Writing? Publishing?

Awhile back I wrote about some problems I was having with Lulu, my long-time, go-to print-on-demand platform. While many of those problems have been resolved, some linger, despite some helpful intervention by a particularly attentive customer service rep.

It was so frustrating my very supportive husband found himself asking why I persisted. “If it causes you so much stress, why do you keep at it?” he asked.

Good question.

Of course I never started writing so I could publish what I wrote — at six years old, when I wrote my first short story, I didn’t even know about publishing. All I needed was a piece of paper and a yellow Number 2 pencil, and I was scribbling away. Kings and princes, girl detectives, favorite TV stars filled my pages.

As I got older, I frustrated my mother no end by swiping ten or more sheets of paper, stapling them together, and starting a new story on page one. Sometimes I got four or five pages in, but I honestly don’t think I ever got to the last stapled page.

I tended to finish the stories that didn’t start with stapled pages. Twenty, thirty, fifty, a hundred hand-written pages or more poured out of me. I wrote stories for friends, painstakingly re-writing each page so I could give them their own copy.

Eventually I learned how to type up my stories, send them in envelopes with an SASE (self-addressed, stamped envelope so the editor could reply, for those of you who only know about digital submissions), and wait impatiently to find out whether the magazine would publish the story.

It was a long process. It required patience. Only the best manuscripts would make the cut, and I was thrilled when a story hit its mark. I was so thrilled, I celebrated three times: when I received the acceptance, when the story got published, and when the check arrived. Of course, by then, I’d spent the money already (twice over — thence the term “struggling writer”).

At some point I added nonfiction articles to my portfolio, a few essays and reviews, and before long someone said I should take my writing seriously (it never occured to me I was already doing that) and get a Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) in creative writing.

So I did. And somewhere in here things changed. Maybe it was the academic atmosphere, all those fellow writers competing for professorships, trying to publish to keep from perishing. The allure of following their path was tremendous: teach in a college is getting paid to do what you love, to pass on to others what you’ve learned doing what you love.

But the bar kept getting higher: publish one book, you need two. Publish two and you need to have garnered at least one major prize. I taught on the side, landed a terrific spot with the Ohio Arts Council as a writer in the schools (giving me memories I still treasure twenty-five years later), and took administrative jobs in factories.

I published my first book, a literary novel that got some solid reviews. “The New York Times Book Review gave me a good review,” I told friends. “Now I can die happy.”

Of course family members and my writer friends all wondered what I’d write next. If only I knew! I worried I’d be a one-book flame-out. I drafted another book. An agent took an interest; a university press wanted a nonfiction version of the novel I’d set in a factory. I declined both.

Something wasn’t feeling right.

I started a career, a few fulfilling jobs focused on corporate training, and a nonfiction book grew out of that. It was wildly popular in the very narrow field it dealt with (online learning… which is, ironically, wildly popular now; I guess I was ahead of the game those twelve years ago).

When my husband retired and I quit (too young to retire), when we sold our home and moved into an RV to travel the country, I started seeing stories again.

You know what I mean. Those little flashes of inspiration that hit when you least expect them: a flyer of a missing hiker, an off-hand remark in the grocery story. Seems like nothing to most people, but to a fiction writer it’s like jumpstarting your imagination. “Why would someone say that? Do that? Want that?” you ask yourself. And you’re off and running.

That’s what happened to me. I drafted a short story. Then another. And another. Soon I had enough for a collection, so I self-published them. Then the novels featuring full-time RVers Walt and Betty Rollin followed: characters loosely based on me and my husband, traveling the country, solving mysteries along the way.

The joy had come back. I took my time but have three Rollin RV Mysteries in print and ideas for a half-dozen more.

Then it was like hitting a wall. Maybe it was the problems I ran into with Lulu. Or maybe Covid-19. The blahs in general had gotten to me, or was it that simple?

I don’t think so. Instead, I think the same thing that bit me in the butt before snapped at me again: the desire to get published was overtaking my love of writing.

And whenever we focus on the endgame instead of on the process — especially when it comes to writing — we’re likely to fail. I’ve seen it in many of the self-published books I’ve read over the past year. Writers so eager to see their books available for sale they’ve neglected to write a book someone really wants to read. A book riddled with mistakes and problems. A book someone regrets paying money for.


I’m not free of that particular demon, but at least for the last several months I’ve managed to keep myself from giving in to it, focusing instead on reading widely, writing careful reviews (more to help me analyze what I’ve just experienced than for any other reason), and letting go of that need to get something new out there.

Once I recognized my frustration with Lulu (which is still causing me fits if I let it) is the result of wanting more to publish than to write, it was easier to let it all go.

I gave myself permission to not write. To be a reader. To be a reviewer. To retreat to my original love of books, without getting swept up in the noise of publish, market, track sales, appeal to your fanbase and all that.

When I let go of that need to publish a dark heaviness inside me lifted. I’m free again to do what I want, when I want to do it. Because we just don’t know how much time we have left to enjoy that hike up the hillside while the flowers are blooming with the one we love more than anything.

Today is waiting.

COVID Coping!

Oh, it’s been too long since I’ve posted here. Much has been going on behind the screen of this blog — including my finishing and publishing the third Rollin RV Mystery, “Superstition Victim.”

Good thing I finished the book a few months ago. I don’t think I’d be able to focus on it these days.

COVID-19 has affected all of us. To any of you who are personally struggling with an infection or caring for or worrying about a loved one who is, my heart goes out to you. My husband and I have — so far — managed to escape it by scrubbing our hands, wiping surfaces, staying “home” (our 200-foot RV has been in the sunny southwest, so we’ve been able to spend time outside) and jumping six feet away from people who careen too close to us with their shopping carts or in the park.

Some time ago I started making beaded bracelets, and because we’re staying in a spot where I can spread out my supplies, I’ve spent hours and hours every day making bracelets…

…and making a beaded band for this watch:

Of course I’m reading a lot — though I’m trying to measure the amount of news I’m taking in.

And I’m eating well. Too well. My husband is a great cook, and he’s been spoiling us both with awesome meals, like these bacon-wrapped shrimp…

…and this meal with lobster tails, veggies, and bean soup…

…among many others!

How have you been spending your time? What have you been writing? Reading? Doing?

From our little RV to your home: stay safe!

Interview with Gordon Williams – Traditional Publisher: Part 2

Last time at ellenbooks, Gordon Williams, publisher at Babora Books, offered some thoughts on why, given all the information and advice that is freely available, so many independently publishing authors have lousy experiences. This time he gives us the nitty gritty on separating the wheat from the chaff. Before you think about signing any publishing agreement, you must read what Gordon has to say.


A lot of indie publishing choices are out there — some good, some predatory. Are there any tell-tale signs an author should look for to avoid the latter?

“Indie” covers a lot of ground — from small press, to DIY self-publishing, to “self-publishing” companies. Any of these streams has its own set of warning flags so I’ll try to be generic as possible about some of the key things I tend to notice.

Baffling Business Schemes:

Publishing is actually pretty simple. The three basic business models are:

  • Traditional: The publisher pays the entire cost of publishing the book under its imprint.
  • Pay-to-publish (aka “self-publishing company”): The author pays the cost of publishing and the book comes out under the publishing company’s imprint.
  • DIY Self Publish: The author owns the imprint and pays directly for whatever services he or she needs to publish the book.

There are variations but if you visit a publisher’s website and it takes you more than about 30 seconds to fully understand which business model a publisher uses, it’s probably a good sign you need to look elsewhere.

Indy Publishers Quick Sniff Test: The “Author discount” on print books

The “author discount” reflects what the author pays the publisher for books for his her own use. One of the best-known “self-publishing” companies offers author copies at 30 percent off the regular retail price. When a reader buys that same book on Amazon, the retailer takes 40 percent of the sale price (the standard retail discount), and publisher pays the author a royalty out of what is left. In the end, this publisher makes more money by selling books to the author than by selling books to readers.


Claiming to be a “traditional publisher” while selling author services:

This is a huge potential conflict of interest. The author seeking a traditional contract can easily be lured into buying services (e.g. reading fees, editing, marketing) in hopes of getting a contract. These services might be provided directly by the publisher or indirectly through an associate that has an interest in the company.

A variation on this theme is what I call the “mixed model” of publishing — a company that bills itself as a traditional publisher while offering pay-to-publish services. This always feels like a bit of bait and switch to me because, again, it brings authors in the door with the expectation they are querying a traditional publisher. The author may get all kinds of encouraging signals, only to be offered a costly pay-to-publish contract at the end of the process.

Brand new in the business – e.g. less than one year in publishing:

Think of your book as having a lifespan of many years. The majority of start-up publishers fail within their first year or two of operation. This has nothing to do with integrity. It is simply a cold fact of being in the publishing business. Having your publisher shut down could leave your book in legal limbo and possibly put you back at square one. If your publisher goes bankrupt you may even have to battle with a receiver company to get your rights back. The best predictor of a publisher’s stability is a proven ability to stay in business for a few years.

Should an author be concerned if a publisher won’t provide a sample contract when asked for one?

Very much so. Not providing a sample contract on request gives the impression that the company has something to hide. While it is true that every contract can be tailored to specific project, common variables like contract length and advances (if applicable) can be blanked out if necessary.

How a publishing agreement is structured can tell you a lot about how the company approaches its authors. How is the company dealing with subsidiary and derivative rights? What recourse do the parties have if one or the other is not fulfilling its obligations? Under what conditions can the contract be terminated and rights reverted to the author? Is there a “save harmless” clause that puts the author on the hook for any potential legal costs?

Any of these items can represent a hidden cost to the author, whether that is giving up more rights than expected or the cost of getting out from under a publishing agreement that has soured.

What are five key things an author should be sure an independent publisher provides before committing to their services?

    1. Everything in writing.
    2. If the author is paying for services, exactly how much each service being provided will cost, and what you are getting for your money.
    3. Contact information for other authors who have worked with the company.
    4. A sample contract.
    5. Time to think about it.

Thank you, Gordon, for your time and patience! This is very helpful information for ellenbooks readers!

Gordon Williams is an editor and publisher with more than 25 years of experience in writing, publishing and communications. A long-time science fiction fan, Gordon and his partner founded Babora Books in 2010.

Babora Books is not actively soliciting manuscripts at this time; your best bet is to take a look at the Babora Books Web site to see if your work fits what Gordon publishes and if they are seeking submissions: http://www.baborabooks.com

Interview with Gordon Williams – Traditional Publisher: Part 1

With so many publishing options available, how do you sort out the best option for your own book? How do you keep from getting swallowed whole by the sharks that swim the waters? How can you be sure you’ll end up with a book you’re proud of, instead of something that leaves you wondering if it ever saw an editor or cover designer? Gordon Williams, whose small Canadian publishing house Babora Books [http://www.baborabooks.com] specializes in action-adventure science fiction, graciously agreed to answer a few questions from ellenbooks, ranging from understanding what he believes are the three key publishing models to sniffing out the bad guys.


Lots of great articles on the Web (and books galore) deliver advice on how to find a publisher and what the publishing process entails. Why is it we find so many writers suffering from lousy independent publishing experiences, given all this free advice?

The short answer:

A lot of the information out there comes across as very negative and I think writers get enough discouragement in their lives. Those of us who are committed to helping writers avoid the pitfalls of indie publishing have to constantly stay involved and active in communicating with writers. I personally use LinkedIn discussion groups on a regular basis. Just about every day I get an opportunity to share information and opinions on the questions indie authors need to be asking of publishing companies. And, yes, I also get to engage directly with publishing companies and ask them detailed questions about how they operate.

The long answer:

Two main reasons authors are regularly disappointed in the indie publishing sphere are: unrealistic author expectations, and misleading claims by predatory publishing companies.

Just about every author who ever sent off a query letter to a publisher or agent hopes he or she is going to be discovered, offered a lucrative publishing contract, and become an international bestseller. Most of us know that, in reality, very few people are ever going to make a lot of money in this business.

The self-publishing boom has created many expectations that are at odds with reality. With very few exceptions, as an indie published author:

  • Your books will not be stocked on bookstore shelves.
  • You will not be doing book signings at mainstream bookstores.
  • Your books will not be featured in the New York Review of books (or similar publications).
  • Writing books is not going to pay you a full time income.

Predatory self-publishing companies actively court inexperienced writers. Many spend a great deal of money on online advertising to keep their companies and proxies at the top of search results for queries like “finding a publisher.”

Taking the four points above as an example, here are just a few of the things that authors are regularly told [and what those statements actually mean]:

    • “Your books will be available in thousands of stores.” [A customer can special order your book through Books In Print at any bookstore.]
    • “You can have a book signing event at your local store.” [For $1,000 extra, copies of your book will be shipped to a chain store in your local area (e.g. B&N or Chapters) and held for 90 days. Note: it is up to the store to put the books on their shelves and you will be totally responsible for promoting your signing event.]
    • “Your books will be reviewed by some of the most prestigious sources in the publishing industry.” [Paid reviews in Kirkus and Publishers Weekly.]
    • “We provide opportunities for authors to be discovered by traditional publishing companies.” [There is absolutely no indication that this route provides any better chance of being picked up by a traditional publisher than the usual query route.]

When the claims above are used as selling points for self-publishing services the result is very often a lot of disappointment on the author’s part.

Have you seen Jane Friedman’s graphic describing what she considers the four “Key Book Publishing Paths”? If so, do you agree with her categories and examples? Which category fits your publishing company?

There are a few points where I might disagree with her divisions, though I appreciate the effort to make sense out of all the different publishing options. Friedman restricts the definition of “traditional publishers” to those that pay an advance on royalties. There are divergent views on whether a press that doesn’t pay advances should be considered a traditional publisher. Paying an advance certainly gives a strong indication up front of the publisher’s commitment to the project. At the same time, advances are shrinking all over and may well become a thing of the past for new authors, even at the “Big 5.”

The term “partnership publishing” has been applied to pay-to-publish companies where the author pays most of the cost of publishing. That arrangement is now classified as “Fully Assisted publishing” though many such companies like to refer to themselves as “Hybrid Publishers.”

I really see three main paths to publishing: traditional, DIY and self-pub company. I divide that along the lines of who owns the imprint and how much the respective parties invest in moving a book from the completed manuscript to a published work.

I would describe my publishing company as a traditional small press with a digital focus. In the Friedman chart we would be considered a “Partnership model” because we don’t pay advances on royalties. Three quarters of our sales are ebooks. Ninety percent of our print sales are through online vendors like Amazon, Barnes&Noble.com and Ingram. If we select a manuscript for publication, we pay for editing, book design, layout, cover art and promotion. We do expect authors to take an active role in self-promotion but we never ask authors to pay for publicity.

Gordon has much more to say about how to distinguish the good from the bad from the ugly – next time, in Part 2.

Gordon Williams is an editor and publisher with more than 25 years of experience in writing, publishing and communications. A long-time science fiction fan, Gordon and his partner founded Babora Books in 2010.

Babora Books is not actively soliciting manuscripts at this time; your best bet is to take a look at the Babora Books Web site to see if your work fits what Gordon publishes and if they are seeking submissions: http://www.baborabooks.com

A View of Self-Publishing from Canadian Author Lin Weich

On our journey to Alaska this past summer, we traveled through much of British Columbia, Canada, and were rewarded with amazing food, great shops, and wonderful people. At a farmer’s market in Quesnel, we paused to peruse the booth set by the local writers’ group. A novel caught my eye, and a conversation began. Lin Weich has had a fascinating life and now writes stories born of her experiences, which she self-publishes.


What compelled you to start writing fiction? Have you always written or made up stories? Was there a particular incident that got the writing momentum going for you? If so, what was it?
On a trip to Prince Rupert [BC] shortly after I retired early from teaching, I passed the sign on the highway that warned girls not to hitchhike on the highway of tears; then while on a mothership kayaking tour I asked the captain of the vessel if he’d ever run across any smuggling…one thing lead to another and I wondered if I could actually write a book. The story just came together (Strength of an Eagle). My second novel Half-Truths, Total Lies was basically started by a dream. My third book (Alone) is one of several running around in my head. Now I can’t stop writing! Previous to this I had no interest in writing.

How has your real life influenced your writing?
Writers write what they know and research and embellish the rest. I live a very outdoor life, have taught for many years, am intrigued by self-sufficient lifestyles, travel both in Canada and abroad. Couple those influences with the belief that everyone you meet has a story hidden inside them just waiting for me to tweak out…

Why did you decide to self-publish your books? Did you seek a traditional publisher or an agent first, or plunge right into self-publishing?
I spent two years trying to “sell” my books to both agents and publishers rarely getting past the gatekeepers. Publishers are not interested in new talent as they simply can’t afford to take a chance on unknown writers. Vanity press (self-publishing) has evolved into a now reputable option and with the advent of e-book publishing I decided to go the self-publishing route via a known company. Some writers might consider print on demand and doing their own e-book formatting but I do not have enough technical knowledge for that route.

How did you choose your printer? Cover designer?
I chose Friesen Press after doing a lot of research. It is more expensive but it is a Canadian company based out of Victoria, BC. Part of the package included cover design. There were also modules on selling your books, deciding your focus and goals etc. I purchased editing services from another company before I chose my publishing company.

Do you take your the cover photos? If not, how do you choose them?
The cover image for Strength of an Eagle is my photo. Half-Truths, Total Lies and Alone use stock photos available from various websites. Initially I wanted to use another of my photos for Strength of an Eagle but the pixels were not sufficient for a good quality cover.

What’s been most challenging for you as writer and publisher?
Waiting for other people to do their jobs, the selling/marketing aspect, although you would have the same problems with traditional publishers because authors must do their own marketing.

What rewards have you reaped by self-publishing?
Moderate success re- selling, people read and like my books, which is the best reward.

Would you consider traditional publishing?
The jury is out on this one…I wouldn’t say no if they came knocking but I like the complete control you have with self-publishing.

How has being a member of a writing group helped?
My writing group affords some opportunities for selling books and perhaps some moral support. I have a very supportive friend who also writes and have beta readers who are quite skillful. I need to reach out to more writers and online groups.

If you could give an aspiring writer advice about whether to self-publish or seek publication via traditional routes, what would you say?
Know yourself and your goals, have a good manuscript ready and edited, consider how much time you have to devote to seeking agents and publishers, do you homework about what traditional publishers want regarding queries etc., do your homework about self-publishing companies…compare the packages…It is very expensive. Know how much control you need to have over your final product, develop an ability to take constructive criticism, know how long you want to try with traditional publishers…it truly is like winning a lottery. Most importantly, if you self-publish, have a good product if you expect to get anywhere. Do not go with a company that is willing to publish anything just to get your money. Self-publishing is coming into its own but only if the novel reflects quality work.

Thanks, Lin!

To learn more about Lin’s work, visit her web site at www.linweich.com; contact Lin directly by accessing her site, then clicking the “Contact Us” link.

Lin Weich, a retired teacher, writes suspense thrillers, enjoys freelance writing and photography. She grew up in West Africa and has lived in various places in both eastern and western Canada. She lives in Quesnel, British Columbia with her husband Brian. Her kayaking adventures, teaching experiences, outdoor activities and travels have influenced the substance and voice of her stories and photography. When she isn’t busy creating stories, she enjoys travelling both in Canada and abroad. Lin has published two novels Strength of an Eagle and Half-Truths, Total Lies. She has also published articles in Our Canada, More of Our Canada, Postscript, Rocky Mountaineer brochure, and Royal Photographic Society (Canada) on-line magazine.


You’d think something is cozy or not, but semi-cozy? Is that like a quilt that’s just a little too short? Or a cabin in the woods with just a few too many drafts? A fire in the hearth that burns a little too low?

I’m making my case for why my newest novel, Pea Body, is a semi-cozy mystery. “Cozies” — like any genre — have fairly specific conventions their writers are supposed to follow. Pea Body follows most of them, but not all, and fudges on a few. Of course I think that makes it a better novel than if I’d followed all the rules, or I would have toed the line.

For example, most cozies feature a single woman as its main character (MC). She generally has at least one a male love interest who’s connected to law enforcement in some way. This is not only to capture a bit of romantic intrigue, but to give the MC/amateur sleuth a sounding board for her theories and often an “in” with whatever investigation she’s found herself involved with.

Cozies eschew overt sex and four-letter words, so they tend to be the shy stepsisters of the more violent and gritty hard-boiled mysteries. You can tell by their covers — usually cartoons of women (or domestic pets) in a bright setting that only suggests something terrible is happening. They’re a light read.

I’ve read dozens of these books, mostly to learn the genre, and I still can’t swallow the idea that murder should be a light read.

So like any great cook, I added a few things to the cozy recipe, substituted others, and omitted the ingredients that just didn’t fit the new mix. That “cozy” taste is still there, but it’s been layered with some other flavored nuances.

Pea Body features a couple — Walt and Betty Rollin — who’ve been married many years, and have been living what’s called the “full-time RV lifestyle.” They sold their house and travel full-time in their RV.

Can you see how my premise defies the cozy convention at it’s most basic level? The series features a couple rather than a single woman, though the story is told first person from Betty’s point of view.

Another convention I couldn’t swallow was how often people in the same little cozy communities kill each other. Or get killed by some nasty outsider. Putting Walt and Betty on the road all the time means I’ll get to write about various places we’ve spent time. It’s also more credible that the same people keep running into bad circumstances — the more neighborhoods you visit, the more likely you’ll run into bad situations and awful people (trust me on this).

There are allusions to sex (Walt and Betty are happily married; why not?) and though an occasional four-letter word pops out, it’s usually from a secondary character. I see avoiding bad language as a wonderful opportunity for word play. Giving Betty and Walt substitutions for swearing makes writing their dialogue (spoken and interior) much more fun.

Does my grand experiment work? We’ll find out.

I just know a few things from this experience:

1. I learned what I was supposed to do before I chose an alternative. This way I consciously weighed the convention — and reader’s expectations — against the choices I faced.

2. I wrote the book true to the characters and to the readers I imagine would most enjoy reading about them.

3. I accepted — embraced, actually — that writing a “semi-cozy” meant I would be best served publishing my book myself rather than hunting down an agent who would (most likely) want me to change things to fit the convention.

4. I’m happy with what I wrote. In another year I might not feel this way, but for now… it’s all good.