Negotiating the Writing Sieve

career indie author

career indie author introduction

This may or may not be the introduction to the “Career Indie Author.” My wife, who has accompanied me on my authorial journey these two decades, wanted to write something from her viewpoint on the publishing process, particularly as it applies to the family. Some conflicts may be heightened for comic effect. I hope.

Hey Writer X! Did you know that anyone can write a book? In fact, writing isn’t the hard part.

The hard part comes after you write the book.

writing sieve

Did you know that anyone can write a book?

Look around. You will see that millions of titles have been published, all of them written by somebody. Every library, new and used bookstore (both cyber-space and meat-space), gift shop, supermarket, discount department store, thrift shop, and yard sale has books. Some have an avalanche of books, sometimes a selection of best-sellers, and sometimes, well, who knows what will be hiding on the shelf.

Notice that I said ‘published’. There are even more books that have been written that have never seen paper other than what the author used, scribbling away in his garret.

writing sieve

It’s much harder, Writer X, to write a good book.

So it’s easy to write a book. It’s much harder, Writer X, to write a good book. One that is grammatically correct, has no misspellings, is internally consistent, sticks to actual facts (for non-fiction) and has no glaring plot holes (for fiction), is printed in a legible font size with readable colors of ink, and with appropriate illustrations, maps, charts, and a functional index. A table of contents is nice, too, as is a good cover that bears some relationship to the subject matter.

Once you, Writer X, have the book writing out of the way, you are ready to pass through the next dozen or so sieves, each of a finer mesh, keeping you from the potential reading (and maybe even paying!) customer.

Your Spouse

After you have finished the book, and spell- and grammar-checked it to book, First Reader — traditionally your long-suffering spouse — gets to read it.

First Reader will get out her red pen and note every spelling error, grammatical error, internal inconsistency, missing footnote, plot hole, and unpleasant leading character who she thinks no-one would ever pay to read about. She will comment on your poor choice of names and how they do not match up to the image of the character she sees in her mind. First Reader may also comment that she sure hopes this one will finally make some money.

First Reader may also comment that she sure hopes this one will finally make some money.

First Reader may also comment that she sure hopes this one will finally make some money.

So Writer X, goes back and make all the corrections suggested by First Reader. This process may be repeated two or three more times until the book is as good as it is going to get or until you and First Reader have had enough.

The Agent Sieve

There are two avenues of approach, Writer X, to get your book in front of the reading public: traditional publishing or self-publishing.

You, Writer X, will try real-world publishing first as it is traditional, potentially costs less, seems to involve less effort on your end, and it is more familiar.

writing sieve agent

In a process that can take months, you will find Agent who thinks he can sell the book to an editor he knows.

First, Writer X, you must find an agent to represent you. You must have an agent as damn few publishers accept unagented books anymore. You will approach many agents, manuscript in hand. They will all reject the book as not being what they are looking for. Eventually, in a process that can take months, you will find Agent who thinks she can sell the book to an editor she knows.

Remember that Agent is in business to make money. It’s her fault: She likes reading and books or she would have become an accountant.

Agent approaches the editors she knows looking to match up your book against what the editors need to fill out their upcoming catalog. Agent succeeds, after much time and travail, in finding Editor!

The Editor Sieve

Editor must then sell your book to Publisher. Publisher has a bigger picture in mind than does Editor. Does the book meet Publisher’s chosen set of topics and genres? Will it fit in the upcoming catalog? Is it too similar to another book already in the line? Is it too different from the selection already on offer? Do they have any hope of selling it and making some money?

Your Editor is also competing for these publishing slots with all the other editors on staff at Publisher, each trying hard to get their titles into the catalog.

Editor makes the pitch and it succeeds!

Publisher accepts the book. It meets all the criteria and there is some hope it will make money. You now have the chance of earning some money yourself, as an advance against future earnings.

But first, Editor will make hundreds of corrections and suggestions on how to improve the book. You, Writer X, will rewrite the book in accordance with what Editor wants, even if it means rearranging the plot according to what Editor feels will improve it and make it more salable. Artists are found, a cover is developed, jacket copy is written, the text is laid out, interiors are designed and your book will get a title, not necessarily the one you chose when you wrote it. You may have no input in this process at all, other than doing the rewrites.

The Marketing Sieve

Editor will now place the book in the upcoming season’s catalog. Will you get a two-page spread up front with a picture of yourself and the book cover and a nice synopsis? Will you receive a half-page description on the next to the last page? Somewhere in between? You, Writer X, have no control on this process at all.

Bookstore buyers and librarians peruse the catalog closely. What lies is Publisher telling?

Bookstore buyers and librarians peruse the catalog closely. What lies is Publisher telling?

The catalogs are sent to bookstores and libraries on Publisher’s schedule and not the one you need to pay the mortgage. Bookstore buyers and librarians peruse the catalog closely. What lies is Publisher telling? Will these books actually sell? asks the bookstore owner. Will library patrons want to read this book or will they complain and boycott the library and vote no on the next library bond? asks the librarian. Books are ordered from the catalogs to be delivered in due time.

The new books arrive at the bookstore and library. At the library, new books get placed on a rack by the check-out desk. Depending on the space available, your book may be turned face out. It may stay up front for a while if a) no other books are being bought and b) lots of people check it out. Eventually, the book will move to the stacks and stay there for awhile before being purged in a library sale.

At the bookstore, your book will be competing with every other book in the store. It may be prominently displayed in the center aisle (under “New Arrivals” or “Staff Picks”) if Publisher paid for this service. It is more likely to go onto the shelves in the closest matching genre with only the spine showing and not the lovely cover with your name prominently displayed.

At this point, you, Writer X, discover that Publisher has no intention of paying for publicity. You may get some assistance in setting up a radio interview, podcast, or a blog tour. Everything else; bookmarks, local signings, advertisements in the local paper, a dedicated publicist, you, Writer X, will pay for out of the advance money you were paid. First Reader will have many things to say about this when she finds out.

The Reader Sieve

And finally, The Reader walks into the book shop or the library, looks at the hundreds of thousands of titles all begging to be read and says, “I choose you, Writer Q.”

You, Writer X, did not make it past all the meshes of the sieves, each one finer than the one before. You got sifted out, along with the chaff.

You, Writer X, did not make it past all the meshes of the sieves, each one finer than the one before. You got sifted out, along with the chaff.

The Reader has never heard of you, Writer X. The Reader did not notice your book, waiting all hopeful and eager on a bottom shelf, spine out. Depending on Publisher’s needs, your book could go onto remainder tables everywhere. Your book does not sell enough copies to pay back even the tiny advance that Agent got you. Editor says we loved your book and we might try again later. Publisher says never again, at least under this name. Agent says I will call you, don’t call me.

You, Writer X, did not make it past all the meshes of the sieves, each one finer than the one before. You got sifted out, along with the chaff.

The Self-Publishing Path

This leads you, Writer X, to the second avenue in getting your books in front of the reading public. You, Writer X, will self-publish via the miracle of Amazon.

Writing novels

You go back to the drawing board and write another book.

You go back to the drawing board and write another book. Because of the contract you signed with Publisher, you cannot repurpose what you already wrote. You will not be able to reuse the same characters, setting, or the world you so carefully developed.

You and First Reader (ever supportive) edit, spell-check, grammar-check and rework the new book using everything you learned from the first experience. You finish the book.

At this point, you think about all the helpful suggestions given to you by Agent and Editor about your first book. You need someone other than First Reader, you need someone with fresh, unjaundiced eyes. You need Beta Reader.

Beta Reader is usually, but not always, a friend or relative who reads books, hopefully in your genre. Beta Reader does not know anything about the plot of your book. Beta Reader reads the book and tells you that it was boring, provincial, derivative, and not suitable to go on the supermarket paperback rack. Do you listen to Beta Reader? Do you find another Beta Reader? What do Beta Readers know anyway?

The Developmental Sieve

beta readers

She suggests that you have many friends and relatives left to act as free Beta Readers and maybe you should take their suggestions to heart.

Someone suggests trying a professional freelance Developmental Editor. Developmental Editor will whip that book into shape! Developmental Editor wants $2 a page for your 500-page manuscript. You, Writer X, have a worried discussion about finances with First Reader. She suggests that you have many friends and relatives left to act as free Beta Readers and maybe you should take their suggestions to heart.

More time passes while you rewrite your book, listening to the many helpful comments and suggestions from your Beta Readers. Their suggestions would be more helpful if they agreed on the same issues but, sadly, they do not.

The Publishing Sieve

You then discover that you, Writer X, must format the book for publication, design a front and back cover (plus spine), generate any inside art and write jacket copy. If the book needs an index, bibliography, list of characters or a table of contents, you, Writer X, must produce them. Publisher had done all of those jobs for you on the first book.

You do further research and discover that those jobs can be farmed out to paid professionals.

You do further research and discover that those jobs can be farmed out to paid professionals.

You do further research and discover that those jobs can be farmed out to paid professionals. You have another worried discussion about money with First Reader. You, Writer X, must decide what you can learn to do, what your family and friends can do, and what you must pay someone else to do.

You work it out, somehow.

You then approach all your better known writer friends and beg for supportive blurbs to put on the book jacket. If you, Writer X, do not ask for blurbs, they will not happen. This turns out to be another job that Publisher did, while turning your manuscript into a finished book.

You, Writer X, can now choose to learn how to kindle-ize your book, making sure it is on every electronic book format OR you can find and pay for a professional kindle-izer. Both of these options will take still more time and keep you from working on the next book.

Eventually, the book is kindle-ized for every e-book format and made available in trade paperback via CreateSpace. This was another huge learning curve but First Reader insisted upon this option being available as not every person has a Kindle. First Reader points out that you can’t sell cat mysteries at the cat show if you don’t have books on hand to sell.

The Marketing Sieve

The book is released into the wild in every format. At this point you, Writer X, realize that you must again do publicity so that readers everywhere can discover your book. You must, of course, pay for all your own publicity and arrange your own radio and podcast interviews and blog tours. The only difference is that you don’t have a (tiny) advance to help you.

You must spend precious time — when you could be writing — touring local bookstores and begging to be put on the consignment shelf, writing guest blog posts, and scrounging up speaking engagements at the local library. Neither you nor First Reader know if any of these actions will help sell your book.

Because you have self-published, the odds are extremely low that your book will be displayed with all the other books in the book store, the discount department store, the library, or the supermarket rack.

You, Writer X, then discover that it matters tremendously how you describe the book to Amazon. Do you want to compete in the entire fiction category with a million or so other titles? Or do you want to try to narrow the field by listing the book into a narrower, more descriptive category?

You realize that you have an entirely new set of skills to learn. Or, as always, you can try to find someone else to do them and pay for the privilege of possibly substandard work. If you, Writer X, do the work yourself, it may still be substandard, but it will have been free.

You discover that you need an on-line presence of some kind so that Buying Reader can find you more easily, among the millions of writers and books out there.

First Reader has plenty to say to you when she discovers that you haven’t done this yet.

First Reader has plenty to say to you when she discovers that you haven’t done this yet.

Fortunately, Amazon has an option letting you have a free author page. First Reader has plenty to say to you when she discovers that you haven’t done this yet. This leads to an acrimonious discussion of time management and do you, Writer X, have the time and skill to run a website, a Facebook page, a Twitter feed, a Tumblr, a Pinterest board, and still write books? Why are you wasting time surfing when you should be writing?

You do discover one great advantage of e-books. Books are never sent to remainder tables and they don’t go out of print. Even if your forlorn little book sells only three copies a month, it will remain available as long as you want it to. And, as you get better at the process, you may sell more books.

The Business Sieve

You write another book and you get better at the process. Some money trickles in, and you and First Reader discover that your taxes just got much more complicated. You must now find, vet, and hire Accountant.

Now if you could just figure out how to get The Reader to say “I choose you, Writer X” instead of “I choose you, Writer Q.”

Now if you could just figure out how to get The Reader to say “I choose you, Writer X” instead of “I choose you, Writer Q.”

You write and self-publish another book. More money trickles in. First Reader says that at this rate, when you write and self-publish fifty more books, you can quit your day job. You’re on your way, Writer X!

Now if you could just figure out how to get The Reader to say “I choose you, Writer X” instead of “I choose you, Writer Q.” That is still the hardest problem to solve and the finest sieve of them all to pass through. Doing this successfully leads to sales and money, both so helpful in finding job satisfaction as a Career Indie Author.