books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, July 18, 2010

SELF-PUBLISHING: Maybe You're Not So Vain After All?

A lot of writers—even established ones—are taking a second look at self-publishing right now.

Only a couple of years ago, self-publishing—especially for memoir and fiction—was equated with the grumpy-geezer rants and bored-housewife fantasies of "vanity publishing.".

Serious writers were told self-publishing was the direct route to a dead-on-arrival career. Predatory outfits like PublishAmerica and AuthorHouse produced such heaping piles of unedited, overpriced crapola that most bookstores wouldn’t touch anything that gave off a whiff of “P.O.D,” no matter what the author's credentials. Reviewers tossed copies in the shredder without a second look, and most self-published books sold under 150 copies. 

But along came Amazon’s Kindle, igniting what's being called the biggest change in publishing since Gutenberg. And as Eric at Pimp my Novel says, “words of caution against unscrupulous self-publishing companies (read: vanity publishers) don't apply to the world of e-books.” 

Suddenly anybody who can convert a Word file to .pdf can throw a book on Amazon and have an ebook for sale within minutes—at no cost. AND—here’s the really seductive part—there's actual money to be made. Amazon pays a 70% royalty on Kindle books priced from $2.99-$9.99.

A few months ago, while big publishing companies battled with Amazon about ebook pricing and squabbled with their authors about ebook rights and royalties, a few savvy writers quietly slipped their Kindle-formatted books onto Amazon—for very low prices. Instead of getting paid maybe a few pennies in royalties on the sale of a traditionally published paperback, they started getting $2.10 for a $2.99 ebook.

Kinda awesome, since the low prices snagged a lot of customers eager to load their shiny new Kindles. These self-pubbed bargain ebooks didn’t just sell to the author’s sisters and his cousins and his aunts like the old expensive P.O.D. stuff—they sold BIG. Everybody loves a bargain.

Thriller writer J. A. Konrath—the guru of the DYI ebook movement—started making serious bucks (six-figures-a-year serious) off his out-of-print backlist, as well as manuscripts his publisher had rejected. Yes, you read that right: rejected manuscripts making money. You can read his amazing saga and advice on how to follow in his footsteps on his blog, A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing

But—and this is a big but—Konrath is an established thriller author with a solid readership (and an agent.) Can a mere unpublished novelist match his success?  

In spite of all the caveats from industry professionals, some writers seem to be doing just that. Author Karen McQuestion, unknown and unpublished as a fiction writer, put six novels on Amazon  last fall, and shot to the top of the Kindle Bestseller list within weeks. Since then, one of those six, A Scattered Life, has been optioned for film and is being issued by Amazon Encore in paperback this summer. She sold 30,000 ebooks on Amazon in the space of five months.

A fellow survivor of my UK publisher’s crash-and-burn, retired Chicago Tribune columnist Terry Galanoy is so impressed with these success stories, he has just published his thriller, BLOODGOLD in a Kindle edition this week. I’m rooting for him and watching his progress with an eye to doing the same with my out-of-print books.

Literary Lab’s Michelle Davidson Argyle is going the same route. She has decided to self-publish her literary novella Cinders, which will be coming out next month. A couple of days ago, Michelle posted a hilarious video by another self-publisher, Zoe Winters, illustrating the argument for going the non-traditional route.

So who should consider hitting self-pub e-book trail?

1)     Traditionally published writers with an out-of-print backlist. Novelists like Konrath who have an established following plus name recognition are in a no-lose situation here. Some are even dumping their print publishers altogether.
2)     Professional writers with platform and a strong writing background. McQuestion and Galanoy are working writers with solid sales in nonfiction. Galanoy has two NYT bestselling nonfiction books and McQuestion is a regular contributor to major newspapers.
3)     Marketing geniuses. Writers like clever YouTube marketer Zoe Winters will probably go far. If you can compete on her level, go for it.
4)     Writers with a strong online following. Michelle Davidson Argyle (who also blogs as Lady Glamis) has spent years establishing an online presence. She has edited anthologies and judged contests. She’s got a niche book to sell to a niche market where she has platform.

But for everybody else, I’d say… probably not so much. Sigh.

Here's the thing: as news of Konrath’s success spreads, we’re about to be inundated with a flood of self-pubbed ebooks. We have every reason to expect them to be like self-pubbed treeware books—mostly unoriginal, unedited, schlocky first drafts. Readers will need some way to pick out the good ones. That means the books will have to be vetted by somebody. Those somebodies will probably continue to be traditional publishers. 

If you do decide to go the e-route, you’ll need to follow some guidelines:

1)     If your book is not a reprint, get it edited by a professional. Not your retired librarian aunt. Not your boyfriend who dropped out of an MFA program. A professional editor who knows the business.
2)     Get professional help in formatting if you’re not super-savvy in book design. This is a relatively new field, so I’ll give you Mr. Galanoy’s recommendation: Rob Siders Kindle Services. Specialized tech services like his can help you get on Kindle as well as other ebook sources for a few hundred bucks.
3)     Design your cover to work as a thumbnail. Your sales will be almost entirely based on a thumbnail of your cover, so make sure it looks good in miniature.
4)     Make sure all rights have reverted to you if this is a reprint. (If you went with PublishAmerica, they own all rights for seven years. Sorry.) And remember—cover art is the property of the original publisher. If you want to use the original cover, you’ll probably have to pay for permission to use it.
5)     Develop superb online marketing skills. Everything about Kindle and its iPad-y, Nook-y cousins is going to be happening online. Join the Kindle forums now and start making friends. Follow Joe Konrath’s blog and start commenting.

For some great recent blogposts on the subject, I recommend Scott Nicholson at the Blood-Red Pencil on pros and cons, and Funds for Writers’ Hope C. Clark on novelists who are ditching their traditional publishers for epublishing.

Me, I’m still mulling over cover ideas as I consider taking the plunge with my out-of-print books. Any of you out there planning to Kindle your backlist or take a chance with new manuscripts?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

THE NUMBER ONE MISTAKE NEW WRITERS MAKE...and why we make it

After reading a bunch of agent blogs, submission guidelines, and tweets on the subject of our #queryfails, it occurred to me that most of the complaints can be boiled down to one major offense: querying too early.

It’s not only about holding off until you can give that book an extra polish: writers need to educate themselves about the publishing industry before they try to join it.

Unprofessional gun-jumpers waste agents’ time, frustrate themselves, overstuff the slushpile—or publish inferior and/or under-promoted books, “ending careers practically before they start” according to agent Dorian Karchmar of Writers House.

I know about that ending-a-career-practically-before-it-starts thing. When I was chomping at the bit to publish my first book, I didn’t have a clue that if you publish a book or two but don’t have the sales numbers—something that can be completely out of your control—finding another publisher is close to impossible. I’ve got the calluses on my soul to prove it.

So don’t chomp. Take your time. You may not get a do-over.

Ms. Karchmar says: “Don’t give in to internal and external pressures to try to find an agent before you’ve matured as a writer. The book business is very difficult and not getting any easier; most books that are published don’t sell well.” Her advice? “Write a book that only you could write, and rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.”

Agent Janet Reid goes further. She suggests writing and polishing at least two books before you start the query process: “After you've written your first novel; you wait, write a second, revise, then query.”

And we also need to pay attention to all those agents whose websites post variations on what agent Andrea Hurst says, “publishing is a business. It bears repeating: publishing is a business! And we are professionals.” New writers have to learn to be professionals too.

But Ms. Karchmar is right about those pressures.

You’ve got the EXTERNAL PRESSURE:

From your mom, who thinks the fact you’ve written 80,000 words of anything is so noteworthy she’s already composed the press releases.
From your significant other, who wants to know when exactly his/her years of sharing you with that damned manuscript are going to start paying a few bills.
From your friends, who are getting kind of embarrassed for you, when you keep telling them you’re a writer but have nothing to show for it. How long can it take to write a book anyway? They can type 55 words a minute!
From your critique group, who are so tired of helping you revise that WIP …AGAIN, they’re screaming “Send it! Away! Immediately!”

And the INTERNAL PRESSURE:

From your battered self-esteem: How many more years can you take those eye-rolls you get every time you tell somebody at a party you’re “pre-published,” and you’re only delivering pizzas until you make it as a writer?
From artistic insecurity: You won’t REALLY know you have talent unless you’re validated by the industry, right?
From financial insecurity: It’s tough to pay off the loans for the MFA when the only paying writing gig you’ve had since you got the degree is updating the menu for your brother-in-law’s fish and chips place.
From your muse, who says: “This is some f*&%ing amazing s#%t, man! The world totally needs this book!” (What? A muse can’t be a stoner dude?)

We’ve heard them all. But the trick is learning to IGNORE THEM. We have to learn to listen instead for that small inner voice when it finally says:

• “I’ve got a couple of polished, print-ready books that will stand up to the snarkiest reviewer.”
• “My ego is enough under control that I’m willing to rewrite again for my agent (even though he’s dead wrong.) Then again for my editor (even though she looks maybe twelve years old and the last book she read probably had pop-ups in it.) And I will not threaten anyone with homicide when they put Fabio on the cover of my prequel to The Great Gatsby.”
• “I’m a professional. I know all about how the publishing industry works and I’m ready to turn out at least a book a year, promote it, and live my life on deadline.”

I can’t say for sure that I’d have a career now if I hadn’t been so eager to send my books out there so soon. I write quirky stuff, and maybe I’d still be sitting here in slushpile hell whether or not I’d jumped at the first publisher who accepted a manuscript.

But I know I’d have had an easier time if I’d held off with those queries and learned more about the business before I dove into it, soul-first.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

7 TIPS FOR AVOIDING BOGUS LITERARY AGENTS

This is an update of a list I ran a year ago, when I first started this blog. It was blessed with a recommendation from the editor who blogs as Moonrat and a visit (and added tip) from agent Janet Reid, the QueryShark herownself.

I figure it’s worth posting again—with Ms. Reid’s addendum—since a fresh flock of newbies will have hatched from their writing hidey-holes in the last 12 months—and the predators are still out there, waiting to pounce. Just look at all those ads flashing on your gmail page every time you use the word “publish” in an email to your Mom. (Is it just me or is that Big-Brother creepy?)

Scammers prey on the clueless—especially people who think spending cash up front will "pay off" because their book is a surefire path to fame and fortune—and the ones who believe their superior talent gives them a “Get Out of Slushpilehell Free” card.

The sad truth is that finding literary representation is a long, miserable slog. Most writers query for years—even decades—receiving nothing but rejection after heartbreaking rejection. It's not just about writing well or querying well. It's about hitting the right agent on the right day at the right point in the current trend's curve. The writers who make it have to be in for the long haul.

Don’t blame the real agents. They’re reading their little eyeballs out. But the Association of Author’s Representatives has less than 500 members, while most of the 230 million of us who own computers have at least one novel in progress in the files.

Agent Greg Daniel of Daniel Literary Group tweeted last week “Stats show 80% of Americns want to write a bk, yet only 57% have read at least 1 bk in the last yr. And that's why there's a slushpilehell”

If as many Americans read books as wrote them, we might not be in this fix, so: if you really want to improve your chances of finding an agent, go buy a book. Buy ten. Especially new writers in your genre. (Befriend them. When you do get your book deal, maybe they’ll give you a blurb or a plug on their blog.)

Here are seven pointers to help you hang onto your dwindling cash reserves during this soul-crushing process:

1) NEVER PAY AN AGENT A “READING FEE”
You know this, but do pass it on to the fledglings. Any agent who charges money to read your manuscript isn’t going to help your career. Publishers consider it unethical and won’t do business with them.

If you have to pay somebody to read your book, it’s not ready for publication. When you need professional advice, DO pay a qualified freelance editor or book doctor, but never with a promise of publication attached. They can’t deliver.

2) NEVER PAY “MAILING” CHARGES UP FRONT
A popular scam. Bogus agencies sign thousands of clients and charge them each $250 or more per quarter for “copying and mailing.” But they never make a sale. I’ve seen heartbreaking letters from writers who’ve lost as much as $3,000 before they caught on.

Small agencies may legitimately ask for copying and mailing fees AFTER they’ve sent out your work, but they’ll provide proof they’re sending out your manuscript.

3) AVOID AGENCIES THAT ADVERTISE
A librarian friend once forwarded me an intriguing ad from a prestigious journal--for a literary agency asking for submissions. I visited the agency's refreshingly positive website and almost fell into the trap until I Googled them.They appeared on the list of “20 WORST AGENTS” at the Writer Beware site.

Do the math: real agents don’t have to advertise.

3) CHECK OUT CLIENT LISTS
If there’s no client page on their website, run. Agents don’t keep client lists “confidential.” If they represent a literary star, they’ll pound their chests and bellow about it.

4) CHECK RECENT SALES
Even if somebody in the agency can claim to have represented Steven King, if it happened in King’s pre-Carrie days and she hasn’t sold a book since, she won’t be able to sell yours.

5) ASK HOW OFTEN THEY FORWARD REJECTION LETTERS
A good agent will always send on your rejections, usually every quarter. Some scammers do send manuscripts to publishing houses, but only in mass mailings addressed to no particular editor. Those go into recycling without a response.

6) VISIT WRITERS FORUMS WHERE AGENT INFORMATION IS SCREENED AND EXCHANGED.

AgentQuery is the easiest site to search for basic agent info I suggest any beginner start here. Their forums are useful too.

I also recommend joining QueryTracker. It’s free and has detailed agent info as well as recent feedback from fellow queriers.

And before you contact any agent, make sure you check with those tireless watchdogs at Writer Beware,

…and Preditors and Editors,

…and Absolute Write.

You may have been told to check with the Association of Authors Representatives, but it’s important to note that an agent does NOT have to be a member of AAR to be legitimate and even top-notch. New agents have to work for a certain number of years before they’re allowed to join—and it’s the newer and hungrier agents who are interested in new writers and actively building their lists.

And about those peckish non-AAR agents: Here’s Janet Reid’s useful bit of advice:

7) ASK WHAT LITERARY AGENCY THEY INTERNED/WORKED IN
From Ms. Reid: “Young and hungry agents who are looking for clients may indeed not be members of AAR, but what you can ask them (BEFORE SIGNING!) is what literary agency they have worked in. Interned in or worked in. I'm always rather taken aback by people who decide they can be literary agents without actually having been inside an agent's office.”

And remember Google is your friend. Always check ’em out.