4 Things Every Writer Should Know (With Publisher Karen Owen)

I belong to a kick-ass writing group based out of my hometown. We have weekly critique meetings, which are absolutely invaluable, but once a month, we also have sessions for those who have already completed their first draft, and are trying to figure out what to do next.

Yesterday, my writer’s group welcomed Karen Owen, a writer, editor, journalist, and (former) publisher. Ms. Owen is also a former librarian, so she also spent a good amount of time advocating for libraries (kind of preaching to the choir when it comes to a group of writers, but still, she made good points). Here are the top 4 things I learned from our talk:

Books1. Get your books into the libraries: When you send a book to a bookstore, that book isn’t sold, it’s just on consignment. Bookstores can and often do return unsold product, leaving the author or publisher with significant costs. But when a library buys your book, it’s sold. For obvious reasons, it won’t be coming back. And that’ why selling to a library is just as (or even more) important as selling it to Barnes and Noble.

2. It’s not always about the money: Or to put it better, it’s not always about the advance. When Karen was a publisher at Van Neste Books, she offered writers a fairly low advance, many times less than $1,000. But most writers jumped at the chance to be published, because it’s not just how many books you sell, sometimes just having a book out there is enough. And I don’t mean that in the “you should be honored” sense, I mean it in the “books can be a means to an end, not just the end” way. For example, many people have taken the fact that their first book has been published by a traditional publisher (however small they may be) and used it to sell their second book to a larger publisher. Or they have gone on to apply for better jobs, especially in the fields they wrote about, or in the journalism and/or academic (publish or perish) fields. Karen told the story of one writer who wrote a book centered in Italy. It wasn’t huge in the US, but it was picked up by several organizations overseas. Now, she lives and writes in Italy. Ciao!

3. Writers tend to be introverted, but an extroverted writer is a bigger success: I write blog posts mostly because I like to (over) share, but also because it is a great way to get my name out there. There are a million unsold novels out there, and I need to know my (potential) readers, and to be able to communicate why my book is worth anybody’s time. I also need to reach out to people, which for some is the hardest part. I’m not shy, but for those who are, social media is a great way to practice self-promotion, which if you are serious about writing (and not Stephen King or JK Rowling) will be a constant. As of this moment, I am an unpublished author, and that means I need all the help I can get. Thanks, readers!

4. The plot and uniqueness of a story is what publishers want to see: Don’t get me wrong, you should never attempt to publish a first draft, or even send it out for agents to see (you only get one chance to make a good impression). But if your story isn’t perfectly formatted or professionally edited, don’t let that scare you from putting it out there. If an agent or publisher likes your story, they will work with you on the little things. Life is way too short to be fretting about commas and colons and such.

Karen Owen is the former Viewpoints Editor for The Free Lance-Star. She has also professionally edited all of her husband, Howard Owen’s books, which can be found here.

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