Last weekend, the Central Virginia chapter of Sisters in Crime and a local library put on an event that was geared toward writers looking to get published. I was thrilled to be on the panel that spoke and answered questions. Of course, I know my own story, but what was interesting to me was how different (and similar) each of the writers’ stories were.
The experience of the writers ranged from seasoned, with more than 30 traditionally published books and 25 years in the business, to “newish”, 1 independently published book. Based on the questions and answers, the various paths went something like this:
There were a few things that stood out that were not a surprise. Those who had been in publishing the longest had come up through the more traditional routes. Query, get an agent, sign with a major publishing house. Some of the newer authors bypassed the process entirely, taking on the role of independent publisher. The biggest surprise was that one writer’s success as an independent author had attracted the attention of a publisher. The often heard myth that publishing independently is the death of one’s writing career was once again proved to be only that – a myth. However, the key to that equation is success. Also, an important thing to note is that while that author did seize the opportunity to try a more traditional route, she also continues to self-publish to great success. Interestingly to the audience, she has accomplished this without an agent since the publisher came to her.
The audience subsequently asked if having an agent is necessary, and the answer was yes AND no. Most authors already know that they don’t need an agent to self-publish. They also know that it’s difficult (although not impossible) to get published by a major house without an agent. All of those on the panel with agents believed their agents had been helpful in their careers. They can give advice and feedback, sell manuscripts, help an author negotiate the world of rights, and guide a career. If an author’s goal is to get and remain traditionally published, then they must be prepared for the new world of traditional publishing. A larger house can offer more exposure and discoverability (maybe), but it also comes with a short window to find success. Competition is stiff and if a book doesn’t sell well or even if it does, but the publisher is trimming the numbers of authors, genres, or imprints, the writer could find themselves without a publisher. More than one author on the panel had experienced this setback–or opportunity if you look forward and not back! The agent though should work with the author to find a new publisher and/or map out a strategy. This is not to say that an author can’t do these things alone, but having someone help might be the difference in how quickly you reach your goals within the traditional world.
As with any discussion that involves selling books, marketing was a hot topic. All of the authors found this to be a necessary task. But marketing takes time. An author with a long career might consider a publicist (as the most experienced author does) or a virtual assistant to help with a website and newsletter (as one of the newest authors does). Both of those approaches, however, take money. Most of the group did their own marketing or supplemented what was being done by their publishing house. This might be newsletter swaps, facebook parties, or book clubs. Like publishing itself, what works and doesn’t work is an ever-evolving thing. Plan for things to change and be willing to try new things.
Another path to publishing that came up during the panel was authors who had entered contests, won, and been awarded a publishing contract. Yes, this happens! On a smaller scale, authors were breaking into publishing by writing short stories that had been selected for inclusion in an anthology. Established authors anchor the anthology and newer authors are given the opportunity to reach potential readers this way. It’s a fabulous way to break in! Another path touched on was co-writing. While I don’t recall that anyone on the panel had co-written a book, we’d all heard of this as a great way to get a book out there.
And finally, one of the great things about building and sustaining a writing career is meeting other writers. It is a privilege to get to know them in person and online and share experiences. It also helps to join a local writing group. Here in Richmond, we are fortunate to have both Sisters in Crime (men are allowed!) and the James River Writers. Thanks again to Sisters in Crime for inviting me to speak. I can’t think of a better way to have spent the day!