LDS publishing: a new writer’s perspective

6.5.13 | | 28 comments

I feel, as a new LDS fiction writer, like I am on shifting, volatile ground right now. I see LDS publishing companies that are smaller and more independent either shutting down business or struggling to stay afloat, while the bigger publishers slowly consume each other until they become one Frankenstien-like conglomeration; you submit to one, and get rejected by all. I read submission suggestions on the websites of LDS publishers and see that just about everyone is asking for literature that appeals to a wider audience than just LDS people. And this recent interview with Lyle Mortimer, who is in fact the CEO of CFI, my own publishing company, leaves me in a bit of a cold sweat. I guess comparatively, it’s not such a bad thing that my first book has only sold around 1400 copies so far. But it also points to a much more worrisome thing… something that maybe isn’t going to go away at all.

My husband has been urging me all along to self-publish. And I love the idea of the freedom that would create: the ability to present whatever face or idea to the world you want, entirely under your own creative steam, without being compelled to mainstream your stuff or curtail yourself in any way.

The downside of that is that young writers (and by young, I’m referring to experience, not age) we *need* that sort of direction and curtailment. I would not be nearly the writer I am today if I had not been rejected by Granite Publishing. Tristi Pinkston, the acquisitions editor at the time, provided me with a lot of detailed constructive criticism that took me to the next level as a writer. And the process of publishing—edits and edits, suggestions to clarify fuzzy messages that I did not realize came across as fuzzy, fixes for improbable plot twists… yeah. The ironic thing is, being published is often what makes you a writer worth reading. Not to say there aren’t writers out there who don’t do well on their own. I just believe (especially after reading a few of the independently-published releases in the LDS market this year… sorry) (No, James Goldberg, I’m not referring to you!) that this is not common. Amazing stories consist not only of honed, practiced writing, great plots and great character development, but also great editing. By someone not-yourself. Who has a lot of experience, not only in line-item editing, but overall story structure and what comes across well to a reader. And I hate to say this, but I think that’s kind of rare.
Another difficulty with self-publishing is (and this is just my opinion, after watching what my friends who self-publish go through) it’s basically the same thing as starting a small business, with intense amounts of time and labor spent to market, to get your name and product out there. In general, a niche market like this (LDS literature) gives you a better chance of finding your audience, but still, it takes a lot of work. Basically, if you’re self-publishing, you’re taking on a full-time job as a writer. With 7 children at home and a household to manage, I can’t quite afford that time commitment yet. And like with a small business there’s that risk (and it’s not a small one) that all your investment of time (and money too) will end up (I won’t say wasted, because you still created something, and that,  by itself, is worth something) but with less benefit than you planned.
At the same time, this is how it always is. New territory means shaky ground and sometimes years of grind to get the flywheel going. And it sometimes means shaky product, too; product that has great potential but has not quite been fine-tuned the way it should. But that’s not a reason to lose hope. Scott posted something recently over on Dawning of a Brighter Day that left me feeling kind of depressed. I think sometimes we push for and believe in something, we expect it to be wonderful immediately. But something new will usually have kinks.
Like I said, I’m not ready to jump ship. Cedar Fort does a an excellent job at marketing my stuff–far better than I have time or ability for at this point in my life. But based on what we see (and cited by Lyle Mortimer himself) unless the big LDS publishers adopt a radically different model of marketing and publishing to match the way publishing as a whole is shifting, I will have to jump at some point. We will all have to. I hope that by then, I will find it a far less shaky and frightening prospect than I’m imagining it to be right now.

28 comments: “LDS publishing: a new writer’s perspective

  1. Scott Hales

    ” Scott posted something recently over on Dawning of a Brighter Day that left me feeling kind of depressed.”

    Part of me hoped that this was in reference to one of my posts. Sadly, not the case. ;)

    I think you make a great point here. Most self-published books aren’t of the same quality as The Five Books of Jesus and Moriah Jovan’s Magdalene, and could really use the benefit of a good editor. In fact, I think this is one thing that sets these books apart: both “Five Books” and “Magdalene,” while self-published, had fantastic editors. Most self-published novelists don’t bother with hiring one, perhaps thinking that their “natural talent” is enough. Unfortunately, no one’s natural talent is really enough these day.

    I occasionally (read: quite frequently) get frustrated with badly written Mormon fiction. I’ve recently come across a few very promising works that were self-published before they were really ready to hit the presses. Both Douglas Thayer and Margaret Young have opined elsewhere that too many “young” Mormon writers aren’t taking the time to let their work sit for a while, and I agree. The allure of quick self-publishing, in many ways, is the promise of instant gratification and a certain false validation. James and Moriah have shown, of course, that self-publishing can be done well–even expertly–but it takes time and additional talent. It seems this is too high a price for some people to pay.

    All of this gets me thinking about why we write Mormon literature. I imagine that writing Lightning Tree, which has been one of my favorite recently-published Mormon novels, was less a matter of $$$ than a desire to share a certain Mormon story that means something to you–and all of us as a people. Of course, I think of Mormon literature as a cultural project rather than something someone does to put a few extra dollars in the bank. Unfortunately, Mormon publishing companies–especially the big ones–don’t necessarily think in those terms. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have so many Harry Potter knock-offs.

  2. Sarah Dunster

    I bought one of Moriah’s books on Kindle and have not yet had a chance to read it. Now I’m extra excited to do so…

  3. Wm Morris

    Congratulations on the 1,400 copies sold, Sarah. That is something to be proud of.

    Scott:

    Cultural projects are fine, but they often get back-burnered by the need to make a living or at least receive some renumeration for one’s creative output.

  4. Sarah Dunster

    I don’t know why but my comments are not going through. Anyway… saying for the third time. Clearly, I need to check out Moriah’s book that i ordered on kindle several months ago, but haven’t had time to peruse yet! And BYUCK. And others. I just had to read the Whitneys, so….

    Yeah. The 1400 copies, acc. to my publisher, is a little low. They apparently like to see 1800. I’m not sure during what time frame, etc. That seems to be how they measure the book’s success, is by that number.

  5. Sarah Dunster

    K. Try number four…

    I have Moriah’s book, Magdalene, on kindle, and have not had time to read it yet. Or Theric’s BYUCK. Or Goldberg’s Five Books (though I started that one.) I got a bit burned out with the Whitneys.

    Maybe 1400 isn’t so bad. My publisher’s measure of a book’s success, however (acc to marketing director) is having sold 1800 copies or more. I’m not sure how solid a measure that is across categories… they have national imprints and more LDS focused imprints. I’m not sure why that particular number. What I’m a little worried over is, I’m writing the sequel to Lightning Tree right now. Are they going to want it? As the book hasn’t sold 1800 copies (and likely won’t by the time I sumbit it?)

    The next option after that would to be to try Deseret, the Covenant. And after that… that’s where I’m not exactly sure. Anyway.

  6. Mahonri Stewart

    Yeah, Sarah, 1,400 copies wasn’t something to sneeze at, I thought. When you said that, as if it was miniscule, I was actually pretty impressed, considering how difficult it can be to sell through independent publishers.

  7. Wm Morris

    Sarah:

    I rescued your comments from spam, but only posted the final one because it contained the most information.

  8. Karlene

    1400 is a nice start, especially for a small, niche market. As a former small publisher who bit the dust a few years ago, 1800 copies is probably just above their break-even mark for investment in the book. If a book only breaks even, the company can’t grow. My success level was 2,000. That didn’t mean I wouldn’t consider and accept something if the first book didn’t hit that mark. If it was close and I thought I could get some mileage from previous customers, I might take a chance, especially if the second book was better than the first.

    Good luck!

  9. Moriah Jovan

    James and Moriah have shown, of course, that self-publishing can be done well–even expertly–but it takes time and additional talent.

    Agreed. James and I both have an extra layer or six of skillsets that have nothing to do with writing but everything to do with production and business. Neither of us got that from slaving over manuscripts.

    That said, the time thing is important too. I don’t know how long James has been writing, but I finished my first novel (of many) in 1989. So I ALSO had that time Sarah speaks of.

    But I still need an editor. I know exactly what my weaknesses are, but not (in any given manuscript) where or how to fix them, and I get lost.

    As for people not wanting to wait, the problem is the “gurus” screaming that YOU CAN GET RICH QUICK!!!! Erm, no. And a couple of the more heinous individuals preach outright the ditching of an editor because readers don’t care and the better readers will proofread FOR you. Well, there’s a good bit of truth to the idea lots of readers won’t care as long as the story’s emotionally fulfilling.

    But the actual editorial problem is even worse:

    a) Editorial direction at traditional publishers is nearly gone; if they won’t do it, why should you?

    b) Editors come in all skill levels and prices, but…how would you know? The fact that you know you need an editor doesn’t confer upon you the ability to suss out a good one at a fair price.

    c) Some of them come with hefty price tags you couldn’t pay, even if you were sure this one was The One, which is not to say they’re overpriced; it’s just that good editing is a luxury commodity for most people. Let me say that again. Good editing is a LUXURY commodity for most. Like a Rolex.

    d) The people who are attempting to learn how to write from critique groups or workshops or writing books (GMC, I’m giving you the side-eye) or what-have-you are, quite often, being taught how to write assembly-line. That is, to current trends and what agents/editors want within a tiny little box of character/plot variables. Maybe they really want the next break-out book or trendsetter, but don’t even dare write too far outside the box because for sure you’re not going to sell.

    e) Those who’ve been steeped in this go out on their own and publish this mishmash of great premise and great first three chapters, then the rest of the book falls apart because they don’t know what to do with it. They know SOMETHING is wrong, but they have no one knowledgeable to help them fix it, because critique groups and workshops and writing books only get you so far.

    f) I have a degree in creative writing, which everybody in MoLit has heard at least 10 times. But for it, I wrote in every major/popular discipline/format there is–except novels. At least in my program, novelists were the lowest of the low. Nobody I knew, either in the English department (poetry, short story, nonfiction, essay, technical, etc) or theater department (playwriting and screenwriting) wanted to write a novel of any sort, much less the Great American Novel. I could not see that it would be any different in Ames. In short, novelists have to learn on the job, and their good teachers are few and far between. Which speaks to Sarah’s point: “The ironic thing is, being published is often what makes you a writer worth reading.”

    To sum: The barrier to publication is far lower than the barrier to good editorial advice.

  10. Sarah Dunster

    Moriah…
    Of course I now want your list of Editors & your opinion of the best deal. You know. Leaching off your hard work/experience….

  11. Moriah Jovan

    Well, that’s the problem. I don’t have any. I mean, I DO, but the people who’ve been kind enough to me (Theric, Sabrina Darby) refuse to hang out their shingle as editors. ;) I would also recommend Julie Weight, who is a reviewer, but who has assisted me in pointing out certain things and does well at line-editing. M. Elizabeth Palmer is an excellent proofreader.

    I think here would be a good time to differentiate the three levels of editing:

    1. Content editor: The book’s guide, the person who can see plot holes, consistency/continuity errors, characterization problems, general story problems, and help you fix them. This is by far the most valuable. I haven’t read THE STAND by Stephen King, but this is the one I hear he used no editor and the one, so I also hear, where he desperately needed one. I believe Anne Rice had a couple of clunkers like that, too.

    (This is what Sabrina does for me, especially in the early stages of the writing, and let me tell you, she is excellent at it. By the way, she was a fan before she was my editor. Also by the way, she would probably not consider herself my editor, but she is. She just really likes my writing and groks my voice and cares about the story I’m trying to tell.) Julie Weight does well at this, and her reviews are indicative of this. Theric has proven his worth as a content editor several times now, with his catalog.

    2. Line editor: The person who tightens up the prose, catches your writing tics, etc. (This is mostly how Theric functions for me, because I don’t have the courage to show him the mess that Sabrina sees. I am a coward. Bok bok bok.)

    3. Proofreader: The person who catches typos, makes sure everything adheres to house style or book style. E.g., in DUNHAM, when the word “lieutenant” is used in speech by native English speakers, I spell it “leftenant.” In the narrative or when spoken by native French speakers, I spell it “lieutenant.”

    Then I’ve had fans suggest things like maps, family trees, cast lists, etc., which I have implemented to great effect.

    The problem is, of the four people I count on, three of them don’t want to advertise such services. Julie would love to get into editing, but she hasn’t actually put out a shingle to try to get clients.

  12. Moriah Jovan

    Now, adding to all this is my belief that there are excellent editors to be had for very little money if you catch somebody who’s starting out and is building a portfolio. They will need vetting, possibly trial pages, to see if that person is a good fit for you. But if you’re willing to a) take the time to find these people, b) take the time to vet them, you can find real gems.

  13. Sarah Dunster

    I wonder. If at some point, our letters of intent, first 5 pages or 3 chapters or what have you, will be aimed at editors instead of agencies/publishers.
    …well, that still leaves out marketing…

  14. Eugene Woodbury

    Then there’s the editing that should take place after an ebook is published. The self-publisher can update an ebook on Amazon (a few hours) or Smashwords (immediately; its distribution network takes a week) for free. CreateSpace allows for free POD updates.

    Granted, you don’t want to get carried away and write a whole new book (although that would be an interesting exercise). But there’s no excuse for lingering typos, factual errors, bad covers, or the badly-worked sentence or paragraph discovered after the fact.

    Call it the “service pack” approach to publishing .

  15. Th.

    .

    No one knows anything at this point about the future of the business. It’s in too much flux.

    What we do know about is what makes good writing. And that’s something we can still work at.

    Maybe we should start a coöp . . . . Would that work as a model? Or would we get too incestuous too fast?

  16. Moriah Jovan

    Maybe we should start a coöp . . . . Would that work as a model? Or would we get too incestuous too fast?

    I would be up for that.

    Incestuous only if it becomes impossible to edit without hurting someone’s feelings. There has to be honesty. I’m fairly clumsy about it, but Th is lovely…except when he threatened to come to my house and strangle me for one of my tics (it’s gone now, by the way).

  17. Moriah Jovan

    I wonder. If at some point, our letters of intent, first 5 pages or 3 chapters or what have you, will be aimed at editors instead of agencies/publishers.

    Well, honestly, I stopped thinking like that a long time ago, so now it’s become a foreign concept to me. I said (on this blog) a LONG time ago that self-publishing would be the farm team for publishers and the authors who were good marketers would win and I was roundly pooh-poohed. Oh, lookie. I was right.

    TANGENTIALLY: Part of my beef with this three-chapters business (I am not speaking to romance) that it’s specifically aimed toward agents/editors and has led to a homogenization of the genre. The first three chapters are honed to within an inch of its life and so much time is spent doing this, the writers don’t know how to get through the middle to the end. If they even do. Now, when I was in the game, it was the early 90s and this was just coming on. But it’s still as strong as ever.

    I judge a contest every year and I see three chapters. They’re about as perfect as they can be, and I can tell what’s the author’s voice straining to get out (that’s the interesting part) and where it’s been squashed in the refining part. But see here, the contestants don’t know who I am, don’t know my qualifications, don’t know anything about me and don’t know if they can/should trust anything I say.

    /tangent

  18. Sarah Dunster

    Interesting. And a bit heart-sinking. I do not really want to be in charge of my.own marketing. However, I think I could maybe be ok at it.

    Coop sounds fun. Mark Penny & I sometimes exchange cuttingly honest critique. Moriah, you make me glad I stayed away from critque groups those first few years. For me, if anything, the beginnings of my stories are the rockiest parts. I find my stride about 1/3 in.

  19. Sarah Dunster

    And Scott–what a great compliment. Thank you. Yes, for me it’s about telling certain stories. I am not, at this point, as worried about $$$ (though I definitely could use some) as being allowed an audience for further stories. We are all full of stories, aren’t we?

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