Defying Conventional Wisdom

Just about every unpublished, or little published, author wants to know “the Secret,”  that combination of actions that results in “the call” from the publisher offering to publish their baby.  Those of us who belong to writing organizations or who go regularly to conferences (in order to learn the secret, of course) have heard many times that there is no secret.  None.  Zippo.  Nada.

We hear over an over again that the only way to succeed is to write the best book we can, format it correctly, and then keep sending it out to publishers and agents until it finds the right person who will fall in love with it and offer a glass slipper in return.

We hear rumors of authors who have defied the words of the wise ones and left the beaten track to strike off on their own into the woods, but something in us holds us back.  The wise ones tell us that leaving the tried and true path will result in disaster.  Self-publishing will cost us money we’ll never recover.  Digital publishing is still in its infancy.  Only traditional publishers can give your book the exposure it needs to succeed.


I’ve been reading the blogs of Michael Stackpole and J.A. Konrath.  These guys are serious about their careers and hyper-aware of what works and what doesn’t.  They’ve been in the game for a long time, and both of them are embracing digital publishing.  (In particular, check out Konrath’s post, “You aren’t J.A. Konrath” of 10/3/10.)

Yes, as Tim Ferris points out, his Kindle sales are only a fraction of his total book sales.  But I’ll point out that his book is non-fiction (which generally enjoys larger sales numbers than fiction), and his Kindle sales are still significant.  Low sales numbers don’t seem to be a problem for J.A. Konrath, however.  If an author can approach even a fraction of what Konrath has acheived through digital sales, then that’s still a pretty good career, and you aren’t waiting around for the gatekeepers to bestow their blessing.

Does this mean I’m going to pull my books from the traditional publishers who are considering them?

No.  As Stackpole advises, I’m pursuing all options.  Does this mean I’ll self-publish future books?  Quite probably.

Here is the truth as I see it:

You need to be brutally honest with yourself, and you need to find readers who will be brutally honest with you so you can make your book really, really good.  That is the ONLY hard and fast, immutable truth.  Your book must be the very best you can make it.  No typos.  No awkward phrases.  Consider hiring a professional editor if you don’t know readers up to the task.  Yes, it takes time, and possibly money, but you’re planning a marathon here, not a sprint.  Don’t stumble in the blocks.

If you want to self-publish fiction (either Print On Demand or digital) you need to have a good cover.  Aaron Shepard makes a living off his non-fiction, independently published books and they have plain white covers with just the title and his name, but I believe (with no evidence to support my belief other than an informal unscientific survey) that for fiction, a good cover is helpful to capture the eye of the reader cruising down a list of thumbnails online.

Be smart.  Take your time.  Educate yourself.  Learn from others.

Hold on to your dreams.


Filed under writing

8 responses to “Defying Conventional Wisdom

  1. You’ve totally hit the nail on the head, Frances. 🙂

    • Agreed! Wonderful post. Hogwash is a good word for some of the “truths” and “formulas” aspiring authors have been fed. The truth is that you make your own formula with the best quality you can produce, and as you said, it’s a marathon, not a sprint!

  2. Of course, making a book really really good goes far deeper than no typos or awkward phrases. That’s only the most basic level of surface edit– and literally the very last thing a publisher looks at before sending a book out into the world.

    I’m not sure how one finds readers who have the same level of skill as a professional editor. My friends have helped, but my editors have taken my books to new levels after my friends have made all the suggestions they can.

    I’m also pretty sure I couldn’t afford all the hours my editor has put into my book. A real edit is, I’m pretty sure, a lot more expensive than mere copyediting.

  3. Cover design is also more complicated than is often assumed. Even with good art, I’ve only rarely seen a self-pubbed civer that looked professional and polished. The best one’s manage a small press vibe, but even that’s rare–have never seen one that looks more polished than that.

    But so long as one thinks about traditional publishing as being about holding out for glass slippers (that is, getting lucky), well … I think a lot of more practical issues are going to seem to take a back seat to the supposed unlikeliness of it all … which is a myth as well, of course, this idea that breaking in traditionally is about lightning striking, little more.

    • But so long as one thinks about traditional publishing as being about holding out for glass slippers (that is, getting lucky), well … I think a lot of more practical issues are going to seem to take a back seat to the supposed unlikeliness of it all … which is a myth as well, of course, this idea that breaking in traditionally is about lightning striking, little more.

      I don’t believe that engaging the interest of an agent or editor is solely the result of luck or lightning striking. As I’ve said, success in any path of publishing depends on making your work the very best it can be. But agents and editors don’t base their decisions to represent or buy only on the quality of the work. They buy on the basis of whether they think they can sell enough copies. It can’t just be good, it has to marketable as defined by the industry insiders. This is an important distinction.

      First we have to consider how well the editor (and whoever else contributes to the decision) really knows the market. They’re probably right a lot of the time. But we know they make mistakes, too. We’ve all heard the stories about mega-best sellers that were passed over 45 times before they sold. Now obviously, self-publishing is highly unlikely to result in a mega-bestseller. That’s not my point. My point is that viewing agents and editors as the sole arbiters of quality is a mistake. A book that’s passed over can still be commercially viable if given the opportunity to get in front of potential buyers. Self-publishing gives the author this opportunity.

      As for the supposed unlikeliness of it all, it’s true that a good book is not really competing against the entire slush pile, but instead against the remaining 5% or 10% which are also good. But being good alone is not enough. A book may not appeal to that particular editor. Or the publisher may already have bought two books about a zombie platypus that aren’t as good, but they came in first and are already under contract so: no sale. And while publishers are making up their minds, six months or a year has gone by while you write the next, even better book that might sell right away, or more likely, may just make the rounds of agents and editors who want to see it exclusively but are overwhelmed by work and don’t get back to you for months or years to say, no thanks.

      And since we know that self-publishing is no barrier to being picked up by a big six publisher (assuming that’s what you want), if you’ve done your due diligence and polished your work either through hiring a professional editor or a round of readers, and calculated your costs vs. returns (this is a business, after all), why not self-publish?

      As for details like covers, that’s another area where an author can choose to spend money to hire a professional (J.A. Konrath spends between $300 and $1000) or do it yourself if you have the skills. I’m afraid I’ve seen too many rather average or downright bad covers from big six publishers to put them on a pedestal.

      As for making a book really, really good, well, there are precious few of them out there from any source, and the evaluation is pretty subjective, anyway. I’m really glad your editor did well by you and your work. I believe most editors do their best despite time constraints and huge work-loads. But being traditionally published isn’t a guarantee of having free editorial improvement of your work. First, it’s not free. The publisher does take a rather significant cut. Second, the author has no control over the quality of the editing. Have we not all seen books from traditional publishers that are full of repetitions, digressions, typos, illogical plots, and poor characterization?

      And then there’s the business itself. From everything I’ve read, big changes must come to the publishing industry or it will fail. Technology is putting huge pressures on traditional publishers and the old business model won’t be able to continue as it has. I believe publishing will continue, just not in the same way, and that will affect the writers who do business with it. Having a career that’s independent of it may not be a bad thing.

  4. I didn’t say anything about anyone being the sole arbiter of quality. Of course everyone’s fallible … I do think that professional editors have a better track record for selecting quality books than any other method currently out there, but I never claimed it as an absolute, nor really commenting on the selection/filtering role of editors at all.

    I was commenting on the ability of the editorial process to make already acquired books as strong as they can be, something I think professional editors still do better, overall, than anyone else out there. Likewise for covers–not every cover is perfect, but there’s a certain look and feel to most of the books on shelves that gives them an edge of polish–even for covers I personally dislike–that most self-published books just don’t have. Even those where the design is hired out, actually–I don’t know why there are so few professional designers freelancing who can replicate the quality of a bookstore cover, but apparently there are–or else self-published authors can’t afford such designers. (Because I suspect for professional graphic design, $1000 would actually be low end, having worked with designers and talked with illustrators a little.)

    And actually, being self-published is a barrier to being picked up by professional publishers based on what I’m hearing–I’ve seen editors say, online and at conferences, that they’re less interested in such books. Exceptions happen (maybe that’s where the glass slippers really come in), but they’re far less common than a book selling without being self-published–and self-publishing does create a certain prejudice among the editors I’ve heard comment on it, possibly because it tells them (accurately or not) that a book has already failed to sell.

    I remain skeptical on whether big changes are coming or not. As in, I don’t honestly know. I do know I’ve been hearing that traditional publishing is falling apart and changing utterly for nearly two decades now (and indeed, apparently the notion of same goes back to the days when people worried paperbacks would make hardcovers obsolete). What I’ve seen is a continuing slow change over time, and that’s the thing I personally expect to continue–pretty much any business, I think, is subject to a sort of constant change, and the book industry has really never been static.

    One more thing, just because it keeps coming up: really, truly, my comments have little to do with my books and my editor having done well by my work. (Though I do indeed believe he did a fabulous job with same, and continues to make me a better writer.) The things I’ve been saying about traditional publishing don’t come from a place of “well, it worked for me.” They’re things I was saying before I sold and between books when I wasn’t selling, and are based not on the narrow perspective of my own experiences, but … just as your takes on this process are … on years of observation and discussion with other writers, editors, and publishing professionals. 🙂

    • I’ll concede that it’s rare for a self-pubbed book to be picked up by a traditional publisher, though from what I’ve read, some are using it as a kind of vetting process: if it floats to the top some publishers think it’s worth skimming.

      I didn’t suggest that the big changes coming to the publishing industry were going to happen overnight. I agree, there have been doomsayers predicting the end of the world for all of history. 🙂 But as we’ve seen with Dorchester (a medium size publisher who recently dropped publishing mass market books and went to ebooks and POD), there are tremendous economic pressures on publishers, and the rapid growth of ebooks isn’t helping any. Unless the corporations who own them want to use the publishers as tax write-offs, some of their business practices will have to change (returns and net 90 come to mind). This will eventually have an impact on all segments of the industry, including authors, likely in the form of low or non-existent advances and late royalty payments.

  5. I’ve heard plenty of talk of adapting, sure, and being open to making adjustments and trting new things, but none by any major publisher of stopping advances or not paying royalties when they’re due.

    I mean, for 20 years I’ve heard mentions of the occasional house that’s late with royalties, but never in a way that considered it acceptable or the norm. And slowdowns in processing things when economics are tight go back nearly as far.

    But I haven’t heard any print publisher talk seriously about moving away from offerring advances. Ebook only publishers, sure, and it may well be epublishing (which is different from self-publishing) will run on a different model.

    The only serious talk I’m hearing of authors forgoing royalties comes from self-publishers or–more rarely–from the occasional author with a very small press.

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