For those who heard me (and the other guests) this morning on the Diane Rehm Show (archived here as a 6.4mb RealPlayer audio file; my short appearance is 30-odd minutes in), you'll notice that (quite properly) I didn't have a lot of time! Thus I have a few follow-up comments and resources. I will add to this page over the next week or so, too; in the meantime, feel free to explore the rest of the site!
Last Updated: 30 June 2005
One of the guests, rightly, characterized what I said as largely "caveat emptor." I've listed some self-education resources below, but I'd like to expand on a couple of issues that were outside the scope of the show before going on. (I feel fortunate that the other three guests were considered enough in their remarks that I didn't have to spend a lot of time correcting misstatements.)
There is, admittedly, one correct corollary to this particular canard: One can't displace the mass of celebrity-authored dreck with a less-than-exceptional book. Don Maass's advice (see below) is very simple: If you can't get a commercial publisher interested in your book, revise it substantially to make it better, or start over and write a better book. Running off to self-publish is probably not the solution, at least not in the "wise business move" sense, even when the rejections look like they're marketing-department drivel. If you're getting similar rejections, that might mean that the book is indeed one of those "unserved niche" books; statistically, though, it's a lot more likely to mean that the book lacks focus.
I didn't have much of an opportunity to go into good resources to do that research that I recommended explicitly (and that Dan Poynter recommended implicitly). Your first stop should be Writer Beware, which is an awareness effort of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. This site isn't just for science fiction/fantasy authors, or even just for fiction authors; it has invaluable resources on the publishing industry, and particularly for previously unpublished writers. (Disclosure: I am a member of the committee of SFWA that produces Writer Beware.)
One problem that many self-publishers have is not knowing much about costs going in. Too many self-publishers end up in vanity-publishing dealswhich are almost always financial disastersbecause they don't know what the various stages cost. Here are a few very broad guidelines:
Other useful websites and blogs, in alphabetical order, include:
Recommending books is always problematic. For one thing, most of the good books that might be relevant to those interested in self-publishing seem to have little to do with self-publishing; for another, most of the books that do focus on self-publishing are garbage (and I'm being charitable). The one book oriented solely toward self-publishing that I can honestly recommend to the uninitiated is Dan Poynter's The Self-Publishing Manual, now in its fifteenth edition. Dan's advice is solid and pretty well balanced on the basics of the business and production aspects of producing a self-published book.
One of the many problems, though, is that most self-published books fail because they just aren't very good. Some of them have inexcusably poor grammar; if you're going to pay to have them printed, wouldn't you at least like it to keep your sixth-grade English teacher from assigning you extra verb-subject agreement exercises from beyond the grave? The most cost-effective guideone that I still refer constantly to (and there's nothing wrong with split infinitives, Mrs Grundy)is Strunk and White's The Elements of Style (3d ed.) (I marginally prefer the Third Edition to the revisions in the Fourth Edition, but that's a matter of taste). For more-comprehensive guidance, particularly crossing the border from pure grammar to style and publishing practice, consider The Chicago Manual of Style, although it may be better to wait on it until you're rather close to publication time. It may also be a better choice to refer to it at the library (virtually every library will have copies). If you're writing a lot, though, consider the Fifteenth Edition if you're doing nonfiction or extensive work with electronic sources; otherwise, the Fourteenth Edition should be more than sufficient and will cost you about $20 less.
Grammar is relatively easy, though, and something that you can have someone else help you with. How does one get a good book onto paper (or, these days, into the computer)? These books (alphabetical by author) may be helpful to you; I'll add to the list from time to time.
The one thing that all of these resources will tell you is that good books require a lot of writing skill and work that doesn't involve putting words on paper (or on screen). No matter how good one's "natural storytelling" skills may be, they don't hold up at book length without substantial preparation. Even Isaac Asimov did a lot of thinking and preparation for writing before sitting down at the typewriter; he just didn't use a formal outline (perhaps because he was so brilliant that writing the outline down merely would have slowed down the writing!). My client Harlan Ellison is the same; don't kid yourself into thinking that those "write a story in the store window" exhibitions don't draw on his years of writing and thinking about what makes good fiction. And this precept is true no matter what kind of publishing model one follows.
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