I’m not sure if this is funny or just horrifying…
I just talked to Jerry Simmons, NAIWE’s publishing expert, and came away with some interesting insights into the expectations of publishers. I suspect that there are more than four things that publishers want authors to bring to the table, but the ones that Jerry chose were based on his own vast experience in the business side of the publishing world. A couple of them surprised me– how about you?
Here are Jerry’s picks for four indispensable ingredients for publishing success:
Publishers are in the business of producing content that they can sell. If you write decently and can turn in at least a manuscript every year, a publisher is more likely to value you.
Stick to your area of expertise, and turn in good quality work each time. If you’ve gained an audience for a particular type of work or in a particular genre, write for your audience. It not only keeps your backlist alive longer, but it’s also easier to sell to an established audience, rather than having to build an entirely different audience. If you feel you must write in other genres, you may want to get a different agent and use a pseudonym. According to Jerry, publishers regard commitment and consistency as a huge plus, and that can have a positive impact on your writing career.
No, this isn’t quite the same as being consistent. Predictability actually has to do with percent of predictable sales. If a publisher ships out 1000 copies of your book, they want at least 65% of them to sell (the ones that don’t sell are returned from the bookstore to the publisher to meet a dismal fate). Publishers also like to see your backlist continue to sell (the backlist is books that are over about six months old). If your work consistently sells at a high percentage rate, you’ll be considered a publisher’s gold mine, and you’ll benefit from the multiple streams of royalty income.
The best way to sell books is through publicity. Are you presentable and articulate for book signings or radio and television interviews? Remember, you’re representing not only yourself, but also the publisher, so they need to be convinced that you won’t embarrass them, and that you’ll effectively participate in the marketing of your book. Marketability can weigh quite heavily in a manuscript-purchasing decision, so take a close look and see how you can make yourself more marketable.
You may decide you need to get a media coach or join Toastmasters International to learn about speaking, or get your teeth whitened, a fresh hairstyle, or perhaps just a nice outfit or two (get good advice from a professional who understands business wear). Whatever you do, it will be an investment in marketability which can further your writing career.
There… what do you think? Were you surprised by any of these items? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
You can listen to the interview on NAIWE NewsWire.
I think it’s instructive to realize that self-publishing isn’t really a new and different approach. Instead, it’s the way that many authors chose to get their words to market. Some of those authors sank, and some swam. Here are a few you’ll probably recognize.
Do you have an addition? Add it in the comments below, and I’ll edit the post to make the list more complete. If possible, please cite a reliable source for your information.
Good for You, Seth Godin
In his current blog post, Moving On, author Seth Godin announced that Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? will be the last book he publishes in a traditional way.
Good for him. He’s experienced success in the traditional world and he understands what’s possible. He states, “…my mission is to figure out who the audience is, and take them where they want and need to go, in whatever format works, even if it’s not a traditionally published book.”
I’ve long believed that people who have something important to say and a defined audience to speak to are best served by maintaining control of their intellectual property and choosing the most effective means of distribution. For many authors, there remains the longing for a traditional stamp of approval, but the fact is, readers buy content and the Internet has leveled the playing field in a way that allows authors to reach a target audience as never before.
The twenty-first century stamp of approval is the consumer’s dollar, rather than a publishing house’s approval. This is a power shift that leaves authors in a far better place as long as they’re willing to adapt to the new reality and learn what they need to know. As I’ve written in previous musings on the subject, I believe it’s easier for non-traditionally-published non-fiction to find an audience than for fiction, but even that is changing.
When someone as pivotal as Seth Godin steps away from traditional publishing, it’s clear that the market has spoken.
And now, I’m going to read Linchpin.
So, what do you do when you think you want to get something published?
Here are a few tips for where to start when you have something to say and want to see it in print.
If you’re serious about getting published, join a writers’ critique group and get feedback at a local level before submitting. Other writers can see things you’ve missed, ask questions that help you clarify what you’ve written, and just offer good advice for the journey. You don’t have to take all the advice you receive, but you’ll find your work strengthened by the exposure to feedback from other writers.
If you’re not absolutely confident that your grammar, punctuation, and word usage are extremely good, hire an experienced copyeditor to clean up your manuscript before you submit or self-publish. Traditional publishers want to see material that is close to publication-ready. Editing is time-consuming, so don’t expect to get a good job free (unless you’ve married an editor;-)).
If you want to be published traditionally, learn about the industry. Read writing magazines; read a lot of good work in your genre; get Writer’s Market and learn about the submission process; and go to writer’s conferences and workshops. In any field, it’s necessary to learn and practice the basics before you can expect to succeed. You probably wouldn’t expect to be hired as a symphony violinist if you’ve taken only six weeks of lessons, so it’s reasonable to assume that there’s a learning curve for the writing and publishing process as well.
Accept the fact that there are standard procedures and timetables in the publishing industry, and you can’t change them. Stephen King or J.K .Rowling may be able to get special treatment, but novice writers needn’t expect anything special. It pays to learn to learn about the industry so that you won’t accidentally sabotage yourself through impatience or lack of knowledge.
Get involved with the writing/editing/publishing industry. Join a writer’s association such as NAIWE, the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors, where you’ll learn a lot more about writing, editing, publishing, and marketing your work.
Finally, enjoy the process. It can be challenging and frustrating at times, but writing is worth it.
I’ve been reading Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will or How to Make a Decision Without Dreams, Visions, Fleeces, Impressions, Open Doors, Random Bible Verses, Casting Lots, Liver Shivers, Writing In the Sky, Etc. by Kevin DeYoung. I picked it up at a recent conference, not because I have trouble with decision-making, but because I’m a sucker for a catchy title (there’s a lesson there for publishers).
It’s a solid little book that takes a serious look at the harm done by indecision, waffling, inconsistency, and the unwillingness to just put a hand to the proverbial plow and get moving. Spiritualizing indecision and inaction may make it more socially acceptable, but it doesn’t make it a more effective life strategy. Just Do Something is more than just a title, it’s a strategy that works.
How does this book relate to writing and escaping the slush pile? Take a minute to read Stephanie Blake‘s inspiring blog post, “How I (Finally) Got a Book Plucked From the Slush Pile,” to get a good look at exactly what “just do something” looks like in the writing world. Stephanie chronicles a year by year saga of her long road to publication heaven, and the thing that stands out is that she simply kept doing something.
Like many unpublished writers, she learned through the process–through slammed doors, frustrating rejections, and tantalizing “almosts.” She went to conferences, worked with agents, did revisions, and did it all again and again. She didn’t wait for the stars to align, for approval from others, or for anything else before she started sending out her work. She sent and sent and sent. She revised. She sent some more. Finally the miracle happened, and The Marble Queen was plucked from the slush pile and accepted.
If she hadn’t written this blog post, there would have been unpublished writers who commented enviously about luck and overnight success and people who get all the breaks (I know, I’ve heard all that– many times, and if you’ve been through Lucky Freelancer coaching with me, you’ll know exactly how to turn those excuses upside down). There’ll probably still be writers who say things like that, but that’s because they’re not out there doing something. They’re just a little too busy–way too busy–to do all that sending and revising and resending, but one day, just watch, they’ll get the call too. Or not.
The fact is that just do something is the key to almost everything. The book is good too. I’ll be sharing it, so don’t be offended if I send it your way. Just do something!
I’ve been working on a book proposal, and as it takes shape I find myself in an unexpected quandary. It’s a good book (in my completely unbiased opinion;-)) on a popular topic, and it’s built on many years of practical experience. Although I have a publisher who specifically requested this proposal, I’m hesitating over the question of whether or not I want to go through traditional publishing channels or self-publish.*
You see, I’ve done both, and I know how to self-publish properly– doing everything that a regular publisher would do, including using my company’s own ISBN and hiring experienced specialists for editing, copyediting, indexing, cover design, proofreading and all the other details. I have access to a high-quality pool of experts in NAIWE, the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors, and I’m not worried about the mechanics of the process. Because I have a reasonably well-established online presence and a solid platform as a writer, speaker, coach, and director of NAIWE, I’m not worried about the marketing.
The reason I’m wavering is twofold: First, I know the vast difference in profit margin between the two methods, and second, I highly value the speed, flexibility, and control of the self-publishing process. For a non-fiction book that is carefully targeted to a specific audience, a competent self-publisher with a high-quality book can easily reap a profit of at least 50% of the sale price per book, and often quite a bit more. If the same book were traditionally published, the author would be extremely lucky to receive royalties of 10% of the wholesale price.
With traditional publishing, authors also lose flexibility. There’s no way to easily update information or release a new edition; the publisher usually keeps the rights to publish the book in alternative formats; and authors must purchase books at the wholesale price rather than cost if they want copies for marketing. Worst of all, if the publisher lets the book go out of print, all ongoing potential income is lost unless the author regains the rights (which is something I’d be sure to specify in any contract I signed). The traditional publishing process can take well over a year, while the length of time between manuscript and book-in-hand for a self-publisher–even one who outsources many steps– is usually a matter of a few months at most.
So if self-publishing is more profitable, faster, and more flexible, why is there even a question of going the traditional route? First, there’s the lure of handing it over and having an editor take charge and direct the editing and publication process. Like most writers, I’m busy. I always have other writing projects going, plus work with the association, so sharing responsibility with someone else is alluring. I know that authors still end up doing a lot of work, but it’s reassuring to have an expert at the helm.
Second, traditional publishing has more street cred. People still regard it as the holy grail for writers, and I respect that. Self-publishers, even those whose books match traditionally-published books in quality, are treated like pre-transformation Cinderellas. There’s a certain cachet in being one of the chosen, but from a practical standpoint it’s the equivalent of marrying for social position. Very few people argue for marriages of status anymore, and publishing for status may be destined to become equally archaic. Right now, though, traditional publishing still holds many of the credibility cards, and depending on what the author wants to accomplish with the book, that added credibility can be important.
What to do? I’ll decide in the next few days. I still believe in traditional publishing for fiction, but for non-fiction, it’s a quandary: money and control vs. time and credibility in the traditional publishing world. Hmmmm…
*The term “self-publishing” is being co-opted by some vanity presses, which are using incorrectly using it to describe what they offer. An author who pays a fee to have his or her book “published” under the ISBN of a “publishing company,” is simply paying to have the book printed by a vanity press. This is not self-publishing, and to call it self-publishing is misleading and inaccurate.
I enjoyed my first national SCBWI conference in NYC a couple of weeks ago. It was exhilarating to be in the same room with so many creative people–writers, illustrators, publishers, agents, editors, and other children’s book enthusiasts (Jane Yolen!!!). While there, I was conscious of the fact that just being there conferred an advantage on each hopeful writer or editor in attendance. There’s nothing quite like the synergy of being present, networking in person, and hearing first-hand from others in the field.
I tweeted many of the tidbits I picked up during the conference, but several things have lingered with me. Here are a few of them:
The most memorable thing I brought home: Literary fiction can be commercially successful; some commercial fiction has literary merit. Lines blur… just write. It’s easy to get caught in the web of trends and traditions, and lose sight of what you need to be writing. Don’t look around; look within and write.
Author Jacqueline Woodson read her work with such beauty and passion that I was too caught up to write down much. However, she quoted author Madeleine L’Engle, and that bit of wisdom has stayed with me: “Write for the children we once were, not the children we have. You know only your own internal struggles.”
Illustrator Peter Sis offered a fascinating overview of his career path which stretched from communist Czechoslovakia to a lengthy, successful, and ongoing career in the United States. He vividly conveyed a sense of the danger of being involved in the arts in a repressive regime, and the importance of perseverance.
Agent Sheldon Fogelman emphasized the need for a detailed, prioritized plan if you want to make a career of writing. Establish a goal, then create steps for reaching it. Other tips: read endlessly in your genre; learn about the business aspect of being a writer; be open to suggestions from your editor or agent; and don’t be distracted–this is a business for serious people.
Jim Benton, The Compulsive Creator, shared more than one memorable line, but my favorite was: “Rewrite it; there are no first drafts in the library.” He also discussed the financial advantages to licensing your work. The numbers were impressive!
Prinze winner Libba Bray spoke of the power of the unexpected and the imporatnce of creating characters that are fully human. She emphasized that it’s important to ignore trends and write your own truth. The most memorable line for me was, “First you jump off the cliff, then you build the wings. The leap of faith is the beginning.” I do believe that.
Agent Susan Raab offered a peek into the future– what is selling and what is not. The most encouraging bit of news is that the children’s book market has held up well when compared to the adult market. She offered many other helpful hints, including encouragement to 1) Advocate for yourself; 2) Reach out personally to readers through your website; 3) Look strategically at the whole picture and build an effective platform; 4) Focus on a specific aspect of the market and become an expert; 5) Be proactive in reaching out to the media.
I attended workshops with three different editors, and was once again reminded that publication is a subjective process. As I listened to each editor talk about the ideal book he/she would like to see, I was able to mentally sort the manuscripts I’ve written and match them to an editor’s style and preferences. Market guides and editor listings just can’t compete with the in-person experience.
The final speaker was someone I’ve long admired– Jane Yolen. She spoke eloquently of the joy in storytelling, and shared the Biblical tale of the Pharaoh’s dream of 7 fat and 7 lean cattle as an apt metaphor for the state of the publishing industry. After offering twenty writer rules she has found important, she reminded us that “The working writer writes. Rules are useless without doing the work. Use anything you have– just go home and write!”
I’ve been re-reading Yolen’s outstanding Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie, and Folklore in the Literature of Childhood since I got home, and it remains one of the best books I’ve read on the subject. If you’re not familiar with it, be sure to look for it.
My final thought on the conference? It’s important to be at events like this. Not only do you reap the practical benefits of rubbing elbows with others who understand what you’re doing, but you will also come away inspired, refreshed, and equipped to meet your goals.