Posts Tagged ‘publishing’

Path to the Market Place

Path to the Market Place. Photo by Pauline Eccles, via Wikimedia Commons


(Based on a presentation delivered at Grub Street Writers‘ recent conference, The Muse and the Marketplace.)

Writers looking to publish their book-length work currently face a vast and confusing array of choices regarding how to usher their book into the market. The fact that there even exists a choice is, to use a word of the times, empowering, but the extreme variations within and among the options with regard to quality, integrity, amount of work involved, cost, and other factors make this choice, for some, a very challenging one. There is traditional publishing, and self-publishing (also referred to as “independent” publishing), and various options in between, including “hybrid” publishing, “partner publishing,” “self-directed publishing,” and more. Brooke Warner at She Writes Press has some informational posts elucidating the differences among these here and here, among others. She’s a vocal evangelist for what she terms the “third way.”

So what is a writer to do, how is she to decide which route to pursue? Having recently gone through this process rather blindly, learning as I go, absorbing a lot of information about the publishing industry, having to make important decisions almost on the spot, feeling carried forward in the frothy, low-visibility crest of a wave that I believe is gathering significant momentum, I realize I wish I had understood at the start just how much truth and value there is in Polonius’ admonishment to Laertes in Hamlet:

“This above all—to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

After a lot of fumbling around trying to find a path that made me feel like I was, am, being true to myself and to my book, I’ve settled on a hybrid approach which, had I had the clarity of thought to realize this earlier, is what makes absolute sense for me. Everything about my life has been hybrid, from my mixed-race genetic make-up to my bilingualism to my childhood straddling three continents to my choice of multidisciplinary undergraduate studies (international development studies) and graduate studies (urban planning) to my ensuing multifaceted career. How could I have felt comfortable in a single publishing silo?

So here is a compilation of questions I urge you to answer for yourself if you are trying to get published. Some of them are very practical, others are more touch-feely and might make you decide you really need to go run some errands rather than think about them, but I do believe they are all important.

1.    What are your goals?

  • For your book:

Why did you write it? To get it off your chest? To feel like a writer? To spread a message as broadly as possible? To change someone’s life?
Who did you write it for? Who is your target audience? How do they hear about books? How do they read them? Will they care how yours is published?
Do you want to see it in the New York Times? Do you want it to be eligible for prizes?
Do you care about subsidiary rights? (Translations, movies, audio books, etc.)

  • For yourself:

Whose validation/recognition do you need, if any?
Are you trying to build a career? Will you be writing other books?
Are you hoping to make a living by writing? To change your career?

 2.    What is your level of self-confidence?

  • How good are you at speaking up?
  • How confident are you in your decisions, in your judgment? (Would you benefit from having the opinions of others such as an agent, an editor, a publisher?)

 3.    How do you feel about collaboration? How much control do you need or want to have in the process?

 4.    What is your risk profile?

  • Are you willing to experiment?
  • How do you deal with change and new things?
  • How do you deal with the unexpected?

5.    What types of activities/interactions give you energy? What sucks it away?

Do you enjoy being alone? Do you prefer your day (when you’re not writing) to be full of interactions with other human beings? With cats? Does the thought of calling up someone you don’t know to ask for something make your blood run cold? Do you dread promotion? Or thrive on it?  (Hmm, maybe that last one would not be a good sign.)

6.    How do you define success?

Does success mean meeting all your goals? Feeling happy? Wanting to do it all again? Catching the attention of a particular person? Being on national TV? Having time to write? Quitting your day job? Being accepted by your family? Selling 100,000 copies of your book? Receiving invitations for speaking engagements? Being reviewed in the NY Times?

7.    What is your budget?

How much money can you invest upfront? Consider that with partner publishing, expenses might include an initial fee, developmental editing, a publicist, advance reader copies, etc.

8.    How much time do you have?

  • What’s your time frame for this project? Do you need to see your book out there within a few months? A year? Can you wait two years (or more)?
  • How much time do you have in your schedule on a daily/weekly basis to devote to getting your book published?

9.    What are your organizational skills like?

Can you keep track of a lot of details, dates, to-do lists? Do you want to?

10.    Are you curious to learn about the publishing industry? Or does your brain already feel overly strained?

Bonus question: What is your support network like? Do you have helpful and supportive friends? Family members? Are you a part of networks (writer network, alumni network, professional industry network, etc) that can provide you with contacts?

Going through all these questions, you can zero in on what matters to you and what you can imagine yourself happily doing, and thus make a publishing choice that rings true to you, and will ultimately be satisfying and successful. And I’m sure there are many other helpful questions–please chime in with some.

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(Third in a series on month-by-month preparations in the year before a book launch. In this case, the book launch is in October 2014. These are some of the things to think about, questions to ask oneself, issues to research in the course of this complex process which these days involves more and more of the author’s time and savvy. Previous posts are here and here.)

Ten months to go:

(I’ll be covering 2 months at a time for a couple of months in order to catch up with the reality of my actual launch.)


Woman Writing in an Interior, painting by Félix Emile-Jean Vallotton. Via Google Art Project.

Woman Writing in an Interior, painting by Félix Emile-Jean Vallotton. Via Google Art Project.

Final edits:
With the contract signed and the initial euphoria tempered with a good dose of trepidation, the time has come to send the final manuscript to the publisher. Don’t rush this stage, as tempting as it may well be to send the darn thing off and dust your hands of it. This is the last chance to make any significant edits. Beyond this, edits will be limited to proof-reading and small fixes as the manuscript begins its transformation into a book. In my case, the manuscript had already been through both a developmental edit and a line edit by a professional freelance editor.

I recommend doing a thorough re-read, out loud if you can stand it. Don’t be tempted to make any substantial changes, unless urged to do so by an editor. Changes you embark on due to some inner voice of yours will only cause you to wonder if you then need to go back and re-change other things to line up with the new changes, etc. It’s a horrible, churning vortex that you already managed to escape at least once. Why go there again?

Hit “send”. Push that baby out of the nest. Breathe. Have a drink.

Nine months to go:

Now that the manuscript is out of your hands, a torrent of tasks begins. Here’s what I tackled at this point. Bear in mind that each of these topics is worthy of a lengthy post of its own. My purpose here is simply to bring to light the things to be thinking about at this point.

  • Publicists: You probably want to give your book the best chance possible amid the ocean of other books out there, but figuring out what type of publicist to hire, how much to spend without any guarantee of sales, what elements to focus on (Blog tour? Radio interviews? Print reviews? Events? Local? National?) can spur some deep soul searching. It took me over two months to come to a decision. If you are thinking of hiring a publicist, this site provides a great list of publicists who will work directly with the author. Bear in mind that a publicist will likely come on board about 4-6 months before your launch. That means that they are planning out their work load at least a couple of months before THAT. So now is a good time to start the selection process.
  • Social media: There’s a lot of advice online on whether and how and where to hone your social media presence. I can’t claim any expertise here. But I do know that 9 months prior to the book launch is NOT too early to be thinking about these things. I purchased the URL with my book title, as well as this one with my own name, four years ago. Whatever stage you are at with your book, I recommend doing these things right away. Whether or not to blog, to Tweet, to have a Facebook author page, these are all things to be thinking about.
  • Endorsements: This is an awkward, humbling, painful process. You are asking for an endorsement, or “blurb,” from an established writer you most likely don’t know in person. This means coming straight out and asking a perfect stranger who is terribly busy with her own writing, promoting, possible other career, family, and more to take hours of her time to read a random book about which she knows nothing, and then either say something nice about it, or feel terrible for letting you know she doesn’t feel comfortable endorsing it. Putting yourself through this can mean receiving some wonderful quotes from writers you admire, bringing you to tears of gratitude, but it takes time. I recommend allowing a week for the author to get back to you via email, a week to send a hard copy of your manuscript to him, at least six weeks to allow him time to read it, and two additional weeks as a possible extension, all this before your galleys, or Advance Reader Copies, will be ready for printing, which itself can be five months before the actual launch date. So, starting this process at launch-minus-9-months is a good idea. Here’s some solid advice on asking for blurbs.
  • Cover design: At this point, the graphic artist and I got into the nitty gritty of the cover design. She started drawing up different ideas. I provided her with images which I sourced from various sites, including iStock and Shutterstock, two of the go-to sites for royalty-free images. I have been fortunate to be able to be significantly involved in this process, and I’m thrilled with the result. My earlier post provides some links to working smoothly with a graphic designer. (I also began work with an artist who drew me a wonderful map of the area in Rajasthan, India, where my story takes place.)

  • Events: Now is also a good time to start a list of events to attend once your book is out. These might be writing conferences, professional industry events in a field related to the topic of your book, cultural festivals, etc. Plan whether you will travel and where, what events are likely to provide you with the biggest reward (for example, can you speak on a panel? Sell your books?), what your budget is, etc. Some events require submissions of proposed sessions a full year in advance. I recommend creating a calendar of events that includes these deadlines. I’m excited to be speaking with my agent on “partner publishing” next month at Grub Street Writer’s annual conference in Boston.



Okay. I suspect these activities will fill up any free time during months ten and nine. Please comment with any additional suggestions, and come visit on May 20th for more detail on publicists, as well as TIP sheets, galleys, how to stay organized, and more.

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I questioned for a while whether to write about this on my blog. Would editors to whom I am, via my agent, submitting my manuscript be put off by my discussion of literary fiction and technology? By pondering aloud whether to pursue an e-book route or not would I be pushing potential publishers away?  But I think not. It is just a discussion. I have made no decisions. There are far too many factors and unknowns, and more than anything right now the question of how to get my story out into the world, given all the possible channels and structures, is more confusing than anything else.

Nathan Bransford, blogger and former literary agent, put up a thought provoking post a few days ago titled “Why are so many literary writers technophobic?” He cites a number of literary writers’ comments—ranging from musings to rants—regarding ebooks, social media and the Internet. Ray Bradbury, Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith are among those he mentions. His post elicited 69 (to date) responses, some of which are quite insightful and raise the notions of fear of change, academia, generational differences, mass culture, use of time, distraction, complacency and all kinds of other elements that may be contributing to the divide that seems to exist between writers of “literary” fiction and the adoption of new technologies.

I would love to see my book in print, a physical object, with a beautiful glossy cover and satisfyingly papery pages. Something I can bring to dance and writing events, pull out of my bag and leave in high traffic areas, sign and hand over to a friend or colleague or stranger. Something that a person can read on a subway and flip over to show the title to the person next to her who asked what she is reading. But I know this is not the only way to share my story, and I care immensely about getting it out to as many readers as possible. Thus I’ve been trying to educate myself on the various options that exist, the various publishing mechanisms that might be appropriate for distributing the story.

As a part of this effort, I attended a multi-hour session on ebooks, offered by Grub Street, the fantastic Boston-based center for creative writing. And while I entered the room with the notion that I could easily embrace the ebook thing, I left wondering if that is indeed the case. Two things happened to me during those hours: 1) I learned the nitty gritty of turning a manuscript into an ePub file, including the disheartening fact that one has to strip the manuscript of virtually all formatting, including any paragraph breaks not related to chapter breaks, any tabs or intendations, any centering of quotes or poems or other material not presented in simple paragraphs of prose. Talk about reducing the aesthetics of a book! Does this make me old-fashioned? I truly wonder.

The second thing was that I ran into a straight-talking, honest and successful agent who has been kind enough to read some of my chapters in the past, and when she found out which workshop I was attending, she said, verbatim: “Don’t do an ebook except as a last resort. Your book is too good. Your manuscript has only been on submission for 5 months? That’s nothing. Give it at least two years.” Wow. There is so much to parse out of that statement. I don’t even know where to begin.

One: an ebook as a last resort. This at a time when the blogosphere is rife with examples of writers, some of them already successfully published traditionally, who are choosing to go straight to ebooks for their next work. What to make of this?

Two: “Your book is too good.” Well, that is very flattering, for sure, but what does it mean? And what about trying to find a way to have an ebook AND a print book simultaneously? Surely that shouldn’t be a “last resort?” What was the agent really saying? Was she echoeing the phenomenon that Nathan Bransford was highlighting, of “literary” fiction—and presumably readers of such—not being aligned with technology?

Three: “Give it at least two years.” Well, this I can undersatnd. I’m willing to wait until I find what I feel is the right method to release my book. It took me eight years to complete, why should I rush now? And that gives me time to work on the next one, so there can be less of a gap between the publication of the two. (Yes, I’m ever the optimist.) This is the one part of the statement that resonates with me.

These are truly interesting times, my friends, in which to try to publish. And on an ending note: my mentor and one-time professor and employer, Paul Levy, most recently the CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, put out his own book via CreateSpace just a few days ago. It’s a print book, not an ebook, but he has self-published it. In his words: “Entitled Goal Play! Leadership lessons from the Soccer Field, the book presents insights from sports, health care, business and government to help leaders get better outcomes.” Paul Levy is an unequaled leader with an illustrious career, including positions such as Director of the Arkansas Department of Energy, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority and Executive Dean for Administration at the Harvard Medical School. One would think that he would easily get a deal from a traditional publishing house. He certainly has the proverbial “platform,” including a widely-read blog. ( And yet, when asked why he didn’t choose that route, he says: “Publishers offer me nothing. They expect me to do all the publicity.  I have my own outreach arms.”

If this is true for non-fiction, why such a perceived difference for literary fiction?

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I find myself confronted with an entirely new situation. I have a story in mind, and some partially-formed characters who are gradually emerging out of the haze, like a colorful and over-loaded truck whose contours and contents take shape in the smog as one approaches them headlong on a January morning in Delhi. (Horn OK please!) I have a specific setting in time and space—one with a richness of sights and smells and sounds. I have some time, carefully carved out with significant effort on my part, to dive in and start writing. And yet, that’s the problem. I can’t find my way in.

My story is locked in some kind of fortress and hasn’t offered me an access point. All I am looking for is a little opening, a crack in the wall that lets me catch a glimpse of a specific scene, a snippet of dialogue, a view of a character in emotional turmoil, a whiff of a thali of food in someone’s home. All I need is a catalyst for words to start lining up in my head. Is it because I have yet to visit the specific locale and am lacking the visceral experience of place that I had for my first novel? But I should be able to break into some scenes regardless. Any good writer should be able to do this, no? Is it because I’m frozen by the knowledge that I’m setting out to write a book, as opposed to simply noodling around with an image and some words? Should I consider that perhaps this is just not the story I should be writing, if I can’t even find a little loose thread on which to tug? Is it possible that I’m not, after all, a writer?

I don’t think so. A quick Google search on “starting a new novel” (yes, such are the ways of procrastination) reveals two equally universal and parallel sets of feelings: hope and possibility on the one hand, and paralysis and panic on the other. So it’s good to know my symptoms are those of a normal sort. The inability to get started, the focus on research because it is easier than writing from scratch. The fear that I might not know how to write a good story, even though I have already done so.

So here’s the goal for 2012: to break through the wall. To put writing first, and not just writing in a vague sense, but actual put-words-on-paper writing. Not just mulling over characters under the pretext that they need to be fully formed before they can start acting. Not just gazing at gorgeous albumen prints of 1860s Lucknow saying to myself this is necessary in order to create a sense of place in my mind before I set my characters down in it. Not just outlining all the scenes of the first few chapters in order to feel I am making sensible progress.

And on the subject of breaking through walls, the second goal for 2012 is to crash through the barriers to publication and get my first book out there, into the hands of readers, whether a traditional (or “legacy” or print or “p-” or whatever) publisher wants to be the one to do it with me or not. It’s time to be the people, and take matters into my own hands. I have a wonderful, enthusiastic and creative agent by my side, and together I know we can make it happen. I look forward to sharing my first novel with you.

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Today I am proud to report my first official rejection from an editor at a major publisher. It reads: “Thank you for sending me FAINT PROMISE OF RAIN by Anjali Mitter Duva. Ms. Duva is a beautiful writer – her prose is evocative, and her descriptions are riveting. There is such haunting atmosphere in these pages, and she truly has created an entire world that I know many readers will love getting lost in. But at the end of the day, this simply felt too literary for us at [pulisher name], and I unfortunately don’t see us being the right home for the novel. With that in mind, I’m going to be stepping aside.”

“Too literary.” What does that even mean? And “too literary” for what? I ask this not out of anger at all, but out of genuine curiosity. (In fact, I found this to be a tremendously encouraging rejection.) If my work is too literary, how does one define some of the far more esoteric, languid, artistic works out there?

The supposed definition on Wikipedia is anything but. Which is funny, when you think about it, because who out there felt enough of an urge to put in an entry without actually having anything substantial to say, whether factual or opinion-based?

A common differentiation is made like so: literary fiction as opposed to commercial fiction. I.e., fiction for the purpose of being “writerly” as opposed to selling well. (And by well, the implication is: money-making.) So then, is something that sells well automatically excluded from being literary? Of course not. Then there’s the definition of literary fiction as being that which is not genre fiction, i.e. not romance, not science fiction, not chick lit, not horror, etc. What, then, of historical fiction? That is most definitely a genre, one with with ardent devotees and clubs and societies, but surely fiction set in another time, aligned with historical events and mores, can be literary?

Former agent extraordinaire Nathan Bransford offers his own definition, which I quite like: “In commercial fiction the plot tends to happen above the surface and in literary fiction the plot tends to happen beneath the surface.” (Although by this definition, mine is not literary fiction. Not to give anything away, but stuff does happen. Plottish stuff. People do bad things, heroic things, destructive things.) This ties into another school of thought, that genre fiction is plot-based whereas literary fiction is character-based. Hmm. Maybe literary fiction leads the reader to some kind of realization about life or the world in addition to entertaining him/her with a story?

The one characteristic of literary fiction that is consistent regardless of the definition is that it is increasingly hard to place for publication. And I wonder, how much of this can we attribute to the shortening of the public’s attention span, the desire for instant gratification without expenditure of much effort, the frenzy of activities that threatens our ability to curl up onto a couch and spend some serious time with a book, and how much of it is due to the publishing and media industries not yet having found the ways to present and promote and enrich literary fiction through innovative methods that are more connected to how people spend their leisure time and source their media now. And how much of the onus of the latter lies on the publisher as opposed to the author? And so I embrace the challenge of pushing my “too literary” novel, FAINT PROMISE OF RAIN—and the related artistic products it may inspire—to be something “successful” in today’s media and entertainment world. Call it hubris, naiveté, hopeless optimism, whatever you’d like, but I have to see this as an opportunity for creativity.

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