Author and editor D. Patrick Miller made the unusual decision to withdraw his own book from a major New York publishing house in order to publish it independently. He has since then founded an independent publishing house, Fearless Books.
D. Patrick Miller spoke to us about independent publishing and typical mistakes he sees in manuscripts by new authors.
Q: After selling three books to major publishing houses, you made a decision to publish your subsequent books independently. Could you talk about the reasons behind this decision?
A: Actually, my first book sold to a major New York house was also the first one I published independently. That’s because I lost my editor on that book just after the copy-editing stage, and the new editor was so hostile to the project that I feared it would be killed before it ever saw print. So I pulled the book, incurring the payback of my advance, and ended up publishing it myself. A few years later, I had another book published by a major house, but after they sold 20,000 copies in just a few months, they killed the edition because they decided that they had underpriced it – and rather than reprice it, which would have required a new edition, they just stopped printing it. They didn’t tell me that they had done so for months, however, and it took me five years to regain the rights and publish it myself.Advertisement:
This is something that most unpublished authors don’t understand about getting a publisher. When you sign a contract and accept a deal, you are selling the publisher your RIGHTS – and that includes the right to decide how your book should be published, how it should be marketed, even how long it should be kept in print. Depending on the kind of deal an agent negotiates for you, you have relatively little control over what happens to your creative property. Thus, when I consult with authors about their manuscripts, I always advise them to keep the independent publishing alternative in mind. Publishing yourself is expensive and requires a lot of work, but it’s the one way to retain all the rights to your creative properties. I still write for major houses and in fact have a new book coming out from a New York house in the spring of 2011, but I own the rights to all my previous books and continue to sell them myself.
Q: In addition to your experience as an author, you have extensive experience as an editor. What are some common mistakes authors make that can prevent their manuscript from getting published?
A: Most novice writers send out work that simply isn’t ready to be published – either because it has basic problems with syntax, grammar, and spelling, or it has more sophisticated problems with style, voice, or being suitable to the particular genre they are writing for. Many writers don’t understand the difference between writing to please themselves, or to get something off their chest, and writing something that will be of interest to readers in general. This is particularly true of the field of memoirs, in which people generally don’t understand the difference between a personal history and a marketable memoir. Often one does need to write a personal history first – that’s the “getting it off your chest” stage – and then start thinking about how to reshape that history into something that will get and hold the attention of the greatest possible number of readers. In the field of fiction, novice writers have often not made enough study of craft before starting to send out their material. Even though I am a champion of independent self-publishing, one disadvantage of how easy it has become is that many writers put themselves into print without ever being professionally edited. And that means they may never know why they can’t attract many readers.
Q: What's the most important advice you can offer new authors about writing a publishable manuscript?
A: Expect to rewrite – and rewrite, and rewrite. As you create a manuscript, it can be very helpful to work with a group of writing peers who will listen to your work in progress and help you recognize what works and doesn’t work. And you will learn a lot from listening to other writers’ work as well. That’s an invaluable way of learning, and it’s free. As you begin to edit and rewrite, it can be very helpful to engage someone experienced in manuscript assessment, which is what I do through Fearless Literary Services. Beware, however, of simply hiring an editor to go through your entire manuscript to do technical editing, and then think that you are finished with the editing process. In the early stages of manuscript revision, you need the input of someone who can assess the conceptual and developmental aspects of your work, and help direct you through the rewriting process, well before line-by-line technical editing is done. Many editors have not written books themselves, and even fewer have experience with publishing, so they don’t always have an understanding of how to assess books at the conceptual level, or critique them in terms of ultimate marketing appeal. I’ve seen too many clients who come to me needing a developmental assessment AFTER they’ve spent thousands of dollars on a full-manuscript technical edit that was premature. A thorough, high-quality critique is not inexpensive, but it can actually save you money in the long run.
Q: In addition to your other projects, you publish online directories of independent booksellers. How do you see the future of independent bookstores? What can independent bookstores do to increase their chances of survival in the current market?
A: I’m not a general book retailer so I can’t answer this question in detail, but what helps an indie bookstore survive seems to be strong community relationships, including some kind of ongoing event programming that brings in people on a regular basis. Many bookstores are also having to develop product sidelines that augment book sales, such as stationery or gifts. Even Borders, a major US chain that’s been on the ropes the last few years, is opening up “Build A Bear” franchises in their stores to bring in more family traffic. That may be an act of desperation, to be sure. But my guess is that a neighborhood independent bookstore needs to view itself as a community-focused educational center that sells books but also holds interesting events, possibly including writing classes or seminars.
Q: What are some exciting titles that we should look out for from your publishing house, Fearless Books?
A: We just released a fascinating memoir and lifestyle guide entitled A Taste of Grace, by an American expatriate author, Elizabeth Griffin, who settled in Trieste, Italy, to raise her family. The book features not just her personal history, but also meditation exercises, recipes from her husband Mauro’s kitchen, and even an Italian pronunciation guide. This is a book I’m “incubating” for sale to a larger publisher down the road, which I did successfully in 2003 with Gary Renard’s book The Disappearance of the Universe, now a worldwide bestseller for Hay House.
If you liked this interview with D. Patrick Miller about independent publishing, you might also enjoy our interview with Carl Lennertz from HarperCollins on book marketing.
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