On Writing

Writing and Self-Publishing

I am often asked, when speaking to groups, “How did you publish your books?” which invariably leads to my story of two publishers:

By autumn 2005, two independent publishers had expressed interest in buying my first novel, Susquehanna Scandal. One was dedicated to publishing historically-based stories about New York State and the other was a small press in southwest England near to where I had lived. As autumn turned to winter and New Year’s Eve appeared on the horizon, I made an impassioned query to both. The British publisher said he was selling his business to an e-publisher who was interested in my book, but wanted it cut to 30,000 words or less. No thank you. Furthermore, I wasn’t ready for e-publishing in 2005. The New York publisher said he was selling his business to a 15-year employee who was no longer going to publish fiction, but he would like to be my distributor – a relationship which I continue to enjoy today.

I had spent the better part of a year working with agents and publishers before finally deciding it was time to bite the self-publishing bullet. I had heard all the demeaning and snide remarks about vanity publishing, had researched enough self-publishers to know that I would be responsible for the majority of promotional and marketing work, and at best not to expect more than a skimpy royalty check two-to-four times a year. I had also heard enough horror stories from self-published authors to make me wary of certain Print-on-Demand and Self-Publishing companies. Bemoaning this to my writers’ group one day a colleague replied, “Why not publish it yourself? My husband did and he has a block of ISBNs. He’ll give you one, you can name him as your publisher and and use his local printer.” The more she said, the more appealing her idea became. I set out to make sure the manuscript was well edited, proofed, formatted, obtained a cover designer, and worked with the printer to be sure the book was ready for reading enjoyment. And after all that, the first printing had a few minor errors.

Within three weeks of release I had recouped my investment and the book went into a second printing. Over the years I have learned that booksellers are necessary but not always the best outlet for a self-published book. I also learned that librarians do buy self-published books, in fact, my books are in several libraries and I’ve enjoyed a number of library discussions and book signings, with any profits always going to the “Friends of the Library.” Selling your book in a chain store can be a problem unless you have a recognized distributor.

As I became absorbed by and exhausted from promoting, marketing and selling my book, I also became frustrated by having neither the time nor energy for my daily writing. Until, one day, I read the notice of a public lecture at a local college by the author/editor/publisher of a leading boutique press. The title of his talk was, “Now that you’re published, what are you going to do?” It was what I had been waiting to hear. I arrived early and anxiously waited for him to ease my dilemma. Instead, he said very little that I hadn’t already read or heard. At Q & A time, I asked my burning question, “How do you as a writer, author and publisher do all the promotion, marketing and sales of your books, and still find time and energy to write?” A blank look came over his face. Then his wife, a nationally-known poet who had been sitting quietly in the front row, stood, turned in her flowing black muumuu and looked at me. “You learn to take the energy you receive from people you meet at your book signings and put it back into your writing,” and she sat down. Instantly, I felt a huge weight lift from my shoulders. From that moment on, what had been my burden became my strength.

Books began to pop out of my desktop every couple of years as I became committed to my brand of self-publishing. Never have I become deluded into thinking that my writing would provide a sustainable income, but I have been pleased to have it as a creative pursuit in my retirement, and better yet to know that it pays for itself.

A final word to anyone considering self-publishing – EDIT! EDIT! EDIT!

Too often I have met self-published writers more interested in telling their story and seeing their name on the cover of a book than writing with any thought for their readers. Nothing can discourage a reader faster than poor grammar, punctuation, shifting viewpoints, changing tenses, misspellings, and improper or unintelligible language. This is where good editing comes in – not by friends and loved ones who don’t want to hurt your feelings, but by objective, credible people who have the ability and knowledge to assess your work, and from whom you are receptive to their critical reflection.

I have read the works of a number of self-published authors, and have felt badly to hear them say how much money they’ve paid Print-on-Demand or Self-Publishing firms to get their cherished works in print. In general, each one had a good storyline that was often spoiled by a lack of skillful writing and editing, even by internet editors who charged handsomely for their service.

Neither can I emphasize strongly enough the importance of a critique group, not just a writers’ group that tends to be more of a support or therapy group, but a serious collection of authors, editors and dedicated writers with whom you can hone your writing skills. Academic coursework was the foundation for me to begin fiction writing, but it was in my writers’ groups that I learned how to be writer. If such a group is not available in your area, then either start one with one or two others, or seek out a professional editor, who comes to you by recommendation and whom you have vetted through credible references.

Once you feel your book has been thoroughly edited and proofed ask one or two critical readers to go over it from beginning to end to make sure it flows, it is readable, holds together and keeps them turning pages. Readers today have shorter attention spans than readers a generation or two ago – write for your own pleasure, but don’t forget your intended audience.

One final word and about e-publishing: As long as the digital device manufacturers have their way, e-reading is here to stay. I gave up fighting it and joined it, but not without thoroughly investigating the many e-publishers and self-e-publishers on the global net. I have found Mark Coker’s free books and his sage advice very helpful for breaking into the e-book market: http://www.smashwords.com .

I know there are, “different strokes for different folks,” but it helps me to set aside a time in the morning to write. Whatever works best for you, make sure it’s when you have the fewest possible distractions and whatever you do . . . write on!

6 thoughts on “On Writing

  1. This is great! I have two questions:1. How do you write in a voice that dnvtiictise from your own? What I mean is, when I write fiction, I seem to get stuck either in an overly reflective first person that’s far too similar to how I write journals, or in a chatty, wry, vaguely 19th century third person omniscient that’s far too similar to the way I narrate my life in my head. Do any have any tips for developing a new style?2. Is it difficult for you put your characters through bad events or write them doing bad things? Especially if you don’t intend for them to have a happy ending later?

  2. Thanks for being in contact with a couple of good questions.
    Voice: I’m not sure you ever write in a voice that is completely different from your own. As hard as it might seem, I find it necessary to be in the voice of my character even though elements of that voice are mine, whether deliberate or subliminal. I suppose it all depends upon how well you’ve established, defined and are familiar with your character. Especially if you’re writing character-driven fiction, which I prefer to do.
    Bad Events: I tend toward the positive with eternal optimism so yes, it is hard sometimes for me to include bad things. Having said that, I have been (as we all are) surrounded by enough bad things in my life to be able to write in bad events for my bad characters. I was surprised in my most recent book (Sweet Vines and Bitter Fruit) when one of my bad characters, who I was sure would self-destruct, was actually redeemed. And a character who I didn’t expect would turn out to be bad, became a murderer. That’s character-driven fiction.
    Good luck.

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