Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Learning Curve, Part I

I just returned from the Independent Book Publishers Association conference entitled Publishing University. I learned a lot, mostly about all the stuff I have yet to learn. Isn't that often how learning is?

It might surprise people who know me to hear that I went to this conference. My biases are usually pretty clear, and for most of my life, my bias has been in favor of the traditional NYC publishing houses. If an author can't make it there, they can't make it anywhere. In the course of my work as a freelance editor, SCBWI volunteer, and book store maniac, I have seen my fair share of not-so-great (and some really bad) self-published books, and that informed my bias. However, as I have experienced many times in my life, biases are there to be exploded so that a person can grow and prosper.

Here's how it has evolved so far for me. I've been writing young adult (YA) novels for going on two decades. The first ten years of that was learning just how to write a novel and how my art form worked. Since then, I have attended conferences, workshops, retreats, webinars, and had individual critiques with agents and editors. I've worked in mentorships with some of the best authors and editors in the kid lit world. And I have been submitting those novels that seemed ready to agents for a number of years.

Throughout this time, I have continued to hone my art, revised countless times, and tried to keep the rejection from discouraging me. After all, anyone who spends some time in the publishing crowd knows that rejection is just part of the job. Many rejections came with glowing words about the quality of my writing, the love of the characters, and even sometimes referrals to others who might want to represent me, but no offers of representation. Because of my bias toward traditional publishing, I vehemently avoided any suggestion or contact with self-publishing as a viable alternative.

But sometime last year, my year of expansion, I started to wonder if I was closing myself off to a valid avenue of publishing my books. I'm not getting any younger, and the traditional publishers aren't inclined to be more open to submissions--quite the opposite it seems most of the time.

Still, my bias against self-publishing was strong. On top of that, the idea of doing all the work on my own does not appeal to me. I want to be able to spend most of my effort focused on writing good stuff. An idea took root and blossomed: what about starting a publishing company made of up entirely of its own authors, and those authors work for and with each other? A blend of self-publishing with many of the collaborative benefits of traditional publishing. Authors would have creative authority while also getting editorial, design, distribution, and publicity from a team.

That's what drew me to attend this conference, and my bias has been dashed into the dust. I used to think that anyone who couldn't make it in the Big 5 just wasn't worthy or professional. I had an image that authors who took a non-traditional path were amateurs, intent on putting their book out despite bad writing and no editing. That may be the case for some, but the folks at this conference were amazing. They are committed to great books, from good writing to good design and good production. Contrary to what I had assumed, most of those present were not authors publishing their own material. Most companies started out of frustration at the myopic approach of traditional publishing who wanted to be more creative.

Some of these publishers (like Little Pickle Press) are breaking ground in producing books using green/environmentally friendly materials such as recycled papers and soy inks. Some are offering publication based on how many readers you can get to vote on your project based on samples you provide (like Inkshares). Some are truly niche markets. Some want to promote high literary quality that sometimes doesn't get noticed in trade publishing. Some are corporate publishers, using their expertise to produce books that promote what they are doing corporately (like Patagonia Books). It was astounding, really, to see all the variety of niches and approaches. And diversity of ages, ethnicity, gender, and subject matter.

Kwame Alexander gave a keynote about his years before winning the Newberry in which he self-published his own poetry as well as books by other authors. I attended sessions where I learned about dozens of apps a publisher can use, personal branding, hiring support services, and, possibly my favorite session, hybrid publishing.

I spent two days pondering how I want to structure my cooperative publishing venture and whether it might be better to try going with one of these many small presses that are already in business. I keep coming back to my original idea: a group of authors who contract to work together to help one another publish our books with the highest standards of writing, design, and book production that we can. Not to avoid the hard and difficult process of editing, marketing, etc, but to avoid the many years of submitting to indifferent others and instead using those years to do the work. Because I know already that my writing is good and my stories are good. I don't need affirmation. I, of course, want my book edited and revised over and over until it is great. And I also want the same for other authors like me who are doing great writing but not getting anywhere in the maze that is traditional publishing. I'd rather seek out a life beyond the maze, one that it more of a mountain range with summits to explore and heights to reach instead of prescribed turns and dead ends. Instead of trying so hard to do it "right" by someone else's definition and worrying that I'm not doing it right, I am drawn to this idea that there are many ways to create wonderful books, and no editor or agent has any more knowledge about it than I and my fellow authors do. (I have worked and played in the publishing world in various ways for 30 years; I might even know things these 25 year old editors just out of school don't know.)

Part II of this blog will describe my idea for anyone who might be interested. And here's to all your biases exploding in your face.