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.


Unknown said...

Thanks, Joe!

Anonymous said...

So nice to see two viewpoints articulately argued without shouting or screaming.

Tom Wood said...

Great insight, Helen. I didn't realise you were so prolific!

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

As a follow on to Helen's post, what keeps you from completing that first novel?

I found early this year that some of my own obstacles can be inspiration if I look at them differently. Here's my take...

I'm getting a lot of inspiration from this series of guest posts - thanks to all who have contributed.

I.J.Parker said...

Well, I get the warning that editors/agents won't touch me now that I'm self-published. I, too, have been trad. published first by 2 of the big guys and one smaller publisher. Frankly, I'm so angry at all of them that I won't touch them again. (A huge contract might change my mind, but the relationhip would be strictly business: I'll not cowtow to anyone ever again).
Yes, I do miss the reviews, but they were getting very sparse anyway.

Unknown said...

Interesting post, Mark. Good luck with your book.

Tom, I don't feel prolific. I always feel that I haven't written nearly enough... but, of course it's feeling that I need to achieve more that keeps me going. I dread to think what would happen if I ever got really successful. I worry that I'd sit by the pool, cocktail in hand, reflecting on my success. I'm always impressed that J K Rowling - to name just one - doesn't do that.

Stan, thank you. I have been reading Joe's blog for years and I'm always interested in what he has to say. I knew he wouldn't mind if talked about publishing from my perspective, which is slightly different from his because we have had different experiences.

Unknown said...

IJ, we cross-posted. I don't think that self-publishing is a barrier to getting picked up by a traditional publisher, though it once was. I know quite a few people who started out self-publishing and then switched. But it sounds as though you'd rather self-publish. I love the fact that we now have the choice.

McVickers said...

I can see how you'd prefer traditional pub to self-pub. You have a pretty nice "in" there, no need to rock the boat. A lot of authors don't, and I suspect the fear of self-publishing ebooks (which will require a LOT of marketing online) is what still drives many authors to seek traditional publishing and even pseudo traditional publishers disguised as "helping you self-publish". I guess I'm from a new generation that isn't afraid of the online world, so going the traditional route never even once entered my mind. All that hard work for what, 20% of the profits? I shudder at the absurdity.

susanne said...

Brilliant post by the wonderful Helen Smith, whose books are some of the best I've ever read; quirky, intelligent with a dark humour that made me laugh out loud.

As a writer, I was trad published and I had an agent but I walked away from all that to e-publish my backlist and to go the Indie route. I feel I've been successful and gained a certain amount of readership. made money and seen my books rise in the bestseller charts. I've don a lot of marketing, I've busted my gut to get noticed. But then, after a few years of this, I've taken a step back, relaxed, enjoyed my writing and right now find myself in a very good place, finding new joy in simply writing and not worrying too much about sales.

Becoming an Indie writer is the best step I've ever taken career- wise, as it has given me such creative freedom and peace of mind.

I.J.Parker said...

Thanks, Helen for clarifying. I have a sneaking suspicion that I'd have to have huge sales of my own before any publisher would offer again. Wishing you the best, however.
And yes, Susanne, I also love the creative freedom and peace of mind. Mind you, the money isn't great and I pull out my hair trying to learn formatting. Forget social media promotion. I tried and failed at that. There is a downside to self-pubbing.

Unknown said...

McVickers, it's interesting that you never once considered the traditional route. There will be more and more people who don't remember the "old days". In fact, even the idea that you need an agent is fairly new. When I sent out my first book, you could still send the manuscript direct to most publishers. I think there are hardly any that accept manuscripts direct from authors now. Before that, of course, plenty of authors self-published. So it just keeps changing and we all have to keep on to of it and make sure we're doing what's best for us.

Susanne - you're doing brilliantly well. Congratulations. Thanks for the kind words about your books. Long may your success continue.

IJ, thanks for commenting again and good luck with it.

Mean Teacher said...

Nice post, Helen. Joe is brilliant and I love his contrarian, anti-establishment voice, but it's nice to hear from the other side sometimes as well.

Quick question: One hears a lot about diminishing advances from the Big 5 these days. Has this been the case for you (if, that is, you're willing to discuss such a thing).

I was reading something yesterday about how Nicholas Sparks got a $1M advance for The Notebook as a no-name author repped by a newbie agent. That was in 1995. Something like that seems absolutely impossible today. Even six figures sounds like it's rare.

Donna Fasano said...

One of the high points of my career as an indie author was making the acquaintance of Helen Smith. I love her novels. She's a talented writer who spins wonderful tales. AND... she's nice.

Wonderful article, Helen.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Mean Teacher.

The advances I got for my first two books were quite modest. At the time I didn't really care, I was just happy to be published. But I later learned that the accepted lore is the higher the advance, the bigger the advertising & marketing spend from your publisher because they need to make that money back. So you need to get the biggest advance you can possibly get. Of course, the biggest advance you can possibly get might be quite small, especially if you're an unknown writer just starting out.

The advance I got in my most recent deal was modest, too. However the Amazon Publishing imprints, including Thomas & Mercer, pay very good royalties and they pay them monthly. They also do a good job of promoting their books. So the idea is that you don't need a big advance because the money will start coming in regularly as soon as they publish you.

I have heard that the big publishers are trying to get away from paying huge non-recupable advances and in general they're offering less these days than they once did. I can see why, because if they take a gamble on an author and it doesn't pay off, it damages their other authors to some extent because there's less money to go round. But I'm sure there will always be huge advances for celebrities and big name authors.

I recently co-hosted a workshop on writing comedy for the Writers' Guild with David Nobbs. His name may not mean anything to people in the US but he's the creator of a much-loved character called Reggie Perrin who was in a popular TV show back in the seventies in the UK, based on David's novels. He has numerous TV and radio credits as well as many successful novels published.

Anyway, David said (publicly, otherwise I wouldn't mention it here) that he had just changed publishers because the one he had been with for many years had made what he called a "reverse Mafia offer" with the advance on his lates book: an offer he couldn't accept. (He's a very funny man, both on the page and in real life.) So... I think it probably is true that publishers are being less generous these days. An agent would be in the best position to comment about it.

A quick question from you. Long answer from me! Sorry. The short answer would be yes, I think you're right. A six figure advance does sound quite rare these days.

Unknown said...

Oh, Donna! I took so long typing the answer to Mean Teacher's post that you posted while I was at it. What a lovely thing to say, thank you.

Well, your success is astonishing, both with traditional publishing and now self-publishing. Haven't you sold more than 3.5 million books? And you've got awards. And you're happy and in control. I'm happy where I am for now, with someone else to publish me. But I'm not sure what a publisher could do for you that you couldn't do yourself.

I agree with IJ that using social media to try to sell books is painful and awful. But if you just use it as a way to interact with people and make friends, it's wonderful. You and I have never met but I feel as if I know you because I see your cheerful face pop up online every now and again - and because I have read some (some, not all) of your books.

I read an article in the Guardian today where Ted Heller (son of Joseph) complains about how awful it is that he's been "forced" to self-publish. Here's the link: I'd love to see an article on you because I feel that you - in common with many romance authors - have taken control and freed yourself from a traditional publishing deal that didn't do you any favors.

Another long post. You can see that it's late here & it's time I went to bed otherwise my posts would be far pithier. I will catch up with any further comments here tomorrow. Thanks to everyone who has commented so far. Thanks to Joe for hosting me on his blog.

M.F. Soriano said...

True story: I met an author who told me she was hoping her memoir would get enough of an advance to pay back the advance she owed to her last publisher.

She'd signed a three book deal, taken the advance, and spent it. But the publisher rejected her second book, and she ended up breaking the deal in order to publish it with another press.

Bells went off in my head when I heard that, and I started looking into self-publishing much more seriously.

Mean Teacher said...

Wow, Helen, thanks so much for the in-depth, thoughtful response. This is one of the reasons I love this blog so much: it brings a diversity of opinion to the fore that is always honest. Your answer gives me further insight into the whole process. I am hoping to be finished with my debut crime novel by early autumn and am chewing my cuticles raw deciding which route to pursuit. On the one hand I grew up in the DIY punk rock underground which makes the Indie route very palatable indeed. On the other hand I am a married father of two now and need to think financial soundness first and foremost. Decisions, decisions!

Nicole Montgomery said...

Thanks so much, Helen, for sharing your experience and for the great tips - those go into my Evernote folder for sure!

On the question of epubbing or traditional - I'm very glad to hear from someone who's had a positive experience with the traditional route. It's worked for a long time; I just wish they'd wake up and smell the digital coffee, so to speak.

I have no first-hand experience, but one midlist author I know, who has published over 30 titles (most of which are still in print), but does not own the e-rights (and they're almost all available from Amazon and B&N), brings home about ten thousand a year. Total. That's just wrong. And I used to find it very discouraging, until I found Joe and Newbie's, and hope was born anew...

I.J. - on formatting. Have you tried Scrivener? I'm testing it out, and it takes some playing with, but you can "compile" (as they call it) your MS into just about any format you could imagine. I put my novella into Kindle format and gave it to my editor that way - she's doing the copy edits with the notes feature. (Just seeing my story on my Kindle app gave me a big tingle - I can't imagine how I'll feel when I can buy the thing on Amazon.) Anyway, Scrivener is very cool software.

Final thought: I, too, was warned most severely about using song lyrics - and the tip about who to read to see the legal alternative done well is great.

Thanks again - reading these posts and comments have become my favorite part of the day.

Rob Gregory Browne said...

Love. That. Cover.

Unknown said...

From I.J.Parker:

> I pull out my hair trying to learn formatting.

From Nicole Montgomery:

> I.J. - on formatting. Have you tried Scrivener? I'm testing it out ...

I do the eBook formatting for Nepo Press and for some clients. As part of this work, I wrote the software to turn a manuscript into either a mobi file or an EPUB (EPUB 3) file "at the touch of a button". After that, I said "Hey, why not write up how to use this software and publish the manual as an eBook and include the software as well?" It shouldn't take more than a month or so!

Well, as with all my estimates, I was way off and it took a lot longer. The project then expanded into two books (Mobi Machine and EPUB Machine) plus some YouTube videos to show how to do some of the tasks. I don't sell a lot of copies, and don't expect to. This was just a spin off from my main work.

Still, I would love to get some reviews for the books. I.J. and Nicole, I'd be glad to email you a copy of either if you would consider posting a review of it to Amazon. (This goes for any other people here also.) And, Nicole, I would even welcome and in depth comparison of my approach to Scrivener's. I know that I personally prefer my approach. ;)


Barbara Silkstone said...

Helen is an amazing author. She boggles my mind. At times I could swear she's channeling Lewis Carroll as she writes while walking on the edge of logic.

Unknown said...

Ha, Barbara, thank you!

Rob, thank you. I can't wait to see what they'll come up with for the next one - it's out in January and they're working on it now. Just had a look on your site and your covers are great, too.

Thanks, Nicole. Yes, there are a lot of very poor authors around. I think that ebook sales have made a big difference to most of us - if nothing else because the royalties are higher. But also because I believe that people with ereaders are buying more books - that's what I'm doing, anyway. Most people I speak to who have ereaders say the same. So it must be really frustrating if you can't get your hands on your rights.

Mean Teacher, I agree with the comparison you're making to the music industry. I know what you mean about the punk ethos - I remember those days, too! I always think of my ex-husband and all the other kids who got hold of eight-track recorders in the 1980s and 90s and made hit records in their bedrooms. Amazon's KDP system is so easy to use, and most of us have computers at home, so we can upload digital files in minutes and, for some, a bestselling book will follow. Not everyone who had an eight-track recorder in the 1990s made a hit record. And not everyone who uses Amazon's KDP system will have a bestselling book. But the possibility is there. And it's amazing.

MF, that's an awful story about the author looking for a deal to pay off the previous advance. I hope she finds a way to pay off her debt.

Interesting to hear people talk about Scrivener here, by the way. I don't use any software other than MS Word. But I have heard some people recommend Scrivener highly as a way of keeping track of notes.

Merrill Heath said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Merrill Heath said...

I tried Scrivener and liked it, but the compile function doesn't work well on a PC. From what I hear there are no issues with a Mac. But that's the main advantage I see for using it. I can do the other features Scriver offers using MS Office.

If I get a MacBook I'll definitely start using Scrivener, but as long as I'm living in PC world, MS Office is my workspace.

A. J. Abbiati said...

I just picked up Scrivener a month or so ago and plan on using it for my next book. I won't use it for typesetting/layout/formatting, but for drafting it seems to be far more powerful than Word. I like the fact that every document has a file/folder column down the left side, in which you can track the different segments of your WIP, plus add links to all associated documents, executables, and web sites you might want to access while drafting.... One stop shopping! It also tracks word targets, so that's nice, but it does have a few bugs in that regard...


Alistair McIntyre said...

Thanks for the article, Helen. Hope you have continued success.

Joe, do you have any August dates left for guest posts?

Rob Gregory Browne said...

Merrill, I've found that Scrivener is an amazing organizational tool. It stores photos, research documents, and even websites right there in the "Binder" window, available at a single click.

You can jump anywhere in your book in a single click, do an index card outline (if you like) which is also always available at a click (or in your right hand "Inspector" panel), and yes, the compile function is extensive on a Mac.

I can compile both ebook and print versions of my books without having to do a lick of formatting, now that I've got it set up, and it always looks gorgeous.

I am a thirty year user of word processors. I love word processors. But I'll tell you, after working with Scrivener for an hour, I knew I would never go back.

Scrivener is a word processor on steroids.

M.J. Rose said...

Great post Helen. With all due respect though, Joe, I need to argue that ebooks do not sell themselves. Oh that it were so! Amazon and other retailers have very sophisticated methods of using direct email and onsite marketing that stimulate sales of the books that fit the models/ get their attention/ are part of certain promotions etc.

Unknown said...

Thanks, MJ and Alistair, for the good wishes.

Thanks Rob, Jim & Merrill for the comments about Scrivener.

Thanks again to Joe for hosting me and to everyone who has read the post and commented.

adan said...

helen, thanks so much for the article -

really needed to know about # 2 : "song title – you don’t need to ask for permission or pay for it"

and # 5, gotta agree with that ;-)

thanks again!

Unknown said...

Thanks, Adan.

Picks by Pat said...

Enjoyed this post very much. Helen gives great advice. Joe's comments are very relevant, but he underestimates his own hard work. He really paid his dues by going to 1200 bookstores to sell his novels. Now that he publishes his own work, he is reaping the rewards of that groundwork he did for so many years. He built a tremendous fan base with his entertaining novels, blog posts and appearances. That's why his ebooks do so well.

Ebooks don't sell themselves. You sell them. Whether you go the traditional route or self-publish, you'll have to work hard to reap the rewards.

Jacqueline Howett said...

Hi Helen! I really enjoyed your post. Great looking book cover. I could see that in poster form.
I was wondering about song lyrics, so thanks for clearing that up. What if you use just one or two lines of the lyrics, would that still be liable?

Anonymous said...

A limited exception to having to get permission for song lyrics is if the song in question was written before 1921 (or was that 1922?) and therefore in the public domain. Like I said, this would be limited since many would not be familiar with such old song except for Chrismas carols and traditional folk songs.


Unknown said...

Thanks for the comment, Pat.

Josea, yes, you only need to get permission for song lyrics protected by copyright.

Thanks, Jacqueline. I'm glad you like the cover. Yes, you have to get permission even if you want to quote one or two lines of a song.

Mario Jannatpour said...

Can you use a word phrase that was in a song?

For example, "same as it ever was" from a song.