Questionable: 10 Things to Know About Publishing
How about . . . [a] Top 10 things nobody tells you about getting your book published, Top 10 things newbie authors need to know, middle-of-the-road/almost published authors should know…
Publishing is chaotic and ever-changing so any advice I give is subjective and possibly useless. Actually, any advice anybody gives is subjective and possibly useless. One thing to keep in mind when evaluating publishing advice is, “Does this make sense?” Because most of the time, it doesn’t. Here are some of the things my McDaniel students had heard about publishing:
Publishing Fact: “They’re not buying any authors over forty.”
Reality Check: Somebody shows up with a great book, but she’s fifty-one, so they decide not to publish her? Really? The current top ten authors on the NYT fiction list range in age from 44 to 71. Clearly, it’s an author demographic that still sells.
Publishing Fact: “They’re not buying new authors any more, they’re just publishing established names.”
Reality Check: That was so absurd, that I told my editor, Jen Enderlin, about it. She said, “YES! Spread that rumor so I can get all the new authors!” Discovering a great new author is the wet dream of every agent and editor because a great new author is the best way to build a reputation, not to mention a career.
Publishing Fact: “Historicals are dead.”
Reality Check: Historical fiction has been around for a couple of hundred years and historical romance has been selling steadily for at least a hundred years. What are the chances the twenty-first century killed it?
If you look closely at these facts, you’ll see they’re all useful for explaining why somebody’s book didn’t sell. “It wasn’t that my book was bad, it was that editors aren’t buying [fill in the kind of book she writes].” Generally speaking, any wisdom that says that X won’t sell or editors aren’t buying X doesn’t pass the logic test. Yes, vampires have been overworked, but if your vampire novel is so fabulous that the editor can’t resist it, she’ll publish it. No subject ever dies in publishing, although some of them take long naps, in which case one great book can wake them up again. (My fave bit of publishing wisdom: “Vampires are dead.” Yeah, but those suckers always rise again . . .) (Actually, the latest publishing fact I’ve heard is “Zombies are dead.” The jokes just write themselves, folks.)
But you wanted “the top ten things nobody ever tells you about publishing.” That’s impossible because people are always telling you things about publishing so everything has been said somewhere. But here are the top ten things that I, subjectively, would tell you about publishing, that may or may not apply to your situation, and that may or may not be true tomorrow. They’re in no particular order of importance until the last two.
1. Publishing is a slow.
If you’re talking about print, it takes a year. If you’re talking about a well-published e-book, it still takes about a year. That’s because publishing is not printing; that is, publishing involves marketing strategies, arranging placement in stores, devising public relations campaigns, and many other things that make the difference between your book dying on the shelf (real or virtual) and lots of people hearing about the book and being tempted to read it. One of the biggest misconceptions that e-publishing has given us is that you can write a book on Tuesday and publish it on Wednesday. You can write a book on Tuesday and make it available for purchase on Wednesday, and technically that is published, but since “publish” means “to make public” you could also publish it by leaving a stack of copies of the manuscript by your front door, and you’ll probably get about the same number of readers. It takes time to publish a novel well.
2. Publishing is a very small world.
If you’re standing on the outside, Publishing is huge and powerful. Once you’re on the inside, Publishing is a very small town. People have lunch, go to cocktail parties, call each other to gossip like crazy, and, most of all, know each other. There’s a perception that the rise of e-publishing has decentralized that small town and that it’s now spread throughout the country, but the heart of publishing is still NYC. Be professional with everybody, even the dickheads; you do not want to be a LITS author (“Life Is Too Short to work with this bitch again.”)
3. Publishing is populated by people who love books.
I’ve never had an editor or an agent who didn’t love books. Every editor and agent I’ve met has loved story, loved reading, loved making books that bring great stories to readers. They make lousy money and work incredibly long hours and when they do get time off, they read for pleasure, and most of them wouldn’t dream of leaving publishing because they just freaking love books. They really want to love your book, too. They are not the enemy.
4. Publishing is fluid.
Whatever I tell you now may not be true tomorrow. Hell, it may not be true by this afternoon. Everything in the world is changing right now, so it’s no surprise that publishing is in flux, too, but it’s even more chaotic because of e-publishing (a good thing) and the dying off of bricks and mortar stores (a bad thing) and the hacking away at the already slim profit margin by Amazon, a retailer who has also become a publisher (another bad thing). Publishing changes every damn day, so stay fluid with it.
5. Publishing is irrelevant until you’ve finished a book.
If you’re a first-time author, you’re going to have to have a finished book to sell, so researching (or worrying about) publishing before your book is done is a waste of time. Finish your manuscript and then while you’re in rewrites, do your research.
6. Publishing requires a good agent.
I know, it’s hard getting a good agent. It’s hard knowing who a good agent is. But it’s a nightmare trying to navigate publishing without one. The contracts are Byzantine, the procedures complex, the demands on authors constant. An agent stands between you and all of that. Because you have an agent, you will never have to talk money with your editor, will never have to tell the head of internet marketing that if he wants you to tweet every day you expect him to write your books, will never have to wonder what the hell a reversion of rights clause is and why the wording on it is crucial in e-book sales.
How to find a good agent: Finish your book. Then look at all the books you love that were published in the last two years. Find out who those authors’ agents were because they clearly have the same taste in fiction that you do. Research those agents (search for videos of panel discussions so you can hear them talk, google for online posts by them, find them on Facebook and Twitter, etc.). See if they feel right for you, if your personalities are compatible. Then put together a great proposal for your finished book and query them, mentioning the things that drew you to them and explaining in one short paragraph why your book is fabulous. That process takes a awhile, but the goal isn’t to find any agent fast, it’s to find an agent who loves your work with whom you can work comfortably for many years.
7. Publishing changes your life.
It won’t necessarily make your life better, it may make your life worse, but it’s definitely going to change it. If you have a friend who thought the two of you were just alike and you get published, you may lose that friend because she now feels like a failure, even if you’re lovely to her, even if she’s not writing a book. If you’re married, your significant other may feel threatened. Threatened people often turn to denigration: “Yeah, she wrote a book but it was just a romance.” “Yeah, she wrote a book, but it sold like twelve copies.” If you’re hoping for any kind of sales at all, you’ll have to become more public, working social media, making appearances wherever you can arrange them, talking about yourself and your work. Even your writing life changes; before you were hoping to get published, now you have a contract and a deadline and expectations and people who are going to judge this book by comparing it to your last book even if they’re completely different. And then there’s the IRS and the wonderful world of the self-employed. Getting published doesn’t solve anything, it just delivers a new set of
8. Publishing can eat your life.
Publishing is demanding. You’ll end up spending all your free time writing, marketing on social media, writing, going to conferences, writing, dealing with the business issues of being self-employed, writing . . . It’s difficult for the very few people who can afford to write full time, it’s really difficult for the people who are holding down full time jobs, it’s damn near impossible for people with full time jobs and children under fifteen, and frankly I don’t know how people who self-publish well are still alive because I don’t see when they sleep. Which is why it’s really important to establish boundaries for your career, say “this much time and no more will be spent on publishing” because otherwise everything else can get lost.
9. The key to surviving publishing is identifying and listening to your signal.
Separating the signal from the noise in publishing means separating what you want from your life and your publishing career from all the crap that people tell you about publishing. The mistake most people make when they approach publishing is that they listen to the noise and try to make a career plan from that. “You have to write two books a year to be successful,” they hear, so they plan to write two books a year without considering whether they CAN write two books a year and, more important, if they want to give their lives over to writing two books a year. In the last McDaniel class, I have students make a career plan before I give them any information about publishing. I tell them to think about how they want to live their lives, what they want from their careers, what their priorities are, and then I make them write a one-year and five-year career plan. Usually, they panic because they don’t know enough about publishing to make a plan, but the plan isn’t about publishing, it’s about how they can live their lives as writers, fully and happily. They have to establish what they’re willing to sacrifice and what they must protect. Only then, when their signal is clear, do we start searching through the incredible amount of publishing noise that’s out there to figure out how to implement that plan. Only then can they look at agents and editors as partners in publishing instead of bosses or gatekeepers, someone they can bring their career plans to and say, “This is what I want; let’s talk about it and you can help me revise this plan to be practical and effective in light of what’s happening today.” Only then can they slow down, realize there’s no hurry, that they’re on their own timeline, and that finding the right publishing partners is infinitely more important that getting published fast. Making a publishing career plan is a hugely complex endeavor that requires regular revising, but the most important part is identifying your signal first. As long as you know your signal and use it as your guide, you’ll survive.
10. The most important thing I know about publishing: Write a fantastic book. Then do it again. That makes everything else about publishing so much easier.