Since I'm graduating from Portland State University this weekend with an MA in Book Publishing during a time of social revolution, I wanted to share with everyone my final research paper (not a thesis, but close enough) that was based around understanding the role authenticity readers play in the editorial process and how to best incorporate them into Ooligan Press. The role of an authenticity reader (re: sensitivity reader, targeted beta reader) is often controversial for many reasons, but I want to underscore the reason that I believe their work is so crucial: they augment authenticity within manuscripts and reduce the perpetuation of harmful negative stereotypes that directly impact marginalized communities.
I do not believe that authenticity readers are THE solution to the inequality in book publishing, nor do I believe they are a band aid solution. I believe they are a tool that both authors and editors should incorporate into their processes as a crowd-sourcing method of fact checking, especially fictional content. If authors are writing outside of their own lived experiences, they need to do their research. They need to do A LOT of research. If editors are acquiring "diverse" books that are not Own Voices, they need to do their due diligence and ensure that these manuscripts are not actively harmful to depicted communities.
In both cases, writers and editors need to ask themselves if the writer is the best person to tell that story. Writers need to be critically examining whether they are occupying space in the industry that could otherwise be allocated to a BIPOC or a member of the LGBTQ+ community or someone with that lived experience. It is a moral question and it is one that we should absolutely be asking ourselves every time we sit down to write.
This doesn't mean you have to stop yourself from writing. But it does mean you need to be highly aware of the optics and the privilege of trying to get that work published. You can write whatever you want. But the publishing industry is a cultural medium and representation in the industry matters. It always has. Own Voices is another tool to clear out space for marginalized voices in the publishing community, a more powerful and effective tool than authenticity reading.
In my opinion - the controversy around this aspect of the editorial process is manufactured. Authenticity readers are not cultural gatekeepers because acquisitions editors and publishing houses and marketing departments already do that work. The perceived threat lies solely in the idea that marginalized communities might actually get A VOICE in the process and that it might be corrective to white, cis-hetero authors who dominate the market share of the industry.
The threat is a perceived one and it exposes another ugly layer to the truths that have been unveiled over the last few weeks as the Black Lives Matter movement has gained national and global prominence. White supremacy is systemic and authenticity readers and BIPOC editors and writers threaten the power of that system.
But the use of authenticity readers is not just about Black representation. It's about representation as a whole and the goal is to provide another system of fact-checking for accuracy in depiction, especially in the current framework where we have a dearth of editors of color actually employed in the industry, and a wealth of dominant paradigm writers seeking to incorporate greater diversity into their manuscripts.
Authenticity readers have been utilized at publishing houses and by authors for a decade or more, but their role is arguably growing more controversial. Why is that? Authenticity readers have influence over manuscripts, but they aren’t editors. So what is their ultimate role in the editorial process? Through interviews with authors and editors, as well as a survey of 72 publishing professionals, and an ethnographic case study at Ooligan Press, this research paper seeks to determine where in the editorial process sensitivity/authenticity readers should be involved and how authenticity readers influence the overall editorial process.
The result of the collected data is that manuscripts featuring communities that are not part of the authors lived experience should undergo authenticity reads in order to more accurately depict those cultures or communities. The reads should happen before or during the developmental edit. Both authors and editors should take part in employing authenticity readers, and it is suggested that multiple authenticity reads take place. Authenticity reading is not prescriptive, and individual authenticity readers are not wholly representative of their communities. Authenticity readers should not censor a manuscript, nor should they be used to shield it from criticism. Their role is purely to vet a manuscript for inaccurate or stereotypical portrayals.
The data compiled in this research was used as the basis for moving forward with formalizing the authenticity reading process for Ooligan Press and developing a database of PSU students and alumni to serve as volunteer readers for future acquisitions.
I knew I wasn't ready. I knew it wasn't the right time. I'd JUST finished up the long road to completing my MA Book Publishing thesis and the accompanying oral exam last Friday and was staring down the barrel of an agent manuscript evaluation on Saturday morning that I'd signed up for MONTHS ago during happier times with stars in my eyes and more hope for the world.
I knew it wasn't going to go anywhere. I could tell the night before. I could tell when I woke up that morning and felt my guts already twisted up in knots.
I was not mentally, emotionally, or spiritually in the right place to go forward with this manuscript evaluation but I'd already paid $50 so I gamely put on a blazer and red lipstick and posed myself in front of a virtual bookcase in the middle of my untidy living room for 14 minutes of feedback that was akin to drinking poison.
The strangest part is that I smiled and laughed and repeated the phrase "that's fair" to this agent over and over again without the slightest indication that they were cutting me deep with their words. I've never had this extra power of looking at my own face while my poor little artist heart was being broken and the impact of staring into my own eyes during an agent manuscript evaluation was profound.
When I finally shut the lid of my laptop and immediately set to the task of deep cleaning the bathroom, I replayed those moments over and over again and the biggest noise in my head, besides the cranky whirring of the bathroom fan, was "I paid for this shit?" And I wasn't talking about the toilet.
I am wrapping up 18 months of deep diving into the publishing industry (ostensibly now, a master) and I just need to remind my fellow writers of something...
Agents need us. Publishers need us. Editors need us. The entire publishing industry needs writers to submit their work. They truly do. Without writers, there is no content to push. There are no agents. No editors. No publishing industry.
And it goes beyond that.
Agents and publishers aren't just acquiring our content. They're acquiring our networks. They're looking at our social media presence and backgrounds and pondering just how many people are in our contact lists. They don't just need our work. They need our personhood, our authority to tell and sell this story. And, if you look at the writing conference industry of which I am a willing participant, it looks like they also need our money.
Writers dump SO MUCH MONEY into their craft, into writing communities and workshops and MFA programs across the world and into the publishing industry. And yet somehow, SOMEHOW, there's this constant background chatter that WE are wasting other people's time. That other people's time in this industry is almost always inherently more valuable than ours and we should be paying for the privilege of their time.
Because there are so many writers out there and any one of them could fill our shoes and, and, and...OK, let them. They gotta do what they gotta do. Everyone does.
But for me, especially right now when so many things have been thrust into stark relief, I have to look myself in the eyes. I am forced by circumstance to stare in a digital mirror and be accountable to myself for what choices I make and what things I perpetuate in the publishing industry by participating in them.
I am done paying agents for their counsel.
In fact, the bigger reveal is that I knew I was done paying agents before I even had that fateful meeting. I knew I was done earlier last week, when I registered for a writing conference and had no desire or motivation or interest in signing up for a manuscript evaluation.
There are others ways I need to spend my time that will boost my craft AND grow my contact list AND allow me to create content. The possibilities are almost dizzying. And if I look myself in the eyes while doing any one of those things, I don't think I'll wince inwardly and feel the need to tell myself, "you deserve better."
Not at all.
Very swiftly, everything changed. A global pandemic has emerged over the last few months and shaken the foundations of countries across the world. Everyone has felt the impact. Everyday life continues to change and evolve as time passes. What was the norm last month or a week ago or a day ago may be dramatically different today or tomorrow.
The big economic and societal changes are also shaking up the writing and book world, and have impacted my personal writing plans, as I'm sure they've fractured yours. We are not alone if having to adjust our lives, our way of thinking, and our priorities.
But some of the beauty of this change is that much can be shifted from the in-person format to the digital realm without having to sacrifice the content. There is valid loss to the human connection inherent in conferences and workshops, but that's the sacrifice we have to make right now.
Yes, video chatting services are awkward and technology sucks and we sometimes talk over one another and everything is tough, but I've personally found a lot of comfort in both the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, and the ebook publishing platform Smashwords stepping up to the plate.
In a time where so many are financially hurting, they are offering free digital writing workshops for their members and published authors. They have given me, and maybe you too, something to look forward to in a future that has dramatically reeled into uncertain territory. I had plans for my graduation and post-graduation life. I had plans to attend conferences in-person and create print and audiobooks.
Many things are now on indefinite hold. Except these awesome free workshops that are going to fill my April and provide me with much needed inspiration and information.
And at least one paid opportunity for a manuscript evaluation through SCBWI that sparked some hope in my chest. Sure, maybe things have been postponed or rescheduled or cancelled.
But I'm clinging to these little nuggets of workshop shaped hope where I can find them. Maybe you can too.
Technically, it's a "final research paper" but part of my Book Publishing masters program is to complete a research paper VERY similar to a thesis, that entails doing some kind of data collection. I've chosen to do both surveying and interviewing to collect data on how writers and editors employ authenticity readers and how they help shape the editorial process. So far I've received a couple dozen responses, but my goal is to get at least 100 survey responses before April 24, 2020.
The survey link is here: https://forms.gle/JNtTJgxsa9jkg9eU7
The big question: How do authenticity readers impact the editorial process of a manuscript?
If you’re an author, editor, publisher or authenticity reader in the book publishing industry please consider taking this survey to help gather data for a graduate thesis in the Portland State University Book Publishing program.
The paper is seeking to understand the ways in which authenticity readers are employed in the editorial process, by whom they are most commonly employed within the industry, and how their inclusion helps shape the overall editorial process of a manuscript.
Personal information in the survey will be kept confidential. Interested parties can also indicate if they’d like to participate in a short interview with some expanded and more detailed questions, along with completing a consent form.
This survey will close on Friday April 24th, 2020. All survey participants who include their emails will be entered into a random drawing for a $10 Powell's e-Gift Card.
Please share this survey with your networks in the book publishing industry and help spread the word.
My 2020 Pubwest conference experience took place on Friday, February 21, 2020 and was very much centered around the idea of growth.
Professional growth: I was roped into a publishing speed-dating circle which quickly stripped me of my fear of networking although didn't compel me to hand out any of the 20 newly printed business cards I'd brought along with me. Haven't yet perfected the skill to move from introduction and conversation to pressing a card into someone's palm yet. One of these days?
Platform growth: I sat in on a panel that quite nicely articulated the possibilities of growing audience platforms and really made me see that while my books continue to be downloaded at a steady trickle, I largely know nothing about the people reading them, what they think, or why the numbers keep going up. I'm ready in my author growth to start engaging with my readers in a more substantial way.
Publishing growth: I went to two different panels that gave me completely opposite feelings.
One, the Editorial: Own Voices imbued me with dread and frustration that important changes in the publishing industry are moving at a glacial pace. It felt like a stalling and reiteration of old conversations that I'd hoped the industry has moved past in the last few years.
The other, the keynote panel about "Ensuring a More Literate Future for All" on Friday featuring Guy LeCharles Gonzalez (Panorama Project), Andrew Proctor (Literary Arts), Laura Brief (826 National), emblazoned me with hope that books like American Dirt can start important conversations about how we can bridge the gap and start to address real solutions to the lack of diversity in the industry. Institutional change is slow and plodding, but individual change can happen at a rapid fire pace. Sometimes it's as easy as making a choice to change, and as hard as doing the work to implement that change.
The sentiments of that panel are nicely captured in this Publisher's Weekly article by Jason Boog: Pubwest 2020 Looks Forward to a Diverse Future.
Personal growth: On a personal level, as an author, I've recently begun asking myself an important question when it comes to writing and publishing: why are you the best person to tell this story? And sometimes I don't have a good answer and it's not problematic. And sometimes I don't have a good answer, and it is problematic. I've taken up various causes and lead the charge because I believed it was the right thing to do and maybe it was the right thing to do, but I wasn't the right person to do it. I think we could all benefit, especially white folks, from stepping back and asking ourselves that question more often. Are we the right person to do this thing or take up this space? And if we're not...then maybe we need to step back and give someone else that opportunity.
That all being said: I've been fortunate enough in my time at Ooligan Press to experience the hubris of fumbling through issues around authenticity and who gets to tell the story and I think some of the biggest takeaways for me as an author and editor are: do your damn research. The likelihood of getting something wrong statistically decreases the more work you do to really understand what you're writing about. ALSO: hire some sensitivity/authenticity/targeted beta readers.
Why are you the best person to tell this story?
At Ooligan Press we're working on some initiatives that reflect current publishing industry practices. I'm proud to be a part of the teams making those changes, and I'm proud to work alongside people who value those practices as well.
Little things add up over time:
1. We are changing our house style guide to foster more inclusive language in our manuscripts, marketing collateral and outward facing materials.
2. We are developing a database of sensitivity/authenticity/targeted beta readers who can assist in current and future Ooligan Press projects.
There are more things we could do to reflect the changes we want to see in the wider publishing industry, but we only have so much time in the program.
All the other change and growth is what comes after.
Following extensive revisions, cutting 30k words, and cleaning up the overall manuscript, I submitted Tin Road for consideration in the Multnomah County Library Writers Project collection. It was launched on Smashwords in December 2019 and without much marketing (digital or otherwise) it's been downloaded almost 200 times in the last month. Not bad for a sophomore effort. :)
After the last few weeks of professional highs and personal lows, and especially yesterday suffering a bleak morning of wallowing in my own failings as an author/writer who still has yet to be traditionally published...I received the heartening news that Tin Road has been accepted into the 2020 edition of the MCL Writers Project. I discovered this whilst riding on the MAX, so tears were most definitely shed on public transit. Hard to say at this point whether they were happy or sad. A little bit of both.
It's been a wild 2020 thus far.
It will be available for download in about a month, so prepare yourselves accordingly!
And really, this good news couldn't have come at a better time. I'm planning to re-launch a newly revised version of Metal Heart in the next few months, along with print-on-demand editions of both books available through Amazon. Literally just waiting on our tax return to make it happen.
I will take an audiobook production course this spring term, and hope to record these titles as audiobooks this summer (just gotta secure that MA first). Along with juggling finishing up/revising Iron Curtain and submitting Astrid and starting on a new WIP (Rosita Ruins the Heist).
It's taken me a long while to come to terms with the Metal Heart book series never being published traditionally, and I'm just happy to have the knowledge and skills to make this story available via different media. This doesn't mean I've veered completely off the path to traditional publishing. I'm looking forward to graduating soon and having time to properly submit Astrid to publishers, as well as work on other books that are currently rattling around in my head.
There should be room for individuals to both self-publish and traditionally publish their materials. Especially since the more I learn about publishing as a commercial enterprise, the more I realize the myriad reasons that Metal Heart would likely never be picked up by a traditional publisher, but at least will find some validity in being enjoyed through alternative means.
I've found incredible value in pursuing both routes and very much appreciate that they both exist.
WHAT IS AUTHOR BRANDING?
And why do I have to learn about it? Like it or not, readers buy books based on their own interests and they buy authors based on the type of book an author creates. Most readers are usually not at all interested in publishers.
Publishers don't have brands. Authors do. And in the social media age everyone has a brand for their online image. It's just the way of the world now and yeah it kinda sucks but it's also how writers are able to more directly connect with their audiences. As a born introvert, the internet is the perfect distance for me to do so.
Don't get me wrong, I also love meeting people in person. But can only really handle a limited amount of that interaction before my batteries get drained. That's where the delightful internet comes in.
WHAT'S MY BRAND?
I fully blame the Next Level workshop I attended a few weeks ago through the Oregon SCBWI chapter specifically about author branding for putting this kernel in my head. This one in particular was led by Oanh Jordan of Tiny Triumph Co.
I've attended workshops about author social media presence and author marketing but never specifically about "building an author brand." It's tough, as human beings, to step outside of ourselves and think "how am I a micro corporation and what is my brand?" We're not products, dammit. We're people! But also...an author is kind of a product. That sounds worse than it really is.
And honestly, how does that sort of thought process feel authentic? The authenticity arrives when you start to ask yourself some simple questions. The first big one: what are your core values? How can you use those core values to guide your online presence and create content that will appeal to your audience?
I had to really ask myself who my audience is and what I'm hoping to communicate to them. Not gonna lie, my current beta readers and my ideal reader ARE NOT teens. And that conflicts with the fact that the primary YA audience are, in fact, teens. At the SCBWI Great Critique, I was made VERY AWARE that teens will be reading my material (hopefully, at some point) and it's definitely given me something to chew on.
I didn't create Metal Heart with a target audience in mind - just a really strong desire to dump a story out of my head onto the page. Most of my stories start out that way. I think that's pretty common for writers. But when you're revising it and getting it ready for the world, thinking about a target audience and what the story is saying to the world shouldn't be a shameful or embarrassing thing.
It's the same with building a brand. The ultimate goal of a published author is to find and connect with an audience. Branding is literally the same thing, but on a regular basis. It's figuring out who you are, what you want to say, who you want to say it to, and then saying those things.
QUESTIONS TO BUILD A BRAND
As part of my Intro to Publishing course we read A People's Guide to Publishing by Joe Biel, founder and publisher of Portland, Oregon based Microcosm Publishing. It's a pretty engaging text so far, and I stumbled upon a personally useful passage pretty early on in the reading.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to start a publishing company. But as a self-publisher, I'm basically doing all the damn things a publisher would normally do, just by myself. And so this series of questions posed in the introduction, coupled with the recent author branding questions really hit home for me.
I hope they will be useful for you too.
ADDITIONAL QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER
Every author seeking to be published, like it or not, is a small business. It's not enough to just do the creative thing. You gotta do the hustle thing too. You gotta have a website and social media presence and be actively involved in the writing community and engage your readers and your peers. You gotta think like a small business owner and you gotta think like a publisher AND you gotta write too.
I'm not saying it's easy. Not at all. But I'm saying, some aspects of it will eventually get easier if you put a little thought into it.
Of course, my brainstorm has led me to a natural conclusion: I need more teen beta readers. Any volunteers? ;)
This past weekend I attended my second EVER structured critique with the Oregon Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. It was an especially intense round because the YA Author leading the critique, Suzy Vitello, is also now an Ooligan Press author. We recently acquired her speculative fiction novel set in Portland, Oregon and I had the pleasure of participating in the developmental edit of the manuscript.
THE DEVELOPMENTAL EDIT
I specifically focused on the structure of Suzy's manuscript and built out a table that tracked the entire timeline of the book, breaking down each chapter into setting, characters, and actions. And you better bet I added some color details. I didn't go quite as bold with the colors, in the way that I would with my own material, because I wanted the focus to be on the written content of the table.
I knew as soon as I registered for the Winter Great Critique and saw Suzy's name among the participants that this was an experience that would be incredibly valuable. I'd edited her work and she'd recently received the note, so it seemed especially fitting that she would in turn provide critical feedback on the first five pages of Astrid Calls Down the Asteroid.
THE GREAT CRITIQUE
I fully did not expect Suzy to bring a copy of the timeline table to our critique group. Of course I showed up late so our re-introduction (we first met at the Willamette Writers conference in August 2019) didn't take place until the mid-point break of the workshop. At our circled table, she had a stack of papers and when I mentioned that I'd participated in the developmental edit, she showed the table to me.
It was such an awe-inspiring moment to witness the writing cycle to come full circle. My editing experience has helped me as a writer, which helped Suzy as an author, which has benefited Ooligan Press, and now she has helped me improve my own writing by providing critical feedback about the opening pages of my newest manuscript.
Another special bonus is that one of the authors at our table was, in fact, a YOUNG ADULT and her feedback around the authenticity of our teens voices, experiences, thought processes, and behaviors was so incredibly valuable. It made me realize that in my beta reading I've been largely missing one critical element to help guide my revision process: the insight of a teenager.
Teen readers are especially welcome, but having a teen author who understands the sensitivity of the critique environment was especially important.
Suzy reached out to me post-class and has passed along the timeline table method to the Author Accelerator program to share more widely with the writing community.
If you're interested in seeing an example of the timeline table (with information changed to protect Suzy's original work) then please feel free to reach out: email@example.com.
I'm also ready to start scheduling out freelance developmental and content editing services for post-graduation so if you're interested, please get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I'm pleased to announce I will be co-leading an Editing Seminar at the 2020 Write to Publish conference hosted by Ooligan Press and the Book Publishing program at Portland State University. My current position is Managing Editor at Ooligan Press and even though I only started my book editing journey in 2018 and have edited precisely 14 books total thus far, I've been editing my own personal manuscripts and been in marketing and communications and editing roles pretty much my entire life.
I'm very excited to share both my professional knowledge and my personal experience around the craft of editing, and hopefully inspire and inform writers to choose whatever style of editing is most appropriate for their manuscripts.
And it's not just me filling the void. Des Hewson, the current Acquisitions Editor at Ooligan Press, and a former professional copyeditor will be co-leading this panel. Very hyped for them to share their experience when it comes to real world editing.
The Write to Publish conference will take place on January 11, 2020 from 9am-5:30pm at the PSU Smith Student Union building and will feature a wide variety of panels specifically geared towards writers who are interested in being published through traditional means, as well as offering self-publishing tips and tools.
The editing seminar will focus on teaching the basics of editing, will briefly review the editorial process at Ooligan Press, and will likely feature an editing exercise plus a brief Q&A session. The seminar will take place from 3:45-4:45.
Conference registration is open now. We hope to see you there!
Approaching the 2019 Nanowrimo while juggling two part-time jobs and full-time grad school (plus motherhood but who's counting) meant that I had to make some realistic choices. Could I expect to write anything new in 30 days, especially 50k words worth of something new?
No. Not really. BUT I could put to practice some of the sweet developmental and copyediting skills I've gained over the last year in the Book Publishing MA program at Portland State University.
So my goal became simple: cut 50k words from a bloated 150k manuscript instead.
The first step in downsizing or upsizing is to know what you're working with. Since I typically don't write from highly structured outlines (I use a very rough outline and take notes in the same document as I write), I had to reverse engineer an outline based on the current material. I crafted a table, listed out the chapters, gave them breezy subtitles, and loosely described each chapters content.
Then I color-coded. So much color coding. I love a good color based organizational system. I used yellow and red because they're bold and bossy. Yellow was like "this chapter could be trimmed" and red was like "probably could cut this entirely." There weren't nearly as many red rows as I'd hoped, which meant the harder job of making line by line cuts. But also, at the same time, cleaning up the content. I did get to hack away at cringe-worthy scenes or moments that just weren't feeling good.
ONE PIECE OF ADVICE. If the writing doesn't feel good, if it makes you cringe, then it's not good and you should cut it without mercy. Your gut instincts are always on target. I did some gut cuts , as well as trimming dialogue.
DIALOGUE CAN ALWAYS BE TRIMMED. No reader needs a "yeah" or "well" to kick off a sentence and no reader needs nearly as much blocking or descriptions in the dialogue as you think they do. I even found myself dispensing of dialogue tags altogether in favor of trusting a reader would know who was speaking based on voice and placement in the scene. Kinda tricky and scary, but worth it to step out of the way and let the characters talk to one another without leaning back on blocking. Plus, it dropped my word count considerably.
BYE BYE EXPOSITION. Part of the book is following the journey of two fugitives. It's a road book, and that meant a lot of logistics plotting and descriptions of new environments. Which is where a lot of the bloat was located. Who needs three pages of describing a location that is only gonna be used to stage about two minutes of action? Cut cut cut.
SCENE IT BEFORE. And sometimes there is a scene that's almost exactly like another scene except the characters are maybe saying different things. Is it needed? Could the dialogue be moved elsewhere? Good riddance then.
THE END RESULT. Not as successful as I hoped, but for a couple of reasons. I fell about 20k words short of my lofty goal, which was a bummer. HOWEVER, I did emerge with an entirely edited and fairly clean copy of a manuscript that was reduced by 20% (maybe, I don't math well). AND keeping the 120k words made sense in light of the fact that I had two narrators telling different stories (interwoven, but still). That was roughly 60k words per narrator and story which is lean. If I cut anything else, it might end up causing both tales to be anemic.
AND NOW. I'm giving it a final once-over and then formatting it to be entered into the Smashwords catalog and then the 2019 Multnomah County Library Writer's Project contest by the 12/15 deadline. Wish me luck.
Regardless of its acceptance into the contest/catalog, I plan to make Metal Heart and Tin Road available for ebook and print this year.