Tag Archives: publishing

Negativity and Truth

The brilliant and multiple award-winning editor Gardner Dozois once advised a group of aspiring writers including myself to “pay no attention to reviews,” and added that “the first thing a writer needs to do is develop a thick skin.” Now, ten years later, with a moderately successful book (Aegean Dream) under my belt and another one nearing publication, I see just how right he was.

A couple of days ago, googling myself and my book as I periodically do to see if there are any new reviews out, I stumbled on a thread in a forum for expats living in Greece. Curious, I had a look.

The thread began well enough, with the first poster plugging Aegean Dream, saying it was both a good read and should be required reading for those planning to uproot and move to another country. A few posts on, though, another poster, who was currently reading my book, had a harsher take, complaining that my naïveté in moving to Greece on the basis of what he considered minimal research was “grating” on him.

I’d come across a similar opinion—only much less tactfully phrased—some months ago on another expat forum, and for a moment, it stung. I considered a reply, then immediately set that idea aside. The thing is, that once you publish, or offer up any work, artistic or otherwise, for public consumption, you expose yourself. People have opinions. They have axes to grind and—like you—insecurities of their own; sometimes they’re right, and other times  not. In these particular instances, I told myself that (i) it’s always easy to second-guess others, and (ii) I actually agree with the poster, and address his very point openly about halfway through the book

Now, Aegean Dream is a nonfiction work. And—because of the still-present stigma concerning self-publication (I’m technically more ‘Indie’ published, since Panverse, though I own it, had published several volumes by others)—hasn’t had the benefit of a single traditional review despite the fact that it’s already outsold several Booker prize winners. All the reviews I’ve received are on Amazon, Goodreads and a few expat websites, and all are generally good, but not a single pro reviewer has touched it.

But if you’ve written fiction, and/or been traditionally published (as some of my own short stories have), you’re more likely to find yourself traditionally reviewed—and those reviews can be very tough, and will hit home. If you’re already insecure about your writing, you may want to avoid reading reviews altogether, or have someone you trust just pick out the good ones for you. If your skin is a bit thicker, you’ll probably decide that in the end these are just opinions and no more. A copy of that wonderful little volume, Pushcart’s Rotten Reviews and Rejections, can go a very long way to soothing a bruised ego at these times. And, of course, there’s always drink!

Once you’ve licked your wounds and run out of good Anglo-Saxon words to describe your detractors, the professional—and I’m assuming professionalism is what we’re striving for—response is to get on with the next book or story as if none of this had happened.

For me, the only thing that matters is truth. Your truth is the way you see life, your characters, the human condition, and all that matters is getting that on the page. You can’t control what people think or say, and that really needs to be secondary. Making money needs to be secondary. Your business—my business—is to tell the story without timidity or coyness. Timidity never won awards, nor did bland reviews. Some of the most successful works in the canon have been the most controversial and received as much vitriol as they have honey.

My own upcoming novel, Sutherland’s Rules, is one I expect to take a fair bit of flak for, though I hope that an equal or greater number of readers and reviewers will enjoy it. A thriller touching on issues including old age, sex, drugs, freedom, terrorism, and our modern surveillance society, it’s bound to hit some nerves. Should I care? No. I’m writing what I want to write about. I believe I’m writing truth, writing the world and my characters as they are and as it is. I told the truth from start to finish in Aegean Dream, and that truth included being entirely honest (which many reviewers have favourably commented on) about my own failings as well as detailing the appalling, toxic corruption that we encountered among Greek lawyers, bureaucrats, and even police in our attempt to settle in that country. I believe the main reason that Aegean Dream has been, and continues to be, successful is precisely because of that truth.

Negativity also comes at you from people, including friends and family, who don’t believe writing is a real job—and it may well not be for everyone: many will fail, just as they do at acting, accountancy, and the bar. I think the best way to deal with this sort of negativity is to allow it to temper and toughen you to deal with the reviews and criticism you’ll face when you’re published.

So work on that thick skin. If you must read reviews, make sure you have the strength and resilience to shrug them off and not let them sting for more than an instant. Write what you want to, not what you think the market, or your agent, or your publisher wants. In many cases, those things may well align anyway, so no worries—everybody wins. But if your primary concerns are people’s good opinions and making money, well, you’re probably in the wrong business.

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Perfect and Good Enough

My mother used to often quote a saying that was drummed into her (those were the days!) at school:

Good, better best;

May you never rest

Until your good is better,

And your better best.

Well.

It’s hard not to see the good in this mantra. And as a driven perfectionist for most of my life, I’m pretty much on board. But the very phrasing of the statement also carries the strong echo of a traditional curse, and advice like this should probably come with a caution, such as author CJ Cherryh’s dictum that, “no rule should be followed off a cliff.”

Before I embarked on my prior career as a decorative artist—sometime before the Elves left Middle-Earth—I used to be a regular housepainter. Because of my own perfectionist tendencies, I quickly gravitated to the high end of the market, which both suited my nature and brought me a better clientele (and income). But whenever I was asked to work in a more bohemian or rustic home, or a friend’s house, I ran into difficulties. I didn’t know how to back off on the perfectionism, where to stop. It hadn’t taken me very long to learn how to do a perfect painting job, but it took me several years longer to recognize the distinction between Perfect and Good Enough.

When you have the aptitude, knowledge, craft, and, above all, patience to do first-rate work, you fall into a trap of sorts. Because not everyone lives in a mansion, and not every job needs to be perfect—it needs to be appropriate. If you detail the hell out of an old car, every ding and imperfection will jump out; likewise, most ER visitors don’t need MRIs and genetic sequencing, they need antibiotics and stitches and plaster casts. More often than not, Good Enough or Appropriate trumps Perfect.

Now, we shouldn’t take this as an excuse for poor work and cutting corners. The guiding principle is what’s appropriate, bringing to bear precisely the right technology and use of resources to get the job done. Overshooting the mark might please your ego, but that’s about as far as it goes.

I believe this is also the case with writing. As I read more writing blogs stuffed with yet more rules and dogma and telling us to obsess over perfection, I also note the beginnings of a reaction, as some of the smarter bloggers caution against blind adherence to The Rules, against over-revising to the point where our work loses energy, and (most importantly) about valuing technique over storytelling.

I’ve ranted elsewhere on this blog about the tendency in this very tough publishing climate for writers to get so wrapped around the axle over the conventional wisdom—diagram-perfect, braided plot arcs; textbook character change; scenes rigidly structured by formula; ruthless elimination of adverbs; the premeditated targeting of fiction to a particular genre or market demographic; and much more. I think there’s a place for all that, and I know writers who, God help them, do it all. And though I don’t have nearly the craft others do, I’m capable of some fine prose styling, always have been. But for years I mistook perfectly-turned prose for good writing, and it isn’t. Nor, I believe, is it generally appropriate. Good writing mostly consists of making people care about your characters and taking them on a ride that they’ll enjoy and feel better for having taken.

I don’t believe every book should have the same structure as every other book in its genre or category. I’m not interested in writing Richard III or being a Shakespeare. I am interested in improving my craft at every level. But as someone self-taught in my previous career as a decorative painter, I’ve learned that adherence to rules and conventional wisdom, although a good basic principle, leads inevitably to either cookie-cutter imitation work or perfected coldness when taken too far. Technical perfection, though it has its place, is ultimately of less value than originality and heart.

Of course, we have to ask ourselves what kind of writers we want to be. I say, advance on all fronts. I believe we develop our skills best by writing, not by obsessing. Keep the focus on the story and the characters.  A lot of tools—classic scene structure, textbook plot and character arcs, and so on—are in my opinion much more valuable as occasional diagnostic instruments than as rigid frameworks essential to our story. Adverbs, like any other part of the language, are a tool.

So learn the rules first; and once you do, question everything.  If you simply  use the right tools and deploy the appropriate level of craft to get the job done, all will be well.

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So You Want to be Published?

Why? Why do you want to be published?

No, really. I’m serious.  Just humour me as I go out on a limb here.

During a brief Google search to see what the internet community’s collective wisdom on this question might be, I was surprised to find that the question doesn’t seem to have been aired much. One of the very few posts I found on the subject came from a writer who—as well as saying they ‘want to be read’ (fair enough)—said, ‘I’m trying to raise money to get an editor to read my work.’ Uh-oh.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the desire for publication assumes geas-like proportions. Beginning writers (I was one, and can attest to this) are absolutely desperate to be published—so much so that they’ll ignore all the advice and red flags posted everywhere on the internet and on writing sites and get suckered into parting with thousands of dollars by scam-artist editors and publishers. The hunger to be published seems at times like one of those biological imperatives, on a par maybe with the need for food, shelter, and sex.

In the spirit of questioning assumptions and examining our own motives—which I’ve always believed are healthy things to do—let’s take a step back and try another question: “Why do you write?” Since writing is, for a vast proportion of us, difficult, lonely, and very time-consuming work, this is a reasonable question. And given the very low hit rate among aspirant authors, and the slim chance of ever being able to make a living it, we could arguably be doing more rewarding and enjoyable things with our time.

On the positive side, the desire to write and be published is the same as that which fuels any creative pursuit. Writers are motivated by the same desires that drive musicians, painters, and other artists: an earnest need to self-expression, to creation. But whereas I don’t think anyone learning their first chords on a guitar really thinks they’re ready to go out on a stage before an audience, the new writer has no such inhibitions. They somehow lack the objective measures, the yardstick necessary for self-assessment (which is why a critique group of the best writers you can find is so terribly important).

But on the cynical side of the scale, I’d wager that a good number of those who set out to be writers are motivated by dreams of wealth and fame, of bestseller stardom, complete with adoring librarian groupies and appearances on ‘Fresh Air.’ Somehow, society does nothing to dispel this fantasy, and maybe it shouldn’t. Why, after all, should anyone question dreams and puncture aspirations, however misguided, when the world will likely do so far more decisively? And it’s quite possible that the aspiring writer driven by illusions (or delusions) of wealth and fame may transmute, in the course of practice, into the honest artist seeking self-expression.

So is the answer, “I write because I want to be read,” good enough? I don’t think so. To me, it indicates that the person hasn’t looked deeply enough into their motivations. I’d even hazard that such a person isn’t really suited to the task, since all good writers are, in my experience, people possessed of powerful and searching intellects who ask the deep questions and don’t flinch from them. If there’s one quality that defines a writer I’d say that it’s curiosity, and most especially curiosity about people, about what makes them tick, act, and react in a given situation.

I’d posit that the most—and perhaps the only—valid answers to the question, “why do you want to write?” are, and have always been, that there are stories you want to read which nobody else has written. That there are characters and ideas you want to explore. That you have to write, because if you don’t, something inside you will hurt, sicken, even die. It’s a need, a compulsion, entirely unrelated to public success.

What about publication, then? Why are we so desperate for it, like children who just have to have that puppy so badly they can’t think about anything else? Where does that compulsion come from?

Validation is the first thing that comes to mind. Okay, but let’s be realistic. I’ll confess right away that in my first year or so as a writer I—like almost every other new writer wannabe—sent stories to The New Yorker and other equally stratospheric markets. This is very like taking an evening class in CPR and expecting to pass your certification exam and become an M.D. the next day. Now this doesn’t mean that validation—or, more properly, a benchmark by which to gauge your progress—isn’t necessary, but it should be sought at an appropriate level.

Publication is also about income. All of us driven fools who choose to be writers would love to quit our day jobs and make a living at it. I mean, damn! who wouldn’t want to make a living inventing stuff and making made-up people have adventures? It’s like being paid to be a kid again (except, of course, for the hard work, self-doubt, and grim loneliness of the task). And yet, I think money should be the last thing on the writer’s mind while they’re about their business, because trying to write with the express desire to make a killing is only going to kill one thing—your story.

Where does all this leave us? Once we’ve asked and honestly answered these deep, uncomfortable questions, and decided that the reasons we write are because some strange force is driving us to do it, and we’ll do it even if the work is hard, lonely, and peculiar, and we might never make a penny at it, and it may be our fate to simply labour on in obscurity, with nobody ever taking an interest in our work, and we do it, in the end, like a child lost in play with their toys, humming distractedly to themselves while creating elaborate adventures for people only they can see… then, just then, I believe something great might emerge.

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The Great (Self-) Publishing Debate – Round Three: Conclusion

In the previous two parts of this article, we’ve looked at the advantages and disadvantages of both self- and traditional publishing, and examined a couple of case histories. And although this is more of an (informed) opinion piece than a scientific study, I’ve attempted to remain somewhat objective and refrain from taking sides: I recommend that you—especially if you’re a new writer considering publishing options—do the same.

We’ve reached the crux now: how does one decide which path to take? Which is the best choice for you?

After much thought and discussion with others, I’ve come to the conclusion that a good enough book will likely find its audience whichever route one takes. The choice, I believe, is largely a matter of temperament.

To be successful at self-publishing, one needs to be near-obsessive about quality, willing to research and learn a great many new skills, and both confident and creative about self-promotion. If you’re the type who’s given to self-employment and used to wearing many hats, you may be a candidate. If you’re also someone who likes to be in control, then you should certainly consider self-publishing.

If, on the other hand, you just want to get on with the next novel, hate the idea of endlessly marketing and promoting yourself, and don’t want the research, intense work, and frequent frustration involved in learning to properly format and produce a book, then you should definitely go the traditional route; because whatever anyone says, there are good agents and publishers out there, and they can serve a new writer very well.

Here follow a few tips on each alternative: take what makes sense and works for you.

Self-Publishing

Since the single biggest argument made against self-publishing—the lack of quality assurance—is the one that most hurts both the individual writer and, by association, the entire indie field, let’s try to address that. How can someone intending to self-publish determine whether they’re ready? And how can they best prepare themselves and their book?

In my previous two posts, I repeatedly used the term, ‘objective measures.’ By this, I mean that anyone considering self-publishing needs to begin by getting as unbiased an assessment as possible of their book; because unless you were born a writing prodigy—and the odds are overwhelmingly against you—you need to put in your apprenticeship before you publish. (Yes, this is the same argument the enemies of self-publishing make, and it’s a valid one. What they fail to take into account though, because of their own bias and sense of self-importance, is that there are many writers who’ve learned and honed their craft and still, for reasons including the shortsightedness and frequently dysfunctional nature of the industry, can’t get a publishing deal.)

In other posts I stress the value of a good writer’s group. Lacking an agent or editor, your best hope is critique from other writers—and they had better be good ones with solid experience and some track record. The opinion of friends and relatives, while it might give you the warm fuzzies, is typically worthless in evaluating the quality of a manuscript.

Once you’ve established with some degree of objectivity that your manuscript is in good shape, you should get it copyedited. Fortunately there are plenty of professionals (including myself) who’ll do it for you. Costs vary wildly, but a cent per word is probably somewhere in the ballpark, though I’m sure you could probably pay two or three times that. Still, a cent a word would be about a thousand bucks or less for an average ms. In an ideal world, you’d hire a proofreader, a pro to do the formatting, a professional graphic artist, and so on; if you’re in a position to do so, more power to you: for $2,500, I think any savvy person could produce a first-rate product; and (depending on pricing) around a thousand or less digital sales will recoup those costs. It’s money very well spent, and should be tax-deductible (consult a tax professional).

But recognising the fact that many writers are going to be cash-strapped, I’d say that with sufficient research and effort, finding and buying some good artwork or using stock images, and getting enough literate, preferably OCD, friends to proofread your work (something that is nigh impossible to do well yourself), you should be able to produce a presentable product.

For digital conversion and distribution, the self-published author will likely do well to look to Smashwords and Amazon KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing). For POD, there are a number of choices; after reading a lot of fine print, I settled on Lightning Source.

And last is marketing. Like everything above, there’s tons of free advice and information on the net: go read it. Bottom line: networking, word of mouth, and honest reviews seem to work best; advertising is typically going to be a waste of your money.

Traditional Publishing

If you decide to take—or at least explore—this path, I strongly recommend a site called Agentquery. For a small annual fee, this site offers a fully searchable database of hundreds of agents, as well as excellent filtering and tracking software. Also, read the hundreds of online articles and blog posts about querying. There are still publishers who’ll accept unsolicited manuscripts, but I don’t recommend going this route unless you have years to give away.

If an agent bites on your query, be sure you have a good fit before signing with them; research them, interview them, and, above all, read any contract very thoroughly and make sure you understand the implications of every sentence (you’ll of course want to do the same with any eventual publishing contract).

In many cases, your agent will suggest and probably require you to do some further work on your ms. before they begin shopping it around. The work required could be anything from simple polishing to a major rewrite. Accept the fact that your agent is probably giving you great feedback, and be grateful for their advice and guidance. Any relationship with an agent, editor, copyeditor, etc., should ideally be one of collaboration and, occasionally, negotiation; if either party begins to dictate or ceases to be reasonable, the relationship probably needs re-evaluating.

The Third Way

One positive result of the revolution in the industry is that writers finally have choices, and that these extend beyond the binary option above.

Aside from the traditional small- and midsize presses, many of which are still good fits for a new writer, there’s an emergent group of strategies that offer authors further options still. These include:

  • Digital-only publishers. A fast-growing group of small presses that publish work in digital format only (though some do offer print to in the case that a title does exceptionally well). Typically, these publishers offer little or no advance, but a far more generous (and transparent) royalty structure than is the case in traditional publishing. This is a particularly promising business model as the book will receive professional copyediting, formatting, and graphic design, and the publisher will help with promotion with ARCs (Advance Reader Copies), as well as exposure on their website/online store, etc.
  • Author co-operatives. Another interesting model, the author co-op typically consists of a group of writers who effectively form their own small press. In the best examples, the participating writers may leverage individual skills within thegroup itself to critique, edit, copyedit, proofread, format, and even produce artwork for the work in question. The finished product will be made available digitally and often in POD as well. In addition to the above, a great strength of these co-ops is the potentially great synergy generated within a group of dedicated, and in some instances, well-established, writers.

Conclusion

I’ve tried in this series of posts to lay out the pros and cons of the available publishing choices as objectively as I could. I don’t doubt there are omissions and occasional instances of bias or error, but hopefully these are minor, and relative.

I stress that everything above is moot and that, in the final analysis, only one thing really matters: good writing. Whether it’s a book or a short story, if it doesn’t engage the reader, it will fail.

A good book is one that, for whatever reason, carries the reader along and keeps them reading; a great book will slip deep into the reader’s psyche, where it will resonate and its characters live on long after the reader puts the book down.

Because first and foremost, it’s about the writing. Just as it always was.

*          *          *

To read Round One (part one of this article), click here

To read Round Two (part two of this article), click here

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The Great (Self-)Publishing Debate – Round Two: A Tale of Two Manuscripts

I’d like to immediately demolish some silly notions.

The first is that literary agents and publishing houses are the gatekeepers of quality: this is nonsense. The astonishing amount of truly terrible books published by New York houses all the time, year after year, is proof enough of the speciousness of this argument.

Probably the best that can be said is that a traditionally published book is likely to be technically readable—i.e., that the language and formatting will be fairly clean. But as regards content, good luck. Take out the handful of bestselling and celebrity authors, and the rest is hit-or-miss: as Keith Gessen put it in his excellent article, ‘How to Create a Literary Star’ (Vanity Fair, Oct. 2011), ‘no one has any idea how many copies of a book will sell’. In the same article, Daniel Menaker, ex-New Yorker Magazine, ex- Random House Senior Editor, compares publishing to gambling: “You put your money down, and most of the time you lose. But when you win, you can win big.”

On the other hand, I personally know of a few first-rate, agented writers, some with an established readership, who have fine books languishing because they won’t easily fit into a category—acquiring a title is often a group decision, and it seems a publisher’s marketing department can often trump an editor’s judgment and result in a potentially winning book being turned down. This is especially true at a time when the industry is in deep turmoil.

Nonsense notions also abound in self-publishing. Although there are authors—some of whom, I suspect, get a good many readers for their books by this ploy—who try to convince everyone that self-publishing is the only way to go, that’s the furthest thing from the truth. The reality is that most writers lack the objective measures to determine whether they’re ready for an audience (this doesn’t necessarily validate the ‘Ocean of Dreck’ argument); and even those that do have a good book may be temperamentally or otherwise unsuited to the rigours and demands of successful self-publishing.

Also, forget about getting POD indie books into bookstores—yes, there are a very few who’ll work with indie authors on a consignment basis, but you’re just not going to get distribution unless you get to the point of having a catalogue of at least 15 or 20 titles—and even then, the economics of POD and the complex, ugly realities of the bookselling business make it a very tough proposition. Your only real chance is in digital editions.

Let’s take two case histories (though ‘war stories’ might be a better term), one in traditional publishing, one in self-publishing.

Around ten years ago, I was hired to do the initial, fairly substantive, copyedit on a self-help book written by a friend, a medical practitioner with a very successful practice specializing in stress management and hard-to-treat hormonal disorders. He had the knowledge, he had the platform (critical in the nonfiction arena), and his timing was perfect*.

I helped him put together a proposal, and before long he’d snagged an agent. My friend’s agent did some further editing, buffing the book till it gleamed. After doing the rounds, the book was acquired by an imprint of Penguin Putnam.

Initially, it was a love-fest. My friend was offered a $20,000 advance, a very healthy sum for a first-time author, and told he’d get strong marketing and promotional support. The editor assigned to the book said it was the best-presented book she’d ever seen and that it was good to go.

But then, an editor who had summarily rejected my friend’s book just months before while working at another publishing house was hired by Penguin Putnam and put in charge of the imprint.

As the book inched towards production, the whole deal turned frosty. The book was given a truly awful, absolutely generic cover that made it look like a technical manual; my author friend was allowed no input on title; the person assigned to do the press release on the book hadn’t read it, and asked my friend to write his own press release; and the book—despite the hefty advance paid—received virtually zero marketing support from the publisher beyond sending out a few reviewer copies. They were going to let it sink or swim on its own.

My friend, a very proactive man, isn’t one to flounder for long. When he saw what was happening, he talked to his agent, who pointed him to a PR firm that promised the moon. Faced with the need to self-promote, he signed a contract with this company, which specialized in setting up radio and magazine interviews for authors. He spent the next several months working his butt off writing articles and doing interviews at all hours with countless obscure small-town radio stations and local papers: at the end of the contract, he’d spent over $40,000 on marketing. The book never earned out its advance. His comment on the publishing industry? “I’d be very happy to see them all go out of business. I’ve never seen an industry that’s more incompetent.”

Now let’s look at the other side.

Self-publishing, friends, is damned hard. I’ve done it. In the three years since I founded Panverse Publishing, I’ve edited and published four Science Fiction and Fantasy anthologies and my own nonfiction book, ‘Aegean Dream.’ Nonetheless, and despite these attractively-packaged anthologies getting some very good reviews as well as several award nominations for the stories, three of the four anthologies lost money; even the most successful sold less than two hundred copies. Why? First, because the SF field is tiny, and I was an unknown, publishing mostly unknown authors; second, because I had no visibility in bookstores; and, third, because I’m not a great self-promoter. Ah, hindsight.

My nonfiction book, ‘Aegean Dream’ is a different story.

I’d originally taken ‘Aegean Dream’ the traditional route: after all, here was a non-genre, mainstream book, a bittersweet true story that read like fiction set on an idyllic Greek island, the very island that the mega-hit movie, ‘Mamma Mia!’ was shot on. The book featured food, love, eccentric locals, intrigue, corruption, social commentary, an antagonist, and even cameo appearances by Pierce Brosnan (the movie was shot during our last months on the island). Its theme—escape from the rat race to a Greek island—is a universal one. And finally, it wasn’t the typical, sugary, Year-in-Provence travel memoir, but an unvarnished, tragi-comic story. So I believed I had a very marketable book, and had every confidence I’d do better publishing it via the traditional route. I was also fortunate in having a pro critique group who took my first drafts  to pieces and pointed out a number of issues, all of which I addressed in the book’s many rewrites.

A good many agents bit on my query but balked at the book’s length—the ms. was 135k words, at least 1/3 over optimum length. One complained it didn’t fit the formula, and was too unvarnished (by which he meant I told too much truth: go figure). But eventually I found an agent who utterly loved the book and felt it was good to go as it stood.

After a dozen or fifteen rejections from major houses, all of whom said the book was well-written but the travel memoir category was overfull, or the book didn’t quite fit the category, or it was terribly long, I’d had enough. I decided to publish it through Panverse.

Now, I’ve done several stints over the years as a paid copyeditor, and, after working 25 years as a painter/colourist, I have an eye for good artwork, as well as good contacts in the graphic art field. By the time ‘Aegean Dream’ was published, in July of 2011, it was clean, well-formatted, and nicely-packaged, a professional-quality book in every respect.

For six months, hardly anything happened. I sold a couple of hundred copies, and couldn’t get the book reviewed anywhere, despite the fact that I had some short story credits and some track record as an editor of well-received anthologies. Yes, even if your book is professionally copyedited, proofread, and has an attractive, well-designed cover, mainstream reviewers still won’t touch you: the stigma attached to self-publication is both pervasive and strong. At least 40 print ARCs (Advance Reader Copies) must have ended up in recycle bins.

But then, in January of this year, long after the point at which a publisher would have pulled the book from store shelves, I noticed an uptick. It began slowly, going from a book every day to two, to four, five… and by midsummer, to a very healthy peak of twenty copies a day, six hundred a month, on Kindle in the UK (it’s currently still selling almost a hundred a week, and was Kindle UK #1 nonfiction book on Greece for over three months, getting well into the top several hundred Kindle books on several occasions).

‘Aegean dream’ did all of this with no marketing and no reviews, beyond those that readers voluteered on Amazon. In just a few months, the book has sold over two thousand copies, and I have every reason to believe it’ll keep selling, especially in the summer holiday season. I’ve had fan mail. I’ve started getting inquiries from foreign travel book publishers about foreign language rights, and Amazon sends me a nice check every month, like clockwork. And not a single reader has complained that it’s a long book!

I believe my book’s (moderate) success is due to several things. One, I happened to write a book with the potential to appeal to a wide demographic; two, I believe that after years of writing and critiquing and editing I was ready as a writer; and three, as an editor and self-publisher, I did everything possible and co-opted some talented people to put out a high-quality finished product. As a result, when, near the end of the gloomy British winter, readers thinking about holidays in the Greek isles started looking for books on Greece and found and subsequently enjoyed mine, they told friends; and growing word-of-mouth, along with rising Amazon visibility, bootstrapped me the rest of the way.

I picked these two anecdotes because I have personal knowledge of the details. From everything I’ve read and the many writers I’ve spoken to in both camps, I’d say that my friend’s experience with traditional publishing, while perhaps not typical, is far from unusual; he did everything right but was unlucky. My own self-publishing experience, on the other hand, is atypical, an outlier: I did a few things right, and I got lucky.

*          *          *

To read Round One (part one of this article), click here; to read Round Three (Conclusion) click here

In Round Three, on Wednesday, I’ll talk about the emerging wisdom on just how to give your self-published book the best possible chance of success in the market, as well as some ‘Third Way’ options.

* The book was in fact groundbreaking, ahead of its time, and it would be several years before some of the topics it dealt with—internal inflammation and Cortisol, and their part in the stress response—became mainstream subjects.

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The Great (Self-)Publishing Debate – Round One

So you’ve written a book. You think it’s pretty good, and you’re ready to launch your literary career. The only question is do you go through all the business with agents and publishers, or are you going to take a chance and self-publish?

Or perhaps you already have some work in print, but are considering self-publishing (in which case, you’ll want to check any existing contracts before even considering it). Maybe you’re dissatisfied with the status quo in publishing, but concerned that you’ll wreck your career if you self-publish. With all the claims, warnings, and invective flying around, how do you decide?

For some reason I can’t entirely fathom—except for the fact that we’re a bunch of barely-evolved monkeys—it seems that everyone feels a need to take sides on every issue, whether or not they actually have a horse in the race. The question of self-publishing as opposed to traditional publishing is, sadly, no exception. On the one hand are those who claim that agents and publishers are the shining guardians of quality, the last barrier between legions of innocent readers and an ocean of vile dreck; on the other are those who claim that the traditional publishing model is broken, corrupt, and deeply flawed, and needs to go, freeing both readers and writers from the industry’s burdensome shackles.

Well, there’s an old saying that “there are three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth.”

Now, I don’t claim to know The Truth, but I have some thoughts on this increasingly contentious issue. And I also believe that both sides are, to some extent, disingenuous, and not disclosing all the facts. So—leaving aside for the moment some emerging models which may offer a ‘third way’—let’s start by listing the things that are fairly straightforward and uncontested:

TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING

Pluses:

  • Advance
  • Bookstore presence
  • Editing and proofreading
  • Cover art & layout
  • Likelihood of some mainstream review
  • Possibility of some marketing and promotional support
  • Market perception of quality
  • Greater personal sense of validation, legitimacy

Minuses:

  • Need to jump through hoops
  • Long road to publication (12 – 18-plus months from acceptance)
  • Possibility of friction and roadblocks at each of several stages
  • Obligations of contract
  • Lack of control over just about everything
  • Short shelf life/bookstore presence
  • Possible lack of transparency regarding royalties and sales figures

SELF-PUBLISHING

Pluses:

  • Complete control over just about everything
  • Short road to publication
  • Not beholden to anyone
  • Full access to sales data in near-real time
  • Regular, predictable payments from POD and digital sales channels
  • Typically much higher royalty from each sale, especially digital

Minuses:

  • No advance
  • No editing/proofreading help
  • No cover art & layout help
  • No help with marketing & promotion
  • No (or extremely limited) bookstore presence
  • Difficulty in getting mainstream review and acceptance
  • Perception that book/author wasn’t good enough for traditional publisher

In case you haven’t noticed, each camp has fanatical adherents, almost all of whom have an axe to grind. On the one hand are the publishers, agents, and their dependents, all of whom have a lot to lose, and a few, highly vocal, bestselling authors. On the other are authors (and they are many) who’ve either been screwed by publishers, agents, or both, or who just enjoy a dust-up and possibly see the opportunity to burnish their image by stirring up controversy.

After years of following the topic, it seem to me that some of the best, most honest, and certainly most exhaustive information on this issue can be found on Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s fine blog. Rusch, one-time editor of the highly respected Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and a bestselling, prolific author across a number of genres, has set out scads of information. Although she doesn’t pull punches over the shortcomings of the existing publishing model, she has a foot in both camps, and—most importantly—had established her own bona fides and gained a dedicated readership before flying solo. When you’re done here, you’d do well to visit her blog, ‘Business Rusch’  (link above left).

Bottom line: a self-published author is most likely to succeed if they (i) already have a following; (ii) not only write well, but also take steps to ensure their book is thoroughly copyedited, proofed, formatted, and presented to the standards of a traditionally published work or better; and (iii) are prepared to aggressively market and promote their writing.

Now for those Dirty Little Secrets each side would rather gloss over:

TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING

  • Editors (being human) make bad judgment calls all the time
  • A fine book that doesn’t pigeonhole easily is liable to be rejected, especially in today’s climate of fear
  • Many authors will get little or no developmental editing (double-edged sword)
  • Most authors will get near zero marketing and promotion
  • Most books don’t earn out advances
  • Contract clauses can and will tie an unwary author up in knots for years to come

SELF-PUBLISHING

  • Putting out a quality product takes a great deal of work, skill, and ingenuity
  • Most self-published books sink without a trace—and deserve to!
  • As well as having a strong book, authors had better be extremely good self-promoters to even stand a chance
  • Getting reviewed by mainstream reviewers is next to impossible
  • The vast majority of self-published books sell fewer than two hundred copies

There are probably a bunch more.

In summary, if you’re thinking of self-publishing, my advice would to begin by asking yourself the following*:

1. Do you have any objective measures (friends’ and your mom’s opinions don’t count) that lead you to believe your work is really ready for a wide readership?

2. Are you prepared to invest a lot of time and at least several hundred bucks (a couple of thousand to really do it right) in preparing, polishing and formatting your work to professional standards? Because if you don’t, you’ll almost certainly fail.

3. Are you temperamentally suited to the endless self-promotion and multiple other tasks required to succeed?

If you can honestly answer ‘yes’ to all three, self-publishing may be for you.

*            *             *

To read Round Two (part two of this article), click here

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Slushpile and Editor Mind

My third career trajectory (the first two were decorative painting and CAD design, with a smattering of copyediting over the years) has been a decidedly odd one.

I started out writing Science Fiction, and a few years later found myself writing a nonfiction memoir (‘Aegean Dream’) which is enjoying a reasonable success; I took a three-year detour into publishing and editing ‘Eight Against Reality’ and the Panverse series, anthologies which were generally well-received; and now,  back to writing, I’m at the tail end of revision on a novel, an essentially mainstream thriller barely tinged with the fantastic. I’m also doing some occasional reviews at Tangent Online.

There and back again.

Before taking up the editor’s red pen myself, I had the fortune to meet and learn from the great, multiple-award winning editor Gardner Dozois during the week he was our guest instructor at Clarion West in 2002. What perhaps impressed me most about his attitude to editing was the sheer integrity and poise he brought to the task: when Gardner considered or discussed a piece of work, all that mattered was the work, nothing else.

When I put out the anthology call for Panverse One in May of 2009, opening the floodgates on the groaning  novella-dam, my slushpile was soon overflowing with hefty manuscripts, and they kept coming. And since I’ve always railed against slow response times, I’d stated right up front on our guidelines page that I’d always respond to subs within 30 days.

It could have been ugly.

The slushpile is a challenge to an editor’s very survival. If you don’t stay on top of it, it very quickly gets out of control, and might easily eat your brain. I determined to stay on top of it from Day One.

Now, though I’m only speaking from my own limited experience (close to 500 novella submissions in three years), I suspect that most editors and first readers operate in a very similar manner—they have to. Here’s what you need to know to give you the best chance of selling that story.

Let’s assume that, on opening the envelope or file, the editor finds no threats or insults in the your cover letter, and hopefully no synopsis or brags about the story. Let’s further assume that you’ve followed the submission guidelines. Very good.

The first glance at your story is going to be a tough one—the editor, whiskers twitching, is looking for a reason to bounce it. The reason an editor does this is so that they can focus their attention on those stories that deserve it and not waste time on the also-rans. In my own experience with Panverse, I found that only about ten percent of submissions need to be read beyond the first few paragraphs, and maybe only half of those to the end. Poor prose skills, muddled thinking, third-hand ideas, a gift for tedium, or simply the absence of anything interesting—all these, if present, will jump out at the editor in the first paragraph or two and earn you a swift rejection.

“You didn’t give the story a chance!” screams the writer. “Things really start happening on page such-and-such!” Well, tough. If the story doesn’t grab the reader at the very beginning and hold them to the end, the story ain’t working. Period. But bear in mind that holding a reader’s attention doesn’t necessarily mean a breathless, action-packed opening. An intriguing character or situation will often work; sometimes, the writer’s voice alone will carry it (see my March 25th blog post, Openings). The point is that unless you give the reader a reason to keep going, they won’t. And editors are just very experienced and analytical readers.

If the beginning looks promising, the editor may skip ahead a few pages before committing to a full read. Often a story that begins well quickly emerges as dull, or with fatal flaws in plot logic or world building; sometimes the premise is unlikely; the author may have a tin ear for dialogue or, knowing the genre only from TV or movies, is aping Star Wars or channeling the most tired sort of Sword and Sorcery, and has made no effort at owning his or her world. Bounce.

In the happy event your story works, the next consideration is whether it’s publication-ready or needs minor revision. One of my goals at Panverse was to publish new authors, so I asked for minor fixes and—in a couple of instances—substantial rewrites—on several stories. Not all editors will do that unless, maybe, (i) they really like a story, and (ii) they believe, based on what they’ve seen, that the writer possess the craft skills to fix the issues.

Another thing editors often say and which I now grasp to be true is that they often don’t know in advance what they want until they see it. This can get tricky when the editor is faced with a well-written and highly publishable story that they like a lot. It can get trickier still because an anthology, unlike a novel, is a moving target: each story the editor accepts shapes the whole, so that as the slots fill up, the balance between the individual stories in an anthology becomes a factor in the editor’s mind. With magazines, the editor may well select stories for individual issues around some loose theme or design. Most of this is out of your hands, but a High Fantasy story is never going to find a home at Analog, however good it is.

Nor are editors perfect. In reviewing stories at Tangent Online, I’ve more than once come across stories in pro-level magazines that are fatally flawed in plot logic, story arc, etc., and wondered what the editor was thinking. It’s possible that sometimes an editor might like one aspect of a story so much that they entirely miss, or even ignore, a major issue. Editors are human. But next time you read a story and think, “My God! this is crap! I could do better than that!” …well, you might just be right.

Finally, when editors say that they really want to find a nugget of gold in the slushpile, they’re not just trying to make you feel warm and fuzzy. Sending an author, especially a new author, an acceptance, or asking for a rewrite and having the story come back with its issues resolved and in great shape, is a golden moment: as a writer myself, I know how that author feels; I can promise you that if editors appear hard at the front end of the process, it’s so they can reward those authors who really merit it, and give readers stories that will make them remember that author’s name.

A few extra tips:

Read a publication’s guidelines. This is so important, yet a blinding number of writers who submit stories clearly don’t.

Cover letters. With a story (as opposed to a novel), these are essentially useless, and synopses are downright irritating. The best covers are brief, polite and to the point, just a line or two including the name of the story, maybe that it’s unpublished, and a closing line. No cover at all is fine. Publication credits? Keep them very brief, but know they don’t influence the editor one whit—pros get rejected all the time. In fact, nothing you put in a cover, except maybe a seven-figure check, will improve your chances of acceptance; but it’s possible to annoy an editor a good deal with a rambling, boastful, or fawning cover.

Here’s a checklist you may find useful; if you can honestly answer yes to every item, you’ve got a far better chance than most of getting a sale.

  • Does your story meet the publication’s subject guidelines?
  • Have you observed their formatting requirements?
  • Have you proofed your work carefully? (Don’t rely on spellcheck!)
  • Is your cover letter short and businesslike?
  • Does the opening contain a hook?
  • Is your world or setting fresh and interesting?
  • Are you giving enough setting description to avoid the dreaded ‘white room’ syndrome?
  • Do you open with story rather than backstory?
  • Have you cut all unnecessary backstory?
  • Are you infodumping?
  • Is there enough setting description in each scene to ground the reader?
  • Is there credible and sufficient character motivation to drive the plot?
  • Are your characters somewhat proactive? Are their goals and motivations clear?
  • Do the stakes start high and rise as the story progresses?
  • Does the antagonist get the breaks while the protagonist has to use their wits and fight for every inch?
  • Are you engaging all the reader’s senses?
  • Does each line of dialogue advance the plot, reveal character, impart information, or (even better) do several of these things? Does it sound like the speech of a real person?
  • Does each scene serve a purpose?
  • Is the ending satisfying? Does it resolve the primary conflict?

To conclude, the only sure way of breaking out of the slushpile is to keep writing. The craft of fiction, like any other, needs to be learned, and for most of us it takes years of practice before a reasonable competency is achieved. Even King and Bradbury, Cherryh and Gaiman, Liu and de Bodard had to learn their craft.

Next week I’ll talk about critique groups, and how to make them work for you and avoid their pitfalls.

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