Thursday, May 31, 2012

Foreplay for Writers -or- Are Prologues Disasters in Disguise?

Everybody has read prologues. Tom Clancy loves them. Stephen King seems to run hot and cold on them. Experienced authors use them, but what about you? Aspiring authors cannot play by the same rules that apply to the big names. Are prologues, in the hands of neophyte writers, viewed fairly or as much-abused writer crutches that can destroy your publishing hopes?

The answer might surprise you, because it has little to do with the impact of the prologue on the story.

Hundreds of query letters arrive every week for literary agents. Imagine getting 40 query letters a day--over 10,000 requests per year. Thousands of quick decisions must be made every day by agents, or more likely, their subordinates. How do they narrow down this daunting influx of requests to a handful of new authors to represent?

Think about the demand on their time. Out of those 10,000 queries, less than 500 manuscripts get requested. Then, after scrutiny of those manuscripts, a lucky few (maybe 50) first-time authors receive contracts for representation. Agents already have a collection of established authors to represent, so there’s little room for newbies. If those aren’t slim enough odds, agents do not place 100% of the manuscripts they try to sell. Agents are probably doing great if they place 50% of the neophyte author’s stories. That means 25 first-time authors actually see their work survive the full cycle and make it to bookstore shelves. From query letter to publication, success is one-quarter of one-percent probability.

The note says, "Rejected:  back story in prologue."

I know what you’re thinking, “What does this have to do with prologues?”

Key players in publishing--acquisition editors and literary agents—mention submission generalities as guides for newbie-authors. Here are some common bits of advice I have read for first-time authors:

  • Full-length, commercial fiction should be between 80,000 and 120,000 words.
  • Follow manuscript formatting guidelines, exactly.
  • Avoid mixing genres.
  • Make sure your query only goes to agents representing your genre.
  • Writers need a platform when starting the query process.
  • Prologues often reflect weak writing. Avoid them.

Agents have a daunting task in cutting down a blizzard of queries to a coveted few representation contracts. Thousands of submissions get the ax using basic measures; weak query letter, poorly written synopsis, improper genre, failure to include all submission requirements, etc. The next step is where that prologue could kill your hopes. After easy cuts, staff readers still need a lot more rejections, so they begin looking for ANY reason to reject a manuscript; SPAG problems, weak hook, confusing character development, poor plot introduction, general tone and voice of the author. These can often be determined in less than ten pages and result in quick rejections.

What happens if your story starts with a prologue? Ooops . . . you touched one of the “third rails” of many editors and agents. Will they reject your golden words just because the story begins with a prologue? Some might. More likely, they will read on with more skepticism expecting the prologue to be a crutch for weak story telling. If your first ten pages (including that prologue) read great, then they must face the reality that a lot of acquisition editors will also be wary of a beginning writer who needs a prologue to get the story off the ground. It’s a harder sell.

Let’s say your magnificent manuscript survives to the final cut. The senior literary agent must choose between your story and an equally well-written tale that will be easier to sell because it does not include a prologue. Who gets the nod? More importantly, if you knew your brilliance survived to this point, and the difference was the prologue, would you like a chance to remove the introductory words and find a way to incorporate them into the actual story?

I’ve read dozens of prologues, many by big name, big dollar authors, but I’ve only read half a dozen enjoyable prologues. In most cases, they bore me or annoy me. Who knows? Maybe the acquisition editors are onto something. The purpose of this blog is to give you that second chance now--before you need it!

Friday, May 11, 2012

Donkey in the Derby – The Great Self-publishing Debate

Would you enter a Clydesdale in the Kentucky Derby? Why not? It’s just a bigger horse. How about a mule?

Clydesdales and mules are all in the horse family, but they fill very different niches. Have you seen the logo for Twenty Mule Team Borax? Borax is mined in Death Valley California, and, in the distant past, miners hooked up teams of twenty mules to pull heavy wagonloads of borax from quarries to processing plants. Why not harness twenty thoroughbreds to pull that wagon? I'll tell you why . . . they could not stand the heat or work load. This reality of specialization exists in the publishing business, too. Publishing and self-publishing are different “horses” for different tasks.

"Giddy-up, mule. They're gittin away!"

Not long ago, aspiring authors polished their writing to a fare-thee-well, slaved over query letter wording, and spent over $100 in mailing costs (that included a stamped, self-addressed reply envelope for that inevitable rejection note). Waiting for responses took months, occasionally even years, until the hopeful writer finally got that coveted request for a full manuscript. Then, another agonizing wait lasted months and usually ended with a “personal” form-letter saying, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Around 2008, the internet publishing began. Mainstream publishers initially blacklisted “self-published” authors and touted the superiority of writers who survived their stringent endurance test and editing process. Despite this, the internet book sales exploded as dozens of small internet-only digital book publishers sprang up overnight. The traditional industry droned on about low standards and their threat that if a writer chose self-publishing, that person’s writing career was over.

I admit that I became one of the skeptics about the traditional publisher hysteria. As a thirty-five year self-employed entrepreneur, I decided to publish my own book and keep all the profits for myself. I did it--started the American Writers Publishing Company from scratch. Bought all the software, set up marketing contracts with Barnes and Noble, bought a book of ISBN numbers, contracted with a printer/book binder and hired a brilliant young graphic art designer in Denmark to produce my graphics. Then, I published my first book.

Cover art...SPACE CHRONICLES: The Last Human War

What a thrill that was! While the debate about self-publishing versus traditional publishing raged on, I was out there selling my story. It cost me about $4 to “build” a book. I thought I was going to get rich because the book, priced at $12.99, left me a lot of room for profit. My website offered a special price of $10, but I still expected to earn around $6 per book of profit on the discounted books.

What happened?

I sold a lot of books. I built a small fan base, and thrived on all the wonderful complements for my story. BUT, and here’s the important message, I did NOT make a lot of money. I discovered that chain bookstores take 45% of the face price for their cut. Wholesale distributors snip off another 10%, leaving me with a whopping $1.85 per book of net revenue. Net? Not quite. I also discovered that books are heavy. Even with discounted postage using USPS Media Mail rates or UPS, my “profit” dropped to less than $1 per book.

At this point, I realized I had one major advantage for all the “cuts” that everyone else took on my book—I had national distribution. “Whoopee,” I thought. “With ninety-six cents of profit per book, I can make almost $100,000 a year by selling 100,000 copies each year.” Yep, I was flying high on Pan-Fantasy Airlines. I rushed into my nearest Barnes and Noble to “see” my book among the other glossy offerings. It was not there. I checked several other B&N stores. Nada! It took calls to twelve stores before I found a copy on a shelf.

Of course, I made the two hour drive to that store, just to see how my book looked among the competition. By the way, the industry refers to all the books lining shelves in bookstores as “wallpaper,” and yes, it’s a derogatory term. There it was, The Last Human War, carefully camouflaged among dozens of equally glitzy bindings with my expensive cover art hidden from viewer eyes. I had bought a book on guerilla book-marketing, so I followed its overpriced advice and quietly moved my book onto a nearby shelf where all the book covers were facing browsers. The shelf, labeled “New Releases,” featured multiple copies by big name writers--and my one little book.

I managed to sell out most of my first printing, no thanks to the brick’n mortar stores. They were a waist of time and money. Books sold through private book signings, club visits, word of mouth, and website sales, all producing profits of around $4 per book. Would I recommend self-publishing? Absolutely. Lessons learned exceed anything I ever got in college or business classes. Those experiences made me a better writer, a better salesman and infinitely more patient with the publishing industry.

That said, I am tired of the ridiculous debate raging in recent years about self-publishing versus traditional publishing. It's a silly argument. There is a bona fide place for both, and each offers different benefits and weaknesses.

Just as you would not enter a mule in the Kentucky Derby, nor would you attempt to haul thousands of pounds of chemicals through 110 degree desert heat using thoroughbred horses. Each member of the horse family has a valuable niche. The same goes for publishing.

The internet threatened to end the reign of bookstores and legacy publishers as the sole interface between writers and readers. Soon, a proliferation of e-book readers like Kindle and Nook hammered the nail in the coffin, making dire predictions come true. Self-publishing options and direct-submission e-book publishers generated a whole new distribution system and countless outlets for author creations. Some quality writers who might never have had the chance to develop under the old system are now happily building fans, one book at a time. A few achieved extraordinary sales creating an inflated standard for what the average writer might expect.

What about the oft-ignored side of e-publishing? Some terrible publishing contracts are out there. False promises or inflated expectations seduce many hopeful writers. Incompetent editing is a real risk. Ineffective online promotions and overpriced POD books kill sales. Ultimately, the e-book industry’s inconsistent standards are beginning to force readers to be more careful, because not all small publishers or self-annointed authors measure up. Fortunately, the public is learning. Good quality small publishers, and strong writers, come to the top while the rest fade away.

Traditional publishers may be slow, but they are not stupid. They now fully embrace the electronic book market. Unlike most self-publishing companies and direct submission small publishers, selection of new authors by legacy publishers remains a vigorous test of stamina and writing standards. Whether a book comes out in dead-tree format or a collection of pixels on Kindle, books released by stalwart companies remain consistent in quality and promise. In addition, authors who successfully navigate the frustrating path to legacy publication gain credibility from the difficult accomplishment and recognition from important people who influence book buyers on a large scale—critics, reviewers, buyers for library systems, and other centers of influence.

What does all this tell us about the self-publishing versus traditional publishing debate?

1) Most claims offered in this foolish waste-of-words debate reflect a single, narrow piece of the publishing puzzle.

2) Can an author earn more money per book sold by self-publishing? Maybe. It depends on a bunch of factors such as distribution costs for physical books as mentioned above. Electronic book sales may favor self-publishing (per download), but greater volume of sales created by affiliation with a mainstream publisher may outperform the profit-per-book advantage in the long run.

3) Does a traditionally published author have better national exposure? Maybe. It depends on whether you’re talking about bookstore presence or internet offerings, or both.

4) What's in it for the reader? Which publishing method provides readers with the better chance of finding a quality story? Traditional publishers do a lot of screening on behalf of readers through their rigorous selection process and professional editing. On the other hand, readers who have taken the time to identify the good quality, small publishers can trust the goods they offer. This is especially true with boutique publishers that specialize in a genre and protect their reputation by being selective about authors.

So, before deciding whether to self-publish or try the traditional route, you must know yourself. What do you want to accomplish as an author? Big houses do things for authors that small houses cannot do. Vice versa is EQUALLY true. The final choice depends on what your goals are as a writer.

Remember, you can whip a mule until hell freezes over, but it ain’t gonna win the Kentucky Derby. Make sure you pick the right “horse” for the job that you want done.