The Most Important Question to Ask Yourself Before You Publish – Anne R. Allen

If it’s Sunday, it means I’ve crossed the pond and can be found lurking over on WG2E again. Which is rather appropriate because, as promised yesterday, my post at WG2E is all about the launch of our new publishing imprint, the Mark Williams international Digitial Press, and in particular our unique Crossing The Pond service.

Ruth Harris

Here at MWi in West Africa I’ve dragged blogging guru Anne R Allen all the way across from California to stand in for me. Problem is, Anne posts on Sundays too. So Anne had to drag NYT best-selling author Ruth Harris across from New York to the Pacific coast to fill that gap. A right game of musical chairs.

Was it worth it? Only you can judge. But word was out last week from Gatekeepers Inc  that all us writers are wasting our time blogging. Over at the Passive Voice the one and only Passive Guy was discussing  a post on a literary agents’ site. The argument being put forward by Wendy Lawton was that writers are wasting their time writing blogs as they don’t sell books and are only read by other authors.

Leaving aside the ludicrous suggestion implicit that writers don’t read books, Wendy seems to be rather missing the point about why writers blog, which is hilarious given how agents nowadays constantly recite the mantra about all writers needing to have a degree in SMP to get anywhere .

What Wendy doesn’t understand is this: A good writing blog is an extension of that writer’s purpose in life:  To write.

Bloggers who scream Buy My Book! in every post soon have no readers. But good blogs attract readers back time and again. A good blog sells the author, not the book. Wendy Lawton, you have a lot to learn.

Anne R Allen

Today’s guest is a fine example. Anne R Allen is one of the leading blogging gurus in our field, widely loved and respected for her weekly observations on the writing life. Yet Anne hasn’t had a book available for sale for years! Her last publisher inconsiderately went bankrupt and left her in limbo as an author.

In fact, just this week has that finally been remedied, with the first of two of Anne’s books being released by Popcorn, a small press outfit in the US (about which I’ll be returning in another post). Prior to this Anne had trod the same path of agent rejection and author dejection as the rest of us. She could have walked away and watched TV, but instead Anne started blogging for the benefit of fellow writers, and today gets visitor numbers most of us can only dream of.

The connection with the Seurat painting? Just the title, Sunday Afternoon. After all, we don’t need an excuse to display fine art.

But we do need today’s guest, Anne R Allen, to show us how blogging too can be a fine art.

Here’s Anne:

The Most Important Question to Ask Yourself before You Publish

Two decades ago, if I’d known the challenges I’d face in pursuing a writing career, I’d have chosen a more stable profession.

Like maybe running an all-ayatollah drag show in downtown Tehran.

Since the late ’nineties, writers have been treated with more and more contempt by the publishing industry, as marketing departments have taken control of artistic decisions and editorial meetings have turned into Gossip Girl-style hissy-fights. Advances have shrunk, royalties never happen, and contracts have turned draconian. Even long-established authors can barely scrape together a living and only a handful of superstars get the benefit of publicity and marketing.

But a little less than two years ago, this crumbling world was rocked by an earthquake called the Kindle, and aftershocks are still altering the landscape on a daily basis. The pulp paperback is in its death throes, as mass market houses like Dorchester slink into ignominious bankruptcy. E-book sales grew 169% just last month.

Trusted voices in the publishing industry, who not long ago warned against self-publishing, now sing the praises of self-epubbing. Insiders Nathan Bransford and Jane Friedman see it as the most lucrative road for many authors. Agents like Laurie McLean and Jenny Bent suggest new authors self-publish rather than directly query agencies.

And writers are shouting hallelujah. After years of being told to wait, wait, wait, and LEARN PATIENCE, PEOPLE, aspiring writers have hopes of establishing careers writing fiction. Now. Not three or five or ten years down the road after the excruciating query/submission/editing process, but right this minute.

Self-pub gurus urge you to jump in immediately, because 1) You’re throwing away the money you could be making on those manuscripts sitting in your files. 2) There’s an indie “bubble” that’s about to burst. (We’ve been hearing that almost since Joe Konrath published his first blogpost, and now Stephen Leather is telling us the party’s almost over.)  (Do read Mark’s rebuttal.)

The biggest lure of all is that writers are making real money. Joe Konrath and the superfab ladies at the Writers Guide to E-Publishing  regularly post hot financial statistics that are pure writer porn.

Is it time for you to join in the orgy?

Maybe not.

Something happened last spring that serves as a cautionary tale.

It was a brouhaha that went viral when an indie author came to cyberblows with a book blogger over a bad review. The author had a very childish meltdown and the entire blogosphere followed suit: a Lord of the Flies moment in indie-land.

I think the people who made the nasty blog comments all wanted to believe it all happened because the writer’s book was really bad—so they could tell themselves it would never happen to them.

Asimov

But Isaac Asimov once observed that writers fall into two groups: “those who bleed copiously and visibly at any bad review, and those who bleed copiously and secretly at any bad review.”

Unfortunately, in these days of social media, there’s very little “secretly” any more. Everything is visible—on a global scale.

That writer wasn’t ready to publish—regardless of the quality of her book. Her problem was that she hadn’t yet developed the soul-calluses that are required of a professional author these days.

Turns out there were some unspoken benefits to the old query-fail-query-fail-submission-fail-editorial meeting-fail, fail, fail system we’ve suffered through for the past few decades. It not only gave writers numerous readers to help hone our books to perfection—it also taught us to deal with rejection, failure and bad reviews.

If you choose to self-publish because you can’t handle the rejection of the query process, you’re setting yourself up for worse pain later on. If those form rejections in your email sting, think of how you’ll feel when very personal rejection is broadcast all over the blogosphere.

Don’t publish until you’re psychologically prepared to take the heat. Always keep in mind this is a business, and business can be nasty.


Here’s the question to ask yourself when you’re trying to decide if it’s time to publish:

Are you emotionally ready for your close-up?

Every successful author gets nasty reviews. Every. Single. One. If you want proof, go read the one-star reviews of literary classics on Amazon. Unfortunately, indie authors attract those one-star reviews more than any others. In fact there are professional review trolls who are paid to bring down a popular writer’s star ratings by rivals in the genre. (Yeah, it’s an indie-eat-indie world out there.)

Learning to deal with crushing, unfair criticism needs to be part of your skill set. Make sure you keep in touch with the part of you that has nothing to do with your books—the one that goes outside to hear real birds twitter and gets face to face with actual friends.

And do make sure your book is really, truly ready. Not just for friendly readers, but unfriendly ones. I suggest you look for some not-so-tame beta readers and ask them to do their worst. Then imagine seeing their harshest words in a review. Can you see how a reader might accept them as valid? If so, hold off and do some more editing. Better yet, write another book. (David Gaughran has a must-read post this week about the need for inventory in indie publishing success.) Then edit the first book again.

Catherine Ryan Hyde

Then you need to accept that after a nasty review, it’s time to STEP AWAY FROM THE COMPUTER. Hide all electronic communication devices and bring in chocolate, wine, DVDs, and/or your BFF, and hibernate. PAY IT FORWARD author Catherine Ryan Hyde suggests you allow yourself to mourn for at least three days after a bad review. I think that sounds about right.

And this advice doesn’t just apply to self-publishers. My comic thriller FOOD OF LOVE went up on Amazon this weekend. It’s professionally edited and polished, but way quirky. It breaks all recognized rules of corporate publishing. And a whole lot of other rules besides. It roller-coasters from comedy to tragedy. It’s got politics, religion, race issues, and body-image issues. Also a hot KGB agent, a sexy fat chick and a couple of Elvis impersonators. Plus a small nuclear bomb.   

I’ve got to anticipate that a few readers will find it all too much. 

So if you miss me from the blogosphere for a few days after the reviews start coming in, you’ll know I’ve taken my bag of Belgian chocolate chunks off to the beach. If I’ve learned anything in my two decades of rejection, it’s how to put on a happy face and do my copious bleeding in secret.

Thanks, Anne. Not so many thanks, though, for reminding me about all those great Asimov books I haven’t read in decades. My poor Kindle will explode!

Anne will have her second book out with Popcorn shortly.  And another three out with that upstart digi-press MWiDP between now and November. More on those nearer the time.

Meanwhile you can be sure she’ll be ignoring the advice of Wendy Lawton and carrying on blogging with a vengeance.

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  1. Anne, Thank you for an excellent post. In this brave new world of epublishing one of the best things we have is the ability to encourage and pay-it-forward.
    Warmest regards and much success with your new book… I’m zipping over to buy a copy of Food of Love. It sounds like just my cup of tea.

    • I haven’t read Food Of Love yet, Barbara, but all feedback so far suggests it will be great fun.

      I have read three other of Anne’s novels – the ones we’ll be publishing under the MWiDP imprint very soon. I can assure you you’re in for some great reading!

    • Barbara–I have a feeling we’re kindred spirits. Your books sound like exactly my cup of tea. They’re the first things I’m buying for my Kindle when it arrives.

    • Pj Schott
    • September 25th, 2011

    That was WONDERFUL. Thank you, Barbara for sending me over here. And, ladies, please. Ignore the bad reviews. Some people are idiots. Some are a@#holes, as evidenced by Anne’s story about professional bad review writers.

    • Thanks for joining us, PJ!

    • Pj–One of the downsides of the digital revolution is that a lot of underemployed, unhappy people living in their mom’s basements take out their anger in comments and reviews on the Interwebz. When I read a really bad review, I picture some sad little guy in a basement, who just lost his job at Borders, and it’s easier to take. Really nasty reviews are never about the book. They’re about the reviewer.

    • ccc
    • September 25th, 2011

    Great and pragmatic post. If I were a blogger, I’d repost it.
    Thanks!

  2. *takes a deep breath* Soul calluses? Hehe, I’m afraid I have very few of those – I’m a tender-hearted sort, unfortunately, though I’m a master of crying very very quietly.
    TIme to toughen up methinks.

    • This is the person who uses her boarding school status to threaten to turn small children into frogs! Hardly tender-hearted!

      And she hasn’t sent me a new chapter for St. Mall’s for a whole week!

    • It’s tough to learn, Charley, but as long as you remember that EVERYBODY gets rotten reviews, it helps.

  3. Back in the day when books were reviewed in newspapers & magazines, reviews came in manila envelopes from your publisher or its clipping service. I—like many writers—had a superb filtering device: a friend, a spouse, a live-in or live-out SO who read and culled. The idiotic, the stupids, the clueless (ie any reviewer who didn’t simply adore every syllable, every comma, every chapter number in your book) never saw the light of day.

    Today, right this minute in fact, if you’re in a masochistic mood, you can go look & see what the idiots, the stupids, the clueless have to say about your book. Which is when you learn either a) not to indulge your masochistic tendencies or b) to grow a tough hide (if you haven’t already) and a healthy f*ck you attitude.

    Then go back to your computer and keep writing. Don’t ever forget: writing well is the best revenge.

    • Beautifully said, Ruth!

    • Very nicely put Ruth! And everybody–go read Ruth’s great post on my blog today, along with some inspirational advice from bestselling novelist and legendary screenwriter Michael Brandman.

  4. Ruth, I love that slogan. I’m going to tape it to my computer screen.
    Writing well is the best revenge. 🙂

    • Which happens to be the subject of my next novel with Popcorn Press THE BEST REVENGE.

  5. This is an amazing blog with fantastic advice, Thanks Anne! I have to agree with what you said. If it wasn’t for all the query rejections I had, my skin wouldn’t be half as tough and I honestly think I would take the snarky reviews I’ve had much more personally.

    Don’t get me wrong, they still sting and I have to recite to myself, over and over, “Step away from the computer!” BUT if I hadn’t had a taste of it through rejection letters I most certainly would have been crushed by some of the things reviewers have said. And it’s something I never considered before “Are you emotionally reading for publication?” That is a very good question. I bet a lot of authors out there aren’t.

    I also like the “3 days to grieve” sentiment. That’s about how long it takes me to get over a bad review and I never thought of it on those terms before. I would just keep trying to put it out of my mind but with no success, the snide words would keep popping in to mock me. But after about 3 days, they’ve gone.

    • Alison, you’ve made this leap just ahead of me, so I’m paying a lot of attention to what you’ve been dealing with. Back when my books first came out, reviews were pretty much of the “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it” variety. But everything has changed.

  6. This is a fabulous post, Anne! Missed your sharp comments over at WG2E today. Thanks, Mark, for sending us over here.

    Funny you should mention Asimov because he is a perfect example of an author who was mid-list for years and would have been dumped swiftly into oblivion by a publisher today.

    And ditto on Ruth’s motto. That’s one for my bulletin board, too!

    • Alicia–I will make it over to WG2E. Had to get my own blog going this AM (and it’s still AM in CA)

      You’re so right about Asimov. Very interesting point.

  7. Like the sound of the book ‘Food Of Love’ – sounds right up my street!

    Good advice too.

  8. Thank you so much for the post Ms. Allen and also to the sound advice by Ms. Harris.

    It’s interesting post for me to read, since I’m on both sides of the fence. On one hand, I am a writer who’s preparing to send out my first novel soon and I’m very nervous about the reviews.

    On the other hand though, I also happen to be a reviewer myself (at ComicAttack.net). Not to say that I rip people apart. I always try to be fair, never attack the author, and give an “objective” review. Plus, I’m pretty easy going with my tastes for the most part.

    Which is one of the trends I see myself with the new reviewers and the digital expansion/blogosphere. On one hand there are the basement dwellers and angry reviewers who mercilessly attack writers and come off as very aggravating. But on the other hand it seems the explosion of review sites has also found more easy going reviewers and ones that aren’t as snobbish or angry. Plus, there’s more diversification of review sites (e.g a site that solely reviews period piece romances).

    One nice part about doing reviews, is that it taught me a few important lessons like…

    1. Be professional but also be personable and friendly when sending out your novel for review. Not to say that it will give you a good review, as that would be bias. However, it might change the way of HOW the review is written. Being nice could be the difference between “it was horrible” and “it wasn’t for me” or “not a bad book at all” and “check this one out”. Not always the case but it never hurts.

    2. Make sure you give the book cover as well as important info (e.g illustrator) with the book. Really, you don’t know how much of a time saver this can be for the reviewer. Oh and also make sure to let them know that you are available if they have any further questions.

    3. Send a thank you. Just send a quick email letter saying thank you for the review and you respect their opinions. Of course, it doesn’t apply if they completely tore you a new hole but otherwise, you don’t know how classy and nice a thank you is. Not to mention that it will make it easier if you request a future review.

    Anyways, sorry for my off topic soapbox. Can’t wait to check out Food of Love.

  9. Thanks so much for this, Andrew! I appreciate that you gave the other side, which I should have done. So I’ll say it now: HONEST BOOK REVIEWERS ARE AN AUTHOR’S BEST FRIEND. Seriously. We’d never get the word out about our books without honest reviewers like you. People who just five–star everything aren’t much more help than the trolls. Thanks for an excellent addition to my post! I’ll check out your site.

  10. A very good post to get new writers thinking if they truly are ready to take the self publishing plunge.

    • It is good to at least run the thought through your brain so you don’t get blindsided when the reviews come in.

  11. For those who aren’t going to query and grow the soul calluses, there are a few alternatives 🙂 I played piano for 8 years. For many of those years, at least once a week, my father would sit behind me and critique my playing. Ruthlessly. At the time, I cried my eyes out and he said “Elizabeth Ann, you have to get a thicker skin if you’re going to be a musician. I’m doing you a favor.” Yeah, at the time *I* didn’t think it was a favor. But now, I’m glad he did it. Another idea is to publish your writing under a pseudonym or another amateur area. I published articles in my college newspaper, including a scathing editorial letter about the Panhellenic organizations on our small campus. You want to talk about hate? Walk to class after you pissed off every Greek on campus with only 5,000 students! Either way, you have to have a thick skin and learn to cry in private. Oh and I love my Hershey Kisses with Almonds, so I can delude myself they’re partly healthy with those Omega 3 fatty acids in the nut part. 🙂

    • Writing letters to the editor is a great way to learn to deal with criticism. In fact, I don’t know of any reviewers who have actually phoned me with death threats, but I’ve got them after letters to the editor. Sounds like your Dad helped you develop soul-calluses long before you ever thought of reviews, anyway. Wow. One star reviews should roll right off your back, Bridget!

      • I mean Elizabeth–wow. I’ve got to get some sleep one of these nights. Sorry.

  12. A timely post. My book is currently with a copy editor, and then I’ll be investigating indie alternatives. Looks like I need to do some skin-growing as well – thanks for the warning.

    • Hope the copy editor didn’t kill too many darlings. Sometimes an editor can prepare you for what reviewers will later take issue with.

  13. Anne, You make a valid point about learning how to handle rejection via the querying process–and not just a testing-the-waters querying session–but the grueling rejection after rejection after rejection. I’m sure it still doesn’t sting anywhere near as much as a scathing public review, but I can’t even imagine jumping into the publishing ocean without any experience with rejection. One day, I too will brave that dog-eat-dog world, and I will have my chocolate (and pinot noir) ready!

    • OK, now I am replying to Bridget. Chocolate and red wine are such a lovely combination, aren’t they? Good to have them on hand when your book comes out.

  14. A great post, especially in light of the changing world of publishing. Thanks for your insight. Happy writing everyone.

    • Yup. It’s changing by the minute. The only thing that doesn’t change is that you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

  15. Excellent post. Sage advice delivered very eloquantly. Thanks very much.

    • Muncher–just checked out your site and I’ve got to read your book. “She’s Not There” by the Zombies is one of my top ten favorite rock songs of all time. And book reviewers are golden. I’ve bookmarked you and will go back and read more.

  16. Using this in a Creative Writing Club session I’m leading today 🙂 Talking about the difference between believing in your work and believing there’s nothing wrong with it, and why wait before publishing.

    • Oooh. Great topic Miriam. There is such a difference between “nothing wrong with it” and “I’ve put my heart and soul in this and it’s the best I can possibly do.”

  17. Lots of reference material here. Thanks! I’d never have imagined that agents would encourage new writers to self-publish. I might be a dinosaur, but I believe every writer must go through an ‘apprenticeship’ period before putting any work out in public. Like so many others, I started putting queries out before I was ready. Needless to say, those initial forays ended in rejections or silence.

    Good article, as always and interesting to travel further afield today.

  18. J.L–Nice to see you jumped over here from my blog. Yes, writing takes time to learn, like any other skill. You wouldn’t expect to play Wimbledon after a couple of tennis lessons, but for some reason, writers are pressured to compete in the professional arena before we’ve learned all the skills. We need to fight that and take our own time.

  1. September 25th, 2011

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