Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The contest has come to an end, but the journey is just beginning

Today, the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award announced the 25 semifinalists. Unfortunately, yours truly was not among them. I wish the winners the best of luck - I am sure they are all fine examples of the art, and will see great success.

As for me, I learned a lot during this process. I'm not really upset or irritated that I wasn't selected - on the contrary, I was honestly surprised to have made it as far as I did. Being selected as one of the top 500 entries out of 10,000 submitted is an honor I'm still not certain I'm worthy of, and the forthcoming Publisher's Weekly review - whether it is positive or negative - is simply icing on the cake. The fact that this is my first novel - indeed the first work I've written that is longer than 15,000 words - is just something I am immensely proud of.

Sorry if the previous paragraph sounds like bragging - it's honestly not intended that way. I just never expected to make it as far as I did.

Now, where do we go from here?

Let's talk about a couple things: the things I learned from this contest, and what I plan to do with it.

On Reviews

Firstly, I'll probably keep obsessively refreshing my reviews page in createspace. While my position as a quarter-finalist warrants me a Publisher's Weekly review, it hasn't actually been posted yet. On top of that is the fact that the review is not required to be a good review. There's no such thing as bad press in many cases, but I can't say I'm looking forward to being excoriated by one of the gatekeepers of the publishing world.

That being said, I also earned two reviews from Amazon "expert" reviewers. I mean no disrespect by the quotation marks - I've simply heard them referred to by a number of terms, and I'm unsure what exactly brought them to the rank of expert. There were two, both of which contributed to the decision to move my book onward to the quarterfinals. Both reviewers praised my writing style - one called my writing style "gripping," while the other described the writing as "strong". At that point the two reviews diverged. One claimed that my ability to seamlessly move the viewpoint between the character's internal dialog and the actual events was excellent, while the other said that they found it jarring in places. One said that he disliked my main character based on his word choices, while the other described my main character as "dynamic."

Probably the most troubling part of one review was when one reviewer stated their "disinterest in the science fiction portion of the novel." I have yet to determine if this is due to the reviewer's dislike of science fiction as a genre, or whether I just did not present enough science fiction elements fast enough. If it's the former (which I am led to believe based upon my reading of how the ABNA process works), then I question the system Amazon has put into place for this contest. Maybe it was just a fluke, but it's a disconcerting one.

In either case, I wish I had the opportunity to thank both of my reviewers. I gleaned a lot from the brief reviews they left, and I will apply it to my future writing.

Moving Forward

My conclusion after this contest is that, barring a horrid review from Publisher's Weekly, my book just might be ready for marketing. I've been pondering what to do with my writing for a while now. I have a stable day job that pays very well, so I'm not looking to make a living on my writing just yet. Granted that's one of the end goals - to do what I want, essentially, for a living - but the process I plan on taking isn't necessarily driven by publication as any kind of hard benchmark. If my novel isn't worthy of the world, I have no problem writing another (and another and another) until I get it right. Or until I've saturated the market.

I already have a sequel written for the novel I submitted to this contest - Majestic - as I feel that I had places to take the story that the first novel didn't adequately explore. This novel hasn't been edited (or even read yet), but I already have ideas for others in a different series. Aside from that I've been dabbling in short story and scene writing (which you can see on this blog), just generally building my skills. I look at writing like programming - you can spend hours and days and years tightening the project down, but after a while you just need to get it out the door and move on to something else.

On Self Publishing versus Traditional Publishing

There is endless debate online about self publishing versus traditional publishing, and it ultimately boils down to this: If you self publish, your royalties for each book you sell will be higher on average, but the perception of your quality will be lower, as will your out-of-pocket expense. If you traditionally publish, you get the cachet of the the published author and better publicity, but you run the risk of not earning as much in royalties.

Personally, I see merits in both approaches. Self-publishing gets you feedback and income now, but removes the barriers to entry. There are a lot of bad books out there - poorly edited, poorly thought out, poorly formatted - that people throw up just to be able to say "I'm an author, you can buy my book here." These books bring down the perception of self publishing as a whole, and actively harm the community. Honestly, these books are the single biggest argument against self-publishing for me. Although I need to be honest and admit to myself that there is a good chance that my book also falls into that category.

Traditional publishing, on the other hand, has the gatekeepers. You need to find an agent, who will request edits, who will sell to a publisher, who will request edits, who will print the book and sell to bookstores. Then you need to participate in marketing with variable support from your publisher, who may be loathe to take risks on a neophyte author with no proven sales record. In the end you have your book in a bookstore, but you're taking on a lot of the process than authors have traditionally done in the past.

So which is important to me - getting it out there, or getting the respect?

My Approach

My primary consideration is that  I recognize that I'm trying to build a brand. After a while, if no one has heard of me, no one will buy my books if I ever end up published. So here's my naive plan to get the ball rolling:
  1. Start the query process. Get my book out and in front of agents, and see if I can get one to bite.
  2. After twelve months, if I have not received any substantive indicator of progress, pursue the self-publishing route.
This is the plan I start today, with my first official query later this evening. I've a number of reasons for choosing this approach, but they can be summarized as follows:
  • Some writers see romanticism in amassing years worth of rejections before finally getting that one "yes" they need. I don't really see the point in this, myself.
  • In some ways, being proliferate can trump being unknown. Having things out and selling builds my name, and builds evidence behind me that I have something of worth to offer the reading world.
  • Ultimately, I'm writing for myself. If other people think my books are publication worthy, that's great! However, I don't plan on truly defining my success as a writer on my publication status. As such, I'm not really in the mood to beat my head against a brick wall, hoping I break my way through after enough strikes.
So what do you think? Am I making a good choice, or taking the first steps down the path of folly?

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