The road to authorhood: How the publishing industry changed while I was still trying to figure it out

This is a guest post by Brian Holers

“Now we’re in business.”

It’s an old expression we’ve all heard a million times, and its meaning is obvious. When we say we’re in business, we mean things are working. Things are looking good. Now we can get something done.

Whether we have our own gig, are employed in companies large, midsize, or small, or make a living in the nonprofit world, lots of things have to work right so we can be in business. If we don’t have supplies or equipment or enough money, if we haven’t kept up with changes in the market or in our customers’ needs, we can’t continue to provide the product or service that makes us who we are. Commerce breaks down.

This is the condition of the book business circa 2011. So much has changed so rapidly, from a flat economy to dramatic changes in reading habits to Amazon to the advent of the e-reader, the institutions we have counted on to keep the business of bookselling going have broken down. For many, in particular new authors like myself, the traditional model no longer gives us a meaningful business opportunity.

There is no need for despair. The new model has arrived.

For eleven years, I ran a successful and highly regarded tree service. After six years of low-wage toil in social service jobs, following an undergraduate degree in psychology and religious studies, I was very happy to find out I could do something practical. And I was good at it, at just about every piece of it, from servicing equipment to managing employees to bookkeeping and compliance to the work itself. Times were good then, from 1995 through 2005, and my company absolutely flourished. We didn’t do well because we just kept doing the same thing in the same way, over and over and over; we prospered thanks to constant innovation, which is the hallmark of any successful business. Over the course of a few years, I went from working by myself with one chainsaw, a ladder and a pickup truck to, at one point, managing tons of debt and six guys counting on me every morning to pay their wages.

In many ways, I enjoyed doing the work and was grateful to have the opportunity to do my own thing. Still, other needs continually nagged at me. The volume of our work seemed to grow every year and throughout the year, often peaking in November. But Decembers were invariably slow, and this was a welcome relief. Besides taking time with my family, I was often able to get away by myself to write. Each time my motivation was the same: I couldn’t let another year go by without getting a story or two on paper. And each time, even if all I could manage to do was sit in a hotel room in another town for three or four days, I promised myself I would find a way to make writing a bigger part of my life the next year.

Yet year after year I worked, and other than those few days in December, I didn’t write much. I was grateful that, when I began to seriously lose interest in my work and found myself ready for whatever was next, I secured a buyer for the business, sold it, and moved on.

I wasted no time and attended my first fiction class the night I sold the tree service. I learned quickly that running a business, with all its headaches, from customers to employees to equipment, is downright easy compared to writing. Plus, I got paid to work. Would I ever get paid to write?

A year or so later, my wife, son and I found a renter for our house, paid our medical insurance in advance, and left the country for a year. During our travels I wrote several drafts of my first novel.

Until my late thirties, I spent frankly little time writing. It was always something I would do “someday.” Malcolm Gladwell, in his fascinating book Outliers, postulates that to become an expert in anything one must spend ten thousand hours doing that thing. I might have spent two thousand hours in those first two years writing, but I still had a lot to learn. And while there are no real shortcuts in learning to write, there are shortcuts in learning to get one’s writing organized. The number one shortcut: help. Here my business training (and gobs of great advice from my wife) kicked in. Get help, and be willing to pay for it.

Another writer I had met in a fiction class, who made her living as an editor, agreed to read my manuscript for a reasonable fee. This maneuver was unequivocally the most intelligent thing I could possibly have done. Unlike a writers’ group, which may or may not yield good advice, Leslie’s criticisms were invariably spot on and pushed me in exactly the right direction for the next round of writing. By the time I went to her, I had written at least three major drafts, with numerous revisions in between, and tried out a combination of first and third person and different tenses. Over the next year and a half she read the book three times, and I switched the entire novel (with great results) to third person limited and changed everything to present tense. Like I say, no shortcuts. But by the end of 2008, Leslie let me know I needed to go and find an agent.

Anyone who has ever written a book knows that every step in the process is hard. Maybe at first you just have a picture in your head or a few words or a line you want your character to say scratched on a slip of paper or the back of a business card. Over the weeks and months and years, slowly this seed transforms into a list of scenes, a chapter outline, eventually a draft, an outline again, another draft, rounds of criticism, persistent self doubt, and astonishment at how much good just a few kind words from a reader can make. Hard, hard, hard. All the time thinking, hoping, the next steps will be easier.

So after nearly three years, I figured I had a book, and I was pretty happy with it. I had come to understand early on that a literary agent in 2008 was not the same as a literary agent in 1985. I knew they weren’t in a position to do what they used to do—find a new writer who appeared to have promise and help mold that writer into a star. I understood all along that my agent wouldn’t have the time or the budget to do any more than the final stages of editing and then selling my book.

My experience in 2009 was a lot worse than I originally expected. From what I can tell, a literary agent is a great job for a person who lacks social skills. If you’re an agent who’s any good (good enough that people have heard of you) then you get way more queries than you can handle. Most of them you probably wish would just go away. Some of them, certainly, break the rules. And there are lots of rules. Don’t send anything unsolicited. Don’t send an attachment. Don’t send me anything in the mail. Don’t call me. If I do decide to represent you, I will do it how I want and when I want. And my personal favorite: Don’t waste my time.

I did eventually find someone who agreed to represent me and who helped me get the book polished and ready to sell. And then I waited. I don’t mean sat-by-my-phone-and-waited. That’s the worst thing a writer can do. Instead, I spent most of the year I was waiting writing another book.

What I discovered was that I probably never really had a chance. Let me say again: Nobody knows what is going on with the book market. During my time waiting, I took many opportunities to look further into the subject of bookselling; maybe I was unconsciously preparing myself for what I knew was coming next. I spoke to numerous writers who have been successful in the traditional way, with agents who sell their books, schedule tours and signings, and gather reviews. I have been astounded to discover how little many established writers seem to know about what is actually involved in selling books. None seems to think that self-publishing is anything other than a good way to end up with boxes of books in your garage. One very successful writer told me in 2010 that if my book wasn’t selling, I simply needed to find a new agent. Send the entire manuscript, unsolicited, only to New York agents. Good advice for fifteen years ago, maybe.

Let me say it again: I have written a great novel. Maybe it’s not Dostoevsky, or Larry McMurtry even, but it’s a great, workable novel, and everyone who reads it loves it. It’s a book that would certainly live comfortably on the “mid-list”, and maybe do better. I have worked and worked on it. I have put in thousands of hours. I paid thousands of dollars for professional editorial advice, then went back and worked on it some more. I somehow found an agent who read it through fully and sent me back to work twice more. As literary fiction, and certainly Southern literary fiction, it is as good as anything out there, and I continued working on book number two, taking with me all the lessons I had learned, as I waited.

But eventually, I got tired of waiting. My agent stopped returning my calls. Other agents I approached seemed even more terse than they did two years before. I have a suspicion I am not alone in this experience. I started paying attention to the “publish your book now!” ads that popped up on the side of my email account. So I took the next indicated step. I decided all these people could go to the devil. I could do it myself.

This simple decision was liberating. Why did I need somebody else to tell me I was good enough? To put two covers on this thing and call it a book? Everyone I know had been asking me for ages when they would be able to read it. Once I made the decision, I just let myself relax in that place for a week or so. Because if my experience writing a book so far was any indication, surely more pain would follow.

It didn’t take long for all the realities to set in. How much will it cost? How will I sell it? How will I market it? How will I get other writers to say magnanimous things I can use in blurbs on the back cover, poetic details of the way my story moved them to tears and to reconcile with long-lost families? When people find out about it, and go to my website to order it, how will they get it in their hands?

Herein lies the greatest hazard in self-publishing. How do you do it? Sure, getting a thousand copies printed (or paying for the right to print many more) is easy enough. I learned a long time ago, however, that jumping into something is fine, but if money is involved, better plan first. It seems a zillion companies have sprung up in the last few years, in response to this very real need in the market. It’s easy to get confused. For some, it’s easy to just fork over five or ten thousand dollars to a “self-publishing” company, and expect to be taken care of and get it all back, and a whole lot more.

Once again, let’s consider why nobody wants to publish our book. The reason is simple. The publishers can’t see how they will make any money on it. We all have heard that publishers have never made any money on most of the books they publish, but count on a few bestsellers to carry the rest. But with the rapidly changing market, it just doesn’t work that way anymore. If you’ve even looked into all the details involved in getting a book to market, from editing to formatting and printing to getting reviews to getting an ISBN to putting together websites to reading dates, you know it all costs money. And with publishers being squeezed from every corner and all these changes coming on quickly, from Amazon to chain stores to e-readers, it’s just not working anymore.

The old model plays into our self-esteem as sensitive, expressive people. First there is all the internal rejection involved in learning to write, spending so much time alone with our imaginary friends and wondering if anyone else will ever care about them. Then there’s the external rejection involved in agents and publishers all but laughing at us. Here is the good news: We don’t have to take it anymore.

There’s this great tool out there. It’s called the internet. All of us use this wonderful electronic tool to great advantage, and appreciate the many ways it has made parts of our lives easier. Sure, it’s great to get away from it all sometimes, go out in the woods and take a walk or make a fire, chop wood with an axe, things like that.

But we can’t take constant advantage of this great tool, and at the same time not expect businesses will use it to find ways to get books to people easier and cheaper. We can’t take joy in the internet and then lament when it makes things harder for us as writers. Markets, like languages and many other systems, simplify over time. What we’re looking at here in the world of publishing, it’s the new deal. And we may as well like it, because it’s not going away.

The good news is that there are some things neither the internet, nor any other tool, can make easier. The product we as writers have to offer has always been in demand, and always will be in demand. People love stories. There is no shortcut to good writing. Only time, practice and a big heart can make a story people want to read.

I think I am going to like this market better. In a way, waiting for my book to be published has taken me through the classic stages of grief, and now I’ve come to the point of acceptance. But I think we have to take it even further, beyond acceptance. I really think this is going to be better. We have a product for sale. We have potentially many customers who will like that product. Traditionally, there has been a, frankly, artificial barrier between the writer and those customers, deciding if our product was good enough. But thanks to the internet, there are no artificial barriers, and there is a ton of free advertising we can get. And thanks to the e-reader, if we go that route, we can sell our books for little more than the price of a cup of coffee, and still make money.

For those of you as confused as I was, help can be found. It took me awhile, but I discovered a consultant who has helped me put everything together to get my name and my writing out there. Like I said at the beginning, this is just like anything else. It’s a business, and you gotta spend money to make money. If you can find somebody good, your money will be well spent. Writing books is not what it used to be. If you’re a writer, you’re in business.

In fiction, characters face choices. In many cases the character faces those choices unwillingly, whether somehow stuck in a bad place or just forced to change when he didn’t want to change. And what makes the story work is the choice she makes. Similarly, we as self-published authors face a decision. Either we resist, complain, feel victimized, and lament the sorry state of things that no one buys books anymore or that no one can see our talent or that all publishers want is schlock and pornography, or we can face that choice and revel in it. We can take matters into our own hands. It’s overwhelming, yes. Help is available. We’ve already taken giant risks just to write a book–the risk that it all would fall apart and we’d be left a quivering mess in fetal position on the floor under our desk. When our characters make the hard choices, our readers applaud them. And there’s no reason we can’t be as good as the people we create.


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