How to Get Published

 

 

Many people have come in to our library and asked, “How do you publish a book?” Well, once you’ve gone through the painstaking process of writing it, editing it, editing it again, revising it, and editing it some more, then you begin the next painstaking process:  finding a publisher.

 

            I am going to focus on three different kinds of publishing. First there is vanity publishing. Vanity publishing is great when you have something you want to hand out to fifty of your closest friends. For instance, before my great grandmother passed on, she chronicled her life and printed copies for each household. She had six children who went and had children, who went and had children, who are now just getting around to having children. Her concise biography is a coil-bound paper back. I’ve also seen that kind of printing become popular with hometown cookbooks, the kind where everyone in the community contributes a recipe or two. I had to contribute to one for a grade in middle school and it still sits on my mother’s kitchen hutch. You cannot find vanity published books here at the library or on Amazon. You have to buy them directly from the publisher and more often than not in large volumes. Lulu.com falls somewhere between self-publishing and vanity publishing but it is what I recommend for projects like cookbooks, family history books, and anything you want to share with your friends.

 

            Now self-publishing is not what it was seven years ago when I started trying to publish my first book! When I began, it was more like vanity publishing but more costly. I have not self-published so I only know what my friends have told me. With self-publishing, I find the bigger the company the better. I have heard nothing but good things about publishing with Create-a-space dot com! It is owned by Amazon and can offer you paperback books as well as eBooks. There is also Kindle Direct Publishing, which is publishing for free, but only Kindle eBooks. Self-publishing is great if your niche market is very small. For instance, you write for hairless cat owners who run hair salons! I can almost guarantee there’s one out there. Stop looking at me like I’m crazy! I can also almost guarantee there are very few publishers who know hairless cat owners who run hair salons and they will look at you like you are crazy. Maybe you own a hair salon and a hairless cat and have found others like you! Maybe you know people who run salons and a group of people who own hairless cats. Either way, when you’re self-published, it’s up to you to find you niche market and sell to them.

 

            I do not recommend using self-publishing to put your book out on the market faster. That being said, I had a friend who was ill and self-published her book in the space of a few months. The main problem I have with self-publishing is that the manuscripts released into the market are often unpolished. Even if your manuscript is polished gold, it’s going to be set up for sale next to a book that is decidedly not polished gold. (Think post-apocalyptic angel-vampires and the wrong there/their/they’re.) I know many avid readers who won’t pick up a book because it’s wearing the label “self-published.” When I started, again, seven years ago, I was told self-publishing is not how you begin a long career. I have seen that theory proven wrong more than once! (Go look up The Princess Saves Herself in This One.) I was told that a traditional publisher will not pick you up once they see that you have self-published in the past. I have also seen that theory disproven!

 

            All in all, I highly recommend traditional publishing with small publishing houses. That is what I did, thus it is the right way! (Note the hint of sarcasm.) I chose to traditionally publish my book because I have every intention of having a long and fruitful career. Is my book perfect? Not by a long shot! When you traditionally publish you have less control over your book, which is not necessarily a bad thing! I could be wrong, but it’s unlikely you’ve been studying cover-art market trends for years, have perfect spelling, grammar, and know people all across the country who have booths at book fairs, conventions, and comicons. When you traditionally publish you have a whole team of people to work with. As with any team you have to give and take. You may not wind up with the cover art you wanted, but you’re more likely to end up with the cover art you need.

 

One of the easiest ways to tell if you’re speaking to a legitimate traditional publisher is whether or not they ask for money up front. There are scams to the umpteenth out there meant to trick writers out of their hard-earned cash! A real publishing house will not ask you to “invest” $1,000, give or take, to publish your book. A real publishing house will take your manuscript, publish it, and then make you pay for the copies of your own book you buy. All in all, make sure to read your contract carefully before you sign it and send it in.

 

Another thing you should do to protect yourself and your work is copyright it as soon as you have the funds to do so. Every publisher is different. Some will ask for a summary of your work, some will ask for the whole thing, some will ask just for your query. Either way, the best thing to do is carefully read their submission guidelines and follow them to the best of your abilities.

 

The best place to find small publishers is to find a list of small publishers! The one I like the best is Poets & Writer's list of small pressesWithin the past year, Submittable, a third party site you will be using to submit your work to publishers anyway, has made it possible for you to search through publishers that are looking for books like yours. I have yet to explore it in depth, but it is worth a shot.

 

            Someone asked me “what is the most lucrative form of publishing?” Find a different job. Never ever, ever go into writing thinking this is how you’re going to become a millionaire. You’re not. Vanity publishers are how you make Christmas presents, self-publishers often offer higher royalties (50%-100%) but that’s because they don’t expect you to earn back your $1,000 “investment,” and traditional publisher royalties swing anywhere from 10%-15%. That’s 10%-100% of $15.

 

            All in all, the most important thing is to do your research and figure out what’s right for you and your book. You’re reading this article, so you’ve started somewhere! Good job! Do your research on your publisher, polish your manuscript until you hate it, have someone adept with legal things review your contracts, and understand that publishing a book is a sort of journey. You must play both the roles of artist and businessman. If there is an easy way I have yet to find it! Stay patient yet determined.

 

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How the Book Sales Work

            Organizing our thrice-yearly book sales is quite the task!  While they’ve been happening for over 30 years, we’ve changed things up a bit the past couple of years since Patty Norris retired, though we still try to honor the system she created.  She was the driving force/book sale goddess behind all those sales and she still volunteers to work the sale each time.  She had a team of co-workers and volunteers who helped organize, label, sort and shelve items, but with changes in personnel and time, I do the sales prep mostly alone.  I’m pretty much a loner anyway, and self-motivated, so it works.  Often, you’ll see me driving a shopping cart across the parking lot filled with books.  I take donated books to the library to label them when we’re short on staff and I can’t go work in the Activity Center, but most weeks I get over there for six or seven hours.  We are starting a Friends of the Library group, spearheaded by Janan McCreery, our Board Chair, so I anticipate more help soon!

            We get donations regularly, which is great.  Without those, we’re sunk, so we’re grateful for any and all books and puzzles in good shape, with no stains, bugs, mold, or torn covers.  We don’t take many magazines---only cooking and craft and the occasional oddity that might sell.  There are wonderful volunteers who work the sale each time; without them we would be in big trouble.  They tirelessly greet people, help find books, add up and bag purchases, and offer shoppers coffee or tea.  I call them every few months to pester them about working the next sale, and they are all unfailingly patient and sweet-tempered, which I greatly appreciate!

            First step for book sales is establishing the dates for the three sales.  The first sale is right after New Year’s, the next is always during National Library Week in April (though we tried May last year and that wasn’t as successful), and the third is the first part of October. 

 

The method for getting books onto shelves to sell is as follows: 

 

1.    Go through donations; sort them into categories (non-fiction, hardback fiction, paperback fiction, western, classics, etc.).  Unfortunately, some go in the trash straightaway if they’re moldy or have bugs.  It helps immensely if the public goes through their donations first and tosses out any books that are in bad shape.  I hate to throw items out, but if they’re not sellable, I have no choice, and I really appreciate not having to breathe in mold, which I’ve done more than once, or reach into a bloody mouse nest!

 

2.      Have a supply of colored dots for each sale (each sale is a different color so I can keep track of when the items go up for sale).  Regular size paperbacks get a small dot; everything else gets a bigger dot with a marked price.  The small dot means it’s $2.00.  We have some items for as little as .25 cents; some go for $100 or more.  I check book values on BookFinder.com when I encounter more valuable items to make sure we get the appropriate amount of money for the library while still offering the public a good deal.  Most items are $2.00 to $4.00.

 

3.      After labeling each item, I sort them into grocery carts and shelve them.  Non-fiction is labeled by shelf as to what category it is (religion, pets, hobbies, history, etc.).  It’s up to me to determine the category and shelve the items so the public isn’t confused.  All the non-fiction shelves are labeled overhead according to category.  Hardback and oversize paperback fiction go together on the main shelves you see as you come in the door.  Regular small paperback fiction goes on the shelves in the back of the building.  One room is filled with westerns, classics, sci-fi, fantasy and mysteries.  The other back room is an overflow for the regular size paperback fiction.  I alphabetize all of the books by author’s last name except non-fiction, the arts room (which is also non-fiction), and children’s.    Non-fiction isn’t alphabetized anyway; it’s according to Dewey Decimal System.  I don’t bother to alphabetize the kids’ area because it gets the most traffic, and items are moved about a lot, as you can imagine.  The arts (gardening/cooking/music/crafts) room is categorized by subject just like the non-fiction room.  I also have a large-print area that I started two book sales ago.  It’s in the front to the right as you enter the sale. 

 

4.      I make book sale posters to put up around town, which takes a couple of hours of walking and driving to outlying areas.  I mail flyers to the surrounding towns, fax flyers to radio and TV stations, newspapers and other libraries.  Joan advertises the sales on her Tuesday morning radio chats, and we try to get newspapers to come report on the sales.

 

5.      Shortly before a sale, I set up the front tables with high-interest materials: Western U.S. Native American, and Wyoming items, nicer children’s books, coffee table books, collector’s items that are pricier.  I replenish these tables as much as possible over the course of the sale.

 

6.      Next is cleaning and vacuuming and setting out coffee and tea, stocking up on bags and water bottles, calling volunteers to remind them about their work times (after already calling them weeks ahead to set up their times, or tripping them when they come in the library to beg them to work).  I make reservations at a local restaurant to do a volunteer breakfast the week after the sale is done.  This is the only thanks they get for their time and efforts, other than me telling them how much I appreciate them.

 

7.      Each day when volunteers show up, I fill them in on any info they need, offer water, coffee, etc., give them a money box, and off they go.  I check in numerous times a day with them, collect money and deposit it each day, straighten shelves several times a day, restock the front tables . . . and do this for two weeks straight.  Usually I kidnap my husband and daughter to help me work the first Saturday of the sale, which is quite busy and which I’m leery about dumping on volunteers.

 

8.      After the sale is over, I collapse in a heap and don’t do any work for months . . . just kidding.  I immediately pull all books off the shelves that have gone through two sales (hence the color dots system).  These go in boxes and are donated to local people, clinics, organizations, other libraries or causes.  We try hard to reuse and recycle so others can enjoy the books.  Then I start the whole process over and start labeling, sorting, shelving, etc.  It takes many hours to get a sale ready, and the work is constant.  Each sale starts with approximately 20,000 to 30,000 books on the shelves for sale!

            We experimented with a one-week-long fill-a-bag sale in Jan.  The response was good, so we might do that every January.  We changed the format of the regular two-week sales as well.  The first week is regular price, with all the collector’s items front and center, then the second week will be fill-a-bag for $15 from now on.  The half-price sale is gone, as is the box sale.  The reason for this is a lag in sales during the half-price, and boxes are harder to obtain than they used to be, and they fold in half when full, which is a problem for some of our elderly volunteers and shoppers.  We offer plastic or paper bags for the fill-a-bag sale, or you can bring your own or even use a cloth shopping bag as long as it’s not crazy big. 

            We take donations at any time except for the two weeks during an actual sale.  Even then we get items, but we ask that the public not bring items that elderly volunteers might have to lift or move.  Many of our donations are items from previous sales, so we recycle that way as well.  My guess is previously-sold books constitute about 40% of the items in each book sale, which might sound strange to the public, but it’s a real boon for us.  If you think about the limited budgets of libraries, it’s a blessing to have a community that loves buying books and giving them back to us.  So if you have gently loved books you would like to donate to a good cause, we’d love to have them!  Thank you for your generosity and continued enthusiasm for our small-town book sales!

 

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Your Book Isn’t For Everyone

            It’s a simple yet painful truth. Your book isn’t for everyone. And that’s okay. You’re not pizza. You can’t please everyone.

            If you’ve decided to give the traditional publishing route a go, like I have, you’ll have gotten some rejections. Going through my submission list I’ve reviewed it and found myself asking “Whyyyyy did you do thaaaat?” I’ll admit it. Sometimes I pitch my works to the wrong market. Like, why would I submit War and Chess to a publisher whose niche is horror? (Because I was 15 years old and still learning, thankyaverymuch!). Now, more commonly I’ll pitch my vividly raw poetry to a press or magazine that likes poetry with a lot of allusion. Then, of course I get the polite “This is good but not what we’re looking for.” bit.

            Now the really painful part for me is when it’s published. Not all of my friends read fantasy. Most just don’t! But I have some amazing people in my life and they always try to be supportive of me and my dreams. Although I love honesty it stings a little when I hear “I’m sorry Helen, it just wasn’t for me.” And that’s still okay! It’s important to have a diverse group of friends with different interests.

            And truth be told, having a diverse group of friends I don’t like every book they’re into! “Oh Helen! You simply must read this romance novel!” I can’t help but wrinkle my nose… Romance isn’t inherently a bad genre. It’s just that Princess Bride is the only “kissing book” I’ll fess up to enjoying. That, and maybe Racheal Leone Gibson’s Highland Peace. I’m patiently waiting for her second book.

            So, the moral of the story is you can’t please everyone. You don’t write for everyone. Truthfully, I write for myself and then I edit for my audience. Not every review is going to be a five star review. (Not every review should be a five star review. I get suspicious of books with five five star reviews because it usually means the author begged their friends and family for dishonest ratings). Not every publishing house will like your book, not every friend will like your book, not every reader will like your book! And that’s exactly how it should be.

Edit: My friend Olivia Adams is the one who coined the term "Your book isn't for everyone." She gave me some good advice when I was having a rough day.

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The Importance of Finding the Right Editor

          I recently had a friend of mine ask me to edit his manuscript. Although I know him well enough I’m not sure what genre he likes to write. Being both a librarian and an author I do like to read. But, like every other human being I have types of books I like and others that just aren’t for me. As an author I do try to branch out and read things outside of my comfort zone. (Westerns, romance novels, mainstream fiction.) But I’d rather dislike something that’s about to be adapted into a movie than be the first person to read a good but rough manuscript and say it was “Eh.”

            Editors are like you and I. They have specific genres they like to read and they do a better job at editing books they’re geared to like than to tell you to completely change your manuscript to better suit their needs. It would be like me saying “Yeah, the plot’s good but all the kissing junk is really distracting from the main flow of the book.”
            “Helen. It’s a romance novel.”

            I once had a friend write a children’s book about a unicorn and turn it into her editor. Chiefly this author friend wrote westerns, and chiefly her editor who had worked with her for many years read westerns. “I don’t like it.” The editor declared.

            “Well why?”
            “I just don’t!”
            “But why?!”
            “…I just don’t like unicorns, okay!”

            The editor, who had been reading and enjoying this authors western novels for years upon years simply didn’t like children’s books, especially children’s books about unicorns, and as a result, my author friend never pushed to have her children’s book published. It’s not the end of the world, but if my author friend were to find another editor who liked children’s books, particularly ones about unicorns, that editor might have said something like “This story has good bones but we need a different illustrator.” Or “The language is too lofty. Please remember most of your audience is under five.” Or “What if instead of Sparkle Mountain we call it Sprinkle Mountain? That way the chocolate river makes sense. Because the mountains in this story are actually made of ice cream, right?”

            An editor can make or break a book. They’re the first line of defense from not only type-os but also obscure blunders like “Yeah, that law in Canada changed back in 2012 so here’s an updated statute of limitations. I only spent an hour trying to find that. No biggie.” Or worse. They keep you from breaking your own laws like “You said your vampires couldn’t go out in the sunlight. Yet Damaris gets overly excited when he meets Michelle’s dog and he runs outside without his umbrella. Yet, he comes back to the porch unscathed… Hurt him.” Editors are hugely important. But not every editor is going to like your book just like not every reader is going to like your book once it hits the market. You have to find one that’s going to see your manuscript for the diamond in the rough that it is and then help you polish it until it sparkles.

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The Root of Your Writer’s Block May Be Insecurity

            In this blog post we’re going to talk about feelings. Run while you still can.

             In recent years around this time I get a serious case of the Christmas blues. I have lost a lot of close friends throughout the years, and not so much as sending them a Christmas card reminds me of their absence. Because those close relationships had to end I begin examining myself, asking myself what part of my behavior led to the breakdown of our friendship. Because I try to place the blame on myself I become insecure. When I feel like something within me doesn’t meet the measure I suddenly find myself unable to write.

            Sometimes you need to stop looking for what your characters are doing next and look inside yourself to see what’s holding you back. It’s not what you want to hear but sometimes it’s best to shove through, write some short stories (because giving up isn’t an option), ride out life’s storm’s, and write. Write even if your main character just happens to be intensely studying the wood grain of a table! You can always edit it out later!

            Sometimes it’s not the pen and page you need to look it. It’s the hand that’s holding it.

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Picking a Title Clickbait Style

            It was actually my cover artist who suggested to me I might need to reconsider my titles to catch new reader’s attention. “Think like clickbait!”

            “What do you mean? ‘Will this random teenage girl save her country? The answer may shock you!’”

            He sent me a bunch of laughing emoji’s. Being in England we only communicate through text. “No! Not like that! You need to make people curious about what the book’s about! Kind of like clickbait.”

            So I pondered it for a while, while drinking coffee and cleaning my house, and then one of my WIPs (work in progress, plural) went from being named Emerald, First Queen of Gishlan to To Craft a Country. “Whoa.” Richard, the cover artist said “That’s much cooler.”

            “I blame you! Thank you!!!”

            That’s the trouble though. You have to tell people what the book is about with five words! Titles are not easy! Somedays I feel like I haven’t come up with a good title since War and Chess! However, once Richard told me to think of a book like clickbait it got me thinking “What kind of question do you want to invoke?”

            Just scrolling through my Facebook feed now I see titles like “Where Nebraska Stands in the Flood Fight” this makes me ask “Are my friends and relatives in Nebraska okay? What’s going on over there?” Now I want to stop writing this blog post and read it. And “Wife Reads out Husband’s Affair Texts Instead of Vows at Wedding”, “Boy Scouts Welcome First Girls Joining Local Troop with Brand New Uniforms”, “The Animal You See First Reveals the Essence of Your Soul.” All of these raise a question. Like a game of jeopardy. So I ask again, what kind of question do you want to invoke?

            I did a poll on Twitter. “Would you read a book called Emerald, First Queen of Gishlan?” I only got one vote and it was “No”. Frankly, no one knows who Emerald is, no one knows why they should care, a lot of people aren’t sure what a Gishlan is, even the people reading my work probably forget the name of the country because sometimes I forget the names of people I’ve known all my life. That’s just how humans are. However! With the title To Craft a Country everyone knows what a country is. We live in one. Craft means make. Is this book going to teach us how to make a country? That sounds neat. Oh, it’s fiction? Helen’s writing another warrior princess type deal? Neat. This reader is down.

            Someone told me (probably Richard) that “no matter how good a book is if it’s got a crappy title it’s not going to get picked up and read. Good cover art can only go so far” (and trust me, it goes far! If you’re self-publishing invest in good art!) an intriguing title will make people pick it up and read the back, add it to their To Be Read on Goodreads, Google it, write it down, actually bother to look in to buying your book. Which leads to getting read, which leads to building a fandom, which leads to your work gaining popularity, which leads to having the phrase “New York Times Best Selling Author” in front of your name. That way you don’t have to sell your soul to Satan for a mere 10 years of achieving your dreams. Work hard on your book’s first impressions!

            Your book’s title should invoke a question in your potential reader’s mind. You want the question to demand an answer! It’s your books first impression. Try to spark people’s curiosity! Tell us what it’s about in five words or less. And if you need inspiration you’re welcome to come shelf read for us here at your local library! ;)

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