6 1/2 Harsh Truths About Publishing

Sat Jul 16 2016

I suspect just about every writer out there would very much prefer if publishing were a matter of writing a manuscript, sending a brief notification to some central service, then sitting back to take your pick of the fat contacts competing publishers would dangle in front of you while you browse Caribbean real estate listings.

Sadly, it ain't so. Yet many is the would-be writer whose expectations run along those lines.

(Note: I'm talking about traditional publishing, not self-publishing. I should do a post about self publishing someday, but not today.)

I don't want to be a killjoy, but honestly, shouldn't you know how this industry works before you take your magnum opus out into the world? The truth about publishing is far from rose-colored, but better to know what you're in for, right?

So buckle up while we smash some misconceptions.

Truth #1: Your book is not going make you rich

Sorry, but publishers simply aren't going to dump truckloads of cash on a new, untested writer.

They'll dump truckloads of cash on established writers who have built up a sizeable fan-base, whose work is consistent and high-quality, and who can reliably draw tens to hundreds of thousands of sales.

That's not you. Not yet, anyway. Not until you've had a few successful (read: "profitable for the publisher") releases under your belt. As a first-time author, you may get an advance in the form of a few thousand dollars. Unless your sales are great, that's likely all you'll ever get from the book.

And even when you do start to make a name for yourself, don't expect those advances to be enough to live on for a while. Most published writers still have day jobs.

Truth #2: Your book is not the next big thing

Would-be writers who come to conferences convinced that their book is the next Harry Potter/Bridget Jones/50 Shades/Game of Thrones are so common they've become a trope within the industry.

The cliché is so laughable because these writers invariably have no idea how the industry works, are the very caricature of this post's opening paragraph, and have produced manuscripts that might generously be described as "derivative." These works are always about as far from being the next big thing as a pile of blank paper.

The truth is that novel writing, like any art form, takes genuine effort to master. I promise you, Rembrandt's first ever painting isn't hanging in the Louvre, and Michaelangelo's first ever sculpture is not proudly displayed in Florence's Galleria dell'Accademia.

Your first novel may well have some really interesting idea at its core, something that could make people sit up and take notice. But probably, that idea is buried under all the same plot structure and writing craft mistakes that every other rookie writer also makes.

Writing a novel is easy. Learning to write good novels is hard, and takes time. I say this as someone who remembers vividly how he felt when he finished his own first manuscript. How awesome I was convinced it was. And as someone who looks back on that manuscript 10 years later only to see every page laden with clunky writing, and the overall story structure burdened with pacing problems.

Truth #3: There is no magic door

Some people seem to think that having written their manuscript, the key to success is in finding the right "magic door" to walk through, after which they don't have to do anything except wait for their book to show up on the New York Times bestseller list.

They might think the magic door is the e-mail address of the person at a publishing house who secretly controls everything. Or that it is attendance at a writing conference, where publishers will snap up their books like hungry piranhas. Sometimes, they even think it's me. (I wish!)

But there isn't one. Publishing is not a lintel you step over. It's a process. A long process, that starts with writing the manuscript and ends (ideally) with your book in the hands of throngs of eager readers. In between is a veritable army of beta readers, editors, agents, publishers, publicists, reviewers, cover artists, and others who actually make it happen.

Some of those people (mainly beta readers, developmental editors, and copy editors) are ones you'll be expected to have found and paid for yourself in order to get your manuscript ready for the big leagues. Others (agents) are ones you will develop long-term relationships with and who will guide your manuscript through the labyrinth that is the rest of the industry.

Truth #4: Publishers don't need you

Well, they do, of course. Without writers, publishers have nothing to publish. The misconception is thinking they need you more than you need them.

There are millions of writers out there, just like you, wanting publication. But there are literally thousands of times fewer publishers than writers. Supply and demand says that it's the publishers who get to be picky about who they take, not the writers.

In economic terms, publishing contracts are rare and are therefore expensive. Expect to pay a lot for them, but be aware they are not priced in dollars. Their price is measured in the quality of your work, the professionalism of your demeanor, and the degree of your persistence.

Truth #5: Agents don't need you

The same logic applies here as for publishers but not to such an extreme. Agents are more numerous than publishers--though probably not by orders of magnitude. But like publishers, they are also vastly outnumbered by writers wanting their services.

Thus, your work had better be good enough to get their attention. And when it does, your manner better be friendly and professional. You better submit your work to them in the form they request, with a proper query letter. They have way too much to do to bother with naive writers who haven't done their homework.

Here's a little secret: every proper agent will have submission instructions on their website. The easiest, fastest way agents have of filtering the chuckleheads out of their inbox is simply to ignore anybody who can't follow directions.

Truth #6: Your book will not be available next week, next month, or even this year

Whether by miracle or by hard work, let us imagine you secure an agent who manages to sell your book to a publisher. How long before it hits the shelves?

Well, first off the publisher isn't just going to take your manuscript, slap some cover art on it, and click the giant print button. No good publisher, anyway. There's a process, and it's a long one.

First, they're going to have it reviewed by their own in-house developmental editors, who are going to request changes to either strengthen the story, make it more marketable, or both. (And yes, that's on top of whatever changes you already made based on feedback from the developmental editor you worked with before you even got your agent.)

That takes time, as do your revisions to address their requests, and any further revisions they request after that. Eventually, your book is judged to be ready, and will go through their own internal production process (cover art, copy editing, etc.) which takes time too. Eventually, they'll slot you onto their release calendar, which is how they coordinate their marketing activities. You get the picture.

All in all, one to two years is common. And that's if nothing bad happens along the way, such as your agent retiring, the editor at the publishing house who's handling your book gets laid off, the publisher goes out of business. I've known people who have had all of those things happen. Publishing is not a game for the impatient.

Truth #6½There are always exceptions

(I couldn't decide if this is a harsh truth or not, so I'm only counting it for half.)

There are always exceptions to the above. Harry Potter really was J.K. Rowling's first novel, and it really was the next big thing in publishing, and she really did get rich, and don't we all wish that was us? It does happen.

But you're probably not the next JKR. If this is your first rodeo, don't expect to set a world record time for bronco riding. And anyway, if your manuscript really is the exception that will become clear soon enough if you just keep your cool and follow the process.

Just because you're probably not the exception doesn't mean don't try. It just means set your expectations. Learn how to query your book to agents the right way. Expect to hear a lot of "no" and all the rest of it.

Do try. By all means, try!

Write because you love writing. Write because you have something to say. Write because it's the only way to get the voices in your head to shut up. Share it with the world because something about your story was important enough to make you write it.

But understand that among published writers, tales of "I worked really hard and got fifty rejections before I got an agent and it took her a year to sell my book and two more before it was published" vastly outnumber the Rowling-esque fairy tales.

Sorry to be a downer

My goal is not to depress anybody. Because really, there are things you can do to overcome pretty much all of the above. But this post is long enough, so I'll save that for next week.

And if I missed your favorite harsh truth (or anti-favorite), please share it down in the comments!