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Six Core Issues Facing Writers Today

We are so excited that our guest today is consulting editor Alan Rinzler [1]. Alan has edited and published Toni Morrison, Tom Robbins, Hunter S. Thompson, Jerzy Kosinski, Shirley MacLaine, Robert Ludlum, Clive Cussler, Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan and others while working as Assistant Managing Editor at  Simon & Schuster, Director of Trade Publishing at Bantam, west coast editor for the Grove Press, VP and Associate Publisher of Rolling Stone, where he was also President of Straight Arrow, and Executive Editor at Jossey-Bass/Wiley. Alan’s years of experience spans the gamut from commercial to literary, and he’s also edited a wide range of memoirs, histories, biographies, among others. We feel fortunate that Alan agreed to share his wisdom and expertise with WU today.

Check out his website and blog at www.alanrinzler.com [1] to learn more. 

Six Core Issues Facing Writers Today [2]

Being an author these days requires much more than working alone in solitude. But you knew that, right? Many authors are taking charge of their work and stepping out at conferences, trainings, pitch sessions, writer’s groups, readings, and especially online with web sites, blogs, and social networking, no longer stuck in the stereotype of the shy or invisible recluse.

Authors are also required to navigate radical, unprecedented changes in getting published. Prior structures, procedures and assumptions have fallen apart. The balance of power has shifted and it’s unclear exactly who’s in charge as the traditional gatekeepers have lost their supremacy.

What does all this mean for you? My view is that it’s the best time ever to be a writer. Best but not easiest. Here are some of the questions a writer faces.

State of the Business 

Will the book business survive hemorrhaging revenues, downsizing, filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, merging haphazardly to reduce overhead, experimenting with one insane ebook program after another, reinventing itself desperately to convert from all print to all digital? Is this at long last the Death of the Traditional Book Publishing?

Have people stopped reading, stopped buying books? Are they getting their news and information for free online, so why spend the money. Is our culture suffering from a universal attention deficit disorder, too busy texting, YouTubing, friending on FaceBook, social networking. Is this the End of Intelligent Reading?

[pullquote]The only thing you can count on for sure is that people who think they know how it’s all going to fall out or what it’ll be like in two years don’t know what they’re talking about.[/pullquote]

Have as yet unknown writers been left high and dry as agents won’t take on an author without a track record or platform. Are all publishers so risk aversive that they’re looking for only best-selling stars or celebrities getting contracts?

Reality check

There’s a lot of confusion and contradictory advice going around today among writers and book publishing professionals. The only thing you can count on for sure is that people who think they know how it’s all going to fall out or what it’ll be like in two years don’t know what they’re talking about.

Nevertheless, I’m happy to play pundit and offer my unabashed opinion about the major issues a writer needs to confront these days, along with my short prognosis of choices to consider. 

1. As a first timer with no platform, do I have any chance at all to get a deal with S&S, Knopf, Random/Penguin?

Yes! That’s the short answer. If you read Publishers’ Marketplace (get a subscription, it’s worth the $20/month for deep layers of industry information), you’ll see a category of “debut author” sales by agents to publishers. It happens. In some cases it’s a terrific piece of original writing, a brilliant novel, literary or genre, or it’s a non-fiction news breaking journalism, current event, expose. On other occasions it’s one of those overblown panic driven sales “at auction” where the price has been bid into the stratosphere and everyone involved is gasping for breath — losing, winning, suffering buyer’s remorse or sighs of relief since these big advances seldom earn out.

There is, in any case, a chance for the first timer but against high odds.

2. Do I really need an agent to get a deal with a traditional publisher? 

Afraid so. Unsolicited manuscripts won’t even reach the acquisition editors at the commercial publishing houses these days, and the slush pile is going straight into the recycling bin.

There are various ways to acquire an agent. You can get your foot in the door by meeting them at a writers conference and pitching your book well enough to pique their interest. Or you may know a writer who’s willing to give you an introduction. You can also write a clever, brief query letter and hope they’ll ask for your proposal or manuscript. It helps, of course, if you have a stunning proposal or manuscript, and have written and rewritten it with the guidance of a professional developmental editor.

[pullquote]Unsolicited manuscripts won’t even reach the acquisition editors at the commercial publishing houses these days, and the slush pile is going straight into the recycling bin.[/pullquote]

3. Why do I need a platform? 

A platform is something to stand on. It gives you visibility, so your head can be seen above the crowd of thousands of other writers competing for readers’ attention.  You may have one already, if you’re an expert in some field, high up a company ladder, affiliated with a University, or you’ve won a serious literary prize, and published a short story somewhere prestigious. If not, get started on this right away, the earlier the better.

Don’t wait. Put up a well-designed web site and start writing those blog posts, at least weekly. It can be about writing the book, posting chapters, asking for feedback which may even be valuable, and building your following. Likewise, you can network, comment on other people’s blog, tweet, make a home video for YouTube where you talk about your work and some interesting aspect of its content.  You can also reach out to local broadcast and print media, since doing well in one town can expand to other urban centers nearby.

It can be fun. But avoid this at your peril.

4. Do I have to self-market when I’d rather be writing? 

Think of self-marketing as an extension of your creative process. You want to deliver the message of the book, right? So who could be better than you at launching it into the world with authenticity and passion and in your own unique words?

All writers have to self-market these days. Even traditional publishers expect it and often write it into their contracts. The old methods of book marketing don’t work any more. 30 city tours with first class seats, limos, and big hotel suites are extremely rare. Hardly anyone can afford a space ad in the New York Times daily or Book Review, which is why it’s so thin.

5. How should I go about self-publishing, if that turns out to be my choice? 

I’m a great champion of self-publishing. A piece on the front page of the New York Times recently celebrated the legendary David Mamet’s decision to self-publish his new novel through a new operation sponsored by his agents at ICM. Barry Eisler turned down a $500,000 advance to self-publish his books and many other authors are going indie.

“Self-publishing now accounts for more than 235,000 books annually, according to Bowker, a book research firm,” The NYT reports. “Big houses like Penguin and Harlequin have opened their own self-publishing divisions because they see it as a profit center of the future.”

[pullquote]The mistake authors can make…is to think self-publishing is a cheap and easy road to success.. It’s still hard to write a good book that people want to read. [/pullquote]

The mistake authors can make, though, is to think self-publishing is a cheap and easy road to success.. It’s still hard to write a good book that people want to read. Watch out for rapacious vendors who’ve sprung up offering to help you self-publish for absurd fees. The new profit center self-publishing offers for Penguin and others isn’t sales but the so-called “author services” they urge you to purchase.

Don’t. You needn’t pay a middle man to broker a jacket design for $5,000 when you can get it for much less. Similar sky-high prices for copyediting and superficial developmental editing can be avoided by finding your own editors. There are lots good ones around.  Speaking of which…

6. Should I hire a developmental editor? 

I’m biased of course, being one myself, but most of the successful writers I’ve known have worked with  developmental editor on the core issues of story, structure, characterization, and literary style and the earlier in your writing process the better. Make sure you’re not going off in a wrong direction and make the investment of time and money to get the best manuscript you can. This goes for whether you’re self publishing or going the traditional right. These days, agents and acquisition editors commercial houses usually insist on a manuscript that’s ready for production.

The drill is to find a developmental editor with a great track record of producing books you’ve heard of and enjoyed reading.

OK. Over and out. Keep writing!