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Aspiring Authors and Internet Myth - helpful or hurtful?

Is anyone disturbed by the accelerated hype now appearing as ads targeted to solicit unpublished, new authors, and featured in glitz, at the headline of many prominent book discussion forums?

Should writers of fiction be bothered about this, given the rapid shifts and changes sweeping the publishing industry, and the hot trend for people to mine the internet for information?

Yes, getting picked up by a major house is competitive, and yes, there is a building groundswell, internet driven, toward would-be authors leaping straight into self publishing and more, hyping this route as the only or best thing, with passionate, apparently informed expertise. I could show you the boxful of books and business cards such self-marketed, hopeful talents have handed me, at public venues...or the disks of e books, homemade. This is publishing, geared for the future, right?

Why am I disturbed?

Because all online information, even the bulk of what's presented for newcomers, so overwhelmingly prolific today, is not alike. There is a difference between clever traps, and the genuine article.

New fiction writers, beware: too many of these links are direct advertising, not to help you actually reach a valid reading public, but are in fact aimed at stealing your cherished dreams and your shirts, and poised to take advantage amid a wide-spread arena of total ignorance. They are after your pocketbooks, folks, and you will never, ever make the springboard to where you want to go, from there. In fact, the opposite.

More sadly, not just predatory businesses are riding the information wave - many honest, well-meaning people who are busily touting self-publishing their novels on forums as the means to break in actually haven't any idea. Or they’ve burned themselves out submitting substandard material until they believe the traditional career path is hopeless. I have seen blogs and forum discussions where the clueless expound on the facts of the industry for the even more clueless, with no sound counter-argument or professional experience in evidence behind such soapbox trumpeting.

An article was written in the SFWA Bulletin, recently, of several old hand pro authors on a panel who were hotly contradicted by a chorus of self published, inexperienced authors - who, in effect, were preaching to others that the way to be noticed by, or break in to, a legitimate major house was to sell books behind a vendor’s table at conventions and book fairs, and to keep doing this behind a stack of self-printed titles, until you get approached by a real editor and offered a contract from a big name publisher.

Wrong steer! Yes, I have heard the myths and the stories "out there" - but in fact, the real route to a paying contract is not selling your own books off your car tailgate at malls!

Fiction publishing is a legitimate business, and there is a professional way and manner in which to apply for serious success.

Now, before the knee jerks, I am not condemning all comers to self-publishing – recently, certain non-fiction works are earning their marks, and there are instances where writers who have been professionally established, and after having a published, prior career course, have gained a sound grasp of production, editing, and professional graphics - these cases already have a developed readership, presumably, toward which to target their efforts.

I am not saying all self published new books by unknown names are without merit. I haven't read all of them to generalize in that way. There are genuine small presses and independent publishing houses, too. I am not referring to these!

My concerns rest with the enormous ignorance about how the industry actually works, and the whacked out "advice" being proliferated online, that is seeing too many enthusiastic young talents sold short. If you have dreams of writing fiction, by all means pursue them with your whole heart, but please take the time to get educated and know the ropes, first!

Don't take the blind plunge into the morass of myth, and waste your money, or exhaust your hopes of a earning career on your merits. The tag line, that implies, in effect, "connect your book to mega tons of eager readers" is not necessarily what it's cracked up to appear.

Presses who take your money and make a profit producing your manuscript into a bound book, then do nothing, are very much alive and advertizing, and you bet, collecting your eager-beaver bucks to publish your work. If you pay for this service, that is a vanity publisher, and not the same thing as a publisher who contracts for your publication rights, pays an advance up front, prints and markets your book, and actually does do the work of distributing.

While “publishers” who hook you to pay upfront for your book may be years in the business, and make every effort to pose as their counterparts, they’ll have plenty of fine print protecting them from your ignorance when you are dumped with your substandard press run, and don’t know what to do beyond give it away to your relatives. Other venues in fact are real wolves. Many are styled as "agents" and "POD" (print on demand) houses that are in cold fact, actual scammers. Others are fleecers, just as misleading and hurtful. You pay them to produce your book, or find a publisher for you, and you get nothing substantial at all in return.

The content can help illuminate what to look out for, where to be guarded, and how to recognize a legitimate venue. Below, I offer a few simple guidelines.

Tip #1: The money flows TO the author FROM the publisher or agent. If you are paying for a service like being published, or shelling out for readings and evaluations – I suggest that might ring an alarm, because that is not flowing payment to the author! These venues are to be differentiated from a genuine professional editing service – where a real copy editor or editor offers their expertise to the public for a free lance fee – do learn how to recognize the difference, and if you are buying a legitimate service, know when it is of value and why, or if it is simply unnecessary.

Tip #2: Learn your craft. It's up to you to create saleable work. If you do, and the offer is genuine, the contracting publisher pays you, and their own production staff will handle both edit and copy edit without charge, when they make and warehouse the book. The legitimate publisher will distribute the copies to the major chain shops, and shoulder all of the selling. If you learn your style, grammar, and fiction technique properly, your manuscript should not need an editor in order to submit and sell to a name professional house. If you can't write a story, if you don't know what story is, (the book, Story, by McKee could assist you) if you don't know the craft distinction between narrative voice and dialogue - then you need to get a solid book on fiction writing. (I favor Dwight V. Swain's Techniques of the Selling Writer) If you prefer hands on learning, consider one of the very long established reputable workshops for fiction - like Odyssey or Clarion, for fantasy and SF – attend and learn to apply the sound nuts and bolts of the trade to your efforts. Workshops worth attending for popular fiction are well known, and have years of reputation for teaching new writers who actually go on to sell their manuscripts.

Can't afford a fiction workshop? How serious are you - you'd go to college to get a degree for any another professional job. Can't manage to buy two or three books on style and craft? Then try what I did, when I was just starting, use an inter-libary loan service.

You're underage? Stuck on the wait, while you save money for the above? Then mine your favorite authors’ websites for posted, free information. You might be surprised how many will offer tips, helpful links, or maintain blogs or web pages of great free advice. I have created a tips page based on what I found valuable from my experience. It has a few basics. Do you know at how your manuscript should be professionally formatted for submission? Are you familiar with proof reader’s marks? Do you know how to write a cover letter, or submit a query to an editor? Do you know how to sidestep, or breeze past, a writer’s block?

Do you understand etiquette? I’ve been amazed how many lazy beginners breeze in with an e mail to ask about breaking in, or worse, dump an attachment of their entire manuscript into my in box – first presuming I am a teacher, or coach (I’m not, though I do sometimes volunteer writer’s workshops, one on one, to raise funds for charity auctions.) More bumptuously irritating, many of these breezy hopefuls blatantly have not ever bothered to check the tips page I’ve provided for aspirants – which properly would have answered many of their questions straight up.

Flinging unsolicited e mail touting your own work at a working author is not the same thing as approaching one politely at public events where attendees are invited to interact with professionals – sometimes opportunities may be welcomed at informal signings, or at conventions oriented with panels to help aspirants – where hopefuls are encouraged to hear advice from established old hands. Questions are acceptable, too, where working editors in the field sometimes appear to speak. Many such venues will schedule panel discussions geared for new writers. Take the chance to hear the facts from the horse’s mouth.

Live in the middle of nowhere and can’t wait to feed your dream? Look at author's blogs here on RedRoom, or seek out discussion threads on those book forums where authors are vetted for professional credentials. Then read the threads where professionals tend to gather to share business information with each other. Search and read the archived posts on the blog, Miss Snark - which claims to be written by a pro agent - entertaining, bitterly brutal, but very much on the mark about the realities and falsities of cracking a difficult field. Disabuse yourself of the idiot illusions, that Greatness Waits Without Effort, and instead, motivate yourself to learn how to tell a dynamite story. Strive for excellence - and encounter what that means in terms of discipline. Then sort the welter of information to discern the direct value to realize your dream. The rewards are many, and well worth the long haul that will spare you from the pitfall of the blind plunge.

Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, in a recent article in their Bulletin, asked how their professional membership could reach out to new writers and help them find legitimate sources for information. This is my bit.

3 Comment count
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Lots of great advice

Thanks very much for sharing all of this here, Janny. As you know, it's Red Room's goal to be the place people think of first when they want to be in a supportive community that will help them with every stage of their careers as authors. I appreciate both your advice, and your inclusion of Red Room as an imporant piece of the puzzle.

Huntington Sharp, Red Room

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Playing Forward

Hi Huntingdon Sharp, you are welcome. Early on, I was exceedingly fortunate to have rented a carriage house apartment from a successful career author (Daniel P. Mannix), and many another professional since lent their knowledge to steer me well on my way.

I am pleased to be part of RedRoom's efforts, in this regard. The illumination and the many luminaries available here add up to a wonderful resource. Therefore, actually, on my part, it's thanks due back in return, and just as much for the opportunity to keep learning as I take on the next set of challenges.

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good advice

I am a poet and there is a rising trend toward self-publishing in poetry (probably because so very little money to be made at it). I am not sure that it is not becoming a more reasonable way to go for many poets. After you add up the entry and reading fees for any ms certainly the cost becomes more equivalent and there are a number of small presses that will do a good job on helping with design, IBSN and so on. One recent first book contest sponsored by Poetry reported around a thousand entries and there has long been suspicion that college presses and book contest judges go with students in their programs. "outsider" poets can be spectacularly wonderful and get published (current poet laureate, Kay Ryan is a shining example) but most of us are going to work long and hard to get books in print through the usual presses. Your blog is very good advice for writers of all strokes. Thank you for the information.