Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Am I Good Enough to Epublish?

Based on comments and emails, a lot of writers are using me as motivation to self-publish ebooks.

I've tried to be clear that the only writing you should sell on Kindle is good writing, and it's very hard to judge if your own writing is good. Which is why I recommend you only epublish works that were published before (short stories, out of print novels) and works your agent tried to sell but couldn't (a good agent actively trying to sell you is usually proof your work is worthy.)

But those of you paying attention will notice that I have a few things up on Kindle that I wrote specifically for Kindle. My agent didn't rep them, and they were never previously published.

Hypocrisy?

Well, sort of. :)

When I offer works like SERIAL UNCUT, PLANTER'S PUNCH, and TRUCK STOP, which were written without any apparent vetting by professionals, I'm not completely bypassing traditional publishing channels. While I do believe ebooks are the future (and have the proof to back this up: it's 8am on March 24 and I've already sold 4300 ebooks this month) I also believe it's foolish to put anything up on Kindle unless you're 100% sure it is good enough.

In my case, everything I write is read by several of my peers. My peers are all professional writers--people who have agents and have sold books to big houses. If there is something wrong with the writing--and even though I've now written over 2 million words, I do still make mistakes--my friends point it out and I fix it before it goes live.

But what if you don't have a cadre of pros to vet your work? What if you're unpublished, unagented, and none of your peers are published writers?

My advice stands. Before you begin putting your work on Kindle, get an agent and sell some writing. I know it's hard. That's what makes it worthwhile.

Agents do much more than simply pair you with publishers and negotiate terms. And even if you're selling as many ebooks as I am, that pales next to what a big house can do for your book.

However...

I've seen the ebook world accelerate in the last 12 months, and traditional print publishing seems to be slowing down. Agents and editors are becoming pickier. Personally, I'm faced with some choices in my own career where I'm thinking about passing up print contracts that don't allow me to keep my erights.

I can predict a future where writers can, and should, make money without needing major print publishers. (I still believe agents are essential--for example, mine just negotiated a film option for SERIAL, is working to change terms in one of my contracts, is negotiating terms for another contract, has sold foreign rights, and has renewed my film option for AFRAID, all within the last four weeks.)

But I don't see agents as necessary in the ebook world, at least not yet. And I see print publishers as pretty much clueless when it comes to ebooks, for many of the reasons I've mentioned in previous blog posts. (If you're interested in epublishing, follow those links and read those entries.)

So what should newbie writers do? Stay the course, find an agent, and try to sell a print book in a difficult market? Or upload their stuff to Kindle without professional vetting?

If you're thinking of uploading to Kindle, and you don't have an agent or any publishing credits, here are some things to ask yourself.

1. Do I Understand Story Structure? Long ago I figured out the essential elements to a narrative. You can download my Newbie's Guide for details, but in a nutshell they are: Hook, Conflict, Dynamic Characters, Setting, Mood, Pace, Style, Resolution, and Spelling/Grammar. Unless you can speak at length what each of these do for a story, and know how to effectively use them, you probably aren't a good storyteller.

2. What Do I Want? If it's to make a living, get your work in bookstores, or have a wide fanbase, you want to get an agent. If you're content with making grocery money, getting a few fans, and not pursuing this as a career, then by all means ignore traditional publishing. Your goals should dictate your actions. And, as always, your goals should be within your capacity.

3. Can I Get Critiques? No matter your level of experience, you need other eyes on your work in order to vet it. Join a writing group. Befriend your peers. Use my crit sheet to give to friends and family (even non-writers) so they can critique you with a level of expertise. You can't do this in a vacuum. Even if you self-publish, you must have quality feedback.

4. Are There Downsides? Yes, there are, for either choice. Traditional publishing downsides include: publishers ill-equipped to handle the oncoming ebook boom, waiting a long time for the "yes" or "no", and relinquishing control of many aspects of your career. The downsides for epublishing yourself include: potentially alienating print publishers who want first rights (though that could swing the other way if you're a success), less money, less name-recognition, smaller fanbase and fewer readers, and putting out an inferior product, which can hurt your career.

5. Should I Do It Alone? A while ago, I postulated that estributors would arise--people who would be middlemen between the author and the etailer (such as Amazon.) For those writers who don't want to mess with cover art, formatting and uploading, or keeping track of numbers, there are people who will help you get your book Kindle-ready. As always, look at the terms of the contract. Do you want to give a percentage to someone forever for doing something you could pay a flat fee for? Or is it worth a percentage to not have to worry about all of that stuff? And what percentage is fair?

6. What Do I Expect? Goals are within your control to reach. Expectations, however, are akin to dreams and beyond your control. I've been pretty successful at epublishing, but I'm still not sure why some of my ebooks sell better than others. My expectations going into this venture were very low, and yours should be as well.

Conclusions? Only you can decide what is right for you. But THERE ARE NO SHORTCUTS. Writing is a craft that must be learned. Just because it's easier to reach readers with epublishing doesn't mean you should forsake finding an agent. Like everything in life, there's a learning curve, and jumping in blindly is stupid.

I epublish things that are out of print, things my agent couldn't sell, and things my peers have vetted that I'm pretty sure I can make money on based on my ebook experiences.

If you have something out of print, epublish it.

If you have something your agent can't sell, epublish it.

If you have a fanbase who wants it, epublish it.

If you've exhausted all agent and print possibilities (meaning you've gotten a lot of rejections), don't epublish until it has been vetted and you have clear goals and expectations.

If you've never even tried to get an agent or publish it traditionally, think twice, then think again, before epublishing. It's tempting to get the instant gratification, but there is probably a reason you couldn't find an agent, and that reason is probably: the work isn't good enough yet.

Are there exceptions? Sure. There are always exceptions. And in my experience, every newbie writer thinks they're the exception.

But I urge you, before you self publish, to understand your reasons for doing so. You always have a choice.

The publishing industry is pretty moronic, and it makes a lot of mistakes. But before you think you're smarter than the industry, you have to experience the industry.