1. This Industry Is Alarmingly Subjective
Despite the promises of certain snake oil salesmen offering to sell you a magical unguent that — once slathered upon your inflamed nethers — will assure that your book gets published, no actual formula for success exists. If it did, a book would go out into the world and either fail utterly or succeed completely. All editors would want to take it to acquisitions. All readers would snap it up from bookshelves both real and digital with the greedy hands of a selfish toddler. But it ain’t like that, slick. One editor may like it. Another will love it. Three more will hate it. The audience will run hot or cold on it for reasons you can neither control nor discern. This is an industry based on the whims of people, and people are notoriously fucking loopy.
2. One Big Collective Shrug
More to the point, just as the industry starts first with opinion, it ends on what is essentially guesswork. It’s not so blind and fumbling that industry insiders gather in a darkened room to examine the cooling entrails of New York City pigeons, but just the same, nobody really knows what’s going to work and what’s not. Their guesses are educated, but I suspect that nobody anticipated that 50 Shades of Grey was going to be as big as it was — that must’ve been like finding out your Fart Noise smartphone app sold a bajillion copies overnight. They don’t have a robot they consult who tells them: BEEP BOOP BEEP THIS YEAR EROTIC FANFICTION IS THE SMART MONEY BZZT ZING. ALWAYS BET ON BONDAGE. BING!
3. They May Like Your Book… And Still Not Buy It
Trust me on this one, you can get a ton of editors who love your book who won’t touch it with a ten foot pole. That’s disconcerting at first, because you think, “Well, you’re an editor, this is your job, you are in theory a tastemaker for the publisher, and here you’re telling me you love the book but wouldn’t buy it with another publisher’s money.” You’d almost rather they just send you a napkin with FUCK NO written on it. But then you realize…
4. It’s All About Cash Money, Muthafuckas!
At the very end of the day, publishing is an industry. That editor gets a paycheck. Everybody there gets a paycheck.When a book does well? Folks get paid, keep their job, maybe even get raises. Books do shittily, people get paid, but no raises, and some poor bastards will be punted out onto the sidewalk. It’s overly cynical to suggest that people in publishing don’t love their jobs. Generally, they do. Most folks I know inside that industry do this because they love books, not because they want to be rich. But despite what some politicians will tell you, companies are not people. And companies like money. Oh, and at the end of the day? Self-publishing is about money, too. Success is marked by books that sell well, not by books that were “really good but nobody read them.” Art must operate within a realm of financial sufficiency.
5. About A Billion Books Are Released Every Week
As I write this sentence, 50,000 more books will be released into the world like a herd of stampeding cats. By now, I think the books are actually writing other books in some self-replicating biblio-orgy of books begetting books begetting books. All in a big-ass mash-up of ideas and genres and marketing categories (MIDDLE GRADE SELF-HELP SCI-FI COOKBOOKS will be all the rage in 2014). Between the publishing industry and self-publishing, I think more books are born into the world than actual people (and just wait till one day the books become sentient — man, forget SkyNet, I wanna know what kind of Terminators Amazon is probably already building). Your book is sapling in a very big, very dense forest.
6. Online Book Discovery Is Wonky As Fuck
Browsing for books online feels like being thrown into a dark and disorganized oubliette of information — like you’re the extension arm of some epic-sized claw machine and whatever you find, you find, and that’s it, don’t ask questions, just take your book and shut up, reader. Music discovery is good. Movie discovery ain’t half bad either. But books? Man, it’s either something I hear about from another human, or fuck it, your book is left to the whims of chaos theory.
7. Indies Can’t Get No Respect, Yo
Go up to somebody on the street. Tell them you’re a writer. Provided they don’t then laugh in your face or Taser you in the ta-tas, which response do you think will earn more respect? “A publisher bought my book,” or, “I self-published my book.” It’s the former, and that’s how you know that indie-publishing, despite its many strides, is still seen as the lesser creature. Self-publishing is designed in a way to allow for anything to be published at any time. That’s not to say there are not wonderful self-published books. I’ve read many. And will read many more. But while some will tell you, “cream will rise to the top,” I’ll counter with the reiteration that book discovery is broken. You’re just as likely to discover some great new novel as you are some dude’s shitbucket Tolkien rip-off (“AND THEN THE HARBITS ASSENDED MOUNT DHOOM AND THREW HTE WIDGET OF SARRONG INTO THE SEA”). And until that’s fixed, the mighty morass of the indie-pub world will be ever-present.
8. Self-Publishing Is Easy When It Should Be Hard
Self-publishing is easy. Or, more to the point, self-publishing badly is easy. Which is why a lot of people do it, of course. Self-publishing well is a whole other bag of coconuts.
9. All The World’s Entertainment Is Your Competition
It’s easy to believe that other books are your competition. They are in a very loose, very general sense, sure — certainly at the stage of acquisition, anyway. But readers aren’t a one-book-a-year type. They read lots of books. Their attention is finite and they can only pick up so many books, but generally speaking my book is not competing with your book. No, what you’re competing against is everything else that’s not a book. Movies! Television! Games! Your brain lights up like a fucking full-tilt pinball machine when it’s stimulated by the blitzkrieg of sound and noise. And let’s not forget how you’re competing with scads of totally free content. Blogs! News! Youtube videos of some guy getting hit in the nuts by a surly cat riding a dirtbike! HA HA HA I DON’T NEED BOOKS I HAVE SURLY DIRTBIKE CAT TO MAKE ME FEEL GOOD
10. Slower Than A Three-Legged Donkey
Traditional publishing is sloooooohoooooaaaooooo — ZZZZZZzzZZzz *huh wuzza where am i*– oooooow. It’s slow like an old man gumming a steak. It’s slow like a 1200 baud modem downloading the entire run of Downton Abbey. You could get a publishing deal in 2013 and not have that book on shelves until 2015. They built the Pyramids with more pep in their step.
11. Barnes & Noble May Be Shitting The Bed As We Speak
It may be doom-saying, but after Borders imploded, any tremor in the B&N paradigm is a worrisome one. Sales are down. Some stores are closing. The Nook isn’t doing as well as everyone wanted it to. You go into a B&N and you see a whole middle of the store devoted toward coffee and board games and lawnmowers and bath towels — all the books keep getting pushed toward the edges. So, there’s one big bookselling avenue possibly closing off. The optimistic view is that — fingers crossed — kick-ass indie bookstores will rise to fill the gap, offering an experience you can’t get elsewhere. High-five, indie bookstores. Let’s see your war-face!
12. Trends Matter, Except Also, They Totally Don’t
Trends matter at the point you a) sell to a publisher and/or b) publish your book. Right? If “young adult robot erotica” is hot right now, if you have a book of young adult robot erotica at either of those points, hey, good for you. You’ll probably get a bigger advance. You’ll probably move some copies. That said, it’s very difficult in publishing to capitalize on a trend outside either of those moments because, like I said, publishing is slower than molasses crawling down a Yeti’s asscrack. And trends are unpredictable. Trying to nail a trend in publishing is like trying to knit a sweater while jumping out of a plane. On fire. Covered in squirrels.
13. Your Online Followers Are Not Also Book Buyers
Publishers will tell you, you have to blog. (Because nothing sounds more exciting like someone forcing themselves to blog every day based on somebody else’s marketing proclamations! “Today I’ll blog about… let’s see… drinking gin and crying into my hands.”) They’ll say: “Get on Twitter. Use Facebook. Build a Companion Circle on Friendopolis.” Fine. Only problem: your online followers are not automagically your book readers-slash-buyers. HUMBLEBRAG TIME: I have almost 17,000 Twitter followers. NOTSOHUMBLEBRAG TIME: I do not have 17,000 readers.
14. A Big Advance Means Big Expectations
“Woo hoo! I got a big advance! Six figures, baby. Time to buy that jet-ski and that pet narwhal so we can go have crazy adventures out on the open sea while my book hits shelves and people check it out and… wait, what? My book’s out? And it’s not… selling that well? That’s okay! I still have my six figure advance! And the next book will do better! I’m sorry? Poor sales make it harder for me to be profitable? Because they invested a lot of money in me they’re not going to get back? So now I’m going to have a hard time publishing my next book unless I accept a lesser advance? WAIT STOP REPOSSESSING MY NARWHAL NOOOOO MISTER HORNY COME BACK.”
15. The Name Of The Game Is “Royalty”
The royalty is the real name of the publishing game. (Well, the real name of the publishing game is: “Alcoholism,” but whatever.) Yes, that advance is lovely, but it is an “advance against royalties.” The royalty — meaning, roughly, how much you get per book sold — is how you earn out that advance and become profitable. A better royalty means you earn out faster.
16. That Honey Boo-Boo Middle Grade Self-Help Sci Fi Cookbook May Be What Gets Your Little Tiny Literary Novel Published So Shaddap About It
I know, we all like to grouse that they just gaveanother book deal to Snooki or a publishing imprint to Grumpy Cat. Hard crotch-kick of truth: these books pay for a lot of the other books that don’t earn out. The existence of some Kardashian “fashion detective novel” not only does not hurt your own book but probably helps it exist in the first place.
17. War Of The Megapublishers
The publishers are super-blobs coalescing into one mega-ultra-super-blob. I assume they’re doing a kind of slow-mo Voltron thing so they can battle what they perceive to be the kaiju cyber-monster that is Amazon, but at the end of the day, when two big publishers become one, that’s not good news. Reduced competition. Cut staff. Fewer authors in the stable. Soylent Green in the cafeteria. In five years, there shall be but two publishers: RANGUIN SCHUSTER PENGDOMHAUS and HARPER MCHATCHET INCORPORATED. They will battle. We will lose.
18. People Are Going To Steal Your Book
The current generation is used to open access, not restricted ownership. Someone is going to gank your book. They’re gonna gank the unmerciful fuck out of it. And you’re either going to be mad about it and flail or you’re going to find a way to deal and even make it work for you.
19. People Are Going To Hate Your Book
You will get bad reviews. You will want to respond. Repeat after me: “I will not respond. Because responding to bad reviews makes me look like a doofus with poor impulse control. Because one bad review is not the measure of my book. Because I don’t want to reveal to the world how my self-esteem is the equivalent of one of those teacup poodles that shakes and pees anytime anyone comes near it.” Okay, that’s a lot to repeat, you can just nod and smile.
20. Eventually, Someone Is Going To Try To Dick You Over
Publishing is chockablock with bad deals. Not just the scammers — though, of course, those are out there, All Hail Writer Beware. Oh, no. You’ll see good and venerable publishers occasionally trying to slip a truly toxic deal past the bouncers. Sign that contract, next thing you know you’ll have offered up your next seven books for the price of one. You’ll have offered your house for orgies and your mouth as an ashtray. This is why we have agents. The agent is there to say, “This clause, the one about eating babies, we’re going to say no to that one.”
21. You Are Now In Marketing And Advertising, Congratulations
Publishers expect you to handle some of the marketing and advertising brunt. Doubly true if you are your own publisher. Problem: nobody knows what works. Like I said: all guesswork. And yet, there you are, the author standing all by himself, trying to peddle his intellectual wares with naught but a single clue as how to do it. So you stand on all the social media corners, shaking your word-booty, trying to seduce readers. The burden is at least in part on you.
22. Word-Of-Mouth Is The Only Surefire Driver
The only truly certain way a book gets properly “advertised” is through memetic transmission — aka, “Word-of-Mouth.” (That sounds like a disease all writers get. “I got a bad case of the word-of-mouth. There’s… no cure. Cue the Sarah McLachlan music.”) Only problem: nobody knows how to manufacture or stimulate word-of-mouth. (It’s definitely not the same way one electrostimulates the prostate gland. I’ve tried!)
23. Writing A Lot And Reading A Lot Is Not A Magical One-Two Combo Punch
You’ll hear a lot that the only advice you need is to read and write. Writing well — and the next step, publishing your work or getting published — is the product of a lot more than just those two things. Practice and effort matters. But contextualization and reflection are key. Further, writing a good book and then getting that book out there requires a skill-set beyond reading and writing, or the world would be full of kick-ass penmonkeys, wouldn’t it?
24. It’s Really Hard, Luck Matters, And Frustration Is Guaranteed
Writing and getting a book out there — whether through a publisher or via your own intrepid go-get-em spirit — is a tough row to hoe, Joe. And luck factors into it: you can certainly maximize that luck, but just the same, publishing requires that spark of serendipity. Frustration is imminent. You’ll hear things, see things, and have to deal with things that will make you want to headbutt a plate glass window. You’ll want to give up. Don’t. Because:
25. A Lot Of This Is Just A Distraction
Learn the ins and outs of publishing. Do not not be ignorant of them. But if you’re not careful, gazing into the dread eye of the publishing industry will become a distraction — one that’ll give you the icy shits every couple weeks as some new wave of dubious news hits the wire (OH GOD AMAZON GAINED SENTIENCE AND IS DOWNLOADING AUTHORS INTO ITS CYBERMIND). Further, the publishing distraction feels like productivity — it’s not like you’re sitting around watching cartoons and eating microwaved pot pies. You’re keeping up with the industry, by gum! Yeah, and you’re also not writing books. Know your industry. But don’t get bogged by it. Your book can’t succeed if your book doesn’t exist in the first place. Concentrate all fire on that Star Destroyer, mmkay? You can’t control publishing. You can’t control the audience’s reaction to your book. Control what you can control, which means: write the best book that lives inside you.
Want another hot tasty dose of dubious writing advice aimed at your facemeats?
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176 responses to “25 Hard Truths About Writing And Publishing”
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The best truthful and funny piece of writing ever written on the subject. Thank you for making me laugh and lift my spirits!