So you’re considering self-publishing, part III: the nonfiction path

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For the past couple of days, I’ve been chatting with self-published authors Beren deMotier and Mary Hutchings Reed about the joys and trials of self-publishing. So far, the talk has been pretty marketing-oriented, but since I already had two such talented writers in my interviewing clutches, I couldn’t resist turning the talk to broader issues of writing and creativity.

I’m planning another post to share more of Mary and Beren’s marketing insights, of course, but as this particular is weekend ultra-busy for many people, I thought discussion of the more stressful aspects could wait until Monday. (Christmas eve shoppers aren’t going to have to time to read blogs, anyway, right?) And for these deeper topics, I felt a one-on-one discussion would serve our purposes better.

Today, I will be exploring the writing life in general and self-publishing in particular with Beren deMotier, the author of THE BRIDES OF MARCH. It’s a memoir, so we’re going to be talking about the peculiarities of nonfiction as well. To refresh everyone’s memory, here are the bright, shining faces of Beren and her book:


In the interests of full disclosure: I did write a blurb for her book cover. That’s not entirely surprising, considering how we met: I had read her award-winning entry in a prestigious literary contest (rather sensibly, the Organization That Shall Not Be Named places copies of the winners and placers’ entries in the hallway for perusal), and when I later saw Beren’s name on her nametag, I stopped her in another hallway to tell her how impressed I was.

True story, honest. There are witnesses. I’m pretty enthusiastic about good writing.

Anne: Welcome back, Beren! You’re no stranger to the world of online communities, right? You’re a blogger yourself.

Beren: Yes, I write a blog blogs, as well as a Livejournal page more specifically about getting published.

Anne: I know that we’ve been talking obliquely about your book for a couple of days now, but as readers often join us in mid-series, pretend that we haven’t. Tell us what your book is about, please.

Beren: I wrote The Brides of March so that readers could ride with us on the roller coaster ride of getting a marriage license (after three kids and seventeen years together), literally running to the church in case of court injunction to get married while it was still legal, then celebrating with friends and family the wedding we’d never expected to experience, even while letters to the editor reviled us, signatures mounted for a constitutional amendment making darned sure no more same-sex marriages happened in Oregon, and nine months later, Oregon voters marked us as “unworthy” of marriage.

Anne: As we editors like to say, you were already a walking memoir. A wild story like yours probably wouldn’t have seemed plausible as fiction.

Beren: But there’s more! The state supreme court was debating whether our marriages were still legal, while the public debated our social status, and we debated whether moving to Canada was the best bet for equality when the 3000 same-sex marriages in Oregon (including ours) were declared null, void, and non-existent. All that wrapped in a slice-of-life memoir of life as a lesbian mom, just trying to get through the day on five Diet Cokes or less.

Anne: Agents often like to be told up front what popular book a potential client’s manuscript resembles, but I have to say, I would be hard-pressed to come up with a close parallel for yours. In my
mind, that’s a good selling point for a memoir, maybe even a great selling point. But since I know that not everyone agrees with me on that point, did the paucity of books on the subject make it harder for you to pitch this book to agents?

Beren: It was hard to make an elevator pitch—it certainly isn’t Marley & Me meets Find Me.

Anne: Although I can certainly imagine a misguided agent TRYING to pitch it that way, merely in order to compare it to a couple of bestsellers.

Beren: I came up with the line “A giddy leap through a legal window, straight onto the barbeque pit of public debate,” which about sums it up.

There were no parallel books, and that likely scared off publishers, who have to invest thousands in every book they take on. Keeping in mind that publishers have to put about sixty thousand dollars into each book they accept helped me not take rejections as personally.

Anne: That’s a very sane way to think of it. It’s SO easy to regard rejections as attacks upon one’s very being. But often, it’s simply a matter of the querier or submitter’s simply not giving the agent what she is expecting to see — or what some editor said over lunch last week, “Gee, you know what I would love to read right now? A book like X.”

Beren: I have read a lot of books about writing and pitching, but the best advice has come from agents at writing conferences, specifically the PNWA and Willamette writers conferences, who have told writers to do their research: don’t address letters “Dear Sir” when they are mailing queries to a predominantly female industry, for instance.

Anne: A fact of which many aspiring writers, particularly those querying US agencies from abroad, are not even aware. What other wisdom did you glean?

Beren: Know who takes on your kind of book and target those agents. Write a professional query letter with all the elements an editor or agent needs to know, including genre, length, your credentials and how to contact you.

The other advice I’ve heard that has helped is to remember that editors and agents are people—they may be trying to take care of business, but they are humans and fallible. If you are positive, polite and professional, you’ve just been a high point in their day, even if they can’t work on this project. Keep the door open for the next.

Anne: Oh, that’s SUCH good advice: SO much of the reaction they see from writers is hostile, understandably, and that makes trust harder for everybody. The industry is not very big, and an agent or editor who can’t take on today’s book may well be delighted with tomorrow’s. If I get a really thoughtful rejection, I send a thank-you note.

Since you were pitching a memoir — which, as so many aspiring memoirists apparently aren’t aware, is marketed like nonfiction, via a book proposal, not necessarily as fiction is, via the entire manuscript — I assume that every agent and editor you approached asked you immediately what your platform was. It’s such a hard question for a memoirist to answer, because obviously, each of us is the world’s best authority on our own life, but that’s not the kind of self-evident answer an agent or editor who asks the question wants to hear.

So how did you go about trying to convince them that you were the best person on earth to write this particular story?

Beren: Well, I certainly thought I was the best person on earth to write it! Not only was I there getting married in the moment, I’d had the experience of writing about same-sex marriage for over a decade (I think I’d published twelve columns about it), and had done the research to give it a political context as well as the personal. I’ve specialized in writing in a conversational voice; some have described the book as if a good friend was telling you the story while standing at the edge of a soccer field waiting for your kid. It is accessible.

Anne: That was one of the things that first drew me to the book: the voice was so much fun. Given how frustrating your experience was, it would have been very easy for the voice to become — I hate this term, because it so often applied to any woman with an opinion — strident. It reads as the voice of a very likable friend who gets swept up in larger forces — a great authorial choice for this story, I think.

Beren: From a professional point of view, the thing that made me the best to write it was having hundreds of articles published in newspapers, which gave me a decade to polish my style. I like to call it my apprenticeship. I had started publishing in national magazines, so that I had a built-in readership.

Also, I’d had my website up for quite some time, so it was easy to get a blog started and add a site for the book. One of my biggest personal achievements (besides birthing three babies without painkillers and learning to swim at 35), is to have built my own sites—I’m a terrible technophobe, but I was tired of my high tech industry spouse rolling her eyes at my inability to copy and paste, so I took it on and learned.

Anne: Since writers brand-new to querying and submission often don’t have publications to use in building their platforms, they often have to get a bit creative in coming up with credentials. In retrospect, what would you say was the best thing you ever did to boost your writing resume?

Beren: Contests. I won the Kay Snow Award for my first screenplay — and I would highly recommend learning how to write a screenplay for any kind of writing. Cynthia Whitcomb of Willamette Writers teaches courses, plus has two books out—one on writing screenplays, the other on selling them, that are fantastic.

That screenplay, a family comedy called Chaos, also made a final round in the Writer’s Digest annual screenplay contest, which is pretty good. The Brides of March took second place at the PNWA contest in 2006, and received Honorable Mention in the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards this fall.

The second thing I would say helped was having articles in print. The more you publish the more you can publish, since you have a track record of providing professional material. I worked with one editor on three different publications, which was wonderful, and those added up to writing for Curve magazine, which has a great circulation rate.

Anne: How long did it take you to write this book?

Beren: I started the book in March 2004, and thought I was finished the summer of 2006 and then added a couple more chapters that September.

Anne: That’s a pretty good clip for a memoir. Do you adhere to a regular writing schedule, or are you a wait-for-the-Muse-to-drop-by writer?

Beren: Most of the book was written in our Toyota Sienna minivan while the toddler was napping. I’d drive for about five minutes then park in front of the house and work on my laptop. If you are vigilant, it is amazing what you can get done.

Anne: I find that, too — once you learn to stop saying, “Oh, I have to leave in 20 minutes, so I can’t possibly write anything now,” you can find quite a bit of writing time in the midst of a packed day.

Beren: Having that regular time kept me going. Also, when there was something overwhelming to do, like a major edit or writing promotional copy, I sometimes checked into a hotel for a night or two and did nothing but write, eat, and sleep.

Anne: I do that, too; you actually don’t have to go far away to set up a great writing retreat. Sometimes, it’s as simple as just being where the people who usually need your attention are not for a short period of time. If I ran the universe, every writer would have staff to screen phone calls for her.

Do you take micro writing retreats often?

Beren: I probably did that about five times during the two and a half years before publication. Knowing that the time was designated for that purpose helped me focus. I would start writing at about 8 am, take a break at noon, then work until five, eat dinner, then work until about 11, then do it again the next day.

Anne: Did you run this manuscript past a critique group?

Beren: Writing groups don’t work for me. I’m too thin-skinned during the writing process, and freak out easily. It is better for me to hole up while writing than to share too soon.

Anne: I know a lot of writers who feel that way, but that can result in being even more thin-skinned when it comes time to receive feedback from agents and editors. I recall that you got some real lulus from agents and editors.

Beren: I had comments like “good writing, important story, can’t sell it,” and one editor told me she thought it wasn’t a book—maybe a screenplay?

I have a file with a list of all the agents and editors I contacted, and their letters. For a time I pasted them on the wall (my brother-in-law kindly told me it took 200 “nos” for one “yes”) but decided I didn’t want to focus on the negative. It is good to know I survived them, though, and kept writing and working on getting the book published.

Anne: It’s funny how one picks up habits, growing up in a writing family — we only learned recently that we share that background. The rejections posted above the desk was a familiar sight for a lot of us. Both Philip [K. Dick] and my mother favored it; it was fashionable as a motivational technique in the 1940s and 50s. My father was from an older generation of writers, and he thought it was a really bad idea; I guess that writers had enough bad news on their minds during the Great Depression.

I have to say, I’m with him: the last thing I want to see every time I sit down to work is a whole bunch of “NO!” staring at me.

Speaking of support systems, have your writer friends been supportive of your decision to self-publish? I have a very distinct recollection that my first reaction was to try to talk you out of it until I learned just how widely you had submitted the book.

Beren: Yes, they have been supportive, more than non-writer friends, who have a vision of the publishing world that doesn’t come close to reality, and have the understandable view of vanity publishing—there is the first reaction of “Oh!” to hearing you have a book out, but when they learn it is self-published, it changes to, “Ah.”

Anne: I know precisely the tone shift you mean. As if the publishing industry were motivated solely by book quality, so any difficulty landing an agent must necessarily be a commentary on writing quality. In real life, it just doesn’t work like that.

Beren: I’ve had several published authors tell me self-publication is the wave of the future, and the book became more “real” to doubting friends or relatives when it received reviews, when I was interviewed on the radio or did a reading. That made it a real book.

Anne: Ooh, that’s a distinction that drives me nuts — manuscripts are real, too; I hardly think that I imagine the piles of them in my office, or in my agent’s.

But back to the notion of self-publishing’s being the coming thing: it’s certainly becoming more and more respected. Especially with books not aimed at a mainstream market.

Beren: Gay & lesbian memoirs are often self-published, because there are so few outlets, and because we all have a story to tell. Because of the need to actually “come out” at some point, I think there is a greater willingness to put it all out there in writing, so there is a slew of self-published memoir and fiction by gay & lesbian writers. How the quality holds up, I don’t know, because I’ve been on a murder mystery bender for the last thirty years.

Anne: And yet in a lot of people’s minds, there is still a stigma automatically attached to a self-published book.

Beren: I think the stigma is still there; I know that I came into this with it hanging over my head. However, things are changing, especially since self-published manuals and specialty professional books have become so common. There are established examples of books that were self-published and great, so that makes people believe it could be the case with your book.

Blogging is certainly changing minds about the power of self-publishing, both by demystifying the writing and publishing process, and by making it clear that there is a LOT of competition for readership.

Anne: Hoo boy, yes. The publishing industry has been kind of slow to realize that — even now, a blogger often needs to be mentioned in the New York Times before she’s considered to have a viable audience, even if literally millions of people have been dropping by her blog regularly for a year or two.

What do you most wish you had known about self-publishing before you committed to it? Knowing what you know now, is there anything you would have done differently?

Beren: I wish I’d done it earlier, and not waited so long for a traditional publishing contract.

Anne: That’s interesting.

Beren: With such a current social topic, it would have been advantageous to get the book out sooner. But it is a big investment; sometimes it is hard to bring yourself to throw more time and money into a writing project when there has been no reward.

Self-publishing successfully takes lots of work — it is a leap of faith.

Also, I began querying agents and editors soon after starting it, but the book I pitched at them changed significantly during the writing; it began as a celebratory piece and ended up a roller coaster ride.

Anne: Was there anything about the process that completely surprised you, pleasantly or otherwise?

Beren:There is nothing like seeing your book on a bookstore or library shelf, and knowing it is being read. However it happens, it’s a miracle.

Anne: That seems like a pretty good note to end upon for today. Thanks, Beren!

And keep up the good work, everybody!

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Beren deMotier has written humor/social commentary for Curve, And Baby, Pride Parenting,,, as well as for GLBT newspapers across the nation. She’s written about same-sex marriage for over a decade, and couldn’t resist writing the bride’s eye view after marrying in Multnomah County. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her spouse of twenty-one years, their three children, and a Labrador the size of a small horse.

Her current book, THE BRIDES OF MARCH is available on Amazon and, for those of you who prefer to patronize independent bookstores, Powell’s.

So you’re considering self-publishing, part II: how does one go about it, anyway?

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Yesterday, I began a discussion about self-publishing with two authors who have taken the plunge this year, fellow blogger and memoirist Beren deMotier and novelist Mary Hutchings Reed. Both are prolific, award-winning writers who have been fighting the good fight along with the rest of us for many years, so who better to ask the question that has been on so many writers’ minds over the last couple of years: what precisely is it like to self-publish?

Today, we’re going to discuss the practicalities of self-publishing, particularly how one goes about finding a reputable press. But before we get started, please help me welcome back our panelists. And because they are, after all, doing us a great big favor here, let’s recap what they have published and where one might conceivably go to buy it.

Beren deMotier is the author of THE BRIDES OF MARCH. It’s available on Amazon, of course, but because I always like to plug a good independent bookstore, here’s a link to the book’s page at Powell’s, too.



The Brides of March: Memoir of a Same-Sex Marriage is a lesbian bride’s eye view of marriage at a moment’s notice, with a bevy of brides, their coterie of children, donuts, newspaper reporters, screaming protesters, mothers of the brides who never thought they’d see the day, white wedding cake, and a houseful of happy heterosexuals toasting the marriage. But that was only the beginning as these private declarations of love became public fodder, fueling social commentary, letters to the editor, and the fires of political debate, when all the brides wanted was the opportunity to say “I do” in this candid, poignant, and frequently funny tale of lesbian moms getting to the church on time in Multnomah County.

In addition to her fine memoir, Beren also has written humor/social commentary for Curve, And Baby, Pride Parenting,,, as well as for GLBT newspapers across the nation. She’s written about same-sex marriage for over a decade, and couldn’t resist writing the bride’s eye view after marrying in Multnomah County. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her spouse of twenty-one years, their three children, and a Labrador the size of a small horse.

Mary Hutchings Reed, if you’ll recall, is the author of COURTING KATHLEEN HANNIGAN, which is being described as ONE L for women lawyers:

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Courting Kathleen Hannigan tells the story of an ambitious woman lawyer, one of the first to join a male-dominated national law firm in the late seventies, whose rise to the top is threatened by a sex discrimination suit brought against the firm by a junior woman lawyer who is passed over for partnership because she doesn’t wear make-up or jewelry. When Kathleen Hannigan is called to testify, she is faced with a choice between her feminist principles and her own career success. Courting Kathleen Hannigan is a story for women and minorities everywhere who are curious about the social history of women in law, business and the professions, institutional firm cultures, and the sexual politics of businesses and law firms.

In addition to a writing schedule that would make most of our heads spin, Mary has spent the last thirty-one years of practicing law, first with Sidley & Austin and then with Winston & Strawn, two of the largest firms in Chicago. She was a partner at both in the advertising, trademark, copyright, entertainment and sports law areas, and now is Of counsel to Winston, which gives her time to write, do community service (BUCKETS of it) and pursue hobbies such as golf, sailing, tennis, and bridge.

In short, in addition to being good writers brave enough to publish their own work, these are two incredibly busy people, so many thanks to both for taking the time to let me pepper them with questions. Let’s leap right into the nitty-gritty:

Anne: Last time, we talked a little bit about why each of you chose to pursue the self-publishing route, and what kinds of specialized obstacles your unusual subject matter placed in your books’ paths. Since so many of our community here at Author! Author! can identify with the experience of sending out query after query, let’s take a moment to talk about how you went about marketing the book to agents before you made the choice to self-publish.

You’re both very experienced, professional-minded writers — is it fair to assume that you went about it in the traditional way? I always like to ask this, just in case some brilliant soul has found a clever way to bypass this often drawn-out process. You’re shaking your heads and laughing — no such luck?

Beren: I used the Guide or Writers Market

Anne: Ah, the sacred texts.

Beren: …after checking online to see if the information was still accurate. If they wanted a one-page query letter, I sent that; if they wanted a book proposal, I sent that. Often, a query would lead to chapters and chapters to the whole manuscript, but not to a book contract.

Mary: I went to workshops and learned how to meet agents; I sent a lot of queries.

Anne: So you both went about it the right way. Given the original nature of your story and how evident it was that your book was going to stir up some pretty strong emotions in readers, were you were you surprised at the responses you received from agents and editors?

Mary: I was surprised more agents didn’t see right away that career women in book clubs would love Courting Kathleen Hannigan. But I didn’t get much advice from them, and not useful. The comment “in the end I failed to connect to the material” isn’t very helpful.

And don’t forget I did have an agent for Courting Kathleen Hannigan (here in Chicago), who worked with me all of 2002 to get it where she wanted it for publication, and then she died in early 2003.

Anne: I remember when it happened: one day, you had a great agent, and the next day, you didn’t have one at all, and had to start the whole process over again. You bounced back really well, though, as I recall.

Mary: It was a shock, and I put the whole selling thing on hold for a while. I got involved with other projects and only gradually got back into trying to interest an agent in this work, and then moved on to trying to sell my next works.

Anne: That’s one reason I really wanted to interview you here; we writers are so conditioned to believe that once we land an agent, we don’t need a Plan B. But that’s not necessarily the case, no matter how talented a writer you are — so much of this process is out of our control.

Before we talk about Plan B, though, I want to ask a follow-up about submitting to agents. How much feedback did you actually get, and was any of it helpful?

Beren: There was a wonderful agent who gave my book three chances—she looked at and read three incarnations, which is a lot of time to give a project, but ultimately her comment was, ”You’d have a better time selling this project if you were an alcoholic single mother.”

Anne: Oh, that’s very helpful. I know perfectly well that agents usually say things like this not intending them to be taken seriously as revision suggestions, but to excuse their passing on a well-written book, but don’t statements like this just set your mind whirring with the possibilities? Surely, she wasn’t actually suggesting that you add false memories to your memoir to make it easier to sell, any more than she was suggesting that you should look into alcoholism as a career-enhancing move, but I have to say, those comebacks certainly would have occurred to me.

Beren: She felt that there wasn’t a big enough “problem” in the story—no one died, no one went to jail—and so she couldn’t sell it. I had some similar reactions from others, and it was shocking to me that being denied one’s civil rights and getting constitutionally designated as unworthy of marriage (and all the bitter pain that involved) wasn’t a big enough “problem.” I wonder if they had read the whole book, because the ups and downs aren’t apparent in the beginning—perhaps that was a mistake—but I wanted to tell it as it was experienced.

Anne: In other words, as a memoir; as a memoirist myself, I completely get wanting to tell the story from the inside-out, to place the reader inside a world s/he has never experienced before.

What about you, Mary? Any useful feedback?

Mary: The most helpful advice from any agent, of course, was from Jane Jordan Brown before she died. That was to get it down to 300 pages.

I got a ton of feedback from Enid Powell, from my workshop fellows, from a couple different paid services (as I recall) and then from my non-writing, women-lawyer friends. All feedback is helpful, either to confirm your confidence in your own work or to give you insight into what can be done better or more clearly.

Anne: I’m about to ask a totally insensitive question, but one that I’m sure many of my readers are going to be too polite to write in and ask. Did you ever consider just giving up on this project, when it did not receive the response from agents and editors that it deserved?

Beren: Oh yes, I did consider just giving up. Especially since writing about same-sex marriage for a couple of years kept the pain of having the marriage annulled alive, and kept me conscious of every mean letter to the editor or hopeful legislation. Partially what kept me going was a stubborn streak and pride, to give up would have been to admit that I thought the project was unworthy of publication or readership.

There were times I closed up my files and left my desk to collect dust between query waves, but even one positive thing kept me going—a compliment from a friend on the book, a nice note at the end of a rejection letter, the publication of one of my editorials on the subject. Keeping a lot of balls in the air about the book kept it a live project, even when I thought I was done with the actual writing.

Anne: It’s SO important to keep moving forward. If I hadn’t had a novel to revise and a blog to write after my memoir was hit with the lawsuit threats, I can’t imagine how I would have coped. Work can be a positive blessing in the midst of book turmoil. That, and reminding oneself that a setback on the road to publication doesn’t necessarily mean that the book doesn’t have an audience waiting out there to be moved or helped by it.

Mary: What keeps me going is the pure enjoyment and satisfaction I get from writing. It is, for me, soul-making.

Anne: What a nice way to put it. That scratching sound you hear is me writing that down, very possibly to steal it for my next class.

Mary:In a sense, I did give up on finding a commercial publisher. I published it privately because I finally got my own ego out of the way and the time felt right. Some part of me also wanted to be able to give it to my librarian-mother, who was losing her memory. Even though we published it in about a 75-day turnaround, she unfortunately didn’t quite get it, even with my picture on the back. But the nurses in her Alzheimer’s unit loved it!!

Which was a gift—convincing me that there was an audience way beyond just “lady lawyers.”

Anne: Which to my eye, it very clearly does. I don’t understand why it wasn’t obvious to agents in both your cases that people like me — who read a great deal by living writers, but who are neither likely to be practicing law in a high-powered firm or marrying people of the same sex — would be the audience for these books. I already know about people whose experiences are just like mine — I want books that will introduce me to points of view other than my own.

Somehow, I doubt I’m the only habitual book-buyer in North America who fosters that preference.

Let’s talk about your segue into Plan B. What were your feelings about self-publication prior to this project? Had you ever considered it before, and do you think your advance impression of it was accurate?

Beren: I did think of self-publishing as vanity publishing until recently. And to vanity publish would have been a shameful thing to me, an admission that I couldn’t cut it. So yeah, I had baggage.

Mary: My impression was that–as they say in the books—it’s all about the writing, and if the writing is good, you’ll get published—so I thought of self-publishing as a failure. That good writing will always get published commercially just isn’t true. I got lots of compliments on my writing, from lots of highly-regarded agents and publishers—but they didn’t know how they would “sell” my work. They apparently don’t find it all that easy to sell plain old “good writing.“

Anne: There have been plenty of periods in publishing history when it has been pretty darned hard to sell plain old good writing. Just ask anyone who tried to sell a memoir just after the A MILLION LITTLE PIECES scandal. It’s just one of the facts of the business.

Beren: I’ve wanted to be published since I was ten; my grandfather was a successful novelist and screenwriter, so I’ve been aware of the business side of writing from an early age. This wasn’t the first book I queried, and with those others I considered self-publication, but wisely knew it wasn’t the right time or the right project. They weren’t good enough.

Mary: Several friends of mine self-published and had fun with it. One sold 4000 copies by hand in less than two years.

Anne: Wow — that’s practically unheard-of. I’ve always heard that most self-published books sell under 500 copies ever. You’re talking about Erin Goseer Mitchell, right?

Mary: Yes. Her book, Born Colored. is about growing up in Selma before Bloody Sunday—she knew her audience, and wanted to tell the story of the strength and dignity of the black community which made the civil rights movement possible.

In the same way, I thought I knew my audience, and that I should be able to sell a couple thousand copies. If I don’t believe I can, why would a publisher believe they could?

Anne: That’s an interesting way to think of self-publishing.

Mary: I don’t exactly use the words “self-publishing.” While I financed the publication and am primarily responsible for marketing, my publisher, Ampersand, Inc., doesn’t publish everything they are asked to publish. She picks and chooses the products to which she will lend the Ampersand name. We’ve coined the term “privately published.”

Anne: I like that; it sounds very Edwardian.

Let’s talk about how one goes about getting a book privately published, then. How did you go about finding a press to use, and why did you pick your press? What did it offer you that others didn’t?

Beren: I did quite a lot of research on self-publishing before committing. Looking at writing books and online reviews of publishing companies, it was clear there were some that rose to the top of the list, including iUniverse and Infinity Publishing. had just started publishing books, too, through Booksurge, and it had a lot to offer—it was a hard decision between iUniverse and them.

Ultimately, iUniverse offered the chance to have a book distributed on standard wholesale terms basis if you sold 500 copies, and I was pretty sure I could do that, plus the initial cost was much lower. Booksurge is astoundingly expensive compared to some POD publishers, but they have a lot to offer.

Mary: My friend founded Ampersand. She’d been in publishing all her life (as president of an educational publishing company), and had turned out highly professional projects for a couple other people I know. It’s more expensive than publishing on demand, but the product itself and the marketing materials have very high production values. I may have been able to figure out how to put together a book, and go to a printer and get my own ISBN and all that, but the physical product would not have been nearly as professional and classy as the one Ampersand produced. Plus, it’s a better use of my time to do what I do—practice law—and pay her to do what she does.

Anne: It’s great that you had someone you already knew you could trust.

Mary: I’m suggesting it’s not a matter of printing or finding a good press or the right print-on-demand. I think it’s finding a publishing professional, like Susie Isaacs at Ampersand here in Chicago to make the product indistinguishable from a commercially-published book.

Anne: Not having that advantage going in, Beren, what criteria did you use to decide which press to select?

Beren: I looked at how the books were distributed (wholesalers and online stores), author discounts (very important if you plan on selling books at conferences, library events and directly to local bookstores), the “look” of the books that press had produced—did they look professional, could you pick them out as a self-published book?—and the timeline from submission to publication. I needed the book out sooner, and not at an outrageous price.

Anne: It’s SO interesting that you both mention the importance of the end product being indistinguishable from a traditionally published book — it hadn’t occurred to me to think about in those terms, but now that you mention it and I look at the volumes in front of me, I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference without looking at the press’ name.

Which makes me doubly eager to ask my next question, because you’re both so well-versed in this: What questions should someone thinking about going this route ask a potential press up front?

Beren: I think it is worth finding out how many of their books actually sell more than five hundred copies. I use that number because that is the number by which iUniverse decides it is worth investing its own money in a book, by redesigning the cover, any additional editing services free and by selling it at standard wholesale terms.

Anne: I wasn’t aware that they did that. I’m so glad that I asked.

Beren: Of the thousands of books iUniverse publishes every year, only about twenty sell over five hundred copies. I think that Infinity has returnability, and for a fee, the Amazon company, Booksurge, has returnability, but it doesn’t advertise that fee. Booksurge has the highest royalties for online sales, which might work brilliantly for some kinds of books. Their turnaround is quick, too.

Anne: Are there pitfalls writers looking into it should avoid?

Beren: Beware of editing costs—iUniverse has a reputation for suggesting huge edits before awarding a book Editor’s Choice designation, which it must have to eventually become available at standard wholesale terms.

The recommended services for my book would have cost about $1400, far more than the $695 original price for a publishing package. The edits weren’t that extensive, either (and the recommendations were done very well by a professional who really liked the book) so I did them in a twelve-hour editing spree and was able to get the Editor’s Choice designation after receiving two positive reviews post-publication.

Mary: I know some of the self-publishing or print-on-demand companies have packages that offer listings in ads they place in media like the New York Times. I can’t imagine that most fiction benefits from that. So, I’d say, don’t pay for mass marketing. Do invest in good cover design and bookmarks, but don’t pay for advertising that’s not highly, highly targeted. (I bought ads in my Brown alumni magazine and in the Chicago Bar Record.)

Don’t think that the publisher will do your marketing for you, though. They won’t.

Beren: One thing you must do as a self-published author (if you don’t want to pay big bucks to someone else) is to write your own promotional materials. It is hard enough for most of us to write a query letter or a proposal, writing book jacket copy, getting blurbs, and providing advertising copy is a different type of writing for most of us. I worked really hard on mine, and it was a good education.

Anne: I’m glad you both brought that up. What do you think are the biggest differences in authorial responsibility between a self-published book and one handled by a traditional publisher?

Mary: My responsibility is to turn out the best book I can.

Anne: But isn’t that always the case, no matter who publishes our work?

Mary: I fantasize that I would have more confidence that I’d done that if a traditional publisher gave the book its imprimatur.

Anne: I suppose I have an unusual view on that, having sold a book to a traditional publisher that didn’t come out. I can’t say that experience exactly bathed me in self-confidence.

Let me turn the question around for you, Beren. What did you have responsibility for that you wouldn’t have if you’d gone with a traditional publisher?

Beren: I did a lot in creating the look of the book. My spouse took the photo on the cover, and I was able to influence the design, font, and colors used in the final product. It became a group project when we shared the photo and necessary copy with friends who all had an opinion on how it should look.

Anne: That was a great day, opening my e-mail and finding the photo of the cover there.

Beren: I’m happy with the outcome. The questions iUniverse asked me about the book provided their designers with enough to make it look right. I did pay extra for this option; self-publishing with all your own design work is much less money if you have the expertise, which I do not.

Anne: One hears that a significant advantage of self-publishing lies in not having to revise a book to match — how shall I put this? — the sometimes arbitrary or misguided editorial standards authors sometimes encounter at traditional publishing houses, where the writer doesn’t have much say, if any, over title and book cover design, not to mention issues of content and style. Did you enjoy that freedom? How much control did you have over the final product?

Beren: I had a lot of control over the final product. If it had gone to a traditional house, I would have had to write it as fiction and have an alcoholic single mother as the main character! Or gotten divorced and developed a drinking problem!

I did have a lot of control, and iUniverse provided a lot of information on the book publication process. They send all prospective authors their book, Getting Published, which is a comprehensive guide to traditional publication and getting published through them. I used it a lot.

Mary: I’d be happy to revise if Simon & Schuster or Random House wanted me to. With an advance in hand, I could probably see my way clear to making changes…

Anne: Okay, okay, you have a point — and I don’t think I could hope for a better exit line than that, so let’s stop for today. Thank you both again for being generous enough to share your experiences with us.

Happy holidays, everyone, and keep up the good work!

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So you’re considering self-publishing: some words of wisdom from those who have been there

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Last time, after I took one more romp through the well-ordered fields of standard format, I concluded with a sentiment very familiar to long-term readers of this blog, and certainly to those who regularly peruse the comments: one of the perennial frustrations of the aspiring writer’s life is the paradoxical necessity of bringing one’s submissions into conformity with what an unknown agent (or agency screener, editor, editorial assistant, contest judge, etc.) expects to see on the page without unduly compromising one’s authorial voice and artistic vision. The vast majority of my blog posts are, in fact, either direct or indirect discussions of various nuances of this balancing act.

Last time, I brought up an increasingly attractive way out of this dilemma: self-publishing. Everywhere I go, I meet aspiring writers who, exasperated by the ever-increasing difficulty of breaking into the world of traditional publishing, are at least toying with this increasingly attractive option.

And with good reason: self-publishing has come a long way in the last few years. The rise of print-on-demand (POD) and Internet-based booksellers’ increasing openness to featuring POD books has rendered the self-publishing route a viable option for those who balk at the — let’s face facts here — often glacial pace of bringing a book to publication via the usual means.

Yet if you ask representatives of the traditional publishing houses about self-publishing at writers’ conferences, you’re likely to receive a dismissive answer, as though nothing much had changed — unless, of course, the book about which you are inquiring happened to sell exceptionally well and ultimately got picked up by a major publisher as a result.

Despite some notable recent successes, agents and editors still remain, at least overtly relatively indifferent to the achievements of self-published books, to the extent that not all of them even make the decades-old distinction between so-called vanity presses (who print short runs of books, often at inflated prices, solely at the author’s expense, so the author may distribute them), subsidy presses (who ask authors to contribute some portion of the printing expenses; the press often handles distribution and promotion), and desktop publishing (where the author handles the whole shebang herself).

Rather than just tell you what I think about the benefits and challenges of self-publishing, I thought it would be a good idea to ask authors who have first-hand knowledge — and recent first-hand knowledge at that. Intrepid on your behalf, I tracked down our guests for the next few days, both of whom have successfully self-published their books this year and have graciously agreed to share their insights with all of us here at Author! Author!

First, on the fiction side, please welcome Mary Hutchings Reed, author of COURTING KATHLEEN HANNIGAN, a kind of ONE L for women lawyers:

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Courting Kathleen Hannigan tells the story of an ambitious woman lawyer, one of the first to join a male-dominated national law firm in the late seventies, whose rise to the top is threatened by a sex discrimination suit brought against the firm by a junior woman lawyer who is passed over for partnership because she doesn’t wear make-up or jewelry. When Kathleen Hannigan is called to testify, she is faced with a choice between her feminist principles and her own career success. Courting Kathleen Hannigan is a story for women and minorities everywhere who are curious about the social history of women in law, business and the professions, institutional firm cultures, and the sexual politics of businesses and law firms.

Oh, and it’s a great read, too.

On the nonfiction side, please welcome memoirist Beren deMotier, author of THE BRIDES OF MARCH, who has quite a true-life tale to tell:



The Brides of March: Memoir of a Same-Sex Marriage is a lesbian bride’s eye view of marriage at a moment’s notice, with a bevy of brides, their coterie of children, donuts, newspaper reporters, screaming protesters, mothers of the brides who never thought they’d see the day, white wedding cake, and a houseful of happy heterosexuals toasting the marriage. But that was only the beginning as these private declarations of love became public fodder, fueling social commentary, letters to the editor, and the fires of political debate, when all the brides wanted was the opportunity to say “I do” in this candid, poignant, and frequently funny tale of lesbian moms getting to the church on time in Multnomah County.

Couldn’t put it down, either.

As my long-term readers know, I am definitely not one to convey praise lightly; I don’t recommend books here unless I feel quite passionate about them, and believe that they should be widely read. For my money, these are two of the best self-published books to have come out this year — and what’s more, books that I was genuinely surprised were not embraced by the traditional publishing market, in light of the exceptionally quality of the writing and the obvious timeliness of the stories (of which more below).

These books, in short, are best-case examples of the fiction and nonfiction (respectively) being self-published today. Let’s hear what their authors have to say about the process.

Anne: Many thanks to both of you for being here today. Let’s start with the question every writer faces about her own work: what made you burn to tell THIS story? Did it jump up and down in your head, demanding, “Write me now!”

Mary: They say “write what you know.” I didn’t know much of much interest to very many, but I knew law firms and I knew the experience of trailblazing women in that field, and that gave me authentic background for the story while I figured out how to write a novel. In many ways, writing this novel was a way of organizing for myself how I felt about my own experience. At the time, the “glass ceiling” was a big topic, and feeling the bump was depressing for many of us who realized that all the changes we’d worked for couldn’t be accomplished in a single generation of women entering the legal profession.

Beren: It kind of bit me on the leg and didn’t let go. After getting married at a moment’s notice, I wrote a column about it called “They Can’t Take This Away From Me”, which ran in about a dozen GLBT newspapers across the country. As the story continued, and I wanted to document it for our families (our own and the friends who also married that day alongside us), I wrote a longer story about it, which was also published and reprinted on the Internet. Around that time I heard that a local activist (and fellow Bride of March) was planning on writing a book about the Multnomah County marriages, and I said to myself, “Wait a minute, I should be writing a book!” I’d been wavering on the edge of a longer project for some time, unsure if it was the right time to leap into one with a one-year-old at home, and articles to write, and then this happened and I couldn’t stop myself.

Anne: So in both cases, it was a story that deeply needed telling — and yet, if you don’t mind my putting it this way, there aren’t all that many good books out there on either of these topics. While one does hear theoretical discussions about hostile work environments and same-sex marriage, the average reader is unlikely to stumble accidentally upon a book on the subject upon walking into the bookstore down the block. With such meaty material, that seems odd to me from a writer’s point of view. Why do you think there are so few books on your respective topics?

Mary: One, there aren’t that many of us who know that world — my class of lawyers at Yale was a whopping 20% (24 women, as I recall) and not even half of us went to large firms; fewer yet stayed there. Two, not everyone is crazy enough to want to write a novel!

Anne: So it’s more a case of writers not writing what they didn’t know, eh? What about you, Beren?

Beren: I think partially it is exactly why editors and agents kept telling me why my book wasn’t “right” for them: money. There was an article in Writer’s Digest recently on the state of gay & lesbian publishing, and places to publish books by GLBT authors, and while the writer of the piece considered the current state positive, I have to disagree. As small publishers of gay & lesbian material folded in the eighties, there was a feeling that the mainstream publishers were picking up the ball, and there have been many successful and not-so-successful gay oriented books put out by mainstream publishers — but the formula became more rigid. There is a large market for gay and lesbian romance and mystery, novels, porn, and a small flourishing academic market, but there is little room for non-fiction unless it is by a famous sports star or a highly public figure.

AnneOne hears that about memoirs in general right now.

Beren: Lesbian non-fiction in particular is hard to place. Most lesbian publishers want fiction, and mainstream publishers will say openly that there is not enough money to be made publishing a book that will likely appeal to lesbian readers — though I hope that my book will be read by a wide audience.

Anne: Which brings me to a question vital to both of you: timing. Since you took the vital step of self-publication, you clearly felt that the world needed this story NOW. Having read both books, I have to say that I think you were both right about that, but for the benefit of those who haven’t yet had the pleasure, can you tell us why this story just couldn’t wait to come out?

Beren: Yes, I felt it couldn’t wait. Same-sex marriage is an extremely current issue, and it seemed like I could miss the moment if publication took too long, and the public had either had enough of hearing about the fight for civil rights, or society had changed enough that the issues in the book had become moot (that would have been a happy ending!). There were at least four books published about same-sex marriage while I was writing The Brides of March, but none of them were from a really personal point of view — the human factor — and I felt that was an important missing element in the debate that I could offer, as well as making people laugh.

Anne: Which is largely what had been missing from the public debate on the subject: a human face. I think there’s an immense difference between an abstract discussion of principle and a down-to-earth, practical understanding about how the issues of the day affect real people’s quotidian lives. I remember reading the passage where you talk about what it means to a person — any person — to be married in her own home town, and feeling very shaken, because it had never occurred to me to think of the issue in those terms.

That sense of taking a political issue down to the concrete, personal level so the reader can feel it from the inside comes across very clearly in your book, too, Mary: Kathleen’s dilemma feels very real and complex. But you had an even more specific reason for wanting the book to be out this year, didn’t you?

Mary: The time was right in part because this is the story of women like Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama. Kathleen Hannigan’s world is the world Hillary would’ve entered had she come home to Chicago to practice law straight out of Yale. (She was class of ’73, I was ’76.) Michelle Obama worked for me in her first legal job, when I was a young partner. Courting Kathleen Hannigan covers that time period as well, when Ann Rose is trying to make partner and is denied based on her “unfeminine” style. Women of my generation are beginning to think about retiring or taking early retirement. They’ve worked exceedingly hard. Courting Kathleen Hannigan is, in part, an homage to them.

And — I just thought of this — there are so many women lawyers on TV these days, and some of the images are just so unreal! Their lives are unreal! Their behavior is unreal. It bugs me to see cleavage in the office. I hate to see young women throwing away the progress we “elders” think we’ve made!

Anne: I feel that way when I see super-sultry grad students and professors in movies and on television. I can’t imagine having strutted into class in 4-inch heels and a miniskirt as a student, much less as the professor. Yet the pop conception of a woman working in a traditionally male profession is so simple: either put up with discrimination without seeming to notice it (which is miraculously supposed to exempt oneself from it), fall in love with a co-worker, or (as always seems to be the magic solution in the movies) slug the offending party. None of these strategies ever seem to have any repercussions in the fantasy versions, but that’s certainly not how it plays out in real life.

Okay, off my soapbox and back to practicalities. Since traditionally-published books hit the shelves at least a year after the author signs the book contract, and agents often spend years marketing their clients’ books (that roar you just heard was my readership’s collective sigh of recognition), did having a book with such current events appeal render it harder or easier to pitch to agents? Did they seem to understand the window of opportunity for your book?

Mary: Agents didn’t seem to think that people cared much about women lawyers (unless they were in thrillers, à la Scott Turow or John Grisham).

Anne: Funny, I know a lot of women lawyers who are people. And almost without exception, they have a lot of friends who might conceivably feel the same. It’s strange how many relatively large segments of the reading population are commonly dismissed as niche markets.

Did you encounter a similar reaction, Beren?

Beren: I think both agents and editors appreciated the timeliness of the topic; it was an easy pitch, not only because I believed in it totally, but because there was clearly a need. I had agents and editors take the manuscript, and received lovely personal letters about the manuscript and a lot of encouragement — but it wasn’t “right” for their house or agency.

Anne: Ah, that never-failing industry conviction that a really great book will always find a home SOMEWHERE — just not in my house. And yet it is almost invariably meant as a compliment to the book in question.

Okay, we’re running a little long, and I still have a million and twelve questions in front of me. Since I’m going to be milking your wisdom for my readers over the next few days, I suppose I don’t need to toss them all at you right off the bat. But to whet everyone’s appetite for tomorrow’s post, I’m going to leap straight to the jackpot question: why did you decide to self-publish, rather than go the traditional agent + publisher route?

Beren: Two reasons: while I believed that I could get the book traditionally published eventually, I wanted it to take part in the public debate NOW, and then my spouse told me she was going to write a technological manual and self-publish it. I thought, “The hell you’re going to have a book out before me,” and immediately started researching presses. Incidentally, her book never came to fruition and she has admitted this was a clever ploy to get me moving.

Mary: The combination of factors — lack of success finding an agent for this particular work, feeling the timing was right, having a personally compelling reason to want to have a book for my mother, believing that the book had an audience and something important to say.

Anne: I’m going to want to come back to all of those issues next time, when we will start to get into the nitty-gritty of how one goes about self-publishing intelligently. For today, let’s thank our guests and sign off.

Keep up the good work, everyone, and happy holidays!

Book Marketing 101: surfing the sea of book reviews, or, free the bound periodicals!

Earlier in this series, I talked about how to track down who represents whom, so that you may address queries to the agents who represent authors whose work you like, or (even better) whose work or background resembles yours in some important respect. Yesterday, I suggested an inexpensive and highly effective way to identify agents with a solid recent track record of selling books in your area: reading book reviews, particularly those published in periodicals that cater to the same demographic as your intended readership.

As I signed off yesterday, content with a job relatively well done, I heard faint plaintive cries from those of you who have been paying especially close attention to the Book Marketing 101 series. “Um, Anne?” I heard you saying, “wouldn’t books coming out right now necessarily be a reflection of what agents were selling at least a year or more ago, rather than now? What about your passionate diatribe earlier in this series about how agents live in the now, so we should strive to be as up-to-the-minute in our research as possible?”

If you thought this, or some reasonable facsimile of it, give yourself a gold star for the day. Because, you see, you are — as you so often are — quite right.

For those of you new to the publishing game, with very few exceptions, the time lapse between when a book is purchased by a publisher and the date it appears in bookstores is at least a year. Often longer, depending on how far out a publisher establishes a print queue and what season the marketing department believes would be most advantageous for a particular book to appear.

Yes, yes, we’ve all seen books hit the shelves at Barnes & Noble more quickly than this, but those tend to be nonfiction, books about current events or celebrity meltdowns. Your garden-variety novel, however brilliantly written, is unlikely to do much leap-frogging within the print queue. Besides, it is far from uncommon for editors to request that authors make changes to book between acceptance and publication.

One reason, in case you were curious, that advances are generally paid in installments, rather than in one lump sum — typically, a third on signing, a third on manuscript acceptance (i.e., after the author has made all those requested changes), and a third upon publication. That way, the publisher has a stick as well as a carrot to induce authorial compliance with editorial demands.

Not a bad motivational strategy, admittedly, but often a bit inconvenient for writers who have been dodging student loan payments and living on Top Ramen while they were writing their books.

This lag time renders keeping up with publishing trends significantly more difficult than simple perusal of the bestseller lists. Professional opinions about what will and won’t appeal to readers a year or two from now can fluctuate wildly, sometimes with remarkable speed: to take a couple of famous recent examples, the same agents who were clamoring three years ago for memoirs like A MILLION LITTLE PIECES were telling writers a year later that memoir was impossible to sell. The agents who were combing conferences for the next SEX IN THE CITY at the height of the show’s popularity have spent the last year and a half insisting that chick lit is doomed.

And, of course, six months from now, some other book category will be pronounced permanently dead, too. The only thing that is constant is change.

Oh, except for the facts that in the United States, generic queries don’t work, gravity generally makes things fall down instead of up, and women readers purchase roughly 80% of the fiction sold, and pretty much all of the literary fiction. All of that’s been true for an awfully long time.

Other than that, bet your bottom dollar on the malleability of change. Since it takes substantially longer to write a book than for a bunch of people in Manhattan to decide what the next hot thing will be, all we writers can do is monitor the squalls from afar and hope we’re ready when our time comes.

As I have been pointing out in various ways over the last couple of weeks, keeping up-to-the-minute on who is selling what NOW requires vigilance. You could, if you had the time and the resources, subscribing to one of the standard industry publications, such as Publishers Marketplace or Publishers Weekly.

As a dispenser of free advice myself, though, and someone who began blogging in the first place because there was at the time a dearth of inexpensive means for aspiring writers to learn how the biz works, I am very much in favor of highlighting any free resources that are available. Most aspiring writers are already struggling to make time to write, and for those with the spare cash to spend, there is a whole industry devoted to producing seminars, conferences, books, and magazines devoted to helping them become better and more publishable writers — often for a rather stiff fee. Not to mention freelance editors like me, whose services typically do not come cheap.

So if I can save my readers a few shekels from time to time, I like to do it. Unfortunately, this is one of those cases where if you do a cost/benefit analysis, weighing the value of your time against the difficulty of obtaining free yet up-to-the-minute information, you might want to shell out the dosh.

Although it only tracks current publications, rather than sales to editors, the book review method, is undoubtedly cheap: if you go to a public library, you don’t even have to buy newspapers or magazines to read book reviews. The book review will also tell you, by implication, how good the agent is at placing work with publishers who promote their authors’ books well.

How so, you ask? Well, as you have undoubtedly noticed, the vast majority of books published in North America are NOT reviewed in the popular press; it is no longer sufficient simply to send a bound galley with a polite cover letter to a publication to get it reviewed. (For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a bound galley is a low-cost print of a book cheaply packaged, without a hard cover, for circulation to reviewers. They look a little bit like thick scripts for plays.)

Talk to anyone who works at a large-circulation magazine, and they will tell you: they receive hundreds of bound galleys every month, but unlike an industry publication like Library Journal, they simply do not have room to review them all. Out of all those submissions, a publication might review perhaps a dozen per issue.

To narrow the probability of any given book’s being reviewed even more, most print media outlets have a policy to review only books released in hardcover — although since it has gotten so common to release fiction in trade paper, you’re starting to see some shift on the subject — and only books released through traditional publishing.

Self-published and electronic books are almost impossible to get reviewed, alas, unless you’re Stephen King. In fact, most newspapers and magazines have a standing policy against it.

Thus, if you see a book reviewed in a major publication, it is because it is either expected to be a big seller, is by an author already well recognized, or someone (usually the publicity department at the publishing house, but with increasing frequency, the author or the author’s press people) has been a shameless nagger. Since even a poor review in a major publication will equal more book sales than no review at all (remember when John Irving’s last book got savaged by THE WASHINGTON POST?), it is very much in your interest to find an agent who is good at bullying publishers into nagging reviewers on behalf of her authors’ books.

If reading through weeks and months of reviews seems like a lot of work, well, it is. But bear in mind the alternative: not targeting agents specifically, or, heaven help us, adopting a mass strategy where you simply blanket the agenting world with generic pleas for representation.

Yes, I know: I’ve been reiterating that particular sentiment quite a bit lately, but it honestly is the single best piece of advice an agented writer has to pass along to the aspiring. Just as trial attorneys learn not to ask questions whose answers they cannot anticipate, I, and literally every agented writer I know, have learned not to query agents who are not DEMONSTRABLY interested in our kind of writing or our kind of writer NOW.

Trust me on this one, please. Invest the time. But do it strategically.

Finding well-reviewed first-time authors in your genre should be your first goal in review-scanning, as their agents will probably be most open to your work. Once you start reading the major book reviewers on a regular basis, however, you will probably notice that first-time authors receive only a very small share of their august notice.

Odd, isn’t it, considering that ostensibly, a book reviewer’s primary job is to alert his readers to the existence of good books they might not otherwise read? But no: the vast majority of reviews are of well-hyped books by already-established writers.

Personally, I would find it a bit tedious to keep on informing the world yet again that Alice Walker can write up a storm or that J.K. Rowling has a future in children’s literature, when I could be telling the world about an exciting new author’s first novel. But as I have mentioned before, I do not make the rules governing the miasma of publishing; I merely tell you about them.

For this reason, you might want to move beyond the major book review sources in your search for new agenting pastures. If you have read several issues of a publication without finding a single author whose work sounds similar to yours, move on to another publication.

The easiest way to do this is to check back issues: here again, the public library is your friend. (But when isn’t THAT the case?) Librarians, dear souls that they are, often shelve current magazines so one does not even have to move three steps in either direction to find a year’s worth of back issues.

To save yourself some time, don’t bother with issues more than a year and a half old; longer ago than that, and the agents’ book preferences may well have changed.

Why? Chant it with me now: because the book market is malleable.

It’s also sensible to start with the smaller publications aimed most directly at your target audience or demographic, not the broader-based publications. After all, if you write anything at all esoteric, you could easily spend a month leafing through the last two years’ worth of the New York Times Review of Books and only come up with a handful of books in your genre.

And don’t forget to search the web for sites that habitually review your type of book. Yes, the Internet is wide and vast and deep, but if you narrow your search focus enough (how many habitual reviewers of werewolf books could there possibly be?), the task should not be terribly overwhelming.

Remember, part of the point of this exercise is to find the smaller books by first-timers, and no one is faster than your garden-variety blogging reviewer at finding these.

If you find it difficult to tell from the reviews whose work is like yours, take the reviews to a well-stocked bookstore and start pulling books off the shelves. I’m sure that you are a good enough reader to tell in a paragraph or two if the agent who fell in love with any given writer’s style is at all likely to admire YOUR prose flair.

Or – and this is particularly important if you are writing about anything especially controversial – if the agent is brave enough to take a chance on a topic that might not, as they say, play in Peoria.

Often, though, this is not necessary, as many book reviewers have the endearing habit of rushing to compare new authors to immensely well-established ones, often within the first few lines. Let’s say you found a review of Stephanie Kallos’ work that mentioned her John Irvingesque plotting. A statement like this in line 1 can render reading the rest of the review superfluous. If your work resembles Irving’s, but you despair of hooking his agent (who, if memory serves, is also his wife), you would be well advised to try Kallos’.

Get it?

Admittedly, sometimes the ostensible connections between the writers cited may be rather tenuous, which is less than helpful for our purposes. Again, taking a gander at the actual books in question will help separate the true analogies from the bizarre. For example, Layne Maheu’s amazing literary fiction debut SONG OF THE CROW is told from the point of view of a bird along for the ride on Noah’s ark, several reviewers automatically compared the book to Richard Bach’s 1970s megaseller JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL. Actually, apart from the sheer flesh-to-feathers ratio in these two books, they don’t have a lot in common. But sure enough, the merest flutter of feathers, and the reviewer had a conceptual match.

Some things are beyond comprehension.

I’m not going to lie to you, my friends: pulling together a solid, appropriate, well-researched querying list is not just a lot of work; it involves quite a bit of creativity. And no, I have absolutely no idea why writers are not given credit for that more often.

Keep up the good work!

Still more terms every writer should know, but many are afraid to ask

Here are the rest of the industry glossary terms; every fiber of my being wants to call for a pop quiz now, but I am resisting the temptation with all of my might. Just a flashback to my former incarnation as an academic. It’ll pass.


Once again, if there is a term that you were waiting breathlessly for me to define that did not make the list, feel free to drop me a line via the COMMENTS function, below, and ask about it in the days and weeks ahead. It’s going to be a long, cold, dark winter, my friends (at least up here in Seattle, where the days start getting AWFULLY short after Halloween, and where already the squirrels and raccoons in my backyard are displaying a suspicious plumpness of fur), and nothing lights up a dreary day like a good industry-speak definition.


(Okay, okay — it’s possible I’m mistaken about that. But through the magic of self-delusion, I shall attempt to act as though I believe it all the same.)


Here are more definitions:


Rookie mistake, n.: An error in a manuscript or finished book that a pro would be unlikely to make, which betrays the fact that the writer (or sometimes, the editor) is new to the publishing industry. The classic rookie mistake is submitting a manuscript that is not in STANDARD FORMAT.


Shameless friend, n.: A writer’s buddy who appoints him/herself part time publicist for the writer’s work. A shameless friend does everything from gushing to everyone who will listen (“This is the best book in the world! You’ve got to read it now!”) to posting flattering reviews on Amazon to downright guerrilla marketing, such as picking up the friend’s book off the shelves at Barnes & Noble, walking around with it prominently displayed under her arm, and then setting it down casually on the bestseller table. (My standard shameless friend activity is to find my friends’ books and turn them face-out on the shelf, rather than spine-out, so they are more likely to sell.) The more shameless friends you can recruit before your book hits print, the better off you will be; other writers make terrific shameless friends. Treat them very well: they are worth many times their weight in gold.


Shelf life, n.: The length of time any given book will remain on a bookseller’s sales floor before being returned to the publisher or — stuff a pillow in your mouth, because this is horrible — being pulped. In some major bookselling chains that shall remain nameless, this time can be as short as three weeks, which leaves little time for word of mouth to develop. The moral: it really behooves an author to be out there plugging his book for the first few weeks after publication.


Ship date, n.: The date upon which actual copies of your book will be sent to booksellers (and those fine folks who pre-order my memoir on Amazon!), as opposed to the publication date, which is when bookstores may begin selling the tomes. You may have heard about this differential with respect to the latest HARRY POTTER book: bookstores had the books from the SHIP DATE, and thus were responsible for implementing security measures that would have made J. Edgar Hoover writhe with envy in order to prevent any copies from being leaked prior to the publication date. (Those of us who have friends who write book reviews have heard about this endlessly, because Scholastic has not sent out REVIEW COPIES for the last two HARRY POTTER books – so I know several book reviewers for major newspapers who were forced to buy the books at midnight like everybody else, read it overnight, and write the review before the next day’s deadline. Somehow, I suspect that sleep deprivation does not render a reviewer kindly.)


Simultaneous submission, v. (also known as MULTIPLE SUBMISSION): (1) The practice of querying more than one agent at the same time. Contrary to rumor amongst writers, most agents are more than willing to accept that the querying process is too time-consuming if the writer sends out only one submission at a time. If a given agent objects to the practice, the agency will say so explicitly in the standard agenting guides, so do check. (2) When agents send out a book (or book proposal) to several editors at once, in the hope of engendering competitive bidding. Not all agents favor this practice, particularly for fiction. (3) Being involved with more than one dominatrix at once.


SLUG LINE, n.: (1) The line in the top margin (either right or left-justified) of every page of a standard manuscript, bearing the following information in caps: author’s last name, abbreviated title, page #. Thus, every page of my memoir has MINI/A FAMILY DARKLY/# on it. (2) The trail left by a Pacific Northwest invertebrate.


SLUSH PILE, n.: The holding pen in a publishing house or agency where UNSOLICITED MANUSCRIPTS await Judgment Day or for someone to have time to read them; basically, these books are on indefinite hold. In the bad old days, senior editors would buy pizza and beer for the junior editors one night per month, and everyone would sit around and go through the slush pile. Now, most of the major publishing houses will NEVER keep an unsolicited novel in the slush pile; it will simply be returned unread. A few still hold pizza parties for NF, but the practice has become exceptionally rare. The moral: bypassing the rules of submission is not very likely to work in your favor.


STANDARD FORMAT, n.: The way everyone in the publishing industry expects a manuscript to look. Manuscripts not in standard format are often discarded unread. (If you want to learn the rules of standard format, check out my posting of August 31.)


SUBSIDY PUBLISHING, v.: The act of printing and distributing a book with a press that purports to share the production expenses with the author. In fact, most subsidy presses charge authors significantly more than the actual cost of publication, as these presses’ profits tend to be derived from author contributions, rather than book sales. As a result, subsidy publishing is usually quite a bit more expensive for the author than SELF-PUBLISHING. Most of the time, the authors end up distributing the books themselves, and the vast majority of reviewing publications have hard-and-fast rules against reviewing books produced by subsidy presses.


SUBSTANTIVE EDITING, v.: Giving content feedback on a manuscript, as opposed to COPY EDITING or LINE EDITING, which is concerned with grammar and clarity. Increasingly, editors at major publishing houses have time to do neither kind of editing, which leaves the author in the uncomfortable position of editing her own book. (As soon as the final editing of my memoir is complete, I shall be blogging EXTENSIVELY about my experience with this phenomenon.)


SYNOPSIS, n.: A brief exposition in the present tense of the plot of a novel or the argument of a book. (See my blog of Sept. 9 for tips how to write a stellar synopsis.)


TABLE OF CONTENTS, n.: A list of chapter titles and the corresponding page numbers where those chapters begin in the book. Not to be confused with an Annotated Table of Contents, which is the 2-3 page section in the nonfiction book PROPOSAL which gives the title of each chapter, accompanied by a 2-3 sentence description of what is in each chapter; including a simple TABLE OF CONTENTS in a book proposal is one of the most common ROOKIE MISTAKES. The Annotated Table of Contents does not include projected page numbers. (For guidance on how to create an Annotated Table of Contents, or indeed any part of a NF book proposal, see my posting of August 29.)


TITLE PAGE, n.: (1) The page of a manuscript that contains the title (obviously), the author’s pen name, the author’s actual name, contact info for the author (or the author’s agent), book category, and WORD COUNT. (If you are in the throes of formatting a TITLE PAGE, check out my posting of Sept. 9 for tips.) (2) The page of a published book that contains the title, author’s name, and name of the publishing house. To format a manuscript’s title page like a published title page is a ROOKIE MISTAKE.


TRADE DISCOUNT, n.: The percentage off the cover price of a book granted by publishers to booksellers; generally, the trade discount is in the 40-50% range. Most PUBLICATION CONTRACTS specify that the author may purchase an unlimited number of books at the TRADE DISCOUNT, but let the author beware: books so purchased do not count toward the author’s sales totals.


TRADE LIST, n.: A publisher’s catalogue of all books currently in print. (If you want to see a real, live example, here is the link to my listing in my publisher’s catalogue: You might want to check it out soon, because I suspect that a ROOKIE MISTAKE was made regarding the cover, and it may be changed soon.) The purpose of listing the ISBN and other publication data is to make it as easy as possible for booksellers and private citizens to order the book in question.


TRADE PAPER, n.: The level of print quality between hardcover and mass-market paperback; a book with high print standards, but no glossy dust jacket. Increasingly, publishers are releasing serious fiction and memoir in trade paper, bypassing the hardback stage entirely, because hardbacks are so very expensive to print.


TRANSLATION RIGHTS, pl. n.: The publication rights to an English-language book printed in any other language, sold on a by-language basis. (Perversely, books sold in English in Great Britain are considered to be foreign-language books for contractual purposes.) These are sold usually separately from the RIGHTS, which refers to first North American rights, minus Mexico. However, occasionally an American publisher will try to score a sweet deal and try to get the WORLD RIGHTS as part of the initial deal, but if the book is expected to have LEGS abroad, this generally does not work out well for the author: typically, if a book is reprinted in a second language and a North American house owns the foreign rights, the domestic publisher scrapes an automatic 20% off the top of any foreign-language royalties accrued by the author. (If this seems a trifle technical, it’s because I had rather a struggle to retain my memoir’s foreign rights; my publisher wanted ‘em, big time. But they’re mine, I tell you, all mine!)


UNSOLICITED MANUSCRIPT, n.: (1) The doorstop of the publishing world. (2) Any book excerpts, up to and including entire manuscripts, sent to agents who have not asked for them. I tremble to tell you this, but often, these are sent INSTEAD of query letters, and thus end up as definition (1). (3) Any manuscript sent to a publishing house without the author’s first ascertaining that a specific editor there would like to see it. At best, these manuscripts end up in the SLUSH PILE; at worst, they are thrown out. (As nearly as I can tell, few publishing offices are serious about recycling, alas.)


VANITY PRESS, n.: (1) The more virulent version of a press that specializes in SUBSIDY PUBLISHING. Vanity presses often woo aspiring authors with misleading promises, in order to tempt writers into plunking down hard cash to see their words in print. (2) A SUBSIDY PUBLISHING press that produces extremely expensive, coffee-table quality books for its clients. (3) What almost everyone in the publishing industry calls a press that specializes in SUBSIDY PUBLISHING; a term of insult.


WOMEN’S FICTION, n.: A category of prose whose definition varies depending upon whom you ask. The more old-fashioned use it as a synonym for romance novel, often with a slight sneer, but these same people virtually never refer to thrillers as Men’s Fiction, although the actual purchase rates would indicate that this would be an apt moniker. Currently, the term is used to denote novels whose readership is expected to be overwhelmingly female. However, this is less descriptive than one might think: over 80% of the fiction purchased in North America is bought by women, including the vast majority of literary fiction. So there.


WORD COUNT, n.: Not, as one might imagine, the ACTUAL number of words in a document; no, that would be too easy. Rather, the actual number or words rounded to nearest 100 OR the number of manuscript pages in Times or Times New Roman multiplied by 250. The latter is the standard by which the publishing world operates.


WORLD RIGHTS, n.: First North American rights + all foreign rights = world rights.


WRITING RESUME, n.: A list of an author’s writing and speaking credentials. You should be maintaining one of these on an ongoing basis, and no, you don’t have to have been paid for a publication to include it here. Ideally, to keep your writing resume up to date, you should try to add at least one item to it per year: placing in a contest, giving a public reading of your work, publishing an article or story (no matter how small the publication…The idea here is to show that you have been spending your time while you wait to be discovered wisely, adding tools to your writer’s bag of tricks, so you will be ready when your big break comes.


YA (Young Adult), n. and adj.: The moniker attached to novels intended for readers from the ages of 12 to 17, despite the fact that literally no country in the world considers 12-year-olds to be adults. Created, as I understand it, by those who felt that “Children’s books” had a pejorative ring to it.


That’s the end of the alphabet — hurrah! Starting tomorrow, I shall be alternating between the kind of practical advice that I’ve been giving for most of the past month and blow-by-blow accounts of my memoir’s rather amusing and totally counterintuitive adventures traveling from contract to print. Follow my book’s hilarious journey from first book proposal to sale to traumatic lawsuit; look on in awe as I struggle to obtain ANY feedback from my editor, who has apparently taken a vow of silence; marvel at the bizarre sense of timing (wait three months, rush around for two days, wait two months, demand results overnight…) that renders it a perpetual miracle that any books are ever published at all!


And in the meantime, keep up the good work!


— Anne Mini


P.S.: For all of you kind souls who have tuned in because you heard on the grapevine about the threatened lawsuit against my memoir: while the legal folderol is going on, I’m actually not allowed to talk about it here in any amount of juicy detail, as much as I would LOVE to do so. In fact, some earlier discussions have required trimming, alas. Since it’s all very interesting — the question of who owns memories is certainly one that would have fascinated Philip K. Dick, and whether I can publish my own memories of him is the crux of the current case — I would love to be able to share the ins and outs on a daily basis, but my typing hands are tied, so to speak. I hope to be able to fill you in soon, though, in vivid Technicolor, so watch this space.