What I’ve Learned Over the Last Year

While I was waiting for my husband in the mall yesterday, I went shopping for shoes.  I was looking for some flats that would be comfortable and look good with skirts — comfort being the top priority.  Looking good with skirts was essential, but without being comfortable, it didn’t matter how terrific they looked; they were a no-go.  I found the flats, but I also bought a pair of boots.  They weren’t what I was looking for, but they met the criteria and all together I spent less than $70.

What has this got to do with writing?

Sometimes unanticipated opportunities present themselves.  We have to be open and set aside our preconceptions to take advantage of them – and we can do so without going astray as long as we’re clear on our priorities.

I love writing.  I enjoy putting words together in such a way as to convince or entertain, to enlighten or make the reader feel something.  It’s great when a story comes together, and hell when the right words are being elusive.  Some people can be happy writing in a journal and never showing another soul.  I’m not one of them.  I want to share my ideas with others and I want to be paid for it.  That’s why I’m keeping my mind open and evaluating all my publishing options.

When I started writing for publication there were really only two paths to take.  I could write short stories for print magazines, or I could write novels, and find an agent to sell them to print publishers.  But in the last few years a changing economy and technology has opened up more options to authors, each with own costs and benefits.

One of my priorities in writing this blog is to, in addition to reviewing interesting poetry and books,  share what I’m learning about the various forms of publishing.  To that end I’ve reviewed several books about independent-publishing and self-promotion, included guest blogs, and discussed the pros and cons of traditional, small, digital, and self publishing.

I’ve learned a lot over the last year.  Here are the most important points:

•    Traditional, small press, independent publishing, online and print magazines.  Every form of publishing has its pluses and minuses, and which one you pursue depends on the project and your long-term and short-term career goals.
•    You don’t have to choose just one path.  You can pursue more than one avenue of publishing at a time with different projects.
•    Traditional publishing still offers larger advances than other forms of publishing.  It also has superior distribution to brick and mortar bookstores, and for a limited number of best-selling authors, to big box stores and airports.  The latter are still where the majority of book sales occur, though online sales are growing rapidly.
•    Only 1% of books submitted to major publishers are contracted for publication.  About 4% of books submitted to small publishers are contracted.
•    90% of the books in editors’ slush-piles really are pretty bad.
•    According to some sources, only 10% of traditionally published books earn out their advance and earn additional royalties (which are paid every six months after reserves against returns are subtracted).
•    Small publishers and e-publishers are generally more willing to take chances on books that don’t fit into clear market niches.  They may not offer an advance (or only a very small one), but they often pay more in royalties (which are usually paid monthly or quarterly).  Some are quite prestigious, but always check Editors and Predators or Writer Beware! before signing a contract (or better yet, before submitting).
•    Digital or e-publishing is still a small percentage of total book sales, but it’s growing exponentially.  (Some industry insiders are predicting that it will comprise 25% of sales by the end of 2012.)
•    Self-publishing, independent publishing, vertically integrated publishing, whatever you call it, can be done inexpensively if you do the design and formatting work yourself.  There are many companies that will offer to do it for you.  A few are honorable, but most just want your money and don’t care about quality or salability.  Do your research just as you would before buying a car.  Every dollar you spend is one you have to earn back before you break even and start making a profit.
•    The vast majority of self-published books don’t sell as many copies as traditionally published books, but the profit per unit, if you’re diligent, can be greater.  Non-fiction and niche books sell best.
•    If you self-publish, have your work professionally edited.  Every book I read on the subject said this.  (Alternative: at least a dozen beta readers.)
•    There’s a lot of prejudice against self-published books because most of them aren’t professionally edited and they just aren’t very good.  (Remember the slush-pile?) The only defense against this is to create an excellent product from cover to content.  Your book is your ambassador.  Don’t rush it.
•    Accept that part of your job as a writer is to promote your work.  Learn how to do this efficiently and effectively so you can spend more time writing.

•    Don’t give up and don’t give in.  There are lots of people who feel strongly about the superiority of one form of publishing over another.  Listen to them all, get the facts, then make up your own mind.

And finally:
•    Enjoy the process.  This may be your blood, sweat, and tears going onto the page, but it isn’t brain surgery.  If you make a mistake, it’s not fatal.

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