Sandy Asher and David Harrison

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Topic 11: About This Business of Internet Publishing

Response 1: David Harrison
Okay, Sandy, here’s a subject on everyone’s mind these days: the publication of e-books and books printed on order. In other words, technology-assisted self publishing. Do you remember the first time you heard authors talking about electronic publishing? I do. We were at one of the annual Children’s Literature Festivals in Warrensburg, Missouri. After a day of talking to students, some of us were relaxing in one of the rooms where we were staying when the conversation turned to e-books. No one in the group had tried one yet but there was lively interest in the potential. All I could do was listen. I knew so little about this newfangled kind of publishing that I was afraid to open my mouth.

As in any new field, someone has to go first. A lot of you know Janet Wong and Sylvia Vardell and are familiar with their pioneering efforts to publish e-book collections of poetry for young people. My toe-in-the-water experience came last year when they invited me to be one of thirty poets represented in PoetryTagTime, the first anthology of children’s poems published as an e-book. They also invited me to participate in two other collections before the year was up, p*tag (for teens) and Gift Tag (for the holidays). To learn more, here’s the link.

So what led to my decision to publish my own e-book? Since 1989 we’ve lived beside a small lake that supports a rich variety of plants and animals. I’ve dubbed it Goose Lake. As an old biologist it pleases me greatly to watch and take notes. Two years ago I wrote a book of prose and poems about the place.

My wife liked Goose Lake (always a good sign!) and said it was my best work ever. I sent it out. Editor One said, “Absolutely lovely. I’ll buy a copy for myself if you get it published but right now my sales department would lynch me if I take on any more poetry.” Editor Two: “Your writing is quite wonderful. These poems are not simply gorgeous reflections on the beauty of nature, but rather active stories of animal observations and interactions. Unfortunately, nature poetry collections are sadly not at the top of my list.” Editor Three: “Your poetic prose and image-rich poetry complement one another in giving a multifaceted view of the many creatures, indoors as well as out.” And so on.

After two more such experiences I became a prime candidate to try an e-book. I knew I had a good manuscript and five editors had turned it down. I asked Janet Wong for advice. She took a lot of time to explain the procedures and nudge me in the right direction. Through her I was introduced to Sladjana Vasic, the talented artist who agreed to illustrate Goose Lake, and her husband, Milos, who formatted the finished book for uploading onto the Amazon and Barnes & Noble store sites. I’m skipping most of the details involved because one e-book hardly makes me an expert and any effort to try to describe them would take far more room than I have here. I hope it’s needless to say that I’m not encouraging people to go fogging over to Janet’s site with pleas for help! (Janet, if you’re reading this, let the record show that I’m trying to save you!)

On December 15, 2011, Goose Lake was published as an e-book on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. I don’t have it up yet on iTunes but hope to master that trick one of these days. The process (exclusive of the writing), from my first note to Janet to the day the book was e-published, took 46 days.

You may be more interested in sales than in the details, so here’s the report to date. As my own publisher, I’m paid 70 percent of net income from Amazon and 65 percent from Barnes & Noble. And I get to do all of my own promotion. (You’re supposed to smile.) If you read Writers at Work in January, you’ll remember our discussion about how hard it is for many of us to pound our own chests. It doesn’t get easier when your book exists only if you download it onto a reading device or computer. In the books that Janet and Sylvia did, there were thirty poets, and therefore the potential for a lot of promotional oomph on the order of thirty times more than one person might do. Furthermore, children’s poetry is considered by most publishers to be difficult to sell in the best of circumstances. The niche is further restricted by its small foothold in the world of e-books. I could be wrong, but I bet the market is better for picture books and longer stories.

During the first week or so after Goose Lake came out, I e-mailed notices to quite a few friends and colleagues. I mailed letters to neighbors around the lake. I posted the news of my first e-book on my blog. I mentioned the free apps you can add from Amazon or Barnes & Noble so you can download the book onto your computer. A friend of mine also sent an e-blast to friends on her list. Goose Lake debuted well. After five days it ranked #1 on Amazon’s Kindle Store for e-books of children’s poetry and #44 for general poetry. I was feeling gooood. Uh-huh!

But that was all I knew to do. And when I stopped touting my book, it began sliding down the scale rather quickly. It went from 1st to 20th to 50th in a matter of weeks. Now and then it would shoot back toward the top when someone out there bought a copy, but we’re talking about small numbers making big differences. I just now checked the rating on Amazon.com and I’m back in 14th place so I’ve had a few more sales. It drives you crazy if you look too often. I think they change rankings every hour.

I’ve been delighted to have interviews and features lately on some wonderful blog sites such as Robyn Hood Black’s, Roxie Hanna’s, and Laura Purdie Salas’s. Such exposure helps very much. I’ve also received great advice on how to promote one’s e-book from Barbara Gregorich about selecting potential markets and seeking write-ups in special interest newsletters. God knows when I can get to such time-consuming activities, but I can easily understand the absolute need to try.

So, Sandy, my conclusions about this grand experiment so far? Hmm. Well I’m a long way from breaking even but it’s still very early. I enjoy the fact that I’ve able to bring my work to readers who might never have seen it otherwise. I appreciate (always did) what traditional publishers do to help promote their authors’ books. I’m admittedly still close to the bottom of the learning curve about e-books and how to make them work. Would I consider trying another one? I won’t rule it out but for now I need to get better at promoting Goose Lake. Then we’ll see…

Response 2: Paula Morrow
Independent Editors: What We Do and Why You Need Us

Self-publishing, e-publishing, and self-e-publishing have rightfully been hailed for breaking down the barrier between authors and publication. We're seeing a sea-change in the world of books and reading, and like the tide that drenched Canute, it's not going to go away.

I'm not worried that books might disappear, any more than movies disappeared when everyone bought televisions. My concern is about the effect self-publishing and e-publishing will have on the literature of the future. Are we seeing a rise to new literary possibilities? Or a decline to the lowest common denominator?

The internet teems with sites eager to publish your e-book and with advice from bloggers and self-publishing veterans. "You should write an e-book," declared a typical blog. Reading on, I learned that these are the Steps to Take:
  1. Get the software for you to create an electronic book.
  2. Write your e-book.
  3. Use the software to convert your document to the electronic book format.
  4. Make your e-book available from your website. Note that even if you wish to sell your e-book, you should still have a sample available freely to whet the appetites of your prospective customers.
  5. Publicize your e-book.
What ingredient is missing from this recipe? Alas, the instructions tell you how to publish your rough draft. Too many eager authors rush to publication before their manuscript is ready.

"But I have a critique group..." That's a good thing. Critique partners will give useful feedback during the creative process of writing your book. But how many of the group members have the time for multiple careful readings and the expertise to evaluate every aspect from voice to structure, not to mention page-by-page grammar and mechanics?

Most self-publishing companies claim to use professional copy editors. Okay. If you're reading this blog, you no doubt know about LinkedIn, an online site for business and professional networking. As of February 2012, LinkedIn has 824,000 users who list "editing" as a skill, marketing themselves as editors. I'm sure that most of these 824,000 souls know how to run spell-check and know something about grammar and punctuation. I'm afraid I don't consider fixing the mechanics to be enough.

A friend of mine self-published a children's book and paid for "professional editing" as part of the publication package. When I started reading the book, my heart sank. The interest level was junior high. The point of view was adult. The supplementary activities were just right for a five-year-old. The "editor" either didn't know or didn't care about giving feedback to make the book artistically satisfying (or even coherent) and marketable.

So what exactly does an independent editor do for you? That varies with the editor, of course, so be sure you understand what's offered before you make a commitment.

My own preference is the "forest and trees" approach. The forest is the big picture: structure, language, logic, emotional content, overall quality, and marketability. I pinpoint any problems and give the author specific feedback on how they could be fixed. The trees are the details, not only mechanics but also more subtle line-editing: word choices, stylistic inconsistencies, and the like. I also point out facts that need checking (important even in fiction!), although I leave the actual research to the author unless we contract for that separately.

A book edit is a time-consuming process requiring many, many hours of intense concentration. Before taking on a new client I read the manuscript, and sometimes I return it with a note that I'm not the right editor for this project. If I feel it's a good fit, I send a proposal and quote. I offer a choice of several levels of feedback, from a one-time critique to multiple revisions before final editing, and we contract in advance for a specific level and a specific time frame. Up to this point there's no reading fee and no obligation to continue. If the writer and I agree to work together, I determine a flat fee depending on what that particular manuscript needs.

Before contacting a private editor, look at your manuscript yourself, have a rough idea what help you want, and decide what your final goal is. If you have no idea what you need, start by reading a good book on writing for children (such as Barbara Seuling's How to Write a Children's Book and Get It Published) before you spend money on an outside consultant.

Once you have an idea what you expect from the editor, look for someone with experience and expertise in that area. Find out what the person's credentials are. In checking references, look for specifics: not "She helped me fix my story" but "She put her finger on the place where my plot went astray and gave me clear suggestions for getting back on track." Expect the person to ask you questions before agreeing to take on your project, so that you're both aiming for the same goal.

An author friend of mine does private manuscript critiques. Not long ago she plaintively commented that she is seeing more and more manuscripts that she describes as "trainwrecks." New authors are completely disregarding the basic tenets of writing for children. What's going on?

I believe what we're seeing is fallout from self-publishing. Folks go to press without being edited, others read their stuff and think, "Gosh, it's published, it must be right," and the snowball grows.

For new authors, editing is an essential step in the self-publication process. Even established, successful authors can benefit from an external perspective. (See Sandy Asher's book Writing It Right for lots of great examples of the creative conversation that a relationship between author and editor can spark.) Several years ago a dear friend who has published more than sixty books with traditional publishers decided to try self-publishing and asked me to edit the new manuscript. Our collaboration led to many exciting literary experiences—for both of us. But that's another story.

Response 3: Michael Wilde
Why an Editor?

Wondering what to write on this timely topic, I was instantly struck by two things: this recent article in The New York Times about e-books on tablets—a primer on the future of how we read; and a letter I received from a potential client. In the article, the conclusion looks grim: instead of providing that long-sought-for solace and comforting retreat from the world’s insane distractions, a book must now compete with every kind of addiction-forming instant gratification: “[T]he millions of consumers who have bought tablets and sampled e-books on apps from Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble have come away with a conclusion: It’s harder than ever to sit down and focus on reading.”

So here is the not-so-distant future of how a book will behave: it will reorganize itself to accommodate every digital temptation—a dark current that flows under a lot of professional conversations these days. What happened to focusing on one thing at a time? The editor in me is constantly asking, By the time you reach the end of this sentence, have you already gone to Twitter? How can a book possibly survive?

It will, and the why and how came in a query I received only yesterday, four days after the Times article had me ruing not only the demise of books but the death of meaning itself (the Times is good at that). Having surveyed the poor quality of self-published books, the writer decided to seek out an editor. “No matter what the future of the book industry is,” the person writes, “editors are still crucial.” Apart from the obvious validation (that in fact means everything to me), this brief, simple statement gives me hope and a galvanizing optimism: here is understanding, at its core, of a fundamental relationship, an age-old calculus, that determines how a book comes into being and why it acts as it does, no matter the medium or how the end result is marketed.

A writer needs an editor and vice versa; that simple. The disparate activities take place in different sections of the brain, I’m convinced, and the writer is not well served should he or she attempt to do both at once. In the same braincase, the editor inhibits the act of writing until the flow is dammed to a dribble. One of them has to be switched off for the other to function properly (i.e., disinhibited, not easy and not recommended). What does all that have to do with publishing, self or otherwise, you might ask? It turns out, everything. Now, in the e-universe, a writer needs an editor more than ever (assuming, of course, the editor knows what she or he is doing, another subject for another day’s blog)—and nowhere is this more emphatically true than in children’s books, which are deceptive if not downright treacherous from an editorial point of view.

I don’t have space to go into the particulars, but generally speaking, of all the levels and genres of writing and reading out there, children’s books come closest to poetry in style and composition—and are therefore that much harder to write. In children’s, as in poetry, every word is important—and even more, the order all the words are in, on every page, in every sentence. I can’t stress it enough. There isn’t any wiggle room at all. The text must engage at once and entertain. A first-time author—even a brilliant one—might not automatically know this. A sweat lodge worth of effort and draft after draft may yield a pile of rejections for want of an active verb, a musical phrase, choice of voice, a character’s disposition, any of a thousand factors; then, of course, it has to be somebody’s cup of tea. A grown-up first has to love it. Frustrating, I know.

An editor can help.

Michael provides all manner of editorial services and help with writing. Email him or visit this website.

Response 4: Sandy Asher

Reading the posts by Paula and Michael has made me want to wax poetic about editors. With apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” I love editors for their intelligence, insight, and instincts. I love editors for their enthusiasm and encouragement. I love editors for their tenacity, which has so often roused me out of my natural laziness and forced me to do more and better. I love editors for not allowing me to publish anything that did not meet their standards. (Yes, I am referring to my file drawers filled with rejected manuscripts that fully deserved to be rejected. I’ve just spent a month rereading nearly forty such manuscripts. Thank goodness there were editors who prevented me from going public with them. Fortunately, I have the rest of my life in which to revise.)

There was a time, very early in my career, when I balked at editors’ detail-oriented, nitpicky thoroughness. Now I worry they may be too busy with other projects to give my work the full attention it needs. Even after many years of experience, I’m really nervous about publishing anything that hasn’t been vetted by a professional editor. We’re all far too close to our own work to see it as readers will receive it. Editors help us bridge that gap.
And so, my only experience with self-publishing has been to reissue—twice—Teddy Teabury’s Fabulous Fact, an already well-edited middle-grade reader. Teddy was originally a Dell Yearling Book. It had a good going-over—or three or six—for content and style by my then-editor Bebe Willoughby, as well as meticulous attention to mechanics, typos, and other details from an in-house copyeditor and proofreader at Delacorte/Dell. When the book went out of print and the rights reverted to me, I could reissue it by simply having it set up in a print-ready manner by my son Ben, a freelance professional copyeditor and proofreader. Together, we kept a keen eye out for late-blooming typos. (See Ben’s info here.)
That first reprinting of five hundred copies was done with a clear marketing plan, though this was long before social media began providing world-wide exposure. School visits, children’s literature festivals, and teacher and librarian conferences were the main marketing opportunities, and I was doing lots of those. With a reissued Teddy, I could continue to go forth armed with the dramatic and amusing story behind the book’s dedication “To the children of Otterville, Missouri, who asked me to write it and made sure I did.” I already knew from experience with the Dell edition that kids loved hearing the story and immediately wanted to read the book. I was confident I could sell five hundred copies. And I did.
Then I got tired of listening to myself tell the story. Five hundred copies were enough.
Time passed, and the whole self-publishing picture changed. With all the choices offered by technology, and writers doing so much of their own marketing anyway, it’s become quite an attractive way to go. Plus, Teddy has appeared a couple of times as a nineteen-part newspaper serial, and the illustrations commissioned by the serial licensing company were available. (The original illustrations by Bob Jones were not; my first reissue had no illustrations—not a good way to go with a middle-grade novel.) My agent mentioned that she’d checked out CreateSpace and was recommending it to her authors who wanted to reissue their own books. And there you were, David, all excited about your e-book Goose Lake. So I decided to give self-publishing another try. Teddy Teabury’s Fabulous Fact seemed the logical choice for my plunge, since I knew how to market it. I’m ready to tell the story behind the dedication again—not here, because it’s too long, but anywhere I’m invited to speak (hint, hint). 
Wow! This has been a very different experience from my first foray into self-publication. Back then, I used a general printer who did a nice job the old-fashioned way, following my directions but offering little guidance. With CreateSpace, I’ve had a steady flow of phone calls and email messages, an online account, a dashboard that alerted me to when I needed to take action and now tracks my orders and royalties, and helpful directions every step of the way. I got to alter and approve the jacket and proofread everything online first and then in hard copy, twice. And six days a week, there were real people to talk to, attentive, competent, cheerful people with satisfying answers to my questions.
I was impressed!
My personal “project team” at CreateSpace did an attractive design job and worked hard to get everything just right. Since my book had already been edited at Dell, I bought a simple and less costly package, but there are various options from do-it-yourself-for-free to full-service, in-depth editing. There’s a motive, of course, behind their perfectionism. CreateSpace books are automatically offered on Amazon.com and there’s a sizable cut for the company out of each copy sold. It’s to their benefit to create a superior product. I have no problem with that. 
The books are print-on-demand, which means I don’t have a basement full of copies I don’t immediately need. (Will I ever forgive the long-ago cat who once used a carton as a litter box?) I can order copies wholesale for presentations as I go. I could pay a little more to have an e-book edition as well, but I don’t quite trust the time lapse between my presentation generating interest and the listener’s opportunity to order the book online. I’d rather have hard copies right there with me. I’m fairly confident I can earn back my investment before once again tiring of the story, but even if I don’t, there’s Amazon.com selling the book online for me. Easy enough to email the link to family and friends and post it on Facebook. Best of all, print-on-demand guarantees that Teddy Teabury’s Fabulous Fact will never go out of print again.

So, do I recommend self-publication? Under certain conditions, I do, with these caveats: Have reasonable expectations, know your market, and devise a plan for reaching that market. Self-publishing isn’t right for all books, and, no matter how they’re published, books rarely sell themselves. Last but definitely not least: Do not venture out there alone. See above for how I love editors!


  1. This is a very interesting discussion on the subject of writing ebooks and having them edited for you.
    The current trend with the enormous amount of digital publishing versus the steep decrease of printed books will undoubtedly continue to grow in future. The penetration of digital technology in younger generations is reaching very high rates. As a result, the digitalization of books will most likely be the norm in the publishing industry from now on.
    Concerning children's literature, my personal point of view is that excessive editing can harm a specific work, rather than improve it. One of the classics in children's literature, "Alice in Wonderland", serves as a perfect example, and I think that a large percentage of modern-day editors would definitely consider it as a totally absurd story, giving it no chance to become a best-seller.
    Finally, I would like to remind fellow writers what Mark Twain, stressed: That a writer has to write a lot of unpaid writing, before someone offers to pay him/her for that.

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments. I agree that some of the classics would probably be rejected today, and I know they would not have been promoted with the same kind of dedication shown to Faulkner and others whose fame did not come quickly. Still, I see far too much writing now that would have profited by editing, and I've learned so much from my own editors, that I remain strongly in favor of the practice. "Excessive editing," on the other hand, connotes a bad editor, and that's never acceptable. Faulkner said, "To become a writer, you sit down at a typewriter. Ten years later, you stand up and you're a writer." That agrees with your Twain wisdom. In my opinion, computers have not sped up the process.