Wednesday, April 25, 2007

What's all this I hear about Elaine Viets?

Elaine Viets

As many of you know, Elaine Viets suffered a stroke just before the release of the newest entry in her "Dead End Job Series" -- Murder With Reservations. Happily, she is on the road to recovery, but she won't be able to tour for the new book. So her friends are "touring" for her— we're asking you to buy her book, either by ordering it from your favorite bookseller, or attending one of the many events her "stand-ins" are hosting for her.

You can find a list of those events here. (Part of the Web site of PJ Nunn, her publicist.)
Check back frequently, as more are being added.

If you wonder why we're troubling to do this, it's because Elaine has given thousands of hours of her time and effort to other writers, both individually and through Sisters in Crime and MWA. She's been generous and kind, and we'd like to return a little of that kindness. And we also think you'll enjoy the book -- it has had great reviews -- and Elaine manages to balance both humor and social consciousness in her books. This time, Helen Hawthorne takes a job as hotel housekeeper -- you'll never feel the same way about staying in a hotel! You can also read a sample chapter on Elaine's Web site.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

How to Help Elaine Viets

As the recent outpouring of messages of concern and well-wishes for Elaine Viets have shown, Elaine has a lot of friends in the mystery community. It's no wonder -- she's not only a delightful person and beloved writer, she has given a lot of time and energy to helping others through her service in MWA, Sisters in Crime, and other groups.

She also has a new book coming out in May, MURDER WITH RESERVATIONS, and one of her biggest worries has been that due to the stroke, she won't be able to tour.

So we're offering her friends a chance to actively help her -- we're going to "tour" for her!

Here's what to do

1) Send an e-mail to

2) Let us know what part of the country (or world) you are in and if you are

a) an author
b) a bookseller
c) a fan

3) Let us would be willing to:

a) place a stack of Elaine's books on your table as you sign on your own tour

b) help set up an "Elaine Viets" party at your store or a store near you
(if you are not a store owner, PLEASE do NOT contact stores directly at this point!)

c) serve as a "stand-in" by hosting a nearby scheduled signing on Elaine's tour.

d) place an image of Murder With Reservations with a note about this effort on your Web site or blog.

PJ Nunn, Elaine's publicist, is offering to reward the kindness of Elaine's author friends with publicity help for their own books.

We will have more details for you soon!

I know this community is one that has many generous people in it, people who are willing to act on their concern for others. I look forward to hearing from you!

Please feel free to forward this message.

Jan Burke

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Elaine Viets

Those of you who are hooked into the mystery fandom lists and blogs probably know by now that Elaine Viets is hospitalized, after having suffered a stroke. (More on that here.)

Elaine has devoted thousands of hours of her time to other writers through her work with MWA and Sisters in Crime. She's helped to raise money for the St. Louis Humane Society and other animal charities, and she's also a member of the Crime Lab Project — she was one of the first to join.

Elaine has a new book due out in May, Murder With Reservations. It got a starred PW review, and is the latest in her humorous "Dead End Job" series. Some of Elaine's friends are working on a way to help her to "tour" while she recovers — I'm one of those folks. So you may not see me here much for the next few days while I help out with plans!

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Finding an Agent - Authors Tell You Their Own Stories

At the end of March, I posted some suggestions for those who are trying to find an agent — so if you're looking for representation, you may want to read that before you dive into this post.

You may remember that the March post was inspired by someone who believed that you needed an author recommendation to get anywhere in the agent hunt. I disagreed. Whole books have been written on this topic, and I don't intend to replace them with this blog. I only hope these comments from other writers about their experiences will encourage some of you who are looking for agents. Especially if you've been feeling that your chances of getting published are nil just because you
    • never saved an author from drowning,
    • don't hang out in bars with leading literary lights, and
    • haven't located a copy of the Harry Potter book of spells to help you ensorcel a writer by e-mail into being your champion.
Maybe one day the AAR will publish a scientific study whereby agents list their clients who were "discovered" by them — their first-time authors only — and specify how those clients came to work with them. This might provide something more than guesswork on the number of unknown authors who were referred by other clients, were brought to their attention by writing instructors, made the connection through queries, were met through conferences, etc. (To the best of my knowledge, this isn't available now.)

I will readily admit that what I'm posting here is anecdotal. My intention is to show that writers find agents in lots of different ways, and to dispel the myth that the world of publishing is closed and "members only."

Please understand that I am not saying that it is easy to get an agent. Many agents get over a thousand queries a week, and of course they don't take all of those folks on. But here are a few stories from some people who didn't have any special insider help:

From Denise Swanson, national bestselling author of Murder of A Botoxed Blonde and eight other novels:

I found my first agent using a query letter, although I did have the permission of [the late, renowned Mysterious Press editor] Sara Ann Freed to use a quote from the critique she did of my manuscript at the Harriette Austin Writers Conference.

The book I used to come up with the list of agents I eventually queried was the Insider's Guide to Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents by Jeff Herman.

From Meg Chittenden, bestselling author of over 100 short stories and articles, a book on writing, three children's books, and 33 novels that include romance, suspense, mystery, and mainstream — her latest suspense novel is Snap Shot:

Way back in 1971 — would you believe it, I must have been in kindergarten — I received a manila envelope back in the mail — one of my SASE that I was sending out with all the submissions I was making. Disheartened, I let it sit on my desk a while. Luckily I opened it before going to the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Conference. Inside was a contract from Follett for my first children's book. I took it to the conference, talked to an agent who was there, who agreed to represent me (hey, they'd already mentioned money!) and actually got me more money than they had offered. She then repped me through my GH short story days, another children's book and my first novel, which she suggested I write....

[Unfortunately, her first agent died. Meg tells how she found her next agent:]

I wrote to Emilie Jacobson at Curtis Brown, who took me on right away and is still my agent. I wrote her because she was Willo Davis Roberts agent and Willo was doing pretty good, seemed to me. Note that I did not ask Willo to recommend me. I did not tell Emilie I was a friend of Willo.

Because, and this is what I tell people who want me to recommend them to my agent — I believe a writer needs an agent who is enthusiastic about his or her work. I didn't want an agent to take me on because so-and-so asked her to and she maybe felt she owed so-and-so something.

From Toni L.P. Kelner, award-winning author of nine novels, including the forthcoming Without Mercy, as well as numerous short stories:

When I was going to events, trying to figure out how this business works (thinking that I could figure it out), I used to ask writers, "How do you get an agent?"
The usual answer was, "Consult one of the books that list agents and their needs, and query them."
Then I'd say, "Is that how you got your agent?"
And they would almost always say, "No, I knew somebody."

Well, I did NOT know anybody. I actually got my agent via one of those guide books. She was the sixteenth I queried, as a matter of fact, and we didn't meet in person until a few years after we started working together.

So if anybody asks, those guidebooks work!

From Jerrilyn Farmer, award-winning author of seven novels in the Madeline Bean series and short stories, and member of the faculty of the UCLA Extension Writers Program:

The best advice I read was to research which agents rep which authors (by checking the Acknowledgments pages of their books), and to send query letters to agents whose authors are similar in style/genre to yours. In addition, I found the Writers Market and other guides to Literary Agents helpful for their listings of agents who specialize in particular kinds of books. This is how I found my agent.

Sometimes it feels like you need a special introduction to get noticed, but I agree with Meg who said that an agent shouldn't be doing anyone a favor to take you on, but be completely enthusiastic about your books.

From Robin Burcell, Anthony Award winner and author crime fiction novels, including Cold Case:

I went about the whole agent hunting thing backwards.

I sold my first book on my own (a process I do not recommend) and acquired my first agent after being introduced via phone by another writer represented by the same agency. Right around the time I switched genres, my agent left the agency. I sent my first mystery to the same publisher, who was very interested in it.

In the meantime, I was introduced to a second agent at the same agency, who said she was
interested in seeing the mystery. Sent it off to her, then got a call from the publisher saying they wanted to buy it. Second agent negotiated this book. And then my editor said she wanted to buy the second mystery in the series, which she'd read, but needed to wait until
her return from medical leave. During this medical leave, my second agent left the agency, and I took that as my cue to find a new agency myself.

After several queries, I wasn't able to find an agent before my editor returned, and I finally called her, asking if she was still interested in the book, because I was now agentless. She was, asked me what I was looking for, and I gave her my wish list. She gave me a list of agents to query based on that list. I interviewed several while at Bouchercon, then made a decision.

We've been happy ever since.

Paul Guyot brings a slightly different perspective, from the world of television writing — considered by most to be nearly impossible to break into. Shows he has written for include Felicity and Judging Amy.

I found my agent the old fashion way - query letters. I had ZERO connections in Hollywood. None. So I sent a dozen queries out and was rejected or ignored across the board. So then I began to query managers - in Hollywood a manager is someone who acts just like an agent, but isn't accredited. They can get your stuff to maybe 75% of the places an agent can, but 75% of something is better than 100% of nothing. For a complete newbie like myself, managers - especially newer just-starting-out managers - were more willing to read a new writer. Of the approximately four or five queries to managers, only one was interested, so I figured we were a match made in heaven, and I signed with him.

Well, he was able to get my material in front of studio and network executives who put me on their "approved" lists - executives love lists - and from there I was able to very quickly secure an agent, then my first job, and have never been unemployed since. I subsequently fired the manager within my first year of employment. It was perhaps a bit mercenary of me (though there were other issues), but once I had the accredited agent and employment, the manager became superfluous.

I agree with what Stephen King, Elmore Leonard and several other major writers believe - good writing always finds a home. If you write well, you eliminate a huge variable, and thus reduce the importance or need for connections and recommendations. Unfortunately, many aspiring writers (screen and prose) put more effort into getting an agent or getting published than they do the actual writing.

From Sharan Newman, author of the fabulous Catherine LeVendeur historical mystery novels, nonfiction including The Real History Behind the DaVinci Code and (forthcoming in July) The Real History Behind the Templars, as well as short stories and other works:

I published my first three books without an agent, something I don't recommend. I didn't know any other writers. I got mine by going to the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, listening to and talking with the agents there. One of them liked me. That was 1984 and we've been together ever since.

I might also add that, although I have suggested other writers to my agency none of them have been a match.

Sorry, I still think the best way to get an agent is to write a good book, then go to a couple of the conferences or start writing query letters. Knowing another author is not really that useful.

So there are just a few examples of published writers who found agents without recommendations from other writers. My thanks to all of them!

I hope you'll take note of something several of those above have said — having an author recommend you isn't as important as finding an agent who is genuinely enthusiastic about your work. And I strongly agree that your focus must be on creating a work of quality. A recommendation from the hottest author on the NYT list will not help you if your manuscript is weak. If you've written an original and engaging story with a fresh voice, your manuscript will provide what you need most in your quest for an agent.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Abuse of fiction

From the Drug Enforcement Agency's March issue of the Microgram Bulletin:


The Arkansas State Crime Laboratory (Little Rock) recently received a paperback novel that had apparent yellow highlighter stains on several pages, that field-tested positive for methamphetamine (see Photo 5). The exhibit was seized by the Washington County Sheriff’s Office from an individual who was visiting the Washington County Jail (located in Fayetteville). Analysis of a methanolic extract of the most heavily stained pages by color testing, TLC, and GC/MS confirmed methamphetamine (not quantitated, but a high loading based on TIC). This is the first seizure of this type submitted to the laboratory.

I suppose you should also see the DEA Disclaimers:

1) All material published in either Microgram Bulletin or Microgram Journal is reviewed prior to publication. However, the reliability and accuracy of all published information are the responsibility of the respective contributors, and publication in Microgram Bulletin implies no endorsement by the United States Department of Justice or the Drug Enforcement Administration.

2) Due to the ease of scanning, copying, electronic manipulation, and/or reprinting, only the posted copies of Microgram Bulletin (on are absolutely valid. All other copies, whether electronic or hard, are necessarily suspect unless verified against the posted versions.

3) WARNING!: Due to the often lengthy time delays between the actual dates of seizures and their subsequent reporting in Microgram Bulletin, and also because of the often wide variety of seizure types with superficially similar physical attributes, published material cannot be utilized to visually identify controlled substances currently circulating in clandestine markets. The United States Department of Justice and the Drug Enforcement Administration assume no liability for the use or misuse of the information published in Microgram Bulletin.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Spring break may be over...

but I'll bet some of you still have these creatures in your house. And apparently, they're nearly as indestructible as these.

Still, I think this is carrying things too far.

And while we're at it, do you suppose they could supply ammo for this? Probably not. But if any of you are aunts and uncles who supply the nephews and nieces with toys that make their parents say, "You shouldn't have!" in a meaningful way, you may want to consider this gift item.

(My niece Timbrely, who still gets weird presents from me, provided a couple of these links. Not the one that caused you to say "Eeeew!")

Photo above courtesy of rosevita, from

Monday, April 09, 2007

Luck and Timing

Lots of great comments recently. I'm going to take a few days to reply to some of them, but I also want to give my non-writing readers a break here and there from these topics. Which means yes, I've discovered some new weird sites, good ideas, infuriating news, and so on. But I'll quickly tackle a couple of comments.

MF Makichen asked:

...Do you think a lot of the business of writing comes down to luck and timing. Or do you believe that ultimately great writing and perseverance are what will keep a career going long-term.

Just to be clear I admire anyone who can finish a book, find an agent, and get published, whethter the writing is my cup of tea or not. But so much of the "business" of writing seems to come down to luck and in some cases who you know....
MF, thanks for this, because I think a lot of new writers have these questions about luck and timing and connections. So I'm going to respond not just to what you've written here, but on this topic as it concerns new writers.

Luck and timing come into play in all of our lives -- from the moment we are conceived until the day we die. And in some cases, after that. If you are lucky enough to be literate, you are ahead of a great many people on this planet. Trying to understand luck and timing can get us into some questions that are concerned with the workings of the cosmos (and chaos) if not philosophy and theology, which I don't propose to explore here.

So I'll just say that I don't think it makes a lot of sense to magnify whatever amount of luck and timing are involved in a writing career out of proportion. Especially not as an excuse.

I can understand the temptation. If a person is a new writer, and it's a lack of luck or bad timing that causes him not to be published, why then, the universe is against him, and there's not much he can do about that, is there? (This is assuming he wasn't done in by the evil, anti-creative publishing cabal I mentioned a few days ago.) It isn't a matter of anything lacking his imagination or his skill in telling a story, it isn't because he hasn't found his voice, that his style is overly ornate one moment and ridiculously spare the next, that his pacing is all shot to hell, that his grammar is MIA, that every character sounds exactly like every other character, that the opening induces yawns, that the plot is implausible or unoriginal.

Or any of the thousands of other things that can go wrong in a manuscript. No, he just wasn't lucky.


I've also seen this "luck and timing" stuff used by the envious. I don't know how many times I've heard horror stories from people who were in writing groups and who happened to be the first (if not only) person in the group to be published. Whoooweee. Ever want to see the green-eyed monster of jealousy rear its ugly head, that's where you should set up your cameras. Be sure the sound is on after the newly published person leaves the room: Of course talent had nothing to do with her success. Otherwise, it would have been me and not her! What luck! What timing!

What's the idea here, that publishers are actually using a big lottery system? Superstition is alive and well.

I don't claim that luck and timing are never part of the equation -- they are. I just believe that they don't play anything close to the largest role. And let's face it -- you can't make a career out of luck and timing. If you're going to write more than one book, you need to be able to deliver to your readers again and again. Publishers are looking for someone who shows that kind of promise.

Getting published isn't one, uniform experience. Some people sell a first book without ever getting a rejection. Some people take fifteen or more years to make a sale. Why? I think the reasons must be as varied as the authors and their works, and the people who buy them. And yes, luck and timing play a role, but I don't believe there are publishers making out contracts on nothing more than the basis of the author's luck.

Do I believe that some writers have bad luck? Yes, but I believe one can often recover from it. Do I believe that all talented writers get published? No, but I believe there may be obstacles other than luck involved, so that luck isn't always much of a factor, and to the extent it is, perseverance may increase their odds in the future. I've seen it work.

As for the "whom you know" -- I have asked a few of my friends how they found their agents and editors, and I'll be posting their answers. I hope it will help at least some of you to believe that not everyone had an inside connection.


I want to thank my friend John for catching a one of my typos in an earlier post. He's an editor. We all need them. We need friends like John, too.

And finally -- Kathy, so glad to hear from another fan of Thornton's!

Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Economics

New writers usually want to become published authors in part because they feel compelled to write, and if you're going to have a compulsion that strong, why not earn a living at it?

Usually, they also love books and reading, and spend a lot of time in bookstores.

For all that, they seldom know how the book business works. This isn't so odd. I don't really have more than a vague idea of how electricity works, but I use it every day. Still, if I decided I wanted to earn my living as an electrician, I'd study more, and try to apprentice myself to someone who knew what he or she was doing. If I decided I wanted to generate electricity and supply it to others, I'd study a lot, and talk to experienced experts.

So if you're a writer, and you're thinking about being your own publisher, you need to know how your new business works -- not the writing business, but the book business.

Here's a starter lesson on the economics.

The availability of a thing -- including a thing such as book -- does not mean it will be sold.
Simply making a book available (such as by self-publishing) doesn't put it into a store.
Likewise, simply listing it among hundreds of thousands of other books offered at an online store does not sell it and place it in a reader's hands.

But wait! Don't independent stores and even some big stores hand-sell books to their customers?
Yes, but...believe it or not, there is no law requiring booksellers to carry a book just because you think it's pretty darned good! Or even because you're insistent. A shame, isn't it?

Bookselling is not likely to make an independent bookseller rich. Large or small, bookstores are not intended to become literary charities, kissing money goodbye in noble sacrifice just because so many books -- yours, for example! -- are so darned good. They prefer to make at least some profit. The independent's resources are not those of a giant, so they must be careful with those resources.

The space in a bookseller's store is like retail space anywhere — valuable to the merchant. Choosing what goes into that space may (or may not) have more to do with love than it does at a big box store, but at the end of the day, both types of stores must make wise business decisions and believe they can sell what they stock.

And there are other considerations.

For traditionally published books, about 40% of the sales price goes to the bookseller.

The bookseller is also able to return unsold books to the publisher. (A few conditions apply.)

Additionally, the bookseller knows that the traditional publisher is making other efforts to try to help the book to be sold. Sending out copies to reviewers, seeking endorsements, paying for cover art, perhaps creating special displays, advertising, press releases, author tours, and other marketing efforts. In some cases, the publisher may be offering special incentives if the store will host an author appearance.

The bookseller also knows that the publisher is risking money on the book, has invested in this author, and to an extent is staking the publishing house's reputation on the quality of the book. The book was chosen through an editorial process -- an agent brought a likely manuscript to the house, an editor considered it carefully, a committee looked hard at the editor's choice, and decided if the house's resources should be spent -- and in most houses, the manuscript received several kinds of editorial attention before publication.

Now let's look at self-published works. Guess who decided the book should be published? Who did that person have to convince that it was worthy of resources? Guess who will be paying the discount to the bookseller, one way or another? The fact is, as JB Dickey pointed out in the post I mentioned last week, from the Seattle Mystery Bookstore's blog:

In general, POD books are more expensive than regular trade paperbacks from the major publisher. That’s not odd as they’re a different system, scales of economy, etc. But they’re larger, thinner and end up not feeling as if they’re a good value. They also have been available at a lower discount, meaning that the bookseller has to pay more for the book and makes less profit on the sale of the book. (The industry standard is 40%, so out of the 40¢ out of every $1 we make on the sale, we pay the rent, the employees, the various costs of being in business.) It is impossible to stay in business when the discount for a POD is 15% or so. Can’t work. Ties up too much cash flow in stock and doesn’t bring in enough money to pay for the effort. The last thing about PODs is that, since they’re printed to fill the demand/order, they are non-returnable. Normally, unsold books can be returned to the publisher or wholesaler for credit. POD cannot.
Now, some small presses use POD technology and go out of their way to remedy some of these problems and do allow returns, but that's not likely to be the case for a self-published work. This means that it is seldom as profitable to the bookseller to stock self-published works as it is those of legitimate small presses and major publishing houses. I haven't even started talking about what happens when we bring a distributor into the picture.

I'm not saying you'll never see a self-published book in a brick-and-mortar store. But you don't have to be an economics professor to understand the obstacles the author of a self-published book faces in placing a book in stores. A bookseller can't afford to give up much space to books that bring in less than half the profit.

If your dream of being an author included dealing with this kind stuff as the publisher, then it was different than mine.

What you put on the page is — first, last, and always — what will have the strongest influence over your career as a writer. Not many people have so much control over what they do during their working hours. That's where your focus must remain: on the page.

Focus on your craft. Use the power you have over the page wisely. It will take you farther than you may expect.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Is there a time for everything, including self-publishing?

Are there times when it makes sense to self-publish?

If what you have in hand is a work of fiction, I'd say the answer is no 99% of the time. You should read yesterday's post for my complete answer about self-publishing a work of fiction.

Still, there are a few cases when I think it might make sense to self-publish non-fiction, with a whole bunch of caveats attached, the first and foremost being that you must understand that this will probably cost you money, should be researched thoroughly (ie, do more than Google "self- publishing"), and is highly unlikely to lead to either fame or fortune. Add to that list: you are sure you haven't written something that could result in a lawsuit.

Self-publishing is a maybe when:

1) You teach seminars and want attendees to purchase your workbooks or self-created texts.
You have an audience, a means of distribution, and probably know what you are getting into.
Keep in mind that in most states, you will need to have a business license, resale permit, etc. and deal with sales taxes and so on. Make sure your self-published materials are completely your own -- you don't want to get hit with violation of copyright, etc. And be sure that you aren't missing out on an opportunity for wider distribution and sales by selling your book to a publishing house.

2) You have made a study of local history that will have limited interest anywhere outside of your community, and there is no small press willing to take it on. Again, be sure interest would be so limited.

3) You are an expert in an obscure field who knows that your subject matter will not be of interest to a university press or textbook publisher, but you believe there is a need and at least a tiny market for your work.

4) You want to reprint, perhaps with a scholarly foreword of your own, a work that is in the public domain and out of print. You are sure there is no other reasonable means to preserve a print edition of this work.

5) You are a war veteran, and want to write about your military experiences. You are creating a memoir that will likely be special to your friends, family, and possibly to other people in your unit, and perhaps even a few military history buffs. You are not working on something that is literature -- not Master and Commander, Catch-22 or All's Quiet on the Western Front. You don't aspire to be W.E.B. Griffin. You just want to tell your own story.

6) You have written a history of your family. You are not a descendant of Thomas Jefferson or anyone else you heard about in grade school.

I think by now, most of you get the picture. You'll notice that this is not on the list: "You are the author of a series that has gone out of print, and you want to make it available to new readers."

That's because I have strong misgivings about whether or not POD self-publishing is a good idea for writers in this situation. I've heard from some writers who were very glad to have the ability to do this, and others who deeply regretted signing on to reprint programs. The downside? Rights can be tied up forever. You may make the book less attractive to potential new publishers. You may not be pleased by the end product, which may not look or feel like a trade paperback from a major house. You have to ask if, aside from any expense to you, this will be worth your time and effort. Will your readers want to fork over $25 for a
trade paperback that may appear to be cheaply printed and bound?

You may want to read what Lee Goldberg has to say about the "big bucks" you can make by going this route. Lee and Keith Snyder have a long history of posting warnings about scammers in the self-publishing industry, and about some of the companies that will swear they aren't vanity presses, but do not at all behave like legitimate publishers. Worthwhile reading before you decide to abandon hope of finding an agent.

After reviewing some of Lee's posts on self-publishing, I find I have an additional item to add to the list above:

7) You are incredibly famous -- and this requires more than a lot of "friends" on myspace. According to Lee Goldberg's blog, in 2005 Jack Klugman self-published a memoir of his years working with Tony Randall, and spent half a million dollars to publish it well. If you haven't had a highly successful acting career that spans several decades, you may not be famous enough to try this.

Next time I'll talk about some of the problems with self-publishing, ones that most new writers do not expect — the difficulties that lead to the low sales numbers — and other pitfalls.

Monday, April 02, 2007

A Few Things to Think About If You Are Thinking About Self-Publishing

Just keep this in mind, and you don't need to read the rest of the post:

Never pay anyone to publish your work of fiction.

Not all that long ago, a person could be self-published in hardcover by what was commonly known as a vanity press, and pay thousands of dollars to insulate a garage with unsold copies of their books. Then in the 1990s, a new technology known as "print on demand" started coming into its own, and suddenly you didn't need thousands of dollars (although some have lost that much to POD self-publishing outfits) and you didn't have to own a garage. Books could be printed and bound one at a time. The technology is used widely and not just for self-publishing, but it has had a greater influence on self-publishing than just about anything since the invention of movable type.

POD technology has also proven to be a fabulous windfall to a set of people who have been in a lucrative industry for decades — not the publishing industry, but the industry of making money off of those who dream of being published. This is a set of people who understand how widespread and tenacious the dream of being able to say "I am an author" is in our society. They know that the impulse to tell stories is strong within many of us. They don't care much about writing or writers. They care about parting dreamers from their money.

I am not completely opposed to self-publishing, but I think there are only a few — a very few — circumstances when an author should go this route. I'll go into some of those at some point, but right now I'm going to focus on the publication of one's first work of fiction. Usually, a new writer of fiction should choose self-publishing only when he or she really doesn't care at all about book sales. I mean that — you don't want to make money and you don't care if you are the only person who owns a copy of your book.

Self-published new authors often dream that their books will light fires of enthusiasm in readers, build huge sales by word of mouth, and start to sell like discounted tickets to the Superbowl. The statistics say otherwise, and I'll get to the reasons they do at some point in this series of posts.

Maybe you really don't care if your book only sells 12 copies. That number isn't one I pulled out of the air. I did a study for a major writers' organization a couple of years ago, and the vast majority of participants in its self-publishing program — a relatively deluxe program that also included experienced, known authors reselling out-of-print titles from their series — sold 12 or fewer copies. (For a number of reasons, the organization dropped the program.)

Publishers Weekly, the major trade magazine for the publishing industry, ran an article in 2005 on iUniverse and included some numbers from 2004 — after the company was well-established — that should give any fiction writer considering self-publishing pause. Of the 18,104 titles — fiction, non-fiction, you name it — published by the company, only 83 sold more than 500 copies. Let me tell you right now that in the world of publishing, setting the bar at 500 copies is setting it low, and only 83 titles jumped over it. Do the math and you can figure out the odds of making that little leap.

I know a handful of people will read these cold hard facts and ignore them. They will want to tell me about someone who got famous by self-publishing. See the sentence about the two-headed calf in yesterday's post. (And for God's sakes, do not give me that old crap about Poe being self-published. He apparently self-medicated, too. Let's not even talk about his marriage to his 13-year-old first cousin. All of that aside, like other industries, publishing has changed since the 1830s, and so has the world of selling books. Even back then, by no means were all of his works self-published.)

So when should you self-publish a first novel?

If you are terminally ill — I am not saying this facetiously — and you all you want is for your family to have copies of your story in trade paperback book form (and simply making a photocopy of a clean manuscript to pass down to your grandchildren won't satisfy you), and you have the money needed to self-publish, by all means do so. The commercial publishing process usually requires at least eighteen months between the signing of a contract and the release a first book. The process before that point, of getting an agent and the agent making a sale, may take even longer. If you don't have that kind of time left, then don't wait for an agent to take you on.

If you aren't dying, you probably don't have a worthwhile excuse for your impatience.

Unless, of course, you have written something that you are certain will never appeal to more than 80 or so readers and has no commercial value, and you have no fear of embarrassing yourself, and you really don't care if you have to hand sell every single copy of your book yourself. If that's the case, go ahead and self-publish.

Here's one of the basic problems. If you self-publish, you aren't just the author. And you aren't just the person who pays to have your manuscript physically made into books. You take the place of everyone in the process of publishing, except those who physically produce the book.

You must either find and pay an experienced editor (assuming you would even know how to recognize someone who could do this extremely important job in publishing — a job that is almost never understood or appreciated by new writers) or become your own editor. The latter case is very unlikely to produce a well-edited book.

You must find or pay a copy-editor. Being your own copy-editor will likely doom your book to being a storehouse of unprofessional if not laughable errors.

You must also be your own advertising, legal, art, sales, publicity, and distribution management departments. To name a few.

All of that takes a tremendous amount of time and energy. Energy that most writers need for a different challenge — to grow as writers.

Where do you want to put your time and energy?