Monday Musings: In the Self-Publishing World, How Do We Identify “Ready”?

There’s so much talk going on around the blogosphere about e-books and self-publishing and the changes that are here and the changes that are coming that…well, it feels a bit overwhelming to even try and jump into the conversation. Then again, all that talk does get me/us thinking, and it’s a conversation that does need to be had, even if we don’t come to any major conclusions.

So, my thought for today is about how we, the writer, know when a story is “ready.”

I don’t believe that having a book accepted by an agent or an editor at a traditional publishing house is the only definition of ready. I’m not getting into the argument about whether these routes only produce “good” books or not. Obviously, there are books that were ready that also got turned down in this forum, for various reasons from taste to market needs, and that’s only happening more in this economy, I’d guess. I do think, however, that we can say there is and has always been a kind of validation for an author, if and when they get a yes from someone along this path. Someone who reads a lot, who knows the industry and the business and who, yes, loves books.

So many of us are talking about other routes today, seriously considering them–if not for this project, for the possibility of a future one. It’s kind of like the discussion about e-book readers: I don’t need one now, but I can definitely see a future when I’ll have one. I’m not ready to self-publish anything myself today, but I hear conversations about e-books for royalties only, and I think…hmm? I don’t know.

And the big thing I wonder about is: for all these writers who do decide to take this step, who take back the reins of the horse and release their own book–how do they know when it’s ready? How do they get the validation that what they’ve written and revised has reached that stage when their audience, if not a publisher, will say…oh, yeah!? (And reaching that audience–yet another discussion!)

For me, I think, there has to be one or more outside readers in the process. Yes, a critique group, obviously is the choice I would make, but, really, what I’m talking about is people who are less invested in your writing and your success than you are. People who are brave enough to dig deep into your story and talk to you about what isn’t working yet. People who are skilled enough to do that. And people who will be honest with you and say to you, “Not yet,” if that’s what they truly believe.

And there have to be multiple stages where you, with or without this kind of critique feedback, take your own work to pieces–big and small–and put it back together again. And again. And….again. You have to not only kill the darlings, but find them first and then figure out what to replace them with. You have to recognize the differences between each draft–see where things are getting better, then dive back in and work some more with the places that aren’t.

And then…what? What in this new world is going to take the place of that external, professional validation. Maybe the first self-publishers, the adventurous ones already taking those steps are braver than me about this, more self-confident. Maybe, as I said, I’ll get there–to a place where I have a gut-level I know about my own writing. I’m not sure. I’m not going to worry about it today. But I’m definitely curious.

Writers are not the only ones having this conversation. Agents and editors are tossing thoughts and questions and ideas about it all back and forth–I think this is a time more than ever before to be reading their blogs and, if you can do it, stepping out onto Twitter to see what they’re saying to each other. Listen to them at conferences. I’ve heard some people wonder if the professionals who are really excited and enthused about the changes aren’t also a bit naive. Maybe. But I’m telling you–if there were two agents asking to sign me, and–with everything else equal–one of them was “naively” jumping into whatever this all is and the other was reluctantly tagging along, even resisting–I know which one I’d be talking to most.

Perspectives? Opinions?

Where do you see yourself on this path? In what situation might you consider self-publishing? Would you choose print publishing or e-book publishing or both? And what other questions are you musing over yourself? Jump into the comments with your ideas.


Somebody Else Says: Colette Vella

This is a fascinating article on agents and editors and the whole publishing-relationship world.  Thanks to Jessica Faust for the link.

Agent or No Agent: My Two Cents

A few weeks ago, Shawna at Just Another Day in the Life gave me the Honest Scrap reward for my blog. I still need to pass this award on to seven other bloggers, which I am going to do soon, with pleasure. But I thought of the reward today, as I was coming up with an idea for a post. I’m still in recovery mode from the plague that has hit my house (which is why I was pretty much absent from here the second half of last week), so I was planning to just point you all to some other blogger’s links.

Then I thought of the reward, and I realized I’d better live up to it. Which is why I’m going to tell you, today, that–yes, I think writers should try to get an agent to represent their work. I know this isn’t always the most popular opinion, and that you can find an unlimited number of horror stories about agents on the blog and just by talking to other writers. My thoughts assume we’re talking about a good agent. And self-publishing is another conversation, with pluses and minuses, but obviously the agent question doesn’t come up there.

Here are the thoughts & ideas that have led me to look for and in one case, find an agent; in another case, not yet find an agent.

  • I want experts to do their work for me. I don’t do my own taxes, because I am lousy at math and legalese. I ask my critique partners to read my manuscripts thoroughly, because they’re better reviewers of my writing than I am. My husband trims our small trees, but we hire a wonderful tree-cutting company to climb around in and take out the really big ones. I now ask my taller-than-me son to get the dishes down from the high shelves.
  • I want to write. I don’t want to negotiate contracts. I want to be able to ask my contract questions to someone who isn’t creating that contract, but who is looking at it to get me (and them) the best deal possible.
  • I want my manuscript submitted to the right editors. I have NO way of knowing who those are. I can read their websites and submission guidelines, sure, but–what does “funny” mean? Humor, like so many qualities, is subjective. An agent will have worked with editors and know their senses of humor–and their senses of tragedy, suspense, edginess. I won’t have a clue.
  • I think that having an agent ask to represent me or my project means that my manuscript has reached a certain point. I know, what about my own self-confidence and my own sense of my strength as a writer? Well, let’s just say I’m open to a little extra reinforcement of that sense–especially from a professional who knows this business.

As I said above, one of my hunts–for a nonfiction agent–has been successful. And the experience of working with Jessica Faust on the contract for The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide gave me everything I’d hoped for. Jessica is professional and efficient. She answered all my questions clearly (and without making me feel stupid or naive once!). And–for those who worry about that 15%–I’m not going into details, but the negotiating she did .

The other hunt hasn’t had the same success rate, but I’m not ready to give up. My first novel, a middle-grade mystery, went the rounds to agents for about a year. I got lots of compliments, but no takers. I was struggling to decide what to do–whether to go on to submit to editors and hope for the best, whether to find a new revision path, or whether to put it aside and work on the YA historical that had been calling to me. And guess what–I got the best, most clear-sighted advice I’d had yet…from an agent. One of my last queries returned me a wonderful letter from an agent who explained why she thought my book wasn’t being picked up…and it was a market reason. I don’t think I was just grasping at happy straws (because she wasn’tsaying the problem lay in my writing!), but the reason made perfect sense with what I know about the kidlit market. The lightbulb went off brightly, and I was able to pick which direction to take on my writing path.

Agents know what they’re talking about.

I really believe this. Some agents make a lot of money, sure. So do some writers. Overall, though, nobody takes any job in this industry for the high salary; they take it because they love books, they want to work with words, and they want to help add to the pile of reading choices in the bookstores and libraries.

So what do I think this means for writers? I think it means that, along with writing our manuscripts, we need to be doing research about agents. We need to be reading up on who represents our kind of project, on who has a trustworthy record in the industry and with other writers, and on the standard of work we need to be ready to present when we make that initial connection.

Obviously, if I had a direct, clean path to an editor, and I had a project that I thought was ready, I’d be emailing them and asking if I could submit. And if they said yes and if they wanted the book, guess what I’d do? I’d go back to all the research I’ve done, and I’d contact my “top” agent choices and ask them to represent me in negotations. Like I said, I want those experts around who will make my life easier.

What about you? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this conversation.