Traditional Publishing or Self-Publishing? The Definitive Answer

The next book in the Red Sneaker Writers Series, Excellent Editing, goes on sale Friday (May 13). Toward the end of the book, I discuss the possible avenues for publishing your perfectly edited work. I review the pros and cons of each route and how ultimately your decision must be based upon your goals, your personality, and the book itself. I’m not going to repeat here what I wrote in the book, but I will augment it in light of two interesting perspectives that arose this week.

For the first time ever, the most popular American financial publication, Forbes, has weighed in on this question. Unsurprisingly, the analysis centers around money. What did surprise me was how the article made the decision contingent upon whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction.

Forbes author Nick Morgan argued that the bottom line is: “Fiction writers should probably self-publish, since they’re going to have to market the book themselves,” because the odds of a traditional publisher putting any significant marketing muscle behind your book is minuscule. If you self-publish, your royalty rate will be 70-80%, whereas in traditional publishing it will be 4-15%, perhaps rising to 20% for eBooks. Do the math.

Nonfiction authors approaching traditional publishers will be asked if they have a “platform,” which is just a fancy way of asking if you have a way of selling a lot of books, like a cult following or students required to buy your textbook. If you have that, you might think you don’t need a publisher. But Forbes argues that you do need a traditional publisher if you want to use the book as “a calling card to do something else.” If you’re trying to establish your expertise in a field, or want speaking gigs on the professional circuit, the imprimatur of a publishing house increases your prestige and credibility. Speaking bureaus typically aren’t interested in self-published authors.

Of course, you’ll still make more money per unit self-publishing.

Also this week, Hugh Howey, perhaps America’s best-known self-published author, titled his blog “Self-Publishing Has Never Been Easier.” Of late, some have argued that self-publishing was only profitable if you got in early, during the “gold-rush” phase. He argues just the opposite. It’s easier now and more potentially profitable than ever.

Helpful? Okay, perhaps I exaggerated when I called this the “definitive solution.” But it’s always good to have the best data when you’re making a difficult decision.

Did I mention that Excellent Editing comes out on Friday?

Hugh Howey’s Blog: http://www.hughhowey.com/it-has-never-been-easier/

Forbes Magazine article: http://www.forbes.com/sites/nickmorgan/2016/05/05/which-is-better-self-publishing-or-traditional-publishing/#502f172f29dc

 

Reading Your Work Aloud

Here’s another excerpt from the next book in the Red Sneaker series (soon to be released), Excellent Editing, in which I address the controversial topic of whether you should proofread your work by reading it aloud:

Remember that the point of proofreading is to catch errors and to improve your use of language. It is not meant to be fun. It is not meant to be entertaining. It is not meant to give you another opportunity to glory in the magic of your prose, which I suspect is sometimes the true reason people read their work to themselves. You’re not supposed to be rehearsing for your first book reading. You’re supposed to be perfecting your work.

In his book on writing, David Morrill, a writer I respect enormously, argues strongly against reading your work aloud when proofing or editing. His argument is that when you read work aloud, you can “improve” it subtly or subconsciously by using vocal inflection, speeding or slowing your pace, perhaps even adding facial expressions you see with your mind’s eye. These are all ways of sweetening the text that do not exist on the printed page.

I agree with David. Your readers will not have the benefit of your vocal mastery. They must read it silently to themselves based upon what is actually on the page. Therefore, the only reliable way to edit is to attempt to reproduce the experience of your future readers—by reading it silently to yourself. Try to forget all your authorial insight into who these characters are and where the plot is headed. Read it remembering only what has actually appeared on the page so far—and see if it works.

Now if we were talking about poetry, that might be a little different…

Facebook is Your Friend

I know it isn’t what you want to hear, but I won’t lie to you: Whether you self-publish or traditionally publish, you will have to promote your book, and most of that promotion will be done on social media.

I’m used to seeing crushed faces when I announce this at my writing retreats. Hey, look at it this way–It’s way better than traveling around the country taking 5 am flights to morning shows in Nowheresville, signing books at Waldenbooks when no one is there, etc. Social media is relatively quick and painless and free. Just don’t let it replace your writing time.

I also get wide-eyed expressions when I run through the gamut of social media options: Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Snapchat, Google Circles, etc. But the truth is, you don’t have to do all of them. Choose your battles. Here’s your guideline:

Facebook is king.

See the chart at the top of the page? Note the age group (though it would be no different in the 18-35 class). Facebook annihilates the competition. It is the best for meaningfully engaging an audience in a way that might lead to readers. Facebook has more people spending more time than any other platform. And it isn’t just kids. It’s the primary book-buying demographic.

Here are some rules for useful Facebooking:

  1. Start with your “Friends” account. Start a Fan page when that hits the 5000 limit. (People want to be your friend, not your fan.) On average, Americans have about 300 real social contacts. So the other 4700 will be fans masquerading at friends. Let them. I love my readers and I bet you will too.
  2. Switch the default setting to “Public” so everyone can see everything you post. Why not?
  3. Use video. Facebook now delivers more videos than YouTube. Take advantage. People love to see your smiling face. As long as it’s saying something of interest.
  4. Don’t talk about your books all the time. The hard-sell gets old. Do it maybe once a week. The rest of the time, chat. Engage in subjects of interest to others. Show your friend/fans what you’re really like. You can join up to 6000 fan groups. Is there any reason not to?
  5. Make Facebook your hub. Use Hootsuite or similar programs to post to Facebook, but send copies everywhere else, so you can effortlessly focus on Facebook but engage the other media.

Hootsuite: www.hootsuite.com

Your Name in Lights! (at Amazon)

In the past, I’ve told people at my writing retreats that the absolute social-media bare minimum, even before your first book is available, is: contact-info signature block on email, author-name.com domain name reserved, and Facebook Fan and Friend pages. But today I’m going to add another pre-pub must-do: Your Amazon Author Page.

Fortunately, Amazon makes this easy, so you can set it up in about ten minutes (and then keep improving it for the rest of your life). I hope the value of having a page to yourself on Amazon is already apparent. Amazon sells over 50% of all books sold in America, about 67% of all eBooks, and most adult fiction purchases. Your Author Page will be prominently featured any time anyone searches for your name (usually appearing second), and there will be a link to it on any sales page for a book you wrote. These pages often come up in Google and Bing searches too. The page gives you an opportunity to show anything you want to your readers–photos, bios, chatty posts, videos, Twitter feed, and of course book covers.

Most important: Your Amazon Author page will have a Follow feature. Readers who click on the Follow button will receive an email alert every time a new book by you comes up for order or preorder.

I recommend a short but friendly bio. Readers want personality, not boring details. You’re not applying for a job and this is not a CV. You want friendly, fun photos, nothing pompous or “writerly.” You should always post about signings, speaking engagements, or other events. If by error a book appears on your page that isn’t yours, or a title needs to be added, Amazon makes the problem easy to fix.

Barnes & Noble and Powell’s also have author pages worth your time, though they get less traffic and don’t provide as many opportunities to post material other than book titles. Still worth doing though.

Special note to other Penguin Random House authors. PRH has an author page for you already set up, and you may want to download photos and bios to make setting up your Amazon page easier.

Amazon Author Central: https://authorcentral.amazon.com

Penguin Random House: http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com

Bernhardt Summer Writing Retreats: http://www.williambernhardt.com/red_sneaker_wc/writing_retreats.php

When to Edit–and When Not

Sneak Preview! Here’s the first-ever excerpt from my forthcoming Red Sneaker book, Excellent Editing:

Don’t try to edit yourself while writing the first draft. The time for editing will come later. Right now, you want to keep the flow flowing. I’ve heard one writer comparing premature editing to applying the clutch while you’re still driving up the hill. Don’t throw out your clutch! Keep writing!

The truth is, regardless of how much thought you’ve put into your project, no matter how smart you are, and no matter how much research you’ve done, you never know what you have till you’ve finished the first draft. Then you can see for what you’ve got and not got, what works and what doesn’t, what the strengths and weaknesses are. That brilliant denouement that only occurred to you as you wrote it may have changed the tone or focus of the entire project. Perhaps you stumbled onto your theme as you wrote and realized this new idea requires a scene to be added or subtracted.

To put it succinctly: I hope you didn’t spend a week revising and perfecting chapter three, only to realize later that chapter three has to go.

You’ve probably heard people say writers must “kill their darlings.” What this usually means is that if there’s a turn of phrase that’s particularly clever or lovely—it probably calls attention to itself. So you need to cut it, because readers should be immersed in your story, not thinking about how clever you are. Similarly, I don’t want you to waste a lot of time beautifying language that will end up on the cutting room floor.

Wait until you’ve finished the first draft to revise or you may find yourself wasting an enormous amount of time, or worse, never getting to the end. This project will take a long time even if you work with maximum efficiency. Don’t make it any worse than it needs to be.

At Last! A Cure for Writer’s Block!

Writer’s block is the bane of the creative scribblers, so you will be pleased to hear that there is a cure. And of course, as you probably expected, the cure comes from modern technology.

Designer Manuel Ebert has released “The Most Dangerous Writing App.” The title is not hyperbole. The goal is to eliminate stalling, procrastination, and window gazing. How? Once you start writing, you are not allowed to stop. If you stop typing for more than five seconds–the app deletes everything you’ve written.

Draconian? Yes. Effective? I don’t know. But a desire to eliminate writer’s block definitely exists. The app has only been out two weeks–and it has already been downloaded more than 100,000 times. I’ve heard other writers say they work best under a deadline, but this must be the harshest deadline of all time. Ebert says, “MDWA means I don’t need coffee to make my heart race.”

I suppose if you want to play with this app while you’re writing your daily journal entry or something nonessential, fine, but I can’t recommend anything that could cause you to lose a day’s work due to an inopportune phone call or a sudden attack of colitis. Let me suggest some more practical approaches to writer’s block.

  1. Go to the Library. What does “writer’s block” actually mean? Assuming you’re not just indulging yourself, it probably means you don’t have anything to say. The best authors write because there’s something they want–perhaps need–to share. What’s your message? If you don’t have one–go to the library. A good bookstore might work too, but why not support your local library? I don’t know how you could walk through those aisles and not be inspired. Read the plot descriptions. Try unfamiliar genres. Think about what made your favorite books memorable.
  2. Prepare an Outline. Yes, I know being a “pantser” is more fun, but in real life (not the delusional writer’s life often portrayed in author interviews), pantsers typically have fun for a few days but don’t finish their project. Eventually they run out of steam and don’t have a plan to keep them moving forward. Or they have fun letting their characters “take over the book,” but it doesn’t lead to anything cohesive. I know, outlining is not fun and you’d rather plunge right into the story. Do it anyway.
  3. Set a Goal. I don’t mean a time limit. No one can predict when they will be published or meet other publishing-world goals. But everyone works bests when they have a clear and designated purpose. What’s your purpose? Why are you writing? There are easier ways to make money or achieve prominence, so there must be something more. What is it? When you know you’re doing something worthwhile, something that matters, it’s easier to force yourself to sit in that chair and write.

Using Social Media to Generate Interest In Your Books

I know many of you find social media bewildering. Why do so many Americans devote so much time to it? Do they not have real friends? Wouldn’t they rather be reading a good book than reading someone’s post about lunch? And yet, social media consumes the hours and days of many, and it’s not just young people. Authors use it to promote their work.

Let me give you a dramatic example. Two poets, 2014. Louise Gluck won the National Book Award. Afterward, her new poetry book sold 20,000 copies, considered a huge success for poetry. Tyler Knott Gregson has won no big awards. But he has built a following by posting his poems on Instagram and Tumblr. Result? That same year, his new poetry book had a first printing of 100,000 copies.

Thank you, social media, for keeping poetry alive. (Lang Leav, another online poet, has sold over 300,000 copies of her self-published poetry books. Her break? Khloe Kardashian posted one of her poems on Instagram.)

WARNING: Don’t let social media consume more than 20% of your working day. Writing comes first. Following the pattern of celebrities, some writers have hired assistants to handle their social media posts. (Did you really think that was Britney Spears tweeting all day long?) Others use programs like Hootsuite to write their posts in advance at a convenient time.

You should pick and choose the social media outlets that are worth your time. The “wine chart” above, created by Chris Syme, explains how the leading media are used so you can make intelligent decisions.

Facebook: I like wine. 71% of all online adults post here to talk about their likes and dislikes. You can post information about your work, but you will put people off if you constantly post commercials to your “friends.” Vary the content. You can link directly to Amazon.

Twitter: I am drinking #wine now. Only 23% of the adult online population tweets, mostly the young. And there’s no way to sell anything here. Some authors have generated interest in their work by serializing fiction in successive tweets.

YouTube: Here’s my video on choosing wine. The second-most-used search engine on the Net. People go to learn or to be entertained, not to chat. Book “trailers” were trendy for a while, but ultimately did not spur sales. If you have a “how-to” video that relates to your book, that might work.

Instagram: Pictures of me drinking wine. Twitter with pics. Smaller percentages and even younger users. Kids think it’s a hipper alternative to Facebook, but it is in fact quietly owned by Facebook. A book cover might do you some good, but the Comments do not yet allow you to post URLs, so you can’t link to Amazon.

LinkedIn: Hire me, the wine expert. Great for nonfiction writers selling their expertise. Less so for fiction writers. Older demographic. Hosts a publishing platform that can link to your webpage.

Pinterest: Here’s my collection of wine stuff. 31% of online adults, primarily women, post here. Basically, you create an online visual catalog of your work. Poetry circulates easily because a poem can fit in a single pic, but fiction could work too.

To learn more about Hootsuite: https://hootsuite.com

Is Everything We Thought We Knew About Publishing a Lie?

Conspiracy theories may be common with Mulder and Scully, aliens, the Illuminati, and Bigfoot, but we don’t often get them in the erudite world of books and publishing. This week, however, we did.

As you are probably aware, in 2014-2015, Amazon engaged in a negotiation showdown with Traditional Publishing, most prominently Hachette. The common view was that the Big 5 wanted the right to set prices for their products when sold on Amazon–agency pricing. Everyone thought the outcome was that the Big 5 won the right, increased their prices, and made more money.

This week, several stories broke suggesting that everything we thought we knew was wrong.

Mike Shatzkin is a prominent publishing analyst who writes the Idea Logical blog. Based on conversations with publishing executives and even a source at the Department of Justice, Shatzkin claimed that although the Big 5 publishers wanted agency pricing in 2010, by 2015 they realized it was not to their advantage but were forced to accept it–by Amazon.          “[T]he big publishers had no choice about sticking with agency. Amazon insisted that they stick with agency.” Amazon also wanted and got a more favorable split of revenues.

Another analyst, Phillip Jones, agrees. Quoting other industry sources, Jones says that since Amazon dominates the eBook market, allowing publishers to overprice their books was a smart strategy that shifted sales from Big 5 eBooks to Amazon eBooks, allowing Amazon to rapidly grow its self-publishers and Kindle Unlimited market. Conversely, another blog, The Passive Voice, says this “revelation” is just propaganda designed to smooth over an imminent publisher reversal on agency pricing.

Perhaps even more startling is Shatzkin’s claim that the articles claiming “print sales rising in the US” last year was simply based on the fad for adult coloring books–which some people wouldn’t even consider books.

I will admit that Shatzkin’s “revelation” makes sense to me. I expected Amazon to fight to the death for what they wanted and to have the clout to win. Instead Amazon seemed to grant agency pricing to any publisher that wanted it. The story makes more sense if Amazon wanted the Big 5 to set their prices (higher) and focused instead on revenue stream. In any case, one thing seems clear–the agency pricing that seemed like such a must-have before looks like an albatross now.

What do you think?

See the debate continue at Idea Logical: http://www.idealog.com

Nate Hoffelder: http://ow.ly/Z7XRh

Philip Jones: http://ow.ly/Z7XNe

How Do You Define “Book?”

If you’ve followed publishing news this week, you know there are a host of new fiction forms in cyberspace. As a writer, you can decry change or embrace it, but I see little downside in new opportunities for writers, especially opportunities that involve innovation and equal access. The Big Five largely control the books that go into bookstores, but they do not control the digital universe.

Here are a few of the new forms “books” are taking:

  1. Apps. Several new phone apps that are basically novels in disguise are getting media attention. The most successful is The Pickle Index, a SF dystopian novel that also pushes pickle recipes to your phone (to get you to return to the app). Other similar apps are The New World and The Silent History (the best of them in my opinion, discounted to 99 cents as I post this). And apps aren’t just for novels. A writer named Prerna Gupta has created an app called Hooked that provides short fiction for young adult readers. According to Gupta, 80% of all YA novels are read digitally.
  2. Phone Fiction. If you’re thinking no one would ever read a book on their phone, think again. Phone fiction is huge. The most successful platform is Wattpad, which has over 35 million users and publishes 100,000 new stories per day, primarily romance, SF, and YA. Despite the glut of material, some works have broken out, such as MJ Gary’s Flawed, a SF YA thriller compared favorably to Divergent, and Brittany Geragotelis’ Life’s a Witch, whose Wattpad success led her to a three-book deal with Simon & Schurter.
  3. Twitter Fiction. Same idea, different format. Yes, Dickens serialized many of his novels–but not in installments of 140 characters. Of course, you can post more than once a day to maintain interest. Phillip Pullman and Margaret Atwood have both done it. David Mitchell has built a strong following for his work on Twitter. Poets have done it successfully too.
  4. Serialized Fiction. Serial Box offers readers original fiction in digitalized installments (eBook or audiobook format) delivered directly each week. An online HBO for book readers.
  5. Red Sneakers App. I would be remiss if I did not mention that we have a Red Sneakers iPhone app. It’s free. Put it on your phone and you’ll be notified every time I post to this blog, add a new writing seminar or retreat, post updates on the fall writers conference, etc.

Here’s a link for the Red Sneakers app: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/red-sneaker-writers/id1078933125?mt=8

Serial Box: https://www.serialbox.com

Wattpad: https://www.wattpad.com

 

 

Is Your Amazon Book Description Doing Its Job?

At my writing retreats, one of the hardest assignments I give is this: Write a 100-150 word description of your book. Like a synopsis, only harder. I give this assignment for good reasons. First, focusing on the core of the story, its strengths and target audience, often helps students finish the book. But today there is a second reason–the brief Amazon-page book description may be the most important 100-150 words you ever write. Studies show that, more than any other element, those descriptions sell the book. If you self-publish, you’ll have to come up with the description yourself. Even if you use a traditional publisher, you may be asked to write it, and at the least should be asked to provide input or editing.

Make those all-important words count. Make them sell your book.

Here are your goals:

1) Quickly summarize or hint at what makes your book intriguing or unique. Tantalize the reader.
2) Define the genre (or subgenre). Readers must know what kind of book this is.
3) In most cases, suggesting similarity to bestselling books in your genre is a plus.
4) Integrate keyword phrases that readers might type into the Kindle search bar when looking for their next good read.

One good place to get ideas for your description is the Kindle Bestselling Books list in your genre.  (Ignore books that are free. They may only be “selling” because they’re free.) See what makes those descriptions work. See if you can create the same effect for your book (without copying). This approach may seem obvious, but you’d be amazed how few writers actually do it. Too many writers blow this description off with a few cursory lines that don’t inspire anyone to read, much less buy.

A few more tips for writing this all-important description:

1) Start with a riveting blurb about one or two sentences long. Why? Because initially, Amazon only shows the first bit of your description, followed by a hyperlink to “read more.” You need a compelling opening that will inspire readers to click on the “read more” to get the rest of your description.

2) Include some reviews of your book. If you don’t have any yet, you can add this later. If you have writer friends, see if you can persuade one to give you a blurb. You can’t control what others post in their reviews, but you can control what goes into your description, and potential buyers will see this first.

3) Show your first drafts to critique partners, friends, fellow writers, readers, anyone who will look. Ask them honestly: Would you buy this book? Listen to their input and revise accourdingly.

I know you’d rather be an artist than a salesperson. Me too. But like it or not, an author is, in addition to being an artist, someone selling a product to a consumer. In a field with much competition. A brilliant description can separate your book from the pack and give you the attention your deserve.