Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Guest Post by Helen Smith

Joe sez: If you've missed the previous guest blogs, they've been fascinating and informative.

You can read Ian Kezsbom talking about Fuzzbomb Publishing here:

You can read Gary Ponzo talk about first lines here:

You can read Chris Everheart talking about technophobia here:

You can read Joe Flynn talking about his publishing history here:

You can read Richard Stooker talking about bestsellers here:

You can read Nikki M. Pill talking about fear here:

You can read Billie Hinton and Dawn Deanna Wilson talking about categorizing your book here:

Now here's Helen Smith...

I have just completed my ninth book and I’m working on my tenth. I write novels, poetry, plays, screenplays and children’s books. I have been published traditionally by one of the “big five” and by a small press in the UK. I have also self-published. My new British mystery series is published by Thomas & Mercer.

The high point of my screenwriting career was being commissioned by the BBC to write a series based on my first two books (the money was fantastic, though the series never went into production). The high point of my career as a playwright was seeing my play, The Psychic Detective, (“a film noir, perfect in almost every detail” The Times) produced at the National Theatre in London. We were parked outside the main building in a container truck mocked up to look like a 1940s cinema, with velvet seats for the audience. The high point of my career as a poet was seeing my biography and two poems printed in a respected anthology (co-founded by Ted Hughes) for which payment was two copies of the book. The high point of my career as a novelist was reaching the number one spot as the most popular mystery writer on last month. I love the written word in all its forms. But, for now, I’m sticking to writing novels.

I don’t usually give advice about writing unless I’m asked for it. Friends of friends sometimes contact me to ask how to self-publish their books. I tell them how to do it but, unless they’ve previously been published elsewhere, I tell them to go the traditional route if they can. I have an agent. I’m traditionally published. Do I do it because I need validation? Yes! Yes, yes, yes. I want reviews and I want sales. I want a TV deal for my new series. I can’t get those things by myself.

Publishing your books yourself is hard work unless you have a marketing background or an established readership. None of us is frightened of hard work, but digging ditches is hard work. Pitching reviewers and advertising to readers is hard work. Wouldn’t you rather be writing than marketing? I know I would. If you have an established readership or a talent for marketing, go for it. Or if this is the best choice for you right now, go for it. I love the choice that self-publishing – particularly Amazon’s KDP programme – offers authors. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t self-publish. I’m just saying you shouldn’t do it because you think it will be easy. Do it because you’re not afraid of hard work. Do it because your book is brilliant and you want people to read it.

If you decide to self-publish because you can’t handle rejection, consider this. If you go the traditional route, you only have to sell your book once: to your agent. Your agent sells the book to a publisher and the publisher sells the book into bookstores and direct to readers. They also handle publicity, pitching your book to reviewers and bloggers. If you self-publish, you have to make every sale. You send out every pitch. And you will meet with a hundred tiny rejections instead of one or two big ones.

Give yourself a little pinch. How thin is your skin? The rewards are wonderful when you self-publish. I’m not talking about the money, though of course you get to keep most of the royalties for yourself if you publish yourself. But if you cared about money you’d be working in a bank or dealing in property in London, not writing a novel, right? I’m talking about the opportunity to make relationships – friendships, even – with the book bloggers who are kind enough to read and review your work. I’m talking about connecting directly with readers. Once you do that and you go back into traditional publishing, you’re Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. You’ve seen too much. You’ve gone rogue. You’re going to be difficult to handle. But you only get to play Colonel Kurtz if you’ve made a success of self-publishing. And before the hubris comes the rejection. The snubs from reviewers. The snubs from professional writers’ organizations. The snubs from bookstores. Oh, those endless, petty snubs from bookstores that they report so gleefully on Twitter, as if a local author wanting to partner with them to sell books is an affront to their dignity and humanity. Thank goodness for Amazon!

But before you can publish a book, you have to write one.

If I’m asked for advice about writing, I usually confine myself to a variation of “just finish your book,” tagging on a cheery and heartfelt, “good luck!” If that advice seems facile, that’s probably because you’ve never finished writing a book. Lots of people start them. Not many people finish. How do you even know if you’ve finished? OK, I’m going to cover that in my “five things you should know about writing”, below. After that, I’m done.

Thank you to Joe Konrath for hosting me here. He invited me to post after I made a donation to Tess Gerritsen’s War on Alzheimer’s Fund. I also fundraise for Tŷ Hapus, a centre in Wales that provides respite care for people with early onset Alzheimer’s.

Five things you should know about writing

1)  The publication of your first book is not the end of the journey, it’s the start of it. The hard work starts now. Good luck. Don’t forget to keep writing.

2)  Don’t use song lyrics in your book.
You need to get permission to use the lyrics and pay to use them. You are responsible for this, not your publisher – and it’s expensive. I think it’s natural for writers to want to provide a soundtrack for their book, especially first time writers who are throwing everything they’ve got into the manuscript to make it work. If you want to use a song to evoke a mood, or locate the action in a particular time or place, just use the song title – you don’t need to ask for permission or pay for it. This is perfectly legal. If the reader recognizes it, the song will instantly start playing in their head as they read your book. Nick Hornby did it brilliantly in High Fidelity, if you need an example of how to make it work. But don’t reproduce the lyrics without permission.

3)  Don’t send the book out until you’re finished.
Are you sure the book is finished? Really? There’s nothing you could possibly change? It’s hard enough to get people to look once. They won’t look twice.

4) Agents and publishers are not looking for potential.
See number three, above. Have you written a good book? Or have you written a book that could be good, with a lot of outside help? Agents and publishers are looking for the former, not the latter. Yes, publishers will hire a copyeditor to fix the typos in your book if they buy it, and they may also give you notes on your manuscript so you can fix anything that doesn’t work in your final draft before publication. But they will not match you with industry insiders eager to transform you from weeping ingénue to star. This isn’t American Idol. If you’re looking for that kind of help, you’re in the wrong business.

5) Be nice.
Be nice to everyone. Everything goes better in life if you heed this advice.

Invitation to Die was published by Thomas & Mercer in May 2013. Helen Smith blogs at or find her on Facebook or Twitter

Joe sez: Every writer has a different path to follow, and they glean wisdom from their experience.

Readers of this blog know what my experience has been. I encourage everyone to self-publish, and I don't believe anyone should take a Big 5 contract unless it's for a ridiculous amount of money, or unless you can keep the ebook rights.

That's been my experience, so that's what I share. But that doesn't mean those who have opposing views are wrong, or that there is only one cookie-cutter way to succeed. We all have different journeys, and different results.

As an author who has visited 1200 bookstores, my experience differs from Helen's. While I did have to sell my book to my agent, that wasn't the only person I sold it to. I've found that I worked many times harder and longer selling my legacy books than I have selling my ebooks. Countless eight hour days in bookstores, handselling. Traveling to conferences and book fairs and library events in 42 states. Schmoozing with publishers and publicists and editors in order to get them on my side. I'm very happy I don't have to do any of that anymore, especially considering the meager monetary benefit I got from it.

Whereas with ebooks, they seem to sell themselves, with minimal prodding on my end. But again, that's been my experience, and your mileage may vary.

Every writer's goal should be to learn as much as possible, by talking to others, reading blogs and books, and experimenting. Then you can find what works best for you. Then you'll be able to give advice based on experience. Just remember than not all advice, mine included, fits all.