What the Bleep do Publishers WANT?!

The past few months have been an up-and-down ride for my friend.

First, the euphoria of seeing her first book published in June. Before that, it was weeks and weeks of rush edits, late-night writing sessions, drafts that gradually had less red ink on them than black. She likens it to giving birth – hours of labor, and then once you have the baby in your arms, you don’t remember the pain anymore. Then, there was the rush of book signings – some with 20 or 30 people, others with just one or two. In the meantime, she was editing two other books she wanted to submit to her publisher.

Which brings me to my question of the week:  WHAT ARE PUBLISHERS LOOKING FOR NOW????

I know, it’s the age-old question, and unless you’re Charles Dickens or Stephen King, you have to ask it. All. The. Time.

Deb has two fantastic books in manuscript format – I’ve read both. But both are dystopian, which she tends to favor. She’s fascinated with taking one question, and letting the myriad answers spin out before her like a cosmic spider web of possibilities. What happens if . . . you discover how to use wormholes? What happens if . . . you have twins born two years apart? What happens if . . . Most writers do this; it’s just that for Deb, her what if’s tend to focus on the near future, and how one tiny change today could affect it.

But. According to her publisher – dystopian is dead.

Hence, this week’s Soapbox.

soapboxWhat’s frustrating is that countless writing how-to books and websites, and even other authors, will give you a variation on this advice:  Write what you want to write. But if you want to be PUBLISHED, you have to play by the rules, right? Publishers see trends. Publishers have to see trends. I remember reading somewhere that publishers buy books today that will be published two years from now. Therefore, what’s hot today probably won’t be in 2017. What’s hot in 2017 won’t be by 2020.

So how do writers know what the devil to write, if they want to be published????

Historically, authors like Dickens or Doyle could write whatever the hell they wanted to write, send it to the Strand or another magazine, and those magazines were happy to have it. Groveling, in fact, tripping over themselves to publish it, because these authors meant sales. When Doyle quit writing and killed of Sherlock Holmes, there was a general uproar in England. But we don’t get that option today . . . do we?

Well. Hold on. You can always publish independently. You can publish eBooks on Amazon or Smashwords. There’s even a platform on Amazon specifically for publishing novellas, short stories, and serials. In the 1800s, people loved short stories because they could be read on the train, or on a lunch break. Dickens never wrote his novels as novels; they were serials. Today, we’re starting to move back in that direction. Thanks to social media, some psychologists claim there’s a shrinking of the human ability to focus. Short snippets are about all we can manage. So a lot of authors are saying – great! Let me publish my short stories! Let me serialize my novels! (And when you write 150,000-word behemoths that no publisher will touch, this can be a Really Good Idea!)

Here’s the problem with that plan:  most authors who publish eBooks – especially with Kindle Unlimited – don’t make any money at it. Here’s the thing:  most eBooks sell at a price point of $2.99 – $3.99. If you want to support yourself completely this way, how many books do you have to sell in a month? If you’re like me, nearly 1,000. You are competing with thousands of other writers with precisely the same idea, so it’s not just about the writing – although that has to be exceptional – but also about your marketing strategy. Most indie authors say they spend as much time marketing as they do writing!

Now, it is easier to find readers there. (And according to one site I found, longer novels sell better on Kindle!) But if you screw up even one book, you lose readers. If you write – let’s say romance – there are currently more than 313,000 romance novels on Kindle. You’re competing with long-standing, traditionally published authors like Jennifer Cruisie and Danielle Steele, too. Write historical romances? There are currently more than 9,000 available on Kindle, and in the past 90 days, there have been 3,306 new releases. Write paranormal romance? The numbers get worse – 12,500+ available, and more than 4,000 new releases in the past 90 days.

No wonder we want traditional publishing!!!

But that still doesn’t answer the question:  if you want to be published by a traditional house – particularly one of the Big Five – what do you have to do? What kind of book do you have to write?

If anyone had the answer, we’d all be rich and published.

Even publishers will tell you they have no idea. No one knew they were looking for vampire romances until one editor came across one manuscript by one unknown author. She took a chance. Ten years later, vampires are everywhere. No one knew they were looking for S & M with a really crappy, controlling male protagonist who should have been hit over the head until publishers suddenly figured out that E.L. James was making tons of money in the indie market. And although dystopian has been around for ages in one form or another, it took The Hunger Games to make it cool. But guess what?

Apparently, it’s dead. For now.

Will it come back? Of course. That’s the thing about publishing. As with fashion, all trends become cool again.

Eventually.

Here’s a few links to some interesting articles on the state of book publishing and indie publishing:

http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/authors/pw-select/article/63455-surprising-self-publishing-statistics.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mark-coker/2015-book-publishing-indu_b_6407812.html

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The Courage to be Published

Next Tuesday, Deadly DesignJune 2, is a birthday of sorts. If a book can have a birthday, that is. Let’s say they can.

My friend Debra Dockter is going to see her first book in print. Sitting in bookstores. In hardcover. With a dust jacket. (It’s awesome cover art, by the way). It’s humbling and inspiring to have seen this entire journey.

We joke that Deadly Design is my step-book – I’ve certainly spilled enough ink on it! I’ve read almost every draft that exists. I’ve seen scenes come and scenes get cut. I’ve seen characters get cut. I’ve seen characters come back, only to die in the next round of revisions, and be resurrected later.

Being a beta reader is tough.You have to be supportive and constructive, and not be afraid to tick off the author, and be ready to stand your ground. Hopefully, you’ve phrased your words well enough that no offense is taken, that the author reads your comments and slowly nods and says, oh, yes, of course, why didn’t I think of that, you’re so clever, what would I do without you? Being a beta isn’t about being a rude, brash, sanctimonious SOB. It’s not about destroying someone’s baby; it’s about helping them raise that baby. Every writer should be a beta reader, because it lets you see this entire crazy roller-coaster without having to actually be on the roller coaster.

I honestly don’t know how Deb did it. I don’t know how any of us do it. Her perseverance and dedication are phenomenal.

I remember the book that Kyle originally appeared in, sort of:  a medical mystery she’d drafted. The character I liked most was this smart-ass twelve-year old. Sometimes, characters demand their own books. I knew even then that Kyle was too big for this one – he couldn’t be a secondary character. And Deb knew it, too.

But that roller coaster. My God. How many drafts? How many red pens? I remember one year for Christmas, Deb gave me red pens. 🙂 How many queries to how many agents? She’d send out queries, and the cars would slowly start to inch their way up. There was no telling how long it would take for them to reach the top – sometimes, not more than a day or two, other times, a month or two. One memorable agent responded more than a year later with “Hey, sorry! Send me the first chapters!”

And I remember sitting in my favorite coffee house one afternoon and getting an email. Penguin’s interested. They’ve made an offer. What do I do? I sat there for a minute, and then typed back, Let’s sit here for a moment and appreciate how surreal this moment is, okay?

We talk about how brave it is to finish a book — and it is, definitely, that takes work and patience and dedication and time away from things you’d also love to be doing — but I think the real work begins when you start querying. When you start putting your baby out there into the world to be either rejected or accepted. Over and over and over and over and over. That takes a special kind of courage. A kind I’m not sure I have. Courage to open the emails and see the rejections. Courage to keep trying. Courage to sign on the bottom line, wondering if this is really the right agent, or should I hold out, or what do I do? Courage to remain patient as your agent shops your book to editors. Courage to either accept or reject the first offer.

And the courage to face the re-writes! Because there will be rewrites. My God, will there be rewrites.

So when you see a book – any book, but hopefully Deadly Design – on the shelves at your local bookstore next week or the week after, remember that. I don’t think being published is about fame and glory and money; I don’t even think it’s about sharing your creation with the world, as noble as that sounds. (Dr. Frankenstein wanted to share his creation with the world, too, remember!)

I think it’s about courage.

So, Deb and all the other published authors out there — I’m raising my cinnamon dolce latte in salute to you.

Why I’m Not Yet Published

Last week, I met with some friends for one of our get-togethers. We all have busy lives, so when we can get together, we tend to spend hours talking. Invariably, it all turns to writing and books.

Invariably, it all turns to me. And why I’m not published yet.

I’ve been hearing this for quite some time, actually. It’s a familiar refrain, like “What could possibly go wrong?” from Top Gear. (I HATE YOU, BBC, I HATE YOU!) The problem (for me) is that I hear it not from other writers, but from my friends – and I love them, I really do – but my friends who do not write novels.

If you don’t write novels, you don’t know what it’s like.

I just finished Heather Sellers’ wonderful Chapter by Chapter (see last week’s post for more information). She addresses this problem in Chapter 25, “Writing is Revising,” and Chapter 26, “Just Want to be Done.”

Here’s the problem:  Agents receive 50+ queries before they wake up in the morning. Every. Single. Day. And when they sit down to read these queries, what they’re doing is looking for reasons to reject authors. They have literally thousands of manuscripts to choose from. They need to narrow the field. Some, they can toss right away:  wrong name, no name, not submitted properly, bad spelling and/or grammar, wrong genre. Some, they can’t reject right away because damn it, the author’s done the thing properly. So they have to read the first chapter or first five pages, or whatever they’ve requested. But guess what? They’re still looking for a reason to reject you. As a writer, your job is to never, ever give them that reason.

How? You revise. You rewrite. You do it over again. And again. And again.

Six years’ worth, if that’s what it bloody takes. Seven. Ten.

The other refrain I heard this past week, which I think I’ve heard before, is “Send it out already. It’s fine. It’s good enough. Besides, the agent and editor will fix whatever’s wrong with it – they’ll want you to make changes anyway, so who cares if it’s perfect or not? JUST SEND IT!”

NO!!!!

Here’s what Heather Sellers has to say about that:  “We have passages of brilliant writing. The plot holds together, basically, and there are some excellent moments in our book. Isn’t that enough? Can’t someone else take care of the other stuff? Tables of contents, indexes, chapter titles, fixing the weaker scenes – aren’t there people who do that? Well, yes. Of course there are. They’re called writers. That would be you.”

She then goes on to say:

“Just as no one loves your kids as much as you do, not even the greatest editor on the planet will care as much about your book, its details, its perfection, its publication, its success, as you do. You must be your own editor before you send the book out of your house and into the world.”

See, here’s the problem. The competition to be published has never been greater. It used to be that a nobody with a decent idea but no clue how to write it could be taken under the wing of an agent or editor, and guided through the process. Not anymore. You’re not an Idea Person. You’re the writer, editor, proofreader, researcher, advocate, and RE-WRITER, all rolled into one person. And you’re expected to know your competition. And you’re not competing just against the published authors – you’re competing against those just like you, who aren’t published yet, but desperately want to be. The question is, what are YOU willing to do to make your manuscript stand out?

Again, Sellers:  “Many writers believe – secretly or openly – that someone else will do this . . . ‘Won’t my agent get it ready for publication?’ They want that editor who exists in their mind, that fantasy person from yesteryear who is so devoted to their genius and their book that she puts everything on hold to help them fix it.

“It just doesn’t work that way.

“Not every writer passively expects someone else to do part of his work; there are plenty of writers who do everything they can to their books and then some. And after they’ve set aside the project for a while, they return to it and do even more to improve the book. You are competing with these authors.”

That’s me. That writer. The one doing everything to improve my book and then some.

It is not someone else’s job to fix my book. It is not someone else’s job to write my book. It is not someone else’s job to figure out why the plot’s not working quite the way I want it to. That is my job. And my job isn’t finished until I have figured those things out. And if you write novels, your job isn’t finished, either. Not until that book is the best it can possibly be. As Sellers says, this is a profession. Agents and editors are professionals. They will look much more favorably on your book – your baby – if you present yourself as a professional, too. And by making your book the absolute best it can be – no matter how long that takes – you’re showing that you are a professional. That you take publishing, and writing, and your manuscript, seriously. That you take them and their time seriously.

And THAT is why I am not yet published.

It’s a Book!

Debra Dockter is finally giving us her thoughts on having that new book – that FIRST book – in her hands!

debra dockter

I remember being told that once you hold your baby in your arms, you forget about all the pain and the hours of labor it took to get to that moment. And it’s so true!

This week I got to hold my book for the first time. I opened the door to take the dog out, and there they were, the ARC copies of Deadly Design, my debut young adult novel. Like many writers, I’d fantasized about that moment, about what it would be like to hold my book in my hands. Was it everything i thought it would be? Yes, and more. Not because I’m so proud of my baby, but because I’m so humbled by the work that went into it, not just my work, but the work of all the people who made it possible.

Not to sound like an Oscar acceptance speech — those things are…

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