Breaking into Print

There has never been as many writers in the world as there is at this moment. If your aim is to be published in print, you are up against a lot of competition for a currently diminishing market. Electronic media and a tightening economy are taking a toll on traditional publishers and cellulose print medium. The publisher who picked up my book, Amato Books Press, is a good example of the trend. Amato was the world’s leading publisher of books on fishing subjects not too long ago, releasing an average of thirty books a year. Last year they released two. (Mine was one of them. And actually somewhat a departure from their usual fare of ‘destination’ and ‘how-to’ books.) I recently caught an interview with Tobias Wolf on the NPR’s Selected Shorts, in which he compared the creative writing biz of the mid-60’s, to the present. Then: there were seven times more print periodicals in circulation than there is now, and many of them bought short stories, and often paid between 500 and 2000 dollars for a story. “A writer could make a good living from five or six short stories a year.” Now: you’re extremely lucky to sell a piece for 500 bucks (and most of the time you have to give them away).

The publishing world is in upheaval at this point in time, and what its future will look like is still unclear. As one only recently come online, I am already seeing hints of what that future may be, with the vast array of alternatives being offered through electronic media. The future, in its infancy, is already with us, just not matured to sharp definition yet.

Part of the future is already with us online, through networks and forums a circle of far-flung writers pretty much live together while engaged in craft study on multiple levels, periodically publishing finished work out to the world. And this embodies some of the oldest story-telling traditions. Not unlike the Druid or bard schools of pre-Christian Ireland, where the arts of warfare, healing, music and storytelling were perfected, and from which ‘journeymen’ passed out into the world to carry the arts to the populace. Whatever the future of print medium, paper books are sure to be with us for the remainder of our lifetimes; and if a writer’s goal is to have a novel published into a book, that writer will need a plan that proceeds in steps.

Your Writing:

I’ve become aware through my conversations with crew members that not everybody here has laid out a plan for print publication. So, for those who may be interested, I’ve thought to share some of what I’ve learned over the last few years, in hope that the information might be helpful.

One route: is self-publishing with a print-on-demand outfit. Personally, I would not go that route with a novel or short-story collection, or ‘fine writing’ of any kind. Good writer or not, the self-published author does carry a negative stigma in the literary world, and seldom, if ever, sells very many books. On the other hand, self-publishing does present a good opportunity to the niche writer of ‘how-to’ books. Writing on gardening, health and diet, fishing, bird watching, horsemanship, or most any special interest, might actually be more profitable for the writer who self publishes. Consider this: A book sells for 15 dollars. On-demand books are about 3 dollars apiece. The author pockets 12 dollars per sale (minus a percentage of whatever he/she has invested in promotion). With a traditional publisher, the author earns an average of about 10% on the sale – the author nets about 1 dollar and 50 cents on that 15 dollar sale. Many authors of fishing ‘how-to’ subjects are finding it much more profitable to go the self-publishing route, setting up websites to promote their books, as well as using the extensive online fishing information and blog sites to advertise and sell their work; and many make the rounds of outdoor trade shows, which get a lot of traffic, setting up booths to sell their books. That said, niche market or ‘how-to’ manuscripts are a fairly easy sell to major publishers of such things (Stackpole Books, Workman Press, Skyhorse Press) and though it might mean less profit than self-publishing, there may be an advantage in this, which I will get to.

A Plan:

So, you want to publish with a traditional publisher. You need a game plan. But first, here are some statistics you should keep in mind: Last year, 85% of the non-fiction published was of the ‘self-help’ genre; 93% of the fiction published were novels written in third-person. Writing a novel in first-person is a self-defeating project for a new writer seeking publication. And short stories written in first-person are a hard sell, as well. Readers just don’t like to read the word ‘I’ over and over again from an unknown author. That’s the reasoning anyway.

Remember this about publishers: All they are interested in is bottom line. They want to sell books. Unless you are Sarah Palin, you will need to have some name recognition in the form of publishing credits before you query them. Generally, they like to see about 20 publishing credits to your resume (same goes for landing a real agent). They want to be assured that enough people have seen your name to ensure the sale of a minimum 4000-book run. Plan to accumulate these publishing credits first. Publication in online magazines counts as credit. Publication in Read This Please counts (but you don’t want to put down that you published in the same place 20 times). Online literary magazines are an easy sell for your short stories. Every story I’ve submitted to these has been picked up. They are good for credits, but they are cheap bastards who do not pay. I published a short story in Paradigm that made their annual ‘Best Stories’ (of 2008) print journal, which sells for 30 bucks at Barnes and Noble, and the authors didn’t even receive a copy of the thing. They sent us an email reminding us to tell our relatives to buy the book, along with a pdf version, which I deleted, after telling the editor where he could put it (probably not a good policy). Caught me on a bad day.

I took an Edit-To-Print course a few years back, in which the instructor laid down a plan similar to the one we are discussing here. To sum it up, here are the steps: Save everything you write. That is your story bank from which you will draw material. Continually revisit it and craft the work that is in it. Have a cohesive short story collection or novel that you are editing toward perfection. Send out short stories and articles to online and
print publications to gain the publishing credits you need. The instructor maintained, and I’ve found it to be true, that a third of your writing time should be spent in writing queries and submitting work. By the time you accumulate 20 publishing credits, you will have built quite a body of work, and you will probably have something that is ready to go big-time.

If you are good enough at something to write a ‘how-to’ book about it, that might be a good step toward publication of your literary work. Annie Proulx’s first book was a ‘how-to’ about building fences, gates and corrals. These are much easier than fine literature to get published, and will give you heavy credibility with prospective publishers.


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