Category Archives: The business

Studying English for a career as a writer?

As we begin to gear up for the new school year, I’m thinking about studies and majors and careers. I’ve encountered quite a few wonderful young people recently who share my interest in language.

Say you are in high school or just starting out on a professional path post high school, and you really enjoy English and writing, and like the idea that you might be a writer some day.  Obviously, if you want to be a novelist or a poet, the best thing for you to do is read everything you can get your hands on, and just start writing.

And if college is in the plans (and I think it is an experience not to be missed, whether you do it right away, with a brief delay- as I did, or as a returning* student), I have a proposal to ensure your financial comfort: Study something in addition to English and writing, so you can have something to write about.

Famously, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Michael Crichton were both physicians. Alice Walker was a civil rights activist; Haruki Murakami, a bar owner; Raymond Carver, a textbook editor. John Grisham, a lawyer; Sue Grafton, a screenwriter;  William S. Burroughs was an exterminator; Harper Lee, a ticket agent for Eastern airlines, but this was a job, not a career, and the same can be said of many other writers whom I admire or whom I don’t admire but who sell a lot of books.

A diversity of life experiences and also subject-area knowledge provides you with a broader base from which to draw as you compose your novel. You meet more kinds of people (not just English majors).

And as another bonus, all fields, all trades, all professions need writers, if you think about it. So if you are a scientist-writer, or a physician-writer, or a psychologist-writer, or a computer tech writer, or a game theorist writer, or a veterinarian-writer, then you have an amazing niche market and can write or edit a variety of materials in a field you enjoy while you are shopping your novel.

My two cents.

 

editor sacramento editor

Supporting the community

editor sacramento editorIn 2009, when I joined the ranks of full-time freelancers, I discovered the Editorial Freelancers’ Association, an education and support organization for editing/writing/publishing professionals. I wanted an affiliation, and I needed to learn. Not long after that,  fellow EFA member Susan Herman and I started a Northern California chapter of the organization.

I remember at an early NorCal meeting, a participant (not an EFA member) asked what was in it for him. Were we going to generate business for one another through some kind of referral percentage system? How would we deal with competition among our ranks? This guy wanted to know how we could share information without giving away our own business. How would he wind up with more money in his pocket when he left our monthly meetings?

He didn’t get it.

Increasing skills & helping others understand what we do

Instead of looking myopically at how much money we will see going into our pocket in the short term, consider that building a network of professionals in the same field and discussing best practices may be the best way to support our community, increase understanding of what it is exactly that those in our field can do for a variety of clientele:  a publisher, yes, but also a small business, an author, a tech company, an insurance lender, etc.

Not all editors are the best fit for any given project, and neither are they necessarily in direct competition with one another. In just a small group, like the NorCal EFA chapter for example, we could have an academic textbook editor, a scientific journal editor, a business blog writer, a health ghostwriter, and two or three fiction editors. One of the fiction editors focuses on genre (sci fi/fantasy) fiction, the other on short stories and literary fiction.  While it is true that many of the required skills do overlap, and some of us do more than one thing well, experienced editors often have a niche in which they specialize. (Maybe it is related to subject, i.e. “music”; maybe style guide, i.e. “APA” ) Every one of us is likely to bring different experiences, personalities, policies, and price structures to the playing field.

Seven years later, Susan still has the Nor Cal EFA chapter going strong, and I am the organization’s International Chapter Development Chairperson, helping to facilitate the growth of chapters in order to increase the skills and exposure for EFA members. And I’m not afraid to link to her freelance-editor site from my freelance-editor blog.

Has supporting the editorial freelance community in this way put money directly in my pocket? I’ll say it has, because I believe it, but I have no stats to prove it. However, I am decidedly richer. Sharing, learning, being a part of a supportive community is valuable not only for me as a business owner, but also as a human being.

Tweet tweet robin joins Twitter

sacramento editor, songbirdsShe rocks in the treetops all the day long

hoppin’ and a boppin’ and a singin’ her song

All the little birdies on Jay Bird Street

Love to hear the robin go tweet tweet tweet

As any Angie, Sarah, Daniel, Jude, Alison or Mandy knows, if there is a song with your name in it, you’ll hear it sung to you many times during your life. For me, I’ve had to live with “Rockin’ Robin.” I’m sure it was Bobby Day’s original being referenced by the older folks, and Michael Jackson’s rendition by the younger, but it doesn’t really matter; the question was always the same.

“Are you Rockin’, Robin?”

I like to think of myself has having a dry sense of humor (some people will say too dry) and developed a standard reply to anyone who brought up the song.

“Tweet. Tweet.”

Recently, I was working with a client on a experimental-form memoir and helping her get ideas on how to find a potential home for her manuscript. Since I worked with Andrea Hurst Literary Management in 2009, I’ve seen a few transitions in the way calls for submissions/queries are communicated. It used to be that every year we pre-ordered Jeff Herman’s Guide to Publishers and Agents: A big FAT exhaustive and reliable PRINT guide to who was where and looking for what. We’d find an intriguing listing in the book, then find the website, then cross-reference industry news, then go to the website, and then pick up the phone (gasp) and talk to the editor to make sure what we were trying to sell was indeed what they wanted to buy. Targeted pitching. The right way to do things.

I knew that any printed guide is not relied on heavily anymore, thanks to the up-to-the-minute accuracy of information a publisher can post on the internet, but what I learned this most recent time around is that even the websites are becoming more and more static. Updates aren’t always likely to be posted to the site in a timely manner. How is this information being conveyed? Wait for it.

 

(I did.)

 

Twitter. 

So I’m one of the last to land on the branch, but I’m going to try to rock it. (Okay, that was bad.)

You can find me @sacramentorobin.

It’s another tool for the #publishingindustry (See what I did there?) Something else that is helping with democratization and accessibility. And, it’s actually kind of fun.

tweet tweet

 

On selling out and selling

Something to think about:  A really excellent writer, who happens to be a friend of mine, spent the early part of her life as a writer reading and writing romance novels which she has since relegated to the trash bin as being beneath her. And you know what? She’s right that she can write “better” stuff than that. She can compose incredibly beautiful stories that surprise the reader and can rock the world of literature. She is also pretty set on hitting the big time as a writer, making a living at it. If she can write marketable romance novels and sell them while also working on crafting a literary-language based piece, maybe she should. What do you think?

Is it possible to switch back and forth in our writing?

Do you object to what may appear to be an implicit denigration of romance novels in this post? Or do you understand the distinction I’m making, and that I’m not making a value statement so much as a statement acknowledging the different purpose and goals of genre and literary fiction?

 

Hey, I said “I liked it!”

Now that Amazon has acquired Goodreads, it has really thrown a monkey wrench into the cogs of my rating system.amazon, goodreads, ratings, sacramento editor

I’ve always liked how when you hover over the stars on Goodreads, what pops up is a clearly defined rating system. So rather than just assigning an arbitrary number of stars, you can indicate:

3 stars: I liked it.

4 stars: I really liked it.

5 stars: It was amazing.

So for me, most books I read are a solid 3 stars. If I read a self-help book, unless it changes my life immediately, there is no way I’d ever say “It was amazing!”  If I read an entertaining story that doesn’t alter the way I view the world, there is no way I’d ever say, “It was amazing!”

So what has 5 stars on my Goodreads list? The World According to Garp. To Kill a Mockingbird. Othello. These books that inspired me to be a writer, to be a teacher and share my love of literature with others.  What else? More recently, works by Aimee Bender, Haruki Murakami, Peter Grandbois, and Etgar Keret have found their way into who I am as a person and as a writer and reader and consequently earned the “It was amazing!” rating.

I’ve always thought of Goodreads as my personal way of keeping track of the books I read and also an honest way for my clients to see my tastes. Not whether or not I thought the book would or should sell to a mainstream audience, but whether I honestly liked it. There is nothing wrong with a 3 star rating indicating “I liked it.” No writer should ever feel affronted by my liking his/her book.

amazon, goodreads, rating, books, sacramento editor

So now, here comes Amazon. I’ve known for a long time that because of the algorithms that Amazon uses to promote or hide titles from their site, any rating less than a five star given there has major consequences for the visibility of an author’s work. “I like this,” on Amazon, therefore, translated to 5 stars for me. There was nothing on Amazon that created a uniform understanding of what any certain number of stars meant. The blatant commercialism of Amazon somehow made it okay for me to do this for a work that on Goodreads would receive my 3 star “I like this” rating. I’m sure some people might find my thinking here to be ethically faulty, but it’s the way my gears were working at the time I established this “system” for myself, several years ago.

I found out that this system might cause me problems when, after reviewing a professional colleague’s book on Amazon not too long ago (I liked it! It got a 5 star rating there), I assigned it 3 stars on Goodreads. Well, you know this writer contacted me and asked me to change it to 5 stars?! You know, I ignored her request. I also stopped indicating when I read my professional colleagues books on my Goodreads list (but I won’t go back and change old ones)!  The commercialism of the Amazon rating system corrupted my personal system. And now, unless a book by a professional colleague rocks my world, I’m afraid I can’t even share the fact that I enjoyed it. And I likely won’t be posting any of my clients’ self-pubbed books there either. Even if I liked them.

I’m afraid this is even more serious now that Goodreads has been subsumed by Amazon.

I’ve been wanting to get that off my chest.

Really, the only pure unadulterated reviews now are in the independent review magazines, like Rain Taxi and Gently Read Literature. Go there and read them.

If you know of other relevant review sites, please share them with me.

 

 

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.

Checking in with the blogosphere

As part of my ongoing professional development, every day I check in with a handful of writers in the blogosphere-mostly via RSS feed, a few notices via e-mail.

I am so impressed by the high value of the information being shared on these writer blogs I read regularly, that just about every day I am tempted to commit one of the cardinal sins of blogging— the re-blog (as opposed to the re-Tweet). Frequently, I do forward the link on to clients when there is a topic that matches their needs. I struggle to believe it is worth my time and energy to write my own take on a subject for my blog when someone else has written about it so well, particularly when my blogging goals are really so small (I’m not trying to grow or go viral, I just want clients and potential clients, in short—you, to know I am alive and connected).

So, for this post, I’ve decided to share the names of a few of these writers who do such a good job and greet me in my Mail each morning. Some are well known, others not so much.  In no particular order:

 Anne R. Allen with Ruth Harris: This particular post about the work-shopping advice to eliminate “to-be” verbs from your writing is right on, and helpful for most writers who haven’t had the advantage of a post-graduate degree in grammar.  Look at how complete her explanation of the verb tenses is! Most of her posts are extremely well written and provide very useful information.

Jody Hedlund: This writer gave her readers a fun opportunity to vote for the book cover option we liked the most, which I really enjoyed. But this blog entry, in which she discusses putting the “social” back in social media, was really concise and put into words what I had been feeling. There is too much promotion and not enough connection in most social media. The other thing she does really well is link to other articles worth reading.

Nathan Bransford: Now this guy is famous for his impact on and skill with social media to sell books, and I rely on him to keep me in the know about what is hot and what is gauche in this area. This particular entry about why you shouldn’t post your Tweets to Facebook makes so much sense to me, and goes hand in hand with Hedlund’s blog above without saying the same thing.

Kristen Lamb: This blog about the things that are killing self-published authors (#1: publishing before we’re ready. AMEN SISTER!) is representative of her posts. She’s completely an overachiever; I think she’s trying to catch up with Bransford.

Alan Rinzler: Shifting gears a bit, Rinzler isn’t a writer, he’s an editor. I am essentially a disciple of this man, who has spent a lifetime in traditional publishing editing books that everyone has read and has now jumped into self-publishing advocacy and support. I’ve studied his model for editing and taken his opinions to heart. Here’s a piece he wrote about developmental editing, and I love to check in with him to see that my practices are aligned with his, which I perceive to be the best-practices of the industry. He has a lot of good information for writers considering hiring an editor; true, he’s hoping you’ll hire him—so why am I sending you over there? I’m just. That. Confident. No, seriously, because he’s a real pro.

Things worth knowing and sharing, written well. 

I encourage all writers to connect with these and other bloggers; to learn from them and, when appropriate, interact with them.

What blogs do you follow and why would you recommend them to me?

 

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.

Hackers are the antagonists of this story

Glenn is the hero.

You probably didn’t notice that my site was down again last week.  I don’t understand why anyone would want to hack little old me, but whatever. (Hey, while I’m under, you might as well…) Now I have a little facelift!  This is one aspect of freelancing that I really enjoy– no, not the hacking part– but the fact that I get to hire other creative freelancers and work with them.  Thanks again, Glenn Weatherson, freelance web designer, for being my web-guy and dealing with all the rigamarole at Word Press.

Sacramento editor, publishing