August 21, 2012

For the Path to Publication, the Map Is under Development

An author I have worked with, Jessica Bell, posted a link today to an article from Forbes: Publishing Is Broken, We're Drowning in Indie Books - and That's a Good Thing, by David Vinjamuri. Here is the link.  I wrote a lengthy comment on Facebook about the article, and decided to post it here as well. I'd love to know your thoughts.

I'll be traveling for a few days, so may be delayed in replying to your comments...

My response to Vinjamuri's article:

I can see this issue from several sides: publisher, author, reader. And, Vinjamuri covers the subject well. He doesn't talk much about editing, though, and what I've noticed in 14 years of working with indie authors/self-publishers is that they, some of them, devalue editing. They don't understand the role of an editor, they don't know how to evaluate if an editor is able to do the professional job needed, they confuse proofreading with editing, and they don't know how to access the level of editor they need to ensure their book has its best chance. (The same can often be true of cover design.)

I can't tell you how many times a book has come to me for design already having been "edited" and it is in no way ready for publication. But the author doesn't see it. I've often been hired to re-edit work that was previously edited at great cost and, to be completely honest, there have been times others have been brought in to do a second round of editing on work that I've been involved in (because it takes years to learn how to be a great editor). Publishing houses have multiple people who are professionals and read the manuscript and offer structural suggestions and marketing suggestions and proofreading suggestions. A self-publisher, even if he or she hires the best designer and freelance editor available, would find it difficult to replicate the team effort publishers put into books (at least some books, certainly not all, and certainly not as they did as assuredly decades ago).

It all comes down to money. It takes money to make money. It takes years to learn how to write. It takes years to learn how to edit. I bet if there was a survey, 80% of the people in the US would say they "want to write a book" or "could write a book." In actual fact, it is not such an easy thing to write a successful book. It's a profession, but how does one get paid while they develop the experience and time in the chair at the keyboard that is necessary? And then, when they are finally *there*, a young acquiring editor feels they are too old at 40 or 50 to have much to say.

I have been astounded by the poor quality of ebooks being promoted by self-publishing authors who are hurting their careers by their rush to publish. At the same time, as a writer I understand this and have perhaps fallen victim to the seducing voice of publication as well. I am writing a book. What will happen to it? Who will read it? Is there hope of finding a publisher for it? Should I spend all that time on it then?

Many small publishers will find it difficult to be profitable selling ebooks. The profit margin is so slim. And, in selling printed books, there are so many difficulties on the distribution end. The distributor who gave me my start has gone bankrupt. Borders, the most open store to small publishers, has gone bankrupt. Sometimes I feel like starting a little printed catalog and mailing it out to people to look at while they read their coffee and maybe they will order a book. In fact, there are a few publishers who send me this sort of thing and I love them. The brochures are quirky and the publishers have a definite brand.

I have thought about going the other direction from print on demand, in the direction of collectors' editions of handcrafted books, and then an ebook for those who can't afford the handcrafted book. I'm going to look at this option for "Finding Pletonia."

As a former publisher, I can tell you that ending my 11 years as a publisher (due to the climate of publishing, the numbers, the lack of capital, the competition, the returns, the time in my life that all these things took place, the other choices that I had that were more profitable and fulfilling) has been sobering and of course caused me to think about what works and what doesn't; for me, for authors, and for publishers. And also for readers! I keep settling into bed with books that just don't work well or were not marketed/titled/designed/categorized/proofread correctly.

What I would say to any writer starting out who wants to be published is to write because you must; because there is nothing else on earth you want to do more than writing; because you are willing to work at it; because you want to do it whether you succeed or not. Figure out a way to support yourself, educate yourself about the craft of writing; save up for the services of the best editor you can find, and keep at it.

A final word: Be sure to visit the link to the Forbes article that prompted my post, and also read the many great comments writers have left. It is very insightful and, I think, inspiring to see their comments. I think it is a wonderful time to be a writer, but it is a confusing time as well. The nature of publishing is in transition and it will be exciting to see what the landscape looks like in 3, or 5, or 10 years!

 Forbes: Publishing Is Broken, We're Drowning in Indie Books - and That's a Good Thing, by David Vinjamuri. Here is the link.

~Janice Phelps Williams, (I am an editor, illustrator, and book designer and have brought more than 250 books "to life" since 1997. I am also the author of the "traditionally" published book: Open Your Heart with Pets: Mastering Life through Love of Animals)


Wendy said...

Loved hearing your thoughts on this, Janice.

I cannot say enough about how important the editing process is. The more people you have look at your book and comment on it the better. And all the different WAYS you can look at a book -- crit partners, beta readers, general editors, line editors/copyeditors, proofreaders etc etc. Each with their own special strengths and talents and how they laser focus on things.

The biggest, and saddest, problem in my opinion is economical. If you are going to self-publish you have the initial outlay of doing all the things a publisher has to do without the added benefit of the connections and established name and relationships, etc.

So, if you can't do ANYTHING yourself (like design your own book cover) you're looking at $300-400 for book design (minimum), $1000-1500 for editing/proofing. This is super bare bones pricing, but at that it means that if you can get $2 return on your book it's going to be a very long time before you cover the cost of your initial investment.

Of course, with POD and epublishing books last forever. And you don't have to worry about printing books in advance that will never sell and your book won't ever go out of print. I'm still new to all this but it looks to me like where you win is being a very long-term thinker. Make the best book you can, be prolific and keep reminding yourself you're not here for the money. Otherwise, I think we just all end up lying broken and ruined on the pile of skeletons of the writers gone before us. :)

Karen S. Elliott said...

I feel uncomfortable commenting on posts like this – because I am an editor and proofreader and don’t want people to think I’m commenting simply to gather new clients. Instead of writing, writing, writing, many indie writers should be studying the ART of writing. Learn how to write better, learn how to get rid of passive voice, learn how to write a decent scene, learn how to engage readers with interesting characters, dialog, and metaphors. And that’s just simple stuff. I would love to see more successful, deserving indie writers. As far as the editor expense goes, do some belt-tightening. Writers can find a good, affordable editor if they shop around (and put $4 in a jar instead of buying an expensive latte every day at the local coffee shop). Don’t finish your book on Monday, Google “editor” on Tuesday, and expect to publish by Thursday.

Janice Phelps Williams said...

Wendy, thank you for your comment. You're absolutely correct: long-term thinking is key. Building a career, not just selling a book. Building connections with customers... this is how any business venture succeeds. If a person takes their artistic expression and wants it to be profitable, then they have to think commercially as well; careful editing is similar to making certain top-quality ingredients are used by the chef in a restaurant, or the best materials are used to build furniture. It's quality versus quantity, but in our society we tend to think "More! Faster!" and then are surprised when that doesn't wield the money we were actually after.

Karen: You are so right about the ART of writing. Writers who know nothing about editorial terms or the structure of a book... Writers who do not READ... I'm sure you've seen it all, as have I. Their hearts are in the right place, but they think it is easy because everyone in their family has said "You should write a book!" Having a story and writing a book are two different things. Hence the need for editors and ghostwriters! On the other hand, I have worked with many clients who do get it. Who take a few years to work on their craft, or who study hundreds of juvenile books before attempting to write one, or who use focus groups, or attend writers workshops... I worked with one writer who could tell a very good story, but during the process of producing her book, it became clear that she could not spell. At all. There was probably a reason, but this was a person who would always need a careful proofreader by her side. We worked through this, lots of editing was done, the book was very good and received good reviews. Her future as an author looked promising. Then she released a book on her own that obviously had not been edited. I bought it, started reading, and just wanted to cry. With every few pages I saw that she had not hired an editor and I realized (and confirmed this with a former NYC agent whom I asked about this) that she might as well have thrown litter in the path of her promising future. It would have been better to have brought out no second book at all, than this unedited effort. Sad to say, I have seen this happen more than once. There are many editors and lots of work to go around.

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