Today I need to address an important question that writing-students keep asking me. They have completed their manuscripts after dozens of revisions and my modest input. But now they are reluctant to approach agents, hesitant to move forward and submit their books to print publishers. Why? Because the world of print-publishing is foundering. many publishing houses have folded. Bookstores are closing left and right. Why should writers bother with submissions?
Now world-class writers like J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter) are going independent, self-publishing their books electronically. Rowling recently made global headlines with this news. She will not have to share royalties with a publisher on her ebooks. She is her own corporation now. She might be a billionaire, if not she's close. But her basic motivation in launching into ebooks is not necessarily MORE ACQUIRED WEALTH. "I want to reach young readers who have never read a book in print, who were born in the digital age. All they know are ereaders, so that is how my Harry Potter books will reach them." Simple, logical. She's planning ahead for the looming generation.
Then there are brilliant, literary writers like John Edgar Wideman whose books I love, his novels are set primarily in Philadelphia and deal with the tragedies, high drama, sacrifice and stateliness of working-class African-American families. Wideman recently became a 'cross-over' author, still writing his brilliant novels for print publishers, but also uploading his first collection of short stories as an independent ebook. He will undoubtedly produce more ebooks.
In an interview with Publishers Weekly, Wideman talked about the frustration of waiting a year, even two years, for his books to be published by established print publishers. He talked about the sense of empowerment of choosing one's own cover, one's own font, of the thrill of having one's work published and offered to reader's within a month of completing the work. I, too, am now a cross-over author, or as some of my colleagues say, 'a defector.' With three novels print-published, I am now also an indie ebook author of a short-story collection (HOUSE OF SKIN, PRIZEWINNING STORIES) and another on the way.
I do have another print novel coming out next year, THE CHINESE SOLDIER'S DAUGHTER, but after that, who knows? I may be dropped by the publisher as a 'defecting author,' another 'rat deserting the ship.' Unlike Rowling and Wideman, my motivation to turn to indie ebooks was pure economics. I am trying to save my own life. Books are my only source of income, prices of my novels are set too high by the publishers. With the recession, sales of those books have dropped considerably. My ebook is currently outselling all of them.
But when writing-students ask if they should cut to the chase, forego the rounds of expected rejections in the print world, and go straight to the independent-ebook route...MY ANSWER IS NO. Writers like Wideman and, to a more modest degree, myself, already have a reader-following from our print novels. In other words, a 'fan base.' Its a snap of the fingers to upload your book onto Kindle, Nook, and other ebook platforms. But it is a tedious, energy-sapping, confidence-draining task to go online for hours everyday to promote your ebooks, to attract readers, to beg them to buy copies.
Not all ebook writers are successful, some sales are dismally low. These authors have not edited sufficiently, their writing is sophomoric at best. Many of their facts and locations are wrong, lack of research, their book-covers are amateur and dismal. Or, more often, they simply don't yet have a reader-following. This is where established print publishers have the advantage. In the best of all worlds, they buy your book, they edit the manuscript professionally, they check your facts, and discuss cover-concepts with art departments. They decide how to market you. They make you an author, a bona fide pro!
BUT...Here is the downside: They take a huge percentage of the profits from your book sales. For every $15 trade paperback sold, the author earns only 8 or 10 percent. On your ebooks, print publishers will try to take more than 75% of each book. Think of that. Plus, fewer and fewer books are being bought by print-publishers. They want big names, guaranteed bestsellers. They don't have time to take risks on first-time authors because the print-world ...again...is foundering, figures from FORTUNE AND FORBES suggest it is dying. We are definitely in an evolution, and ultimately the digital world will prevail. Ebooks are already far outselling printed books. The world of books will never die. Intelli-gent humans must always and forever feed our imaginations! But the book-world as we knew it 10 even 5 years ago is evolving into something new. We have yet to know what that 'new' will ultimately be.
Back to my writing-students. Should they (And maybe you, a first-time author?) forego the usual print-route, and proceed directly to electronically publishing your book yourself? Again I SAY NO... that is...NOT YET. It has always been my belief that in this brief flicker of time we are each allotted...we should dare everything. At least once. If you jump into self-publishing your books, you will never know the thrill of submitting your work to print publishers. Of maybe having conversations with editors, of hearing suggestions from them. Of knowing that euphoric sense of feeling drunk with Hope. Nor will you experience the massive deflation of a rejection letter, and the grief and despondency of a 12th and 20th rejection letter. Or the final heart-stabbing realization that no one wants to publish your book.
Conversely, if you go directly to self-publishing you will never know if your book MIGHT HAVE BEEN BOUGHT and published. Might have gotten good reviews. Might have sold a decent amount and even earned you a second book-contract! You will simply never know. In advising you this way, I'm going diametrically against the sage advice of the Grand Guru of bloggers, Joe Konrath, whose blogsite THE NEWBIES GUIDE TO PUBLISHING, was voted one of the best 100 blogsites in the country by NEWSWEEK. (I urge you all to read all of his blogsite from beginning to end...it took me several days to complete it. I don't agree with all of his theories, but the man's instructions on self-publishing saved my life.)
Now, Konrath believes print publishing is in a MAJOR DEATH SPIRAL, that no sane writer should think of approaching print publishers today, that we all should be self-publishing and uploading our books for ereaders and keeping, not sharing, our profits from book sales. He's 95% right. But I keep thinking of my writing-students, the hope and joy and probable grief that they will miss out on by not giving print publishing a try. We're writers, we've should experience all emotions, hope, fear, dejection, rejection, all-out grief. We should take chances. If you choose to go directly to self-publishing you may always wonder "should I have tried the other first...?" "What if...what if...?' You will have deprived yourself of the gift of that experience.
So again here is my recommendation to my writing-students and any first-time authors. If you're undecided, and still leaning toward print-publishing, give yourself the opportunity to submit your work to print publishers. But also...GIVE YOURSELF A TIME-LIMIT!! Give it six months, a year. If you have not sold your book by then, I would definitely switch tracks and go to indie ebook publishing. Digital is the new norm. And the competition is growing. Hundreds of thousands of out-of- print books are now being revitalized through ebook publishing. Estate/trust heirs of famous dead authors will soon be rich.
Okay. So, you don't have a reader-following yet. Well, neither did John Locke. No one had ever heard of him. He's a mystery writer who cleverly prices each of his dozens of ebooks at .99. Locke has just become the first indie author to sell ONE MILLION books as ebooks. He has been at it less than a year. Joe Konrath, the myster/thriller writer will sell about 500,000 ebooks this year. These are the uber-sellers. Yes, they're the exception. But there are dozens of first-and second-time ebook authors, many women, who are writing genre books, sci-fi, vampire, thrillers, romance, who are selling several thousand copies of their books each month. Each book ads to their fan-base.
And don't forget Amanda Hocking, a twenty-something author who just reversed gears. After self-publishing for several years (MY BLOOD APPROVES) and gathering a huge following of readers, she recently sold her next couple of books to St. Martins Press for several million dollars. You see where this cross-over thing is going. Authors who couldn't originally get print-published, self-published their ebooks, and when those books become bestsellers, the print-publishers come courting! Its not an ethical pickle, its that right now there are no hard and fast rules. There is only which decision you make.
The important thing is to...GET STARTED NOW. Set up your time-limit if your going the print-route.
One year of your life won't kill you. While your sending out queries to agents and/or publishers and waiting, waiting, waiting, you will NOT be wasting time. You will be working on your next novel. Or, you will be learning all about self-publishing ebooks, knowing if you go that route, whatever profits you earn will be yours. All yours!
Thanks. Anyone with suggestions or opinions on this subject, please chime in!
Another thing I want to touch on here is: AUTHOR BABBLE. Too many beginning writers and established writers and in-betweens forget that once we begin writing for an audience, which is what we all aspire to...we become public figures. Whether you're a bestseller, or your audience so far only extends to your immediate family, you are inviting public scrutiny.
A twenty-five old in unitards and combat boots, raking in major bucks from her bestselling Zombie series, a suburban mom who pens bodice-rippers, or a Nobel Laureate all have this in common: they are being scrutinized. And in this age of instant media-access, our voiced opinions and behavior seriously affect how readers read us. Or, if they will read us at all.
One night in a dreamy, highbrow mood, I misperceived the exclusivity of a limited audience on a late-night talk show. The host and I were relaxed, wandering from the 'meaning of literature' to silly, existential things - like how can authors make a living without turning commercial and selling out their souls? Somehow we drifted into loneliness, and how dogs make the best companions for writers. A man was in the news that day for having beaten his dog, then set it on fire. I, a dog-lover, said the man should be taken out and shot in the head. I volunteered to do it. Shoot him in the head. That late-night interview went viral. Months later at a book festival, a woman walked up to me and said, "Oh, you're the writer who wanted to shoot someone in the head. Joking or not, I found that offensive." She did not buy a copy of my book.
The scrutiny grows exponentially with every book your write. Every appearance you make. A close friend Anna, appears at dozens of booksignings every year, and dozens of writer's conferences. She's obsessively driven to promote her books and refers to herself as a 'book-whore' even in interviews. Anna has published five novels, one a bestseller. In a review of that bestselling novel, the reviewer (of a major suburban newspaper ) referred to her as a self-described 'book-whore. ' That word still follows her across the Web.
Writing is solitary, sometimes excruciatingly boring. At times we yearn to be cutting-edge comics, or political hipsters, or big-mouth do-gooders, and we forget. We forget the perils of verbal dilettantism, or verbal abuse, or publicly outting our biases and hatreds. And it comes back to haunt us. Readers are loyal, or frivolous, but they will always react. What I'm suggesting is, however little, or however much, you think of yourself as an author, there is now a part of you that should live up to those readers' expectations.
Writing is a lofty endeavor, even if its about inter-galactic infanticidal maniacs. People assume, like idiot savants, we're touched by the hand of god. So. Divorce your spouse, elect to have trans-gender surgery, become a born-again Mormon polygamist - whatever your particular quirk or deviation, try to articulate/execute it with a touch of class, that is, with restraint, and preferably in private. No matter how successful a writer becomes, we are not exempt from the higher civilities of accepted human behavior.
I know what you're thinking. Writers are supposed to be renegades, anarchists, blowing up the barriers of societal norms. Telling the high-priests to f-ck off. How to be that and still be palatable, and inoffensive? How to link our tiny selves to our giant narratives, so that our private grievances and struggles seem universal? Its difficult, we're complex. Complexity seems to be the ultimate ingredient in art. Complexity and ambiguity, what Keats - that poet of cognitive dissonance - called 'negative capability.'
Here is a prime example of what I'm trying to say: Patricia Highsmith, that elusive mystery writer of the 1950s was almost forgotten for several decades. But with the endorsement of Graham Greene and other such luminaries, her novels were resurrected, so there has been a frenzy of posthumous adulation since the late l980s. Even movies have been remade of her novels, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, more recently in the 1990s THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY (Jude Law, Matt Damon). Her literary forte was how she wrote about cold-blooded humans, stylish murderers who got away with it.
I have found her writing rather bloodless, nevertheless fascinating. Not a writer you could love, but one you might respect. But recently as I was finishing THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, I discovered that in later life, Highsmith repeatedly and publicly proclaimed herself rabidly anti-black, anti-semitic, an outspoken hater of gays. (This from a woman who came out as a lesbian in the 'silent 50s.') Such blatant racist hatred does not pop out of one's forehead overnight. It had been seeding all those years of her writing. After I read that profile on her, and similar others, I flipped back through STRANGERS ON A TRAIN and THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY. I reread sentences and dialogue, and saw more clearly the repugnance of the subtext. The reverberating lack of humanity in her characters. The lack of regret or grief, or heart.
Now I understand that Patricia Highsmith will not endure as other than a dated, genre writer. She does not address or explore the depths of our human emotions. She did not feel them. As an author, and a human being she is/was predictably repulsive. She wrote about nineteen novels after the two above. Two is enough. She has lost me as a reader. I think of Highsmith now with great distaste. A mediocre writer who went in and out of vogue, and ultimately should have kept her mouth shut.
Thanks. Comments? Chime in.