Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Leap Into Self-Publishing -- Laurie Laliberte

Laurie Laliberte is something of a renaissance woman in the world of self-publishing. Not content to just edit and proofread, she's also published a book of saucy short stories and a print book of crochet patterns. In addition, she's a great believer in the power of the writing community.

Without further ado, here's Laurie.


My first forays into self publishing have been an adventure. Simpler, and yet more difficult than I expected.

I’m primarily an editor and proofreader. I’m good at it. I love it. More than that, I’m passionate about it. That said, know that I’m also a crochet pattern designer and a fiction writer. And while wearing these hats, among others, can be overwhelming sometimes, I have no intention of giving up any of it.

The Crochet Book

I had been planning this project for a while, but I kept pushing it aside to work on other projects. Earlier this year, my buddy Bernard Schaffer decided it was time for me to put me, and my projects, first. He put me in touch with the designer he’s used for several of his own book covers.

Next thing I knew, I had five days to pull together the files to make up my first crochet book or wait a month until the graphic designer had an open window to work on the project. My project would involve more than just cover design. It would require about 50-100 photos and 70 pages for the interior. So I punted.

My original intent was to bring together a completely new collection, but time was at a premium and I had let it go so long (six months) that the new collection was not an option for the first book. Instead, I gathered together and rewrote twelve existing patterns. I revamped the whole deal and put the collection together the way I would if I were to publish it completely on my own. By the first week of March, right on their schedule, my “baby” was in the hands of the pros.

After much back and forth, and many delays on both sides, I finally uploaded the files to Createspace on June 7, three months after we began. The actual process of the upload was really simple, but the lack of instruction and explanation on the website made the task a bit confusing.

There isn’t a whole lot of guidance on the Createspace site to tell you whether you’re doing things correctly, so I sort of felt as though I was feeling my way in the dark. Fortunately, I’ve got a great network of support via the Kindle All-Stars team. Various members held my hand, answered my questions, and encouraged me when I needed it.

Now all I have to do is wait for the formatter to finish with the Kindle files.

The Smut Books

About the same time I began throwing together the crochet files, a friend via the KAS gave me the idea for an anthology of what I fondly refer to as my “dirty shorts.” The friend in question, Aaron Bloom, planted a seed by asking a simple question: Was “Fear of the Dark” originally written as erotica and cleaned up for the RF antho?

So I opened the FOTD file for the first time since I submitted the final version to Bernard and I read the story. I was in shock. I had been told more than once that my writing style was very sensual but I suppose I didn’t really see it in that final cut until then. It practically begged for a love scene, so I tweaked the story that was already there and added about 6 ½ pages. Easy Peasy!

Then I sent it off to my editor who suggested a few minor changes. I did a quick proofread, and uploaded to KDP.

The KDP process could not be simpler. And again, I have enough KAS buddies that if I had needed help, I had a safety net.

Formatting for Kindle is pretty simple and there are numerous guides available to help you do it, just in case you’re afraid to go it alone. I don’t recommend paying a formatter unless your book includes a lot of pictures or tables. If you’re going to pay for anything to do with publishing your work, hire a good illustrator to design an eye-catching cover and a good editor/proofreader to make sure your writing is the best it can be.

Honestly, even if you think you don’t have a safety net, you do. Chances are, if you are a writer and you’re on twitter, you’ve got other writers following you. Throw a tweet out there and see what you catch. Don’t be afraid to take the leap into self-publishing. Why not?

You can find Laurie's blog Tales and Yarns here.

Quick Crochet for Kitchen and Bath is available from Amazon.com

Strange Kisses is availbe for Kindle and Kindle Apps on Amazon.com

And you can enjoy her brief musings on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/LaliberteLaurie

Monday, April 30, 2012

In Which I Explain Where I've Been the Past 8 Weeks

So, it’s been a while. Let me begin by saying February sucks.  It’s chilly, but not in a good, crisp wintery sort of way and there’s a letdown from all the foofaraw of Christmas and New Year’s. It’s the month of the year when you’re at a midway point between the solstice and the coming of spring, a long exhalation before any of us can breathe again.  For me, it seems like Douglas Adam’s Long, Dark Teatime of the Soul.
And so, of course, everyone got sick. First it was food poisoning, which morphed into a weeks-long carnival of gastroenteritis that no one escaped. In our debilitated condition, we all fell prey to a nasty upper respiratory bug.  There was not a day in that six-week period where someone wasn’t vomiting or hacking or curled up in agony.  Despite all this, people still had to go to work and school and scouts and drama practice and choir and soccer. It’s truly a wonder we’re not all dead.  Added to that, I’ve had a computer virus that has blocked me from posting for several weeks. I stubbornly decided to cure it myself, which – considering my negative technological polarity – has been somewhat, ah, difficult. I believe it’s fixed. 

So my train of thought was derailed for a while, and it’s taken half of March and most of April to get it running back down the track. Not that all that time was wasted. After a small promotion in February and a big promotion in April, I’ve finally hit the Amazon bestseller lists. It was at #98, but I was briefly number one in several mystery and suspense subcategories. The ensuing sales meant that I’ve actually started to sporadically earn more from the books than from my day job.  The fact that (between free promos and paid sales) there are now 20,000+ people reading my work, and more every day,  is both exhilarating and terrifying. 

And so now it’s time to put the house in order. I’ve gone to part-time work (mostly for established clients and as favors to friends) and I’ve told the other people who live in the house to shut up and make their own damned macaroni.  I’ve heard from fans asking when the next Maddie book is coming out – which caused Susan and I to come to the revelation that Curtain Call, which was supposed to be the next Maddie book and was partially written and plotted, was boring and we didn’t care for it. Luckily, we already have the next six Maddie books semi-plotted, so the demise of Curtain Call means the ascendance of Scene Stealer, which we hope to have finished before the end of the year.  My first short story collection, Dead Girls and Other Stories, will be out shortly. (I’m still poking one of the stories to make sure it’s truly dead and formatting the manuscript). Then the next two novels, which are each meant to anchor a series, are in some stage of serious work.  Dead of Winter, which is 2/3 of the way finished, has been tied up and shoved into a closet until further notice. 

So for those of you keeping score at home, you can currently buy Darker By Degree, Director’s Cut, and Running Red. During the next eight months, expect the release of  A Willingness of Witches, Lost Things, Scene Stealer, Dead Girls and Other Stories, and possibly another short story collection by Christmas.

Oh, and I have to get back to blogging, both here and the other place. 
So, expect things to return to normal – or at least as normal as they ever were. Which probably wasn’t very.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Future of ebooks - Anecdotal Evidence Files (Plus a little bit on pricing)

I got a Kindle Fire for Christmas. So did my 11-year-old. I gave my 75-year-old mom a Kindle for her birthday. Yeah, you say, so you got a Kindle, big whoop. But in a way, it's a snapshot: three generations of inveterate readers and how they react to a new reading format. You see, we are a family who loves books. I grew up surrounded by piles of books. We loved the library, loved Okie's Used Book Hut in Manitou Springs, loved the indie Chinook Bookstore (which along with the Chief Theater and Levine's Toys is now just a melancholy memory), loved to come home from someplace with a towering stack of new places to go inside our heads.

Well, in the past month, I've really been thinking about the question of ebooks and how they fit into publishing and consumption of books as a whole. Last year, kid #2 asked me if I'd thought about getting a e-reader. Well, yes, I had thought about it, but it didn't seem like an imperative at the time, even though I was sticking my toes in the swirling pool of e-publishing. Fast forward to the release of the Kindle Fire. Now that was something I really DID want. We're not Apple people by nature, even though we are gadget people, so the iPad seemed expensive and, well, really Apple-y. I could wait. I didn't wait that long, because midway through December, the S/O came home and thrust a box into my hand, saying, "You're not going to have anything under the tree, but you seem like you could use this now." Apparently I'd been a tad whiny about the number of things I had to read, and the difficulty I was having in reading them on the computer when I spent so much time sitting in my car.

I love my Kindle Fire. More importantly, I love reading on it. It's quick and effortless and if I want to switch streams and stop reading the novel I'm on and switch to a short story, with a few flicks of my fingers I'm there. I have enough books on my Kindle to fill 4 shelves and they're with me wherever I go. I've sampled a ton of free works, and, yes, reading a good free work has induced me to buy a paid book from an author I never would have tried if I didn't have my Kindle.

But here's what got me really thinking: I received a request from one of the big six publishers to review an upcoming book. I could get a bound galley or an e-galley or both. This week I got the bound copy in the mail a day before I got the e-galley. Given the choice, I started reading the e-galley.  Then I thought back the week before, when I'd started a paperback from an author I really liked. Well, I was busy and running around, and to read it at night, I had to sit up with a hooded light so I wouldn't disturb the S/O. I set the paperback down and promptly lost in the stack of paperbacks that I have waiting to be read. Instead, I read 3 books on the Kindle. Yep, that's right. I forgot all about the paperback I had been looking forward to and read three books by authors I hadn't read before on the Kindle. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, traditional publishing.

OK, but I'm a technology adopter, what about my mom? Conventional wisdom says that older people are going to be less likely to make the switch. Well, my mom LOVES her Kindle. She can change the type so it's larger, her cats don't shred the pages trying to get her attention while she's reading, she can borrow from the public library with almost no effort (and as soon as a book on a waiting list is available, she's got it right there), and she can get loads of free books (she reads 3 or 4 books a week), low cost books, and find new authors when she's exhausted the supply trickled out by trad publishers. Plus, when she does find an author she really likes, she doesn't have to go hunting for their backlist. It's right there.

But what about kids? It's hard to get kids to read, right? The most stunning revelation for me was the adoption of ebooks by middle schoolers. My son immediately began reading on the Kindle. They have a program at his school called AR (Accelerate Reader -- most parents will be familiar with it) where you need to read such-and-such a number of books worth so many points. He spent his Amazon gift certificate on books. And when school was back in session he came home and said, "I need to take my Kindle to school." It seems the majority of the kids in his class had gotten Kindle Fires. (There were a few Nooks too, but 90% Kindle Fire) and that's how the majority of kids in his class are now reading. (You see, you can't take an iPad to school, but the administration views the Kindle Fire as not a multimedia platform but as a BOOK platform. This may change the first time they find a kid playing Angry Birds or Stupid Zombies instead of reading, but for now, the Kindle is the must-have accessory.) But the most important thing is this (and listen very carefully): kids see ebooks and paperback books as totally equivalent. There is no "but that's not a 'real' book" stigma attached. In fact, they think ebooks are superior to paper books in some ways. My takeaway from this is that ebooks are going to be the dominant book format as time goes on. Kids growing up now are going to see ebooks as the dominant form, NOT paper books. (For proof that the Kindle Fire is helping spur book sales, see here.)

I bring this up because last month I was doing a lot of research on book bloggers and book review sites (to be addressed in a future column). I was mainly looking for sites and readers who wanted to see ebooks as opposed to paperbacks, because most self-publishers at least start with ebooks exclusively. I found lots of reviewers who did not accept ebooks, or accepted them reluctantly. These reviewers/bloggers fell into two categories: those who said, "I can't afford an e-reader yet" and those who said, "Egad, I would NEVER read an ebook, I want a REAL book, one I can hold in my hands. This stupid ebook phase will never catch on, at least not with discerning readers!" (And to be clear, I'm really not disparaging people who prefer paper books; it's perfectly legitimate and cool. It's just that a lot of their protestations take on this kind of shrill air of semi-hysteria, as if even considering an ebook somehow shakes the foundations of decent society.)

Which, in a way, may have a kernel of truth, at least as it concerns traditional publishing. Like any big industry that has held a monopoly on content delivery, the book publishing industry is moving at a glacially slow pace in adopting smart epublishing practices. They seem to shoot themselves in the foot given the slightest opportunity. In an attempt to squeeze everyone into paper sales, they price ebooks too high for the market. The DRM them. They don't put out ebooks at the same time as paper books to reach a broader market. They offer authors the same lousy royalties as they do on paper books, but now with less transparency and slower payment.

They may well adjust (in fact they'll have to), but in the famous words of Simka from an old episode of Taxi, that's like "locking the barn doors after the horses have already eaten your children." Authors are wising up. Slowly, but they are. The balance of power is shifting. Ebooks are here to stay, and perhaps to dominate. Paper books aren't going to become extinct, by any means, but they're also not going to the only "real" books forever.

Which brings me to the bit about pricing I promised. I've been playing with pricing and studying the numbers released by authors regarding free, 99 cent, $2.99, more than $2.99, and the high prices asked by trad publishers (Anything over about $9.99 for my purposes).  Again, I'm planning a future column on that.

But there are two things to think about here, and this goes back to the "real" versus ebook argument. First of all, I want you to think about how much a book is worth and who deserves the lion's share of that compensation. One of the best things about self-pubbed books is that most of the royalty goes to the author, the person who produced the actual product. This is important because publishers are greedy. Yep, greedy. If you want to argue that with me, I'll give you some change and you can call someone who cares to argue that fact with you. Compensation to authors is crappy. (Leave out the bestsellers who make a gajillion dollars and then sometimes don't earn out their advances -- they are the exception and not the rule.)

So I think that complaining about high prices for ebooks published by big pub companies is totally on target. You're just shoving more money in their pockets and not into the pockets of authors. Screw that. Until publishing companies offer better royalty splits on ebooks, scream louder. (In fact, until they offer better compensation on ALL books, scream louder. Maybe they'll hear you before they lose their stable of writers and go bankrupt.)

But I want you to forget that fact for a minute and join me in a thought experiment. What is a book? Is it the paper it's printed on, or is it the story, the characters, the emotions it makes you feel, the joy or discovery or entertainment it brings to your life? Answer that honestly. Does the same book written by the same author have any less or more intrinsic value because it is ink on paper than pixels on a screen?

I ask this because a really good writer, one who is self-pubbed and very savvy about both writing and publishing, recently said something to the effect of: "I would have bought that book if it was in paperback for that price, but since it was an ebook, I thought it was too expensive." (I have changed that quote enough so that the the author's identity is oblique -- I'm not really picking on them.)

And I thought, the hell? What's the difference? This is the kind of thinking that marginalizes good writers who have adopted ebooks. It makes self-publishers into the kind of not-really-writers that the trad publishing industry is trying to convince you they are. In other words, if I'm willing to pay $8.99 to read a really good book by a self-published author in paperback, why should I not be willing to pay $8.99 for a really good book by a self-published author when I can have the added convenience of reading on my Kindle?  (You can insert your own numbers in here -- I'm trying to get at the reason behind the basic sentiment.) I'm purposely ignoring production costs. Everybody knows it costs more to produce and distribute a paperback than it does an ebook. What I'm trying to get at is the book is the same, regardless of the medium used to transport it into your head. You, the reader, are paying the same price and getting the same book, it's only the writer who's making a little more money.

Part of the new paradigm in publishing is to actually pay the writer instead of the publisher. If paying the same amount of money for an ebook as you would for a paperback allows a good writer who you enjoy to make a living and continue writing, I would think a reader would find that a bargain. Of course, I'm a writer, so I may be biased.

Whatever your thoughts, go buy a book, or even download one for free. Because, to put words in the mouth of the 11th Doctor: Books are cool.

Monday, December 5, 2011

CreateSpace, or: You Ought To Be In Paperbacks

Once again I return to share with you all the wisdom I gained from beating my head against the formatting wall. Once again I found out that formatting is easy, but the instructions are scary.

Today's topic is 'CreateSpace', a website much like Smashwords that translates your online manuscript into a book and then lets you sell it through online sources. The difference is that CreateSpace is a pay-to-print service. That is, you're not turning your manuscript into an ereader file, you're turning your manuscript into a paperback book. People will order the book from CreateSpace or Amazon as if it were any regular paperback, and a copy will be printed up and sent to them. Your overhead cost is buying one copy of the book itself so that you can look at it and send back a 'yes, I'm satisfied' message to CreateSpace.

This is a pretty great service, but there is one downside, and it is a BIG downside. The paperback will cost much more than a normal paperback. I'm going to have to charge 19.99 for Wild Children, because Amazon will take a whopping 17.24 for printing (and whatever else) costs for each book. That is based on a 6"x9" (standard paperback size) 441 page book. Lower page count means less cost, but I did some experimenting and it looks like Amazon won't take less than 12 bucks no matter what you do, so the basic situation is the same: Your paperbacks will cost much more than legacy paperbacks.

Having decided it's worth it for the few copies I will sell and to tickle my vanity, I plunged into the formatting. Createspace (createspace.com) walks you through the process step by step pretty easily, giving you pages to assign a title and formal sales information, getting you a free ISBN if you want it and explaining how specific the ISBN is, uploading your manuscript and creating a cover. They have a wonderful 'review the interior of your book' page that shows you what it'll look like, so you can see if you did it right. They accept very standard formats, although you'll be most confident the end product looks like what's in your word processor if you make a .pdf. They have a couple of nice instruction pages in case you can't figure out how to do anything. They have a sample manuscript so you can see what the layout should look like.


Here are the things I had to do to format my manuscript. The most important was to change the page size to 6"x9", which is standard paperback size. There's a link to instructions on the website, but it's easy. Under 'page layout' Word has an option for page size. Set it to 6"x9", and Word will convert. Done. Change font size and type. I found a great web page that explains not just what fonts to use, but why. I ended up using Palatino Linotype (didn't have Helvetica) for the body of my text and Calibri for my headers. Body of text should be 11 point. That's the really crucial, mysterious information right there, isn't it? Make sure you have page numbers in the footer, and that your page numbers match up with your table of contents, because you just completely rearranged the size of your manuscript. Decide if and what you want for headers, because professional paperbacks do have those.

That's about it. When I uploaded my .pdf the reviewer squawked that I hadn't imbedded my fonts - but that didn't matter. The interior review program showed that it knew my fonts and everything looked good. If it does matter for you, there's a link on the site telling you how. I went back and added a blank page here and there until it looked the way I wanted. Looked great in the review page. Done and dusted.

Creating a cover is even easier. They have a webpage program that helps you build it, and hopefully you already have a cover image from your ebooks ready to use. One warning so it doesn't catch you by surprise: The names of their templates are all ridiculous and inscrutable. No help at all. I had to poke around for awhile until I found the template that let me submit an image for my front cover with nothing added to it, and put simple text on the back cover. That option is there, as is a separate image for front and back covers, as is a single prepared image for the whole cover. Once you find the template you want, it goes back to simple step by step stuff.

I hit one land mine there, by the way: The review information came back saying they want the title and my author name half an inch from the edge of the image. So be ready for that niggling detail!

That was it. I gave them information on where to send my royalties, then sent the book to their reviewers. 48 hours was predicted for review times, they got back to me within 12. I'll have to fix the cover and resend, of course. After that I'll order (and pay for) my review copy, and when I get it send them a confirmation 'I Like What I See' message.

Good luck to anyone else who wants to try this! It was less complicated than I feared. Less complicated than ebook formatting, actually.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Space Wars are Over, or HTML is a Harsh Mistress

There’s only one subject more contentious than politics or religion: single spacing versus double spacing at the end of a sentence. Think that’s hyperbole? Google it. There is no better example of literary internecine warfare than sentence spacing. (For a pretty concise history of the conflict, go here.)

For years, I’ve been vocally in the single space camp. Having gone to high school and college in the ‘80s (before personal computers), I learned to double space at the end of a sentence. But subsequently, in every publishing/writing job I’ve held (newspapers, magazines, publishers, advertising) I’ve been required to single space. It took me the better part of a year to retrain my finger/brain connection, but I finally managed it. And as a freelance editor, you have to pick a bible. Mine is the Chicago Manual of Style, which – along with the AP Style Guide and the MLA Style Guide -- state that single spacing is the norm. But – and this is a big but – style guides also state that double-spacing is okay. You’ll probably never get a rejection based on your sentence spacing. Still the war raged on.

I’ll readily admit to my participation in the war. If you ask me to explain why, I can’t. Maybe it’s the deep-seated need to be right. Maybe it’s the desire to control my environment by making everybody follow the same set of rules. Maybe it’s the fact that editors tend to sometimes act like petty fascist dictators. I really don’t know. But I discovered something yesterday, something simple and right under my nose, that showed, at least from a writer’s standpoint, what an idiot I was to argue about it.

I want you to do something for me. Go to your bookshelf and pull down any 10 books published in the last 60 years. Now get a ruler. (Go ahead, I’ll wait.) Flip open a book to any page and measure the distance between ending punctuation and the beginning of the next sentence. Repeat until this becomes clear to you: there is no single or double spacing. Yep, you heard me. There isn’t any. Books are typeset with proportional spacing. Each character is given its own spacing in relation to the characters around it. Sometimes it’s a fraction less, sometimes it’s a fraction more.

Example from the first book I pulled off my shelf, the novel Crime School by Carol O’Connell, paperback edition published by Jove, page 97: between a period and the top of capital T is 2mm; between a period and the bottom of capital A is 1mm; between a period and the bottom of capital N is 2mm. You don’t have to trust me on this, do the experiment yourself.

“That’s fine” you say, “but I’m self-publishing my novel. I don’t care what publishers do.” Well, if you’re publishing for Kindle, at some point your manuscript will be converted to HTML. And the thing I learned yesterday was that HTML doesn’t care about you and your spacing. HTML laughs at your spacing. (Actually HTML seems to always laugh at me, but that’s another issue.)

In HTML there’s this thing called “whitespace collapse.” What this means is simply that HTML ignores any spacing that isn’t coded for in the underlying CSS. Whether you single space or double space at the end of a sentence, HTML will ignore it and space it how it sees fit. You can single space, double space, hell, you can put 27 spaces in, and the HTML will still follow the algorithm and end up with the same space, the one judged to give the best readability for the medium.  (As an aside, you can code to preserve spacing, but it takes a pretty high proficiency with HTML.)

Now let me be clear: HTML did not pick single spacing or double spacing. It doesn’t care. Nobody won the war, the war just ceased – from a publishing standpoint – to matter. It’s like trying to decide whether the rooftop aerial or the rabbit ears gives you better TV reception and suddenly realizing you’re hooked up to digital cable.  Or maybe a better analogy: you and a friend are making smoothies. You insist that you should chop the bananas before putting them in a blender, while your friend insists, no, no, you must slice the bananas first. You know what? Once you put the bananas in the blender, they all come out a uniform consistency.

I had two feelings upon making this realization. First of all, I was appalled that I didn’t know this. How could I not know this? It’s discomfiting when you consider yourself knowledgeable about a subject and then realize you didn’t even consider the underpinnings of your argument. The second feeling I had was one of…relief. I never have to make the argument again. I never have to try and convince someone I’m right and they’re wrong. If I like Mumford and Sons and my daughter likes Lil’ Wayne, it’s a waste of breath me saying, “Lil’ Wayne sucks” while she yells, “Yeah, well Mumford and Sons is for wannabe hipsters.”  It all comes down to personal taste. Neither of us is right or wrong, and we can program our iPods however we want. (And no offense to Lil’ Wayne – I don’t think you suck, really. And I’m not a hipster, so shut up.)

So, this being a blog about self-publishing and all, what does this mean for you as writers? It’s simple: if you’re submitting a manuscript, format it exactly how the publisher/editor wants it submitted. (Which was always good advice anyway.) Don’t waste your breath arguing about it. If you’re used to doing it one way and they want it the opposite way, find/replace is your friend. For your own manuscript formatting or personal correspondence, do what you like. Whether Simon & Schuster gives you a six-figure advance or you’re publishing your first novel for Kindle, it’s all going to come out looking the same. The war is over. Nobody won, but nobody lost either.

(P.S. Many people blame typing teachers for starting the war, but if you research the history of typography and publishing, the truth is far more complex. Still, I did an unscientific sample around here and found that anyone over 30 was taught to double-space, while anyone under 30 was taught to single space. When I asked my 20-year-old daughter, who’s a junior in college, she replied something to effect of, “God, mom, single space. It’s not the stone age.” So I suspect that double spacing will disappear about the time that gay marriage finally becomes legal in all 50 states and marijuana is sold in grocery stores. Why, when I was a girl, we had to type THREE spaces at the end of a sentence. Now get off my lawn.)

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Amazon Slushpile?

Some quite interesting news this week, as first-time indie author Traci Hohenstein has signed a four-book deal with the Amazon mystery/thriller imprint Thomas & Mercer. David Gaughran has more info on his always-interesting blog.

As I said, this is an interesting development. Unlike the majority of authors Amazon has approached and signed deals with, Traci Hohenstein is truly a newbie fiction author. Burn Out is her first novel, only published to Amazon in April, and she has no backlist and no traditional publishing background. In addition, the novel is short (clocking in at 170 pages), and has some mixed reviews, the bad reviews mainly a retread of what you often see with new authors: poor editing, typos and grammatical mistakes, lack of development.

First of all, let me make myself crystal clear: this is not a discussion of the merits of Ms. Hohenstein's book or her writing ability. I haven't had a chance to read the book yet and will not comment on it until I have. (And as far as the discussion of reviews, we all know to take reviews, either good or bad, with a grain of salt.) In fact, I wish her a hearty congratulations and great success in her career. (Really, Congrats!) This post is strictly using the basic known facts of her deal as a jumping off point for discussing what we can possibly extrapolate about the coming future of self-publishing, specifically as regards Amazon.

If you've read David Gaughran's piece, he lays out a lot of the specifics as to who's being "published" by Amazon. Mostly somewhat well-known writers with a strong following, a history in traditional publishing, and a backlist of books. Ms. Hohenstein doesn't have any of these indicators. What she does have is sales. She has been kind enough to share her numbers on David Gaughran's blog, and they're quite impressive for a new self-published author (selling 10,000 books in August).Kudos!

After reading David's blog and checking out Ms. Hohenstein's Amazon listing and her blog, a thought popped into my head. Since Amazon announced its new imprints and began approaching authors to sign with them, a lot of people have wondered about what Amazon's designs are in grabbing a bigger piece of the publishing industry. As with any news about Amazon, a lot of the details are shrouded in mystery. Smart authors know that it's great to come to Amazon's attention; it can do great things for an indie author's career. But you can't query Amazon for a book deal. As an indie author, you also can't take advantage of a lot of the marketing possibilities available to big publishers: you can't set up a pre-release sales page, you can't offer a short story or book for free. (Amazon does list books for free, but no one really knows how or why they make those decisions. First, you have to have a book listed for free on another site, but beyond that it's all a black box.)

So how do you get Amazon in your corner? Previous to Ms. Hohenstein's success, it was a general consensus that you had to have an established name and a history to build on, and a stable of books to go with it. In other words, no first-time authors need apply. But that applecart has been, if not overturned, pulled around a corner really fast so that some of the produce has spilled onto the thoroughfare.

So this is my theory. If Amazon does want a bigger piece of the traditional publisher pie and wants to establish a cadre of authors to promote, but doesn't want all the dreary work of the query-go-round and the slushpile, what better way than to have their self-publishing service work AS the slushpile, and let buyers work for free as readers? In a mercenary world where a publisher wants at least a semi-sure product, this is a brilliant strategy. You buy a property that's already selling. You don't need to agonize over whether a brilliant author is marketable or rely on the whims of an editor. You already know that the property will sell and all you have to do is HELP IT SELL MORE.  Amazon can wait until any author hits some internal limit in sales, and then offer them a deal. I have no idea if Amazon offers any kind of advance. I've only heard that they offer very a very favorable split, help with mechanics (such as editing, formatting, covers), and great publicity. So they really have very little to lose if an author tanks, unless they are eventually known for publishing bad books.

Should that be true, it's both horribly depressing and wildly exhilarating. Horribly depressing in the sense that you may be a great writer and a terrible salesman, and Amazon will keep their thumb on the scale to help great salesmen while great writers languish and are further shunted aside and kept in the basement. In other words, nobody at Amazon is going to say, "I read this wonderful book absolutely nobody knows about, let's make it a bestseller!" Instead they'll say, "This may be a mediocre book, but look at those sales! Let's make sure people see it!" (And you find that grumbling already -- just read the Kindle boards and any number of indie blogs).

But conversely it means that Amazon may be more willing to help first-time authors who can do a lot of the heavy lifting themselves. If you believe in yourself, get out there and find readers (as Ms. Hohenstein has apparently done quite successfully) get your sales, and you too can get the key to the executive washroom. At least now instead of a few mercenary editors being the gatekeepers, readers will be the thing that pushes you up the ladder to success, which, after all, is what indie writers have been arguing should be the paradigm all along.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Finding an Editor Part 2: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

In my last post, I talked about the importance of being edited. Here’s a nice post by David Gaughran that backs that assertion up.  I also identified the two hurdles that self-publishers (or really any aspiring author) will run into in the quest to be well-edited: the cost and the difficulty of finding a good editor. Today I want to tackle what makes a good editor and how you can find one to match your needs.

All Editors Are Not Created Equal

There are three flavors of “bad” editors. The Editor Who Only Thinks He’s An Editor, The Editor Who Thinks This Is a Seventh Grade English Class, and the Editor Who Thinks He Should Write Your Book.

If you look around the Net, you can see a plethora of sites suggesting that “You, too, can be an editor!” According to them, all you need is a passing acquaintance with English and a website. I cannot count the number of people I came across who thought they knew how to edit. Some of them have touted their experience as getting good grades in high school English. I’ve gotten into knock-down virtual fights with people who were not fighting about the relevance of the Oxford comma, but who didn’t even know what an Oxford comma was. Or an em-dash. Or passive voice.  People who, when asked if they used the AP Style Guide or the Chicago Manual Style, replied that, “Hey, those are expensive. I just use common sense and what I remember from my college composition class.” Make no mistake, editing is hard. It takes skill, practice, continuing education, experience, and a shelf full of reference books. Fortunately, these are the easiest bad editors to pick out. Their samples (we’ll get to that later) are terrible. They have no track record or references. Their correspondence is riddled with mistakes. Steer clear.

Editors in the second category know proper grammar, usage, and punctuation, but they know it too well. They are trapped by rules that kill good writing, and can’t see beyond the bars of their self-made prison. They want everything to turn out like a freshman English paper. Usually they’re not up on the fluidity of style, because they’re still traumatized by the time Sister Mary Ignatius smacked their knuckles with a ruler and told them to never start a sentence with “but” or to never, ever to use a contraction. Again, these are pretty easy to pick out once you have a sample of their editing style.

The third type of bad editor is harder to recognize at first blush, because it’s a very small space to navigate, especially for writers who are also editors. You see, a good editor will help you to see your mistakes and will also point out where you can improve your voice, characters, plot, style, etcetera. Occasionally, you’ll find a good editor that goes too far, and starts to step all over YOUR style and insert their own. Sometimes this is a passing aberration, and you and your editor will be able to work through a back-and-forth and find the happy medium. If you can’t find that happy medium, then you’ve either got a good editor who just isn’t right for you, you’ve got an editor that really should just stick to writing their own books, or – gasp -- YOU are the problem. Which brings us to….

Don’t Be THAT Writer

We are creative, driven people, gripped by vision, in the thrall of our art, pounding out a masterpiece that….well, you get the picture. Despite the fact that we are sometimes racked by our insecurities, we still like to think that we know what we’re doing and if people would just give themselves over to our genius, why, they would see our tremendous talent. Whatever.

There’s a point where you’re too close to see your work. In fact, you’re almost always too close to see your work, at least in the way it needs to be seen. I’ll say it again, you need outside advice. And you need to be able to discern when it’s good advice and when it’s bad advice. This is brutally hard. This might hurt you and make you curl up in a ball and weep uncontrollably. But every sentence you write is not a special little snowflake. Some things you write are, shall we say, less good than they could be. Some things you write are crap. Some things you write might be an abomination that will blind someone. (Okay, maybe that’s hyperbole, but you get the idea.)

If you’re going to hold on to every adverb, every lovingly written flashback that interrupts the forward flow of the narrative and delivers nothing, every flowery description of the grocery clerk’s honeyed locks, well, there are going to be problems. If you’ve found a good editor, for dog’s sake, LISTEN TO WHAT THEY’RE SAYING. This in no way means that you should roll over and accept every suggestion. But make sure the things that you’re fighting for are worth fighting for. And if you determine something is worth fighting for, fight hard. But you will often find, even after a long-drawn out campaign to save the word “stealthily,” it really was telling and not showing and not worth the millisecond it took to type it out.

There are writers who can’t be edited. Not because they’re brilliant, but because they won’t listen. And in truth, even if they’re brilliant, they most likely won’t get very far and they’ll end up insane in a basement somewhere, scribbling out would-be masterpieces that’ll never be read.

So, Where is This Good Editor You Speak of?

Aye, there’s the rub. The best way to find a good editor is through word-of-mouth. Find out who edited writers you admire or self-pubbed books you fell in love with. There’s one giant problem with this. These editors are often backlogged well into the future. Still, ask around, you might get lucky. Networking is a great way to find editors, proofers, formatters, cover artists that you can trust are professional.

No, luck? Search the Web. Steer clear of obvious noobs and charlatans. Look for professionals who have experience, a track record, a good presentation. Now comes the important part. Never hire an editor without a sample. Even if an editor comes highly recommended, you need to see how they’re going to edit you. Conversely, they need to see how you’re going to take to being edited. Different editors will offer different sample lengths, but you want something representative. A full chapter, 10 pages, a decent part of a short story. You’re entering into an important partnership, and you need to know you’re going to get what you need out of it. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for references.

And this is equally important: not every editor, no matter how skillful, is right for every writer. You need someone you can work with. You need someone who understands your genre, if  you’re a genre writer. You need someone who is a personality match. You need someone who is willing to tell you the hard truths, but who is also willing to listen to your side and admit when they are wrong and you are right. (Which does happen, more often than you would think.)

You also need to have clear goals, on both sides of the equation. You need to work out payment, deadlines, expectations, level of service. Work these details out beforehand, and it will save a lot of grief later on. Most editors I know work in Word with Tracking Changes. This allows an easy back and forth where you can accept and reject changes effortlessly and easily read and make comments. Inquire if you have other expectations or methods you would care to use.

Lastly, don’t despair. You may have to kiss some frogs, dance with some uncoordinated llamas, whatever  analogy you want to use. But once you do find an editor that works for you, magic can be made.

(Standard Disclaimer: I am an editor. I am also a writer. I think of myself as a writer first and foremost, but have worked for many years as an editor to pay the bills. I take on new clients sparingly, and I do know some other editors whom I trust. Please feel free to email me with questions or comments at jacypods(at)gmail(dot)com.)