As I work hard finishing what will become my sixth published novel I find myself thinking about the things that I’ve learned in this crazy, crazy industry in the last three years.
Yes, CHEATING AT SOLITAIRE (my first published novel) has been out a mere three years.
And yet for some reason these days I feel like something of an old-timer in this business.
Maybe that’s because so many things have changed in that time. Chick lit burned out. Vampires started ruling the world. Harry Potter ended, and a little-known writer named Ally Carter was able to actually quit her day job.
So I’ve learned some things that are true. And, most of all, I’ve learned some things that are false.
What follows is my personal list of eleven myths about the publishing industry. It’s been influenced by what I’ve seen and heard and, most of all, what I’ve experienced.
Ask a different writer and I’m sure you’ll get a different list.
But this is my blog, so here goes:
1. You have to know someone to break in.
This couldn’t be less true, in my opinion. Or maybe just in my experience since probably the first person in publishing I ever spoke to on the phone was my agent when she called to offer to represent me.
How did I possibly “break in” if I didn’t know someone?!?!?
Well…I wrote a book. Then I rewrote it. Then I rewrote it some more.
Then I entered it in a state-wide writing contest and it won and the judge’s critique sheet was one line: “why hasn’t this been published?”
And only then did I presume to think I was ready.
So I started researching and querying agents and one of them, Kristin Nelson, was a fit for me.
2. You should put at least as much energy into promoting your book as you spent writing your book.
There are people who will throw things at me for saying this. I’m ready for the comments section to explode. But I’m going to say it anyway because I believe that it is true.
Writing is the single-most important aspect of our jobs. No doubt. No question.
I could have spent months–years, even–promoting CHEATING AT SOLITAIRE–a book that I was proud of and liked. But it was also a chick lit book that came out in the height of the chick lit bust. It was a book that was barely stocked in most major chain stores. It was a book that received little-to-no (closer to no) co-op (the money that publishers have to spend to get books on endcaps and front tables at places like Barnes and Noble.)
I could have hustled my rear off promoting CHEATING AT SOLITAIRE and maybe I could have hand-sold a thousand or so more copies.
But I didn’t. Instead, I used that time to write I’D TELL YOU I LOVE YOU BUT THEN I’D HAVE TO KILL YOU which ended up on the New York Times bestseller list.
Personally, I think that was time well spent.
3. You will get incredibly rich. OR… You will be incredibly poor.
In many, many ways being a professional author is like being a professional baseball player. There are people in the “big leagues” who will earn millions of dollars for, perhaps, a few months’ worth of work.
However, just like professional athletes, these people may only have a few years on top and they may have to live off of a few lucrative contracts for the rest of their life.
Also, remember that those people are the extremes. For every person who is an all-star, there are dozens–if not hundreds–who are living paycheck to paycheck in the minor leagues.
But that’s not to say that there will be a handful of writers who get incredibly rich and the rest will live in poverty.
I realized the other day that of my ten or so “best” writer friends, almost all (let’s say 8/10) write full-time and only one or two are what would be classified as “best sellers”.
The remainder have solid upper-midlist sales. They do a great job of budgeting. They’re very savvy and aggressive when it comes to diversifying what they write (they might have a YA series with one publisher, a picture book deal with another, a Middle Grade proposal out with a third, etc).
And, most of all, these people WRITE.
Writing isn’t a hobby that they pick up and lay down whenever the mood strikes. They don’t wait on their muse.
It’s their job to write just like it’s a ballplayer’s job to go to the ballpark. And so even though not everyone is getting rich, not everyone is starving to death either.
4. Getting an agent is the hard part.
Yeah, I hear this one a lot. And yeah, it’s wrong. Totally and completely wrong.
I remember back when I was still trying to write screenplays, I saw a quote by a very successful screenwriter on the great site www.wordplayer.com. I can’t remember who said it or exactly how it went, but it was something like “if you’ve written a truly great screenplay then don’t worry about finding an agent. You could bury a truly great screenplay in your backyard and by morning a half dozen agents will find you.”
I love that quote. It’s so, so, so true.
I already had an agent when I wrote Love You, Kill You, but if I hadn’t had an agent…
And if I’d written up a cover letter and synopsis about that book and sent them out to twenty agents…
And if they’d been the twenty correct agents (agents accepting material, agents looking for high-concept YAs, etc)…
I probably would have gotten twenty requests for the full book. Of the twenty requests for the full book I would be surprised if I hadn’t gotten at least five offers of representation.
Why? Because it was a book that was ready to be sold.
Heck, I maybe could have buried it in my backyard and they still would have found me.
Write the right book and you’ll find the right agent.
Oh, and it’s you agent’s job to “know people”–not the author’s.
5. A publisher can make any book a bestseller if they want it to be.
It is no doubt true that having a publisher who wants a book to be a “big book” is incredibly important.
The publisher, after all, controls the number of books that are printed and what gets the full-page color spread in their seasonal catalogs.
When the buyer at Borders says “So, what’s going to be the big book of summer 2009?” the publisher controls what their answer is going to be.
The publisher even has the power to tell the Borders people that they’re willing to pay to see “the chosen book” on the front tables in the teen section of every Borders in the country.
But here’s the kicker…
The Borders people don’t have to agree.
The publisher can’t make Borders put “the chosen book” on those front tables.
And the publisher can’t make people buy it.
And, most importantly, the publisher can’t make people tell their friends to buy it.
The history of publishing is littered with the carcass of “chosen books” that got every promotional advantage in the world and yet didn’t become big bestsellers.
Because a publisher can’t MAKE a book a bestseller.
Sure, they can
give books advantages–put them in the right place at the right time, so to speak–but at the end of the day, other people have to agree.
Readers have to agree.
Phenomenons like TWILIGHT and HARRY POTTER happen because people put a book down and then told five or ten or twenty friends to go pick that book up.
And no one can buy that.
(oh, and saying that “any book can be a bestseller if the publisher wants it to be” is like saying that there are some books publishers don’t want to be bestellers and that is just crazy. Trust me. If publishers had a proven formula to MAKE a book a bestseller they’d use it. Always. Why wouldn’t they?)
6. Kids don’t read anymore.
Do I really need to elaborate to you guys that this isn’t true?
No, I didn’t think so.
7. Books that tell interesting stories don’t have to be written well and books that are written well don’t have to tell interesting stories.
I hate genre wars. You know what I’m talking about, right? The literary people turning their nose up at “commercial writers” and vice versa.
Well, it’s probably just me but I think they’re both wrong.
This is probably why I’m the world’s pickiest reader, but I want both. Yes, both!
I want an interesting story told well, not one or the other.
But that’s probably just me.
8. Publisher support is determined by luck and not really anything else.
This goes back to number 6 in many, many ways, but I’ve given it its own number because as I’ve hung out in online writers communities over the years I’ve frequently heard that you have to have publisher support to break out and that the difference between people who get publisher support and those who don’t is just…luck.
Maybe the reason why I feel like I’ve been doing this longer than I have is because in the span of three years I’ve had essentially two different careers.
I have had a midlist adult chick lit series at a house that didn’t have a lot riding on the series and I’ve had a lead title YA series at a house that was incredibly excited about where the books could go.
Let me tell you, the latter is a lot more fun than the former and I feel lucky every day.
But I don’t think LYKY getting a good cover and great store placement and other publisher-determined things came my way simply because of good luck. I feel I can say this, by the way, because I also don’t think that CHEATING AT SOLITAIRE getting bad store placement came my way because of bad luck.
I think both of these types of “luck” happened because of the types of books they were… because of the types of books I wrote.
At the end of the day, I suppose, I just don’t like to think that publishers have a big “wheel of support” that they spin and my number came up once but not twice.
I think there are things we, as writers, can choose to do to improve our odds.
We can choose what genres we write. We can choose to put a book that doesn’t have a “big book feel” in a drawer and go to work on something that feels bigger or better. We can choose to read the types of books we want to write and, most of all, we can choose to learn from them.
None of these things, of course, can make a publisher decide to deem our next book “the chosen book” just like nothing a publisher can do can make readers agree, so I guess luck does play a part in it somewhere.
But personally I don’t like the word luck. I don’t want to get into semantics and cliches, but the moral of the story is we CHOOSE what books we write and sell and if the last one wasn’t “lucky” then all we can do is learn from that. And write and sell another one. And another. And another.
9. Networking is incredibly important for your career.
As I think back on the last three years probably the most amazing thing to me is that I have writer friends now when, as I said in number 1, I started in this business knowing no one.
The downside is that, with writing, almost all of my friends live far away. A few I have never even met in person. The rest I see occasionally at conferences or whatnot. Which is a shame because these people have become genuinely important to me.
But that’s not to say that writer friends are important to my career.
They’re INCREDIBLY important for my sanity (after all, only another writer will understand when you get weird copyedits), but I don’t sell more books because of who my friends are.
Maybe if those friends and I decided to write together or tour together or…something. I dunno. But even then I don’t really buy it.
Some people will say “but you’ve got to have contacts who will give you blurbs for your books”
Or even “you’ve got to have contacts who will give you blurbs for your unsold, unagent manuscripts!”
I say you’ve got to have a REALLY GREAT MANUSCRIPT.
Again, this is based on my experience, but personally, I don’t try to befriend other writers (or want other writers to try to befriend me) because it will help my career.
I do it because it might help my sanity.
And then I get back to work.
10. If you can’t get an agent or a publisher–self-publishing is a great way to break into the business.
I think I summed up my thoughts on self-publishing pretty well in this post a long time ago. But I wanted to add to those thoughts here because, again, I think the baseball analogy is a pretty good one.
Getting a literary agent is like getting a sports agent–it means giving up your amateur status. It means going pro.
Now, it’s no guarantee that you’ll ever make a dime or sign a contract, but you will never be able to be a true amateur again because someone–somewhere–said that this person has what it takes to write (or play) at a professional level.
Signing a contract to write books is a lot like signing a contract to play professional ball. There are big leagues and minor leagues and everything in between, but in every case, your work and talent have been evaluated by people who know the business–the “gatekeepers”–and those same people are willing to PAY YOU to do what until then you’ve gladly been doing for free.
Self-publishing, however, is not going pro. For self-publishing no one has agreed that you’re writing at a professional level. In fact, the quality of your writing is significantly less important to the publisher than whether or not your check will clear.
So read that post that I linked to above and if self-publishing seems like something that will fit your needs then by all means do it.
But saying that self-publishing will help you break into publishing is a lot like saying that buying a uniform with your name embroidered on the back is a great way to become a pro athlete.
You can dress up in it and go to the ballpark, but the only way they’re going to let you on the field is if you prove to those “gatekeepers” that you can hit and pitch and throw at a professional level.
And if you can do all that, then why waste your money making your own uniform when I’m pretty sure the pro players get theirs for free?
11. You don’t reall
y have to have a literary agent.
Well, it’s true that a few publishing houses will still accept unagented submissions, but I honestly don’t know which ones they are. And even if I did there’s no way that, knowing what I know now, I would recommend someone try to go it in this business without a reputable literary agent.
After all, do you know the ins-and-outs of an option clause? What about e-rights? And how many contacts do you have in overseas markets for possible foreign language sales?
Trust me, a literary agent isn’t really an optional thing.
And if you can’t get an agent with the book you’ve been shopping then that’s just a sign that you need to try another book or another agent–not that you need to go it alone.
As I’ve said before, but I’ll say again, this is my personal list (which seems appropriate since this is my personal blog). If you ask another writer you’ll almost assuredly get another opinion. And that is fine.
But don’t let someone tell you that you DO have to know someone–I didn’t.
Or that writers DO have to drive store-to-store hand-selling their books to make a living–I don’t.
Or that kids absolutely DO NOT read anymore–90% of the readers of this blog and I know better.
So while there are few things that anyone can say are universally true about this industry, these are 11 things that I feel very safe in saying are at least a little bit false.
At least they have been in my case.
ps…before someone asks it in the comments (because I KNOW it’ll get asked) there is no minimum age to become a published writer. You simply have to be writing AT A PROFESSIONAL LEVEL.
pps…and also preemptively answering comments, I have many tips for writers on the “for writers” section of the ALLY portion of the website. Also, click on the “Tips for Writers” label of this post to see other posts on the topic.