where the writers are

My grandfather loved Walnettos, which were chewy chocolate caramel squares loaded with walnuts and invented in Minneapolis, where he lived. Then along came Hersheys, and now we have Trader Joe organic dark chocolate with almonds. Things change.

In the old days if you were a writer, you had a clear path: write well, then send an agent a really good letter and a sample, and you might get published. These days, most new and mid-list writers are confused. How do you get published? Do it yourself?

To answer this, my recent experiences as well as stumbling across some great blogs have given me some insight. While I’ve been immersed in creative writing as well as creative publishing for years, lately I’ve been getting a bigger picture of the publishing industry from 30,000 feet. Here are a few truths.

1) First, the self-publishing bandwagon isn’t for everyone. In fact, it’s really for the entrepreneurial, people who don’t mind trying new things, stumbling on failure, and trying more new things.

It’s also for people who understand and are obsessive about “quality.” They have to be obsessive because that’s why they’re doing it themselves. If Barbra Streisand were starting out now, she’d probably be recording in her garage and uploading to iTunes. If John Irving were starting out now, he’d be blogging, tweeting, and uploading to Kindle.

2) The speed of change is faster than a chocolate bar. When I created White Whisker Books six years ago, after having been a senior editor at a publishing company, I did things the way I had learned: making galleys, sending them out for review, looking for ways to get the books in bookstores. That worked then. My first review for The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea and Other Stories was in the Los Angeles Times. Later that summer, Entertainment Weekly mentioned me. My book sold. Now something like that would unlikely happen because those are the old ways. (Digital publishing has its old days!)

Now things are changing so fast, I’m seeing how bestselling Indie author Darcie Chan (The Mill River Recluse) did it. As she told me, “I'm convinced that you have to get enough copies out there to form an initial base of readers. Once you have several hundred readers and can boost the visibility of your book with some ads, you've got a chance of setting things in motion.  It's my theory, anyway.”

3) People are different, even if you don’t know it. I read Tim Carmody’s excellent article in Wired about Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Apple’s Steve Jobs anticipating how we’d be buying things in the future using the Internet, and how this very act has changed our thinking. J.A Konrath added to these thoughts by how he’s personally adapted to how he listens to music and sees movies. Hence, it’s only logical that the way we read is changing.

The challenge is how do you become a part of this new and evolving market? For some people, it’s be to go with a traditional publisher, who will figure it all out for them. For others, it’s to dive into self-publishing now, hoping to find the way and not be embarrassed or distraught when things don’t work.

4) Nothing’s magic. A week ago, I wrote that my latest and biggest frustration was finding that publishing literary fiction was becoming such a challenge that even big publishers were tending to stay away. (See “The Accidental Publisher” here.) Genre fiction such as romance, thrillers, and mysteries, is where the money is for big and small publishers—and self-publishers. Then I found Darcie Chan, whom I interviewed. She hadn’t done any of the things I’d done other than obsessing over the craft of her book. Her literary novel The Mill River Recluse sits in the top five bestselling books every day.

Until this point, I was convinced that selling one’s book for 99 cents didn’t work for literary books. She did it, however. If you read her interview, you’ll see she’s selling several thousand books a day. Put it this way. At 35 cents a book, 7,000 books equals $2,450. Imagine doing that daily.

Yet nothing is magic. If you went and dropped your book to that price, as I did yesterday for my new comic novel, Love At Absolute Zero, you wouldn’t be making that kind of money. What’s still required, as my friend Ehrich calls it, is a watershed moment. Not everyone gets those. It’s a moment that sends the avalanche tumbling. It’s when Steve Martin mentions your book on the Today Show as “a magnetic read—you have to get it.” How do you get it to Steve? How does he happen to mention it?

Darcie isn’t sure what did it for her other than a number of average readers reviewed her book enthusiastically on Amazon. Out of the hundred and some reviews, she only knows five people.

I’m waiting for my watershed.

5) Call it luck. In his blog “How to Succeed,” J.A. Konrath’s mantra is, “Write good books, with good descriptions, good formatting, and good cover art, sell them cheap, and keep at it until you get lucky.” If you analyze Las Vegas, few people have luck—while the powers make it seem that everyone does. “It ain’t goin’ to happen,” may be the best dialogue you write.

Yet you can nudge your luck in publishing by writing more books, reviewing books, writing blogs, responding to blogs, and more. Keep at it until you get lucky.

And one more thing: Trader Joe’s dark organic chocolate with almonds—you have to get it.