Choosing the only option

Long time followers of my blog might have noticed that I haven’t posted about writing and self-publishing for a while. That’s because I’ve been sidetracked by politics and media and the interaction between the two. In many ways, the challenges faced by mainstream media in the digital age are similar to the current generational shift in the book publishing industry.  In both, writers, authors and journalists are trying to make their mark in a digital world where quality content is available for free.

There are thousands of bloggers like me writing (for free) on the web, stealing market share from paid journalists. Journalists used to enjoy the undivided attention of consumers whose primary access to written news and opinion arrived on their doorstep every morning. So far the only innovation that the mainstream media have come up with to protect their profits, and their journalists’ jobs, is the pay-wall, which is yet to be a proven business model. I still think that there are more options available apart from the pay-wall, such as more strategic advertising models. When advertisements went online, they were always cheaper than their print equivalent and the price fell below what was sustainable. In a race for audience share, online media publishers lost sight of the future profitability of this model. There are various ways they might be able to undo these mistakes. But that is a post for another day.

A similar problem is occurring for traditional book publishers. How do they make profit when there are authors bypassing them and going direct to the market? Previously a few big publishing companies owned and controlled the market. But now self-published or ‘indie published’ authors, mostly using Amazon, are reaching massive audiences, often more successfully than traditional publishers. I don’t use the phrase ‘e-book’ anymore. A book is a book, just as a word is a word. It doesn’t matter what shape or form it takes. People buy books to read stories and to get to know characters, not to own bound paper with a pretty cover.

This week I read two interesting articles about self-publishing vs traditional publishing – The Dead End of DIY Publishing by Eugenia Williamson and a response to this – EXTRA ETHER: Will DIY Pay for R&D? by Porter Anderson. Andreson’s article argues that traditional publishers promote innovation in the publishing industry, as they reinvest their profits from blockbusters to fund innovation and give emerging authors a chance at the big league. But, if you’ve ever had anything to do with traditional publishers and agents, you will know that this is bollocks. The very last thing traditional publishers want to do is give something ‘new’ a ‘try’. The choices agents and publishers make have nothing to do with innovation, and everything to do with making money. This is why most don’t even take submissions from aspiring writers, and are now picking through Amazon, looking for ready made ‘hits’ that have already proven themselves by finding an audience through the non-traditional route.

A recent example of this trend is the success of Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James. James, a British writer, published with a print-on-demand publisher in Sydney, The Writers’ Coffee Shop. I’m not at all surprised that this fan-fiction erotica novel was originally indie-published. I can’t help but laugh at the traditional publisher, Vintage Books, who signed EL James to ‘re-release’ the novel, and is now congratulating themselves on ‘uncovering’ this smash hit. Traditional mainstream publishers and agents had zero interest in fan-fiction and erotica, let along a mixture of the two, before this genre proved itself a winner through the determination of the self-published author.

Long time readers of this blog will have experienced my journey to publish Times of Trouble and Conspire. I have always liked the idea of self-publishing (it’s my independent spirit I think!), but I also saw that traditional publishers have distribution structures that I could never hope to replicate by myself. I even dreamt of a situation where I retain the rights to my work, but use a traditional publisher as the distributor only. For both my novels, I have approached agents and publishers via the traditional ‘proposal’ or ‘query’ method, and I’ve learnt that it’s a total waste of time. When people talk about the merits of traditional publishing vs self-publishing, they very rarely make the obvious point that for the vast majority of writers, there is no choice.

Using Conspire as an example, let’s look at the options available to me in the traditional publishing model. I obediently purchased the 2012 Writer’s Market that lists all the agents and publishers in North America. Of the hundreds listed, there were only 27 for whom my book was eligible – ie that they were interested in thrillers, were taking submissions (as the majority don’t) and also took email submissions. I’ve written before about publishers and agents who still only take posted submissions and how I can safely assume they’re not going to have a great handle on the digital publishing industry. I gave up on Australian agents and publishers through my experiences with Times of Trouble. There are less than 10 credible agents and publishers in Australia actively taking submissions from first time authors. So the people who stood between me and my goal of traditionally publishing my novels would all fit in my living room. Not only a tough crowd, also a very small one! Most of these people don’t even respond when you send them a query. So you end up with a handful of responses, all rejecting your proposal. After this not so fun experience, you’re left with one option – self-publishing. When I self-published Times of Trouble as a free book, it was downloaded over 30,000 times and got some great reviews. So far Conspire has been ‘out there’ for a few weeks and I already have some readers giving it a go.

I’m just happy that the traditional publishing model is no longer the only way to get published. In the past, if gatekeeper agents and publishers didn’t like the concept of a Progressive Thriller, Conspire would never have seen the light of day.  I could endlessly discuss the merits of publishing via the traditional route compared to self-publishing, and vice versa, but ultimately, when I, and most authors, don’t really have a choice, this debate is futile. We do the best with what we have and we thank our lucky stars that Amazon exists.

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Slush pile blues for 2011

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As I start writing this post, I’m going to warn that it might not be polished as I’m typing it on my iPad notepad. I’m snuggled in front of the fire on a cold winter afternoon in Elland, UK, and after spending the last hour reading 2011 summaries on news sites and blogs, I decided my neglected blog deserved a summary post of its own to end 2011.

So here’s where I’m at: Conspire is finished, including editing, rewrites, beta reads, professional editing and more rewrites. I still like the story – I reminded myself this after reading a few chapters on the flight over here. I’ve sent out around eight proposals to agents so far and had a few form rejections. One request for a partial got me excited, but it was even more depressing to then be rejected at second base.

The process of trying to find an agent and then publisher (traditional route) makes me very anxious. I’ve been doing a lot of reading about book deals and the path people have taken to find success in publishing and it’s struck me that agents and publishers and now doing two things that make the chances of a book deal for a first timer even more slim. The first is that MOST agents now don’t accept unsolicited submissions. Gate is closed, locked and rusted shut. Depressing state of affairs and incredibly frustrating. The second explains why the first is happening. Agents and publishers aren’t waiting for new authors to seek them out anymore. They’re instead approaching successful self published authors and offering the already proven talent representation. So where does that leave little old me and hundreds of thousands of other aspiring authors? There’s no doubt it’s harder than ever. An industry famous for taking the safe route has just removed their biggest risk – untested products.

I can already hear you asking, why don’t you self publish then Vic? Obviously that option is still very much open to me. The problem is, I did this with Times of Trouble and had it downloaded over 30,000 times on free ebook sites. But now that it’s on Amazon UK and costs 86p, I’ve had less than 10 downloads. Times of Trouble has joined the great slush pile of novels on Amazon and has vanished off the face of the earth. 30,000 free downloads is great, but until you’ve made money from your book, you’re not considered a successful author. Did you know there are over 50,000 ‘Crime, Mystery and Thriller’ novels available on Amazon? I just feel sick at the thought of subjecting Conspire to this quagmire. It’s worth noting here that I’m not one of these literary snobs who thinks that all self published books are crap. I downloaded three ebooks to read on the plane and the two self published ones were much better reads than the expensive traditionally published one that was written by a very famous Australian author. I haven’t put a book down for ages and I did try to persevere with this one, but it was seriously boring. There’s a lot of crap being published – traditionally and by self-published authors. That’s also quite a depressing thought.

This has all turned into a bit of a whinge. Sorry about that. I’ll wrap up. My plan for early 2012 is to send out a few more submissions to agents in the mostly delusional hope of finding representation. If this is as spectacularly unsuccessful as it has been so far, I’m going to try some creative ways of finding an audience for Conspire. I already have some ideas. I just need time to implement them. Self-publishing isn’t as easy as uploading a book to Amazon, even an already popular book as I proved with Times of Trouble. So between moving interstate, renovating a house and a full time job, I will keep you updated as best I can whilst also trying to find time to carry out this mission. It’s more than likely I’ll also start writing novel number three. I’m a much happier person mid-plot.

Happy New Year to my few but devoted blog readers 🙂


Professional Editing

Long time no post! I’m back and I’ve got exciting news. Since I last posted I have got older and flicked over into a new age bracket. For my birthday, my lovely friends and family gave me enough cash so I could afford to get Conspire professionally edited. Some might say this is a bit of a boring birthday present, and those some would be very wrong. It has been so exciting sending my manuscript off to be fixed! And fixed it has been!

The editor I chose is based in England and is called Bubble Cow. I saw this editor being recommended by some other writers on Twitter, and also noticed that they give a lot of free advice to writers on their blog.

Included in the editing package was an assessment of the plot, characters and style. I was pleased to see that the editor didn’t pick up many problems in the grammar, layout and choice of words. There were also only a few typos, which was a relief since I’ve read the manuscript four times already! But what Bubble Cow, specifically Gary, was able to do was show me how to get my manuscript, in his words – from 90% there to 100%. I’m pleased he thought it was already 90% there and I’m even more pleased that the changes he has suggested, although usually quite minor, have had a major impact on how polished the manuscript is.

As an example of the changes he suggested – he removed a lot of exclamation marks. Readers of this blog will know I’m quite fond of my exclamation marks. But they are a bit childish in a real book. I have also come to realize that they break a rule that I seem to break a lot and Gary has pointed out to me how to improve this situation – the old chestnut of telling not showing. You shouldn’t have to use an exclamation mark at the end of the dialogue, as the words the character is using should SHOW the reader that the character is exasperated, excited, surprised or any other emotion worthy of emphasis.

He’s also removed a lot of the internal dialogue of my protagonist, Alex, for the same reason – her thoughts and conclusions and summaries were often evidence of the narrator (me) TELLING the reader what Alex was thinking, rather than showing it through her actions and dialogue.

I had a few paragraphs were the narrator explained to the reader what had happened in the back story in an attempt to add context to a situation. But Gary showed me where this back-story could be ‘SHOWN’ rather than ‘TOLD’ through dialogue or action. When he points out these sections to me, it seems totally obvious that I’d broken the showing/telling rule. But it’s often not until a third party shows you where you’ve gone wrong that you really understand.

All in all I’m thrilled with the feedback and after spending today taking it in and revising, I feel I’m closer to being able to present readers with a really good book.

Thank you to readers of this blog who contributed to my present. It was a useful exercise and an educating experience.


Conspire is finished

This post is going to be short and sweet. Conspire is finished! A few friends and family are now reading the final version, for which I am very grateful. I hope you enjoy it. I’ll be asking you to post reviews on this blog when you are finished.

To celebrate Conspire’s completion, I have put together a poster. Enjoy!


Successful Beta Read

Happy days! My beta reader enjoyed Conspire. I was worried that he would hate it when I found out (after sending him the manuscript) that he is not just an avid reader and writer, but also a soldier in the American army, currently serving in Iraq. Geez! Talk about far off course from my target market! Considering the themes in Conspire, I actually thought I might offend him. But even if he was offended (and he didn’t say he was), he definitely enjoyed my story!

Below is Clark’s critique. I’ve removed sections that give away the plot. I am incredibly grateful for the feedback and I am now busily revising all the areas that Clark has pointed out as problematic.

Hello Victoria,

I just finished reading your manuscript and you really do have a page turner here. I really did keep wanting to get back and read more and there was a temptation to read real fast in order to find out what would be happening next but I slowed down and took notes. I hope that this feed back will be effective for you. I will put it in two categories and you can choose to read them in whichever order you like (not sure if you like having positive or negative first).

Positive:

  • The story has very good pacing
  • Your description of scenes was really well done
  • The torture scene was so intense I felt a little sick. Very vivid, really put me there
  • There is great drama and excitement in the story that makes you want to keep reading
  • Alex is a very likable character who is easy to identify with
  • the way you crafted giving information and holding back information was really well done. I could tell something was up but never could really put my finger on it
  • Use of current technologies and political headlines gave it a very real feel

Parts that didn’t seem right:

  • The very first of the book introduces a lot of characters and if I wasn’t writing them down I’d have had a hard time keeping track
  • The body contact (holding hands, holding etc.) of Henry and Alex seems out of place. (I removed a section here)
  • When (removed) is picked up at the airport I wish I had cared more about him. (Removed) come off a little flat especially compared to how well the characters of (removed) have been developed. I really didn’t care about what happened to any of them.
  • Henry sometimes confuses me and maybe that’s because (removed…)
  • Ahmed’s plan with (removed) really didn’t make sense when (removed…).

As a personal note I really liked the (removed) but I didn’t care for the (removed) .

I really do appreciate the opportunity to have read Conspire and I’m hoping to say “I read that book before it was number one on the New York bestsellers list” 🙂

Best wishes as you move forward to the next step,

Clark


Conspire – Revision Help

This weekend I spent the Easter holidays with my parents in Adelaide. I am incredibly lucky to have a mother who enjoys helping me with my novel writing. Just as she did with Times of Trouble, she has been editing Conspire as I write it – chapter by chapter – over many months. It is invaluable to have someone reading and critiquing my work as I go, and I’m incredibly grateful for the help.

You might not get this impression if you overheard one of our editing sessions. It sometimes appears I’m about two seconds from snapping and throwing my hands in the air with frustration. We were revising my plot for more than 12 hours over two days, and we got a huge amount of work done. But when there are numerous conversations like the following, one after the other, you can see how tension might occur:

Me: ‘Why do you want to change that part? It’s fine!’

Mum: ‘It doesn’t make sense! Read it again out loud and tell me what you meant to say.’

Me: ‘Fine, if it doesn’t make sense, what would you put instead?’

Mum: ‘Tell me what you meant to say and I’ll tell you what you could write instead.’

Me: ‘Forget it. If it doesn’t make sense, I’ll just delete it.’

Mum: ‘Then the next part wont make sense. Do we need to take a break?’

I wouldn’t say I’m precious about my work. In actual fact I make the suggested changes in about 97% of her highlighted sections. But it is never easy to have someone tell you that your work of art isn’t sitting together as it should. I also found that the style of Conspire is making it very hard to insert extra information or change the dialogue. I wrote it with the aim of being concise and not interrupting the fast flow of the action. Every chapter is around 1,000 – 2,000 words long. So when there was a plot inconsistency which Mum identified as needing revision, our biggest challenge was finding somewhere appropriate to insert more words. When I finished Times of Trouble, I had the opposite problem – 20,000 words needed to be removed.

It was very satisfying to see the end result of our work. The style is tighter now – even though there are more words. The plot unravels at the correct speed – like a snaking line of dominos, all falling neatly on top of each other one sentence at a time. I still have some changes to make, but I am not far off having a draft that is ready for friends and family to critique. Again, thank you to Mum for asking all the tough questions and tolerating my eye rolling. Every point you made was valuable. From:

‘You’ve used that word in the sentence before. Find a different word.’

To:

‘Can a nuclear missile really fire that far? Can you please check Wikipedia again?’


Rejection Letters from Agents and Publishers

Rejection suxIn a previous post, you have seen the rejection emails I received from agents. You may also have seen my comments on agents and publishers who still expect aspiring authors to post them letters. I really see this as evidence of the reluctance of many in the industry to adopt new technologies, to stream line and improve their business processes. Either way, when you’re trying to find an agent or publisher directly, you will come across submission guidelines which were likely written in 1972. I dutifully followed these guidelines on a few occasions, reacquainting myself with Australia Post. I even remembered to include a self addressed stamped envelope with my proposal, so the agent or publisher could post me back my rejection letter. Lucky me!

Here are three rejection letters I received by post for my book Times of Trouble: (Note that I never received a response from a few as well. Which is very frustrating! Maybe the letter got lost and will turn up in three years time, washed up in a bottle on a beach).

The Text Publishing Company

Monday, October 12, 2009

Dear Author,

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to consider your manuscript. We read it with interest but I regret we will not be making an offer of publication. We do not feel that Text is the right firm to successfully publish this book.

Thank you for thinking of us, and we wish you every success in finding a publisher for your work.

Yours sincerely,

Alaina Gougoulis

The salutation is a giveaway here – form letter! I have a name! And it’s not ‘author’ yet! Anyway, I really think Text could free up a lot of time to read more submissions if they digitalised their submission process. I understand that some manuscript assessors probably don’t like to read submissions on a computer screen, and don’t want to have to bear the cost of printing every submission that arrives. Have you thought about a Kindle? Or an iPad? Less printing means less damage to the environment! It’s impossible to say whether Text looked at my proposal, but I would guess that they glanced at it, decided it was unsuitable, and put it in a pile of automated rejection letters to be sent off by the work experience student.

The next two rejection letters are from Australian agents.

The Naher Agency

This one was addressed to me, which is a great start.

1st June 2010

Dear Victoria

Thank you for your interest in the Naher Agency and for giving me the opportunity to read a sample of Times of Trouble. I regret to inform you, however, that I unable to offer you representation. I am returning your sample pages herewith.

Your novel’s premise is interesting, but ultimately I didn’t find the authorial voice sufficiently memorable or arresting. In crime fiction style is almost as important as substance. As you probably know, fiction publishing is extremely competitive so an agent needs to be passionate about a novel in order to represent it successfully. If you are not already aware of it, the Australian Society of Authors’ website provides a comprehensive list of Australian agents.

I with you every success with Times of Trouble. Thanks again for giving me the chance to read your work.

With best wishes.

Yours sincerely,

Gaby Naher.

OUCH! I recall finding this letter in my letter box at the end of a particularly bad day at work, and when I read it, I think I might actually have cried a little. Then I shoved it in the bottom draw and tried to forget about it. I’d been wishing for so long to receive a letter from an agent or publisher with hard evidence that they had read my work. It is clear Gaby Naher had. It is also clear that she thought it was absolute crap. ‘I didn’t find the authorial voice sufficiently memorable or arresting’. I still cringe at reading that and wonder what exactly she means. Does she not like my characters? The style I use? Or does she think I’m a terrible writer? For a few minutes I wondered if my name and the title of my book had been added to a particularly critical form response letter? This is probably delusional – my self preservation instincts over riding rational thought. As hard as it is to thank Gaby for her letter, I do actually appreciate that she responded to my proposal. And I would like to take this opportunity to make myself feel a little better about her feedback by re-reading all the lovely reviews I have received for Times of Trouble. These are from readers, not agents, and of course both opinions are important, but for now, I’m going to run with the readers feedback as my driving motivation to keep going. Especially since I still have no idea what Gaby was expecting me to do about my ‘authorial voice!’ Blah!

Australian Literary Management

Also addressed to me, but I suspect the salutation line was the only unique part of the letter:

Dear Victoria,

Thank you for submitting your work to the agency. After careful consideration I’m afraid I do not feel I am the right agent for this work, and I am therefore unable to offer to represent you. I’m sure you can appreciate the need for an agent to be totally committed to a work to sell it enthusiastically to a publisher; to do otherwise is not in the best interests of the author.

Unfortunately, because of the volume of submissions I receive, I cannot offer any critical comments on your submission.

Of course, another reader might have a completely different response to your writing, and I encourage you to send your work to other agents, or directly to publishers.

With best wishes,

Lyn Tranter

I can’t help but feel the overriding tone of these form letters is something very closely nestled to patronising. I’m sure the agents and publishers don’t mean to be patronising, but when I see a bird that walks like a duck and swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a duck.

Lyn did miss one option from her encouragement in the last line – I can send my work to other agents, other publishers, or… here’s the one she missed…. publish it myself online. Which of course I have done.