Category Archives: Publishing
First, my apologies for letting this blog languish these last few weeks. We’ve been busy with holidays, planning for spring and summer, and yes, actually WRITING. In fact, that’s the topic I’ll focus on in this first entry for 2013: Finger Biting Days.
I know I’m really writing when my fingers are a mess, bloody and bit to the quick and slightly aching from all the gnawing. I pick my cuticles when I think. I always have. I know, it’s a terrible habit, but it’s one I’ve accepted as part of the way I work. Honestly, when my fingers look good, I know I’m not writing deeply enough. And right now, my fingers are wonderfully horrific.
When we write, we want our work to be perfect. We think deeply and muddle for hours, days, sometimes weeks to get a scene just right. Yesterday, though my schedule wasn’t luxurious, I thrilled simply to find a single perfect word that I’d been mulling over the day before, going from Thesaurus.com to the real thesaurus and back, knowing that it was there if I could only find it.
We want our work to be perfect because we love it. We want to fully express ourselves and share with the world what is living inside our heads all this time. But on a more practical note, we NEED our work to be perfect – as perfect as humanly possible in the subjective world of words.
If our work going to have even a chance in the competitive traditional publishing world, it’s got to be better than anyone else’s. No – more important still – our work has to look like it will sell.
Now I shall tangent to acknowledge the many avenues available to writers today that don’t require the approval of an established editor and a Big 6(-1) publishing house. Still, that is the brass ring. It’s what every writer who is honest really wants. I recently listened to an interview with Guy Kawasaki, a successful published and now self-published author, talking about the challenge of self-publishing and how, if he had the chance, he’d still go back to the traditional route.
What none of us want is to have to hock our books to the market like common street peddlers. (“Books! Books for sale! Fifty cents a book!” I see myself with a pile of books on my head like the classic children’s tale.)
So we anguish to get our work just right. We muddle and fuss and ponder and fret and bite our nails to the quick because we’re anxious – no terrified – that we won’t be good enough to have a shot at the “big sale”.
In truth, the market is taking fewer and fewer chances. In order to survive, traditional publishers have turned increasingly to sure-bets, authors with well-established reputations or celebrity or both, and fiction from well-recognized names. When you’re not one of those authors, you’re in the midlist. Even in the old days, five or six years ago, midlist meant struggling against obscurity and begging for just five minutes of your over-worked publicist’s attention. These days, more and more, it seems the midlist is simply gone.
And yet any one of us would claw with our half-bitten nails to get that glorious five minutes. We’d claw for the chance to realize at last that someone cares about what we write besides our family and friends.
In fact, I often wonder if publishers today are cutting their nose to spite their face, as it’s said. Without the midlist, they are taking their bestsellers and putting them at risk of the chopping block. In a shrinking pool of offerings, each book simply cannot be a bestseller, can it? Statistically, there has to be a bell curve – some winners, some not quite , a few inevitable bombs. Will the lists shrink more and more until all that’s left are a few prefabricated “surefire hits” as risky and interesting as a McDonald’s hamburger?
So, back to biting nails. I’m clearly almost finished with my draft – yet again. I shouldn’t even say it because the last time I did was over six months ago and I’m still not finished yet. But I’m really almost there. And I want it to be perfect. So I glory in the discomfort and occasional Bandaid.
As Guy Kawasaki said in the same interview, “The best two motivations for writing a book are first, because you have something to say that is of value – what a concept! The second would be because it’s on your bucket list, it’s an intellectual challenge.”
If that’s all I get from all this angst, then it’s worth it. But I can still hope for just a little more.
I have been pondering the pace at which I write my novels. I’d thought that I’d been working on this latest book for five years now, until I realized just today that in fact it’s edging past six, since Memorial Day half a dozen years ago when I cried my way through a wholly unsatisfying draft of a different half-baked work and finally realized it was destined for burial in the bottom drawer.
So here I am, six years, five drafts, and a whole lot of paper, toner and heartache later, ALMOST DONE!!! If I ever had a following among readers somewhere out there, they’ve almost certainly completely forgotten who I am!
I comfort myself that another dear author friend has been working on her novel for at least that long, and that Stephanie Cowell, who used to amaze us at writers group meetings by pulling out an entire, completed manuscript from her tote bag every month or so way back when, now sometimes also struggles for years on a book. (Though she as easily finishes one in a few months, which leaves my mouth gaping.)
I had started to call myself the Queen of the Ten-Year Novel, until my truly brilliant and wise editor, Carole DeSanti, revealed at a book talk the other day that her newly released and absolutely gorgeous novel, The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R., first formed in her mind seventeen years ago. Seventeen years!! If I am the queen, then she is the duly crowned empress!
No one in their right mind begins to write a novel of any scope and thinks, “Oh, I’ll whip this off in a few months, maybe a year.” Writing novels is a labor of love – emphasis on LABOR. If you value your craft, if you respect and love books – reading them, holding them, pondering them, standing in awe of them – and if you long to see your own broad spine proudly tucked beside others in one of the few precious bookstores left in this world – then you must accept that the work will be long, lonely and hard.
You do it because of that love, or because of an insane vision that shows up in your head one foggy dawn, or because of the voices that start speaking and won’t shut up or leave you alone until you have finally listened to them.
This is the writing’s tormented blessing, its muse, its terrible genius. In her recent TedTalk, Elizabeth Gilbert defines “genius” in its original sense: genius wasn’t in us, it spoke to us. We did not own it. It was separate from us and came to us at its will, not at our calling.
Let me tell you truthfully, that is the nature of this strange work. And sometimes it comes, and those days for a writer are glorious.
But they are rare. Many days for most writers are just work – hard work that requires attention, discernment, discipline, a critical mind and the patience to expect that some days you won’t get it, that you’ll stare at the screen and move paragraphs around and write three dense pages and delete them. And that’s OK. That’s part of the process. Whole drafts are scraped and thrown away. But we pick up and keep going because we have to get it right. Only then do we dare to put our work out into the world.
And yet the pressures of modern technology and the voracious consumer market seem to scoff at the deliberate slowness of both the novel and its creators. A recent article in The New York Times declared “In the E-Reader Era, a Book a Year Is Slacking“. Should this make writers like me feel guilty?
The best rebuttal to this pressure came in a comment to the article itself, that if we want our work to join the mass of forgettable fiction that’s piling up out there, feel free! Dash it off! Self-publish and start your marketing! Everyone has something to say and something to sell!
And I don’t blame you. In a world where we can reach an audience so readily, it’s all too tempting.
But in this very same world where writers can push a button and be instantly “published”, the true craft and expectation of excellence are all the more on authors’ shoulders. In respect to the larger goal – to create something memorable, worth reading at least once and perhaps even again – we must take the time to craft the very best novel we can and not regret the labor or the time involved.
As Graham Swift wrote so eloquently in his essay, “Words Per Minute“: “a benign intrusion into someone else’s life for even such a short duration seems to me quite a feat of communication, … a time-suspending experience that stays with them well after they’ve closed the book and that they might one day wish to return to, …that’s as much as any novelist can hope for.”
As I noted in our last post, Kathy Lynn Harris and I go way back. But I think it’s how we kept ourselves moving forward that really mattered; encouraging one another through the good times of our individual writing careers and — regrettably — the bad. I’m celebrating right along with Kathy on the publication of her novel, Blue Straggler. Here she shares more of her experience finding an independent publisher for her novel after first striking out on her own. — Michelle Cameron, TWC Associate Director.
In my first guest post, I wrote about how the decision to self-publish eventually led to a publishing contract with a small, independent press. In fact, Blue Straggler was officially released this week in paperback! Exciting times for this writer who has waited more than 10 years for this moment.
Working with my publisher, 30 Day Books in Seattle, has been a wonderful experience so far. I’ve had input into the book cover (We decided to keep it the same as the ebook.), the contract and profit-sharing arrangement (a splendid 50/50 split), the release date (March 1), and our publicity plans. (Did I mention I need a clone?)
There have been a few factors that have taken some adjustment. First, I’ve had to relinquish a bit of control, and trust someone else to love my work as much as I do. That’s not as easy as it may sound when you’re a complete control freak like me.
For instance, while my publisher kindly consulted with me on the paperback’s pricing, it was ultimately not my decision, of course. The publisher knows how Amazon and traditional bookstores work — and understands the discounting process that will likely take place after the book is on the streets.
Also, with my ebook, I had complete control over proofing and making subsequent changes. Now, I have to trust that my publisher gets it right and that my changes are eventually made as I envisioned them.
My publisher is outstanding at publicity and promotional ideas – and has plenty of them! The plan includes everything from blog tours and media interviews, to book signings and social networking goals, to contacting reviewers and media and book discussion groups. It’s a great plan, and I’m sure it’ll generate a large amount of buzz on a small budget. But a majority of the publicity work requires a close-knit relationship between me and my laptop. I’ve had to learn to break down our substantial promotional plan into smaller chunks, so that I don’t get overwhelmed with all that is expected of me.
The publisher also hopes to “brand” me, building a certain image of who I am as an author, which I know is great business sense. But it’s difficult for someone like me, a feisty Texas girl at heart, who would really rather hide away in my log cabin in the mountains and not actually have any attention focused on me.
A commenter on my last post asked if I’d seek out self-publishing again. The short answer is yes, absolutely. I felt freedom, pride and accomplishment from my self-published ebook.
But the long answer is that having an indie publisher believe in and back my work still carries a certain legitimacy that self-publishing does not have, at least not yet. Bookstores and libraries are more open to purchasing copies. The publisher has contacts and channels I do not. They know how to get my book into distribution processes that I had no idea even existed as a self-published author.
And in the end, all of that will hopefully move the book-sale meter a good deal farther than I could have alone.
Have other questions about self-publishing or working with an indie publisher? Post them here, or please feel free to contact me at kathy [at] kathylynnharris.com.
Blue Straggler is available for purchase via Amazon:
Kathy Lynn Harris and I go way back – all the way to the first writing conference I ever attended, in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, some 15 odd years ago. The conference, in addition to solidifying my ambitions to become a published author, also gave me a great gift ― our enduring long-distance friendship. I’ve shared Kathy’s frustrations when her worthy novels were passed over for publication ― many times getting very close. Now I am thrilled to share the story of her eBook success as today’s guest blogger at The Writers Circle. — Michelle Cameron, TWC Associate Director.
I began my fiction-writing journey by just putting pen to paper, joining a critique group, reading everything I could get my hands on, and attending writer’s workshops and conferences as much as my day-job would allow. Through the years, I finished one novel, and then another. My manuscripts placed in a couple of regional novel-writing contests. I landed a New York literary agent, then an even better one on the West Coast. My novels were pitched to all the Big Publishing Houses. The result was a “maybe” here and a “maybe” there, all of which eventually turned into a solid “no”. The feedback? Interesting stories, good character development, but plots that were “too quiet” to make it past the All-Powerful Marketing Departments.
I licked my wounds for several more years but kept writing, having some moderate success publishing children’s books, poetry and essays. But one of my fiction manuscripts ― Blue Straggler ― persisted in keeping me up nights. I loved my characters — Bailey, Idamarie and Rudy, a quirky threesome of unlikely friends. I loved my settings — rural South Texas, the city of San Antonio and a small mountain town in Colorado. I liked what the story had to say about friendship and family secrets and discovering who we really are inside. I liked that no matter how many times I reread chapters, I smiled. I knew it was a polished and well-edited manuscript. Readers (and not just family members or friends, by the way!) seemed to enjoy it. It just seemed like such a waste to have it sitting in that proverbial desk drawer gathering dust.
Then, in 2011, I began to travel by plane a lot for my job. I noticed the gradual rise of the e-reader — probably two out of every three fellow travelers were now reading on Nooks and Kindles, and then iPads and other tablets. The ebook was reaching a tipping point.
I reconsidered why I wrote Blue Straggler in the first place. I quickly realized that what matters to me most is pretty simple. I want readers to enjoy the story and characters. To read a passage and laugh. To think about something just a little bit longer than they might have otherwise. To read the last page and consider that their time with my story had been time well spent.
And I recognized that I didn’t really need to be on a Random House bestseller list to feel good about my work.
I made the decision to get in on the ebook action. I spoke with a friend, Jeremy Kron, who helped me navigate the ebook formatting world. He was also — lucky for me — a wonderful interactive designer who designed my book cover. Together, we prepared Blue Straggler for publication as an ebook via Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing Program and Barnes & Noble’s PubIt! Program in August 2011.
Positive reviews began to come in from readers and bloggers. People began to talk about the book via social media. Sales were promising. And then an independent publisher, 30 Day Books, emailed me with interest in publishing Blue Straggler as a trade paperback in early 2012.
Within four months of releasing my novel as an ebook, I signed a contract. The paperback’s official release date is March 1, 2012 (even though it can be ordered right now via Amazon).
The moral of my story? Well, I could stick with the age-old adage, “persistence eventually pays off.” But really, what I’d rather other writers know is this: Technology and ebooks have opened up a whole new path to publishing, whether it be self-publishing or catching the attention of traditional and indie publishers. If the conventional gatekeepers have declined your work, but you still believe in it with all your heart, and you want and need to get it out into the universe, it can pay to take a chance. It did for me.
Stay tuned for Kathy’s second guest blog in a few weeks; she’ll be discussing her experiences working with a small indie publisher as her first novel debuts.
You can read more about Kathy Lynn Harris and Blue Straggler via her author website at http://www.kathylynnharris.com/. Check out Kathy’s blog, as well. And connect with her via Twitter (@KathyLynnHarris) and Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/BlueStragglerFiction).
There’s nothing like the excitement of starting a new work or the infatuation you might have with having written it. But professional writers are really made by the serious way they approach the revision process.
It’s important to take time with your revisions and not to rush through them just because you want to be done. Most professional writers would not dream of submitting a manuscript until it had gone through four comprehensive revisions – and sometimes more.
STEP #1 – STEP BACK
It’s good to gain some objectivity for your writing by stepping away from the work for a time – a month if you can manage it, a week if you can’t. Letting the work lie fallow for a bit will help you see its flaws more clearly.
STEP #2 – SEE THE FOREST
Read the entire manuscript for sense. Your manuscript needs to be a comprehensive whole before you can start honing in on the details. Look for the following issues, remembering that the reader isn’t in your head and doesn’t necessarily know what you know:
- Are there any gaps in the plot? As you reread your story, is there any place where your reader might grow confused regarding how you got from point A to point B?
- Are there any holes in context? You’ve invented an entire world with your manuscript, and it needs to live and die by your internal rules. And often also by the rules of the world around you. I once read a story that had a man on the West Coast calling a woman on the East Coast to wish her a Happy New Year, and magically, bells were tolling on both coasts simultaneously. Such minor holes in context can hurt your credibility and interrupt our acceptance of the world you’re trying to immerse us in.
- Are there any major character flaws that you need to address? Your characters need to grow, of course, but they must do so within reasonable bounds for the character you’ve worked so hard to develop. A timid character will leap into the lion’s den because her much loved child is in danger – but not because she suddenly has an unexplained burst of bravery.
- Do you need more or less description? Have you given your reader enough to be “grounded” but not so much that it is drowning the story? There is nothing like evocative description to give your reader a sense of “being there” – but it can’t overwhelm the plot. There’s a delicate balance that you need to achieve.
This stage of revision can be a challenge for writers who generally can’t see the forest for the trees at this point. You may need to cultivate an “early reader” or two, who has an eye for the arc of a story and its characters, who will tell you honestly where you are going wrong – and who will praise you when you deserve it!
Next up – Steps 3 and 4 of revision!
As an addendum to my last post, I just heard from Words Bookstore in Maplewood that Pitchapalooza is coming on October 27. You can get all the details at Pitchapalooza’s site, but here’s a brief intro to what they do. I hear from friends that their events are well worth a visit.
“Five years ago, we created an event that has drawn thousands of people into bookstores, writing conferences and book festivals all over the country. It’s called Pitchapalooza, the American Idol for books (only without Simon) and it works like this: Anyone with an idea for a book has the chance to pitch it to a panel of judges. But they get only one minute. Eckstut and Sterry team up with two guest industry insiders to form the judging panel. The Judges critique everything from idea to style to potential in the marketplace and much, much more. Whether potential authors pitch themselves, or simply listen to trained professionals critique each presentation, Pitchapaloozas are educational and entertaining for one and all. All attendees come away with concrete advice on how to improve their pitch as well as a greater understanding of the ins and outs of the publishing industry.
“At the end of each Pitchapalooza, the judges come together to pick a winner. The winner receives a half hour consultation with Eckstut and Sterry. From Miami to Portland, from LA to NYC, and many stops along the way, Pitchapaloozas have consistently drawn standing-room-only crowds, press and blog coverage, and the kind of bookstore buzz reserved for celebrity authors.”
OK, let’s admit it. We’ve all done it at some point over the past few weeks – headed over to the nearest Borders to pick the last meat off the bones, grabbing whatever we could to add to our personal libraries before the doors finally closed for good next Friday.
Not that most of us have ever really loved the big box bookstores. Yeah, they have some nice cafes. But every writer worth his salt knows that the local independents treat us better, care about us more, actually welcome us (sometimes personally!) when we walk through their doors.
Still most writers live on really tight budgets. And a bargain is a bargain. This is just a one time thing, trust me! – as we peruse the shelves for hidden treasures, novels by our favorite forgottens, obscure poets or essayists, dictionaries, and research for our in-progress novels.
I was looking for The Landmark Herodotus, but, believe it or not, there wasn’t a copy in sight. Instead, I found rows and rows of cheesy romance novels, cookie-cutter thrillers by authors I’d never heard of, plenty of cookbooks, large-format non-fiction glossies, and those books for kids that include a toy or a small stack of collector cards. Oh, and smelly candles, fuzzy throws and coffee mugs with hackneyed aphorisms embossed in funky fonts. But books worth reading? Well, there were a few I finally bought, but finding them took a while.
Going through the stacks, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of futility, first, that the second largest bookstore chain in America was closing, and second, at the pallid offerings – our industry’s blemishes bared to the world. True, most of these books were the very last of the leftovers, the ones that no one else would touch. The words between the glossy, trying-too-hard covers may even have been reasonably good. Perhaps I’d never heard of these books because they were poorly marketed, as most books are. Perhaps it was their sycophantic packaging. Pink = chick-lit. Woman with head cut off, turning away from the reader = genre historical. Woman with head still visible, looking just a bit too sexy in her period attire = romance. To me, these packages wreaked of predictability and bad taste. But I don’t blame the authors. Hey, they were lucky. They got published! That’s a feat of such magnitude that none of us has the right to see anything but a fellow comrade in arms.
But in these last dregs of pulp, I saw the precipitated futility of our industry, the sweaty desperation to get something – anything – sold, especially in a landscape that is digi-bytes away from literary destruction.
Or is it? I’m definitely not sure right now how or where books will be sold in the coming years. But stories? There’s no lack of hunger for stories.
I’m no longer afraid of the digital transformation of the book. In fact, I see a lot of value and possibility. First, no longer will books kill trees or burn so much fossil fuel as they are carted in tractor-trailers from printer to warehouse to bookstore to gigantic shredder. And no longer will it take months or even years to publish. It could and should take only weeks, as today’s NY Times article about news-based non-fiction proves.
It’s just a question of how we’ll discover what’s worth our precious reading time and what’s not. That’s what bookstores have always been for.
My husband and I love to go to bookstores on our “date nights”. After a satisfying meal where we actually get to talk about something other than the kids, we head to the nearest bookstore, sometimes losing ourselves in opposite corners, coming together now and then with a book in hand we think the other might like, inevitably leaving the store with a small stack of tomes.
Surfing on Amazon.com or GoodReads.com doesn’t come close. There’s no romance and little chance for serendipity.
Still I see great hope in the least likely corner – the diminutive local, independent bookstore. Anne Patchett’s essay about her book tour this summer portrays independent bookstores as alive and well. In fact, many forecasts say that indies will benefit most from Borders’ demise, and may well take their place once again as the vital central hub of the literary world.
In these smaller, cozier havens for books and their dwindling lovers, authors and their fans can still meet one another to discuss the vagaries of character, setting, language and plot. And booksellers can “hand-sell” as they always have, recommending books based on their customers’ personal interests and passions.
At the Barnes & Nobles and Borders, it has always been a bit like meeting someone at a bar. Sure, you might hook up and have a little fun. But if you’re looking for a more serious relationship, wouldn’t it be better to be introduced by a trusted friend?
That’s what indie bookstores have always been like, and now, after years of struggling to survive, they are emerging from the clouds, populating the book universe like small, twinkling stars. Perhaps their influence will never be enough to recapture literature’s place at the radiant core of culture and society. But for as long as books are produced, printed and sold, these small, local bookstores might just be the best place to pick them up and bring them home.