Sunday, June 17, 2018

How to Get Published: Two Takeaways from the League of Utah Writers Summer Symposium (2018)

On June 16, 2018, the League of Utah Writers (LUW) held its Summer Writers Symposium at the University of Utah. The symposium covered a broad spectrum of topics from the value of poetry to the agenting vs. independent publishing debate. I had two main takeaways from the event.

#1 Success at Self-Publishing Means Sustained Hard Work (…And Probably Isn’t for Me)

Indie romance author Cami Checketts led a session titled: “Self-Publishing: Is It Right for You?” She provided some practical advice about different marketing sites (Bookbub) and the importance of sharing success and building a friendly community of co-writers and “cheerleaders.” Before taking the self-publishing path, Ms. Checketts had a literary agent and was traditionally published, but found consistent success challenging and traditional pathways restrictive. She was also not a fan of the publisher’s sizable cut.

The main takeaway of Checketts’s talk for me was that self-publishing is an all-in path to success. Ms. Checketts stated that she works of 6-10 hours per day at writing (I’m uncertain if this includes marketing and research) and as of June 2018 has self-published fifty-two books to Amazon. She does not watch TV, has a backlog of books, and on average publishes one book per month. She continues to write and publish regardless of launch-day successes or failures, and my understanding is she makes great money doing this.

To help themselves succeed at self-publishing, authors should:
  1. Publish regularly and consistently (consider writing a backlog of content before you start to give yourself a “cushion” of material to publish and time to write new content).
  2. Go with a digital self-publishing service like Amazon or Wilde and learn how to leverage the digital publishing service to feature your work.
  3. Invest in advertising your work via Bookbub, Google Adwords, or another pay-per-play self-marketing service.
  4. Network with other self-publishers writing in or near your genre.
  5. Build a mailing list and regularly update your readers to maintain hunger for your work.

Possible Pitfalls

There are also some pitfalls to reckon with if you are considering self-publishing.

  1. Write in a genre that sells. Ms. Checketts writes romance, which is the top-selling book genre. There is a hunger for the types of books she writers that horror and sci-fi writers do not enjoy. There is a higher payoff for the time and effort she puts into her books because it is a relatively easy market to sell in.
  2. Don’t bore yourself into writer’s block. Writer's block is what happens when you don't know what you're doing or you don't know why you're doing it - boredom is one of many possible root causes. Romance books are predictable, which, for those who like to read them, is part of the appeal. I would never want to churn out a book a month, and for the way I write it’s not possible. If you love your genre and don’t mind substituting different plot and character “variables” into the “writing equation” you could eventually reach a high output volume that will help you rise in the digital publishing ranks, but you have to write as much or as little as will allow you to be consistently productive.
  3. Selling cheap. If you sell cheap or have giveaways, you can build volume. If you have a huge log of products, a person who likes your cheap or free book might go on to buy ten, twenty, or in Ms. Checketts’s case, fifty-two books.
  4. Recognize that you’re running a business. This is true whether you are a self-publisher or are published in other ways, but it is especially true for self-publishers. You cannot rely on an agent, editor, or publisher to push you. It’s like running any small business. The buck stops with you, and if you can’t roll with that, you may be better served with other paths to publishing.

As a self-implied “Idaho farm girl,” Ms. Checketts clearly knows the value of a hard day’s work and has managed to leverage self-publishing to her benefit. Other writers looking to follow a similar path will need to customize their success strategy for their genre, desired workload, and other factors.

Writers looking to maximize their earnings and who are willing to be self-learners and self-starters may find success via this avenue of publishing.

What does this revelation mean for my own self-published stories? I’m not sure yet. But I love Quantum Fall. It just might reach completion in another format.

#2 Never Quit Being Yourself (OR: “Always write the truth.”)

A panel of agented authors led by Johnny Worthen, E.B. Wheeler, and Eric Bishop addressed every modern writer’s dilemma in a panel titled “To Agent or Not to Agent?” That is the question indeed.

The writers shared some gems that together led me to a single conclusion: never quit being yourself as a writer. Here’s what I mean:

  1. What is currently selling is always changing. As a veteran agent told me at the Chicago Writing Workshop back in 2016, what does well moves in cycles. For a while, Young Adult books were all about sexy vampires, then every protagonist was a Katniss Everdeen knockoff, and I don’t read YA so don’t ask me what the hot ticket is these days. The thing is, you can write a great book that an agent who knows your audience and genre will not sell during a given year or few years because the market is saturated. In that case, you may need to lay down a great book until it has better prospects. This has everything to do with business and nothing to do with your literary chops.
  2. Commercial success and artistic contentment are not one in the same. Or, as I said in an author interview some years ago, “Recognize the difference between being a successful writer and a financially successful writer.” This is largely dependent upon what you measure to be literary success. But the only way to determine that is to be true to yourself as a writer. For Ms. Checketts (above), I reckon she’s living her version of literary success. Her utopia is my dystopia (minus the nice $$ flow). And so I strive for my version of literary success and continue to refine what I mean by that while remaining content with my art.
  3. It’s never been easier to be published and it’s never been harder to get read. Which is why you must be content with yourself more than anything, because if it’s not that what you’re selling (writing) isn’t being bought right now (read), it’s that there’s so much available that standing out is a near impossibility. Being consistently good is fundamental to standing out. But standing out is also fundamental to standing out. Those who get agents and who find success go about this in different ways. They win contests and gain recognition in national review publications. They build networks of fellow writers and loyal readers to buy their stuff and talk about what they’re doing. They leverage social media. They market themselves and put their money where their mouth is. They research the literary market. They go to conferences and speak and learn. They never stop becoming experts at what they do.

Good agents want to believe in their clients. And they won’t believe in you unless you believe in yourself. You can’t sell your work – or yourself – if you think too highly or too lowly of yourself. Agents want to find the next bestseller, and the next bestseller is the writer who, most basically, does not quit being themselves.

So I guess hard work is the thing no matter how you go about this, and nobody is promised success, the world doesn’t owe us any favors, and other northeasterly aphorisms my father spouts.

I’m happy with my work and always have been.


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