25 Hard Truths About Writing And Publishing

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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164 comments

  • As a real bookstore owner, I want to print this out and use it to bap dewy-eyed self published folks up side the head with it.

    And do you have the nuts to take on the corrosive effects of Amazon, for which many of your readers seem only too happy to bend over forward?

  • Interesting piece. My big quibble: # 7. I hate when people confuse indie publishers as in, smaller, independent presses, with self-publishing (author pays) outfits. Fiscally or artistically, they are completely different.

  • Absolutely true, and hilarious! Really enjoyed it as a new indie writer–love to hear all perspectives, especially when they’re so entertaining. If we ever cross paths, I’m happy to buy you a beer.

  • Speaking as one of the lucky ones … yes. To all of this. A thousand times yes. Don’t get too down in the process, because you simply have to keep getting up and starting over. Don’t get too high on your own successes, because no matter how many books you sell, the next one might not and you’ll look like an asshat for peeing in the wheaties of the readers and writers around you.

    And always, ALWAYS, listen to THE WENDIG, for he is wise.

    Now … can I borrow your narwhal?

  • Loved Para 12 ‘Trying to nail a trend in publishing … (and feel free to substitute anything you like here which requires ultimately persuading the public to part with cash)! Reading the rest of the paragraph resulted in a satisfying belly laugh. I don’t agree with Para 13, however – I can’t be the only one who not only buys and reads books but also embraced e-books yet still borrows umpteen library books a month. I work self-employed from home and when not working am usually reading – some days I don’t get any work done. And I’ll give most genres a go…. My daughter must have caught the bug as she asked for a nice copy of a Jane Austin title she particularly loved one Christmas – ‘just to keep and re-read when I need to.’

  • Love it. Informative and funny.
    No, I’m not discouraged. Anything worth doing is a pain in the ass. ;)

    What if I write a book ABOUT fart-noise apps? Am I sure to get a ga-jillion dollars then?
    No?
    Dammit.

  • This came at the right time for me. The subjective part I understand but it annoys the hell out of me.

    Submitting to writing contests seems to be similar to Olympic Figure skaters waiting for their marks.

    And the Russian judge says…

  • Hi Chuck,

    I have several of your writing books. They’re very useful and informative. I also love a good poison pen, and yours is wielded well.

    This blogpost was mentioned at Passive Voice. I had to laugh at your number 7, above, referencing Tolkien ripoffs. Thought you might be enjoy this link to Lousy Book Covers on tumblr. All the examples are both egregious and hilarious. It’s from 3/22/12. Here’s the URL:

    http://lousybookcovers.tumblr.com/post/19739183666/the-tower-the-eye-book-one-a-beginning-the

    JF Brown

  • Personally I love being self published. I never queried an agent or a house. Why? Exactly what you and others have said about the time it takes to get published. I also didn’t want to give up creative control. The whole thing about people caring whether your indie or traditional is more about ego than anything else. I wrote a good children’s book about 6 months ago. Then I wrote 4 more. I creatspaced/KDP the first one a little over 3 months ago, now I have it on iBook, Nook, and kobo for the last couple of weeks. I can almost guarantee you I made more money in the last 3 months than the advance (if I was lucky enough to be picked up) that I would have received in 1 to 3 years from now. And over that next 1 to 3 years I would have been waiting for an advance I will continue to earn royalties at a higher percentage than with a traditional publisher. So if Carole or any other local brick and morter store owner wants to bap me up side the head with your printed post, or you know not carry my book, your not hurting me and your not hurting Amazon. When B&N collapses or evolves into another Amazon, your not going to see indie store fill that void. Your Targets and Walmarts will have the few huge selling books and Amazon will be taking most of the rest of it. It’s not a slam against indie stores. I’d love to own an indie bookstore/coffee shop. But most won’t survive Amazon. If the big houses turn into a giant blob, it won’t cut competition, there will just be more indie writers. No one has asked me this yet, but if someone did ask if they could buy it at B&N, I would say sure, online, but I would prefer if you ordered through amazon since I make a higher royalty.

  • Thanks, now I am totally psyched to write, but yeah better to read this now when I am an official nobody then to be surprised later when I am a wantabe writer who got …. well, all this happening to him.

  • I liked this. Hilirious too. It’s like tough love preparing you for the real publishing world. I just started writing. I have written a few books but the recent one that I started working on I want to get it out there. So this article was great on been realistic and what to expect I guess in this book-publishing industry. Thanks for this. Love your sarcasm btw. :D

  • Liked that you added luck to the mix. Also, ended on “write the best book that lives inside of you.” Good stuff. Thanks.

  • All great advice. Fun. But being a poet, very little of this apples. Except the key to self-publishing, which is to do it thoughtfully, professionally (edit, edit, time, space, edit) and on halfway decent paper.

  • While there were some good points made here, there were also some bad ones. Indie publishing and self-publishing are not the same thing, and anyone who knows anything about pubishing should know that. As to success being judged by how much a book sells, well, that may be how some people judge success. Personally, if I’ve enjoyed a book, if it’s changed my life, I don’t then go out and ask how many copies it’s sold. If I happen to discover it has sold very few, I don’t then feel, “Oh, I must have been wrong about it.” But you’re right that people should understand that publishing, in a society based on money, does not run without money. Oh, and, by the way, I’ve been working as a publisher, without being paid for it, for some years now.

  • I think what really makes or breaks your book when it’s first published is the cover. We all say we don’t judge a book by its cover, but when it has loopy script and a nice shiny mystical orb on the front cover with fire dancing around the edges, we definitely give it more attention because: “Ooh! Pretty!!” Not that attractive covers guarantee good content, but still, your book has to grab the audience’s attention from the get-go, so they would at least give it a chance.
    Aside from that, thanks for the post.

    • THANK YOU! people always say don’t judge a book by it cover but lets be realistic. The cover is what makes people pick up the book.

  • Sage words, Chuck, and hilarious, to boot. As a manuscript assessor, editor, self-publishing service provider, and a former literary agent, I endorse all of your points — the trouble is, many wannabe writers don’t know enough to even check this sort of stuff out. Sigh.

  • Been through all of this with five novels. Published by a small press (where they treat you well), by a large corporate press (where they treat you like s**t unless, through no effort of theirs, you click and make them millions), and have self-published a sixth book. I had the most fun with #6 and will probably earn the most with it in the long run. I plan on letting my agent hawk book #7 for another four months or so and then, if still no dice, I will self-publish. At least we–the professional, well-reviewed authors who haven’t had the dumb luck that the publishers would like us to have–now have the option of self-pubbing to get our work out there. And I do look forward to NOT sharing the royalties with the large corporate press.

  • E-books is the only way to go when it comes to publishing. Bad writers get flushed by the system and good writers tend to rise to the top. I know some successful authors who’ve abandoned the traditional print publishing because they don’t have to do book tours and see a lot of money go to the publisher. Cut out the middle man, hire your own editor, artist, etc., and the amount of money earned is much greater.

    • I agree with terribleminds, for every bad writer “flushed” 100 more takes his/her place. Yes, a number of writers have gone that route and have been successful, I know a few personally, but they are few and far between and it is getting harder with each passing day as more writers opt for this route.

  • Thank you. I am getting ready to do my first book (I’ve done every – and I do mean every from writing to editing to subscriptions – in magazines) and am debating self/Indie or sending out a proposal to a biggie. I’m thinking on sending proposals to indies and if that doesn’t do much good, going self with Kickstarter (I just helped someone on a similar project).

    I enjoyed the post and will be reading more.

  • Chuck, I got a huge kick out of your pronouncements and dire realism. I’ve been published by many large NYC publishers and self-published as well. In my experience, a book with a major publisher is a business deal, and many times you have to bring a big third party gorilla to the table, such as celebrities, a company backing the project, significant endorsements etc, to facilitate the sale. I still find that traditional PR works best if you can create a compelling and enticing PR release, targeting the media you want. In any event, you are apparently a very savvy guy and terrific writer.

  • About word of mouth; I thought I’d persuaded all my family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, et al. to buy my short stories, to “kick-start” the process. They are disappointingly disloyal. A write-up in the local newspaper did not generate any significant sales.I even tried to “shill” a bit; gave a cocktail waitress an extra-big tip so she could by one of my stories for her Kindle. No sale. What else can get people talking other than I become a serial killer or something to draw attention to myself?

  • LOL! Not just the post is hilarious so are the respondents! I was just happy to get a publisher and have my name on a book. Not expecting Narwhale money! One for the bucket list and all the rest is honey! And I know I have more people that read my blog than my book, ’cause, hey, that’s free.

  • Late to the party, I know, but here is a HIGHLY relevant anecdote for your collection of same:

    I used to work in the toy industry. No, not THAT toy industry (although I’ve done work in that one too,) I mean the one that makes Frisbees ‘n shit. (Little known fact: “Frisbees ‘n Shit” still holds the record, some forty-odd years later, as the shortest-lived retail franchise in history.) I happened to be at Toy Fair, the main industry trade show back when anybody gave a fuck about trade shows, the year that “Tickle Me Elmo” was introduced. Yes, me, and umpteen dozen other toy industry professionals – just the ones I worked with regularly had enough collective experience to rightly judge the first toy introduced after the Big Bang – all saw that little red vibratory (still in THIS toy industry, pervs) puppet giggling his creepy little head off.

    And every. SINGLE. One. Said, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen.. Not ONE person I talked to about it said anything more complimentary than that. Most were worse.

    Nobody. Knows. Nothin’. Or, rather, yes, you can probably predict with some accuracy that toys which actively maim children in unamusing ways will not sell well, at least not once everybody figures it out. It’s reasonably easy to show why something has an objective problem. But once you get past “rarely if ever bursts into flames and/or opens gateways to Hell,” there ain’t no telling what it’s going to do. Period.

  • The publishing industry is indeed a business my first book published eight years ago was a poetry book but I learned a lot. The cover is important but thinking of creative ideas to marketing a book is also very important.

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