Posted in Backstory, Book covers, Publishing, Self-Publishing

Finding a home for the next book: Traditional or self-publishing is the question

Film StripI received an email yesterday from my editor at the University of Toronto Press with the news that we’re now embarking on the cover design for my new book.  Although this is good news (I had been wondering where we were in the process after I sent him the final edits back in January before I went on vacation, it got me thinking yet again about the traditional book publishing process .

This marks the ninth time (ten if you count a second edition) that I’ve been through this traditional publishing process where control is largely given over to the publisher.  The truth is that I’ve been more or less happy with the outcomes as I look at them winking at me from the top shelf above me; the process, however, has not been without considerable frustration.  I’ve also gone the self-publishing route three times now, and I’m kind of at a crossroads.  I have a new book ready to make the rounds – and have queried a couple of agents already – but I’m still wondering if I should do it myself.

This reflection on my publishing adventures resulted this time from my editor’s simple statement in his email: “…Time and budgetary restraints being what they are, we’re unable to ask our designers to come up with a cover completely from scratch. Rather, it falls to you (and to me)…” and then we’re to send this to the so-called designers.  It seems to me that a designer should be doing the designing, and if he or she isn’t doing the designing, what in the world is he or she being paid to do?

This might seem to you to be the moment in time when I make that decision to move to self-publishing for that next book, but I’m also reeling from yet another telephone call from iUniverse – an attempt to sell me yet more services thinly disguised as a wonderful opportunity for me.

Here’s what happened earlier this week.

At dinner time one evening (they are always at dinner time when I’m feeling just ready to punch the next telemarketer who calls despite being on the do-not-call list) the phone rang.  The caller was a “marketing specialist” or consultant or manager or some such thing; iUniverse seems to either have an enormous staff or massive turnover since this is the third or fourth such person to whom I have evidently been assigned.  Several incarnations ago I asked them not to call me with marketing ideas ever again.

Grace Note Cover PaperbackIf you’ve read my blog for a while, you know that my avocation is writing historical fiction – I do love that research and the need to shed everyday life to get into the head of characters from long-ago times and places.  Grace Note: In Hildegard’s Shadow was published by iUniverse a couple of years ago now.  It was selected as an Editor’s Choice book (meaning that since I’d paid to have it professionally edited and I didn’t sound like a moron it would get this stamp), and thereafter chosen as a “Rising Star” (not sure how high up the scale of non-moronic a book has to be to receive this elevation).   All of the editing etc. that was done made the book more polished and professional to be sure, but it did not come cheap.  And make no mistake, every time anyone called after that to extol the virtues of my book, they were indeed trying to sell me services.  This time it was that it is so good that it should be a movie.  Would you be interested in having it shown to Thruline Entertainment?

I told him to send me an email and hung up (I was more polite than that, but that’s the edited version of the story).

The email arrived in due course (read; immediately).  Here’s what he said in part:

I called in earlier today to inform you that your book, “Grace Note” can be adapted into a motion picture.

Hollywood Coverage: Your book has all the elements Hollywood wants — an exciting plot, well-developed characters and fresh content — yet there’s still a crucial piece you need in order to be taken seriously by established entertainment executives.

We would like to know if you’d be interested to have your books presented to our newly acquired partner, THRULINE Entertainment. THRULINE is a Hollywood production company and they are basically looking for good books to adapt into a movie.

The contract has just been sealed last August and basically we want to impress our new partner. We don’t want to provide them with a “just-an-ordinary” material. We are putting our best foot forward because we want to prolong this contract.

If you’re interested, your book just needs a Script coverage in order for us to present this to production companies and producers. That is the basic tool that they would look for instead of reading the whole book.

He then went on to tell me that the two-part script coverage would be done by a professional who has done this before etc.  What he did not tell me was the price or any reference to the fact that he wants to sell me a service, but I knew that this was precisely what was happening.  And indeed research on Thruline uncovers a company with self-described ties to the Hollywood machine that works with self-publishing companies to part authors from their money.  Well, they didn’t’ say it that way but I can read between the lines!

Of course, if your book is really adaptable as a movie, you can send it to an agent who does this kind of thing.  Options on books can and are taken from the book itself.  And doesn’t it make sense that someone who is actually interested in adapting your book might actually have to read the book?  Yes, script “coverages” are done, but really?  I actually had an earlier book optioned and learned that the vast majority of optioned books never even make it to treatment phase.

The iUniverse price for this script coverage is $859.00.

This is what I said in my response to the email:

Thanks for this.  Don‘t bother telephoning me.  I’m not paying upwards of $900 for any more service from iUniverse.  If you think the book is good enough to be sold to “Hollywood” then I think you should be willing to put up the money for a percentage on the back end.  Otherwise, we have nothing to talk about.  I’m an accomplished writer – I can do this myself.

I think it’s time iUniverse took a different tack when it comes to ‘services’ for writers.

But call he did.  This time I didn’t answer. So where does this story lead me?  Well, this morning as I checked my Twitter feed I came across a link to a blog post titled “Publishing 101 – Money” on The Passive Voice blog whose author considers whether or not the price of self-publishing is worth it.  She and I agree that it is, but it does seem to me that there is a limit to what one should reasonably spend.

Self-publishing requires an author to be a writer, editor, interior book designer, cover designer, marketer and promoter.  So is this so different from traditional publishing these days?

When an editor at a traditional publishing house tells me that he is “unable to ask [their] designers to come up with a cover completely from scratch…” it seems that the two publish models are getting closer together.

So, am I any closer to a decision about my next book’s home?  Not really.

Posted in Book publishers, Self-Publishing

The trouble with publishers (Part 2: Let’s talk self-publishing)

The book I sold to a 'traditional' publisher after publishing the first edition myself. They did give it a new cover - which I designed for them .

Lots of places define self-publishing as publishing projects that authors pay for themselves.  I’m going to dispute that definition and see if we can’t come up with a better understanding of the varieties of models available today.  My own backstory in publishing obviously informs my personal perspective – but stay with me and see if you don’t agree.

My foray into vanity publishing, a model of self-publishing whose very name is a pejorative, gave me a first glance at what it means to be completely in charge of your publishing venture, but more than that, it taught me what it means to be the only one who takes risks in the process – financial or otherwise.

What exactly is self-publishing?

Let’s consider some of the definitions I’ve found online:

Wikipedia (arguably an authority on online self-publishing) defines self-publishing as “the publication of any book or other media by the author of the work without involvement of an established third-party publisher.  The author is responsible and in control of the entire process…”[1]   Clearly the basis of this definition sits firmly on the absence of an established third-party publisher which naturally begs the question of what precisely is an established third-party publisher?  Does this mean it is not self-published if your friend says, “I’ll publish your book if you pay, and you can have complete control”?  Third-party, perhaps but established?  So, then what does it mean to be “established”?  Does that mean if you or I open a new publishing house we are a party to self-publishing because we haven’t been around long?  Or are we all right if we’re incorporated?  So many questions, so much vagueness.

Writing in Publishing Perspectives, Edward Nawotka moans about self-publishing being too, well, selfish.  He suggests that so-called self-publishers can only call themselves “publishers” if they have actually worked to publish someone else’s work.  He says…

…It’s my personal belief that a DIYer or self-publisher should not call themselves a “publisher” until they take risk and responsibility for publishing another person’s work, which in turn is taking responsibility for another author’s wellbeing. Yes, you can argue the semantics of it as much as you like, but until that point a self-publisher is merely a “printer” (digital or conventional, sophisticated or not) adopting an honorific that they don’t deserve.[2]

From my perspective, I think he’s nailed it in one important respect.  Unless you as an author take full responsibility for your work, and act as a publisher rather than getting an online so-called self-publishing business to do it for you, you are not really publishing – you are simply printing & distributing your work.  There are important values in the traditional publishing business that I believe are important to keep in mind, and quality of the editing is an important one.

If you read last week’s discussion of vanity publishing, you’ll remember that I was taken aback on my first venture into DIY publishing that not a single syllable was edited in my book.  If I had published it on Lulu (remember, though, it was back in the days before these online services) then of course there wouldn’t be anything edited: Lulu and others like it are not  really self-publishing platforms; rather they are print-on-demand services.

Why, though, do people get so bent out of shape when this is the reality?  You can print and distribute your own work, an approach for which you certainly take all the risk and responsibility. Is there something shameful in this?   You can hire (and make no mistake about it, you are hiring) a new breed publisher like iUniverse  or others, large and small like them, who will take over the publishing process and allow you to purchase some of the services of traditional publishers for a (substantial) fee.  Some do have a kind of vetting process for entry into certain publishing streams (iUniverse has Editor’s Choice for which your work can be chosen if it has benefit of professional editing, and can then be elevated into their Rising Star program if it meets certain other quality criteria etc.), but in the end, anyone can use the services if he or she is willing to pay.

Why things have changed

The advent of print-on-demand and online retailing has changed the entire landscape of both traditional (whatever that is) publishing and the new approaches (whatever we come to define them to be).  Perhaps even more important, the participatory nature of the online universe has permitted anyone with a computer and a connection to the internet to call him or herself a writer or author.  The fact that you can read this blog today is a testimony to that.  All I (or anyone else) has to do to be “published” online is to start a blog – and it doesn’t even cost anything.  This is both the beauty and the curse of the online writing environment.

How I came to conclude all this

My first foray into real self-publishing came as a result of a dearth of print material available for an undergraduate course I was teaching at the university that provides me with my day job.  Over time, I accumulated material and created first a booklet and then eventually a book.  In its original form, it was printed and bound by the university print shop which I then provided to students free of charge.  A few years later, the book grew again, so I decided that I would print it outside with better production values and perhaps distribute it more widely.

At the time, I happened to be running an outside consultancy and even had an employee or two from time to time.  Biomedical Communications Incorporated, then, published the book.  I personally did everything from layout to cover design to finding a distributor and negotiating a distribution contract.  I also did promotion.

To tell you the truth, it was one of the most satisfying projects I’ve ever been involved in for a couple of reasons.  I was able to see a project through from beginning to end, I had complete control, I took all the risks (financially and to my reputation) and I made all the money.  I did, in fact, make back all the money I put into it and then some.  It was delightful.  Then one day I decided that the book needed a new edition – an update – and I was not in the same mind-set to do the whole thing over again.  I had learned what I needed to learn so I shopped it to “traditional” publishers and sold it to Lawrence Erlbaum in New Jersey (which has since become part of Taylor and Francis), a large textbook publisher in the US.  It is still in distribution today – although I will say that it probably needs a third edition at this stage!

So, does the fact that the book was eventually published through conventional channels make that book any better than it was originally?  Perhaps in some people’s small minds, but the book is exactly the same as it was when I published it myself.  They bought it “camera-ready”!

I then took a foray into print-on-demand publication (not really the same self-publishing model in my view) by having my book In the Shadow of the Raven printed and distributed by Lulu.  That was an interesting experience, and points to the very real differences between true self-publishing and simply using current online printing capabilities of companies that sell services.  I upload the manuscript; they put it into a pdf if I haven’t (but I need to format it); I purchase an ISBN & bar code from them; I use their wizard to create a cover; I write the cover copy; they print, distribute and pay me anything left after they take their money.  Then, book promotion, trying to actually sell it, is entirely up to me  –actually not that different a scenario than that of traditional publishers these days!  They’ve already made their money by printing and putting my book on Amazon.

My book Grace Note was “published” by iUniverse whose editing and publishing services I bought.  But Grace Note was evidently of a high enough quality that it was chosen for their Editor’s Choice program and eventually, after benefit of professional editing and copy-editing, became part of their Rising Star program for which I was granted free of charge some services that others have to pay for – and it was more widely distributed.  So, why didn’t I even try to sell it to a “traditional” publisher?  To tell you the truth, I’m sick of them.

Between two these books, I’ve been published by a number of “traditional” publishers including such trade publishers as Doubleday  and academic publisher The University of Toronto Press, among others, and I’m sick to death of them.

I’m sick of their delays; sick of how influential their marketing departments are in the choice to publish or not publish regardless of the acquisition editor’s opinion of the merits of the book; very sick of the paltry percentage of profits that are given to the person who actually wrote the book; sick of losing control of the work.  I was also peeved off at a literary agent who said this to me, “If I had a dollar for every bona fide non-fiction author who wanted to be a novelist, I’d be rich,” and then refused to represent me in the fiction realm.

Will I be published ever again through a “traditional” publisher?  Probably yes – I have a manuscript at a publisher as we speak and it seems to be on the road to publication.

It would be very nice to find a new approach that encompasses the best of both tradition and the new approach, while at the same time acknowledging the writer as a more important part of the process.  I’m thinking about the notion of cooperative publishing where a half a dozen or so of us writers begin to work together, editing and working on one another’s projects, and then publishing under a co-op imprint.  I think I’ll think about that idea, and if you’re interested, drop me a line.  We can share ideas.

When I get back from vacation I’ll write about that with your input.  See you after a few weeks of sun and surf!

BTW, here’s a list of some famous authors who self-published.  Might surprise you.

Posted in Backstory, Ideas generation

The genesis of an idea

I’m not a literary writer in the artistic sense of the word.  I don’t write literary novels or short stories.  I write both fiction and non-fiction stories (and make no mistake, the non-fiction is based on story-telling in its best sense) that result from an active process of looking for ideas.  Oh, once in a while I stumble on something, or I end up using an idea in a very different way than the way I started out; but on balance, finding ideas is for me a very proactive process.  And although I am not part of the high-brow literati, I can still appreciate that those who are might be able to articulate an idea in a different way – not better or worse, but differently.

Emily Dickinson, a literary-minded writer in her own right of course, put it this way: “Not knowing when the dawn will come, I open every door.”  I wish I had written that – I didn’t but I identify with the concept. I open every door to see where those doors might lead.

The idea of inspiration, and what it is, has shown up here before; being open to inspiration is a kind of internal process.  There is clearly a relationship between the ethereal notion of being inspired to create something – whether it’s a piece of choreography, a new theory, a strategic plan or a new book – and the idea upon which that creation will be based, but in my view they are not exactly the same thing. So, finding ideas is an external process – or at least requires interaction with the external world.

Being open to inspiration requires a certain frame of mind that makes that mind a fertile place for that idea generator to take root and grow.  The question now is not how to keep your mind open, but how to find that genesis.

So, where does an idea for a creation come from?  I’ve gleaned ideas from any number of places over the years.  Some of these have included the following:

  • Long conversations over wine (this is essential) with my husband and sometime collaborator.  Never underestimate the power of those meandering conversations with someone whose ideas you respect. Putting your two heads together even without the goal of finding a writing idea often results in transformative ideas.
  • Newspaper articles.  This is a no-brainer for writers no matter what kind of writing you do.  It might be that headline story (you’ve heard of the ripped-from-the-headlines type stories), but my experience tells me that more often the idea is likely to come from a small piece, the piece that you might easily have overlooked.  I’m currently working on a contemporary piece that is based on a ten-line article in a newspaper.  This is when you take up your trusty scissors or those newspaper cutters that should be beside your reading chair at all times, cut it out and paste it in your journal.  Or if you re reading electronically, use a select and paste  tool (but I do need to point out that often these ten-line gems of stories that fill up column inches often don’t make it to the electronic version).
  • Interviews with both celebrity types and every day people.  Sometimes you’ll be watching someone being interviewed on television, or hear it on the radio while you’re driving your car and one line might get you thinking.  You need to have a way to capture those lines – a journal if you’re not driving, a voice recorder if you are.
  • Conversations overheard.  Everyone expects writers to be slightly odd, so eavesdropping isn’t as far off the radar as you might think.  If you take public transit for example, you are awash in a sea of possible writing ideas.  I’ve sat on the subway in Toronto more than a few times and overheard snippets of conversation that seem to evoke a sense of character or even a story.  (I don’t live in Toronto and never take public transit at home – so I really feel I’m missing out on that one!).  And what about listening to other parents when you’re waiting for your children at school?  Or at the school concert?  Or audience members around you at the ballet, the theater or even the movie?  The hockey rink? On a beach while on vacation?  At a bar?
  • Online conversations “overheard.”  This is a bit more controversial, but nevertheless full of juicy material.  If you lurk around on social media sites, people might think that you are spying, but practically everyone does it to one extent or another.  Reading posts on forums without actually participating in the conversation is the definition of lurking and it has its controversial side – but it can be for the greater good.  For example, if you are interested in women’s health issues and you lurk around a social network focused on these issues, you might very well be inspired to write an article or book that will help people.  So, it’s not all bad!

And finally, my personal favorite…

  • Academic articles.  For anyone who happens to read academic articles, you’d be surprised how often one of them can contain the germ of a story.  I once read an article in a medical journal back in my medical writing days about how Edgar Allan Poe died (or what wasn’t known about it to be more specific), and that ignited an idea.

These are just a few places where ideas spring forth.  Ideas come from everywhere and often coalesce to form that big idea that eventually becomes the genesis for a story.   It then takes on a life of its own as the settings, characters and plots take over the writing.  Ask a writer where his or her idea actually had its genesis, and sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint.  But for me, I can usually tell where the germ actually comes from.

And when it comes to my historical fiction work, the idea is usually as a result of an unanswered question from history.

GRACE NOTE began to take shape many years ago.  In the late 1990’s, there was a resurgence of interest in a little-known Roman Catholic mystic who lived in 12th century Germany.  Her name was Hildegard of Bingen.

Hildegard was born in 1098 and when she was about fourteen years old (the historical dating is inconsistent) she was tithed to the church and walled up in a hut attached to a Benedictine monastery, proclaimed dead to the world, to live her life as an anchorite.  Of course, history tells us that she didn’t stay walled up forever, rather went forward and accomplished a great many things in her career as a nun and abbess.  She has been proclaimed a feminist (!), physician, mystic, teacher, and very prominently, a composer, often referred to as the very first female composer to live.  The problem is that there isn’t hard evidence of the actual authorship of her music and in 1998 an article appeared in the journal Early Music provocatively suggesting that there is no evidence that she accomplished so much.  That’s where my story began.  And GRACE NOTE is the outcome of the idea genesis followed up by lots of research on what is known and what is not known.

Where have you found your ideas?