Sunday, November 27, 2011

Authors vs. Publishers: It's a Revolution

A couple of weeks ago, I was cornered after a speaking appearance by a publisher who poked me in the chest repeatedly while saying, “You should be writing. You shouldn’t be publishing. Let me do the work. You write.”
Well, that was what I started out wanting to do. I’ve always wanted to be a writer. From the beginning, I dreamed of making it to the point in my career where I could stay home all day in my writer’s studio and do nothing but think about murder and write my mysteries.
But something happened to that dream as happens to all dreams. It was a fantasy. It is not the reality. The lack of this happening is not a reflection on my talent or writing ability. Rather, it is a reflection on how the publishing world works.
The truth is: Unless you’re Stephen King, Dan Brown, or J.K. Rowlings, the publishers are only going to throw you the scraps when it comes from the profits of your books. The rest will go to them, the literary agents, and publicists. If you want anyone to know about your book, you will need to spend your advance and beyond, plus your time and energy on marketing it, because the publisher isn’t going to do it for you—unless you’re one of their top one percent selling authors.
Then, to thank you for all your hard work, they take over ninety-percent.
So, writers started thinking, “Hey, since I’m going to have to do all the work anyway to make my book a success, why not publish it myself and; instead of eating scraps, help myself to the filet mignon?”
Signs of the revolution can be seen in the success of self-publishing companies like CreateSpace, iUniverse, and LuLu. Saying, “I don’t need you anymore,” more authors are turning their backs on literary agents who a few years ago read their query letters for laughs. 
The funny thing is, I have found that I’m good at publishing my own books. Not only am I good at it. I like doing it.
Yes, instead of spending my days thinking about murder and writing mysteries, I’ve been beating the drum to change the course of publishing. From the looks of things, independent authors are gaining territory:
  • Barry Eisler turned down a half million dollar advance to renew his contract in favor of self-publishing.
  • Penquin Books has dived into self-publishing. That must have caused quite a stir among their fellow big publisher buddies.
  • Independent author, Amanda Hocking has sold more than a million books online with Kindle, joining the ranks of Nora Roberts, Dan Brown, and other traditionally published authors.
So much for self-published authors being second rate hacks.  Tell Amanda Hocking and Barry Eisler that they’re wannabees.
This is not to say that I think traditional publishers should go away. I have as much respect for an agented author who publishes through Random House as I do an independent author who puts in all the work into self-publish through LuLu.
Aimply, I expect the same respect from that author, his agent, and his publisher … and others in the literary arena.
Yes, many in the literary arena still think of independent authors as second-class writers:
  1. Many conferences refuse to let us sit on their author panels simply because we’ve invested in our own books.
  2. Most of the big literary magazines will only review our books if we pay them hundreds of dollars for the privilege of them doing so, which diminishes credibility among many of our peers.
  3. Some of the bigger bookstore chains (Barnes and Nobel and Books-A-Million) still won’t let us hold events in their stores, even after our books have proven themselves with reviews and sales.
Yes, some days, these injustices do irk at me. When it does, I think back on a quote by Theodore Roosevelt:
“Believe you can, and you’re halfway there.”
How about that, dear authors? We’re halfway there!


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Talking Apples and Oranges

Seven years ago, when I received my proof copy of A Small Case of Murder, I squealed with delight. I looked at it’s shiny cover. The artwork was fabulous. It looked even better live and in person. Plus, it was my book that I had written.
It looked great. So I picked up the phone, called the publisher and told him to let it rip. Let’s release that baby on the world.

Days later, I receive a frantic phone call from my mother. She had received her copy of A Small Case of Murder and quickly sat down to read her daughter the writer’s book. To her horror, she found it riddled with typos!

No one told me that the purpose of a proof is to read it to check for errors. I had invested in an editor! I had edited it and proofed it inside and out. How could there be typos?

By the time I had received that proof of A Small Case of Murder, I didn’t want to read it. I had read it so many times that I thought my eyes would bleed if I had to read it one more time. But my responsibility  as the author was to read that proof, or have someone else read it because this was the last chance to correct mistakes before it is released to the public—and reviewers. (That’s another blog post.)

I didn’t know that then. I do now.

I had graduated from college with the Bachelors in English, literature, and journalism. I took tons of classes on writing suspense, the great American novel, point of view, description, etc. I had worked for tenn years as an editor and layout artist for the federal government. But when it came to what to do after writing my first mystery, I didn't have a clue.

Who do I call? A literary agent or a publisher? Do you need a literary agent? Where do you find a literary agent?

Seven years ago, without the benefit of Internet for social networking with other authors and people in the business, I never came in contact with anyone who could instruct me about this mysterious world centered in New York and these faceless gatekeepers and gods who had the power to either make my dreams of being a published author come true or have them wither away like those dreams of so many others.

I still didn’t know what I was supposed to do with a proof except to say, “This sure is a pretty book.”

Most of the mistakes that I have made are based on misconceptions that I had about how publishing works and the motivations of those involved. There’s way more to publishing than can be addressed in one blog post, and I hope to not make it too simplistic, but here it is in a nutshell:

Publishing is a Business.

When you’re writing your book, you are a writer. You are an artist.

After your book is written, and you seek to have it published, then you become an author.

At this point, whether you are seeking to be traditionally published or independently publishing, you are a business person.

In other words, when you talk about writing and publishing, you are talking about apples and oranges.

When it comes to publishing, think about it and treat it as a business. This will help to alleviate a lot of artistic frustration when you’re able to wrap your head around this.

Whether it be traditional publishers or self-publishing businesses, the mission is about producing a product (books) to sell to the public. If the product doesn’t sell, the company (the publisher if the book is published traditionally; the author if it is self-published) doesn’t make money, or even worse, loses it.

Publishers don’t care about art and publishing great literature. They are very different from the way they were back in the days of Hemingway and Steinbeck.
Traditional publishers only care about selling books and making money and right now they are losing it hand over fist for a variety of reasons. At the top of the list of those reasons, poor executive decisions and advances in technology that have upset their apple carts.

Therefore, publishers will only invest in what they consider guaranteed money-makers. That’s why when you walk into Barnes and Noble you see whole aisles devoted to vampire love stories and another aisle filled with memoirs from politicians, and another devoted to has-been child stars who tripped over a literary agent waiting at the prison gate with a seven-figure contract from Random House to write their story. (The ghost writer that will actually write that book was stuffed in the trunk of the limo and will be eating a tuna fish sandwich for dinner while the child star will be sipping champagne.) You will also find books by authors with a proven track record of making big money for their publisher, which is only one percent of the overall author population.
Proven authors, celebrities, and big named politicians have no trouble getting contracts because, financially, publishers can’t take the risk of investing in an unknown quantity.

Whether you, as an author want to fight this battle to get in with a traditional publisher, or go the independent route of self-publishing, you do need to accept that in many aspects, no matter how much it turns your stomach, this part of the publishers’ thinking is right.

Publishing is a business. It is the selling of books to the public. If a traditional publisher doesn’t invest his money in publishing your book in order to put it out there to the public, then the only other option for you as an author is the self-publishing route. In this case, you will be investing your money in it. Unless you’re Bill Gates with money to burn and too much time on your hands, your book needs to be a product that the public will buy.

That means you, dear author, need to make your book salable. By that, I'm not saying your book needs to be the subject matter of the month.

I'm talking about quality. You, dear author, need to do everything in your power and talent to make your book the best it can be in in order to stand up against the thousands upon thousands of books being published every year.

Don't get scared. This is possible.

Even without a big publisher backing you, it is possible to produce a book capable of standing up against the big guys' books. It takes a lot of hard work and diligence, but it can be done when care is given to editing and proofing, and design.

It was after I had this Ah-hah moment, after having been around the block and making a few mistakes (like releasing A Small Case of Murder without reading the proof because no one told me that I was supposed to read it!) that I set up Acorn Book Services. (I have since revised and re-released A Small Case of Murder, along with A Reunion to Die For.)

With four (going on five) books under my belt, I want to pass on what I have learned along the way, which is the purpose of this blog. 

So, now I open this site up to you. What questions do you have about writing or publishing? Remember they are two different things, whichever you want to talk about. Apples or oranges. I'm ready to take them both on.

Send your questions to me and let's get to work.