Category Archives: On Writing

Should I Self-Publish My Book?

If you want to be a capital “W” writer, there still is much to be said for the editing and publicity support of a publishing house — not to mention the prestige. If, however, your book is part of your business platform and you know you can sell copies in the course of your business (speaking engagements, trade shows, on your website); or, your story is simply one you know will find an audience, even if that audience is too “small” for a publishing house (see, e.g.,  Julie Flygare) — or some combination of both — you are a perfect candidate for self-publishing. Of course, there also are the E. L. James’s of the world who find a devoted online readership, which can help propel self-published E-Books up the Amazon and iBooks best-seller lists and as a result attract attention from publishers and agents. If you think that’s you — go for it! Below, my flowchart of some of the basic issues:


Self-publishing used to be sort of the secret, ugly, bastard step-child (am mixing my metaphors, I know) of the industry. But with the relative ease of self-publishing E-Books, with the success of certain self-published writers, and with digital advances that make self-published print books not only easy to do oneself but much more professional looking, I don’t think they are quite as stigmatized. As an agent, if I believe that a book is terrific but I just don’t think the big publishing houses will bite, I wholeheartedly encourage self-publishing. Likewise, if I try to sell a book and cannot — and particularly if that book has a devoted niche audience, such as Young Adult or Science Fiction (or Romance, though I don’t take on Romance manuscripts) — I will absolutely direct a writer towards self-publishing. Even if the big houses aren’t interested, we have seen that there are still readers out there, finding books through websites and listserves.

But by fervently supporting self-publishing, am I condemning the industry by which I make a living to a slow death? The thinking being: if more people are self-publishing, more people are buying and reading self-published books, thus supporting Amazon, thus further decreasing the traditional publishers’ bottom lines, thus ultimately decreasing author advances. Perhaps just as important, am I supporting a vast morass of unedited, uncurated crap?

The self-published books I have seen have been quite excellent (more on that tomorrow).  I also truly believe in supporting people who want to write — no matter how they get there. Before self-publishing became so much easier, these people were stopped entirely from sharing their stories. If they want to share them through traditional publishers, I can help them and if I am successful, I’ll make some money. But if they don’t want to — or can’t — go the “traditional” route, who am I to keep writers from sharing their books — books which I well know take time and effort and courage to write.

There are agents who troll keep an eye on the self-published best seller lists looking for authors to pick up, repackage and sell to publishing houses. I don’t do that, though I have had authors come to me seeking an agent after they were independently contacted by publishers due to the success of their self-published books. There are also agencies that set up their own sort of in-house E-Book publisher for their clients; in other words, if the agency cannot sell a book, they will help the writer self-publish through the agency’s own E-Book “imprint”, and then the agency will still take their commission. This makes me uneasy because I’m not sure how hard an agent will advocate for traditional publication if the agent knows that he or she can still make money through the agency’s own “imprint”. (I’m not sure agents should be in the business of both agenting and publishing, though maybe this is the lawyer in me being overly wary of crossing ethical, client-focused lines?) And, finally, there are certain publishing houses who have developed hybrid E-Book imprints for certain genres, such as Romance — if a manuscript is not quite good enough for a house to take the financial gamble on a print run, but there are still potential E-Book readers who can be reached through various forms of internet marketing, the publisher will create an E-book version only. I’m not sure how I feel about this either — could the writer make more money simply self-publishing? How much editorial or marketing support will the publisher actually give?

In the end, as Julie Flygare mentioned yesterday, no one who picks up her excellent memoir seems to care whether it is self-published. Is it only us navel-gazing publishing types who care whether Knopf* publishes our books?

*for those who want to be capital “W” writers, Knopf is like the Harvard of the publishing world. Big, historic, bureaucratic, prestigious. [I like to think of Scribner as the Princeton! Smaller, more nimble, friendlier, yet just as prestigious…heh]

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Filed under Alma Maters, On Writing, Publishing, Scoop

Monday Five (Tuesday Edition): J. Courtney Sullivan

imageOne of the things I love(d) most about being a journalist is meeting interesting people and asking them questions. Every Monday, I hope to bring that here, interviewing writers, lawyers, creators, and all-around cool people. Today’s edition is a day late, as I am in New York for work, but hopefully worth the wait as it features New York Times best-selling author, J. Courtney Sullivan. Her most recent novel, The Engagements, was published in June by Knopf.

How did you meet me? I met [you] through our mutual Kneerim, Williams & Bloom family. My wonderful agent, Brettne Bloom, introduced us. [We] bonded immediately over Red Sox baseball and good Milton restaurants. (Yes, they exist.) Later on, [you helped] me navigate the legal ins and outs of my most recent novel, The Engagements, which deals in part with the behind-the-scenes workings of the diamond industry.

What was your major in college? Did you take any creative writing classes? I was an English major at Smith. At least back then, the department skewed heavily toward literature. There was only one fiction writing workshop. You were allowed to take it twice, which I did. The second time, my professor was a brilliant author named Doug Bauer. The next semester, I created a one-on-one tutorial, wherein Doug and I met twice a week, and I wrote a novel. (Smith is great about letting you choose your own adventure in this way.) That novel now lives in a drawer and will hopefully never see the light of day. But it was a terrific, educational experience for a young writer. Kurt Vonnegut also came to campus one year and taught a master class that I was lucky enough to get into. I remember his main rule was that every character you write should want something, even if it’s just a glass of water. He also encouraged us to create a piece of writing—a poem, an essay, a short story—and make it as perfect as possible, then throw it away and never share it with anyone. Creating just for the sake of creating. This was pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter. In our current culture of over-sharing, I like this idea a lot. (Though I’ve never been brave enough to actually do it.)

Do people think they see themselves in your characters? Has that created problems or are the generally flattered? On a couple of occasions, I’ve worried that someone might see herself in a character, and it’s never come to pass. Other times, I wasn’t even thinking of a person and he became convinced I was writing about him. You would think people would clam up around a writer and become very protective of their stories. But on the contrary, people are constantly telling me their secrets and encouraging me to write about them. (I usually don’t.) Back when I was working as a researcher for an op-ed columnist at the New York Times, I learned a valuable lesson: Most everyone wants to tell their stories. I believe it’s just a human instinct. For The Engagements, because I was writing about worlds unknown to me, I interviewed people who had certain things in common with my characters—several paramedics in Cambridge, a classical violinist, French women who moved to New York for love, and so on. The real-life inspirations for these characters were generous and happy to share what they knew.

Where do you write? I mostly write in a corner of my bedroom. I have a lovely antique desk set up by the window. My husband and I both work from home in our one bedroom apartment (and we have a large hound dog who may as well be named Procrastination—he loves attention and is far too cute to be ignored.) I dream of one day having a gorgeous beach house with a writer’s cottage in back. Basically, I want to be a novelist in a Nancy Meyers’ movie.

What is your fantasy day in Boston? I grew up in nearby Milton and though I’ve now lived in New York for ten years, Boston still has my heart. For me, the city is full of memories. It’s where I attended preschool in the North End, where my mom used to take us to see the Nutcracker each Christmas, where I rode the T into high school at BU Academy, where my friends and I spent hours strolling around Newbury Street. And every time I return home, there’s something new to try. Most recently, my husband and I checked out the food trucks in the South End. Loved that. My fantasy day involves a morning walk around Castle Island. A visit to the Gardner Museum. An afternoon Sox game, with seats in the Green Monster. Dinner at Sam’s and drinks at the Boston Harbor Hotel.

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Filed under Boston, Five Qs, On Writing, Read This

On Writing: Performance Enhancers

In its August issue, Runner’s World profiles  author Malcolm Gladwell (who was a high school Canadian national track champion). Every nonfiction writer should read Gladwell, not only because he is a prolific bestseller but because he changed the nature of nonfiction. His writing is narrative, but anecdotally so, and he has perfected the concept of analyzing big, even abstract, ideas, by focusing on tangible, relatable examples. This formula works, and it sells lots and lots of books. I think there are certain “sweet spots” in fiction where a story is accessibly written but yet the reader comes away feeling as if they have learned something important (see: The Paris Wife, The Help). Gladwell — though perhaps somewhat less accessible — does this for his readers. It’s nice to throw around anecdotes from The Tipping Point or his “ten thousand hours rule” in casual conversation.

Gladwell’s Runner’s World interview is pretty running-specific, but this paragraph caught my attention:

I remember when [New York Yankees pitcher] Andy Pettitte was injured, there was some allegation he was taking something during his period of recovery. How can you blame the guy? He’s a professional athlete. If I got carpal tunnel and couldn’t type, would I take a drug so I could get better sooner? Totally. My living is typing.

Author Michael Farris Smith also speaks of performance-enhancing substances for writers in his New York Times piece, “What if Novelists Took Steroids?

I’m not talking about traditional writer standbys like booze or pills or wild, obsessive lovers. Or hard work. These have all been known to transform a writer from something into something else. I’m talking about a fat pill I could swallow once in the morning and once at night, and then sit back and reap the benefits of a stronger, faster novel-writing me.

Gladwell of course is implying more of a physical effect than creative. But I’ve thought about this often — what is it that makes writing so difficult and is there anything we can do to overcome that? Is it the solitude? The insecurity? The sheer frustration of seeing a crap first draft? The inability to focus? Sometimes I think I became an agent because, while I love to write, I don’t have the innate creative fire to write an entire book. And I so admire people who do, whether their books end up being published or not. (And this is why I try to be respectful of writers who query me — I know what it’s like to put yourself out there. It’s terrifying!)

Smith ends his piece neatly, although I have to disagree: “Cheaters always know how it’s going to end….part of the fun of being a writer is not knowing the ending before you get there.” It’s true: you never know the ending. But I find that more terrifying than fun.

Writers, what say you? Would you take a magic writing pill (not booze, not adderall)? Do you plot out your endings beforehand (as Joyce Carol Oates does, on many index cards)? Or is the not knowing the fun part?

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