"When you die, I believe, God isn't going to ask you what you published. God's going to ask you what you wrote." (McNally, T.M. "Big Dogs and Little Dogs," in Martone, Michael, and Susan Neville. 2006. Rules of thumb: 73 authors reveal their fiction writing fixations. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books).
There's a certain wisdom to that remark, but, with all due respect to McNally and to God, the Almighty isn't in my target demographic. God, perhaps,will read my unpublished manuscripts, but the ladies in the Hungry Readers Book Club won't read my books unless they're published.
I have been an unpublished author, a self-published author and a traditionally published author, so I believe I may have some perspective on the subject. There is a difference, although the difference is not necessarily in the writing. But when you're traditionally published, they teach you the secret handshake. And you get the decoder ring.
It took me thirteen years to write my first manuscript. Twenty-seven years if you count the re-writes. The Last Bodhisattva isn’t a mystery. It's a modern Buddhist parable, a cross between On the Road, by Jack Kerouac, and Monkey, a 500 year-old Chinese folk novel by Wu Cheng-En. I began writing the book in 1975, at the age of 23, and wrote on-and-off for thirteen years, completing it (for the first time) in 1988. Believing I had a publishable novel (and knowing nothing about agents, or publishers, or, frankly, anything at all about the book business), I bought The Writer's Handbook and began sending out queries. I spent the next year collecting rejections. I tucked the manuscript away in a file cabinet and went about my life.
And every few years, for the next fourteen years, I pulled The Last Bodhisattva out of the cabinet and did a re-write. The last time I attempted a re-write, I had just turned fifty and I was having a very hard time relating to the character that I had first written nearly three decades earlier. I did a complete re-write, framing the story as a memoir. It was not a publishable manuscript, but it was finished and I was satisfied.
That final re-write did something I hadn't anticipated. It motivated me to start writing again. I had an idea, something about putting a character on a back road in the New Jersey Pine Barrens in the hour before the sun comes up. Five months later, Who is Killing Doah's Deer was finished. I bought a new copy of The Writer’s Handbook and sent out another series of badly written queries.
But the publishing world had changed since 1988. Someone told me about print-on-demand and directed me to iUniverse. Print-on-demand takes advantage of digital technology to print physical copies of a book only after a sale has been made. By eliminating the costs associated with producing and warehousing a traditional print run, print-on-demand created an inexpensive publishing option and gave rise to what has come to be known as subsidized self-publishing. In 2003, the Mystery Writers of America had a publishing agreement with iUniverse. As a result, in 2004 I joined MWA and published my first mystery with iUniverse.
Digital technology continues to evolve and that evolution can be seen in the booming e-book market. Today, it is quite literally possible for an author to finish a manuscript in the morning and upload it to the kindle store in the afternoon. It is possible, but it is not necessarily a good thing.
It seems to me that many, perhaps most, people who self-publish (particularly those who self-publish their first book) do so for the wrong reason. And that reason is impatience to see their book in print. Even though I spent 27 years on an unpublished manuscript, perhaps because I spent 27 years on an unpublished manuscript, I was inclined to be impatient with my first mystery. Patience, as they say, is a virtue.
A survey conducted a few years ago found that 80% of Americans believe that they should write a book. 80% of Americans can’t hit a fastball, can’t balance a checkbook, can’t cook pasta al dente. As much as I love the notion of a nation of writers, I don’t believe that 80% of Americans can or should write a book. But if they do, technology makes it possible for all of those books to be published.
The best thing about ebook publishing is that anyone can get a book published. The worst thing about ebook publishing is that anyone can get a book published.
In an essay in the 1988 Writers Handbook entitled, “Everything You Need to Know about Writing Successfully – in Ten Minutes,” Stephen King offered twelve essential tips, starting with “Be talented.” Being talented requires a writer never to settle for good enough. It starts by writing the best book you’re capable of writing. Don't get caught up in publishing until your book is ready to be published.
I once sent a query to a publisher who loved the manuscript, but declined to publish it. You see, my book didn't fit his business plan. It's great to have a publisher who loves what you write. It's even better to have a publisher who believes he can make money selling what you write. Because writing a great book is an art, but selling a great book is a business.
So, back to 2004 and the print-on-demand release of Who is Killing Doah’s Deer? I took advantage of my membership with MWA to learn more about the craft and the business of writing. In 2005, I was debating whether I could afford to fly to a mystery writers’ conference in Chicago. A friend gave me a wonderful bit of advice. “If you want to be a real writer, you have to start going to the places where the real writers go.” And so I went to Chicago. I attended the “official” panel discussions in the conference meeting rooms, and the “unofficial” discussions in the bar. I met authors, editors, agents and publishers. I became part of a community of writers with similar goals.
I attended a panel of editors and publishers. After listening to them talk, I came to realize that one of those independent, traditional publishers, Five Star, seemed to be a good fit for what I was writing. When I got home, I crafted a query, perhaps the first really good query letter I’d ever written, explaining why I believed they were the right publisher for my second book.
In 2006, Five Star published a hardcover edition of A Minor Case of Murder. Thirty-one years after starting to write my first, unpublished, manuscript, I had written something for which a traditional publisher had sent me a check. And then, in 2009, it happened again. Five Star published It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Murder. When I finish the next Cassie O’Malley Mystery, the one with the clever working title of Book Four, I look forward to continuing my relationship with Five Star.
Meanwhile, the publishing industry continues to evolve. As a reader, I have not made the transition to ebooks. I still prefer the feel of a book in my hands. New books, like a brand-new automobile before the first ding, pristine, with that new car smell and that shiny new body, practically begging you to take it out for a spin. And old books, especially old books, worn and tattered like a favorite pair of blue jeans. My house overflows with books. But as a writer, I need to remember that different readers like to access stories in different formats - books, ebooks, audiobooks. I’m not a book seller. I'm a story teller. As technology offers new ways to access those stories, I need to make sure my stories are available in those formats.
So those hardcover books are no longer the only editions. I now have a separate publishing agreement with Crossroad Press for the ebooks. And in the very near future, I expect to have an announcement about audiobooks.And what about that first unpublished manuscript, that unpublishable manuscript? Not so very long ago, I took the red editing pencil to the manuscript and cut nearly 65,000 words. 65,000 words that I had agonized over for decades, writing and re-writing until they shined. The Last Bodhisattva didn't work as a novel. But it did make for a pretty good short story. In 2006, The Sound Bite was published in woman's corner magazine.