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Archive for November 4th, 2009

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Introduction—A Publishing Petri Dish

Starting today, I’m placing my quest to be a published, recognizable author into a public petri dish. Every social media outlet utilized, every writer’s conference attended, every publication and relevant link uncovered will be shared. I want to try everything, documenting what doesn’t work with just as much clarity as what does.

This will enable anyone following my blog to track the ups and downs of my journey, especially other writers who are in the same boat I’m in at the moment, searching for the right combination of choices to make our dreams work. The open-kimono/petri dish nature of the blog will be designed to give any aspiring, struggling writers the opportunity to experiment and learn as I do.

Why This Blog … This Approach?

How did this start? Everything about my approach to this business of writing was turned inside out and upside down in September 2009, at the first annual three-day Writer’s Digest Writer’s Conference (www.writersdigestconference.com) held in New York City. When I registered, I imagined that the experience was going to be similar to the dozens of others I’ve had at conferences around the country over the last decade. A lineup of authors, editors, and agents would give presentations on various aspects of the writing craft, or on the art of the query letter, or on the elements of a successful pitch. Then there would be an opportunity at the end of the conference for interested attendees to sign up to pitch a book for 3-5 minutes to an agent or editor who would be bleary-eyed from listening to hundreds of fellow attendees doing the same thing. And, in truth, the Writer’s Digest Conference did have a little of that thrown in—but very little.

A Writer’s Conference that Spoke the Truth

This conference was different—way different. The primary focus was on reality—today’s reality—in the publishing industry. What a concept! And the topics didn’t address how things have changed in the last ten years, but how they’ve changed in the last few months. The presenters and subject matter were geared to show us how to adapt our approach(es) as authors, in an environment that is reshaped daily by technological updates and the expansion of social networking.

A Stunning Opening Line

The stand-out quality of this conference became evident in the Opening Address at 4:00 PM on Day 1. (Writer’s Digest staff members were writing live blogs during each of the conference sessions. At www.writersdigestconference.com you can still link into those blogs to get a sense of what was going on in those September 2009 sessions.) Mike Shatzkin (http://www.idealog.com/blog/), who delivered the conference’s opening address, is a digital publishing futurist with an extensive background in nearly every component of the publishing industry. His topic was “The Changing World of Book Publishing: An Author-Centric View.” I’m paraphrasing him, but basically he said that, in today’s publishing environment, your book, no matter how fabulous, is completely irrelevant if you don’t already have a clearly defined platform and a foundational readership/following in place before you ever submit a query letter.

The Platform Thing

I’ve heard the term “platform” before at conferences and have always had difficulty figuring out how to formulate one. A platform is a subject matter expertise, or life experience, or a specialty that uniquely qualifies you to write what you’re writing and that will draw readers to your books. But my books are fiction, each with a different plot, a different set of characters, and a message that shifts with each storyline. So the need to come up with a platform has been a constant source of frustration. (You can Google “what is an author platform” for mega information on the subject.) And when I heard Mike Shatzkin start talking about “platform,” my first thought was, “Here we go again.” But his declaration that my (or anyone’s) book was irrelevant without a platform, even prior to sending a query letter, had seized my attention.

The New Google Factor for Writers Who Are Querying

Then I heard the words that still echo in my head a month later. Again, I’m paraphrasing, but here’s the essence of what he said next (and what nearly every other speaker during the three days reiterated in some form): When we hopeful authors send a query letter to an agent or editor today (queries that we’ve attended numerous conferences and paid lots of fees to learn how to write successfully), the first thing that happens now in the agent/editor’s office is that someone Googles the name of the writer sending the letter. If nothing shows up that demonstrates some sort of following or platform already in place, one that’s relevant to the author and book being queried, we receive a rejection notice, usually by way of a pre-printed postcard or form letter. There are undoubtedly exceptions to this scenario, but for new, unknown, unpublished writers, that is the latest raw truth about what really happens.

If you haven’t done so already (or recently), Google yourself to see what agents and editors are seeing when they do the Googling. If there isn’t at least a page of links popping up that are directly related to your writing credits and readership following, then there is considerable work to be done, if dreams are going to stand a chance of being realized. Our platforms as fiction writers can stem from our sheer presence online, but we have to build that presence. Just sending query letters out to a list of agents and editors when we finish a book is no longer going to work.

The Impact of Social Media Outlets on Publishing Industry Changes

 So, what else should we be doing in addition to the query letters? Well, hopefully that’s where this blog will come in—helping with direction and specifics, as we all figure out together how to navigate the galactic shift in the way things now work in the publishing industry. And that shift has taken place due in no small part to social networking—things like Facebook, My Space, Twitter, blogging, or new resources such as FiledBy (www.filedby.com), where any author who has a book with an ISBN number will find a distinct author site already waiting for them. Authors with books coming out can make use of this resource as well.

These and other social networking options are rapidly changing the fabric and structure of the publishing industry. If we want to succeed in our dream of becoming published authors, we don’t have the option any longer of ignoring those networks. I’ve actually been staying away from them on purpose, not understanding their critical role in what I’m trying to accomplish. Now I’m scurrying to catch up.

The changes described above have been revolutionary, even within the last six months, not only due to the wildfire spread of social media outlets, but also to the development of reader alternatives such as Kindle and Sony Reader, and a host of other elements that were touched upon in the Writer’s Digest Conference. As the information began to flow, I was not the only one in the audience sitting there stunned. But as the shock began to wear off—and as the real, usable information kept on comingI realized how grateful I was to be in a place where I was finally hearing the truth about the industry I was trying to penetrate. And I was excited to learn that, throughout the conference, I was actually going to be presented with tools and resources to help me adapt my goals and dreams to this new, scary, and constantly shifting reality.

An Updated Impact of Self-Publishing/ POD Options on the Publishing Industry

By the morning of the conference’s second day, my previous writing and publishing to-do lists had been thrown out the window, and an entirely new approach had been born. Early elements of that plan will be outlined in a few moments. But first I want to mention another aspect of this conference that was different—the attitude about traditional publishing avenues versus the quality of choices now available through self-publishing and print-on-demand organizations. Again, the attitude was the difference.

Generally, agents and editors at writer’s conferences have not—at least in my experience—been interested in seeing submissions of books published through non-traditional avenues. But the Writer’s Digest Conference offered the opportunity to actually pitch such books to editors, during the 15-minute session (one per attendee) included with the conference fee.

With books that are self-published or published through “supported self-publishing” POD companies, there is a critical need to enlist professional editing services before moving forward with any sort of production, to ensure as high a quality as possible throughout the book. But assuming that the quality is in place, books published through non-traditional avenues are being viewed by those in the publishing industry with ever-increasing legitimacy. One of the reasons for this is the sheer volume.

In 2003, the annual output of new titles in the U.S. was approximately 200,000. By 2008—just five years later—the number of new titles published in the U.S. had reached 500,000! This growth is attributed almost exclusively to the self-publishing/print-on-demand industry. Last year, AuthorSolutions—a premiere POD mega-company—published six times more books than Random House! The number of titles published throughout all of the traditional publishing houses has basically been flat for several years.

Consequently, the traditional publishing companies now have staff devoted to the monitoring of books published through non-traditional avenues and are quick to pick up on titles that have some sort of “buzz” associated with them. As incongruous as this may sound, authors whose dreams remain focused on getting their book(s) into print through a traditional publishing house just might discover that the quickest way to that goal is to self-publish and aggressively promote a really great book.

A Traditional Publishing Buzz-Kill

Why do I say that self-publishing/POD might be the fastest way to an author’s realizing his or her traditional publishing goal? Because the time required for the traditional path is daunting. For example, let’s say that one of my carefully crafted (and repeatedly edited) query letters has finally reached an interested agent, and that agent has agreed to represent me and my book, starting today. That moment of exhilaration will most likely be followed by several months—possibly six or even twelve—of effort involved while that agent works to find an editor in some publishing house who views my book as promising.

Once that editor agrees to take on my book, he/she will then need time to “sell” the project up through the food chain in that publishing company—and there’s no guarantee that the editor will prevail. But let’s say that the editor is successful, and the publishing house powers-that-be agree to buy my book. After all the negotiations are complete (between the agent and me, and the agent and the publisher) and the contracts are signed, another series of edits will be required on the book to satisfy the editor/publishing house.

By the time the editing is finished and my book is lined up in the publishing queue, about 18 more months (possibly longer) will have passed before the entire production process is complete and the book is actually published and released. So, for new, unknown, unpublished writers, we’re looking at two (maybe three) years from the time our perfect query letters reach an agent who has agreed to represent us and the moment when we hold our printed books in our hands.

Coming to grips with that reality is enough to make your average aspiring author begin studying the alternatives.

And What About Money?

Real writers don’t start chasing this dream for the money. They write because they have no choice—they are driven to do so by something they can’t stop. But let’s take a minute to talk about money anyway. The financial advance agreed to in the publishing contract is generally divided into thirds: the first third paid upon contract signing; the second third paid upon receipt of the manuscript edited and/or reworked to meet the publisher’s criteria; and the final third paid when the book comes out.

There are variations to this doling out of the advance money, but no one (especially new, unknown authors) receives the whole advance up front. And when the book finally does come out, publishing houses now require the author to do the yeoman’s share of marketing and promotion, keeping in mind that the advance received needs to be repaid before the author gets any more money.

Advance repayment is based on the royalty percentage per book in the author’s contract. Here’s an example in round numbers: The contract says the author receives a 20% royalty per book (contracts range from 10-20% royalties on average). The book retails for $20, and the author is paid $4 per book (with payment received quarterly, in the middle of the next quarter). So, let’s say the author received a $5000 advance (small but not unusual for new, unknown, unpublished writers). At $4 per book, 1250 books would have to be sold to repay the advance—and Barnes & Noble’s own statistics show that the average number of books sold at non-celebrity book signings is one/1. That’s correct. One!

Needless to say, booksellers are not doing very many book signings these days. As a result, authors need to figure out other ways to get their books sold—and that’s where the whole social media and platform things come in.

But we can’t wait until our books are published to start building our plan and readership following. We have to create the forum and the audience for our books before we even have a book.

Yes, the publishing world is very different than the one in existence when a lot of us began pursuing our dreams of becoming published authors. And there’s an old definition of insanity that rings true here: We can’t keep doing the same things over and over again while expecting different results. We have to change with the world around us.

The Early Stages of My Petri Dish Plan

We’ve already discussed the idea that a professionally edited, quality, self-published/print-on-demand book could already be in the hands of thousands of readers at least two years before the same book would even be released by a traditional publishing house. (Start-to-finish production time, including editing services, for a “supported self-publishing” company averages 3-6 months. And then, if the author can document sales of 2000 books or more, a traditional publishing house just might end up with an interest in the book anyway, still giving the author a chance to realize that aspect of the dream. Selling 2000 books takes a lot of work, but the author will need to carry most of that weight, regardless of how the book is published. Sinking oneself into the world of social media should make that job a little easier.

Well, I guess we’ll see about that. My first novel, The Truth About Cinnamon (www.TheTruthAboutCinnamon.com) was published through iUniverse www.iuniverse.com (now part of AuthorSolutions) in December 2003. Since then, I finished my second novel, Separation of Faith, and worked as a freelance editor (see my blog bio), a job that ended up improving my own writing as an unexpected byproduct. Thus, I’ve believed for several years now that I could use my editing experience to cut about 100 pages from my first novel—so that’s what I’m going to do.

I’ve made the decision to publish Separation of Faith using iUniverse again. While that new book is in the production process, I’m going to edit The Truth About Cinnamon into a second edition, which will then be released several weeks ahead of Separation of Faith, which is targeted for early second quarter 2010. The goal is to incorporate everything I’ve learned over the last six years with all of the social networking tools I can get my hands on. Promotions for both the new novel and the second edition of the first novel will begin in earnest well ahead of the books release dates.

But as fast as things are changing, I will still be learning as I go—only this time I’ll be sharing what works and what doesn’t through this blog, so others might benefit as well.

Another Upcoming Relevant Conference

On December 15th and 16th, I will be attending another conference in New York City—“Innovations in Digital Publishing”—which will be a perfect follow-on to the Writer’s Digest Conference last month. Check out the conference program details at www.MediaBistro.com. Scroll down and look for “Events” in the left hand column. Click on “eBook Summit—December 15-16.”

Follow the Writer’s Digest website (www.writersdigest.com) as well for a wide assortment of articles, tools, and events that are designed to aid us in our journeys.

Conclusion to My New Blog’s First Post

My goal is to write every day in this blog, reflecting on what I’m doing as I move through this exciting new process. I’m also looking forward to sharing comments and hearing ideas from others who have similar interests and goals.

I believe very strongly that there’s enough room in this dream for all of us, but we need to get our arms around the realities of the publishing world and then take control of our own destinies. Here’s to the journey! See you tomorrow. 

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