Category Archives: For Authors

Practical posts relevant to authors, including resources and ideas about the craft of writing, as well as tips on the business of writing.

a row of identical doors in a wall with fancy wallpaper, and a polished wooden floor

New Subscribe Options (and How I Created Them)

This week I added categories to the subscription widget for this blog. Originally the blog was only for news updates, but then I started posting tips for writers and editors. As I continue my fiction writing journey, I hope to post content related to my future books; considering this new content pushed me to make a change.

I put off making this change for a while because it seemed daunting. Below, I’ve shared how I added the category capability.

About the Categories

First I clarified the categories I’ll be using. I wasn’t sure about the new category, which is why it has the vague title “Emily’s Thoughts.”

  • two cartoon people holding a laptop and a checklist with boxes checkedNews
    News about Emily’s upcoming books and events, and other happenings in her life. Usually there is one post every few months.
  • Emily’s Thoughts
    This is a new category as of fall 2018, and I’m not yet sure what direction it will go. It’s a place to post ideas and topics that may interest readers of my (upcoming) new-adult dystopian fiction book.
  • For Authors
    Practical posts relevant to authors, including resources and ideas about the craft of writing, as well as tips on the business of writing.
  • For Editors
    Practical posts relevant to editors, including tools and resources as well as the business of editing. Authors may be interested in this category as well, to learn tips that can help them self-edit their writing.
  • For Self-Publishers
    Practical posts relevant to those interested in self-publishing.

(I categorized this post as “For Authors” because of the how-to content below.)

About MailChimp

The basic idea is to use an outside email service (I chose MailChimp) to manage my list of subscribers. My list will have “groups” (that is MailChimp’s term, and is parallel to the blog’s categories). Subscribers will be able to choose which groups they join. I’ll then set up an automatic “RSS to Email” campaign for each group; when I post in the News category, for example, everyone in the News group will automatically receive an email notification.

MailChimp offers a free account if you have less than 500 subscribers. This free account only includes support for the first 30 days; so, plan to set up your list immediately after signing up, so that you can get help if needed.

I had used MailChimp at my day job before setting up my own list. It can be a little confusing. I hope the steps below will help!

How to Add Subscription Capabilities for Categories

Step 1. Get started.
Create an account at MailChimp, and answer their questions. They will automatically create your first list, with your email address in it, using the name of your business; you can change the list name if you want. This list is where you will add your subscribers. There are other pages you should look at and customize under Settings (“List fields and *|MERGE|* tags” is where you can choose which information subscribers are required to provide, for example), but this post’s focus is on creating the campaigns and a sign-up form including categories, to use with my blog.

Step 2. Create groups.
On the main menu, choose Lists. Then choose the name of the list to open it. Under Manage contacts, choose Groups. Click the gray button to Create Groups. Choose “As checkboxes” so that subscribers can be in more than one group. Name your Group category (I used “Emily’s Author Blog”) and then fill in your blog categories under Group names. (This is a little confusing because MailChimp uses different terminology! Don’t create a new group category for each blog category.* You can see mine below.** Remember to Save.

a screenshot in Mailchimp showing a list of group namesStep 3. Create segments.
When you send an email campaign in MailChimp, you can send it to your whole list or to a segment of your list. You cannot, however, send it to a group. So, you will create a dynamic segment for each group; the segment will update as the group updates. Then you will send the campaign to this segment. To create a segment, choose Manage contacts, Segments, and click the gray button to Create Segment. Then use the dropdowns to find your Group category and one Group name, like this:

A screenshot from Mailchimp showing the dropdown menus in use when creating a new segment

Click Preview Segment, and Save Segment. Don’t worry about the “Goose egg” screen; there is just no one in your segment yet. Name your segment and save. Now repeat Step 3 for each blog category. Note: you can’t rename a segment so get it right the first time, otherwise you’ll have to delete it and create a new one.

Step 4. Create signup form.
Choose Signup forms from the menu, and then Embedded forms.***

The embedded form will appear with information already filled in. You can see a preview on the right (you might need to scroll to see all of it) as well as the code. You can customize the form under Form options on the left; I changed the title, to indicate a blog. Copy and paste the code into a text file and save it. (There doesn’t seem to be a way to save it in MailChimp.) Then, paste this code into your website and the form should appear. For me, using WordPress, I used a “Custom html” widget in my sidebar, although a “Text” widget seemed to work as well.screen shot of creating a signup form, with the form preview and code on the right, and the place to edit on the left

Step 5. Test the form.
Your email address is already subscribed in MailChimp, but use the signup form on your site to subscribe to all the blog categories. Having an email address in each group will make Step 6 easier.

Step 6. Create an RSS campaign for each group (using segments).
Choose Campaigns and then click on the gray button to Create Campaign. Choose Email, Automated, and Share blog updates. Rename the campaign to match one blog category, and click Begin. Note that steps of creating the campaign will appear along the bottom of the screen. Here are the steps:

RSS Feed: Paste in the URL of the RSS feed of your blog category. I’m not totally clear on how RSS feeds work, but I think if you go to your blog, click on a category, and add “feed” at the end, the URL will become the feed URL. (You can’t see the feed on Safari; you’d need to download a feed reader app.) When you try to save, MailChimp will tell you if the feed URL is invalid.

My feed URLs for the above categories look like this:****

  • https://emilybuehler.com/category/news/feed/
  • https://emilybuehler.com/category/thoughts/feed/
  • https://emilybuehler.com/category/for-authors/feed/
  • https://emilybuehler.com/category/for-editors/feed/
  • https://emilybuehler.com/category/for-self-publishers/feed/

You also need to set when the emails will go out. If you post often, you might decide to send emails once a week, as a digest. I decided to send on most weekdays at lunchtime. So, if I post in the News category on Saturday, subscribers in the News group will receive an email notification on Monday at 11 AM. If I post in the For Authors category on Tuesday night, subscribers in the For Authors group will receive notification Wednesday.*****

screenshot showing the URL of the blog feed and schedule for sending emails

Click the blue Next button to proceed to the next step. If you need to stop working, click Save and Exit at the top right. Note that you would find you campaign under Drafts when you are ready to continue building it.

Recipients: Choose Segment or tag, and choose the segment from the options that appear. (You can also create new segments at this point, but we created segments in Step 3. I find it less confusing to create the segments in advance.)

screenshot showing how to choose a segment to send your campaign to

Setup: I altered the From name but otherwise left the defaults in place. I selected “Personalize the ‘To’ field” using the subscriber’s first name (*|FNAME|*) because I like the idea of the notifications going to a person’s name. Note that the Campaign name is not visible to the public.

Templates: This is where you start designing the actual email. The body of the email (the links to your blog) will be generated automatically, but you might want to add a logo or header at the top, and a background color, among other things. You can build from scratch or start with a template from the Themes tab. My advice is to start simple if you are new to MailChimp. Remember that whatever you use will be in every email (until you change it); you would not want to include five photos and a lot of text introducing yourself, because your subscribers would then receive this material every time they get a notification. I wanted a simple design that would work week after week. I chose Basic, 1 column.

Note that below, after designing the email, I saved it as a template. Then when I repeated this step, I used the same template, so that all emails would have the same look.

Design: MailChimp has a drag-and-drop system where you drag elements from the right onto the email on the left, and then click on an item (on the left) to open an editing window (on the right) where you can make changes. You must click Save and Close after editing each element. I’m not going to give details here, other than to say that you’ll want to use “RSS Header” and “RSS Items” because those are the elements that will automatically populate with your blog posts. The RSS information comes from your feed, so (for example) if you don’t like the title of the feed, you would update it at your blog. MailChimp’s design help is here: https://mailchimp.com/help/design-an-email-campaign-in-mailchimp/

Here’s what my campaign ended up looking like:

screen capture of email campaign, with merge tags showing

And, if I click on Preview and Test and Enter preview mode, it looks like this:

screen capture in preview mode, with blog post information filled in to email campaign

Just to make sure it was working, I published two test blog posts in my News category and checked preview mode again, and saw this:

screen capture of preview of email, with two blog posts showing

Note that, as seen in the above images, the merge tag “RSSFEED:TITLE” is being filled in with “News – Emily Buehler” while “RSSFEED:DESCRIPTION” is blank. I can try to find the place to change the title or to add a description at my blog. I can also remove either merge tag by clicking on the “RSS header” element in my email, choosing “Custom,” and editing the code.

(This is where you should click Save as Template.)

Confirm: I had an error here that no one was in my segment. I knew that my own email address was in the segment, however. I tried logging out and in, but it didn’t help. It took a whole day before MailChimp got on track and recognized that an email had been added to the segment. Once the error was fixed, I clicked Start RSS and was told that an email would go out Monday at 11 AM. It would only go to me (the only subscriber).

Now repeat Step 6 to create a campaign for each of the other blog categories! Remember to use your template. Don’t worry, this step goes much faster with the template.

Step 7. Add subscribers.
You now have a form on your website where fans can subscribe to your blogs by category. If you collect email addresses at events (note: you need permission to subscribe people), you can add them to your list and to the various groups from inside MailChimp (open the list and use the Add contacts dropdown). If you previously used a subscription plugin, you can export the emails and import them into MailChimp.

Note that when someone subscribes, MailChimp will send them old posts going back a day/week/month if you have chosen to send daily/weekly/monthly.

I also sent an email to all subscribers (using a separate, one-time campaign in MailChimp) that explained why they were receiving the email, that I was changing to a new system, and that they could now choose which categories to subscribe to.

So, to sum up, you now have a MailChimp campaign set up for each category on your blog. When you post in a category (e.g., “News”), the post goes into the News feed, which MailChimp picks up. The RSS to Email campaign you created in MailChimp for the News feed creates an email that is sent to everyone in the News segment, which is everyone who subscribed to the News category on your blog. Yay!

a flowchart showing a stick figure and computer posting a blog post, which goes to MailChimp, is turned into an email, and is sent to Segment X, which includes people who subscribed to category X on the blog

Resources I Used

Here are the articles I read while doing this process:

This one is about installing RSS buttons on your blog, which I did not do, but reading this article reminded me that MailChimp would enable me to have readers subscribe to categories: https://www.wpbeginner.com/wp-tutorials/how-to-allow-users-to-subscribe-to-categories-in-wordpress/

This one is about the difference between categories (overall groupings, can have subcategories) and tags (more like items in an index), and is important to understand from the beginning: https://www.wpbeginner.com/beginners-guide/categories-vs-tags-seo-best-practices-which-one-is-better/

This one is similar to what I am doing, but they tinker with the code from MailChimp to alter the signup form, which adds complexity to the instructions. They are also setting up email campaigns for different send times, as opposed to different blog categories: https://www.wpbeginner.com/wp-tutorials/how-to-create-a-daily-and-weekly-email-newsletter-in-wordpress/

Here are Mailchimp’s instructions for a basic RSS campaign (which does not mention groups/categories); I basically did this process several times, once for each group/category: https://mailchimp.com/help/share-your-blog-posts-with-mailchimp/

Problems with the System

two identical 6-paned windows in a wallIn the past I’ve sometimes added a blog post to multiple categories. Subscribers would get one email each time there was a blog post. With the new system, if I add two categories and someone subscribes to both of them, the subscriber will get a separate email notification for each category. So, I will try to use only one category per post. (This seems to be a best practice for SEO reasons anyway.)

Right now, the notification emails are set to go at lunchtime on most weekdays. I think this will work because I don’t post constantly. If I started to post multiple times per week, I would switch to a weekly send time, to announce multiple posts at once. However, MailChimp does not have an easy way to combine the notifications from different categories, so someone who subscribes to multiple categories would receive multiple weekly digests, if I use a weekly send time. I’m not going to worry about this for now.

I did add an “All Categories” group, however, along with a segment and campaign, and redid the signup form. Readers who check the All Categories box will receive notifications of any blog posts bundled into one email. (If they check all the other boxes AND the All Categories box, though, they’ll get multiple copies. I included some text at the bottom of my emails [see above] to avoid this.)

The feed URL that you use for All Categories is the feed for the whole blog, not just one category. It should look something like this:******
https://emilybuehler.com/blog/feed/

I created three test posts in various categories on my blog. I also used the custom RSS header block and removed some of the code. My preview of the campaign for All Categories looked like this:

screenshot showing preview of email including all blog categories

I hope these instructions help anyone else who wants to add the ability to subscribe by category to their blog.


*You might if your categories fall into different types—like if you had an author blog AND a plumber blog, and you wanted a set of groups/categories under each.

**After taking the screen captures, I streamlined my categories and removed two.

***This is not relevant to the current process, but it is worth looking at the Form builder, which is where you would make a “free-standing” sign-up form; you could then send interested people to this form via a link. There are also items like the confirmation email subscribers receive, which you may want to customize. There are a lot of items here, and I am not clear on which ones get used when. Another option is a pop-up form, but I did not want anything popping up on my website, because pop-ups have become common and I find them annoying.

****I had some trouble with the campaign for the Thoughts category. I wondered if the punctuation in the category name might be causing the feed not to work, so I changed the category from Emily’s Thoughts to Thoughts. Use simple names to avoid possible glitches.

*****I’m not totally sure how many days back a campaign will look for posts. Presumably a weekly send time will make the campaign look back a week. Some of my “daily” send times did not work unless I posted the blog within 24 hours of the send time; but other daily send times did look back many days. My current best guess is that selecting multiple days but not every day results in some weirdness.

******On my site, I had originally named the blog page “News,” so my feed actually appears at this URL: https://emilybuehler.com/news/feed/. But since News is now a category as well, this is confusing. On most blogs, the default name will be “Blog.”

stacks of books on a shelf

My Writing Process and Resources for New Authors

As I’ve resumed work on my new-adult fiction novel, I’ve considered the steps that have led to the current moment: I feel confident in my writing, but I know that I’ll continue to learn about the craft and improve. I’ve observed writing as a craft that can be improved, and not merely as the first words that spew onto the page when the author sits to write (at least not for me!).
I want to record the early steps while I still remember them. This leads me to remember the resources that have been most helpful to me, which I find myself suggesting to other new writers I meet. And, it leads me to the long list of resources recommended by others that are stacked on my bookshelf, waiting to be read.

So here is the writing process of my novel so far (resources in bold), and below I will outline the updated process that I’ll use in the future:

Stage 1: Write and Revise

Nanowrimo winner badgeI wrote the first draft somewhat randomly, finishing with Nanowrimo. (I’m currently pondering if this is the best way to start a novel, or if more planning is a good idea—more on this below.) I had a story and characters I liked, but the writing itself was bad and the whole thing was a mess: trying to keep track of who knew what, how many days had passed between scenes, and what weather it was from day to day.

To address the writing, I read some books on “self-editing” or revising for authors:

  • The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman, a short guide that points out, one-by-one, specific problems new writers’ books often have.
  • Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King, a longer guide to problems and solutions, with lots of examples from literature.
  • The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, lists of specific actions that might occur when a character feels an emotion. (So if I had written, “Nick looked angry,” I would look up “Anger” and see a list of possible actions that Nick might do, such as his lips tightening into a hard line, or his face becoming red. I would rewrite the sentence to show that Nick was angry instead of telling.

three books that are mentioned in the textSome of the major changes I made included removing adjectives and adverbs in favor of better nouns and verbs, removing distracting “said” words in favor of “said,” and hunting down and removing repetition. I considered each section of each chapter: was it narrative, exposition, or scene? A lot of the exposition (text explaining to the reader) came to life when I replaced it with an actual scene with dialogue. I read my dialogue out loud to make sure it sounded natural. After applying the lessons from the books, I felt a lot more confident in the writing.

To address the confusion, I made a map of my setting, a timeline of the characters’ histories, a long scroll of the plot and what happened each day (including the weather), and a world-building spreadsheet (using a template from editor Tanya Gold) that I filled in with information about my world, like the political system, the current technology, the state of the environment, etc. By the end, I felt confident the plot was consistent.

Stage 2: Get Feedback and Revise

I took my work to a local writing workshop where we spent a few hours working on our first page. I never would have believed that much revision could occur on one little piece of writing! But being forced to keep at it resulted in all kinds of changes. I also submitted my manuscript for a colleague’s class to use as a sample, which generated feedback from the students and also the colleague.

a drawing of a woman in an old-fashioned dress reading a bookI rounded up a team of beta readers. (I asked for readers in my winter holiday letter, and then approached half of those interested.) I was lucky to receive a huge amount of feedback, from little points of confusion to suggestions that affected the whole book (like, “Devlyn is too whiny and immature” and “It’s the future but the technology is just like today’s”). Some of the feedback was overwhelming or I wasn’t sure I wanted to follow it; I actually put aside the whole project for about a year and finished self-publishing my bike trip memoir, Somewhere and Nowhere. It was good to get a break and fascinating to see how everything I’d learned about fiction affected the writing in the memoir.

(Aside: Sometimes friend beta readers don’t follow through. Authors can meet colleagues in person or online to swap beta reading, meet with a writing group for ongoing feedback, or hire a professional editor to give feedback, with varying levels of commenting (i.e., overall feedback or line-by-line). As a freelance editor, I worked with some authors on their manuscripts and realized that the feedback I provided seemed to be a professional beta read, so I now use that description of my services [read more here].)

A year later, I came back to the novel. I made a huge list of the changes I wanted to make based on the reader feedback and new ideas I had had, and then got to work making them. The revision made my novel stronger, but the feedback had left me wondering about a few major points (Was the plot too random? Was Devlyn’s age appropriate?) and I worried that my characters were not deep enough. I also just had a general feeling of insecurity and wanted approval from a professional.

Stage 3: Get More Feedback, Learn More, and Revise

I applied for a local arts council’s grant for new writers, to use the money to work with a developmental editor. The process included finding the editor to work with. I approached Tanya Gold, a colleague at the Editorial Freelancers Association whom I had taken a class from (the class was on working with authors, and I loved Tanya’s collaborative approach). In the end, I didn’t get the grant, but I wanted to work with Tanya so much that I decided to make it happen. I might have shied away from spending the money or approaching editors, because it’s a daunting step to take, so I credit the grant-I-didn’t-get with making me take the step.

a pencil and blank notebook on top of a map of a cityWhile I waited for Tanya, I learned about making book maps (read more here). I had been trying to keep track of various parts of my novel in various ways. A simple book map in a spreadsheet was just the tool I needed. I also learned about sensitivity editing, which looks for problems like gender and racial stereotypes or writing that assumes the reader is a certain race, and planned to read my manuscript with those issues in mind.

Tanya’s feedback was incredible. She had asked questions to understand my goals and concerns. She sent back a letter that assessed my manuscript (including things I hadn’t even thought of, like the underlying theme and how to make it stronger) and a chart of what actions I should take with each chapter. She made major changes in the manuscript (tracking them so I could follow along) and left comments throughout. Some of the comments addressed writing issues in general. For example, I often aligned my dialogue in a way that could lead to reader confusion, with one character speaking and then another character acting in one paragraph. Other feedback made the plot stronger; for example, when Devlyn is kidnapped, her growth as a character would be stronger if she managed to escape rather than being passively rescued.

One of the major changes Tanya suggested was cutting large sections of description and explanation. This was hard for me to accept; I loved the feeling of autumn when Devlyn is walking home from work, explaining to the reader the details of the future world I had created. Thankfully, I attended the NC Writers Network’s spring 2018 conference; each session I attended seemed to address the changes I needed to make both to make my story stronger and to attract an agent and publisher (read more here). I came to see that bringing the reader in to share the viewpoint of the main character, and to be in the moment with her, was the way to hook the reader into the story.

More Resources

three books that are mentioned in the textThe conference led me to several books about crafting stories. I started with Story Genius by Lisa Cron, which underscores the need to get the reader into the moment with the main character, invested in her situation. Lisa also suggests mapping out your story before you begin writing. I’m debating her idea. While I can see that I wrote a lot of material that went to waste (like the scene of Devlyn being rescued instead of escaping, plus the second and third kidnappings, which were cut entirely!), I loved the process of sitting down with no plan and seeing what came out. Lisa suggests that many writing teachers recommend this random approach because it works for them, but that it doesn’t work for most new writers.

I’m currently following Tanya’s plan and rewriting, while also making a book map. The next resources on my list are the following:

  • Make a Scene by Jordan Rosenfeld
  • The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass
  • Writing Deep Scenes by Jordan Rosenfeld and Martha Alderson
  • The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne

The most recent #EFAchat on Twitter (a chat among freelance editors) discussed working with new authors and helping them improve, and offered these additional resources:

(View the chat transcript here.) 

A Plan for Next Time

stacks of books on a shelfI still like the idea of spewing out a rough draft during Nanowrimo with no planning, but I might do some initial outlining next time. Either way, I think the process will look something like this:

  • Write first draft (incorporating lessons like using “said” and powerful nouns and verbs, and keeping the reader in the story versus explaining)
  • Make a book map to ensure consistency and aid with tracking plot lines
  • Create a world-building spreadsheet
  • Revise to improve the writing, to replace telling with showing, and to root out exposition
  • Look for workshops to attend with my manuscript; keep reading and learning about the craft of writing
  • Get feedback from beta readers
  • Revise using new knowledge and feedback
  • Work with Tanya on a developmental edit (I hope I won’t need this some day, but for now I think it is an important step for me)
  • Revise
  • Get second round of beta reader feedback
  • Revise
  • Find an agent or publisher!
old map with compass

Book Mapping

I recently learned about book mapping. While the class was intended for developmental editors, I found the tool helpful as a writer.

What Is Book Mapping?

Book mapping is a method of plotting out the action or themes of a story, to help keep track of them. This mapping can be done visually or with text in a spreadsheet. Developmental editors can use a book map to visualize an author’s manuscript and get insights into what help it might need. Authors can use it to keep track of threads in their story and to step back from their own writing and gain the same insights.

cat looking at scroll of paper on floor

Scruffy contemplates the timeline of my dystopian novel

Over the years, I’ve tried various methods of mapping out certain aspects of my projects. For example, when I was writing Somewhere and Nowhere, I wrote the contents of each chapter on index cards to chart the mood, with red ink for bad moods and green ink for good moods. Laying out the cards, I was able to see the large swaths of bad mood that might bog down readers, and the emotional roller coaster that persisted through the story and might exhaust readers. I used the cards to find red areas to reduce or merge. More recently, I used a long scroll of paper to plot the days of my dystopian fiction story, to keep track of weather patterns and days of the week, among other things.

I’ve never had a system that worked easily, though, or for multiple aspects of the manuscript. Until now!

The class suggested an easy method of using a spreadsheet. Each row is a section of the story: a chapter, a scene, or a day in the story. Each column is something that needs to be tracked: a character’s development, a theme, an aspect like the weather, or something practical like what day of the week it is. After the map is filled in (chapter by chapter), the mapmaker can follow a thread by reading down a column.

My Book Map

I decided to practice with a romance novel that I’d put aside after the first round of revisions. I started by skimming through it and pulling out the items I would track (the column headings); the teacher called this “mind mapping.” My list included the development of the main characters (Rose and Dustan), each of the three villains (Rose’s father the king, the evil Prince Murkel, and the fairy queen), Rose and Dustan’s love story, Rose’s history, and Rose’s “memory loss” (i.e., after Rose loses her memory, I needed to keep track of what bits had come back to her as the story progressed).

Then I set up the spreadsheet and began reading the book chapter by chapter and filling in the rows. The first few rows looked like this:

chart showing the columns of a book map about a romance novel; some rows are full and some have a lot of white space

 

I immediately noticed that Dustan’s character quickly grew flat (note his empty column). The story is from Rose’s point of view, so there is plenty of opportunity to show her thoughts and growth, but I wanted the reader to see that Dustan’s original ill intentions change as he gets to know Rose. The teacher, without having read my manuscript, suggested working on the villain columns (could hints be given as to their various motivations?) and the Rose’s history column (adding history might give the story more depth).

As I progressed with adding rows, I tried to be my teacher-stepping back from the story I knew and looking at the spaces (or lack of) in the map. I noticed when Rose had four different feelings within one scene (did her feelings need to be clarified?) or when she immediately regained several memories within a few days of losing her memory (didn’t I want her to regain them slowly, for dramatic effect?) In addition to simply helping me keep track of the story, the map gave insight into how to improve it.

Learn More

glasses on book with maps insideBook mapping is a simple and free tool authors can use. If you want to get started with some guidance, I recommend the class I took, which seems to be offered periodically through the Editorial Freelancer’s Association (available to non-members as well). It’s called Book-Mapping for Developmental Editors, with teacher Heidi Fiedler. Look for it here: https://www.the-efa.org/product-category/active-courses/

stacks of paper

Getting Through the Slush Pile

Last Saturday, I attended the NC Writers Network’s Spring Conference in Greensboro. I’ll post soon about the whole experience, but today I’m thinking about the final event of the day: Slush Pile Live.

What is Slush Pile Live?

The conference planners invited attendees to turn in the first page of their novels, anonymously. Participants sat in a classroom. At the front of the room, someone read each submission to a panel of three editors. Each editor raised a hand at the point when he or she would have stopped reading the submission, had it been in the “slush pile” of unsolicited manuscripts.

stacks of paperWe’ve all heard that editors at publishing houses receive an overload of manuscripts and look for any excuse they can to stop reading. They’re not likely to keep going, hoping a manuscript will improve, or to dig deeply looking for a kernel of value they can salvage, when they have 200 other manuscripts to get through that day. I knew that my manuscript should be as perfect as possible, and in particular the opening should be.

That said, seeing the process live and learning of potential pitfalls still surprised me.

Common pitfalls

A few themes emerged as the submissions were read:

symbol of person throwing paper into trash canRepetition. Even the repetition of a single, noticeable word (not a necessary word but an adjective like “pleasant,” for example) caused multiple editors to raise their hands. The reason behind this is that the repetition distracts the reader and knocks him or her out of the story. A more extreme case was repeating specifics (like referring to a red Honda Civic multiple times instead of doing it once and then writing “the car”). A variant is coming back to a topic over and over, as if you are beating the reader over the head with it.

Too much narrative. Instead of keeping the reader in the scene, watching as the action unfolds, the writing switches to a description of what happened, or a summary. For the reader to stay in the scene, the reader should learn as the character learns.

woman at laptop biting pencil in frustrationToo much description. When the story contained too many adjectives, unnecessary details, or description so long that the story stopped moving forward, the editors lost interest. In one case this was three separate references to how cold a day was. Sometimes one editor would give up, while another would keep listening but later admit he or she had been hoping the story would go somewhere, but had considered raising a hand earlier.

Cliches. Even one tiny cliche would cause all the editors to raise hands. They said this, like repetition, knocked them out of the story. And, while it might be difficult to avoid all cliche, a cliche on the first page signaled that there would be many more. I was surprised by some of the phrases that turned out to be cliches—things I might use without thinking twice, like describing a hand as a claw or the wheels turning in someone’s head. Even the description “Coke-bottle glasses” is a cliche.

My turn

A week before the conference, I had received my manuscript back from a developmental editor. While I trusted her, I was having trouble with how much she had cut—it seemed like I wasn’t allowed any description at all. I had decided to turn in the first page of my novel as she had revised it: pared down to the characters’ thoughts and dialogue in the moment.

word hope on a piece of paper, atop a crumpled piece of paper in a handDuring the conference, I began to realize that my editor hadn’t cut description, necessarily, but had cut narrative—places where I left the scene to explain things to the reader. I grew more interested to see how the pared-down version would fare in Slush Pile Live. Then my turn came.

One editor raised his hand almost immediately, whereas the other two made it through my entire first page. The critic cited impatience to learn more about the topic introduced in the opening paragraph, and frustration with my switch (for three sentences) to what’s happening in the space around the character. He also had misunderstood what the first paragraph meant. The other two editors corrected him as to the meaning, and said they’d been intrigued enough to wait to learn more, figuring I would return to the opening topic momentarily.


One editor did point out that theirs were only three opinions. Other editors might like or dislike material according to their own tastes. But the pitfalls they identified seemed likely to be problems for any editor.

They suggested reading to learn: read books that awe you and try to figure out how the author did it, and read manuscripts from inexperienced authors (perhaps as an editor or beta reader, or as a volunteer reading contest entries) to notice what doesn’t work, that you might find in your own writing.

clock and stacks of coins with trees growing out of them

The Cost of Editing

When I started freelance editing, the rates charged by other editors seemed pretty high to me—more than I made at my day job, certainly. I figured these rates indicated the editors’ level of experience. I’ve since realized that the rates are needed because of the nature of freelance work.

Freelance versus Salaried

hands holding phone, with coffee, calculator, newspaper, pen on desk nearbyMy day job was paying my health insurance; freelancers pay for their own. I had a company computer at my day job; freelancers supply their own equipment: not only the computer but the constantly updating software, the Internet service, the newest Chicagomanual, the Post-it notes, the coffee…. Freelancers have to fund their own time off, whether for sick days or vacation, and save for retirement. They have to spend time marketing their services and networking with potential clients. And they have to pay higher taxes (the “self-employment tax”), since no one else is contributing to social security for them. Their income from editing has to be enough to pay for all these business expenses.

Some estimates say that about half of a freelancer’s income goes to these expenses, leaving only half of the hourly rate as a true salary. Suddenly, those hourly rates didn’t seem outrageous. As I transitioned away from my day job (and gained experience editing), I increased my rates accordingly.

Editing Takes Time

I always do a sample edit so that I can make an accurate quote about how long the edit will take me. When I actually do the edit, however, there are a few additional steps.

2018 calendar on phone screenFor a copyedit, I read carefully, making corrections with the tracked changes visible. (If the manuscript is an academic paper, I also do a first read through to understand the material, before beginning to copyedit.) I pause to explain edits that the author might not understand. I often have to look up material: to understand the topic, to check the spelling, to find a better word, to fact check something that seems off, or to verify a style rule that I have not used in a while. I write queries to the author when there’s something I don’t understand, and suggest alternatives. Then, when I’ve gotten all the way through, I hide the changes and reread the entire manuscript. On the second pass, I make final copyedits (some are easier to see once the tracked changes are hidden) and reread all my comments to make sure they are as clear as possible.

For a beta read, I can read more quickly, but I make notes constantly so that I’ll be able to see patterns and to find material again, to share as examples with the author. If I’m doing what I call a “beta read plus,” I pause to leave a comment each time a sentence or even a word stands out as awkward, as confusing, or as the author “telling” the reader something instead of showing it to the reader. I type my notes into a letter to the author. And then I skim through the manuscript a second time, rereading all my comments to make sure they are clear.


So yes, editing is expensive. But many editors will try to find ways to work within an author’s budget. For example, maybe the author isn’t in a hurry; if the editor could fit the work in around other assignments with tight deadlines, she might be willing to charge less. Or maybe the editor could point out a problem that repeats throughout the manuscript, but allow the author to find all the times it occurs. I often spend a lot of time explaining grammatical edits I’ve made; if the author is on a budget, we might agree that I will simply make the changes without explaining them.

Belinda Pollard elaborates on the cost of editing in two posts on her blog, Small Blue Dog: https://smallbluedog.com/why-are-book-editors-so-expensive.html. She also has promised a post on how to prepare your manuscript to make it easier (and therefore faster) for the editor to work on; as an author, I’m eagerly awaiting this information!

random text

Libel, and Copyright, and Privacy, Oh My!

An important step in writing a book, particularly if you’re self-publishing without the guidance of a legal team, is securing permissions. There are three types of material to consider for permissions:

  • any material that might be copyrighted,
  • any material that might infringe on someone’s privacy, and
  • any material that might be considered libel.

judge's gavel atop keyboardEach of these areas is complicated. For example,

  • If you quote an email that someone sent you, the copyright of the material may belong to the person who wrote it.
  • If you take a photo of a sculpture, the sculpture (a work of art) might be copyrighted, and you’d need permission to use the photo, even though you took it.
  • With songs and poems that are relatively short, even a small quote might be too much. The music industry is known for being particularly strict about copyright.
  • If a living person can be identified, even with a name change, you might be infringing on the person’s privacy.
  • A fictional character that is obviously based on a real person, even with a different name, can get you in trouble.
  • In addition to the right to privacy, there is a “right to publicity”; you cannot use a famous person’s name or image to make money without permission.
  • Using “in my opinion” before a negative statement about another person is not enough to protect you from an accusation of libel.

And this is only a sample of the points to consider. The laws about copyright, such as the concept of fair use, can be vague and are often decided in court. Remember that in addition to doing the right thing, you don’t want to get sued, even if you think you’d win.*

Resources

stack of books mentioned in the textI read four books when I self-published Somewhere and Nowhere, the memoir of my cross-country bike trip. While I still hesitated over certain items in my book and what to do with them, I felt more certain that I had considered every problematic item, and was able to make more-educated decisions. The books were these:

  • Copyright and Permissions by Elsa Peterson: This is a quick read that focuses on copyright. If you want to deal with permissions yourself (see more below) it includes guidance, as well as sample letters.
  • Self-publisher’s Legal Handbook by Helen Sedwick: This is also a fairly approachable book. In addition to copyright, privacy, and libel issues, it covers setting up a business, understanding contracts, working with various types of self-publishing services, understanding taxes, and more.
  • The Copyright, Permission, and Libel Handbook by Lloyd Jassin and Steven Schechter: This is a very detailed book about copyright, privacy, and libel and the one I would read if you want to learn the most about all three issues.
  • The Writer’s Legal Guide by Kay Murray and Tad Crawford: This includes a wide range of information (contracts, taxes, agents, dispute resolution, how to register a copyright), but you can find copyright infringement information in Chapter 5 and privacy and libel information in Chapter 8.

There are also many online articles (like this one), and the US Copyright Office has material online. Writers conferences frequently include a session on copyright or other legal issues, and groups like the Authors Guild sponsor online webinars.

What To Do

words illegal and legal on slips of paper, fingers are choosing legalSo, if you have a manuscript written, what’s your next step?

If you want to use copyrighted material and there’s a lot of it, you might work with a permissions editor, who will hunt down the copyright owners, send permission letters, and pay the necessary fees (using your money, of course) or let you know if a fee seems out of your budget. Note that a permissions editor might not work on material that infringes on privacy or could be libelous.

If you want to handle permissions yourself, go through your manuscript line by line and make a spreadsheet with every possible problem. Don’t skip over passages that seem problem-free, because all kinds of things will pop out that you never thought of as problematic when you wrote them (this might be more true for certain types of nonfiction, like memoir). Even if you suspect it’s not really a problem, include it in the spreadsheet so that you feel like you have not missed anything.

Lego police arrest Lego office man

Don’t let it come to this

Then, solve each problem. Some will be easy to check off your list. For example, maybe you’ve included the title of a book; then you read that titles cannot be copyrighted, and so you check off that item. In some cases, you might decide to seek permission. In others, you might decide to cut material to avoid a problem.

What if you don’t have a budget to pay for permissions, or someone just says “No”? Then it is time to rewrite. I know this might seem like a tragedy at first. I struggled with the simple task of changing people’s names, thinking, “It won’t be true anymore!” But then I realized that readers won’t know; they won’t be thinking about whether or not the names are accurate, and ultimately, it won’t affect their experience with my book.

woman standing with two bikes at the border of Wyoming, with a sign overhead

Mary at the Wyoming border on the bike trip

In some cases, the rewrites made the book better. For example, while on the bike trip, Mary and I often sang to pass the time. “Blowin’ in the Wind” became a favorite because of the difficulty of biking into the wind. I was pretty sure I could not afford permission to use the lyrics, however. Then I realized that I hadn’t actually known the lyrics when biking—I’d been making them up. It was only once I got home that I searched online and found them, and pasted them into my manuscript. So I changed the passage to have me singing, “How, are the times, of a man, um-de-ahhh, … before he’s asleep on the sand? How many laaa, da-da, white dog ale, before it’s for contraband?” This version actually better captured what happened, and didn’t require permission to use. In another instance, I had to remove a scene to protect someone’s privacy, but the scene was important. I ended up writing a new scene, and as I wrote it, I felt the spirit of the book coming through, and really felt okay about making the change.


Issues of copyright, privacy, and libel can be intimidating. It’s tempting to keep your head in the sand and ignore them. But you will feel better if you learn about them and try to do things right.

* It just seems like I should have a disclaimer on this post, saying I’m not a lawyer and that this isn’t legal advice. I’m not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice.

hands holding book

What Is Hybrid Publishing?

hands holding book, with text that reads "Hybrid: something heterogeneous in origin or composition"Hybrid publishing is a new model of publishing in which an author works with a publishing company but pays to publish in exchange for higher royalties. Some in the publishing industry disregard this new category because the idea of paying to publish suggests (to them) poor quality, like the books that vanity presses produced years ago. However, hybrid publishing is not vanity publishing. The hybrid press vets books before agreeing to publish them and offers active distribution.

The new model is a win-win: presses can afford to put out more books, contributing their knowledge and clout, and authors have additional venues to approach and the opportunity to make larger royalties—over 50 percent, compared with about 10 percent with traditional publishers.

Unfortunately, the publishing world is cluttered with scam artists, and the various publishing models that now exist create confusion and enable these scammers to take advantage of authors. Many companies have started using the word “hybrid” since hybrid publishing has gained some acceptance.

Standards for Hybrid Publishers

To help legitimate hybrid presses and authors continue to connect, this month the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) announced a set of criteria for hybrid publishers. If you’re an author interested in working with a hybrid publisher, the criteria can help you filter your options.

poster that says "When is a hybrid publisher not a hybrid publisher?" with stack of booksHere’s a summary of the criteria:

  1. A hybrid publisher has a mission and a vision, and doesn’t just publish a mishmash of books.
  2. A hybrid publisher vets submissions, rather than publishing anything it can.
  3. A hybrid publisher has a knowledgeable person or team producing books under the publisher’s imprint, with the publisher’s ISBNs.
  4. A hybrid publisher’s books meet industry quality standards; readers should not be able to tell them apart from traditionally published books.
  5. A hybrid publisher uses approved editors and designers to produce professional books.
  6. A hybrid publisher manages a variety of rights for the book (print, digital, and possibly others like audio and foreign-language) or negotiates with authors who want to keep some rights.
  7. A hybrid publisher provides distribution beyond simply making the book available online. This can involve sales reps who actively market the book or targeted outreach, and also involves listing the book with wholesalers. The publisher should have a marketing strategy for each book and assist the author in carrying it out.
  8. A hybrid publisher should have several books that show respectable sales.
  9. A hybrid publisher pays higher royalties than is standard in the industry, usually greater than 50 percent of net on both print and digital books.

You can view the IBPA’s full criteria here: http://www.ibpa-online.org/page/hybridpublisher(click on the “expanded details here” link to see the detailed version).

Tips for Authors

In a webinar last month, the IBPA’s Brooke Warner shared these tips for authors investigating hybrid publishers:

  • poster with woman reading, says "Does your hybrid publishing company pass the test?"Ask about the criteria listed above: does the publisher vet submissions, partner with authors on marketing, and have some form of active distribution?
  • Get physical copies of books from the publisher, to make sure they look and feel like “normal” books
  • Demand transparency: ask about any additional costs beyond what’s covered in the publishing package and about royalty rates
  • Talk to the publisher’s authors; asking for referrals is normal, so it’s a warning sign if the publisher won’t share author names
  • Ask if the publisher qualifies for traditional reviews; some companies still suffer from the stigma of being an author-subsidized press
  • Check the publisher’s website to see if it looks professional
  • See what kind of response you get after contacting the publisher, and trust your instincts if the response seems lacking

She also shared these best practices for authors considering hybrid publishing in general:

  • Educate yourself about publishing and the hybrid experience
  • Read about different hybrid models and see if one press’s model feels better than others
  • Only approach a hybrid publisher if you are ready to go the hybrid route—don’t do it while your agent is still trying to sell your book to traditional publishers
  • Before approaching, consider your publicity ideas; most hybrid contracts do not include publicity

Hybrid publishing is an exciting new option for today’s authors, and will contribute more good books to the world!


(Note: a hybrid author is someone who publishes traditionally and non-traditionally and is not related to a hybrid publisher.)

three people on bicycles with bags, biking along the coast

Authentic Marketing

cartoon person sitting on book with sun overhead, she is thinkingWhen my first book, Bread Science, came out in 2006, I had a list of ideas on marketing from a guidebook I had read about self-publishing. I made a sell sheet, sent it to bookstores, and got no response. I tried to schedule readings at my local bookstores, also without much luck. But somehow the book started selling, and has sold steadily ever since. I attributed this to luck (meeting Peter Reinhart) and timing (artisan bakeries and home baking were about to blossom) and the fact that there is no other convenient place to get the information I included.

When my second book, Somewhere and Nowhere, came out last year, I did not expect it to sell like Bread Science. I had a revised list of ideas to try: scheduling events not in bookstores but in outdoor supply stores, maybe contact the local radio station. It was hard to follow through, and so I pushed the work aside.

A conversation last weekend led me to realize some things.

person on dirt bike jumping off small cliff

Not authentic: this is not my kind of biking!

My involvement in communities that relate to bread aids sales of Bread Science. I teach bread classes, attend science events with my bread table, and network with bakers. I participated in the (now defunct) #breadchat on Twitter. These methods of marketing came easily because they were authentic—I would have participated with or without a book to sell.

In contrast, I’m not part of communities that include target readers of a book about self-discovery on a cross-country bicycle trip. I’ve always preferred to ride solo, not in a pack. I’m not part of a travel company community; my riding partner and I actually rejected the idea of going with a company and were thankful we had. And self-improvement has always been something I work on alone or by talking with a friend (or, at times, a therapist).

I’ve refocused my marketing plan for Somewhere and Nowhere with these two ideas:

  1. I can authentically become part of communities or groups that contain potential readers.
  2. It’s okay if the book gains readers slowly.
three people on bicycles with bags, biking along the coast

Authentic: this is more like it!

This makes me feel a lot better because I’m more comfortable when I am being authentic. It removes the pressure of trying to sell the book, and makes me feel braver about approaching others with it. It also ties in with an idea I heard recently, that for self-publishers, building an author brand is the route to success, and sales build over time. I don’t need immediate promotion of one title, with a six-month cutoff for success, as is common in the traditional publishing industry.

My first idea is to write a list of discussion questions for the book and then approach the local library’s outdoor book club. I could attend the book club if they decide to read my book, and interact with the readers. I’m also going to follow up on my idea to approach bloggers who review books or discuss travel or bicycling. This was on my original marketing idea list, but I feel more comfortable about it now.

people onstage during a conference session

How to Get the Most Out of AWP (updated)

Note: A version of this post was originally posted in February 2017.

In early 2017, I attended the AWP (American Writers and Writing Programs) conference in Washington, DC. It was my first time at AWP, which was an overwhelming affair: six sessions each day with up to 35 choices, a monstrous book fair, evening meet-ups, and events throughout the city.

Day One: Sessions

view inside the convention center

Inside the mammoth DC convention center

The first day, I attended all six sessions, each of which included a panel of four or five experts. The morning sessions were filled with practical information about how to land an agent, what it’s like to have a book deal, what residencies are looking for in a writer, and how to give and receive feedback effectively. The afternoon sessions were less helpful: the panelists read essays they’d written or excerpts from their books, or told personal stories. This was less interesting to me, or maybe I was just exhausted from the day’s nonstop activity.

While I gathered lots of information, I didn’t speak to a single person all day. The conference format, with only 15 minutes between sessions, made it hard. After each session, people would line up to speak to the panelists, who often included published authors, agents, editors at presses, and bookstore owners. While I would have welcomed an interaction, I didn’t have anything to pitch or a clear goal, so I didn’t join these lines.

Day Two: Book Fair

view from the convention center

The view from my table in the book fair’s cafe area

The next morning, on my commute into the city, I met a writer on the metro who’d spent all of her conference time so far navigating the book fair, pitching her book to presses she had selected ahead of time. This surprised me; I’d thought the presses were only there to sell books. I resolved to spend more time in the book fair that day.

At first, it was hard: my natural aversion to talking to people, particularly people trying to sell me something, kicked in. Thankfully, I’d been tasked with bringing home pencils for my family, so I forced myself to talk to anyone who had pencils at the table. This led to some pleasant and interesting conversations.

I gradually came to understand the types of vendors in the book fair:

  • Small presses selling books and, apparently, looking for authors
  • Literary magazines selling subscriptions and looking for submissions
  • MFA programs, which include low-residency options
  • Residency programs, which include competitive programs that are sometimes free to attend, and programs that anyone can attend for a fee
  • Other: Groups for writers, groups of editors looking for writers, a service to help writers submit to literary magazines, and more
Emma Straub and Ann Patchett onstage during their event

Emma and Ann onstage with a moderator

Note that these vendors were not organized into sections, and there were hundreds of them. I walked up and down each aisle looking at all of them, but had I had a goal, targeting specific vendors ahead of time would have made sense.

I also attended “a conversation with Emma Straub and Ann Patchett,” which was delightful. Both women are successful writers, and they talked about their lives, how they became writers, and which 2017 books they are looking forward to.

Observations

The conference seemed very academic: some sessions had super-specific titles or focused on teaching writing, there was a definite trend toward writers attending formal programs, and the assumption seemed to be that we writers were all writing literary works. I had hoped to meet a romance novel publisher but didn’t see a single mention of romance!

I also noticed a dearth of information about self-publishing. This struck me because I’d heard panelists (including successfully published authors) talk about the disappointments of book deals, the number of good books that don’t get published, the luck involved in successfully publishing, and the inability to live off of one’s writing royalties, even as a successful author. On the third day, I encountered outright hostility toward self-publishers in one panel, where a bookstore owner who won’t work with self-publishers made the assumption that people self-publish only because they’ve failed to publish traditionally. I was happy to find some booths in the book fair, such as the Authors Guild, that supported self-publishing.

Takeaways

Attending the conference helped me see its possibilities, and I hope to go again. To get the most out of it, I will plan ahead: I’ll identify goals of attending and who I’d like to talk to. I might wait until I have a manuscript to pitch to presses, and then research the presses that are attending to find the ones that interest me. The book fair would be an invaluable resource if I were interested in attending a writing program or residency.

Recognizing how overwhelming the conference is, I’ll choose which sessions and speakers interest me (subject to change), but not try to attend every session, using the breaks to peruse the book fair. I’ll make sure I plan time to network at vendor booths. I’ll also try to find somewhere to stay that doesn’t include a long, exhausting commute. This might help me attend some of the after-hours activities.

And I will continue to hope that the AWP organizers will recognize the validity of self-publishing and begin providing resources to authors to help them self-publish effectively.

You can read about upcoming conferences here: https://www.awpwriter.org/awp_conference/

tall shelves in warehouse

Book Distribution for Self-Publishers

What is distribution? For a self-publisher (or as they are now sometimes called, author-publisher), distribution can be the most confusing part of publishing. This is because the term has various meanings. In general, it refers to the means by which books go from the publisher to the retailer (e.g., a bookstore), who then sells them to readers.

Before self-publishing became so popular, the distribution system worked a certain way and was intertwined with publishing houses. Some publishing houses had their own distributors and some used outside distributors. Among these traditional distribution methods, some are now technically available to author-publishers, but a large part of the system is filled by publishing houses, which makes these methods in practice fairly unaccessible to author-publishers. There are new methods of reaching retailers that also fall under distribution and are accessible to author-publishers. There are also publishing services that include some form of distribution in their service packages, which further complicates the picture. The addition of e-books and e-book distribution makes the picture even more confusing.

As an author-publisher, I’ve sold print books directly to readers (i.e., no distributor) via my website and the Amazon Marketplace, and used a few e-book distribution methods. I’ve read about other methods available to author-publishers. I have no first-hand knowledge of the more traditional distribution methods but learned about them in a recent webinar presented by Angela Bole of the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA).

I’ve attempted to list the methods here. If you know of something I’ve left out, please share it in the comments.

Print Book Distribution

There are now three methods of printing books: offset printing, digital printing, and print-on-demand (POD). Offset printing is the long-standing method and makes sense for large print runs (~1000 books or more). Digital enables small print runs at reasonable prices. POD uses digital technology to print books one at a time, as they are ordered; note that with POD, books usually go directly from the printer to the reader. The diagram below includes the distribution methods that are most relevant to new author-publishers, with additional methods described in the text only.

flow chart attempting to show the distribution of print books

 

  • Distribution without a distributor (Author 3 in the diagram above): The author-publisher pays to print a bunch of books, either using offset or digital printing. She sells them from her website and mails books when orders come in. She might visit local or relevant bookshops and ask them to carry the book, offering a wholesale discount. If the book sells well, the bookseller might want to order more, but because there is no distributor, the book is not “in the system” to easily reorder; the author might have to check back to keep the bookstore ordering. The author can sell on Amazon (a retailer, not a distributor) using the Amazon Marketplace; again this involves the author mailing the books when orders arrive. With this method, the author keeps most or all of the profit.
  • Distribution with POD companies (Author 2 in the diagram): The author-publisher lists the book with one or more POD companies; the author sets a wholesale discount as if the POD company is a bookstore. When someone (a reader via an online retailer or a physical retail store) orders a book, the company prints and ships it; they take their cut, but there is no fee for acting as a distributor. The two biggest companies are CreateSpace and IngramSpark, and there are many articles comparing the two. As of 2017, best practice (because of the fees charged) was to use CreateSpace to list the book online at Amazon, and to use IngramSpark to list the book everywhere else.
  • Distribution with POD companies via a publishing service (Author 1 in the diagram): The publishing service takes care of getting the manuscript to the POD companies; usually an author would only use this route if he’s also buying additional services, such as design and editing. Start by searching “full-service publishing providers” online; read not only directories but also articles that rate and review the companies. There are good and bad publishing services out there; be sure to read reviews before signing up to work with one.
  • Traditional, passive distribution: The publisher uses a distributor (such as Ingram, the biggest, or Baker and Taylor) to handle billing and shipping, but there is no sales team pitching the book to retailers. The distributor simply lists the book as available and stores copies. The agreement should be nonexclusive—the publisher can sell the book elsewhere. There is an application process; the author-publisher must have significant sales and might be required to offer a certain discount, accept returns, pay a fee, and more. This only makes sense for books that are selling thousands of copies. The company is sometimes called a wholesaler rather than a distributor.
  • Traditional, passive distribution with Amazon (for sale on Amazon only): Amazon offers several distribution services that authors can pay to use, that do not seem to have much of an application process. However, the author pays fees, including storage fees with some services, so if the book does not sell, the process could be costly. Here is a summary of Amazon’s services: (1) With Amazon Advantage, Amazon is the seller, orders books when needed, and sets the price. They will drop your book if it does not sell. (2) With Fulfillment by Amazon, you are the seller but Amazon stores and ships books, which are eligible for Amazon customer services. (3) With the Amazon Marketplace, you are the seller and also ship the books as they sell. The professional account has a monthly fee, while the individual account has a fee per item sold. (This third service does not really count as distribution.)
  • Traditional, active distribution: The publisher has an exclusive agreement with a distributor, who is the only one who can sell the book to retailers. The distributor handles billing and shipping and also has a sales team that actively tries to sell the book. Many distributors will not work with author-publishers, although this is changing, but there must be several books and significant sales, as well as other qualities like the publisher’s perceived longevity and prominence in the marketplace.

Note that with a traditional distributor, the author and/or publisher only receives a small fraction of the sales price. Author-publishers should be clear about which type of distribution they are receiving—they often think there will be active selling when really they are working with a passive distributor. There is a list of distributors at the IBPA website, here: http://www.ibpa-online.org/page/distributors (these distributors have not been vetted).

Some of the traditional distribution companies mentioned above also handle e-books; if you work with one of those companies, make sure you understand the agreement and what is included (i.e., do you retain the e-book rights?).

E-book Distribution

The main decision of publishing an e-book is whether to work directly with each retailer (and keep more of the profit) or to use a distributor (and have less work, plus the ability to reach additional markets) or to use a mix of both. If you choose to work directly with retailers, remember that any change to your e-book will need to be made at each retailer; you might start with one and see how it goes before uploading to the rest. The methods listed below are the most common for an author-publisher.

  • Distribution without a distributor (Author 3 in the diagram below): The author creates e-book files and sells them directly to buyers. Note one complication with this situation: As the seller, the author could email the e-book to the buyer, but the files are often large and buyers expect to download an e-book as soon as they buy it. Creating a system where the buyer is taken to a webpage to download the e-book requires some technical know-how; there are also security issues to consider. Thus, it is easier to use an intermediary to deliver the book. These intermediaries are called “digital distributors” and they take a cut of the profit, but I still consider using them as “selling direct to buyers” and the cut is smaller than that taken elsewhere. I use Gumroad.
  • Distribution via single-channel distributors: Single-channel distributors enable an author to sell his book at one online retailer; for example, Kindle Direct Publishing enables e-book sales on Amazon. These distributors are “self-serve” and straightforward to use; simply follow the instructions for formatting and converting the document to an e-book and upload, and the e-book will appear for sale at the retailer’s site. Authors can access these distributors themselves (Authors 2 and 3 in the diagram below) or with a distribution service (Authors 1 and 2 in the diagram).
  • Distribution via a distribution service (Authors 1 and 2 in the diagram): A distribution service publishes an author’s e-book at whichever retailers she chooses, and takes a cut of the sales. Currently the most popular distribution services are Smashwords and Draft2Digital. There are many reviews comparing them, so I won’t get into that here. Distribution services usually have their own storefront, meaning that they’ll sell your e-book to readers and take a cut but there won’t be an additional cut taken by another retailer, like Amazon; however, sales from these storefronts are not typically large.

Another decision is whether to publish exclusively with Amazon KDP Select (which offers promotional advantages) or with as many retailers as possible. If your target readers are using Kindle Unlimited, publishing exclusively with Amazon makes sense. To find out, look at the top books in your category on Amazon and see if these books are available in Kindle Unlimited.

Note: Bookbaby is sometimes listed as a distributor. Bookbaby’s business model is different: authors pay up front for services, then keep all the money from sales. Bookbaby might more accurately be described as a publishing service provider.

flow chart attempting to show the distribution of ebooks

 

What’s going on with these e-book authors?

  1. Author 1 is taking the simple route: using a distribution service to handle all e-book sales. The service will convert the manuscript to an e-book and upload it at all the retailers’ websites. Either the service will cost money to use, or the service will take a cut of sales. The retailer (e.g., Amazon) will also take a cut.
  2. Author 2 is uploading the book directly to Amazon, the biggest e-book retailer. This way, only Amazon will take a cut of sales of e-books sold on Amazon. To reach the other numerous e-book retailers, the author uses a distribution service.
  3. Author 3 is selling e-books directly from her website. She is also selling them at Amazon and other select online retailers; unless she is so famous that people will seek out her e-book on her website, using other retailers is smart because many more readers will find the book. Author 3 might try to sell with all the other retailers, but there are many, and some do not accept e-books from author-publishers; she might use a distribution service to reach only those other retailers (this is not show on the diagram).

I hope this post clears up any confusion about book distribution. Of course, the situation is constantly changing, with new services appearing and old institutions gradually accepting the legitimacy of self-publishing. New paths might open for author-publishers any day!