Again, I’m at the PNWA Summer Writer’s Conference, and these are the notes I’m taking while attending the conference. In this class, four local authors are sharing their stories about how they got published. They offer up their advice, inspiration, and a summary of their publishing experiences. Here are my notes:
JOAN D. STAMM
Author of If I Touched an Eagle, she worked on this children’s book for years and sent it out to a gazillion publishing houses with no response. While living in Japan, some years later, someone contacted her and was interested in actually publishing her book. It is still in print and is still available in schools as part of their environmental science curriculum. If I Touched an Eagle is about the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and its message teaches children about the importance of ecological wisdom.
Her advice: When you publish with smaller, independent publishers, they design your book, and they love your book or they wouldn’t have offered to publish it. However, promoting your own book is very difficult if you don’t like to get out and talk in front of lots of people. It’s important to have a Facebook page and blog to help promote your material. This will also help you sell books to people from other countries. She has sold books via Amazon online and had readers from South America and Europe email her about their purchases. So she really believes the Internet is profoundly important.
Mr. Horn wrote Pictures Without Borders, a photography book about Bosnia. It was published through an independent publisher.
Doubt is a big obstacle for Mr. Horn. He said, “I was throwing sticks of doubt on the path in front of me and stumbling on them. The sticks of doubt still come to me, but I try to throw them off to the side.” He also said he likes to post words of wisdom and affirmation in his office/writing space, to help him overcome his doubt.
His work began with a slide show. He was telling stories through pictures and narration. People came up to him and said, “You should write a book.” He got some sponsorship to go to a conference in Houston called “FotoFest” where book publishers meet w/ photographers. They hooked him up with Dewi Lewis, who was encouraging. Dewi said, “I want to see your version of what the book would be as a PDF mockup…” He didn’t give Mr. Horn a deadline, but eventually the PDF mockup was delivered, and after a long wait–a loooooong wait–he got a message from Dewi Lewis, and the RE said, “Your Book”. Dewi was very affirming in his Scottish way, and they took the project from there. He wanted Mr. Horn to raise money for funding the book project, and that’s very typical of indie publishers. Working with this particular publisher (and it may be true w/ other small publishers) Dewi was very savvy about keeping the project on budget. So Mr. Horn had to do a lot of fundraising. He used nonprofit sponsorship through the Bosnian Institute to help get the word out about his book. It took a short amount of time to get the book to publication. But if he hadn’t had a deadline, he might not have made the whole thing sell.
His publisher, Dewi, was very open and available to Mr. Horn, which was a wonderful opportunity. He was also committed to high quality. He had a very wide distribution network. His was based in the UK, but he also had a contact in the US. So that was nice. Mr. Horn also feels like this project has opened his perspective to the Bosnian community at large. As far as drawbacks go, Mr. Horn said that small publishing houses don’t have a budget for marketing, so it’s all up to the writer to market the book. Sometimes Mr. Horn felt like he was running on a treadmill all alone because of this.
Once you know your book is going to get published, you’ve got to jump into marketing it immediately. Big publishing houses do this months and months in advance, so keep that in mind. Also, it’s nice to get a good blurb from someone who’s already well-known. That can be very valuable.
Ms. Thurman is the author of the children’s book, A Garden for Pig. She writes every single day with discipline. In the pre-publishing days, she got lots and lots of rejections, so she feels surprised she’s even in this field. Her book is based on a real-life story.
At first, she wrote one draft and sent it out to agents. She got lots of rejections. One agent told her, “Nobody will touch this story. It’s too gross!” But someone along the way also said, “No. This is a fresh idea.” But a first draft is not good enough to get you an agent. Even with children’s picture books, you’ve got to go through numerous edits. Ms. Thurman had an editor who was firm but kind with her edits. As she wrote the final draft, Thurman switched points of view, playing with POV until she came up with something wonderful.
When she was done working with her editor and that final draft (five years after the first draft), she landed an agent very quickly.
She noted that once you’ve signed your book over to a publisher, it’s no longer yours. It’s your agent’s, your publisher’s, your audience’s, your illustrator’s etc… She does school visits now. At first, she was worried that kids would throw pencils at her, but it turned out to be a wonderful blessing to get to meet her readers.
One of the authors she works with is finding it difficult to get a second book published. She also knows someone who does group blogging with other writers, and it can really save time for writers.
Rob and Associates Publicity Firm was the publicity house they used, and she found them to be an excellent publicity firm. She highly recommends them. (Sorry readers, I may have misheard her when I first typed this, because I’ve googled them and can’t find them online.)
She doesn’t have an agent right now, but she’d like to. She’s working on a middle grade novel right now, and she has a couple of picture books out on submission to publishers.
Her book, Hands at Work, gives voice to the stories of people who work with their hands. It includes photographs of hands digging, baking, weaving, sculpting, fishing, etc… It demonstrates through imagery the passion of the everyday worker.
According to Ms. Graville, it pays to keep in touch with people you know in the industry, because you can ask published writers to write blurbs for your book when it comes out.
The reason we write is because of what we gain through the process. Ms. Graville interviewed a number of people about their workplace for her book. Meeting people, hearing them talk about their work, and researching the material for her book was an amazing experience. You may seem intrusive when interviewing people, but what people told her after the book was published, was that they really appreciated being listened to.
It’s a very wonderful feeling to have your book in bookstores, on your coffee table, and in people’s hands.
She often feels control issues, so she liked working with an independent publisher because so many aspects of the process are in your hands. But some things were out of her hands. For example, there was a typhoon in Hong Kong while they were working on the wet proofs of her book. Interestingly, they got an email saying something like, “Wet proofs not going out today, due to typo shutting down Hong Kong!” Turns out, they meant TYPHOON, not typo. So their publishing deadline had to be delayed, and that’s just how it’s gonna be. There’s no changing typhoons.
Self-publishing is a totally different world than it was ten years ago. Take a look at the number of awards for self-published books and note the high-quality work coming out of independent publishers. One of the biggest roadblocks to self-publishing is the fact that you’ve got to have money up-front. Unless you have a big-name like Barbara Kingsolver or Steven King, you’ve got to do self-promotion too. The promotion part of being a writer is not as much fun as writing. But that’s a reality. You’ve got to get your book out there no matter who has published it.
What has she found helpful in terms of book promotion?
- book signing
- Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association
- put the book in the hands of people who will help make it sell
- author signings
- holiday catalogs
- online magazine work
- writer’s conferences like this one
Kathryn Thurman was asked who her publisher is. Kane/Miller (it’s associated with Usborne). They do take unagented submissions.
How do you feel about agents? Ms. Stamm said, “Nonfiction is easier to publish without an agent” but Ms. Thurman said, “A lot of publishing houses won’t take unagented submissions for fiction or picture books. So if you can get an agent, you should.”
How many copies of your books have you sold? Mr. Horn said “The run was 2000 and we’ve sold nearly all of them.” Ms. Stamm said, “I don’t really know how many copies my children’s book has sold.” Ms. Thurman sold 1500. Ms. Graville said that in a couple years’ time, she has sold about 2000 copies. She has to sell the last 900 books to break even.
How much did it cost you to self-publish?
- Horn–2000 copies printed in Italy for $30,000 (but he didn’t self-publish); he had to raise $10,000 of it himself
- Stamm–Her book wasn’t self-published.
- Thurman–I missed her statement–sorry readers!
Did you ever have your books professionally edited?
- Ms. Graville–“I belong to a critiquing group, and they were very valuable. Also, I had a friend who edited for Encyclopedia Britannica, and she edited my book”. Even after all the corrections were made, she had a friend proofread the whole thing. So she used both local and professional editors.
- Mr. Horn–“My publisher worked with an editor, but he changed everything to British English. So we had to dicker back and forth about that.”
Mr. Horn ended the class by warning everyone that Costco offered to sell his books, but his publisher, Dewi said, “We’re not going to touch that” because what will happen is this:
- Costco buys all 2000 copies of the book.
- If they don’t sell them, they send them back to you and get a full refund.
- Often the books they send back come back damaged, and therefore, you can’t sell them.
POST SCRIPT: My friend Penny bought me a copy of Hands at Work and it’s wonderful! I plan to read portions of it to my reading class students to help them understand the variety of subjects available to them in nonfiction. I’m also thinking about buying a copy of A Garden for Pig for my own two children, because the story is absolutely adorable…