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Why I Chose to Be a Book Author--And Publisher


Me, at the day job. Photo credit: Anna Rix

I've been making a living with my words for twenty-five years, with an enviable list of byline credits, awards, and professional gigs, including work as a game storyteller, aka "narrative designer." So when I decided to write a mystery novel series, it seemed I'd be a great candidate for traditional publication. I had the credits to potentially rise above the fray, so why not try?

Except that between the time I earned my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing in 2002 and the time I was ready to publish my first novel in 2013, the bottom dropped out of the publishing industry.

For you, maybe it's felt like small changes. You can buy ebooks now, many of them for free. You haven't subscribed to a newspaper in years, because you get tons and tons of news for free online, which you mostly read through Facebook posts or that ticker Microsoft added to your desktop.

But for those of us in the business of writing, it's meant a lot more: jobs lost, unemployment, the need to redefine a career at middle age, the frightening disappearance of the Fourth Estate, and the realization that for the rest of our lives, we'll be working for other people as a "content provider." Maybe we thought we'd be writing, but the only real money is in editing, copywriting, or other gigs that are close, but no cigar.

Scads of digital ink has been spent outlining the numerous ways in which the book publishing business is broken and the newspaper industry is dying (already dead?). Nobody knows what the future will hold, but we're all out here either pretending we do or guessing and hedging our bets.

Knowing all this, I sought out traditional publication anyway, literary fool that I am. Once I had a polished draft of my first novel in hand, I began to query agents, even though I knew that agents typically get not tens but hundreds of queries a week and that my query's chances of even being read were remote.

Let's talk about this for a minute, because it illustrates how things are totally broken. The typical agent gets between 200 to 400 queries a week. There are about a thousand literary agencies in the U.S., with let's say between one and five agents at each agency, and they are each getting 15,000 queries annually. That pencils out to about 80 million queries in the U.S. each year, as a conservative estimate.

Each one is a tear in a salty sea.

What's more, the number of queries agents receive is sky-high and growing just as reading--for everyone but young women brought up on Harry Potter--is in decline. 

I'd witnessed this with my own eyes as a college professor, a gig I held for eight years. During that time, I saw, for example, that the number one book read by entering freshman was the Bible, and many of them couldn't name a single other book they had ever read. I had to open my "what you've read" exercise up to magazines in order to get more participation in my classes, not that doing so improved the results much.

The NEA's famously depressing study Reading at Risk confirmed my anecdotal findings. Dana Gioia, then NEA Chairman, began the narrative section of the 2002 report this way: "Reading at Risk is not a report that the National Endowment for the Arts is happy to issue." Read on for joyful news, this does not say. The top two study findings:

  1. From 1982-2002, the percentage of adult Americans reading literature dropped dramatically.
  2. Lest you think this is just a backlash against "literature," the decline in literary reading parallels a decline in total book reading.

After this, it gets more and more depressing, to the point where the average writer reading this study should now wish she had a BA in Computer Science. Not only is reading on the decline, but that decline is "accelerating," and it's happening across all education levels. While women read more than men, they're reading less and less, too. And the rate of reading is especially bad for minorities.

Thus, if we look at the query numbers and the Reading at Risk findings together, we see that Americans want to write books more than they want to read them.

That's one of my beefs with NaNoWriMo, by the way. We as a nation don't need a National Novel Writing Month. We need a National Novel Reading Month.

So, with the graphically illustrated, personally verified, and endlessly analyzed knowledge of The Great Publishing Collapse under my belt, why'd I want to write a novel?

Good question. After all, I'd defected to the video-game industry, where things looked promising. I'd been recruited twice--once by Nintendo, and then again by Big Fish.

But first let me tell you that I'm not really a "gamer," which means I don't fit the picture you have in your head right now of some dude living in his parents' basement playing Call of Duty and yelling at the screen.

Oh, I've yelled (usually in my head) at the screen plenty of times, but it was because I couldn't find the "boot" in the hidden-object scene, or I'm frustrated because I've tracked backward five scenes over and over again, and I can't find the lantern to use on the tree hollow, where I know there's a medallion that will open the chest in the suspect's office.

I'm passionate about games, and especially for the past five years, about the primarily mystery-themed games we make at Big Fish. The audience for our hidden-object puzzle adventure games has been primarily women over 40, by the way. Which is pretty darn cool.

And game storytelling is a different animal altogether from more passive forms of entertainment. It's much harder, in a way, to craft a story when the "reader" is a "player." That difficulty has given my brain some great stuff to chew on over the years.

However, games are made by committee, which is fine and nicely collaborative when it works (and frustratingly stressful when it doesn't). But for a person with her own stories to tell, it's always only going to be an approximation of the real thing.

And the real thing is to be the inventor. The originator. The god of your own world, if you will.

Which brings me back to that novel draft I began shopping around in 2013. I'd spent the previous two years writing it, on weekends and vacations around that very intense, more-than-full-time job as a game narrative designer. I'd received feedback on it and revised it, and it was in pretty good shape.

But I was on the fence about whether or not I wanted to self-publish.

On one hand, I know how to run my own business. I'd been an independent writer, even paying a hefty Seattle mortgage on pretty much my own freelance revenue for years before the gaming industry scooped me up. I've learned from the many industries I've worked in--journalism, health care, agricultural/fishing, financial services, and most importantly, gaming--how to use data to drive business decisions. And as my employer, Big Fish, is a publisher of games like Amazon is a publisher of books, I know how to do this already.

On the other hand, I've still had a bit of the literary snob in me from my education years. And pride. I know it cometh before the fall, but part of me still wanted that validation from the literary powers-that-be.

So I wasted a whole year and a half shopping my manuscript around to agents. Some of them took exactly that long to get back to me, too... with a form letter.

Which is not to say it wasn't thrilling, at times. I got some exciting responses from agents with a lot of cachet, big names on their lists. The best results came during and after I pitched to agents in person at the Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference. Every single one of them asked to read a sample, and that's apparently not the norm.

But after getting my hopes up, I did not have any actual offers of representation. I came to realize that agents have to say no so often, so so so many times, that they might not know how to say yes. I don't think I have to tell you stories about bestselling authors (J.K. Rowling, and every other writer you've ever admired) who'd endured nothing but rejection and managed a slow, slow climb to recognition. You've heard them plenty. But just in case you haven't, here's more.

And I kept thinking about my friends who'd published. Sure, they had that validation of being published by an entity outside themselves. But you know what most of them did not have? Sales. Marketing support. An advance. In short, all of the things that publishing is supposed to provide. Plus this: Control over important decisions such as what to put on the book cover and when to release.

I kept reading about well-established authors choosing to go indie with all or at least part of their content, especially ebooks.

I kept reading that ebook sales were on par and even in some cases, eclipsing print sales for many authors.

I kept reading that some agents were only offering representation to authors after another agent had made an author an offer.

I kept hearing sour grapes from writer friends with traditional publishers who had to do all the marketing themselves.

The only writers who seemed happy with their publishers were the ones who were big enough names to be making a living at it. I reasoned that once you got to that point, publishers found you anyway (Hugh Howie, E.L. James). So if you were going to have to do everything yourself in the meantime, why not just make a go as an indie?

I decided to do just that.

The year and a half wasn't a total waste, though. That time gave me the distance to see the manuscript again with fresh eyes. While it was already of publishable quality when I shopped it around, I sought out more feedback and polished some more. At this point, I could have shopped it around again, which would have taken another year and a half with likely the same outcome, owing to the stats. I decided to launch it out into the world myself instead.

Now, almost a year after release, I have no regrets.

The book has been praised by Kirkus Reviews, which has a reputation for being hard on writers, especially genre writers. As one of my author friends said, "Kirkus is one fierce shut-your-mouth."

It's also garnered an endorsement from Midwest Book Review, a medallion award from indieB.R.A.G., and recommendations from Readers Lane and inD'tale. Established mystery authors Jon Talton and Mary Daheim  wrote blurbs for it, as did Corrina Wycoff, author of O Street, and spiritual phenom Eric O'del. It's at 28 reviews on Amazon, trending at 4.4 stars. I've been approached by a Hollywood director.

And it's selling. Not enough for me to turn to novel writing full-time, but I didn't expect that with a debut anyway. I'm still passionate about game storytelling, and I can balance the two gigs. My game work has a shelf life, though, as the genre I'm in, which has traditionally been a PC-download-focused one, is not a growth area. Unfortunately for people like me, the shiny new thing in gaming involves a lot of candy crushing but is light on story.

The future remains to be written. And, most of all, read.