Self-publication route smooths with editorial support

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On the website Writer Unboxed, an article proposes that the movement to self-publish will break down barriers enough to entice writers with traditional deals. It already has; a best-seller like Steven Pressfield (Legend of Bagger Vance, the War of Art) has founded Black Irish Press for his latest book. The net result? Books get into the markets and onto readers’ devices, books that the traditional houses won’t invest in with a traditional deal.

But these self-published books still need support from editors and marketers to wear down the prejudice against this route.

They succeed for one main reason–the ability to price, package and reach your own audience without gatekeepers who need to publish blockbusters. It’s a tremendous amount of creative freedom that has already created some new sub-genres because there was no editor or marketing panel to say, “We don’t think stories about post-high school will sell.”

There is also the money. The average return for a writer on a trade paperback book is about a dollar. On hardcover, maybe you get a bit higher. On mass market, it’s a bit lower. Still. You have to sell a heap of books to make a decent living, and the truth is, shelf space has shrunk insanely over the past five years. In digital publishing, the return on even a $2.99 book is around 2 dollars. At higher price points, it goes higher. Do the math.

And oh, it comes in monthly. Monthly! For a great many established authors, this is mind-boggling.

It’s true there is less respect for self-publishing, for all the reasons that have always existed. But I predict that the support systems of editorial and design will continue to improve and writers will be able to hire the teams they require. Many of us are already doing it.

This dispatch came from the latest Romance Writers of America conference. Just this morning I was talking about Jodi Thomas, a writer of bestselling romances who taught me at the Writer’s League of Texas Writing Academy. Jodi stays busy with a couple of books per year. But she was glad to admit she needed help from editors.

At one point in her career, she was frustrated with the revision letters she was getting from her editor about punctuation. She joked, “I just typed up a page of commas and sent them to her and said, ‘You put them where they belong.’ ”

Jodi’s a best-seller because she’s an ace with characters, draws vivid settings (her latest is the Harmony series, set in the made-up Harmony, Texas) and knows story structure cold. We all need another set of eyes for something in our work. Outside editors are essential. If you don’t get a deal from a small press, you can still get an editor. Your compensation comes in $2 increments off that ebook. Every month — not by the quarter like a traditional deal.

Most editors let us pay by the month for services, too. Look into it if you’re getting a book up on its feet and need coaching or editing.

One conference qualifier: how many writers will pitch, attend and contend?

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Up on the mailing list for the Writer’s League of Texas, a debate broke out over the price for the WLT Agents Conference here in Austin. One member and former director said WLT wasn’t priced to meet the economy’s downturn. Another former director disputed the additional message — that a $79 two-day conference in Denton, Texas next month was a better value and more affordable.

The WLT Agents conference was as inexpensive as $319 — so long as you paid for it seven months in advance (Nov. ’11) and you’re a member. One thing that would help: earlier commitments from attending agents, so you might see if there’s someone you want to pitch to before you register so early. (I know, people in hell want sno-cones, too.)

If you’re being thrifty, yes, the WLT Agents meeting is not $79. But that Denton conference looks like a different kind of meeting than the Agents conference, so I don’t believe these are really in competition. I’m not sure how a $79 conference could be the same kind of investment as $319 worth of speakers and agents. You could do both, really.

Budgeting for conferences can be tricky. There are good price points outside of the Agents conference. After attending WLT’s Agents meet one year, and then volunteering at another, I went to the San Francisco Writers Conference last February. Fine meeting, but priced right at the Agents. (Agent Laurie McLean was at both.) SFWC has a very deep list of speakers to go along with the agents attending. It’s a real publishing town there, a step beyond a writer’s hotbed. Here’s what I can testify: the organizers (Michael Larsen, Elizabeth Pomada) really reached out to make sure that out-of-town writers like me were welcomed. Even in a meeting that had more than 300 attendees.

See, that’s the other thing to consider while deciding about a conference, something even more important than price, at least to me. Consider the number of attendees the conference accepts.

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Winners, but unpublished

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Many things can get in the way of getting a book published. Contracts, rewrites, desire, editorial shifts. But having a contest victory in hand should give an author a better chance, right?

Right? Well, maybe not. A few summers ago I collected business cards at the 2006 Agents and Editors conference, presented by the Writer’s League of Texas. The League was once an Austin institution. Now it’s a statewide organization. The conference holds a manuscript competition. The winners in a half-dozen categories get applauded in a public presentation. In 2006 they were ushered off to meetings with agents.

I was filing business cards today and saw one from Beverly Bryant, whose card reports she’s the 2005 Mainsteam Fiction winner in the WLT Contest. I figured Beverly might have published her book Don’t Make Me Dance someplace by now.

I’m sorry to say not so, if Google and Amazon searches are reliable reporters. Same to be said for the winners in the overall category (Cold Dogs, by Richard L. Dutton) and Science Fiction-Fantasy-Horror (Travelers on the Smoke by Marjorie A. Stewart & Betty W. Hall).

I report this not because I wish any of these authors bad luck in their quest to publish. (And believe me, if you’ve been to the WLT A & E conference, plus submitted MS pages to the contest, you want to publish your book.) No, my point is that a contest victory is just one more hilltop on the mountain range of making your story into a book.

Few contest sponsors will portray their victors as the authors of ongoing projects. But you win a contest with a chapter at most. A publisher will want to see three, if your summary and synopsis will pass the eye of the editing needle.

I’m in rewrite purgatory now for Viral Times, so I’ve got less to show than even Beverly’s business card. But a contest entry (at $50 by now, for the WLT) up against several hundred other 10-page manuscript excerpts just doesn’t motivate me. Maybe you’ll find that finishing your book, then offering it to agents and editors, with a prize of being published, is the contest which you’d really like to win. Keep writing and get into a good manuscript group.

Headed west for vivid words

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This weekend I’m heading 400 miles west of the Workshop, to do some work of my own on my writing. The Writer’s League of Texas is hosting its first Summer Writing Academy, where about two dozen of us will learn about writing novels, screenplays, or in my case, Making Fiction Come Alive.

My instructor is Jodi Thomas, a USA Today bestselling author of romances who’s also the writer in residence at West Texas A&M University. I figured that with teaching experience in her background and more than a dozen books in print, Jodi would be a good choice to learn the language of vivid love. I bought a copy of her novel The Texan’s Wager. It starts strong, with our heroine stranded in the middle of nowhere, kicked out of a wagon train with no weapons in 19th Century Texas.

Trouble right away, the cardinal rule of how to kick off a compelling story. I’m looking forward to being a little more kicked out in the week to come, too, kind of a retreat away from the life that supports me and my family.

Alpine, of course, will be beautiful, in the summertime cool of the Davis Mountains. I’m especially keen to drive to Ft. Davis soon, to visit Dayton’s birthplace and the spot he fell in love with his wife. There’s nothing like being an eyewitness to detail to make the writing come alive.