Friday, August 17, 2012

Advice for New Writers 

Recently a reader sent me an email asking for advice as a new writer on how to get published. You'd think that would be an easy question, but with the self-publishing "revolution" going on in the industry, it's actually one of the most difficult that I get asked. 

A few years ago, my answer would have been fairly straightforward. I would have related how I was published (see my FAQ's) and suggested following a similar path.

  1. Join a writer's organization. If you are writing romance the RWA is an amazing organization and has been invaluable in my career. Invaluable. I mean that. RWA is responsible for my finaling in the Golden Heart which directly led to me finding a fabulous agent--at a local RWA meeting, no less--and then shortly thereafter, selling to Random House. 
  2. Hone your craft by lots of writing, reading, attending writing workshops or taking classes, entering contests, and soliciting feedback. Be careful not to overdo it on the writing books, you can freak yourself out. A couple of my favorites: Save the Cat, The Fire in Fiction, The Heroes Journey, Heroes and Heroines, and Stephen King's On Writing. The first and last are my absolute favorites.
  3. If possible find a critique group. I was fortunate to meet Bella Andre and Jami Alden at one of my first RWA meetings. We hit it off right away, and were CPs for years, although how we critiqued one another changed after we sold and added an editor into the mix. Now we mostly do brainstorming and Jami is my beta reader (or as I call her my alpha reader :) I do have a caveat though: You need to be very careful with critique groups, as they can do more harm than good. For us it helped that we were all in the same place in our career and had the same sensibility, even though we all wrote in different sub-genres.
  4. Find a good agent by either attending pitch workshops or writing lots (and lots) of query letters until you get a bite. A bad agent is worse than no agent. How do you find out who's good and who's bad? See number one. 
  5. Wait until your agent gets you a great deal, preferably with one of the "big six" (Random House, Simon & Shuster (Pocket), Penguin (Berkley/NAL), Harper Collins (Avon), Hatchette (Grand Central), Macmillan (St. Martin's). Harlequin and Kensington would also be in the mix.
So what's changed with self-publishing? Basically 4 & 5. They are still a road to publication, but they are not the only road. Self-publishing is now not only a viable, but also an extremely lucrative alternative to traditional/NY publishing. Two of my very good friends, Bella Andre and Barbara Freethy, have done extremely (I mean extremely) well by putting their work up themselves on places like Amazon, Apple, Barnes and Noble, etc. But they aren't alone. Many of my other writing buddies (all previously NY big six published) have put up work on their own and done very well--in some cases better than their NY deals. But there are also thousands of writers out there who don't do well.

Do I think it helps to be previously NY published to succeed in self-publishing? Yes. A NY published author has a built in audience and has made it past what used to be the only gatekeepers in town (agents and editors) with presumably some acceptable level of quality. But is it a guaranteed road to success? Absolutely not. Is it the only way to be successful at self-publishing? Again, absolutely not. There are plenty of examples of not-previously-published authors doing extremely well in self-publishing.

Bottom line: self-publishing is something to think about--hard. The more readers move to ebooks, and the more that distribution channels disappear, the more attractive self-publishing becomes for authors. [ASIDE: I could say a lot more about this--i.e. differences in royalty rates, pricing v. number of sales, the importance of the "tail" etc.--but it's beyond the scope of this blog, is very involved, and goes to my point #1: before you do anything, you need to learn the industry.] However, if you want to see your name on print books in places like Walmart, Target, Barnes and Noble, grocery stores, etc., a traditional publisher is the only way to go. I love my publisher, and my distribution has been incredible, but it isn't that way for every NY published author. 

So what is a new author to do? What road should they take? Should they go for a traditional deal or put their work up themselves and see what happens?

My advice--and the only advice I'm certain of--is that whatever path you choose, numbers 1-3 are still incredibly important. Just because you can put your first novel up, doesn't mean you should. Whether it's submitting to a publisher via the traditional route (like I did) or going it on your own, you want to have the best possible product up there.

Beyond that, I don't know. YOU have to answer that. What's important to you? Do you want to make a lot of money or will you simply be happy to finish a book and have it available for sale? What kind of market is there for your book? Is there something special about it that has the potential to hit a broad audience or is it more of a niche market? Do you mind doing (or overseeing) the work of a publisher (editing, proofing, covers, blurb writing)? Do you want to see your books in the hands of readers as fast as possible? Do you want to see your name on a print book at bookstores and other retail chains? Answers to these questions will help you determine, which is the best choice for YOU.

But it's even more complicated than that: you can also do both. There have been a number of recent examples of authors who started out in self-publishing who were bought by a NY publisher. Publishers seem to be mining many of the bestselling e-pub lists for self-published authors to buy for print (and e) deals (E.L James, Sylvia Day, Marie Force, etc.).

If your head is spinning, I don't blame you. There is a lot to think about. There are a ton of blogs out there right now that have much more insightful help than I can give on self-publishing. If you do decide to go that route, you'll want to check those out. Start with JA Konrath's blog, and he'll lead you to many others.

Good luck!