiting for the experts to help you out of your fix.

I think this would be a good time to read. Just take myself away from this computer and open a book.

Oh, wait. All the books I’m scheduled to read are on my computer…or iPhone. At times like these, I’d love to time travel back to the 70’s before all this stuff became such a distraction.

Originally posted 2010-05-19 12:55:11.

I’m no Sally Field, but…

I don’t know how many of you were even watching the Oscars back in 1984 when Sally Field, upon winning her second statuette, couldn’t help herself and blurted out “…you like me, right now you like me…”

It was a moment that either touched you or made you squirm, depending on your reading of 1) her sincerity or 2) her “uncoolness.” I mean, it’s not cool to draw attention to yourself, is it?

But that’s what we’re asked to do today as authors. Writers (with the exceptions of Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal) are usually shy, retiring types, content to hide behind the written word. (I know I am, anyway.) They want their writing to be discovered, not themselves. But these days we have to get out there and meet and greet people, introduce ourselves online, in bookstores, libraries, even at the local Costco or Walmart.

We can no longer hide behind our characters or make do with an interview here or there. We have to share our souls, as well as our faces, on our websites, blogs, on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, our Amazon Author Page, you name it. It seems as if ten new online sites spring up every week, trying to convince you that if you don’t register with them, you’ll be left behind in cyberspace.

And after going through the initiation into Google Friend Connect, may I just say that now I fully understand the sentiment Ms. Field tried to convey years ago. Thank you to all those who joined my site.

I tried to look up Google Friend Connect etiquette, wondering if I was supposed to respond individually to each of you whose faces now share that little box with mine. I couldn’t find anything about it. (However, I did come across a goldmine of a post regarding the etiquette of socializing on Twitter…Heard of socialoomph.com? More about that tomorrow.)

So, if I’ve messed up somehow by not separately contacting each of you, please let me know (email would be a lot less humiliating than a comment below) and I will. But, for now, thank you all. Everybody wants to have friends, to be liked. Sally Field understood that. And I do, too.

Originally posted 2010-05-18 14:57:28.

I’m Ready for Review (I Think)

Once you add Google Friend Connect to your website, you feel absolutely naked online. It’s as if you’re alone in a vast wilderness. Hello? Can anyone hear me?

I decided tonight that I would throw all caution to the wind and invite all 600+ Facebook friends to check out the new website, leave some comments, and…hopefully…keep me company in that bare area of white space under “Followers” in the side bar.

Of course, I realize that most of my acquaintances aren’t checking out Facebook right now. After all, it’s FHE night. So all you ACS alumni–now’s the time to show some support, okay? I’m hoping that by tomorrow morning I’ll get a few hits and a few Google Friends. (I guess I’d better send out a few emails as insurance.)

Anyway, I’m still working on getting my book trailer embedded on the home page, as well as a few other images. But please feel free to tell me what works and what doesn’t. The Bio’s too long, isn’t it? And I know I need to post a couple of sample chapters from The Reckoning and my newly finished manuscript, Laps. I have a ton of links that still need to be added, plus some poetry. But I’d welcome comments on the Baghdad photos in the meantime. Should I add photos of Greece or Lebanon?

This is still very much a work in progress, so put your two cents in now.

Originally posted 2010-05-17 20:52:43.

Living Online

Over the past three days, I believe I have spent 20+ hours working on rebuilding my website, all at the expense of my family and my writing. I realize that, these days, an author needs to be concerned with “platform,” but what’s the point of a platform (in this case, online presence) if you spend so much time building it that you lose focus on your most important roles…not marketing yourself, but being who you are first and foremost–a writer.

Where is that delicate balancing point in my daily routine between the craft and the salesmanship? I believe it’s time to pull out my notes from the Northwest Writers Retreat last October and review Marsha Ward’s counsel.

In the meantime, I’m giving myself till the end of the day on Tuesday to add all the content I can to my website (with, or without, images on the home page). If any of you out there have any answers as to how to size your images correctly so as to fit them in a widget in the side bar (using HTML code, I believe)…PLEASE get in touch with me by email. Or even leave a comment here.

After Tuesday, I’m doing a final polish on Laps (taking into account the feedback I’ve gotten), taking a few deep breaths, and sending out my first batch of queries by Friday. It’s time I got offline and started living again!

Originally posted 2010-05-16 19:54:12.

Slow Going

This is taking me longer than I’d imagined, but that’s probably because I fell in love with a theme page with a lot of custom elements.

Oh, well. Let’s see if I can begin to make a dent in my home page today, visually speaking. Anyone conversant in HTML?

Originally posted 2010-05-15 13:04:15.

The 15 Reasons We Write

Or do any other art, for that matter, because I think the following list applies to all the arts.

Lest you think I’ve thrown over my writing for narration and producing, let me assure you I’ve been writing.

But why? Narration, in comparison, seems so easy. Why then do I write?

Several articles and bits on the Internet over the past month have put my mind in a whirl, ending with a FB posting by a fellow author on a private FB page that elicited several responses from other authors…all of which I read at 10 p.m. last night (a big mistake).

As you may imagine, I went to bed but could not get to sleep. The gist of her posting had been about our motivations to write, good or bad, mistaken or not. All these things kept me turning from side to side, my eyes wide open, until I finally made a bargain with my brain.

“Brain,” I said, “if you will just shut down for a few hours, I promise to work all this out in the morning.”

There was no immediate reply, so half an hour later, I added, “Please.”

That must have worked because I woke up five and a half hours later, a little bleary-eyed, but grateful nonetheless.

So I’m keeping my end of the bargain with my brain.

This is my list of the 15 reasons I could conceive that cause us to write (or do any other art):

  1. It’s an addiction…an irresistible urge or need to set fingers to keyboard or pen to paper and create words on a page (or whatever your art entails).
  2. It’s a calling…and, yes, there is a difference between this and number 1; an addiction is irresistible, while a calling can be resisted or put off, sometimes for days, sometimes months or even years.
  3. It makes us happy…the very act of creation, in and of itself, whether we get published and see sales or not, brings us joy.
  4. It helps us organize the disorganized…any creative endeavor entails organizing disorganized matter, whether it be thoughts zooming in every direction through our brain, pictures in our mind that come randomly, etc.)
  5. It helps us work through things emotionally…whether it’s dealing with trauma, assuaging guilt, or whatever is weighing on us consciously or subconsciously.
  6. We want to gain acclaim or popularity…either with the so-called literati or the mainstream, or both.
  7. We want to gain power or a platform…in order to influence others (which is kind of ironic because we authors these days are told to build our platforms first if we want to even be published…of course, we do this by writing on blogs, websites, social media, etc.)
  8. We want to make extra money…not that we need it, but we could use it to help our families, friends, etc.
  9. We want to survive economically…now, in this case, we absolutely depend on the money we can make from writing (which is usually next to nothing).
  10. We want to teach, inform, or help…we use our writing to open the eyes of our readers to history or new ways of doing things, or to share solutions to common problems. (This is where a lot of non-fiction comes in, but it can also include fiction.)
  11. We want to persuade others to our view…everything from propaganda to persuasive essays (and novels often do this in subtle ways, too).
  12. We want to hone a talent…because we’ve been taught that only practice makes perfect and if we leave a talent alone, it will be lost.
  13. We want to find our voice…there is an intrinsic need to not only know who we are but then express that through our art. (This is not necessarily the same as number 1, because some writers are more consumed by story than voice.)
  14. We want to find our audience…after all, what good is a voice without an audience, even if it’s only an audience of one?
  15. We want to discover truth…and so often, while engaged in our art, it spills out unexpected, especially to the author, composer, choreographer, artist, actor, director, etc.

Now, having proposed all those reasons, I am certainly open to more. Please comment below if you have any quibbles with this list or any addendum.

The important thing each writer (or artist) must do, I believe, is to check off those items on the list that apply to them and disregard the others. Once we recognize all the different reasons we write, our path to feeling fulfilled by our craft will be clearer. It will become clearest if we can then prioritize our motivations.

For example, if you aren’t concerned about using your writing to survive economically or to gain popularity, then you needn’t worry about marketing or sales. You may be after acclaim, but not popularity…in that case, you’re going to want a traditional publisher (and maybe an MFA), but sales won’t be nearly as important as your voice and skill. Two of the six books shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize have sold less than 4,000 copies.

For me, numbers 1, 7, 9, and 11 don’t apply at all. And I think number 15 is my prime motivator, which is a relief, really, because finding truth has absolutely nothing to do with getting an agent, getting traditionally published, getting on the NYT Bestseller list, or winning awards.

That’s why the account of the Italian author, Elena Ferrante, in the Guardian struck such a chord with me and started all my cogitating about a writer’s motivations. I loved what she wrote in her letter to the publisher about her first book (and they took her on anyway, by the way):

“I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors.”

“I do not intend to do anything for [the novel] Troubling Love, anything that might involve the public engagement of me personally. I’ve already done enough for this long story: I wrote it. If the book is worth anything, that should be sufficient. I won’t participate in discussions and conferences, if I’m invited. I won’t go and accept prizes, if any are awarded to me. I will never promote the book, especially on television, not in Italy or, as the case may be, abroad. I will be interviewed only in writing, but I would prefer to limit even that to the indispensable minimum… I understand that this may cause some difficulties at the publishing house… I don’t want to cause trouble. If you no longer mean to support me, tell me right away, I’ll understand. It’s not at all necessary for me to publish this book…”.

All I can say is “Brava!”

So what are your motivations? Please share.

I am going to try for the next 15 weeks to blog at greater length about each of these reasons, so look for more about writing being an addiction next week.

While I don’t suffer such an irresistible urge, I know plenty who do. If you’re one of them, let me know if you’d like to guest post for me about it.

Originally posted 2015-09-22 10:41:02.