Dear writers and readers, this blog has been dormant since late last year, but I had to mark the 10-year anniversary of my first post by telling you that I have updated the past posts, revising where the information was no longer accurate and making sure all the links worked. Those updated posts are my gift to you. Because I think it would be good to have all the advice put together in one place in a logical order, I am also planning to compile my blog posts into an e-book. I will let you know about that as soon as it’s available.
In the beginning, the blog was called Freelancing for Newspapers. I started it to publicize my then-upcoming Freelancing for Newspapers book. I’ll be honest. Some of those first posts were so lame it hurts to read them now. I was just learning how to blog. Now I offer a class on it. (click on Classes above). Over those first few years, I offered a mix of my own experiences writing freelance articles, plus information about the newspaper business and advice for writers on everything from how to get an assignment to how to get paid.
But the publishing world changed, I changed, and so did this blog. It morphed from Freelancing for Newspapers to Freelancing for Newspapers +, the plus sign indicating I might talk about more than newspapers. Eventually it became Writer Aid so I could address all sorts of writing, including fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction (and also maybe lure readers into my servers for writers).
At the same time, the newspaper business was changing. With the double whammy of the recession and the Internet, newspapers were going under or shrinking. Longtime staff writers were losing their jobs by the hundreds. And freelance opportunities became harder to find. Our local daily, The Oregonian, went from a stuffed package loaded with special sections to a thin tabloid. How could one write for the garden or arts sections when even the decades-long editors of those sections were now unemployed?
My own life was changing, too. I was caring for my husband, who had Alzheimer’s Disease. In 2009, he moved into a nursing home, and in 2011, he died. Through it all, I kept writing, but I was easing out of article writing and focusing more on poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction. I went back to school and earned my MFA in creative writing. I started teaching. I published two more books, Shoes Full of Sand and Childless by Marriage.
All of these changes were reflected in the blog as I talked about self-publishing, poetry, plots, settings, characters, and selling books. For a while, the blog shrank down to three quick tips because that’s all I could manage, but I kept it going. Last December, I decided there were too many writers blogging about writing, and the world didn’t need me doing it. I would focus on my other blogs, Unleashed in Oregon and Childless by Marriage.
I’m still not sure the world needs me writing about writing. Writers are so inbred, and I think it’s important to talk to the rest of the world. But as I put together the e-book, I suspect I will find topics that I have not yet addressed, and I will write new posts to fill in the blanks. If you sign up to follow the blog, WordPress will let you know when that happens.
You can still buy the Freelancing for Newspapers book. Some of the information is outdated now, but the basics of writing and selling articles is the same. The steps in the book will lead you from idea to published story, not just in newspapers but in magazines and online publications. Order a copy.
Now go write something.
A tiny moptop dog greeted me at the door of Robert’s Bookshop in Lincoln City as I stepped into one of the biggest used-book shops on the Oregon Coast. Room after room after shelves and stacks of all kinds of books: mysteries, old Zane Grey westerns, literary classics, poetry, essays, cookbooks, history books, everything you can imagine. I even found a whole room full of books about war. It’s Disneyland for readers.
As I stacked up my treasures, all priced well below what a new book would cost, I thought about how the authors of these books would not make a cent off these sales. Whatever they were going to earn, they received in the original sale. That’s it. No residuals like actors in TV shows that keep airing as reruns. As an author, I find that a little daunting. After our first sales, for which authors usually get royalties, our books are completely out of our control. They’re passed on to friends and family or sold at garage sales, flea markets, secondhand stores, and online venues like Amazon where you can buy some books for as little as a penny. The only people making money off these sales are the vendors, especially if the books get old enough to be antiques.
Here on the Oregon Coast, we have more stores selling used books than new ones. Why? People don’t want to pay full price. And most of us who like to read pile up so many books we have to give some away or trade them for other books at places like Robert’s.
As authors, there’s nothing we can do about this. We have to let go our our creations and just be glad if someone is reading them. Maybe someday someone like me will be wandering the aisles of a crowded used-book store, see your book and smile. “Aha! I always wanted to read that.” Or, “That looks like a great book, and it’s only $2.” They’ll take it home to read and to treasure.
Ideally we would all buy new books at independent bookstores so authors get paid well and the stores stay in business, but let’s be honest. As readers, we just want to read the books, and we’ll take them wherever we can get them. After a certain point, books are just not about money.
If you are ever in Lincoln City–seven miles of beach and books, books, books–you should go to Robert’s, but you can also visit Robert’s sister store, Bob’s Beach Books, which is full of shiny new books for full price.
But there aren’t any new books if we don’t write them, so let’s go write.
I can’t wait to start reading my friend’s first novel. I happily empty my wallet to buy an autographed copy. I inhale the new book smell and flip through all those pages looking forward to what I expect to be a wonderful experience. I brew a cup of tea, settle into my comfortable chair with the dog at my side and turn to Chapter One.
That’s when I realize the writing is bad. Really bad. By page three, I still don’t know what’s going on. My critique group would tear it to pieces. Bill would say he doesn’t get it. Dorothy would cross out most of the pages, saying it’s not interesting, it doesn’t go anywhere. I’d ask for scenes, for specifics, and for dialogue that sounds the way people really talk. I would note the many grammatical errors, the mismatched modifiers and the typos. We would send the author back to his computer to start over.
But it’s already a published book. It’s going out into the world as is. Book-signings, publication parties and readings have been scheduled. It’s too late. Where was the editor? How could he or she let this book go out into the world this way?
Another author sends his book to me via Kindle, asking for a review. By the end, I’m so frustrated I’d throw it across the room, except I don’t want to break my Kindle. It has bad characters and bad dialogue. It raises questions that are never answered. I vow to never read another book by this author.
The next one, also an e-book, has good content, but the writing and the typos make it painful to read.
I turn to an old classic for some literary relief. I have two more new books to read and review, but I can’t stand it anymore.
You know what makes me even more nuts? These authors get their friends to offer five-star reviews that make them sound like Pulitzer Prize winners. I read them and think: Did they read the same book that I read? Do readers just not know the difference anymore?
These books are self-published. They give self-publishing a bad name. After a while, even though I have self-published some of my own books, I check the copyright page, see that a book is self-published and don’t want to read it.
The problem is two-fold. First, everybody needs an editor. No matter how good a writer you are, you can’t see your own mistakes. You can’t back away from the story and see the big picture. Your brain is programmed to see what you want it to see. Start with a critique group. It hurts to have people point out your writing flaws, but it helps so much in improving your writing, so get your work critiqued before you publish it. Run it by some non-writer readers, too. See if they react the way you hope they will, laughing at the funny parts, loving the characters, getting wrapped up in the story. If they don’t, you need work on it some more.
Before you self-publish a book, get it professionally edited. It can cost quite a lot—over a thousand dollars in some cases—but it can make the difference between a well-written book and one that needs work. As I read recently in a brilliant article by Russell Blake called “How to Sell Loads of Books,” “If you’re too cheap or too broke to pay an editor, barter something of value to get someone qualified to do it, or (gasp, here’s an idea) save some money so you can do it right. Skip these steps and you won’t sell much, if anything. Or if you do, it won’t last very long, because word will spread, and then you’re dead.”
Of course, not everyone who calls herself an editor is a good one. Ask for recommendations from writer friends, get referrals from the acknowledgements of books you admire, or check the Editorial Freelancers Association.
The second problem, a deeper and more difficult one, is that people are putting out books when they haven’t laid the groundwork for a writing career. It’s like some guy who wants to be an electrician expecting to rewire the White House without having taken any classes or served an apprenticeship. Good writers spend years working on their craft. They take classes and workshops, earn degrees, read the works of the masters, and write reams of prose or poetry that never gets published. Like pianists practicing their scales, they practice their craft and never stop learning. They don’t dash out 60,000 raw words and start designing the cover. They spend years revising and polishing.
Yes, with today’s technology, anyone can write a book and publish it. You can do everything yourself or pay one of the many companies offering to give birth to your book—no matter how bad it is or how unready it is for publication. Years ago, I talked to Donald Maas, agent and author of Writing the Breakout Novel, about print-on-demand publishing. With POD, all the rage at the turn of this century, companies like iUniverse and Xlibris would publish your books but not print them until orders came in. They offered marketing help for extra fees but no editing. What you sent them was what got published. Now with e-books and Amazon’s CreateSpace program, you can put out your books for free. There’s nothing wrong with that if they’re truly ready for publication.
Maas said most self-published authors don’t take the time for that last much-needed rewrite. There are a lot of good reasons writers avoid the big publishing conglomerates these days. The competition is fierce, and it can take years for a book to be published, but for God’s sake, don’t jump into print (or cyberprint) until your book is the best it can possibly be. Don’t make me want to throw it across the room.
And if you haven’t developed your craft or gotten your book edited, please don’t ask me to review it. No matter how pretty the cover is or how much I want to say good things, if I see problems with your book, I’m going to tell the truth. You have to earn your stars from me.
Now go write.
Pitch, pitch, pitch. With some writing groups and conferences, the air is filled with that word. It has a lot of different meanings. We can pitch a baseball, pitch something into the trash, select a key for a song, pitch a tent or pitch a fit. The dog can get covered with pitch from the pine trees in my neighborhood. But for writers, pitch, as my Webster’s says, is “to make a sales pitch.”
Most of us are writers not salespeople, so it’s going to take some extra courage to start pitching, but it also requires writing skill, which we have.
The pitch is the basis of a query for a novel or any other kind of book, whether you deliver it on paper, by e-mail or in person at a conference. For a pitch, you need to distill your story into a few sentences that describe what kind of book it is, what it’s about, and who’s going to want to read it. Then, if you have time, you’ll describe, briefly, who you are and why you’re qualified to write this book. In writing, it should fit on one page. In person, you may only have a minute or two to spew it out before the listener loses interest.
The pitch is the most important thing you’ll write for this book, and you’ll use it long after it’s published for every interview, media appearance and conversation with book-sellers and readers. Even in casual conversation, if someone asks what your book is about, you need to be able to tell them in a few clear sentences. You can’t go into all the details of the plot. “Well there’s this girl, and she meets this guy, and oh, she only has one leg, and the guy’s a doctor and, um…” That’s not going to fly. What is the essence of this book? For example, I say that my novel Azorean Dreams is a Portuguese-American love story in which an independent newspaper reporter of Portuguese descent falls in love with a newly arrived immigrant who has old-fashioned ideas about how women should act.”
For good ideas about how to describe your book, read the descriptions on the back covers of books or the summaries on book sales sites. Check out movie descriptions online or in the TV guide.
Once you get the story across in a few lines, you need to know where it fits in the bookstore, whether virtual or bricks-and-mortar. Is it a mystery, a romance, historical, fantasy, literary? Can you compare it to other books? If you say it’s Stephen King meets Harry Potter, we know where you’re at. A little Anne Tyler and a little Ann Lamott? Okay, we get it. Now don’t go saying your book is better than any of these. No bragging. Just offer information and let the reader/listener decide that it’s fabulous.
Now it’s time to tell about you. If you have relevant experience, say it right away. If you’re writing about politics and you’ve been involved in campaigns or been elected to office yourself, that’s an important selling point. If you set your story in the Grand Canyon and you’ve worked there as a ranger for the last 10 years, say so. If some event in your own life drove you to write this story, put it in your pitch. And yes, if you have writing credits, if you have experience in the media, if you have developed a big following for your blog, tell it to help sell it.
A writer’s pitch is a sales pitch. Your book is the product, but you’re part of the package. Yours are the face and the voice that go with the book. Agents and editors want to know what they’re selling.
There’s a lot more to talk about: synopses, sample chapters, who to offer your book to and how. Stay tuned; it’s all coming up here at Writer Aid. I welcome your questions.
One of many helpful references on this subject is The Writer’s Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposalsby Moira Allen. I wrote the chapter on pitching to agents at a writing conference, but the whole book is filled with useful information.
Meanwhile, you can’t sell what you haven’t written. Before you pitch a novel, you need to finish it.
So now go write.
I’m giving away free copies of my Kindle e-books Childless by Marriage and Azorean Dreams Oct. 28-31. Sure, I want you to know about it and download copies, but I also want to talk about this freebie phenomenon. It’s a promotion encouraged by Amazon.com, the main perk for being enrolled in their Kindle Select program. The idea, seemingly approved by all who sell e-books, is that getting huge numbers of people to download your books and post favorable reviews will show the world that these books are worthy of note. Ideally, you and your book will go viral, publishers, movie producers and Oprah will notice, and your career will take off. That’s the dream.
To make this work, you publicize the giveaway on the dozens of sites offering free Kindle books. At least dozens. Google “free Kindle ebooks.” I keep finding more, and I’m exhausted from filling out their forms. This is not writing, not even close. This is giving away my books. But it’s an e-book that didn’t actually cost me anything to publish. I’m a lot more stingy with the printed version.
I’ve got a friend who only reads books on her Kindle now and only downloads books that are free. She’s not the only one. When she and her husband joined me and my brother and his wife for dinner a while back, they shared long lists of free e-book sites.
People don’t want to pay for books anymore, not if there’s a chance they can get them for free. I find myself looking for freebies, too. Out in the world, when I’m selling my paperbacks, I have noticed that all of us independent author/publishers are lowering the prices on our books. In 1998, when my book Stories Grandma Never Told came out, people were tossing $20 bills at me like they were nothing. Now I’ve got customers counting out singles, hoping they can put together $15 for a new book. Why? It’s partially the economy, but it’s also the new mindset of readers that books shouldn’t cost real money.
Or is it just self-published books? Most of the freebies are self-published, and most of them are fiction. Books published by the big corporations cost less than they used to, but you won’t see them being given away. People will buy them without these special promotions.
Perusing the free titles, I get a little queasy. According to http://digitalbooktoday.com, 4,000-5,000 free titles are being offered right now. Yet their subjects don’t appeal to me–heavy on vampires, murders and romance–and the ones I have read often need a little more editing. I suddenly picture the bins of worn paperbacks outside the secondhand store. “Free,” the hand-lettered sign proclaims, but they don’t look like books anyone would want.
Bottom line, I want people to read my books. Lots of people. Money is a secondary concern. So I’ll give them away for four days and see what happens. Let’s consider it my Halloween gift to the world.
What do you think about all this? How much are you willing to pay for an e-book? Paperback? Hardcover? If it’s free or inexpensive, do you automatically assume it’s not as good?
If you go for traditional printing instead of print-on-demand, the day will come when you bring home boxes, boxes and more boxes of your new book. You tear a box open, pull out a copy, and oh, there’s your book, your dream come true. There’s the cover you labored over, the words you poured out of your soul and spent hours/days/weeks formatting. It looks small, huh? After all that work. But it’s yours, and it’s a book.
If you pick them up from the print shop (as opposed to having them shipped from somewhere), give them a close look before you leave. In fact, go through a whole box and check them carefully. Are they bound properly, the spine and covers smooth, the colors what you expected? Right now is your best chance to get them redone for free if they’re not right, so check. I have had to send books back. I hated handing them back, hated the delay, especially when I had customers waiting, but you pay a lot of money to have books printed and they need to be right.
Assuming they’re fine, now you have to find a place to put them. It needs to be clean and dry, accessible but not in the way. Where I live on the Oregon coast, the dampness in the garage is murder on books, so I stash them in a bedroom. At this point, with several titles to sell, I wish I had a warehouse. Books take space, and the boxes are heavy. But having them there is incentive to get busy selling them.
Stash some books in the car and never go anywhere without them. If someone says, “I’d like to buy a copy of your book,” you can put one in their hands before they change their mind.
Most of your sales will not be in person. Stock up on padded envelopes and boxes to mail your books. You can get them much cheaper online than at your local office supply store. You’ll need packing tape. Custom mailing labels, available through Vistaprint, add a nice touch.
Get ready for your first order. You’re in the book-selling business now.
We have been talking about self-publishing for the last couple months. I’m not sure how interested you are in reading about this. The next topics would be setting up channels for selling your books and the complicated worlds of publicity and marketing, but I’m thinking we should get back to writing. If I don’t hear otherwise from anyone, I will stop this self-publishing series here for now, but if you send questions in the comments section, I’ll be delighted to answer them.
All the best,
Our previous posts have covered editing your books, designing a cover, and formatting your books. It is possible, although not always wise, to do all of these things ourselves, but we’re probably not equipped to print our own books. Unless we’re doing print on demand, which we discussed in July, our next step is to get the book printed. This is the biggest cost of producing your own book, so it pays to choose wisely.
Where do I find a printer?
There’s always the phone book. If you look under “printing,” you may find several listings, a lot if you live in a big city But not all printers are equipped to print books. If they say they do books, ask to see some samples. Are they well printed and bound? Does the ink come off on your hands? Is the print consistently clear and dark? Can they do full-color covers or are they limited to one or two “spot” colors?” Will they help you prepare the book for printing? Ask to see samples of paper and cover stock. Don’t settle for junky-looking books.
You don’t have to settle for a local shop. Lots of publishers, including big-name traditional publishers, get their books printed out of state or even out of the country because it’s less expensive. These days, book files are sent online, so it doesn’t really matter where they are. Ask other authors where they get their books done. Look on the copyright and acknowledgment pages of published books for mentions of what company printed them. Visit their web pages or call them to see if they might be the right printers for you.
How much is this going to cost me?
Approach several printers to get estimates for the cost of printing your book. You will need to know how many pages the finished book will be, how many copies you want, and how much you can afford to spend. It helps to figure out how much you will charge for the book so you can see how much you will make on each copy once you subtract the printing costs. The more copies you print, the lower the per-copy price will be, but be realistic about how many boxes of books you want piled up in your house. Remember, you can always go back and print more.
By now, you’re grinding your teeth, wanting specific numbers. Okay, I’ll lay it out here. My newest book, Childless by Marriage, cost me $8.19 per book for 300 copies, totaling $2,458. In addition to this, I paid $103 for them to design the cover, another $100 for promotional postcards and $60 for three stand-up foam-backed posters. I’m charging $15.95 a book. Most retail stores will ask for a 40 percent discount. Amazon demands 55 percent. You do the math.
To be honest, prices at the small-town shop I use are a little high, but they’re local, they help me a lot with the formatting and other details, they design fabulous covers, and I have a long history with them. When I want more copies or more promotional materials, all it takes is an email and they start printing. But I won’t lie. As we say here in Oregon, it’s “spendy.”
A Google search will yield lots of companies offering to publish your book for as low as $2.94 a copy. They may be great. Check them out. All of them will give you a free estimate. But watch out for hidden costs–shipping?–and ask for a sample of their work before you trust them with your book.
How long will it take?
One of the big advantages to self-publishing vs. having a traditional publisher do it is that you can have your printed book in a few weeks vs. a year or longer. One of the disadvantages is that most of us don’t have warehouses or a shipping crew. You will receive all of the books at once and will need to find a clean, dry place to store them. Having all of these books underfoot should inspire you to get busy marketing your new book.
Opening that first box full of the book your wrote and published is going to feel fantastic.