Let’s post a few more on writing & publishing.
One of the Internet’s perpetual debates is whether writers must chain themselves to agents, editors, & publishers– or whether we scriveners have escaped to control our destiny and keep all (well, “more of”) the money. An author on Early-Retirement.org, FlyFishNevada, commented a few weeks back: “Actually strongly considering self publishing. I want to be in control and my theory is that if people want a book like this, they will find it. May not be on book store shelves, but being listed on Amazon ain’t so bad.” Of four early-retirement books in the last six years, half have been self-published.
The answers are not easy. I think it depends on what you’ve written, how much you know about publishing, what you’ll do on your own, and what you’re willing to pay for.
I like the idea of self-publishing, especially after seeing how disorganized and inefficient the big publishers have become. (Or has it always been like that? They work with writers– shouldn’t editors put more effort into writing an encouraging e-mail or a helpful rejection letter?!?) A few of the smaller houses have also taken advantage of their authors, and one or two bad apples can do a lot of damage to the rest of the industry. I put quite a bit of research into self-publishing, including startups that are going to eat the lunch of established businesses like Lulu & Trafford. Several excellent self-publishing suggestions came from other Early-Retirement.org posters, whose membership includes a surprising number of authors.
I even attended Rich Budnick’s Honolulu Writers Conference, a workshop hosted by one of the island’s biggest self-published authors. I highly recommend a local writers conference to any struggling author. That year Rich managed to persuade renowned agent Roger Jellinek to listen to 50 of our one-sentence pitches. It was the literary version of Simon Cowell holding American Idol auditions.
For 95% of our pitches, Roger immediately knew whether it would fly. He’d be nodding his head before you finished your sentence. He’d quickly offer suggestions on making the book stand out… or turning it in another direction. When I finished my pitch he paused: “I presume there are people who have retired early?” When I affirmed so he said “That sounds like it should work. You have to find the readers who are interested in it.” I had recently scrapped a draft to start the whole project over, so I owe both Rich and Roger a big mahalo nui loa for giving me a huge helping of self-confidence that day.
I read several books on editing & publishing (written by frustrated editors & publishers) and took copious notes. Traditional military publishers were easy to find, like the U.S. Naval Institute. I worked through our library’s copy of Writer’s Market to find a few not-so-obvious publishers who’d be interested in a military-oriented retirement book. I also networked a half-dozen authors (including Bob Clyatt and the Kaderlis) on both sides of the self-publishing fence.
For some authors the control is more important than the money audience. They want to share their thoughts and let the readers come to them. Other authors clamor for the attention of an existing audience. Either reason is a great motivator, especially if you have the time to pursue the strategy. (I’m glad I’m financially independent, and not a starving author who’s forced to make the decisions before their mortgage payment.) The hardest part is figuring out whether to take a smaller slice of 10,000 sales or a bigger slice of 4000. I’d be thrilled to hit those numbers, but I have no way of predicting them.
I never reached a conclusion on which is “better”. I was going down the self-publishing road until I realized that the book would likely be locked out of the military exchanges forever. (Exchanges don’t make enough money from books to waste their time with self-published authors.) After years of the submarine lifestyle I’ve become quite accustomed to the benefits of criticism and rejection, so I decided to try a publisher first. I’d already surprised myself by finishing a manuscript, so I might be pleasantly surprised again. If it didn’t work out then self-publishing would be the default.
Despite my research, a year ago I knew very little about marketing a book. Self-publishing would have been the well-intentioned blind leading the blissfully ignorant straight down the drain. I quickly learned that before I could approach the publishers I had to divine their motivations. Then I had to convince those faceless authority figures why they’d want to spend their time (and hopefully their money) stamping my deathless prose on dead trees. That led me to determine exactly who would want to buy the book in the first place– other than a couple hundred loyal Early-Retirement.org members.
Editors ask annoying and seemingly pointless questions like “Who buys this book?” and “Why is that the title?” Another editor told me “20-somethings don’t read.” They got me to realize that I was writing for a narrow audience and using a confusing title. My manuscript included a few snarky features that didn’t seem so funny when an editor asked how they’d attract readers. One publisher actually expected me to (*gasp*) write a marketing plan with the query letter. (Readers want to see “their” authors marketing the book, not the publishers.) Besides, if I self-published then I’d have to craft the marketing plan anyway, so why not write one now for the free feedback?
I got lucky. I ran the manuscript by one publisher twice, got turned down both times, and later learned that I’d inadvertently avoided a shop which was very particular about its brand’s tone & message. In the process they asked a lot of great questions and helped me improve both the manuscript and my query letters. Another publisher drifted away from me but left a fantastic guide to online marketing. Another senior editor actually hired a consultant and shared all their comments with me.
The biggest advantage of an editor and a publisher, aside from their marketing & distribution network, is telling authors what we might not want to hear. Every editor I’ve worked with (whether they bought the book or not) has left me better than when we started. One editor, a prominent author himself, spent nearly six months working with me. You just can’t buy that sort of help.
And so it went for nearly a year. I taught myself more before approaching each publisher, and then they taught me even more just by asking questions and talking about what makes their lives easier. I sent out eight query letters to “traditional” publishers, each letter requiring its own research, and I could’ve gone on to another dozen smaller specialty publishers. If I had to do this again, though, I’d write one query letter after another (a new one every few days) instead of waiting for responses. It’s harder to engage all the publishers in parallel but it saves a lot of time.
I’ll put in a shameless plug for Impact Publications. By the time I got around to them I was burned out on publishers, and I’d held off writing Impact only because they didn’t seem quite as “big” as the whales at which I’d been chucking harpoons. Impact has done very well for a couple of military authors and Impact’s distributor puts their books in military exchanges. In some ways their query letter was the most difficult to write, especially if by this point you’re anticipating being dragged through a mosh pit for another six months. But they were on my list, so like a good little nuke I kept plugging away no matter how painful or tedious it seemed to be.
The response was stunningly gratifying. Publisher’s school had clearly neglected teaching Ron Krannich how to avoid decisions. He got the query letter on a Wednesday afternoon and must’ve deliberated for, gosh, nearly 24 hours before calling me. Once
I got over my shock and realized that my friends weren’t playing a practical joke he’d heard enough to decide that I wasn’t a blithering idiot, he told me he was sending me a contract. And then he sent me a contract.
I hesitated for a long time to tell Ron that royalties would be donated to military charities. I figured that any publisher would just use it as an excuse to lower the royalty rate. Instead I found that not only does Impact have an exceptionally generous contract, but they’d be happy to market the “non-profit” aspect. Everyone wants to support the troops, and publishers benefit from that marketing even more than the authors.
Control has not been an issue– it’s been collaboration, not sparring. Impact’s editing has made the manuscript better at every turn. If something wasn’t relevant (or wasn’t working) then they asked for my reasoning before we (!) made the decision. They’ve appreciated my approach and they’ve promptly agreed when I explained why I’ve chosen some techniques. As an engineer, it had never occurred to me to have a real no-foolin’ graphics artist do the cover. It had never occurred to me that there were typesetting techniques which would make the content pop even more than our compelling prose already does.
Authors exert their “director’s cut” control through their blog. I’m blogging all the material that wouldn’t make the book (for one very good reason or another). If the publisher or editor won’t do something in the book, then I can take solace in
realizing that they’re right putting it in the blog. You readers have the vote: if it’s popular on the blog then I can take it back to the publisher for more discussion.
I think authors have nothing to lose by engaging publishers, even when it leads to rejection. The default is self-publishing. The only issues are how much time (and money) you spend on editing, design, & marketing before moving to sales. Now that I’ve been shown the process, I wouldn’t hesitate to self-publish. Before I did, though, I’d spend real money on a graphic artist for typesetting and the cover. I’d also hire an editor for a test read and send out several dozen review copies before hitting the sales.
But first I’d send the manuscript to Ron Krannich. I’m not an extroverted marketer, and I still find it difficult to sustain a one-man publicity campaign. It’s a big help to leverage off a publisher’s contacts and advice. We’ll see how I do on marketing this book before I decide to tackle one by myself.
Writing and publishing
“So, Nords, how did you start blogging?”
Book update: On the printing press in March
Table of contents
Book covers for “The Military Guide” and the pocket guide!
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