Wednesday, December 12, 2012

On Becoming a Writer: My Path to Publication

I'm on a listserv for mystery fans, and we recently had a discussion on paths to publication. I wrote up my experience, so I thought I'd share it here. People often don't know what they're getting into when they decide to "become a writer," and no one outside of the business has a clue how challenging it is. Here's just one example. [Note – many, many people on the list didn't start writing until they were in their 40s, 50s, 60s or 70s, and many also took 20 or more years to get published.]

My path to publication is unusual – I sold the first novel I ever wrote, before age 30. 

But wait! Before the other authors start throwing things at me, let me tell the whole story.

I first went to art school (Rhode Island School of Design), where I studied photography. I learned I didn't want to be a photographer, but I got a great education in creativity and critiquing. Learning how to analyze and express what I feel works and doesn't work in other people's art has served me well in analyzing my own writing and especially in teaching/critiquing others. And learning how to take a critique as a learning experience helped build a thick skin. I also started writing for the school paper and got interested in journalism.

After two years of going nowhere much, I went back to college for my MA degree in Professional Writing and Publishing. Although I was focused on magazine nonfiction, I took classes in fiction, children's picture books, and book publishing. I went to New York City to look for work in magazines. While job hunting and doing temp work, I decided to start a novel for my own entertainment. I had an idea for a middle grade (ages 9 to 12) novel set in Mayan Guatemala, where I'd spent a summer traveling after college.

The Well of Sacrifice CoverThat became The Well of Sacrifice, which got me an agent and a book contract with Clarion – mainly because I was very, very lucky. First of all, historical fiction for kids was selling much better then than it does today. And there was no other historical fiction about the pre-Columbian Maya for middle grade kids. I didn't know that, or that kids study the Maya in fourth grade, or that teachers often use supplemental fiction when they teach history. So I accidentally wrote a book that was very marketable. It came out in 1999, and I still get a nice royalty check twice a year, mainly because of school purchases.

I also got lucky because I didn't make any of the mistakes first novelist typically make. I saved those for my second book… And my third… And my fourth… In fact, I went on to write something like eight novels that I couldn't sell. I don't know if I would've had the stamina to keep with it if I hadn't had that early success. 

I had naïvely quit my job at a magazine and moved west after selling the book, because I had money in the bank and thought I could make it as a writer. Over the next decade, I did work for hire nonfiction, sold a couple of short stories and a larger number of articles, and taught writing for children through a correspondence course and at local colleges (and did a lot more temp work).

I finally sold a series in 2008. Haunted, about a brother and sister who travel with a ghost hunter TV show, launched with three books. Then my editor got fired and the publisher canceled the series. You know how common experiences like this are? I was recently on a panel about "hope and rejection" at a writers schmooze, and three of us have had gaps of at least seven years between book sales. The fourth person had sold her first novel a couple of years prior, but the publisher went out of business six months before they were supposed to release it. Another publisher took on the book, but her editor had just rejected her second novel.

A couple of years ago, I was feeling burnt out on writing for children, so I decided to start writing romantic suspense for adults. My former editor had become my agent, and he wanted to represent my first book. However, I had been reading a lot about new options in indie publishing, and I wasn't happy with what I was hearing from traditional publishers (lower advances without higher royalties, etc.). I said I was thinking about self-publishing, and my agent agreed that was the best path today for genre fiction.

I have released three books for adults in the last two years, under the name Kris Bock, to separate that work from my children's books. I haven't sold a lot of copies yet, but I have gotten good reviews, even from strangers. I've been focusing more on getting the first books out, so that I could market a body of work. I didn't want to get bogged down in publicity after just one book. I've also been learning a lot about publishing and publicity, so hopefully I can be more focused with my time.

I also released two of my unsold children's books – the fourth book in my Haunted series, because I'd already written it and I had an interested audience. And a mystery set in ancient Egypt, The Eyes of Pharaoh. Although many of my early, unsold books were not publishable, I was confident this one had merit. It was a finalist in the New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards, and it has been picked up by several teachers for classroom use. It's the one making me the most money so far. Second is Advanced Plotting, a guide for writers adapted from my workshops, blog posts, and articles in Children's Writer and Writers Digest.
I'm still doing a lot of work for hire (children's nonfiction, test passages, manuscript critiques, writing articles, workshops) to pay the bills. 2011 has been fairly good financially, but my goal is to shift more of my income to my fiction.

I'm thinking about doing a breakdown in the new year on where my 2011 income came from, as an example of how a professional writer makes a living. Would you be interested in hearing about that, or should I stick more to writing craft?

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Another Company Enters the Self-Publishing Market

Simon & Schuster has announced a new self-publishing imprint, Archway Publishing. The imprint is run by Author Solutions, a vanity press with a long and questionable history. Here are a couple of blog posts on the subject. These contain individual opinions,but the bloggers' numbers appear to be correct based on a quick look around the Archway site. Please be very cautious about doing business with anyone who claims to be representing Penguin who may really be trying to sell you services through Archway. A traditional publisher NEVER asks for money up front.

This may sound familiar because Penguin’s parent company, Pearson, purchased Author Solutions in July. (Here's an opinion on that: Penguin’s New Business Model: Exploiting Writers) My personal opinion: Big publishers need to look for innovative ways to increase revenue. Valid options include starting e-book-first imprints and lowering or eliminating advances while giving authors a greater royalty rate. They do not involve lending the publisher's name to a shady and overpriced vanity press.