Unfinished Thoughts… On Publication

Mystic fractal backgroundAs I said in my last blog post (a rant, sorry about that), for a couple of months now, my mission has been to try to cut my contemporary hard fantasy novel, The Long Last of Mary B. Tate: Waking the Witch, down from 183,000 words (610 pages at 300/words per page) to 150,000 (500 pages). Well, I did cut it down, a lot, but didn’t like the results, so now it’s back at 179K (597 pages).

Woman's face. Sepia color
The Long Last of Mary B. Tate — A middle-aged lawyer with magic age-regresses to where she barely looks twenty and has to reinvent herself in a foreign culture that’s shifting.

This is an epic story. It doesn’t want to be less. When I began writing it, I wanted a story for me and future people like me, middle-aged or approaching middle-age, who might be clawing their way out of a very low place. And I wanted them to recognize their world, not a child’s world, but a new beginning in a dangerous adult world of ambiguities and missed connections, and yet to feel the excitement of something special happening, something coming together.

That’s where I am. The good news is, even at 179K, I’ve had two agents ask for first pages after pitching to them at Writer’s Digest’s Atlanta Writers Workshop (hosted by Broadleaf Writer’s Association).

Obviously, traditional publishing appeals to me. But even if the agents don’t “bite,” my efforts will not have been in vain – I can use my pitch and query to promote Mary B. Tate to other agents, or perhaps… to publish it myself.

Last Saturday, I attended a Broadleaf seminar on self-publishing. Most were genre writers. Some of the authors were strictly self-published, while others were “hybrids.” If you don’t know, hybrid authors self-publish some books and traditionally publish others, alternating between the two, or were first published one way but have since decided the other route works best for them.

I’ve read compelling fiction from both traditional and self-published authors. But I’ve also come across fiction from both that was not what it needed to be. Sounds harsh, but it’s honestly how I feel.

So what do I want for me? You may be asking yourself the same question. Below are a few things I’m weighing, in case it’s helpful to you, or you’re just curious:

Talking it over with author friends and others near-and-dear to me, I have two primary career goals: to produce meaningful, high-quality art in the form of stories, and to increase productivity. This is my life’s work.

Learning the craft of storytelling is a process. There’s no easy formula, and each author’s path will be different. But if it’s a ladder, I don’t think it’s wise or even possible to skip rungs.

With that said: which will help me further both goals? Traditional or self-publication?

Prestige: What does traditional offer out-the-gate that self-publication does not? Prestige. Why? Because of its selectivity. Some readers want this. Others don’t. But readers who don’t like gatekeepers will find they have to deal with a lot of sifting, so basically, most will still wind up looking for gatekeepers, just ones they trust better. Some marketing events only allow authors to present traditionally published books, I hear. Others will allow self-published books only if they’ve been professionally edited.

Craft Development and Shared Vision: It’s often said the traditional route can be a wonderful experience with the right agent. I believe this. But author and agent must be careful that they share each other’s vision, if not as friends, at least as partners. Right? Collaboration tends to yield better results than compromise. A self-published author, though, may have the same opportunities and issues if he works with a professional editor.

Time Expenditure: Sending queries takes a tremendous amount of time and effort that could be spent creating and editing – such as the four other projects I’ve got going. And then, the first thing an agent notices about my book is its length, closely followed by the fact I’m in the early stages of my career and have what is called a “small platform.” Publishers, too, will want to know this before anything else, and although I’ve only sent queries to little more than a handful of agents, most have probably tossed them without ever reading what the story was about. But one of the top agents in my genre emailed me back immediately – a kindness I’ll never forget.

Integrity of the Work: Because publishers care about length, even an agent who loves my story will be looking for a way to break it up. I’ll listen to whatever an agent has to say – I’d be a fool not to. But if an agent thinks she can sell it without breaking it up, this would be a major a selling point for me.

Professional Results, Control, and Costs: Two reasons why authors want agents: (1) access and (2) expertise. This is in order to sign on with a major publishing house. Authors want major publishing houses because of their access and expertise in putting out a polished, professional book that gets noticed. For this team effort, authors are willing to sacrifice earnings and a measure of control.

A reputable agent only makes money if the author does, as a percentage of royalties. The publisher may or may not pay an advance of royalties, which the author usually must pay back. An advance is an author’s insurance policy and an incentive for the publishing house to make sure it does everything it can to recoup the advance. But from what I’ve read, and heard, an advance should be considered carefully. It can damage an author’s career if the book doesn’t earn it back.

Old rowing boat at seaBut here’s the thing: whether going it alone or with help, in self-publishing, the author is in control. The author pays for everything up front, for the most part. An exception: the author may choose to pay a subcontractor in royalties instead of cash if the subcontractor is willing. I’ve only heard of this being done with audio-book narrators, though.

When an author uses Amazon or another online distributor to put his work out there, it gets a cut of the book’s gross revenue, off the top. However, these distributors get a cut from traditionally published books sold on their platforms, too. My understanding is that most books are sold this way. So, bottom line, interestingly, regardless of the mode of publication, the author’s payout come last. When you look at it in a certain light, either way, the author still pays for everything, it’s just a matter of how and when, and the scale. That is, unless an advance isn’t earned out (i.e., cashing in on the insurance) – but as stated, that’s definitely not what an author wants.

Self-Marketing: Regardless of mode, we authors still have to participate in social media and market our work. Traditional publishing will not excuse us from that. But this can be a positive experience, connecting with people. I think so.

Here’s another “team” angle the self-published authors on the panel brought up: if a reader tells an author that there’s a flaw in his book, from typos on up to plot-holes, the self-published author can take the book down and fix it. The traditionally published author cannot. This freedom-to-fix creates a different sort of dynamic, doesn’t it, between author and reader?

But what about money? Last year, I met my first agent in person, a seasoned agent with a long successful career in the business. I did a terrible job of pitching to her. Seriously. It was laughably bad. After a few random suggestions as to how to bring the word count down, she said: “Because then we can sell your book, and you can make lots of money. That’s what you want, right? Lots of money!” This was shocking to me. True, after editorial feedback, an agent’s job is to sell the book – to love it and sell it with love. There’s nothing wrong (and a lot right) about an agent thinking in terms of maximizing profit. But this was not where I was coming from. Money’s not what inspires me to create, which is my job. If all I wanted was money, a legal career would have been the more sensible choice. Oh, but I do want money. Don’t get me wrong. Money, after all, is how society tells us we’ve contributed something it values. We want to be paid our worth.

But society doesn’t always get that right, does it? Teacher pay is a glaring example. What I wonder, though, is whether comparable quality earns relatively the same either way. If that’s the reality, then the issue for me as an author will be productivity versus distraction – to maximize the quality of my work.

Art is about self-expression, sure, but also exchange. It requires an audience of some kind to fulfill its purpose. For authenticity and to please myself, I wrote a book I would read if someone else had written it. But to travel beyond me, it must be more than palatable to others: it must satisfy a need.

After I’ve done all I can do, which way will be the best way to reach others? Where are my people? We’re consumers, a little picky, but fairly quiet about it. If they like my work, do they care whether it’s traditionally published or self-published? How can they get a sense of its quality quickly and reliably? What’s the best way to enhance my craft and increase productivity? This is where I’m left wondering, and why for now my thoughts will have to remain unfinished.

Thank you for dropping by! I appreciate you!

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