Thursday, August 14, 2008

Adventures in Publishing

Adventures in Publishing
by Celia Hayes

I came into writing and publishing through having been a contributor to a military-oriented blog, “Sgt. Stryker’s Daily Brief” which I was invited to join in mid-summer 2002. The creator of this particular blog had gotten tired of producing content all by his lonesome, so he put out a call for other contributors from those who read and commented frequently. All that he required was that we be active-duty or military veterans; other than that, we could write about whatever we pleased, however often we cared to. I began by setting myself the task of writing three original essays of about 800 words, three times a week, on whatever I felt like writing about – political commentary, essays about historical events, oddities about the military, and now and again some nostalgia pieces about my eccentric but amusing family. Those particular essays became very, very popular, and my parents were charmed to discover they had unknown friends and fans all over the place. Eventually, enough readers commented or emailed me, asking when I was going to put it all into a book. I never considered taking a memoir about my childhood to a regular publisher, or even getting an agent. This was just something I was doing for the website fans, and it was one of them who recommended Booklocker as an affordable and ethical publisher.

Of course, they are affordable because their schedule of services includes only the set-up fees for the text, a template or custom cover, and distribution through Ingram; just the basics. They do not offer editing or marketing services, and there is no enhanced placement as some of the other subsidized publishers offer. They do the set-up and cover design, give you a page on their website, and a place in the Ingram catalogue if you choose that option, and there you are. You do most of the rest of the work. This was fine with me, I couldn’t afford any enhanced features such as those offered by other publishers, anyway. Angela and Richard do offer all sorts of suggestions to their authors for publicizing and marketing their own books. I didn’t follow up on most of them for my first book, Our Grandpa Was an Alien. I marketed it through the website, originally, swapped reviews here and there. It was my training-wheels book. I think I made back about two thirds of what I put into it.

The next year, I wrote a long series of essays about a certain wagon-train party that I had always been rather interested in. I thought wistfully that it would make a terrifically good movie, and one of the readers suggested that if I do a movie treatment, she would show it around to some of her friends in the business. Nothing ever came of it – but it did have a nice assortment of characters already sketched and a rough plot outline with most of the dramatic incidents included. One of the people she showed it to was terribly impressed. He suggested I do it as a book instead. He’s a writer and editor, done freelance magazine work for years. He coached me into doing a proper outline, had many helpful and inspiring suggestions for what would become To Truckee’s Trail. He thought, and I hoped, that it would be terrifically appealing to mainstream publishing. I had been let go by the large corporate entity that employed me full-time in July 2006. I was about two chapters into the first draft of Truckee and didn’t mind, much – it meant that I could stay at home and write on it full-time, in between various temp assignments. Having a plot outline and a good idea of the characters, I could write at full tilt. I finished the first draft in three months flat, and edited and revised in another month. For a while I even had an agent interested in reading the whole thing, after being intrigued by some sample chapters. Alas, he passed on representing it and so did the two or three other agents who read it. All of them said wonderfully complimentary things about the story, and my writing… but all said that it just wasn’t ‘marketable’ – whatever the heck that meant. This left me terribly puzzled, since everyone else who had read all or part of the original draft had two reactions: “Wow!” and “Why have I never heard about these people before!?” Since a fair proportion of them were not related to me, and were, in fact, fairly disinterested consumers of popular fiction, I began to suspect that there was something rotten in the mainstream publishing world. Nonetheless, I gave it a year to get published, or at least, find an agent the old-fashioned way, which is what “Grumpy Old Bookman” a book-blog originally recommended by the reader-fan who had referred me to Booklocker suggested. At the end of a year, I had the usual collection of rejection slips, so I went back to Booklocker – this time, as a return author, I got a break on the text set-up fees.

I really wanted something special for the cover. I had a thought to market it through various frontier museum bookstores. Truckee was all painstakingly researched; I think I tracked down about every shred of information available anywhere about the Stephens-Townsend Party, so I thought it would stand up to the scrutiny of experts – and what better way to acquaint people with one of the great unknown stories of the frontier than by making a ripping-good adventure novel out of it! The cover had to look really, really top-drawer. Being only semi-employed at that time, I certainly couldn’t afford a fee for the rights to a piece of 19th Century artwork, or to commission something original. A photo of some kind would have to do. Just by coincidence, I was reading the paperback copy of Memoirs of a Geisha. This had a really striking but elegant cover design: a vintage photo with appropriate typeface. So I thought – ah-ha! A photo done in sepia tones with an ornate 19th Century font for the titles. Todd Engel, the Booklocker cover designer did a fantastic job. A reader and fan lent me the use of her photo, which she had actually taken of the Truckee River on a train journey a couple of years ago.

I also put Truckee into the Ingram catalogue, so that I would have the option of being carried by the various brick and mortar bookstores. The discount offered is not as deep as the 40% that bookstores usually demand, but they are returnable, and those bookstores with a local angle for stocking Truckee are able to do so. The big challenge was in getting reviews, and in locating publications, websites and blogs who would commit to a review. I only discovered all the ins and outs of getting them after Truckee was finished and available for sale! (oopsie) Many of the high-end outlets for reviews would prefer doing a pre-release review, and some of the others, like my local newspaper, will not touch POD books with a ten-foot pole. Even some individual reviewers at Blogger News Network will not consider POD books! The big surprise to me this time around was how long it did take for the review to appear. So lesson learned; allow four or six months in between the time the review is requested and the time that it will be posted… and to delay the release date long enough to accomplish this. As regards reviews, it was a bit of a surprise to learn from one of the other IAG members that getting just one review for every four copies sent out was a very good rate of return. In one way, I can understand: most of the big newspapers and magazines receive thousands of unsolicited book submissions; of course, they only have the time and space to review a small portion of them. What was a little disheartening to me was the number of review sites and blogging contacts (some of them personal and of long standing!) who specifically offered to do a review of Truckee, and I sent a copy to them… and then never heard another word. I was not the least surprised to learn from an IAG discussion last week that some reviewers are ripping off writers by harvesting a pile of books and turning around and selling them second hand.

On the third time out, with the Adelsverein Trilogy, I delayed the release date for six months, to allow enough time to get advance reviews from those places like Booklist, and the Historical Novel Society, which prefer pre-release materials. I am also marketing the trilogy through Strider Nolan, Mike Katz’s small publishing house – even though Booklocker did the book design, and will handle the printing and distributing. I had asked Mike and some other IAG members for blurbs and pre-release reviews, and Mike liked it so much that he offered me ISBNs thorough Strider Nolan, and permission to use his mighty publicity-making machine… er, his letterhead and logo… on the grounds that mainstream publications might be a little more receptive to the Adelsverein Trilogy. The review copies only went out two weeks ago. So far I have had some good responses, but I hate to say they have been successful until I actually see the review in print and posted.

Indy book publishing has changed incredibly, just over the short space of years that I have been at it, and I think the Amazon imbroglio is indicative of how many books in the aggregate are being published as independent and subsidy production. It all came down to money. Amazon wanted a chunk of the profits. As the major on-line retailer they were in a position to realize just how many books that they distribute are printed on demand and drop-shipped to the end customer! Not terribly many copies, considered by individual title, but considered all together, it must be a huge portion of the publishing pie. There has been nothing much in the way of developments since filed suit, so perhaps wiser heads inside Amazon reconsidered. I don’t think we have heard the last of it, though. There are too many good writers, who are fed up with the old way of publishing. The costs of publishing independently and inexpensively are too readily available. The mainstream old-line publishers can go on ignoring them for a much longer time than an online retailer can.

See Also: Celia Hayes' Website

No comments: