I've been thinking quite a bit lately about my goals for my writing career. The most immediate goal is, of course, to finish writing the novel and perfect it to what I consider a publishable quality. I’ve been making significant progress on this one, and I think I’m still on track to meet my self-imposed deadline of the end of March. But once that’s done, I need to decide where I want to go, and what I want to do with it.
I’ve been doing a lot of research into the publishing industry, trying to decide what’s going to be best for my own growth and development, and what makes the most sense in the digital age. Last summer, I wrote a little about the changes occurring in publishing. Since that time, I’ve read a lot more on the subject, so I thought I’d share what I’ve learned so far.
When most people think of books, they think of the big publishing houses. Traditional publishing essentially works like this.
- Write the Novel: Author locks herself away in a remote cabin somewhere and writes a novel.
- Get an Agent: Once complete, Author sends out query letters to agents, hoping to find someone to represent the novel and take it to the publishers. (Query letters include information about the author, a one-paragraph description of the novel, and some other basic information.) Based on the query letter, the agent will decide if they want to request pages and find out more. Most agents request anywhere from 1 - 50 pages initially. If they still like it, they'll ask for a full manuscript. If they still like it after that, they'll offer representation. Finding an agent can take months, even years, and perhaps dozens of queries.
- Get a Publisher: Agent takes the manuscript and shops it around to the publishers. Why the middle-man? Publishers usually won't look at 'unsolicited' manuscripts submitted directly by the unknown author. Why? Because most of those manuscripts aren't ready for publication and the agent acts as a first screening process. Plus the agent will know which publishing houses are looking for new authors, represent the genre or similar works, and they have the right connections to get the manuscript in front of the right people. This process again can take several months or even years. When Publisher makes an offer, Agent reviews the contract and negotiates the deal for Author, so that Author can, for the most part, continue to write uninterrupted.
- Publish Books: Once a contract is signed with Publisher, Publisher takes control of the manuscript. They'll have an editor go through and make additional revisions. They take care of the cover art, formatting, and printing of the manuscript. They develop a marketing plan and set up the distribution networks to get the book in stores, on shelves, and nowadays, online. For the most part, they take care of everything for Author, allowing Author to focus on writing. By the time the first novel is launched, the second novel should be finished and in production. Meanwhile, Agent is making sure that the money is taken care of, the accounting is accurate, and everyone is being paid their appropriate share.
Unless the manuscript is going to sit in a desk-drawer somewhere and crumble into dust, the alternative to Traditional Publishing is to self-publish. There's a certain stigma to self-publishing, in part because a large majority of self-published books aren't very well written, and in part because it sort of seems like cheating. Plus, it's hard to sell books as a self-published author because you don't have the connections and distribution networks like the big guys. In the past, I think a lot of people’s approach self-publishing like this:
- Write the Novel: Author locks herself away in a remote cabin somewhere and writes a novel
- Publish Books: Author finished the novel, and decides to skip the whole Traditional Publishing thing. She doesn't worry about getting it edited or reviewed, except maybe by Family Member A; it's clearly perfect. E-Publishing is the new-hotness, so Author, maybe with the help of a technical person, publishes the book as a Kindle or Nook (name your favorite e-reading format). Yay! It's published!
But there is a better way to approach Self-Publishing, that can be worthwhile and still produce a high-quality novel. It goes like this:
- Write the Novel: Author writes a novel, but not in isolation, instead connecting with other writers and readers and developing relationships with people interested in similar topics. They’re called Friends and Colleagues
- Get Feedback: Author asks for feedback from Friends and Colleagues, perhaps participating in a critique group. Ideally, the group of readers should be diverse, including one or two family members (for positive support) but mostly independent readers that don’t have to worry as much about negative reactions. Some reviewers should be writers themselves, and subject-matter experts are good readers to make sure the facts hold up (e.g. if the novel is science fiction, the science should be based on the actual laws of physics, so it would be helpful to have a scientist review it).
- Get Help: Author is probably good at writing, but probably not so good at the technical stuff or artwork. Whatever Author isn’t good at, needs to be outsourced. However, the Author needs to be the director of the show, making sure that all aspects of the project are completed to a high standard. What should be considered? Editing, cover art, website, digital formatting, etc.
- Develop a Marketing Plan: Author needs to be in charge of marketing and promoting the novel. Hiring an expert, in this case, is probably too expensive, though it could be done. She needs to be a Businessperson.
- Publish Books: Author needs to choose the best publishing options for their audience. Digital is probably the easiest and cheapest format, but there are also print-on-demand services, or Author could even choose to print an entire run of books and store them somewhere. This also ties in to the marketing plan, since if you’re going to print books, you need to have outlets to sell them.
- Reevaluate Marketing Plan: Since Author is in charge, Author needs to stay vigilant and make tweaks or changes to increase the sales. There are a lot of variables that can be messed with, everything from price, to promotions, to guest blogging to freebies. Author is now also Salesman.
- Stay Connected: Throughout the entire process, Author needs to stay connected and keep developing Friends and Colleagues, and building an Audience.
- Keep Writing: While all this is going on, you ALSO have to keep writing, produce the next novel and keep everything moving.
So which is better? I don’t know. I don’t think there’s an answer to that. I think there will always be room for Traditional Publishing, because some authors are happy to give up control if it means they don’t have to do anything but write. But by the same token, I think there’s a broad and expanding market for self-publication, for those authors willing to put in the time and effort to develop the necessary skills and make it work. And the authors that don't put the time in, will be weeded out by the market
Before I sign off on this ridiculously long post, I wanted to throw out a couple of links for the blogs that have helped me understand the publishing market.
Dan Blank has a fantastic blog (We Grow Media) about digital media with a focus toward the writer. He’s also offering a course that I’m considering taking called “Build Your Author Platform”. It’s a bit pricey, which is why I haven’t signed up already, but I took an hour long webinar that gave the overview, and it sounded really fantastic. If you’re interested in learning more about digital and social media, check him out.
Jane Friedman is another blogger that I follow religiously. She’s also focused on the publishing industry, with an eye toward the use of social media. One of her recent posts described how the digital generation is shaping publishing and, really, consumer expectations in general.
A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing is one that I just started following a few days ago, but has some great information.
Finally, Pub Rants, written by literary agent Kristen Nelson, is a fantastic resource to learn more about traditional publishing.