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Adventures in Writing, Reading & Book Culture

Are We Still Trying to Answer the Question “To Self-Publish or Wait for the Book Contract?” …?

Have you ever asked yourself the question “Is this guy a good doctor?” while standing in the examination room looking at his framed credentials on the wall? This is the sort of question a writer needs to ask of any potential agent, publisher, or reviewer. The answers cannot be found in the doctor’s framed diplomas any more than on the agents’ client list or the fancy thumbnails you see scrolling across the publishers’ website banners. And as for the reviewers, just read what they’ve written to see if they have the ability to critique a book.

If you’ve come to the conclusion that some list of agents you’ve created through research can help you make it big, or on another list of publishers that would be perfect for your book and career, then please stop reading this so you can go polish that query letter, proofread your MS, and set the egg timer to 4-8 months as you wait for their reply. You’ve got work to do … and wasting time reading a blog post is only going to make your life that much more anxiety-filled.

However, if you’ve just finished the umpteenth draft of your third novel and polished its prose like the fender of a ’64 Corvette, and you’re not sure about sending out another round of 50 query letters to agents and publishers that haven’t responded (or have flatly declined to read your work), then please, you have a few minutes to spare before getting back to the new project.

My advice is this: Publish Now, Perish Later

If you DO NOT HAVE a living-breathing contact in publishing, and that contact is willing to vouch for you and your book and your future books, then traditional publishing might not be the route you need to take at this point in your career. The reasons are many, but a few are clear: writing query letters is as much a craft as writing a novel; researching the agents and publishers whom you can contact directly (and sending out letters) is nearly a full-time job; and then there is the waiting — weeks, months, sometimes half a year. Meanwhile, you’re MS sits in limbo, your mind might be swirling with anticipation that work on the next book is hampered. Meanwhile, you’re potential readers are scouring the bookstore shelves and online retailers for that next great read — but they won’t find yours among the stacks or thumbnails.

Then you sit some more, collecting rejection slips to fill a fold or tape to the wall because you “won’t let these bring me down!” … and there in the slush-pile of rejections jumps out the odd “yeah, sure! send in your manuscript!” after a 3-month wait, only to be asked to wait another 3-to-6 months for another response. Ouch! Life is short, and so is the attention span of editors.

Hey, I could be wrong. New writers get contracts every day; not good contracts anymore (in the ’80s, $30,000 advanced were par for the course; today, unknowns get $2,000). If you’re already an Indie sensation — with a certified-copy of 100K sales — you’ll be courted by a NY house. This is today’s publishing environment, and the faster you understand that and get used to it, the better you’ll realize that today is the day you need to known everything, and tomorrow you need to know more.

Hell, if Knopf called me today with a publishing and distribution contract for my two already-published novels (they’re out there, in view for any Knopf talent-spotter to see and realize a hot property sits among the chaff), I’d probably sign it, take the money and run, earn more coin on the commission, and buy myself a small cottage in the south of France where I can write, raise dachshunds with my wife, and eat cheese and drink wine. Believe me when I tell you, I’m not holding my breath for this call.

If, on the other hand, you feel your book is ready for readers to open the cover and accept you as a writer and your work as authorial, self-publishing is a good start and perhaps the best road for your fledgling career. There are several platforms available, and each is nearly stupid-proof, only with their own brand of learning curve to see a clear path to successfully getting your book into the hands of at least a few readers. Amazon’s printing partner, Createspace, does a fine job, and Amazon lists your book in six countries — immediately. That’s pretty good distribution, by any measure.

The biggest task for you, as a writer, is to hire a line & story editor, unless you already have trusted editorial help in your pocket. And then you must design the book cover and interior. Neither is particularly difficult, but you’d do well, also, to hire a professional designer for that task — a good cover makes all the difference; there is such crap out there that self-designed covers can be spotted at a thumbnail’s size from across the room on a darkened video screen.

So, then, to recap: if you have an agent and/or publisher on the hook, try to reel them in. But if you have a marketable book (the genre makes little difference) and some book-promo savvy (or the potential to learn), then study the POD platform providers and see if you, too, should throw your spine into the ring.


What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

Both books are published by Siren & Muse Publishing, a small-press dedicated to keeping “the book” alive. I’ve got the contract to prove it, and we use Amazon to distribute my books (my choice) because I have the means to move product worldwide.

The Reader as Reviewer

The egaletarian nature of the internet has been known for some time: we all have a voice, and, we can express our opinions to the world. Whether someone is listening, or even knows your voice is out there, well, that’s another subject altogether.

In a recent post on getting no reviews for “What Beauty” from the establishment reviewers (ie., newspapers, magazines, and popular websites), I lamented the small-press lockout that the reviewers play. One commenter on this essay-lament said that BigPublishing has created a scare throughout the reviewing world because of the advertising dollars spent in the dying print journalism publications, and therefore some payback is expected: review our books only, or else!

This situation doesn’t exist among readers. Book readers have had the chance to review books online since 1999, at least, and in some print venues, for at least a hundred years. They — these non-professional reviewers — sometimes wax eloquently, and other times give “book reports.” Nevertheless, they are the common voice that disseminate LIKES and DIS-LIKES in such an idiosyncratic manner that, outside the professional review journals (NYRB, TLS, London Review of Books, and BOOKFORUM), you can find some refreshing voices talking about good literature.

Some readers don’t know how to review a book. Others have a take-no-prisoners approach to their reviews, spewing damnation and invective with no moticum of evidence presented. Many seem to go counter to what John Updike wrote eruditely about the reviewer’s responsibility: (1) don’t give away the ending or spoil important moments; (2) “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt” (I got one of these, for my first novel, The Village Wit); and, most importantly, (3) “If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?” (Amazon reviewers relish in this inequity.)

Yes, idiosyncracies.

Then, of course, there is the reader who sees more of what the writer intended than even the writer thought was done. I have had just such a review recently, from a Smashwords reader of my latest novel. He wrote:

By the time his protagonist, sculptor Minus Orth, has decided to base his latest series of works on characters from classic lore, Beyer has already given his reader enough clues about the importance of the ancient Greek epics to his modern-day vision. There are chariots rolling down the streets of Manhattan, wars of wits with inscrutable fathers, aloof gods playing games with us mortals, wounded warriors waking to visions of beautiful temptresses, and a fascinating hero-in-disguise plot that unravels with amazing expertise. Orth’s ambition to succeed in the art world is a Herculean fight in our secular age, and he does battle with adversaries as dangerous in their way as anything Odysseus faced: critics, rivals, and a mentor he’s not sure he can trust.

Thanks for the accolade, Steve Farrell (himself a writer, if you hadn’t guessed; you can read the entire review here). Essentially, I hadn’t planned Minus Orth’s father to be a mythic figure, or the FaceCards (a quartet of card-playing arristocrats) as Gods-on-High messing with the pavement-bound mortals. But, within the realm of reason, as the Greek gods were themselves invented by mortals to describe life on Earth against the heavens they, lowly mortals, didn’t understand, it’s easy to see how regular, everyday life can be seen as bits of an epic.

While I’ll take good music from whichever direction I hear it, I’m humble enough to understand that I mustn’t take this review too seriously. Whom do I really believe — the reviewer who loves me, or the reviewer who says “he doesn’t have what it takes”? I have to believe in myself, and my writing, and, naturally, in the characters I create for the stories I write.

From the readers’ perspective, they are only reflecting their tastes, their knowledge, their likes & dislikes, and their way of judging good writing from bad, strong characters from weak, or even too-long-a-story from the-beach-book. I know this, and also I’m part of this, both as a professional reviewer, and as a non-professional blogger.

Ultimately, what I find is that readers are looking at the books they read and see something of themselves in them, or something of the world in which they live. Or they see nothing that they recognize. Both are mirrors, but, where one is looked at into the light of day, another is looked at into a prism, where all that dissected color glosses the true palate.


What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

45 ARCs sent out — 0 Reviews returned

Sending out ARCs (advanced review copies) of your new novel to reviewers takes an investment in research, promotional writing, time, and money. Promoting my book is important, as it should be with any author, well-known or starting out. And while social-media promotions — Twitter, FB, GoodReads, blogging and the like — are the new flavor in book ad/marketing, these venues reach thousands whereas mainstream newspapers and magazines reach millions.

At least, that’s what they do for the selected books/authors. But a funny thing happened to me on the way to the forum …

While awaiting notice from my publisher, Siren & Muse, of incoming tear sheets sent by journalists to publishers of a forthcoming review publication, I noticed something on the websites and in the print editions of these review outlets: there is a pattern of who and what gets reviewed.

I compiled a list of the publishers and the authors who were reviewed in the two months leading up to the release of my own novel, “What Beauty” and the three weeks since its release. What I found was that 95% of the reviewed authors were published by the big NY houses, including W.W. Norton, Knopf, Random House, FSG, Penguin, Picador, and Doubleday, to name a few. And the authors’ names were on that same percentage of high-profile, or powerhouse, or at least higher-than-mid-list names who have several books behind them and lots of publishing clout. The other names, and the 5% of non-major publishers, were featured as local authors who’d published a novel with a local angle/tie-in (Seattle, Houston, Cleveland).

And me? This is my second novel, and I publish with a small-press out of Chicago whom I actively assist in promotional writing, ad work, and industry research. My work with them is as much about being my own best marketing manager as much as helping Siren & Muse Publishing get their name out to readers and establish a reputation for publishing quality books. You see, I’m not the only writer in their “stable.” I wish they had the budget to do more for their writers, but I’m doing lots for myself, too.

As I mentioned, 45 copies went out to newspapers and magazines from East coast to West coast, Minneapolis to Miami, and numerous points in between. We did the right things: an advanced press release, a well-written galley letter, good and timely follow-up work. I never expected all 45 reviewers to read and review my book, much less embrace it as “a modern classic.” But I hoped for something auspicious and perhaps 5 reviews. “That would be a good number!” I told myself. My excitement, as you might imagine, was like something worked into my skin, a heat, a tan, a hot-tub soak in melted chocolate.

This excitement turned to confusion, and then disappointment. No one reviewed my novel. Not one of the 45 newspapers and magazines gave it the time it deserved. What’s more, Siren & Muse promotional manager, Bert Wells, told me he hadn’t received any responses from the three separate letters sent to each of the reviewers (the first press release, the galley letter insert to the ARC, and the follow-up press release during “release week”). Hmm.

Was my book that bad?

Of course not. My book isn’t “bad” at all. It’s a good novel, a story told with flair, wit, passion, and compassion for its characters. A story about love, about art, about urban life and the struggle for acceptance and recognition in the modern world. Essentially, a book that is familiar to us all but unique, timely, and relative — something readers would want to read.

All good promotional copy, right? I think so; and if the reviewers had opened the book — which I’m not sure they did — I would have got one or two reviews. Right? Well, maybe WRONG is the answer. Of course, if I had sent out 10 copies to the best, most highly rated and, thus, highly competitive review outlets (NYT, NYRB, USA Today, and Washington Post Book World) then I would not, and could not, be surprised that my novel was passed up for the likes of reviewing Richard Ford’s new novel, or Toni Morrison’s, or even “Fifty Shades of Grey.” [Oi!]

Getting no reviews from 45 ARCs leads me to believe something far different. Not something nefarious, but systematic — and symptomatic — nonetheless: small presses are pushed aside by the big-money advertisers in the body of NY Houses; and if you don’t have a name (or the houses haven’t given you your name), reviewers are shy to touch you.

The result is this: Life Goes On. I’m disappointed, but not defeated. And I’m about to start writing my next novel, for which I’ve been writing scenes and “Notes & Dialogue & Characters” for nearly six months. This is what we writers do. Likewise, I can take comfort in this: Nobel Prize-winning author Saul Bellow sold just 1,506 copies of his first novel, “Dangling Man” and 2,257 copies of his second novel, “The Victim.”

We all start somewhere, and must rise by our own merits. It’s time to write another book … and do more promo work for “What Beauty.”

Keep on writing!


What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.