The Junior Authors Writing Conference 2014

JAWCBack at the start of the new year, I was approached by Laura Thomas to speak at her conference for young writers. The conference was held on October 18 at a Vancouver hotel and there were about 60 young writers in attendance. I based my talk on Publishing Options for the New Writer on not speaking to kids, but to emerging authors.

When I arrived, I saw that most of the attendees were 11-13 years old and my heart fell. I thought, “I am going to bore them to death!” So, I gathered my courage and walked to the front of the room. While things started off pretty normally, after about 7 minutes into my 45 minute time slot, there were so many questions and animated comments from the attendees that I realized I quickly wasn’t going to get through my prepared speech. Actually, their questions were so valid and on-point that it was like they knew what I was going to be talking about.

I remain supremely impressed by these young people – their intellect, their desire for writing and their ambition. I am posting my talk here, mainly in the hopes that it may help other writers – young or old. And I can’t wait to see what kind of books these young people produce – I’m almost positive there will be a bestseller in their midst.

And the highlight of the day: finishing my talk, going off to the side to answer a few questions, only to turn around to see 50 kids waiting for my autograph!

_____________________

I’m Michelle Halket, and I make books. I don’t write them, I take what others have written and I turn it into a book.

About 6 years ago, I had a conversation with someone about how difficult it was for authors to get their work out into the world. And how that was such a shame that so much creative spirit never gets acknowledged. And so, I decided to start a website that would help authors get their work “published”. At the time, it was just going to be a simple website where people could publish their books, novellas, stories, poetry, etc. But as I researched the concept, I saw one very small, but very interesting trend – ebooks. So I decided I would take pretty much anything that someone wrote, pop a generic cover on it and make it into an ebook that people could buy from our website. At the time that we launched, we were called ireadiwrite – and nobody knew what ebooks were  – they were this fringe thing that I had to explain every time I told someone what I did. It was brutal. I didn’t charge the authors anything, I would just take a portion of what they sold, much like with traditional publishing.

But like music, the digital form took off and enabled me to surf that wave. And as we grew, I realized that I wanted to produce books that I liked, that I wanted to read, that I felt were good. So we evolved, and almost 4 years ago became Central Avenue Publishing.

Today, we are a traditional press that is proud to house over 30 authors and have published over 100 titles. Most of our books are by American authors, but we do have six Canadian authors, one Australian, one South Africa and a photographer from Germany. We publish nearly every genre. My one rule for publishing something, (other than liking the book) is liking the author. A publisher and writer work closely together, even if we never meet in person, so it’s important to feel that I can work well with someone.

Our books are reviewed or discussed on book review blogs on average twice per week and this doesn’t include reader social media sites like Goodreads or Shelfari. Many of our books have gone on to hit store bestseller lists, including Across The Hall, Amber Frost, Can You Hear Me Now? and our most popular book, I Wrote This For You is now stocked at all Barnes & Noble stores in the US.

No matter what type of work you’ve written, or which publishing option you choose, you need to have the absolute best version of the work ready to go before you start on any path. This means it’s finished, been beta read, edited for structure, style and copy and finally proofread – a few times. I can’t tell you how many queries I see for books that haven’t even been written, or are written so badly and fraught with typos, that I can’t believe they own a word processor. So no matter what you do, please do all that is necessary to create the best work you can.

My next question is the most important… Do you really want to be a published author?

Because once it’s out there, especially in this digital age, there’s no way to unpublish it. Having others read your work can run the range of being most satisfying to being very stressful and upsetting.

Most of the writers  I know are introverts, meaning they get energized by being alone or just with a few close friends rather than being with a lot of people or having an audience. Once your book is published, you open yourself up to criticism, both constructive and destructive. Often times, there are just plain old mean reviews of your book, just because there are haters and the internet gives them a place to hang out anonymously and come up with funny ways of saying how bad something is.

These are things you need to think about. As a published writer you need to have a thick skin, detach yourself from your work and learn from the inevitable criticism that will result. But for most writers, having their work read is the reason they write. So, if you’re up for the consequences and challenges of being published – then let’s learn a bit about that.

Today, you have so many more options to get your work out into the world than authors ever had before.

In traditional publishing, the author writes a query letter or a proposal, and submits it to a literary agent. Most publishers will not accept queries directly from authors, preferring to use agents as a middle person to help weed out the weaker proposals. If the agent accepts the authors, he or she will shop it around to the acquisitions editors at the various publishers. The editor reads it, considers whether it is right for the house, and decides either to reject it (leaving the agent free to offer it to another publisher) or to publish it.

If the publishing house decides to publish the book, the house buys the rights from the writer and pays him or her an advance on future royalties. This advance represents what publisher thinks the book will sell and is paid up front to the author. Once the book starts selling, the advance is “earned out” and the author won’t be paid again until the book sells more than what the advance was.

The house puts up the money to design and package the book, prints as many copies of the book as it thinks will sell, markets the book, and finally distributes the finished book to the public. This whole process takes about 18 months to 2 years.

The major trade book publishing companies in the United States are often referred to as “the Big Five” (formerly “The Big Six,” until Random House and Penguin officially merged in June 2013). They are Hachette, HarperCollins, MacMillan Publishers, Simon and Schuster and Penguin Random House.

Most authors would consider getting published by an imprint of one of these companies as the epitome of their writing careers. To many, it represents fame and fortune. But getting there is challenging. Selling yourself to an agent is difficult enough. There are thousands of agents – and getting them to notice you among the thousands of queries they get can be difficult – even when they are open for submissions, since many of them are only open for submissions at certain times.

With the changes in reading and bookselling, big publishers are relying on big names to keep up sales, so unless you are a celebrity, you’re going to have a difficult time selling your book. It’s not impossible, but it is unlikely.

Within the realm of traditional publishing, there are thousands of smaller presses who operate in a similar fashion to the larger publishers but have carved out a niche for themselves in a particular genre or regional focus. The nice thing about getting a small publisher is that you don’t always need an agent, so approaching them is a little easier.

It is extremely difficult for the typical unknown author to get a publishing contract, and many ‘vanity publishers’ or subsidy publishers sprang up to give these authors an alternative. Essentially, these companies would publish any book in exchange for payment up front from the author. The term “vanity publishing” arose from the common perception that the authors who paid to have their book published were motivated by some overestimated sense of their own talent. The cost to have your book published by one of these companies is very high – the author chooses which publishing ‘package’ they want which can range from $1,000 to $10,000. There is no guarantee of sales, but the author does get a finished book in their hands.

Have any of you heard of crowd funding, like with KickStarter or IndieGoGo? For those who haven’t, a crowd funding site is a way of raising funds for a project by appealing to a large group of people who can donate as much as they wish. It works for charitable causes, music, small businesses, and authors too. With the success of these crowd funding sites, we are starting to see some crowd funded publishing companies which combines a vanity publisher with a self publisher. Unbound and Inkshares are the two more popular ones but there are rumours that Amazon will be doing it too.

Basically this means that authors sign up and appeal to people to fund their project by making donations. But instead of then having to go out and do everything themselves, the publishing company takes over and does it for you, once you’ve raised the $5,000 or so that they ask for.

Self-publishing is the publication of any book by the author of the work, without the involvement of an established publisher. The author is responsible and in control of entire process including the design of the cover and interior, formats, editing, proofreading, price, distribution, marketing and public relations.

Authors can either learn all the things they need to do themselves, or they can outsource all or part of the process to companies that offer these services. The problem with outsourcing is that authors need to have money to do it, and it can costs thousands to hire editors, proofreaders, cover designers, interior book designers and ebook coders.

Many authors turn to crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter to get money, or fund the publishing process themselves. If an author elects to do it themselves, they can choose the format of the book they want to produce.

Creating an ebook would mean distributing it to the five major ebookstores including Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Google and Kobo. Not all that long ago, you had to get your own ebook created and then find a company that would distribute it to these and the many other ebook stores that were around. Now, it’s terribly easy. For the most part, you can sign up, upload a word document and the bookstore’s online portal will convert your document to ebook formats for you.

If you don’t want to deal with each store individually you can use a distributor like Bookbaby or Smashwords who will take your word document convert it and distribute it for you.

If you want a print book, you can create accounts with either of CreateSpace (an Amazon company), IngramSpark or Lulu and upload a print ready pdf and cover design and using a technology called print on demand, they’ll print your book for you – either one or 1000, it’s up to you.

With so many choices and with the changing trends in reading and publishing, how do you know which is right for you?

There is a terrible misconception that getting your book published by a traditional publisher means fame and fortune and a road to a Man Booker or Nobel prize. This isn’t the case. Getting a book deal as an unknown author could very well mean a small advance and a print run of just a few thousand copies which then get returned to the printer. Traditional publishers want new authors with an established fan base/platform. The problem with traditional or legacy publishing is that print books and the old model of distributing them is languishing. Bricks and mortar bookstores are closing down and print books are expensive for publishers. So the prospect of hitting it big as a writer is about the same as winning the lottery.

Does this mean that you give up on traditional publishing? No! Publishers have a great amount of experience and ability behind them and they can be your best collaborators and advocates for your book. But go into it knowing that becoming the next JK Rowling is not likely, that building your craft and your readers will come mostly from your own efforts – not from theirs.

How you decide to put your creative work out is really based on two things: What kind of personality you have and the genre of your work.

If you are this kind of person:

  • You would rather mostly write
  • You don’t mind giving up creative control
  • You don’t mind giving up a lot of the royalties
  • You like working with others
  • Your book is in a currently marketable genre: YA paranormal, dystopia, romance, literary fiction

and you believe you have a superior piece of literature, then by all means, go for it! I’m a publisher and I am blessed to work with many talented authors. I don’t mind doing the work for them and letting them just do the writing. But marketing is a joint venture and they put in as much work on marketing themselves and their books as I do.

I mention the last point about marketable genres because I think that it’s important to realize that publishers are business people – they want books that sell. So if you write in a genre that has a timely subject matter, or is currently popular like dystopia or YA paranormal, you may have more likely chance of getting it accepted.

There are thousands of writers who are opting for self publishing – not because it’s a last resort, but because of these reasons:

  • You’re highly entrepreneurial
  • You learn easily
  • You don’t like giving up creative control
  • You prefer to work alone
  • You want all the royalties!
  • Your work is in a niche genre: science-fiction, memoir, poetry

In fact, self published authors and their books are forging the path of publishing into places never seen. In fact, according to a report released earlier this year, self published authors account for 55% of all dollar revenue from ebooks on Amazon. 38% comes from Big Five published authors.

Whether you choose to self publish or follow a more traditional path, I strongly recommend reading and researching both paths. I personally follow Hugh Howey, Joe Konrath and Nathan Bransford who all have excellent insight into publishing trends.

But traditional, and self publishing aren’t the only ways to get your work out into the world. There are so many other options! Which one you choose is really based on what you’ve created. For example:

Cookbooks: As a person who cooks a lot – I regularly turn to the internet and blogs for recipe ideas. So, anyone who enjoys cooking and who likes to tweak recipes should first start by starting up a cooking blog. Couple your recipes with great photography and it’s a great way to build up a fanbase. The best and most successful blogs often get book deals out of it.

Poetry: Our bestselling book is I Wrote This For You, a book of poetry and photography. But as a genre, poetry is a not generally a fast seller. But the success of this project is based on its success as a blog where it garnered thousands of followers. Now as a book, it’s sold tens of thousands of copies and is being translated and licensed by overseas publishers.

For other poets, I strongly suggest getting involved in the local poetry scene. A variety of restaurants and cafes hold poetry slam nights with an open mic. Check them out and get some valuable feedback on your work.

Regional Interest/Charitable: For exposure, I suggest checking out crowdfunding sites like KickStarter to help you get a fanbase and fund any self publishing or creative work you do.

Self-Help/Advice/Memoirs: Social media has opened up so many avenues for creative people. A few years ago, there was this Twitter account called Sh*t My Dad Says. And it was this one young man who just simply quoted the words his father said to him. It got so popular, his followers grew by the thousands every few hours and he ended up with a #1 New York Times Bestseller.

Kids Books: While digital books are growing, kids books don’t seem to do as well in digital as they do in print. If you’ve written a book aimed at kids 12 and under, I would make sure you have a print version. But if you or your friends have some app-building abilities, then go for it – books as apps are on the rise and create a whole new experience for young readers.

In conclusion, there are so many ways to get the fruit of your creative labours out there. From traditional to self publishing, to using the internet in its myriad ways.

Pay attention to the trends out there – reading is going digital and getting shorter. Read about what is happening with other authors and their experiences. Listen more than you talk.

The way you publish will depend really on your personality, so pay attention to what kind of person you are and decide what is most intriguing for you.

Find unique ways of sourcing out what you need. Ask an artistic friend to design a cool cover for you and share the royalties. Work with a detail oriented family member to read and edit your book for you. Pair up with a mentor who can teach you more about their writing experiences. Start a blog and post your poetry. Open up your twitter account and listen in on some chats about self publishing and ebook coding. Connect online with other like minded authors who are doing what you’re interested in. Listen more than you talk. And stay away from negative places, either bitter authors ranting about the injustices of the publishing world or the hating readers who love to leave bad reviews.

If you might indulge me for a moment, as artists who create, I ask you: Pay for art. Support those around you who create, so that you help create a culture that values art enough to support those who make it. I’m not asking you to buy a thousand dollar painting. But if you’re given the opportunity to pirate a song or a book, think twice, and reconsider. Sure, the record label makes money, and so does the publisher. But so does the artist. You are the artists who will create a world for yourselves, so refuse to create one that attaches no value to your work. We don’t want you to stop writing so you can do other things just to make money. Because then we’ll all lose.

And finally, if you have a finished piece of work, and you want to share it – please do. You make the world a better place by sharing your creative spirit.

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