3.23.2013

Don't Wait. Work. Or Why Patience in Publishing is Necessary.


I'm not the most patient person around. Ask my husband or anyone who knows me. I hate waiting in lines. Congested traffic drives me bonkers. Slow internet connections make me want to kick things. So working in the publishing industry doesn't seem like a natural fit for me, does it?

I've said it before and I'll say it again, but publishing is sloooowwww. It's slower than slow. It's inject a tortoise with valium slow. There is no such thing as a quick buck. That first ebook you just put up on the Kindle store? Depending on your royalty percentage, it may not earn you enough money to buy even a Happy Meal for weeks. That short story you just submitted to that mid-level magazine or anthology? You might get paid on acceptance, but sometimes they pay on publication, which could take anywhere from a few months to a year. That is if you get paid at all. Professional markets are much better and pay a lot more, but competition is steep to impossible. Getting into one is like hitting the lottery.

OR (and this is common), you may not even get a response to your submission at all--the short story market is the cruelest of all mistresses, but slush-fatiged agents and publishers are also fast joining the "no response means no" brigade. As a writer, you will spend an interminable amount of time in submission limbo.

So what about that novel you spent a year or more perfecting that you just convinced an agent to sign? It could be months before he or she sells it to a publisher, if he or she even sells it all. And if they (or you, sans agent) do manage to sell it to a small press or major publisher? You may get an advance, or you may not (advances are shrinking faster than Barnes & Noble's bottom line). And then, after your little celebratory dinner following the signing of your contract, it will take a year or more to get the book out on the market, and when it actually DOES start to sell? You likely won't start seeing royalties for at least three months. And if you have an agent, he or she will take his or her 15% before you get yours. Oh yeah, and the retailers and the publisher and the distributors will also get their cut. And don't forget about Uncle Sam (which you have to deduct and account for yourself, because there ain't no payroll department who's going to withhold taxes for you). So that check will probably be smaller than you expected.

And after that, you might get regular checks monthly, quarterly, or even bi-yearly depending on your contract. Authors, even highly-regarded bestselling authors, will never draw a weekly or bi-weekly paycheck like a regular 9-5 worker.

So it would seem that I should have run from this business like my hair was on fire. But if anything, I've only embedded myself deeper, more and more determined to squeeze pennies from rocks, just to make it work.

Why?

Because I didn't do this to get rich (though that would be nice). I don't do this for the money (though money is always welcome, and I'm proud of every little cent I've made so far). I do it because I fucking love doing it, and because I believe that eventually I will get to a place where all of the hard word, all of the seeds I've sown for the last five years, will sprout something pretty awesome that will benefit us all. If I didn't believe that, then I might have stopped doing this. But having a deep understanding of how publishing works, and knowing that everything is happening as it should, has helped keep my patience in check. This is why any of you who are feeling a little huffy, a little discouraged, a little confused by this whole thing NEED to do your research and get to know this industry like the back of your hand. Impatience is difference between reality and the level of your expectations. The less you understand things, the less patient you will be. Fix that little equation, and the whole thing will become a hell of a lot easier to handle.

I also feel inured from my typical impatience, because I'm not actually "waiting" for anything. I'm working. Being a writer is like having an infinite stove with infinite burners. Something is always in various stages of the cooking process while I'm prepping the next "dish." If I was waiting for something to happen, I would have become discouraged a long time ago.

In publishing, you can never think of what's happening "now." You have to keep looking ahead. You can't make just one little effort and think it's enough. You can't even make one huge, Herculean effort and think it's enough. You might have bled yourself dry on that one thing, but if you think that's all it takes, you might as well pick another line of work, because this isn't the field you turn to where one book, one story, one lone little Kindle download with your name on it is going to earn you dividends you think you're entitled to. Sure, we like to look longingly at those literary legends who wrote one book then fed the next several generations of family on the royalties (Harper Lee). But almost no one will ever be that person. The rest of us will have to sit down at that keyboard and open our wrists again and again and again...and again for even a modicum of that fame and fortune.

So just remember... if you're feeling discouraged or impatient or like this whole writing thing isn't paying off for you... get back to work. Writers who climb the ranks to make a decent living are many things. They're talented, they're resourceful, they're innovative and driven. But above all, they're busy.