Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Chapter 2: One Novelist’s Journey to Self-Publication

Publishing In A Changing World
By Mark Young
Editor’s Note: This week marks a major turning point in my writing career. My debut novel, REVENGE: A Travis Mays Novel, came out as an eBook ten days ago. Yes … I crossed that point of no return. Here are the four Ws— who, what, where and when—that led me to self-publish. I hope these articles encourage other writers who find themselves writing in this changing world of publishing. Writers and readers have every reason to be hopeful. Here are my reasons:

I knew my writing career veered down an uncharted highway the moment I pressed that button one week ago. While uploading Revenge: A Travis Mays Novel onto Kindle’s Direct Publishing platform, I gulped and thought, Where is that delete key? Maybe I should think about this for a moment.  Too late. It was gone. Vanished into that digital world where words become computer code. I knew a way to stop this process, but after a moment of reflection I continued to charge ahead, knowing this was the right thing to do. At least for me.

And then I felt a rush of excitement. Okay, let’s just see where this will go. It felt good. I knew I’d finally reached a point where I could take matters into my own hands. I paused just a moment before pushing onward, finally pressing a couple more buttons to send my baby coursing through Barnes & Noble’s PubIt for the Nook and Smashwords for everything else—Sony, Kobo, iBookstore and a bunch of other eReaders.

So, I am out there after more than five years of trying find my way in the traditional publishing world.  Now, I can go online to Amazon, Barnes and Noble or Smashwords web sites and see my book resting on their digital shelf. It is a good feeling.

My decision to self-publish came about three months ago as I re-evaluated my writing career. Maybe it had been festering in my subconscious for a while, waiting for just the right moment to coerce my hand. Certain events seemed to force it to the surface, demanding that I make a choice. Here are the reasons I shifted direction:

First, my last round of rejections compelled me to painfully examine what I was trying to accomplish as an author. As part of this uncomfortable reflection, I began to scrutinize everything that seemed to be occurring in the publishing worlda recession, layoffs, bankruptcies, and re-structure of companies back to their bare bones.  Couple this with the looming fact that I was facing the final months of my self-imposed five-year goal to be published—something had to give. My publishing career was going nowhere … fast.

There had been moments of hope. Several editors expressed a genuine interest and excitement (okay, maybe I mistook their excitement for stomach pains) when they read a couple chapters and looked over the book proposals without dropping them in the circular file. They were not those gatekeepers that tell you “send it to me and I’ll get back to you,” and are never heard from again until the next writing conference. These acquisition editors seemed to be expressing honest-to-goodness interest in my writing. They actually tucked my novels under their arms and carried them into the inner sanctum of their respective publishing houses. My manuscripts cleared the gatekeepers. I’d wait weeks and months, hoping to get that final word of approval. Then it would come. By letter or by email, I’d learned my novel died a painful death when some unidentified committee members gave it thumbs down, reminiscent of brutal Roman times. Reluctantly, I’d store those novels away on the shelf and start on the next.

The second reason I shifted direction away from the traditional approach was that major changes seemed to be occurring in the publishing world. These changes began to alter my perception of my writing world. I slowly changed my attitude toward self-publishing as I began to connect with a group of writers who had modified their own perceptions over time. They persuasively championed the idea that authors who self-publish need not be ashamed. That to self-publish did not mean you were a failure as a writer. They argued that those who switched now just might be ahead of the publishing curve.

To further reinforce this concept, I watched in amazement as the eBook revolution exploded over the last year while publishing giants and Amazon vied for price control over these digital marvels. We all watched as eReader sales drastically climbed to new heights, while eBook sales soared into the double-digit percentile of all books sold. Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and other eReader distributors struggled to meet consumer's voracious appetites for thise digital readers as Christmas loomed nearer. I believe both companies had to cut off sales, particularly in Europe and elsewhere, to meet buyer demands in the U.S., Canada and the U.K during this pre-Christmas rush.

Rumors began circulating when Amazon announced that their eBooks were significantly outselling their  hardcover prints. A few months later, Amazon announced that eBooks were outselling their paperbacks. Everything seemed to be shifting while hard economic times continued to attack. I could almost smell fear emanating from tradition publishers and literary agents, each eyeing a volatile market that seemed on the verge of collapsing at times.

Rumblings I picked up online and at writers conferences about the impact of Kindles, Nooks, and iPads continued to gain momentum as the digital revolution rolled on. I began to understand market potential for authors in this digital age, particularly for new writers trying to develop and expand a readership. I began reading Joe Konrath’s great blog A Newbie’s Guide To Publishing, as he continually compared the two opposing markets—tradition versus self-published—while hammering away at long-held perceptions about publishing, age-old ideas that may not longer be valid in the current market. I came across Aaron Patterson’s The Worst Book Ever blog, where this young man—emerging from the construction trade to create his own writing career and publishing company for authors—joined Konrath and other writers, urging authors to step out and take a chance in this self-publishing tidal wave. I saw several unknown author’s eBook sales reach a level that would make NYT bestselling authors jealous.

I watched hand-to-hand combat between Amazon and Macmillan over what they termed the Agency Model, a concept pushed by traditional publishers where they—not the authors or Amazon—set the price for books. Macmillan won the first battle in that war, but I feel many more battles will be forthcoming and traditional publisher may lose that war unless they pay attention to the desires of their readers. Even before the ink dried on that first skirmishing agreement, Amazon began courting authors with tempting royalty offers—up to 70 percent if self-publishers kept their eBooks priced between $2.99 and $9.99. Match that offer with traditional publishing royalties in which most authors make only a fraction of their book sales. Or that authors can roll out their novels onto this growing market within 48 hours compared to eighteen months or longer. Where self-published prices, digital distribution and POD printing options actually match readers’ and authors’ pocketbook.

I saw the rise in eReader purchases, and the gradual climb of eBook sales from low single-digit percentages to escalating double-digits. Amazon spokesperson Russ Grandinetti, vice-president for Kindle, told a Digital Book World panel several weeks ago: “However fast you think this change is happening, it’s probably happening faster than you think.” Kindle’s Nation writes, “Publishers continue to set new release prices reflexively in the $12-$15 range, but only two of the top twenty bestselling eBooks in the Kindle Store are priced above $9.99.” Others—like self-publishing guru Joe Konrath—believe that the “sweet price” for eBooks might be around $2.99. Authors opting into the traditional publishing Agency Model have no control over these price points, while traditional publishers continue to offer their eBooks equal to or slightly below their print book prices. Publishers continue to assume readers will continue to pay higher eBook prices for NYT bestselling authors.

I believe they are wrong.

Fissures are emerging in the old castle walls of publishing. The old paradigm—query, submission, agent, publisher, contract—has begun to shift as writers begin to take more control over all aspects of their writing—editorial, production, price point settings, advertising, distribution, and marketing. Maybe this is in response to a growing trend over the last ten years where many traditionally-published authors were forced to take on a large portion of  the responsibility for marketing and promotion, paying for self-promotion to boost their sales out of their own pockets while struggling to find time to write.

Pushing this even further, a growing number of traditionally-published novelists and unpublished authors began paying for freelance editing out of their own pockets in order to be competitive, even before publishers got their hands on the manuscript. I began to  wondered if acquisition editors even know whether that newbie writer's manuscript—after being processed through so many freelance editors' handstruly represented that new writer's voice, that new writer's actually level of writing skill. After watching writers pay for editing, marketing, publicity, I began to question whether the traditional route made sense. 

I even began to buy into this trend, paying for limited editing services on novels that eventually landed on the dusty shelf while I continued to struggle to find traction somewhere among publishers. In this process, I began to learn how to improve my craft as editors and other writers provided me  guidance over time. A thought began to nag at me: Why don't I make use of these services I paid for and publish my own work. Pride and my focus on a traditional publishing path killed this thought.

It was a thought that would not go away. I watched the industry begin to shift like volcanic tremors as former editors and agents—let go by traditional publishing companies and literary agencies, or voluntarily packing their own bags—began offering freelance services at reasonable rates in growing numbers. I began to wonder—after all this paid-for editing—why authors would turn their manuscript over to traditional publishers and receive a fraction of what they might receive as self publishers, since they already paid for all this upfront. Self-published writers—diligently working alongside these seasoned free lance editors—can financially afford to make their works match the quality of those books coursing through traditional publishing rivers.

Not all self-pub writers, of course, are going to strive for quality, nor will they have the skill set for writing that would attract readership. But I believe there are a number of great independent writers/publishers out there who are willing to make the sacrifice to offer great novels equal to any in traditional publishing. Those independent authors, willing to strive for the very best quality, will rise to the top as their readership gradually grows. At least, this is what I think will happen.

Right now, I perceive this industry as helter-skeltered, much like the old Wild Wild West, where past rules and laws of publication are gradually eroding. In their place, a new era of readers will emerge as technological breakthroughs continue. The old sheriff—traditional publishers and gatekeepers—are losing control. There are new guns in town. Writers like Amanda Hocking, who sold 240,000 eBooks in one month this year; Joe Konrath and Victorine Lieke, selling over 18,000 books per month; or writer B. V. Larsen, who sold over 100,000 last years, 26,000 eBooks alone in January as those numbers continue to rise. Writers reaping seventy percent of those sales as compared to traditional royalty agreements. Stack these self-publishing sales—by basically midlist or no-list writers—against some of NYT’s bestselling authors, whose works are pushed with all the power large publishing houses can muster. At times, these new guns in town must feel like they’re waging a David and Goliath contest, but we all know how that story ended.

The future may lie somewhere between these two different worlds of publishing. Maybe we will reach a common ground of understanding, where authors, agents, and publishers work to create a new publishing paradigm, where authors begin to have more of a voice in their own futures coupled with greater profits. Unless something gives, I believe there will be a completely new world out there that the Big 6 never envisioned. And they may not be sitting at the table of power much longer.

Joe Konrath wrote a compelling article, “The End Of The Bestseller” on his blog, in which he attacks the high price point of books demanded by traditional  publishers. Joe believes the readers are fed up, and will register their anger by way of the pocket book. Here is how he sees things playing out:


In the future, we will no longer have the same bestsellers we have now. People will be buying more books, but more of them will be going unread. There won't be competition, because no one goes to a buffet and gets the pizza or the lasagna--they get the pizza AND the lasagna, even if they don't eat one of them.

EBooks will continue to gobble up market share once held by print books. Chain bookstores will close. Publishers will have to downsize or go bankrupt. Big name authors will self-publish, making less money than they did before, but having more control and getting a larger percentage of royalties. The playing field will truly be even, readers will find what they want to read without having it crammed down their throats by NY, and the cream will rise to the top.

And that, my friends, is a fairy tale ending in every sense of the term.

Just this last week we learned that Borders finally succumbed to Chapter 11 and Canada’s major book distribution company went belly up. One of the finest mystery books stores in Southern California closed their doors at the end of January. These occurrences seem to be replicating themselves in the publishing world faster than the U.S. national debt.

Authors need to learn to survive in this changing evolution of publishing. And so I must change along with everyone else. I’ve thrown my hat into the ring of self-publishing with my first novel, Revenge: A Travis Mays Novel.  Two other novels are waiting in the wings, while I finish my current WIP—Off  The Grid: A Garret O’Rourke Novel. Lord willing, four novels will be published by the end of 2012. I must adapt to change within this new publishing paradigm.

I think writers and readers should be excited about these changes. Sure, we will regret when some of our well-loved bookstores close their door, or we witness the passing of time-honored book signings—where authors get face time with their readers—as these events become fewer and farther between. Maybe the future will be a blend of the new and the old, but this will depend upon whether traditional publishers, distributors, and booksellers learn to adapt to this changing world along with their writers.

In a few weeks, I will be posting Chapter 3: The Nitty-Gritty of Self-Publishing, as I share some of the details learned as I published my first novel. Continue to travel with me on this journey and let’s see what the future holds for all of us—readers, writers and publishers.

Q:  How about you? What do you make of this publishing revolution?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Chapter 1: A Novelist’s Journey to Self-Publication

Writing In A Changing World
By Mark Young
February, 2011
Editor’s Note: Like my current novel, this story I am sharing is a work in progress. It is about a journey toward self-publication, a path I thought I’d never tread. I want to share bits and pieces of this journey as it unfolds in hopes of helping other writers make up their minds. This blog will continue to offer a wide variety of cop and author interviews, and other interesting features related to mystery fiction. 

Starting today, however, I will be writing some articles on self-publishing to specifically boost the spirits of all those struggling novelists who might find themselves caught on the same fence I straddled for many years. These articles are for the benefit of  writers still trying to decide which direction their career should head. I finally made a choice. For me, everything changes this month. My journey into self-publishing will begin shortly. I don’t know where it will lead. I don’t know how it will end. Come with me as we find out what the future holds. But first, a little backstory:

“I am no stranger to humiliation.” My lovely wife used that line the other day as we took a break from preparing my novel, Revenge, for publication. Her words—said in jest—got me thinking about this writing journey I embarked upon a long time ago. To be humiliated, one must possess a certain amount of pride.

Now, some types of pride—like the feeling you have when your kids excel in something—can be healthy. Some forms of pride—like vanity—can be ugly. When pride is involved, even good intentions can sometimes go awry.  Some time ago I began to understand how pride enslaved me as a writer. Other words and expressions—fear, for example— are closely related to pride. Have you ever asked yourself, “Is my writing good enough to be published?” (pride, fear); or, “What if I don’t succeed?” (fear). Worse yet, have you ever asked yourself: “What if I find out—after all these years—I never had it in me to be a publishable novelist?” (again, fear). And finally, “Have I wasted my time all these years to improve my craft—for nothing?” (Blend of fear and anger).

This month everything changes in my writing world. I am embarking down a new path, a journey that began forty years ago when I started writing. It began with small, pathetic attempts toward fiction: short story here, first chapter of a novel there. At the time, I chose to edit  my creativity to death until each writing piece landed up in my own rejection pile. Out of frustration, I stuck with non-fiction for the next thirty-five years.

I never lost the desire to write fiction, only the confidence that I might write fiction that someone else might like to read. Five years ago, I decided to return to fiction. I sat down and began writing my first complete novel, Broken Allegiance. A year later, I proudly began to market that novel while starting on my second novel, Shadows. Persistence always paid off for me in previous careers, and I saw no reason why it could not help me now. I decide I would be as persistent as a pit bull, latching onto agents, editors and publishers until I finally achieved writing Nirvana. That point where my novel finally reached the shelves of book stores around the world, or at least my local bookstore.

It never happened.

Three novels later, I found myself still looking for a home for my babies. As years passed, I began to wonder if I'd made a mistake. Like many writers, I wrestled with that paralyzing idea that maybe my writing would never be good enough. Many people knew I was trying to break into the publishing world—how do I hide the fact that I write every day to those who know me. Family, friends, and acquaintances always asking, "So, how is the book coming along." Translation: "Does anyone think your writing is worth enough to publish?"

Pride, frustration and humiliation began to set in. I just seemed unable to connect with the right people to make things happen. As I mailed each manuscript toward the publishing world, my carefully-written, carefully-edited novels seemed to bounce along the rim of acceptance, never swishing through the basket of approval. At times, my hopes were raised when an acquisition editor liked my latest novel and passed it onto their review committee—a faceless body of people searching for reasons to shatter every writer's hope. Unanswered query letter and requested manuscripts disappeared into the publishing abyss. A few editors and agents took the time to send back  rejection notices, or emails with the proverbial thumbs down line that begins, "Thank you ... but after careful review we have decided ..." to dash my dreams. Some editors and agents did take the time to email small notes of encouragement or advice. I latched onto these like a drowning swimmer. I continued to write, while growing angrier, frustrated and—yes—humiliated.

Granted, economic times have been tough. Even authors, who’ve landed on the New York Times bestseller list in the past, seemed to be experiencing great difficulty trying to get their manuscripts past the gatekeepers. Publishers seemed to pulling back, going with fewer and fewer authors, settling for the sure bets rather than those long shots. And for new authors—well, just forget it. Some squeak through, but the vast majority slip away into the black hole of oblivion. I did not want to slip into that void.

John Verdon
One of those fortunate new authors —John Verdon, author of that fabulous debut novel, Think Of A NumberTess Gerritsen, John Lescroart and Dean Koontz—all appeared on this blog last year, telling us their stories, giving us insight into their latest work. It was exciting to interview them, and each of these authors—with major publishing house  backing—seem to be doing very well. Great writing. Great name recognition. Each of these writers paid their dues and deserve to reap the rewards of their efforts. I tip my hat to them.

However, I believed these are the exceptions—not the rule. For every author who makes it into a major publishing house, there are many more writers—good writers—out there whose novels never break the surface. Never get noticed. Their works fail to reach the attention of readers desiring a well-written story. Now, I know there is many poorly written novels piling up on the desks of agents and acquisition editors. However, good writers—those who continually strive toward excellence, pushing themselves to their writing limits on every WIP—deserve a chance to get their work before readers. To let the market decide whether these writers deserve a reader’s trust. Until now, those chances for new authors getting published seems about as slim as BP getting new oil drilling rights in the Gulf.

But the winds are shifting in the publishing world. Let us return to backstory:

I love to read. That love started the first time I learned about words. When I was young I would be allowed to go to the library on Saturday afternoons if I did all my chores. I’d slip into the book stacks amidst medieval nights and ladies-in-waiting, reading about war, adventure and even romance—if it had a few knife fights or knuckles involved. I traveled the high seas with swash-buckling pirates, wielded weapons of war alongside other brave warriors. I rode horses with cowboys on the vast plains beneath open sky. It was a wonderful, exciting world in which to live. Never once did I give a thought about writing.

Then I grew up fast and hard at the age seventeen. I went off to a real war—Vietnam—where I saw the dark side of human nature. That experience changed my life forever. When I returned, I read writers like Ernest Hemingway with a different perspective, those writers whose works spoke to my soul because we both shared the experiences of war. It was about this time I begin to develop a need to write, a cathartic need to get words down on paper. Using the GI bill and working night jobs, I earned my BA degree in journalism and worked for several newspapers in the of San Francisco bay area for six years. It was a grand time. I slipped into Wounded Knee during the takeover and interviewed AIM  leaders Dennis Banks and Russel Means. I wrote about cops, crooks, and politics. I covered shootings, forest fires, and floods. I wrote about people struggling to make ends meet and about kids who made it to the state fair competitions. I wrote about the ecstasies and tragedies of human life. It was a great job, but I soon realized that I could not support my family on the peanuts I made as a reporter. Without getting into the particulars, I went to the dark side as my journalism friends called it. I became a cop.

For the next twenty-six years I lived a life that I found very challenging, in a career that provided very well for my family. Many of the skills that I had developed in journalism bade me well in law enforcement—report writing, interviews, seeking out facts and the truth. It was a great ride while it lasted. Through most of the eighties, I served on the federal Organize Crime and Enforcement Task Force, traveling throughout our nation hunting down major drug traffickers. From 1997 to 2002, I provided supervisory support for another federal organize crime task in San Francisco, targeting prison gang leaders throughout California. All this time, I was storing up reflections and information about people and human behavior, almost subconsciously. I never thought that I’d become another Joseph Wambaugh, but somewhere in the recesses of my mind stories and ideas started to gather like water seeping into dry soil.

That ride in law enforcement ended in 2005. I handed in my badge and moved my family to the Pacific Northwest, settling  in a little town far from the world I once lived and worked in.  This gave me a chance to return to one of my first loves—writing.

And so began the journey that led to these articles. I worked to become a published novelist like many other writers. As I struggled toward this goal, I thought if I was persistent enough, eventually I could make things happen. It worked for me as a journalist and a cop—why not as a novelist?

I attended writing conferences, read everything I could get my hands on about the craft, and began my first forays into social networking. Created a web site (www.MarkYongBooks.com , currently down for construction) and started this blog “where mystery readers, writers and law enforcement connect.” Upon the advice and invitation of other writers, I became involved with several online writers forums and writing organizations like Mystery Writers of American and the International Thriller Writers. I began to make friends and contacts in the publishing world  as I continued to learn the craft. I never stopped reading fiction, but now I began to read with an eye toward how these successful writers worked their craft—molding sentences, paragraphs, and chapters into published and successful novels.

All the time I continued to write: Broken Allegiance, my first novel, followed by Shadows, and finally Revenge. Currently, I am working on my fourth novel, Off The Grid, expecting to be completed later this year. Now, I know some authors wrote many more novels and spent many more years in obscurity before they finally broke through publishing obstacle courses.  I read or spoke to other published authors who had given themselves a certain amount of time to be publishied before calling it quits. Five years seemed the common denominator. This seemed like a reasonable amount of time, so I gave myself a five-year goal.

James Scott Bell
After my first novel, Broken Allegiance, was soundly rejected (and looking back, I can see justification for these rejections), I put it on the shelf and began working on Shadows, using everything I learned from my first failure. I attended a writer’s clinic and met a fabulous author/teacher, James Scott Bell, who provided expert advice and encouragement to me as I struggled to get published. (Quick promo: Check out Jim’s books, Try Dying, Try Darkness, and Try Fear. Very entertaining novels for readers looking for LA noir legal thrillers). I met Jim while trying to get traction in the CBA market. Later I began to move toward the ABA market, following the path of Jim and other writers.

I finished Shadow, and began working on Revenge, still trying to find that open gateway into the publishing world. Everything remained locked up tight. Self-publishing still did not factor into my game plan. I thought that if I went that route—self-publishing—I would be caving in, admitting that I was just not good enough to snag the attention of an agent or a publisher. Like a true Marine, I could not accept defeat.

Other authors around me began to succumb to the allure of self-publishing as they faced repeated rejections from traditional publishers. Not me. I would never give in. I kept plodding along, believing that one day my dream would come true. Meanwhile, my five-year-goal loomed ahead while rejection slips for Revenge and the other novels kept piling up. Then I began to take note of what other authors, editors and publishers were blogging and writing about in the publishing world. I read a number of articles on changing trends, of the eBook revolution, of refined POD publishing opportunities, and of the economic struggles of brick-and-mortar book stores and publishers fighting to stay in the black. It seemed as soon as I made an acquaintance at a publishing house, that person vanished, never to be seen again. I saw a number of really good editors leaving publishing house—some leaving under duress, some voluntarily—to become free lance editors and writers. Agents seemed to be leaving literary agencies in droves. Writing contracts seemed to be drying up. Bad winds were blowing.

One day I sat back and began to take stock of my career and where it seemed to be headed in light of all these changes going on around me. I finally began to see these changes in a completely different light, as opportunities for writers like myself trying to get published. I began to see a glimmer of hope for writers. That hope made me realize I must cast my pride aside. I had come to a fork in the road and knew I must make a choice.
Join me next week as we begin Chapter Two: One Novelist’s Journey to Self-Publication. I want to share with you some of the good news that is happening out there in the writing world. I want to give other writers a sense of hope. Thanks for joining me. I appreciate the company. Feel free to leave comments along the way. And writers: Take heart and keep writing.