I’ll try to keep this short. I have only one very simple point to make here today. And it’s not pretty.
But it is important. Every movement of mass hysteria has a voice of reason and moderation, and this is it.
This is about getting real with your dream of being published. Because – newsflash – it isn’t the same dream that you started with. And the new one doesn’t come with the same perks.
Earlier this week we ran a terrific guest post (from Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn) about the brave new world of self-publishing and why even the dreariest of cynics should give it a close look. I absolutely agree that the emerging digital venues for fiction are changing everything in a way that opens doors formerly bolted shut, in addition to rapidly shutting down the chain bookstores (a debatable disaster) and putting many independents at risk (a true disaster).
But let’s all file in with our eyes open and our dreams still in our pants.
It wasn’t that long ago that self-publishing was a haven of last resort. Traditional publishing rejected you (I know they sure did reject me), so you spent your money and got the thing printed yourself. Or – for even more money – you signed on with a third party to help make that happen, hoping they might get you into the bookstores that you can’t.
They didn’t. Nor did they give you your money back. There was no market for independently published fiction, the only market was for the folks offering to get you into one.
But now there’s a new self-publishing sheriff in town (that’s Sheriff Kindle, to you), and he’s swinging open the publishing doors to anyone and everyone who knows how to download a digital file. And because the bookstore of today is just a few keystrokes away, everyone has access to the marketplace.
Or so the theory goes.
What used to be a concert by John Denver is now allowing anybody with a ticket up onto the stage.
Advocates love to herald the success stories of how a handful of self-published books are being “discovered,” how they are landing seven-figure contracts or, more recently, selling hundreds of thousands of digital copies via Kindle and iBook and other technologies.
I have to be careful not to rain on this parade. I may be marching in it myself before long. Come to think of it, I already am, as my ebooks are selling well on Kindle and my new trade paperback (not self-published, it’s from Writers Digest Books) has a digital version available, too.
I could rain a torrent of caveats on that issue, but none of that is my point. But, to help me make what is my point…
This Just Happened
Part of my writing journey involves reading and critiquing unpublished books and screenplays, with a view toward coaching them toward salability. The idea, of course, is to see if there are issues that can be fixed and opportunities to be seized before sending them out to the big bad world of traditional publishing.
Which, in case you’ve been writing under a rock, is about as stable and viable as the Egyptian stock market lately.
One recent project didn’t go as the author planned.
Many writers send me their work in the hope of affirmation, and sometimes we have to do a little reality dance before they open their hearts and minds to the feedback they’ve paid for.
In this case… well, let’s just say the author needed to start over. Nothing about the novel worked. There was a seed of a story there, somewhere, but it needed replanting in a more fertile dramatic landscape, and watering from more capable hands. So I wrote a 17-page, single-space opus of constructive criticism, ending with ideas for a resurrection leading to a rebuild.
In the game of manuscript feedback, I’m way more Paula than Simon.
The response was something like this: okay then, thanks for trying, but I love my book the way it is. So do all my friends. So I’m going to publish it myself, as I’m hearing all the time that great books are selling well even though New York publishers rejected them.
And off he went to throw three or four thousand dollars at this wonderful new strategy. And yes, he’ll probably “be published” at the end of the day.
But is that really the goal? Simply to hold a copy of your book in your hands, one with your name on the cover? It’s legitimately intoxicating, to be sure (even though you could arrange for the same thing at Kinkos… but that’s a little cynical, so never mind), but it’s a little like sending your money to diploma mill or buying air time on the local after-hours cable channel.
Does that make you executive material? Does that make you a television star? Does anyone ever really know it’s happening?
It’s interesting to note that the only people sending me manuscripts with checks attached are still trying to crack the traditional publishing code. Nobody planning on publishing their book themselves, ditial or otherwise, seems to think professional editorial help is necessary.
Interesting. And scary. Because it defines this new marketplace, as well as makes my point.
Is this really the dream you’re chasing?
Now, I know stranger things have happened, and I’m certainly not the standard-bearer for what is publishable or not publishable. But I do know a turkey when I see one, and this thing was gobbling from page one.
I also know a turkey will sell a few dozen copies out there, maybe a few hundred. And, that among the flock, there may be a golden goose waddling about waiting to be discovered before Thanksgiving. It could happen.
My hope is that writers go this route with their eyes open and their expectations in check. Because publishers are not employing scouts to find the next passed-over gem floating around in digital space thanks to Kindle, and when it does happen – which it does – it’ s more an accident of serendipity than it is a coalescing strategy.
The sad and ironic truth is that your shot at writing a breakout self-published book, one that makes you real money and/or scores you a New York deal and launches a career, is significantly less than simply submitting your book to an agent who can sell it to a major publisher.
The former happens two or three times a year. The latter? Two or three hundred times a month.
The game hasn’t really changed at all, it’s just harder than ever to get in. So maybe a minor league is the answer afterall.
Writers are forgetting how to do the math. Because the allure of holding a book that you’ve written in your excitied, clammy little hands, even if its on a Kindle screen – something self-publishing is certainly making feasible – is that powerful.
The publishing dream is a drug. And the internet is making it legal and easy to come by. It’s just that the high isn’t as high, and it won’t last long enough to even get you hooked.
The moral of the story is this:
Set out to write a great story. One good enough to get published. When you are told that it isn’t, find out why and fix it.
With the frenzy of opportunity and enthusiasm that the new world of digital self-publishing is dawning in a glorious burst of spontaneous manuscripts showing up all over the internet, one might be easily find themselves seduced. Sucked into a dream-swap that displaces worthiness and opportunity with accessibility.
The minor leagues are like that. At least you get to play. Even if it’s in Walla Walla.
We’re hearing this a lot lately: it’s easier than ever to get published these days.
But is that really the goal? If you buy your own seat on stage are you really part of the show?
Hear me clearly, there’s nothing wrong with publishing your own book, even after New York as told you to take a hike. Hell, I’m reading one now (“Bitsy’s Labyrinth” by Mary Andonian, a youth novel that’s nothing short of beautiful in its execution), and my hope is that this becomes a stepping stone to what has already been her publishing dream for some time.
Thing is, writers are starting to confuse the stepping stone with the real dream. Because the internet is dressing them in the same uniform.
That’s the point here. Use this is a strategy. Don’t confuse it with the end game.
The Old School Is Still In Session
What is getting lost lately is the fact that the standards of traditional publishing really haven’t changed at all. It’s the machine that’s broken, due in part to the unprecedented number of incoming submissions and competition from the very technology that is changing the marketplace into uncharted territory.
But if you look closely, even within the chaos, you’ll notice that a shift has taken place. It used to be that a book had to be good enough to impress an agent and then a publisher. Now, with the digital venue available to absolutely anybody, and with agents pushed out through a side door, a successful book has to be good enough to impress a reader willing to pay for it.
And readers, as a collective whole, have always had a higher bar than publishers. That’s why not everything that is published ends up selling.
Make no mistake, self-publishing your book is a proposition measured in the hundreds of books, not the thousands or tens of thousands you hear about in those exception fairy tales.
Which means the dream has shrunk to the size of a trade paperback from Lulu.com, one that you can hold in your hands and show your friends.
It feels good. But is it The Dream? Don’t kid yourself, it isn’t a career. It may become a stepping stone — now that’s a viable strategy — it may not. But until it becomes one, it’s an illusion.
Hear me clearly, digital publishing is a good thing for writers.
But it doesn’t change a thing in terms of what we, as writers of books, need to know and need to shoot for in our work.
The bar isn’t lower than it was.
Don’t confuse that with the fact that the walls to getting “published” have come down, and indeed, that the very definition of “getting published” has evolved into something with very little relationship to what it was.
Not long ago a major writing conference of, say, 500 folks would find three to eight published writers in the audience. These days, you’ll find thirty to fifty, maybe more, all because of the availability of the distinction of being published.
Bottom line: if you want to sell a book that will find readers, that will stick around and actually appear on a bookstore shelf in addition to its Amazon page, that stands a chance of being discovered among the exploding pool of digital product out there, then you better not settle.
You better understand what makes a story work, and deliver something that adheres to the principles of the six core competencies in context to what the market has shown that they want.
Because if you don’t make that distinction – if you think you can publish a manuscript that is otherwise sub-par, or so original New York won’t buy it because it’s never been done before, but somehow the digital reader will forgive you and spread the word – the marketplace will make that distinction for you. And you won’t like it.
Cream still rises to the top. It’s physics. Even among traditionally published books this remains true. It’s easier than ever to get into the dairy these days, but whipping up the cream is as hard as it ever was.
You thought the slush pile was huge and intimidating before? Today it’s bigger than ever. Because now it’s on the web, available for download for only $6.99.
Write like you are still trying to impress someone at Random House.
And while some masterpieces will certainly slip through into self-published digital nirvana due to the inevitable chaos of traditional publishing, there’s no indication whatsoever that the standards of readers are lowering.
Getting published is less than it was. But selling your work to a mass audience is very bit as hard, and as rewarding, as ever. And if you think you can do it without a Warner Books promotional budget…
… well, perhaps you should consider the fantasy genre. Reality may not be your thing.
Dreaming is good. But every dream that ever came true did so because the dreamer woke up and got to work.
And no, I didn’t keep this short at all.
Let the debate begin. I can already hear the rocks hitting my window.