Monday, August 29, 2011

The Beauty and Necessity of Critique: Ode to My Writing Group

About a month and a half ago, I met a lovely woman at a writer’s conference who invited me to visit her writers group in Brooklin. I’ve been going once a week and can’t believe the profound impact they now have on everything I write, I value them immensely, and I am learning to be a better writer every day because of them. I believe every group is a little different but with us, everyone takes a turn reading their chapter aloud and then we discuss it as a group. We offer constructive feedback, the good, the bad and occasionally the ugly. It’s a great format for polishing, editing, as well as testing out story ideas and hooks. The best part is that everyone checks their ego at the door because in the circle we are all just writers looking to strengthen our work and celebrate our love of the written word. But before you run out to search for a writers’ group of your own, there are a couple of things you ought to consider:

Can you handle being critiqued?

This was the first thing Marissa asked me after inviting me and quite rightly so. Often when people first start writing, they are struggling to develop a voice and feel insecure about putting ideas on paper. Before you go looking for critical feedback (as opposed to your mother or husband who thinks that everything you write is exceptional) you need to reach a place where you can look at your work, realize that there are things that could be improved, and that someone else might see them more clearly than you do. One of the things I most love about sharing is the fact that we read our work out loud. You wouldn’t believe how many more idiosyncrasies you will pick up on when reading or hearing aloud. You also have to be ready to evaluate comments, accept them when they’re right, but also reject them when they’re wrong. This is one of the reasons you should always try to get multiple opinions on your work. (There are usually around six of us at any given time.) If you have only one, or a few critiques, you tend to pay too much attention to their opinions. If you have multiple critiques, you can listen to them debate—and if they all see the same snag, you can be pretty sure that you do have a problem, even if they don’t agree on how to solve it. Lastly, don’t fail to appreciate the value of your family and friends who love everything you write—they also have their uses.

Where To Find The Right Group?

These days there are limitless sources for online critique groups—if that’s what you’re looking for, you can just get on the search engine and hunt. Although this is my first group, I do think I prefer the face-to-face give and take of a group that meets in the flesh. If you’re looking for one of those, any local writer’s organization might be able to put you in touch with fellow writers. I found The Tuesday Night Writer’s Circle through The Writers Community of Durham Region (WCDR) and the Ontario Writers Conference.

It is important to find a group with the right blend of support and feedback. A group that does nothing but critique might as well be a business meeting. What I love most about this group, is the warmth. Part of the purpose of a writer’s group is support; people with whom you can share news, celebrate victory, commiserate in flops, and just plain talk shop. On the other hand a writers’ group that offers nothing but support might as well be a social club. The main reason you’re there is to figure out what’s flawed with your work and how to make it more appealing.

You should also look for a group that offers the right blend of truth, reality and necessary sensitivity. If you leave a critique session ready to quit your story and take up acrobatics, then you’re involved with the wrong group. On the other hand, you should leave with the knowledge of exactly where your story needs correction, and at least some idea of how to set about it.

So, reach out and join a group or even make one if you have to. Not all members have to possess the same level of skill or experience because a new writer may still be a skilled reader.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Traditional Publishing Vs. Online Publishing

I attended a writers conference a month ago where one of the lunchtime speakers discussed the fact that in March, two potentially landmark events occurred right before our eyes. A best-selling author refused an advance of $500,000 in order to self-publish his next two novels, while a self-published author who has made more than $2 million so far decided to accept her first traditional publishing contract. As an aspiring author, I had debated for a very long time what to do with the novel I had sitting in storage. Do I try the traditional route, do I self publish and in addition to that do I online publish as so many people seem to be doing these days?

While I found it tempting to view these situations as basically cancelling one another out, the speaker really helped put it in perspective for me. What I found inspiring is that they both show how many book authors are now fully in charge of their fates. Not to mention that perhaps doing it both ways isn’t a bad idea. I think the question these days is more along of the line of whether you want to try both and in my case whether you eventually decide to go traditional after self-publishing?

Personally and maybe it’s simply because I work in Social Media but I like the way Amanda Hocking did it. Self publishing first and then moving to a more traditional route later on once you’ve established a readership. I write for the love of writing right now but I do hope to eventually be a house hold name. I have a blog and I have created a following by allowing people into my mind and soul to read my work. For me, it was simply about time and effort. I use social media anyway so I know how to market myself. Why waste all of the time writing query letters, summaries and then facing all the potential rejection that apparently first time authors face when I could be using that time to write books while posting teasers online. I then used Facebook and Twitter to let my friends and family know what I was doing and invited them to check it out. Soon my followers were writing me back providing me with feedback and in essence doing a first edit for me.  

Self-Publishing is where an author essentially eliminates some of the middlemen and manages the overall publishing, distribution and marketing processes him/herself. The author writes a book, hires editors, cover artists, or does these tasks themselves, contracts a printer to print their book, arranges with a distributor to release it in stores, and in general manages not only the writing of the book, but its marketing and sales as well. Publishing an eBook eliminates the need for a printer, though the author must register with an online distributor like and upload a properly formatted version of their book for them to sell. The other choice is to work with a self-publishing company like IUniverse who will help you with this process. This option gives the author much more personal control of the whole process and allows him/her to earn more money per copy than through a commercial publisher. Sure, it also involves a lot of work by the self-publisher who is responsible for performing all of the functions and services that a commercial publisher would normally look after but the model is normally less time-consuming in terms of elapsed time, since there is no manuscript submission and approval process involved. On average, the self-publishing process can save six to twelve months over the traditional publisher model. 

Traditional or Legacy Publishing is where an author writes a book, submits their manuscript to a traditional publisher usually through an agent, gets rejected a lot before at last being accepted, does some back-and-forth with an editor, and then waits patiently for their book to come out in stores. Based on some of the people I’ve met at conferences as well as stories I’ve read online. I’ve heard that the book publishing and distribution industry is unfortunately an outdated, archaic poorly run business model right now. Some people believe the entire industry is decades behind current-day business practices of other industries.   Traditional publishers often make new authors pay most, if not all, marketing expenses associated with the author’s book. So, while a book is considered self-published if the author pays for editing, formatting, or cover design. The book is not considered to be self-published if those expenses are covered by the publisher even though the author is made to pay marketing expenses. The hypocrisy is almost laughable.

Another downside is that you have to give away half your book's value up-front. If your book's cover price is, say $30, you will be forced to discount at least 40% to 60% right off the top when selling your book to wholesalers and retailers. So, you'll really be working from an actual price of somewhere between $12 and $18 . And while there is a lot of prestige if you can make it as a main stream author, I’ve heard that the novice writer cannot count on making big bucks. The best you can hope to receive for your book is a royalty somewhere between 6% and 10% of the "net". The "net" is the amount the publisher receives after discounting to retailers. For example $30 -50% discount to large retail chain = $15. Your cut would be somewhere between $0.90 and $1.50 per sale. So, for selling 3,000 copies you would make a total of somewhere between $2,700 and $4,500! 

Now in comparison, if you choose the self-publishing option your main distributor will pay you somewhere around 45% of the cover price of your book. Using our $30 cover price example; that works out to $13.50 per sale that goes to you under this scenario. Then you have to deduct your costs which include: printing costs - $3.50; overheads - $1.00; marketing, advertising, publicity - $1.00 = ($13.50-$5.50) = $8.00 per book sale. So, for selling 3,000 copies you would make $24,000. This is why self-publishing also allows authors the freedom to drop the price of their books to make it more affordable to their audience.

The best news is that over the past couple of years the self publishing model has evolved to an Online Publishing Model that eliminates all of the negative aspects of the traditional publishing model. It is a combination of online digital download delivery and print-on-demand hard copy publishing sidestepping almost all of the snares of the traditional book publishing model.  It offers small-time authors an excellent alternative that will give them more control, and will increase their sales and profits by using little known online channels when publishing their books/ebooks.

I like to experience everything for myself. You know the saying  ”the grass is always greener”. Well, I like to see both sides of the fence and then make the decision as to which side I want to live on. So while I have chosen to go with the online publishing route first. I’m not saying that traditional publishing is never going to be for me. I don’t think either self publishing or traditional publishing guarantees book sales but I do believe that self publishing is easier to get into and perhaps harder to maintain. Things are changing, hopefully for the better, I’m just hoping that by the time I am ready to go the traditional route, then things will have improved. Regardless, I do think that it is an amazing time to be a writer as we have more control over our destiny than ever before and I’m excited to embark on this journey to publish my novel. I will be proud if even just a handful of people get joy from my book.