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.
It seems as if everybody’s writing books these days, even celebrities who never did anything literary before. And if you’re not a celebrity and can’t get a million dollar contract, you can publish your own book, so why not?
I started creating books shortly after I learned to write. When I was about 8 or 9, I put together little books with cardboard covers and typing-paper insides. I printed the text with pencils and did the illustrations with crayons. I only made one copy of each, but it showed the direction I was destined to go in. I was always the little writer girl. I got sidetracked in the newspaper biz for a long time, but I still had this dream of a bookshelf full of books I had written. That shelf is half full now, but I’ve been at it a very long time. I wrote an awful lot of articles, short stories, essays and poems and published quite a few of them before I ever published a book.
My first two books were works for hire. The San Jose Chamber of Commerce hired me to write a guide for newcomers moving to Santa Clara County. They supervised the whole thing, which was really a compilation of articles and photos, not so different from my newspaper work. I got paid by the hour. By the time they updated the book a few years later, a private company had taken it over and hired their own writer. But it was a start. The second book, The Iberian Americans, came as a result of an ad in Writer’s Digest. Chelsea House, which publishes books for young adults, was looking for people to write about various nationalities. I sent an outline and sample chapter and got the gig. I got paid a flat fee, no royalties, no book tour. But it was and is a beautiful hardbound book full of wonderful photos and with my name on the cover. I was so thrilled when I saw it that I cried.
The Iberian Americans, which was about Portuguese, Spanish and Basque immigrants, led to Stories Grandma Never Told: Portuguese Women in California. That one was completely my idea, and I’m proud that it’s still selling well after 14 years. But here’s the thing: It took nine years from the time I roughed out the idea to when I held the finished book in my hand. That’s a long time. Much of that time I wasn’t working on the book at all, just trying to sell it. I had decided to just photocopy the damn thing and hand it out to my friends by the time Heyday Books took it on and made my dream come true.
I’m not going to torture you with the process for all of my books–six published now, several others not published and set aside. Childless by Marriage, the new one, has been in the works for about 20 years. What I’m saying is that a book can take a long time. After it’s published, it becomes part of your life. You will always need to be selling it, talking about it, and answering questions as some kind of expert. As I write this, I’m on my way to California to sell books at a Portuguese festival, where I will be pushing Stories Grandma Never Told, a novel called Azorean Dreams and my newer books. Because of these books, I have a reputation as a Portuguese-American writer.
My question for you is this: Are you passionate enough about your subject, whether it’s nonfiction or fiction or poetry, to spend years getting it published and the rest of your life loving it, promoting it and talking about it? It’s a huge commitment, a bit like marriage or having children.
It can be daunting to face a whole book at once. Try writing a short version first, an article, essay, short story, or poem. Is there a market for it? Do you have enough left for a whole book (think 300 pages)? Are you eager to keep going? Then go for it. If you never sell a single copy but you enjoy the process of writing the book, it’s still worth doing. Plus, you’ll be a better writer for having done it.