Sunday, November 18, 2012

Self Publishing And Original Voices



One of the joys of mentoring and teaching at writers’ conferences is coming across that “thing” all agents and publishers say they want: a fresh voice. They say that, but there’s always an unspoken undertone—they also want to be able to convince the marketing squad they can sell that voice.

So what to do with a voice like Cheri Williams? In the mentoring group I led at the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference some years ago, Cheri’s work stood out. It was quirky, laugh-out-loud funny, stylistically innovative and a bit (sometimes more than a bit) off-center. Cheri does not go for safety.

It’s that off-center thing that became a bit of a hindrance in Cheri’s seeking a publishing contract. Personally, I think several publishers missed the boat. I understand risk aversion in major industry, but there's also something to be said for reaching out, taking a chance and perhaps snagging the next big thing.

Be that as it may, along came the digital revolution and self-publishing. All of a sudden, the highly original voice has a place to go.

So when Cheri decided to self-publish How to Castrate Your Man in 7 Simple Steps, I thought a little interview might be in order. I started by asking why she jumped on board the indie train.

“Why did I decide to self-publish? Um… have you read my title? Seen my cover?! Okay, okay. There’s a little more to it than that, but both are actually pretty big parts of the equation. I had this piece I’d written, 'How to Castrate Your Man in 7 Simple Steps—No Pruning Shears Required.' A must-read if there ever was one, right? The biggest Christian magazine thought so. They bought the article on the spot—then bumped it. I’d hand-selected the editor, knew there was no way any other publisher in the western hemisphere would touch it. In case you’re unaware, castration is not typically a Biblical tenet—until now muahahaha. That’s right, in less that 1300 words I prove it: it’s practically a biblical mandate.”

I paused for a drink of water and to wipe the sweat off my brow.

“Well, 'Castrate' kept resurfacing in my writing career. Buoyant little essay that it is, it kept popping up in conversations everywhere. Over time I realized how much it meant to me, how much I wanted it to mean something to others. I got to digging around on my hard drive and realized I’d written several more pieces that mattered. Other unpublishables like 'How to Turn Your Woman into the Inflate-a-Mate of your Dreams' and 'Get Naked With God—Bring Your Own Soap.'”

I paused again, went outside for a breath of air, then continued the interview.

“My question soon became: Why not publish them myself? An aside: James Scott Bell is the world’s greatest writing teacher. But he’s more than that—he’s a true mentor (I’m also convinced that somewhere between acting and attorneying he did a cheerleading stint, but that’s another blog post). Around the same time I noodled the afore-mentioned question, Jim released Self-Publishing Attack! The 5 Absolutely Unbreakable Laws for Creating Steady Income Publishing Your Own Books. Imagine my delight when I read (my paraphrasing) start small, test the waters, you have nothing to lose and much to gain. The best marketing method? A kick-booty book.”

I slipped her a fiver for the kind words, but also mentioned that I have never in my life used the term kick-booty. Cheri said she would not hold that against me. I breathed a sigh of relief, having just seen her cover.


“Am I glad I decided to self-publish? Yes, I am. Have I abandoned traditional publication? No, I haven’t. I wrote pieces that didn’t fit neatly into any genre, wouldn’t sit sweetly in any publisher’s catalog. But they’re pieces that matter to me. Pieces I’m willing to work hard for. Pieces that keep me up nights perfecting them to the best of my ability (and those of everyone I know). I realized if I didn’t publish these essays myself, I’d never know if there’s a audience for them, an audience for this part of my heart. And I want to know—because there are a whole lot more Oddly Godly Epiphanies I’d love to inflict upon the world. Er… I mean… share. Self-publication was the right path for these pieces.”

Cheri also writes killer fiction for teens. “You know, the kind filled with love, lust, and lots of dead bodies. Those, I still believe, are better suited to traditional publishing. But who knows?”

No one knows, that’s who. No one knows what’s going to work in the trad world or the indie world. But for voices like Cheri’s there is now a way to find out.

“Bottom line: Was my book good enough? Would people think it’s funny? Moving? Matter to them like it matters to me? Make any difference at all? For a completely neurotic writer such as myself, those are tough questions to answer with a big fat Yes. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized they can’t be. I couldn’t possibly know in advance if readers would take to my writing. But wait…Castrate had been critiqued by some of the best writers I knew, they said it’d brought on many a snort fest and even a few changed hearts. Once upon a time, it was bought by an uber-awesome editor! Were those things enough confirmation to take on the enormity of self-publishing? For me they were.”

For more on the oddly godly Cheri Williams, visit her website. And watch your back.

So do you agree? Isn’t self-publishing the greatest boon in history for the original voice? In fact, this is where publishers are going fishing for the “next big thing.” So why not stock the pond with your material?

16 comments:

  1. And just to round this out, it should go without saying that you get the kind of feedback Cheri got (and that would include paying for some editing) and hire someone to design a conversation-starting cover. All part of the up front and essential costs. Then the voice can take over.

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  2. Oh wow, talk about voice! I can see why traditional publishers were hesitant, but I think they missed their mark. In my opinion, voice is still the hardest thing to come by, even among published books. Luckily self-publishing options have grown since I first looked into it years ago, and your essays seem to be in the right place. I really love the point you made about guessing whether or not there’s an audience for your essays. It’s important to try and figure out your market, sure, but you can’t predict the exact reader response to a work either.

    I definitely agree the new self-publishing options are one of the best things to happen to the writing community in a long time. Congrats on taking the plunge Cheri! I’ll be buying a few copies. I know some people that would enjoy this sort of thing for Christmas. *wicked grin*

    *cough* And just as soon as Jim posts next year’s seminar schedule, I can make plans to attend and experience the might of his writing wisdom in person.

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  3. Elizabeth, I'm sure a "wicked grin" coupled with purchase is a Cheri Williams Christmas wish come true.

    I'll be working on the 2013 schedule soon. Thanks.

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  4. I love that she believed in her voice enough to get her book out there--nevermind the lack of pre-packaged fit. I need to check the one out. Perhaps leave it out on my husband's dresser...

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  5. Wicked grin?! *adds Elizabeth to BFF List* Thank you for your kind words (and for buying)!

    And yes...Jim's teaching is not to be missed! I often credit PLOT & STRUCTURE with changing my life.

    Julie--the thought of my little book of essays on your husband's dresser--could not have had a better start to my day! I'm now pondering a project--the top places to leave How to Castrate Your Man. :)

    I have to say "believed in my voice" is less accurate than "believing the amazeballs authors I surround myself with." #morepraiseformrbell

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  6. Oh, places to leave the book, that's a fun game! I vote for the bathroom, the one company uses. How's that for some leisure reading?

    Yes, PLOT & STRUCTURE was a turning point for me. So many things I didn't understand suddenly made sense. Just about every piece of writing advice of Jim's makes little bells go off in my head.

    Here's something else that you might find as amusing as I did. I typed in "How to Castrate..." in Amazon to search for your book (because I didn't want Jim's link to take me from the blog post).

    What does Amazon autofill? How to Castrate a Bull. 0_0

    Concerned there was a DIY manual for animal castration on Amazon, I clicked on the link. Apparently it's a business book. I feel a little bit better.

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  7. I self-published my debut thriller, BABY GRAND, after originally intending to take the traditional route, and I'm thrilled with the decision. Have I ruled out traditional publishing? Not at all. But it's nice to have options. :)

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  8. Dina, that's the ticket. It does not have to be either/or, North vs. South, Dempsey vs. Tunney, Spy vs. Spy. It's a real choice without closing the barn door on anything.

    What a great time to be writer.

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  9. "Where there's a barn door, there's sure to be fun" (I didn't check my sources, but I'm pretty sure that's what Socrates said. :)

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  10. Iz on my Kindle now. Looks like good fun.

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  11. Cheri, your voice encourages the rest of us in the land of misfit toys to chime in and join the oddly godly choir. Jim, you refine said voices so we don't sound like Yoko.

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  12. Jim, you refine said voices so we don't sound like Yoko

    My work on earth is done.

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  13. Sandra, I don't know whether I'm more excited by the misfit toys or the Oddly Godly choir--you sure do know how to compliment a girl. Thanks for being you!

    Mr. Bell, there is plenty more work for you to do. We needz you!!

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  14. Jim, yes indeed self publishing is a boon for the original voice. My Kindle is loaded with classic books, "legendary" authors and new, self-pubbed authors. Across the board I have found many of them great reads.

    I just read a self-pubbed book that had a shocking scene that was crucial for the set up of story. I realized at once this scene may never make the cut in traditional publishing. How do I know this? Because my book had a similar scene that my publisher insisted we cut to appeal to the wider audience. So I applaud self-published authors who break the boundaries with their unique and daring voices. And I will keep seeking them out and filling my Kindle. And it inspires me to be true to my voice - and my story.

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  15. Jim -- I have a self-publishing question; something small I haven't seen addressed in other discussions on the topic.

    It appears that membership in organizations like Mystery Writers of America and International Thriller Writers is NOT open to authors who only self-publish.

    Do you have any thoughts on this, or words of wisdom for getting around the membership requirement?

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  16. Dear Ms. Williams

    A woman that writes "...castration doesn't require the use of power equipment or even pruning shears (although there are those that prefer them for sheer entertainment value)...." is a woman that finds such images and words funny. Now, please reverse the genders. Would ANYONE laugh if a book was published that used power tools applied to a woman's genitals as "humor"? Or would they recoil at the thought? I think that we both know the answer. Recoiling at the thought is the right thing to do, the Christian thing to do, because such deeds, even in fiction, are horrific. Yet it has become so ingrained in our culture to find humor at violence against men's genitals that blows to the genitals are routinely used as "humor" on TV and the movies, and when REAL men are tortured and mutilated, ordinary daytime women's TV shows feel perfectly comfortable mocking the victim. Please Google CBS's "The Talk" and Catherine Keau Becker if you don't believe me. You can watch the clip for yourself. They joked about all of this to an studio audience of hundreds, all laughing loudly, and to a TV audience of millions.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...

    The 5 hosts of The Talk spent 5 minutes mocking this man and his torture/mutilation by his wife. Those 5 hosts paid no penalty for their behavior - nope, the show continues today.

    There are actually a number of similar REAL incidents in the last few years that I can direct you to, if you wish. And the popular media, like CNN, LA Times, women's blogs etc. all joined in the mocking. I can direct you to many of these web links, too.

    How did we get to this state? The answer is that for the last 30 years, or so, it has been "acceptable" to find "humor" in doing sexual harm to men. That is why it is so common in the media. That commonality, in turn, eventually finds expression in the mocking of REAL victims of mutilation, cancer or accidents. Real human beings, openly mocked because they are victims of sexual violence or disease.

    Do women think that men are robots, utterly without feeling about jokes about mutilating or otherwise sexually harming men? Do women think that boys (children!) don't see this stuff and flinch? Don't you think they ask themselves, does my mom think that's funny? Would she laugh if I were the victim?

    The bottom line, when I read what you wrote, is that you find jokes about sexually mutilating and crippling men funny. How could you not when you so explicitly use such imagery on the books cover and in the first essay? How could you not when you openly makes jokes about it on your blog? And everyone that supports that humor is supporting a culture of contempt for men and male sexuality. YOU contribute to this culture of anti-mal sexual sadism.

    So I close with an expression of my feelings, I think that such "humor" is of the most vile, dehumanizing kind. Whenever I hear it, I think to myself, "what a sadistic bigot, I don't EVER want to know that person." Perhaps I feel too strongly. I do not know. But can you honestly say that if a man used "humor" about mutilating women's genitals, leaving them a sexual cripple, that you would not feel the same? I simply cannot see how such humor is consistent with Christianity.

    At any rate, I wish you well, but I am not a fan of you.

    Best Wishes - Doug Wells

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