Publishing Without Borders

Landscape in snow for web
The complexity of the currently publishing landscape comes home to me again and again as fellow writers turn to Full Circle Press for guidance for their books.

I had one such interaction this morning, via email, with a man who attended one of my What Would William Shakespeare Do? workshops. He’s a photographer for passion and a landscaper by profession, something that’s very difficult to do in Vermont in winter.

In other words, money is an issue and he’s struggling to cling to his passion in the face of his financial reality. Should he give it up?

As much as the trolls bemoan the now universal access writers have to publishing outlets, here at Full Circle Press, we revel in it because everyone has a story to tell.

And now that we are freed from the gatekeeping constraints of traditional publishing, we have a multitude of ways to tell our stories to one another. In fact, we encourage new authors to try the low or no-cost avenues so they get a feel for the business. Then, if/when they decide to get more serious, they know how the process works and how to recognize quality book production services when they see them.

You can publish your book-on-paper for free through Amazon’s Create Space program if you are willing to take the time to make your book cover with their tools, and follow their instructions for how to manage your book’s interior.

You can upload your book electronically for free through Kindle and Smashwords and sell it around the world. Make sure you follow their very detailed instructions on how to do this right using Microsoft Word.

You can construct a book with pictures and text using free software through sites such as Lulu.com, Blurb.com, iBook.com (using Apple’s iPhoto software), and MyPublisher.com. You have to pay for the finished books (these sites make their money on printing) but you can create your books for free.

You do understand that unless you’re familiar with this type of work, the results may look less than professional.

But you will be published. And you’ll learn A LOT.

The Right to be Judgmental

Expert editing
Expert editing

If you pay attention to any of the media, you know that self-published ebooks come in for particular disdain when it comes to the issue of quality.

“You can’t read this stuff,” you hear.

“Haven’t these people ever heard of editing?”

Folks who care about good books wring their hands over the glut of badly written, not-edited book wannabes that crowd the Kindle shelves.

If you can think about Kindle having shelves.

But I got turned onto Hugh Howey’s blog (yes, he is worth adding to your blog roll) and then finger-strolled over to Amazon to look at what folks had to say about his first book, Wool.

There, in the third review down, I read this paragraph from a reviewer identified as Ronald A. Tognazzini:

“One small note to other authors that might be reading this review, part of what makes Wool a joy to read is the lack of grammatical and spelling errors of so many of the self published books. It is an extreme annoyance and distraction to me to read sentences in a book that I must stop, and reread substituting words that I think the author meant to understand the idea being communicated. Please take the time, your time or the time of others, to critically review your writing and fix these sentences that act as stumbling blocks for the reader on the journey you want to share with them. I and suspect many other readers would be willing to pay more for a book without grammatical and spelling errors.”

And it occurred to me that readers have the power to raise the quality of books—from every source—with just a few flicks of their fingers.

What if we all identified books as well-written and well-edited (believe me, you already know how to tell) when we do public reviews and point out those that are not?

Whenever I do workshops or classes, I preach about the importance of having one’s work edited by a competent person with book editing experience. I intend to read Mr. Tognazzini’s review of Wool as part of that from now on.

Do you write book reviews? Exercise your right to quality. Good editing and good writing are the way that writers and publishers show respect for readers. Speak up when they don’t.

Crowd Editing, Part 3

I do a lot of editing as well as book and cover design. True confession here—I find editing far more difficult than writing.
TOF with Ruth's edits for web
When I’m writing the first draft of anything—this post, a book, a magazine article, doesn’t matter—I just click right along, my hand(s) and head working as fast as they can so that I don’t miss out on that great phrase that’s whipping across my neurons.

I don’t have to worry about commas, syntax or even spelling (though I do try to do those things correctly) because I know I will revise it later—and probably more than once.

Editing is far, far slower than writing, and requires intense focus because you’re testing every word and every sentence: Does it make sense? Is it in line with the movement of the whole book? How about those details such as spelling, grammar and punctuation?

Editing also takes the dexterity and balance of a tightrope walker. Do you rewrite a sentence that you know is awkward? Sure, if it’s a single sentence.

But what about a paragraph? A chapter? Heck, a whole book? (I’ve done that and it’s tedious work, take my word for it.)

Like every other skill, managing the rewrite issue (what writers like to call “changing my words”) is always a tough call because the inclination to “just fix it” is strong. For new editors, that impulse is all but irresistible.

When I hand my work off to an editor, my instructions are simple: Do not let me go out there and make a fool out of myself in public. In other words, tell me if something doesn’t work, if my plot has fallen apart, if a character doesn’t ring true. Correct my grammar, correct my spelling.

I care deeply about my readers. I know that I get only one chance to impress them with my work. If I disrespect them with a badly done book, they will never come back to visit me again.

Now I’ve been hanging out in the writers cafe for a long time now, and at this point in my career, I know that I write well. So what I need from an editor is a pointing finger—this doesn’t work, this does. I can fix it if you point it out to me. I don’t need or want someone to rewrite my paragraphs or chapters. But if you’re my editor and you’ve got a better idea how to craft a sentence, please show me.

Like I said, fine line.

From what I see on websites dedicated to this newish “crowd editing” phenomenon, that line is being crossed regularly by inexperienced (or wannabe) editors, and it is resented by inexperienced (wannabe) writers.

And the whole experience devolves into an ego clash with resentment on both sides.

So would I recommend this path to publishing?

No.

No way.

You do get what you pay for.

Crowd Editing, Part 2

In the midst of receiving lots of great feedback as well as corrections from the advance readers of Thieves of Fire readers, a writer friend and fellow editor, Kris Lewis, sent me an email with a link to a website that purported to offer free “crowd editing” assistance.
TOF with Ruth's edits for web
He was skeptical about it and I have to admit, so was I. When I checked out the website, I discovered my doubts were justified. It seems that the folks who volunteer to do the free “editing” are upset about the negative pushback they get from their victims, er, writers.

This is so not surprising, so not surprising at all. If there’s one thing I can tell you about newbie writers, it’s this: They are TERRIFIED of being edited. They take every comment and correction personally, very personally, so the pushback  on this free “editorial service” is to be expected.

If you are going to be a professional writer, you either grow a thick skin or die as a one-book wonder. I know that from personal experience because I’ve lived that arc.

I was determined not to be a one-book wonder but I still curled up in a fetal position when I was first edited. It took time but I eventually learned to differentiate between good editing and bad. (More on that at another time.)

I also learned to cherish those editors who, just by the way they cared about language, took the time to teach me how to be a better writer.

Nowadays, I welcome good editing with open arms because I know that it makes my work stronger. It is the most glorious kind of collaboration.

My point here is this, it takes a writer time and persistence to understand that editing is an essential part of publishing, perhaps THE essential part of the publishing process.

You have to force yourself to move beyond your sensitivities, and to understand that when you are done writing a book or article or play or poem, the writing no longer belongs to you. It belongs to your readers, the second half of the writing equation.

Your editor is your first reader, the one human being who will end up knowing your work as intimately as you do. In my opinion, that’s a powerful relationship.

When Kris sent me his email about crowd editing, he asked what I thought. My reaction was twofold—that the efficacy of “crowd editing” was entirely dependent on the maturity and experience of the writer as well as the quality of the author’s work. And given the value of “free,” I doubted that it would work very well.

But there’s editing and then there’s editing. More on that tomorrow.

Crowd Editing, Part I

I’ve had an interesting publishing experience recently that I want to explore over the next couple of days. It involves the difference between editing and proofreading as well as, believe it or not, marketing.
TOF with Ruth's edits for web
Last month, I printed 100 copies of Thieves of Fire for marketing purposes. This was a “private” print run done before I release the book to the public.

My first task was to share copies of Thieves with folks willing to review it on Amazon. Some of these folks I know but many of them are readers who contacted me about my first Carding novel, The Road Unsalted, because they liked it. My hope was that they would like Thieves of Fire as well or tell me honestly if they didn’t.

Either way, their opinions matter to future readers. (A side note here: No matter how much folks think that the internet has changed marketing “forever,” word of mouth is still the most important marketing asset anyone can have.)

I knew there were still some typos in the review copies and probably a couple of stray words left behind as I made my final edits so I invited everyone who accepted my invitation to let me know about any mistakes they found.

Much to my surprise, people loved having the opportunity to interact with my book in this way. It has been such fun to read their feedback, to hear what they think about the cover, what characters they liked, how the book kept them up at night reading (oh yes, I love hearing that), and oh-by-the-way here’s a list of the typos that I found.

I need to interject here to tell you that Thieves was edited before I sent it to the printer to make review copies so I was confident it didn’t have any structural problems that would call for large amounts of rewriting. To me, publishing an unedited book is sign of disrespect to readers.

But we all find typos in books. We all find extra words or punctuation errors. Correcting these is a process is called proofreading, and readers are very, very good at it because errors interrupt their reading experience. Finding a typo is a lot like stubbing your toe when you’re out for a walk in the woods on a beautiful day.

Unpleasant.

So I was not surprised when folks contacted me with corrections. What did surprise me is how much they enjoyed being an intrinsic part of publishing Thieves of Fire.

Sorry for the Interruption

Hi folks,

Work on What Would William Shakespeare Do? has slowed because we are consolidating websites and pushing to get a new novel out the door.

Thieves cover 5

Thieves of Fire is the second in the Carding, Vermont series of novels and (fingers crossed) will be out later this month.

Plus, we are developing a free online class based on What Would William Shakespeare Do? More news very soon. Promise.

Distribution: Where the Money Is

What Would William Shakespeare Do? will be available in the fall of 2014
Sonja Hakala’s Your Book, Your Way is being revised and renamed. You can read sections of What Would William Shakespeare Do? in real time right here. If you want to start at the beginning, you can by clicking here.

At its most basic, distribution is the process through which books are delivered to readers.

Sounds pretty easy, right?

If that was all that distributors did, you’d be correct in thinking that way.

But there’s more, far more, to book distribution because in addition to getting books to readers, distributors are the entities who pay you for the sales of your books.

So you have to know how it works, and you have to know you can trust your distributor.

This is what makes distribution such a complex process, one that should be clearly understood no matter what publishing path you decide to follow.

For example, if you have your heart set on publishing through traditional channels, you need to know that the company that agrees to publish your work can distribute it where your target readers can find it. This may seem like an obvious part of the traditional publishing process but it’s not necessarily so.

If you are investigating self-publishing companies, it’s important for you to understand where your book will be available for sale. Most self-publishing companies maintain an online store, and that may satisfy your needs. But if you want your books available on Amazon or for order by bookstores and libraries, you need to work with a company that can make that happen for you or make it possible for you to do it on your own.

For independent publishers, distribution is key, and the number of distribution channels has probably grown in the time it took you to read this sentence. There are distributors for independently published books-on-paper such as Ingram Spark and Amazon’s CreateSpace. There are distributors for ebooks such as Kindle, Smashwords, and Apple’s iBook store. There are a growing number of subscription services where readers pay a set fee per month for a certain number of titles. There are audiobook distributors, the chief one at this point being Audible, now owned by Amazon.

Every distributor has its own set of financial rules for royalty rates (the portion of a book sale that ends up in an author’s pocket) and there can be a lot of fine print involved in these transactions. In fact, the majority of pages in a traditional or self-publishing company’s contract have to do with royalty rates.

We’re going to dig into distribution in detail next week but here’s some advice to get you started:

  • If you’re independently publishing your own work on paper, you’d be wise to stick with either Ingram Spark or Amazon’s CreateSpace for your printing and distribution. Both of them make the distribution process relatively easy to understand, their print quality is reliable and reasonably priced, and they have good reputations for paying on time and accurately.
  • If you’re independently publishing your work as ebooks, you’ll cover all the most important bases if you use both Kindle and Smashwords (for everybody but Kindle). Both of these companies go out of their way to make ebook publishing as easy as possible. In other words, there’s a ton of info about ebook publishing on both of these sites.
    Both of them pay on time and accurately. Their royalty rates are clear and straightforward.
  • If you connect with a traditional publisher (most likely through an agent), take the time to thoroughly understand the royalty rates in your contract. In fact, before you sign on the dotted line, take the time to investigate the royalty rate structures on Spark, CreateSpace, Smashwords, and Kindle so you have a basis of comparison. It will be eye-opening, I promise.
  • If, after all my advice to the contrary, you decide to use a self-publishing company, make sure you clearly understand exactly where your books will be sold, who sets the retail price, and how much of that gets paid to you. Most self-publishing companies sell books only through their websites. That’s it.
    And just about every bookstore and library on the planet refuses to carry books from known self-publishing companies because they have such a bad reputation for quality control (i.e. no or inferior editing and production).
    In addition, make sure you clearly understand how much you are going to pay in printing costs for copies of your own book. Most self-pubbers charge much higher-than-average prices for printing, making it impossible for authors to sell their own books for a profit.

If you were going to compare the book publishing business to a car, distribution would be the engine. Remember, publishing is a business. It is all about money, and distribution is the key component in the financial food chain.

Write, Publish, and Market Your Book Your Way with Professional Guidance from Full Circle Press