25 Damned Dirty Lies About Publishing, By Delilah S. Dawson
Do I even need to introduce Delilah at this point? Just go look at her newest Blud novella, will you? The Damsel and the Daggerman. And actually, doesn’t Wicked After Midnight release soon… OH YES IT DOES. Anyway, here’s Lady DSD to talk more about publishing:
“But publishing would never lie to me,” you say. “Publishing takes care of me. Says I’m special. Says I’ll make enough money to retire rich without doing much work.”
Um, sorry. Are you talking about publishing? OR A PIMP?
Because publishing does indeed lie. Okay, so it’s not a six-headed beast curled around the Chrysler building in New York and vomiting forth new Nora Roberts books every time the clock at Grand Central Station chimes, and I’m definitely a disciple of going the traditional publishing route. But there are certain inaccuracies floating around that you need to know the truth about before seriously committing yourself to being a published author.
Also, don’t share needles with publishing or leave it next to your drink at a bar. Just in case.
1. WRITING BOOKS IS EASY. ANYONE CAN DO IT. I JUST DID IT WHILE YOU WERE READING THIS.
Ha ha ha YEAH NO. Even when you’ve done it several times, even when it’s your job, even when the contract monkey is breathing down your neck and tapping its Opposable Thumb of Doom, there are still times when writing is really hard. Sometimes the first draft slogs forever or you consider yourself the newest victim of writer’s block, aka. IDONWANNA DISEASE. Sometimes you get bogged down in revisions like Atreyu tethered to Artax the Typewriter. Some days, you’ll wake up and want to quit. But easy things are worth nothing. Keep writing anyway.
2. WRITING BOOKS IS IMPOSSIBLE. YOU SHOULD PROBABLY GIVE UP AND BE AN EMU FARMER BECAUSE EMU IS DELICIOUS AND LESS IMPOSSIBLE.
Writing a book feels impossible until you’ve done it. But once you’ve finished the first one, Stephen King will appear in your bedroom with wings made of ink quills and tap you on the head with his Sceptor of Writingdom and don’t ask if that’s a euphemism. From then on, you’ll be part of the secret cabal of people who know the real truth: if you keep putting words one after the other, you’ll eventually have a book. It doesn’t matter whether it’s good or bad, at first. It will need lots of work. But you need to squeeze out at least one, just so you know you can do it.
3. YOU CAN EDIT YOUR OWN SHIT.
::sticks red pen into overflowing toilet:: Well, that didn’t work.
I don’t care how awesome you are, you need other eyes on your work. It can be a critique partner, a beta reader, a paid editor, an agent, or a Big Six editor, but someone who isn’t you needs to look at your finished book and help you take it to the next level. Just like in real life, most people are oblivious to their own faults. ::picks nose:: Find someone you trust, even if you have to pay them, and make sure your grammar and spelling are tip-top and that your book baby is ready to be punted out into the world.
4. YOU DON’T NEED ANYONE’S HELP. EVER. NOT EVEN FOR MAKING BABIES. BE A LONE WOLF. WHO HAS NO BABIES.
Unless you’re one of those hermaphroditic frogs, you need people. Especially if you want to be a writer. Making relationships with other writers is a lifesaver, not only because they’re fantastic company and understand what you’re going through, but also because they are a wealth of information. Most of the tips that have leveled up my writing have come from the blogs of other authors. I find all my favorite books by what authors recommend as good reading. When you have a question about your story or career path, there are grizzled vets in the typewriter trenches who are happy to yank you down among them for a drink and chat. Never be afraid to ask questions or ask for help.
Unless the question is “Will you read my unpublished manuscript?”, in which case BE SO AFRAID THAT YOU NEVER ASK A PUBLISHED AUTHOR. Trust me on this one.
5. YOU CAN PAY SOMEONE TO QUERY FOR YOU AND BUTTER THE AGENT UP. AGENTS CAN’T TELL THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN BUTTER AND PARKAY.
Let’s get something straight: paying a freelance editor: GOOD. Paying a freelance query company: BAD. Querying sucks, but it’s one of those things you just have to do for yourself. Paying someone to query for you is like paying a hobo to go to your job interview. Each query is an introduction, one that agents might remember for years to come. Be genuine, be smart, be flexible, but above all, be yourself. A good agent will represent you and your entire career, not just one book, and the roboqueriers are likely to make you look like a lazy idiot.
6a. YOU TOTALLY DON’T NEED AN AGENT. THEY ARE ALL MUSTACHIOED SWINDLERS.
My agent doesn’t have a mustache, but she’s gotten me four book deals for a total of six books and three e-books, sold my foreign rights, and steered me away from questionable contracts. If you want to be traditionally published, an agent is almost a must, especially if you’re not a lawyer or really good with 32-page contracts in Klingon lawspeak. A good agent will help navigate your career, including helping you brainstorm new book ideas and level up our writing. On the other hand, in my opinion, a bad agent is a thousand times worse than no agent. To avoid mustachioed swindlers, do your homework before accepting representation. And if your agent relationship is fraught with arguments, unpleasantness, unresponsiveness, or outright laziness, you can always terminate your agreement and find a better one.
6b. JESUS, DUDE. YOU WILL EXPLODE IF YOU DON’T HAVE AN AGENT.
Some people want complete control of their career and books and would rather just self-publish or have their lawyer look at contracts, and that’s their business. If you’re happy with where you are without an agent and are selling books exactly the way you want to, don’t feel like you’ll be struck by lightning if you continue in that vein. It’s all about what helps you reach your goals. But still, watch out for lightning. ::steps away, gingerly puts down umbrella::
7. IF YOU MANAGE TO HOOK AN AGENT, YOUR BOOK WILL SELL LIKE HOTCAKES ON A STRIPPER’S BUTT, I GUAR-ON-TEE.
True story: the book that hooked my agent didn’t sell. It was on sub forever, went two rounds with an editor, and still didn’t garner a contract. Did I descend into a whirlpool of amaretto and chocolate and uglychocolatetears? Nope. I wrote the next book. Sometimes, an agent sees promise in the book you queried but wants to shelve it and work on the next book with you. Sometimes that first book won’t sell. Sometimes it will sell, but months later, after back-and-forth revisions with editors. Sometimes an editor will reject your book, notice a new trend, and call you up two years later to see if you’re game. There is no normal on how and when books sell, and there’s no guarantee that even the best agent can sell the best book.
8. ONLY GOOD BOOKS GET PUBLISHED.
Buuuuuuuullsheet. I’ve picked up dozens of Big Six books and been appalled at the production values, the writing, the cliches, the hollow characters, the lackluster plots, the lack of tension. Sometimes, editors buy books because they’ve been told to hit a trend while the iron was hot, even if the book isn’t perfect. Sometimes a first book bombs and the publisher decides that since no one’s going to read the sequels they’ve already paid for, they’ll just cut their losses and spend as little money and time on them as possible. And it’s often a matter of taste and that book just isn’t your thang, chicken wang. But you don’t want to be one of those writers who rants against publishers and calls out “bad books” and gets drunk at parties and yells about how the latest Dan Brown could’ve been called The Da Vinci Centipede Twenty-Two: Sucktastic Bugaloo. Just use that rage to learn from the mistakes you find in books and up your own writing so that no one ever says such horrid things about you.
9. MOST ADVANCES ARE SEVEN FIGURES. AT LEAST SIX FIGURES OR GTFO.
Yeah, no. This ain’t the 80s, so take off that big-shouldered asymmetrical jacket and put down that keytar. The average book advance is NOBODY KNOWS BECAUSE THE FIRST RULE OF SELLING A BOOK IS NEVER TALK ABOUT HOW MUCH YOU GOT PAID. My best guess, judging by drunken midnight conversations at con bars, is anything from $500 to $20,000 for a first book. Most of them skew $5000 or less, in my highly unofficial guesstimation. In short, you can finally paint your house, but don’t quit your day job. One of the great things about having an agent is that they can let you know if it’s a good deal or you’re being taken advantage of and can then negotiate on your behalf.
10. EVERY BOOK SELLS IN A THREE-BOOK SERIES. THE DAMN THINGS ARE LIKE HYDRAS. OR SEXY TRIPLETS.
Some people are saying that three-book series are dead. Considering my latest YA sold in a two-book series, I concur. SAMPLE SIZE OF 1, BIOTCHES. As mentioned before, there is no real normal in book deals. If you have a seven-book series planned out and your agent dangles a three-book deal to editors and it sells as a standalone, don’t freak out. Publishing is super weird. You can always write more and sell them later. A book sale is a book sale. That’s also the reason most advice urges you to only write the first book in a series, even if you’ve planned fifty books and crafted your own language for the mer-orcs. Write the first one, write down your timeline, outline, or synopses, and then write a new book that has nothing to do with that first one. Why? See #7 above.
11a. YOUR BOOK IS YOUR BABY, AND YOUR PUBLISHER WILL TOTES MAGOATS HONOR THAT.
Again, HA HA HA HA NOPES MCSNOPES. Once you sign that contract, that baby is no longer yours. It belongs to your publisher. Every contract I’ve seen or signed has a clause that basically states that if you don’t revise according to your editor’s requests, they can demand you pay back your advance and shut down that deal. Which isn’t to say that they’re out to get you, because they’re not shelling out the Buzz-enjamins for poop. Together, you and your publisher will work to craft the very best book you can. They want you to succeed. But they are also legally allowed to demand changes that you didn’t foresee and that you might not like. Your job is to look at what they want and consider how best to deliver it with a book that you can be proud of. If that means you have to fight for something you really believe in, than do that. But know that there will be consequences, as editors talk amongst themselves. Bad attitudes will be remembered.
11b. YOUR PUBLISHER IS A MONSTER WHO EATS BABIES, BY WHICH I MEAN YOUR TOUCHING ADOPTION MEMOIR WILL BECOME SEXY WEREWOLF BDSM.
Again, your mutual goal is to produce the most beautiful, well-written, engrossing, and above all SELLABLE book that you can. That’s what publishers do as a business, and if they didn’t know (mostly!) what they’re doing, they wouldn’t exist. Your editor is not a mean jerk who wants you to be the laughingstock of the book world. In my case, a fantasy adventure became a paranormal romance with naked manchest on the cover, and although it took me a while to digest that, I eventually concluded that I had to trust my editor. If they eat babies on the weekend, that’s their own business.
12. THEY WILL FLY YOU TO NYC TO DISCUSS COVER IDEAS OVER CHAMPAGNE, AND YOU WILL BE INVITED TO TRY ON ALFRED KNOPF’S KNICKERS BECAUSE YOU ARE A ROCK STAR, BABY.
Bad news, precious snowflake: if you sign with a Big Six publisher, you might get ZERO say in your covers. That’s one of the reasons some writers choose to self-publish. Depending on your publisher, your relationship with your editor, and what your agent can sneak into your contract, you might have no input, you might be asked very rudimentary questions, or you might be an integral part of the cover process. Almost every author I know has a different story. One friend got to select his cover model from three choices; they’re now Facebook pals. Two friends are graphic designers who do their own cover design—with their publishers’ final touches. As for me, no one asks my input until they have a mock-up, and then we discuss. S&S has been very generous in granting my wishes, and for my third Blud book, I whispered directly to my cover artist, as we’ve gotten to know each other over social media. Not coincidentally, it’s my favorite Blud cover. If having a say in your cover is of utmost importance to you, make sure it’s in your contract. And don’t ask for Alfred’s knickers; I’m pretty sure that’s a sex act in some countries.
Also, don’t expect to be flown anywhere, ever, until you hit the NYT list. Travel budgets are way down, and no one wants you vogueing at the cover shoot.
13. THE DAY YOU SIGN YOUR CONTRACT, YOU WILL RECEIVE A BRIEF EDIT LETTER, A STOPWATCH, AND A HELMET BECAUSE PUBLISHING MOVES FAST.
The slowest thing on Earth is publishing. It is slower than a quadriplegic sloth riding a dead tortoise. That’s why authors drink so much. After I sold my first book, I didn’t hear a single peep from my publisher for six months. SIX. MONTHS. And the first email was “Hey, we’re changing the title”, and the second email was “Hey, I’m leaving. Here’s your new editor.” And I freaked out x2. And everything worked out fine for me, but you simply can’t expect that the giant steampunk engine of publishing will start up at 60 MPH and morph into a bullet train. Every stage of publishing will take longer than you think. Your agent will keep your draft longer. Your editor will be late with your edit letter. You will meet your deadlines like a good little Do-Bee, but everyone else will take their sweet time. Get used to it.
Of note: the best way to stay busy? ALWAYS BE WRITING SOMETHING NEW.
14. YOUR EDITOR IS A BENEVOLENT DEMIGOD PARTHENOGENICALLY BORN OF APOLLO AND WILL THEREFORE ALWAYS BE RIGHT AND HAVE A GOLDEN GLOW.
Alas, your editor is human. Your entire publishing team is human. They will make mistakes. They will drop the ball. There will be disagreements. Just remember that any time you want to write an angry Unibomber manifesto email, you’re better off asking your agent to be the bad guy. If you disagree with your editor on something small about which you can remain pleasant, emailing is fine. If you are outraged, let your agent do it. For me, the important skill has been looking at what my editor wants, being as accommodating as possible, and when choosing to disagree, offering up solutions.
What you want to say: I’M NOT KILLING OFF JUSTIN BEAVER. HE’S THE BEST CHARACTER THAT WAS EVER WRITTEN AND YOU’RE A BLIND DUNGBEETLE.
What you say instead: I made the changes you requested about having everyone ride rhinos; good catch about how the horn would castrate anyone who got thrown! But I think we need to keep Justin around, as he’s a good foil to Prince the Prince. Maybe we could make him in a coma for the first half of the book so that he only awakens when the curse is lifted? And let’s change his name to Maude.
15. SELLING THE BOOK IS THE EASY PART. YOUR JOB IS OVER.
I remember thinking, “If I can only get an agent, I’ll be happy forever.” Then I got an agent and thought, “If only we can sell a book, I’ll be happy forever.” And then I thought, “If I can only hit the NYT bestseller list and be a billionaire playboy philanthropist, I’ll be happy forever.” Jury’s still out on the third one, but suffice it to say that the satisfaction doesn’t last. Once you sell that book, you’ve got a new career, and writing books is only one small part of it. You also have to edit your books, edit them again, deal with a ton of correspondence, maintain a social media presence, get out and do events, grow your public speaking skills, do interviews and guest blogs, and, oh yeah, WRITE MORE BOOKS. This is one job in which you can’t just maintain the status quo. If you’re not constantly outdoing yourself, you’re falling behind. Invest in great coffee brewing equipment.
16. SPEAKING OF WHICH, YOU SHOULD MOST DEFINITELY QUIT YOUR DESK JOB AND BUY A COUNTRY ESTATE, JUST LIKE CHEVY CHASE DID IN FUNNY FARM.
Since becoming a full-time writer in 2012, I’ve come to the conclusion that the Bistronomics in Douglas Adams’s books was based on Writernomics, because dealing with money as an author is insane. The taxes are high, around 30% or more, and although you can write off tons of stuff, it doesn’t add up as big as you might think. Let’s say you get a 3 book deal at $10k each. That’s $30,000. Woohoo! BUT STOP, COLLABORATE, AND WEEP. You often get half the total up front, then smaller amounts as each book is turned in or published. Which means $15,000 the first year and $15,000 spread out over the next three years. Agent takes 15%, Uncle Sam takes 30%. Definitely not enough to live on. Oh, and you’ll also have to pay for cons, launch party, possibly advertising, a new laptop. The smart thing to do, IMHO, is to put away the part for taxes ASAP in an untouchable safe in my basement. Otherwise, April will be your new worst enemy.
17. STOP READING. OTHER BOOKS WILL POLLUTE YOUR BRAINPAN.
Can we be honest? Past Delilah is kind of an idiot. I went through a stage where I didn’t read. I was worried that other books would leak into my own writing or otherwise mess me up. DELILAH, YOU IDIOT. You have to keep reading if you want to be a writer. Read in your genre to see what’s selling, what works, what turns you off. Read outside of your genre to tickle your noodle and keep your synapses snapping. Read non-fiction to up your writing game or inform your descriptions. Read internet articles and writer blogs and those chalkboard typeography signs that encourage you to be a better person and WHATEVER. But always be reading, or your brain will stagnate and rot and soon people will be urging a young man named Carl to shoot you.
18. ONCE YOU’VE SOLD A BOOK, STOP WRITING OTHER THINGS THAT ARE NOT THAT BOOK. THE BOOK IS YOUR NEW GOD. THINK ONLY OF THE BOOK. THE BOOK WANTS A BUTTERSCOTCH SUNDAE.
Want to become a crazy person? Try meth. Or just focus on one book and put all your eggs in one basket and obsess and never move forward. At least with the book thing, you keep your teeth. The only way to stay sane as a writer is to always look to the future and be working on something new. The energetic spark of a new idea, the delicious beauty of a first page, a foray into a new genre or that wacky character that just won’t leave you alone… pursue it. And finish it. Writing is like chasing butterflies, because if you trap one butterfly and put it in a jar, it will wither and die and taste horrible when you try to eat it.
19. DON’T WORRY ABOUT PUBLICITY. AVOID SOCIAL MEDIA. BE ABUSIVE TO STRANGERS. YOUR PUBLICIST WILL FOLLOW BEHIND YOU WITH A BROOM AND HELP HIDE THE BODIES WHILE ENSURING YOU WIN MANY AWARDS.
I don’t care what anyone promises you: you are your own best publicist. No one can buy a book they’ve never heard of. Build word of mouth in any way possible that doesn’t hurt anyone or make your mother cry. Pick your social media poison and twerk it. Be kind to everyone that you meet, online or off. Find the right balance in tweeting links to your book so that people don’t unfollow you for being spammy. Your publicist represents dozens of books, and unless your last name is King or Rowling, you’re not their number one concern. Do not expect your publisher to do the work for you. Always be looking for an opportunity to get your book noticed. Also, don’t ask your publicist to help bury bodies, because I hear no one in publishing gets paid very much and they’ll probably just turn you in for money.
20. IT MAKES THE NEW YORK TIMES TOP TEN OR ELSE IT GETS THE HOSE AGAIN.
Many great books never find the readership or accolades they deserve. With 1350+ new books out every week and a system geared toward keeping the top dogs on top, how could they? The best thing you can do is start the next book and make it the best book you can write. Nothing sells a book like the next book and a backlist. If you compare yourself to other writers, you’ll sink into a shame spiral and get a nasty chip on your shoulder and four bags of Frito chips in your belly as you eat your feelings. Yes, winning awards and making Top Ten lists and getting invited to cons is fantastic, and yes, the more you get, the more you want and expect. But in the end, being a writer is about writing, about telling stories and connecting with readers and scratching that itch deep in the nethers of your soul. It’s perfectly fine to unfollow/mute anyone who can’t shut up about how awesome they are. People who post their Amazon rankings more than 5x a day, I’m talking about you. ::stares::
21. GENRES ARE LIKE HOGWARTS HOUSES. THEY CHOOSE YOU, YOU ONLY GET ONE, AND NO ONE WANTS TO BE A SNUFFLEPOOF.
Pfft. Genres are like subway trains. Hop on whichever one you want, but know you won’t reach your destination unless you’re checking the map and you stay in your seat long enough. Popular wisdom states that the best way to build a fan base is to continue writing what your current fans want. But if, like me, you think that sounds kind of boring, there’s nothing wrong with trying something new. It’s a little like throwing darts: the more you throw, the better your chance of hitting the bullseye. You might want to make sure that there’s something about you and your writing that will compel your current fans to try the next thing you want to write. For me, going from paranormal romance to paranormal YA, I can assure my readers that they’ll find the same dark whimsy, deep world building, and a freaky twist on a trope. Besides, Snufflepoofs are just honey badgers in drag, right?
22. ONCE YOU FIND SUCCESS, GO ON AND REST ON THOSE LAURELS. LAURELS ARE COZY.
Laurels are poky little leaves, and no one wants a thong full of leafburn. The only way to stay on top of the game is to keep writing, find new fans, go to new cons, and generally be constantly leveling up your writing and your career. Yes, you will have brief periods of rest. But publishing is slow, and most writers hope to have at least one book out every year so that they stay in front of the public and on the bookshelf. You can also explore other outlets for writing, like short stories, flash faction, magazines, blogging, comics, scriptwriting, video games, poetry, public speaking, teaching workshops, and farming laurel plants. And don’t forget to pay it forward and help the next generation of goopy newborn writers. They all want to be where you are, and they *really* want to know how you got there. A kind word, retweet, blurb, or recommendation goes a long way for someone who’s just starting out.
23. PUBLISHING A BOOK WILL SOLVE ALL YOUR PROBLEMS, MAKE YOUR HAIR FULL AND SHINY, AND TURN YOU INTO THAT HAPPY, WEALTHY, PSYCHOLOGICALLY FULFILLED PERSON YOU’VE ALWAYS DREAMED OF BEING.
It’s kind of funny. Catch a writer when they’re in the right stage of their creative cycle, and they’re happy, full of energy, positive, outgoing, and full of hope. Catch the same person at the wrong stage of their cycle, and they’re depressed, enervated, hopeless, introverted, and insecure. Much like the seasons, writers have their ups and downs in a natural circle of life. Yes, we’re businesspeople with careers, but we’re also artists, and artists have a long and honored history of being crazier than a bag of bees. The thing is? This cycle is TOTALLY NORMAL. I don’t know if I’ve ever met a writer who doesn’t have a valley in their writing process in which they feel like complete shit as an artist and a human being. The good news is that the very act of writing helps push the cycle along to a more favorable place. And there are also tons of little dopamine pings built into the cycle. Going to a great con? PING. Getting a good review? PING. Getting a nice pull quote or mention? PING. Fan sends you a Starbucks card? PING and thanks, Sheldon. Writing is not guaranteed to make you happy and healthy all the time, but for most writers, it’s the only alternative to going into full-on bee-bag insanity mode.
24. THERE IS ONLY ONE WAY TO WRITE. THERE IS ONLY ONE ROUTE TO BEING A PUBLISHED AUTHOR. IF YOU LOOK BACK OVER YOUR SHOULDER, YOU WILL TURN INTO A PILLAR OF SALT, AND NOT THE PRETTY PINK KIND.
There is no one secret to success as a published writer. The best equation I can figure is 10% TALENT + 50% HARD WORK/TENACITY + 20% SMART DECISION-MAKING + 20% LUCK. And of course we all know that you can’t control for talent or luck. Anyone who promises you guaranteed results by selling a service or a workshop just wants your money. The best you can do is to write the best books you can, read a ton, always be developing your skills, make smart decisions, gather a team of colleagues you like and trust, and take every chance you can to move toward your goals. Even if you take this list and my 25 Steps to Being a Traditionally Published Author list to heart, there are still a kabillion people who disagree with me or who might follow every step and never find the victory they want so badly. Do what feels right to you. And if that doesn’t work, try something else. The point is that you keep trying.
25. BEING A PUBLISHED AUTHOR IS THE MOST HORRIBLE THING THAT EVER HAPPENED TO ME, AND I HOPE TO GOD YOU RUN AWAY SCREAMING.
I said it was a lie!
I’ve never been happier. Or crazier. But there’s no feeling like seeing your book on the shelf at Barnes and Noble for the first time, and that’s definitely no lie.