Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Facing Your Fear of Publishing

Good fear, bad fear: I've done quite a bit of thinking lately about the fear of publishing. Three reasons:
  • My author meetup, composed of all the members of my two classes on "Writing and Publishing Your Own Memoir." They are all good writers, even if they don't think so. Their publishing problems mostly have to do with fears.
  • My current customers. Again, they are all working on worthy projects. Their issues have to do with fears. 
  • My memoir: From Rome to Jerusalem: A Non-Jew on the Way. This helped me understand where my authors are coming from.
Let's establish something from the get-go. Fear is not a bad thing, at least not necessarily. Fear is a survival mechanism. When your life is threatened, fear kicks in, your adrenalin spikes, and you are better able to fight or flee. Without fear, many more people would have died in the terrible wildfire near where I live. Two people did die, but most listened to their fears and got out of Dodge when authorities told them to evacuate. It helped, probably, that we had a terrible fire a year ago. People saw what happened then and had a basis for their fears. Most ran. Good thing.

Fear is not a useful mechanism when it stays around past the moment of danger. The adrenalin rush that was so handy when you saw a drunk driver coming straight at you, and you swerved out of the way, is not so helpful when it stays around for weeks. Chronic fear drains your energy and hinders your mental, emotional, and physical functions.

In publishing there are things that you should fear and things you shouldn't. There are things you can change and things you can't. The following are fears that almost every author has and should have:
  • Fear that you don't have anything important to say:  This is fundamental. You address this fear by defining your core reader, your message, and how you will change his or her life. If you can't do that, especially for a non-fiction work, you should flee (and not publish the book.) 
  • Fear that no one will buy or read the book: This is also fundamental. In addition to defining your core reader and how your book will change his or her life, you address this fear by coming up with a marketing plan.
  • Fear that I will lose money: Of course you should worry about this. You address it by doing your homework, figuring out what your costs are and what your likely sales will be. You can and should be conservative. In these days of on-demand printing and ebook publishing, you face almost no inventory risks and can break even with 100 books sold instead of the 1,000  (or more) you needed to sell in the old days when you couldn't realistically print fewer than 2,000 copies. Nowadays, your wild cards are your preparation costs (copy editing, book design, and page makeup) and the swamp they call marketing.
  • Fear that my book will look and feel amateurish: You should be concerned, but you can address this by getting help in those areas where you have no professional competence. 
  • Fear that my book will have typos in it: Oh, it will, so it pays to pay attention. Rule of thumb is that good proofreaders miss 50% of all errors. For this reason, traditional publishing protocol is to have two people read the first set of page proofs and, if possible, two different people read the second proof. In theory, this should eliminate somewhere in the neighborhood of 95% of all the boo-boos. Adding proof cycles and proofreaders is prohibitively expensive, even for traditional publishers. (Don't confuse this fear with the last fear mentioned in this article.)
The following are fears that you should have (but many authors don't):
  • Fear that you might violate copyright: While there are rules of thumb about "fair use" when it comes to quoting others, the reality is that copyright infringement tends to be determined by the copyright holder. Lawsuits are rare, but to be safe, you should either not quote directly from sources or get permission from the copyright holder to do so. You should credit the ideas of others and indirect quotes. Plagiarism is a related danger.
  • Fear that you will be sued for libel: This is not common, but you do need to be careful about what you are saying about others. This concern tends to come up in memoirs. In my own memoir (From Rome to Jerusalem: A Non-Jew on the Way), I dealt with this first by trying to tell my story instead of someone else's story and second by masking the identity of others when I could. If you have concerns in this area, checking in with a lawyer might be called for. 
The following are fears that hinder the publishing process:
  • Fear that someone will steal your ideas: Would-be authors who fret about copyrighting their work exhibit this fear. One of my smarter editors once told me, "If someone steals your idea, have another one. If you don't have another one, you're not that smart and your first idea probably wasn't that good." You get copyright protection the minute you put pen to paper. Sure, there is some benefit for registering your copyright, but worrying about someone stealing your thunder is a waste of time. Your real protection is getting your name, your brand, and your ideas into the market. Put your energy and money there.
  • Fear that you're not a good enough writer: This seems like a useful fear, but I find that it muddles the publishing process and, in the worst case, prevents good books from being published. In my experience, you do not need to be "good writer" to be a good author, at least for non-fiction. Here's why. If you do the front-end work--determining your core reader, your message, how you will change his or her life--you're almost there. Now if you write a coherent table of contents and follow that map for one or, at most, two drafts, you are there. You now have a publishable draft. A good copy editor (like me) can take your draft, tease out the best of your style, and transform your draft into professional prose. At this point, messing with your writing because you don't think you are a good enough writer only adds errors and delays publication. (Besides, if you didn't think you were a good enough writer to begin with, what makes you think you suddenly became a master of words the day before the book is supposed to be printed?) Finally, I don't want authors to focus on their writing. Instead, I want them to focus on their audience and their message. The best authors do that.
  • Fear that your book will not be perfect: Nothing is perfect, and you will make yourself crazy trying to get there from here. Instead, shoot for excellence or professionalism. Give yourself over to a process that steps you through the publishing process that resemble the one used by traditional publishers. Then plan to do updates on a schedule. I suggest 90 days after the first printing for a minor update and no more than once a year for major updates or new editions. 
If you can't change it, it isn't worth worrying about. The Publishing Pro.


Anne Flint said...

An excellent article Ken. I'll be passing this along to other writers.

Anne Flint said...

An excellent article, Ken. I'll be passing this on to others I know will find it helpful. Thanks.