10.06.2014

Authors and the Conundrum Great Expectations

If you stare at it long enough, you'll become a bestseller!

There is so much unwarranted mystique that surrounds the publishing industry. Telling people I'm a writer is usually met with a gaze of wide-eyed awe that makes me want to retreat and hide in the nearest broom closet. Not only because I'm embarrassed that now I'm the center of attention, but also because I feel almost an obligation to dispel people of their erroneous notion that writing books for a living is anything glamorous

You stay in this business long enough, and the glittery shininess wears off pretty quick. You can see the big, slow-moving machinery for what it is, and you realize you're only another cog in that machine. But for the uninitiated, publishing is still very much a machine that churns out sweet-smelling delusions. That's fine for people who don't work in the business, but there are none so hopped up on the gas as the people who aspire to be authors, whose fictions on the page can't even come close to competing with the ones populating their heads.

I had my own pretty little fictions once. They motivated me in the beginning, but taken too long, and like any drug, it can ruin you. I still need to realign my head and heart from time to time. Authors are natural dreamers and idealists who require constant course correction, so this is to be expected.

My point isn't to defeat anyone here or to discourage people from pursuing their goals. It's to help you go into this thing smart, and with your soft and tender bits covered in thick armor, because while the act of writing is a divine and beautiful form of self-expression that makes you feel like you can conquer the world, publishing can be downright grueling, dehumanizing, nerve-wracking, heartbreaking, confusing, and tedious. In fact, it's a lot like a sore on the side of your tongue that rubs against your teeth every time you try to talk or chew. And it doesn't matter if you're self-published or if you're part of a publishing team.

Essentially, selling books is the antithesis of everything that makes you love crafting them. Writing is the wide open field of limitless possibility. Publishing is the leash that reins you in and reminds you of your real place in the world. If handled properly, it's the perfect yin-yang relationship. The key is to make sure you love writing enough to put up with the many rigors on the business end. So let's get started on the five most common reality checks, shall we?

1. The First Book You Finish Probably Won't Get Published (by a traditional publisher)

Al Gore isn't the only one dealing out inconvenient truths
Not that any of these things are easy to hear, but let's just rip this one off like a band-aid, because it's a fuck ugly fact that few authors ever want to entertain. I know I didn't, and I don't know a single writer that has. If anything, the act of trying to woo an agent or publisher for that very first novel is more of an act of ignoring odds. Of course, the odds of publication are always long no matter how many books you write, but with your first book, they're downright dismal. It's the equivalent of rolling two dice in a game of Farkle. It's like Neo trying to make his first jump in the Matrix: no one makes it. Well, almost no one. But you'd feel like a jerk if you didn't try.

Nevertheless, repeat after me: My first book is practice. It's the act of finally holding a really impossible yoga pose. This does not a professional yogi make, just as finishing one book does not a professional author make. 

I can hear people itching to spew their bile at me right now, because there are exceptions to this rule. There are exceptions to every rule. But the truth is still true for 99.9% of us. You can ask nearly any traditionally published author if their debut novel was their first completed book, and chances are nearly all of them will laugh and give you that "you have no idea" sigh. My first two books are resting peacefully in a trunk now. I had to write several hundred thousand words before I got a tiny break. And several hundred thousand more before I got a slightly bigger one. This tale of woe is far from unique.

Do not take this to mean that your accomplishment is meaningless. Finishing a novel is a HUGE DEAL. It deserves all the fanfare and celebration in the world, because it is something so many people cannot do. Take pride in it. But your work as a budding novelist has only just begun. You proved you have it in you, now get going on the next book. Furthermore, agents and publishers love for their writers to be able to demonstrate that they are productive. They want to make money off you for the long haul. They aren't looking for a one book wonder. Publishers usually feel a lot better about signing you to a two or three book deal when you have shown a capacity for finishing books regularly. And honestly? I am RELIEVED those first two books of mine weren't ready for prime time, because I sure as hell wasn't. I was still getting my legs under me, and that was probably bleeding through every word. When I finally got an agent, one of the first things she said to me was my book read like someone who had been doing this a long time. And you know what? She was right. She would not have said that five years ago.

The first book you try to sell to a publisher is basically a resume demonstrating you as a Writer of Books -- emphasis on the plural, emphasis on Writer, i.e. YOU. Because YOU are the product every bit as much as the thing you wrote. In many ways, finishing your NEXT book is almost more momentous than finishing the first, because you are proving this is a muscle you can flex more than once.

While this should not dissuade you from trying to get your first book published--we all have to take our licks out in the field--it's a good idea to know what you're up against. Your resolve will strengthen, and you'll head back to the computer ready to make more and better books.

2. Deserve's Got Nothin to Do with It.

William Munny don't care about your big dreams
Let's just be plain here. As an author, you are entitled to exactly dick. If you think you're a special snowflake because you worked so extra special hard, and you've had an extra special hard life, and you have an extra special story without which the world will not be complete until millions of gazes are thrown upon it, get in line. Most people become writers because they're working out a lifetime of their own specially brewed demons. In fact, we're all kind of miserable bastards. That's why we do art in the first place. So walking into this with a galaxy of fate and entitlement swirling around your head is probably the biggest mistake you can make, both for yourself and the people at whom you're thrusting your masterpiece.

Furthermore, treating your career like a product of well-timed star farts rather than the result of extremely hard work, dedication, and humility is an insult to people who work their asses off for a living, telling luck to go pound sand, who have taken their knocks and kept getting back up despite every single setback, who were creative enough to forge new paths when the ones they originally envisioned didn't pan out. A fatalistic attitude also has a way of making authors behave very badly, and every agent and publisher has a horror story of an author who refused to take no for an answer because "I'm more different and betterer than everyone else out there, which you'll see if you just give ME a chance!"

Just remember: the process of sending your work to agents and publishers is called "submission" for a reason. Because you will be forced to check your ego at the door and get down on your knees regularly to prostrate before the gatekeeper gods while slapping your face directly into the pavement. You'll be forced to follow stringent guidelines that feel tedious and seem designed only to make authors run a fiery gauntlet through Word. And they will reject you. A lot. Why? Who cares. They just will. Most of those rejections will be impersonal and make you feel pathetic and tiny. Some of the rejections will be detailed and personal and they will make you feel even more minuscule. Sometimes you won't hear a thing back from an agent or a publisher at all, even when they asked you for a partial or full manuscript to peruse.

You will be asked to wait. And wait some more. And then hurry up so you can wait even longer than that, because publishing moves at about the speed of a cryogenically frozen snail.

You could even get a book deal or an agent to sign you only to have the whole thing fall through for any number of reasons. Your agent could get sick a year later and decide to retire. He or she might also be unable to sell your work, despite how good you both think the book is and how great the agent's reputation. You could get a book deal, and a contract that seems pretty golden only to have the publisher go bankrupt or be cannibalized by another publisher six months before your book was supposed to come out, tying your rights and your book in an endless limbo. Or you could get a book deal, have your book hit the market, and then wind up realizing you wound up with one of "those" publishers who owes you thousands in back royalties, because they don't pay their authors.

There are so many roadblocks standing between you and your publishing dreams. Don't be your own roadblock by acting like all the setbacks are interfering with your destiny. Shit happens all the time in this biz, and all snowflakes, no matter how unique, will eventually melt under the pressure.

3. Books Don't Sell Themselves. Especially for Debut Authors.


Hold off on those exotic pets. Unless you're Mike Tyson.
Congratulations! You not only finished your book, but you found a publisher for it, and your big book birthday is just around the corner. Already you're picking out your dream home and imagining the purr of that sweet sweet Audi engine, or the endangered tiger you plan to buy, because all eccentric millionaires have tigers. Maybe you have a deal with a big New York house, or possibly it's with a reputable small press or a co-op or some other outfit. Either way, you'll soon learn the size of your publisher isn't all that relevant. Some have more powerful distribution than others, and they have other bells and whistles to make your book shine, but their capacity to sell your books for you is more or less the same, meaning that while some of them may give you an initial push out the gate, it is up to you the author to keep a lot of that momentum going. If you were lucky enough to get a publicist, you will do better than most, but the number of brand new mid-list authors with regular publicists is downright nil.

Also a quick line about money: depending on the genre, you will likely not get very much for an advance, if you get one at all (most small presses don't offer more than token advances). Debut authors with large publishing houses can probably expect somewhere in the vicinity of $5-10K, unless of course you wrote a YA dystopian vampire tale called TWIVERGENT, at which point you can start perusing your Audis and tigers. Regardless of the amount, advance money is paid out in chunks leading up to the publication of your book (which can take upwards of two years from the signing of your contract), and you also need to pay taxes on that money. So $10K paid out in two or three chunks over the next year and a half to two years, minus what you owe Uncle Sam? Not exactly exotic tiger money, is it? And THEN, you don't see another dime from the publisher until you sell enough units to pay for said advance (or "earn out"). Hint: most debut books don't earn out, especially if you're not out there grinding away on promotion. You could get paid for some appearances, but remember, you also have to leave time to write your next book.

As for promotion, be prepared to hit the ground running. A large publisher or a good agent can help with setting up signings, speaking engagements, interviews, press releases, and other events, but its not a magic pill, so slap the notion out of your head now that any of this is automated. This way, anything you DO get from your publisher in terms of marketing help will be a bonus. I've seen just as many authors with a major publisher have to work just as hard to sell the same number of copies as I've sold with my small press gig. And that's EVEN with reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and the New York Times, and famous author blurbs under their belts. In short, making money at this game ain't easy. It takes a lot of mojo, smarts, savvy, and elbow grease to convince a lot of people to buy (and read) the book of someone they've never heard of.

4. Movie Deals, a.k.a That Other Pipedream You Have


Every writer wants to be the meat in this sammich. Or replace Gillian's meat. Er.
I cannot count on a million hands the number of authors whose main approach to this business is not to sell books and have a flourishing literary career, but to get their book made into a movie, with the idea that this is where the "real money" is (oh, there's money in movies, but it's mostly reserved for movie makers, not book authors). Like it's so simple to get a movie made. One very shallow glimpse into the film industry ought to dissuade most people of that fantasy, because if you think book publishing is a grueling nightmare, Hollywood makes publishing look like a charity fundraiser for out of luck scribes. With the umpteen moving parts that all have to be moving in sync to crank out even something mediocre, it's a miracle anything ever gets released in our local theaters.

But it's hard to shake this dream, because so many movies are based on books, right? I mean, a new one hits theaters every week. Look at Nicholas Sparks and Stephenie Meyer and Suzanne Collins, and and and . . . Yes, there a LOT of movies and TV shows that first began life as a book. The adaptation machine is a well-oiled one, and it gives a lot of fuel to an author's dreams that their book will be next. Hell, my own short story, CONSUMPTION, was just optioned for development into a screenplay, and that was really exciting. But here's the reality:

On the very very rare off-chance that out of the nearly 300,000 books published in the U.S. in one year alone, yours caught the eye of a screenwriter or a production company passionate enough about its prospects, you have only reached the one of about a ZILLION hurdles that exist between the signing of an option and its appearance on the big (or small) screen. A production company may offer to option your book for about five grand. Sometimes the amounts are much lower than that, especially if your book isn't a runaway bestseller, but if you have a film agent, they can negotiate decent terms for you. From that point, your work is being "leased" by the producer, where it will remain in limbo for eternity while it awaits the screenwriter, the director and (most important) the financing. This process can take so many years that you will have likely written a dozen novels and have grandkids by the time your agent calls up to tell you they have a green light. Of course, getting the green light is also no guarantee. The movie could even be finished, but then fail at getting distribution. You know how many movies starring hugely famous actors are sitting on shelves gathering dust right right now because of this very thing? Don't try to count them. It'll only make you sad. But none of that makes any difference to your bottom line as an author. That's movie business. You've likely already made and spent all the money you'll get from that project by then anyway.

While a lot of writers make a decent side income just from yearly option renewals from movie studios, and that's cool and all, if this is your endgame as a writer, you're going to be sorely disappointed.

5. The Victory Lap is a Myth



If you think you've reached the top of the heap, you're probably not setting your sights high enough. The climb never ends. Unless you've made enough money at this that you could retire and do something else entirely, the challenges are endless.

Finish your first book? Great. Congrats. Take a few days off and start the next one.

Friends and beta readers think you're the second coming of Kerouac? Enjoy a brief snuggle with your warm and fuzzies and then put that shit away. Writing is a lonely profession, and it's nice to get a boost from our well-meaning supporters once in awhile, but don't huff those fumes too long, or you'll never be able to see your work like the imperfect raw thing it actually is.

Got yourself an agent? Awesome. Good for you! Celebrate and cross that item off your to-do list. And then start praying your agent sells your book.

Agent sells your book? Fantastic! Now get ready for the editing grind and the long long wait to release day. Also start prepping your next book, because the sophomore effort is often more stressful than the freshman one.

Movie studio options your book? Woohoo! Now cash your option check and pretend like nothing happened, because you are a book writer not a movie mogul, and you have to let that process play out on its own.

Sales rankings looking pretty fantastic? Stupendous! Keep churning out the words, because like those awesome story ideas you have right before you wake up, sales trends are fleeting and they dry up. Having another book done and ready to go before that happens is probably not a bad idea.

Got your first royalty check? Terrific! Now set aside money for your taxes, track your expenses, and manage your pennies wisely, because writers can get into a lot of trouble with the tax man. And don't quit your day job just yet (or let your breadwinner quit theirs), because as you have probably noticed by now, those royalty checks are pretty small and they only come monthly or quarterly.

In other words, this is a job like any other, and it's hard as hell on your psyche, your physique, and your bank account. It isn't a quest for fame or some romantic dream come true, and it sure as hell isn't a get rich quick (or even not-so-quick) scheme.

But it is rewarding, and you get to wear pajamas for most of it too (still my favorite perk). Yes, the publishing industry is full of thorns, teeth, and snares, but you have plenty of time between releases to ask yourself whether you were crazy when you decided to take this path. But usually, before you can get around to answering that question honestly, you get another idea, and soon you're speeding along the roller coaster track once again, feeling that old thrill, all doubt and uncertainty left in the dust, because while the other books might not have shot to the top, THIS is going to be the one that hits.

I can feel it.

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