I’ve been AWOL from my blog, playing hooky at the San Francisco Writers Conference (SFWC). I’d been before, way back when obtaining an agent and a publisher were the primary options for being an author— the gold standard. This time, I packed my bags and headed off to the conference with that objective in mind, but I was also open to self-publishing, which is what I did with The Bush Devil Ate Sam. I bought a book by Andy Ross on how to write a book proposal and went to work. I like Andy, he fights hard for the people he represents. I also like him because he managed Cody Books in Berkeley for several years.
Cody’s was one of the nation’s great bookstores. I can’t count the number of times I walked through its doors, the hours I spent wandering the aisles, and the great books I bought— even when I could barely afford them as a student at Cal in the mid-60s. The bookstore was always on my to-do list every time I returned to Berkeley, until one day I hiked down Telegraph Avenue eager for a bookstore fix and discovered it was no more. It was like learning that a good friend had died.
Andy’s book, The Literary Agent’s Guide to Writing a Non-Fiction Book Proposal, is packed full of good advice, but it comes with a surprise ending: He self-published it. In fact, I quickly learned that a major thrust of the conference was on self-publishing. It has come of age since I had attended the SFWC in 2010. Still, there was plenty at the SFWC for those following the traditional path.
A number of agents were present and they ran workshops on how to pitch books to them during the agent speed-dating part of the conference. Think query letter with a lot less time. “You should be able to sell your book with one sentence.” Good luck with that. It’s the old Hollywood elevator pitch idea. When you catch a producer in an elevator, you have one floor to sell your movie script. Something like, “My movie is about Godzilla and Lassie teaming up to save Timmy.”
I sat down with Andy for 15 minutes to talk about my book, It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me.I had a one page, carefully-thought-out summary that introduced the book, my writing style, and relevant background. Andy liked my writing and even more my sense of humor, but, he noted, travel memoirs are hard to sell and Bill Bryson and Cheryl Strayed had already written the books on the PCT and Appalachian Trail. (I don’t agree with that, obviously.) He did suggest that I seek out agents who focus on adventure travel, and made several other good recommendations.
I listened carefully to presentations by the other non-fiction agents who were attending the conference and none seemed particularly interested in adventure travel books. I wasn’t particularly disappointed. Finding an agent and a publisher are incredibly difficult, even more so when your book is a memoir. Rejection is the name of the game—unless you are incredibly famous, or have a ton of good luck. Being a decent writer with a good story is rarely enough. There are millions of us. Too bad my name isn’t Curt Kardashian. Wait, I’ll pass on that. I’d much prefer to self-publish.
The battle between print books and eBooks is a lively one. Pundits were ready to pronounce the print book industry dead for a while. But it has come roaring back. People still like the feel of a book. The 3000 or so in our library and scattered throughout our house certainly endorse the hands-on approach. But we also use our Kindles extensively. Travel, poor light, tired eyes, easy access to millions of titles, and cost are all factors. Both industries are here to stay, at least for now.
Writers have a different perspective on the issue. Having a publishing house print your book still has a certain prestige to it. And the advantage of getting your book into book stores. An agent and publisher also help assure that your book is well-edited and has a good title and cover. But the odds of getting a publisher, especially one of the big five in New York, are extremely low. They are now owned by large corporations who have one criteria: profit. Their only concern is will your book make money, lots of it. And that’s the tail that wags the dog.
There is more.
Publishing house contracts are notoriously one sided. A small advance with minimal royalties and maximum control are what first time authors can expect from a publisher. Time is also a factor. The project can easily take two years, and that’s after you have landed an agent and a publisher, which might take another year or so, if at all. Shelf-life is another concern. Yes, your books may get into bookstores, but if they don’t sell quickly, off they come. Bookstore owners have an agreement with publishers to take back unsold books and space is limited. Three months seem to be the outer limits. Your book is then destined for the burn pile— ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Marketing is part of the answer. Publishers used to take this on as part of their responsibility. No more. Unless your name is J.K. Rowling, or David Baldacci, or Catherine Coulter (she spoke at the conference), etc., you are expected to do your own outreach. In fact, most agents and publishers won’t even consider your book unless you have a ready-made platform. Jane Friedman, who is a guru on authors’ platforms (and was also at the conference), defines platform as “an ability to sell books because of who you are or who you can reach.” A blog, for example, is a platform. Having one was highly recommended by just about everyone. There was a slight catch in the fine print: It helps to have 100,000 followers. My 5,600 followers, 530,000 views and 20,000 comments count as something, but not much. Get to work, Curt!
It is easy to see the appeal of going the Indie route and self-publishing. Your digital book has a virtual shelf-life of forever. From start to finish, you can have it up and out in months instead of years. Your profit per book sold comes in at between 50 and 100% as opposed to 15 and 20%. Modern print on demand capabilities mean your readers can still get the book in print as well as digitally. And, finally, you are in total control. Whether your book is published or not doesn’t depend on a 15 second decision by an agent or editor, who may be having a bad day.
None of this might matter if the publisher handled all of the marketing and used their considerable expertise to push our books. The effort and rejection that goes into obtaining a publisher would be worth it. But they don’t. If our success is going to depend on the energy and skill we bring to marketing as well as writing, then self-publishing becomes a viable option, and may indeed, be the preferable option.
It was a great conference. I felt I learned a lot. Now it’s time to get back to blogging and writing the book. The decision to self-publish or not can wait until the book is finished.
NEXT POST: I came home to snow. Not much but it was pretty. It’s time for my annual snow post!