Category Archives: adapting

Self-publishing has its risks

I began representing authors late in 2008, shortly after self-publishing suddenly had become incredibly easy and no longer required an up-front contribution of cash. Optional, carefully considered investments in the editing, design, and marketing of a self-published book were likely to improve its popularity with readers and increase sales, but at the time, few eager self-publishers were thinking that far ahead. There were no barriers to entry and no obligations to understand the market’s demands. Making a book available to readers was thought to be, by definition, the only truly necessary element of publishing. The outcome was up to consumers, who would decide what they liked best. And they did.

For about a decade, self-publishing expanded exponentially and matured. Successful, entrepreneurial indie authors generously began to share their expertise online. Self-published and reissued out-of-print titles flooded the market, which, as expected, had unfortunate economic consequences for individual authors attempting to profit from their written works.

In 2008, plenty of aspiring authors believed that digital self-publishing, which sometimes incorporated a crowdsourcing component, would destroy the traditional, established trade book publishing industry. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the acquiring editors with whom I discussed technological innovation back then weren’t feeling threatened or concerned. Today, the predominantly East Coast trade book publishing industry has adapted to the extent it was forced to, mass market paperback editions face extinction, and crowdsourcing has been usurped by crowdfunding—or, put your money where your mouth is.

The past decade began with writers asserting they no longer needed literary agents or traditional publishers and is ending with some of the same writers searching for literary agents or publishers who they hope might be persuaded to help reissue their self-published titles so the books can find a much larger readership. Of course, I don’t hear from the self-published authors who apprehend the demands of the market or the ones who are satisfied with the results of their efforts. A self-published author who had mastered entrepreneurship would realize she’d be asking me and a potential publisher to invest thousands of dollars worth of labor and capital in a market-tested book that had already publicly proven its value as an investment, and she wouldn’t waste her time trying to interest me in a book if it hadn’t sold phenomenally well. I can’t champion an author whose past performance doesn’t meet the expectations of the publishers with whom we’d be trying to collaborate. Doing so would benefit no one.

Queries from self-published authors are trending now in a sudden, stark shift. As a literary agent, I’m invisible and, nevertheless, a convenient bullseye. I understand how unfulfilled dreams can turn certain writers bitterly indignant. No one enjoys being judged when the standards are severely high. Fortunately, the ill-mannered are serendipitously counterbalanced by unrewarded yet still gracious writers who I know will continue reading, researching, practicing, experimenting, and improving in order to progress as far their talents and skills can take them on their chosen paths.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. As ever, regardless of how much variety they are offered, consumers gravitate en masse to read, discuss, recommend, and eagerly anticipate the screen adaptations of books written by a tiny fraction of a percentage of authors—the ones all authors would like to be and all agents would like to represent.

Book and target concept

What living in the South has shown me

Middleton Place, Charleston, South Carolina

  Middleton Place, Charleston, South Carolina

I lived the first fifty years of my life north of the Mason-Dixon line in two blue Ohio counties surrounded by red ones. When I moved to South Carolina in 2012, I had to recalibrate my bullshit detector, which takes a lot of trial and error. I’m still disconcerted by the deceitfulness of people who have tried to befriend me and by the self-confident warmth of those who, in the North, automatically would have doubted me and frozen me out until I proved myself trustworthy. I had been expecting the opposite, which is to say, Northern stereotypes are useless in the South.

It so happened that I moved during 2015 to the coastal town of Beaufort, South Carolina, midway between Charleston and Savannah, a few weeks before a young, self-proclaimed white supremacist shot and killed nine African American congregation members in the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. I hadn’t been oblivious to the existence of the alt-right in America. Neither had I assimilated into the Southern culture beyond accepting that it was compulsory to express a greeting when passing someone on the sidewalk. That summer after the church murders I wondered where, exactly, I had planted myself. Or more precisely, among whom?

In the days following the hateful attack on innocent churchgoers, part of the Southern African American culture that had mystified me was articulated straightforwardly: “Wrong Church! Wrong People!”

I remember fumbling to explain to anyone who cared or at least listened that the African American people I encountered in South Carolina were not hostile, militant, deferential, or even avoidant. Their interactions with me were remarkably different than what I’d been accustomed to in the North. Particularly here in Beaufort, where some of the African American citizens are connected to the Gullah Geechee culture, their relaxed self-assurance is beautiful. I admire it.

After the racially motivated killings in Charleston, the members of the Emanuel AME Church congregation automatically lived their creed of peace, nonviolence, and forgiveness—Christians behaving exactly as Christian doctrine had taught them to respond to hate. It was an inspiring moment in the wake of unspeakable evil. It also placed into context the manners of my black neighbors in the South, which until then had puzzled me. Without saying anything, all along they had been demonstrating, “You can’t drag us down into the gutter. We’re better than that. We’re better than you.” I am a proud, incorrigibly idealistic child of the ’60s, and it makes me deeply happy to have them as role models.

The demands of commercial authorhood today

daydreamer

  Photo courtesy of Alexander Solodukhin

Daydreaming fosters creativity. Industriousness, on the other hand, is beneficial for commerce. Rarely is a creative writer equally productive in both modes.

Everyone’s favorite writers’ conferences and how-to-get-published guides gently encourage and inspire. They wouldn’t be as popular if they presented a fully realistic picture of what it takes for an author to succeed commercially—that is, by selling lots of books. As an unfortunate, unintended result, many aspiring book authors are led too soon to believe they’re ready to compete with their idols in the publishing world. I’m conflicted about how to bring this matter up with prospective clients.

The telltale promise that exposes naïve writers every time is, “I’m willing to do whatever it takes for my book to succeed.” They feel compelled to say it, because they haven’t begun to envision and haven’t yet started whatever it takes. Technically, it’s a failure of their imagination. It shouldn’t happen.

My job is to screen out the dilettantes and hobbyists and to coach the thoughtful, devoted, solid professionals who have chosen writing as a career path. Following are some of the questions I try to remember to ask prospective clients when we’re deciding whether we’ll be able to work together.

Takeaway: If you don’t have good answers to these questions, then there’s no need to pitch your manuscript to me. You’re not ready.

How much time can you invest in building your writing career, knowing you’ll simultaneously need to spend significant time earning income? Holding down a day job is not an issue if you have enough passive income or savings to support yourself for more than a few years. Will any of your commitments over the next several years prohibit you from being in the public eye and from devoting a lot of unpaid time to your author platform and your writing? *

Have you already proven you’ll be able to market yourself as an author? Have you developed a following or any sort of name recognition among a sufficiently large group of people who are likely to buy your book? Consider that selling books primarily to the writers in your social circle isn’t an ideal marketing strategy, unless your book happens to be a writers’ manual.

Can you show me articles, essays, or stories you’ve written that were published in journals and magazines or on websites with some traffic? While unremunerative, collecting publication credits can be a quick-start learning experience. By the way, I tell new writers that it’s likely to take sixty submissions to get a first short story or essay published in a selective journal or magazine, including the digital ones.

Do you write a column or blog for a print or online publication? Landing that sort of (typically low-paying) gig demonstrates your ability to network and collaborate with an editor.

Do you have a professional-looking website and an active, engaging presence on significant social media sites? Which authors’ websites are your benchmarks? Don’t think of emulating but learn from the living authors you most admire.

If you’ve made no initial progress on your author platform before contacting me, then I’ll be forced to assume you never will. It takes a great deal of time to acquire the technical and social skills and then to execute a long-term publicity strategy for a career. Many, in fact most, writers aren’t terribly teachable or motivated to work on their techniques for self-promotion, without which their chances of succeeding as a commercial author are just too remote. I’m obligated to choose clients who are prepared to knock it out of the park, not those who have never shown up for batting practice.

I do my utmost to prepare a new client to collaborate successfully with a publisher and with the people who will offer opportunities for good publicity that might increase book sales. The actual work is up to the writer. Some might prefer to find and hire freelancers to help with some of their responsibilities. I don’t recommend delegating tasks, because no one will care more about the success of a book than its author. Usually it’s obvious when there’s no practical possibility that a potential client will follow through on vague promises to hire someone to do the work they don’t want, or don’t know how, to do.

Once a book is under contract, a publisher’s timeline is unyielding. Authors sometimes are asked, for example, to turn around revisions or proofs in as little as two weeks. No one will worry whether those two weeks happen to fall during the author’s annual vacation in the Florida Keys. Grace under pressure is an enormously valuable trait.

I emphasize to new clients the benefit of rolling up their sleeves. If a publishing team begins to sense that their new author isn’t working as hard as they are to launch the author’s book successfully, then the publisher’s staff will shift their focus to another book by another author. Conversely, if an author is going above and beyond anyone’s expectations to generate amazingly creative publicity for a book, then the publishing team will be enthusiastic and motivated, at least to care, even if they don’t have a spare moment to act. The caring part matters. It ripples out. The word spreads. You’ve got to read this one!

Debut authors get one chance to establish their commercial viability. It doesn’t matter whether their first books are self-published or traditionally published. The sales data are inescapable. To the largest trade book publishers, an author was a financial risk who cautiously was given an opportunity to become a profitable investment. If readers didn’t show their approval by purchasing thousands of copies of the author’s book, the record of poor sales becomes all but impossible to overcome. When a book flops, according to the trade book publishing industry’s definition of failure at the time, then commercial publishers won’t invest in the author’s future works. It doesn’t matter how gifted the author is or how much I believe in and like the person. A first-time author is viewed as a more strategic risk than one whose published book hasn’t sold well.

I’ve been through this fantasy-wrecking process with writers who thought they could either a) embark on degree programs, internships, alternate career development, or other major new endeavors while simultaneously building a career as a book author, or b) immediately discard all of their practical plans in favor of a career as a book author, without realizing how slim the chance that writing ever will generate an income sufficient to live on. The illusion of overnight success is the de facto gate beyond which most aspiring authors can’t progress.

These demands might seem unbearable or unfair, but as long as a few good writers are finding imaginative ways to put in whatever effort is required to succeed commercially, they will be the ones setting the bar so high.

How do you plan to manage all of the work ahead of you?

* In case you haven’t noticed, these expectations have an unfair and disparate impact on writers who are not wealthy but desire careers in the arts requiring many hours of labor with little likelihood of financial gain. I already do a lot of pro bono work as an agent, as I’m sure most authors’ representatives do, because we believe in trying to mitigate the existing disadvantages. At least one nonprofit literary agency exists in the U.S. Check it out. Individual publishing houses and arts funding agencies contribute much more to solving this persistent problem.

Encouragement for aspiring authors: foolishness will eliminate most of your competition

Aspiring authors eager for encouragement can be glad of one thing, which I can promise will never change: human nature. Most of their competitors—other writers vying to win readers—will fail to capitalize on the opportunities they’re given. They will consider themselves too talented to be overlooked, too intelligent to take advice, and too exceptional to fail.

Day after day, I receive queries from authors whose books were published, either traditionally or nontraditionally, but then languished without appreciable sales. These writers took or were given their chances and did not make the most of them. Usually, they haven’t recognized or tried to rectify the problems that kept their books from reaching or appealing to readers. When it’s too late, they want someone else to repair the damage.

I don’t often hear from unsuccessful authors who know exactly where they stand. I’m contacted by those who are mystified by book buyers’ disappointing reactions to their work. Oblivious to the reasons, these particular writers remain confident that fairytale success will find them if only they believe in themselves.

No amount of testimony by successful authors whose years of struggle and relentless practice enabled their careers will convince a writer who doesn’t want to face the unpleasant aspects of the business of creative writing. The obstacles include endless revisions and rejections, critical scrutiny, meager pay, and a market robust enough to cater to readers’ every whim rather than every writer’s wallet. Unwavering perfectionism, sincere humility and willingness to learn, and the ability to connect with audiences are rare qualities even in the most talented writers. That’s why there are so few success stories, compared to failed attempts, in book publishing. The coincidence of necessary personal and professional qualities is truly unusual.

Occasionally, good writers do recognize how much effort and time it will cost them to achieve the careers they envision, and the realization paralyzes them. They may believe they can’t handle the pressure or the demands on their time, that the market isn’t fair, or that their aspirations are self-indulgent. I have more sympathy for them than for the failed author who is hobbled by a big ego. The fact remains that authors today have more choices and resources than ever before to enable their success. Along with those choices and opportunities goes the personal responsibility to make the best use of them.

Sounds true, you say, but where should a writer who honestly wants to improve seek reliable, free advice? Here are a few good sources.

Start Here: How to Get Your Book Published by Jane Friedman

Online Critique Groups for Writers

A Flowchart For Diagnosing Self Publishing Problems by Morris Rosenthal

Author Marketing Experts, Inc.

Lion of St. Mark

  Lion of St. Mark

There’s no magic. Succeeding as a book author is hard work.

My work isn’t easy. The work my clients do isn’t easy. I’ve had clients who didn’t want being a successful book author to be challenging work. They aren’t my clients anymore.

For some writers who are consumed with the idea of getting a literary agent and having a book published, their obsession feels an awful lot like work. The dream occupies their time and exhausts their patience, yet it doesn’t result in progress. It’s especially easy for them to find and commiserate with other writers who don’t make particularly good role models. It’s harder to find a way out of the rut.

The level of difficulty and the amount of work involved are the reasons there are relatively few successful authors. Not many writers possess the necessary creative talent along with a willingness to develop crucial skills and the time to devote to the job of collaborating, improving, and adapting.

There’s no magic, no secret, no shortcut. It’s purely hard work.

don't just stand there

  Photo courtesy of Jeff Sheldon

The story writes us

We constantly imagine pictures, or create muscle memory, or devise stories to help us recall how to perform tasks, analyze problems, and relate to other people. We tend to learn these methods from each other, rather than invent new ones, and consequently both good and inefficient strategies are passed along. The strategies suffice if they’re relatively effective. They needn’t be perfect, as evolutionary theory shows.

At a 2000 conference on the subjects of autobiography, biography, and memoir, Michal Govrin said the story writes us all. “Whenever we write, we shape things,” she said, and biography—the story—is a metaphor for the process of acculturation. There is, she reminded the audience, often a preconceived plot. People try to tell their stories in a certain way, to conform to a belief structure.

Most illuminating was Govrin’s conclusion: “It is very difficult to leave a story.”

Beware of (not) being yourself

Children quickly discover that the most effective technique for survival involves conforming to their parents’ or caregiver’s values, regardless of whether the adults’ values are healthy or appropriate. Rarely does anyone intervene in a relationship between a parent and a child simply because a child is learning maladaptive behavior. Eventually, without being fully aware of it, most children adopt versions of their parents’ values.

If asked why they’ve embraced certain beliefs, most adults don’t claim to have reasoned things out. Instead, they cite authorities recognized by their social group or, startled, they insist the validity of a particular value system is obvious or ordained. Real awareness of the origins of their beliefs is unusual. Internal conflicts and self-doubt are easily attributed to the harmful influence of unseen spirits or the sordid side of human nature.

No matter how often we’re told that individuality is something to appreciate and that we’re all endowed with the right to be who we really are, conformity is the rule. Ostracism is the penalty for believing a little too eagerly that we can be true to ourselves. Some people can’t handle ostracism. It takes enormous strength and at least a little support from others—affiliation for which a person must qualify with some degree of compliance.

And yet, denying who we really are and what we truly believe is a form of hopelessness. It’s a serpent whose bite is painful and obvious.

We don’t choose either individuality or conformity. We constantly struggle to find a good place between the two. The effort is lifelong, and it never, never gets easier.

Writers who take the initiative gain an advantage

It’s difficult for new writers to comprehend that having a literary agent doesn’t mean the end of all rejections. When I’m able to persuade an acquiring editor to read a manuscript, the writer continues to face considerable competition. At the major U.S. publishing houses, each acquiring editor opts to read perhaps fifty or more manuscripts per year and selects from them maybe five or fewer that are published.

Lately, when manuscripts of equal quality are being evaluated, one factor that tends to tip the scales in favor of an acquisition is the author’s ability to help promote the title before and after it’s published. Publishers aren’t impressed with earnest promises; before investing, they look at what an author already has done to become familiar and interesting to readers.

Six years ago, when I started my agency, consideration of an author’s platform wasn’t as prevalent among publishers, but aspiring authors were learning how to use social media to their advantage. Now that a good percentage of creative writers are entrepreneurial, many editors view the absence of a platform (or the lack of an established readership, or name recognition, or whatever you choose to call it) as an additional reason to disqualify a manuscript and move on to those that have more potential to be profitable.

Some writers simply aren’t good at self-promotion, and it’s not something anyone can do for them. On the other hand, when a publicist at a publishing house and an author are able to collaborate easily—when they’re on the same page, so to speak, and the publicist doesn’t need to do much explaining—a successful book marketing campaign is far more likely.

Some writers excel at self-promotion, but their manuscripts aren’t superlative. What then? Is it easier and more cost-effective to fix an imperfect manuscript or to teach a writer how to make connections with readers? The jury’s still out on that question. I suspect that by the time I’m reading a query from an aspiring author, the individual already has reached his or her peak performance in both arenas and won’t be able to show much improvement. In other words, earnest promises don’t impress me. Evidence of self-initiative does.

Walt Whitman

  Detail of the entrance to the Detroit Public Library