Monthly Archives: April 2011

The Primacy of Self-Editing

With six books under my belt, I’ve learned the importance of self-editing (as well as the value of a good editor).

Most authors who have been through the formal publication process understand this, but it can’t be emphasized enough. In a conventional publishing process, the manuscript is submitted to the publisher and subjected to several rounds of editing. The “cleaner” your manuscript, however, the quicker it will actually get to market. So the more you can do upfront the faster the process will be. I’ve personally cut off months from the publishing process by paying attention to editing.

The normal publishing process works like this. Once the author finalizes her manuscript, it goes to her editor at the publisher. The manuscript then goes through a series of edits. First, an editor reads the manuscript to determine if major changes are necessary. Are important elements missing? Are there contradictions in the argument (if nonfiction) or story (if fiction)? Often, two or three people may look at the manuscript and comment on it at this stage. Then the author makes changes to the manuscript. Usually, this part of the process doesn’t have a deadline, and it can take weeks, sometimes months, to revise if the comments are extensive and the manuscript isn’t polished.

Then, the manuscript goes through another edit to check the changes the author makes. Sometimes, major comments are sent back to the author at this stage, too, as the publisher tries to tighten up language and ensure the book is positioned properly for the market. This can easily take 3-4 weeks.  Again, I’ve known manuscripts (not my own) to take months to get through this process.

Once these comments are incorporated, and the editors are satisfied, it goes to a copy editor. The copy editor looks for syntax, grammar, and more obvious inconsistencies in language and argument. This can also take up to a month to turn around. Sometimes, “heavy” copyediting may be necessary if breaks in storylines, or inconsistencies in the style, argument or main themes are still embedded in the manuscript.

Once copyediting is done, the manuscript will also go through proofreading.

It’s easy to see how the editing process can add a year or more to the production schedule of a book. That’s why it’s critical for authors to send a manuscript to the editor the first time in the best shape possible. I’ve literally shaved months off the production schedule through this kind of rigorous self-editing (which also requires some humility and willingness to acknowledge your own writing weaknesses).

This became very clear to me as I was writing my last two non-fiction books on transportation policy and traffic congestion. The first, The Road More Traveled, was on a very tight production deadline. We couldn’t afford delays, or we would miss important release windows. So, we had to get this manuscript to the editors in top form. We were able to lop off a good three months off the production schedule by essentially collapsing the process to one major editorial review that led directly to light copyediting.

Most recently, I found weeks shaved off a very tight production schedule when A Warrior’s Soul came back from the editorial review process and determined the manuscript was in good enough shape to just need “light” copyediting.

That gives me a little breathing room as we advance toward the July 2011 release date.

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Big Publishers: What Are They Good For?

The New York Times recently ran an inspiring story about writer Amanda Hocking (March 24, 2011), a digital author who had earned by some estimates $2 million by publishing nine digital science fiction novels. She had just signed a multi-book deal with St. Martin’s Press, certainly a heavy hitter among the big mainstream publishers.

Let me say that again: St. Martin’s press bid for Amanda future work after she had already self published nine novels and earned $2 million. In other words, the mainstream publshers took note of her talent only after she had demonstrated her worth in the market place.

The deal is a great one for Amanda. As she told the Times: “I’ve done as much with self-publishing as any person can do. People have bad things to say about publishers, but I think they still have services, and I want to see what they are. And if they end up not being any good, I don’t have to keep using them. But I do think they have something to offer.”

And she’s right. One important thing major publishing houses can do is provide wide distribution for her work, far more than she can do on her own. This has always been the strength of these publishers.

What I thought was disappointing in the article was the lack of depth in the coverage. Amanda had been self-publishing in the true sense of the word: She wrote the books, designed the covers and layout, formatted them for digital release, and implemented all the marketing and publicity strategies. That takes time and resources, and she wanted to spend more time writing.

For established writers, that’s great and the major publishers will take note. What about the vast majority of writers that don’t have these platforms? The major book publishers have virtually abandoned what I call the “small book” market. This is the market for books that won’t sell tens of thousands of copies during the first print run because the authors are not well known, do not have a marketing platform, or developed a fan base.

These writers have more options than the 100 percent self-publishing route. Some publishers, most notably in my opinion Wheatmark (based on my independent research), have recognized that small books can be commercially successful if the content is solid and authors are willing to invest in marketing their work. To tap into this market, they have developed varying levels of “investment” by authors that completely up-ends the conventional view of so-called “subsidy publishers” or “vanity presses.” These publishers take on work they think can sell, and provide the institutional framework (including tools in some cases) to enable authors to effectively market their work. (Full disclosure: I have a publishing agreement with Wheatmark to publish my next novel, A Warrior’s Soul, due out July 2011.)

A legitimate and viable second tier in the publishing world has emerged, and this phenomenon needs to be recognized by authors. These publishers are likely to see their market share grow significantly as they pick up the authors of books that sell to niche markets or haven’t yet developed the platform necessary to attract the big presses. They’ve also figured out how to use technology to create high quality product in terms of layout and presentation that can compete with the mainstream publishers as well.

As the market becomes even more competitive, authors need to seriously investigate these presses. They are viable options for good authors.

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The Challenge of Book Positioning

One of the more difficult and important tasks in writing a book, whether fiction or nonfiction, is figuring out its place in the broader literature. How does your book stand out? What makes it different from all the others? What voice do you bring?

Sometimes the uniqueness can be obvious: You survey the books in your genre or field and find a hole you can fill. That happened with my first nonfiction book Drug Policy and the Decline of American Cities. As the title suggests, this book focused on the impact of illegal drugs on U.S. cities and neighborhoods. (It won an international award.) In other cases, positioning may not seem to really matter because you’ve been commissioned to write it (as in my second book on urban planning and land development in Hong Kong).

For me, finding that voice for nonfiction has become second nature. Where I struggle is with fiction, in part because the writing style forces me way outside my comfort zone and because I think it’s just harder to position works of fiction as unique contributions to literature. With the Pirate of Panther Bay, I wanted to fuse a historically accurate characterization of pirates with a lead character as a pirate captain with distinctive 21st century sensibilities. I ended up doing that by putting a female ex-slave at the helm of a pirate ship. This seemed to “work” for critics and readers.

I’ve struggled somewhat with A Warrior’s Soul. My independent positioning analysis found the content was well placed within the middle-grade fiction and martial-arts literature. The theme of bullying makes it highly relevant to current times. But what really makes this story unique?

I think I finally figured it out after reading The Cutting Season, a decidedly adult martial arts novel by Arthur Rosenfeld. (The book is very good, and I recommend.) In what I think is a common element of most novels in this genre, the character is heavily vested in the martial-arts culture which is very spiritual and mystic. Reincarnation, balance with the universe, contradiction and paradox are crucial for moving these stories along. And that’s where A Warrior’s Soul is different..

Because A Warrior’s Soul is targeted toward teens, and Western middle schoolers in particular, the story is gritty and practical. The intent is to be relevant and contemporary, not historical and spiritual. (Hint: Spiritual balance and intentional self-discovery are not an articulated center of a typical U.S. teen’s life.)

So, as I’m developing my marketing plan, A Warrior’s Soul is positioned outside the mainstream for martial-arts fiction in that the focus of the story’s struggle self-doubt and lack of confidence, and how the lead characters approach practical problems revolving around real and potentially life-threatening events. Self-awareness is there, but the story is driven by a very western idea of self-actualization to drive the plot and climax. Martial-arts serves as the primary instrument through which my characters move along this arc.

We’ll have to see how readers respond to this approach to marketing A Warrior’s Soul. Stay tuned and I’ll report on our progress as we move toward the release date in July 2011.

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The long, hard road to overnight success

As writers, we are always hoping for literary and commercial success. And we dream of becoming an “overnight success.” Few of us realize how long and hard that road really is.


I was listening to a brief audio presentation sponsored by my publisher, Wheatmark, that featured social marketing guru Bernie Borges. Borges is CEO of Find and Convert and has written Marketing 2.0, which is basically a book designed to sharpen marketing strategies in the world increasingly dominated by social networking. At one point during the interview, the host asked him if he had any “shortcuts” to making the use of facebook, LinkedIn, blogs, and other interactive internet tools effective. The answer? An emphatic “no.” It took eights years, he observed, before one of the most influential bloggers today had his first 100 subscribers.


The analogy reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers where he profiled some of the most successful people in the world. One of the concepts he discusses is a general rule of thumb where a person needs to investment 10,000 hours in an activity or pursuit before they get to the point they can excel. (Among the examples he notes are the Beatles and Bill Gates.)

In short, rarely is there a true “overnight success.” Most successful people, including authors, toil away for years, honing their craft, before they achieve notable success.

In children’s writing, many could easily think J.K. Rowling is the counterfactual: She “shot” to superstardam with her first book: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or “Philosopher’s Stone” in the U.K.). But this is more myth than reality.


We tend to forget that Ms. Rowling labored long and hard over her story and manuscript, even spending time as a single mother on welfare, before she could even shop it around. She conceived the story in 1990 and didn’t get representation by an agent until 1995. The book appeared in the U.K. in 1996, and it wasn’t until 1997 that she earned $100,000 form an auction for the U.S. publishing rights.  The first book was rejected by 12 publishers before a small English press (Bloomsbury) to the risk and published it giving Ms. Rowling an advance equal to about $3,000. Their first print run was just 1,000 copies.


But the journey to overnight success wasn’t complete until her book took the U.S. by storm after the first book appeared in October 1998. Perhaps even more importantly, each of her subsequent volumes in the series has improved in writing and style. I have no doubt that the 10,000 hour rule applies to Rowling’s overnight success.


On the more earthly level of excellent writers who finally are (justifiably) earning an independent living as authors, Katrina Kittle’s experience provides both insight and encouragement. Her debut novel Traveling Light (first appearing in 2000) remains one of my all time favorite books, and it was commercially successful. Her second novel, Two Truths and a Lie, was published in 2001. Great start…but only a start.


Despite critical acclaim and modest commercial success, Katrina’s writing career really didn’t begin to take a financially sustainable turn until her third book, the penetrating and important The Kindness of Strangers found both critical and commercial success in 2007. The paperback printing allowed her to give up her “day job” and concentrate on her fourth wonderful novel, The Blessings of the Animals (2010), which appears to have given her the kind of platform we all want to continue our writing as a full time endeavor. Years from Katrina’s first book to the one that gave her a financially sustainable writing career? Nine. And that’s a pretty quick overnight success.


So, as A Warrior’s Soul, my second teen novel, is readied to be unleashed upon the reading public, I need to bridle my enthusiasm for my own work and realize that this is really just the beginning of my fiction writing journey. The best is yet to come as each book gives me critical experience in writing stories and characters and my marketing slowly builds my author’s platform.  I have faith that, after 20 years of hard work, diligence and perseverance, I will indeed become an overnight success.

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About “Adaptation”

Welcome to Adaptation, my blog on the “business” of writing and publishing. The name may seem odd, but that’s what I keep thinking about when pondering the foibles, challenges, dynamics, and potential of the modern publishing world. Among the core questions this blog will ask, and make a stab at answering, are:

  • How is technological change creating opportunities for modern writers?

  • What factors go into making a successful writing project?

  • What factors go into making a commercially successful writing project?

  • What and how does marketing affect my success as an author?

  • How is technology fundamentally changing the relationship between author and publisher?

These questions are just a start, and this blog is just getting off the ground. Stay tuned as we make our way through various publishing “adventures,” trying to learn from our mistakes and leverage our successes. The blog itself will also change, evolve and improve as well. Feel free to comment, and even suggest futures posts based on your own questions.

Thanks for visiting, and see you soon!

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