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Posts Tagged ‘publishing’

Resistance against self publishing has been steadily crumbling. Last week a writer friend of mine who had been vehemently opposed to such ideas no more than a year ago even mentioned that she’d consider self publishing. I never expected to hear those words from her, and it’s a powerful illustration for me of the mainstream acceptance self-publishing has begun to receive.

However, it is still impossible to have a discussion about self publishing without bringing up the question of quality. How will readers find the good books in the mountains of soul-rending slush? How can a writer ensure she is releasing a quality book without a publisher’s stamp of approval?

Well, Kris Rusch hits the answer out of the park in her blog entry last week, so I’m not going to repeat everything she said. In a nutshell, there have been huge numbers of books published for a long time, so the needle in a haystack problem is nothing new and has solutions (or at least aides) firmly in place. Having something come out from a publisher is not a guaranteed mark of quality. And it is possible to hire outside help when self publishing, thereby ameliorating the quality problem.

But it occurs to me that the question we are really asking ourselves as writers is, “How will I know when I’m good enough?”

The answer is, you won’t. You might never be sure you’re good enough, even if you’re traditionally published. Especially if you’re a newer writer without the benefit of years of practice and experience. You just might not know.

I’ve known writers who think they’re seriously good, and I can barely read their prose. I’ve known writers who have won multiple awards and still aren’t convinced they’re any good at what they do. I’ve known writers who were doing all right but got complacent and their work suffered. And I’ve known writers who fall everywhere in the middle.

Have you ever heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect? It’s a cognitive bias wherein people who are less competent overestimate their own abilities. When in doubt, people tend to rate themselves as above average…way more people than could possibly actually be above average at a given skill. It turns out that when people aren’t competent at something, they also lack the knowledge to correctly assess their skill level. On the flip side, people who actually are above average suffer from false consensus effect: the false assumption that their peers are performing about the same as them, as long as they don’t have any evidence to the contrary. So they tend to underestimate their own abilities. This explains why sometimes in a conversation about a subject, the loudest person is someone who obviously doesn’t know what she’s talking about, while the quiet person listening in the corner might really know her stuff.

The problem with these phenomena is that you can’t necessarily tell if they’re happening to you (although if you’re worried about being good enough, that’s probably a positive sign). You can’t know for sure that you’re good enough. And you know what? You can’t know for sure if your novel gets picked up by a small press run by one editor either. And you can’t know for sure if your novel gets picked up by a big house…and then flops. And you can’t know if you sell a story to a big market like Asimov’s because after a few months, you might wonder if you’ll ever write another story that’s good enough.

And at some point in this cognitive tail chase, you have to decide if you are willing to stand behind your work. The answer might be no, and that’s fine. Then you wait and learn and practice and slowly become a better writer. Until the answer is yes, at which point you’re going to have to take the plunge, regardless of your method of publication, without knowing for sure if you are good enough.

And you know what I think? As long as you’re producing the best work you are able, that is good enough for right now.

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I stumbled across Brenda Cooper revisiting her predictions for 2011, and my interest was completely captured. “What a fun game!” I thought. “Maybe I should make some predictions myself for 2012.” Then I thought again. “But many of my predictions will end up being wrong.” The unimaginable horror of that idea paraded through my brain.

So of course, now I have to write 2012 predictions to take my first good whack at my perfectionism this year. And not only that, but I am going to write them quickly, without obsessive researching, and I’m going to write them boldly without resorting to wishy-washiness.  Are you ready?

Publishing

  • E-books will continue to gain share in the marketplace. Based on the huge amount of Kindles that sold this December, I’m going to say that by the end of 2012, we’re going to see e-books up to 35% of the market…at least.
  • Publishers will hold firm at a 25% net royalty for electronic sales…except for the biggest author names.
  • A couple of major name authors will strike out on their own and release titles themselves. Because they are big names, they will easily be able to continue commanding shelf space at B&N.
  • Publishers will begin (or continue?) to commit more resources to building stronger relationships with readers (more aggressively building their email lists, for example) and developing brand recognition for their publishing imprints apart from author names. (This one, I am afraid, might be overly optimistic, but I can’t help myself!)
  • There will be no definitive answer in the traditional vs. self-pub debate. Some writers will go all in one way or another and be super judgmental of anyone doing something different. The smartest writers will do both. There will continue to be a stigma, although not nearly as strong as it was even a few years ago, against self-published work by writers who haven’t already been traditionally published. Interestingly, there will be no stigma against those writers who raise money for projects using crowd-sourcing platforms like Kickstarter. (Maybe because Kickstarter mainly works for those writers who already have an established fan base?)

Current Affairs

  • There will be the usual hoop-la of a US election year. Romney will win the Republican nomination, and Obama will win the election, but it will be a hard fight. Voter apathy will be more of a problem than it was in 2008.
  • The Euro will still exist as a currency at the end of 2012. No promises for 2013, though!
  • Some major shit will go down in Egypt this year, what with elections expected in the next six months. The military won’t let go of power easily.
  • Syria’s government will collapse by the end of the year.
  • The economic turmoil in the EU and the political turmoil in the Middle East won’t do the US economy any favors. Oil prices will go up. Volatility in the stock market will continue. I don’t expect unemployment rates to improve substantially (although I’d be very happy to be wrong).
  • My husband says the cinema industry will begin to tank this year, but I disagree. I actually think 2012 will be better than 2011 in terms of box office sales. The foreign markets for movies will continue to be robust.
  • Social media sites will try to collect ever more information about their users. Some people will continue, inexplicably, to think that they should overshare mundane data with their “friends.” Facebook, Google+, and Twitter will all continue to exist healthily at the end of the year. Klout, on the other hand, will have lost its klout in most circles due to both its basic dullness and its arbitrary algorithms (how I can lose or gain influence over 1000 people in the course of a single day is beyond me).
  • Houses will begin to become “smarter,” both due to Kinect technology and chips that talk to each other over WiFi and Bluetooth.
  • Scientists will push stem cell research farther this year, and will succeed in regenerating a more complicated organ (they’ve already done bladders and tracheae).
  • There will still be no flying cars or Asimov-esque robots in general use (and no, I don’t count the Roomba).

Care to play along? What predictions can you make about 2012?

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When I read about self publishing, I notice that it’s often being lumped together (ie all self publishing is the same). But of course, the truth of the situation is much more complicated. I decided to make a list (I love lists!) of some less obvious, more creative ways that a writer can use self publishing to further a career.
  1. Out-of-print back list: okay, this isn’t particularly creative, but it’s the most obvious no-drawbacks use of self publishing today.
  2. Short story anthology, using (mostly) previously published works: I think this would be especially good to do if you have a novel coming out soon (or that has recently come out). Numbers show that short stories and their anthologies don’t sell as well as novels, but fans of a novel already out might very well be interested. Of course, even without a novel out, this could still be useful. (A few writers I love are talking about doing this, and I can’t wait to have all their stories in the same place.)
  3. Short stories (previously published or NOT) that tie into the world of a novel you have out (or that is about to come out): Novelettes and novellas that tie in would also fall into this category. Of course, it may be better to offer some of this content for free on your website to draw readers in. The question is, are you using the stories to draw readers in, or to profit from your already-established reader base? Doing both is probably the best of all.
  4. Continuing a series that has been cancelled by its publisher: This is a win for a writer who wants to finish their larger-scope project and the readers who want to find out what happens. One thing to consider, however, is how available the first book(s) of the series are. Are they still in print? Is the publisher offering them as e-books? At a non-prohibitive price?
  5. Writing for a niche or non-obvious market: Some books cannot be sold to big publishing because they simply don’t have a big enough proven audience. This has more to do with business than with quality (although obviously it’s possible that it’s about both). My favorite example is novels set in college. These are often a hard sell because current YA is not set in college, period (with a few exceptions). Sometimes these college books can be sold as mainstream lit or chick lit, but often not. It’s hard to know where to shelve them in a bookstore, and it’s hard to find them. Yet there is obviously an audience for books set in college (I know this because I love them myself and am always on the lookout for more. Diana Peterfreund’s Secret Society books, anyone?) There are other examples of niches like this in fiction, and even more in nonfiction.
  6. Having novels come out both from big houses AND self-publishing: This is an interesting strategy for faster writers, which potentially allows the writer to profit from the upsides of both traditional and self-pub at the same time. It also solves the problem of prolific writers. Honestly, when I read this article, I cringed, because it feels like writers who happen to be fast and have a good work ethic are being penalized. (Note: not all writers, or even first timers, have the long wait discussed in this article.) Of course, this is only an option if the writer doesn’t have a non-compete clause with the big house or is willing to use a pen name (if it’s a secret pen name, several of the advantages of this set-up will be wasted; an “open secret” pen name may or may not go against contract. I have no idea what most contracts specify in this regard).

Have any other creative ideas about how to use self publishing? Thoughts about the pros and cons of the ones I’ve listed above? Let me know!

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“Anyone can write popular fiction… You just tell a story that everyone likes.”

Does this quote make anyone else’s blood boil? This type of talk makes me want to be alternately scathing, snarky, and pitying. I got it from an essay by Kat Howard, about her chance parking lot encounter with some fellow who made light of her post doc position in medieval and speculative literature.

I know I’m preaching to the choir here, and that most (if not all) of my readers understand how truly challenging and difficult it is to write a novel, whether it be mainstream or genre, adult or children’s, an epic tome or a light-hearted romp. And I don’t want to get into the genre/literary question, so let’s please not go there.

Instead, I’m going to break down this statement. Anyone can write popular fiction, can they? Let’s take a look.

Writing Fiction — Lifestyle — What It Takes

1. Hours upon hours of sitting by yourself doing the writing. Not to mention the research. Not to mention the revisions. Not to mention the nit-picky copy editing.
2. Avoiding the lure of Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, Farmville, MMORPGs, Solitaire, Minesweeper, etc. so you can actually do said writing.
3. Carving the time out of your already busy life, in which you’re also expected to have a day job, take care of your family, clean and do chores, and deal with life’s multiple disasters and time sinks.
4. Smiling and nodding when people say patronizing things to you. Explaining kindly and gently that building a writing career takes a long time, and no, it won’t make you rich. Alternately, getting into a lot of arguments.
5. Thinking about your story in the shower, while walking the dog, while doing the above-mentioned cooking and cleaning, while driving from point A to point B, and while you should be sleeping.
6. In your copious spare time (ha!), reading tons and tons of books, both in and out of your genre. Not to mention your nonfiction research materials.
7. Dealing on a daily basis with rejection and maintaining a positive upbeat attitude, a can-do spirit, and continued forward thinking to the next project.
8. Reading unpublished work from other writers of roughly your same level (at least in theory), learning how to both give and receive critiques

Writing Fiction — Craft — Required Understanding

1. Characters. This includes understanding every character in your book, knowing their back story, knowing their mannerisms and how they speak (word choice, etc.), knowing what they would know, knowing their motivations (what they want) and making sure you’re consistent about it. You need to keep your POV consistent over the course of the book, whatever you decide (first, close third, omniscient, etc.) Your protagonist needs to be sympathetic in some way. He/she/it needs to be a driving force in the novel, not a passive character who is only acted upon. Also your protagonist and probably other characters as well need a moving and well executed character arc, in which they grow and change and react to events and are different by the end of the novel.
2. Plot. This includes knowing how to structure a novel, making sure there is interesting conflict, making sure the stakes are periodically raised and the conflict builds over the course of the novel, knowing what your main narrative engine is, as well as keeping track of subplots and planning the correct number of them. Also the plot needs to hold together and make sense (no plot holes, please), you need to know the purpose of and conflict in each scene. You’ve got to keep the pace up (make stuff explode or whatever) or it will get too boring. This would also include making sure the continuity is sound and that the scenes happen in the correct order. You must make sure you create a hook at the beginning to draw the reader into the novel, and you aim for achieving emotional resonance and a certain closure at the end of the novel (unless it’s in a series, in which case you’re busy thinking about the overall series arc as well as the novel arc as well as deciding whether the novel needs to stand on its own or not).
3. World building. This is understanding how your world works. This includes the magic system, which needs to have rules and costs; geography, especially of a secondary world or another planet; economy; political system; social structure and mores; religion; technology level as well as any invented tech; magical creatures and/or aliens and how they differ from humans; and various existing infrastructure. Then once you’ve created your world, you have to get it across in the novel without over-utilizing info dumps or slowing down the pace.
4. Prose. This is being able to use the English language passably well, which is surprisingly difficult, even for native speakers. This includes knowing as many grammar rules as you can cram into your brain and then knowing when to break them. Points to remember include the following: eschew adverbs and speech tags other than “said” and “asked” and minimize speech tags in general. Vary sentence structure. Try really, really hard not to overwrite or use too many adjectives for your really shiny setting. Remember that you do have to say something about the setting, though. Try not to overuse words such as “that” or “really” or the “to be” verb. Use active verbs, but not too many weird verbs or it’s distracting. Spelling skills also help as spellcheck won’t catch all your mistakes.

Writing Popular Fiction that Everyone Likes — Good luck.

1. In order to make your fiction popular, you have to sell it. Unfortunately, being able to sell something is not necessarily the same skill set as being able to create something.
2. Ability to write and deliver pitches, queries, synopses, and basic summaries of your book that will make random people on the street want to read it instead of getting on with their lives. Also organizational ability to keep track of it all, including short story submissions, workshop/conference deadlines, and market research.
3. Social media and promotion! Blogging, tweeting, Facebooking, keeping up-to-date on the latest trends, recording a podcast. Being interviewed for blogs, radio programs, and podcasts. Writing guest posts, being active on forums, making a book trailer, always presenting your best possible face to the public. School visits, public readings, convention and conference appearances.
4. Being lucky enough to write in line with the current zeitgeist and have your novel come out before it ends.
5. Having your publisher decide that your novel is SO AWESOME that they’re going to pour big marketing dollars into its production and promotion. Getting good bookstore placement. Getting into many bookstores at all. Having your cover not suck. Getting big names to blurb the novel. (Please note that many of these things are outside the writer’s control.)

What did I miss? Feel free to kvetch below. Even being incomplete, I think my list makes it clear that writing a novel is never easy, and writing a really good novel is even harder than that. I rest my case.

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Last week we talked about thinking of writing as a business, which includes educating ourselves about the industry and making informed choices. Today I want to talk about something that keeps us from making clear-headed business decisions. 

Desperation.

Desperation rears its ugly head for most writers, often (although not exclusively) toward the beginning of a career. We want so badly to be published, to be chosen, to have public validation that we aren’t wasting our time. We want to get our words and stories to the public. We want to be able to tell our friends and acquaintances, “Why, yes, I have an agent now. And Big Publisher XYZ wants to buy my novel.” Or “Why, yes, my indie-published novel is on the Kindle Best-seller List now, thanks for asking.” We want to know that we’re moving forward with our craft and not staying stuck in a hellish holding pattern. We want we want we want.

Some amount of ambition and desire for success is healthy. It might keep us on a daily writing schedule or encourage us to continue sending out those queries. It might motivate us to improve our craft or take a workshop. But it’s so easy to cross from these helpful impulses into the dark side of desperation.

The danger of entering that desperate place is that our decision-making process becomes impaired. Instead of making practical, well-reasoned decisions, we’re suddenly willing to do almost anything to see our work in print. We’ll sign with an agent even though we either haven’t done thorough research on the agent’s history or have a bad feeling about the working relationship. We’ll sign a publishing contract even though it offers poor terms. We’ll rush into self-publishing our novel electronically without enlisting first readers and/or editors to help us make the book the best it can be. We’ll say something best left unsaid on the social media of our choice because we’re so stressed/insecure/jealous/upset that we just can’t help ourselves.

Acting from a place of desperation is the opposite of acting from empowerment. It doesn’t matter whether you’re dealing with a traditional publishing structure or taking the indie path. In either case, desperation will lead to poor decisions (unless you’re very, very lucky). Desperation will tempt you to devalue yourself and your work and believe me, you don’t want to go down that path.

So what is a poor writer to do? Stop. Breathe. Try to convince yourself that you’re not in a race and you don’t have to hurry to the detriment of everything else. Avoid comparing yourself to other writers who are doing everything better, faster, with more shiny. Avoid it like the plague. Postpone any big decisions until you can talk yourself into a calmer state of mind.

And remember you’re not alone. I think writer desperation is very common, but we don’t always talk about it. I am writing this to tell you that I have felt it, I have been there, and I might very well be there again. All of the doubt and the waiting and the anxiety and the rejection and the lack of understanding–it SUCKS. Of course we sometimes feel desperate. But we don’t have to give the desperation the power to take over our lives. We can feel it and then keep going, keep trying, keep believing in ourselves. And we can do our best to make our business decisions based on the facts and our priorities instead of on a crazy-making emotional state.

Does anyone else ever experience writer desperation? Have any good tips on how to avoid it or deal with it once it’s happening? Please share!

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I’ve been wanting to write about the rising popularity of self-publishing (or indie publishing) for quite some time. Several months, actually. I keep putting it off, partly because there’s already quite a lively conversation about it going on, and partly because I’m conflict adverse. (I know, and I’m a blogger, right? What was I thinking?)

Yum, look at all this reading goodness.

I’ve been studying the publishing industry, and the indie publishing movement, with my trademark intensity for the past year or more. I have a lot of thoughts about it that I’ve been keeping, for the most part, to myself. But one of the key insights that I would like to share is this: Writing is a business.

It’s easy for us, when speaking about the arts, to entangle our emotions with our work. Which is as it should be. But in my experience, the farther apart we can keep our emotions from business, the better. I’m not saying we as artists and creators cannot or should not have emotions. But emotions can easily blind us towards making pragmatic business decisions (see the “practical” in my blog’s title).

Writing is a business. Every writer whose goal is to have a writing career is, in essence, running a small business. Whether she knows it (or wants it) or not. This seems obvious to me because I’ve just come off seven years of running my own small business in another arts-related field. But I’ve noticed that not all writers display this attitude, and it certainly wasn’t ever something I considered before becoming a small business owner.

Here’s the thing about starting and running your own small business: There is always risk involved. Always. Business is about calculated risk. There is always the chance that the business will fail. There is always the chance that your marketing campaign won’t work the way you hoped, even if you spent tons of time and money to make it happen. There’s the chance that the economy will take a downturn and shoot you in the foot. There’s the (terrible) chance that you won’t end up being any good at your business of choice.

It’s the same deal with writing. Even though writing doesn’t necessarily require a large outlay of financial capital, we’re putting ourselves on the line. Our work may not be popular. It may not attract the attention it needs to be successful. We may make it partway down the line, only to come to an abrupt halt. As in all businesses, there are many things that can go wrong.

Self-publishing carries this same risk. Because writing is a business. And maybe the material we self-publish will turn out to be really badly received. Or maybe no one will even notice it exists. Or, horror of horrors, maybe it will keep us from ever getting a traditional publishing deal if it turns out we made the wrong choice (or are playing it safe by pursuing both options at the same time).

As business people, our job is not to condemn without thought and research. Our job is to examine, as dispassionately as we are able, our different business options. Some of us will feel more comfortable doing this than others; some of us have a more entrepreneurial spirit, whereas some of us feel more comfortable taking an established path. There is no right answer here, folks. But after examining the current state of publishing, I believe that self publishing is a viable alternative (or a building block in a larger overall strategy) that should not be ignored.

Those of you following this debate on the internet have heard all about Amanda Hocking and J.A. Konrath, and now the big news this week is Barry Eisler turning down a $500k traditional publishing deal to self-publish instead. Yes, these are big names. No, not everyone who tries self-publishing will enjoy their degree of success. No, I don’t believe it’s a clear-cut decision about which path to pursue.

My point is this: Whichever path we choose as writers, there will always be risk involved. Anyone involved in the industry has heard a few choice horror stories about how traditional publishing has gone horribly awry. Self-publishing has its own unpleasant pitfalls. When we dive into either side of the industry, we don’t know how it’s going to go. When I started as a music teacher, I put up some ads on Craigslist. I didn’t know if anyone would answer them. My business could have been a bust before I even started. We experience the same thing in publishing, whether we send our manuscript out to agents or stick it up on Amazon and Smashwords.

Whatever path we choose, it won’t be easy. Self-publishing isn’t a shortcut; it requires a lot of hard work. Whatever path we choose, it won’t be fast. Craft takes the same time to develop, regardless, and while traditional publishing can take years even after you have a viable book (between finding an agent, finding a publisher, getting a release date, actually releasing the book, and performing all the necessary work between these steps), self publishing can take a long time too (between outsourcing various needs like editing and cover art, building a catalog of titles for sale, building a reputation as a writer, etc.) The key is to educate ourselves about the options (traditional publishing, self-publishing, the small presses, the e-editions only presses), look at the different risks involved, crunch some numbers, and then decide which option (or combination of options) makes the best sense for our business. While doing this, we need to keep in mind our business goals and our unique blend of strengths and weaknesses while making sure we consider both sides of a strategy (this means reading thoughts by people who are both for and against self-publishing, and the valuable neutrals if you can find them). Businesses in the same sector have different strategies, and that’s okay. Some will fail, which is sad but not out of the ordinary.

However, I can’t help but feel that innovation can be exciting as well as scary. I’m following the twists and turns of the publishing landscape with great interest, and I’m trying to avoid being overly critical of anyone. Because technology is changing the landscape, and we’re all a part of that, and we’re all trying to figure out what parts we can play in the change. Ultimately, we all love writing, and we all love books, and we all want to ensure that many wonderful books (in whatever format) are available to be loved and enjoyed. I see a lot of badmouthing on both sides of this issue, which is perhaps inevitable, but in the essentials, we’re all in this together. We merely have different visions of how to chart a course forward.

In the meantime, writers are experimenting. Some of them are combining traditional publishing releases with self-published short stories or novellas. Many are making their out-of-print backlists available. Some are turning their backs on large traditional deals, while others are accepting them with excitement. Personally, I’m glad that I get to be a writer in a time of experimentation, when the rules aren’t as cut and dried and innovation is more encouraged. While a small part of me wishes that there was One Right Way to get published, the truth is that there never has been; it’s just become more obvious.

Now it’s your turn. Please try to be civil, but tell me: what are your thoughts on today’s publishing world? How do you think self-publishing has changed the equation (or DO you think it’s changed)? What benefits do you anticipate receiving from your own business strategy? I eagerly await your opinions.

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- People should travel around the world to learn more about both themselves and other cultures.
– People shouldn’t waste their time and money traveling abroad when you can learn everything that’s really important about life in your own backyard. 

- People shouldn’t write more than one book a year because the quality of their writing will suffer if they try to do more.
– People who don’t write at least two books a year don’t have a strong work ethic.

- People shouldn’t have children because studies prove that parents are less happier than people without children.
– Everybody should have children because passing on your genes and knowledge to the next generation is the most important and fulfilling work there is.

- All authors should aspire to be offered a traditional publishing contract because that is the only established way of both distributing your work and filtering for quality.
– All authors should consider going indie because not only is the market tightening, but the contract terms from big publishers are becoming less and less favorable to new (and some mid-list) writers.

- Moms shouldn’t work because you don’t want strangers raising your children.
– Moms shouldn’t stay at home because women shouldn’t give up rewarding careers and fail to reach their full potential.

Remember that just because something is true for you does not mean it’s equally true for someone else. We all live in this world together, but we’re all individuals, each with our own point of view.

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