You've probably heard the "Wild West" cliche more than once this year in reference to all the changes happening in the publishing industry.
For starters, there's the Borders bankruptcy, the Amanda Hocking self-pub success story, the Eisler defection, and Amazon striking deals with New York houses for print distribution of their Encore titles.
(If you want to keep up with the rapid pace of change, subscribe to articles I read and find important enough to share.)
I've been working and observing the media industry since 1998. I've been directly helping writers since 2001. Never before have I seen so much activity, service, and business ideas focused on "helping" writers as during this period.
Why is everyone suddenly interested in helping?
- Lots of people do, in fact, need help.
- There's lots of confusion.
- There's some money to be made.
As far as reason #1, that's always been the case. Beginning writers especially do need some help. We might not be talking brain surgery or rocket science, but succeeding in the media/publishing community requires as much work and learning as any other profession. Going it alone is almost impossible.
But when you combine reasons #2 and #3, it produces a lot of unnecessary "help" that writers don't need, or that could waste their time.
Let's get clear about what writers need to do, in order of priority.
- Read. It's always part of your life and never goes away.
- Write. (Practice. Do the work.)
- Get meaningful feedback from trusted peers/writers and mentors/professionals.
After that, there is no one-size-fits-all path. People learn, improve, and get published in different ways. People also market and promote effectively in different ways.
Confusion results when you realize how much new tools and new technology are changing how information/stories (or "books") get read, bought, sold, and shared. I hope everyone realizes that being a successful writer today—or tomorrow—looks very different than it did 10 years ago. (That's why I hate the stories about how so-and-so bestselling author doesn't interact online or use social media. I'm willing to bet they established their audience and made their name before industry transformation took hold.)
But back to the main point:
Before you decide you're going to pay someone to help you—at any point in your writing, marketing, promotion, or publishing path—ask these questions.
(Also, treat your time and energy like money. Before you decide you're going to invest your time and energy with any kind of writing community, figure out what the benefit is to you. Is it the best or smartest solution for you?)
1. Who's behind it?
Do you trust who's behind it? Are there specific names attached? Do they have experience that applies to what you're trying to do? What's the bias (if any) of the people behind the service?
2. What's the business model?
How do they make money? Almost every service has to turn a profit, and there's nothing wrong with that. For valuable or quality help that furthers our careers, we should be willing to pay.
But by uncovering the business model, you have some insight into what actions that business wants you to take (or, is biased toward you taking) to stay in business. (That means: Ignore all the marketing talk about "We help writers," and instead see how they make money helping writers, so your eyes are wide open.)
I see too many services, businesses, and communities that are solutions looking for problems. That means someone wants to make money, and wants to help writers in a good way, but has a service that doesn't really serve a purpose, or doesn't really deliver a benefit to writers.
3. Is it transparent?
It's to your advantage that we now live in an age where businesses are expected to be transparent and frank. So take a good look at the services you might want to pay for, or the websites where you spend your time. Are they upfront about what they do, what do they have a stake in, and how they make money? Are they upfront about how the work gets done? I favor the ones who have nothing to hide, as well as those with a point-of-view and distinctive personality.
4. Is it credible? Is it authoritative?
Sometimes this is tough for a new writer to evaluate. If you don't know what distinguishes a trustworthy and experienced service provider from an inexperienced one, then at the very least, look for success stories that match the kind of success you want. Look for testimonials and recommendations. Look for a track record and history of achievement in the areas where you need help. (Someone who just got into the business within the last year might be an opportunist. Or they could just be a very intelligent but laid-off New York publishing employee.)
There are a lot of people and services that want to take your money, or your time and energy. Sometimes you get back exactly what you put in. And others will never be worth it.
Bottom line, always make sure you need the help before you pay for it. Do your research before committing. Get second and third opinions. And have your eyes wide open. It IS the Wild West out there.
P.S. I'm sure, in the comments, you might ask what sources CAN be trusted, without question? Some people might recommend major writers organizations, author guilds, and other nonprofits. But they have agendas, too!
So the answer is, given the strange and rapidly changing times we live in, there is no single or most trustworthy source. You have to decide whose perspective, agenda, and values align with your own.
I'm sorry, but there are no easy answers.