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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Joys of Birthing a Book

(If you read my newsletter, you have already read this. If so, skip to the last paragraph and follow instructions.)

When all I can think about is the book I’m currently producing, it seems logical to write about the birth of that book.Childless by Marriage has been on my desk and in my heart for decades. I started interviewing and researching childlessness about four books ago. It has been so long that some of the people I talked to have died and others have had babies, making them no longer childless. Many of us have gone through menopause.

Why has it taken so long? Selling books is a crazy business. I have submitted variations of this manuscript to agents and editors by mail and e-mail and pitched it at numerous conferences. An agent took it on and offered it to all the major publishing companies. The result was always the same: She writes well and it’s an interesting topic, but I don’t see a market for it. To which I wanted to scream, BUT I DO. I know there are people out there who will read it, and I can tell you where they are.

When I started working on this book, e-books/aka electronic books did not exist. “Vanity” publishing was a shameful option and the fledgling print-on-demand industry, which would house your book as computer files that were only printed as books when orders came in, wasn’t much better. The type of self-publishing where you hired pros to set up and print your books cost too much for ordinary people.

Times have changed. Now readers are walking around with Kindles and iPads, and you can publish an e-book for free. That’s right, free. All it takes is a little time. And, with the advances in digital technology, most of us can afford to publish a print book, either through one of many print-on-demand companies such as Authorhouse, Lulu or CreateSpace, or working with a printer on our own. We can download programs to format our books at our own computers. It’s not free, but it’s doable.

Publishing your own work does not have the same stigma it had even 10 years ago.A little over a century ago, self-publishing was common. With the industrial era, big companies took over publishing books to make a profit, and they became the only acceptable option. But now, with the big publishers refusing to take on anything except guaranteed blockbusters and with so many other options, we can take our careers back into our own hands.

That doesn’t mean we all should. Publishing a book does take a lot of effort—they should have Lamaze classes for author-publishers. Trying to get page numbers where they belong makes me crave an epidural for the brain. If a traditional publishing house wanted to take this job away from me, I’d be happy to let them.

Also, the reason self-publishing has had such a negative reputation for so long is that if anybody can publish a book, there’s no guarantee it’s any good. You have to weed through the garbage to find the good books. But if your book is good and you can get people to read it, the word will spread.

Let me be blunt about self-publishing. If your book isn’t well-written and professionally edited, with an eye-catching cover, and professional-quality layout, don’t do it. If you have no idea where or how to sell it, don’t do it. If you’re not ready to put in a lot of work with details such as headers and footers, ISBNs and platform-building, don’t do it. If you are not sure you can trust the company you’re thinking about working with,  don’t do it.

If you’ve never published anything else before, don’t do it, at least not yet. Spend some time building your career first. I wouldn’t dream of self-publishing a book if I didn’t have a long track record.

That said, if you feel that you’re ready, you can publish your own book.

The publishing world is full of advice for self-publishers these days. I’m not going to repeat it all. Visit the writersdigest.com website. Jane Friedman’s No Rules blog,  is loaded with practical self-publishing advice. There’s more at The Writer and Poets & Writers. Google self-publishing and prepare to be overwhelmed with information.

Or, you can purchase a skinny book that tells it all in plain English. I won Katie Salidas’ Go Publish Yourself! last month in a Goodreads giveaway (www.goodreads.com). It wasn’t the book I really wanted, but it turned out to be the book I really needed. I’ve got a shelf full of fat self-publishing books, but they’re complicated and go out of date before I can read them. Everything I need is in Go Publish Yourself!, with lots of practical advice and links to resources that will help you produce either an e-book or a print book.

Which should you do, e-book or print book? Well, I think one should do both. I don’t plan to publish any more books without making an electronic version available. Amazon is selling more Kindle books than print books these days. Why should we leave out all those readers who have stopped going to bookstores because they’d rather read on the Kindle? Or the Nook? Or their iPad or smartphone?

But what about those people who prefer traditional books? And what are you going to sell at book-signings, talks, festivals, in the stores, or out of the trunk of your car? In my opinion, it’s best to have both. Remember, producing the e-book is free. Also, you can take it offline and revise it anytime you want. So, if nothing else, do that and see what happens.

Again, I don’t want to repeat the advice you can find all over cyberspace and the print world. I’m just saying that with the changing times and countless revisions, I can now present Childless by Marriage to the world. Ten years ago, it wasn’t ready. I’m glad those editors said no. The e-book came out on Mother’s Day. You can get it for $2.99 at the Amazon Kindle store. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can download the Kindle reading app on whatever you do have.

Three of my previous books, Shoes Full of Sand, Azorean Dreams, and Stories Grandma Never Told, are also available as Kindle e-books you can download and read today. How cool is that?

The print version of Childless by Marriage is getting a pretty new cover, and I’m almost done wrestling with page numbers, headers, typefaces and such for the inside. I’m thinking it will be out in July, August at the latest.

Come back here for weekly discussions on the various aspects of this book-birthing process and other topics for writers. You can keep up with the latest on the new book at http:/childlessbymarriageblog.com. Blogging is another thing I never dreamed of when this book first started. Who knew? It’s a great new world.

But, beware. All this talk of publishing can distract us from the most important thing. Without the writing, there’s nothing to publish. So, go write. Write now.