2016—A Year for Writing

It is not the New Year; it is barely Christmas, but I am in a mood to celebrate the turning year.

What a momentous year of change this has been. (See my post on Dec. 18.) I have a sense we are not done. I have been blessed to have worked with nearly 100 authors over the past seven years, coaching and helping them craft their memoirs, novels, self-help and poetry books. What an immense privilege this has been. And most especially seeing the result in tangible fashion—12 books successfully published both independently and traditionally. (See the list here.)

In 2016, I am shifting my focus a tiny bit to put my own writing first. You’ll see more regular blog posts and excerpts from my memoir, which I am revising after an unsuccessful tilt at traditional publishers with two agents. I don’t know what the end result will be, perhaps independent publication—we’ll see. For now it feels good and right to be revising. I have other writing projects in the wings, too—a novel and an anthology of essays by women in collaboration with my friend Kathleen Barry, who writes the blog Whispers of Wisdom.

I hope to go on retreat several times in 2016. I’ll write more about that in coming weeks.

I am excited about the coming year and all the possibilities it holds: travel, writing, working with my incredible client/writers, and love!

Who could ask for more?

What are you doing to feed your writing muse next year?

Self-publishing Might be for You

As the publishing world continues to morph and change in response to economic and technological pressures and opportunities, self-publishing - for some writers - becomes an attractive option. In fact, the longest chapter in my book, Navigating the Rough Waters of Today's Publishing World, Critical Advice for Writers from Industry Insiders (Quill Driver Press, 2010), is about self-publishing. Print-on-demand technology and the explosion in e-books makes self-publishing a more viable option than traditional, especially for authors who already have an established platform.

When your book is accepted by a traditional publisher, the publishing house provides certain services, including editing, cover and content design, production, distribution to booksellers, and some—often minimal—level of promotion. The publisher not only pays you an advance of some amount, but also assumes all the costs of editing, designing, producing, and distributing, the book, as well as spending money marketing it. As the author, in this scenario, you are paid royalties. All other profits go to the publisher.

If you self-publish, you pay for the privilege upfront but get to keep 100 percent of the profits on any sales. However, the cost can range from several hundred dollars to more than $10,000, depending on the type of self-publishing you choose. And that should be dictated by the kind of book you’ve written, your skills (of lack thereof) in producing a published work, and what your goals are as an author.

Why, exactly, do you want your book published? Do you seek attention? Do you want to use the book to support other work, like speaking? Is it because you want to leave a family history for your children and grandchildren? Perhaps you’re tired of banging your head against the traditional publishers’ doors and you have a well-thought-out plan for promotion and marketing. Or you may have expertise in a field that is too narrow for a larger publisher to consider, for example, how to repair electric razors.

If you write fiction, you should first exhaust all efforts to get an agent and win a traditional contract. But if all efforts fail, by all means consider self-publishing. There are some wonderful stories of self-published books that were picked up by traditional publishers and became best-sellers (Christopher Paolini's Eragon is one example), but honestly, that's rare.

Self-publishing makes more sense for a nonfiction title that has a particular niche and whose author has the resources and ability to spend a lot of time marketing it.

Online POD Publishing

The newer print-on-demand companies that operate online and often refer to themselves as publishers, such as iUniverse and Lulu, offer most of the services of a traditional publisher either on an a la carte basis or in packages for which you pay a fee.

If you have a memoir or family history you want to produce in limited quantities for family and friends, this is a good option. Since you can produce one book at a time, there’s no need to print and store a large stock of books. Each book can be printed as it’s ordered online. This is also a good choice if you are a hobbyist and want to produce a limited number of informational or how-to books that you want to sell online.

But beware. Most people in the publishing and entertainment industry consider books published by iUniverse and Lulu and similar publishers as substandard.

Subsidy Publishing

If you make a living writing for other publications but want to produce a nonfiction title to either subsidize your primary work or establish credibility as an expert in a particular area, subsidy press publishing is a good option. This is also a good choice for business and inspirational speakers. A book confers instant credibility for speakers, who then can sell them “from the back of the room” at speaking engagements.

A quality subsidy press is a good place to start. Under a typical co-publisher agreement with a small press, the author pays all the major production costs, including typesetting, printing and binding. The publisher provides editorial services like editing, proofreading and jacket copy; production services like design and typesetting; marketing services like press releases, brochures, sending out review copies, sales and fulfillment; and distribution to bookstores and online retailers.

The print run is typically short, in the five hundred- to two-thousand-copy range. All copies are the property of the author, who receives a royalty of, say, 60 percent of all net receipts on book and subsidiary rights sales.

Unfortunately, this rarely turns out to be a money-making venture for the author. You have to have a very good reason to see your book in print.

Traditional Self-publishing

Before online POD publishers appeared, self-publishing truly meant the author published the book on his or her own, from typesetting to arranging for printing and distribution.

This is a good choice for writers who produce how-to and self-help books, histories of obscure people or widgets, or books that have a very narrow but perhaps healthy following, for example people who collect antique clocks.

It’s also a good option for writers who publish in newspapers and magazines but want a book to increase visibility. The key is know-how.

If you decide true self-publishing is for you, read The Self-Publishing Manual, Dan Poynter’s Self-Publishing Manual Vol. 2 (parapublishing.com). Poynter believes the current revolution in publishing will permanently alter the playing field, empowering writers and allowing them to put their work directly into the hands of the reading public.

But this kind of self-publishing is not for the faint of heart. If you have the design, production and printing experience and knowledge, go for it. You should also read Morris Rosenthal (fonerbooks.com) and Aaron Shepard’s (newselfpublishing.com) books on the process.

Rosenthal’s book, Print-on-Demand Book Publishing: A New Approach To Printing And Marketing Books For Publishers And Self-Publishing Authors, provides exhaustive information on the process of print-on-demand publishing.

Shepard’s book, Aiming at Amazon: The NEW Business of Self Publishing, or How to Publish Your Books with Print on Demand and Online Book Marketing on Amazon.com, explains in great detail how to use Amazon to sell and distribute your book.

Whether you self-publish fiction or nonfiction, be careful with whom you do business. Mark Levine’s The Fine Print of Self-Publishing compares 45 self-publishing companies, from online services to lesser-known quality subsidy presses. It also tells you what to look for in a self-publisher, explains contracts and pinpoints specific companies you should avoid.

In the end, nonfiction writers can benefit from self-publishing more than - at least for now - fiction writers. But the publishing world changes every day, and more and more already successful authors are turning to self-publishing platforms like Amazon, Scribd and Smashwords. As always, know what you want to accomplish and do your homework.

(I'll be offering consultations on self-publishing at the A Room of Her Own biannual Writers' Retreat at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico from Aug. 8-14.)

First, Write a Good Book

Paula Davis, the book editor at commitmentnow.com, recently asked me to answer some questions on publishing for the site. My responses will be posted there soon, but I thought I'd also share what I wrote on my own blog, since there are so many writers hoping to find publication success in this increasingly difficult book market.

1. What special challenges face fiction writers?

Fiction is hard to sell because publishers are looking for work that will do well commercially – meaning they will make money by publishing it. For that reason, they are more apt to stick with authors who are already successfully selling books or celebrities who are already known. New or emerging writers are untested, so publishers are less likely to take a chance. Occasionally there is that rare, outstanding novel written by a new author, but they are few and far between, sadly. I recommend that new novelists try to get their work accepted by a smaller regional or genre-specific press rather than go for the big publishers in New York. Also, publishers expect a novel to be agented – they won’t look at anything that isn’t represented by an agent these days.

2. If someone is writing a fiction book for the first time, what should they do that will motivate agents and publishers to take a look at their book?

First, make sure it’s a good story - well-written with finely developed characters, great description, conflict, and rising tension that is well-paced. If you have a cracking good manuscript that has been vetted by other writers and an editor or two, then you’re ready to look for an agent. Not before. If you haven’t written before, learn the craft: take classes, attend workshops and conferences, and absorb as much as you can about the business of book publishing. You have to do the work first.

3. What, in your opinion, are the biggest mistakes fiction writers make?

Not doing the work first. Too many people try to write a novel without any understanding of how to do it and what goes into it.

4. If someone is writing a children's book, what challenges do they face in getting it published, and what can they do to overcome these challenges?

First, read children’s books so that you are intimately familiar with the genre. Then join an organization like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). There are chapters all over the country and they offer ongoing workshops on how to write for publication.

5. Does writing a blog help an author get their book published? If so, what tips can you offer so they can maximize the benefits of their blog?

Yes, with a caveat. I had a young woman ask me this recently at a writers conference. If you are writing fiction, first, you have to write the book. Once it’s published, writing a blog can be very helpful, along with having a website and using other social media to promote it. If you are a nonfiction author, you can use a blog (and website, etc.) to build a platform so that a publisher might be more likely to consider publishing your book. For example, say you’re writing a book on how to survive a cancer diagnosis, a first-person account. You might use a blog to talk about the things you learned, using information from the book. You might offer to speak to groups, and establish yourself as an expert on the topic. If you can show that, say, 10,000 people follow your blog or your tweets on Twitter, that’s evidence that you can sell your work and that people want to hear what you have to say.

6. What gets an agent's attention? What scares an agent away? Why is it so hard to get an agent to begin with?

Agents have to be convinced that the book you’ve written can be sold to a publisher. They look at what’s hot in the various genres, and they consider the commercial appeal of the story, not to mention your writing skill. Agents are individuals with varying tastes and interests. What one agent won’t look at may be another’s cup of tea. The key is to not get discouraged. If you’ve done all the things I mentioned above, just keep sending out your work. And if an agent is kind enough to offer feedback on your work, strongly consider it.

7. Can an author who self-publishes make any money on their book? What tips do you have for those who want to self-publish, but hope their book makes a bit of money?

Self-published authors can, and many do, make money with their books. But self-publishing is not for everyone, and one has to be savvy about not only the publishing process but marketing and promotion as well. The longest chapter in my new book is on self-publishing.

8. What opportunities are available for nonfiction writers?

Many! I think the publishing shifts of the past few years – most notably the move to the Internet by most of our information sources – offer opportunities for publication that didn’t exist before. If you’re a good writer and know how to pitch your work, there are many opportunities for freelancing. If you write nonfiction books, the sky’s the limit.

9. How can a writer use Facebook and Twitter to promote their work and perhaps get their book published?

Facebook and Twitter have to be a part of a comprehensive marketing plan for any books you publish, and can be critical to building that ever-elusive thing called a “platform” – essentially what you are known for – which can help you sell yourself and your work to a publisher. But you have to learn about them and use them judiciously. Several chapters in my book cover social media.

11. What are your best tips for those who dream of publishing a book, but keep hitting brick walls?

Keep writing, every day if you can.

Improve your work – learn and revise.

Get feedback from other writers and editors.

Listen to the advice of those who know more than you.

Accept that your work will be rejected – over and over.

Don’t get discouraged.

Be persistent.

If you find success, be grateful and “pay it forward” (with a nod to my friend - and fellow RedRoomer! - Catherine Ryan Hyde, who wrote the best-selling Pay It Forward)

Some Tips for Daily Writing

It’s a beautiful morning! Sun is streaming through the front windows and door. The dogs have finally settled at my feet after breakfast and their morning romp through the house. I’m thinking about writing and an age-old problem: When do you find the time?

Nearly all of my clients struggle with this. Like many writers, they have day jobs and families. One of my clients is a high-powered businessman who is married with a 4-year-old son. He’s plagued with trying to find the time even for daily journaling, which I recommend for all writers.

So I put together some tips for him. Some are mine but most of them are the advice of other writers, notably Natalie Goldberg, who wrote one of my favorite books, Writing Down the Bones. I also found a list of 80 prompts by a journal writer named Mari McCarthy, which I’ve attached here (and here’s the link to her website, Create Write Now).

First, I suggested some specific times to get him started. This seems to be a universal problem – carving out the time to actually sit down and write. What I suggested for him is essentially to get out of the office for at least 30 minutes every day. He happens to have an office next to a lovely park and across the street from a quaint town library. So I told him, on Mondays and Wednesdays, take your lunch and go across the street to the park. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I told him to buy a sandwich or salad, close his door at noon and tell his assistant not to disturb him. Write for at least 20 minutes. If you’re on a roll and have the time, keep going. On Fridays, go to the library and pull a book of poetry from the shelf. Read two or three poems, then write a response to one of them. Or begin a new poem of your own. Take the entire lunch hour if you need it. But write.

On the weekends, I told him to set the alarm 30 minutes before the rest of the household is awake and use that time to journal.

I work at home and have few distractions (outside of my dog, who thinks it’s important to nudge my elbow every hour or so). But I still get bored – uninspired – by my surroundings and so often will take my computer or notebook and escape to a local café. I used to actually drive 20 miles to my favorite coffee shop in the Santa Ynez Valley once in awhile. When I drove up last weekend, I was heartbroken to discover it was closed.

The point is to step out of routine, which stimulates your imagination, releases your muse and sparks creativity.

Writing is a commitment. If you want to be successful as a writer, you have to put the pen to paper, (or fingers to keyboard) and write. It’s that simple. And that complicated. The missing ingredient is discipline. You can’t write without discipline. And the best way to establish discipline is to set a routine and follow it scrupulously. Stephen King does it. Natalie Goldberg does it. Ray Bradbury, Michael Collins and David Sedaris do it. Every successful writer I know of has a writing schedule – and is disciplined enough to stick to it.

So, take a few minutes today and set a regular writing schedule. It will be the recipe for your writing success.

If you have some techniques that enable you to write regularly, I'd love to hear them. Just add them to the comments below.

Social Media Marketing for Writers

Do you know what SMM is? You should. It stands for social media marketing, and as a writer, it’s crucial for you to understand how to use and benefit from the various social media in existence today.

There are five reasons to get social media marketing savvy:

  • You can build a platform (brand) to launch a bookwriting career and to land a book contract
  • You can create a revenue stream (by blogging)
  • You can self-publish
  • You can showcase your published work
  • You can promote your fiction, short stories or poetry

Social media operate on the concept of a viral loop, or viral marketing. In the old days we called it word-of-mouth advertising. One person tells another person about a great movie they saw, or experience they had at a new restaurant, and that person tells two others and pretty soon you’ve got some good buzz going. Marketing magic. That’s how social networks operate.

The key to successful social media marketing is to provide something of value. Generally, stay away from the hard-sell. People don’t like to be berated with sales pitches. Generally, about 80-85 percent of your content should be educational/informational and no more than 20 percent sales and promotion.

Decide what you want to accomplish with social networks and devise a strategic plan. Do you want to build brand awareness? Sell your book? Advertise book signings and appearances? All of the above

Here are some of the most important networks and ways you can take advantage of them.

Facebook: Barely six years old, Facebook passed the 500 million-user mark in mid-July. Its rate of growth (it’s added 100 million users just since last February) has it on track to hit 1 billion by early next year. Facebook is essentially an Internet-based water cooler. People swap information, share stories, answer questions and rave about new products or services.

With Facebook, you can send messages to all your “friends,” post or re-post interesting tidbits of information to your wall for all your friends to see, establish a group dedicated to a common purpose, or create a fan page for, say, your latest book. Fan pages are best for businesses, celebrities and musical groups who want to promote their latest movie, etc. A group page, which is set up and connected to a specific user, is better for more personal interactions and can be selective about membership. The average age of Facebook users is 35-64. People who follow you on Facebook are your “friends.”

LinkedIn: With about 70 million users, LinkedIn is a network for professionals and is becoming very popular with writers seeking connections with other writers and editors. Writers who teach and consult can network, find clients and post testimonials. You can join interest groups and find sources and editorial contacts. LinkedIn followers are called “connections.”

MySpace: Initially the stronger social network, MySpace now plays second fiddle to Facebook, but is quickly becoming the social network for music, particularly for young bands interested in making names for themselves.

Twitter: The go-to place for social networking, with 105 million twitterers. It takes a little while to understand how it can be an effective tool, but once you master it, it can be very powerful. Tweets are short bursts of information or musings posted in less than 140 characters. Experts suggest you tweet at least four to five times a day, and up to 20 for optimal effect. They also say the most-effective times to tweet are during Eastern Standard Time business hours, Tuesday through Thursday. On Twitter, people “follow” your tweets and become your “followers.” 

I use Twitter to promote my blog posts, to retweet timely and relevant information for other writers, to send links to my home page and others’, and to promote my appearances and workshops.

The cool thing is you can link Twitter to your Facebook and LinkedIn accounts so that everything you tweet is also posted on those sites, almost instantly. You can also put a widget on your own website that shows all your recent tweets.

Blogging: While blogging is not a social network, it is a critical part of any social media marketing strategy. A blog (short for Weblog) is simply an online diary. Or, as I like to think of it, a brief personal column. Should you blog? Yes. Particularly if you are a nonfiction author, blogging regularly, and by that I mean every day or at least every other day, can help you build a platform, garner speaking engagements, establish you as an expert in a particular field, and even create a revenue stream if you can attract advertisers. (Check out Ree Drummond’s blog, “The Pioneer Woman.”)

If you combine all these tools and provide content that’s relevant and useful, you’ll find your “followers,” “friends” and “connections” will grow – and so will your writing career.

(Want to learn more? I’ll be teaching a one-day workshop, Facebook and Blogging and Tweeting, Oh My!, in Santa Barbara, CA, on Saturday, Sept. 18. Visit my website for information and to register.)