Indie-publish with an agent: success with sub-rights

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As it turns out, the money is not just in selling your ebooks on Amazon and Kobo. It’s getting your popular books’ sub-rights sold—by an open-minded agent.

Laurie McLean answered a Q&A for the Writers’ League of Texas and noted that self-published titles are part of her client list. Authors publish their own novels (McLean represents genre books, too) and then she gets the chance to sell sub-rights: movie tie-ins, audiobooks, foreign rights and more.

I’ve got half a dozen indie authors who have no interest in traditional deals because they’re making mid-six figure income from their self-published genre fiction. And I love selling their subrights. Heck, I just negotiated a six-figure advance for books 7 and 8 in Brian D. Anderson’s epic fantasy series The Godling Chronicles with Audible. Six figures for audiobook rights? It’s a wild, wild time to be an agent!

So mid-six figures is $500,000 for a self-published genre book. That ebook success makes those sub-rights a swifter sale for McLean. Neither she or the author have to prove the book’s success. The titles are already selling on ebook outlets by the time a movie rights deal gets negotiated. These authors work very hard at selling their ebooks. That kind of success is more likely, most of the time, than getting an agent to pick up a debut author for representation and then winning a deal for that writer.

This is not a suitable path for the author who simply wants to write, revise, and answer a few blog Q&As for publicity. The world is brimming with self-published books with little means of being discovered or sold. McLean wants to do business, a desire that authors also want, to establish a career.

Six years ago I heard McLean speak at the San Francisco Writers Conference. Self-published books were a novelty in those days. Well, not exactly true: the successful self-published book, making $50,000 or more, was rare. But even in 2011 McLean saw a genuine career path for the indie-published writer. She’d talk to somebody who desired a self-pub route, she said on a panel. Now she runs Fuse Literary, where the collective of agents oversees dozens of author careers. A career is what an author desires and what McLean works to establish for debut writers. Her specific services list that shimmers versus the public offerings of so many other agents:

As soon as they sign the agency agreement to work with me, we begin with an author branding session on the phone, Skype or Slack where we determine how to describe that author in order to attract the kinds of readers (and editors) who’ll love what they will write. We also do a career planning session as well as a social media audit. Armed with that kind of information, we progress to the work in progress. I do an edit, which might be light or heavy depending on the state of the manuscript, create a pitch list of editors/publishers and a pitch email, then I go to work.

Everybody works in a healthy author-agent relationship. Doing the heavy lifting of the writing is just the start. Getting your book noticed and read is the everlasting good work. Waiting for an agent to win you a debut deal can be a long journey.

How to Enter Finishing School

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We lie about our writing. Most of us do, with the best intentions, to make up the stories about how much we’re working on our books. It becomes a story that a writer tells when they say “I’m working on my novel.” If you’re working on a book, and writing too little, it’s time to enter Finishing School.

The concept is at the heart of a new book by Danelle Morton and Cary Tennis. The book Finishing School shows us where we get in our own way about completing our works in progress. Six Emotional Pitfalls stretch out in front of us. Doubt. Shame. Yearning. Fear. Judgment. Arrogance. Not everyone feels all of them, but these are the reasons why we do not finish our work. Get a few writers together and their eyes brighten when they can be honest about pitfalls. “I’ll never be as good as Hemingway,” (Doubt) or “I never finish anything.” (Shame). Or “I get annoyed by writers’ groups, those losers.” That’s Arrogance, which is probably not your problem since you’re reading an article on being a better writer.

We struggle separately, alone with the pitfalls. There’s a way out and a way up, say Morton and Tennis. You learn to finish together, without judgment or even reading each others’ work. You make a schedule for one week, getting specific about what you’ll do. Details help. Then find a partner who does the same. You meet in person because it’s personal work. You promise to text or email them the moment you begin working. You meet seven days later and share how your plan worked. Or how it didn’t, but you’re honest now. You plan again, meet again. We become masters of Finishing because, as Cary said over Skype from Italy, “Finishing School throws into relief the conditions of our actual lives.”

We start with overly ambitious plans. We begin with little awareness of our hurdles. It feels so good at first. Later, the writing plan haunts us when we fall short. Better to make room for your real life, foresee the hurdles, plan for them. Cary and I have one thing in common. It’s not that we’re both successful advice columnists (that was Cary at Salon). We got training in the Amherst Writers & Artists practice. “I needed Finishing School for myself,” he says in his book, adding, “I had a panic attack while writing and ended up in the hospital.” Tennis built Finishing School from his AWA training so “workshop participants would crystallize their time; schedule time to work toward it with mutual support; and work steadily to get that writing finished, polished, and published.” They also add accountability without judgment by attending the school.

It’s a school you’d hope to see opened by a man who wrote advice from the heart for more than a decade. We can enter it with a group as small as two writers, artists of any kind, really. The book is powerful, the process transforming. Finishing School might not be the last school you attend. It’s a good bet it will be the most important one.

Finishing School begins July 19 at the Workshop.

The novel gait of Skyhorse Publishing

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Publishers come in many sizes and niches, but few of them have the broad scope of titles at Skyhorse Publishing. The company is not one of the Big 5 imprints. Even though it sold $43 million in books last year, it’s considered a major independent. Skyhorse is a place where titles of the books seem to matter as much as the names of the authors.

A Publisher’s Weekly article about the publisher, noting the press went from $0 to $43 million in 10 years, included this insight from its founder Tony Lyons about acquiring and selling books.

Lyons has no interest in changing his model to try to compete with the largest of New York’s trade houses. He is quite happy to pay modest advances for books that may sell 3,000 or 4,000 copies in a particular niche, but which also have the potential to have a long run in backlist. Backlist sales now represent about 60% of total revenue. Though Skyhorse has published many books that have sold more than 100,000 copies, Lyons said he considers a good sale for a typical Skyhorse book to be around 20,000 copies.

Acquiring a book that might only sell 4,000 copies is not unusual in the publishing business. A company the size of Skyhorse doesn’t often make this a regular practice, though. This publisher, like all of them, wants bestsellers on its lists of books. It’s published 46 New York Times bestsellers.

But a book with modest sales (think 300 books a month for a year) fits into the Skyhorse pedigree, too. That desire for a long run in backlist is important. Nonfiction titles — including some memoirs — dominate these lists of books the publisher still sells but doesn’t promote much anymore. Think yoga books, think a memoir of how a couple lives with only Victorian housing, clothes and the like — these things sell forever if they’re done well.

How could you not be curious about a publisher whose company was named after an editor from its own ranks? Nonfiction is the heartland of what they’re looking for today. Here’s something else that’s novel: the publisher takes on submissions that are un-agented. You need to submit a proposal, like all nonfiction submissions require these days.

  • Sports (Team and Individual)
  • Outdoor Sport (Hunting, Fishing, and Camping)
  • Adventure and Travel
  • Health and Fitness
  • House and Home
  • History
  • Humor
  • Military History
  • Business
  • Games and Gambling
  • Horses
  • Pets and Animals
  • Nature and Science
  • Food and Wine
  • Aviation
  • True Crime
  • Current Events

Skyhorse needs to see one of the following sections in the subject line when you submit your materials.

  1. Outdoor & Sports
  2. Fiction & Literary Non-fiction
  3. Children’s
  4. Cooking & Lifestyle
  5. Politics, History, & General Non-fiction
  6. Racehorse (highly trending topics; e.g. adult coloring books)

3 things you need to earn notices, publish, and write

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sailing-boat-640There are three assets anyone needs for a career in books. See, you’ll craft a writing career out of your writing life. First you have a writing life, personal and intimate and regular. Then you move on to a writing career. Maybe not full-time, but you consider it your primary work.

The three assets are publicity, patience, and practice. Whether you choose to work with a publisher, a coach, or an editor—or strive to become one—those are three essentials. But no matter where you’re at in your career as a writer, using these three tools is crucial to finding the Joy of Writing. Sailing at the center of your journey of joy is help.

As you move into your career as a writer you’ll need publicity. At first that will be earning attention for your own work or the writing of your colleagues. Getting fluent with Twitter and Facebook and Instagram, mapping the landscape of book review websites, plumbing publicity portals like BookBub and Bookbuzz— it’s all essential to publishing yourself. However, in time, you might be inclined to form a publishing venture, at first limited to yourself and few fellow writers.

Publishing can become the province of writers when they collaborate on its business. The flavor of the business day is to corral experienced writers with popular backlists of books, and then get these authors the money they deserve. After all, traditional publishing’s payouts are changing. An author in this kind of boutique press will learn the publicity world to succeed at this venture. Such boutique publishers might even discover more great books, ones that couldn’t find a publisher, and build careers for the undiscovered authors. Very nice work indeed. Getting notice for good work is the heart of publishing.

That leads us to another kind of help: assisting creativity. This is the aid which demands patience. While an author is building skills and polishes their own books, there are opportunities to reach out and help other writers. You might be doing beta reads for your friends’ full drafts, or even catching typos in a late-stage revision of a book. Given enough of this patient work, you may hear a calling to coach writers—that’s where the asset of patience pays off. Coaches guide writers to develop books and edit the text. The level of accountability for a coach can feel greater than one for a classroom teacher. Students pass, they fail, they rate a teacher up or down in surveys: that’s what’s at stake while teaching. Sometimes a teacher only gets three or four hours in front of 30 writers and never sees their writing.

In contrast, during coaching the author will look a coach in the eye (if they use FaceTime, or they meet in a coffee shop) and say things like “Explain why I can’t have three first-person points of view for this cozy mystery.” A coach takes a breath and does their best–and later evaluates the writer’s next set of pages to see if the advice helped the author. That counsel is powered by the talent of the author and that writer’s willingness to put in the hours. You must become the hard-working author who loves to put your early efforts well behind you. Plenty of teaching happens via email and Track Changes.

Of course practice, the third asset, helps everything improve. Practice makes doing the work easier, too. (Okay, at least you don’t need as much effort to finish a section or an assignment.) In the beginning of an editor’s career the books take longer to edit well. After a decade or two of reading the writing of others and then making it better, everyone’s time is better used. The editor returns drafts with development notes sooner. An editor who can coach will have seen more styles, as well as become more practiced at preserving a writer’s tone and voice.

fathers-day-buzzNear the end of the movie Genius, the legendary editor Max Perkins expresses the editor’s worry. “We might not be making these books better,” he says. “We might just be making them different.” Your editor is your collaborator in writing, an art that people believe is solitary work. Lately a few publishers have begun to give an editor a credit on the book. Buzz Bissinger’s memoir Father’s Day is called An Eamon Dolan Book, right out on the back cover. Eamon is Bissinger’s editor, collaborating with him on three books so far. Buzz gives him fulsome praise in the acknowlegements.

With Eamon as fastidious editor and wordsmith (some chapters had more of his comments than they did my own words), what began as an earnest and rudderless first draft became a book.

An Eamon Dolan Book sounds like “A Steven Spielberg Film.” It’s Buzz’s book, yes. The collaboration was powered by publicity, patience, and practice. The first feels like magic when it works. But it’s earned by applying the other two in order to create something worthy of public notice. Buzz admits his fine memoir was rudderless, but at least it was moving. Patience helped him steer the story. Practice, of course, was the wind in his sails.

Memoir and therapy and you

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Memoir is all about you. Writing one is, anyway. In the process of creating these stories about your history, you’ll uncover aspects of yourself. Not pretty, some of these will be—if you’re lucky, and fortunate enough to be brave about telling on yourself.

dog-therapyOne of the universal cautions about writing memoir is the role of therapy in creating it. Endless introspection isn’t attractive. There’s a saying in the movies when a stage play is brought to the screen. The tactic is to “open it up.” Parts of The Odd Couple got exterior settings in the film, for example. Opening up a memoir means letting other people into the story and being aware of their emotions. Not just your own.

That being said, memoir writing is the most personal storytelling you will do. You have the potential to examine what happened in your past and put things into the spotlight that were shadowy. Memoirs can also identify the habits and beliefs you didn’t understand, even as you practiced and followed them. One great resource to lead you is Writing Life Stories, by the novelist Bill Roorbach and therapist Kristen Keckler.

Are you narcissistic, or bipolar? I’m a bit of both, habits that can rob you of joy and love, and also get you published and elected. Own what you are and use it. If you put enough work into a memoir, you can understand your conditions and disorders with a bighearted love and compassion. Now go tell some secrets.

Memoir disclaimers might involve murder

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elegy-coverIn the workshops I run for memoirists the question comes up often. How close must I stay to the facts while I tell my story? The answer varies from one memoirist to the next. Dave Eggars (A Heartbreaking Story of Staggering Genius) veers close to fiction. He invents dialogue that he doesn’t remember and built composite characters to represent people from his life.

On the other end of the scale is Lee Gutkind. He’s the father of creative nonfiction and says nothing should ever go onto the page that you cannot document. You Can’t Make This Stuff Up is one of his seminal craft books.

A Top 10 memoir for 2016, J.D. Vance’s A Hillbilly Elegy walks closer to the documentation line. It also includes this report of how he built his story of memories. While he admits he’s changed names (who doesn’t in their memoir?) he adds

This story is, to the best of my recollection, a fully accurate portrait of the world I’ve witnessed. Where possible, I corroborated the details with documentation—report cards, handwritten letters, note on photographs—but I am sure this story is as fallible as any human memory.

He goes on to report how he gave his sister a draft and they talked for 30 minutes about how he’d misplaced an event chronologically. “I left my version in,” he adds, “not because I suspect my sister’s memory is faulty (in fact, I imagine hers is better than mine) but because I think there is something to learn in how I’ve organized the events in my own mind.”

Vance’s book acknowledges he is biased and notes that some family members have attempted homicide, “and a few were successful.” You’ll want to get the details essentially correct about people who see murder as a reasonable response. But I also heard from a writer at the Texas Book Festival whose memoir was full of criminals from the author’s life before prison. “They complained when I left them out of the book,” he said, “and I told them, ‘I’ll get you in the next one.’ ”

Do your best to remember. Don’t leave something important out of your memoirs because you can’t recall it completely. The larger truth is what we hope to witness while we read memoirs.

First Person and Sticky Points of View

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tiefast-767993In a seminar I had with Robert Flynn, a novelist teaching a Writer’s League of Texas course on fiction, he expressed a point of view. That’s as in Point Of View (POV) and how to decide which one to use. Whether it’s first person told with the “I,” or third person that unreels the story with “he” and “she,” all POVs have some downsides to observe.

I include second person in that list of POVs, you rascally innovators. But novels and stories written in second person—”you”—are rare, and for a reason: It’s difficult to get close to this kind of POV, in spite of the imperative tone. One of our workshop’s members recently wrote a full scene in the imperative without so much as a prompt. I applaud his tenacity. It’s not easy to stick with, according to Flynn.

Most debut novels come to the publisher in first person. Flynn believes a first person character needs to be someone you can confide in. Keep in mind that some other character will need to tell your first person narrator’s part of the story — unless they can reflect on themselves in an observer’s manner. The novel The Various Flavors of Coffee (superb book) does this reflection well. The device used is the narrator telling his story from well into the future, prior to the book’s main action. It’s deft and worth a read.

Without this, it’s difficult to get “objective reality” out of a first person POV. You are less likely to see revelations, genuine surprises, about the narrator in a first person story. As in  The Various Flavors of Coffee, your first-person character narrate the story from many years later. However, there’s a moment in the story where the character says the equivalent of “what I was about to do was a series of blunders.” Honesty comes by way of the long view. Other first person aspects:

  • Sometimes first person is too intimate to be comfortable
  • People will believe the central character is the author
  • If the narrator sees himself or herself as someone other than they really are, it can get complicated. (Without giving too much away, however, a certain Chuck Palahniuk novel about a club pulls this off very well.)
  • First person POV relies a lot on supposing, and “it seemed” narration
  • A narrator who’s not involved in the story can lend objectivity. But we’ll want to know as readers why this person is telling the story, if they’re not involved.
  • There’s a loss of suspense by using first person, at least for any story that wants to behave by the tradition of telling a tale from a living person’s POV. There’s some difficulty in reporting one’s own death.
  • First person narration relies on word choices that grow out of the character. While that’s a great way to get to know a character, it does have the potential for limiting the vocabulary in the story.

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