Wednesday, September 24, 2014

5 harsh realities of being a published writer

There's content a-plenty on the web about how to write a book and query an agent/publisher, but not all that much on what happens after you get the coveted contract. And most people don't think about that when they set out to be a writer; all they know is that they have a story in their head, and it's damn good, so the world ought to see it. That's where I was a few years ago, and I was under the impression that as long as my plot and characters were decent, someone would pick it up, correct the typos, give it a pretty cover, and send me on a book tour.

HAH! If only.

I thought getting the contract was the endgame, but no, it was only the beginning. Here are five harsh realities writers face the book finds a home:

5. Waiting

Publishers are busy folks and often schedule things years in advance. Months, if you're lucky. So after the ink dries on the signature line, you probably won't hear from anyone for ages. And then, during the back-and-forth with your editors, weeks (or even months) will pass between revisions because they've got other things on their plates. All you can do is get busy with something else and remember that THEY have an investment in your project too, so they haven't forgotten about you.

4. Assigned reading

Writing is a profession, and like any industry, you have to keep up with the market. This means reading the buzzed-about books in your genre to stay in the loop. Kiss your days of aimlessly wandering down the Barnes & Noble bookshelves goodbye, because never again will you get the chance to wonder what book you'll read next. There's ALWAYS something you OUGHT to read, whether you like it or not. It may sound like peer pressure, but here's the thing: these are the books that are in the center of literary conversations, and if you don't keep up, you won't know what everyone's talking about. And you also won't know what people want and expect, which will hinder your promotional efforts. Speaking of which...

3. Marketing and self-promotion

Never does a book just take off on its own. NEVER. If you see a cover popping up on everyone's bookshelves, it's because someone pounded the pavement to get it there. Once in a blue moon, it's the publisher and/or marketing department, but for the most part, it's the author. And not only is it a lot of work soliciting reviews, requesting book store appearances, etc., but you'd better be prepared for a whole new round of rejections (and you thought you were done with those after signing the contract!).

Reviewers are SLAMMED, and so 99% of them won't even respond to your requests (99.9% if they're mainstream publications rather than bloggers). And a fraction of the remaining 1% will send you a polite refusal. As a former (and still sporadic) blog reviewer, I definitely understand how overwhelming it is to get 20 emails a day requesting reviews when I've already got 10 books I promised to read but haven't had time to.

As for appearances - the unfortunate reality is that most bookstore events have an average attendance of, like, four people (a bookstore employee, your mother, an aspiring writer who's more interested in picking up tips than buying your book, and a random person who just felt so bad for you they had to stick around).

And so the only thing to do is keep at it, keep at it, keep at it. Which is tough if you're not a salesperson by nature (I'm certainly not, though I like to think that practice makes perfect). And REALLY tough if you don't like to be the center of attention, which is also a problem for...

2. Networking

Getting to know a lot of people is THE best way to promote yourself. Because the more people you know, the more people you have willing to read your book, recommend it to their friends, write an Amazon review, and generally help get you attention. Networking is a tricky game of give-and-take, where you have to constantly chat, befriend, and, in the case of fellow writers, trade favors.

Remember what I said above about assigned reading? Well, once you start networking, that pile will grow even higher because you'll need to read your friends' books as well (which isn't a bad thing, since hopefully you're friends with people you actually LIKE, but definitely eats up your time).

Some people are naturals at the whole networking business; they genuinely love making lots of connections, and people love 'em back for it. Others have to drag their selves out of the old cave and try not to squint too much from the glaring light of the giant yellow thing in the sky (what's it called again? the sun?).

But before you even GET to this or the two previous ones, you have to survive...

1. Rewrites, Rewrites, Rewrites

Every editor has his or her own style. Some will like what they get and simply ask for a few clarifications, descriptions, and fixes for minor plot holes. Others will ask for rewrites. And not just of a chapter - the WHOLE EFFING BOOK.

A meticulous editor will want the story to be the best it can be, and while they love your concept and characters, your pacing or suspense or even entire plot-lines might be off. Maybe you've written about an exciting new fantasy world, but your main characters don't reach it until halfway through the book. So the editor tells you to tighten the opening, nix extraneous scenes, and get to the meat faster. Or maybe you have a killer opening, but lose your momentum by chapter ten. Or perhaps you set up a great mystery, but the reveal comes too easily and too obviously. Or it's possible that one of your sub-plots (*cough* house elves in Harry Potter 4 *cough*) is totally irrelevant and bogs down an otherwise good story.

This is by far the toughest thing to face, since, presumably, you submitted your best possible work already. And yet you're being asked for even MORE. Getting a sea of red marks in your manuscript is a real ego-killer, and leads to tears and existential crises.

Not all editors will do this. Some will see a manuscript as a fairly finished work and just tweak. Others will spot potential and milk it for everything it's worth to make it the best book possible.

But whatever the case, be prepared. Like I said above, the contract is just the beginning.

Bonus: The Little Red Pen in your head

This one isn't directly related to the above, since it's something that happens to you rather than something you have to face, but it definitely makes some parts of life harder. Once you survive the editing process and after you're read a bunch of books you're aspiring to, nothing seems good enough when you're working on your next project, which can be a major roadblock when starting a new book.

It also affects reading. Things you would have glossed over when you were an ordinary reader suddenly jump out at you. "What's this? My editor would never have let me get away with this many adverbs! Aaaaaah I can't unsee them!"


  1. Great post! Thanks for a very interesting look at what authors have to deal with.

    Having published journal papers, I do have quite a bit of experience with 1 and 5; but I can only imagine 2, 3 and 4.

    I was very sorry to hear from Tina Closser about your email problems. It must be really infuriating; and for an author who has to communicate with editors it must be even worse that it would be for most people. I very much hope it all gets sorted out soon.

    Meanwhile, looks like Tina may have also stopped responding to emails. Any idea what's happening?

    1. Thanks! Alas, hackers are not as fun in real life as they are in science fiction!