Category Archives: publishing

Beyond any marketable definition

small press, spuyten duyvilsmall pressesWhen small press publisher Spuyten Duyvil released the anthology Wreckage of Reason in 2008, the Ted Pelton, of The Brooklyn Rail wrote: “Were this book published by St. Martin’s or Norton, they would have slapped its contents on wider margins and packaged it for the college market at twice the cost. Except Norton or St. Martin’s would never publish this book—it’s too dangerous, wild, and singular. Wreckage of Reason gives us three dozen women authors beyond any easily marketable definition; by any description, it’s an anthology worthy of an audience and acclaim.”

What do you do if you are a writer who works “beyond any easily marketable definition?”

I just finished reading a New York Times Bestselling novel. It is written in alternating first and third person narration; the third person is from the limited point of view of an eleven year old French Jewish girl swept up in one of France’s great atrocities during the Nazi occupation. The first person narrator is an American ex-pat living in Paris in the modern day, a journalist assigned to research this round up of Jews for the 60th anniversary of the event. There is a mystery, a struggling marriage, the promise of newly budding love, with the backdrop of the holocaust. I read it in four hours. The subject matter indisputably compelling. This is highly marketable, and also highly formulaic. I won’t say the writer isn’t skilled, because she obviously grabs the writer with her descriptions and the way she establishes the scenes and evokes the reader’s emotions. So I’m not disrespecting this writer. I’m not disrespecting this genre. It has its place, a very important place, in the world of books and readers, and frankly keeps books in the public eye.

Can I point to moments of breathtaking language or astute observations of the human condition in the pages? I cannot. Is it great literature? Not by my definition. Sorry.

So when I work with a writer who wants to know how to make his book appeal to the market, whose prose is not only articulate but artistic, whose story has breadth as well as depth, whose story has many intertwining arcs, whose protagonist has many antagonists, and whose work may well refuse to fit on any of the major publishing houses book lists, a part of me grieves.

I believe that too many writers with great potential to affect readers with their prose are always looking for ways to sell their books. They water down their imagery–instead of dredging to get deeper into the real motivations of their characters, they are backfilling to make them accessible. They’ll dump an obscure barbaric British imperialist in favor of Adolph Hitler, and the reader, who might have actually learned something new or unexpected is cheated out of ever having that opportunity.

Valuable and relevant work is crafted every day. Small presses affirm this every day. While working with a small press might not be glamorous and might not give you an immediately recognizable name to drop at networking events, it is nonetheless crucial to maintaining the craft of writing (though you may both toil in poverty and obscurity).

So, what do you do if you are a writer who works “beyond any easily marketable definition?”

If you’re a writer with chops, a writer who crafts stories and who cares about the obscure and the meaningful, you might do well to ignore the call to achieve fame and fortune through writing. Write, damn it. Read small press books and write some more. Hone your craft to be the best it can be, not necessarily to fit the formula of the mainstream book publishers. And don’t consign yourself to the role of publisher, designer, marketer, and chief bottle washer if what you really are is a writer. We need writers. The world needs writers like it needs mothers, people devoted, truly dedicated to the task, despite the lack of acclaim. The future of the art and the world depend on them.

What to do when you’ve finished your revisions…

IMG_0099 Put your manuscript in a drawer.

 Write your next novel. With experience comes …well, experience. Oh, and wisdom.

Did you know that “debut” fiction that we see in the catalogues of the big publishers are rarely the first novel that writer completed? The “debut” success stories in the New York Times often have two or three unpublished novels under their belts. It wasn’t until after they worked out some of the kinks that were hard to put a finger on in their first manuscripts, some of the issues of craft that kept the reader at bay, whether it was working through those uncomfortable autobiographical elements that so often rear their heads in first fiction, handling them so they could be looked at directly or ignored completely, that their work really began to shine. Their experience made them better writers. So much so that sometimes these writers, looking back, don’t even consider their early attempts to ever have been finished.

“Quantity produces quality.” ~Ray Bradbury

Case in point: Anthony Marra’s debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, being released in April 2013 by Hogarth, is not his first completed novel. His first novel, he told me in an interview last year, was about Ireland. But he hardly recognizes that as something he even finished. He had another novel in there too. Also he completed a collection of short stories (which has also been picked up by Hogarth and will be released next year). constellation coverHe has been working full time at learning the craft of writing, and it has paid off for him in a relationship with a traditional publisher.

Nathan Bransford‘s 2011 blog: The case for putting the manuscript in the drawer. He writes: “The best thing about self-publishing is that no one has to put a manuscript in the drawer because they couldn’t find a a publisher. The worst thing about self-publishing is that no one has to put a manuscript in the drawer because they couldn’t find a publisher.”

#1 mistake, according to Kristen Lamb: Publishing before we’re ready.  She ends on this note: “Sometimes there are reasons we are being rejected and we need to take a hard look and be honest. Self-publishing is suffering a stigma from too many writers publishing before they are ready. If you really want to self-publish, I am here to support you and cheer you all the way, but remember, we have to write better than the traditional authors.”  I love Kristen. She is very wise. And funny.

“The ability of writers to imagine what is not the self… is the test of their power.” ~Toni Morrison

Need another reason to wait until you finish another book before you rush to self publishing? Say you really do have the perfect book already and you self-publish it and you do all the work to self-publish right and you get readers who love your book. It would behoove you to have another book waiting in the queue for them to buy. Readers are extremely brand loyal. This is why series books sell so well. (Though I am not suggesting you should write a series!) If there is time between your first and second book, you will have to find those readers all over again to remind them who you are. Besides the fact that this just makes so much sense when it’s said out loud, this advice is also given by Kristen Lamb in her blog.

So, congratulations on finishing your first novel! If you’ve worked with me or another editor to locate and deal with weak spots, you’ve got an advantage in the market. If your goal is traditional publishing, and if you’re convinced it is the next great American novel, write a query, do a targeted pitch to agents, keep building your relationships with writers and readers, and start to work on your next book.

In a year, you’ll have a lot more to work with than if you spend the next year marketing the hell out of your only book in the self-published marketplace.

NaNoWriMo? No. No.

Did I write the first 50,000 words of my novel? Is that why I’ve been MIA from my blog for so long? Sadly, no. And, happily. Instead of writing a pile of you-know-what, I’ve been working on some excellent projects with some excellent clients.

Brad DeHaven, Sacramento Editor, Robin Martin

November 1st saw the release of The Addict Among Us, my second book as a developmental editor with prescription drug abuse activist Bradley V. DeHaven. In this picture to your left, the completed proof sits upon some of the hardcopy work I did, as we took the manuscript from 100,000 words of stream of consciousness writing and copied/pasted emails to an organized self-help book about how to prevent, detect, treat, and live with opioid (or any) drug addiction. This is another excellent book on the subject by Brad, who has been on the go spreading the word about how this epidemic sneaks up on the most unsuspecting of families, and of course, spreading the word about his book as well.

The Under the Gum Tree editorial staff selected the next group of pieces for Issue 6 from a nice batch of submissions. The mag is getting designed as we speak and will be on the newsstands in the first weeks of the new year.

During November, I also began a substantive edit on a 600-page mainstream fiction manuscript with an author I began working with in November of last year. At that time, I did an evaluation and critique on an earlier draft, which he took to heart and spent nearly the next year revising. I really enjoy seeing a writer develop his or her craft, being receptive to feedback about plot and character, point of view, and the finer points of language. And I enjoy seeing the result of hard work on the page. While this writer was planning on going directly to self-publishing, I am going to encourage him to seek a traditional publisher because I think the manuscript could attract interest in the current market and he doesn’t really seem that interested in becoming a publisher/marketing professional.

Speaking of this, I have two other clients heading on a traditional publishing path. Of course, I’ve advised them to stop querying agents now, because agents like to have a holiday too, you know. But these writers have had some promising attention and I have high hopes for them.

Meanwhile, three of my former clients have successfully self-published their novels in the last few months, and my friend and mentor Andrea Hurst has done so as well. There are many paths to publication, and everyone has to do what feels right to them. I don’t want to spend time here discussing the choice between traditional and self-pub, as there are so many excellent bloggers out there doing it for us. Let me just say I believe there are very good reasons to pursue either one, depending on one’s goals and resources. The debate is, frankly, getting pretty stale. Just do what you’ve got to do.

I guess I feel the same way about NaNoWriMo. For some people, attempting to meet a writing goal with 300,000 other people is the way to go. Just the motivation they need. For others, not so much.






Ready for this Book Release

 sacramento editor, editor Robin Martin, Rob Mahan

Just Released!

An Irish Miracle by Rob Mahan is available for purchase in both print and electronic versions.

 My copy, signed by the author, who just happens to be my client, arrived in the mail this week and it looks great.

  He first contacted me in January of 2011 looking for an evaluation and critique, and over the year he worked on a substantive edit. He launched his publishing company, Marietta Book Works, earlier this year, commissioned some pros, and now he’s in business.

Congratulations, Rob.

                Check out his beautiful book and learn more here.

Bigger isn’t always better

In the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of Poets & Writers, there are several essays on community driven publishing, one of which is written by Steve Almond.  In it, he says,

“Bigger is always better in the American imagination. But I am here to tell you–six books and nearly a decade later– that this mind-set is parochial and self-defeating. It’s also complete nonsense.” 

If you aren’t yet familiar with small presses, it’s time.  Here’s Poets &Writers Database of Small Presses. 


San Francisco Writers follow up

After spending the weekend with a wide representation of the writing and publishing community, I am more excited than ever to be a part of it.  The SFWC has changed form even in the short time that I’ve been involved with it. Just a few years ago, the workshops and presentations focused exclusively on writing craft and traditional publishing strategies. This year it felt almost as though the offerings were heavier on alternative publishing routes and social media/self promotion strategies. Perhaps it is the sign of the wind going out of the sails of traditional publishing, or maybe it is a sign of the money and resources that are being funneled into self-publishing platforms.  In any case, it is certainly a very dynamic place to be, with all the change swirling around us.

On the one hand, editors from traditional publishing houses and the agents who are the gatekeepers for them are still treated like movie stars, and getting them to read and acquire your manuscript is still presented as the capstone of the writing process.  Talk of their demise still, too often, largely sounds like sour grapes. Yes, the trad model is being forced to change by digital options. Technology has always forced change. That’s the way it goes.

And, yes, on the other hand, this change is allowing for the democratization of publishing, and it is allowing more great stories to be made available to the public. All the financial benefits, if there are any, fall to the writer. It doesn’t take close to three years for a book to get to an audience. And. And. And.

Here’s one side of what I came away from SFWC with:  Self publishing is still the less-favored stepchild, despite all the popular rhetoric to the contrary. Self-publishers (and the editors who assist them) are still seen as less trustworthy, even by the most outspoken advocates of self-publishing.*

Part of the reason for this is the same reason that so many writers flock to self-publishing.  Anyone can do it. And with no gatekeepers, lots of shit gets through. Agents and editors at publishing houses continue to serve a valuable function when it comes to debut fiction–they filter a lot of stuff that is not ready to be read. They filter first drafts and keep them off of the bookshelves.

If you are a writer intent on publishing on Amazon, the onus is on you to help change the bad reputation of self-published books. I heard a lot of talk about this at the conference, and I loved to hear it, both as an editor (duh) and also as a voracious reader.

If I buy a book I want it to be better than the first drafts I am being paid to edit. I will only buy so many bad self-published books before I decide I won’t waste any more money. I have heard this a lot. Many people still don’t trust self-published authors.

If every wanna-be writer keeps publishing the books they write without the benefit of writing classes or critique groups or editorial services, the quality of the books….  An old rant.

The reason I’m excited to be a part of publishing now is that I believe this is changing.  At SFWC I heard a lot about writers taking responsibility for the publisher role, and this means if you’re going to be a publisher you have to think like a business person.

Publishing is in a state of flux. Traditional publishing has to modify itself and knows it. Self-publishing really has nowhere to go but up. Ride with me on the front of the wave.


*I am basing this on the answer I received to a question I asked Alan Rinzler at the conference.

Why you need an editor: Developmental and Substantive Editing

We believe we know everything there is to know about our characters. We believe we have created a compelling read, a clear conflict, characters the reader can either love or fear for, a satisfying resolution.  But the problem is, we’re too close to it. No matter our credentials, we must have someone else read our work. Depending on what they discover, we may need further editing, and might seriously consider hiring a professional to help.

At the recent Self Publishing Boot Camp, I spoke about the need for an editor before self-publishing. I focused particularly on a novel or memoir, because the whole purpose of a book like this is that it engages the reader. If it doesn’t engage the reader, your book will not be successful, or worse, it will attract negative reviews and make you sad.

Someone who has a background as an acquisitions editor at a literary agency or publishing house or who selects and acquires fiction for literary magazines that you like to read might be a good fit for you. I talked about professional readers in my last post. I also talked a bit about Brad. I want to come back to him.

Brad DeHaven hired me to read what he had tentatively titled, “Beyond the Picket Fence.” It was a 65 page memoir of his life. He was 50.  The manuscript began before his conception, at the conception of his brother, took the reader through his dysfunctional family situation, his mother’s re-marriage to a Greek mobster who beat him, his drug use and violent teenage years, his brother’s incarceration, meeting the woman he would marry, the upbringing of his children, and culminated in the tale, essentially, of how he went undercover to bust his son’s drug dealer.  All this incredible story in 65 pages. Like a freight train headed from point a to point b, it barreled through telling the reader this happened then this happened then this happened. It was a great story, and he has a fantastic voice. The book, the way it was put together, was ineffective.

We had to find the real story in all of that. What did he want the story’s takeaway to be? Where was the hook? The real story was how despite the experiences from his own youth, he was unprepared to deal with his son’s addiction to a powerful prescription painkiller.  We worked together on a developmental edit.  It became Defining Moments: A Suburban Father’s Journey Into his Son’s Oxy Addiction.

A developmental edit is what you hope your book doesn’t need, frankly.  It takes the most time and costs the most money.  It doesn’t know what kind of story it wants to be yet. A professional can help a writer uncover this. If it has no focus, it probably needs a developmental edit. If the reader can’t tell who the story is about, it probably needs a developmental edit.

A substantive edit is more common.  Sometimes this is called a heavy line edit. The writer understands what the story is and has a decent story arc, cast of characters, resolution. The writer may not have well-rounded characters, there may be inconsistencies with narrative voice or point of view, there may be needless layers of filtering or instances of telling where it really needed to be revealed in a scene.  Most manuscripts have these problems, which interfere with the emotional connection the reader makes with the story.

The ability to eliminate these problems is what separates the writer whose self published book languishes on even the shelf of his best friend and the writer whose book is read and recommended and passed around and receives favorable review.

Common problems that necessitate a substantive edit (via pptx nee jpg):

editing, editor, Robin Martin, Two Songbirds Press, developmental editing, substantive editing, novel reviews

Why you need an editor: Professional Read

At this past weekend’s Self Publishing Boot Camp, I was privileged to speak on the topic of editing for self-publishers.  I had only 30 minutes to speak on the topic, and I wanted to cover the nuts and bolts of what an editor can do and how to find an editor who will work best with you and your work (and your budget).  I think I succeeded, but there’s always more to be said. I will focus in this post on the professional evaluation and critique.

As you know, I am a writer and an editor, and in that capacity have taken projects from the idea stage to local celebrity, have helped make good manuscripts better, and bad manuscripts a little less embarrassing for the author. Editing is not just about catching those embarrassing spelling and sentence structure errors.

I framed Saturday’s presentation with my history of working with Brad DeHaven, author of Defining Moments: A Suburban Father’s Journey Into his Son’s Oxy Addiction. (Originally titled Beyond the Picket Fence). Brad is a financial planner who brought me a 65 page manuscript, a memoir, that was a chronological telling of his life until that point. He was 50. Everyone kept telling him he should write his story, so he did. He hired me as a professional reader and I provided an evaluation and critique of his manuscript.

 professional reader, editor, developmental editor, Two Songbirds Press, Robin MartinIdeally, you have been receiving critique from readers all along. Ideally, this critique has been free or in exchange for critique on their work, such as in a writing group or a workshop class.

If you were to complete a manuscript to the rave reviews of your beta readers (none of whom you were having sex with or otherwise emotionally attached to) and if you were planning to send it to an agent and go the traditional publishing route, your manuscript just might be ready. The agent, in this case, might be your first professional reader.

You couldn’t expect to receive a personalized letter about why they reject your manuscript, however. You could trust that it was almost there if they request the first fifty and then the rest of the manuscript before refusing to take it on.

When I worked with Andrea Hurst, the agents there often took on manuscripts that they loved but that still needed editing. The agents took on authors with whom they would work to refine and shape the story until it was ready to pitch to publishing houses.  This was a tremendous benefit for the author. The agent knows the audience to which she’ll be trying to sell your manuscript. That knowledge makes an agent a particularly valuable editor. Andrea Hurst Literary Management, The First 50, editor, writer, agent, Robin Martin, Two Songbirds Press

The downside of this is for the agents– who might work on a manuscript for six months or more (as I did on two occasions) on spec, hoping that the financial reimbursement will come when the book sells with a large advance.  Something that ultimately lies with the CFO of large house X.

Now, I understand, agents are feeling the pinch and doing this less and less because they end up working hard without a paycheck.  So even if you were planning to pursue traditional publishing and obtain an agent, it would behoove you to have a professional read/evaluation before querying.

One of the things you give up by electing to go the self publishing route is even the possibility of built in professional readers who will “fix up” your book along the way: the agent, and the editor at the publishing house (who are also doing this less and less according to popular wisdom). When working towards being a self-published author, you need to hire an editor. 

If you self publish a book without an external, objective, professional read, you open yourself to harsh public criticism of your writing via reviews of your book.

The appropriate editor can evaluate and critique your manuscript, revealing shortcomings you didn’t know existed as far as character, plot, narrative voice, point of view, exposition rather than scene.  So you can fix them before you either send it to an agent or publish them to your later dismay.

In my next post, I’m going to talk about common issues that necessitate a substantial edit. For now, I want to leave you with this:

In a prior post I mentioned some blogs I enjoy . Here is another blog I follow. Today Jody talks about why you need an editor.  I enjoy receiving the RSS feed from Jody Hedlund. Check it out, because you might enjoy her insight on the writing process too.

Robin Martin, editor, developmental editor, Two Songbirds Press

What does Success look like?

The big Success, with a capital S is elusive. You do know this, don’t you?  Success a la big time fame and fortune, cover of People magazine, tooling around Nob Hill in a Maserati, that kind of success. Slim chance. I’m saying this not to be cynical or mean, but…yeah, I guess I’m cynical. Or maybe let’s call it incredulous.

Once upon a time, a long time ago, I was pursuing a career in modeling.  Another long shot career, another long shot to Success with a capital S.  I could pay the best make-up artists and pay the best photographers to do my portfolio. I could pay a personal trainer, starve myself, etc., but when push came to shove, I could not make John Casablancas or Eilene Ford give me that contract. I didn’t have what they were looking for.  It didn’t mean what I had wasn’t fine in its own right, just that it wasn’t seen as marketable right then. Having said that, though, if I had gone to the Madison Ave. agencies carrying 25 extra pounds and a Polaroid shot, I never would have even had a chance with these people. Was I disappointed that I didn’t become the next Linda Evangelista? Heck yes. Was I devastated because I spent my retirement money trying to get there and didn’t? No. I didn’t spend more than I could afford to lose on a long shot.

I just have to say that even if you get the perfect book- you pay for the best cover design, buy the best interior layout, hire the industry’s best editors, there is no guarantee, in fact it is not likely, that you will end up driving a Maserati down California Avenue.

All I ask is that you be truthful with yourself. Have a sit down with a mirror and a cup of coffee. What are your goals? What does success look like to you? How will you know when you are successful? What resources will you reasonably commit to get you there? Don’t set yourself up for devastating disappointment. Do you have the diligence not to quit halfway? Create a business plan or a book proposal.  Who will buy your book? How will you reach them to sell it?

Just go into it with your eyes open and the rose colored glasses off.  And eat healthy, and get regular oil changes for your Toyota.

Feed me see more- the benefits of RSS

I have been thoroughly enjoying receiving the RSS feeds of several blogs lately, and I’d like to share a few of these with you.  Though it is true that a blog is just that, a blog, and shouldn’t ever be taken as the gospel truth, I always appreciate that certain credentialed professionals are willing to share their areas of expertise with others.

I receive a feed from Mark Fowler, a lawyer who is also a freelance writer and editor. He tackles those questions that often come up in discussions with other writers in his blog called Rights of Writers.  This week’s entry is about truth (or fabrication) in memoir, and the legalities around it.  His commentary is never dull and always contains references and sources that can lead his reader on an educational journey where they can get a good solid understanding of the topic at hand.  Add to this the fact that he is a good writer, an entertaining writer, and you’ve got a winning combination in your RSS feed in-box.

Alan Rinzler, a true giant in the publishing industry —I know him from the San Francisco Writers Conference—always has great things to say. He is deep inside the business, and listening to him can’t be a bad thing.  I’ve been sending new clients one of his blog entries that he titled, “Good Day Sunshine for Writers” about the new-publishing trend that allows and even encourages self-publishing as a way to find an agent— unheard of just a few years ago! He is at the forefront of big change at the big houses.

The Behler blog comes from a smaller place than Rinzler’s. Written by Lynn Price, the editorial director for Behler Publications, she writes lots about acquisitions—the contents of which often remind me of my time at Andrea Hurst Literary Management—what not to do in a query letter, etc. She likes margaritas, hawks purses, and has a beagle, who apparently also likes margaritas.  Her blog is quite funny, and provides insight from the perspective of a (very) small publisher.

RSS feeds enable those of us who can’t travel to all of the conferences to grow our networks and gain insights.  I am quite thankful for them.