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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

January 2011

The Perils of Publishing, Part III

As I negotiated the rough waters of writing and publishing for a general audience rather than an academic one, I learned a lot.  I knew I could no longer rely on a professional identity to pave my way, and that I had only made a start at building a viable platform as an author.  I recognized the warning signs as publishers reacted to a faltering economy by restricting their publications to authors they could count on to generate huge sales.  And I had identified my niche among potential readers.

My real breakthrough, however, came as a result of some casual questions from an acquaintance. "I'm betting that you write exactly the kinds of books you most enjoy reading," he said. "So how do you choose? When you walk into a bookstore, do you browse or head straight to pick up what you want?  Do you buy best sellers or look for hidden gems? Do you buy hardbacks or paperbacks? Do you want a quick read, or a hefty volume to fill long hours? What kind of cover makes you pick up a book and examine it? If you know what kind of book you buy, you'll understand what your readers want from you."

His point was well-taken, but my answers brought me up short.  You see, I have a Kindle.  I'm fascinated by gadgets, and I'm frequently the first to adopt a new technology.  I bought my Kindle in 2008, and since then my book purchases have dwindled to a trickle.  I've bought a couple of used editions of books that are out of print, but I don't buy new books unless I can get them in an electronic edition.

That surprises even me.  I was intrigued by the idea of a Kindle. But I've always loved the feel and heft and smell of books.  They fill my office, every end table, and overflow the living room book case. I thought reading on a Kindle would be a novelty, but I  didn't expect the device to become transparent, leaving only me and the printed word -- just the way a book does! I found it much easier to carry around than a stack of books, and my hands didn't get tired holding a heavy book. The cat quit stealing my bookmarks because they no longer dangled out of the book.   

I knew I had come to depend on my Kindle in ways I never expected.  Kindle provides immediate and inexpensive gratification.  If I hear about a book I want to read, I can buy it and start reading in less than a minute. I upload research documents that I want to have instantly available. I now have an application that allows me to read Kindle texts on my desk computer, my iPhone, or my iPad. All those devices synch themselves, so that I never lose my place or misplace a text when I move from one device to another. So what kind of a book do I choose for myself?  Obviously, the answer is one that comes in an electronic version.

And there -- staring me in the face --was the answer to all my publishing dilemmas. Kindle editions (and the other versions that are now coming out) don't require a traditional publisher.  In fact, in some cases, having a traditional publishing contract limits or squashes an author's ability to jump into the e-book market. I learned that when I tried to talk the publisher of A Scratch with the Rebels into doing a Kindle edition. Eventually they tried, but they did a really poor job of it and refused to advertise that the e-book was available because it cut their profits.  

I was about to become a self-published author. I have to admit that the idea made me slightly uncomfortable in the beginning, because I was still carrying around some leftover baggage from my days as an academic. Most professors have run into one or two folks who use a vanity press to publish their books because no one else will touch them.  Within the university, publishing with a vanity press -- in effect paying somebody to publish your book -- was a career killer.  My first hurdle was recognizing the difference between a vanity press (which charges a hefty sum to produce a book) and a self-publishing company (which allows an author to contract for services only when production assistance is necessary)

My production company of choice was CreateSpace, a subsidiary of Amazon.  If they accept a book for publication, they do not charge for the privilege.  They will provide guidance on how to prepare a manuscript for Kindle, and they will carry the Kindle edition in the Amazon catalog.  The author pays nothing up front; the company takes a small cut of any sales for its handling and delivery of the e-book.  They offer more elaborate services, of course.  I wanted my Beyond All Price to be available in trade paper, so I contracted for their printing services.  That also meant that they would sell my books on Amazon, thus releasing me from the need to distribute all my books myself. I wanted the book to look as professional as possible, so I also paid a layout person to handle things like interior appearance, margins, pagination, etc. Those were services I could not do myself.

Traditional publishers, of course, do more than print a book, but I felt fairly confident of my ability to provide those other services.  I already knew exactly how I wanted my cover to look, and I owned the photograph I wanted to use.  All I had to do was prepare the cover art and submit it to the printer.  All manuscripts need editing; traditional publishers have their own editors to proof-read, catch stupid errors, and clean up grammar and punctuation.  In my case, I had years of editing experience of my own, and a couple of talented friends who were willing to comb through the manuscript to catch any errors I missed. I did not need to pay an editor.  Publishers also assume some responsibility for marketing a book, although in recent years they have demanded that authors do more and more of their own marketing. Since I already had an internet presence, as well as a small but loyal base of followers, and since I was writing for an electronic audience, it was easy to do my own marketing.

Was it the right decision?  So far, I have to believe it was.  In the current market, bookstores are closing and e-book sales are leaping ahead.  I've already sold more copies of Beyond All Price on Amazon and Kindle than the total three-year sales of my last traditionally published book. Plus, Kindle pays 70% royalties, while my traditional publishing contracts offered 5% to 12%. Oh, I'm not going to get rich from the sales I generate.  But I have paid off all my publishing costs, and I am in complete control of future sales. I'm my own publisher, and I love it.

Perils of Publishing, Part II

Once I started working seriously on my Civil War novel, Beyond All Price,  I also began looking for ways to publish it.  Waiting until you have a finished product just does not work; you have to do your homework along the way.  I started with the standard approaches.  I found books written in my genre (in this case historical fiction set in 1860s) and checked on their publishers and the authors' agents.  These were names I could at least be sure would be open to the type of book I was writing.  To that basic list, I added other publishing houses and literary agents I found listed in such resources as Writer's Market. I looked up each one on the internet to find out how they wanted submissions handled.  Each one on the list received a hand-tailored written or e-mailed query letter.

Responses were spotty.  Almost half never replied! Others sent canned messages: "Sorry.  We are not accepting new clients." --or -- "Sorry. We no longer consider unsolicited manuscripts." Only a handful expressed any interest whatsoever, and they consistently asked for a full description of my platform before they would consider the book. At that stage, I had no idea what a "platform" looked like in the publishing world, so I had more research ahead of me.

Here's what I found. If you are a household word -- a politician, a celebrity, a sports figure, or a best-selling author already -- you have a built in platform: a fan base of people who will buy your book because of who you are. If you're just a hard-working writer, you have to build your own platform.  Publishers and agents suggested that I needed the following:

(1) a personal website visited by hundreds of readers every day;
(2) a blog that had a similar reader base and gathered dozens of comments on every posting;
(3) a personal Facebook page, with hundreds of followers and daily postings;
(4) another Facebook Fan Page, one dedicated to my writing;
(5) a Twitter account, with daily postings and thousands of followers;
(6) a LinkedIn account, with multiple recommendations and connections within my professional community;
(7) a personal e-mail list of media outlets, bookstores, libraries, and civic organizations, all of whom would be eager to do personal interviews with me, invite me as a guest speaker, or host a book signing event.

Fortunately, I'm pretty adept at finding my way around a computer.  I just had never bothered to become involved in social networking of this sort.  So I went to work, particularly at building my internet resources.  These outlets were not hard to create, but they take an enormous amount of time to develop their full potential.  I've been working on this platform for about 18 months now, and my numbers surprise me.  I have almost 400 Facebook Friends, some 700 Twitter followers, more than 80 connections on LinkedIn, and a website/blog that receives around 100 hits a day. To me, that's amazing, but the figures are still not up to the five thousand guaranteed readers that most publishers want to see.  At most, I have a little soapbox that serves as my platform.

And if you are reading this, you are a very important nail in that soapbox.  Thanks!

One other factor weighed into my publishing quandary.  This year -- 2011 -- marks the beginning of a five-year commemoration of the Civil War.  Right now, interest in Civil War history is at an all-time high, and I expect enthusiasm will last for most of the next five years.  But by 2016, we're all going to be tired of the topic.  My window of opportunity is right here and now.  If I wanted Beyond All Price to benefit from the increased coverage of the Civil War, it had to be ready to go.  I simply did not have time to spend several more years pursuing followers, then agents, and then publishers. There seemed to be only one other path to putting the book into the hands of willing readers -- self-publishing.  

In the next post, I'll work through the differences and the advantages of doing it yourself.  If you have questions you'd like to see me answer, please leave them in the comments below.

The Perils of Publishing

I received the following query in my e-mail today.  I'm not going to reveal the writer's name, although I do know who she is.  She raises some important questions, and I thought perhaps the best place to answer them would be here in the blog itself.

She writes: "I've been quietly following your blog for about a year now.  Your topics are fascinating!  I can get lost in historical research. . . . If I may ask, I'm quite curious to know why you chose self-publishing for your books rather than going the traditional publisher route?  There are so many history buffs in the world, I would think there's a huge market for your work, both fiction and non-fiction, and you have the credentials to back you up.  Was it to have more control over your work?  Did you go through traditional publishers at first and they weren't interested?  And, have you had success in self-publishing, volume-wise?"

I must start by correcting a couple of assumptions.  There are many history buffs in the world, I agree, but that does not mean they make up a huge market for my particular book.  I am constantly amazed at how narrowly some people limit their interests.  I've been writing about a particular regiment -- the 100th Pennsylvania Volunteers.  One descendant of a soldier in that regiment sent me a note, saying he probably would not be buying my first Civil War book because most of my characters were in Company C and he was interested in Company K. Fair enough.  He's entitled to his own interests.

Next, the writer says I have the credentials to back me up.  Again, not so fast.  I am a trained historian -- a retired Professor Emerita at a very good and well-known liberal arts college.  BUT . . .  my own specialty as a professor was in the history of Anglo-Norman church-state relationships in the twelfth century.  How's that for narrow? It means absolutely nothing to Civil War scholars, I can guarantee you.

The explanation of how I decided to self-publish is going to take some time, I'm afraid, because it was not a quick decision.  It stretched out over a period of years.  After I retired from active college teaching, I decided to follow up a long-repressed interest in America's Civil War because, for the first time, I was free to do so.  Before retirement, I had published two books, but both were controlled by the rules and standard practices of academic presses.  I found publishers for both of them because (1) I was fairly well-known within the small subset of historians who were working on topics closely related to 12th-century Europe, and (2) I was willing to accept the fact that I would never make a dime from those books.  

Academic scholars write books to demonstrate that they belong in the profession.  They write because it is a requirement if they want to get a job, and it is an even bigger requirement if they want to earn promotion and tenured status. The first publishing contract I signed guaranteed me fifteen cents per copy of my book -- AFTER the first ten thousand copies were sold. Since there aren't that many people in the whole world interested in a monograph about the diplomatic maneuvers of Bishop Arnulf of Lisieux, I knew from the start that I'd never see that fifteen cents. I was content just to see the book in print and to know that it was being favorably reviewed by other academics.

Now, let's jump ahead several years.  It was 2003 and I was working on a Civil War history called A Scratch with the Rebels.  It was based at least in part on some letters written by my great uncle.  I had a good story to tell, the facts to flesh it out, and all that history training behind me. After I had written a few chapters, I applied for an NEH grant, hoping to finance my research trips to South Carolina. I didn't get it, but one of the judges was sufficiently impressed to tell an editor at  a university press in the state where my regiment had been recruited. She was quite taken by the proposal, sent the chapters off to readers, and came back with the advice to make sure I was writing for a general audience and to concentrate on telling the story. While I waited for a contract, I finished the manuscript. Then my editor left for a better job without warning. The managing editor took over the project, put it on a back burner, and left it there for 10 months. Then she informed me they were no longer interested.  

Undaunted, I shipped it off to another university press where I had a contact, and at first the new editor was enthusiastic.  He sent it off to be read by Civil War professors (and I should have known right then that I was doomed.)  Eventually the readers' comments came back, and they all had to do with things like how much of the book needed to be more theoretical, how I had failed to discuss all the relevant research that was going on in the field, and that too much of the book was based on personal letters -- a story --  rather than "historical records." My new editor really tried, I think, to explain to my critics that I was writing a book for a general audience, not for an academic search committee, but in the end it didn't matter.  I had no reputation as a Civil War historian, and the field was simply not open to newcomers. He retired from his job, and the dog-eared manuscript came back to me.

It had been over three years by then, and I was discouraged.  A e-mail from Editor #1 urged me to give it one more try.  She recommended a small private press that specialized in Pennsylvania history and the Civil War.  Not bothering this time with a formal query letter, I called them.  They asked for an e-mailed copy of the manuscript, and six days later, I had a contract in hand.  SUCCESS?

NOPE! The press was easy to work with and the royalties were three times what I would have received from a university press.  There were drawbacks, however. I had no control over the layout or appearance of the book, which came out looking entirely too much like a high school textbook.  Quality problems existed, too -- the plastic coating on the cover began to peel almost immediately, and all the press offered was a suggestion that I use a warm iron to reseal the coating before I tried to sell my copies.  No one had EVER expected me to iron my books!

The press also turned out to be very inexperienced at marketing and distribution.  They featured A Scratch with the Rebels in their catalog, but it only appeared a couple of times a year and was limited to people who had purchased other books from them. Their chosen distributing company failed to put the books out and simply returned them after a few months. In the end, the press sold only a few books, and my total royalties amounted to about $25.00. The only books that DID sell were those I bought myself at half-price and resold to my friends and at a couple of book signings.

By the beginning of 2009, I had devoted 6 years to A Scratch with the Rebels -- with almost nothing to show for it.  I had made some major mistakes along the way, I admit, but I also had learned that the publishing market for the average writer was a minefield.  By then I was working on a new book -- my historical novel, Beyond All Price.  I knew I needed to find a new approach.  I'll save that story for the next post.

Don't Root Through Grandma's Attic

Actually, my real advice here is "Don't go rooting around in Grandma's attic until you know enough about what you might find to recognize it when it falls into your lap." 

My own  encounter with the treasures my Grandmother preserved was a horrible disaster, although I did not realize it at the time.  Flash back to a by-gone century: I was about 19 or 20, home from college for the summer and bored silly. My mother happened to mention that she needed to clean out the attic, and I thought I'd take a look around before she did so.

In a trunk of things she had kept after my grandmother died, I found some amazing old clothes, a beaded evening bag worthy of a Charleston flapper, a couple of Kewpie dolls, and a mysterious white box tied with string.   Inside the box, carefully protected from the rest of the objects in the trunk, were items for which I could see no obvious value.  (Remember, I was young, stupid, and not yet a history buff.) Three yellow and crumbling newspapers lay on top. All were from Beaver, Pennsylvania -- one dated November 23, 1827; one dated December 15, 1841; the other dated January 21, 1846.  None seemed to contain anything other than local news, and I didn't spot any familiar names, although each had a handwritten name at the top.

Among the other unexplainable objects were an undated obituary, a red ribbon tied to a blackened medal of some sort, with no discernible legend, a piece of tattered and unraveling gold fringe, a newspaper clipping about a WWI soldier in France, and a single daguerreotype of another soldier. All the other items in the box were letters from people I had never heard of.  Each had its own envelope, although the stamps of each had been cut out.  

"Odd," I thought, shaking my head at the foibles of old folks who saved such trivial items. I carelessly dropped the whole lot back into the trunk and went downstairs.  "Nothing important that I might want," I reported.  

Now we fast-forward some twenty years.  After my mother's death, I was left to clean out her house.  Many of the items I had seen in the attic were gone by then, but I did find the little white box and stuffed it into the parcel of photos I was keeping.  The medal, the piece of fringe, and the daguerreotype were not to be found.  By then I was a history graduate student, and I began to sift Grandma's treasures with a more educated eye.  

I was most excited about a  bundle of eight letters, all written during the Civil War. I had been looking for a research project for my American history seminar, and they seemed to hold great promise.  And so they were.  It took years of reading and researching, but they eventually provided the structure for my book, A Scratch with the Rebels, which tells the story of my great uncle, Sgt. James McCaskey, a Union soldier who longed to see military action and died during his first battle.  You can read about the book elsewhere on this website. 

But what about the rest of the items in Grandma's attic?  Well, a few of them helped me with some genealogical research in building Grandma's family tree.  I still have not figured out the importance of the newspapers, and their condition continues to deteriorate.  There were a few other items that I did not even remember from my first exploration -- a poem, the front of a greeting card, a couple of pages from a child's book. But most of all, I regret the loss of the items I did not recognize and preserve.  

These are the items that fell into my lap and then slipped through my fingers into oblivion because I did not know what I was looking at. The medal?  I think it came from WWI and had been awarded to my mother's cousin, the subject of the newspaper clipping.  The fringe?  Probably, although I cannot say for certain, a remnant of one of the battle flags of the 100th Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment.  And the daguerreotype? Almost certainly the only photograph ever taken of James McCaskey in his Civil War uniform.  

History doesn't come to you neatly packed and labeled with its level of importance. It may be dirty, wrinkled, or crumbling from age.  What about you?  Have trivial items you found turned out to be among the most important for your research?  

Researching the Unknowable

One of the first -- and hardest -- lessons I have had to learn about research is that sometimes you just can't find the answers.  In a few instances, that may be a good thing, of course,  since there are facts that no one wants known.  When you need information, however, missing information can be maddening. It's important to know when to stop hunting.

In 1992, I was working on a translated edition of Latin letters written by a twelfth-century Anglo-Norman bishop. One letter in particular was causing me problems as I tried to identify a person referred to only by his name, Milo. Medieval scribes, you see, frequently abbreviated words to save precious vellum, and their abbreviations can be confusing to later readers.  In this case, there was a single word with two possible meanings.  The word that came before  Milo's name had a mark at the end that might -- or might not -- be an abbreviation.  If that is what it was, then Milo was a messenger or someone who was simply transporting the letter in question. If it was NOT an intentional abbreviation mark, the sentence identified Milo as the scribe who had actually written the letter. Other scholars had disagreed on which was the correct reading.

Foolishly I decided to solve the mystery.  The earliest copy of the letter appeared in a manuscript held by one of the colleges in Oxford. Since I happened to be teaching in a summer program at that college, I assumed it would be an easy matter to get a close-up look at that word and decide for myself whether it was an intentional mark or something accidental, such as a spatter from a rough quill or even a fly speck on the page.

I presented myself at the library soon after arriving in England and found the door barred by the "She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed" librarian.  "No," she said. "You may not come in." Well, she outweighed me by at least100 pounds, and when I say she blocked the door, she literally did so. Our little summer program, she told me, was simply renting space at the college.  I had no credentials in England; her library was only for REAL scholars or researchers. No amount of pleading by the head of our program would budge her. And that was the end of that.

I was not ready to give up. Milo's identity still puzzled me.  So four years later, I went back, this time carrying official letters from my college and from my PhD-granting university. Didn't matter.  I still was not getting in. She agreed, finally, to send me a microfilm copy of the manuscript, and a year later it arrived. Problem solved?  Nope!  You can't identify ink marks from a photo.

Fast forward to 2002.  A third trip was in the works, and this time I contacted an English scholar who had been hired by the library to catalog their collection.  He graciously interceded for me, and this time, after almost nine years of effort, I received permission to see the original manuscript. My letter ordered me to report to the front door, credentials in hand, on a specific day and at a rather odd hour and precise minute.  "She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed" met me at the door and stood back to allow me to squeeze past her.  She practically frisked me to be sure I wasn't carrying a camera or a pen or pencil.  Then she handed me a pair of sturdy white gloves and insisted that I put them on before I entered the reading room.  She led me to a desk, where the manuscript lay on a cushion and announced that I had only fifteen minutes to examine it. The entire time, she stood looming over my right shoulder to be sure I did not damage the pages in any way.

There it was, finally -- my mystery mark -- and I still could not tell for sure.  The ink colors were, perhaps, a bit off, which would suggest a later added mark, but I could not tell for sure, and there was no way to magnify it or improve the lighting.  If it was a fly speck, as I suspected, I could have discovered that with a simple flick of a fingernail, but the heavy gloves and the looming supervisor made touching it impossible.  

So my fifteen minutes passed.  I watched the elusive folio disappear from its cushion as I was ushered out the door.  No happy ending here.  Some things you just can't find out, no matter how good your research skills.  As a poker player might say, "You have to know when to fold 'em!"