Monday, November 29, 2010

Two Posts about Publishing

Just to Clarify

It occurs to me that my post titled "Frenemies and Technology" might be viewed by some as a condemnation of self publishing. That is not the case.

Self publishing or vanity publishing is ideal in certain situations. If you are an expert in a specialized field, it might be the right choice; the market for books in your field might be sufficiently small to make finding a publisher willing to publish even a very worthy book almost impossible.

If you write a memoir or family history meant to be enjoyed primarily by family and friends, self or vanity publishing can be a good way to go.

And yes, if you are a poet, self publishing might be for you. Poetry markets are small; markets for chapbooks and full collections, even smaller. Paying a few dollars to create your own chapbooks and pass them out or sell them at readings can be an excellent way to introduce and disseminate your work to the public.

If you write fiction, self or vanity publishing is not the way to go if you have no publication credits and want the work you are thinking of publishing to be considered by a journal, magazine, or book editor. [Edit 12/01/10: I'd like to reiterate that I am referring here only to fiction writers who desire to build publication credits elsewhere and have not yet begun to do so. Many authors are quite happy to self publish knowing that by doing so, they severely curtail their chances of having their work picked up by other outlets. And many other writers, once the rights have reverted to them, self publish work that was originally published elsewhere.] Even though we all know that the literary cream does not always rise to the top of the slush pile, most of us also realize that, with enough effort and perseverance on the part of an author, it rises high enough to find placement most of the time. It rises often enough, and bad fiction writers self publish bad fiction often enough, to make generalizations useful guidelines for overworked editors. Simply put, editors don't have the time to hope your self-published novel will be the one that defies stereotype.

And if your self-published book does defy stereotype, editors and agents expect to see that in its sales figures. This may not be fair; after all, how many individuals have the money needed to properly market a book into quadruple-digit sales? Not many. But fair isn't the issue here. Reality is.

I myself have never self published. That isn't because I think self publishing is inherently wrong, but because self publishing would not have been useful to me.

I've spent a lot of my adult life in small towns, and most of the readings I've attended have also been in small towns and have attracted mainly those in the local artists' communities. I would have felt as though I was being exceedingly pretentious had I tried to market my work to an audience that was essentially made up of my friends and peers.

In addition, once a self-published poem hits the public, whether printed on paper or made available online, it won't be published in a periodical unless its author becomes massively famous. Really, it won't. What editor wants to buy old work that has already been made available to the public at a fraction of the cost of whatever magazine or journal to which the work has been submitted? A published poem can sometimes be included as part of a contest-entry collection, but not always. It can certainly be included as part of a full collection outside the realm of contests, but it generally takes a long time to get a full collection published. I've been writing for about ten years, and I've only just now gotten my first collection published, and that is with a small, independent publisher.

It was far more important to me personally to build up a number of journal credits. There may not be much stigma attached to self publishing poetry, but no editor in his or her right mind is actually going to be impressed by a self-published chapbook. Of course you think your work is good - does anyone else? Editors, as much as they say they are not swayed by publication credits, sometimes are. They are only human, after all, and it makes perfect sense for them to read your work a little more closely if other editors have looked at your work and judged it worthy.

So self or vanity publishing is not for me. But it might be for you.

A Few Tips That Seem Obvious but Evidently Aren't

On more than one occasion, I've told friends and family how tiresome I find blogs about writing that are written by writers. Especially blogs about writing by writers who aren't particularly successful. And hey, I can face it - I'm not particularly successful. Don't get me wrong; I'm thrilled beyond belief to have a book out, and just as thrilled (if not more so) that I've sold a few copies. But those sales aren't going to pay the rent, and though my name is quite Googlable if you include the middle initial, there aren't too many people who know my name, so why would they bother to Google it?

So my general policy has been to avoid writing about writing. To a small degree, I broke my own policy in the entry above and in the post that inspired it; I'm definitely going to break it to a larger degree now. I beg your indulgence and offer up the feeble defense for both that writing about publishing isn't exactly the same as writing about writing (hey, I said it was weak).

But there are a couple of scams that never seem to die, and it bothers me to see people still taken in by con artists. I have to do my small part to spread the word about these thieves.

Back-end vanity publishing. Not all vanity-publishing outfits are scams, not by a long shot. But many are. Some dress themselves up as legitimate, royalty-paying publishers. They don't charge upfront fees and they do offer royalties. However, legitimate booksellers are loath to sell books from these publishers. That's because the booksellers are familiar with such fraudsters' liberal acceptance policies (just so we're clear, by "liberal acceptance policies" I mean these companies will accept anything). The reason these publishers will accept any old dreck is that they require their authors to purchase minimum numbers of copies of their own books. The books are, of course, priced exorbitantly high (even taking into account author discounts), making it unlikely that the companies will profit from any customers other than their authors. Vanity publishers that masquerade as royalty-paying publishers also often upsell their clients editing services and publicity packages, most nearly as worthless as the publication credits themselves. Real royalty-paying publishers invest in their authors; they do not ask their authors to invest in them.

Many other vanity publishing outfits are not scams but are just bad deals, charging far more than other business that provide the same services.

Bottom line: Read as much as you can about a publisher's policies, read all contracts carefully, and shop around.

Charlatan literary agents. Some "agents" charge fees to represent their clients. An agent who charges you money is one who can't get your work seen. Legitimate agents never charge fees, not for anything, even initial assessments. They make money when their clients make money, and each potential client is a potential percentage of their mortgage; if they are good at what they do, they don't need to take money from hopeful writers. Like charlatan publishers, charlatan agents often sell shoddy, overpriced editing services and the like.

Bottom line: If an agent quotes you a price for anything, walk away.

The Absolute Write Water Cooler has an excellent message board dedicated to vetting publishers and agents, and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America has created two lists it would behoove any writer to check out, its Writer Beware's "Two Thumbs Down" Publishers List, on the Writer Beware blog, and its Thumbs Down Agency List, on the Writer Beware portion of the SFWA website itself.

I hope this helps.

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