I’m not sure if it’s the pandemic or the rise of technology or what, but while I’ve always received more requests to read manuscripts, edit manuscripts, blurb manuscripts, listen to albums/songs, hook people up with editors, agents or provide “the secret” to getting published, lately it’s become a deluge. Several per week. I’m writing this post because A) I’m a guilt-driven dude, and B) the very same dream expressed in every one of those emails, notes and packages–to create things and share them with the world–drives me every day, just as it drove me some 30 years ago when I sent a letter to a songwriter asking him if he wanted to put music to one of my poems and sell it as a song. The songwriter replied with a note gently educating me on how the songwriting business really worked, that he wouldn’t be writing a song with my poem, and (this one really hits today) that he couldn’t even get all of his own songs finished and recorded and still take care of getting shows booked and played and deal with all the rest of life in general. And yet he was encouraging and sincere. I saw that songwriter just a week ago, and told him once again how even three decades later I remember that note and how while it didn’t give me the answer I hoped for, it gave me reason to continue.
That is why I am blurting out this post. Every time I receive one of those emails, or a package in the mail, or answer the question over the merch table, I feel guilty, as if the person leaves feeling I was holding something back, or obscuring the secret passage, or thinking I’m too good to spend time on them, or that my stuff is better than their stuff, when in fact it’s just a simple fact: I get more requests than I can answer adequately and still be a good dad, husband, producer and provider.
So I’m sitting in a chair and hammering this out from the heart hoping it will convey why you might not hear from me or hear from me in the way you hope–even as I urge you to continue, to not give up, to create from love.
DISCLAIMER AND MOST IMPORTANT WORDS ON THIS PAGE: I am not a pure writer. I am not a pure “author.” My approach from day one has been a hybrid blend of hustle, naiveté, mixed genres, take-what-you-can-get-when-and-where-you-can-get-it asymmetric approach of flops and failures, occasional public embarrassment, learn-as-you-go, self-starting stubbornness. Sometimes I make art, sometimes I make the rent. I have written bestsellers, I have sold can koozies. I have also benefited from luck and privilege. The privileges were basic. The luck? Well, the luck was never enough on its own and 99% of the time it was behind a rock I lifted.
That said, nothing along this path–including whatever I’m working on today, if I’m still kicking–happened until I took the time to sit down and write, write, write. You just can’t fake that up. And the best news of all? First thing I want to do when I get up in the morning is write.
OK WHAT FOLLOWS IS THE BLURT. Needs an editor and won’t get one. Is incomplete and may not fit your experience or circumstance. And because I started at this decades ago, much of my experience is outdated and/or was gathered following a path that no longer exists. So much has changed in publishing over the last 30 years and especially in the last five that my advice is pretty much like a steam-engine mechanic instructing you on how to change the spark plugs in your Tesla. But it is from the heart and I hope it helps set your compass.
Writing is a weird profession. It’s a profession where–even this far into the decline of the industry and the product–people will still say, “Oh, you’re a writer? That’s so cool!” and then happily report, “I don’t read books, but I’ve always wanted to write one!” They smile, I smile, and everybody’s happy. I really am. Because I’m daily gratefully surprised I get to be a writer.
There are as many ways to “get published” as there are authors, so there is no one answer. And there is always one person every now and then who does everything wrong or by chance and winds up selling a million. So my advice comes from experience, but it’s not the only experience.
Publishing is a tangle these days. It was starting to be disrupted by digital about the time I got into it and since then has only become more and more disrupted. This is not whining, it is a report. One of the ways to get a mind-blowing book deal these days is not to be an author or write a book, it’s to be famous or in politics or have a huge Instagram following or be super funny or controversial on Tik-Tok or whatever app is ascendant. Publishers want you to have a “platform” they can leverage. They are business people. I don’t resent this. I navigate it.
None of this means you shouldn’t pitch your book to publishers big and small. There are plenty of them out there. But you need to do your research on what types of books they accept, what the pitch process is, and whether or not they accept un-agented pitches. Getting an agent is the same difficult/chancy process, but if you want one, it’s a process you need to be willing to undergo. In my case someone who had read my writing shared it with an agent who contacted me in rural Wisconsin. I had no red-hot connections. So to this day I don’t know how to get an agent other than how I did it: write for ten years, self-publish, and get found. And, because I get asked a lot, my agent is no longer accepting clients because she’s been at this longer than I have.
As far as how to pitch, there are a ton of resources out there far more current than I. Part of succeeding at this is learning to sort the scammers. I have had someone come up to me at a wedding reception and ask me how to sell books because “The publisher says it is ready.” She then told me she had paid the publisher $27,000 to get her book “ready.” This is heartbreaking and evil. There are reputable freelance editors and copyeditors and proofreaders and graphic design artists all over the place, and paying someone to do legit work is by definition legit. But do your due diligence. Ask for samples, not just testimonials. And if it’s a book packaging company, make sure they’re not charging you for services that have nothing to do with actually selling books.
Those ads where they say “we will get your book on Amazon!”? Dude, I can get your book on Amazon this afternoon for free. So can your 12-year-old nephew.
Beware anyone selling you a vision of publishing or “the writing life” that hasn’t existed for years.
Despite the state of the industry, book publishing is far more AVAILABLE to all of us than it used to be. I self-published my first four books in the 1990s. Right here in rural Wisconsin I had to find someone who knew how to do layout, someone to proof-read, I had to go to a regular printer and order 500-1,000 copies of my own book in order to hit a price point where I had any chance of making money when I sold them, then I literally loaded the books up in my car and drove them around trying to sell them at a folding table in the mall, at craft shows, etc. I used to sell my stuff in a homemade display at Kwik Trip gas stations. I got into a few bookstores, but one of the things self-published authors quickly learn is that bookstores need to stock books that SELL. I’ve seen self-published authors complain or get angry when a bookstore won’t stock their book but the bookstore is struggling to survive too, and the equivalent would be if you took a can of home-canned tomatoes to the grocery store and were mad because they wouldn’t stock it on their shelves and give you a hefty cut. Shelf space is real estate.
OK I’m already off track. Back to self-publishing. Now instead of pre-printing a pallet of books to go moldy in your garage you can conduct the whole process online and by using a print-on-demand service (only print as many books as you want at a time) you can proceed in much smaller increments and for a much smaller investment up front. You can also upload and edit and proof right from your computer.
The next question I get is which services are best, and I’ve used a bunch and you should google around on the subject, but here’s my simplest answer based on my most recent projects:
– I use IngramSpark for print distribution to independent booksellers. This is important to me as independent booksellers are the small farmers of the book world: essential and struggling to survive. They hand-sell books, get them to readers who will return to your work again and again. I also use Ingram for eBook distribution to non-Amazon platforms.
– I use KDP for print distribution on Amazon and eBook distribution on Amazon platforms. Amazon has done more to destroy independent booksellers and disrupt the publishing world than any other entity. But they are also an omnipresent reality and for someone like me who is self-employed and relies on book sales to pay for things like braces and health insurance, I don’t have the luxury of pretending Amazon doesn’t exist. Please don’t send me righteous emails or comments, because I live this stuff and just wrote a check to my child’s orthodontist.
– Finally, for print copies of my self-published books for sale on my webstore or at my performances, I’m happy to say I get those printed locally. I hustle enough of those through my gigs and online that I can do print runs large enough so that the price per book is actually cheaper (once you substract shipping–I just pick’em up in the van) than using Amazon (they are usually the cheapest print-on-demand service). I love writing that check to a local small business.
So in short, for self-publising I do a hybrid of IngramSpark, KDP, and local.
If you have more specific questions, search the internet and use your discretion. You don’t have to be suspicious but you do have to be wary. People will leverage your dreams to take your money.
Over time I have been accused of overdoing it with the cornball references, but as someone without an arts background I truly approached writing and books the way my dad approached farming. Just get up and get it done and don’t expect shortcuts or someone to do it for you. I’m still not one of the “cool kids.” I just work stubbornly and without stopping. I’ve also caught some lucky breaks, but they all came on the heels of years and years of doing the work to be ready for that break.
If you read the paragraph above and think I’m anti-MFA or anti-academia, nope. Many of my most admired artists and many my most treasured mentors are straight out of the capital “L” Literature world. Just this week I spent three days working side-by-side with one of them. Our differing styles and backgrounds complement rather than impede each other.
Pretty much that’s this whole post in a nutshell: There is no one path.
The main thing people miss? The level of obsession it actually takes to make a living at this if that’s your desire and if you’re not famous and raking in big book deals (and even then…). I’ll paste the thing in below that I send to most people who want me to read their manuscripts or comment on their books. Many people think I’m avoiding them or feeding them a line…the truth is simply the truth. I can’t do it all.
Here’s something obvious I probably haven’t emphasized enough: I love writing. What a privilege. How grateful I am to have stumbled into this and been allowed to plow forward. So how ever you proceed, don’t do it in such a way that the love that originally drove you is snuffed. Creation is the most transcendant, uplifting, mind-bending part of the process. The rest is just revision and accounting. (Psst, I love revision as much as writing, so lucky me.) (Except this post, which desperately needs revision and won’t get it.)
ITEM: Sales numbers have diddly-all to do with the worth of your story and NOTHING to do with the worth of you.
ITEM: Wanna publish a memoir? The single most important thing you can do for your family is to focus less on publishing and more on getting the stories down so they remain as legacy. On paper in longhand, on a tape recorder, whatever. I’ve done this long enough and given that advice enough times that I have experienced more than one joyfully tearful conversation with someone who took it to heart and then lost their loved one unexpectedly and before the book got published but not before the family was left with a trove of memories.
ITEM: No matter what I’ve written here, I’ll make someone mad or establish myself as an idiot. Although I have filled this post with caveats, pretty much anytime you post something online you are perceived to have cast yourself as a pompous expert who needs to be corrected or taken down a notch or two. Not my intent, but been there before. Don’t like it, but can take it.
ITEM: For additional context, I’ve posted my current email auto-reply below:
Hi, this is Mike. I’d like to say this isn’t a “form letter” email, and in a way it isn’t, because I (Mike) wrote it personally. But after years of trying to answer every email I’ve received, I simply can’t keep up anymore, and so I’m using this pre-written response.
I fear these words can’t express the gratitude I feel whenever someone takes the time to contact me with a note of encouragement, or to comment about something I’ve written, or to simply share a story of their own. I never, ever forget that I am not doing this on my own. Without readers, without folks showing up to the readings and talks and shows, it all dwindles to nothing.
Every day my In Box is filled with these kindnesses, and I still read every single email I receive. But even after a year where I was off the road, the writing backlog and weekly deadlines have (I’m grateful to report) grown to the point that I’ve had to resort to this reply. There is also the matter of dispatching my duties as a husband and father.
I apologize for the impersonal nature of this reply, but also respectfully refer you back to the second paragraph of same.
We do want to be able to let you know when I have a new book or music out, or if I’m performing in your area or online (it’s how I feed them kids), so if you’re not on the Sneezing Cow mailing list, please consider signing up here (note we let you set the throttle on the number of emails you receive): https://sneezingcow.com/mailinglist/
P.S. If you’re if you’re looking for writing advice These two posts are somewhat dated, but mostly still relevant: https://sneezingcow.com/2009/01/08/how-do-i-get-publishedmake-living-as-a-writer/ https://sneezingcow.com/2010/05/19/will-you-readreviewwrite-about-my-book/
P.P.S If you’re requesting that I read, review, or otherwise critique your work, both my email and post office mailbox overflows weekly with manuscripts, CDs, advance copies, and requests for me to review or discuss more smart, powerful writing and heartfelt art than I could lay my eyes on if it was my full-time job. As such I must respectfully decline.
LAST THING: Well, that was a mess. But I have a thing due. I hope there’s some help in it. Above all I hope there’s some encouragement in it. I’ll probably update it now and then.
Above all please keep going. Keep creating. Joy first. Then Art. Then ears and eyeballs. The first thing is not dependent on the second two things.
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