Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Minimizing Risk as a Writer—a Guide for the Risk-Adverse

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig
When I was a kid, my favorite part on Sesame Street was a segment where the baker fell down the stairs.  I’d call my parents or just yank them into our living room so that they could watch it with me.  It was a counting to ten song and the grand finale was a mustachioed baker singing, “Ten chocolate layer cakes!” and then tumbling down a staircase.  Yes, it took little to amuse me.
I think the reason this segment resonated so much with me is because I’m desperately clumsy and have been my entire life.  I regularly fall down the stairs in my house (my husband just shakes his head and says, “We’re moving to a garden home in the next ten years….”), walk smack into doorjambs, and have wrecks with my cart in the grocery store. 
There are things that I’ve done to minimize my risk of getting hurt, knowing what I know about myself.  I won’t walk down our stairs while holding things in both hands.  I don’t get up on skis of any kind.  I don’t ride horses.  I wouldn’t dream of getting on a bike without a helmet or walking a treadmill without that stupid safety clip attached to my waistband.
Being a fairly cautious person, I’ve approached risk the same way with my writing career.  A note—this won’t apply to every writer and you probably won’t enjoy this unless you’re super-cautious like I am. There are many creative free spirits who will thrive by forging their own path.  I’m just not one of them.
Minimizing risk of failure and rejection as a writer:
Traditional publishing and self-publishing.  I do both.  I’m hedging my bets, covering my bases, whatever cliché you want to use. :)
Deciding what to write.  I learned that the books I most enjoyed reading were in strong demand and considered commercially viable.  I read more of them to learn more about how the books were structured and paced.  In addition, I learned that genre books were easier to sell to publishers because the books already had an established audience…readers who were dedicated “regulars” for a particular genre and loyally purchased books each month that fit that category.
Finding a traditional publisher.  I did my market research by going to the bookstore, flipping through the new mysteries and finding out who published and edited them (editor is in the acknowledgments unless author forgot.)  Reading the books gave me a sense of what was currently selling. This helped me minimize my risk of rejection by seeing who was buying and editing what.
Querying agents.  I ignored any “no simultaneous submissions” and targeted as many agents who stated they handled my subgenre as possible.
Querying publishers.  After racking up an impressive number of rejections from agents, I queried targeted publishers (using the research I’d gathered in the bookstore as well as online and in my copy of Writer’s Market.)   If they were closed to submissions…I sent something off to their slush pile anyway (blushes.)   Here again, I was just covering my bases with both agents and publishers.  And if you’re sending to a slush pile (a repository of unrequested queries, samples, and submissions), the process will take forever anyway.
Promo.  As a risk-adverse person, the idea of doing aggressive promo made me shudder.  Wouldn’t this turn potential readers off?  I couldn’t take that risk, so I went with indirect promo/platform building.
Self-publishing.  What was risky for self-publishing?  Having a lousy cover.  It seemed that I would have a higher chance for success with a professional-looking cover, formatting, and editing.   The cheaper approach seemed at a higher risk for failure.
Series were selling well for self-publishing.  I decided to continue writing a discontinued series instead of starting something new…again, the least-risky approach.
Reader expectations.  Cozy mystery readers are loyal readers and very interactive ones.  I have generally taken their lead when they tell me what they like and don’t like about my books…tweaking future books to make them more appealing and to give them more of what they like and less of what they didn’t.  I also follow my genre’s general guidelines in terms of content…keeping the necessary violence in a mystery toned down.
Researching.  Admittedly, I’m a researching nut.  I’m not going to try the waters of anything unless I’ve got information (preferably hard data) on it.  Trying out ACX/audiobooks?  Exploring print as a self-pubber? Backing off from traditional publishing and devoting more time into self-pub?  I’m reading everything I can on the subjects: dos and don’ts, tips, disaster stories, success stories, etc.  And I follow publishing news closely, to see what might be coming around the bend at us.
Creative exploration.  I’m getting to the point where I’ll likely start branching out and experimenting…cautiously, I’ve no doubt.  And…more than likely with a pen name since my name has become so associated with traditional mysteries.
The biggest risk of all?  Pinning all your hopes and dreams on a single book.  More about this on Friday.
Let’s face it…being an artist is a risky enough proposition without making things worse—especially for us cautious types.  While I don't enjoy failure, I do learn from it and analyze what went wrong so I can perform better the next time.  That being said...I'd rather avoid it when I can.
Now I’d like to hear from y’all on this…my free spirited, risk-taking friends, too!  What’s your approach to writing and publishing?  Has it changed at all?