Beware Self-Doubt in Query Phase

I’m in that foggy phase of writing–I’ve seen my child off into the wide world (I’d say wide, wide world except I haven’t yet queried most of the agents I’ve selected) and am having trouble letting go of it in order to turn around and conceive another. It’s as if Laps is out there wandering in the mist and I’m trying to get a fix on her, keep track of her progress…but the fog gets in the way.

During this phase, it’s important to redouble my goals and not succumb to self-doubt. One day I will get an agent and be published, I am sure. Of course, I’m more sure of that when my baby is closer at hand (as in, I’m in the middle of writing it). Once it’s out there, I have to fend off the little devil in my mind that says, “Forget about all this hassle. Stay in full control and self-publish. Let your audience find you.” I have named this little devil “Spam”–an acronym for Self Publishing Argument Monster.

Thanks to Publishers Weekly, and particularly author Zoe Winters, the following video has helped drive away Spam today:

Originally posted 2010-07-14 15:26:51.

Our Uphill Battle as Writers, Part Two

Yes, it’s hard to get published. It is particularly hard if you’re trying to go the traditional route (finish your manuscript, find an agent who loves it and takes you on, get a contract with a big publishing house…or even a smaller one, etc.). Does that mean we stop trying to write? No.

Does that mean we think about self-publishing? All the experts used to give an automatic “No” to this, as well. “But the times, they are a-changing.”

Several days ago, I quoted Garrison Keillor at length about how the excellence of publishing as we know it is doomed because of the flood of self-published works hitting the marketplace, thanks to e-reading devices like the Kindle, the Nook, and now the iPad.

Of course, that is one man’s opinion. It is true that more and more people are writing today, given the easing of the process both of writing (thanks to the personal computer, which is not to say that writing is ever easy) and of publishing (thanks to the growth of self-publishing companies and POD companies and, mostly, Amazon).

What is strange is that fewer people are reading, yet more people are writing. That fact, in and of itself, probably lends credence to Keillor’s argument. Anybody can write (or, at least, pretend to write), but you have to be a great reader to be a good writer. But that is a topic for another day.

Today, I wanted to spread some of the good news for those of us struggling for the publishing industry’s seal of approval. Two weeks ago today, Publishers Weekly put out an article by Rachel Deahl, entitled “Agents Weigh the Growth of Alternate Publishing Options.” You can read the entire article here, but I wanted to zero in on some interesting new developments she mentioned toward the end of the piece.

She wrote the piece in response to a recent situation: Midlist crime novelist J.A. Konrath decided self-publishing was the way to go for his latest novel and inked a deal with AmazonEncore to that effect. The big news here is that Amazon is moving from the retail side and becoming a publisher, as well. Barnes & Noble has also announced a new self-publishing unit. What are we going to see next? Costco Publishing?

You might be tempted to overlook these moves, except that some of the industry’s most influential players–the agents who shepherd books to the big publishers–are now beginning to see the writing on the wall. One who wished to remain anonymous said:

It’s not necessarily clear that big corporate publishing is well structured to help low midlist authors with rapidly reducing print runs in an environment in which overall print sales are falling week by week. I think what Joe [Konrath] did is valuable in that he saw there was an opportunity to create low-priced content and bypass the system…what’s new here is the means.

The article notes a couple of other agents who are obviously scrambling to best take advantage of the burgeoning manuscript market.

Scott Waxman of Waxman Literary has created a separate company, Diversion Books, that is similar to AmazonEncore. He describes it as “somewhere in between the big houses and the lonely road of self-publishing.” It doesn’t pay advances, but it also doesn’t take in everyone who comes in with a manuscript. In other words, there is definitely a level of quality control. And while it may not pay you bucks up front as an author, it will give you the kind of publishing support the big houses provide.

Ted Weinstein, of Ted Weinstein Literary Management, is now reviewing the self-publishing option with all of his clients, to make certain they’re getting their books published in the smartest (meaning, the most lucrative) way. He said:

Authors can now be more self-possessed. [They can go with] a major house, an agency, or one of the turnkey services from a major retailer, whether it’s a Lulu, Blurb, Amazon, or now B&N.

In the concluding words of Rachel Deahl:

While Weinstein doesn’t see corporate publishing going away, ever, he does think the business is at “an enormous transition point” and that the outsourcing major publishers have been doing for years–forcing agents to do more editing, going with outside PR, telling authors they need to take hold of their own marketing–will mean that more agencies, and others, will jump into the publishing fray.

Any way you look at it, I believe our uphill battle as writers is leveling out a bit.

Originally posted 2010-06-07 11:10:37.

The Art of the Cover

Present word count of WIP:  30,230

Continuing in my rundown of Seth Godin’s Advice for Authors:

8. Your cover matters. Way more than you think. If it didn’t, you wouldn’t need a book… you could just email people the text.

So very true. According to an article  by Helen Rumbelow, published in the London Times seven years ago and entitled “You Can Tell a Book By Its Cover”…

“Studies show that a book on a three-for-two table has about one and a half seconds to catch a reader’s eye. If it is picked up, it is on average glanced at for only three to four seconds.”

That’s how long we have to grab a reader (1.5 seconds)… hopefully enough to pick our book up and, perhaps (if they find the back copy or the first paragraph intriguing enough), decide in 3-4 seconds to give it a shot and buy it.

I found a good blog posting about cover art here.

My own experience turned out well, I believe, mainly due to great luck. I self-published The Reckoning and, having seen so many bad self-published covers, I was determined to produce a book that wouldn’t immediately give away the fact that I’d gone with a vanity press.

First, I researched on the Internet to see what usually went into a strong, eye-catching cover. A couple of things popped out. Never feature more than 2-3 colors. Make sure the font fits the type of story you have.

Okay, my story was mainly suspense (an American journalist imprisoned in Iraq on the eve of the war, looking for any way out), with a touch of mystery and romance. I knew I wanted a strong font. As for art, I decided to go digging online for something authentic. When my family lived in Baghdad back in the 60’s, my father really got into the Modern Iraqi art scene. So, I looked up Iraqi artists and came across a terrific painter, Vian Sora. One of her pieces, in particular–“Nostalgia”–made me think of my main character sitting in her cell. The main colors–blue and orange–seemed to symbolize the two sides of her situation. The blue indicating her sad desperation and the orange the warmth of her growing attachment to one of her captors.

I decided to take a chance and I emailed the artist, introduced myself and my book, and asked for her permission to use the painting for my cover art. Fortunately, one of my dad’s good Iraqi artist friends happened to be her mentor, and she agreed. (If you’d like to check out more of her art, click here.)

I’m not sure I’ll be so lucky next time. Of course, next time I’m hoping to be published traditionally, in which case much of the decision making will be out of my hands. I can only hope the publisher shares my taste.

Originally posted 2012-02-10 22:03:11.

Whether to go “big” or “small”

Present word count:  28,073

Husband’s home, cat’s healthy, I’m writing. YAY!

Seth Godin’s Advice for Authors:

7. Think really hard before you spend a year trying to please one person in New York to get your book published by a ‘real’ publisher. You give up a lot of time. You give up a lot of the upside. You give up control over what your book reads like and feels like and how it’s promoted. Of course, a contract from Knopf and a seat on Jon Stewart’s couch are great things, but so is being the Queen of England. That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen to you. Far more likely is that you discover how to efficiently publish (either electronically or using POD or a small run press) a brilliant book that spreads like wildfire among a select group of people.

Okay, I actually have to quibble with a lot of this, although I kind of agree with the gist of what he’s saying.

Actually, given such online sites as QueryTracker, you’re spending a year trying to please A LOT of different people in New York (and some in Colorado or the West Coast), hoping that AT LEAST ONE will want to represent you and get you a traditional contract. Besides, if you’re doing things right, you’re not spending ALL of that year trying to achieve that…you’re also continuing to write more stories.

I don’t think, if you do it right, you give up a lot of time. Let’s say you’ll devote a couple of hours each Friday afternoon to queries. That’s not a lot of time.

As for giving up control over what your book reads or feels like, that may be a good thing! You may really need an editor. Hopefully not, but you may. I’m just saying.

And the promotion point is kind of moot, unless you’re going to be the next J.K Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, etc. Why? Because big publishers don’t really do much promotion anymore unless they think you’re going to be that big a success. So, in 99% of the cases, the promotion’s pretty much up to you, anyway. You’re controlling it (hopefully).

I guess Jon Stewart is the new Oprah (and Godin told us not to bother with her in his last point), but, yeah, I’d take a seat in his studio any time. He is sooo funny (except when he swears or is a bit vulgar). But who says it’s great being the Queen of England? I’d rather be Oprah. Kate Middleton can have all those garden parties and laying of wreaths. I’d rather write, thank you very much.

Finally, if he means my family and close friends when he’s talking about my book spreading “like wildfire among a select group of people,” well…I can’t quibble with that.

My conclusion: if I think I have a “big” concept, I’ll go “big.” Otherwise, I’ll probably be content with a smaller press.

Originally posted 2012-02-06 17:14:24.

An Editor is a Must

Present word count of WIP:  24,186

Seth Godin’s Advice for Authors:

3. Pay for an editor. Not just to fix the typos, but to actually make your ramblings into something that people will choose to read. I found someone I like working with at the EFA. One of the things traditional publishers used to do is provide really insightful, even brilliant editors (people like Fred Hills and Megan Casey), but alas, that doesn’t happen very often. And hiring your own editor means you’ll value the process more.

Hear, hear!!! I am reading a book right now for Whitney judging purposes that has all kinds of typos, head hopping, even whole words left out. I’m not sure if it’s because the author rushed the PDF version in order to qualify it for judging, or what, but you can be sure it won’t make my top five.

Whether you’re self-publishing (and particularly if you’re going that route) or not, you should have extra eyes on your manuscript once you think it’s in its top, finished form. I did that for my first novel (self-published) and it really paid off. Not only did the woman catch all my favorite words and phrases, but she pointed out a weakness or two in the plot or pacing.

I don’t care if you’re working on your first novel or your fifteenth. As you write, you develop what I like to call “writer’s blindness.” You are so used to the story in your head and all you have developed in terms of backstory, as well as all you know that’s coming up, that you forget to read what you’ve written as a critical reader would. I’m not sure it’s even possible for you to do so.

I have a terrific writer’s group, and while I rely on one member for the overall plot picture and pacing, another for the emotion in my scenes, another for the lilt of the language, and the last for the nuts and bolts of grammar and spelling, I still plan on running the finished version by a professional editor. Why? Because, unlike my writer’s group, he/she will read it in a more condensed time frame, not having fallen in love with it gradually as my writer friends may have. He/she will be critical, honest, thorough, and most of all–worth it!

So, plan for an editor.

Originally posted 2012-01-23 16:50:02.

Sharing Some Advice for Writers

Present word count of WIP:  19,405

I’m a bit miffed that, after such a good start, my son’s sudden end-of-semester homework requirements took me off-track. After four days in a row of knocking off 1,000+ words a day, I was only able to write 265 words on Wednesday. Thursday and today were even worse. I’m hoping that, after dinner tonight, I can knock out 1,000+ words and update my word count. The bad news is, he’s got another big assignment due next week. I’ll work around it somehow.

In the meantime, I promised to share some advice for writers received in an email from Seth Godin at the Domino Project.

He sent it in two batches. The first was written by him six years ago and basically consists of these five ideas about the state of publishing: (My comments follow in blue)

1) “Book publishing is an organized hobby, not a business.”

His point was that authors and publishers, alike, don’t get much for all their efforts…they’re doing it for love more than money. But there is a certain cachet attached to having written a book or being in the publishing industry. He also noted that writers have an opportunity to “spread an idea and a brand far and wide.” So, if you want to write a book, you need to think long and hard about your true motivations.

2) “The timeframe for the launch of books has gone from silly to unrealistic.”

I agree that a world that once moved slowly now changes from day to day, so I can see his point that we have to consider carefully the “shelf life” of our ideas or stories. (He writes nonfiction, so this is more pertinent to him than to me.) Still, it’s a bad idea to try and write what’s currently popular because, if you’re lucky and it gets published three years later, its popularity will most certainly have waned. Write what you feel like writing regardless!

3) “There is no such thing as effective book promotion by a book publisher.”

He immediately adds that, of course, this isn’t true. Look at Harry Potter or Freakonomics. His point, though, is that out of 75,000 titles published six or seven years ago, only about a hundred were effectively promoted. This, of course, is not news to authors. They expect to have to do the lion’s share of their own marketing these days…most of it online. He also points out that blurbs don’t sell books in and of themselves. What is most effective is to have a platform already–with thousands or tens of thousands of people who care about what you have to say. That platform can be a popular blog, celebrity status, lots of employees, or a personal relationship with someone who has a huge platform and believes in you.

4) “Books cost money and require the user to read them for the idea to spread.”

His point here is that people hate to part with their money and less and less people, apparently, enjoy reading. So we have two obstacles to overcome. I, personally, am not convinced of the latter. Back in November the president of Goodreads did an interview in which he said they then had grown to 6,000,000 members. That said, I think the REAL challenge is finding a way to get your book to stick out among the hundreds of thousands now being published and self-published each year. Now, that’s hard!

5) “Publishing is like venture capital, not like printing.”

It’s true. Anyone can print a book today. That’s why so many books are being self-published. The big traditional publishers, however, are taking a risk when they sign an author to a contract. They’re investing in that writer. As he puts it, “They invest cash in an advance. They invest time in creating the book itself and selling it…and they invest more cash in printing books.” So, you have to decide: Do you want their advance and expertise (I do)…or do you want total control of your printing?

After sharing these five ideas, Mr. Godin gives this advice:

“Build an asset. Large numbers of influential people who read your blog or read your emails or watch your TV show or love your restaurant or or or…

“Then, put your idea into a format where it will spread fast. That could be an ebook (a free one) or a pamphlet (a cheap one–the Joy of Jello sold millions and millions of copies at a collar or less).

“Then, if your idea catches on, you can sell the souvenir edition. The book. The thing people keep on their shelf or lend out or get from the library. Books are wonderful (I own too many!) but they’re not necessarily the best vessel for spreading your idea.

“And the punchline, of course, is that if you do all these things, you won’t need a publisher. And that’s exactly when a publisher will want you! That’s the sort of author publishers do the best with.”

He’s right, of course, but that’s not to say that publishers only publish authors with large platforms. That’s simply not true. Why? Because they love a good story as much as the writer does, and if it’s good enough, they’ll publish it. Oh, you’ll still have to do the lion’s share of the marketing, but I think it will be a good bit easier if you’re traditionally published.

That was only his first batch of advice and it was six years old! His second batch was from five years ago and consists of 19 different points. I think I’ll post about each in turn every Friday over the next several months.

 

 

Originally posted 2012-01-13 17:06:45.

I’m Trying a Goodreads Giveaway

In celebration of the check for $1,000 I received in the mail from Writer’s Digest for my recent win, I decided to offer a few free copies of The Reckoning in one of Goodread’s Giveaways. If you haven’t yet read it and want to, but can’t afford a copy, it won’t hurt to click on the entry in the widget in my right sidebar (under Awards).

And just to reiterate how important a cover is, particularly if you’re thinking of self-publishing, here were the Judge’s notes on my book and some of the reasons it won First Place in the Mainstream/Literary Fiction category of the 18th Annual Writer’s Digest International Self-Published Book Awards:

(On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 meaning “poor” and 5 meaning “excellent”)

Plot: 4

Grammar: 5

Character development: 4

Production quality and cover design: 5

Judge’s commentary: Gorgeous cover – your artist is really gifted. Wow! What an opening. Your writing is direct and beautifully crafted. Your knowledge of the setting and cultures really shows in the writing.

I really did luck out with that cover in contacting the artist, Vian Sora, and obtaining her permission to use her painting entitled Nostalgia. As you can see, it pays for writers to get to know artists.

Originally posted 2011-01-22 17:30:16.

The Reckoning Wins Another (Bigger) Award

This morning, I’d planned on posting my next piece in my Publishing’s Paradigm Shift series, but I’ll save it for tomorrow, since I have big news to share:

The Reckoning won 1st place for Mainstream/Literary Fiction in the 2010 Writer’s Digest International Self-Published Book Awards!

Not only will I receive $1,000 check, but my book will get featured in the March/April issue of Writer’s Digest next year AND I’ll finally get a real official review in Midwest Book Reviews. Hopefully, this will bump up sales. Naturally, I’m floating around today (and not because of my head cold).

My only question now is…do I add an addendum to my publishing history on those queries I’ve already sent out for my next book? And how best do I do it? I think I’d better ask Agency Gatekeeper or Rachelle Gardner. They’re always open to questions from their readers.

Originally posted 2010-11-18 10:47:36.

Publishing’s Paradigm Shift – Effect on Authors

With all of this movement toward e-books, what can authors expect in the near future? Some of the coming changes may include the following:

•Funding for authors’ advances may begin to be provided by external investors (as they are with films and plays)

•Best-selling authors, who already have a name brand, may turn to self-publishing for higher royalties, making more room for midlist and debut authors

•Until then, the bar is higher and authors may want to consider self-publishing

•Some authors are already serializing their books online to build readership

•Publishers can’t hold on to rights indefinitely by making books available as POD or e-books, according to recent rulings (when such a book is out of print, rights will revert to author)

Average advances today are between $1,000 and $5,000 for debut literary fiction as opposed to the $50-100,000 advances of the past. For commercial fiction: $15,000 or less. And publishing houses are beginning to shrink their lists, so it’s becoming more and more difficult to get picked up as a debut author.

One option is to take your chances with self-publishing and try to find ways to grow your own fan base. One unpublished author is serializing his new book, chapter by chapter on his website where, over the next ten weeks, it will build like a part-work. In the words of a friend, he’s “doing a Dickens.” And he’s making it available for free, betting that many readers won’t want to wait and will go ahead and download the entire book for less than the cost of a paperback. After that, it will go to Amazon, with an iPod version later. A second, already published, author, John Gorman, is serializing his new thriller to a WordPress site. On the site, his Mission Statement encourages people to contribute to the story. He won’t publish their words, but he might run with their character ideas and plot twists, so there’s a collective element to this novel.

For those who decide to self-publish, Publishers Weekly now puts out a quarterly supplement, called PW Select, that announces self-published titles for $149 and reviews for free those they feel are most deserving of a critical assessment. For more information, check www.publishersweekly.com/diy.

Personally, I went the self-publishing route for my first book and it’s seen very few sales, despite the awards, simply because it’s not out there enough. I won’t go that route again. I’d rather hone my craft and keep writing and querying until I get an agent. An agent will lead me to a publisher who can get my name out there. I’m hoping that a lot of these top authors who no longer need a big publisher will go the self-publishing route, thereby making room on publishers’ lists for more midlist and debut authors.

In my next posting on this topic, I’ll share the thoughts and experiences of some of those who have.

Originally posted 2010-11-15 11:04:47.

Publishing’s Paradigm Shift – Effects on Publishers

Perhaps most anxious about all the brouhaha over e-books have been the publishers. Traditional publishers are worried, perhaps even afraid of all the change, while self-publishing companies (including POD, or print on demand companies) have visions of greater revenues. In any case, I see the main effects as follows:

  • The more adaptable traditional publishers will survive and even thrive after a few bumps in the road
  • There will be more specialized publishers aimed at niches
  • There will be more and more self-publishing
  • Cost of entry for future publishers will be minimal
  • Among the big publishing houses, there will be a devolution from complex, centralized management to semi-autonomous editorial units
  • 50% digital royalty rate may be inevitable
  • Despite all the change, the greatest value of traditional publishing will remain–the editorial process–ensuring their survival

In the latest self-publishing development, Barnes & Noble has now launched their own digital self-publishing platform called PubIt to compete with Amazon’s Create Space. (They’re also coming out with a color Nook to try and take down Amazon’s Kindle and compete more evenly with the iPad.)

As an example of the devolution that is beginning in traditional publishing, in early 2011 Simon & Schuster will reorganize into “small teams of editors, publicists, and marketing specialists.”

According to their new head, Jonathan Karp, each team, comprised of 2 editors, 2 publicists, and a marketing specialist, “will propose, develop, and execute their own publicity and marketing plans, from the moment of acquisition through paperback publication…”

“The chief objective is to create the publishing environment most conducive to focused concentration on our authors,” he continued. “Those who are present at the creation are more likely to bring a greater depth of understanding and experience to the publication of these books. Our authors will benefit from having a dedicated team working on their behalf early in the process.”

Such a development can only be good for writers, who, at times, have had to kowtow to unknowns in the large marketing or sales departments in order to get their books even approved, however lauded their work may be by the editors.

These were the main effects I could forecast from all I’ve read. If you foresee any others, please comment.

My next post will deal with the effects on agents.

Originally posted 2010-10-25 14:01:50.