When It’s Time To Stop Auditioning, Give Yourself the Job: Self/Hybrid Publish

Let me start with a disclaimer: this is not a screed against traditional publishing. Yes, those are trendy and you’ll find lots of them out there, but this is not one. Life has taught me that when something sustains as long as traditional publishing has, it’s because it remains, however confounded and confused, a vital player in the scheme of things. I’d say that’s the case with the Big 5.

This is, instead, a few of my cobbled thoughts on the topic of why one might choose otherwise; why one might self-publish, or hybrid publish, or publish outside the realm of that iconic process of securing an agent who’ll, hopefully, wrangle a publishing deal, that will, hopefully, vaunt you into the stratosphere of big awards and New York Times bestseller lists. As much as one might dream of that starry-eyed path to literary greatness, there are myriad reasons why one might choose another turn. And very few have to do with not being good enough.

As someone who’s been involved in a variety of creative mediums throughout my career, the concept of stepping front and center to be judged toward some artistic goal is not a foreign one. Which is a convoluted way of saying, “I’m well-versed on the audition/rejection process,” which seems to apply to pretty much every step of life.

From birth on, in fact, we’re immersed in the act of striving for something: the cookie, the pat on the head, good grades, parental/teacher/coach approval, attention of boys/girls, that job we want, the lead in the play, first prize, the record deal, a deserved raise, and so on.

An actor? You submit your picture and resume; if you’re lucky, you book an audition. If that goes well, there’s a callback. If your luck holds, you go to the director, producer, network; whatever, and, usually, within a relatively short period of time, you know whether you’re in or out. Jobs, much the same timeframe. Record deals, boyfriends/girlfriends; that raise? All of these typically come to some recognizable fruition quickly enough to either celebrate tout suite, or launch your grieving process before the next snow.

If you’re an author? Not so much. The audition process toward getting traditionally published is far less linear, less step-by-step; less clear and more circuitous. It’s based less on talent and more on market trends; less on who deserves what and more on who knows whom. Less on right time and more on ‘how much time have you got?’ (a friend recently told me she’d just gotten a rejection from an agent she’d queried over a year ago!). Some of the words I’ve heard writers use to describe the process include: Time consuming, dismissive; rude. Arcane, confusing; contradictory. Exclusionary. Limited. Elitist. Devastating, elusive… impossible. And that’s just one Facebook writers group.

The Process

I’m sure there’s another, much jollier list of adjectives for those who actually make it through; who crack the code, score the agent, get the publishing deal. But this is about the other 96%, whose audition process might look something like this:

  1.  Write, rewrite; polish, re-polish the book and/or book proposal.
  2. Spend oodles of time (and money, if inclined to take classes, seminars, webinars, tutorials) fine-tuning the notorious query letter with the goal of meeting the arcane and specific demands of the literary agent world (which, most authors discover, will require several different versions of said letter).
  3. Diligently research which agents are open to unsolicited queries in your particular genre and note how they like to be approached.
  4. At this point, you should have your Excel spreadsheet out, organizing all the info you’ve gleaned into appropriate rows and columns (you do not want to double submit, for God’s sake, or query your novel to someone who won’t read fiction, or make the mistake of “checking back” if their site says “we only respond if we’re interested”).
  5. Once organized, put together impeccable packages with that perfect query letter and whatever else each specific agent prefers; then judiciously send them off in whatever amounts, order, and time increments you see fit.
  6. There. Done.
  7. Then you wait.
  8. And wait.

The seasons turn. You celebrate a birthday. Your sister gets married. The people next door move out. You lose the Oscar pool. Somehow you gain five pounds. You finish your non-fiction piece on elder care. You wait.

Then, oh happy day, you hear back! From some. Only some. Most are quickie email responses: “I’m not the right agent for you.” Some are scribbled notes on your snail-mail queries…same basic message. Others get more detailed: “Although it’s an interesting premise, I didn’t connect with the story the way I’d hoped.” They might give you some info as to why they didn’t connect or why they’re not right for you (usually not), but whatever you do, don’t write back and ask; they won’t tell you. Other than to tell you they’re too busy to tell you.

But, if you’re lucky, you garner a few requests for more (more pages, chapters, the manuscript). You’re excited to take that next step, thrilled that your sample grabbed them, your “premise was intriguing,” or your title “caught my eye,” and you send it all off, wishin’, hopin’, thinkin’ and prayin’…and then you wait. And wait.

Your parents take that cruise to Greece. You finally learn how to use Illustrator. More of the Arctic Shelf melts. You attempt making baklava. Your brother quits school to join a band. You start working out again. Your boyfriend gives you a cordless vacuum for Valentine’s Day. You wait.

Then you either hear back on the requested material or you don’t. If you do, you get something like, “I didn’t fall for the writing as much as I’d hoped.” Or, “Given the competitive marketplace, I need to love a project more than I loved this one.” Or, “You’re a white author writing black/Muslim/Hispanic/Asian characters and fear of cultural appropriation is too impacted a conversation right now.” Or… well, suffice it to say, rejection comes in a never-ending spectrum of hues and shades.

And then you…

You what? You’ve done your work, learned your craft, spent years honing it to a spit-shine by writing articles, blogs, short stories, screenplays, poems, etc. You’ve gained the expertise to know how to build a compelling narrative, construct a propulsive story arc, and conjure characters that jump off the page. Your dialogue is spot-on, you can make ‘em laugh and cry; your themes are resonating, universal yet unique, and those who’ve read your work are moved. Your book is loved (certainly by you), and it deserves life.

But after years of auditioning without finding the agent who is “right” enough to want you, your options are limited: traditional publishers aren’t welcoming to new writers who don’t have one of those. So what do you do now?

You shelve it. You write something else and try again. You set a bonfire in the backyard and burn your manuscript. You declare you’re done writing. You take up quilting, join a choir; finally paint the bathroom.

OR…

YOU DIY. You self-publish. You submit to respected hybrid publishers. You reach out to small presses that don’t require agents. You grab your destiny by the collar, drag it up on stage, flick on the lights, and make that sucker dance.

Like indie filmmakers, indie musicians; indie theater companies; freelance photographers, painters, potters, and mimes (yes, I do know some indie mimes), you take matters into your own hands, gatekeepers be damned.

You apply the same diligence to researching the art and craft of doing it differently, of doing it yourself, as you did researching agents. You suss out the pros and cons, talk with authors who’ve done it and have worthy experiences to share; you read everything you can on self-publishing. You zero in on the hybrid, small press, university publishers open to indie authors. You access professional book builders—content editors, copyeditors; formatters, proofers, cover designers—and you build the book you loved writing into the book you will love selling. One that reads, looks, and feels exactly as it should, with the edit, title, cover, and marketing plan you dreamed up and will launch with the help of skilled collaborators. A book that will sit comfortably next to any traditionally published book on any bookshelf anywhere in the world.

You stop auditioning and give yourself the job: published author.

And don’t let anyone tell you self-publishing is a consolation prize. It might be for some, but there are countless reasons why authors self-publish. Some, yes, see it as their only option. Others never even consider the “traditional publishing audition gauntlet.” A few straddle both worlds, bouncing back and forth, depending on the book, the available opportunities, or the experience they want to have.

My Experience

Me? After a year spent querying my first book, I stopped auditioning and gave myself the job. My second: no “auditions” at all; went right for the stage. Both experiences have been a wild ride of hard work, empowerment, and tremendous satisfaction, but after finishing my third novel at the end of 2016, I decided to set out, once again, on the traditional route. Bluntly, I wanted the experience; it was one I hadn’t had. But after another year of querying, and with time spent at writers’ conferences meeting with and listening to agents, publishers, and writers working on both sides of the publishing divide (one that is more disparate than I even imagined), it came down to this for me:

I want to write the books I’m inspired to write without limitation, without fear, without focus on “what’s trending in the marketplace” or what “impacted conversations” may dissuade others from inviting me in. I want to work with courageous, innovative people who look to nurture and develop good writers, who are willing to take chances, push against resistance, and advance compelling ideas and forward-thinking mission statements. I could either continue on my own, with like-minded collaborators helping me get it done, or, this go-around, I had the option to work with a hybrid publisher who met my criteria and welcomed me in the door. I’m lucky to have that choice: my next book, THE ALCHEMY OF NOISE, will be published by She Writes Press in early 2019, and I’m thrilled to have Brooke Warner and her team in my corner. That, too, will be a new experience.

But which ever way each of our roads turn, however we get to where we’re going, how lovely is it that we do have choices? Auditioning may be a valid option for some; that long, arduous process will likely always have a place in the publishing industry, and I wish well to anyone taking that particular path.

Luckily for us indies, it’s no longer the only path that gets us there.

“The Stage” by Laura Wielo on Unsplash
“You Are Here” by John Baker on Unsplash

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

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Art of the Book Cover: Pictures Tell the Story

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“Walking the Cambria Shore” — original photo used for back cover of AFTER THE SUCKER PUNCH

Someone asked me the other day what was the singlemost reason I chose to self-publish my books. Actually, I have two reasons, which, I suppose, makes this a “doublemost” situation.

First: while I would’ve loved (I mean, seriously loved) the help of an enthusiastic literary agent and the support and heft of a publisher with name value and cultural prestige, procuring those collaborators in our ever-changing industry has become an increasingly elusive event; it certainly was for me. I gave it my all over several years then decided I had no more all to give; since I truly believed what I was doing merited further advancement, and I’d gotten to the point where I just wanted to move forward, I leapt off the indie cliff.

Think I’m still in mid-fall!

Second: I wanted control over the work I put out. Frankly, if you’re not getting the perks of industry collaboration, there has to be some kind of trade-off; one of the most phenomenal trade-offs of “doing it yourself” is controlling exactly how your work comes to fruition. For the uninitiated, this is a big thing because, with traditional publishers, items like final edit, title, and book cover are typically taken out of the hands of the author. Certainly an unknown author. Which would be me. And since I was one of the brave souls striking out independently—for better or for worse—one of the “betterest” reasons was the ability to create and produce EXACTLY the books I wanted.

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“Bene Bene” – original photo used for HYSTERICAL LOVE cover

Now, if you’re like me, a creative perfectionist who’s driven many a musician, producer, co-writer, actor, director, sound mixer, editor, or wildly opinionated drummer crazy with detailed, nuanced, and very specific standards and opinions, you’ll understand that the perk of creative control for someone like me is a boon. I’ve always believed that, if you’ve put in the time to truly learn your craft, gain your experience, hone your expertise, and bring to life a beautifully imagined story and set of characters, you deserve the power to render the final edit, pick the title, and decide on your cover art. Certainly working with professionals in the arena of editing is essential, input on titles is always illuminating, and a cover designer is a must-have, but ultimately it all comes down to YOU.

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“Street Memorial” — Original photo used for cover of “She Tumbled Down”

Which is lovely.

And a book cover, to my mind, is one of the most important elements of the final product. Why wouldn’t it be? Books truly are judged by their covers and too often the covers of self-published books are artistically lacking, poorly designed, and amateurishly rendered. Those covers then become litmus tests to the perusing and reading public, signaling to many that this writer may not have a firm grasp on professional market standards and, therefore, likely hasn’t delivered a professionally excellent book. I’m sure that’s not true in every case, but from all reports: most.

So given my bona fides as a photographer with a deep catalogue of images from which to choose—convenient, considering my preference for photographic cover art—my design process was both financially beneficial and extremely simple. Add in the fact that my cover designer is a brilliant graphic artist from Chicago, Grace Amandes, who just happens to be my sister, and it was a foregone conclusion that I’d get exactly the covers I wanted. And I did.

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AFTER THE SUCKER PUNCHwith its story of a woman who discovers on the night of her father’s funeral that he thought she was a failure, needed a female face in the background, one that reflected the mood and emotional tone of the piece. After pulling an image from my gallery—as well as finding a back cover image that illustrated another story point that takes place in Cambria, CA— I handed the images to Grace, who ultimately came back with a cover I loved: 

With HYSTERICAL LOVE, a more whimsical story about a thirty-something guy struggling to find the meaning of true love and his father’s long-lost soul mate, a through-line involving an ice cream truck became the inspiration. There was no doubt I’d be using a favorite photograph taken in my neighborhood and processed with a “selective color” concept (see original above). Grace found the exact right font and color for the title, and it has become a cover that people literally smile over. I do too!

HL front cover_indieBRAG

For “She Tumbled Down,” a short story about a tragic hit-and-run, published only in e-book, I decided to design the cover myself, trusting that, since ebooks don’t require quite the specifications of a print cover, I could pull it off. Inspired by Grace’s work, I came up with another “selective color” version of an image also taken in my neighborhood (see original above). It makes the very poignant point.

She Tumbled Down

Working in both literary and photographic mediums, I’ve discovered my general thrust as an artist is, quite simply, storytelling. Whether visual, literal, or musical, the narrative I see and feel impels the work forward, and so it has been a natural marriage between words and images in bringing my books to happily imagined life…a result that makes all the challenges and occasional indignities of self-publishing all the more easy to forgive!

To view my photography galleries at Fine Art America click HERE.

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

Who Do We Have To _____ To Get a Little Respect Around Here?

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The cheers of indie authors who’ve FINALLY found outlets for their books — whether Amazon, Smashwords, Lulu, indie bookstores; wherever — can be heard far and wide from every corner of the globe. It’s been loudly exclaimed by everyone in the know that it’s the dawn of a new day for writers everywhere. After years of dismissal and disrespect from traditional publishers and their gatekeepers across every element of the literary landscape — from query letter browbeating, ice-cold rejections, overly possessive editors, and blasé publishers with no marketing budgets — independent authors have now taken control of their destinies and ventured forth, filters, limitations and grumpy gatekeepers be damned.

Good, right?

Yes, in some ways. In others, we indies are still very much the ugly stepsisters to our more vaunted and valued legacy colleagues. Don’t think so? Just today I clicked on the website of a “recommended book blogger” (whose name I will leave out for the sake of decorum) who seemed hell-bent on insulting those self-published writers who’d had the audacity to contact him for reviews. His FAQ page not only went out of its way to discuss how unreadable he found most self-pubbed books, but his hissing condescension about “amateurish” writers incapable of even understanding the word “no” led to a sneering pronouncement that he didn’t want to read, hear about, or otherwise experience the books of said authors and, therefore, please don’t waste his time by contacting him.

Sheesh. The fumes of disdain emanating from his page practically choked me.

And he’s not the only one. Media sources abound with snitty-toned announcements that they DO NOT TAKE SUBMISSIONS FROM SELF-PUBLISHED AUTHORS (caps are theirs). Review sites that cover legacy authors free-of-charge gouge self-pubbers in the hundreds of dollars. Feature writers who ooze admiration for the latest debut novelist from the Big 5 have actually figured out how to roll their eyes on Twitter over the pathetic shenanigans of indie writers trying to get their attention.

We’re definitely the “not cool” kids on the playground and this persistent — and, in many cases, undeserved — marginalization makes launching an indie book all the more difficult. When the overriding presumption is that your book is — to put it bluntly — a piece of shit (a presumption with which I personally take umbrage), you’re not only starting from zero in the world of marketing and promotion, you’re climbing from less-than-zero.

Fair? No. But let’s face it; we kinda dug our own hole, we self-published writers. Despite the fact that the industry is changing and evolving on a daily basis, with increasing numbers of options and outlets available, and more and more authors — even some from the traditional world — opting to go the self-published route, the rickety stage set early-on was built largely by anxious amateurs eager to define themselves as “authors” before availing themselves of the various elements of true professionalism. There are still far too many self-pubbed books that are amateurishly written, with poorly edited copy and covers that fairly scream “I’m a self-published writer!!!” And, unfortunately, still too many authors who relegate those necessary tasks as negotiable rather than essential — a professional blunder akin to a restaurateur opening a bistro without a qualified chef, a decent waitstaff, or a well-designed room. The resulting customer and industry response (see above) is the sad and subsequent remnant of that miscalculation.

We are all, every one of us, tarnished to some extent by the mistakes of the early (and prevailing) corner-cutters, but those mistakes are, hopefully, being mitigated by the growing number of independent authors who do approach their work, their books, and their presentation with impeccable and unassailable standards. And that growing number (of which I count myself) deserve to NOT be automatically generalized into a category of “subpar” by media, reviewers, bloggers and the like. Just as many traditionally published books (to once again put it bluntly) suck, yes… so do many self-published books. Conversely, just as many traditionally published books are profound and not-to-be-missed works of literary wonder, so, too, are many self-published books.

That the aforementioned blogger and his snarky cohorts refuse to consider that is evidence of literary shortsightedness. Like geezers who discount useful technology as “newfangled” or antiquarians who bemoan penmanship while ignoring heartfelt emails, they’re missing out. Of a gem. A “stunning debut.” A “keenly executed character study.” A really good book.

Their loss. But the unwillingness of the wider media to explore indie authors with the same open-mindedness — and vetting and reviewing protocols — implemented for those traditionally published, is creating a literary ghettoization. And the resulting deficit is felt not only by the writers being dismissed simply by virtue of being self-published, but by readers who have less access to those authors and their work because of that ignorance.

Just as self-published writers are obligated to evolve and demand of themselves the highest levels of professionalism, so, too, must accompanying media evolve away from their myopia and literary bigotry. If they do not, what is being wasted is far more than their time; also lost is the cultural embrace of much talent and many good books being written by courageously independent authors who deserve at least a look.

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

The Amazon vs. Hachette Debate: What Do Independent Authors Think?

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Reading what they want… from whom they want.

Lines have been drawn, sides taken; articles, blogs and editorials prognosticate about what – and whom – will be left standing when the dust settles. Big 5 authors are stamping their feet in step with their publishers and it’s getting noisy out there. Uber-successful author James Patterson is fuming about the “national tragedy” that is Amazon (as quoted in the Los Angeles Times piece, “Amazon and Hachette: The dispute in 13 easy steps“), while another high-profile writer, Malcolm Gladwell, opines in the same piece (in oddly vulnerable tones), how heartbreaking it is “when your partner turns on you.” It’s high drama in the literary corral.

USA Today’s Michael Wolff frames the melee in his piece, “How book biz dug its own Amazon grave,” as a transparent “power grab” by Amazon that should have set off alarms much earlier… but didn’t:

“…Amazon, evident to anyone paying the slightest attention, is a creeping totalitarian state. Its effort is to build a marketplace that will give it the most power to shape the behavior of its customers and suppliers. That is pretty much the definition of ‘platform,’ that new word that denotes ultimate commercial and personal control. […]

“So, broadly, the fight is between, on the one hand, the incompetents, craven panderers and mid-level corporate bureaucrats in the book business and, on the other, the authoritarian creepos at Amazon. More specifically, the fight is about better and lesser businesses’ acumen and strategies. […]

“The negotiation, not to mention brinkmanship, between Amazon and Hachette seems vastly too unequal. Publishers need Amazon more than Amazon needs them. So publishers are screwed. The walking dead. They gave it away.”

Evan Hughes over at Slate appears to largely agree with Wolff. In “Bringing Down the Hachette,” he makes the point that this battle was essentially allowed to get out-of-control by those not paying attention and is now, belatedly, inspiring an almost hysterical level of response from those who will be most affected – Big 5 publishers and their authors. He even concludes mournfully, “How do you notice a great book that never gets written?”

Yes… this is a very grim crowd.

It’s a fascinating debate, a fascinating time, one that mirrors much of what’s already happened in the music industry, in journalism, art and photography; even online news aggregation. And, as in all revolutionary movements, the paradigm is shifting, to use a weary phrase. The status quo has been shaken up, with elites at the top of the food chain being toppled by the democratization of the publishing process, whether by scruffy rebels who’ve finally had enough of never having enough (or any, for that matter), or, in this case, by another corporate “elite,” one that’s had the audacity to design a business model that actually includes those previously kept outside the gates: the independent writers of the world. And, believe me, those writers, unlike the rich, famous ones long held in the warm embrace of the Big 5, view this debate through a very different filter. We are celebrating Amazon’s open doors.

Unless you’re someone who writes books and attempts to get them published, it’s unlikely you’re aware of, or pay much attention to, the arcane process by which books come to market. As a reader who goes to bookstores or shops online – at Amazon or any of the other sites where books are sold – you likely make little note of the publisher’s name, more interested in the author, the name and genre of the book, the cover, the book description, and the reviews. But for the writers of those books, the journey to that book shelf – virtual or otherwise – has been, until Amazon, a gauntlet of restrictions, exclusions, and endless hoop-jumping, followed, most frequently, by rejection, dismissal, and, in too many cases, lack of even an acknowledgement of your introductory email or letter. There cannot be a less considerate, more brutal, process than the one required to simply gain the attention – much less the interest – of a literary agent, a step necessary if you want to approach Big 5 publishers. And while I have sincere empathy for those agents who are, no doubt, overwhelmed by submissions from the millions of writers looking for that representation, the entire process is set up to drive pretty much everyone involved f**king crazy. Agents try to preempt the seeming cruelty of their perceived coldness and disinterest by noting on their sites that they’re too busy to respond to anyone but those in whom they’re interested, but still…

A few lucky writers do get through – you might have one of their books on your nightstand – but even those are being rudely awakened to the new reality of far less marketing and promotional help from big publishers who, regardless, still control what their books will be and still take a big chunk of their profits. Other authors decide to go with smaller publishers who have little money to spend on anything but at least have a masthead. But for most writers this “auditioning” process can go on for years, during which time they edit, rewrite, and polish their manuscripts but, in most cases, see little progress in the quest to get them traditionally published.

I wrote a bit about this spinning journey in my piece, “Is Self-Publishing Killing Books? My Journey With After the Sucker Punch Answers the Question,” so I won’t reiterate beyond the obvious: when an industry becomes too exclusive, too restrictive; with contradictory standards, inexplicable or confused reasoning, and the inability – or wherewithal – to be open to much beyond the most obvious, the most predictably commercial, or the most connected, a revolution is going to happen. As it has.

While Big 5 and their gatekeepers were holding tight to their velvet ropes, Amazon opened their doors wide, giving independent authors of every ilk a place to publish, market (often with Amazon’s help), and sell their work, and, consequently, giving millions of readers the opportunity to buy it. As much as the naysayers bemoan this “muddying of the waters,” the fact is, books are not declining or becoming more generic because of Amazon; they are, more likely, expanding, with many new, talented writers finally getting an audience, one delighted to discover new work in, perhaps, a wider range of genres and styles than traditional publishers were willing to service. Some may sniff that self-published writers are a scruffy lot cranking out bad romance novels with sloppy manuscripts, amateur covers, and marginal skill – and some are. But there are also many who are remarkably talented, know their craft, and implement their impeccable standards with professional editors, formatters, and cover designers. Some of those writers are bestsellers. Some are famous. And some, like me, invite you to read our books now being independently published at Amazon to see just how they stack up against the “traditionals” (my book link is below… please, avail yourself and let me know; I’d be delighted to get your feedback, seriously!).

When Slate’s Evan Hughes posits, “How do you notice a great book that never gets written?,” his concern might be more applicable to the writers big publishers have been ignoring for years. Their books are, now, not only getting written, but finally getting noticed, thanks to that “national tragedy” that is Amazon. Whatever this behemoth is or isn’t; whatever it’s doing right or wrong, all I know, after years of jumping through endless hoops in hopes of getting my work acknowledged, I’m done jumping. I’m putting my creative ass on the line, standing by my work, and selling my book on Amazon. As are millions of others.

For those of you raging, I hope this gets worked out to the benefit of the most worthy; in the meantime, we independents are marching with the revolution.

Reading What They Want image: LDW @ Fine Art America

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.