The Publishing Times, They are A-changing

Recently one of my clients read on Facebook that I had gotten an agent for my memoir.

“I’m curious about where you stand today on the subject of self-publishing vs. the traditional route,” he wrote. “Your advice to me a couple of years ago was this: Turn to self-publishing when the other options have been exhausted. It was good, clear advice, and I’m glad I followed it and got an agent rather than self-publishing. But the landscape has changed since then. Would you give the same advice today?”

Hmm. In a word, no.

When I started to write my memoir five years ago, the publishing world was a very different place. Self-publishing was still widely considered the last resort for authors who couldn’t get a legitimate publisher to consider their work. I’ve worked with other writers for all this time as a writing coach and developmental editor, and two years ago I was still telling my clients to try the traditional route first. Today the options are so compelling and vast, I am advising my clients to consider all options, including self-pubbing from the outset.

The publishing industry is as uncertain today as at anytime in recent memory. Certainly debut authors have a harder time of it, particularly novelists. But there are so many new, innovative avenues to successful publication now that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend self-pubbing first.

Interestingly, a recent study found that “hybrid” authors – those who publish both traditionally and as self-published authors – are making more money than either traditionally pubbed authors or self-pubbed.

Even so, when I finished my memoir, I was determined to try the traditional route first. I know a number of agents, and one in particular had encouraged me to write my story all those years ago. I had little more than a very rough first chapter then, but he read it and said, “Keep writing!” Over the ensuing years I approached the work intermittently, until two years ago I decided to pursue an MFA in creative writing, and I made my memoir my thesis. That was the key for me; just the motivation I needed to stay at it. Last fall I spent a month in Costa Rica rewriting and finishing the book. In January, I sent the manuscript off to my agent friend. And … waited.

And waited some more.

After a month I emailed him and didn’t get a response. Keep in mind a query to an agent typically would not be answered for two to three months. But I knew this agent. So I decided to go ahead and submit the book proposal to other agents. I had a good query letter. I made a list and sent it out to about 15 agents.  And … waited.

It was an exquisite lesson for me in patience and in learning to follow my own advice to my clients: Wait. Send out more queries. Don’t despair.

Man, we do, though, don’t we? Despair? Writers are champions at despair.

I finally got about a half-dozen responses, all of them very positive about the manuscript, but nearly all said they didn’t think they could sell it to a traditional publisher. I’m not a celebrity, and while I’m fairly active on social media, I don’t have the kind of platform they seek (meaning tens of thousands of friends on Facebook and followers on Twitter). Most said the memoir market has become oversaturated. While memoir sales have slowed down, it’s still a pretty robust genre, but that’s the conventional wisdom in the industry right now.

Thank goodness for my agent friend, my original cheerleader. He finally did read it and called me. He loves it. So, I am thrilled, but also going into this process with clear eyes. It’s only a first step. There’s no guarantee that an editor will love it as much as my agent does. We’ll have to discuss strategy and how long to try to sell it to a publisher. If, ultimately, it doesn’t sell, I will have to make a choice. Self-publish then? Absolutely.

Why Should Writers Blog?

As I said in my recent blog 12 Ways to Build Your Platform in 2012, blogging is one of the most effective and efficient ways to build your platform, or brand, as a writer. And when you go out with your shiny new novel or nonfiction book proposal to find an agent, the first question the agent is going to ask is: What is your platform?

So, a word about platform. Essentially, it’s what you’re known for.

Do you have expertise in a particular subject, say, quantum physics, or training pug dogs? You can use that experience to create a platform. Blog; speak in your community, or, if possible, at state and national conventions; offer to lecture at the local public library; write op-ed pieces for your community newspaper. All of these things build your brand, fill out your resume and establish you as an expert in your field. Then if you write a book, you can point to that exposure as evidence of your “saleability.” Publishers today rarely take a chance on an unknown author. The more you can do to build a fan base, the better off you’ll be when you approach an agent or a publisher with a book proposal.

Today, blogging is the most expedient way to build a fan base.

The key, though, is to develop a theme or purpose so that you can offer your readers something valuable. Nonfiction writers – especially those who have a following already – will find it easier to establish a blog. Whatever it is you write about – be it antique clocks or the hip-hop music industry – it will likely lend itself to a blog that can be updated two or three times a week, if not daily.

For fiction writers, developing a theme can be tricky. I suggest writing a blog as one of the characters in your book. It doesn’t necessarily have to follow the storyline in your novel. You know the character; create some new scenarios for him/her to respond to, and let that voice populate your blog. You could even write it from several different characters’ voices, essentially creating a new online story.

To be effective, a blog needs to be written every day, or, if that’s not possible, at least every other day. In cyberspace, people expect something new every time they return to your site, so to be relevant and effective, you have to blog regularly. And you have to have something useful to say every time you blog.

In addition to being timely, the very best blogs have great writing, contain content that can’t be found anywhere else, provide something no one else does (information, a service or a product), are relevant, and provide links to other sources.

“Build your audience on the Internet (or otherwise) before you approach an editor or agent,” literary agent Doris Booth advises. “If you can say 25,000 or 50,000 people visit your blog every month, and they are all talking about and sharing what you’re writing on the subject of, say, Yo-Yos, then you are a much more attractive candidate to become published. Build your audience as a speaker or a journalist with a huge following, in any way you can. Celebrities get published because they have vast, already-established audiences. It is harder to build an audience if you’re a novelist, but not impossible. Visit the sites of successful authors such as Gayle Lynds, Heather Graham, and James Patterson and see how they draw attention to their work.”

(Some information in this blog appeared in my 2010 book Navigating the Rough Waters of Today’s Publishing World, Critical Advice for Writers (Quill Driver Press), available on Amazon.)