writing, Writing and Editing

A Novel Decision

And now a personal story:

Earlier this week I finally finished the last edits of my new novel Deception Island. Which means little other than it is my judgment that now, at this point in my development as a writer, I am not going to improve it any further by continuing to mess with things. There is a point where tinkering becomes just tinkering.

I have reached that point.

The next logical question is what do I do with it now?

In my mind, there are three options: I can try to have it commercially published via the traditional route; I can publish it myself; or I can just let it sit in a drawer somewhere gathering dust.

I’ve ruled out option number three (though a little voice in my head continually whispers that the novel isn’t good enough for public consumption. I need to keep working on it). Despite the nagging voice, putting the novel in the drawer doesn’t really fit anywhere in my intended career path. Besides, what is the point of working so long and hard on a work of fiction (or any other type of writing) if you ultimately will not allow it the freedom to be read?

So that leaves traditional and self-publishing as the two remaining options. Like many things in this life, each route has its advantages and disadvantages.

Traditional Publishing:

This is the age-old manner of bringing books to the public. Whether it is one of the Big Five New York-based publishing houses, or a smaller house with a smaller list, traditional publishing accounts for probably 80% of the books you see in any given bookstore. Whatever the size of the house, the traditional route has a similar, well worn, path. You hire an agent willing to pitch your book and they find a publisher willing to publish it.

The advantage to this route is that someone else takes over the difficult and time-consuming job of finding and approaching publishers with your work. Many publishers (and virtually all the big boys) will not even entertain a new book proposal unless it is submitted by an agent. (If your dream is to be published by Random House, for example, you’d better get an agent).

Another advantage of the traditional publishing route is financial. If a traditional publisher accepts your book, they take the initial risk of financing the printing of the book. Don’t take this too lightly; the book had better sell enough copies to make the printing worthwhile or you’ll have trouble convincing them to publish your next work. But they do take the initial financial risk.

In theory, the traditional publisher also has the financial muscle to promote your work worldwide and get it stocked in bookstores from San Diego to London. However, if this is your first work, don’t count on them devoting a huge marketing budget before seeing what your sales will be.

There are some drawbacks to the traditional publishing route, particularly if you are a first time author. First of all, once you sign that contract, you no longer have any control over your work. Not its title, not the cover art, not even how the interior is edited. If you need creative control over your work, this could be a problem.

The second drawback is that your agent (remember her?) gets %15 of your royalties, off the top. It’s how they make their living. The more money they get the publisher pay to you, the more money they get paid. Some will not like sharing their earning with anyone. Personally, I think %15 is well worth not having to deal with shopping my manuscript to the publishers.

The third drawback to traditional publishing is time. It can take years from the time you finish that novel until you finally see it in print.

Self-publishing

This option has exploded over the past few years with the advent of print-on-demand technologies. Many authors have committed themselves to completely bypass the traditional publishing houses and simply publish their works themselves.

The primary advantages to self-publishing are creative. You have total creative control. You decide the title, the cover art, the back cover or dust jacket copy, the contents of the interior. Within reason, you even control when the work is released.

The drawbacks to self publishing are primarily financial. When you publish your own novel, for instance, you pay for everything: design, layout and printing. It doesn’t end there either. For the most part, the firms that help you self-publish will do no marketing or promotion for you or your work other than having the book listed on Amazon and other online booksellers. If you want advertizing you have to contact the media and pay for it yourself. If you want bookstores to carry your book, you have to make the pitch to their buyers yourself. The same goes for setting up a reading or signing tour; you’ll either have to set it up yourself, or hire someone do do it for you.

Between publishing the work and effectively promoting it, you can end up spending a tidy sum.

And personally, I still haven’t figured out how I, living in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, can effectively convince a bookseller in Florida (or Sydney, Australia) to stock and sell my books.

Okay. We’ve looked at some of the pros and cons of the publishing options available for my novel. Now back to my personal story. What have I decided to do with Deception Island?

Yes.

Since I don’t currently have enough money set aside to publish the novel myself, that is not an immediate option. With my current budget, I estimate it will take me at least until the end of the year to save that money, so, in the meantime, I’ve decided to shop it around to a few agents. If one decides to pick it up, great. If they successfully find a commercial publisher to take it on, fantastic. But should that not pan out, I am going to be saving my pennies and dimes so I can publish it myself.

The query letters went out yesterday. (fingers crossed)

Stay tuned.

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writing

The Truth About Bestseller Lists

Every writer probably at some point dreams of seeing their name on one of several bestseller lists. The most prominent list (at least in the U.S.) is the one published by The New York Times, but there are many others including U.S.A. Today, Publishers Weekly, and Amazon.com. Other countries have similar lists: The Sunday Times in the U.K., Sydney Morning Herald in Australia, and The Globe and Mail in Canada are just a few. Being on the bestseller lists (particularly at #1) is seen by many as the ultimate badge of writing success, including myself.

Having your book on the bestseller list means you’ve made it, right?

Or does it?

There’s a dirty little secret about the bestseller lists, one that I didn’t learn until a couple of years ago myself. I bet most others don’t know it either.

The New York Times bestseller list has nothing to do with actual sales. Nothing. (Well, next to nothing). In other words, the #1 bestselling book in the U.S. really isn’t the best selling book in the country.

How does that work?

It has to to with the way the publishing industry works. When one of the major publishing houses prepares to launch a new title, they begin marketing to the bookstores, through trade publications, wholesaler’s catalogs, etc. Through the wholesale companies, bookstores order copies of the upcoming book to be delivered upon release. It is the number of copies ordered by the bookstores that forms the bestseller lists. It is a measure of anticipated sales, not actual sales. (Those same bookstores can and will return any unsold copies to the publisher. It’s in the contract).

Thus, a novel by John Q. Smith can be the #1 bestseller before you can even find a copy on the self.

This came as a shock to me. All this time, I’d seen those lists and assumed the top ten books were there because they had, you know, sold the most books. I thought that’s what “best seller” meant. Go figure.

Now that I actually know how the system really works, I have drawn some implications for the rest of us mere mortals who dream of making a career out of writing.

First, it means that unless your work is published by one of the major publishing houses (in the U.S. That means Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, MacMillen, Penguin Random House, and Simon and Schuster) you will probably not get your work on The New York Times bestseller list. Small publishers seldom have the marketing wherewithal to get their titles competitive with the Big Five. And bookstores will basically never pre-order a self-published title; don’t hold your breath.

If you are self-published, or published by a small press, your best bet is to ignore most of the best seller lists. The only ones you need to pay attention to are the rankings at retailers like Amazon.com. They actually reflect your actual physical sales, as well as an idea how those sales compare to other titles. Your ranking is an easy and accurate way of seeing how you’re doing. And believe me, if your book reaches #1 on Amazon, you truly are a success.

Ignore the rest of them.

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Writing and Editing

Why I Self-Published

In the interests of full disclosure, I am a self-published author. I have three novels published in both print and electronic form, as well as a collection of short fiction on Kindle only. How are my sales? It depends on your definition. They’ve probably been above average for a self-published author working within the limitations I’ve faced. Compared to someone like James Patterson or Stephen King, my sales are miniscule.

So why did I self-publish rather than go the traditional route? And what did I learn from the experience?

Let me tell you a story.

In 2007, or thereabouts, I completed a novel I’d entitled Ni’il: The Awakening. Everyone who read it, including the professional editor who helped me revise it, said it was really good and I should definitely try to get it published. So, I wrote up a synopsis, outline, readied sample chapters, and sent about twenty queries to smaller publishing houses I thought might like my novel. (I didn’t try the larger “Big Five” publishers; they generally only accept queries from agents). And I waited.

To my surprise and delight, one of the publishers I’d queried responded and wanted to see the entire manuscript. Wow. I had the manuscript in the mail the very next day. And I waited.

And I waited.

A month passed and I waited. Two months, then three, then six and still no word. These things take time, I told myself, and the longer they take, the better for me. At least they hadn’t rejected my novel out of hand. So I continued waiting, trying to stay patient.

Nine months passed and still nothing. After ten months, I could stand it no more and sent them a polite email inquiring about my novel’s status. Within days I received and equally polite reply asking me to be patient, that, though it seemed like it had been a long time, it was not unusual in the publishing world. This was how the system worked.

Okay. Again, it meant at least somebody liked the novel. So I waited.

Eleven months, then twelve months passed. After nearly a year of waiting, I finally received a letter from the publishing company. “We’re sorry, but we decided to pass on your work. We wish you the best of luck in the future.”

They kept it for nearly a full year and then “passed on it.” At a year per publisher, I could be dead before someone decides to buy it. Even longer before they actually published it. So I decided that if I really wanted to see it in print, I would have to publish it myself and let the market decide whether it was good, or not.

As I stated above, I did moderately well, particularly with the first of the three books. And, as I also stated, I learned a lot, which will certainly help if I chose to self-publish my next novel. What did I learn? In particular, what do I know now that I would have liked to know before I started on the self-publishing path?

There is still a stigma attached to self-publishing. It’s getting better, but many bookstores and other venues will not stock self-published books, nor host events for self-published authors. We independent authors have to overcome the reputation of many really, really awful works that have been self-published through the years. Like I said, it is getting better, but be prepared for rejection out of hand.

It doesn’t matter how good your book is if no one knows about it. If you’re not prepared to spend some time and money marketing and promoting your work, you probably won’t sell many to people you don’t personally know. That means designing a coherent plan with a realistic budget and having it in hand before you ever start the publication process. You could get lucky and have your book take off on its own, but don’t count on it.

The standard time frame for a book’s success is the first six months after publication. Be prepared to work as hard during this time selling it as you did writing it.

Concentrate efforts on independent bookstores. They are much more willing to work with independent authors than big, national chains, particularly if you are a local author or the work takes place in their region/area. (This applies to brick-and-mortar stores only, online outlets are completely different).

Have a concise, well-written pitch ready. What’s a “pitch?” It’s a brief, one or two sentence description of your book, suitable for a conversation in a supermarket aisle when someone asks you what the book’s about.

Always carry several copies with you (such as in the trunk of your car). Never miss a sale because you couldn’t take advantage of someone’s unexpected interest.

Now a lot of the above also applies to publishing the traditional route because, unless you’re a household name, odds are the publisher is not going to spend a tremendous amount on marketing your work. Most of the effort will still have to come from you. With traditional publishing, the main advantage is the prestige that goes with having a big publishing house’s name on the spine of your book and the fact that the publisher pays for the layout, formatting and physical printing.

As a self-published author, you (or I) are responsible for all the costs of putting the book together, printing and marketing it. In exchange, we get more creative control: we control the content of the work itself, the design of the cover, the blurbs on the cover (or fly leaf); we even control when the book is published.

Now am I going to publish my new novel myself, or try the more traditional route?

I haven’t decided yet.

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