My 11/18/07 Missoulian column
Say something about writing a book and more than likely you’ll hear that old chestnut that goes something like this: “Everyone has a book in them, and it should stay right there.” Or: “Whom the Gods would destroy they first give a book.” (Or at least a newspaper column).
Writing has always been a mostly solitary and personal pursuit, and maybe it’s attractive for those two reasons. The internet and the hi-tech world may not make writing easier, but at least you can find more people to commiserate with, and find lots of practical help, too. November happens to be National Novel Writing Month.
Obviously, PCs and printers make work much easier than pounding away a typewriter. I’d be lost without cut and paste, a spellchecker and a laser printer, but all those word processing features might have made me lazy. I started writing on a typewriter and I learned early on if I didn’t want to waste time with corrections and retyping, I needed to get lots of work done in my mind before I started.
Maybe the biggest change in the writing world is the ability to self-publish. It’s become possible in the last ten years to sidestep the commercial presses (and the rejection) and go it on your own. Google “self-publishing” and you’ll see a hundred choices for publishing, print on demand, editorial and design services, and – maybe the most important – marketing help. You can send your book off email, and then wait for the UPS truck. Or, with print on demand, a manufacturer’s printer will churn out a copy of your book only when someone orders it.
The self-publisher Lulu.com seems to be a very popular and gets overall good reviews; they market books and also publish digital media such as CDs and DVDs, too. Xlibris.com has been around longer and has more to offer in terms of editorial services and marketing. A good idea is to search on amazon.com for books on self-publishing, and learn the process before diving in. There’s no substitute for good writing, editing and design in order to have a finished self-published product that looks good and reads well.
An important aspect of self-publishing is getting ISBN number for your book. An ISBN is the only way for brick and mortar and online stores to keep inventory, and some businesses will refuse to handle your book without one. Most self-publishers will help you get one. Kevin Kelly has a good explanation of ISBN’s and self-publishing on his blog.
You can also Google for a “real” publisher on the web, either a academic press or a commercial press. University presses are a good bet, as some publish fiction and non-fiction, not just cliché, dry academic books. But read the publisher’s backlist to get an idea if your book fits in. You can submit a finished book or a book proposal to an academic press without an literary agent, but be ready to discover they are very selective due to the limited number of titles they publish each year. But an academic press will provide the legitimacy of a real publisher, with professional editing and design, marketing and sales.
Which brings us to the big time: commercial publishing. You’ll find trying to get a deal with a national or international commercial press is difficult and complicated, but once again, there’s much information online. You’ll more than likely need an literary agent to approach a commercial press, as most simply won’t deal with you as an individual. Commercial publishing has a financial bottom line, so a writer’s chances of breaking in are very slim. The commercial markets for fiction and non-fiction are completely different, too. Be prepared for a significant learning experience.
Many literary agents advertise on the web, and the industry is switching over to accepting only email queries (the introduction you send to the agent) in order to do away with the masses of mail. Agents make their own submission rules, so read and follow their instructions exactly. In my experience, you have a New York minute (which equals about thirty seconds in Montana time) to present yourself in your email as a professional who has done their research and can do the work.
Watch out for agents or literary firms that charge for reading or consulting; that’s considered unethical and unprofessional by “real” literary agents. But “pay” services abound, due in nature to the internet, where anyone can put up a website as an editor or agent. Try Writer’s Net for listings of agents, editors, forums and more. Check out for The Association of Authors’ Representatives, too.
I still own a manual typewriter, but it hasn’t been out of the closet in years. I’ve been through three laptops over the last ten years.