Category: On Publishing

Be your own best publisher

By Midge Raymond,

Some of you may already be following my husband’s blog about his adventures in self-publishing — and the adventure gets more interesting (and inspiring) every day. Last week, The Tourist Trail was featured in the Kindle Nation newsletter and quickly soared to the top of the Kindle Store’s “Movers & Shakers” list.

Not bad for an author whose agent was told by editors that there was no audience for his book.

Fortunately, digital publishing and print-on-demand make it easy for authors to find their audiences — and these days it seems as if this is becoming a necessary first step. And there are no shortage of success stories out there: This Newsweek article highlights several self-published authors, among them Boyd Morrison, who was courted for his self-published book, The Ark, by the same publishers who had previously rejected him. This New York Times Magazine piece reminds us that self-published writers include Gertrude Stein, Anaïs Nin, and Edgar Allan Poe. And The New Yorker takes a good look at the industry through the changes that digital media have brought to publishing.

Self-publishing isn’t simple or easy, by any means, as John’s blog will tell you. And promoting yourself without a publisher behind you is even more daunting. But it’s well worth it if you believe in your book and want it to find readers. This NYT story is about a writer who sells his books on New York subway trains — and he’s sold more than 14,000 books over the last three years, one at a time.

Anis Shivani writes in this snarky article on the Huffington Post: “As for conglomerate publishing, the decision-makers wouldn’t know great literature if it hit them in the face.” Ouch. But this is an important article about the ways in which our experience of literature has been limited by the gatekeepers in the publishing industry — and how the gates are now opening up in a huge way. And this means that it’s the readers themselves who now decide what’s worth reading.

Stuff for writers

By Midge Raymond,

I hope this post finds you writing … if not, here are a few things perfect for a little helpful procrastinating.

This post on The Elegant Variation offers advice for writers, which sort of segued into advice for the lovelorn — and shows how interchangeable the words love/writing can be when it comes to advice, from “Love should bother you” to “Every day you will have to recreate your love.”

And Janet Fitch offers 10 Rules for Writers on the LA Times blog — from killing cliches to stretching out your sentences for variety.

I enjoyed reading Charles Stross’s blog on being a working writer, with insights into what the full-time writing life is really like. It’s not all writing, all the time — “we work in bursts, and the rest of the time gets filled up with administrative junk and social fluff” — and the solitary nature of it can be trying —  “I have office-mates, but they’re not co-workers: at best they’ll stand on the keyboard and meow at me.” After outlining the drawbacks of this “wildly unstable, lonely occupation with an insane income spread” — Stross concludes that “it sucks,” a refreshingly honest conclusion about the true nature of writing as a full-time job.

Writers of fiction should check out this post on Alan Rinzler’s blog about how to eavesdrop to help with writing dialogue. I constantly assign fiction students to eavesdropping as a way to practice getting an ear for dialogue — and often they look at me rather strangely. So I loved seeing this post, which points out, first of all, that Norman Mailer did it (and not very subtly either), and offers tips and possible haunts for good listening.

I recently discovered StereoMood, which offers playlists for just about any type of mood (from energetic to sad to sexy) or activity (from cooking to road-tripping to making love) you can come up with. Readers and writers, check out its playlist for writing and playlist for reading.

And finally, I was initially intrigued by the idea of I Write Like, which (supposedly) matches your writing style with famous writers. At first, I was a little confused by the writers I was paired with, which I think would surprise most of my readers, too: I tested out excerpts from different stories and discovered that, apparently, I write like Chuck Palahniuk, David Foster Wallace, and/or Stephen King — all flattering comparisons, of course, but not at all what I’d expect. Oh, and my novel-in-progress is evidently in the style of Dan Brown. (Clearly, the excerpt I entered is a very rough first draft. And too bad this little algorithm isn’t measuring commercial potential.)

Naturally, I found myself wondering: Where are the women writers? So I tried a little experiment and pasted in excerpts of a few of my favorite writers to see what would happen. The results? According to this web site, Ann Patchett and Joan Didion both write like Kurt Vonnegut, Amy Hempel and Lorrie Moore write like Stephen King, Toni Morrison and Annie Proulx write like James Joyce, Jane Hamilton writes like Chuck Palahniuk, and Melanie Rae Thon writes like Vladimir Nabokov. Hmmm.

A writing exercise for summer

By Midge Raymond,

As many of you know, I publish a free e-newsletter for writers, and I just sent out my annual double issue for the summer, which included a couple of exercises designed to keep you going but not be too taxing in the summer heat (or cold, I suppose, depending on where you live).

Here’s the first exercise: Choose one piece of writing to polish up for submission in the fall. Because many literary journals don’t accept submissions during the summer, this is a perfect time for revision. Whether you’re thinking of submitting a manuscript to an agent or a short story to magazine or contest, spend time this summer revising, polishing, soliciting feedback, and whatever else your project needs to be ready to submit when fall rolls around.

Happy revising!

On story collections…

By Midge Raymond,

As the author of a short-story collection, I’m often asked such questions as “How did you decide how to order the stories?” and “When did you know you had enough stories for a collection?” I love talking about these things — and all other story-related issues — and I’ve been fortunate to have had great Q&As with such people and publications as The Short Review, Andrew’s Book Club, and Diana Joseph, author of I’m Sorry You Feel That Way.

But I also love hearing how other story writers do it … and I thought you might, too. I enjoyed these insights from Maile Malloy, who writes about her new collection, Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, in this Amazon article.

And Hobart‘s fabulous roundtable discussion on first books includes several short-story writers — among them Caitlin Horrocks, Laura van den Berg, Kevin Wilson, and Holly Goddard Jones  — and great insights into putting collections together and getting them out into the world.


Introducing the “Ask Midge” column

By Midge Raymond,

I recently received an email from a writer who suggested I devote a column to answering writers’ questions — starting, naturally, with his.  I thought this was a great idea (thanks, Jerry!), and I’m looking forward to making this blog more of a dialogue.

So consider this the first official “Ask Midge” column — and I hope you’ll write with your questions on everything from grammar to characterization to narrative structure. I won’t claim to have all the answers, but whenever I don’t, I will point you in the direction of someone who does.

Please send all questions (on writing, publishing, grammar, and all other things writing-related) through this form on my web site — and please let me know whether you’d like me to use your full name, first name only, or initials only. I’m looking forward to your questions!

And here is our first…

Q: How does a writer make the narrator sound like a juvenile without making the writing sound juvenile? — Jerry Guern, San Diego

A: Voice is one of the biggest challenges for writers, especially when tackling a voice that’s very different from one’s own. And it’s especially important, as Jerry is realizing, to make sure the writing itself is separate from the character, i.e., that the character can sound like a child without the writing sounding childish.

First, I suggest getting to know the character well, as sometimes this is the problem. If you’re writing from the POV of a juvenile, for example, make sure you’re seeing the world from this character’s eyes; try living in this character’s head as much as you can while you’re writing, as if you’re an actor playing a role. Our sense of a character’s age comes from the way he/she sees the world: a teenager will look at something very differently from the way a six-year-old would, or a thirty-year-old, or an eighty-year-old — so think about how your character (from the POV of age as well as his/her unique history) sees what happens around him/her, and describe it in detail. Everything that your reader perceives will come through the details.

Second, choose a POV that fits well what you’re trying to get across in the story — i.e., do you want an intimate, first-person POV (think Catcher in the Rye), or a more distant voice (if the kid is much younger, for example, you may find it easier to use third person to get across things that a child may sense but not be able to articulate in his/her own voice)?

Third, think of your audience — it’s often challenging to create a young voice that appeals to adult audiences, and this appeal (or lack thereof) will depend not only on the voice but on the story itself. There are always exceptions, clearly (not only Catcher in the Rye but books such as The Lovely Bones and the entire Harry Potter series). So try taking an objective look at your story; you may find that if your writing doesn’t sound adult, perhaps your story’s audience isn’t meant to be adult. And if it is, we’re back to POV: third person might be best, as you don’t need to limit your vocabulary as much as in the first person voice.

Also, read as much as you can in the POV you’re going for — this will help you get a feel for what works well. As you read, consider the ways in which these writers succeed in making their characters vivid while at the same time giving them authentic voices.

And finally, make use of a writing partner or writing group to help you judge how well you’ve succeeded. Ask, for example, how old your group thinks your character is, and see how this feedback helps you find that perfect pitch.

Happy writing!

Adventures in self-publishing

By Midge Raymond,

With all that’s going on in the publishing industry these days, self-publishing has emerged as far more than a last-resort option. The stigma of “vanity presses” is giving way to a myriad of alternatives for writers who either haven’t yet found their places in the traditional publishing world — or those who choose to forgo traditional presses altogether, for many different reasons.

Take Steve Almond, for example, who is chronicling his leap into self-publishing in a series in Poets&Writers. And then there’s Joe Konrath, who blogs about publishing his latest thriller, Shaken, with AmazonEncore, Amazon’s publishing imprint. (In answer to the question about whether he’ll “piss off traditional publishers,” he responds, “Traditional publishers had a chance to buy Shaken last year. They passed on it. Their loss. Their big loss. Their big, huge, monumental, epic fail.” He’s publishing the Kindle version prior to the print version, offering it at a price far below what traditional publishers can: $2.99.

Another writer whose book was rejected by a couple dozen publishers has found success in e-publishing: Boyd Morrison reports that his novel The Ark hit number one on the Kindle store’s technothriller bestseller list, finishing higher than such established authors as Tom Clancy: “In three months, my three books sold 7,500 copies and were selling at a rate of 4,000 books per month.”

And check out the statistics from PublishersWeekly, which notes that last year, “the number of ‘nontraditional’ titles dwarfed that of traditional books whose output slipped to 288,355 last year.” Meanwhile, the article notes, “a staggering 764,448 titles were produced in 2009 by self-publishers and micro-niche publishers.”

Self-publishing is becoming more mainstream than, well, mainstream publishing. Yet this doesn’t mean it’s the best option for all writers. On his awesome blog, literary agent Nathan Bransford offers Ten Questions You Should Ask Yourself before self-publishing, from research to design to assessing your entrepreneurial spirit — all critical questions for anyone going down this road.

And if you find yourself ready to go for it, you can follow one writer who’s currently in the process of self-publishing and blogging all about it: my entrepreneurial husband, John Yunker. After his agent was unable to find a home for his novel, The Tourist Trail, John decided to publish the book himself. Being a tech, he opted to launch the e-versions first (which allows more time for editing and book design), and The Tourist Trail is currently available on the Kindle and forthcoming on the iPad. To get self-publishing and marketing tips (and to learn from his mistakes), check out John’s blog.

We’re often reminded of authors who self-publish and later get lucrative book deals — Brunonia Barry’s self-published novel The Lace Reader, picked up by William Morrow in a $2-million, two-book deal; or Elle Newmark’s The Book of Unholy Mischief, bought at auction from Simon & Schuster — but keep in mind that not all self-published authors need, or want, a traditional book deal. These days, with e-publishing and print-on-demand being efficient and cost-effective, an author can find his or her niche outside of mainstream publishing, if that happens to be the better fit.

Notes from the Hugo House Writers’ Conference, Part II

By Midge Raymond,

Okay, now on to Day 2 of the Richard Hugo House Writers’ Conference.

After much coffee on Sunday morning, I presented Think Outside the Book — a session on the myriad ways to market one’s book. We talked about Web sites, social media, blogs, building one’s platform, and the importance of “think not what your local bookstore can do for you, but what you can do for your local bookstore.” Here are a few DOs and DON’Ts from the session:

  • DO be generous (with readers, other authors, bookstores, etc.).
  • DO be flexible. Be open to new ideas for events, readings, etc.
  • DO team up with other authors for support and joint events, and to share ideas.
  • DO be prepared not only to do your own legwork but to spend your own money. Depending on your publishing contract, you may have to cover many promotional expenses yourself, from travel to your web site to postcards and bookmarks.
  • DO keep your blog open to comments, and DO take the time to respond.
  • DON’T be all about you, all the time. Don’t tweet or update Facebook so incessantly that you risk tiring your followers/friends. Be relevant and interesting.
  • DON’T automatically connect all social media; think about how you can use each platform to best highlight your work to different audiences.
  • DON’T take bad reviews or nasty comments personally, and don’t respond to them. You can’t please everyone, and you don’t need to. Engage only with those who are positive and supportive.

After my own session, I sat in on poet Kelli Russell Agodon‘s fantastic workshop on applying for grants and residencies. As both a winner of numerous grants and residencies as well as a panelist on award committees, Kelli had some terrific advice. Among the gems: Set yourself apart (selection committees read hundreds of applications, so it’s important to stand out); keep it simple (don’t offer too much information, which can be distracting, and remember that committees can be very diverse — send a work sample that connects with people on a human level rather than a strictly artistic one); and follow the guidelines exactly (one of the surest ways to be disqualified for a grant/residency is to have an incomplete application). She also emphasized that often winning is all about luck and timing, and quoted Wayne Gretzky: “You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take.”

Attorney Mark Wittow’s session Know Your Rights provided a great overview of legal issues for writers, focusing mostly on copyright laws. I learned a couple of new and interesting things — for example, that research data is not protected by copyright (only the expression of the facts is protected). Copyright laws are fairly complex, but writers with questions can visit the U.S. Copyright Office web site for more info. Also, for a $20 donation, Washington writers and artists can visit a free legal clinic run by Washington Lawyers for the Arts.

This blog can in no way summarize the entire weekend, and it can’t capture the wonderful energy of so many writers together for two straight days, sharing ideas and information and enthusiasm. If you couldn’t make it this year, stay tuned to Hugo House, and register early for next year’s conference.

Notes from the Hugo House Writers’ Conference, Part I

By Midge Raymond,

I spent the entire weekend blissfully immersed in all things writing at Richard Hugo House’s first writers’ conference, which centered around the theme of Finding Your Readers in the 21st Century. Panels and sessions were divided into three tracks: publishing, self-promotion, and writers’ tools. Other than the fact that I was, sadly, unable to be in two (or three) places at once, it was a fantastic weekend — and I thought I’d share a few highlights.

Saturday morning’s plenary with Matthew Stadler was inspiring. A novelist as well as a longtime publishing pro and co-founder of Clear Cut Press, Stadler believes that, despite all the current woes and gloom currently surrounding the publishing industry, the twenty-first century will be better for writers than the twentieth. He believes publication should be cheap and easy, and that our goal as writers should be to connect to our audiences one person at a time, one book at a time, and to develop lasting conversations within our communities. His current project, Publication Studio, is “an experiment in sustainable publication” whose books include works by Seattle authors Stacey Levine and Matt Briggs.

After the plenary, I sat on a panel about support networks for writers with Janna Cawrse Esarey, Tamara Kaye Sellman, and Jennifer Culkin, in which we shared our experiences of how writing networks have helped us market our work, from the submission stage through book promotion. Most important, we all agreed, is having clear goals in mind, meeting regularly, and not only sharing ideas but joining together for events and conferences.

Publicist Alice B. Acheson offered an invaluable session on book marketing, speaking on everything from a writer’s “pre-pub platform” to filling out that seemingly endless Author Questionnaire (and yes, every single paragraph of that thing is important for one reason or another). She had good, practical advice for planning events (BYO postcards and posters; always confirm in advance that books have been ordered), reminded everyone that marketing starts when you begin your book (think of your audience), and encouraged good karma: visit independent bookstores often.

Priscilla Long‘s Tricks of Virtuoso Creators focused on the balance between creating work and getting it out into the world, and she pointed out that most masters of their art are able to create masterpieces because they are constantly creating. She set herself a goal of submitting one work each day, and while she fell a little short, she did finish 300 submissions, and got 11 acceptances. Doing this, she points out, not only gives you an idea of your acceptance rate but also keeps the cycle going: In order to submit, you must create; once you create, you then have work to submit. A couple more tips from this session: Keep a list of everything you’ve ever written, and write for at least fifteen minutes a day.

More coming soon, covering Sunday’s sessions…

Stuff for writers

By Midge Raymond,

Inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, the Guardian recently asked other writers for a few rules of their own, including Margaret Atwood (“Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine”), Roddy Doyle (“Do be kind to yourself”), Richard Ford (“Don’t drink and write at the same time”), and Helen Dunmore (“Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite”).

You may also enjoy responses to this piece from writers at The Huffington Post (“NEVER WRITE AGAIN”) and Salon (offering “five recommendations for the flailing novice”).

In other news, the Nieman Journalism Lab has an interesting feature on a bookstore working with self-published authors to get their books on the shelves. At Boulder Book Store in Colorado, authors pay the store $25 to stock five copies of a book, replenished as needed, with higher rates for additional benefits ($75 to appear in the “Recommended” section; $125 for a mention in the store’s email newsletter and on the Local Favorites page, and to be available for online purchase; and $255 for an in-store reading and book-signing. It’s an interesting model — and one that will definitely appeal to self-published authors who consistently have trouble getting into bookstores — but of course, bookstore browsers will now have to wonder whether a “Recommended” book is on the shelf because it’s good, or because the author has paid for it to be there.

In this wonderfully in-depth interview, Philip Graham, editor of Ninth Letter, talks to The Morning News about getting into the New Yorker, writing about place, and teaching creative writing (which he does at at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign), among other things. Check out the interview as well as his blog.

This just in from Bellingham Review: the contest deadline has been extended to for the magazine’s annual fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction awards.

And, last but not least, here’s something for both readers and writers: Melanie Rae Thon has published a new poem, appearing online at On Earth As It Is, “a cycle of prayer narratives, or dramatic monologues addressed to God, from writers of different faiths.” New work will be posted each week by contributing writers.

Happy reading and writing!

More fiction posing as nonfiction

By Midge Raymond,

I suppose it was only a matter of time before it happened again — publishing drama in the form of a publisher pulling a nonfiction book because significant parts of it are, in fact, fiction. This NY Times piece offers details: Charles Pellegrino originally claimed he’d been duped by a source while writing The Last Train From Hiroshima, and then the book’s publisher later learned that other people in the book may not exist, and that the author’s Ph.D. may not exist either.

This is certainly not the first or even the most dramatic revelation of questioned work — remember James Frey? Margaret Selzer? Herman Rosenblat? to name just a few — but it comes at a time when publishing is at a precarious spot in its industry’s history. As novelist Kurt Andersen told the Times: “If book publishers are supposed to be the gatekeepers, tell me exactly what they’re closing the gate to.”

Amid the struggle to get published, my fellow writers and I end up talking a lot about self-publishing, which usually has been viewed as the only option for writers who aren’t “good enough” to find a “real” publisher. Yet many writers are choosing to self-publish these days — and it’s not because they’re not good enough (Steve Almond is certainly good enough – check out his story in this LA Times piece) or because they won’t be able to sell enough books (we all know John Gray, author of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, can sell books, and Publishers Marketplace recently announced that he is self-publishing his latest, Venus On Fire, Mars On Ice). They’re choosing it for other reasons, among them making more money, having more control over the process, and, as Steve Almond puts it: “No marketing plan, no guilt-inducing advance, no royalty statements, no remainders.”

This is not to say that, just because another questionable nonfiction book has slipped through the cracks, we should abandon the publishing world and do it all ourselves — not at all. Self-publishing, of course, is not for everyone — having no marketing plan, for example, is only a good option for someone who already has an audience or has a great deal of experience in book marketing — and in general, having gatekeepers is necessary and good. But for those with great books that can’t sell in today’s market, it’s good to have other options, and slipping under the gate might not be such a bad idea.

Can fiction ever be entirely fictional?

By Midge Raymond,

Victoria Patterson, author of Drift, wrote in a recent article about autobiographical fiction for The Millions that her writing group would call her by the name of her protagonist, despite her assertions that her character was fictional — and that she endured a “condemning two- to three-month silence” from her family after her book was published.

One of the most interesting things about Patterson’s article is a conversation she had with her father, who brought up an event that he said he wished “had gone better,” to which Patterson replied, “Dad, that never happened. It’s fiction. I made it up.” Which is another challenge of autobiographical fiction: If people recognize parts of the story as true, they may well believe it’s all true.

I’m often asked about how much of what happens in the stories of Forgetting English actually happened in real life. Last week, when this came up at a book club I was visiting, we joked about how they all might want to lock up their jewelry (and their husbands) … but the truth is (quite boringly) that Forgetting English isn’t autobiographical — at least not in the strict sense. Every story contains bits and pieces of my life — some more than others; “The Road to Hana,” for example, was inspired by a real stolen ring, even if I wasn’t the one to steal it — but these pieces are not necessarily reenactments of my own experiences.

In a reading I gave last week at a local college, I was asked about “The Ecstatic Cry,” the Forgetting English story about a scientist living in Antarctica — a character about as opposite of me as one could imagine, in that I hate the cold and barely passed most of my science courses. Yet I acknowledged that this character — a loner who spends as much time as she can at the bottom of the world, who cares more for animals than for humans — does reflect a concerned (and rather cranky) part of myself, a part that wishes we all treated animals and the planet a little better. And while in my everyday life, I express this part of myself in small ways by volunteering and supporting organizations with similar goals, I enjoyed giving it a voice and a life of its own.

If you’re writing purely autobiographical fiction, then you already know about the questions that will await you. And even if you’re not, those same questions will still await you. This is because readers know as well as we do that nothing is ever entirely fictional — even if we did make it all up.

Doing the math with e-books

By Midge Raymond,

This New York Times piece outlines the costs for both traditional paper books and e-books, and helps show, in numbers, what the issues are — and why we’re all better off with e-books priced higher than $9.99.

The article outlines who gets what slices of the hardcover and e-book pies — money goes toward not only paying authors but to copyediting, design, marketing, printing, storage, shipping, and, for e-books, converting to and typesetting in digital format. After all the math is worked out, the e-book emerges as slightly more profitable.

But as the article notes, “e-books still represent a small sliver of total sales, from 3 to 5 percent. If e-book sales start to replace some hardcover sales, the publishers say, they will still have many of the fixed costs associated with print editions, like warehouse space, but they will be spread among fewer print copies. Moreover, in the current print model, publishers can recoup many of their costs, and start to make higher profits, on paperback editions. If publishers start a new e-book’s life at a price similar to that of a paperback book, and reduce the price later, it may be more difficult to cover costs and support new authors.”

Another worry, of course, is that bookstores will be unable to compete: “As more consumers buy electronic readers and become comfortable with reading digitally, if the e-books are priced much lower than the print editions, no one but the aficionados and collectors will want to buy paper books.”

Mike Shatzkin, chief executive of the Idea Logical Company, a consultant to publishers, believes that publishers need to go into e-books slowly to avoid this happening: “The simplest way to slow down e-books is not to make them too cheap.”

Many authors remain concerned about what e-books will do to the industry, but I like what Anne Rice had to say to the Times about it: “The only thing I think is a mistake is people trying to hold back e-books or Kindle and trying to head off this revolution by building a dam. It’s not going to work.”

Stuff for writers

By Midge Raymond,

I enjoyed seeing this LA Times blog post about England’s new American Idol of publishing: TV Book Club. Perhaps one day, like other British programs, an American version will make its way across the pond. How great would it be to see an entire show dedicated to books?

And I’ve been following William Boot’s “Do I Have To Read…?” series for the Daily Beast on reviewing commercial books. In Boot’s opinion, only 44 of the 279 pages of Elizabeth Gilberts’s new book, Committed, are readable. The number of readable pages in Kathryn Stockett’s The Help? “All of them.”

As I schedule new events and classes, I’ve found a handy resource in Teach Street. Whether you’re a student of writing or a teacher of writing (or of anything else, for that matter), check it out, if you haven’t already. It’s a great way for students to find classes and for instructors to list classes.

If you’re into publishing news and you’re also on Twitter, you might get a kick out of following FakeBookNews, satirical tweets about publishing and literary culture. Among the stories: “Success of bestselling novel leads to blog deal for author” and “Michiko Kakutani gives up using ‘fierce,’ ‘limn’ and ‘deeply felt’ for Lent.” (Note: Click here for a non-satirical piece on going from blog to book.)

“Can writing be taught?” asks this Atlantic piece, which offers advice on writing from Wallace Stegner, Francine Prose, Gail Godwin, and others. John Kenneth Galbraith, while acknowledging that the difficulty of writing is enough to drive any writer to drink, nevertheless advises staying away from booze: “Any writer who wants to do his best against a deadline should stick to Coca-Cola. If he doesn’t have a deadline, he can risk Seven-Up.”

And finally, for anyone who’s ever thought about using a pen name, check out this blog post from literary agent Nathan Bransford. (Important: Deal with the pen name after you’ve found your agent: “When I receive your query,” Bransford writes, “I don’t want it to be from your pseudonym.”) The post has an interesting list of pros and cons, especially tuned in to the Internet age, and includes reasons I’d never really thought of — for example, if you have a very common name, like Jane Smith, you might consider a pen name for search engine optimization (of course, with a name like Midge, you can see why I’ve never thought of this).


On e-books, promotion, self-publishing, and avoiding submission mistakes

By Midge Raymond,

I always enjoy presenting at the Southern California Writers’ Conference in San Diego, in part because it’s a great excuse to travel south from Seattle in February (it was not only sunny but in the 70s!) — and also because it’s an exhilarating, exhausting-in-a-good-way weekend. Even better, I get to see old friends and meet amazing writers.

Among the friends at this year’s SCWC were Clare Meeker, who presented on creating commissioned stories (she’s in San Diego all week promoting her book Charge Ahead, commissioned by KPBS public television in San Diego as part of a national “Raising Readers” grant to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting from the U.S. Department of Education). Among the gems of Clare’s presentation were reminders that a writer always needs to be thinking outside the box, and not to take no for an answer: an editor who once told Clare that they only used in-house writers later published two of Clare’s books.

During the banquet I got to catch up with Judy Reeves, whose A Writer’s Book of Days will be reissued this fall; keep an eye out for that, even if you already have a copy  — the new edition will have all new prompts and literary quotes. I also had the pleasure of sitting with Tammy Greenwood, whose new novel, The Hungry Season, was published in January. She gave an inspiring keynote that evening, as well as a great session the next morning on creating substantive characters.

I always enjoy the agent/editor panel, and this year, I felt a bit more optimism about publishing in the air. The panel talked about book promotion, making a few important points, among them: Writing and selling a book is half the process, while promotion is the other half; there’s less and less money available for in-house publicity, so this job is falling more and more to authors; authors must be creative with marketing and/or save some of their advance dollars to put toward hiring a publicist.

They also talked about e-formats, and none had any violent thoughts on the subject, which indicates that the non-retail part of industry is becoming more accepting. One editor noted that the e-formats do not affect print runs at her publishing company — they do the same print run they’d do with or without e-books, and adding e-formats only increases readership beyond what they’d be seeing with traditional paper books.

In response to a question from the audience, the panel addressed self-publishing, noting that they don’t normally take on self-published books (the average sales for a self-published book is about 100 copies), but that their interest is piqued whenever a self-published book sells 2,500 copies or more.

And of course, members of the panel talked about their pet peeves — and I always think this is worth noting in detail. The list seems to be the same year after year, but apparently this is because writers are making the same mistakes year after year. So take note: among the most common submission mistakes to avoid are…

– approaching an agent or editor the way he/she does not want to be approached (calling when guidelines specify email contact only, for example)

– sending material the agent doesn’t represent or the editor doesn’t publish

– sending work that has not been edited or proofread

– sending work that is too long (noted one agent: “Anything over 100,000 words is a red flag — it’s hard to sell anything over 90,000 words”)

– sending emails to multiple agents at the same time

– misspelled words in a query letter (including — and especially — misspelling the word query)

– telling agents or editors that they’re going to “miss out” or that the book is “a guaranteed bestseller”

– writing, “here is my fictional novel”

– forsaking professional writing when using email – queries should still be written professionally

Overall, the conference was informative and also inspiring. One of the best things about this conference is that because it’s in February, it’s still early enough to make good on the new year’s writing resolutions. So now, back to work…

More drama in digital publishing

By Midge Raymond,

Last week, when Macmillan announced it would begin setting higher prices for e-books, Amazon reacted by removing access to the publisher’s Kindle editions as well as its printed books. As you probably know by now, it’s Amazon, not publishers, that sets the prices for e-books — and at $9.99, which includes new releases and bestsellers, publishers and authors worry about books being devalued (not to mention pirated).

But on Sunday, as the New York Times reports, Amazon agreed to Macmillan’s terms, though not at all happily: “‘We have expressed our strong disagreement and the seriousness of our disagreement by temporarily ceasing the sale of all Macmillan titles,’ Amazon said [on its web site]. ‘We want you to know that ultimately, however, we will have to capitulate and accept Macmillan’s terms because Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles, and we will want to offer them to you even at prices we believe are needlessly high for e-books.’”

Apple’s new iPad has set the stage for giving publishers the upper hand again, by allowing them to sell books in its iBookstore at their own prices, and it looks as if this is having a ripple effect. Under Macmillan’s new terms, reports the Times, the publisher will serve as an agent, taking a 30 percent commission and setting e-books at prices between $12.99 to $14.99. The Macmillian arrangement will happen in March, around the time the iPad tablet hits the stores.