A Look at Three Ways to Get Published

I recently attended a talk by literary agent April Eberhardt. Her talk, The New Era of Publishing: How to Choose the Best Option for You,” outlined the rapidly changing publishing landscape.

Her thesis is that “the power is shifting to the author.” As an example, she noted that the big six publishers (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin, Random House, Bertelsmann, and Simon & Schuster) were responsible for 80 percent of all titles in the US three years ago. Now they’re responsible for 60 percent.

She quoted a few stats about the explosive growth in e-readers … but all you have to do is read the news to see abundant evidence of that for yourself.

Eberhardt had a few other principles:

  1. There is no one “right” way to publish.
  2. Authors and readers no longer need publishers to find each other
  3. There are a variety of business models developing now, including ebook self-publishing services like Smashwords, and smaller self-publishers like Publication Studio in Portland. Eberhardt noted the beginnings of “agent presses,” a hybrid business model where publication costs and profits are shared.
  4. The route to publication changes – that is, it could go from traditional publishers to e-publishing. For example, Joe Konrath left his publisher to sell his self-published e-books online.

After outlining the principles, Eberhardt outlined pros and cons of the three most common paths to publication:

Traditional Publishers

Pros:

  • Publishers do much of the footwork, including publicity
  • The status of being a published author

Cons:

  • The odds. Competition for agents is fierce. As former literary agent Nathan Bransford commented, “Agents get 10,000+ queries a year and take on maybe a handful of clients. Going strictly by the numbers, an agent’s inbox is far more competitive than any writing contest.”
  • The ratio of agents to editors is also bad
  • Advances are shrinking
  • It can take up to two years from signing with an agent until publication
  • Authors still do marketing and promotion themselves
  • You may or may not make a profit, since 99% of books never earn out their advance. And in that case, you lose your opportunity to publish your next book

Small Presses

Pros:

  • Status,
  • May pay, limited marketing

Cons:

  • Submitting is a lot of work, including research and following publishing guidelines
  • They may not respond (or if they do, it may take ages)
  • Competition is tough
  • Up to two years between acquisition and publication
  • You will have to self-promote
  • You probably won’t make a profit

Self-Publishing

Pros:

  • You control the rights
  • It’s relatively easy
  • It costs about $2,000 to $3,000 to self-publish well (that estimated cost includes hiring an editor, getting your book laid out/formatted, cover design, and marketing/promotion)
  • You make money as soon as you recoup costs
    • The web is a good marketing tool:
    • It’s good if a book targets a niche
  • You can experiment with various marketing approaches
  • You can choose title, cover art, story – you can even publish two different versions for different markets (I would have liked to see an example here, but didn’t get a chance to ask that question)

Cons:

  • Self-publishing still carries a stigma
  • As Eberhardt says, “self-published books have to be better than traditional books.”
  • It’s still a lot of work to find readers and make sales.

During the Q&A at the end, it was interesting to see how many people were focused on the traditional route to publishing (and the status boost). Also interesting was a comment she made about agents, which is that they sell to the big six – there’s not enough money in selling to the smaller presses to make it worth their time.

What I would love to see (and haven’t yet) is a gauge on how real the “stigma” is. Because two examples leap to mind where an ebook, a print-on-demand book or a self-published book could have further advantages.

  1. A book with niche appeal. In grad school I wrote a golf novel. While there are a lot of golfers out there, it’s clearly a book that’s going to appeal to golfers, but not to many non-golfers. Yet a publisher needs to gamble that they can recoup costs on a book, so if its subject matter has limited appeal (instead of broad-swath, Dan Brown appeal), you can see why a publisher would avoid the risk.
  2. A book that’s time sensitive. Think about the “life cycle” of the book. Say it takes a six months to write and another six months to edit, and then you sign with an agent within six months of submitting it. Say the agent sells it in three months (all this is relatively fast, by the way). Then the book will go into production for at least a year. That’s three years. If your subject matter is at all dependent on current events, that’s a long time.

What do you think?

The Social Contract

As a writer who submits and someone who works with social media, I’ve been following a recent Twitter spat with some interest.

At the risk of stumping for Twitter, I think all writers serious about getting published should be on it. I’ve met writers, had literary agents answer questions, participated in contests, and been exposed to a lot of great information about writing and publishing. It’s like a perpetual writers’ conference and kaffeeklatsch.

I’ve also seen agents use Twitter to publicly react to queries in real time. Because Twitter messages are can’t exceed 140 characters, the query, book and writer remain anonymous. Most of those were one-day experiments. Then along came @InternAmie, an account where an intern at a literary agency reacted to queries and submissions as she read them, using the hashtag #queryfest. Here’s a two-part example:

“Memoir-lover that I am, I almost cried when this otherwise stunning memoir opened with an intense scene, but then … Nope–nevermind. The women’s fiction started out great, but major plot inconsistencies would’ve made agent frown & pass.”

The @InternAmie account is now closed, apparently a result of an online backlash. Afterwards the opinions were mixed:

theborderlord I found #queryfest incredibly helpful – it gave a rare insight into how the query system really works. Shame @internamie has vanished.

Tessasblurb If you have a problem with people judging your writing surely you’re in the wrong business… #writing #queryfest

yabreviewed Anonymous as it is #queryfest makes me more nervous about sending mine. To have it end up being a topic of discussion on twitter? No thanks.

Writers of fiction spend hours creating imaginary situations, but it’s nearly impossible for them to picture their work sitting in a huge pile along with hundreds of other submissions. This is @theborderlord’s point: @InternAmie was reading and reacting to submissions objectively, andoutlining the reasons she did or didn’t think they were working. In other words, she was an unbiased beta reader that didn’t sugar-coat things. (If you ever get a beta reader that does this for you, consider yourself very, very lucky.)

I think @Tessasblurb makes a good point, too. After I’d been working as a journalist and freelancer for years, I went back to get an MA in creative writing. Journalism schools understand that their degree is vocational, so getting out there and working is part of the process. But unlike J-school, submitting pieces is optional in an MA.

My MA program was full of people who desperately wanted an authority figure proclaim them Good Enough to Be Published, as if this were some absolute, like knighthood. So these writers worked in a fretful vacuum, like kids from the suburbs afraid of going downtown. I wanted to see them submit, over and over again, until they learned that rejection and having people dislike your stuff isn’t the end of the world–it’s a necessary part of being a writer.

That said, I agree most with yabreviewed. Querying is the first step of a business relationship, which works when both parties operate in good faith. But if a stranger discloses details of your query or pages (even if they can’t be traced back to you), that disclosure violates one of the evolving tenets of social media, which is to ask permission to use other people’s stuff.

Imagine an agent’s website with a submission form containing a checkbox and this: “I agree to have my work paraphrased, excerpted, and possibly commented by an anonymous party online for all to see.” Would you agree to that? I wouldn’t.

I’m not sure what the final chapter of the InternAmie saga will be. I hope she’s still reading submissions, since I want everyone reading my submissions will be like her, turning to the next query in the hopes it will be great.

I also hope the publishing community learns from what happened, instead of pointing fingers. But there are still agents who make sport out of the slush pile (such as Slush Pile Hell, which I find terribly unprofessional), just as there are writers who excerpt from agents’ e-mails, or snipe about them on forums.

In other words, social media is a little like publishing: What you post on a blog, or as a comment, or in a forum, or on Twitter is widely accessible and will be around for a long time. So you don’t want to use other people’s stuff without asking, and you want to make sure what you said isn’t something you’ll regret later.

Attention Writers: Win a Manuscript Critique

Attention all you would-be published writers: a literary agent named Nathan Bransford (he’s with Curtis Brown Ltd.) is offering a critique of a proposal (synopsis and first three chapters).

Nathan Bransford, literary agent

Nathan Bransford, literary agent

Nathan has one of the best publishing blogs out there, which builds community, educates writers, spreads publishing news, preaches the super-important gospel about how to write a non-crap query letter, and a zillion other things besides. He even made newspapers with his blog recently by taking a good idea and running with it: the Be an Agent for a Day Contest.

I mention this because it’s a great blog, and through it (and my other dealings with him) Nathan has proved again and again that he’s a good guy and a straight shooter.

So … how do you get such rare, personal attention from a high-flier such as him? Well all ya gotta do is bid for it. See, Nathan donated said critique to benefit diabetes research.

So tell all your writer friends.

All Hail Query Fail

I can has agent?

I can has agent?

As a veteran of the querying experience (a.k.a. the wearying querying experience), I watched with interest today as #queryfail took place on Twitter.

For those of you that don’t know, in this case querying is the attempt to interest a literary agent in reading your work, and then offering to represent you. If you don’t know what Twitter is, well, time to flip the calendar to 2009.

Two agents, Lauren E. MacLeod and Colleen Lindsay, decided to share their reactions to query letters on Twitter in real time. To protect the innocent, they decided only to skewer those that did not follow their easily available instructions.

Other agents chimed in, though I’m not sure if they spared the innocent. Anyhow, the results, while they may sully your impression of humanity’s collective intelligence, are also really funny at times.

A brief set o’ samples, courtesy of Tara Lazar (whose blog post has a more extensive list)

  • I don’t think you’re the right agent for me, but could you pass my query along to some of your colleagues?
  • In lieu of a writing sample, I’ve enclosed articles about [topic writer wishes to write about].
  • This isn’t my first published work, I have published 2 articles in G4S Pipeline Trade Publication.
  • I have been writing since I could hold a crayon, and before that I used finger paints.
  • My book is about a friendship based upon mutual vomiting practices in high school.

And two of my favorites come from agent’s reactions:

  • “A one inch thick manuscript on why the alphabet is in the wrong order. Awesome! Wait, not awesome.”
  • “Tragically initiated into a secret panther-worshipping society…” I’m sorry, but there’s nowhere to go but down after that.

My Almost Guest-Blog

Though Nathan Bransford (I hadda crop part of his name) didn’t have the luminous foresight to represent my book, he’s clearly not unfamiliar with them (your blogger writes, harrumphing and buffing his nails on his cardigan sweater). Anyhow, my least favorite du jour is “reconnoiter.”

In case you want to add yours, here’s your chance. (Hint: front-runners include “moist” and “panties.” You have been warned.)