This is not a laughing matter. It’s hard to be a part of the book business at the start of 2015 and not feel whipped and ripped by the mindless maelstroms of chance. Seldom (if ever) have writers been so little the masters of their fate and captains of their souls.
So what can any of us who are so inclined realistically do to gain (regain?) some measure of control over one’s professional and artistic lives?
Step No. 1, I suggest, is making your book the best it can be. And to accomplish this, Step No. 1.5 is getting the honest input of a knowledgeable, independent mind. (This does not necessarily mean your English teacher neighbor or cousin who edited her high school yearbook.)
Likely, the person you’re seeking will have some professional abilities you yourself lack, in addition to taking a more objective view of your work. This is help you should be willing to pay for. But how do you actually find the right helper? How can a writer know who will be the best editor from among all the candidates out there hollering Me! Me! Me!
Just as no specific qualifications are needed to advise someone on losing weight or dealing with depression, anyone who chooses can hang out a shingle that says “Editor,” and offer opinions on whether you’re using too many adjectives or your characters don’t seem credible.
Selecting the best editor is an author’s decision that can literally make or break your book’s chances for success—and there are very few clear guidelines (other than hoping you pray to the right God). But in case that doesn’t work, here are a few other points to look for:
• The editor’s uncommon ability to see both the forest and the trees. This is essential, and an area in which you should look for experience. In manuscript terms, it means subject-verb agreement and run-on-sentence avoidance as well as the larger picture of whether this book—fact or fiction—is organized in a logical way for the reader (granting that fiction has a little more leeway, if the writer is skilled enough to pull that off).
• Someone you can communicate with easily and comfortably. This is a relationship—in exactly the same sense as the one you have with a live-in partner (even though the benefits may differ slightly). If writer and editor can’t be fully honest and open with each other, the relationship is doomed to failure. There is not an objective criterion: You, the writer, and you, the editor, must feel right in your gut about the connection between you both; that’s all there is.
• The writer’s openness to suggestions and another person’s opinions. “Kill Your Babies” is the most common cliché on this point—attributed to everyone from Chekov to Wilde to Ginsburg to Faulkner (although the real originator seems to be the unheard-of Arthur Quiller-Couch). The fact is that clichés become clichés because they’re right and true. What this one means, plainly and simply, is that passages—or characters or descriptions or wondrous turns of phrase—are not really worth the eternal life of publication simply because their creator loves them (as any mother does her children). They need to be viewed in terms of how the reader will see them. And usually the editor is the better judge of this than the person who gave them life.
So that’s a few factors for the writer to think about in turning out the best book possible. But then, assuming you’ve accomplished all this, the question becomes how you make potential readers aware of what you’ve done, and get them to part with hard-earned shekels in exchange for it. The answer—a word that makes most writers want to shrivel up like an amoeba into their own ectoplasm—is “marketing.”
Unavoidable fact: Every day in the U.S. of A., eight hundred books are published. That’s the competition every author’s book must face—today! And then tomorrow, there will be eight hundred more. And on and on and on.
How do you make your book—your blessed, personal creation, heart of your heart, soul of your soul—stand out from the other seven hundred ninety-nine?
The only answer is “marketing”!
What’s the best way to connect your book with potential buyers? Book store readings? Signings and discussions? Radio and TV interviews? Online and print reviews? Newspaper and magazine articles? Blogs? Tweets? Pinterest boards? Facebook postings? And the many other things I haven’t even thought of or mentioned?
All of the above!
That’s the sad fact of 2015. When I speak to groups of writers or book business folks, I often begin with: “I am the bearer of evil tidings.” And that’s the truth. There are only two kinds of books, I end up telling them: the ones whose authors get 100% behind marketing those books, and the ones that have no readers. There isn’t a third category!
No one wants to hear this. But the only alternative is pure and simple denial—which benefits none of us.
So this is the hard reality for authors. You can accept that it’s what you must do, or you can become a cake decorator or Big Box greeter. Take your choice. Sure, you don’t want to be out there “interfacing” with hoi polloi (when you could be pouring your soul into your next book) any more than you want to be slitting open your veins. But nobody asked. The planet is getting hotter, and there’s only one way to sell books.
So that’s today’s dose of “evil tidings.” I hope it helps. I hope it leads to more people buying more books worth reading written by more writers who’ve become tougher and more realistic than their natural inclinations might lead them to. May Dave Biddle’s omnipotent (albeit incontinent) Goddess of Books be with you.