Proof of Skill

Today I read an offhanded remark on a site that said something along the lines of (paraphrasing): “Well, they’ve only ever self-published, which is fine, but it’s no proof of their skill as a writer.”

Hmm.

It made me wonder: How do we measure “proof of skill” for writers?

My guess is that we mostly measure authors by their sales, simply because that’s the easiest way. It’s quantifiable and concrete. And since publishing is a business, certainly sales matter. “Oh, So-and-So sold a bazillion copies of Bookity Book? Must be a great author!”

But there are plenty of books that sell a lot of copies that aren’t all that great. I mean, it’s subjective, of course, but just as many people seem to hate Twilight and Fifty Shades as love them. So sales aren’t necessarily proof of quality. They’re really more proof of appealing to a large (I won’t say lowest) common denominator.

How else might we figure proof of a writer’s mad skillz?

Less quantifiable is “buzz.” Which is to say, how much are you hearing about a particular book or author? (And, really, how much good are you hearing about it/them?) If many people are talking about a book, there are usually two reasons: it’s amazing or it’s offensive. It can, I suppose, even be both(?)…

So does word of mouth = proof of skill? Well, it = proof of marketing skill at least. But again, there are plenty of hyped-up books that end up being big disappointments and just as many hidden jewels gathering dust on shelves, and whatever ebooks do when they’re ignored.

Does being picked up by an agent and then a big publisher mean you’ve got amazing writing skills? Based on the comment that started this post, that still seems to be the gold standard. Even as we continue to say that self-published books are often just as good, and sometimes better, in quality, that they’re often more original because of the authors’ creative freedom . . . Deep down there’s still a sense of a need for gatekeepers to validate a book or author, an idea that books need to be “good enough” for an agent or major publisher, and books that were self-published clearly aren’t or weren’t. Never mind that self-publishing is no longer a last resort for many authors; they’ve learned they make more money and save a lot of time by doing it themselves. The stigma, alas, remains.

And I must say, of big-house books I’ve read lately, I’ve noticed a lack in editing quality in many of them. Now, I don’t know if that’s down to the authors or the editors involved in those books—I suspect many of the books were hurried out without enough proofing—but I’m just saying: having an agent and a big publisher doesn’t, in my view, immediately mean an author has skill. It could mean they had a connection to someone in the industry. It could mean they had a good idea that, even half-baked, the agent or publisher thought he/she/it could sell. It could even mean—yes, I’m going to say it—that they’re the token [insert diversity here] that the agency or publisher was looking for so they could feel good about themselves. I’m sorry, but I’ve worked in publishing, and I’ve seen it happen.

This isn’t to put actual, skilled writers down. This is just to say that the way we decide whether an author is “skilled” is . . . Biased a lot of the time. Subjective to each person’s preferences. There are a lot of factors involved. Being self-published versus agented and published by a big house—that’s not a definitive guideline as to an author’s skill.

The final facet of an author’s skill might be their actual craft, from the foundations of punctuation and spelling to the more lofty question of how they use words to build a story. BUT, again, not all of a writer’s ability can be determined this way. After all, a good self-published author probably hired an editor and proofreader. So maybe the author can’t spell and doesn’t know a comma from a semicolon but found someone to fix that problem. Maybe the story had huge plot holes that a development editor helped fill in. On the flip side, maybe the editor at that big publishing house was tired that day and missed a few things.

The key thing that set me off on writing this was the very casual dismissal of self-publishing I felt underlying the comment I paraphrased above. Not just because I’ve self-published a number of my books, but because to say something like that and not maybe define your personal criteria for “skills” feels a bit like a fly-by. Every reader has a checklist, whether they’re aware of it or not, of what they will and won’t tolerate in a book. They consider the authors who tick all their “yes” boxes to be “skilled” and authors who don’t, or who actively tick their “no” boxes, to be hacks. I’d like to think that most readers are open to self-published works so long as those books tick enough of their “yes” boxes, but I’ve seen readers in online groups have that as a “no” box: NO SELF-PUBLISHED BOOKS. Sad but true. They cite poor experiences with self-published books as the reason for their prejudice, but have they loved every traditionally published book they’ve ever read? I doubt it, and yet they don’t boycott those.

I won’t claim to have answered the question of how to discern a writer’s skill. There are too many moving parts, and I think the largest part is that we won’t even all agree on which authors are skilled to begin with. What some readers treasure, others despise. What some consider classics, others consider trash.

How do you decide whether an author has skills? What’s on your reading checklist?

IWSG: Publishing Paths

It’s time again for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group! Posts go up the first Wednesday of each month. Read more posts and/or join in here.

This month I’m insecure about the fact I entered Pitch Wars for the first time ever and have so far not received any requests for more pages. Between that and the fact that I keep being told by agents I’ve queried that my writing is “really good,” “engaging,” “flows well” . . . yet somehow no one wants to represent or publish it . . . I don’t know what to think or do. Which leads somewhat indirectly to this month’s question:

What publishing path are you considering/did you take, and why?

As of now, I have eight books on the market. Two were published by small publishers, the others I self-published. I’ll be self-publishing Faebourne too.

For some manuscripts, I do try to get an agent. If I think the book might be commercial enough, I do an extensive round of querying. If, however, I know it’s too niche, or if it’s something I know I can sell on my own (like Sherlock Holmes or Regency romance), I self-publish.

I guess a part of me still hopes to someday be published by a bigger house. I don’t know why. A lingering desire for legitimacy? For someone to say I’m good enough? Hence the most recent heartbreaking year of queries. For this particular manuscript I’ve sent out 134 queries, and at the moment I’m waiting for answers on 3 of them. The rest were rejections or no responses. And now I’m hoping maybe, just maybe, a Pitch Wars mentor might see something good in my work. But that appears to be a no as well.

It’s tough to stay confident in your writing when no one else seems to believe it’s worth their time or effort.

Yet my Sherlock Holmes books and Brynnde sell well. So at least a few people like and read my work. And I have hopes Faebourne will follow in Brynnde‘s footsteps. All signs point to me continuing to self-publish because I come out ahead on those books. (Mostly due to my husband who handles the marketing.)

In short, my publishing path is something I determine on a book-by-book basis. If I think there’s a chance an agent might like the manuscript, I do some querying. Otherwise, I self-publish. I don’t really bother with the smaller publishers any more because I haven’t had much luck with them. I’m better off having full control of my ability to price and market, and in determining which format(s) to produce, etc. I’m sure there are some great small publishers out there that actually do market and won’t just churn out a ton of books and hope they sell, but I’ve ceased looking for them. If a publisher wants me to do the marketing for them, well, I might as well put the book out myself and keep more of the profits.

So this manuscript I’m shopping, well . . . First I have to get Faebourne out, and then I’ll decide what to do with it. Scrap it. Overhaul it. Or eventually put my faith in it and self-publish. Its fate remains to be determined.

SFWC 2018: Exploring Your Print Options

Let’s assume you’re going to self-publish your book. You’ll do an e-book, certainly, but then you have to decide whether or not to also do a print version. Some indie authors don’t. They say the print books don’t sell enough to make it worthwhile, especially since print-on-demand (POD) books aren’t stocked in stores. Especially not books printed by Amazon’s CreateSpace, which many bookstores view as the enemy. (I’ve mentioned in the past that I’ve run into this problem myself. One of my publishers used CreateSpace for the paperback version of my book, and none of my local stores will carry it because of that.)

Still, there are people who don’t read e-books, and many industry professionals say it’s best to offer some kind of print version to maximize your chances of being read. Also, I’ve noticed many indie book awards require you to have your book in print.

So you want to print your book, and you don’t want to use Amazon. What are your other options? Well, it’s possible to do offset (traditional) printing, even if you’re an indie author. Let’s look at the differences between POD and offset.

POD
Pros: environmentally friendly since books are only printed when ordered; costs little to nothing for the author; the author doesn’t have to warehouse any stock
Cons: costs more per copy; there is no discount for a bulk order; choices of paper and trim sizes, etc. are limited; quality control issues; general stigma; bookstores won’t stock and libraries seldom order them

Offset
Pros: the more you print, the more money you save; more printing options overall; greater quality control; bookstores and libraries are more willing to stock them
Cons: costs more money up front; authors must warehouse the books or pay to have them warehoused by a distributor

How to decide? Sometimes it comes down to whether you have the money and the room in your garage to do your own print run. But really you need to know a couple things:

1. Who are you selling to? If bookstores and libraries, then you want to do offset. If directly to readers, POD might be fine so long as you’re relatively sure the books will print at good enough quality.

2. How many books can you realistically sell? Offset only makes sense if you print 250+ copies. Do you have space to keep those somewhere? Do you think you can sell that many at events, etc.? You also need to be prepared to fulfill orders from home.

Can you do both? Sure. You can have POD and a print run.

Why do bookstores balk at stocking POD titles? Because bookstores are used to receiving a discount (of about 55%) from distributors. They can’t get that discount with POD. Also, bookstores can return unsold books to distributors, but not POD books. And, again, many POD titles come from Amazon, which bookstores see as a competitor.

A viable alternative is IngramSpark, which does have a POD option but also lets you set a discount for bookstores. And Ingram is a known distributor that bookstores and libraries are comfortable working with. You’ll still need to market your titles to bookstores and libraries, but you’ll be able to say, “It’s available from Ingram” and they’ll know what that means.

Be sure, when doing a print version, that you have a good formatter and designer. The skills to create a good print book are somewhat different from those needed for an e-book. Many book designers can do both, but do your homework and find a good one.

Clear as mud? Great! Indie authors have to make a lot of decisions, and how (or whether) to print the book is just one of a long list. I hope this post helps you choose the best way to bring your book into the world.

SFWC 2018: Exploring Your Publishing Options

There are three basic types of publishing:

  • traditional
  • independent (or self-publishing)
  • hybrid

Traditional publishing takes the form of writing a book, finding an agent, and then sending the book out to publishers. Some publishing houses—particularly small ones—will accept unsolicited manuscripts directly from the author (meaning no agent is required). However, it’s recommended that you not sign a contract without input from an agent or appropriate counsel. In traditional publishing, the author is not required to contribute any money to the process. If a publisher or agent ever tries to charge you money, RUN.

Indie publishing is when the author takes full responsibility for producing the book. That doesn’t mean the author doesn’t need help, however. Indie authors should always have their books edited by a professional, and they should hire good cover artists and formatters/designers (though in some cases having good software may make the need for an outside formatter obsolete). There are “author services” companies that will provide all this, but authors must be careful not to be trapped by scam artists. The big difference between indie and traditional is that an author must invest money in their book before making any back from sales. Not everyone can afford to do that.

Hybrid publishing also requires the author to pay, so again, it’s not for everyone. The thing that distinguishes a hybrid publisher from a vanity press is that a hybrid publisher will have a submissions process. They won’t take just anyone. They will also provide distribution for your book, something that’s difficult to arrange as an indie author. She Writes Press is an example of a hybrid publisher, and co-founder of SWP Brooke Warner was on this panel to discuss the options authors have when publishing.

Now, “hybrid publisher” should not be confused with “hybrid author.” A hybrid author is an author who has some works traditionally published and some indie published.

Stephanie Chandler noted that traditional publishing doesn’t allow the author much control of the process or his/her work. She had a couple of books traditionally published and realized she wanted more say. Brooke Warner said that her reason for starting SWP was that while working for a traditional publisher she was forced to pass up great manuscripts because the authors didn’t have a platform. She wanted to create a way for those books to be brought to the public.

Hybrid publishing is still new enough that there are no established criteria, but the IBPA is working to change that. It’s anticipated that in the next few months they will be coming out with a list of standards for publishers to qualify as “hybrid.”

No matter which option you choose—and these days, you can choose something different for each book if you want—you need to know the market and your audience. Even if you’re published traditionally, you need to be prepared to do much of your own marketing. Know your genre and keep up with whatever is going on in the industry.

Nina Amir pointed out, “Having your book stand beside traditional books on the shelf means it needs to go through the same rigorous process. If you’re not going the traditional route, you need to put your own money where the publisher would normally put theirs.”

Speed is also a factor. The traditional publishing process takes years, and that’s not counting the amount of time it takes to write the book and find an agent. Hybrid publishing can take less time, and indie publishing takes the least amount of time. In short, the more people involved in publishing a book, the longer it takes.

Hopefully this gives you a sense of your publishing options. Feel free to ask questions in the comments!

San Francisco Writers Conference 2018: Self-Publishing Summit

So, as promised, I will now begin blogging about the various sessions I attend while at SFWC. The first one I went to was the self-publishing summit. (This was yesterday; sorry for delays in posting, but things move fast a furious during these conferences, and getting away is not always easy.)

This “summit” was a large panel that consisted of: Mark Coker of Smashwords; Robin Cutler of IngramSpark; Helen Sedwick; Andrew Burelson of BetaBooks; Brooke Warner of She Writes Press; Karla Olson of Book Studio; and Angela Bole of IBPA.

Karla Olson pointed out relatively early in the session that she dislikes the term “self-publishing.” She said, “We don’t call it ‘self-rock’ or ‘self-film,’ so why don’t we use ‘indie’ for writing, too?”

From there the session mainly opened to questions. One author who had published with Author House asked why he’d heard they were such a bad company, especially since he was very happy with the results? Helen Sedwick, with her legal savvy, pointed out that the contracts from Author House and Author Solutions and their subsidiaries are simply not very author friendly. Authors have difficulty getting their rights back and don’t own their ISBNs. Mark Coker said the Author House and its ilk overcharge for services and pressure authors to buy more and more expensive marketing packages.

So then the question naturally became: What sets a hybrid publisher apart from a vanity publisher?

Angela Bole noted that IBPA is working to standardize a criteria for hybrid publishers, but the key difference is that a hybrid publisher will still have a submission process and standards for what it published. Vanity presses accept any and all content regardless of how good it is. So long as the author is willing to pay, they’ll print it.

Moderator Carla King pointed out that authors should always own their own ISBNs. Buy them from Bowker, or IngramSpark will also sell you an ISBN that you will own. DON’T take the free ISBN from Amazon/CreateSpace.

If a vendor refuses to use your ISBN, that’s a red flag. Always look at the vendor and its motivations.

Mark Coker said, “Anyone can publish a book, but do they help you sell it?” In other words, their money should come from selling books, not selling services to authors.

The next question that cropped up: What is hybrid publishing?

As co-founder of hybrid press She Writes Press, Brooke Warner responded that hybrid presses usually have a mission of some kind, that they vet the content (that is, there is a submission process), and they offer distribution of some kind that sells to the market.

Not to be confused with the term “hybrid author,” which is an author who has published some books traditionally and some independently. (I’m a hybrid author.)

An author asked which path was best for those who want to control their content.

Mark Coker replied, “The most successful authors on Smashwords are control freaks.”

In truth, if you want control over your work, you probably want to self-publish. But remember that having control means also having full responsibility for marketing and every other aspect of publishing. The wonderful thing about being an author in this day and age is that you can write a book and 100% be sure that it can be published. Maybe not by the publisher you’re hoping for, but there is a path to publishing no matter what—if you want to take that path.

There came a question about BetaBooks. This is a new site that allows authors to see the progress their beta readers are making on their manuscripts, which can help pinpoint engagement. It also helps the authors compile the feedback and act on it. This ultimately allows authors to find fans and build “street teams” for their books.

How to find a publisher or know whether the publisher is any good?

Helen Sedwick said to:

  • look at the books themselves
  • ask authors that have worked with the publisher
  • look at Amazon rankings
  • do your homework and research

Then it was time to address the elephant in the room: What about Amazon?

Mark Coker noted that Amazon is the largest retailer in the world, and authors do need to be on there. However, authors shouldn’t be dependent on Amazon; it shouldn’t be their only revenue stream.

Brook Warner said not to use CreateSpace for your print books because then many bookstores won’t stock your book. (I can second this since I’ve run into this problem myself.)

“Know your endgame,” said Karla Olson. “Know what your goal is and plan accordingly. If all you want is a book on Amazon, that’s fine. But if you want your book in stores, then you have to plan differently.”

Is there still a stigma attached to self- (or indie) publishing?

Brook Warner admitted to how infuriating those notions can be. Though the overall feeling toward indie and hybrid publishing is changing, there are still many associations that will bar self-published authors from membership, many prizes that only consider traditionally published books. Karla Olson said, “Books should be evaluated on their content, not their production method.”

How does an author find readers?

Angela Bole pointed out that marketing is publishing. You can’t just make content available and hope for the best. (Well, you can, but don’t expect to sell any books that way.)

A good publisher will create a plan with you. Distribution is also something you want to look for in a publisher. With 1.5 million books being published every year, discoverability is incredibly difficult.

So there it is, you’re first correspondence course in this year’s writing conference. Questions? Comments? Let’s hear ’em!

Self-Publishing

This is not by any means meant to be a comprehensive list of how to self-publish. But someone sent me a message on Facebook asking for self-publishing guidance, and I wrote, well, a lot. Like, a really long answer. And it occurred to me that others might like this information, too.

The important thing to remember is that there is no “one size fits all” in self-publishing. It’s a living, organic system that changes regularly. But some of the core steps remain the same. The goal is to produce a really good book, and that’s not something you can rush.

So here is my long-winded response to the person who asked for advice:

Okay, for starters you need to know *why* you’re self-publishing. Is it because you already tried agents and publishers and didn’t get anywhere? Or because you prefer to do it yourself? I was telling my writing group that you either invest time—queries—or money—self-publishing.

But what are you hoping to get in return? Is it about making money or are you really just looking to get your story out there? (They don’t have to be mutually exclusive, of course, but will you feel “successful” if you only sell a few copies? What will make you happy? It’s important to know.) I highly recommend the FB group For Love or Money. Lots of self-published authors there with lots of great advice.

Assuming you’ve answered these questions for yourself, you have to (a) write the book, (b) get feedback from critique partners and beta readers, (c) rewrite, (d) get more feedback, (e) repeat the revision-feedback cycle until the book is polished and shiny, (f) get it professionally edited, (g) get a cover made, (h) format the book, or hire someone to format it, (i) decide if you’re going to be exclusive with Amazon or “go wide” with other publishers—well, you’ll need to know this when formatting, actually, (j) build buzz, (k) set up a pre-order, (l) build more buzz, (m) finally release the book and continue to market it while writing the next one.

It’s a lot of work.

And I’d say definitely go ahead and start a blog, Twitter, FB author page—whatever social media you’re comfortable using and think you will use consistently. DON’T start a blog if you don’t think you’ll use it because a blank blog is worse than no blog. But you want to start sending out little tidbits, reaching out to other authors in your genre, maybe ask them for guest posts on your blog or ask if anyone is willing to host a post by you. It’s a trade economy. “I’ll post about your book if you post about mine.” Start getting your name out there, catch people’s interest so they begin to anticipate your book.

That’s for starters, anyway. If you have more questions, I’m happy to answer. And I can point you to more resources, too, like the 20booksto50k FB group as well. The boards on the Absolute Write forum can be helpful, too, but overwhelming.

All of it can be overwhelming, actually. Which is why I broke it into steps. Don’t be scared! (But it’s okay if you are; even after years of this, I’m scared every time I write a new book.) Deep breaths, and tackle it one item at a time. Or two if you want to multi-task. And remember there is a very supportive community out here. We love helping—and go on and on as per this message. Sorry about that.

On the flip side: don’t take anyone’s advice too seriously. You’ll only freeze up. Go with what feels right and natural to you and your process. It’s different for everyone, can be different for every book even. Try stuff and decide what works for you.

Hope this helps. ~MPL

I’ve had my best success as an author through self-publishing. Which isn’t to say I don’t love my publishers, too. I’m so grateful to them for taking chances on me and my work. But it’s a simple fact that my self-published books have done better for whatever reasons. So I’ll continue to self-publish at least some of the time. I judge whether to query or self-pub on a book-by-book basis.

Anyway, as I state, I’m always happy to answer questions if and when I know the answers. And there are many wonderful resources out there. You don’t have to—and shouldn’t—do it alone! Writing may be a solo endeavor, but publishing is not.

Read Self-Published!

April is Read Self-Published Month, meant to encourage readers to try indie authors and self-published books. It can be so difficult to break into this business, which is an odd thing to say since it’s easier than ever to publish a book. The hard part comes in getting anyone to read those books!

That is where you, the reader, come in. We authors know you have a lot of options and there is a lot to sift through. How do you decide what to read? Do you browse a bookstore or library? Do you get recommendations from friends? Are you willing to try something you haven’t heard about yet, or an author you’ve never heard of? Do you base the decision on price or star ratings, or some combination of these things, or something else entirely? It’s so very helpful to us authors to know! So we appreciate you telling us! (Leave an answer in the comments.)

As for me, I was first published in magazines and literary journals, then ventured into self-publishing, then had a couple books picked up by small publishers. You can see my full writing history here. My latest book is again self-published, mostly because I’ve had greater success self-publishing than elsewise. Brynnde is a Regency romance and it’s getting great reviews, so I hope you’ll consider giving it a try (you can read it for FREE if you have Kindle Unlimited). If that’s not your thing, I also write mystery and fantasy. See all my books on my Amazon page.

And if you’re visiting this site as a self-published author yourself, go ahead and read my post on “winning” at publishing.

Thank you for stopping by as part of Read Self-Published Month! Be sure to keep checking the Facebook page for more books, authors, giveaways, etc.

IWSG: Too Much = Not Enough

It’s time again for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group. Read and support writers by clicking here, and if you’re a writer you can also join!

I currently have three different writing projects in the works. Meanwhile, I’m also being slammed by one son’s baseball schedule and the other son’s physical therapy appointments as he learns to walk again after breaking his leg. I can hardly find two minutes to rub together, and when I do, I barely get warmed up before I have to get up and do something else. These days I’m lucky if I even get a paragraph written on any given day. I don’t know how I’ll ever finish writing any of my books!

Sorry for venting, but this is what I’m insecure about this month. Getting my writing done. Prioritizing my projects.

This month’s question: Have you taken advantage of the annual A to Z Challenge in terms of marketing, networking, publicity for your book? What were the results?

I’ve participated in A to Z twice. Once as an addendum to my Peter Stoller novellas (this was before The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller was published by Tirgearr), and once as the start of a sequel to The K-Pro. I don’t know that I’d call these “marketing” though the goal was to create greater awareness for the source materials. It’s not clear to me whether it worked in terms of getting people to buy and/or read either St. Peter in Chains or The K-Pro, though I did get a lot of site traffic and a few people have asked whether that K-Pro sequel will ever get written. The answer is: maybe? It’s still on my list of potential projects.

By the way, did you know this is also Read Self-Published Month? Visit the Facebook group to find out more and find some great new reads! And don’t forget you can read Brynnde for FREE via Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited!

“Winning”

I’ve told this story before, but I like to do it again periodically for new readers.

My first publishing credits came from small magazines and literary journals. But after that I ran up against the wall of agents and publishers, and I eventually self-published. My goal wasn’t money or fame. I just wanted my work to be out there for people to read.

We’re told as writers that what we should want—that “winning” as an author—is an agent and big publisher. And if that doesn’t happen, as we teeter on the brink of depression and despair, a small publisher will do. Because the important thing, or so we’re taught, is that someone thinks we’re good enough to publish.

When I made the jump from self-published to being published by a couple small publishers, I thought I’d finally “won.” If not the jackpot (i.e., an agent and big publisher), then at least a scratch-off lotto ticket.

But here’s the thing, “winning” as an author is NOT about finding an agent or publisher. As it turns out, my initial instincts were right all along. The jackpot is having your book out there and finding readers. Readers are the jackpot. Not agents, not publishers.

This is nothing against my publishers. I’m so grateful to them for taking a chance on me, and nothing beats experience. I’m only saying that it doesn’t matter as much as we’re prompted to believe it does. What matters is whether readers will pick up your book and, well, read it.

Does having a publisher maximize this possibility? Maybe, maybe not. It might depend on the publisher. It definitely depends on the book.

All I’m really saying is that self-publish does not equal failure. You haven’t “lost” if you self-publish. How you get there matters less than actually getting there.

By the way, thank you SO MUCH for helping me reach my destination! Brynnde is now my most successful book since my Sherlock Holmes stories! If you haven’t read it already, I hope you’ll give it a try. You can read it for FREE via Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited.