What do you think about ebooks? Do you think it’s better for a starting writer to go the self-publishing route or to go with a publisher? What do publishers offer that makes them worthwhile, especially in the digital world? — paraphrased from an email by Ryan D.
Wow, big topic, and I’m putting a date on my answer because the field is changing so rapidly that my answer will probably be out of date in a year.
I love ebooks. I see this time of upheaval as a good time for creators and consumers both. There is going to be weirdness. Think of it like this: when motor cars first came out, NYC had a law that if you operated one, you needed to have someone carrying a red flag walk in front of you to warn pedestrians. (Apocryphal? Maybe, but horses + cars = weirdness. Doubtless those who loved horses hated the motor carriages, and those who loved motor carriages wished the horses would get out of the way.)
Ebooks, however, are the new gold rush. Among the miners who went to California and the Yukon were doubtless a lot of good miners, but there were also a huge number of people who thought that just by showing up they would get rich.
Those people didn’t get rich.
In my opinion, ebook publishing can be a great venue for you… IF. If you write fast, if you write the right kind of story, if you can master the various e-tailers’ formatting schemes, if you are comfortable contracting good cover art, and if you’re willing to relentlessly promote.
1) Write fast: depending on the genre, short might be fine, but a huge number of your sales are going to be repeat customers. If they’re not giving you much each time, you want them to have a lot of products so that you can make a living.
2) Write the right kind of story: Any kind of commercial fiction. Do you write the kind of stuff people like to read, or the kind of stuff people like to be seen reading? Pretentious lit that can’t get the official stamp from New York? Probably not going to do well on Kindle. Fun vamp comedies with lots of sex? Well…
3) The ebook formats don’t always play nice together. It’s changing, but you need to edit and do layout well enough that your book looks professional. If you’re a bad speller, hire someone. It’s easy, even if you’re a good speller like I am, to know what you mean and read right past your errors. Reading one typo in a book is forgivable. Five, six? Infuriating.
4) Your cover art makes a HUGE difference. Especially if you’re one of the horde of self-published folks. Find good artists and design people. Find something that gives you a template so that each of your books looks like one of your books. People will forget your name, but remember the cover. It happens. Make it easy for them to find the next one.
5) Promote. You’re going to have to go to others for pointers on this. It’s different for self-published writers.
If you self-publish digitally through Amazon (and charge at least $3), you get 70% of the profit. So, sell 10,000 copies and you get $21,000. If you publish through New York, you get 25%–of their profit. So Amazon takes its 30%, and you get 25% of the 2.10 (actually almost surely less), $5,250. $21k sounds better than $5k, right?
Of course it does, but on the other hand, would you rather have 70% of $100 or 25% of a $1,000? Assuming you can sell as many e-books on your own, yes, OF COURSE you should self-publish.
I don’t assume that.
What does a publisher do for me?
Let’s be honest, there’s still a stigma against self-published writers. Why? Because they deserve it. Because most of them are crap. (That’s okay, most of everything is crap.) Most stories published by the Big Six aren’t much better, but at least you know that they’ve gone through two rounds of gatekeepers (agents, and then editors). So even though the average may only be lifted ten percent, by moving the entire bell curve up ten points, you’ve made the likelihood of finding a great story much, much more likely.
Put it this way: where are the Robert Jordans or George R. R. Martins who are self-published? The truth is, once even self-published writers find big success, many of them jump over to New York publishers–for the credibility if nothing else. (See Amanda Hocking and Michael Sullivan).
What else do publishers do? Editing, copy editing, layout, maps, cover design, cover art, distribution, other markets (like paperbacks, hard covers, omnibuses, trade paperback, book club, large print editions, etc), promotion, organizing book tours, and buying you nice meals when you visit New York. They make it many times easier to sell foreign rights. They make it many times easier to sell (or will sell themselves) audio rights. Now, any particular publisher may not do all of those things uniformly well, but it is their job to squeeze every possible cent out of your one story. They are very good at this. (Of course, because THEY do the work to make the pie bigger, you have to accept a smaller slice of the pie.)
So is it worth it? That’s up to you. Do realize that thinking because there’s one Amanda Hocking, that YOU will be the next one is like thinking because there’s one JK Rowling that I will be the next one. If you want to be a writer, you’re already basing your business “plan” on falling in the .01%. It’s already wildly optimistic. But don’t “plan” on falling into the .0000001%. What’s a few zeroes between friends? Well… c’mon.
Ebooks are going to be an increasingly large piece of the pie, but they’re only going to be a piece. If you enjoy promoting and contracting and fiddling with software and putting together a book that is all yours, where every decision is in your hands–self-publish. But if you love just the writing? Well, guess what, you’re still going to have to do a lot of the business side these days, but by having team members who are doing a lot of the other stuff for you, you will have to do less.
Ugh, I hate to be the cold voice of reality. But probably. Almost certainly, as a matter of fact. One agent I know says you need to have five or six books published before you quit your day job. Published. Now, if your books do well, you might make it less than that. But probably it’s going to take you what, a year, two years to write the first book? Eleven years, like Pat Rothfuss? In that year, or two, or eleven, you need to eat. So do what you have to. Count the cost. If you’re investing your youth in this, be aware that your friends may all be owning houses and driving SUVs while you’re still struggling to get published. Be aware that if you’re washing windows for 30 hours a week rather than working 80 hours a week as a scrub at a law firm because you want the time to write, you are making a trade for something that’s unlikely. Most people don’t get published. Honestly, I’m not trying to throw despair your way. If you could do another job, but your soul would die, then write. Be aware you’ll probably be poor forever, but if that doesn’t dissuade you, more power to you. It’s a beautiful life, fighting with the blank page every day. Welcome to the revolution, comrade.
There are about a million books out there full of advice. The ones I found that were helpful to me were Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card, Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass (my favorite writing book) and then in third On Writing by Stephen King (which is half autobiography and half writing book). Those are where I started.
i. This is going to be a little counter-intuitive. My advice is not to worry about the publishing side of things until you’re finished writing your book. The publishing side of things is incredibly hard to learn from the outside–and most of us are on the outside. You can read tons of webpages full of total crap about the publishing industry–and it will get you twisted in knots. The people who are actually IN publishing and know what they’re talking about are generally too busy with, ya know, publishing: reading, editing, networking, selling, and soothing the artistes who work for them to be posting accurate information on the web. Not that good information isn’t out there, but it’s hard to sift that good from the bad if you’re just an author in Des Moines and two different, seemingly reputable websites say diametrically opposed things.
ii. SO, my advice is for you to do the one thing that no one else can do: write that great book that is inside you. The whole industry chugs along on books, and you make them. You are the fuel. So make that book as high of an octane as you can, because no one else can do that for you. Don’t understand foreign rights? Someone will explain it to you. Don’t understand conventions? Someone will explain them to you. Don’t know what you’re supposed to do on book tour? Someone will explain it to you. 1. Write a great book 2. Get a great agent 3. Ask questions. If you write books that connect with people, and have an honest, intelligent agent (if she’s experienced, that’s a big plus), no one is going to look down on you because you don’t understand P&L’s. I promise. (Well, if they have to explain it to you twelve times… but hey, if you’re bright enough to write an amazing book, you’re probably bright enough to understand a P&L… by the eleventh time anyway)
I. How should I get an agent?
i. The best way I know to find an agent is to find authors whose books are similar to yours and look in the acknowledgements. Authors will almost always acknowledge their agents. Then go to those agents’ sites on the web and follow the instructions they have exactly. In your query letter, say something like, “I’ve loved the work of your client, writer X, and think you’ll find MY BOOK TITLE to have similar A, B, and C.” This sounds cookie-cutter, but really, it works best if you can honestly say how your book IS like those books. Also, get ready for rejection. If you mail some rockstar agents, they may never respond to you. The ones who DO may take months. Welcome to the business. Take your rejections as evidence that you’re in the game. If you weren’t playing, you couldn’t strike out. And let’s face it, it’s a lot easier to be in the stands drinking beer and critiquing the guy who’s swinging for the fences and whiffing than it is to stare down a 100 mph fastball.
My own agent is Donald Maass. He understands Story, and is blunt and honest. He’s written the best books on writing that I know: check out The Career Novelist, Writing the Breakout Novel, and The Fire in Fiction. He has The Career Novelist as a free pdf download on his website. Free. It’s worth more than that, honest.
ii. Also, I’m probably not the best resource for this, given that I tried 33 times to get an agent and was only successful once. However, the first thing you need to do is write a really great book. No really, a really, really great book. (You can dispute whether The Way of Shadows is such a book, but my agent thought so. So there.) Then the best thing to do, in my humble opinion, is to look for books that are similar to your own book, look in the acknowledgements, and figure out who that person’s agent is because they probably thanked them there. And if they didn’t thank their agent, you probably don’t want her to be your agent anyway.
You might as well cross out all the absolute top-tier agents while you’re doing this step, because they’ll be too busy to take on people who’ve never published anything and haven’t proved that they can make them money. When I solicited agents, half of them never wrote back to me, not even a form rejection. Then look on their website, follow all their directions, exactly how they said it, and write them a great query letter. Mention that you loved that author X (the guy who they also represent) and tell them how your work is similar, or why you think they’d be interested. Read some books from Amazon about this whole querying process, it is a little more in-depth than that. Secondly, and at the same time, go to some writing conventions. They cost money, but you’re going to learn a lot of stuff in the time you spend there. And you may even meet these people in person. Next, you’re going to have to wait. It always takes a couple of months to hear back from any of these people. My agent gets 300 queries a week. And quite honestly, reading your query is the lowest on their list of priorities each week. Not because they hate you, but because they have people who are making them money who want them to do things all the time. Once you get an agent, if you’ve gotten a good agent, they will handle selling it to the right people. Quite honestly, you will not have much choice. If a publisher says yes to you, that’s a yes. Be excited. Be aware that the whole process after you’ve finished your book can easily take from 1 to 2 years. If you’re a writer, you have to be in this for the long haul. Took me 2 years to get my eventual New York Times Bestseller sold. And another year for it to get published. So in this industry, sometimes good things come to those who wait.
II. Pitching to Agents/Editors
So, you’ve finished your novel. Then you went back and actually finished it, right? You’ve been through every word to the point where you’re changing things back to the way they were before your last editing pass? Your manuscript sparkles? The first sentence demands you read the second? The first paragraph demands you read the next? The first page demands you read on? Every chapter begs you to go on to the next? The climax shatters expectations, breaks hearts, moves mountains?
Sweet. Let’s go sell that thing.
Did you skim that paragraph? Don’t. You feel a little iffy about your novel’s beginning (or middle, or end)? Okay, read the rest of this post for general enlightenment, but I can’t stress this enough: your book will sell your book. Even if your amazing personality and stunning good looks get the book past some editors and you actually get published, once that book is out there in the big bad world, it’s your words that sell it. No, not your relentless self-promotion–the words between the covers. Your book will sell your book. Or it won’t.
Got ya, totally agree, Brent. I’ve done all that. Can we get on to pitching?
Okay. So who am I to tell you about pitching? Well, I’ve done it wrong, and I’ve done it right. I got an agent who gets 300-400 queries per week to represent me, and I pitched badly to him the first time.
1) Find what agents you’d love to have represent you.
You write Urban Fantasy with a romantic twist? Epic Fantasy with a post-structuralist bent? Who’s the best in the world at writing something close to what you write? (Yeah, you have your own special sauce that makes your book different, right, I get ya. But someone out there is writing something kinda-sorta like your book. And selling a few copies, right?) Well, that writer has an agent. Find out who it is. You can check the SFFWA website or the writer’s own website or the writer’s acknowledgments pages (“Thanks, Jennifer Jackson for being the greatest agent ever!”), or find the agents’ own pages, where they will happily brag that they represent that successful writer whose work resembles yours (except yours is better, of course).
Come up with a list of 20, 30, 50. Whatever. Some of these agents are going to be so big their intern’s intern probably won’t hear of you. Tough. This whole business is tough. Put on those big girl pants. Rejection is the only certainty down this road.
Oh, but you’re a precious flower? Good. That natural sensitivity will serve you well… when writing. This is not writing time. Or take this rejection and turn it into fuel. Whatever you need to do. You can’t win if you don’t play. You can’t play without getting some bruises. Bruises are proof you’re playing.
Many writers are too scared to play. Once you get a rejection letter, you have earned the right to look down on those writers. Forever. (You shouldn’t, but if it makes you feel better, do what you must.)
I came up with a list of 33 agents that I thought I would be happy to have represent me. Some were longshots that I knew were too big for me. I tried anyway.
2) See if any of those agents are coming to any writers’ conferences close to you.
3) Budget it out. Figure what going will cost. Can you bunk with anyone? Can you drive with someone? Then figure out what NOT going will cost. If you don’t do anything different in your life, nothing different will happen. This may just give you the odds of buying a lottery ticket, but if you don’t enter, you can’t win.
In 2004, I saw that two agents on my list were coming to the Willamette Writers’ Conference–and they both were accepting pitches! Honestly, I almost didn’t go. It cost $400 to go to the conference, and that was a huge stretch for me and my wife. We just didn’t have that money. I went anyway.
4) In order to make that cost be as little of a gamble as possible, I recommend preparing the following BEFORE you go. (I didn’t know this before going, and subsequently, didn’t do as well as I could have.)
one paragraph pitch
two minute pitch
My list looked like this:
great novel (I thought so, but really, it was a couple of rewrites away yet)
one paragraph pitch–huh?
two minute pitch–huh?
Let me stress something here: I learned more at a four-day conference than I’d learned in a year of reading tons of books about writing. There were things I learned at the conference that I couldn’t have learned anywhere else.
For instance, I met both of the agents whom I knew I wanted to represent me. One that looked great for me on paper was just… weird. She’s successful; she sells lots of books, and she wasn’t for me. Not even close. I took her off the list.
Then–not particularly helpful to you, but this is what happened to me–because I was going to all of the talks that both of these agents were presenting, the other agent gave a talk that blew my mind. He asked, “What is the one thing your main character would never do?” Go ahead and think about this for yourself and your own book. This is free. In business-speak, this is value-add just for reading my anecdote. So I thought about it, and I actually came up with two things: Kylar would never hurt Doll Girl, and he would never betray his new master, the man who had practically become his father, who had saved his life, Durzo Blint.
Then he said, “What happens to your novel if your main character does that?”
And I said, Ah shit. (Not in quotes because I didn’t actually say it aloud.) But definitely with the profanity, because I saw that if Kylar did one or both of those things, the book would be twice as good.
Which was a huge bummer, because I came in thinking that I had a marketable manuscript, and now I saw that I had a lot of re-writing to do. (Nine months worth, as it turned out.)
No, really, it was a HUGE bummer. We were poor, like barely paying the rent poor, and I didn’t know that I had nine more months in me before I had to get a real job. But you do what you must to make the work excellent. If you let your work out the door before it’s as good as you can make it, you’ve violated your own artistic gift; you’ll never not regret it.
So then, knowing that my novel needed a major re-write, I had to pitch it. Ouch.
I think my pitch to Don Maass went something like this: “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon meets Pulp Fiction meets Batman.” He gave me a very puzzled look, like he was really trying to track with me and just had no idea where I was going, and I knew I’d blown it.
There’s a silver lining here, though. Simply by having gone to the conference, Don Maass knew that the people with whom he met were serious about writing as a profession. So he told us to say that we’d met him in our query letter.
I didn’t send him a query letter for nine months. This actually worked in my advantage when I did. It showed that I was serious about the craft of writing. I was able to say, “I heard your talk, and it’s taken me all this time to work in what I learned from you and make my novel better.” This isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme. It’s work. It’s being willing to look at what you thought was ingenious, and trash it, and do better. I sent my query, eventually got asked for more, then for the whole manuscript, and then got an agency deal–9 months after I sent that first query, 18 months after I’d met Don first.
Along the way, I queried 33 agents. Fifteen never wrote back to me, ever. Fifteen rejected me. (I particularly enjoyed the ones who simply rubber-stamped my SASE with “No Thanks.” and sent it back.) Three were interested enough to ask to see more. Two dropped out after seeing the whole ms.
After two years and 32 agents, I somehow landed my first choice agent. It took him two more years to sell that book. It became a New York Times best seller, and continues to sell well to this day.
This is not all to brag. It’s to tell you that you may not be crazy when you think, “I think this book is really good. I think it could sell well.” Everyone in publishing is looking for books that sell. There’s no cabal out there to hold you down. But they aren’t all always right about what will sell. An assassin novel where the most important relationship is between two men, master and apprentice? Everyone knows boys don’t read anymore. Huh.
BUT… this all is not about my path. When YOU go to the conference, you want to be better prepared than I was.
So: 1) Logline. This may be the hardest thing to come up with of all of them. But coming up with this sentence or two may actually tell you all the problems your novel has. A logline is just the story in one or two sentences:
A motley band of deep core oil miners must fly into space to place a nuke in a planet-killing asteroid.
Oh, you don’t write 90 minute movies? Yours is more complicated? Yeah, mine too:
“A street rat must apprentice with a legendary assassin in order to save his friend. Years later, when she’s grown up and sees a murder, the boy must decide whether to kill the woman he loves, or the master who’s raised him as a son.”
See the impossible problem there? The stakes? Make it easy. Don’t load up your logline with gibberish words. People are already bad at processing auditory stimuli when all the words are in a language they know. Tell them about the sharakzahn of Ugbulae’s twelve plinths of power, and… their eyes will glaze over.
Your logline should be brief, and focus on the core dilemma of the book.
But, wait, you say. My book is about more than that! Yes, yes, it is. Fine. But if the core of the story doesn’t appeal to me, it just doesn’t appeal to me: “An angst-ridden vampire teenager must decide…” I’m already gone. No, no, don’t tell me how beautifully written it is. Don’t want to hear about the symbolism of innocence and experience. No interest.
Miners who fly to space? Strains my credulity here, but at least something’s going to happen in that story!
The one- or two-paragraph pitch is really just an expansion of the logline. The agent or editor is trying to figure out where this fits. “The Way of Shadows is an epic fantasy of 150k words. It’s the first novel in the Night Angel trilogy. It’s set in a corrupt medieval city where the organized crime is more powerful than the king. Azoth is the poorest of the poor. He’s a street kid with a problem: he mouthed off to his gang’s enforcer, and now the older boy wants to make an example out of him. Azoth’s only way to get out and to protect his friend, a mute little girl, is to apprentice with a legendary assassin: Durzo Blint. But Durzo doesn’t take apprentices, and the price he asks may be too high to pay.
Years later, when Durzo is doing a job to forestall an invasion, the same young woman witnesses him murdering someone, and Durzo orders Azoth to kill her. Azoth is forced to choose between killing the girl he now loves, and the master who’s raised him as a son. The fate of two kingdoms rests on his choice.”
Your purpose here is to give the agent or editor enough detail to know if this is even the kind of book they handle: is it the genre they do, is it a length they do (epic fantasy of 65k words?, a YA of 250k words?), and then you want to intrigue them. You’re not able to tell the whole story, so don’t try. Make them want to READ the whole story.
I had some editors say no because 150k was long for a first novel. It was also how long this book needed to be. There wasn’t fluff. Fine, they don’t get the novel. Now, they wish they had.
Now, if you have something like the above, read it out loud. Practice pitching it to someone who loves you. Do you have some sentence that is just awkward, and always makes you stumble? Change it. Is any of it confusing to a person hearing it for the first time? Make it simpler. (Even if you have to fudge a bit. In my books Azoth in latter half isn’t called Azoth any more–but it’s too complicated to go into why in the pitch. Just call him Azoth.)
Read it until you’re comfortable with it. Are you enunciating clearly? Are you loud enough? Are you too loud? Read it until you can put some of the passion you feel for this story into your words.
Then have someone throw a question or two at you: are there any zombies in this? Is this set in North Africa?
Comfortable? Good. There’s good news. When you go to pitch to that agent or editor, the ladies (or guys) you’re pitching against aren’t sales pros. They aren’t sales people at all. They’re writers! Hahahahahaha. They’re all introverts! They’re people who stay at home and stare at a computer screen rather than talk to people! You can take these guys. After all, you’re…
Probably just like that.
I’m teasing, but I’m serious, too. If you’re nervous pitching to an agent, don’t worry. She’s dealt with getting pitches from nervous introverts a thousand times before. If your material is good, that’s all that matters to that agent. Now, of course, if you’re a beautiful person who can sell sand to a Bedouin, that’s not going to hurt, and agents are happy to sell things that look easy to sell. But we sell books, people, and what matters isn’t your dazzling pearly whites. What matters is the book. If you’re gorgeous and your book is terrible, it’s not going to mean anything. (Unless you’re a bona fide celebrity, in which case… well, that’s just too depressing, don’t think about it.)
What your (prospective) agent wants out of this meeting is 1) to hear some pitches that actually might help her pay her mortgage someday, and 2) to get good clients. If your pitch is great, but you seem like an a-hole, the agent may pass. They have to work with you, you know. And while your book selling is the number 1 thing for them, it isn’t the only thing. So a nervous guy who seems really nice and has a great book pitch is probably better than a jerk with the same pitch.
You’re going to be scared. Your fear is understandable and for good reason. But don’t let it make you a jerk to hide that you’re scared.
The truth is, even if you blow it, the agent will probably tell you to send sample pages to her. (They know the pitch is one thing, and the book is often something totally different.) I blew my chances at pitches… and still got a deal.
III. Agents and Online Publishing: “I was reading your post about how to get an agent, well I was wondering: would an agent be more interested in someone who is already published online?” – Jodie
Depends on where you published online. If you’re publishing stories with SFWA-listed sites, absolutely. (If you publish three stories in those markets, you can get full membership in the SFWA.) However, being able to write a short story and being able to write a novel are overlapping but not identical skills. It’s cabinetmaking to house framing. I’ve seen writers amazingly good at one who are pretty mediocre at the other.
What your membership to SFWA, or your online publishing with accredited markets does is… move your query letter up the stack a little. Maybe it skips you past the query letter stage to the query-letter-with-writing-sample stage.
Agents look for writers in all sorts of ways. Scott Lynch did not get picked up by publishing in an accredited market–he just wrote his first book and released his chapters as he finished them, and built up an audience. An agent stumbled across it, liked it a lot, and bam. Jim Butcher submitted through the normal channels, got rejected, went to a Con and met the agent who’d rejected him, and was professional and cool, and she told him to submit again. She accepted his manuscript, and now he’s Jim Butcher.
Agents are interested in writers who look like they will 1) make them money, 2) be reasonable to work with. In that order. If you have self-pubbed Kindle books and sold a million copies, an agent is going to see #1 all over that. Is there still snobbery in this industry? Yep. Enough for people turn away big paychecks? Nope.
At some point, go to a writing conference. Look for one with lots of classes on things you need to work on. Generally, I avoid talks at conferences given by writers. (Sorry, other writer folks, this is solely my own and limited experience, but I’m trying to be honest here.) No matter how good the writer is, those talks have sucked–because, my guess is, writers make so many of their decisions intuitively and those talks can become love-fests. Cool if you love the writer, not that cool if you’re trying to learn. Agents, editors, book doctors–these people think analytically. They can tell you why things work or don’t. It’s going to cost money to go to a conference. My first was local and still cost me $450 (a huge, nearly prohibitive sum to me at the time), but I learned more in three days than I learned in the previous year of just reading books on writing. Plus, I met my now-agent, the aforementioned Donald Maass.
I went to that conference thinking my book was finished, and that I was going to pitch it. Well, I did pitch it–not very well. But from a talk by Don, I realized that I wasn’t finished with the book, either. Agents at these things tend to be very open to taking lots of mss. They figure if you’re professional enough to have paid money to come to a conference, your book will be a cut above the usual dreck. Well, it was 9 months after the conference that I sent my query to Don, but being able to say, “I talked with you at Conference X, and you asked me to send you the first five pages of my novel Y…” at least bumps you up in the pile.
Of course, sometimes lightning strikes and a guy like Jim Butcher gets his ms rejected at some agency, and then meets and hits it off with an agent, who THEN decides to rep him. Don’t bet on this or worry about it, though. Mostly, conferences are good for learning and for meeting some folks. Put on your extrovert hat and do your best. Don’t worry, there are lots of other introverts at these things.
Again, the biggest thing to worry about is the thing that you actually have control over: the book. If it’s awesome, and I mean AWESOME, then eventually you will make it through the gatekeepers. Now, even if it’s AWESOME, it will take more time than it should. That’s the business. I got rejected at six or seven places, despite having a great agent… and all those rejections took up two years of my life. Painful, and brutally difficult. Just have a good idea of what you really want, and if you’re prepared to pay the price for it. It’s hard, it seems random, and there will be published writers who are published despite that your book is clearly better than theirs. Try not to get paranoid, and hold on, by fingernails if necessary. The thickened skin will be helpful when critics start talking crap about your books.
This is one answer I can’t answer very well. Things labeled Writers’ Conferences are often good. There are a lot of these. You’re looking for things with seminars or talks by prominent agents or editors about the business of writing–both the writing, and the business. Both the Willamette Writers Convention (Portland, Oregon) and the Surrey International Writers Conference (Surrey, British Columbia) were very helpful to me. If you’ve done you’re homework, you’ll start to see names pop up. If you see one of the agents that reps an author you think is very similar to you is going to a con near you, GO. I met one agent who looked like a great match for me on paper–and in person, I was like, no no no no no. That personal connection is really important–even though when you’re poor and desperate, you feel like you’d take any agent with a pulse. Don’t do that.
i. My degree didn’t really help. My education was very important. I’d absolutely tell you to study what you love and you can certainly include in there some things that you think would be helpful for future books, but nobody asked me for my GPA or what I got a degree in when I was trying to get published. However, it’s up to you to find the passion and the guts and the dedication to actually write that great book that is worth people buying. No one can do it for you. So pour your heart into it.
ii. As the guy said in Good Will Hunting, all you need is a library card. Though a huge amount of discipline and curiosity helps. All writers are autodidacts. Read everything you can get your hands on, and read the best. And you will learn sub-consciously what works and what doesn’t. Then drag that stuff out into the light:
This book worked. Why? What was good about it? You loved the characters? What made you love them? This book sucked you in from the very first paragraph? Go look at that paragraph and ask yourself what it did and how.
Nobody cares what your credentials are when you try to get published. They care if you can tell a great story. So if you have the right personality to read a lot of books and teach yourself, there’s no reason for a university directly. However, it is also extremely difficult to get published and to make a living writing books. So an education is a helpful thing for getting a real job while you are trying to write. (And you may have the good fortune to meet amazing friends and brilliant people, in addition to wracking up a ton of debt.) There are trade-offs to be made either way, and you have to figure out what is going to work best for you.
I think there are a couple MFA programs that study genre writing. But–and you’re talking to a guy here who didn’t go to an MFA program, so I’m a biased, barely informed source–the main good I see from an MFA program is that it gives you a community of writers to be part of, and you get assigned to write a lot of different types of writing. And you get a lot of writing assignments, so it forces you to write lots. The pressure of deadlines IS useful to many, if not most of us. However, an MFA does cost money, and it costs time, and a lot of MFA programs are snotty about genre fiction. So for someone who wants to write genre and wants make a living writing, rather than making a living teaching writing, an MFA can be a huge waste of time and money. Every program is different, so I don’t want to make a blanket statement, but go in with your eyes wide open. A couple of programs might actually help you land a job teaching writing, many won’t. So depending on how the professors at a particular program react to the idea of writing genre (and find out BEFORE you go), and depending on your own feelings, you may be better served by giving your library card a lot of use, and just writing on your own. If you’re looking for genre-focused MFA-type programs, look into Clarion or Clarion West. Good luck on your journey.
1) A happy dance.
2) Buy a lottery ticket, because your juju is that strong today. On any other day, please remember: The lottery is a tax on people who are bad at math.
3) After your celebrations and gleeful phone calls and triumphant status updates, come back to this page. You are bookmarking it, right?
4) Let the glee run its course. This is a major achievement, and you shouldn’t run right past it. Savor it for a bit. No, really. Yes, there’s work ahead, but there’s time for it.
5) Okay, you’ve taken your deep breaths, and now you’re ready to hit the grindstone.
Industry pros like to laugh when they hear you ask, “Now what?”
“Aha,” they will say. “Now the real work starts.”
Your heart will despair, because you only got here by the skin of your teeth, and your sanity already looks like that ragged bloody clump of fur the cat dropped on your doorstep. Don’t listen to them. That’s fear in their voices. You see, there’s a new kid in town, and by God, you might just be better than they are.
BUT, this is going to be a time of transition. Even good transitions are stressful. Even the best transitions are stressful. Maybe you like the groove you’ve had going, the jokes you’ve made with your buddies about what a big deal you’ll be someday. Maybe the reality of it scares the hell out of you. Even if you haven’t liked where you were, at least you knew how it worked there, right? Well, you’re not alone. Crack your knuckles, stretch your back, and get ready.
First, you need to ask yourself some questions and give yourself some honest answers. Are you with a big publisher, or small, or are you virtually self-publishing? What was your advance? Enough for you to live on for a year, or not?
The vast majority of writers will get an advance that, if they did the math, will prove they were making less than a buck an hour. Maybe you got 5- or 10- or 15,000 dollars–and you spent how many years on that?
Take a deep breath. That’s 15 grand you didn’t have before.
If you’re north of $15,000 by much, there was probably competition for you. You are incredibly lucky (and talented, yes, but luck/fate/the ley lines/God’s mercy/the color of your dapper hat) plays a huge part in all of this. Let’s say you got a three book deal for $25k each.
Do some math. Figure out when you get that money. How you deal with finances will wreck you in this business if you don’t do it right. How much money do you need to make a year to continue with your current standard of living? How much money a year do you need to survive (with still a tiny bit of entertainment to maintain sanity). [Look at Myke Cole's post HERE for a guy who's making it on the bare bones and doing it intelligently.] What are your expenses and commitments? You may hate budgeting, but it may–literally–save your sanity later.
What’s your baseline for what you’re going to make? That advance. Do the math figuring you’renever going to make another dollar from that book/those books. This is most common. Even with books that are lavishly praised in all quarters and win awards.
The point of this approach is to plan by what you know. That is, plan conservatively so that you know at least that you’re going to be okay, you’re going to be able to pay your taxes and buy food. Then, if things go well, the extra money is extra. Now you get to go out to eat twice this month, or take a vacation, or–the ultimate goal–quit your day job.
What has to happen for you to quit your day job? My agent recommends at least six books in print, and likely ten years. But let’s say that you’re certain you’re going to be an outlier, and that your books are going to do great. HOW great do they have to do? You still have to make it to the day you get your first royalty payment–and you still have to pay your agent–and your taxes. Figure out: I have to sell X books to earn out my advance, then I’d have to sell Y books past that in order to pay agent and taxes and live for six months. And you only have Z books in print, and you know average sell-through is what? Maybe 60%? Forget “is it probable?”… is it even possible if you don’t go to a second printing?
Other authors and agents talk more about money elsewhere on the web, [Jim Hines has a nice series discussing income from his own experience in 2013, 2012, 2011 and 2010] and my take on what is a normal advance assumes that there IS a normal advance, and is also five years out of date. (I got my advance in 2007, got published in 2008.) Go check out what others say.
What I’m saying is that if you plan ahead, you’re going to spare yourself extreme stress. Extreme stress can make you write bad books. Let’s say you’re behind on your mortgage, and you need your delivery payment or you’re going to lose your house. You get finished with the book and you know in your heart it needs another six months of edits–there’s diamonds in there, but man, they’re buried deep. What do you do? You publish the crap book, and surprise! It doesn’t do that great, and you need to finish the next book fast to meet the next crisis. That’s a horrible way to live.
Far better to write great books that will eventually make royalties and keep selling for years and years.
Until you’ve been doing this for a long time, you’re never going to know how big the next royalty check is. I’ve got one coming in October (covering sales from December to June), and it could be anywhere in a range that varies by 300%. And I keep decent tabs on things. (I’m also living quite a bit below my income and have put aside a lot in savings so that I’m not freaking out about money.) Patience and self-control are your friends here. Even if you get a huge $100,000 advance, you can’t go out and buy a $99,000 sports car and save the rest for a great dinner with all your friends. (100k – 15% to agent = 85k, sudden spike in income puts you in the highest tax bracket, so 85k – 40% = $51k.) Still a lot of money, but not nearly as big as you thought. (Oh, and because you had this spike in income, NEXT year the feds will think you’ll again have a huge income, so you’ll have to pay quarterly estimated taxes. If you’ve blown all your money, you simply won’t have it.)
So, measure twice, cut once. If you’re married or in a relationship, make sure your spouse or partner knows that while amazingly good things are possible, for most, it’s a long slow climb. Years. Not months.
All the above prep can be done in the comfort of your stinky basement. But now that you’re a published writer, you have to actually interact with people. (Gasp!)
First, get a bar of soap… I wish I was totally kidding.
Assuming your personal hygiene is up to snuff, now take an accurate snapshot of where you’re at. Your editor makes more money than you do, and she’s got plenty of other authors. She’s probably used to working with difficult personalities, because, hey, authors. It does you zero good to be one of those difficulties. You’re not proving that you’re the talent by being an ass. If something happens that makes you freak out, wait 24 hours before you call. Don’t email for two days at least. Be good to work with. Build up credit so that when you have a big request, they feel you’ve earned it. Most of your requests are going to cost someone else money–money they don’t HAVE to spend. Money they have zero legal obligation to spend. Be aware that until you’re making your publisher a lot of money, every thing you do here is putting them deeper in the hole with you.
If you got a big advance–maybe there was an auction–you’re in a slightly different place with your publisher. Everyone needs your books to do great (and thinks you’re brilliant, of course)! You can expect a little more attention. If you’re at the bottom end, you may have a junior editor who’s had to fight tooth and nail just to get you that tiny advance. If you’re coming in there, there’s nothing wrong with that, and you may find a million other fans out there who are going to love your book as much as that junior editor (who was brilliant enough to see your talent!). BUT, you’re probably not going to get huge favors out of the art and marketing departments yet–who are, after all, trying to meet all the demands of the lady who’s making them a million dollars a year. Most of those demands will be legitimate, too, but the volume of work goes up for everyone. That woman’s twenty-city book tour and radio and tv spots just take a lot more work for the publicity people than your local signings. They have to prioritize, and prioritizing with the person who keeps all of you in business is rational.
Don’t complain about the obvious lack of talent in the person who’s making the money that is putting food on your table. It’s bad form. If they weren’t doing so well, your publisher wouldn’t have been able to take a risk on you.
Realize that every editor has different strengths: maybe yours is a wizard at bringing the best out of a novel and making it come alive, but she’s totally disorganized and often brings things to your attention at the eleventh hour. Take your TUMS and thank God you have a book deal at all. Maybe she’s amazing at juggling the other departments and keeping things on schedule, but you fight over the actual edits and disagree on everything. Take your blood pressure medication and salute your zodiac that you have a book deal at all.
This is real life, kids. It’s a job. Work. Take your lumps and deal. This is what it is to be a pro.
If you get emails asking for something–say a description of your main character for the cover artist, send it in promptly, or if you’re on vacation, say, “Got your note, I’m in Puerta Vallarta with my husband, who will kill me if I spend any more time on the computer. I’ll work on the plane home and get you that description by next Tuesday!” Then do.
If you can’t make a deadline, guess what? You are not the first author in history to miss a deadline. Guess what? That also doesn’t make it okay. Other people in history have cheated on their spouses. Doesn’t make it cool with yours. Here’s what you do instead: tell your editor as soon as you know. Even if you just have a really sick feeling in your stomach like: Everything is going to have to goperfectly for me to get this in in time!
It’s writing, everything goes perfectly precisely never. If you tell your editor early, she can juggle things pretty easily. The longer you wait, the more of a pain it is for everyone. Strive to get things in when you promise. When you can’t, apologize, tell the truth about when you think you can really get it in, and then keep your promise the second time. Don’t build up a history of over-promising.
At some point in the process (early though), you’re going to get an edit letter. For me, it was one letter that covered all three of my fat epic fantasy books. It was almost twenty pages long. Twenty pages, of everything that was wrong.
It was a kick in the guts. Followed by a kick in the guts. Followed by a kick somewhat farther south.
I don’t anger easily, but I was hurt, I was livid, I wondered why they’d even bought my book if they believed all this stuff was true.
Give yourself two days before you respond. Nothing good is going to come out of responding earlier.
For two days, I stomped and snarked. I acted very badly–but privately. Then I went through the letter and marked all the things I definitely agreed with, and then the things that I definitely didn’t agree with. All the stuff in between, I waited on. (I ended up agreeing with most of them.)
This is the time for you to disentangle your ego and your work a little bit. This is where you show you’re a pro. The whole point of this exercise is not to prove that you aren’t a genius. It’s to make the book better. Edits are a beautiful opportunity not given in many lines of work. In editing, you get a chance to make your book better–just by hard work. Coming up with all that crazy stuff in the first place took some genius, some divine madness, a conjuring ex nihilo. Edits? Just work. And it’s work that could make your books sell twice as many copies. You’re an idiot not to take the chance.
Oh, a beautiful passage that was sooo poetic and did nothing for novel, and three people have already pointed out that it’s pointless? Aren’t you precious. Let’s go enroll you in that MFA program, stat!
Nothing beautiful is lost forever. Cut it. Put it in a special document you’re going to name, “My Unrecognized Genius.” Later when you’re old and out of ideas, you’re going to open that file and steal shamelessly from the younger you. Critics will be astounded at the creative force of your 98 year old mind. Your eventual triumph will be complete.
For now, cut it, wimp.
After my two days of fury, I called my agent. Depending on your relationship and how you process conflict, maybe you want to call your agent immediately. I didn’t know whether, if I said no to some suggestions, they would fire me!
They won’t fire you. Well, not if you’re careful.
Here’s what I did: once I was sure that some of the suggestions weren’t right for the story, and weren’t because I was lazy or because it hurt my feelings that someone thought my baby was ugly–once I was sure, then I knew it was all about what makes the book the best book it can be. Everyone in the conversation wants that. So I wrote copious thanks for the various pieces of advice I was taking, and said why I didn’t think those others could work. I played nice. On most things that I didn’t think mattered, I gave in. On the ones that were legit, I made the changes, no matter how much sleep I missed out on. On the ones that were wrong, I stuck to my guns.
Editor’s response: Oh, okay.
After your big edits, hopefully you’ll be done with your big edits. Some editors will give a second round of edits, depending on deadline and cleanness of what you’ve got. At some point, you will get copy edits.
Aaaaaand, we’ll talk about that next month!
Your copy editor will never read your comments where you quibble with MLA style versus Chicago style. He fixes stuff. If you disagree, you’re the boss. Get familiar with Stet. Stet is your friend. (Don’t know what “stet” means? Go HERE.) But make sure you know what you’re talking about. You broke a grammar rule? Did you do it on purpose? What was that purpose? Can you not tell the difference between what he did and what you did? He’s probably right. A great copy editor can help immeasurably, but you don’t usually get to choose your own. Deal with what you get. If you consistently do some funky things grammatically or with the narrator’s voice or something, you can write a note to the copy editor beforehand to avoid a lot of unnecessary work for both of you.
Dear Copy Editor,
I like to use a single quotation mark when, in dialogue, a character quotes another character. Thus:
Shelly said, “I can’t believe she said ‘butthole’ in front of Mr. Weeks!”
You will often not have nearly as much time as you would like when you get these copy edits. I’ve had to do a 215k word book in 7 days. It was miserable, but it’s analytical versus creative work: you can get this done just by putting in the hours.
If you realize that there’s a gaping plot hole while you’re doing these edits–”Why doesn’t Ted just push the launch button before the bad guys get onto the rocket?”–PANIC!
Just kidding. The fact is, most of us could tinker with a manuscript until the end of time. If you find something that you absolutely must change, first, figure out if there’s a brief fix that won’t ruin everyone’s life. Maybe you don’t need to add three pages to fix this. Maybe you can put in:
“Ted pushed the button. Nothing happened.”
then, three pages later, when the bad guys get on rocket and Heather throws the switch
“The button turned green. Ted pushed…” and you’re back where you were.
ANY additions you make now are going to make other people unhappy. If the book needs it, tough. Make the change. Realize the price you may pay for this is extra typos in your book, as making changes can screw up other stuff. So make those changes as small as possible. There is sometimes a letter threatening that they will charge you if you make too many changes. If your changes are making the book better, ignore this letter. Better to be charged 50 bucks than leave in twenty things you knew were wrong. Also, I don’t find it helpful to mix in monetary sticks to a creative endeavor. Like, yo, I am making this book better. Making the book better will make it make more money for all of us. More money will offset more expenses. So thank you, please shut up. [I don't say this out loud. I owe production a dozen favors: it behooves me to shut up about my little gripes.]
For the record, though I have seen those letters, I have always made lots of changes. I do my absolute best to not have it screw up the line spaces–you’re trying not to add extra words that will push you onto a new page and screw up every page after the one you’re on. I’ve never been charged.
IF the changes can’t be small, call your editor. (Call your agent first, if you need handholding or someone to speak for you. That’s what you pay her for.)
I did this once. I have an important reveal in The Black Prism that I’d been working to get right for almost two years. Got through my edits, and the scene I had did the job, but I wasn’t happy with it. I read it during my copy edits, and hated it. I threw it out and re-wrote the whole chapter from scratch. It came out much better.
I called my editor. Devi, I said, you’re going to hate me. But this has to happen.
She went to bat for me, and I never heard a peep of complaint.
Not recommending that. Not at all. But if you’ve been a dream to work with, when the crap hits the fan, people are more likely to cut you slack. (I sent boxes of chocolate to production afterward.)
After copy edits, at some point, you’ll get what they call the first pass. Really, it’s your last chance. First pass is your last read to make sure that you caught all the typos and misplaced commas. Change whole sentences here, and you get the wrath of the gods. Try to avoid. (Yes, I’ve made changes there. My excuse: publishing three huge books in three months. It was murder. The price I paid: those first editions also had a humiliating number of typos–and I’m a good speller and grammarian.)
Be aware that by this point, if not long before, you will be sick of your book. Disgusted. It may seem like the worst book in the world. At this point, you are a terrible judge of your work’s quality. Really. Don’t trust yourself too much. You’ve been looking at what doesn’t work for six months straight, and not at all at what does work. Trust me, it’s in there. And that bad taste in your mouth will fade.
And now what? You wait, and you prepare.
Depending on your publisher, and how big of a deal you are for them, one or the other of you is going to have to spend some money putting together a professional-looking website for you. Lucky me, Orbit did it for me.
If you write SFF or YA, I don’t think there’s any way you can avoid this expense. Your audience is tech savvy, so you need to get close enough to savvy to fake it. Part of your continued job security relies on turning casual fans into dedicated fans. With people going less to bookstores, you need to use the platforms you have–at the bare minimum to let people know when the next book is coming out.
Again, you have to pick an approach that fits you, your talents, your time, and your budget. Orbit wanted me to blog. I told them no, because I’m too much of a perfectionist to just sit and spew what I’m thinking daily. Eventually, I’d worry, I’d say something really dumb, and it would live on the internet forever, dooming my career.
So instead of a blog, I have a news feed. I only posted stuff there when, well, when there was news. It took me a while to find my online voices. Plural, for me, depending on my mood.
If you’re doing this on your own, you should go look at all the authors’ webpages in your subgenre, and then more broadly. What do you like? What seems cool but also clearly organized? Most webpages will have some ‘created by’ tab at the bottom somewhere. Find someone good, and pay them to make a great website. This is one spot that’s worth it to get the best. LOTS more people will see your webpage than will ever see you at the five conventions that it costs you a $1,000 each time to attend. (I use Clockpunk Studios.)
At first, you may not have all that much content. Don’t worry: like a garage, it’ll fill up.
If you decide to blog, do some personal cost-benefit analysis of what you’re going to blog about. Is your hallmark going to be fiery, opinion-on-everything, but always amusing? Or will you write with such flame that people will come just to see who you’re burning this week? If those things are central to your personality (and persona), go for it. If not, consider what you gain by talking about divisive issues like politics and religion versus what you lose. Some of your readers will have opposite views. They may come to your website, and when they see your stance on [abortion/God/the death penalty] and that you think anyone who believes differently is a moron–well, now you’ve just called one of your fans a moron. Likelihood of that casual fan becoming a committed fan? Less than it was before (i.e. you have accomplished the opposite of what you set up your web site to do).
I’m not advocating you stifle yourself, just that you think about what you’re doing. If dropping f-bombs and making jokes about masturbation is part of your schtick, then make sure it’s good enough that you make up for the people you turn off because of that. Chuck Wendig does this perfectly. He’s so consistently entertaining that I suspect he’s a guilty pleasure for lots of people who would otherwise be turned off by the jokes and the language.
Now is a good time to go to a con. See if your publisher can get you on a panel. Learn what it means and doesn’t mean to ‘write it off’. Think of it as a coupon. Basically, you’re just saving whatever your tax rate is, so it isn’t FREE to you because it’s a business expense, it just costs you maybe 15%-40% less. If you’re on a panel, do a good job, prepare for it. Also prepare for not many people to come. I’ve been on panels with some of the best writers now writing, sure we’d be talking to a packed hall–and had fifteen people in the audience. Ah well.
Try to find a con buddy. That is, another debut author who’s trying to figure all this stuff out, too, or someone also published by the same publisher who will show you the ropes. I got lucky and buddy-ed up with Peter Brett, Myke Cole, and Deanna Hoak on my first con. Peter and I were both just published (Myke would have to wait another agonizing couple of years), and our careers have followed similar trajectories. I have been able to call Peter up and ask about, say, movie stuff or graphic novels, and he’s helped me out.
You may have some inner glee at meeting some of your favorite authors, and that’s great. Everyone likes to be told you love their work. But remember, you’re here as a pro. Saying, “Oh, it’s AMAZING to meet you, I love everything you do!” is actually less flattering than saying, “I love your work, and I find your transitions between points of view to be utterly masterful. When Teddy is dying and you somehow take us through the eyes of every character to show their feelings, it’s seamless. No one writing speculative gothic noir does it even close to as well.”
When you come, come with questions. “Devi shouts at me. Does she shout at you? Does that mean she hates me?”
The wonderful thing about this business is that we all had to learn it the hard way, and because of that, many many people are willing to help you learn.
Just ask nicely, and pay for the booze, and let the nice author escape if they look like they need to escape.
There are a lot of different approaches to what to do at cons, and I’ll leave that to others. Just remember, what you do there needs to fit your personality. If you’re trying to pitch your book to everyone you meet–1) you’re going to be irritating, and 2) if you’re not a natural salesman, you’re going to be really irritating. If you’re going to make friends and meet some people in person with whom you’ve worked on the phone, that may well be enough.
Another thing that happens at cons: authors go to the water cooler and bitch. Because this is their only chance to gossip and bitch, they do A LOT of it. That’s fine. Even hearing some disaster stories from other writers (and maybe sharing one of your own) is fine. Be aware that your gossip may get back to the gossip-ee. It’s a small community. Don’t kill your career for the sake of telling a juicy anecdote. But something happens in the bitching and the gossiping and the talk of brilliant marketing and the talk of marketing disasters that I want to touch on:
Lots of things happen in the career of an author that he or she has no control over, and those things matter. A terrible cover, a book launching the same time a much bigger book with the same idea launches, being shunned by all the blogs for no discernible reason, your editor getting fired and the book being brought to press by an editor who isn’t enthusiastic about your work–whatever it is, it matters, and it’s cool or it sucks depending. BUT. Your book is more than your marketing plan.
What matters most is what’s between the covers. A flashy cover and a good blurb might make you buy one book, but it won’t make you buy Brent Weeks books for the next twenty years.
George R. R. Martin’s first Song of Ice and Fire book didn’t even hit the NY Times list. (Well, not until 15 years later, when the show came out.) Its cover wasn’t that great. But the story was great–and the next book was even better. The story built its own momentum.
All the marketing work you do, all the interviews and blogging, it has some impact, but it might be a small impact. No one really knows. But writing a great book, spending the time to get that one fiddly chapter right, THAT MATTERS. Put the marketing first, and you’ll be on a hamster wheel forever. Put the writing first, and you may only have to jump on the hamster wheel for a couple of months around the release of each book. There are a thousand things you can’t control that affect how well you will do. The writing? You can control that. And it’s the most powerful thing. Covers can be changed, books can be reissued, but your words are forever. Your words are powerful, and you control them absolutely. That you are in control of the most important thing is your best defense against the attacks on your sanity that this business will bring. You are in control of the most important thing.
So write with passion. Write the way only you can write, and about the stuff you love and that terrifies you and where you find meaning and where you find hopelessness and devastation. Write fearlessly, and you will write powerfully. If you can add skillfully into that mix, then you’ll be a force to be feared.