Facing the Harsh Truths About Publishing
Sat Jul 23 2016
I guess I was in a really grumpy mood last week when I wrote about a bunch of harsh truths in the publishing industry. I stand by all of it. The publishing industry really is harder than people expect, and doesn't suffer fools gladly.
Still, I admit the article was kind of a downer.
The good news is that you can do something about most of those harsh truths. None of them are completely under your control (or they wouldn't be harsh truths in the first place), but you're not exactly powerless against them either.
So what can you do?
Fame and Riches
Two of the harsh truths related to the ubiquitous fantasy of publishing being some kind of one-way escalator to fame and riches by your book becoming the next big thing.
I'm not going to say that there's some sure-fire formula for getting rich in publishing. There isn't. But there are things you can do to increase your publishing income:
- Get an agent who knows book contracts inside and out, and who is a tough negotiator. That's your biggest weapon in this fight, bar none.
- Build your platform. The more people who know who you are before you publish, the more people you can promote your book to. So start a blog. Volunteer at writers conferences. Get on Patreon and start selling short stories for a dollar a pop. Get on Twitter and develop your own authentic voice. Engage with your followers. Do whatever you can (in good taste) to draw around yourself a crowd of people who are interested in what you do. This also helps get you published, by the way; publishers love it when writers come with a ready-made audience.
- Make sure your material is top-notch. Field-test it. See how people react to it. Refine it, and refine your skills. When you finally do get that chance to make a first impression with an agent, a publisher, or a reader, you want to impress them enough that they'll look forward to whatever you do next.
- Plan a series, if that's your thing. Publishers love series, because a series represents an ongoing return on the investment they make in publicizing that property: it was way easier to sell truckloads of Catching Fire after Hunger Games did so well.
Doing all that might not make you rich, but it certainly shifts the odds in that direction.
There is no magic door
There isn't any single magic door to publishing success, but that doesn't mean there aren't any doors. Here two great doors anybody can walk through:
- Writers Conferences. Go to them. Make connections. Meet agents and editors there. Pitch your work to them. Conferences are where agents go to meet new talent. You can sit in your home office till you die, e-mailing out query letter after query letter. And that can work. But nothing beats face-to-face interaction. And besides, writers conferences are a ton of fun, and you'll probably learn a bunch of really useful stuff about the craft and the business of writing while you're there.
- Literary Contests. Most major writers conferences and writers organizations run some kind of literary contest. They are typically pretty inexpensive to enter. Yes, your odds of winning might be a hundred-to-one, but as I once heard Royce Buckingham say, "I can enter a hundred contests." That's under your control. And here's a tip: most of what people submit to these contests is total slush. If your entry is correctly formatted, spell-checked, and grammatical, you're already in the top 10% of submissions. If you are diligent about the work, you can enter enough contests to eventually win one of them, which is a huge help in getting agents to take notice of your work.
Those won't be the only doors you'll have to walk through, but they'll get you started. And every door you pass eases the way for the next door.
Publishers and agents don't need you
As I talked about last week, the vast supply of writers compared to the much smaller supply of agents and publishers means that the mere fact that you are a writer doesn't make you special. They don't need you just because you're a writer.
What they need are good writers. Writers whose work is professional, and whose attitude towards the work is professional.
Becoming a skilled, professional attitude is 100% within your control.
- Get editorial help, from me or someone else, so that when you submit something to an agent it is the best work you are capable of producing.
- Read books on the craft and the business of writing. I promise you, your local bookstore has tons of them. My favorites are listed on my Writing Resources page.
- Get involved with your local writers association. If you live anywhere near a metropolitan area, I'm sure there is one. There are lots more writers out there than you might be aware of; meet them. Share tips and tricks with them.
- Join a critique group. Find your local writers, and make friends with some who are as desperate for quality feedback as you are (or should be, anyway). Critique their work, let them critique yours, and improve it based on what you hear.
- Research the agents who represent works in your genre. Read their blogs. Get to know what they look for, what sells in your genre, and make sure your stories offer that. When you're ready to query, make sure you're querying the right people. Don't waste your time and agents' time by querying people who don't represent what you write.
- Read voraciously, especially in your genre. Know what's hot, what's passé, and what's downright cliché. Make sure your work contains the elements expected by your genre, while not being a re-tread of the latest hot book in the genre.
- Leave your ego in your other pants. Everyone--that's me, you, Stephen King--can still learn more about the craft of writing and storytelling. Learn to react to critiques and rejections with a mature, thankful attitude. Every critique and every rejection is an opportunity for you to improve. Don't waste them by pouting over your work not being perfect.
Publishing is slow
You can't make other people work any faster than they're going to. Agents and publishers are going to take however long they take to do what they need to do, and you can't speed any of that up by pestering them, e-mailing them every other day for updates, et cetera.
What you can do is make sure that the list of "what they need to do" is as short as possible.
- Make sure that your manuscript is structurally sound, that the story makes sense and comes to a satisfying conclusion. Developmental editors and critique groups are your best friends there.
- Make sure your manuscript is fluently written and free of typos. Line editors, copy editors, and proofreaders are absolutely indispensable for catching the little mistakes you can't see in your own work.
- Be familiar with the elements your publisher is likely to want: will they pretty much insist on some kind of a romance subplot? If so, you'd better have one. Your agent is a great resource for knowing the ins-and-outs of what specific publishers will want.
The closer you can make your manuscript to print-ready by the time the agent submits it to the publisher, the shorter the overall publishing process will be.
Publishing isn't hopeless. It's just work. And just like in any profession, success translates into doing your work the best you possibly can.
Treat the craft of writing seriously. Treat the craft of storytelling seriously. Treat the business of publishing seriously. Educate yourself about all of those things; there is a wealth of information available for free on the internet, to tell you everything you could possibly want to know.
Elizabeth S. Craig's Writer's Knowledge Base is an astonishingly vast resource, and a great place to start.
This article only plays at the surface of the endlessly deep pool of publishing tips. Please share some of yours in the comments!