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 t
o 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.
*More links on how to deal with money as a writer HERE and HERE.