Category Archives: reading

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

Best online explanations of the creative writing advice “show, don’t tell”

It’s sound advice. A creative writer ought to show the reader what is happening in a story instead of telling or explaining too directly. Overtelling can make a novel read like a screenplay treatment.

The exception that immediately comes to mind occurs when an engaging and intriguing narrator recounts a story in a particular, even peculiar, manner that indirectly reveals parts of the hidden narrative. The narrator then becomes a significant character in the story. Too many writers unconsciously are the narrators of the books they write, when they would do better to invent more compelling doppelgängers.

Any truly creative writer can break the “show, don’t tell” rule to marvelous effect, but it won’t be easy.

For the aspiring author who is trying not to hit the reader over the head, following are a few convincing explanations of “show, don’t tell,” which, by the way, also can be effective in journalism. Read these posts in descending order if you need to grapple with the concept of “show, don’t tell.” I’ve attempted to list the simplest explanations first.

4 Questions To Ask Before Self Publishing (See questions 2 and 4.)
by Beth Bacon

Ask the editor: Trusting the reader
by Alan Rinzler

Nuts and Bolts: “Thought” Verbs
by Chuck Palahniuk

Stop Explaining Your Story (And Start Showing It)
by Janice Hardy

Don’t Explain, Don’t Explain, Don’t Explain
by Beth Hill

How to Apply the Advice to “Show, Don’t Tell”
by Nick Daws

Another reminder that, even when showing, less is more

Overtelling, Overshowing, Overselling
by Jane Lebak

For extra credit: an allusion “is not a shout-out”

The quality of allusion is not google
by Nicholas Carr

Comprehending the rationale behind “show, don’t tell” can allow a writer to feel less coerced by critics and more in control of the creation. That’s how the reader prefers to feel, too—like a co-creator.

If you find any of the listed articles particularly helpful, then by all means go thank their authors. Praise is in short supply these days.

Litmags that specialize in disability-related literature

pen and journals

Photo courtesy of Joanna Kosinska

Online, a creative writer can find her tribe much more easily than is possible anywhere else. The following disability-focused literary publications are readily discoverable and of interest to all, but they’re especially important to writers with disabilities.

I’ll add to this list when similar publications come to my attention. Please let me know if I’ve missed any good ones.


Breath & Shadow

The Deaf Poets Society

Disability Studies Quarterly

Exceptions Journal



Snap Journal

Spectrum Extract

When Language Runs Dry


The Disability Literature Consortium and the blog DISPOET regularly post calls for submissions and other opportunities for writers. They encourage collaboration among artists.

Also of interest

Publishing stories about mental illness and recovery

Publications that specialize in the topics of illness, healing, and the medical professions

How will readers ever find your book?

It may well be that you don’t have enough time for a career as a book author, and writing is really just a hobby, a side gig, or a form of therapy for you. No problem. In that case, you don’t need a literary agent, or more correctly, the literary agent doesn’t need you. If you want to make money as an author, on the other hand, then your books must be discoverable. Readers won’t come to you. You’ll need to find ways to get on their radar. You’ll need to become an author whose books are recommended by one reader to another. That’s how books and their authors become bestsellers.

Let’s say your book was published in 2013. More than 300,000 new titles were traditionally published in the U.S. in 2013. In the same year in the U.S., more than 1,000,000 new titles were non-traditionally published, a figure that includes self-published books. How many of those books did you read? How many can you name? How many of the authors can you name? How would a stranger have ever found your book among the 1,300,000?

browsing books Manning

When you’re browsing in a bookstore, how many books do you leaf through before selecting one to buy? What attracts you? What makes you put a book down and choose another? Do you typically search for new titles from authors who are known to you? Do you like to read what your friends are reading? Your book is evaluated in the same ways.

If your book’s page on Amazon lacks a compelling description and any customer reviews, and the Amazon customer who happens to come across it has never heard of you, and you have no online presence to give the prospective buyer any information, then why would you expect the person to pay for your book instead of the latest from Clive Cussler or one of the titles longlisted for the Man Booker or the novel everyone at the hair salon is discussing?

If you know anything about online booksellers and social media, then you know it requires effort to capitalize on the exposure they can offer books and authors. It takes time and technical ability to maintain multiple online profiles and learn to write compelling sales copy. Working at it every day for three years might get you up to speed, provided you already possess some basic social skills. There are no shortcuts. Thousands of writers are there ahead of you.

Don’t know where to start with self-promotion? You can join the crowd of writers who remained clueless. You’ll know them. They’re the ones you’ve never heard of.

Everything you want and need to know about book marketing and self-promotion has been debated at length online, where you can find vast amounts of information on author platforms. Start with Jane Friedman’s excellent blog. I’ve gathered links to “Publicity tips for book authors.” Good advice comes from Joel Friedlander, Joanna Penn, and Penny Sansevieri. Self-published authors are generous with recommendations. Don’t assume that marketing strategies for traditionally published authors should differ from strategies for self-published authors. The main addition is the need to coordinate marketing and publicity efforts with a publisher or publicist, if there is one.

Learning about the business of selling books is doable if you want a career as an author and are willing to work hard for it. No one will mind if you prefer to remain a hobbyist. Just don’t make the mistake of asking me or a book publisher to donate time and money to support your hobby.

Litmags: the new breeds

Three years ago, I posted a list of ten literary magazines with good-looking websites. Only four of them are still in business. Maybe it’s time for a new list, but now that every other litmag is using the free Arcade Basic blog theme from WordPress, or something similar, there are lots of attractive clones.

365 tomorrowsBeauty’s only skin deep anyway. A better list might be based on popularity, except that the big magazines with the very largest circulations tend to maintain their show-dog status for years or even decades at a time. Zzzzzzzz.

More interesting are the Silken Windhounds, Dandie Dinmont Terriers, and Catahoula Leopard Dogs in my database of literary publications. Some already are being fetishized by readers. Have you heard of them?

365 tomorrows – speculative flash fiction

The Awl – longform essays, humor, and some fiction

Bust – erotic fiction and female perspectives on pop culture

The Bygone Bureau – personal essays, cultural criticism, humor, and comics

The Collagist – progressive short fiction, poetry, essays, and novel excerpts

Conduit – poetry, fiction, and nonfictionEscape Into Life

Escape Into Life – poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and comics

Esopus – short plays, essays, poetry, and fiction

Guernica – essays, poetry, and fiction

Hobart – short fiction, nonfiction, and poetry

Joyland – fiction and essays

The Morning News – essays, humor, and cultural criticism

n+1 – fiction, essays, criticism, and translation

NOWNESS – digital storytelling

[out of nothing] – digital textBust

The Rumpus – essays that intersect culture

Strange Horizons – speculative fiction

Teen Ink – poetry, fiction, and nonfiction

Thought Catalog – literary journalism

Untoward Magazine – humorous fiction

Given that this list is twice as long as the previous one, maybe a handful of these publications will exist three years from now. Submit or subscribe or take them for a walk if you want to keep them healthy.

Paloma Negra, where have you flown?

PALOMA NEGRA by Miha MazziniNot until the English-language edition of Miha Mazzini’s novel Paloma Negra was scheduled for publication by Open Books did I give much thought to the music that plays through the story. I had never explored Mariachi music, which is said to have originated in the Mexican states of Jalisco and Nayarit. Paloma Negra is set in Yugoslavia in a subsequent century, during a Mexican music craze that lasted there for about a decade. El Financiero cites Mazzini’s documentary film about the phenomenon of Yu-Mex music, explaining that Yugoslavia “broke off relations with the Soviet Union and turned to Mexico to provide entertainment productions containing music and action, in addition to messages such as ‘Long live the revolution.’ ”

When I discovered, I wanted to test the selection of available recordings, so I assembled a shareable playlist of songs that seemed to fit the mood of this extraordinary novel. I let several websites recommend potentially relevant music and performers. A musicologist’s playlist would be much more informative, but instead, this multicultural sampler is Robin-filtered. I’d love to listen to your musical interpretation of this book. If you create a playlist for Paloma Negra, I’ll be delighted to add yours to this post.

Track listing for Paloma Negra

1. Paloma Negra
I concentrated first on the ranchera “Paloma Negra,” composed by Tomás Méndez and performed best by the late Chavela Vargas, who was born in Costa Rica but lived most of her life in Mexico. If you listen to only one of the five songs on the playlist, it should be this one, which was used in the soundtrack for the 2002 film Frida.

2. Ljubimac Zena
Ljubimac Zena” is one of the popular Yugoslav-Mexican songs performed by the Serbian singer Ljubomir Milić’s trio, Paloma, in the 1960s.

3. Luz de Luna
My favorite version of “Luz de Luna,” which translates as moonlight or light of the moon, comes from U.S.-born Araceli Collazo and Paloma Negra, lately of Monterrey, Mexico. The song was written by the Mexican composer and songwriter Álvaro Carrillo, who performs it on this track.

4. Love Sick
Mariachi El Bronx’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “Love Sick” is the only Mariachi tune I own. It’s jaw-dropping. (Of course, you might prefer the version used in the Victoria’s Secret commercial.)

5. Paris, Texas
I watched Wim Wenders’ 1984 film Paris, Texas recently. The soundtrack suited it perfectly. The Paris-based trio Gotan Project, whose members are Argentine, French, and Swiss, recorded Ry Cooder’s music for the movie’s bleak title track, which was influenced by Blind Willie Johnson’s gospel blues “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” another of the songs featured. Parallels in the tragic lives of the characters in the film Paris, Texas and the novel Paloma Negra made this stark, moody instrumental my selection for the concluding track. I hope you enjoy listening.

mourning doveImage adapted from Bird Studies: An Account of the Land Birds of Eastern North America by William E.D. Scott (1898)

Can’t remember the title of an obscure book? Ask a bookseller in Shaker Heights, Ohio

Books at Hein & Co. Bookstore

  Photo: “Books at Hein & Co. Bookstore” by Sarah Stierch is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Sometimes all you can recall are a character’s name and the book’s genre, the decade when you read it, or maybe the basic plot or the setting. Especially when a book is out of print and hasn’t been digitized, the search for it can be frustrating.

Stump the Bookseller can help. It’s a fee-based online information exchange hosted by Loganberry Books in Shaker Heights, Ohio. What a cool place Harriett Logan’s used bookstore must be—home to a bindery and an art gallery.

In Loganberry’s free question-and-answer archives I found the title of a middle-grade novel I borrowed from a public library in the 1960s. For $150 I can buy Hilary’s Island on eBay now. I almost wish I didn’t know.

The one I have reread revisited most often: The Great Gatsby

THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald (OUP)Day 29: Aside from manuscripts, I don’t reread entire books. However, since reading The Great Gatsby when I was a high school junior I’ve seen two of four existing movie adaptations. Does that count? (Baz Luhrmann’s was the better of the two.) The first adaptation, a 1926 silent film, would make a total of five, but there are no surviving copies.

THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Scribner)Contrary to popular opinion that the first design was the best, I think the most effective cover for the novel is the 1930 painting by Tamara de Lempicka, which is used for the Oxford World’s Classics paperback edition. My old copy is a red Scribner paperback. You can see some of the other variations in T: The New York Times Style Magazine.

Near the last page of the novel is this paragraph:

I spent my Saturday nights in New York because those gleaming, dazzling parties of his were with me so vividly that I could still hear the music and the laughter, faint and incessant, from his garden, and the cars going up and down his drive. One night I did hear a material car there, and saw its lights stop at his front steps. But I didn’t investigate. Probably it was some final guest who had been away at the ends of the earth and didn’t know that the party was over.

BookADay-The Borough Press