Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Ways to Self-Publish: An Interview with Tanyo Ravicz

Traditional publishing? Author services? “Vanity presses”? Self-publishing? The options can be overwhelming.

When author Tanyo Ravicz of the independent author cooperative Running Fox Books wrote to tell me he’d left an author services arrangement to release fully independent editions of his books Alaskans and A Man of His Village, I asked if he’d be willing to share his thoughts on that experience in this Q & A.

What motivates you to write?

An irrational drive to give lasting and meaningful shape to the experience of life is what motivates me to write. The satisfaction comes from engaging other people with the result of the effort, or, failing that, or in addition to that, in the consciousness of having written the best prose I can. If my words cause people to smile or grit their teeth or anxiously knit their brows or to ponder, that’s a rewarding engagement. Still, apart from that, it’s satisfying to see something in your own way and to crystallize that vision in penetrating prose.

What made you decide to forego traditional publishing?

That feels like a trick question. Honestly, whatever I offer about publishing has to be understood as coming from someone who’s had the experience several times repeated since the late 1980s of trying to “get” a literary agent and “get” a publisher. From the manila envelope to the iPhone, I’ve seen the changes in how things are done, but I’m not well qualified to speak about traditional publishing from the inside. By the same token, of course, you wouldn’t expect me to greatly lament the disruptions to the industry.

The first editions of your books were published through one of the larger author services companies, one that’s sometimes called a “vanity press.” How did you choose this particular service? How did it work out for you?

In 2006 I published the novel A MAN OF HIS VILLAGE through iUniverse, which was then a young company and still independent. The results were excellent. I was in my 40s, we had settled down in California after the years in Alaska, and I had been having the unpleasantly familiar experience of not being able to convince anyone to take on a manuscript of mine. There was a difference this time, though, and it was called print-on-demand technology.

Absolutely revolutionary. I went with iUniverse because I’d seen one of their posters in the Barnes & Noble window and I liked the concept. They were also running an effective whole-page ad series featuring pictures of Virginia Woolf and Walt Whitman and other literary lights who had published their own work — effective, I suppose, in normalizing, if not romanticizing, the idea of self-publishing, or at least diminishing the lingering stigma, though speaking for myself I never felt much of a stigma. To my mind, the scores of literary agents and small presses I had tried with the book had made a mistake. A MAN OF HIS VILLAGE went on to win the top prize in its category in a couple of open national contests and by publishing it I was able to get out and do events and sell some books.

Two years later, in 2008, still working with iUniverse, I brought out ALASKANS to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Alaska statehood. It was good timing: I got a bump in interest in my book with the ascent on the national stage of Sarah Palin. ALASKANS is a collection of ten stories, two of them Pushcart-nominated and nine of them previously published in literary magazines, a circumstance I mention to help to dispel the stereotype that self-published work is unvetted and unprofessional.

Do people use the term “vanity press” anymore? This is archaic terminology rooted in the protectionism of the legacy publishers. It makes me think of those black-and-white ads discreetly tucked in the back pages of print magazines in the late 1900s. True, since the early days of print-on-demand publishing, an industry has sprung up around peripheral marketing services for authors, many of which play to our vanities; but what’s really happening here is a further closing of the gap between self-publishing and traditional publishing, which after all is hugely dependent for its advantage on its marketing machinery.

Recently, you’ve re-released your books on your own. What prompted you to do this?

Yes, I’ve broken off with iUniverse and I’ve brought out A MAN OF HIS VILLAGE and ALASKANS in new authoritative editions under the Denali Press imprint. It’s a way of taking ownership of my work and moving forward from here.

iUniverse has changed a lot since 2006. Actually, I hadn’t been entirely happy with the contract to begin with: I had agreed to a lesser paperback royalty percentage after iUniverse had represented to me that the discounts would be passed along the distribution chain. This was something it turned out iUniverse had no control over. It was a misrepresentation I wouldn’t forget.
Meanwhile iUniverse was swallowed up by Author Solutions, which in turn was acquired by Pearson, a division of Penguin, which has recently merged with Random House. This phenomenon of the old guard publishers getting into the author services business is interesting. Authors should be aware of what’s going on here structurally. A company of course wants to claim a share of the sales earned by the best-selling self-published books, but the ironic bread-and-butter truth is that these old publishers are partly evolving into “vanity presses” themselves, establishing divisions to encourage and profit from the “vanity” they earlier derided.

It’s not as though iUniverse did a good job anyway. They mismanaged the rise of ebooks, and speaking of my books in particular, iUniverse botched the ebook conversions. A reader took the trouble to inform me of this, and this was really the last straw as far as my attitude to iUniverse goes. Times had changed — the rise of ebooks, Amazon, Apple, Smashwords — and it was time for me to examine my options and to move on.

Personally, I needed to take stock anyway. Every now and then we look around and consider where we’ve come from and where we’re going. Finding myself again in the position of finalizing a new book and reaching out to literary agents, I wanted to have a strategy in place for averting the negative emotions that can come with the process.

Denali Press (“founded in Palm Springs, California, a publisher of quality fiction and nonacademic nonfiction”) is the result. Going forward, this is the rock under my books. I now have a direct relationship with Amazon, Apple, B&N and Kobo, a list which may grow as I choose. I register my own titles and I set the look and prices of the print books and ebooks. With drop caps, a matte cover finish, and a 5.25 x 8 trim — my choices — these print books are beautiful products that physically rival (at a more affordable price) the trade paperbacks of the big players.

The transition has cost me some months of concentrated effort, but I’ve become an exacting writer and so I didn’t mind the labor of one last time editing these two books. Also, the process of establishing a sole proprietorship, designing a logo, setting up vendor accounts, and so on, teaches valuable lessons. Financially, I’ve incurred switching costs — for example, I paid a pro to do my ebook conversions — and I’m in the red again with my writing, but I expect in the long term to recoup the losses.

Still, we all know how hard it is to sell books. One-book and two-book authors might be better advised to just stick with Amazon or an author services outfit and not to bother with setting up their own imprints.

Let me say too, Deb, that I had noticed what you were doing with your books over at Running Fox. You cared enough about your out-of-print books that you weren’t going to let them stay out of print. Emerging authors can look to you for an example of the nimbleness and adaptability of today’s writer who doesn’t necessarily reject tradition but isn’t bound by it.

What publishing advice do you have for emerging authors?

By all means try to work with a traditional publisher. A writer isn’t just a witness but also a participant, and your story as a writer, not the one you write but the one you live, becomes a part of the record of your time.

Remember that the established book world, from its editorial reaches to its diminished infrastructure to its far-flung superstructure (including bookstores and print journals) has never been especially friendly to self-published authors. In my experience, there are wonderful exceptions to this rule, but by and large I find it true. Small publishers face very large hurdles in bringing serious attention to their titles.

A third reason, if you’re an emerging author, not to hasten into do-it-yourself publishing is you’re probably not as good a writer as you’re going to become. Look at your finished manuscript two or three years from now; I guarantee it won’t seem so finished.

At a certain point, though, a pile of rejected manuscripts is toxic for a writer. If you don’t look out for your writing, no one will. Act. Act. Act.

If you’ve internalized the misconception that traditional publishing is somehow synonymous with literary quality and that the rest is dreck, you need to get past it.

Don’t fear Amazon and Apple. If as an author you’re a free agent, Amazon is your ally.

If you’re young, you probably don’t sit around longing for the lost simplicity and glamor of an earlier publishing era you never knew anyway and which may or not have existed. Considering our relative freedom to write what we want and the digital technologies that enable micropublishing, America in 2014 is a pretty good place to be a writer if you really have to be a writer. And like I always say to my friends who lament being overweight, don’t let them tell you that you take up too much of the world. It’s the world that takes up too much of you. 

Tanyo Ravicz grew up in California. He attended Harvard University and settled for many years in Alaska, mainly in Fairbanks and Kodiak. In Alaska he worked as (among other things) a wildland firefighter, cannery hand and schoolteacher. His novel-in-progress, Wildwood, draws on his experience of homesteading with his family on Alaska’s Kodiak Island. Tanyo’s classic short novel Ring of Fire, which explores the conflict between an Alaskan big-game hunting guide and the Crown Prince of Rahman, will be released in a new digital edition in 2014. His books include A Man of His Village, relating the odyssey of a migrant farm worker from Mexico to Alaska, and Alaskans, a selection of his short fiction.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Writers: Is Your Beginning Good Enough?

I don't normally enter writing contests (not that I'm opposed to them), but three years ago, I submitted the first three pages of what was then my WIP (work in progress) to the Guide to Literary Agents literary fiction contest. To my surprise, I won - or rather, my beginning did.

Even so, I ended up revising the beginning of what is now my latest novel, and I'm glad I did. Here’s what Publishers Weekly says about how the novel begins now:

This lyrically written coming-of-age story from Vanasse grabs you from the opening line and never lets go: “I am a poem, Sylvie once thought, swollen like a springtime river, light swirled in dark, music and memory.”

Author Sinclair Lewis learned the hard way about the importance of beginnings. Cruising the Atlantic aboard the Queen Elizabeth, he was pleased to see a fellow passenger settle into a deck chair and open his latest novel. She read the first page, got up, and dropped the book over the railing, into the ocean. “If I didn’t know it already,” Lewis told his assistant Barnaby Conrad, “I learned then that the first page – even the first sentence – of one’s article, short story, novel, or nonfiction book is of paramount importance.”

Don’t Try This at Home

Suppose you hand the first 250 words of your manuscript to an actress, who then reads it before a panel of four agents and editors. Each agent raises a hand at the point where his or her interest fades. When two hands are raised, the actress quits reading. Yours doesn’t get read to the end? Don’t feel bad: only 25 percent do.

This was the scenario that played out at a “Writer Idol” event. As reported by Livia Blackburne on the Guide to Literary Agents, there were many reasons the panelists rejected the beginnings. They were generic, or slow. There was too much unrealistic internal narration, or too much information. There were too many clichés, or the writing was unfocused, or the writer seemed to be trying too hard. In her PubRants blog, agent Kristen Nelson elaborates on this latter problem, pointing out that too often authors trying for active beginnings overload them with action.

Ways to Begin

The fundamental purpose of a beginning is simple: it must entice the reader to want more. In Learning to Write Fiction from the Masters, Conrad suggests several types of beginnings that, skillfully rendered, will lure readers into the prose. Conventions of the nineteenth century allowed the luxury of beginning with setting, or a combination of setting and character, strategies that are tougher, though not impossible, to pull off with today’s attention-challenged readers. If you begin with setting, Conrad warns, you need to be masterful with it, as was F. Scott Fitzgerald in launching Tender is the Night, using specific details, imagery, dynamic verbs, foreshadowing, and a hint of conflict.

You can also begin with a provocative thought, though you’ll want to follow it directly with specifics of the story. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” says Jane Austen in the opening of Pride and Prejudice. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” opens Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

By no means do beginnings need to be elaborate. The Old Man and the Sea opens like a news story, with the straight facts: “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” The appeal can be more emotional, as in the opening sentence of Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps: “She would leave him, she thought, as soon as the petunias bloomed.” Or the novel can open with action: “They threw me off the hay truck about noon,” begins James Cain in The Postman Always Rings Twice. In each of these examples, there’s enough said to engage the reader, and there’s enough left out for the reader to want to know more.

With some beginnings, the reader dives with grace into the story. With others, it’s more of a cannonball splash. In media res takes the reader directly into the middle of a scene. Opening with dialogue has the same effect. When you’re suddenly immersed in a scene, you grab for bits to hang onto. You want to puzzle your way to some clarity. In short, you’re hooked.

Character beginnings prove equally enticing. Look no farther than Conrad’s Lord Jim or Nabokov’s Lolita for proof that a book can open successfully with character. Also endearing is the author’s appeal to the reader, as in Melville’s “Call me Ishmael,” or Twain’s “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that don’t matter.” Conrad calls this author-to-reader appeal “disarming, confidential, effective, and somewhat old-fashioned,” but given today’s emphasis on voice, it seems more than modern.

Ending Thoughts on Beginnings

It’s all too easy to get attached to our beginnings. Because they come to us first, they soon feel indelible.  Remember - they’re not.

To weigh in on what makes a good beginning, check out the “Flog a Pro” feature at Writer Unboxed.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Books and Business: Relationships Matter

I first thought of business creep as the dance of an author between creative work and the business side of writing, especially promotion and marketing. Then I started paying attention to the genuine creepiness that can slip in on the business side, as in the carjacking of a literary agent perpetrated by a writer that she’d rejected. How had the crazy guy tracked her down? Her frequent postings on Twitter and Facebook told where she was and what she was doing.

Creepy in a different way are writers who’ve paid for good online reviews of their books, and the freelancers who’ve paid their bills writing those reviews. I understand about the free market and all, but there’s still something chilling about a guy making $28,000 a month providing fake reviews. Google and Amazon eventually agreed, pulling the enterprising Todd Rutherford’s ads and reviews. Now he’s selling RVs while on the side running a business that creates book buzz via blogs and Twitter.

For as much as we hear about buzz, there must be limits to what we’ll do to get noticed. At the same time, we can’t abdicate completely the marketing side of the equation. “I can’t self-promote,” I’ve heard writers say. “That’s just not me. If my book can’t sell itself, then I just won’t write.” Harper Lee did it; J.D. Salinger did it, they say.

A handful may be able to duck out on the business end of writing. But for most of us it’s a reality: we have to find the right balance between what we want to do – create – and what we must do – help sell our books.

Much of the marketing legwork, though not all, is electronic. With more than ten million members, Goodreads is the largest site in the world for book recommendations. Compiled using data gathered from a title that launched with three Goodreads giveaways, a Goodreads post titled The Anatomy of a Book Discovery uses a color-spiked graph to show how one thing leads to another when it comes to book buzz. What’s harder to quantify is how good the book was to begin with: how timely, how well-conceived, how brilliantly rendered.

Beyond the scope of the Goodreads analysis: how a “following” built before a book is published, or even before it is written, plays into its eventual success. Among the advice passed around to emerging writers these days is that they must make a name for themselves: get a website, get on Facebook, get on Twitter, start a blog, get a following. At best, this advice can be overstated. At worst, it’s a gigantic distraction that will keep you from writing the book you must write.

Yes, buzz sells books. Yes, your Facebook friends and Twitter followers and blog followers will be among the first to buy your book when it comes out. And yes, a website shows you’re a professional. But you must absolutely guard your time. Even when you’re up and running and you’ve got a book or two under your belt, you should aim for spending no more than a quarter of your writing time on the business part. If you’re an emerging writer who’s still pushing out that first million words ahead of your real publishable work, you should spend a lot less time on promotion. The exception: if you write for a specialized nonfiction market – growers of heirloom tomatoes, for instance – you’ll need to be recognized as an expert within the field in order to successfully pitch your book, so you’ll want to spend a larger chunk of your time getting recognized.

While electronic buzz is huge, huge, huge, don’t forget that in the end what we’re really talking here are relationships. In that way, writing is no different than any other business. Your online presence must project the real you and your real book, because that’s what gets outted one way or the other. Fake reviews may sell a few titles, but if the book stinks, the readers won’t be back.

The profile of Emma Straub in Poets and Writers brings this point home. After her first four novels were rejected, Straub got serious about the quality of her work, putting herself under the tutelage of Lorrie Moore. A small press, Five Chapter Books, published Straub’s first collection of short stories. She has more than 10,000 followers on Twitter. She posts regularly on the Paris Review Daily and on New York magazine’s culture blog Vulture. Yet she says it’s her job at an indie bookstore in Brooklyn that really taught her how to market her work, which now includes her novel Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures, published by Riverhead Books and selected by Barnes and Noble as a Discover pick when it came out.

“I see how some writers have really great relationships with bookstores and with booksellers, and some writers don’t. I see what happens when a writer is a kind of dick to people who work at a bookstore. I am never going to recommend that person’s book,” she says. “Nowadays it really is the role of the writer to make sure that you have these personal connections with everyone you can to help things go well—and not in a gross, networky, slimy way; in an actual, genuine way. Relationships matter.”

As you consciously, purposefully, strike a balance between creativity and business, consider that relationships are at the heart of both. What you do with and for your fellow writers along with what you do with and for your readers will come back around in the best of ways to you and your work. And there’s nothing creepy about that.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Writers: Are You Overdoing It?

Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.
~Ernest Hemingway

My only daughter got married two years ago, on a bluff overlooking Kachemak Bay. We pulled it off as intended: a beautiful, simple affair.

Make that deceptively simple. A year before the Big Day, my daughter traveled 1500 miles from Portland to deposit in my closet the first set of dishes lovingly scavenged for the reception, the perfect shade of green, more yellow than blue. That was only the beginning. What followed: dress, rings, music, officiant, photos, catering, cake, lodging, vows, seating, tents, heaters, rehearsal, plates, flatware, tables, coffee urns, welcome bags. One hundred twenty-five things to buy, rent, or borrow; 162 items to scratch off the to-do list. 

In writing it also takes effort to pull off the simple. A little exposure to the classics, a lot of textbook drivel, and we leave school with writing that’s pompous and overbearing. Re-training can take years. 

Overwriting is the caste mark of the emerging writer, worn unaware. “Diction problems are symptomatic of defects in the character or education of the writer,” John Gardner says. “Both diction shifts and the steady use of inappropriate diction suggest either deep-down bad taste or the awkwardness that comes of inexperience and timidity.” Ouch.

In Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us, agent Jessica Page Morrell calls it purple bling: writing that’s euphemistic, clichéd, and extravagant. “The problem with purple prose," she notes, "is that it calls attention to itself instead of performing its job – telling a story – and it tries too hard to manipulate the reader’s emotions.”

In The First Five Pages, agent Noah Lukeman echoes this concern. He identifies these warning signs of overwritten prose: writing that feels forced or exaggerated, not fitting the subject; books that come off as arenas for showing off the writer’s talent; and writing so noticeable it drives the reader away from the story.

Gardner identifies these signs of badly elevated diction: cliched personification (“greeted by the sound”), abstract language (“unique sound”), and Latinate where Anglo-Saxon will suffice (“surveyed the sound situation”).

Maybe once, long ago, you let a purple phrase or two slip. Examples, courtesy of Morrell:

  • In love scenes, quivering and throbbing; breasts as mounds or globes, couples locked in a primal dance
  • Storms featuring distant thunder and menacing clouds that crouch on the horizon, generating violent gusts of wind that frighten the shutters
  • Characters known to the core of their being or to every fiber of their being; characters who experience the slow burn of anger or who are touched to their innermost souls
Fortunately, there’s a cure. “By reading carefully and extensively,” Gardner says, “by writing constantly and getting the best criticism available to him, the writer who begins with no feeling for diction can eventually overcome his problems.”

Try This: As an antidote for purple prose, Lukeman recommends rewriting a passage in a style exactly the opposite of its original. “If your style is straightforward,” he says, “try one that is convoluted; if it is baroque, try one that is minimalist.”

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Crowdfund Your Book

I’ll start, as I sometimes do, with a confession: I’ve not been especially interested in crowdfunding books. At the heart of my not-especially-well-founded objection was the thought that readers are already investing in my books by purchasing them, so how could I ask them to make an even greater investment up front, to help me produce them?

Then Karen E. Lewis, illustrator of my book Amazing Alaska, send me a link to her crowdfunded appeal on Kickstarter for a project called Grandmother Fish. When I clicked through on the link, the proverbial light bulb went on.

No matter how it’s published, every book has investors. First and foremost, there’s the author, who invests no small amount of time and—in many cases—cold, hard cash, paying for publicists, author tours, book launch events—and that’s not even getting into the costs of independently publishing a book with a professionally designed cover and top-notch editing.

In every aspect, the traditional publishing industry is all about investing in a product. As with all investors, the key players, be they agents or editors or publishers, are taking a risk on their investment in hopes of a return. What I didn’t get until I looked at Karen’s project is that investors in a well-crafted crowdfunded book project also get returns of a kind, in the form of creative products (and involvement) that they’ll find nowhere else. The best-crafted projects make them genuine partners.

The best part about crowdfunding your book? You’ve got a ready-made, boots-on-ground team of fans, aka word-of-mouth.

With 26 days to go, the Grandmother Fish project has already exceeded its goal, while other book projects by friends of mine have gone unfunded. What’s the difference?

·         For this project, there’s real value for investors at each level. Even at the lowest level ($15), you get an e-book (including artwork), wallpaper images for your computer, and your name listed in the back matter of both the electronic and print editions.
·         There’s a limited sponsorship level, for early backers—the sort of extra-value, limited offer deal that everyone loves. (Yup, it’s sold out!)
·         There’s a pledge level that allows you to give to others—a matching book shipped to an education-oriented nonprofit.
·         There’s ample evidence that the project is well-conceived and professional: video footage of children’s reactions as the book is read to them, a complete pdf of the book in draft, testimonials about the writer and artist.
·         There’s humor. Without getting into a debate over creationism vs. evolution, you have to love that a project subtitled “A Child’s First Book of Evolution” offers a special “Wait, I’m a Creationist” level of sponsorship: “Do you *hate* the idea that we're teaching little kids about Evolution? Want to burn the books in protest? At this special level you get ten copies of the book, plus a specially illustrated book of matches so you can light the pile of books on fire as soon as they arrive!”
·         Karen and writer Jonathan Tweet, who Karen describes as the real engine behind the project and the kickstarter campaign, have covered all the bases. Even the “Risks and challenges” section points to the inevitable success of this project: “The book is written and the art is underway. The major content questions are settled, and all that remains is putting the book together. Even if Jonathan or Karen were hit by a bus, the rest of the team could carry the project to completion.”
·         It’s part of something larger: “If Grandmother Fish is successful, it could be the start of a line of books and games that introduce science concepts to children. We have already made valuable contacts in the science-education community that could help us succeed with future books, games, and apps.”
·         It includes Dino-Wars (who doesn’t love Dino-Wars?), meaning investors get to be part of the creative process: “We’re going to include one dinosaur in the book, and as a backer you get to help choose which one. When you pledge, leave a comment telling us whether you want Karen to illustrate a Tyrannosaurus Rex or a Triceratops.”
·         It’s clear that the author and illustrator have already made a major investment. Of the author’s journey: “He started the project fifteen years ago when his daughter was little. Last year, he added the interactive motions and sounds, which make the book click with young children. Reactions to the book were so positive that he decided to raise funds for it here on Kickstarter. Is the world ready for an evolution book for preschoolers? Jonathan’s betting that it is.”
·         It’s a great project—well-conceived and professionally rendered.
·         Last (but most definitely not least), it’s clear why this particular book needs to be crowdfunded: “US publishers consider evolution to be too “hot” a topic for children, but with your help we can make this book happen ourselves.”

None of this happened by accident. As Karen points out, the book’s author, Jonathan Tweet, “worked hard to understand his audience and gain support, reviews and attention for the book ahead of time. He is also working with a Kickstarter consultant to understand what works - and what doesn’t - for social media crowd funding. And he’s still hard at work - setting up interviews and making daily posts and updates to the project's Facebook account and Kickstarter page. It’s a full time job and hard-hitting publicity tour before the book is even finished.”

For her part, Karen adds, “I’m not a natural self-promoter.  I work hard to find ways to promote the project with posts, in context, that have integrity. Talking about work in progress or the development of sketches and characters, for instance, feels much more natural than shouting BUY MY BOOK!!! BUY MY BOOK!!! over and over again.

She also notes the importance of having a project that you—and your backers—believe in. “While this may seem obvious to a (passionate) writer or illustrator of children’s books,” she adds, “it’s important to note that there’s no guarantee of making a bunch of money. We set modest but realistic goals that, now met, will make it possible to produce a wonderful little book and cover our basic costs.”

The best part, according to Karen? “We get to make our book! . . . which is pretty wonderful, as is getting feedback and support from a community of folks who think our concept and sketches have promise.”