October 3, 2012

Keynote Speech: We Women Who Write

Filed under: — jenny @ 1:45 pm

We Women Who Write

Welcome to the most exciting time in history to be a writer.

Those are bold words to begin with, and I hope that by the time this talk is finished, you’ll have a perspective on them. You may disagree with my statement, and that’s just fine. What I’d like to do is take us all through a little bit of history—and I promise it won’t be the dry, dusty kind if you happen to be the type of person who finds history dry and dusty—until we wind up back here in the present day. Then I’ll give some context to where we are standing. And by that point, we’ll be able to open up a discussion, some Q&A, that will help us all figure out…is this the most exciting time in history to be a writer? Or are we headed for a fall of such speed and depth, that it’s hard to even picture it yet?

Those are two pretty distinct poles—greatest time ever versus the end is nigh—and I use them deliberately. If you do much talking with writers and publishing and book folk these days, you are likely to hear both of these prognostications. People who are utterly convinced that one or the other is right and you’re a fool if you think otherwise. We can call each side yin and yang, we can call them Dan and Charlie, it doesn’t matter what we call them. A little later on in this talk, we’ll identify two names to describe what I’m talking about, but for now only two things matter.

  • One, that there are two distinct publishing camps for the first time ever
  • And two, when one tells you the other is worthless, don’t believe ‘em

The truth as is usually the case lies probably somewhere in the middle. I don’t think we’re headed toward utter doom. But nor do I think that we’ve magically gotten everything right and woe be to those who wave a flag for the good old days.

The way some people talk about publishing reminds me a little of that Mark Twain quote. To paraphrase, “When I was 17, I thought my dad was the stupidest guy I’d ever met. By the time I was 21, it amazed me how much the old man had learned in 4 years.”

I think that some of the people who critique the industry now will come to realize that publishing folk really do know a thing, or two, or two hundred.

But who are these people critiquing the industry? And what are they saying is any better?

Let’s go back a little ways. Maybe more than a little.

My own writing and publishing journey started in 1998. I wrote on a word processor with no internet. When I began querying, I did so by snail mail. And FedEx because I was too green not to know that almost nothing in publishing is done overnight.

Back then if you wanted to get published that meant traditional publishing, which of course wasn’t called that back then.

In order for something to be traditional, there has to be an alternative, and in 1998 the only alternative wasn’t much of one at all.

It involved finding a press and printing up some not small number of copies of a book, which had to be sold by the writer herself and thus usually wound up as extra insulation for the garage. And it was called by a name that said it all: vanity publishing.

Who wanted to be charged with that?

I knew a writer I’ll call Bob (because his name was Bob) who did exactly that. In fact, he believed the vanity press when they upsold him to a hardcover version, which as most of us know is a difficult sell even for an established author or a hot new release, because they are expensive. Bob wound up with 60,000 worth of books in his garage.

What was the reason vanity publishing AKA self-publishing usually came to such an ignominious end? I don’t think it was necessarily because the books were of poor quality, although some certainly were. But I think the primary reason was this:

There was no good way to let more than the handful of friends and family who orbit around any one writer know that a book was available. And so whether you printed up a modest few hundred copies or a way-optimistic five thousand copy print run, the average person was unlikely to be able to hand sell more than a hundred.

Now some writers did have greater resources than that, and they stand out as successes in the self-publishing game for a reason.

  • One is MJ Rose, whose LIP SERVICE became a big enough seller, in 1999, that it landed MJ a traditional contract. 12 books later, MJ is still publishing with Simon & Schuster.
  • Maryann McFadden, who after garnering over 50 encouraging rejections from agents who didn’t feel they could sell her book, plus dozens of encouraging responses from readers who loved her characters and their story, went up and down the eastern seaboard introducing herself to booksellers until she ultimately sold 2500 copies of her novel. At that point agents approached her with offers of representation, and THE RICHEST SEASON ultimately sold at auction in a two book deal to Hyperion.

There are other such stories, of course, but not many of them, and they all go something like MJ’s and Maryann’s. So what are the constants between these two women?

Well, for one thing, they both had marketing backgrounds. MJ worked in advertising, as Creative Director at a major ad agency and Maryann was a real estate agent, and they brought their skills to bear on attracting attention for their book. Keep this in mind because it’s something that turns out to have relevance for all of us who are writing now more than a full decade later.

One other constant is that both Maryann and MJ used their self-published novels to land a deal with a major house. Success back then meant publication in the “regular” way. Self-publishing was a back door to the traditional publishing industry.

One other constant between the two M’s is that they are both truly talented writers. Their stories would likely draw you in however they were published.

Something that Maryann in particular did that was very wise was to utilize bookstores in her attempt to find mainstream success. Keep this in mind, too, because it’s going to be relevant when we start talking about ways to stand out as a writer today.

But for now let’s flash forward a handful of years to what changed this poor, benighted scenario of vanity-publishing that I’ve been describing.

We now have an alternative, and self-publishing has a new name: independent publishing. The term indie publishing reflects an underlying reality that is well nigh earth-shattering for writers. I talk about this stuff probably every day, with other authors, with students, and if I sit back and really think about my words, my world still gets rocked. Because for the first time in history, a writer can think about different ways to embark upon a career, how to wind up where she wants to be two, five, ten years from now. Anyone who thinks about giving over her life to this calling, this passion, here in 2012 and beyond, will be able to consider not just whether, but how she wants to do it.

That’s a miracle, and everyone who did it when there was exactly one path to tread, and a crowded one at that, knows it.

Nor more are you a vain fool—think about that term—if you decide to publish on your own, liable to wind up with a houseful of unwanted books.

In fact, you might even wind up following a path that lands you in better straits than if you had hung out, waiting to get traditionally published.

If you want to publish a novel, you now have a choice. You can pursue traditional publishing, or you can decide to self-publish. And there’s even a third option.

Let’s get our terms straight, because this can be confusing. There is some overlap in what I’m about to lay out, so let’s try and sort it out. There are three main ways to publish today—and I do mean today, because by tomorrow at least some what I’m about to tell you could change, and that’s only a slight exaggeration.

But for now, here they are. You can publish:

  • Traditionally with a Big 6 house. Random House, Penguin, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, St. Martins, Harper & Collins, and their imprints add up to about 30 distinct places at a maximum. When I say imprints, I mean, for instance, Little, Brown (an imprint of Hachette), Amy Einhorn (who published a small title called THE HELP for the inaugural book at her eponymous imprint), Ballantine if you’re a Random House author, etc. If you sign with an agent, and she submits your manuscript to the big houses, she will go to perhaps 20 before she has to call it a day. If she tries more than that, then she really, really believes in your book, and you’ve probably gotten close enough that she thinks the next one could be It.
  • Traditionally with a small or independent press. Here is where things get a little confusing because remember that independent publishing is also our replacement term for self-publishing. But you can also be published in a traditional way with a smaller publisher than Harper Collins. If you’re a mystery writer, there is Poisoned Pen Press and Oak Tree and Mainly Murder. If you’re a literary writer, there is Gray Wolf and Algonquin and Dark Coast. And so on and so forth, with more cropping up what seems like every day—and others shuttering at a similarly rapid rate. These are independent presses not under the umbrella of a Big 6.
  • Independently, i.e., on your own, or self-publishing. Indie publishing arose as a term to reflect the reality that this isn’t vanity publishing anymore, this is not your father’s Oldsmobile, but a unique path with advantages all its own.

Now what do these three courses of publishing really look like? What happens depending on which path you take? Let’s take a closer look.

If you decide you want to be published by a Big 6 house, you pretty much have one course open to you, unless your uncle is Bertelsmann himself, and possibly even then. The publishing world is one of the least nepotistic I have found, and tall tales are legion of this editor or that agent rejecting a book by his or her own mother.

So do what you do, if getting yourself adopted by the president of Harper Collins won’t work? Well, first you find an agent. And how do you do that? In a way pretty similar to what I did back in 1999, with one key difference. Skip the post office—certainly skip FedEx—and head right for your computer. Email a carefully crafted query letter that pitches your novel, positions it in a marketing niche, i.e., where it is likely to be shelved in a bookstore, and gives your credentials if you have any, without worrying about this part if you don’t. There is little publishing likes better than a totally new discovery whom it can break out and turn into the Next Big Thing. The more unknown you are, the better in this capacity. Now, of course, if you happen to have a platform such as you wrote the next WATER FOR ELEPHANTS and grew up on a circus train, by all means mention it. Traditional publishing is full of contradictions, and one is that although it does indeed love discovering a writer under a cabbage leaf, it also covets one with a platform—and a following.

OK…so what comes next after your query letter? Well, you wait. And you garner rejections. Form rejections probably. Once you start getting personal rejections, with feedback in them, you know two things. One is you’re getting closer. And two is you’d better revise. No novel is ever perfect, though we sometimes feel that they are. If you’re me, you always feel that they are, until that rude awakening when I actually let someone else read one.

As good as it has to be to garner agent interest, it will have to be that much better to attract an editor. And an offer. And finally publication and release. Writing may not be rewriting, as the saying goes, but publishing certainly is.

So if you’re lucky, you get to revise your manuscript in response to more or less detailed feedback. But if you don’t find this kind of progress on the querying front, you can decide to pursue an agent more directly. You can go to conferences, like this one. You can go online and follow agent blogs and Twitter feeds and join forums. There are different ways to get an agent, which could be a talk in and of itself. But in order to move on with this one, I’m going to skip ahead to the part where you’ve received an offer of representation (or if the seas have parted, possibly more than one), and signed with an agent.

Now what? Well, if your agent is a good one, then you probably revise a few more times, because of that thing I said before about a manuscript never being good enough. But once it is in as good shape as you and your agent can make it, your agent sends it out to a smattering of editors she thinks should be right for your work, or perhaps a whole handful, say ten in one round. Different agents have different approaches, but however she does it, this is one of the key roles an agent fills at this stage of the game—knowing which editors might be right for your work, and being able to access them.

This stage is called being on sub—submission—and the southern novelist Joshilyn Jackson calls it “a special kind of hell”. Because now the real wait begins. And when the wait ends, the rejections usually start. If you’re as green as I was, you may think that landing an agent is just about equal to getting a book deal, but that isn’t always so. Sometimes it happens that the book is sent out, and lands in the hands of the person it’s right for, or even better has that ‘It’ factor and garners more than one offer. That’s when an auction happens. But more times than not, your agent gets rejections, and if you’re lucky, they’re substantive rejections and you revise based on their feedback, and then your agent goes out with your novel again. And again. And again until one of two things happen. No, make that one of three things.

You might get an offer. You might get an almost-offer, which happens when an editor likes your book enough to pursue the next step. At a Big 6 house, the next step is taking your novel to what’s called editorial. Here various other people at the house have to approve an offer on your book. If the editor who likes your book is senior enough to have clout, this step could consist of getting fewer people on board. Maybe the editor only needs agreement from one other editor, and this is agreement in pretty much name only, because if the editor likes it, then it’s probably pretty great. At that point the editor goes on to her marketing and publicity departments, and ultimately to her publisher. But no matter how big the editor, she’s going to need approval from other people—gone are the days when she could just make the decision on her own.

If this process of taking your book to editorial goes well, then you get an offer. And then you start cashing the whopping checks and buying yachts and…nah, I’m kidding.

If it doesn’t, or if on this submission you didn’t garner interest from editors, then what do you do if you’re still determined to pursue traditional publishing?

Well, you might decide to write another book. Maybe your agent falls equally in love with that one, or maybe you go back to the drawing board and start querying again.

I offer this scenario as both hope and caution. Hope because there are clearly many ways in which it can go well, and one of the best things that I think the traditional publishing trajectory can offer is that it improves your work. At every step along the way, your book will be getting better—until usually the writer feels something akin to, Thank goodness it didn’t sell before this. I felt that each and every time I stopped stomping around and the soles of my feet stopped smarting and I assimilated a rejection.

And caution because everyone should know what she is in for going in, and the traditional publishing front promises that you will almost certainly spend a long time breaking in. I don’t see this only as a negative, for the reasons I’ve said. But it is something to keep in mind—do you want to spend—do you have—enough time?

Now usually when I talk about this, at least one or two people will raise their hand and say, “I know so-and-so and her agent sent out her novel and she had an offer within a week.” Or a day. Or an hour.

And my answer is always twofold. The first fold is that you’d really need to know that writer—not just what happened as the novel sold, but all the events leading up to that sale. Bear in mind the process we’ve been discussing. How long did it take to find an agent? Which novel did the agent sell—was it the writer’s first?

But the other fold is, sure. Sure, it can happen fast. People luck out. People have a banging book straight out of the gate that touches a nerve or that neatly fits in its genre or that happens to fill a hole an editor has just dug. The caution I’m offering is simply this: don’t count on that when you choose to pursue this path.

By the time I received an offer on my debut, I had written eight novels, signed with three agents, and received fifteen of what I described before as almost-offers. This took all told eleven years. I will tell you a little later how the magic finally happened.

So what can you do if you don’t want to risk spending that amount of time? Especially when you consider that even once your book is bought, it will be between one and two years before it sits on a shelf—face out, of course?

Let’s continue fleshing out the three ways to get published.

Publication with a small or independent press—not to be confused with independently publishing—can follow two different paths. First is one that looks a lot like trying to get published with a Big 6. If your book is right for an independent press such as Algonquin, then you’re still going to need an agent, and your agent is still going to sub your book to an editor as per the above. Algonquin may be a little more open to an un-agented sub, but it’s really only a little, like say you happen to meet one of their editors in person somewhere and have a great connection and she invites you to send your ms to her directly. And even if this does happen, your chances of a manuscript being acquired by one of the more established independents are roughly equal to it being acquired by a Big 6. Some of the established independent presses are even more difficult to get an offer from because their lists are so small.

But independent presses fall into another type too, and that is the press that is so small, or so new, or has a fierce identity of independence as distinct from the traditional model, that a writer can submit to it directly. The wait might be just as long. In the case of Poisoned Pen Press, which is neither new nor small, but does have a fiercely independent identity although it accepts agented subs, the wait is about eighteen months—and a writer isn’t permitted to submit anywhere else during that time.

With a less famous press than Poisoned Pen, the wait might be shorter, but there’s a rough correlation here. The faster and easier it is to access a press, the greater the risk a writer will be taking in signing on with it. Especially today, presses fold all the time. Sometimes they do so with a writer’s book yet to be released, or worse—just released so that the rights are tied up and the book is no longer available. Horror stories abound in this brave new world where a lot of people seem to want to hang out a publishing shingle—especially a digital publishing shingle—and no one is fully sure of the laws and logistics. At the same time, the abundance of new presses gives a writer a lot more chances to find a press that will give her a start. The cons of publishing with a micro press pertain to why a writer might want to publish with a Big 6 or established independent—but they also pertain to why a writer might want to publish in the third way I’m about to describe.

And what is that third way? Independent publishing, which we might recall is the new and improved name for self-publishing. Independent publishing means that you are the publisher of your own work. You may decide to have a name for your press—one writer I know named his after his cat, and it’s a pretty cool name for a publisher, I think—or you might skip the colifon on the spine altogether—heck, you may skip even having a spine…we’ll get to that—but either way, you are responsible for not only writing the book, but getting it edited, finding a cover designer, uploading and/or distributing the book, selling the book, and everything else. Soup to nuts, or the a la carte approach, there is no publishing machine behind you.

Now a lot of people think that the main difference between the two paths is in the amount of marketing you have to do as an indie author (presumably more than you do as a traditional one). I don’t actually think that is a difference at all. I think that however you publish, these days the amount of marketing you could potentially do is infinite, and you’d better figure out ways to

  1. be both unique and genuine in your attempts to connect with readers so you don’t just get filtered out with the rest of the spam
  2. know what you’re good at, and disregard the rest
  3. put a cap on it so you can keep writing books

But I do think there are key differences between the paths. Two main disadvantages and two main advantages. Here they are:

Speed and control.

Yup, they’re the same.

Speed is on the one hand a great advantage. We’ve already discussed the glacial pace of traditional publishing. Given what seems to be happening to the glaciers, traditional publishing might proceed even more slowly. That’s a joke. But seriously—as an independent publisher, the pace can proceed according to your own needs and wishes. You can release two or three or even more novels in the time it might take to get one traditionally published. Even once you have an offer from a traditional publisher, the time lag is daunting. That eighth novel of mine finally sold in May of 2011. It will be out just under four months from today. So with indie publishing there’s none of that—unless, of course, you feel your work would benefit from greater time. And again, it’s your choice.

You get something else as an indie publisher, and that’s control. You get to oversee your novel—the same soup to nuts as mentioned before. If you have a cover in mind, make it come to life. Did you know titles change 50% of the time with a Big 6 house? Not so as an indie. Those pesky editorial disputes? If you’re hiring your own freelancer, you have final say. Some indie authors don’t even hire an editor—although that is not something I’d ever advise. The vision you have for your career—how many books to publish a year, what kind of book should follow your debut, whether you want to publish in different genres—all of these become your own decision as an indie author, and all of them can be sticking points as a traditionally published one.

And there lies the rub, as one great writer might say.

As any seasoned writer knows, being able to do things fast with little intervention doesn’t necessarily add up to the best book. Just personally, when I step away from that screen, I am always under the impression that I have just penned the greatest pages ever written. How could anyone want to change a word of my brilliance?

Yet someone always does—and that someone is now often my editor as much as my trusty readers. Once upon a time it was the agents whose rejection letters schooled me in the craft of writing as other posts on this blog show.

Now this isn’t to say that indie authors don’t realize this, and benefit from great editing and a more collaborative process. Many indie writers I know are aware of the risks, and compensate by putting together a terrific team. But the temptation is there. A book that is uploaded will probably start selling, even at a slow rate, money trickling in. Forcing yourself to do just one more rewrite—when this may or may not matter much to readers—can be hard. And yet as writers we all know what it feels like when we are forced to do that one last rewrite, and a series of truly better pages ensues.

But a savvy indie author who makes sure to enlist help and give the process its due can certainly do well in a way that ten years ago—five—she simply couldn’t. Enough so that some will think anyone still treading the traditional path must be mad.

We all know these names—and their stories—don’t we?

  • Joe Konrath, who is a vociferous, nay outspoken pundit for the indie publishing movement—and Joe does see this as a movement. Joe reports earning $37,000 per month from his writing (although his income has gone as high as $100K/month) and now publishes at a rate that no traditional publisher—Joe refers to them as legacy publishers to indicate his belief that they are as old-school as inkwells—would allow, which only feeds his fans’ appetite.
  • Amanda Hocking, who sold over a million copies of her vampire novels in digital format, before accepting $2,000,000 from St. Martins to publish 4 more books.
  • Barry Eisler who turned down a $500,000 advance from St. Martins for 2 books so he could publish on his own, in part due to convincing by the same Joe Konrath as to the dollars and cents of this movement.
  • And of course, who could ignore EL James’ publishing success, which was such that bookstores were carrying the $30 POD version of a title called 50 SHADES OF GREY—these are booksellers who have such a hard time with self-published books, they might refuse to give shelf space to their own mother’s indie-published version of their baby book—and it was flying off the shelves before EL accepted a million dollars from Random House. Now over 30 million copies of her trilogy are in print and in readers’ hands.
  • And other examples, too. Peg Brantley. LJ Sellers. Gigi Pandian. Names you may not know, but plenty of readers do.

What changed? What enabled so many stories of self-publishing success to arise when just a decade ago I was hard-pressed to come up with MJ’s and Maryann’s and the Bobs abounded? What happened?

The internet did.

The internet entered our lives and our homes, and with it came social media.

Remember how I said that self-published writers could reach out only to those in their orbit and not many more? That Maryann and MJ had an edge because they had marketing backgrounds and knew how to access a greater number of people?

Now any one of us can get to a far greater number of people. Now any one of us can reach more people than we arguably should be reaching—enough so that we are forced to do it in blunt or crude ways—there’s a reason the term email blast makes it sound as if we were trying to blow something up—and our messages start getting tuned out and deleted.

How many times a day do you receive a status update or a tweet that says someone received a five star review?

What does a five star review even connote?

A decade ago we knew that if a book was raved about by Marilyn Stasio in the New York Times, well, we might not enjoy that particular book, but it was probably pretty good by some standard or another, and for sure it was decently written.

Now anyone can write what’s come to be known as a review—and five stars might mean it’s an excellent book or it might mean the so-called reviewer was a friend of the writer, while one star might mean it’s a dreadful book, or it might mean that the author gave the reviewer a poor review and this star is retaliation—and none of us really know what to make of all the information and text pouring our way anyway.

Giveth and taketh away. Reader reviews and book bloggers are one of the best things to happen to the internet, in my opinion. There is a national dialog going on about books—really it’s an international one—which is a constant source of richness, data, and interest, and which proves to me what a thoughtful and intelligent species we really are. With an election looming, it’s nice to be reminded of that.

But it all comes with a price, and the price is digital overload, and a difficulty tuning into what’s really important—broadly speaking and to us as individuals—and a huge problem in content filtration, which we’ll get to.

So, we can get the word out there about our indie published book, but is anyone really reading it?

One thing made it more likely that the answer to this question will be yes.

Something else changed roughly alongside the advent of social media, and that something is called Kindle. Or Nook. Or Kobu. Why did digital books make such a difference? Well, remember Bob? The guy who wound up with $60,000 dollars’ worth of hardcover books in his garage? Or even Maryann, who instead of letting her books wind up as insulation, trucked them up and down the eastern seaboard, introducing herself to booksellers? Digital publishing offered a way to skip all of that. Suddenly there was a way to almost instantly publish your book—just upload it—and a voracious, intelligent readership who liked reading on devices and who would purchase what you’d written.

Maybe not for a lot of money—and we could have a whole talk about pricing, and the 99 cent set point, and the concept of selling for Free—but for sure it was more than a manuscript collecting cyber dust in a cyber drawer would bring in.

All of a sudden you could be a brand new writer and have a book out. Or you could be an established writer, who didn’t do well with her traditional publisher for any one of a host of reasons, take back your rights, and start generating income, with the key advantages of speed and control, which we’ve already talked about, plus one other advantage, possibly even more crucial.

You now can determine how long your book will be sold.

We already know that with traditional publishing, it will take a long time and you lack control. You might not have a lick of input into your cover, your book will be slotted into a queue that works for the publisher—but not necessarily for your kids’ school schedule—and there’s something else, too.

If your traditionally published book doesn’t do well in the first six months, the first three months, in many cases the first six weeks, it will be silently removed and if you’re lucky, go in the back in the discount rack like another can of beans, to quote Billy Joel.

In the past roughly 200 authors made a living off their fiction. 200. That’s it. Everyone else had a day job, or a wealthy partner, or starved. That number is higher now than it ever has been, and that’s all thanks to indie publishing.

Indie publishing has almost single-handedly resurrected a class of midlist author. (Small, independent presses of the type we talked about earlier also played a role in providing homes for authors whose books for perfectly valid reasons simply didn’t sell enough copies to make a Big 6 happy). But it was really indie publishing that meant that all of a sudden, authors with backlist titles that had gone out of print, could upload and sell them themselves, breathing new life into books previously believed to be dead. (“I don’t want to go on the cart!” these books were probably saying). And new authors who were having trouble breaking in could do so with great ease.

So hey, now it seems like I’m one of those people who would look at you like you’re crazy if you say you want to pursue traditional publication. It’s going to take years! (Yes). I might hate my cover! (I love it more than I even hoped to). I’ll have to listen to my editor whether I want to or not! (Thank goodness I had to). If my book doesn’t do well quickly, it will… (OK, it’s still four months from being out. I can’t even go here).

But really, does indie publishing sound like the promised land at this point? Are there reasons not to go this route?

There are some figures we might want to throw out at this moment. If we take ISBN numbers as a largely accurate estimation of the amount of books being published—they’re not an exact figure because some books get multiple ISBNs and some are now being sold, erroneously, to things that aren’t really books at all—but roughly speaking these statistics should be useful:

In 2003, 300,000 ISBNs were issued.

In 2011, there were 3,000,000.

Staggering leap, right? In only eight years.

In 2012, that figure is projected to jump to 15,000,000.

Sit with that for a moment.

Now clearly, only a fraction of these will be novels. Non-fiction always vastly outnumbers fiction. But still. Whatever subset of 15,000,000 ISBNs go to novels is an altogether unmanageable number.

I believe that expertise and curation are going to experience a resurgence in the not-too-distant future as we begin to realize something like what women had to come to terms with in the aftermath of the sexual revolution. The Internet may put absolutely everything under the sun at our fingertips–and deliver it into our homes–but you still can’t have it all.

With wide open gates, comes a stampeding torrent of horses. You might not get crushed, but you will find it hard to identify the best stallion in the pack–or even the mare you might like best. I’m not saying we need to go back to the days when publication was as locked as a secure ward in a federal prison. I’m saying that we need to hone our practices until we have, ideally, the best of both worlds that now exist.

The indie author has a choice to make right up front, and depending upon how it’s made, it could whittle down the number to a more viable one. This is whether to have only a digital version of her book, or a print one as well. Again, this talk isn’t on how to approach indie publishing, so to keep with an overview, I’ll just say that I think the indie author needs to consider a few specific things.

One is how much she herself loves physical books and bookstores. Although it can be an uphill battle, it is possible for an indie author to get her books into stores. Both bookstores and other unique locations—one craft mystery author I know sells her books at knitting stores. What this requires is a personal approach similar to the one Maryann McFadden employed. Go to bookstores. Shop in bookstores. Attend events there, make friends with the staff. Many bookstores have shelves for local authors now, but whether your book finds a place on such a shelf or not, getting the bookseller to read it will make it far more likely to do well, because then he or she can hand-sell it.

If you are an indie author and you take a vacation to Florida, go into the local bookstore and buy a treasure or two. Chat with the bookseller, try and figure out who among the staff might like your type of book. Offer a bookmark and perhaps a small gift that ties-in. By the time you fly home, you may just have interested a very powerful reader in your book. Your book might start being talked about a thousand miles away from home.

Booksellers are one of the biggest sources of the single most powerful tool in selling books: word of mouth. They are tastemakers, and if they become fans, you separate yourself from a huge pack of writers who are indie-publishing on digital platforms only. As blogger and author Dean Wesley Smith says of publishing a paper copy, “Why would a writer ignore the readers who like to hold a book? Why would anyone slice off 65-70% of a potential audience?”

And once you have a physical book, and booksellers interested, you open up another whole realm of notice for your book. Now you can do events. Author signings and readings may turn out to be the saving grace for bookstores—an experiential component that simply can’t be matched, even by Skype ;) Meeting readers is a very important way to kick off more of that word of mouth. Again, you will have set yourself apart, and with numbers like the ones we’ve discussed here today, setting yourself apart is key.

We live in what author Andrew Keen calls the cult of the amateur. Remember the giveth and taketh away thing. I think it’s terrific that we can now cull from a list of titles offered by dozens if not hundreds of book bloggers and reviewers. There is that embarrassment of riches. But another author, Barry Schwartz, identifies a paradox of choice, which says that the more options we have, the less happy we are. There’s something to be said for curators. And experts. I might not necessarily agree with Adam Platt’s restaurant recommendations, but I have a sense of what I’m going to get if I go to one he reviews. He’s a picky guy, and he tends towards elegance. The same knowledge can’t be had when there are thousands of reviewers with differing tastes and preferences and dislikes.

As we are enjoying the bounty of the new, we shouldn’t forget the riches of what came before, and as writers we risk doing so at our own peril.

Face-to-face encounters, real-time, live events, bookstores, libraries, and a strong, thriving Main Street in your community, can all be huge resources in addition to the wider world of the web. Both are equally important—the latter in enabling you to cast a wide net, the former in allowing for the kind of reciprocal, mutual relationship that gets people invested in you and your work.

If I can offer one piece of advice, it might be to zig while others are zagging.

So where did we come to? If you are thinking about which way is right for you, what are some dimensions to consider?

If you want more control over your process, if the time frame of traditional publishing doesn’t work for you, if you’re a born marketer, if your book hangs out in what Chris Anderson calls the long tail and thus will not suit the demands of a big publisher that requires a large market…for these and other reasons, indie publishing might be best for you.

On the other hand, if you love the idea of being backed by a team, if bookstores and libraries and national distribution speak to you, if your eyes light up at the idea of newspaper reviews, or foreign rights, or some of the other twinkles indie publishing hasn’t yet found room for, then traditional publishing might be right for you.

In the end, it comes down not to which is the best path, or the right path, but the path that is best and right for you, at one particular time, with one particular book. For some writers, one path will always be clearly better or worse. And for some writers, both paths will work at different stages of a career. The trick is to stay fluid, and to know that things in life are rarely black and white, and if we keep coming to conferences like this one, and engaging in conversations like the one I’m hoping to have opened up, then we will always be able to figure out the next step to take, and we will always have a choice.

Couple of stories to leave you with. First, remember the two M’s? Well, they wound up at about as opposite poles as you can have in this business, illustrating almost exactly what we’ve been talking about here today.

MJ Rose was sent around by her publisher last spring on a luxury tour bus, along with three other authors, from NY to MO on something called The Magical Mystery Tour. I was able to be at one of their events, at a bookstore called R.J. Julia in CT, and these authors made this crazy biz seem not only glamorous but humorous. They were escorted out like rock stars to a bus emblazoned with ten foot high reproductions of the authors’ book covers.

Maryann published two hardcover books with Hyperion. The third one was declined. When she couldn’t find a traditional publisher, Maryann decided to launch a micro press called Three Women Press, return to her indie-publishing roots, and find a backer to help her get THE BOOK LOVER out into the world. She is now visiting bookstores and when I traveled the country this summer, I saw her book in bookstores from NJ to Georgia.

And finally I promised to tell you about me. A few weeks before receiving a final rejection from the publisher of Viking, having learned to count on nothing in this business—besides good intentions, the loyalty of agents, and a passion by all for books—I’d written to an author whose work I loved. I’d told her a little about my story—the publishing one—and asked her if she might possibly read my novel.

The author said no.

She said it politely. She told me why she couldn’t for all sorts of good reasons.

A week or so later, she messaged me on Facebook. “OK,” she wrote. “Something about your story really speaks to me. Send me your book.”

“I love it,” she said a few weeks later. “And if it doesn’t disappoint in the end—and I can’t imagine that it will—then I will want not just to give you an
endorsement, but to put it in the hands of my very own editor.”

And her very own editor bought it. Somehow this author shared my dream and just happened to be edited by someone who could finally make it come true.

This is the last thing I want to leave you with, and I hope it’s a biggie.

Whichever way you think you’ll choose, whichever path seems right for you, I am asking you to first mine your hopes and dreams for everything they’re worth. Be brutally honest with yourself. No one else in the world needs to hear this if you don’t want them to.

If you want to create an empire of titles that come out one right after each other and reel in readers who have gotten to know your characters through your blog or website, then that will suggest one route. Or, if your deepest desire and profoundest belief is that your book deserves to be #1 on the NYT bestseller list, if you wish to be read worldwide or have your book in every bookstore, then that says a different thing about your goals and the most likely way to reach them.

It may not say a lot about your book ;) And that’s why part of figuring out which path you’re meant to be walking will require getting industry and reader and even author feedback. But assuming you’re not completely out of touch with reality, and I assume that’s so for all of us here even though we’re writers, take that spark of yours—take that dream—seriously.

Because if you don’t, the rest of the world can’t possibly follow. And if you do…it just might.

Good luck.


  1. Thanks Jenny. Great advice!

    Comment by Pamela DuMond — October 3, 2012 @ 10:24 pm

  2. Thanks for letting us read your speech. Most helpful in assisting writers with choices. Will assist me in selection of books & make me a better reviewer.

    Comment by Jake — October 9, 2012 @ 10:57 pm

  3. Hey Jennifer, I just met you at the library. Thanks for this fascinating exegesis. It is most heartening to learn of your long path to publication. I get so frustrated sometimes, but I am clearly meant to learn patience and keep plugging away. I just joined Sisters of Crime, so thanks for that too. Hope to see you again soon. –Violet

    Comment by Violet Snow — October 1, 2013 @ 4:28 pm

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