NaNoWriMo Tip #29: If you don’t sell your novel to a publisher, yes, self-publish it. Here’s why.


Okay, here's the grand plan:

1. You finish this novel you've started this month, during NaNoWriMo.

2. You get an agent to love it.

3. The agent gets an editor to buy it.

4. You get that first advance check. (Fair warning: you'll wait a month for the contract, and another few weeks for the first advance check–around a third of the agreed amount, after you've signed it and sent it in; another third when you deliver the manuscript, and the final third by your launch date.)

5. The editor does a superior job massaging it into an even greater book.

6. You get your pub date. (Prepare for it to be anywhere from 12-18 months off into the future: AAAGGGHHHH, yeah, I know).

7. The book hits the shelves, and you throw your launch party. (Hurray! Hurray! Par-TAY!)

8. Then, you watch it sell…..


Welcome to the world of the mid-lister: the publishing world's version of the 99%.

And that world — one in which nearly all authors inhabit — is shrinking by the day.

Aye, there's the rub: If you aren't already a best-seller for whom front table co-op is a given (yes, folks: those first tables in a bookstore are purchased placement), or have had a “breakout book” (a debut or mid-list novelist whose book gained incredible word-of-mouth, and the sales that go with it) you are only as good as your last book's sales figures.

A few years back — prior to the flood of sales of eReaders such as the Kindle, Nook Kobo, iPad, and the multitudes of iTablets and Android devices, that meant depending on your pub house's sales team to sweet-talk your book onto the shelves of brick-and-mortar stores: independent bookstores, and the larger chain bookstores, such as Barnes & Noble and Borders.

But then Borders went under, and with it 900+ stores where midlist authors' books (including those who wrote in such genres as romance and mystery) could be purchased.

You could (bad pun) see the writing on the wall. Authors who had even a dozen or two of published books under their belts were passed over, or asked to write under pen names in order to re-establish themselves as “debut authors.”  Think about it: in any other industry — say, perfume — that is the equivalent of taking a fragrance that has sold steadily as White Shoulders, then re-packaging it as “Tabu.”

You are a brand. Your books are your products which your publishing house sells. 

The only difference: in the perfume industry, besides its research and production, a very substantial investment is made on a product's packaging and promotion.

Not so for any mid-list book. 

(And, according to my bestseller pals, other than co-op or an ad here or there, their books aren't that well promoted, either).

To give the author's return-on-investment picture even more clarity, consider that the initial advance to a mid-lister is around $5,000-$20,000, and the units that cover that must be sold prior to the author receiving any additional compensation, which, after that ranges from 8-12% of the book's retail price.

(And by the way, any books that are returned by the booksellers is counted against your advance; and retailers are allowed to return as many as they want, for as long of a time as they want.) 

The other 92 to 85% of the retail value is what the publishers hold onto, and divide with the bookseller, who gets up to 55% of the price.. And taken out of the publisher's revenue comes such costs as editor's salaries, cover design, sales force commissions, and marketing promotion.

Writing a book is not an easy endeavor. You've just gone through NaNoWriMo, a marathon that proves the point. The time and effort it took you to concept, outline, research, write, and rewrite your book was speculation on your part. Perhaps it added up to 150 endless days and nights. 

Now, divide all your time and effort of, say, 150 days by your advance of, say, $10,000:

That's about $66.66/day. Divided by ten hours for the average writer's work day, your down to $6.66. an hour.

Obviously, you'd make more money at Wal-Mart — selling other authors' books.

This is why authors — both published, and unpublished — consider self-publishing. 

At the same time that brick-and-mortar bookstores are shrinking, the sales of digital eReaders — and digital eBooks — are growing.

For the past couple of years, self-publishing has looked like the gold rush. Those authors who were among the first to get to that rich riverbed of consumers with digital eReaders (Amanda HockingJ.A. KonrathBella AndreKate PerryBarbara Freethy and Stephanie Bond) have struck the kind of financial riches the rest of us dream about. Whereas Hocking debuted as an eBook, the last three (Konrath writes thrillers; Andre writes romance; and Bond writes romantic suspense) were strong mid-list genre authors whose backlists had decent sales for their established New York publishing houses. 

Granted, by cutting out the middle man (the publishing house) you also cut out such crucial services, such as editing and cover design. But for a couple of hundred dollars, you can get a free-lance editor to help you with clean-up. And for another couple of hundred plus dollars, you can get your manuscript formatted as per required by all the online bookstores, as well as a decent cover to boot (and have a say in what that cover looks like)…

And you hold onto 70% of the online retail sales price. 

However, there's a rub in the self-pub world, too: the gold rush has slowed down. Supply (a plethora of digital eBooks) is way up. 

The good news: demand — and digital eReader sales — is still growing.

As a one-person industry, you will still need to do that thing the pub houses missed: PROMOTE.

I get it: all you want to do is write your books…

But even if you are “lucky” enough to sell to a New York publisher, you'll also need to promote the books they publish for you.

I'm warning you up front.

That means knowing your core target audience, and how to reach them. Make them know you (brand awareness) and love your books (sampling, contests, word-of-mouth).

Welcome to the business life of an author.

Plan A: Get New York to want you (doable), love you (doable), and promote you (don't hold your breath).

Plan B: Skip New York. Write a great book. Get it edited, and give it a cover that sells. Uplink it to all the online bookstores. Promote the hell out of it to its most obvious readers….

And write more books.

The photo above: Jessica Berry




Question of the day: If New York passes you by, will you be self-pub'ing your book? Will go detour from New York altogether? If so why?


— Josie


We have a winner…

HAH Hanging Man V2Thanks, all 116 correct entrants, for making my $50 Fandango Bucks contest for the launch of The Housewife Assassin's Handbook a total success.

The winning entry is Lynn S., from Towson, MD.

Lori squeeled very loudly (via email). I would have, too, since this upcoming fall movie season looks super. Of special interest to me it Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy — not just because it's got a great cast (Gary Oldman, Colin Firth to name two), but because it seems like an excellent adapted by my favorite espionage novelist John LeCarre,  

Hmmm….maybe that will give me an excuse to throw another Fandango Bucks contest…

You'll be the first to know,



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The Pulitzer Prize and the Novel TINKERS: What Dreams May Come in Publishing

Tinkers One of the hardest things to do is write a novel. I guess that's why everyone attempts to do so.

Even when you spin prose into gold, like Paul Harding has done with his book, Tinkers, you still have to overcome the reticence of those publishing industry decision makers (agents, then editors) that your book will somehow catch the zeitgeist and find an audience.

Even when word of mouth is enthusiastic, a book has to compete with those tried-and-true commercial (operative word here) bestsellers who come out the same month and also have three very big things working in their favor: "co-op" (the marketing push that gets a book on the front table beside the door, where 70 percent of most books are sold); vast distribution (not just independent bookstores, but large purchases from the chains, Barnes & Noble and Borders Books, as well as, perhaps some big box store sales, from Wal-Mart, Costco or Target; and most important of all author name recognition (James Patterson: I'm lookin' at YOU...)

Needless to say, I'm always happy to read a success story about a book that might have been mired in oblivion if it didn't get that extra push from somewhere. In the case of Mr. Harding, he had an angel of an editor (yes, they do exist: I am proof of that — thank you Ms. M, of S&S!). He also had a sales person on his publishers team who became his advocate in the wilderness; and those at the front line of defense–the independent bookstores–recognized his genius, too. That is to be expected: they love books with a passion, and and always the first to recognize a great one and put the wind beneath its sales (pun intended, thank you).

The New York Times has done a marvelous job of telling Mr. Harding's journey from first book oblivion to Pulitzer prize winner. It is also quick to give a mea culpa for missing out in reviewing the book for its readers.

It's not in 3-D, and there is no three-act arc, but that's okay. I can't wait to read it.

(And maybe that's why),


SecretLives400 Josie's
Next Book: Secret Lives of Husbands and Wives

Simon & Schuster/Downtown Press

(ISBN: 9781439173176)

In bookstores June 1, 2010. Order it

"Hollywood's got nothing on the cast of characters living in
bedroom community of Paradise Heights, who have the secrets, sex, money
and scandal of an OK! Magazine cover story. Josie Brown is a skilled
observer whose clever dialogue and feisty style make for truly
entertaining reading."

, bestselling author of Hollywood Wives and Poor Little Bitch Girl

April 19, 2010

IOWA CITY — Six years ago Paul Harding
was just another graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with a quiet
little novel he hoped to publish. He sent copies of the manuscript, in
which he had intertwined the deathbed memories of a New England clock
repairer with episodes about the dying man’s father, to a handful of
agents and editors in New York. Soon after, the rejection letters
started to roll in.

“They would lecture me about the pace of life today,” Mr. Harding
said last week over lunch at a diner in this college town, where he is
now teaching at the workshop. “It was, ‘Where are the car chases?’ ” he
said, recalling the gist of the letters. “ ‘Nobody wants to read a
slow, contemplative, meditative, quiet book.’ ”

His manuscript languished in a desk drawer for nearly three years.
But in perhaps the most dramatic literary Cinderella story of recent
memory, Mr. Harding, 42, not only eventually found a publisher — the
tiny Bellevue Literary Press — for the novel, “Tinkers,” he also went
on to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction last week. Within an hour of the Pulitzer announcement, Random House
sent out a news release boasting of the two-book deal it had signed
with Mr. Harding late in 2009. A few days later the Guggenheim
Foundation announced he had received one of its prestigious fellowships.

The early rejection “was funny at the time,” Mr. Harding said. “And
even funnier now.” Mr. Harding, a onetime drummer for a rock band, is
far too discreet to name any of the agents or editors who wouldn’t
touch his work a few years ago.

But he is quick to praise those who helped “Tinkers” become a
darling of the independent bookstore circuit, including Erika Goldman,
the editorial director of Bellevue, whom Mr. Harding described as a
“deeply empathetic reader”; Lise Solomon, a sales representative in
Northern California for Consortium, the book’s distributor, who
passionately advocated for the novel with booksellers; and the
booksellers and critics who embraced the book early on.

Although “Tinkers” sunk under the radar in some quarters (including
The New York Times, which did not review it), it made several year-end
best lists, including NPR’s best debut fiction and The New Yorker
magazine’s list of reviewers’ favorites. According to Nielsen Bookscan,
which tracks about 70 percent of retail sales, “Tinkers” sold 7,000
copies before the Pulitzer announcement.

Now many independent booksellers are claiming Mr. Harding’s victory
as their own. “This shows how indie bookstores truly are the ones that
can be movers and shakers when it comes to a book,” said Michele
Filgate, the events manager at RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, N.H.,
who raved about the book on Bookslut, a literary blog. As it turns out,
it was Ms. Filgate who first told Rebecca Pepper Sinkler, a former
editor of The New York Times Book Review and chairwoman of this year’s
Pulitzer fiction jury, about “Tinkers” at a book-reviewing workshop Ms.
Sinkler led in Manchester, N.H., last April.

In classes at Iowa Mr. Harding has become an instant celebrity, of
course, but also, a reassurance. Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer
Prize-winning author of “Gilead,” Mr. Harding’s former teacher and now
a friend, said last week in her workshop office that she had already
repeated Mr. Harding’s story several times.

“One of the problems I have is making my students believe that they
can write something that satisfies their definition of good, and they
don’t have to calculate the market,” Ms. Robinson said. “Now that I
have the Paul anecdote, they will believe me more.”

Mr. Harding is an avid reader of 19th-century novels, theological
works (Karl Barth is his current favorite) and physics, making it hard
to believe his claims that he was a poor student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he majored in English. The university does confirm that he took six years to complete his degree.

Wearing wire-framed glasses and a white button-down shirt tucked
into Levi’s, he talked effusively, the antithesis of the taciturn
father and son portrayed in “Tinkers,” a novel with sparse dialogue and
large portions set inside the characters’ heads.

Framed partly as a deathbed vigil for George Washington Crosby, a
clock repairer, the book wanders through time and consciousness,
describing in fine-grain detail its rural Maine setting and the
epileptic fits of George’s father, Howard, an old-time tinker who
traveled the countryside by wagon.

The story’s genesis came from Mr. Harding’s own grandfather, who
grew up in rural Maine and whose epileptic father abandoned the family
when he learned that his wife, Mr. Harding’s great-grandmother, planned
to send him to an asylum.

Mr. Harding spent his childhood in Wenham, Mass., a town not far
from where he lives with his wife and two sons, and he went fly-fishing
in northern Maine during the summers. He apprenticed with his
grandfather in clock repair, and after graduating from college he
recorded two albums and toured Europe with Cold Water Flat, the band he
helped form at UMass.

The band fell apart (the usual: creative differences), and Mr.
Harding decided to scratch another itch. He enrolled in a summer
writing course at Skidmore College, where he took classes with Ms.

With his application for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he submitted two stories, one of which was his first stab at “Tinkers.”

But for most of his time in Iowa Mr. Harding worked on a novel about
a 12-year-old girl who disguised herself as a boy in order to work in a
Mexican silver mine during the 16th century. As he graduated, he
realized the novel didn’t work.

Once again the story of his grandfather beckoned. Turning back to
it, he said, “was just such a sense of relief to not have to go looking
in history books.”

After his first son was born and he was teaching expository writing to undergraduates at Harvard
and creative writing to night-school students, the novel became an
extracurricular project. “It got so it was guerilla writing,” Mr.
Harding said. “I could flip open the laptop and start writing
anywhere.” He wrote on bookmarks and the backs of receipts,
transcribing the scraps into the computer later.

Finally, one Saturday night, he printed out his mishmashed computer
file and laid it out on the living-room floor. Nursing a few fingers of
whiskey, he cut up the document, stapling and taping sections into the
structure that ultimately made it to publication.

Shortly after Ms. Goldman finally agreed to buy the book — paying a
$1,000 advance — things began to go right. Ms. Robinson, who rarely
gives blurbs, gave “Tinkers” a stellar one, calling it “truly
remarkable.” Independent booksellers started to push it.

Meanwhile Ms. Sinkler began to champion “Tinkers” among her fellow Pulitzer jury members, Charles Johnson, the author of the National Book Award-winning “Middle Passage,” and Laura Miller, a senior writer at
“I think that sentence for sentence, it was the most beautifully
written and most gorgeous use of language of any of the books we looked
at,” Ms. Sinkler said in a telephone interview.

Mr. Harding is working on his next novel, set in Enon, the fictional
town where George dies, focusing on one of George’s grandsons, Charlie,
and Charlie’s daughter, Kate.

The Pulitzer may change some worldly things, he said, but not how he works.

“I sort of feel like I know how I got here, every step of the way,”
Mr. Harding said. “Something like this can befall me, and it won’t be
catastrophic success.”

Copyright 2010
The New York Times Company