Accidents, Agents and Other Disasters

by Janis Patterson

People always ask me why I self-publish. Isn’t it a lot more work?

Yes, it’s a lot more work, but the upside is that I am in control. No more the unholy circus of repeated rewrites and equally annoying ‘minor tweaks’ to fit the visions/prejudices of agents, first readers, secondary editors, senior editors, acquiring editors and God only knows who else. I do have a very good editor (I’m not a fool) but she edits the story I wrote, she doesn’t transform it into what she wants.

These days to sell to New York (to use common nomenclature for traditional publishing) you need an agent, mainly because traditional publishers have gotten too cheap to hire first readers any longer. Agents now serve that function almost everywhere. Getting a good agent is often more difficult than getting a good publisher. Thank goodness we now have choices!

Back when the dinosaurs were browsing outside the cave and I sold my first novel to New York there were still a few houses (and there were a LOT more houses/lines then) who read author-submitted manuscripts, but I was a traditionalist. (I was also very young and foolish…) Real authors had agents, so I set out to get an agent.

I have had surgery. I have had auto accidents. I have even been in a plane crash. I would rather do any of them again than deal with finding, getting or dealing with an agent.

My first agent was okay – not very good, but he was indeed An Agent, and he took me on, so in my rosy ignorance I was happy. He sold a couple of books for me… then he died. I guess I have to give him a pass on the bad agent thing… He was fairly decent and I mean, you can’t blame someone for dying can you?

So after a lot of querying and begging I got a second agent, one who for some reason seemed to be a little higher up the status pole than my first one had been. She was smart, she was connected – I thought I had it made. At least, until I couldn’t get in touch with her. I sent her letters (this was pre-internet days). I even imperiled my continually endangered budget by calling a couple of times, but all I got was an answering machine.

Finally I contacted a friend of mine who went to New York regularly on business and asked her to go by the office on her next trip and see if she could see what was happening. She did. The agent’s name was still on the door, but the door was locked. My friend is a forceful lady (that is what her friends call her – her enemies…!) so she found the super and talked him into unlocking the door.

The office was empty. No furniture. No manuscripts. No nothing, not even dust bunnies. Even the telephone was gone. And no one has heard of her since.

I went back to the search and after about a year signed with an up-and-comer who was supposed to be a firebrand. The third try, I reasoned, has to be lucky.

Wrong. Oh, she was a go-getter. I kept getting reports from her that although my book had been turned down So-And-So had simply loved it. Or Thus-And-Such had thought it spectacular, but they had just spent a lot of money on a similar story. On and on – everyone always loved it, but there was never any specific criticism or reason. This went on for a few months and I was getting suspicious when this ‘agent’ sent me another glowing rejection from an editor whom I knew. I had never sold to her, but as we had both been bouncing around the writing world for a long time we had become reasonably close acquaintances.

So I called her, looking for elucidation on what was wrong with that book.

She had never seen the book, had never even heard of this ‘agent’ and neither had anyone in her office. She got justifiably angry that someone was using her name like that, so she requested the names of my books and the names of the editors involved and went off on her own investigation.

None of them had ever heard of her, me or my books. The whole thing had been nothing but smoke and mirrors. I don’t know why the ‘agent’ did this – this was not a ‘pay upfront for representation’ scheme, so she wasn’t making any money. Maybe all she wanted was the feeling of power and importance. Anyway, she quickly vanished from the scene and was never heard from again.

I must not be very bright, because I tried again, this time with a bright, canny young man I met at a writers’ conference. I was more knowledgeable then, and he said all the right things, so I signed with him. Now this is third hand gossip, so take it for what it’s worth, but the last time I heard anything about him he was serving time in Federal prison for mail fraud. And he never sold anything for me either.

So that’s why I’m self-publishing now. It’s true that there is no one who is as interested in your career as you are, and if you want something done right do it yourself. It’s a lot of work, yes, and my sales are less than they were in traditional pubbing (you can help by buying my books!) but to be honest my income has stayed just about the same because I get to keep more of my money. 60-70% of cover price beats the heck out of 20-50% of net…

To all of you who have good agents, I wish you joy and lots of sales, but while you pretty much have to have an agent to thrive or even enter traditional publishing, you can have a great career as a writer/publisher all by yourself. Like most of life, it’s a matter of choices. Good luck to you, whichever path you choose.

Even More Adventures in Self-Publishing

by Janis Patterson

As promised (threatened?) last month, today I’m going to talk about the traditional Vanity Press and the less well-known and more ambiguous hybrid ‘Assisted Publishing Organizations’, both denizens of the swamp known as publishing and which writers – especially newbies – need to know.

We all know – or we should! – about the traditional vanity press – they have been advertising in writers’ magazines for what seems like forever with lead lines like ‘Manuscripts Wanted – Let Us Publish Your Book’ or some such nonsense. Remember, it seems everyone wants to have written a book and is determined to get it published, swamping legitimate publishers in their attempts. No legitimate or reputable publisher has to advertise for submissions! Most of them don’t even accept unsolicited/unagented books. Many of them are using literary agents as an unpaid first reader, which makes it harder to get a decent agent.

So does that make the traditional vanity press useless? Not if you want it for the right purpose. The traditional vanity press is usually very upfront about what they offer – for a certain amount of money (usually quite a bit) they will produce a decent (most of them, at least) product. They will edit, design the interior, create a cover and print a pre-approved agreed upon number of copies, which they will deliver to your house. The books are your responsibility from there on.

That is, if you are dealing with a decent vanity press – and there are some – but there are many more who are not. As you go down the dependability scale books aren’t given any quality edits – or any edits at all! The design and formatting are strictly word-processing basic. Covers are either totally plain or… well, I don’t use that kind of language.
So why would anyone use a vanity press? Actually there are some appropriate uses for vanity press – a GOOD vanity press. You want to print out your mother’s recipes as a gift for your family and friends. Or your Great-Uncle Fred’s family history that he has spent years writing. Or a collection of poems written by the congregation for a church fundraiser – that sort of thing – intimate, personal and with a limited and basically non-commercial distribution. In the vast majority of – if not all – cases, fiction and most of non-fiction do not belong with a vanity press.

The secret to selling a book (and not having a couple of hundred permanently stacked in your garage) is distribution. In these days distribution of ebooks can be easy – just upload for customers to download and publicize. Paperbacks done through distributors (and this is truly so very easy) like Amazon and Draft2Digital can be done electronically. If you’re willing to learn the basics and do a little work you really don’t need a vanity press at all. See last month’s post on WriterYou and PublisherYou.

One of the newer and more invidious wrinkles on this vanity scheme is the monthly contract. I heard of a poor woman who, so anxious to get her (probably unpublishable) book into the hands of readers, signed a contract with a ‘publishing company’ (and no, I don’t know its name or I would publish it as a public service) where they would deliver X number of books (either 25 or 50, I think) to her every month – at a somewhat discounted price. However, the cover price was horrendously high, which the poor writer was told was quite flattering, as people will happily pay for first quality. (Poor writer? Stupid writer!)

The first month or two she sold a few, but then she ran out of friends and relatives and the books kept coming… along with the bill. Every month. Her garage filled up with books. Her house filled up with books. Her bank accounts all emptied. The only advice she could be given was to consult a lawyer, as she had been told if she didn’t accept and pay for the books the company would sue her for a huge amount for being in breach of contract. I don’t see how any of them could sleep at night – the ‘publishing company’ for being so dishonest and dishonorable and the writer for being so stupidly gullible and not doing her due diligence. What is worst of all is that unfortunately this is not a singular example.

‘Assisted Publishing Organizations’ are at heart the same as a vanity press, though some do offer publicity services. Apparently for those writers who do not value control they provide a partnership arrangement where the writer pays them to do what a traditional publisher would, albeit apparently on an a-la-carte basis.
I am hesitant to talk much about Assisted Publishing Organizations because I am not interested in one and therefore have done no research in depth. I can only beg anyone who is considering using one of these services to do your due diligence and then some. Know exactly what you are getting yourself in to.

Some APOs are honest and deliver what they say they will; some are not. Some are little more than smoke and mirrors. And just because they bear the name or are an offshoot of a well-known big-name publishing house is no guarantee of their honesty or their ability. I heard of one APO which promised the writer a best-seller for a mere $50,000! My personal belief is that anyone stupid enough to spend $50,000 to basically self-publish a book deserves to be taken. First of all, no one, no organization, no company can guarantee a best-seller, unless they control the list and that would make the list meaningless.

So if there is a lesson to be learned from this somewhat bad-tempered little screed of mine, it is to be careful. Investigate everything, then do it again more deeply. Talk to other writers. Join a writing group, preferably one with a long-standing respectable and professional track record like RWA, MWA, Authors Guild, and ask there; the Upper Indian Creek Poetry and Prose Literary Society probably won’t be able to cut it. Every writer needs a little bit of PublisherYou in their make-up, even if they never self-publish a word.

Remember : Money should always flow to the writer, not away from the writer but if you are willing to pay to be sure your book is published you do deserve the best service you can get for your money, and your duty is to make sure the company you choose can deliver it to you.

The Subdivided Writer – A Different Look at Self-Publishing

by Janis Patterson

There is an old saw which says, Money should always flow to the writer, not away from the writer. This is largely true and was created long ago in an attempt to protect innocent and gullible little newbies from paying large sums of money to at best dicey companies who promise them fame and fortune by ‘publishing’ their books. (Unfortunately, even in this information-saturated day such ‘publishing companies’ still proliferate and flourish, which is an irrefutable indictment against starry-eyed suckers.) Sadly, this advice was coined long before the advent of self-publishing and has confused any number of people, newbies and seasoned authors alike.

One of the draws of self-publishing is the control it gives the writer, and to be honest, this is like pure catnip to a control-freak like me. What is not stressed enough is that with complete control comes complete responsibility, and that is not always easy.

The first thing is that the writer must become two opposing people – the author (WriterYou) who has created a thing of lasting beauty which is perfect in every way and should live because of its artistic merit, and the publisher (PublisherYou) who must see everything through a purely business-like lens of dollars and cents. If one isn’t very careful it could be a recipe for madness.

WriterYou is responsible for creating the best book possible – a work of fiction (I suppose, though the same criteria hold true for non-fiction, just in different forms) that is as good as he can possibly make it.

PublisherYou is responsible for everything business-oriented – and paying for it as needed, just as a true traditional publisher would be. This includes professional editor(s) as needed, formatters, covers, uploading, publicity (which sadly many traditional publishers now push off 99% of onto the author) and just about everything else.

Warning : the two of you will not always agree in spite of the fact they’re in the same body (yours), and sometimes your disagreements can become epic. This is where self-publishing has the risk of becoming a quagmire, especially when it concerns the content of the book itself. When a professional editor (and I stress the professional part, someone who does this for a living, not your mother or your Aunt Edna who think you are the cleverest thing for having written a book of any kind) says you need to do something, that is something you really need to consider doing, especially the newer you are as a writer. The older you are as a writer, the more credits you have under your belt, the more credibility you have in questioning an editor. A rank newbie should listen! Wasn’t it Maugham – some famous writer, anyway – who said about editing “Kill your darlings…”? No matter how experienced you are as a writer, somehow there is always some part of our story that we just fall in love with, even if it’s not very good, even if it doesn’t forward the story, even if… whatever. That part needs to go, no matter how much it makes you resonate. It’s hard, but if it will make the book stronger, better, more saleable, it has to be done. It is the unenviable job of PublisherYou to insure that WriterYou goes along and does the edits.

Even now, after all my years of self-publishing, when my talented and beloved professional editor says something I really don’t want to hear or do, I think back to a hard-nosed and even harder-hearted editor I had in my New York trad-pubbed days. When I protested something she would listen very politely, then tell me to go ahead and make the changes. And in every instance but I believe two (out of many books) she was exactly right. Make your PublisherYou that strong… and listen to him!

And make no mistake, I don’t care where you are in your writing career, YOU NEED A PROFESSIONAL EDITOR. Although WriterYou should edit the manuscript to the best of his ability before turning loose of it, only a fool will try to do the final edit himself. Also be ready to accept that even after you have several professional passes on a manuscript some – usually tiny – mistakes will slip through. The only perfection comes from God, and I’m quite willing to accept that He is too busy for me to expect Him to proofread a novel.

True self-publishing, with all the responsibility ultimately resting on the writer’s shoulders, is just one way of getting published. The traditional “New York” or “Big 5” (or “Big 4” or how many of them there are this week) is pretty familiar; it’s been around more or less for centuries and is notorious both for taking all of the control and most of the money. And I do mean most of the money! Even though PublisherYou has to pay for everything, contrast the 6-10% of cover price that the author receives in traditional publishing versus the 60-80% the self-publisher earns.

On the other hand there is most definitely a cachet about being published by a major publisher which some authors find so attractive they refuse to consider anything else. And that is their right. Some are very successful; some aren’t, but that’s true everywhere in the industry.

If you decide to go the traditional route and are offered a contract, you need to be very careful and examine everything – and I mean everything! – before accepting it. Nowadays it is not only common but almost necessary to have any proferred contract vetted by an entertainment law attorney before acceptance.

Always remember, publishing houses are not in business for your good; to them you are just a tool to increase their bottom line and most of them will get away with whatever they can get away with, which means everything they can get you to accept. Remember back when they tried to demean authors by relegating them to the category of ‘content providers’? Authors who are not part of the fabled few superstars pretty much earn the least of the publishing world’s hierarchy even though without them there would not be a publishing business at all. And no, that is not fair!

Then there’s also the fabled and sometimes justly reviled Vanity Press, and the newer and occasionally trustworthy hybrid ‘Assisted Publishing Organizations,’ both of which I’ll talk about next month.

Just remember that if you self-publish, you must split into WriterYou and PublisherYou and be diligent in both sides. Otherwise you have probably spent a lot of money and time without much hope of success.

The Magic Factor

by Janis Patterson

There are many mysteries in this world, and many – as we all know – are in the writing game, not the least of which is the Best Seller. Now a dedicated media campaign, the work of many people, a LOT of money and the backing of a prestigious publisher can create a national best seller out of an unimaginably dull and occasionally pedestrian book. On a smaller, more human scale, in the self-publishing world the same pattern will hold, though with generally less rarified results. A lot of (usually) friends, some dedicated and probably expensive PR, and determined social media presence can elevate a piece of pure dreck to more than respectable sales. Everyone knows that.

What everyone doesn’t know – and what can’t be guaranteed – is the Magic Factor.

That is the unquantifiable something which no one can guarantee, cause or even predict which strikes at random and elevates an ordinary – or even less-than ordinary – book to stellar heights.

I just experienced this phenomenon and no matter how I have tried I simply cannot analyze why it has happened.

The book in question is a romance, a perfectly ordinary romance which was written (in some haste, I might add) for inclusion into an anthology many years ago and republished under my own imprint at least half-a-dozen years ago. Since then it just sort of lay there; I didn’t publicize it other than putting an excerpt on my website (which I do for all my books). It hasn’t sold a single copy in any format in at least two or perhaps three years.

Until about a month ago.

I was surprised but happy when a copy sold – in paperback, no less. When that number jumped to six, still in paperback, I was delighted. When in the course of about three weeks about thirty paperbacks (including a smattering of ebook versions and KU reads) were sold I was astonished. When it was selling more copies than any other of my books I was totally gobsmacked.

Why? And why this book, which while reasonably well-written and originally well-received but is still not one of my best or even favorite stories?

I don’t know. I like the book, but have no idea of why this sales surge is happening. (And it is still happening, believe it or not.) Perhaps a book club discovered it and wanted a shortish, pleasant, clean read? Perhaps some college writing class wanting a good example of how to write a genre novel? Or – horrors! – perhaps how NOT to write a genre novel? I really don’t care – it’s all subjective anyway, and I get my royalties no matter what.

Perhaps the best of all, the surge of interest has sparked an interest in my other (similar) stories, though none of them have taken off like this one has.

That’s what I mean by the Magic Factor. I had nothing to do with it, and the reasons are totally unknown, at least to me. Magic!

Now if we could just figure a way to bottle it…

If Wishes Were Horses…

by Janis Patterson

Hello. My name is Janis and I am a word nerd.

I love old words, convoluted words, obscure words… Unfortunately, it is definitely genetic. My father was the same way, and one of the delights of my early youth was playing esoteric word games with him. Which, I might add, gave me an everyday (to me, at least) vocabulary that did not endear me to the educational system. In grade school I learned quickly to accept that my automatic use of what were to me perfectly ordinary words would upset and draw the derision of my classmates; what I did not expect was that it would have a similar effect on the teachers, who had to have it proven that the words I used were not made up nonsense syllables but perfectly good – if not really common – English words. For several years I had to make it a practice to always carry a large dictionary with me. That was only one of the things about public education which earned my (well-deserved) contempt. I have never suffered fools gladly.

Anyway, that is an overly long explanation for why I’m on several word-a-day type daily emails. About half the time the words are too common to be much noticed, but every so often there is a really good one. Today I received the word velleity, which means “a wish or inclination not strong enough to lead to action.”

Wow! Who hasn’t felt like that at least once if not many times?

We all know those people who say “I want to write a novel” but never actually do anything toward it. Then there are those of us who do write who say “I would like to do a book about … (whatever subject is currently teasing our mind)” but the project never goes beyond a vague wish. There are millions of possibilities, and everyone indulges occasionally. My grandmother would have called it daydreaming.

And that’s okay. We all work on many levels at all times, and not all ideas/wishes/concepts are destined to bear fruit. Sometimes it’s little more than ‘play-time’ for our minds, which probably need it more than the rest of us. Nothing can do work all the time, and play time is essential.

It also goes beyond writing. Multiple times I personally have expressed a wish for some unknown reason to learn how to crochet, once even going so far as to buy a hook and some yarn. Both of them are now gathering metaphoric dust at the bottom of some drawer or other, as that is as far as I have ever gone. Velleity in action. The same goes for reorganizing my kitchen (where I usually spend as little time as possible), or creating an herb bed in the back yard (when I sadly possess a black thumb invariably deadly to all living plants), or any number of momentarily alluring but basically low/no priority daydreams.

However, I am a true believer that energy is never wasted, even the ephemeral energy of a transitory daydream. It merely changes form. Case in point, the herb garden. I actually did some reading on herb gardens and while a real herb garden never appeared in my life, it did in one of my books, enhancing it greatly. See? Energy really is never wasted.
So, dream your dreams – just don’t let them take over your life. You might never bring them to the fruition of reality, but someday somewhere somehow they might be just the thing you need to complete some other venue.

Now I must go, because I’m thinking about how nice it would be to paint our guest bathroom…