A Publisher May Work from Sun to Sun, but a Writer’s Work is Never Done

17 Feb

The e-mail has landed in your in-box (or perhaps it’s even a phone call) – a publisher has offered to produce your book. 

Or perhaps, you’ve decided to go the self-publishing route.  Your manuscript is done and you feel ready to go. 

In either case, your work has just begun. 

Since I’m a publisher, I’m going to focus on the first case.  For self-publishers, everything I say applies plus you’ll have to find a way to do everything the publisher does, too.

You read the e-mail several times.  The initial euphoria starts to fade.  That’s all they’re paying me for my year or more of struggling with this bloody manuscript!?  I’ve dealt with this before – advance payments for first novels (or even second, third or fourth novels) run from a few hundred to perhaps as much as ten thousand dollars. 

An advance is a payment against future royalties (a percentage of the sale price of the novel, somewhere between 8 and 15%).  It is usually paid in three installments – on signing the contract, on final draft and on publication.  Suppose you get $5000 against an 8% royalty on a $10 mass paperback.  The publisher has to sell 6250 books at full price before you see another dime.  Most first novels don’t sell 5000 copies.  Fortunately for you, you don’t have to pay back unearned advances.

In fact, for small presses – which often only print 500 to 1000 copies of a trade paperback – we would be thrilled to pay you more money.  It would mean we actually had sales large enough to not only pay our costs but to make a little profit, too.  Which we could use to subsidize those books that don’t sell as well as either we or the author might like.

But enough whining about my life – let’s whine about yours for a while.

You’ve accepted the offer, signed the contract, cashed the paltry cheque and treated yourself to your favorite libation.  Whew!  Now I can get started on the next book.  Indeed, you must start writing immediately – because if your novel is a success the publisher is going to want another one twelve months from now. 

Of course, maybe your dream has now been fulfilled.  You’ve had a book published – time to move on.  I knew someone who thought that way.  He sold his first book and then basically quit writing!  Fair enough.  Life is full of adventures, after all.  Of course, the publisher now hates him.  As do most of his writing buddies. 

Why?  Because publishers don’t invest in novels – they invest in writers.  The first novel is a big risk and almost never makes much money.  But if it makes a little or even comes close to breaking even, then maybe the next few books will do better and everyone can get paid.

So get writing that next book.   Maybe you’ll make some real progress before the request for re-writes arrive.  (How many writers does it take to change a lightbulb?  I’m not changing a GD thing!)  Some will be minor – too frequent use of an expression or phrase; some grammatical clumsiness; suggestions about sentence length – others will be major – there are too many characters; eliminate that delightful sub-plot; cut the first six chapters. 

A friend of mine was shocked to get 350 editorial comments on a 300 page manuscript.  In the end, he accepted most of them and felt it made for a better book.  But at the time he threatened to quit writing several times.

Oh, and by the way, we need those changes in six or eight weeks.  But we still love your book!

Then comes the second round of changes (actually the third – if you’ve already gone through this process with an agent).  Less substantive, more picky, still painful.  But when they are done you get that second cheque.  Yay!

Great!  Now back to the new novel.

But there are still copy edits.  If you’re lucky and your publisher can afford to pay for them.  These go through the book line-by-line, questioning your grammar, spelling, word use, style, even your facts (because even fiction has a factual component).  It is often copy-editing that makes prose really sing, plots vibrate, worlds take on that rare quality of verisimilitude.  They will also leave you tearing out your hair – if you have any left – and questioning you ability as a writer.

Finally done!  Well, except for the author’s proof-reading, literally reading the ‘proofs’ before they go to the printer or the e-book programmer.  Only to discover six typos that somehow have escaped everyone’s attention and desperately wanting to re-write a scene (too late now!).  And feeling guilty about it because every change at this point costs the publisher money.  Well, you should feel guilty.

Meanwhile, the publisher has paid the editor (or done it themselves) hired the copy-editor and/or proofreaders, commissioned and paid for cover art, designed the book, obtained an ISBN, hired and paid a printer, arranged shipping to the distributor (who will deal with getting the books into stores). 

Nothing now but to provide an author’s bio, maybe a professional photo, do a few pre-launch interviews.  And did we mention you should have a web-site (paid for by you), a Facebook, Twitter and other social media presence?  No, well, get on with it.

Finally, the big day comes.  Your book is in your hands (along with that third cheque)and an official launch is announced.  Of course, there isn’t actually any money for that – or only a couple of hundred dollars.  You have to help if you want it to be a big success and a fun party.  Do you have an acquaintance with a bookstore, bar or art gallery?  Will they donate the space?  How about catering?  Can you get it for free or crowd source it from among your family and friends?  How about sending out invites to everyone you ever met?  If it is starting to sound a bit like selling insurance or Amway products – that’s because it is.

Bit of a rough go, especially if like many writers you’re a bit of an introvert.

Of course you don’t have to do any of this public relations stuff.  Whether you go the traditional route or the self-publishing one, you can just throw your book out into the market and hope for the best.  Good luck with that.  Or, you could be like lots of people on Twitter and shout “Buy My Book!” every minute of the day for a month.  Of course, most of the thousand or ten thousand people who follow you are too busy shouting “No, Buy My Book,” to notice. 

Sorry, audiences are not built by being annoying.  They are built by writing good books, accepting editorial comments that turn them into better books, defending your vision but not sweating the small stuff.  Making sure the book itself – whether print or e-book – is attractive in itself.  If you self-publish you have control over that and it will be as nice as you can afford to make it.  As a writer, you may make the quality of the publisher’s product part of your decision when you get an offer.  After all, it can’t possibly be about the money.

For science fiction and fantasy writers, there is another opportunity for promotion.  Most cities have a local SF convention.  Make sure you go – it’s a chance to meet the people who buy your books or who might in the future.  You also get to meet a lot of fellow writers for both social and educational purposes.  If you go, try to be yourself.  If you happen to be a jerk, try to be an entertaining one and avoid doing really stupid things.  If people like you or, more importantly, find you interesting, they may well be willing to give one of your books a try.  After that, it’s all up to the writing.

And that, ultimately, is why you did it in the first place.  And if the writing is good enough – then a few books from now you actually will be making enough money to quit the day-job (or at least go part-time).  It seems a modest goal – but a reasonable one.  People who start writing because it will make them rich are a lot like people whose retirement plans are based on winning the lottery; it can happen, but you better not count on it.


P.S If you’d like to support our latest project – an anthology of political science fiction called “Strange Bedfellows” – consider donating to our Indiegogo project.  There are lots of nice benefits and it’s sure to give you a nice warm feeling.

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