It’s been two weeks since I sent out the last of thirty-six queries for my (as yet) unpublished book Troubled Space. The spate of instant knee-jerk rejections now seems to have ended. I got half as many over the last seven days as I did on the first week, now making a total of twelve. The bright spot is that two-thirds of the agents I queried did not instantly reject it. I can only hope that some of them may actually consider representing me. Who knows? Stranger things have happened.
Of course I’m not just waiting around for some unknown agent to acknowledge my existence. I’m also not diving into to writing my next book. I’ve decided instead to take time to produce new editions of my Warden’s World stories. There are a few reasons for this. The first is that they need new covers. I have five novels set in this world, and the covers don’t look much alike. I think they should, and soon they will. They also need a bit of revision. These were the first novels I ever wrote, and I was pretty nervous about publishing them. Before I did, I reviewed as much guidance as I could about the whole process, and I ended up following a lot of bad advice. Basically, I over-edited and ended screwing up the tenses and making the prose choppy. My goal is to correct the corrections I made trying to follow the ‘rules.’
The first book to get a makeover will the An Android Dog’s Tale. It’s a prequel to the others and probably the shortest of the bunch at around 75,000 words. It may also be my best seller. I’m not talking bestseller as in toping anyone’s charts, but it’s either in the top (or possibly the second top) sales spot for my books. It’s currently getting over 100 Kindle downloads per month and a few more in other formats. The revised version is almost done and should be out within the next month. (I considered showing the new cover in this post but decided against it. I have a proof copy of the new paperback sitting on my desk. Take my word for it; it looks damn good.)
So, that’s my writing time accounted for until at least the end of the year. I’ll be revising five books, creating new covers for them, and releasing new digital and trade paperback editions.
Oh, and I’ll also be waiting to hear back from agents.
In the past, a large publisher’s most profitable strategy was to publish a relatively small number of different books with wide appeal, those for which they believed there was a large market. The large volume offset the cost of editing, cover design, printing, and promotion. This made perfectly good business sense. There were a few predefined genres, and books that fit the currently popular trends in each of those were what ended up being published and displayed on the limited shelf space in bookstores. This model worked well for the publishing business, but it didn’t provide much variety for readers.
When I was a kid, I read mostly space operas and sword and sorcery epic fantasies. That’s what the stores sold, and for speculative fiction, that was about all they sold because that is all the traditional publishers were publishing, which they did because they sold…
These books were often very much alike. If you tore out the title page, there is a good chance you would not be able to guess who wrote the story. They were as generic as fast food hamburgers and for the same reason—mass appeal, low cost, predictable content, and reasonable quality.
It seems that traditional publishers are still working to this model, and if you really want to read a new post-apocalyptic, dystopian, paranormal, vampire romance with demons, zombies and a teenage wizard, they’ll have one for you.* They’ll probably have dozens, in fact. That kind of stuff sells. They know this because they’ve already sold a bunch much like them. This doesn’t mean any of these books are good, nor does it mean all of them are bad, but it does mean that readers who want something completely different are going to have a hard time finding it.
Fortunately, the constraints of limited shelf space and mass appeal no longer apply, although I don’t think traditional publishers know this. Many authors and readers may not, either. Things are changing, though, and the change is good.
Online retailers do not need to be concerned about shelf space. This allows them to follow a different model. They can offer a wide variety of items to suit different needs and tastes rather than focusing on a relatively small number of currently popular items. Amazon may have been one of the first to adapt this idea to books, and they quickly came to dominate the book market because of it.
Then they went a step further by creating the Kindle, which made them the leader in digital books as well. They further expanded their eBook selection by encouraging writers to bypass traditional publishers and sell their books directly to readers (who had Kindles). I’m sure this wasn’t out of some altruistic concern or even due to some sense of duty to rescue the art of fiction from the doldrums. They are a business after all, and the primary business of business is, as we know, to make money, and I suspect Amazon is making a respectable profit from digital book sales. I have no idea how many eBook titles they now have available, but I imagine it’s a lot. They probably don’t sell many copies of most of these, but a few here and a few there can add a very large pile of nickels and dimes to their bottom line.
I did not realize how truly limited my book selection had been until I received a Kindle as a gift two years ago. In the years BK (Before Kindle), I got books from the library, brick and mortar bookstores, and online, but all of those books were published on paper through the gateway of a traditional publisher. I had no idea what I was missing. In the years AK (After Kindle), I have found many books that were fresh, different, that defied genre and convention, and, because of this, they were great reads. But they didn’t come from traditional publishers, which are still working to the old model of formulaic fiction for mass audiences. Many of the most enjoyable books I read last year came from small, independent publishers or were self-published by the authors.
The rise of indie publishing makes more books available to readers. But quantity is not what makes indie revolutionary. If all it did was increase the number of new vampire romances or zombie apocalypse stories released each year from a hundred to ten thousand, it would hardly be important. The greatest contribution of indie publishing is that it makes many different kinds of stories available to readers.
For a publishing business, the purpose of producing books is to make money. For many (but not all) indie writers, the purpose is simply because they have a need to create and share stories that are not like those coming out of the big publishing houses. Sure, indie writers would love to make piles of money, but few expect to, and I don’t think it’s why most of them write, especially those who are consciously not following the mass-market book trends. What this means for fiction readers is greater variety, more books, lower prices, and a better chance of finding a book that is fresh and wonderfully different.
I used to read about twenty new books a year. Now I read about seventy or eighty. The main reason for the increase is that I can now find more books that appeal to me. And, if this wasn’t enough, ‘indie’ eBooks tend to be much cheaper than their traditionally published counterparts. Many indie books are free. Not all of them are good of course, but not all the books published by traditional publishers are, either.
I have come to view traditional publishers as something akin to fast food chain restaurants. They offer items with wide appeal and consistent quality. I’ve found that some traditional publishers of speculative fiction tend to do this better than others do, but their variety remains limited and the difference between them is like that between Burger King and McDonalds. Indie publishers are more along the lines of local mom and pop diners. Some are good and some are not, but a few offer great things you cannot find anywhere else.
This is a good time for fiction writers. They can write stories they believe in and offer them directly to readers. It is a good time for readers whose tastes do not match those of the crowd. It is still difficult to find great books that match our individual tastes, but, because of the rise of indie publishing, those books are far more likely to be out there. What is now desperately needed is a way to sort through the many thousands of indie books available to find those that we’ll absolutely love. Variety is great, but it can be overwhelming.
*This is a slight exaggeration. Most popular books won’t have all of these elements. There is only so much, um, ‘stuff’ that will fit in any one bucket.
When I told my friends and relatives I had finally embarked on my life long goal to write fiction and had actually published something, they said, “Great! Where can I get it?” When I told them, their responses were much different. You see, my books are self published and there is still a stigma about self published books. Many believe self publishing is what you do when your stuff isn’t good enough for a “real” agent or publisher. My books were also ebooks and everyone knows “real” books are made of paper. My friends didn’t even have ebook readers and had no plans of getting one. I myself didn’t have one until this year so I couldn’t really say much.
When I tried to explain that I chose to self publish rather than seek a traditional agent and publisher, I was met with skepticism. “Yeah, right.” (This is the only case I know of in which two positives make a negative.) “You chose to do this?”
But I did. When I decided to begin writing seriously rather than just as a hobby, I initially intended to shop my work to agents and try to get my books published in print. I had compiled a list of agents, what they said they were looking for, and their submission guidelines. I had draft query letters prepared using the best guidance I could find from established agents. I did my homework and I was ready to go. I wanted two books completed before I approached an agent so I could prove I could deliver but when the time came, I had changed my mind.
Maybe it’s a mistake but rather than send out queries for my first book, The Warden Threat, to traditional agents and publishers, I chose to self publish. Why would I make self publishing my first option rather than a last resort? I know many other writers are struggling with the same decision so I thought I’d share the five main reasons for mine (in no particular order).
1: I’m unknown as a fiction writer. My paying job had nothing to do with fiction, at least intentionally, although some of the reports I had done did contain things that were fairly speculative. But the point is, in the world of fiction writing I had no name recognition, no following, and no brand. I assumed it would be very difficult and frustrating trying to get an agent to even look at my work. Agents turn down 99% of the submissions they receive, and all the time the author is waiting to hear back from them is time their book is not available to readers.
2: Self publishing is easy. With the rise of ebooks, there are several places that will allow authors to turn their manuscript into an ebook and publish it. The process is fairly easy and free. I chose Smashwords and Amazon because they seemed to be the industry leaders. Smashwords is the simplest. All you need is a Word document, suitably formatted, and a cover image. Smashwords creates ebooks in multiple formats for you, assigns an ISBN and distributes your book to multiple ebook retailers. Amazon required conversion of the Word file to HTML and then to a PRC format using free Amazon software. Both processes were well within my capabilities. The hardest part for me was coming up with covers but I eventually created some that I thought were simple and eye-catching using no special or expensive software.
3: The popularity of ebooks is growing. Amazon now reportedly sells more ebooks than it does paper books and the popularity of ebooks is still growing. I don’t see paper books going away (I hope they don’t), and I would love to see my books eventually become available in paper because it means more people will be able to read them, but I feel that ebooks are the future and it is good to get in on the ground floor. I see this as analogous to what happened in the music world with the rise of MP3 players. At one time I bought vinyl albums, tapes, and CDs. Probably more than I should have. But I have since converted my CDs to MP3 files and now normally only buy new albums as MP3 digital downloads.
4: With self publishing, authors can choose what compromises to make and what ones not to. I think authors, good authors anyway, write because they have things to say. Traditional publishing is a business and publishers have books they want to sell. There can be an inherent conflict in these two goals and I have heard that authors are sometimes asked to make changes to increase sales at the cost of their intended message. With self publishing, no one will tell you, “You can’t say that.” As your own publisher, you can decide if your story the way you want to tell it is more important than additional sales.
5: Self published ebooks can be the best bargain available for readers. Let’s face it. Times are tough for a lot of us and we have to stretch our budgets. As far as my reading habit or obsession went, I stretched mine by increasing the number of books I borrowed from the public library. I still buy hard copy books from my favorite authors as soon as they are released. I just preordered the latest book by Terry Pratchett for example. But for authors I never heard of, well, I might buy a paperback if it sounds good and the library doesn’t have a copy. But now there is a third option. Ebooks are cheap, normally less than the paperback version, if there is one, and many, especially the works of self published authors, can cost less than a buck. I wouldn’t expect readers to be willing to pay eight dollars for a paperback version of one of my books if they never heard of me and I’d feel guilty asking them to. But $2.99, $1.99, or even just 99 cents is probably affordable and worth the risk. I’m comfortable asking prices like that for my works. I think they are worth much more although my opinion is hardly objective. But until or unless I obtain a following, I doubt I will ever ask for more. My personal goal with my writing is not to make a lot of money. I don’t expect to. Most authors don’t. I just want my books to be read. Making them cheap seems a good way to do that.
I am not advocating self publishing for anyone. I have no idea if it will gain readers for my books. This is my first try and I haven’t been at it long. The start of my self publishing effort began the end of May 2011 with the creation of this blog. I published a “beta version” of my first two novels as an anthology in July and got some good feedback from beta readers. After a little more editing and polishing, I updated the anthology and released the first two books separately this month (September 2011). I will provide updates from time to time on this blog and probably on Facebook and Twitter on how well (or poorly) my books are faring. You are more than welcome to check back to find out.
Please let me know if any of this has been useful to you. I’d love to hear back from readers and writers about how they see ebooks and self publishing. Have you bought self published ebooks? If you have, what did you think? Do they provide good value for the money?
Do you enjoy reading? Do you find yourself immersed in the fictional worlds you read about? Do you find written stories more satisfying than movies or TV because they allow you to understand the characters, their motivations, and their ideas far more deeply? When you read, do you often think you would like to tell your own stories? Is there something you really want to say, ideas you want to share?
If so, you should try writing.
If, on the other hand, you read fiction once in a while and think it looks easy, think you could do something similar and make money, then my advice is don’t write. If these are your motivations, you may publish and you may even make a little money, but chances are you’d be happier and more successful in a different job.
Writing has to be a passion for you but before you begin, here are ten harsh realities you should consider.
1: Writing fiction is hard work. You may have a great idea for a story but transforming this into a novel is far more than just starting on page one and banging out words on a keyboard. When you read, things seem to flow from one event to another smoothly and logically. You may think all you have to do to write your own story is start with an idea of how the story begins and ends, let the logical sequence of events unfold in your imagination and simply write them down. It doesn’t work that way. You will need to consciously develop characters, settings, and timelines and you will need to know more about each than you ever reveal in your story. The characters and settings are your raw materials. Know them well. With them you construct scenes that become components of the story you want to tell. You assemble your novel from scenes the way a builder constructs a house from bricks and lumber. Oh, and it helps to have a blueprint.
2: You first need a plan. Your blueprint is your outline, or your rough synopsis, or whatever you use to help you think out how to get from your first scene to your last. Some people are “pantsers” and essentially create stories by the seat of their pants but even they usually have notes to help them. I am more of a “plotter” and develop outlines for the novel, scene summaries, and other plans to help me make sure I know what I’m going to build before I start. Personally I think this makes for a better story and reduces the amount of rewriting that needs to be done after your first draft is complete. The time spent planning your novel before you start is time well spent.
3: It takes more time than you probably think. You can read a book in a day or a week in your spare time. How much longer can it take to write those words rather than read them? A lot longer–trust me on this. Sometimes the words don’t come; often they must be revised, replaced, or simply deleted. My personal goal for writing a first draft is to complete one chapter (normally 3000-5000 words) a week. This is not terribly ambitious. Some fulltime writers can accomplish much more. Part time writers should expect to be able to do less. At my goal writing pace though, I should be able to complete a full novel with twenty to twenty-five chapters in about thirty weeks. And I write almost every day. And then there is editing and revising. Aspiring writers must be willing to sacrifice a lot of their otherwise free time in order to complete a novel.
4: Don’t forget research. But I’m writing fiction, you say. Why do I need to do research? I’m just making this stuff up. Fiction must be believable and almost all fiction will contain elements that are real. If a scene includes people riding horses or fighting with swords, you need to know something about horses and swords. Certainly some of your readers will and if you make a mistake in describing some detail, they’ll notice and it will ruin the story for them. Fortunately the internet can make the author’s research job easier but it still takes time and effort.
5: You don’t get paid for your work. Unlike a salaried job, in which you are paid for every hour of labor, productive or not, as a fiction novelist your effort yields no money until someone buys the end result. You are likely to work for months or years on a project and never see a penny from it — ever. You hope your novel will sell eventually though, but you must be able to accept that yours will not. A simple fact is that most novels never find a traditional publisher so don’t quit your day job unless you have another source of income.
6: Prepare to be brushed off or ignored. After you’ve completed your brilliant novel, you decide you will allow an agent or publisher the privilege of seeing it. You send queries and you wait. You wait some more. If you submitted on line or through email, a response may come within days, sometimes hours. Other times it will take months and it will be a rejection. Statistically, your chances of acceptance are only about one percent. Don’t think this means you just have to send out a hundred queries. Each submission is a separate event. And the responses you get probably will simply say your work doesn’t meet their current needs, or something equally unhelpful. What those current needs might be and why your masterpiece doesn’t meet them will remain a mystery.
7: You can’t give up. You submit and resubmit your story and you keep getting rejections. Once in a while, you may get a request for a partial first. But ultimately it’s another rejection. You have to be willing to accept whatever advice the rejections offer or, more likely, be willing to accept that the rejections offer no advice at all and keep trying despite your frustration, confusion, and growing sense of hopelessness. I won’t offer any platitudes here and say that eventually you will find the ‘right’ agent or publisher. Odds are you won’t. You have to be willing to accept it and keep trying anyway.
8: Accept that you are not special. But, you might say, these gloomy anecdotes don’t apply to me. I’m brilliant and I can write a best selling novel in a month, which will be accepted by the first agent I query and immediately be sold to a major publisher. Sorry. This does apply to you because only exceptional people write novels and almost all agree it is a lot of work and almost all get rejections. In a world of about seven billion people, you are just another one of the millions of exceptional ones who write. Those who eventually – EVENTUALLY – find a publisher are a minority. Most novels remain unpublished.
9: Be willing to try again. You’ve completed your novel and queried every agent and publisher on your list (which takes even more research) but to no avail. Okay. It’s time to write another novel and go through all the work, sacrifice, and pain again. Chances are, you’ve learned something the first time and your chances may be a bit better with the next one. But you have to accept that the result may be the same as before.
10: Consider alternatives. With the rise of electronic books, self publishing can be a viable alternative for you. You can now publish e-books through Amazon, Smashwords, and other places. Publication is free, but if you want to actually sell copies, you will probably need professionals to edit your book, design the cover, and promote it. These services can cost you hundreds or thousands of dollars, which you can’t expect sales of your e-book to offset. Just having your e-book available on Amazon does not mean you will ever see any sales.
So how important is writing to you? Would you continue to write even if you found it difficult, even if it took up most of your free time, even if it never earned any money, even if it actually cost you money? Can you deal with rejection after rejection and still keep writing? If you can, you’re either crazy or a writer. Welcome to the club.
This time I’d really do it. No more abortive attempts. No giving up after one reject of a short story I took all of a month to write and thought was pretty good. No, this time I was serious. This time I was ready to be a fiction writer. After all, I’d read a lot of it. And I wrote as part of my paying job: correspondence, reports, studies, guidance, briefings, and things like that. Okay, so it wasn’t fiction, not intentionally anyway, but it was writing. It still had to present a point clearly and have decent spelling and punctuation. Yep, I had everything to finally realize my ambition of being a published fiction author.
So when a major news story gave me an idea for a great plot for a novel, I decided now was the time. I started working in my spare time on the idea and quickly did an outline, a rough synopsis, and timeline. I wrote character sheets based on those I’d done for role playing games for all of the major and most of the minor characters. And I started writing, doing a bit here and a bit there whenever I could make time–weekends, vacations, even during lunch breaks on those few occasions I could afford to take one. After a few years, I had a couple hundred thousand words written of what I felt certain would be an instant breakthrough novel. All I had to do now was get an agent and let them run with it. I didn’t really care much about making much money from it. I just wanted it to be read.
This is when reality hit me in the face in the form of two almost instant rejects from agents. What was wrong? I had done my homework. I got a book from the library on how to submit a manuscript and I followed the standard format and even wrote a kick ass query letter. The rejects were form letter emails and I wasn’t quite sure what they meant. One told me simply that the project was not right for them. The other said it didn’t meet the current needs of their list. WTF? I had a great and clearly unique novel and they didn’t even want to see it? Okay, no problem. Just a bit of polishing, right? Maybe I should do a bit of research about the publishing industry first though. Just to make sure.
I should have done this before I started writing. Traditional publishing, I soon learned, is a highly competitive business and arguably in decline. Agents reject over 99% of the submissions they get from new writers. They know, statistically anyway, that the work of new authors needs more editing and is harder to sell than that of established writers. Not only do new authors need a great first novel, they need something to make it and themselves stand out from all of the other great first novels. I didn’t have a clue how to do that. And the more I read about the industry, the more I suspected my great first novel might not actually be all that great.
But I had told myself that this was the time and I wasn’t about to give up so easily. So I read even more about writing and publishing. Some of it seemed contradictory but I learned a lot. I joined a critique group. I learned I needed a Twitter account to keep up with what agents and publishers were saying. Did that. I needed a website to get my name “out there.” Did that too. And I kept writing.
With my new insights, I went back to my original manuscript with a better ability to see what was good and not so good about it. I reviewed my work as objectively as I could. I realized I had made some common mistakes and had avoided some others. All in all, I still had a pretty good first draft in my admittedly biased opinion. Nothing I can’t fix. I’ve made time for this, I’ve long wanted to do it, I’ve got things to say, and this time it will happen.