December 18, 2012
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Alternative Paths in Publishing

Within the Trilogy, Encanterra, and Ardiente communities, there are hundreds of members who have a passion for writing or storytelling. Some satisfy their desire to put pen to paper through journaling, while others might take the next step of sharing their written work with friends or family members – perhaps by creating fictional stories for the enjoyment of their grandchildren, or by recording memoirs or family histories to be cherished for generations to come.

As we saw in the Authors Among Us articles (Part 1 and Part 2) this past spring, there are also a number of published authors living in our communities. These members found that their talent and passion for writing – and their desire to tell a story, share knowledge, or spread the word about an important cause – led them to want to reach beyond their personal network to a broader audience of readers. Through perseverance, and often out-of-the-box thinking, they managed to move their work along the publishing path from brainstorm to book.

If you’re a writer who has considered sharing your work with world, but you are unsure about the prospect of finding an agent, hiring an editor, and hoping that your work will be picked up by a well-respected publishing house – you may want to hear about some of the alternative paths to publishing that are available today. Technology has made it possible for great writers to share their work more efficiently and more economically – and without having to pass through traditional publishing gatekeepers.

In the interview below, author Rhonda McCormack shares her self-publishing journey, as she trades the traditional publishing route for a path that allows her to hold the ultimate success of her written work in her own hands. If you find Rhonda’s experience and advice to be helpful and you want to pick her brain for additional self-publishing tips, feel free to contact her through her blog at www.rmccormackwrites.blogspot.com.

Rhonda, thank you for sharing your adventures in self-publishing with us. Before we discuss the details of the publishing process, let’s talk about your experience as an author. How long has writing been a passion of yours?

Writing, in action, isn’t my greatest passion. I hold a deep respect for the art in language, but it’s storytelling that has held my fascination and adoration. As a very young child I would make up elaborate stories and act out tales with blocks and dolls and matchbox cars and imaginary friends. A few years later, when I learned the skills of writing and reading, I fell in love with books and the library. Inspired, I wrote and illustrated my own books, made with construction paper and Crayola markers. My mother and three sisters encouraged my ideas, giving me motive to explore all the ways to tell stories—through art, music, and journals. It wasn’t until much later, when I left my twelve-year career as an early childhood educator, that I knew I’d need to embrace formatting, editing, and revision; in other words, the business of writing. When creating novels, the part I enjoy most is taking the first draft into revision. This is the time when I really connect to the storytelling process, which, even when challenging, is fun. In later revisions, it’s more about structure and line and grammatical editing. These are, of course, important steps, but less fun than polishing and refining the story.

Your question reminds me how critical it is to recognize what motivates us when we start down a different path and consider a later-in-life, second career, such as that of a published author. How long has (fill in the blank) been a passion of yours? Exploring this question can tell us a lot about what parts of our new venture will energize us to continue when things go wrong or we feel stuck. If we can each focus on what brings us buckets full of joy, we can be anything…everything…we want to be, at any point in our lives.

When did you first become drawn to the idea of writing a full-length fictional novel?

In my mid-twenties a fellow artist and friend approached me about collaborating on the illustrations and story for a picture book. I agreed, and when she lost interest, I kept going. That picture book was a real mess – too long, stilted. Our illustrations were actually good, but my story? Terrible. Nevertheless, a seed was planted. I played around with several more picture book ideas over the years, and as a teacher who loved children’s literature, the picture book was my novel. But there wasn’t yet space in my life for dedicated writing. Still, as any writer will tell you, shoving old stories in a drawer doesn’t stop them from yelling to be set free. Years later, when I finally answered their call, I didn’t realize that I’d written those picture books for a reason. Over the next few years those early stories showed me how they wanted to become middle-grade novels. I actually wrote a full-length middle-grade novel and started several more before the morning I awoke with a pressing urgency to write down a dream I’d had. That dream became a story…and the first full-length fictional novel that I felt was publishable.

This dream that became a full-length fictional novel is called wildflowers. When did you first complete wildflowers and begin the process of trying to share your work with the world? Can you describe your experience of first trying the traditional route of agent, then editor, then publisher?

Wildflowers, in its original form, was completed in 2005. By then I’d already joined SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) and had attended their conferences, workshops, and critique groups. I had also submitted some of my picture book and middle-grade novel manuscripts to agents and editors. With wildflowers, I wasn’t ready to share it with the world until it had undergone many (many) revisions, and I started by reading it during critique meetings. I took the feedback and kept working. Then I began submitting, and when a rejection letter contained valuable comments, I listened and applied needed changes to continued revisions. It can be intimidating to put your work out there for critique, but the experience is important. I even made the decision to hire a former editor from one of the Big Six publishing houses to critique it further. Then, the hard work paid off. I shared it with an agent who saw the potential, and she and I spent six months refining the manuscript. In the end, she wasn’t able to sell it, and though we parted ways on great terms, the manuscript got – you guessed it – shoved in a drawer. I held onto the idea that I would follow the traditional path to publication (agent first, then editor, then published book), but had to admit that wildflowers may not ever make it to print.

Ultimately, you decided to go the “indie” publishing route to bring this novel to market. At what point did you decide that the traditional route simply wasn’t for you?

This is a thought-provoking question, Celine. The truth is, I may have future novels that will be represented by an agent and edited and published traditionally. I think that by allowing traditional and self-publishing industries to work in tandem, authors/illustrators, agents, and editors will find a greater creative freedom and room for different levels of success. For me, I know some of my submissions have not been good enough for a traditional agent or editor to take a chance on. But, for my novels that have garnered high-level interest, there is one important thing that has kept me off the traditional track: my writing style. For years, I’ve been told that my work is literary (versus commercial), and what this means is that I write human-experience, character-driven stories. Those characters reveal their paths to me, and I’m guided by them, not a plot. This means the action can come at a slower pace, and my characters’ development, not the action, moves us toward the finish line. Many novels blur the lines of literary versus commercial, but in children’s literature, it often holds true that the more commercial the concept, the easier it is to sell. Publishing is a business, after all, and the houses know adrenal-pumping excitement sells.

So here’s the straw that broke this camel’s back:

Earlier this year, I attended a writing event where I could pitch my books to an agent or editor. The person I was matched up with was someone I liked and thought would be a good fit for my work. I planned to pitch three books that day. The response I got after each was: you sound like a very literary writer. And: I wouldn’t be able to sell those. Then she asked me what else I had in the works, and we ended up talking about a fourth novel. Suddenly, I had her attention.

“But it’s not revised, not finished,” I said.
“I’m not going anywhere,” she said. “I want to see that novel when it’s finished.”

Now, I’m a slow writer, and I left this meeting feeling disappointed that the book that got noticed was the unfinished one. But beyond this, it was also the one that hadn’t been labeled literary, the one that had an exciting concept and intense action as well as character-driven evolution.

Later that day, I wandered into a presentation that I thought was just going to be about the changes in the publishing industry. It turned out to be about how writers can navigate the changes in the industry – by self-publishing. It took me several days to marinate in all that I had learned that weekend, but once it penetrated my tough skin, it went fast and deep. Doesn’t all my work deserve a voice? Might there be room for me in both of these worlds?

It wasn’t until a month or so later that I learned the nuances within self-publishing. Indie publishing is about using the technologically advanced, user-friendly resources available to design and present a full body of work. The written story, the interior of the book, and the book cover offer me three ways to express my unique artistic vision. And though I’d never considered myself much of a marketer, I saw a chance to include philanthropic work with promotion, giving me a way to build my writing platform. I’m still sorting through ideas and trying to figure all of this out, but the possibilities are, as the cliché goes, endless.

Can you share with us what the self-publishing process looked like for you as you published wildflowers?

First and foremost, I had to look at who I was in relation to the world of self-publishing. After some research, I found that I was willing to accept the same responsibilities that a traditional press would and I committed myself to trying to meet those quality standards in the writing, design, and marketing of the book. I may not have gotten everything perfect, as I’m only one person, and a newbie at that. But aiming for a certain level of professionalism kept me focused on the book as a piece of art that represented my personal expression. This meant that it took longer, and I had to ask for help in places where I knew I’d fall short.

I also had to learn and understand the marketplace and my audience. Would my target market buy both print-on-demand (POD) and eBooks? In my professional critiques, I’ve been told that my writing has crossover appeal, so I knew that I would get teen readers, but also some adult. Since I could market to all ages, some liking hard copy books with others preferring e-readers, I decided to publish with CreateSpace through Amazon (for print books) and with Kindle (for eBooks). I used the helpful guide Becoming an Authorpreneur by Kris Tualla to learn more about the process. It’s actually quite simple to create accounts with these sellers, and all transferring of files is done online. It costs authors nothing to have an account and to put their books up for sale. The booksellers make their commission only when you sell a book. “POD” books are not printed until they are ordered, which means that authors no longer have to store piles of books until they are sold. CreateSpace is probably the biggest POD outlet because it’s linked to Amazon, where your book is sold like any traditionally published book.

I can, of course, order my own copies of my book, which I’ve used for promotions and to give to independent bookstores and local boutiques when they agree to shelf my book. I also applied to the Scottsdale Library’s LOCAL program, which showcases Arizona authors separately from the main stacks. Again, this required minimal effort, only requiring me to fill out an application and go through an acceptance process.

As an indie publisher, you are presumably your own marketer. What are some of the ways in which you’ve marketed this novel?

I’m at the front end of my marketing campaign, so I’m tossing concepts around and taking baby steps. With that said, I’ll share some general ideas. First, I think it’s important to define what success would feel like for you. Do you want to reach only friends of friends and family, or are you hoping to reach nations of people? If you’re up for going big, generating word of mouth may be the most important thing you can do as an indie published author. Today, this involves online outreach as well as being “on the ground”. Still, the number one rule in all of product marketing is to first do what you enjoy and find fun. Those efforts always pay off.

Keep in mind that, according to marketing professionals, no more than 25% of your income from the product should go to marketing. This means that you have to be savvy and efficient. I think finding an interesting way to reach your audience in their native habitat is one way to use advertising dollars and your time wisely. This is why many indie authors work online. It’s free and you can hit large groups where they’re already hanging out. If you work online, go back to rule #1. If you aren’t up for blogging or Twitter or Facebook, skip it. Having a main website for your work is important because it serves as a landing pad for your readers and followers. I combined the website template with the blogging concept to create a “blogsite.” For a ground campaign, consider your connections. Can you trade publicity efforts with a fellow author, craftsperson, or business?

Another idea that I’m excited about is combining my desire to spread the word about my book with my desire to help worthy causes. In November, for example, I held a donation drive called wildflowers for sandy, through which I donated 50% of all book sale profits to the American Red Cross for their work with the Hurricane Sandy recovery. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast area in 2005, the world slowly awoke to the truth about how environmental moments reshape the way we live. I’ve long been dedicated to understanding my own responsibilities as a human living in nature. This influence shows up in wildflowers, and though the book is fiction, it contains a message based in the reality I’ve experienced as more and more natural disasters occur around the world. Hurricane Sandy, our most recent devastating weather event, sent the East Coast into a state of emergency, causing widespread damage. It was touching to see how people pulled together in the aftermath of the hurricane to give hope and much needed help to the people of New Jersey and New York. Thanks to friends, family, and fans spreading the word about the wildflowers for sandy donation effort through Facebook, Twitter, and with friends and family, not only did we raise a little money for those in need, but we also got people thinking about our neighbors in the East. It felt so good to make the wildflowers for sandy donation to the American Red Cross, and I send thanks to all who participated. This will be a challenging holiday for those hit by the storm, and the Red Cross is making great efforts to ease them back into their normal lives, which will undoubtedly take some time.

You mentioned that you’re a long-time member of the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). How has being a member of this society encouraged you and influenced your work?

In order to avoid a lot of gushing, I’ll just say that to join SCBWI is to join a community of generous, talented, and dedicated professionals who want only to inspire and entertain young readers. Okay, so that was a lot of gushing – but this organization is the ultimate resource for writers and illustrators who want to work in the children’s marketplace. In addition to receiving an inside education on the industry and being moved by the work and personal stories of other members, the biggest influence that SCBWI has had on me is to encourage me to adopt its core message: Dedicate yourself to craft.

For those who would like to learn more about self-publishing, feel free to visit Rhonda’s blogsite at www.rmccormackwrites.blogspot.com. Here you’ll find an extremely informative series called the Indie Publishing Equation. This explores the Who, What, Where, Why, and How of publishing your own work.

For our members who use a Kindle or have the Kindle App, Rhonda’s book will be available for free downloads on Kindle and Kindle apps on December 21st, 23rd, 25th, and 26th.

Thank you, Rhonda, for sharing your adventures in indie publishing with us!