ELAINE ASH: THE RULES HAVE CHANGED
If there is one book professional who can take a good story or an idea for a good story and turn it into a bestseller, this is Elaine Ash. Author of the Bestseller Metrics, Elaine is a sought-after ghostwriter and editor of award-winning, bestselling books as well as a speaker and educator.
SPM: You are an experienced book editor with an impressive success record.
Elaine Ash: Why, thank you. As an editor I’ve worked on the breakout books of many established authors. Susan Ouellette (espionage), Brandie June (YA), M. Todd Henderson (legal thriller), Mia Elkovsky Phoebus (memoir) and lots more.
SPM: You also call yourself a book doctor and a collaborator.
Elaine Ash: A book doctor works with a written manuscript to whip it into shape in much less time than a beginning writer can do it, but under their supervision. A collaborator works with a person who isn’t necessarily a writer, to capture their story in words so it can be professionally published as a book. I work with both fiction and nonfiction.
SPM: Like a ghostwriter?
Elaine Ash: Like that, only collaborator is a nicer word and it also is a truer word. Ghostwriter sounds like somebody who works alone, typing away in a room so someone else can put their name on the book. The ghost then fades away. But that’s not true. Without the creator, without the originator of the story, nothing can be written. It only gets done through a collaborative effort. There is just as much credit due the originator of the story as there is the person who puts the words down on paper.
SPM: You are the author of Bestseller Metrics: How to Win the Novel Writing Game, which you released several years ago. How did these metrics evolve in the past five years?
Elaine Ash: I self-published Bestseller Metrics in 2017 which captured wisdom gained over 25-years-plus in the book business. The book was written especially for novelists. My guiding principles in that book haven’t changed, the metrics haven’t changed, but every year there are more writers getting their novels in professional shape by using it.
One of my favorite success stories, based on the principles of Bestseller Metrics, belongs to Susan Ouellette. She’s now the author of a three-book series with Camcat, whom I met at a writers’ conference. We stayed in touch and corresponded for a year before she had enough confidence to show me her 20-year-old espionage manuscript. The writing was splendid. But the actual story had been overwritten with changes from many well-meaning critiquers. By the time I saw it, the plot was obscured. My job was to take a scalpel—not a chainsaw, a scalpel—and let the real, original story emerge. The characters, the setting, the mystery were all fabulous. Go ahead and Google Susan’s name and see the awards and rave reviews in Publishers Weekly and other places for The Wayward Spy and The Wayward Assassin. When Susan spread her wings, she really flew.
SPM: What are the main challenges authors face nowadays in their quest for a publisher?
Elaine Ash: For an aspiring writer with a manuscript, looking to get a first book published, the rules have changed and they’ve changed radically. I’m not talking about self-publishing. That’s not new anymore. I’m talking about doors that are wide open to minority and LGBTQ writers. That’s where the budgets for new writers are going. If you don’t fall into those categories it’s very difficult to get an agent. I used to have a healthy business finding literary agents for writers who were everywhere on the social spectrum. That’s not the case any longer. The doors are simply not open to everyone. Now, please understand that I am talking about rules for aspiring writers only. If a writer already has a series, already has a publisher, they’re not going to be shown the door just because they’re not BIPOC or LGBTQ. I’m talking about new, aspiring writers searching for their first agent, only. Let’s make that clear. And the agents are not making up this rule, the publishers are. The agents are only reflecting what publishers tell them they want.
The good news is readers haven’t changed, they’re still buying. The demand is there for good stories from everybody. Currently I’m scouring the planet for new and innovative ways for new writers to break through, get published, and reach paying readers.
SPM: At what stage of their book journey should authors enlist your help?
Elaine Ash: Anywhere they feel stuck. Take Neil V. Young, YA writer, for instance. Neil spent years in writers’ groups, writing and rewriting, submitting to agents without getting signed. He came to me with a promising manuscript about a 16-year-old boy forced to Earth when the spaceship he lived on with his father had mechanical trouble. Dayton had to stay on Earth and go to school with kids who, in his eyes, wore strange clothes, ate strange food, and didn’t know anything about how to a fix basic spaceship—losers! By the end of the story, though, he sees things differently.
It was a great story with some wonderful writing in it. Just like Susan’s novel, the manuscript had been overwritten with too many suggestions inserted. My job was to smooth out the plot, pace it a little faster, and the first agent who read it, signed Neil for representation. Thanks to his agent, Neil is currently being read by Big 5 acquiring editors all over New York.
But you asked me about at what stage writers should come to me. At any stage. I can help with realizing your vision of where the book should go even if you have only five or ten thousand words written. I can help with complete, beloved manuscripts that have languished in the drawer for years, ot maybe decades. The question I answer for a writer is: What will it take to get this story in commerical shape? Once you know that, we talk about the right way forward. Maybe you want to take that information away and write it yourself. Maybe you’re busy and it’s going to be a big job, and want to hire me as a collaborator. That’s fine. It’s up to you.
SPM: But once you self-publish, isn’t that the end of everything in traditional publishing?
Elaine Ash: So many misconceptions, so little time. I can guarantee you, if a self-published author can sell 2500 copies of a book in a year, a Big 5 representative will come a-knockin’. Publishers love to make money. Once a book has proven its marketability, it will attract interest. I just confirmed this with a literary agent and he wrote back to me, “I’d take a look, for sure.” So there you have it. Busy agents don’t “take a look” unless there’s money in it for them and a possibility of success.
SPM: How does that work, then, if the book is already for sale on Amazon?
Elaine Ash: Your existing production files are transferred to the new publisher, Amazon is alerted to the transfer so all those precious 5-star reviews stay in place, and after a transition period so everything depopulates, and then repopulates again under a Big 5 imprint, voilá. Think Hugh Howey (Wool), Robert Kiyosaki (Rich Dad, Poor Dad) who both had this happen, and many more.
SPM: What are your top three predictions for the book market in 2023?
Despite the fact that the publishing industry is always announcing its own death, books will make more and more money going forward. The publishing industry survives everything, you can go to the bank on that. That’s number one. Self-publishers who offer a professional caliber book and seek advice on how to get their story in front of the right readers, a targeted market, will reap the rewards. A good book always finds its way. That’s two. I predict that self-publishing will continue to boom, the successful ones will get picked up by bigger, traditional publishers, and there will be more and more demand for book marketing methods that work at an affordable price. I think that’s four!
To get in touch with Elaine Ash, visit her website, www.bestsellermetrics.com.