Being a Writer in the Age of eBooks

Sunday, April 29, 2012
This is the weekend of the Malice Domestic Conference for readers and writers of the traditional mystery. I've gone to Malice twice and thoroughly enjoyed it both times, mostly because I met up with other Guppies there.

The first time was not too long after I started writing my own mysteries. I knew very little about writing at that point and soaked up all the information like the proverbial sponge. I was impressed at meeting actual published writers in person. I was also overwhelmed because I was new and it is a large conference.

The second time was when my friend Sheila Connolly, writing as Sarah Atwell, was nominated for an Agatha for Best First Novel in 2008. Sheila and I were in the same Guppies critique group before she got her first book contract. I knew from the start that she was the best writer in the group and it wouldn't be long before she'd be published. Oddly enough, her first contract was a work-for-hire series for Berkley Prime Crime set in Tucson, Arizona. Now, I had just moved to Tucson then and Sheila had never been here. (I don't think she'll mind my writing that in public at this point.) She peppered me with questions for the book and I turned to my newly-met coworkers and asked them for information so she could describe the setting accurately.

Both times I imagined that one day I'd be on the new authors panel or going from table to table at Malice-Go-Round pitching my book(s) to readers or accepting an Agatha teapot. I envied those who would be having dinner with their agent or editor. They were part of the club.

Four years later, I doubt that I'll ever join that club. It's not that I no longer aspire to be a published writer. It's just that I have no desire to join the ranks of the traditionally published.

Lots has changed since 2008, mostly brought about by the introduction of the Kindle, the ability for authors to publish themselves without going through agents and traditional publishers, and the Great Recession which found the Big Six being less willing to take risks and decreasing the amount of advances to authors. With the rise in popularity of ebooks, traditional publishing has been running scared. They know paper book publishing. They've totally missed the boat on ebooks. And they've forgotten about (or chosen to ignore) the value of authors.

It's not just newbie authors who have chosen to abandon traditional publishing. More and more successful traditionally published authors have decided to self-publish. It started with what are called mid-list authors, those who weren't household names, but had solid fan bases for their writing. Unfortunately, their sales weren't sufficient to have their contracts renewed by the publisher due to a phenomenon known as Ordering to the Net. They either had to choose another pen name and start over with another series or give up writing entirely.

Recently we've seen more big name authors making the decision to self-publish. The latest is Lawrence Block, author of the Matthew Scudder and Bernie Rhodenbarr series. Several of his books have been made into movies. He's also written Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, one of the most popular writing books of all time.

Self-publishing, or indie publishing as it's sometimes referred to, has become not only an acceptable way for authors to get their books read, but the preferred way by many authors.

I've been thinking of going the indie publishing route for a couple of years, ever since I came up with the idea for a Christian murder mystery series. Because the theme of the first book is strongly Christian, I doubt that it would find a market with one of those Big Six publishers or even with a secular small press. I started investigating Christian publishers, but their rules are so strict about what is allowed and what isn't, I would have a hard time fitting my characters into that mold.

My characters are normal human beings, not saints. They have flaws. They've broken the commandments. Some of them swear. They have doubts about God. They get angry at Him.

I knew the books would be a tough sell.

I also don't like the whole Internet-time attitude of traditional publishing. Distill your novel into a pitch sentence of twenty-five words or less.* Write a query letter of two-hundred-fifty words to an agent who will spend thirty seconds reading it and decide on that basis whether to read more or not. Sell your book in a ten minute "speed-dating" pitch to an agent at a conference or, now, via Twitter in an even shorter time. The murder has to happen in the first chapter, preferably on the first page. Two books to show you can earn out your advance before your publisher drops you. Oh, and you only get about six weeks on the shelf to do that before your book is replaced with the next author's book. Dean Wesley Smith calls this "the produce model of publishing", as if books go bad after a certain period of time.

The big doubt I had was was my work good enough to be published. For years writers have been told that they'll know when they're ready for publication when an agent signs them and a publisher buys their book. Even then, they'll still need editors to make it shine and the backing of a traditional publisher to do everything necessary to sell it. The problem is, only a very few books get chosen through this process and, as profits shrink, publishers take fewer and fewer risks, instead looking for the sure thing. They also have pushed more and more of the marketing function onto the writer.

It didn't used to be that way. As I was reminded of when I read Baltimore Blues by Laura Lippman this week, a publisher used to grow a writer. They knew it took time for a writer to develop and were willing to publish multiple books at a loss while the writer perfected her craft. Baltimore Blues was published in 1997, a lifetime ago in the age of the Internet. As I write in my review on Wednesday, it's not a great book. I doubt that it would be chosen today. But it was good enough and someone, probably some editor, had faith that she would grow as a writer. It took ten years for her to make the New York Times bestseller list. What if no one had published that first book? Would she still be struggling in obscurity?

It doesn't make sense in today's world to go through years of rejection with the hope of getting some "authority" to validate your work, particularly with books like mine that have a niche market. As John Locke said in his book How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months!, you're not trying to reach every reader; you're just trying to reach your target reader. With indie publishing, you can do that.

So maybe I'll never have an Agatha teapot. I hope to have something better - readers!

* I know that should be twenty-five words or fewer to be grammatically correct, but I grew up listening to the rules for too many contests where it was stated incorrectly for it to sound right to my ear.

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A Clash of Kings
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