Becoming a Writer—Part 3
Ready to publish? How, choosing where, and more
In part 2 we began with a short discussion about where you might publish your writing and then moved on to how. We focused on tips, techniques and mechanics. Did you take all that in? Maybe as much as you feel you needed? You checked out some other resources and you are ready to put your work out to the world. So now you need to decide how and where. As we said last time, you can upload your stuff to the web for all to see for free. Let’s assume you want people to pay for your material. Then you want to be able to sell it to them directly or through a content provider such as a magazine or publisher (we will get to online versus print later). Even if the objective is to sell your work, you still may want to first engage readers via the web. Why and how should you do that?
Have you heard of building an author platform? No, it’s not an elevated structure on which you park your chair and your desktop for writing. It’s a place where prospective readers learn who you are and what you write. They can become followers even before you have published something. It’s not, unfortunately, an easy thing to attract subscribers or followers to a blog; we can attest to that. But let’s come back to that in a bit. Remember: Regardless of what or where, once up on the web, whatever you post will be available forever. Ranting, being snarky or feeding trolls will hurt you. Note that a blog can be on a self-hosted site where you pay a service provider for access to a server.
With a self-hosted site you can download what you need to create a blog from places like WordPress.org (also typically found on some sort of installer found on your host’s control panel). Don’t want the hassle or expense of a webhost? You can get use a free blog site like WordPress.com or Blogger (part of Google) and use your regular ISP (that connects you to the web, your email, etc.) for the blog. The appearance of your site is determined by a template. There are both free templates and ones you can buy. Premium packages are also available from the sites that offer additional bells and whistles. Aside from blogging, there is also social media—Facebook, Google +, Goodreads (more on this later), LinkedIn and many more. The good news on blogging and social media is that you can, potentially, attract many followers. The bad news is that you can spend an inordinate amount of time doing this, at the expense of time that could be spent writing want you want to be publishing and selling. How easy is it to attract followers? Not very.
Just as there are countless books published both in print and online on a daily basis, there are countless blogs out there as well. One blog which we follow is titled, Snowflakes in a Blizzard. It’s goal is to help authors reach readers. The title reflects the reality of doing so. There are countless blog posts as well on improving SEO (search engine optimization)—that is, how to make your site more visible to Google and the others so that your site will show up at the top of the page in a search. The catch-22 is that the more popular (i.e., more followers and page views) your site is, the higher you show up on a search. Sort of circular. There are posts and software which, theoretically, will help you write better headlines that will help—and so on. So, in addition to learning about writing, you need to learn about all of this—OR pay somebody to do it for you. Why? Because as the snowflakes analogy emphasizes, it will be difficult for anyone to find your work unless they already know it’s there. There are exceptions of course. If you are a celebrity—a politician, an athlete, a prominent entertainer, TV personality, etc. you will have little difficulty attracting a following or selling books. Not one of them? Hard work or money spent is in your future.
What can you do? Engage with other bloggers. Comment on posts on their sites. Follow their blogs. Careful, while writers may also be readers, you can be in an incestuous circle which doesn’t necessarily get you more exposure—but there is camaraderie and the potential for mutual promotion. Don’t think of other writers as your competition. Be aware that Facebook, with its millions of members won’t necessarily give you the exposure you hope for—it is the paradigm of social media focused on connecting with friends and family. If you want all of them to know about your book, that may work. But it won’t do much with strangers without paid advertising, which is not inexpensive and probably won’t produce spectacular results. LinkedIn groups typically are not fond of self-promotion. Google +does have groups for writers and readers, but the cautions on self-promotion apply there to a lesser extent than on LinkedIn. Goodreads theoretically should be a prime choice for an author—offering the opportunity to have an “author’s page.” That only happens once you have a book published however. You should also be aware that once you do have that book out, you will get your share of hard-hitting negative reviews among the good ones—these are real readers, not your friends or family. In the meantime, before you are an author, you could be engaging other readers. Both on Goodreads and Google + it’s probably most effective to focus on the genre(s) in which your writing will be published.
What else can you do? Once you have a book published, you can do book giveaways on your blog, Goodreads or Amazon, among other sites. On your blog you can use special software such as “Rafflecopter” for giveaways. You can also do (print only, currently) giveaway promotions on Goodreads. On Amazon you can do short term free downloads as a promotion if you are in the Kindle Select (90 day minimum exclusive book sales by Amazon). What you can do, how often and whether print or eBook is site specific. In all cases, your blog and social media is a place where this can be done. All of this discussion is a bit ahead of where we need to be right now, but it fits here because we are talking about blogs and social media. Part of this is that while having an author platform in advance of publishing is far better than starting one after the fact, the platform should continue for both reader engagement and continuing marketing of current and future work.
OK, now that we have done a small discussion on blogs and social media, let’s get back to the question of where to put your actual work. Shorter items most easily fit in magazines, journals or newspapers—whether in print or online. There also are some websites which will pay for content. Finally, there are (often college/university related) literary journals or reviews. They typically pay little, if anything (other than free copies) but are potentially valuable for exposure and credentials. How do you find such markets? You can buy a print or online edition of Writers Market or similar publications. Most important is carefully scrutinizing their submission requirements and adhering to them. If not, your submission will be rejected outright. You need to read closely any magazine or site to see that your work meets their style, genre, etc. Again, doing short stories, even if your goal is to write a novel, may be a good steppingstone for attracting followers. Breaking into top tier magazines is difficult at best, but they will be of the most value for the future, not to mention the higher compensation they pay at the outset.
If all you want to do is sell web content or magazine articles, we could plug in a lot more here, but since many of you want to write and sell books, we are going to move along. You have two roads to travel—traditional or self-publishing. There are even hybrid authors, who do some of each. Let’s talk traditional first.
Traditional publishers rarely (see this site for exceptions—and other good information) accept submissions directly from authors, even established ones. Instead, you need an agent who will try to hook your manuscript up with a publisher. More on agents in the next paragraph. Traditional publishers only want authors whose books they expect will sell well. The nature of the traditional publishing model is that the company will have a press run of a few to several thousand books (many more for anticipated blockbusters). Those books will go to brick and mortar booksellers through buyers and wholesalers at a steep discount to the cover price. Unsold books at brick and mortar stores will be remaindered (returned for at least partial credit) and/or the covers torn off or otherwise identified as no longer to be sold. An advance is given authors against what the publisher thinks a book will earn. You get to keep the advance, as part of the gamble the publisher makes in printing your book. As a result of the risks the publisher makes, you get a percentage of the net which may be as little as 7.5-15% (the highest percentage goes to well-regarded books or well-known authors). But you don’t start getting royalties until your book sales have earned the back the advance. The traditional publisher will also make print editions of your book available from online sellers on similar terms. Finally, they also will make eBooks available as well but the royalty terms will be somewhat different (a higher percentage on a lower price).
Agents often specialize in audiences of a target market, like adult, young adult or children and in genres like romance, mystery/suspense, fantasy/sci-fi, etc. The non-fiction market is somewhat different as well. It can be even more difficult finding an agent interested in representing you than it is in getting a publisher. Agents only want authors whose books will be attractive to top-paying publishers since the agent’s income is based on a percentage of the advance and the royalties you receive. An agent, among other things, will also negotiate contractual rights for you. What are those you may ask? Consider this: books are sold throughout the world, in translation or not. A book might be republished in a new format by the publisher. Is it the publisher or you who have international rights, etc.? Subsidiary rights (film options, derivative works and more)? The list goes on and on. It’s wonderful getting the book out, but you need to be careful not to give away the farm, so to speak, in your joy at being a published author. There is way more to know about author rights than can be explained here, so I leave it to you to do the research you need to do beginning on those sites listed in the next instalment of Becoming a Writer, in the November Quarterly.
Self-publishing means either print-on-demand (POD), eBooks or a combination of both. Let’s discuss POD first. It means that a digital version of your book is stored at the publisher. When someone orders a copy of the book, it is produced on a high-speed printer not unlike (but of higher quality and complexity) a photocopier and shipped to the buyer. For POD (like with traditional publishing) books can be hardcover, paperback or trade paper, among other things. The physical form has more to do with the heft and the preferences of buyers. In traditional publishing, some books may start out and remain in paper because they are not of the stature to be hardcover. Others start out as hardcover and later also come out in paper. You have to think hard on whether there is a point to doing a hardcover for a POD book; it will cost much more. It might work for specialty, non-fiction books but not so well for genre fiction unless you are a superstar. So what about eBooks?
You know all about Kindles, Nooks and iPad readers, right? Some readers buy both; some prefer one or the other. But if you really want people to read your book, you want to make it available in as many formats as there are potential readers, right? Even audio books (not going to spend much time on those, but note that like other things, going professional likely is worth it—in other words, professional voice artists and recording specialists rather than doing it yourself, unless you have an impeccable and mellifluous voice) may be a worthwhile choice. For people with long commutes (plenty of them near major cities around the world) an audio book can be a popular thing. OK, back from the tangential—with self-publishing you need no agent. What you do need is a skeptical eye and a close watch on what someone may be trying to sell you. You will make considerably higher (3-4 times or more) in royalties than with traditional. You will also have somewhat less respect among critics, reviewers and the populace at large. Many, not without reason, think a lot of the self-published material is poorly written and edited stuff that a traditional publisher wouldn’t touch. But that’s within your control to change.
Before you either try to find an agent to hook you up with a publisher or go the independent self-publishing route, you want to make your book the best it possibly can be. What does that mean? It means you have gone through several drafts, revising it until you think it is the best thing since sliced bread. THEN you want to enlist some beta readers (not your spouse, friends or family—who are torn between not wanting to burst your bubble and telling you not to give up your day job or not really understanding what they are supposed to be looking for) to tell you what they liked or didn’t like about the work. More than that, it’s good to give them at least a short list (too long/complicated and they may rebel) of things you specifically want their input on—pacing, characterization, plot, dialogue and some nebulous things like what they particularly liked/didn’t like. Most importantly, did it hold their interest to the point where they didn’t want to put it down? After the beta readers, most experts (especially the professional editors) will urge that you have your book professionally edited. It’s not bad advice, well calculated to avoid embarrassing mistakes. Only then should you seek that agent or start the self-publishing process. In a book world long ago and far away, traditional publishers had their own editors that would polish up sloppy work; today they would never have accepted it in the first place. They will still clean up some stuff because their name is on the cover too.
What else needs to happen before your book is seen by the public? You need a cover. Traditional publishers should design a decent cover (for all formats) to your book. Self-publishers will do it themselves or pay somebody for it (are you a very good graphic artist or designer too, with excellent skills?) Well you can design your own book cover. Otherwise, book covers need not cost a fortune. Do they help sell books? You know the old saying, “you can’t tell a book by its cover.” Since you are talking about a cover that prospective readers will be seen most often (if not 100% of the time) on a computer, tablet or smart phone screen rather than on the shelf of a bookstore you have to consider how it looks as a relatively small image. Any text must be readable and the cover should grab attention. Go look through the books on the web in your preferred genre to see ones that look good or bad. If the book were on a shelf, the cover might determine whether a person picks it up to look or not. Does the same hold true on the web? Maybe or maybe not. But why take a chance on a less than good cover.
You also want rave reviews to put on that cover (or inside) as blurbs. Once again, there are differences between traditional and self-publishing. What about the reviews? Traditional publishers will send out advance review copies (ARCs) to critics to get (hopefully) favorable words to put on the back or inside covers. You theoretically could do that as a self-publisher but it’s not likely to happen. Kirkus will allow you to pay for a review, but we wouldn’t bother, based on complaints we have seen about the quality of the paid reviews.
At least one more thing to consider, ISBNs (International Standard Book Number). The ISBN is what the industry uses to identify and track books. They link a book format and edition to a publisher. Traditional publishers will supply them, as they are the publisher. The self-publishing providers will supply them OR use one you provide. If it’s an eBook, it doesn’t necessarily have to have one, but it’s good if there is one. If you are self-publishing, do you want someone else to have the ID as the publisher? Your call. Why do you need to consider this ahead of time? Because the number goes on the book, of course. How do you get one if you want to buy it yourself? In the US, there is ONLY one seller of ISBNs, Bowker—at ISBN.org. Elsewhere in the world the numbers may be cheaper and available from sources whose motive may not be maximizing profits. Bowker offers various packages, often including 10 numbers (if you are planning on publishing more than one book—you are, aren’t you?) You might as well do that because the numbers don’t expire. Have hardcover, paperback and eBook versions? Each has to have its own ISBN. You can buy the barcode (you might be able to download software to create one but do you really want to go there?) from Bowker or elsewhere,
What happens after the book is out? Stay tuned for the November edition of the Quarterly. You weren’t ready to jump in right now, were you? Sorry.
Decided to self-publish? So which company? How to choose? Again, that’s coming next time.
What else is coming in November? Every link to every writing resource we have seen and consider worthy of checking out (there are a LOT of them). So come back in November for the conclusion of this series. If you missed any part, you can use the archive function. But to make it easier for you, we will collect it all on a static page. Stay tuned.