Authors don’t make money off used books, but do we care?

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.

Learn your craft before you publish a book

In the olden days–maybe 20 years ago–it was hard to get a book published. It could take years to write the book. Then you had to query, submit the best work you could produce and pray that a publisher would some day call or send that precious letter saying, “We’d like to publish your book.” I’ve had a few of those calls and letters, and I can tell you it’s the best feeling in the world. Yes, it is better than sex.

There used to be a form of a self-publishing known as “vanity publishing,” but only the foolish indulged because it cost a fortune, and nearly everyone knew those pretty hardbound books were tainted with the stink of vanity, an ego trip. They weren’t necessarily any good; if they were, a real publisher would have printed them. Bookstores would not sell them, and individuals could not afford to buy them.

Then came the computer, print-on-demand, and e-books. Suddenly, for very little money, anybody could publish a book. You, me, the guy down the street. And they did. Because it cost nothing to produce an e-book and not much to publish a paperback with a company like Amazon’s CreateSpace, you could offer the books practically for free. Wahoo! Finally the business was democratized, open to everyone.

Yes, but wait. In those not-so-long-ago olden days, writers trained to be writers. They worked for newspapers or magazines. They published short stories, poems and essays. They took classes. They wrote and revised and revised some more. Because publishing a book was a big deal, they made sure they were ready.

Show of hands: How many of you have read a new self-published book that was terrible? The sentences were lame, the grammar flawed, and the plot unbelievable. Maybe you got it for free, but that’s all it was worth. Yes, I see you waving your hands.

I’m not saying all self-published books are bad. Some are wonderful. Sometimes self-publishing is the best way to make a worthy book available to people who want to read it. But don’t leap into book publishing before you’re ready, and for God’s sake, hire an editor. You’d be amazed at the magic a good editor can perform on a so-so book.

This rant was inspired by an article I read online called “The Vanishing Apprenticeship” by E. Stevens. The author laments the loss of newspapers and other publications as training grounds for writers. Hemingway, Twain, Orwell, and many others learned their craft writing articles every day. They learned to produce clean, readable copy on deadline. They learned how to please their editors and their readers.

I benefited from that kind of apprenticeship, too. I started writing poetry and fiction at a young age, but honed my skills writing for newspapers and magazines. Not only did my work have to be good enough for the editors to publish it, but I had to face angry readers if I didn’t get my facts straight. I learned to write whether I felt like it or not and to revise what I had written until it was smooth and correct.

I’m not saying everybody should go work for a newspaper. As Stevens points out, newspaper jobs have decreased at an alarming rate, from 455,600 in the U.S. in 1988 to 253,500 in 2010. I’m just saying don’t leap into publishing a book until you become a good writer. Practice, learn, do your apprenticeship, earn your journeyman status. Then give your readers something worth reading.

Now go write.







Contests as a route to getting published

In recent weeks, we have talked about approaching agents and book publishers to get your book published. Another path to publication is by entering contests. Many university presses and small independent publishers, especially those who do literary fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry, hold contests in which they will publish the winning books. This can be a huge honor and a stepping stone to greater things in your career, or it may turn out to be much ado about not very much, a handful of copies that no one but you will ever see.

You can find contests in many books and websites. Here are a few: Funds for Writers, Moira Allen’s Writing to Win: Colossal Guide to Writing Contests, Poets & WritersWriters Digest,, and the Creative Writing Opportunities list at Yahoo groups.I  So, you read the listings and find some that sound good. Now you need to answer some questions.

Who are these people?

Who else have they published? Do you like the books they put out? Would your book fit in? Go to their website, take a look at their books and see if it feels right. Then study the guidelines. Do you and your book fit their qualifications? Many contests look for authors who have not published books before or at least not in that genre. Some have requirements for age, ethnicity or place of residence. Others only want to see books that have already been published.

What do they require for entries?

Usually they’re looking for a finished manuscript. Will yours be ready by the deadline? Will it be the right length?  Do they want hard copies sent by mail, email entries, or entries fit into a form? Do they want your contact information on the manuscript, or does it need to be anonymous with a cover sheet explaining who you are. You can lose a contest in a hurry by not following directions.

Is this contest worth it to you? Nearly all contests have entry fees, often ranging from $20 up. If you enter several contest, the fees add up. What will you get if you win? Is there a cash prize? Do they guarantee publication? How many copies will they publish? What rights will they take? Will they pay an advance or royalties? Will they help with marketing and distribution? Are there secondary prizes for runners-up and honorable mentions? Do they offer critiques for non-winners?

If you’re thinking entering book contests sounds like a lot of work, you’re right. It is. But if you win the right contest with the right book, it can be the best thing that ever happened to your career.

You can’t enter a book contest without a book, so …

Now go write.



Traditional publishing, Part 2: How do I approach an editor or agent about my book?

I had written this whole post when it got eaten in cyberspace. I think it was God reaching down and saying, hey, that’s boring. (Also, don’t forget to hit “save.”) So we’ll try a new format. I enjoy reading questions and answers. Maybe you do, too. Here goes.

I want to try traditional publishing first. I have found a publisher I think might like my book. How do I start?

First, read their guidelines. You can probably find them at their website, where you can also find their catalog and see if your book is a good fit. They will ask for a query, a proposal (nonfiction) or synopsis (fiction), a complete manuscript, or they will say they only accept submissions from agents. If it’s the latter and you don’t have an agent, either try another publisher or start working on getting an agent. Agents will also want to see a query, a proposal or synopsis, or the complete manuscript, so let’s start with the query.

How do I write a query letter for a book?

A query for a book is much like the query for an article. They are both short, usually one page. In a few paragraphs, you must grab the reader’s attention, tell about the book, explain who you are and why you’re qualified to write it, and why people would want to read it.

That first paragraph is the key. You may have heard the word “pitch.” This is a brief kick-ass summary that you will need every time you tell someone about your book, whether you’re trying to sell it to a publisher or agent, writing text for the back cover, or sitting at a book table trying to sell a copy to someone who pauses to peruse your cover. It needs to tell what kind of book it is–if fiction, what genre, if nonfiction; is it memoir, how-to, history, or what?–and what it’s about in a few sentences. If you can’t sum it up in a paragraph, you’re not ready to sell it, so take time to work on your pitch. For examples, look at catalog descriptions and the back covers of other books. Also look at the blurbs used to describe movies.

While you’re at it, tell them whether or not the book is finished and how long it is. Describe it in words, not pages. For example, “The book is complete at approximately 100,000 words” or “I have written 10 chapters and expect the finished book to be about 80,000 words.” With varying print sizes and the explosion of e-publishing options, your page numbers probably won’t match those of the finished product.

When telling about yourself, stick to the most relevant information. Unless your book is for children or is about parenting, they don’t need to know that you have three kids. What they do need to know is what you have published before, whether you already have an audience through classes, talks, blogs or other media, and whether you have special knowledge or training in your subject. If you are writing about dogs and you’re a veterinarian, tell them.

You should know what other similar books have already been published. If you can say there’s nothing on the market like your book–and you’re sure it’s true–that’s a plus. Otherwise, tell the reader what your book offers that the others don’t? Why will people buy it?

Finally, tell them you’ll be glad to send a detailed proposal or even the whole book, if they’re interested, and you look forward to hearing from them.

Ideally, they’ll respond quickly with a “Yes! I can’t wait to see it.”

How do I send the query?

Most publishers will accept emailed queries, but check the guidelines to be sure. Look for the name of the person who handles queries for your type of book and address your query to them by name. Use the word query in your subject line as in: Pit Bull book query. Don’t forget to include your contact information.

If the publisher prefers snail mail queries, it’s back to old-school methods. Type your query letter on good white paper, fold it in thirds and put it in a business-size envelope, along with a self-addressed stamped envelope for their reply.

If all they want is a query, keep it short and don’t send anything else.

Can I send my query to more than one publisher or agent at a time?

Yes. If they show interest and want more, than I personally think you should let them have an exclusive look, but you should definitely query more than one publisher or agent at a time because it takes so much time to get a response. Mention in your letter that you are querying others. Just make sure that you personalize each query. Don’t do a mass emailing; send each query separately.

Next week: the proposal

Book publishing: the Traditional Way, part 1

A couple weeks ago, we talked about the big commitment it takes to write and publish a book. Now, assuming you’re ready or at least interested, let’s examine the ways one can get a book into print. Several years ago, I wrote a booklet called “You Can Publish a Book.” I sold a lot of them, but now it’s out of date. Things have changed so quickly, but for the writer it’s mostly good. We have lots of options that didn’t exist back in the old typewriter days.

Don’t remember typewriters? Well, they were slower and didn’t make copies or make corrections without leaving a mark, but they never lost your files.

Anyway, the basic methods of publishing, all of which I have tried, are:

  1. Traditional print publishing
  2. Print on demand
  3. Independent publishing
  4. E-books

We’re not going to cover all of these today,  so let’s talk about traditional publishing. This is the deal we see in the movies, the dream we all want. In traditional publishing, a company pays you advance money to buy the rights to publish your manuscript, edits, illustrates, formats and does everything else needed to turn it into a book; distributes it to bookstores, online retailers, libraries, and other venues; takes care of marketing and publicity, and sends you a royalty check at least twice a year. All you have to do is write a fabulous book, make whatever changes the editor requests, and show up for the book-signings.

Sounds perfect, doesn’t it? There are some drawbacks, like it usually takes at least a year for your book to come out, and most publishers put minimal energy into publicity after the initial splash, but it’s still good. Being published by a name publisher gives you credibility and can boost your career in ways that the other methods may not. But there’s no guarantee. Traditionally published books sometimes fail, and books published in other ways sometimes turn into blockblusters.

I advise most writers to try for a traditional publisher first. It doesn’t cost you much money, and established publishers have resources far beyond what you and I have.

So how do you get in? Ah, there’s the rub. The biggest publishers are part of mega-corporations that will not take on a book that doesn’t promise to be a best-seller. It helps to be already famous. But there are numerous smaller publishers, independents and university presses, that will take a chance on good writing by relative unknowns. It CAN be done.

Show of hands: how many have heard of the slush pile? That’s the legendary pile of unread manuscripts stacked up at every publishing house waiting for some college intern to glance at the first page and reject them. We don’t want our books to go there.

Ways to avoid that slush pile include: sending exactly the kind of book they’re looking for in exactly the format they want it, pitching at conferences, and getting an agent to represent you.

We’ll get to pitches and agents soon, but let’s start with sending publishers what they’re looking for. Most of the books in the slush pile get rejected because they don’t fit what the publishing house wants. Sending the wrong subject matter, wrong type of book, or a clone of something they just published will win you a rejection slip–or no response at all. So will sending complete manuscripts when they only want queries or proposals.

The first thing you need to do when seeking a publisher is research the various publishing houses and find one that fits. Look at their websites, browse through their catalogs. You can usually sense a trend? Does you book fit in with this group? If not, move on. They’re not going to go off in a new direction for you. And sending things in a format they don’t want will just piss them off.

You can find publisher listings at Writer’s Market, Poets and Writers, The Writer,, Funds for Writers, and many other sites. These listings will give a brief overview, which should lead you to the publishers’ websites, with their guidelines for submissions.  If you think your book is a good fit, follow the directions religiously.

Usually a publisher will ask for a query, a proposal with sample chapters, or a complete manuscript. We’ll talk about these in detail next week.  For now, look for publishers that might be right for you.