Category Archives: Publishing

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:

Flowchart4

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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Tuesday Five: Julie Flygare

wide-awake-and-dreaming-cover-final-JPEG1-683x1024Julie Flygare is a writer, runner*, yogini, and lawyer (my kind of girl!). While in law school, she was diagnosed with narcolepsy and cataplexy (lawyers: can you imagine?), and chronicles her diagnoses and the aftermath in her memoir,  Wide Awake and Dreaming: A Memoir of NarcolepsyShe quickly found an agent for the book, who sent the manuscript around to all the right editors at all the right imprints. But as many talented writers find, if you’re not a celebrity or Cheryl Strayed, memoir is a particularly competitive and difficult genre in which to publish. Julie, however, knew her story needed to be told, and this book would be her calling card and her entrée into the world of advocacy for her disease. So she self-published, and her experience and motives are the perfect example of why I am actually a big fan of self-publishing (more on that tomorrow). The result? She has ordered numerous reprints of the book and her website has crashed from all the traffic. She is currently a spokesperson for narcolepsy research, and her influence and platform are only growing — with the book (a truly compelling read, by the way) to back it up.

How do you know me?  We went to Boston College Law School together, and had mutual friends who put us in contact directly a few years later when I was going through the book publishing process. You looked over my proposal and my previous agent’s efforts and gave me honest helpful advice for proceeding forward with my book.

Why did you go to law school? I went to law school to study art law. I was an art history major at Brown University and fascinated by intellectual property, international art trade treaties and WW II reparation issues. My father (a lawyer) was influential in this decision as well.

When did you know you wanted to write a memoir? I’ve always loved writing and took a few creative non-fiction writing classes in high school and college. As my experience with narcolepsy evolved, I never thought to write about it. I wanted nothing more than to hide my narcolepsy and erase it from my life.

Graduating from law school, I’d planned to write a different book, based on a law school health law paper I’d written. My law school mentor, Professor Chirba had strongly encouraged me to pursue a career in writing. About a month into learning about the writing and publishing process, I found myself drawn to telling my own story with narcolepsy. Once the idea hit me, there was no turning back. Something clicked, stars aligned – it felt so “right”.

What has been the biggest surprise about self-publishing?  Very few people seem to realize or care that my book is self-published. I was surprised that the current print-on-demand mechanisms make it challenging to mimic the well-planned “book release date”, but once it released, it’s been no stress at all. Of course, it’s harder to get coverage in major magazines and self-published books are ineligible for many book contests – but it’s been so thrilling to get my story out there to the world. Self-publishing was a lot of work, but I am a control freak and so it was nice to maintain control at every step, especially in the book cover process. I am very proud of my final product.

Describe your perfect day.  My perfect day would include giving a presentation at a conference and hosting a book signing afterwards. I get to talk about myself and people clap? It’s still a bit surreal. I love traveling, making people smile and inspiring them to reach for their dreams now – don’t wait!  As a person with narcolepsy, these activities leave me totally exhausted but when I close my eyes to sleep, I know in my heart I’m doing what I love.

*Julie ran the Boston Marathon after her diagnosis. Badass.

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Industry Scoop: E-Book News

Do you read on an iPad or Kindle? Or do you prefer “old-fashioned” paper? Or does it matter? I love reading on my iPad for a number of reasons, including its back-lit function (I can read in bed and let others sleep in the dark) and its portability. Most of all, I love the instant gratification. If I hear about a book I want to read, I go to the iBooks store and download the “Sample”. If and when I’m ready to read it, I download the whole thing. I have spent more on books – hundreds and hundreds of dollars more – since I have become an E-reader than I did previously, when I would wait until the book became available at the library or someone gave me a Barnes & Noble gift card.

Fellow E-reading devotees may be interested in two digital startups that plan to offer monthly fee E-Book subscription services – think Netflix for books. (Source: Jeffrey Trachtenberg in the Wall Street Journal, subscription required.) But will publishers get on board? E-Books tend to be a source of angst for most publishers. On one hand, readers like me have spent more on books than they otherwise would have. On the other hand, E-Books sell for so much less than hard-covers, and if more people are buying E-Books at $9.99 than are buying hard covers at $25.99, a company’s bottom line suffers. Any new development with the selling and pricing of E-Books leads to greater angst, at least until the fear of the unknown is conquered.

Will readers get on board? It’s unclear whether these startups will offer best-sellers or new releases and whether the monthly subscription rate will be low enough for those who are not voracious, book-a-week readers. And if the prices are low enough to attract readers, arguably it is the authors who will suffer a decrease in royalties. (Thus, obviously, agents tend to hate subscription models.)

Another initiative retailers and publishers are trying with E-Books is the “bundling” of E-Books with the purchase of print books – in other words, when you buy a print version of a book, you can also have the E-Book for just a few dollars or, in some cases, for free. Amazon is one such retailer and is calling its service Kindle MatchBook (apparently only HarperCollins has agreed to participate in the Amazon service, though other publishers have tried other types of bundling). For E-reading fans, this could be a great idea: you love having the hard copy on your shelf, or to underline, but when you travel you want to take only your Kindle.

Of course, the agent has to ask: does this deprive authors of the 25% E-Book royalty and the 7-15% print royalty they would receive if both books were bought? Or is this a great idea in that it would boost interest in print sales and the industry in general?

There are still some issues to be worked out, the most technical of which concern the large and controversial (see: United States v. Apple, Inc. et. al.) agency model of E-Book pricing, which are described in this Publisher’s Weekly article.

Personally, I’m a fan of E-Books and their place in the industry – I heard a great story on the TED Radio Hour over the weekend about a TED talk Nicholas Negroponte gave in 1984 in which he essentially predicted the ubiquity of E-readers. There will always be print books, I suppose (though Negroponte seems to think not). But because E-Books cost far less to produce, ship and store, it seems to me at some point the industry will reach a state of equilibrium so that more people are buying books at $9.99 with a greater net profit to publishers than they have from readers buying hardcovers at $25.99.

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Free Advice (FWIW): What is a Literary Agent Anyway?

Beethoven_cartoonI plan to offer publishing industry advice every Thursday. As with all advice you get what you pay for. Still, I believe in writers helping writers, lawyers helping writers (though I can’t of course give actual legal advice here), karma, etc.

Before I do that, however, I thought I’d start with some basic background because I get asked this question often: “What does a literary agent actually do?” In short: we act as the liaison between writers and publishing houses. The major publishing houses (Penguin Random House [yes, they are one entity now], HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, etc.) generally will not accept un-agented manuscripts. So if you have a book idea, you find an agent.

That agent will help refine your proposal (for nonfiction) or manuscript (for fiction). This can take a long time. Months, even (ask some of my writers!). Then, your agent will carefully consider the “submission list” — the list of editors to whom he or she will send your proposal. A good agent will have personal relationships with most if not all of the editors on that list. The publishing world is still one of the last relationship-based industries, which is why as a true extrovert I love it so much. I wrote a post here, on my former blog about what I do when I go to New York to meet editors, which I do at least once a month — more if I’m actively pitching and selling a project.

Once an agent sells a book, he or she will negotiate the contract (this is where being a lawyer comes in handy — I love contracts! Really!) Then the agent will act as the liaison between the writer and the editor/publisher during the publication process: reading drafts and edits, consulting on cover choice, and acting as the “bad guy” if there are any issues. Come publication time, the agent turns into the writer’s biggest cheerleader, offering as much support and publicity as possible.

And, then, the agent will start nagging the writer for ideas for the next book… and the process beings again.

Many agents “come up” in the publishing world. They begin their careers in entry-level/assistant jobs either at agencies or in publishing houses. Eventually they start to acquire and sell projects until they have built up their “list” and can make a go on their own. My route in was lateral — I had the editing and writing experience but not yet the inside-industry experience, which was both a benefit but also the steepest part of my learning curve. But, as I zip to New York for coffee and drinks and lunch dates with editors, the most fun.

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J.K. Rowling vs. the Debut Author

CuckoosI am one of the thousands of people who have recently bought J.K. Rowling’s “new” mystery, The Cuckoo’s Calling. When the book was simply an obscure, if well-reviewed, debut novel by a writer named Robert Galbraith, I had no interest — quite simply because I didn’t know about it. And even it I had, would I still have bought it? Perhaps. I love mystery novels — but there are hundreds of new mysteries released every year, and how would I know that this one would be worth not only my money but my time? As soon as I learned that Galbraith was a nom de plume for Rowling, however, I scooped it right up. Not only because I thought it might be well written but because, by that time, I was intrigued by the “scandal“. No-name author = no sales. Mega-huge author = bestseller list. (For the record, I really enjoyed the book. I hope Rowling writes other Cormoran Strike — what a Harry Potter-esque name for its troubled detective protagonist! — mysteries.)

This brings up one of the perplexing issues authors face in the publishing world right now: that of reviews and sales. It’s a circular, chicken-and-egg issue. You are a debut novelist. Do you have any chance of writing a best-seller? It actually may be out of your hands.

Consider this: You write a solid book that reviewers like. Those who actually review it, that is. There are almost no national papers reviewing books anymore. Reviewers such as Publisher’s Weekly are read mostly by those in the industry. And to snag a review in People or — gasp! — the New York Times Book Review is an almost impossible feat. So with fewer outlets reviewing, how will potential readers know about your book? They don’t. And so you sell very few copies in your first couple weeks on the market. Booksellers look at those numbers and decide not to restock copies and take your book out of its front-of-the store location (if it was there to begin with). And when it’s time to write your second book, your publisher looks at your sales numbers and offers a lower advance.

There are other issues at play other than reviews and publicity, of course. The e-book revolution has significantly changed the ways publishers publish, and I plan to discuss this often on this blog, but for a good overview as to how digital publishing affects debut authors, see this 2010 Wall Street Journal article. In short: “mid-list” authors — those who are not the marquee best-sellers but who nevertheless write books that, in the past, would have sold respectful numbers — are being squeezed out.

But back to the issue of publicity. Who gets the reviews? Big-name authors. Who gets the front-of-the-store placement? Those same authors, who bookstores know will sell — e.g., J.K. Rowling.  And if you’re not a big-name author who commands the attention of the publisher’s p.r. machine, the pressure to sell and seek reviews is left very much to the author him or herself, which is why many publishers also are very interested in a potential author’s social media “platform” — yes, even for fiction writers. In other words, how many people can an author herself convince to buy her book? Can she write an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal? Can she exchange Tweets with other authors who will recommend her novel? Can she leverage her network to get on the Today Show?

So I do encourage all writers to make a place for themselves in the social media world and to forge connections that will help them find their readers. This piece is an interesting summary of what several agents look online for when evaluating a potential writer.

Lest  you get too discouraged, however, I am still an idealist (or try to be!). I really do fervently believe that if the writing is good, editors will recognize that. My friend Lacy, whose novel EARLY DECISION was just published is a case in point — she is truly the only one of my friends not on Facebook (gasp!) but, yet, her writing credentials and contacts were solid and her prose stunning.

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September 3, 2013 · 11:41 am

It’s Not About the Book

This story is directly in the purview of my profession(s) — oh, how I’d love to be the attorney here (representing the publisher). In a class action suit filed in California, readers of Lance Armstrong’s autobiographies are suing Armstrong and Random House, his publisher, claiming that he tricked readers into buying his books based on a false advertising campaign. While arguably the books are protected by the First Amendment and Armstrong thus had a constitutional right to lie in them (“People don’t always tell the truth in their books,” said his lawyer*), false commercial speech is not protected by the First Amendment. So the issue is: in publicizing his books, did Armstrong engage in unprotected commercial speech?

To which I say to the plaintiffs (who are asking for $5 million in refunds and damages): come on. Are you really that upset that you want your $25.99 back? Arguably it is pretty reprehensible that Armstrong became so wealthy because of his deceit, but to take it to court?

*See, e.g., the “5 Most Ridiculous Lies Ever Published as Non-Fiction.”

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On Writing

One of my dear friends, Lacy Crawford, has a book being published tomorrow: Early Decision: Based on a True Frenzy (William Morrow). The story is about a “college whisperer”, Anne, who is hired by elite families to help their children with college essays and the application process. The topic resonates in this age of helicopter parenting, and Lacy is getting a lot of great press. As she should, because she has not only hit upon a goldmine of a plot, but her writing is flawless.

And always has been for the past 20 years. So it irked me a bit, then, when the headline of a Daily Beast piece read, “College Application Guru Turned Author.Turned author? Lacy is a Writer. A WRITER. She has always been an author. She came to Princeton knowing she wanted to major in creative writing; she studied with the best (Toni Morrison, Russell Banks). After college she wrote and wrote: novels that were never published, stories, essays, and continued to study and hone her craft. Her writing is laced with literary references and exquisite prose. And Lacy writes about Anne:

 “…quite simply, she loved words most of all.”

 In a way, this is what I want my blog to be about. Words. My love of them, most of all. And, thus, a consideration of words and writing through my own lens of experience. Whether struggling through the same creative writing classes as Lacy in college (Joyce Carol Oates terrified me and it was clear that I had not the talent for fiction as Lace!), going to journalism school and literally writing for a living, teaching writing both to high school students and as a teaching assistant in law school to 1Ls, to now working as a publishing lawyer and literary agent: I write, and I work to promote writing. Without really meaning to, I’ve ended up  making career choices that have allowed me to examine it from different perspectives – from deadline-driven news articles to legal briefs to book proposals to copyright protection.

So welcome to Literary & Legal. I hope that some aspect of my musings on writing – whether about books or legal topics or the publishing world – will inspire and interest you.

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Filed under Alma Maters, Publishing, Read This