Friday, June 13, 2008

Warning Signals

Maven Jackie BarbosaLast Friday night, at my daughter's bridging ceremony from Brownie to Junior Girl Scouts, I met another writer. Unbeknownst to me, the father of one of the other girls in our troop is writing a novel. Naturally, I was thrilled to meet another writer in my "real" life, and we swapped stories about agent and publisher hunting, publicity, and the trials and tribulations of the writing itself. I honestly had a hard time dragging myself away from the discussion because it was so refreshing to talk to someone who "gets it."

It was only after I'd left the party that I got to thinking about the implications of some of the stories he'd told me. He mentioned he'd submitted the work to a few agents and at least one publisher, and now had it with a "book doctor" to fix it. He also told me about a someone he knew who'd sold out his entire first print run, but that this person had spent so much on publicity that he'd made next to nothing on the book. At the time, neither of these points struck me as off, but in retrospect, they seem like warning signals. Warnings that a writer is maybe not talking to the "right" people.

Now, I don't know this for a fact because I haven't talked to him since then. But little alarm bells go off in my head now that I think about some of these things.

The Book Doctor/Professional Editor

In principle, there's nothing wrong with having your manuscript professionally edited. In fact, I'd say it's de rigeur. It's just that, ideally, it should happen after you've received a contract for publication, and it should be free.

Now, if you're paying a professional editor because doing so gives you that extra level of confidence in your work, that's fine. But all too often, writers end up hiring so-called "book doctors" because they've queried a shyster-type agents whose primary business isn't selling books to publishers, but sending business to the other guy. These agents say nice things about your book, but tell you it needs "work" to be marketable and that such-and-such an editor can help you for a smeall fee of X per page.

Of course, just because these agents are hucksters doesn't mean they're not right. Your book may actually need a little more work to fly in the market. But you should be able to get that kind of input for free from other writers by joining a critique group or working one-on-one with individual critique partners. Finding critique partners isn't easy--I have worked with a lot of people over the years, and some of those relationships have panned out long-term and some haven't--but it's well worth the effort. Not only do you get constructive and honest feedback on your own work, but you can learn a ton from critiquing their work in return. I know having great critique partners (including Mavens Lacey, Darcy, and Erica) was absolutely instrumental in my ability to sell a manuscript and land an agent. I just wouldn't be the writer I am today without them.

But pay a professional editor? Nope. That's my publisher's job!

Publicity Eats Up All the Profits

I have to admit, when I heard my writer friend say that it cost so much to promote a book, I kind of raised my eyebrow. I mean, how much does it cost to have a blog? (Answer: $0) How much does it cost to start a Yahoo Group for your newsletter. (Again, $0.) Those are small things, of course, and they aren't the be all and end all of an author's book promotional activities, but my sense is that you don't have to spend a LOT of money to effectively promote a book so long as your publisher is large enough and reputable enough to get shelf presence in bookstores. Oh, sure, everything you do above and beyond that helps, and it may affect your sell-through numbers to some extent, but the reality is that word of mouth (reader to reader) is the SINGLE MOST EFFECTIVE MARKETING TOOL in the world, and alas, you can't buy it!

What struck me as "off" about this particular story, though, was that the print run numbers were very, very small, and that made me think the book was probably self-pubbed or vanity-pubbed. That's a whole different ballgame, obviously.

Needless to say, though, I wonder now whether my friend has been talking to the "wrong sort" of publisher, especially since he mentioned that an editor told him he had to have a marketing plan, complete with a book signing tour, in place before the book was even contracted. Maybe I should be doing this and no one's told me (a very real possibility), but I'm still wary of the notion that it should cost the average author more to promote a book than he/she can earn from it.

Bottom Line

I think it behooves authors to be skeptical any time someone suggests that an outlay of a significant amount of cash will make him/her successful. When the desire to get that first publishing contract is so strong, it's easy to get scammed, and there are all too many people out there who will feed on those aspirations in any way they can.

YOUR TURN: Have you had experiences with agents or editors that set off your warning bells? What happened? Heard any horror stories from friends or other authors?

P.S. My contemporary novella, The Gospel of Love: According to Luke, comes out today from Cobblestone Press.

P.P.S. I'm over at the Naughty and Spice Blog today, talking about how I learned to stop living (and writing) in the past. Thanks to the fabulous Amie Stuart for the invite!


Bill Clark said...

I think it behooves authors to be skeptical any time someone suggests that an outlay of a significant amount of cash will make him/her successful.

I agree 100%. Editing is the responsibility of your publisher. Ditto publicity.

Which isn't to say that you can't do some low-cost publicity of your own, such as the blog/web site approach you mention. Also, most local bookstores will be happy to arrange a book-signing event.

I seem to recall one of Diana Peterfreund's posts about fee-charging agents in which she said that one should avoid any author-related services that ask for money up front. To me this sounds like excellent advice.

Chapteread said...

Thanks for the tips. I'm actually looking for an agent right now.

If I seen any warning signals I'll be sure to post them!


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Manuscript Mavens