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Alternate publishing has been a quiet, behind-the-scenes subject for the last two or three years, but I keep hearing people talking about how they’ve taken the plunge. The terms vary: self-publishing, indie publishing, niche publishing. Some authors are apologetic; some are arrogant; some are business-like. But more and more, people are taking their copyright into their own hands and asking: how can I make money with what I have written. This week, we’ll look at seven stories of people who have done exactly that. For every story told here, I probably know of two or three more similar stories.
Dusting off an old publisher’s hat
Guest post by Joni Sensel
My latest book starts with a mouse-gnawed, bedraggled hat, and I found myself donning an old hat myself to get this book to readers who were asking for it.
More than ten years ago, I started a small press and self-published two picture books. One earned an award, both sold out their print runs, and I got a terrific crash-course in publishing — enough to know I’d rather write. I stuffed my publishing hat into a closet.
After four traditionally published middle-grade novels, however, I dusted off my DIY cap. Having published THE FARWALKER’S QUEST and its sequel (which were contracted individually), Bloomsbury didn’t even want to consider the trilogy’s finale. Though the books earned good reviews and even a little award notice, sufficient copies didn’t sell for the company to invest in the third.
Farwalker’s Quest was a 2009 Cybil Award finalist and a 2010 Bank Street College ‘Best Book’.
- This is a solid and well-paced fantasy in which the journey is more important than the conclusion. The theme of finding and accepting one’s true calling resonates. –School Library Journal
- [T]he book is at once elegant and lyrical, while also offering an intensely paced and action-driven plot for readers who are seeking adventure along with poetic contemplation.
–The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books
- This stand-alone fantasy has a unique setting with an intriguing history and a suspenseful plot. –Booklist
- The story offers crisp dialogue, an exciting plot, and strong secondary characters. –Kirkus
Yet readers were asking for more. So I finished it myself.
A review that originally ran in the Edge of the Forest:
Reality Leak Jodi Sensel with illustrations by Christian Slade (Henry Holt, April 2007)
When Acme, Inc. rolls into South Wiggot, Bryan’s not entirely sure what to think. Something about the company head, Mr. Keen doesn’t seem quite right. Before long, Bryan and his best friend Spot (a girl who thinks she’s a dog) are finding messages popping up in the toaster instead of toast, tea bags that turn into mice, and a message in a bottle… in the toilet.
When Bryan gets a job at Acme planting popped popcorn that grows into glowering dandelions, they know something very, very strange is going on. Of course, none of the adults in town believe them. Can Bryan and Spot figure out what Mr. Keen’s up to and can they stop it before it turns ugly?
Mr. Keen comes off as a slightly sinister Willy Wonka in this wonderfully bizarre tale about the unexpected, the importance of dental hygiene, and the power of Imagination. Sensel’s imagination keeps the story moving in completely different directions with every page turn, making the book hard to put down as the reader wonders what will happen next.
Slade’s drawings well-capture some of the books odder oddities and add to Mr. Keen’s creepiness.
The ending leaves open the possibility of a sequel. While this book is a tough act to follow, we hope there is another in the works.
Modern update: No sequel. :(
Book Provided by... The Edge of the Forest, for review in their publication (sadly, now defunt. sniff sniff sniff.)
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Okay, one more post on self-publishing and I’ll stop. (I can’t speak for other Spec bloggers.)
I’ve been thinking about points raised by commenters in the last week that essentially get at this: how does an author know the work is “good enough” to self publish? How does an author know that her manuscript isn’t going to be just one more entry in the “aren’t they awful?” morass that represents the vast majority (still) of self-published books?
And why ARE so many self-published books bad, anyway? As someone pointed out, indie film-making and indie bands get respect; the indie publisher doesn’t. At least, not if only one person is involved.
And I think that’s the key. Even the smallest film requires a minor army of actors, camera folk, editors. Even an individual indie musician has a producer, a mixer, maybe a separate songwriter, and probably some audience members somewhere along the line who were encouraging — if not a full band with a vested interest in every member’s quality. True indie presses are usually the efforts of multiple people. But a lot of self-published books are written by one person, with input from maybe a spouse or at most a few other relatives, friends, or other people not in a position to be very objective and who are often as blinded by love as the author is blinded by authorial myopia.
To complicate matters, it really is so subjective. I’ve read a couple of books now by a small but acknowledged, mostly paperback publisher you’ve all heard of that made me think, “Really? Somebody really thought this was good enough to publish? Wow.” And I’ve heard an agent speak disparagingly about this publisher, too, for similar reasons. But obviously at least a handful of people there disagree with us both and were willing to put money behind their opinions.
Still, the more people involved, the more likely a consensus will be reached on marginal books. I think. And personally, I don’t think I’m any more objective about my own work than your average author, and I’m sure I’m less so than some.
So here’s a minor suggestion for authors to consider: If we think that one of the important roles of the publisher is to serve as third-party, objective discriminators who decide what’s really “worth” publishing and what isn’t, but we want to sometimes publish work without the benefit of a publisher, for whatever reason, there’s no reason on earth we can’t play that role for each other. Suppose authors formed in groups of five or six or 10 and agreed to vette each other’s work prior to (self) publication? Even tough critique groups may not pull their punches enough on the details of a critique — and this is a role that would probably be better served by a group of peers who are NOT as familiar with a work as crit partners become, anyway. But if it’s just an up or down decision, not actual feedback, it should be possible for groups to work out a system — with anonymous ballots or some interesting techie solution — where they could essentially say to each other, “you know, I don’t think this one is ready yet, ’cause you’re going to embarrass yourself — and us, too, by implication.” (The latter might be especially effective if the “Sanction Group” is identified on/in the books they give the thumb’s-up to.) Or, “yeah, go for it.” Or even rank it on a scale of 1 to 10 — 10 being “NY is crazy not to pick this up” and anything under, say, a 6 or 7 being a “no, don’t do it!”
That would be an interesting function for an SCBWI region to formulate, for instance. Or a longtime critique group with multiple published members. Or a writing school/class program. Or…? I’ve talked a little with a couple of different people in the last few months about authors essential
I had an interesting conversation with a nonfiction author the other day regarding a manuscript about chakras.
The nonfiction author’s viewpoint: It had to be fiction. And most likely fantasy.
My viewpoint: Millions of people believe in chakras as fact. Who says it couldn’t be nonfiction?
Which makes me think there’s a discreet category of work that is not clearly fantasy, not like magic-and-dragons fantasy, but we’re not sure what else to call it because we don’t agree on how “real life” it might be. You don’t have to go as far as ghosts. Think of stories revolving around auras, intuitive or energy healing, reincarnation, remote viewing, etc. — much of which is the typical stock-in-trade of New Agers (in the Western world) and Most Everyone (in the Eastern world). Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction depends on who you ask. And so does whether it’s fantasy or could fit right into a contemporary story.
The word “paranormal” used to have a definition that fit here pretty well. As in paranormal activity. But I think that, thanks to recent market trends, most people can no longer hear “paranormal” without associating it with 1) vampires, werewolves, or other supernatural creatures and 2) Romance (for teens or adults). I don’t often hear the term used with middle-grade work, and certainly not picture or chapter books.
I started to wonder if “occult” or something like that could work. Then I remembered the knee-jerk reaction that word causes among certain faith communities. (Speaking of which: would the same people consider a story about the devil fantasy? Or not? How about angels?)
Hey, I know — how about “speculative?” But that’s already got a much broader definition, at least here at The Spec. Too broad, maybe.
Is there any other word or characterization that would work? I’d especially be interested in hearing from someone with time in an Eastern culture or background. Or is it goofy to try to distinguish anyhow?
— Joni, who resisted the urge to give non-kidlit examples of “are they fact or aren’t they?” stories ranging from Holocaust denial to conspiracy theories to the lives of the saints. Almost resisted, that is.
Filed under: Joni Sensel
We hope some of you had a chance to read CHIME since we announced our Book Talk about a month ago. CHIME has received six starred reviews and has garnered a lot of praise around the web. The story follows Briony, a young woman living at the start of the twentieth century in Swampsea, where the swamp is being drained to make way for train tracks–and the monsters who lurk in the mud are angry about losing their home. In order to save her twin sister from a curse brought down by the Boggy Mun, Briony must stop the swamp from being drained, all while balancing her self-hatred and her new-found love for a boy who has just come to town.
Today, Joni Sensel and Parker Peevyhouse chat about the book. We hope you’ll comment with your own opinions on some of these topics. We’d love to hear what you thought of CHIME.
Joni Sensel: So, let’s talk about CHIME! I haven’t read it yet, but I’m intrigued by the swamp setting. Is it used well?
Parker Peevyhouse: Yeah, the swamp was COOL. The setting was fab. I loved the swamp, and all the creatures were varied and wondrous.
Joni: What’s the main character like?
Parker: Briony. She was really into hating herself — she took it to a new level. Okay, well, not Black Swan level. But high up there. When she was young, she used her “witchy” powers to knock her twin sister, Rose, off a swing. Rose hit her head and suffered some kind of brain damage. She’s since been rather off–but Rose is a wonderful character. I loved her. She has a great way of talking, very blunt, and always, “I don’t prefer to do this or that.”
Joni: That’s an interesting twin contrast — like one “good” personality and one bad in two bodies?
Parker: Well, Rose isn’t exactly “good.” She’s rather rude and always runs off. They’re both pretty mischievous. But it was hard for me to love Briony or connect with her, although I found her sense of humor sharp and creative.
Joni: How important do you think that kind of connection is for enjoying a book?
Parker: For me, it’s key. I liked the setting of CHIME, I liked a lot of the characters, and I liked the magic, but Briony wouldn’t let me get close. She has this STRANGE way of talking, of narrating. At one point she’s looking for Rose, is desperate to find her in the swamp and wants Rose to call out to her. She says, “Jab your scream into my ear squish.” I honestly don’t understand why Briony talked the way she did.
I thought maybe Briony is just so crazy with self-hatred that she can’t quite keep a hold on her sanity, but it’s hard to say. Briony is just an unusual girl, I suppose, and I like unusual, but there’s a fine line between unusual and un-relatable. I love to read an unusual book, I really do, but it’s got to have an anchor in that main character. This isn’t to say that Briony is categorically unlovable. I think her relatability will vary from reader to reader.
Joni: Was that kind of language something that took you out of the story?
Parker: I didn’t like most of the language, to be honest. There were some lovely bits swimming around in all these strange bits, some really beautiful descriptions. Briony kept saying that Eldric’s eyes we
You might not be aware that when this blog was created, the original group of posters agreed to keep it going for 843 days exactly. We had done some pretty complicated calculations on the shelf-life of a blog about speculative fiction for teens and pre-teens, with some assistance from several persons (and a robot) who arrived from the future to warn us about impending utopian conditions.
So here we are at Day 843, feeling compelled to say goodbye so that we can enjoy the sudden utopia we have been informed is about to be created on Earth. (We’ve been told there will be free iced coffee and several Harry Potter sequels for everyone.) We’d like to thank you, blog readers, for following us for so long (two and a half years! over 500 posts!). We’ve appreciated your comments and silent visits alike. We feel this has been a great opportunity to explore our thoughts on various topics important to us science fiction- and fantasy-lovers, and to chat with people we otherwise would never had known existed.
We hope that you will continue to visit us on other places on the web so that we can chat about books and hear your recommendations for what we should be reading and share thoughts about writing and publishing. You can find links to our websites here. Thanks, lovely blog readers, and Happy Reading!
Filed under: Chris Eboch
, Greg Fishbone
, Joni Sensel
, K. A. Holt
, Linda Joy Singleton
, Nick James
, P. J. Hoover
, Parker Peevyhouse
Linda Joy took time out from NaNo to offer this update:
“Two weeks + — My initial energy is fading. I’m still going to accomplish a lot of pages, but it may take an extra few weeks to hit 200 pages. I still feel that writing about 100 pages is 2 weeks is a great accomplish and no matter if I Nano Fail or Success, I feel good about this challenge.”
Spec bloggers and readers who are NaNoItes this time — how’s it going? Worthwhile either way?
Filed under: Joni Sensel
, Linda Joy Singleton
While the holidays’ spirit of compassion and giving still lingers, I thought it might be interesting to talk about a point that came up this year in the blogosphere’s discussion of NaNoWriMo: whether many of the participants are being narcissistic by churning out words that perhaps no one wants to or ever will read.
I posed the question to The Spec’s bloggers, and here’s what they said:
Linda Joy: Writing can be a way of expressing oneself, which can increase personal growth and increase confidence. Years ago I had a clinical depression, and writing was a method I used to open a window of light and climb out of the darkness. Never judge anyone else’s writing…until it gets published.
Greg: Writing a book isn’t any more narcissistic than riding a bicycle around the block. The narcissistic part is trying to get your book published–that’s more like riding a bicycle around the block, naked, while shouting, “Hey, everybody, look what I can do!” To paraphrase Robert Heinlein, the writing process is natural and healthy as long as you do it in private and wash your hands afterward.
Parker: I agree that novel-writing can be a narcissistic undertaking for some. Many people have it in mind to write a novel someday not for the joy of creating a story but for the glow of accomplishment or recognition. NaNo may serve those individuals, but it also serves writers who have a true passion for stories and language but just need the encouragement to finish a draft.
PJ: This isn’t a NaNo issue; it’s about publishing (or the global economy) overall. Everyone already has a cell phone, but people buy new ones all the time. I bet the old ones would work fine, but people still want something more. They want the iPhone, and not the old, crappy model, but the new 4G one that has an app to warm your toilet seat for you. Do you need your toilet seat warmed? It doesn’t matter. It’s just the newest and coolest thing to have. Are cell phone designers narcissistic because they design their product to offer this toilet warming app? No. (And I know this because I used to be one.) What we were trying to do with each new generation of microchips and phones was meet what the market wanted.
So why are books any different? Older novels totally serve as reading material. We could have stopped publishing new books in 1980 and no one would ever run out of reading material. But the new stuff meets new trends and offers new bells and whistles. It tries to hook in ways never before thought of. And many times it succeeds.
Chris: Reading a novel can offer an escape, but writing one can help you explore yourself. That kind of narcissism is all right, even valuable — so long as you don’t expect people to read something just because you wrote it. You have a right to write, but not a right to be read.If you want to be read, you have a responsibility to produce something that people want to read. If you don’t have the time, energy, or skill to do that, then enjoy writing for yourself and don’t get caught up in the idea that publication has to be the final result. I think writing becomes narcissistic only when we start believing that people should be fascinated by our words simply because they are ours.
What do you think? Would the time, money, and energy we spend on stories be better used to save the world? Or when can writing be altruistic?
1 Comments on Is writing narcissistic?, last added: 1/11/2011
Librarians, booksellers, and teachers who spread the love of reading are among the heroes of specfic writers and fans, and in 2011, The Spectacle is pleased to bring you interviews with a few of these special folks.
Our first hero is Chadwick Gillenwater — how’s that for a superhero name? But he’s got an alter ego, too: Professor Watermelon. (Read on for more.) In addition to being a writer himself, Chadwick is a school librarian, creative writing teacher, and instructor of writing teachers. Welcome, Chadwick!
Spec: What age readers are you serving as a librarian, and what fantasy titles are hot in your library now?
CG: My library serves kindergarten through 8th grade. My students love the Fablehaven series and The Lightning Thief series. Harry Potter remains popular, along with the Eragon books.
Spec: How much interest do your readers show in sci-fi vs. fantasy?
CG: To be honest, I think my library lacks in regards to middle-grade science fiction. I would be interested in recommendations from some of your readers in the comments.
Most of my students enjoy realistic fiction and magic realism. That could be because I seem to push those genres, since that is what I like, wink wink.
Spec: As a librarian, what do you wish you had more of?
CG: TIME! I have a hard time keeping up with my reading. There are so many books on my “to read” list! I also need more parents volunteers to shelve books. Actually, I am pretty happy, really!
Spec: As a writer, your work often involves fantasy elements — Why? What do you like about the genre?
CG: I like this genre for the same reasons I like to teach it. I seem to have a better outlet for my wild imagination. My favorite genre is magic realism. I’m able to keep my story grounded in the “real” world but give it the magical twist to keep it different and interesting. This is also my favorite genre to read.
Spec: Why do you think fantasy is a good or common entry point for young authors?
CG: Children love to create new worlds when they write. They like to draw the maps of these worlds and the different kinds of people and creatures that live there. With fantasy, children are allowed to create their own rules. This is important in a child’s life, since their “real” world is ruled by adults.
I often ask students to use their “Third Eye” when writing. With their Third Eye, a chicken egg can become larger than a house. Maybe the egg becomes a planet or a mode of transportation. Can you imagine a chicken egg spaceship? What is steering this ship? Where are they going? What do they want more than anything in the universe? They can find all of this information by using their Third Eye!
Spec: What’s been one of your favorite reads lately?
CG: I’m reading SLOB by Ellen Potter right now. It’s realistic fiction written through the perspective of an overweight middle-school boy. I find myself rolling with laughter but turning the page to something that simply makes me want to cry.
Spec: What’s the most rewarding thing about working with young readers?
CG: I am very grateful for the opportunity to inspire children to discover their love of reading. This love will last them their whole life. I remember the adults that inspired me, and I’m happy to pay it back!
Tomorrow: More from Chadwick’s alter ego, Professor Watermelon, about teaching writing, and teaching teachers how to teach writing.
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More of our interview with writer, librarian, and writing teacher Chadwick Gillenwater, a.k.a.Professor Watermelon. (Read part 1 here.)
Spec: Who is Professor Watermelon?
CG: Professor Watermelon is a character I created to teach creative writing to children. Many children feel stifled by the rules of writing (grammar, spelling, style, etc.). From the get-go I want my students to see that I am ready to have fun with writing. My character shows that I am not taking writing too seriously. I am not there to cross out and scribble over their writing with red ink. I am there to show them how writing is an outlet for creative self expression — just like drawing, painting, and building things with popsicle sticks.
Spec: Does Professor Watermelon have any supernatural abilities or unusual traits?
CG: Of course! He is in close connection with many magical people and creatures from this world and beyond. During every creative writing class, we receive a letter and artifact from one of these friends. We call this the MuseBox. These artifacts often become the jumping off point for many stories the students create. For example, we may receive a letter and a jar of honey from Herbert the Fly. Even though Herbert is a fly, he makes the tastiest honey on this planet. Herbert may ask the creative writers if their character can do something that is extraordinary to his or her species.
Professor Watermelon is also connected to the people and creatures that live inside the moon. There is a special bakery inside the moon called the Lunar Spooner. This is where Moonbean the Clown bakes Imagination Pies. Creative writers often get these as snacks. They magically cure writer’s block!
Spec: We might need a few of those for a giveaway! What’s the most rewarding thing about working with young writers?
CG: I have the opportunity to inspire a child to find the joy in writing every single day. I get to show them that even adults have the ability to act silly. And I love that I get to use my own imagination.
Spec: When teaching teachers how to teach writing, what are your top tips for doing it right?
CG: If you’re a writer, you know it’s important to write with your writer’s hat on and edit with your editor’s hat on. If you try to wear both at the same time, you will have a tendency not to believe in your writing. Your editor’s voice will keep your imagination from flowing, and you will most likely not finish the project.
If you’re a writing teacher, please separate writing time from editing time – maybe move them to completely separate days. Also, if you have not found the joy in writing yourself, how can you inspire a child to find that joy? It works the same for reading. I have parents ask me all the time how they can motivate their child to read at home. I ask them, “Do you read at home?” They often say that they are not much of a reader. BINGO! We must model the behavior if we want to teach it.
Spec: What writing project are you working on now?
CG: I’m working on a middle grade novel in which Professor Watermelon is one of the characters. The setting is Seattle; Lillyville, TN; and the moon! The protagonist is an eleven-year-old boy who lives in a cemetery with his pet crow. That’s all I’m saying right now, heehee.
Good luck with that moon story, and thanks for stopping by, Chadwick! Please give our regards to the Professor!
A few random tidbits that relate to spec fic and were heard from speakers at the SCBWI conference in New York and other anonymous professionals with whom I met:
- The paranormal rage is (finally) subsiding.
- Dystopias are still going strong, with plenty of submissions still coming in.
- High-concept reigns. If you can’t describe it very briefly and make it sound hooky, it’s going to be a tough sell.
- From an agent: “Editors keep saying they want middle-grade, but then they won’t buy it. I’m not going to believe them any more.”
- From an art director: Cover art is trending away from faces.
- Next trend, perhaps? Historicals. Flapper steampunk. Or contemporary “normal” YA about “normal” teens.
Since “normal” doesn’t sound like much fun to us here at The Spec, I’ll take that as a call to battle. Let’s give them some good abnormal stories!
— Joni, who is still catching up on the lost sleep
Filed under: Joni Sensel
Tagged: New York
Suzanne Perry handles events and PR for Secret Garden Books, one of Seattle’s great indies with a focus on children’s books. We recently broke into her hectic events calendar for a quick interview!
Spec: How long have you been selling books?
SP: In college, I worked at the last real Brentano’s in the whole world in Costa Mesa, CA. Then I didn’t work in books again until five years ago. In between, I had a regular corporate career in market research and advertising.
Spec: That must come in handy. What brought you back to the book world?
SP: I decided maybe we owned enough stuff, and I kinda just walked away from the corporate world. It was the best thing I ever did. I spent more than a year just open, letting it be, shambalala — ha ha! I knew the next thing would present itself.
I did a little freelance organizing — and no. I had no patience for the people. It was just about stuff again. And you know, the world has enough stuff! I’m done with stuff!
Then my spouse, Pam, attended the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association convention, where Christy McDanold, the owner of Secret Garden Books, was asking everybody if they knew anybody awesome, because she’d decided to hire a full-time events/public relations person. She was taking a huge chance, but we think it has paid off.
I do the website, all the PR, and the events, but I don’t do any day-to-day bookselling. We have 13 experts at Secret Garden, and all of our young booksellers, 20- and 21-year-olds, are huge YA readers, and that’s who we rely on.
Spec: What do you like to read?
SP: I’m really excited about Michael Cunningham’s newest book, BY NIGHTFALL. Beautiful. I highly recommend it. I love Michael Chabon, too.
I love picture books, but it’s almost impossible for me to read middle-grade or YA. I don’t have the patience for it, and there are booksellers at the Garden who are VERY well versed, and I can totally trust them. So I rely on the experts.
But I do have to read a lot. If I’m going to have an interaction with an author, a dinner or an event, I read at least her touring book if not her entire backlist, because I have to introduce her. And usually I become a fan. (And if I’m not, I don’t think they would know it.)
The Spec: What’s your take on speculative fiction?
SP: Oh, the biggest themes in sci-fi are the best themes in literature! I honestly believe that. For example, I don’t want to spoil the story, but Beth Revis’ ACROSS THE UNIVERSE is about the fact that all we have is the moment. Right now. And what’s genius about it is, as in most sci-fi, that the theme is completely unspoken. But it’s what the whole book is about. That’s what I love about sci-fi.
Spec: Is there any other recent spec-fic for young readers you’re enthusiastic about?
Why, yes, there is — and if you want to find out what they are from Suzanne, you’ll have to come visit The Spectacle again tomorrow for Part 2 of this interview!
Filed under: Joni Sensel
0 Comments on Hero Interview: Suzanne Perry, Book Event Maven as of 2/17/2011 10:51:00 PM
In discussing point-of-view with a group of writers the other day, I realized how uncommonly first-person narration is used in science fiction compared to some other genres. These things are subject both to trends and to the preferences of various age-groups, of course. It’s pretty well known that teen readers prefer first-person more than just about any age group. And perhaps because of the ascendency of YA, first-person is starting to become more common in fantasy, too.
But I can’t think of too many harder sci-fi books with first-person narrators. I could speculate (no pun intended) on why: maybe it’s enough of a challenge to put a reader in an unfamiliar world or time without making them feel there at the “I” level, too? Maybe it’s because sci-fi writers and readers are weighted toward the male persuasion? Maybe it’s because sci-fi often tackles social issues or grand ideas, and first-person narrators are more likely to focus on personal stories? Maybe it’s coincidence?
Maybe I’m wrong?
What recent sci-fi can you think of that’s written in first person, and what are your speculations about the relationship between story and narrative perspective?
— Joni, who likes third-person better anyway
Filed under: Joni Sensel
As I get ready to follow Chris’s footsteps with my very first ebook, published by me and not one of my “traditional” publishers, I can look back to the first time I stood on Self-Publishers Row. Lots has changed. Other things haven’t.
Early in, early out
I first dove headlong into self-publishing more than ten years ago. This was early in the industry’s hey-day, before AuthorHouse or PublishAmerica or any of those other names we’ve learned to run screaming from, but after Dan Poynter was already on edition six or seven of his self-publishing “bible.” To make a long story short(er), I poured over a copy of that bible and won a substantial grant to create a small press. One of the two resulting books won a national award, both got attention in PW*, both had national bookstore distribution through IPG, and today, at least five years after one of them went out of print, I still have people regularly begging me to reprint it. Because I had a specific niche, lots of the required skills from my day-job, and a professional product (though I certainly would do some things differently now), I sold roughly the same number of each as I have my first “traditional” novel.
*Random side note: Not one of my four traditionally published novels has ever made PW, though they’ve been reviewed in all the other standard places. I can’t help but wonder if the PW folks later felt like I’d conned them and crossed my name off forever, but maybe that’s “writer blacklist paranoia” talking.
I learned an immense amount from that experience, which was by far and away its greatest value (a lot more than any monetary return. Marketing expenses add up fast, and I intentionally didn’t track how many hours of labor I spent because I sensed early on that the return would be pennies per hour, and it would have been too depressing to know.)
The most important thing I learned was that I didn’t really want to be a publisher. I’d rather write. I also wanted the third-party validation that traditional publishing bestows.
…and soon to be in again
But here I am again, and boy, how self-publishing has changed. I got in, and back out again, before the flood: before attitudes about it were quite so disparaging, before booksellers automatically said “no.” And while the sheer volume of self-published work only keeps growing, lately the disparagement is ebbing again, thanks to the small percentage of stand-out work that’s gone mainstream and to more traditionally published authors who are taking matters into their own hands. Their work is raising the quality average, at least perceptually. (I’m pretty sure there’s still plenty of dreck.)
What hasn’t changed for me is the answer to this question: Do I want to be a publisher? The answer’s still no. But I’ve become convinced that for some objectives, it’s the most logical route for an author to take. (And frankly, traditionally published authors without lead titles are now expected to do such a large percentage of the promotion, including sending around galleys and trying to finagle press coverage and events, that there’s less and less difference between the two roles anyhow.)
More good reasons all the time
I’ve taught workshops on the advantages and disadvantages of self-publishing, and until recently, the best — and most honest — reason I ever heard to self-publish was this: an older woman told me she wanted to self-publish her book because doctors had given her less than six months to live, and she wante
Got an interest in space, space travel, atmospheric phenomenon, or the astrophysical aspects of sci-fi? You might want to get on my favorite listserv. I get email messages (uh… weekly? biweekly?) regularly from NASA Science News and SpaceWeather.com, and these messages almost always contain links to cool photos of sky stuff (often by amateur astronomers or random folk around the world), or news about space-related discoveries, or interesting theories and artist’s conceptions. They’re full of great fodder for future spec fic.
For instance, a recent SpaceWeather alert reported this cool tidbit, with links to more info and a related iPhone app:
X-37B SIGHTINGS: Amateur satellite watchers have spotted a US Air Force space plane similar in appearance to NASA’s space shuttle circling Earth in a heretofore secret orbit. Known as the “X-37B,” it can be seen in the night sky shining about as brightly as the stars of the Big Dipper.
Check out SpaceWeather online, or just subscribe. Or there are a variety of NASA subscription options, depending on your interests, here. (I only remember signing up for one of these, not both, so I think they share lists, but don’t quote me. And I’ve been on it for years, so that may have changed.)
— Joni, admittedly a space geek
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I’m at the SCBWI International conference in LA and easily the biggest draw for me this year was the chance to hear M.T. Anderson speak again. (I am not easily star-struck, but he is a star in the writing firmament for me. The man is a brilliant writer, and no shambles as a speaker — or a singer. Check out the Team Blog entry for an explanation of that bit — unless you live in Delaware. Oh, actually you need this post for the explanation. But look at both.)
Anyway, the point is this: He spoke in large part about the idea of writing about exotic lands and creatures as a way to come home with new eyes… to see the familiar anew, either because the familiar is really lurking in that foreign land, by analogy to our own, or because the experience of being in the foreign land of the story helps us see our own world with a fresh perspective. One example (paraphrased)… perhaps we in the U.S. embrace fantasy lands so warmly because we see so much of one town blending into the next, all chain stores and strip malls and so forth, and we therefore long for cities of brass, cities of fluted towers, places of difference and distinction. Similarly, Ray Bradbury’s MARTIAN CHRONICLES works not so much because it is a tale of people in a foreign place, but because we are all strangers in a strange land.
What of your familiar life do you see in your favorite fantasies? (Or vice versa?)
Or that’s too abstract for a Friday, try this: go to his website and learn things you really never knew about Delaware. And toy with the idea of what that means about, and to, world-building.
— Joni, who got to hand out bookmarks for THE Tobin Anderson today.
Filed under: Joni Sensel
Among the things M.T. Anderson talked about in his keynote address at last week’s SCBWI conference in LA was using our creativity to extend the worlds of our books. In addition to the example of futuristic slang in his FEED (which he did not mention), he pointed to language invented by Sean Beaudoin in a forthcoming book (which I think must be YOU KILLED WESLEY PAYNE coming in Feb 2011, but don’t quote me).
But the invention can reach far past the usual stuff. Language and maps are pretty routine among fantasy folks, though less routine among the writers of realistic stories. Similarly, new transportation devices and weapons are staples for sci-fi and alternate histories. But other possibilities are infinite. How about an invented religion? A club or association? A type of clothing? A holiday? Such stuff can not only help inform the world of the book, be an additional creative outlet for writers, and open new opportunities for reader interaction. Check out Anderson’s invented Tourist Guide to Delaware for a few unusual examples.
What invented stuff have you read lately that really lit your fire?
— Joni, who has invented senses and communication devices, but really likes the idea of alternate maps for real places
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I recently read a dystopian novel. (Who hasn’t, right?) While I thought the characters were terrific and the emotional core of the story very satisfying, some of the plot and dystopic elements were equally disappointing, often because they were contradictory or way too convenient. A crucial plot point depended on the characters’ abilities to create something that was almost dismissively easy for them to create. But wait — if the good guys can do this, what’s to stop everybody from doing it? And why haven’t some of those everybodies done it before now?
The only answer seemed to be, “Nothing, but then it wouldn’t be a dystopia any more.” There were other contradictions in the world-building, some of which had more impact on the plot than others, but all of which weakened it for me. I liked the book, but I was disappointed. I find it hard to believe that an agent or editor didn’t raise the same concerns and ask the author to fix them.
And yet… I’ve only seen a few reviews of this book, but none of them seem to care that the more technical or societal aspects of the book are weak at best. Which makes me wonder if I am the only one who cares about plausibility and the technical matters that make me believe anything the author says… or not. I have to admit, this is not the first spec fic book I’ve read in the past few years that I had similar trouble with, but that seemed to do well among other readers.
Thus my question: Is the character/emotional story more important to you than plot plausibility, world-building, or the trust you can place in the author?
— Joni, who wants to care as much about the ideas in a book as its characters
Filed under: Joni Sensel
I recently attended a great session on doing author visits by Skype. It made me wonder what the next technical innovation would be for bringing readers and authors closer together.
Perhaps you could buy a device that would broadcast your favorite author’s dreams into yours. It would be like getting the story before the author wrote it down or even realized it was an inspiration.
Perhaps you could download an author’s voice for a 24-hour period so that everything you wrote would sound like your favorite writer. Or perhaps you could hyper-jump into an author’s eyeballs so that you could LITERALLY see through their eyes, instead of just trying to do that through their words in a book.
What part of your favorite author’s brain would you like to Skype into?
— Joni, who, with the right technology, might not spend any more time in her own head at all
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All the buzz right now is about the latest book in a certain trilogy. Some of us on this site have written series or sequels. I wrote the Haunted series and Linda Joy Singleton’s work includes the Dead Girl and The Seer series. Joni Sensel’s The Farwalker’s Quest was recently followed by a sequel.
What author wouldn’t like to have a series, whether the original contract is for several books, or a single title is so popular that readers (and the editor) want a sequel? And what reader wouldn’t want to return to a favorite literary world?
And yet, series can be a hard sell. Some publishers of course focus on series, typically the direct to paperback, open-ended type. I sold Haunted (about kids who travel with a ghost hunter TV show, for ages 8 to 12) based on a first manuscript, series proposal, and outlines for books 2 and 3, to Aladdin, a paperback series publisher. But most publishers want to see how a first book does before they request a sequel.
“Characters that carry over a number of books certainly work well, but this isn’t the same thing as a series,” a former Llewellyn Acquisitions Editor said in an interview. “I’d rather see a strong standalone with sequel potential. If a single title works and the main character isn’t too old, it’s rarely a problem to continue the story into a new book, if there’s interest.”
Another editor commented, “I wonder how many trilogies or series were conceived as such—and how many began as one-offs that performed well and/or became bestsellers, at which point authors are often encouraged to write a follow-up.”
I wonder as well. As a writer, perhaps the best thing you can do is to bring your first book to a satisfactory conclusion, but leave the sense that the characters will go on to have other adventures — and wouldn’t it be nice to read about those?
This is also comforting for the author, who doesn’t feel as much like she’s abandoning her characters forever. (I ended my historical fiction novel The Well of Sacrifice with the characters heading off to a new Mayan city. I imagined their adventures, though I never wrote a sequel. Some teachers who use the book in the classroom have students write about what happens next.) This is a bit different from “And they lived happily ever after” — unless you believe that happily ever after would involve new challenges and adventures!
As readers — or writers — do you like to feel that a book is complete and self-contained, with no questions or concerns left for the characters? Or do you prefer an ambiguous ending that suggests challenges ahead? Something in between?
The Well of Sacrifice is a drama set in 9th-century Mayan Guatemala.
Chris Eboch likes happy endings!
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I don’ t think I’ve made anyone mad for a while; let’s see if this does it.
There’s a fine tradition of fantasy (or horror) in rural, even pastoral, settings, from Tolkien to King. So much so that you could call it the default; fantasy set in cities gets its own sub-genre, urban fantasy.
Science fiction, by contrast, probably because of its more technical nature, tends to have more urban sensibilities: think space ports, crumbling dystopias that once were fine cities, overpopulated masses, etc.
I’ve been thinking about this because I have noticed what seems to be a bias in publishing, probably a function of its New York/New England foundation: a lot of movers and shakers seem to think that readers can’t relate to rural stories, country people, or simple lives. DAIRY QUEEN is a lovely exception that almost proves the rule… but where I live, a LOT more kids relate to kicking cowpies than to riding a subway, or to growing up in a metro apartment instead of a house with a yard.
And I wonder if that bias encourages gatekeepers to think of rural = fantasy (vs. real-life). Which is why, perhaps, I know writers who’ve been told things like, “Nobody wants to read about a girl living in a trailer park.” (Besides THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY, I guess.) And I’ve gotten personal feedback about things I know in everyday life that folks in NY or LA have thought was old-fashioned because it’s more rural — or simply more lower-middle-class — than their personal experience.
Just throwing it out there. I might be making it up. Any thoughts? And to bring it back to spec-fic, at least nominally: can you think of any relatively recent, rural or pastoral sci-fi that’s not that way because the world ended?
— Joni, who likes both the city and the country for different reasons
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3 Comments on City aliens, country aliens, last added: 9/20/2010
In many ways, “writing” a title is a completely different skill from writing the book. Yet it can have a big impact on the right readers finding it.
Or maybe not. I’ve heard several booksellers, not to mention regular folks, complain about the title of my fellow 2K7er (yay!) Rebecca Stead’s award-winning WHEN YOU REACH ME. Most people adore this book, obviously. But many do not adore the title — it’s not easy to remember, and while you understand the reference once you’ve read the book, beforehand — when the title has to do its most important work — it give you no idea what the story is about. When I first heard it, I thought it must be a YA romance. I would love to have insight into the editor’s discussions with Rebecca on that title. (Rebecca, if you’re reading…? )
On the other hand… revising a title can be tough after you’ve lived with your working title for a while, even if you know it may well change.
Sometimes it’s a matter of tweaking, adding to or deleting from what’s already there, just like a text revision. The U.S. and U.K. versions of the first Harry Potter book — SORCERER’S STONE vs. PHILOSOPHER’S STONE — are a good example. I’ve been pretty lucky in that my first two books were published with the title I submitted on them, basically. REALITY LEAKS lost an S, that’s all. Everyone loved THE HUMMING OF NUMBERS’s title from the start. (Assonance works, I guess.)
But my first Farwalker book was originally titled just that — FARWALKER. I thought it was strong, intriguing, centered on the main character and her arc, and was also literal enough, with enough resonance among the gaming crowd, to be clearly a role or a description of a person. But Bloomsbury didn’t think it was clear enough what kind of story it was, and they weren’t keen on any of my secondary suggestions, so they published it as THE FARWALKER’S QUEST. Interestingly enough, the vast majority of people who mention it to me in person or email call it THE FARWALKER. So I wonder if that revision made any difference in the long run?
Other title revisions are more like those big draft revisions that involve starting over with your idea in mind and a new computer file. The FW sequel was originally THE STORY ABACUS because I thought the abacus in the story was thematically important, tied the whole thing together, and had a meta-fiction angle I liked. But I understood when my editor said they wanted something that would more clearly relate to the first book and give a hint of the time-bending aspect of the story. They thought perhaps we could do that with a similar “The Blank’s Blank” construction. So I brainstormed about a fifty options, using the same basic method Greg uses, including a lot of thought about key plot elements and themes, and we all thought THE TIMEKEEPER’S MOON did a better job of what we felt we needed to accomplish. Like REACH ME, though, it’s not very intuitive until after you’ve read the book, so I wonder.
4 Comments on Revision week: Titles, last added: 9/24/2010