Wednesday, December 23, 2009

To Self-Publish or Not: That is the Question

So, tomorrow is Christmas Eve; a time of alleged peace and goodwill toward men, and I just got my shorts in a knot over this post. Now, I know Harlequin's decision to start a self-publishing branch sent its authors into a tailspin and had the internet and industry at large buzzing like a disturbed hornet's nest, and all for good reason. I've been quite interested, having resided on both sides of the fence, so to speak; now, after reading this post and its underhanded stab at agents, I have an opinion to express.

I must start out by saying I just love it when self-publishing companies boast about how much they're helping out writers because they offer a service we can take or leave; they are so forward-thinking they're on the edge of a life-shattering industry-wide change; and, my all time favorite, among their thousands of paying clients lies a trove of unrecognized talent which ended up in the slushpile. Every time I hear such declarations, heralding the dawn of a new age for writers everywhere, I shudder and think how much more self-serving can they get? Well, this guy hits a new high, and while I can't pretend to know if he's sincere or not, I do think I can speak for the every-day writer he stands to make money on, regardless of whether said writer ever sells a single book.

When I first started writing, I was always of the mind that I wrote to be read. For me, the act of writing is incomplete without the reader. I am a novelist; that is my trade. So, being published was my ultimate goal; but after years of rejection I had no other choice than to look into the alternative. It was either that or stop writing. I therefore approached independent publishing in a wary fashion, much as you might approach a potentially dangerous beast. I spent a year researching every aspect and method, and spent countless hours on a forum attended by perhaps the largest gathering of self publishers and independent publishers on the planet. Through them, I learned a lot, not enough to not make mistakes, but enough to know that if I wanted to give my work some semblance of integrity, I should never sign with one of the large self-publishing companies. Indeed, I must avoid them at all costs. This was my impression; evidently, many other writers would beg to differ.

Instead, after months of networking, I published for no advance (and a $99 set-up fee) with a micro start-up press in San Francisco. It was self publishing but without the accumulative extras; for $99, they did a nice job getting the book ready. But distribution issues were a nightmare and when the press eventually went belly-up, to keep my then modest-selling book in print, I entered into a venture with two other partners to establish an independent press using POD. One of my partners decided to eschew the stigma of POD by printing a offset run of her books; to date, I believe a quantity of them remain in boxes in a warehouse. Her intentions were sound; but as we soon discovered, independently published authors, no matter how well dressed, rarely get invited to bookstores. I , in turn, cleaved to POD. I never expected to secure bookstore distribution and was therefore unwilling to shell out the thousands of dollars required for a print run; and frankly, all of this made me feel faintly humiliated. While I was proud of what I'd accomplished (my sales had by then risen to a few thousand copies), I must admit I was not at all willing to look booksellers in the eye and negotiate consignment deals. Like most writers, I dreamed of my book appearing on shelves, not hand-delivering copies for a 50/50 split.

I once read an article where a self-published author who'd secured a mainstream publishing contract said: "I self-published to escape self-publishing." Looking back, while I cannot say I did it deliberately, for me the end result was the same. I eventually got an agent who believed in me; she got editors interested. There was an auction; I sold two books; and I never looked back. Not once. Having an agent I adore, who fights for me every step in the way, has helped me establish a fledgling career and made me more money via one traditional book deal, let alone all the foreign rights, than I ever made in five years of dedicated independent publishing. Agents fight for their clients because everything they decide to represent they take on faith and on commission: if you don't get paid (or, in this case, acquired) they don't. The above linked post makes a stab at agents when in fact without them, we writers would truly be at the mercy of people like him. And while self-publishing companies may be a "disruptive force", mainly they're disruptive to the would-be author's bank account, because most of the time they're profit-driven operations disguised as altruism, designed to lure the uninformed writer into the belief that his or her dream can come true. Whether or not the work has merit or sales potential beyond family and friends is secondary, if ever considered. The goal is to make money off the writer, not the reader. This alleged new pardigam in self-publishing may tout itself as the missing link between vanity and traditional, but in the end the company always make money – they charge a fee, remember? - while the author in the majority of the cases does not.

As for undiscovered talent, it's doubtlessly true, and very sad, that many gifted writers never see publication. But how much of it is publishers' lack of foresight and how much is that many gifted writers, after having been knocked about for years in the marathon combat arena that is submissions, toss their manuscript into a drawer and take up rock climbing? An editor in NY who read my work fourteen years ago but was unable to offer at the time called me up to tell me: "You have talent. But that alone doesn't mean much. It's the writers who keep trying who make it. Never give up." As harsh as it is, talent isn't necessarily going to make the cut and neither is perseverance; but armed with both, a writer does stand a chance as long as publishers are acquiring books. Not every writer, and not for years for many, but in the final round some editor, somewhere, is going to recognize the talent and take the chance, if stars are in alignment and the marketplace right.

The above-mentioned post states: "Many would-be authors don’t need a traditional publishing house. That’s the dirty little secret. They already have access to an audience and can reach it without the help of a traditional publisher." Excuse my French, but this is merde. It is true that a few writers have "built-in" audiences before they start, but by and large they are specialists with already-established reputations in related fields, like speakers with a following, gurus, self-help workshop leaders, cult figures, etc. The rest of us usually just start out being famous at home at dinnertime and so we need publishers to recognize our work, just as publishers need us so they can publish new voices and sell books. The real dirty secret is that self-publishing companies since time began have dangled this particular parcel of lies as bait to reel in desperate writers who need to believe their work has enough merit to make it, New York be damned. While the sentiment is admirable, indeed commendable, these writers often find themselves in for a very rude surprise. The long-anticipated revolution in self-published books that sell a fraction of what the average NY Times bestseller does has thus far failed to materialize. Nevertheless, if you approach self-publishing fully cognizant that every odd in the industry is stacked against you and unless you hustle hard and often, you'll most likely never sell enough to compensate what you paid to see your book in print , then you're "informed" and entering it with your eyes wide open. Even so, in my experience, the resultant disappointment can be crushing. Very few writers relish failing to find readers. It's just not in our nature.

Publishers take the risk on unknown writers and it's a gamble they sometimes lose: that has always been the name of game. Traditional publishers pay an advance and offer a royalty structure; they edit the manuscript (more or less); design and typeset the book; print it; promote it (again, more or less) and, most importantly, get it into stores where readers can find it at no additional cost to you, the author.

Not too long ago, after I spoke at an event about my marketing efforts, a writer came up to me to ask how spending my money on marketing was any different from spending money to self-publish. After all, it's my money and it's going toward my book, right? The truth is, building a successful career has more and more in recent years fallen upon the author's shoulders. While never stated openly by the publisher, most of us are fully aware that if we're going to keep publishing books, we must promote and market diligently, using our own money, to augment the publisher's efforts because in this age of dwindling readership and marketing dollars, publishers still have thousands of titles to sell, while we, on the other hand, just have ours. But I see a crucial difference. I get an advance and elect to use a percentage of it to market my work; it's voluntary on my part. I put my hard-earned advance dollars to work for my book, which is very different from paying my hard-earned day job's money to a self-publishing company, which in turn will do nothing for my book.

Do I think every writer should have the choice to self-publish? Of course, I do. I’m certainly glad I did. I might never have attracted the attention of my agent without it. Was it my first choice? Never. It was my last choice, after all else failed; and it only worked for me because one lone agent found my book online paired in a Better Buy Together with a current client of hers (who pointed me out to her, by the way) and she took the time and effort to locate me. I know how incredibly fortunate I am. If approximately 400,000 new titles were published last year and almost half were self-published, just calculate the odds.

But of course, self publishing companies are hoping you won't.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Holiday ARC

It's that time of year! The holiday season is upon us, and, old jaded ex-retail employee that I am, I'm hiding out avoiding the crush, the endless loop of "Jinglebells" and "I saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus", the frantic rush, the shrieking sales ads: in short, everything. A friend recently asked me, "What are you doing for the holidays?" and my response was straight from the heart: "Hopefully, as little as possible." It's not that I don't like the season, really . . . well, let me rephrase that.

Working in retail / fashion for as long as I did, for most of my twenties, does tend to sour one's view of humanity at this time of year. I recall one Christmas eve in particular when I was working on the floor at a large department store (I was the buyer at the time for accessories) and I came upon two very well-dressed women literally engaged in a tug-of-war over the last ivory-colored cashmere scarf on sale. I went up to them and tried to explain that a) such behavior really wasn't permitted in the store; and b) we had other scarves. I suggested they settle the dispute amicably. Without taking their hands off either end of the now frighteningly streached-out scarf, they retorted, in unison, that I should go *bleep* myself. And then they proceeded to continue their verbal and physical intimidation of each other, trying to establish who had seen the scarf first and therefore who had the superior right to purchase it. Needless to elaborate, since then I have been less than enthusiastic about it all, though I must admit, I love New Year's, when the previous twelve months give way to a whole new slate.

However, despite my humbug ways, the holiday has been good to me. I got my Advanced Reading Copy of The Confessions of Catherine de Medici (due out in hardcover on May 25, 2010, from Ballantine Books) the other day, and, oh, does it look stunning. It's full color, and it sits proudly on my bedside table, so I can reach out whenever I like and caress it. For a writer - or at least for this writer - the arrival of an ARC is like birth pangs. The baby is not far behind - well, in my case, about 6 months, but, hey, it's publishing! - and you finally can see the result of those endless hours spent at the computer writing, revising, editing, despairing, re-writing, hoping . . .

Of course, the ARC has all the errors that I found on the proof pages and red-lined for correction for the finished book, but those are minor complaints compared to the fact that I can look at it and know, I did it. I wrote it. More importantly, I finished it - even if now I can't read a word of it. I skim the pages, oohing and ahhing over the typesetting and chapterheads, but I cannot focus on the actual text for fear that I'll find an error or typo I missed, a sentence I thought was fabulous but now reads like lead falling on glass, or . . . well, you get the point.

I also got very good news regarding my next books - yes, the plural is intentional - but my agent has sworn me to silence until the deal is officially announced in PW and I sign on the dotted line. Maybe that can be my New Year's post . . .

I hope those of you who flee the tinsel like me find refuge. I hope those of you who enjoy it have a very merry time. In the meanwhile, I'm going to go hug my ARC!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Guest post from Tony Hays, author of THE KILLING WAY

I'm very pleased to introduce Tony Hays, a fellow author and friend whose Arthurian mystery series, starting with The Killing Way, has been welcomed with great enthusiasm by readers. Set in a medieval Britian replete with intrigue, mysticism and lethal betrayal, this is not your average re-telling of the Arthurian legend; it's more like CSI: Medieval: gritty, powerful, and with the true ring of historical perspective. Tony's second entry in the series, The Divine Sacrifice , is due out March 30, 2010 and he is under contract for three more books. A native of Madison, Tennessee, Tony is an extensive traveler, who has visited 30 countries and lived in six. You can learn more about Tony and his work at:

Please join me in welcoming Tony Hays to Historical Boys!

The one question that I get at virtually every place I visit is: Was King Arthur a real person. The short answer is nobody knows. The esteemed historians and archaeologists who say “no” can’t prove their position. And those of us who believe that Arthur did exist can’t prove our position either. Not definitively.
Certainly the Arthur of “Sword in the Stone” and T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King” isn’t real. They owe their lives to Geoffrey of Monmouth, who concocted a life for, what was in Geoffrey’s time, a shadowy figure named Arthur, who was definitely a soldier and might have been a king, but who, nonetheless, had captured his countrymen’s hearts.
We can say, with nearly complete assurance, that characters such as Lancelot and Galahad are the creation of such romancers as Chretien de Troyes. They are fictional. But scattered out among all the intriguing bits and pieces of history before Geoffrey of Monmouth, there is enough to at least tentatively label Guinevere, Bedevere, Kay, Mordred, Gawain, and others as based on historical figures. Merlin most likely has historical roots as well, but he came along about a generation after Arthur.

I learned recently that some researchers believe that Arthur’s sister, Morgan le Fay, was actually based on a person named Morgan ap Tud, touted in The Mabinogion (a collection of tales from old Wales) as Arthur’s court physician. Galahad is believed by some to have been inspired by a soldier/saint named Illtud, said to be a cousin of Arthur’s.
Recently, in a talk sponsored by Clues Unlimited and the Department of History at the University of Arizona, I was asked this very question, and I answered this way: “I believe that there was someone, a single individual whose exploits prompted the Arthurian myth. “ I stand on that statement.

Of all the many candidates for an historical Arthur, I believe that renowned Arthurian scholar Geoffrey Ashe has hit upon the most promising. In the last years of the 5th century, a British leader named Riothamus came to power. The very name “Riothamus” could be interpreted as “most high king.” A letter to him by poet Sidonius Appollinaris survives and hints that he was known for his commitment to justice and doing the right thing. This same Riothamus took an army to Gaul (as Arthur is said to have done), was betrayed by one of his own men, and was last seen retreating toward Avallone in France. The coincidences just pile up.

Does all of this (or should all of this) detract from the mystery, the legend, the magic of the literary Arthur that has emerged? Not for me. Arthur has become such a symbol, a Christian king who believed in right before might, a tragically flawed figure betrayed by those surrounding him, but also a charismatic leader who, even yet, could return to save us from ourselves. That such a man could have a basis in history, could have actually lived, brings me comfort, not distress. Hope, not despair.

Thank you, Tony. We look forward to the next book and wish you much success!