Revising Leah

November 10, 2008

In Defense of Self-Publishing

What Do I Mean By “Self-Publishing”?

The phrase “self-published author” carries with it a stigma. It wasn’t that long ago when “self-publishing” meant that one had resorted to purchasing the services of a vanity press in order to see their work in print. Vanity presses are companies who will publish anything at all — for a price. What usually happens is that the author is asked to pay a significant amount of money (often a few thousand dollars) up front in exchange for a large press run of 500, 1000, or perhaps more copies of a book. It is then up to the author to sell each and every one of those copies by himself. Essentially, all you are doing is hiring a printer. Sometimes, the vanity press will do some marketing and distribution work for the author, but only if the author is willing to write another big check.

Let me be clear: I don’t recommend that anyone use a vanity press (save your money!), and that is not what I’m referring to when I use the phrase “self-publishing”.

Ten years ago, one’s publishing options were limited. And if you were a writer who had a novel and had taken the time to query everyone: every agent and publisher on the face of the earth, and if all those queries came back rejected, then what? One’s options were limited. You could give up and toss your novel in the trash (and in some cases, maybe that’s the best choice). Or you could employ the services of a vanity press.

But those aren’t the only options anymore. The Internet has revolutionized and redefined “self-publishing”. Now, self-publishing can mean using print-on-demand services, like Lulu, if you want a physical copy of your book. Or it can mean creating a purely electronic copy of your novel and selling it as an ebook. It might mean publishing your story as an audiobook or a podcast. Self-publishing can even mean using WordPress to write a blook.

Self-publishing means taking advantage of any of the many avenues of publication that the Internet allows, but why would a writer want to pursue these non-traditional forms of publication? Why not just do it the old-fashioned way and query agents or publishing houses?

The Bleak Future of Publishing

The publishing industry isn’t healthy, and it is entering a period of great change. Ten years from now, the world of book publishing may look very different than it does today, and I predict that by mid-century it won’t bear any resemblance at all. What is causing this change? In a word: the Internet. (OK, that’s two words.)

When I talk about how the Internet is changing publishing, I like to draw an analogy to what has happened to the music industry. Fifteen years ago, the big music companies (the member companies of the RIAA) ruled supreme. If you had a band and you wanted to make it big, you had no choice but to work with Warner or Sony or EMI who had a lock on the means of distribution and marketing. If you lived on the east coast and wanted folks on the west coast to hear your music, then you had to sign one of their contracts (and since those companies held all the cards, those contracts were notoriously unfair to artists). If you weren’t willing to play by their rules, then you might as well get used to playing out of your garage, or at local clubs, because that was all the exposure and publicity that you were ever going to get.

But all that changed with the Internet and the invention of the mp3 format. Everyone knows what the mp3 has meant for music sales, and everyone knows how the those big, bloated RIAA dinosaurs are facing extinction due to dwindling profits. But the real revolution as been a democratization of distribution. Today, a band doesn’t need to sign with a record company to get their music to potential fans, and there are plenty of examples of bands that make it big before they ever even sign a record contract. We’re also starting to see established acts, like Madonna, Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead and Paul McCartney, pursue non-traditional avenues of music distribution that leave the big music companies shut out of the revenue stream.

What has happened to the music industry is about to happen to the publishing industry, but the revolution isn’t going to come from a decline in literature sales. There’s a far more lucrative market than Kafka.

When I was a student in college, I usually spent about $200 per semester for textbooks. Nowadays, students are lucky to spend that much just for one class, and it’s not unusual for college students to spend more than $1000 each semester for books. College students have always complained about the high costs of textbooks, but it seems that their complaints are increasingly justified. Every publisher that wishes to make a profit has an imprint that publishes textbooks for schools and universities.

With students being taken advantage of in this way, it’s only a matter of time before students begin to revolt and, as with music CDs in the 1990s, which were also overpriced, any option that allows people to get the content they want at prices they are willing to pay (even if that price is “free”) is welcome.

Online retailers like Amazon, which sells used books at prices that are even less than a campus bookstore’s used prices, offer one solution. But there’s another option which is growing in popularity: scanning the pages of a book into a computer, converting those scans into a PDF file, and making that file available on BitTorrent and p2p networks. The question becomes, why spend $500 for that chemistry textbook when you can just download it for free? And the emergence of ebook readers, ultraportable laptops, iPhone apps, and other technology that makes it possible to conveniently carry one’s entire library of textbooks in one hand increasingly makes the idea of the “book” quaint, if not obsolete. Right now, many of these technologies are expensive, but as their prices come down, more and more people, especially young people, will take advantage of it, and the number of free, downloadable textbooks will explode.

Oh sure, the publishing world will scream “Piracy!” — just as the music industry did. And yes, they’ll try to fight this trend by suing college students and bullying professors who allow their students to use pirated copies of textbooks in class — just as the RIAA sues college students and bullies universities into policing their information networks. But the genie is already out of the bottle, and publishers either need to adapt to this new development, or, like the music industry, they can stick their collective heads in the sand, fail to adapt, and quickly find themselves on the verge of financial ruin.

So just as the Internet changed the music industry forever, it will also change the publishing industry. The Internet allows ordinary people the chance to compete with the big publishing houses by taking advantage of distribution and marketing tools that the Internet naturally offers. It is still a lot of work, but the determined writer can still see his work in print, still find an audience, and still receive the satisfaction of bringing his or her creative work to completion without ever having to deal with agents and publishing executives.

When I published The Spring last winter, I published it through Lulu’s print-on-demand (POD) service. I chose this self-publishing option not because my novel had suffered countless rejections from agents and publishers. In fact, no agent has ever read the story, and it never languished for months in some publisher’s slush pile. Self-publishing was my first and only option for that novel, but I didn’t make that decision naively. I knew exactly what the disadvantages to self-publishing would be. But I also knew that there would be advantages to my decision. Right now, it’s been almost a year since The Spring was published, and both the disadvantages and advantages of my decision have come to fruition. I’ll describe them below so as to make clear the dangers and rewards that the self-published author faces.

Disadvantages

I think the biggest disadvantage of self-publishing is the lack of marketing support. You have to realize that when you self-publish, you aren’t going to see a lot of sales unless you are willing to get out there and really “pound the pavement.” If you want to see your book on the shelf in your local bookstore, you have to make that happen. If you want to sell it online at one of the growing number of online ebook retailers, you have to make that happen. If you want your book to be reviewed, if you want it to be advertised, you have to make that happen. And even when you have done all that work, you still may not sell any books.

But even those new authors who are picked up by a major publishing house aren’t exactly on easy street either. With ever-shrinking marketing budgets, it makes more financial sense for publishers to put most of their marketing energy behind the proven winners: the Stephen Kings and J.K. Rowlings of the world — authors who publishers know will sell lots of books. A first novel by a new author might just as easily bomb as be a success, because that new author still has to do a lot of the marketing work himself.

The other disadvantage is that it is easy for your self-published novel to get lost in the sea of other self-published books. This great democratization of publishing not only means that your work gets published, but it also means that a fifth grader can publisher her story, too. So you aren’t just competing with the big publishing houses, you are also trying to stand out from the crowd of self-published authors. In either case, it’s easy to get lost.

Advantages

For me, the most important advantage of self-publishing is that this process allows me to fully own my work — and I use “own” in every since of the word. Self-publishing lets me assume full creative control, it lets me take full responsibility for my work, it lets me make decisions about copyright and how the work will be distributed, and if I wish, it lets me take a bigger slice of the revenue pie.

For me, the most appealing aspect of self-publishing is that I, as the author, have complete creative control

The 1996 edition of Leah. I'll send a free, signed copy to the first person who can tell me what this cover image has to do with the story.

The 1996 edition of Leah. I'll send a free, signed copy to the first person who can tell me what this image has to do with the story.

over my novel. I’m responsible for everything: from the text of the story to the cover on the outside. When working with a publisher, you necessarily give up some of that creative control. When I published the 1996 edition of Leah, a graphic artist was assigned to create a cover image for my novel for me. The artist created two images for me to choose from, but neither image had anything to do with my novel. I doubt the artist had read my book — she probably didn’t even read the blurb on the back. I had to choose between the lesser of two random evils rather than select an image that I thought evoked the subject matter of my novel. This time, if I publish Leah myself, I will be able to design the cover and choose an image that I feel is relevant and meaningful.

But retaining full creative control means taking on a lot of responsibility. It is up to you and you alone to make sure that the story is the best that it can be. Sure you can hire an editor to read your work and offer some advice, but it is still up to you to make the decisions about what to keep and what to cut, what to leave as it is and what to change. In some of the writing blogs that I read, I notice writers spending very little time in the revising stage of the writing process. After spending a few months writing the first draft of their novel, they might only spend a couple weeks revising it. Maybe they’re hoping that when they get an agent or a publisher, that the story will be sent to an editor who will do the revising and editing work for them. I think that’s a terrible mistake and a profound misunderstanding of the writing process. The revising stage is just as important — if not more important — than the drafting stage. I have been revising and editing Leah for nearly seven months now, and I’m still not done. It’s taken me so long, not because there are so many problems with the story (although the 1996 edition was quite a mess) but because I have taken on the full responsibility of revising and editing the book myself. I have a background in editing and correcting others’ writing, but I know even that is not enough. I know that when one edits one’s own work, as I am doing, one is very likely to miss mistakes that another, objective reader will see. That’s why I’m reading my novel again and again, because only upon the sixth or seventh reading will I finally see a mistake that I made in a line of dialogue or a description of a scene. It is an extraordinary amount of work, but I love writing and I love to work on my story, so I can do it.

Ultimately, I am responsible for the quality of Leah. If readers enjoy it, then I can take all of the credit. If the novel sucks, then I have only myself to blame. Self-publishing epitomizes the artist’s relation to his work in its purest form: there is only the artist and his art, the vision and the expression of that vision; no middlemen, no obstacles, no filters get in the way. The story is completely mine, and it is as idiosyncratic as I am. It is an honest expression of myself, and I find that incredibly fulfilling.

The self-published author also has to make decisions about copyright and the cost of the book. I’ve considered using a Creative Commons license for my books, but so far I have stuck with the traditional copyright license. As for determining the cost, Lulu’s print-on-demand option that I chose for The Spring allowed me to set the price for a physical copy of my novel. Unlike vanity presses, the customer isn’t purchasing copies of the book in bulk, so the cost of printing and manufacturing each individual copy is included in the price. This tends to make POD books a little bit more expensive than other books, but not too much more expensive. The Spring sells for $14.95, which is a competitive price for a novel. Just remember: you are still bound by the laws of economics; if you price your novel at $50 a copy, you probably aren’t going to sell any copies at all.

Lulu also lets me offer a PDF download of my book for free. Some people might be shocked that I would do this, but as other authors have discovered, when you give your work away for free you are building an audience, you are putting your story in the hands of readers who might not otherwise give you a chance. This is especially important for the self-publishing author who is likely already an unknown. A potential reader is more likely to give a story a try when there is no financial risk to her, and offering free downloads of one’s novel eliminates that financial risk completely. And once you’ve built an audience, you are more likely to sell copies of your work. Besides, for me, writing has never been about making money. I’ve always said that I’d rather have 1000 readers and only earn $10 than earn $1000 and only have 10 readers.

In Conclusion

Whether self-publishing is a route that you, as a writer, should take is a decision that only you can make for yourself. I’m sure many people will still prefer to take the traditional path of endless queries and rejections, even if it means that their work will never be published. That’s fine. The only point I’m trying to make is that, nowadays, the traditional path is no longer the only path, and writers no longer need to feel as though they are at the mercy of the publishing industry. We’ve entered an age when anyone can fulfill their dreams of publishing their creative work, and I think that’s a great thing.

Comments? Counter-arguments? Why is self-publishing not right for you? What advantages of following the traditional path of publishing have I missed? Let’s hear from you.

September 22, 2008

How I Learned to Write a Novel

I’ve always been of the opinion that writing is a skill. Nobody is born a great writer. Some writers might be more creative than others, but the act of turning that creative vision into good writing is a skill that, I think, just about anyone can learn. Since no one starts out knowing how to write, a potential novelist, then, must undergo a sort of “apprenticeship,” a period of training in which he or she learns how to write a novel. Looking back on my own life, I realize now that it took me two separate phases of training before I could write a complete novel that is ready for possible publication.

The first phase of my training occurred during my teenage years. At that age, people have an abundance of creativity and energy. Everything seems possible, and it’s fun to experiment. During this period of my life I learned, by trial and error, how to draft a novel — how to transform the stories in my imagination into words on a page. I was extremely prolific, sometimes churning out two or three 200-page long manuscripts in a single year, not to mention all of the short stories and poems I was writing (today, that level of output astounds me; I cannot work at that pace anymore). Because I had so many ideas for stories, I didn’t worry about revising and editing my work; in fact, I don’t think that the idea of revising my work ever crossed my mind. As far as I was concerned, every manuscript I produced was “finished,” and as soon as I completed one novel, I simply moved on to the next story. A lot of people, when they decide they want to be an author, make that decision having never actually composed a novel-length piece of writing. They don’t really know what they’re getting into or how much work writing can be, and I think that is why so many would-be novelists fail: the size and scope of the project simply overwhelms them. The most important lesson that I learned in those early years is that writing is a very long, slow process, and patience is the ultimate virtue when it comes to writing.

I consider the first draft of Leah to mark the end of this first stage of my writing education. By the time that I composed the first draft of Leah, I had reached a point where I was confident that I could take any complex story that formed in my imagination and transfer that story onto paper. However, when I made the decision to try to publish Leah back in 1995-6, what I didn’t yet understand was that inventing a story and completing a draft is only the first half of the writing process.

And that’s why the 1996 draft of Leah was a failure. And by “failure” I don’t mean “commercial failure” — although, since it was self-published, it certainly was that. Rather, I mean the novel was a failure because the quality of the writing and the execution of the story didn’t live up to my own expectations. Although I did a little revising, what was published was essentially still a rough draft. It was truly awful, and I’m embarrassed that it was ever published. What I didn’t know at the time was that I still needed to learn how to revise and edit my work.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, that second phase of my training began when I started teaching. I was an English major in college, and so today I teach writing. In my short career, I have graded literally tens of thousands of pages of students’ writing. I’ve seen it all: from very bad, almost illegible writing to writing that might be even better than what I can produce. Reading and correcting so much writing provided me the chance to learn just what revising is and why it is so important.

What I’ve learned in these last several years is that revising is just as important as drafting, just as important as the initial idea that inspires one to write. I’ve learned that the revising process takes a very long time — even longer than drafting process, and, in a sense, it never really ends. There’s no such thing as a “finished” manuscript; there’s always something that you can do to improve it. And I’ve learned that while the revising process takes a long time and can sometimes feel tedious, it can also be just as creatively fulfilling and exciting as producing that first draft of a story. When you set up an exchange of dialogue just right, when you find the perfect word to describe a character’s mood, or when you phrase that opening sentence in the best possible way — that is writing!

As I browse the Internet, visiting writers’ blogs or reading websites that deal with creative writing and publishing, I often see writers seeking an editor to help them prepare their novels for publication, and I see entrepreneurial editors eager to offer their editing skills — for a fee, of course. Certainly, letting an objective party read and edit one’s work can be very useful, but it’s not a substitute for the revising process. It is still up to the would-be author to do the majority of the revising. When I read a student’s essay, I can offer suggestions for improvement and point out places where corrections ought to be made, but ultimately, it is up to the student herself to make those changes — and to go beyond the suggestions that I make.

Do you agree? Disagree? What’s your take on revising? How did you learn to write a novel?

September 7, 2008

How Do You Write?

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 9:28 am
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I like to think of myself as a member of the last generation to use typewriters. To be sure, when I was growing up (when I was Leah’s age and younger), personal computers existed, as did word processing programs, but computers weren’t as ubiquitous as they are today, when it seems like everyone except luddites and the very, very poor has one. In fact, even when I was in college, I used an electronic typewriter, not a computer, to create the final drafts of my papers. The first time I used a word processor for a school assignment was when I needed to write a 12-page paper during my last semester as an undergraduate.

When I was a teenager, I did all of my writing by hand in spiral notebooks. From the time I was in seventh grade until I graduated from high school, I produced about ten novels and novellas, dozens of short stories, and at least a couple hundred poems — and I wrote all of this out by hand. Writing was very much a linear process for me. Before I could undertake a big project like a novel, I had to know exactly how I wanted the story to begin, and I had to have a detailed outline of the story. I rarely suffered writer’s block because when I came upon a point in the story where I wasn’t quite sure how to proceed, I just pushed my way through it without worrying whether what I wrote was good or not. And the last thing that I wrote was always the last page of the novel.

Today, though, I can’t imagine working that way again. Writing a novel-length manuscript by hand just doesn’t seem natural to me anymore. Maybe I just lack the patience to work that way. Maybe I’ve just embraced the non-linear form of writing that word processors allow. I think that word processors (and the Internet, generally) have changed the way we think about language and storytelling. It certainly has in my case.

Because for me, the most important difference between working on a word processor and working by hand or on a typewriter is that the word processor frees me from the restrictions of linear writing. If I want, I can start with the last paragraph of a story and work backwards. I can skip around, writing chapters or passages out of order. I can rearrange passages in seconds, and if I don’t like the new arrangement, I can put everything back the way it was. I can insert a sentence into a paragraph that I’ve already written. I can add a few more lines of dialogue to a conversation between characters that I drafted a week ago. In other words, I can do things electronically that I could never do when all I had was a notebook and a pen. As far as I’m concerned, this a much better way to write because it places at my disposal so many new tools and tactics. I do all of my writing on the word processor now. Sometimes I’ll try to write something lengthy by hand, but I just can’t do it. It feels too slow and too confining. (By the way, even the posts in this blog take advantage of this non-linear writing style. This blog post, when it’s finished, will hopefully have a sense of cohesion and flow to it, but these paragraphs that you see have all been written out of order. In fact, this paragraph was written after the next paragraph you are about to read.)

I think the reason why the 1996 version of Leah turned out so badly was that even though I used a word processor to produce the draft that I sent to the publisher, I didn’t take full advantage of the technology available to me. All I did, really, was transcribe the longhand first draft of Leah onto the computer, making a few changes as I worked, and then I spent a very short time doing some additional revising. In other words, the 1996 edition of the novel isn’t too different from the first draft that I wrote a year or two earlier because I was still locked into a linear mindset when it came to composing a piece of writing.

If it weren’t for word processors, I don’t think I would have published The Spring last year, I don’t think that I would be able to revise Leah, and I don’t think I would be doing any creative writing at all anymore. It amazes me how authors of the past could have produced well-written, novel-length works without the technology available to us today. When they revised a chapter, did they just rewrite (or re-type) the entire text of that chapter over and over again? That sounds to me like an extraordinary waste of time since not everything in a chapter necessarily needs to be revised. I don’t think I’d have the patience to do that if that were the only option available to me. Considering the amount of mistakes that I make in my writing, and how much revising I need to do, it would probably take me years to complete this project instead of months. I doubt that I would even bother to try.

So how about you? Do you still do some of your writing by hand, in a linear style, or does all of your writing take advantage of word processors? Can you imagine writing any differently than how you write now?

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