Mike Underwood is good people. He does stellar work inside the hissing cyber-word factory of Angry Robot Books, and he’s also a helluva wordmonkey himself. He’s one of the authors who gets a wide open door when it comes to writing guest posts here, and when he wanted to talk about some of the “SHH SECRETS” inside the publishing industry, well, I dare not refuse him. Also he has a gun and it shoots robots — like, it actually fires tiny robots into your body and the robots, well, I dunno what they do once they’re inside you, but word on the street is “robot orgy in your aorta.” So, listen to Mike. Or he’ll shoot you with his robot orgy gun.
1) Selling a Book to a Publisher is Business/Art Dating
Just because your book is awesome and sexy doesn’t mean that it’s a good match for every publishing house. Just as no one person is a perfect match for every person in the world, no matter how cool they may be, no one book is a perfect fit for every publishing house. Each house has its own editorial aesthetic, their house brand/style, and specific demands for their list. A house might be full up on Cyberpunk Westerns starring transwomen (more houses should publish Cyberpunk Westerns starring transwomen, to begin with), and not feel confident in being able to publish a second book that’s too similar to what they already have.
2) No One at the Publisher Hates You
Chances are, unless you’re a jackass, the people at publishing companies don’t hate you. Most of us are too busy trying to make books succeed and get the word out about books we love to spare time to do much else. If a book doesn’t fit with a publisher, it’s usually nothing personal. Publishers have to focus on books they love the most, that they think they can succeed with. If your book isn’t a match, it doesn’t mean people hate you.
3) Gatekeepers: You Keep Saying That Word
Here’s what publishing gatekeepers do. They don’t keep people out, they let people in. The publishing world doesn’t owe a writer anything other than a fair shake. If you submit to an agent or an editor, you have a right to a response in as reasonable a time and a manner as possible.
Agents get thousands upon thousands of queries a year. Most can only reasonably support a few dozen clients, since they’re going to be doing a bunch of different things for their clients, from chasing down royalty payments to selling books to negotiating contracts to helping with publicity to working on selling sub-rights.
Editors are constantly getting pitched, and only have so many slots on their publishing schedule to fill. They usually need to select a mix of genres, a mix of debuts and more established names, a mix of more commercial and more adventurous titles, in order to keep their imprint’s list viable. The editors aren’t keeping you out, they’re looking for the right publishing partners to fulfill their own business and creative agenda. The trick is that traditional publishing, by dint of survivorship bias, has made themselves into the place to go to get your work out into the world.
And due to that, agents and editors are seen as standing at the gates to Marvelous Publication Wonderland, kicking people out and letting only a few inside. That’s not really what they’re doing, but I get the perception.
Now, we have author-publishing. Which means you can self-publish your work, but then readers have to do more of the heavy lifting of saying ‘Hey, this book here is awesome, you should read it!’, where in traditional publishing, there are often hundreds of voices doing that task in a thousand different ways.
Agents and Editors aren’t keeping people out – they’re looking for the right people, the right works, to fit their aesthetic and economic agendas. We often get touchy when art and commerce meet, but if you’re going to be a Professional Penmonkey, you must be Artist and Businessperson both – Picasso in the studio and Henry Ford in the board room.
But publishers don’t have the only Publishing Machines anymore. Now you can build your own. A home-made author-publisher Veritech is different from a Publishing House Jaeger, but they can both go forth to fight the good fight of bookselling.
4) What are Sub-Rights?
Sub-rights, in publishing parlance, is everything that’s not the print/ebook rights for a book. They’re called sub-rights (short for subsidiary rights) because they’re often thought about second. Your publisher may negotiate to buy those rights straight off, and your agent may negotiate to keep them.
Some of the more common sub-rights that come up are audiobook rights, translation rights, foreign territory rights, tv/film rights, graphic novel rights, and so on. Some publishers have good plans for exploiting those rights in-house, and sometimes you’re better off retaining the rights and having your agent sell them elsewhere.
Sub-rights are where a lot of writers make their real living. The reason? They’re usually not any more work for the writer, or very little (working with an audiobook narrator, consulting on foreign rights editions, etc.). Once you’ve written the book, selling sub-rights becomes passive income – it’s getting paid again and again for work you’ve already done. This is what we call in the publishing business ‘a whole bunch of win.’
5) Agents are Freaking Key, But You Can Go It Alone If You Really Want
Whenever I say ‘your agent,’ I’m assuming that many writers will want an agent when it comes down to negotiating publishing deals, which are notoriously arcane and laden with insider jargon. You don’t absolutely need an agent, especially if you’re confident in your ability to read a contract, and/or are working in parts of publishing where agents aren’t as much of a thing (like writing tie-in fiction).
Agents, when they’re good, can be an amazing partner in your publishing journey. A bad agent can tank a career, just like a good agent can turn a fresh-faced debut author into a brand-new literary super-star. If you’re hoping to traditionally publish fiction or non-fiction in the north American market (the biggest English-language publishing market in the world), or are an author-publisher looking to sell sub-rights, I definitely recommend investigating literary agents. Again, go in with clear eyes and a strong sense of what you want out of the relationship, and choose your partners wisely.
If you really don’t want an agent, you’ll likely want a contract lawyer to go over the contracts you’re offered, to do at least the bare minimum vetting to make sure the contract doesn’t end up with you sitting in a figurative ditch with your organs carved out as Deliverables.
6) Don’t Count on the Fat Hollywood Money
“They should totally make a movie out of your book!” is a nice sentiment, but it means a whole lotta bupkis.
Hollywood does what’s best for Hollywood. Or, at least, they should. I don’t know that business well enough to say whether they really do or don’t, but what I do know is that TV/Media rights sales are rare to begin with, and they mean almost nothing until the deal goes from ‘We’re so excited!’ to ‘here’s your check.” If you though that the path to traditional publication was tough, Hollywood is a whole different world of vagueness and terror.
To sell rights, first you need a media agent. That could be your literary agent, but often it’s a media agent or a publisher sub-rights agent, depending on whether you sold TV/film rights to your publisher or retained them yourself.
Once you have someone to sell those rights, then they have to pitch every producer and production company known to humanity, and several known only to the Dork Lords of Geekdom, the eldtritch forces of Tinsel Town.
But you don’t just sell the rights right off, most times. First you sell an option, which amounts to ‘dibs.’ When you have an option sold, that company has an exclusive on trying to get a deal for the work. The option tends to only pay a few thousand dollars, unless you’ve got a big-ticket property.
From there, then the production company has to actually buy the rights. And from there, the following 1000 steps are incremental inchings toward the shoot, from contracting a script writer to developing a writer’s room (TV), and so on.
Most writers can probably expect to never see their work made into a big-budget film or prime-time TV show. The Vampire Diaries and Game of Thrones of the world are incredibly rare. So if you do get Hollywood interest, my advice is the same advice I’ve been given. Don’t get excited until you have a check in your hands, then take it to the bank, cash it, and move on. The stereotype of Hollywood is that everyone is always saying ‘Yes!’ and getting excited, but then nothing gets done. They’re working like any of the rest of us, it’s just that Hollywood has its own culture, with back-stabbing, blood-sacrifice, and competitive iced latte-drinking-based hierarchies.
7) Booksellers Are Awesome, But They Have to be Profitable, Too
Maybe your book got skipped by Barnes & Noble. That sucks.
Maybe it’s not being stocked by Amazon. That sucks.
But each bookseller is a business trying to make the best decision for their own company, and if they don’t know how to sell your work, or don’t think something will sell to their customers, that’s their prerogative. Being a business, they have to be self-centered to survive. Most of the time, it’s not about you, the author, but about some large-scale concern, or one of a hundred other factors. It does mean that they can occasionally totally screw you over while doing what they think is best for their business.
It’s still getting screwed, and that’s why we, as authors, are well-advised to develop a diversified publishing portfolio for ourselves and to support a diverse bookselling landscape, so that no one part of our business, no one retailer, no one project, has too much control over our overall publishing fate.
8) How Discounts Work – Retail Price Isn’t a Mark-up
Most independent booksellers don’t discount books the way that big box stores do because it isn’t economically feasible for them. Target may be able to get away with selling the new Stephen King for $14, but your favorite independent bookstore probably paid almost that much for the book, and needs to sell it for the list price to make enough money to keep the business running. Big chains make their money on volume, and on discounting some items to bring people in, and then selling them other items that have much better margins. They’re called loss leaders.
Independent bookstores mostly can’t afford to use loss leaders. They sell the book for the full price, the suggested price. They also provide a whole range of social and cultural benefits, from assisting school districts, organizing book clubs, author events, creating curated selections, hand-selling expertise, and so on.
Digging a bit more into the pricing world for books – Every retailer that buys books from a publisher settles on terms of sale. Most independent bookstores get about a 47%-50% discount on books when ordering from the publisher. So for a $8.00 Mass Market, they pay $4.00 or so and then sell the book for the retail price.
Some really big accounts (B&N, Amazon, Books-a-Million, etc.) get a bigger discount due to the volume or other special arrangements.
Bigger accounts can afford to sell at a discount both because of this discount (sometimes) and because of being able to make up their lost margin with volume sales. When you see a new hardcover discounted at Target or Costco or Wal-Mart, that price probably comes from a combination of a better discount for the retailer and a desire to use the book as a loss leader.
9) The Traditional Publishing Jaeger
If you sell a book to a major publisher, you’re agreeing to give over a big chunk of the book’s income in order to hire an army to go to bat for your book. If you sell to a smaller publisher, you’re hiring a smaller, more focused army. A traditional publisher includes the following people helping to make your book amazing and to sell it: editor, publicist, sales representatives, sales managers, marketers, library representatives, book designers, artists, layout artists, inventory staff, finance & royalties workers, and hundreds more positions in a bigger house.
Going traditional is partnering with a giant Publishing Jaeger built and run by an army of staffers. You’re still the pilot, but when you’re using the Jaeger, you have to sell books things the way Jaegers sell books. You take home less money per copy sold, but you’ve got a lot more people on your side, who are working with you to make the book succeed. The entire army’s goal is to see each book succeed.
10) Traditional Publishing is Slow For a Reason
Remember the giant Publishing Jaeger? It’s going to be slower than say, a helicopter, by necessity. The reason publishing is slow is that it’s big, and it’s powerful. In order to align the dozens, hundreds, or thousands of employees behind a book as part of a publisher’s season, there’s a ton of coordination and steps to go through to make it a powerful butt-kicking sales machine.
Publishers also use selling seasons, where they group six months of book releases together for the purposes of organizing their systems and sales efforts. Most publishers still have sales representatives that travel around the country and sell to independent bookstores, present to libraries, sell to non-bookstore retailers that carry books, and more. Those sales reps work long hours and travel extensively, and selling seasons help keep their work reasonably viable, rather than having to be on the road 52 weeks a year. That means that publishers have to know what will be coming out sometimes 15 months in advance, and be able to start talking about it that early, in order to deploy all of their resources effectively and get the word out.
11) Covers Are For the Publisher
If you’re an author, the cover is not for you. It’s for the reader, and for the publisher to use to position and sell a book to potential readers. This is the same if you’re traditionally-published or are serving as an author-publisher. Most authors are not art directors, and are well-advised to work with artists who know the market of the book, or to sell a book to a publishing house that does have an art director and artists and sales managers who know the market.
There’s a well-developed visual language of book covers, in fiction and non-fiction both, that readers have learned over their whole lives. A book with a dangling high heel on the cover means Women’s Fiction. A dude in a cloak with a sword on his back means fantasy. A planet among a field of stars means science fiction. An infographic cover with dollar signs is a business book. And so on.
Good covers can and do break those molds, but a successful cover still has to grab the work’s prospective audience and get them excited about the book. Sometimes this means that the cover will not be 100% accurate to the content of the book. Hopefully it’s not an egregious difference (like white-washing a leading character of color because of a fear that readers won’t buy a book with a person of color on the cover), but sometimes it’s important to know that the cover is more for the reader and the publisher than for the author (assuming your goal is to sell the book to a wide audience).
12) You Have More Power Than You Ever Did Before, Because Options
Even ten years ago, self-publishing was a very difficult path to follow if you wanted financial success. Crowd-funding wasn’t really a thing, ebooks weren’t really much of a thing, and distribution systems were highly suspect of self-published work.
Now, there are a zillion paths up the mountain of publication. That diversity of options gives writers a huge degree of power and self-determination over their careers. Any given writer can choose the shape of a career they’d like to have, and pursue that path. There are still boundaries and gatekeepers in every path – editors and agents, booksellers, formatting systems, crowd-funding approval boards, and most of all, readers. But if you want to self-publish, you can. If you want to solicit patrons to support your work and send it to them directly, you can (with services like Patreon, or others).
There are so many tools and systems in place to help writers and creative get their content out into the world that it’s sometimes terrifying. It causes choice paralysis. But put another way, I’d rather have too many options than not enough. If I have a hundred options, I try one, and it fails, I can try another.
13) Making Friends Is the Best Marketing
The book business is a small world. There are niches, especially from genre to genre. But if you’re planning on writing and working in the publishing world for the rest of your life, I think the best thing you can do that isn’t Making Awesome Work is to make friends.
Some people treat networking like Manipulation Ebola, like it’s a terrible icky thing that people only do because they’re self-centered.
Instead of thinking about Networking as ‘Who can I meet and connect with so they can benefit me?’ maybe think about it as ‘How can I make friends with cool people who work in the parts of the business where I want to be active?’ Making friends with an editor may not lead directly to a book deal, nor should it necessarily – if you’re making friends in good faith, then the relationship is not just about selling them a book. But if you make friends with editors, then may help clue you in to new opportunities, or may seek you out when they have a project that needs to be done and might fit your aesthetic.
Make friends with other writers. Make friends with writers a step or two ahead of you in the career path you want to follow. They may be able to point out potholes or problems that could be ahead, problems they’ve just had to deal with in their own path. Make friend with writers who are in a similar part of their journey to where you are. Critique and workshop one another’s work, support one another, and build a cohort for mutual support. Make friends with writers who are just starting out, who maybe need to learn the lessons that you’ve already learned. Help them through the parts of the journey which were hard for you. Pay it forward.
Make friends with artists, with designers, with publicists, with agents. Learn about the other parts of the business, and learn what to expect from other parts of the business. Learn what people in those roles need from writers, and then be that writer when you have the opportunity.
If you’re a writer, presumably you’re a reader. Publishing can be anxiety-making, stressful, disappointing, enraging, and more. It helps to have friends, colleagues, allies. And ultimately, if you aren’t able to get some fun out of the process, you’re probably missing out.
And when you have something to push, those friends you’ve made are likely to be in a position to help you. You can go to writer friends and ask for blurbs. You can ask artists for advice on the cover artist you need to hire for your new author-published book. You can ask your publicist friends for recommendations of venues to contact for your blog tour. Marketing is all about
14) And Marketing? Is Just Talking About Your Book
Marketing! It’s a buzz-word, a boogieman, a Class Five Terror Kaiju of intimidation – You don’t know how marketing works, you’re just an author, and you hate the idea that you’re going to have to be slimy just to have a shot at succeeding.
Actually, that’s all crap. Marketing is just talking about your book. Sometimes it involves paying people to get the chance to talk about your book in their sandbox, like buying ad space, or so on. Or making an object that talks about your book through what it does or its very existence.
I do marketing for my day job at Angry Robot, and the more I do that job, the more I come to see Marketing as just finding the best way to talk about cool books.
A big part of marketing, for me, is hand-selling. It’s learning how to talk about a book in a way that connects with potential readers and tells them what they need to know to get interested in the book or decide it’s not for them.
“Buy my book, it’s awesome!” probably won’t work.
“If you liked Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds and Jaye Wells’ Dirty Magic, you might like my book” is way more useful. It positions a work with respect to other works, and sets expectations for a reader about what they’re likely to get if they pick it up. The comparisons are recent, and they’re fairly well known.
“It’s a Steampunk Western about an engineer turned school teacher in Oklahoma seeking revenge for the murder of her cowgirl lover.” Does a lot. It tells you the genre, the setting, and the driving motivation for the lead. If someone gave me that pitch at a bookstore? I’d pick the book up in a heartbeat.
All of this? Marketing. My definition may be different than that of others, but I’ve found it both liberating and energizing. It’s just talking about books, being excited and trying to share that excitement.
15) Publicity is Getting Other People To Talk About Your Book
The Yin to Marketing’s Yang, publicity is the art of getting other people to talk about your book. It’s sending out review copies, it’s booking an author in to a bookstore event, it’s pitching an author for a radio interview because they have a distinct life story.
Often times, publicity means a lot of cold calling. It’s trying to generate excitement from nothing. Working publicity for an author or band that’s already famous is easy in some ways, because people are already talking. The trick there is that for every stage of someone’s career, there’s always another goal to shoot for, and many more demands on your time. But it’s all still publicity. It’s trying to massage and frame the way and the degree to which people talk about your book, or your author’s book, etc.
16) You Have To Learn How To Pitch Your Book
Even if you have an agent, sell to a publisher, and employ a Publisher Jaeger to sell your book, you still have to learn how to hand-sell it yourself.
Hand-selling is the tried-and-true one-on-one process of talking about your book in a way that gets people excited about it.
You’ll hand-sell your book to potential readers at a convention. You’ll hand-sell to librarians, school teachers, booksellers, and more, trying to convince them to have you in for an event. You’ll hand-sell to your barber or tailor, your neighbor, or the person next to you on a plane.
If you’re an author and you want to make a living, chances are you’ll be selling your work, one person at a time, for years to come.
But how does that work?
Step one is to figure out where you book fits – what genre shelf should be its home? What books is it comparable to? Does it have a non-western fantasy setting like N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms? An intense anti-hero reminiscent of Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns? The pop-cultural self-awareness of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One? The heartwarming optimism of Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor?
Every book is its own thing, but humans? We’re comparing monkeys (apes, yes, but monkeys sounds funnier), we put things in boxes and use comparisons to get a handle on things we don’t know directly. You’re more likely to get people invested if you call a book “Michael Crichton but with even better science” (Nexus by Ramez Naam) than “It’s a cool science fiction book with action and technology.”
Hand-selling is a tricky discipline, so it behooves you to start learning now. Working in a bookstore is a good place to start.
17) Your Book Will Be Reduced To a Set of Bullet-Points
When sales reps go out into the world to sell books, they do it off of TI (Title Information) sheets. Those Tis make up a seasonal catalogue, and when reps sell to accounts, they often have hundreds of books to talk about all at once, across numerous imprints, divisions, and categories. This means that not every rep gets to talk about every book on every sales call. It’s just how things are. Key account reps, who sell to big retailers, are usually in a position to present every title, but it’s still often at rapid-fire pace.
What all of this means is that it can be really important to write something that stands out from the rest of the books in your category. That can be to have a great platform that lets you as the author stand out (‘has 100,000 Twitter followers’ or ‘is a Nebula-nominated writer’), a great hook for the work itself (‘Die Hard meets Groundhog Day’), or a distinctive marketing plan (‘we’re making custom rocket ship drink shakers for this book on geeky mixology’).
Any and all of these such factors will be highlighted on the TI sheet, along with a short pitch for the book, comparable titles, the author’s previous titles, and other basic information. This is the character sheet/resume/précis for your work, and it’s essential that something stand out to a potential reader (in this case, a buyer). TIs are usually made by the publisher, but you can help them out by knowing what you and your work have to offer and making that clear to your publisher team.
18) Your Editor May Be Your Friend, But Publishers Aren’t People
So, Giant Publishing Jaeger, right? That Jaeger isn’t a person. It’s a giant machine designed to do one thing – fight kaiju. Or in this case, sell books. The folks who built the Jaeger, who repair it, who made its book-selling weapons, are all people. The folks in the command center who help the pilot be the best author they can be and deploy the Jaeger to sell books: also people.
But the Jaeger is not a person. Your editor may be your friend. Your sales manager may be your friend. Every person in a publisher may be your friend.
Your publisher is not your friend. It is a business partner, and sometimes partnerships go sour. When partners’ goals align and everyone is happy, partnerships rock. But some times, through no fault of either partner, partnerships go bad, or stop working.
If you’re self-publishing, your e-tailer distributors are not your friends. They are partners too. It doesn’t mean that anyone is out to get you, but go into the relationship with a clear sense of what the relationship is and isn’t.
19) Editors Work Insane Hours
There’s a conception of editors as haughty aesthetes who lounge around in their offices all day reading books and then go off to fabulous publishing parties in the evenings.
Most editors I know work 60 to 70 hours a week. They work as a project manager during the day, keeping all of the books moving along through production. They help with marketing plans, coordinate with publicists, talk with agents, work with art directors, prepare title information for sales teams to use, and so on.
Then, after an 8 or 9 hour day at work, they go home and read manuscripts in the evening, both for submission and to edit. If you’re traditionally published, it’s very likely that your editor works these long hours not just because they’re passionate about their work, but because those long hours are the only way to get enough done to keep things running. And then they works some more on the weekends.
Editors are some of the hardest and longest-working people I know, and they deserve all of the love and appreciation we can give them.
20) Gotta Get Paid – How Advances And Royalties Work
This info is available other places, but we’re talking about the little-known and mis-understood bits of publishing, and advances and royalties definitely count among them.
An advance is a payment of royalties ahead of the book’s release. It’s a bet by the publisher that your book will sell enough copies to earn out that advance. If you get a $10,000 advance for a book (good job! That’s way better than most first book advances if you’re in the adult SF/F world), then the publisher is betting your share of sales in the first year or so will equal $10,000.
How do they do that math?
There’s a thing called a Profit and Loss report, or P&L in business lingo. That’s a complete accounting of the costs that will be associated with making your book and the potential profit they stand to make from it by selling the book here and there and everywhere they’re allowed to.
The advance is one of those costs. Other costs include cover artist fees, printing, layout, editing, warehousing, and a bunch of other costs. Then they make a guess of how many copies they’ll sell and how much money that will make them. If the P&L looks good, then the company signs off and you get the offer.
When the projected sales have been decided, the publisher runs a formula that multiplies the estimated copies to be sold by the unit royalty for each format (publishers usually offer different royalty %s, as in the % of the money they get which goes to the author) and that gets double-checked vs. the advance (or informs what the advance will be).
You get the advance up front, or sliced into a few chunks – signing of the contract, delivery & acceptance of a completed manuscript, and publication. After those chunks are paid, you don’t get paid for that work again until the royalties earned by the book ‘earn out’ the advance. Once the book has earned more than the advance in royalties, you start getting royalty checks. And when that happens, it’s time to order some pizza.
21) Agency vs. Wholesale Pricing
There are several ways that retailers and publishers agree to sell ebooks these days.
The two main ways of setting terms for an ebook retailer when you’re a publisher are wholesale pricing and agency pricing.
Agency pricing means that the publisher says “You have to sell the book for this price, and you can’t discount it below that price. And then we get 70% of that price per sale, and you, the retailer, get 30%.”
There is also a version of agency pricing that lets the retailer discount the book out of their 30% margin.
Wholesale pricing is more like physical book retail terms. The retailer pays the publisher 50% of the list price every time there is a sale, but the retailer can discount the book as much as they want off of the list price. Many etailers are using wholesale pricing now, due to the Department of Justice suit from a few years back, which said that the Big Five had to end their current agency pricing deals and weren’t allowed to make new ones for two years.
Understandably, the difference between a retailer keeping 30% of list and 50% of list is a big deal, and the subject of a lot of negotiations between publishers and retailers.
22) How Do Returns Work?
A long time ago, in a bookselling galaxy far far away, publishers offered books on a returnable basis to help reduce bookseller’s risk. It was an agreement – “You buy these books and try to sell them, and we’ll cover your back if they don’t sell. You can return books to us and get credit for them so you’re not stuck with dead stock.”
Decades later, most bookstores buy on terms that allow returns of unsold stock after a certain amount of time. This lets booksellers be more adventurous with their ordering, knowing that they can recoup some if not all of those books’ costs with returns. But it also means that for retailers that try to stock a wide range of books (like Barnes & Noble), the ability to return can sometimes mean that books spend only a short time on the shelves. B&N usually stocks a book for more than 90 days before returning, but if your book isn’t selling by then, it might be pulled and returned. If it sells well, you’ll get far more time, as every business likes selling more of what’s already selling.
23) Chances Are, Many People Have Been Where You Are, Dear Friend Dry-Heaving In The Alley
Being a creative operating in public, putting your work out for sale and discussion, is a super-stressful thing at times. You spend weeks, months, or often years bleeding all over the page, crafting sentences, fabricating fictional real people out of your brain-meat and then torturing them for hours on end, and then you send the whole fragile ontological baby out to learn how to drift with a publisher so it can go fight for great justice, entertainment, and enrichment.
Querying agents is rough. Being on submission is rough. Running yourself ragged with a blog tour is exhausting. Sitting at a signing table for hours with the hope that someone, anyone will come up to see you and not to ask when Big Name Author will be back at their table.
It’s normal, I think, for an otherwise emotionally stable person to be a giant fucking wreck when dealing with their creative career. And the thing about that is, others have been where you are. Many of us have walked the same or similar paths, and can relate. That’s why it’s so important to make friends in your field, not just to help you better your work, connect with markets, or to have someone to sit next to at a mass signing. It’s also to have a support network for group therapy when shit goes down and your Publisher Jaeger gets hit by an EMP when a major retailer pulls your buy buttons or refuses to stock your book.
24) It Takes a Long Time To Get Good
Self-publish now! Kindle Gold Rush! Screw the gatekeepers! Grow with your audience!
I’ve seen variations on the above thrown around the bookish internet, often from author-publishers and author-publishing advocates.
I’m all for author-publishing. I plan on author-publishing some work as soon as I get ahead of my deadlines and have some time for spec writing.
But something that I fear can get lost in the excitement about author publishing is the reality that a lot of writers, myself included, sucked for quite a while before we got good.
I wrote three and a half novels before I wrote Geekomancy, which was my first published novel. And when it was published in 2012, I’d been seriously writing for about ten years. I’d studied creative writing in school, earned a graduate degree and written a 100+ page academic thesis, I’d attended Clarion West, I’d worked with critique groups of writers who are now professionally publishing.
It took a long, long time. If I were six-seven years younger, getting serious about writing in 2008/2009, I might have gotten wrapped up in the Kindle Gold rush come 2011-ish, and thrown up some truly under-developed work and fallen on my face.
Every writer’s journey is their own, but I want to implore writers who are getting serious now to spend a good amount of time developing their craft. Your first impression on readers means a lot. Debut novels get a huge amount of attention, as many readers are always looking for the Next Big Thing.
25) At The End of the Day, You Have To Believe In Yourself
“Westerns are dead.”
“I can’t market a book with a queer woman of color.”
“We’re consolidating our list.”
“I don’t have room on my shelves for another YA fantasy.”
There are a lot of pitfalls and setbacks that can come your way in publishing. No matter how well you build your publishing portfolio, how many Batman-like contingency plans you build in, life can throw you for a loop. Whether that’s getting dropped from your publisher or a huge best-seller crowding you out exactly when you thought you were striking new ground with your groundbreaking author-published work.
But the thing that will see you through in the end is to Just. Keep. Going. Believe in yourself, your work, and what it has to offer. Be a freaking Artistic Terminator. If you don’t believe in your work, it’s going to be damned hard to get anyone else to believe in it.
When market forces move like waves, when a Category VI Publishing Shitstorm Kaiju comes your way, the best and most useful thing you can do is to stand up strong, sync with your publishing partners, and shout ELBOW ROCKET! as you stride into battle.
Good Hunting, writer-rangers. As Stacker “Idris Elba” Pentecost says, “You can always find me in the Drift.”
* * *
Michael R. Underwood is the author of the Ree Reyes series (Geekomancy, Celebromancy, Attack the Geek), and the forthcoming The Younger Gods. By day, he’s the North American Sales & Marketing Manager for Angry Robot Books.
Mike lives in Baltimore with his fiance, an ever-growing library, and a super-team of dinosaur figurines & stuffed animals. In his rapidly-vanishing free time, he studies historical martial arts and makes pizzas from scratch. He is a co-host on the Hugo-nominated Skiffy and Fanty Show.
Mike’s newest is Shield and Crocus:
In a city built among the bones of a fallen giant, a small group of heroes looks to reclaim their home from the five criminal tyrants who control it.
The city of Audec-Hal sits among the bones of a Titan. For decades it has suffered under the dominance of five tyrants, all with their own agendas. Their infighting is nothing, though, compared to the mysterious “Spark-storms” that alternate between razing the land and bestowing the citizens with wild, unpredictable abilities. It was one of these storms that gave First Sentinel, leader of the revolutionaries known as the Shields of Audec-Hal, power to control the emotional connections between people—a power that cost him the love of his life.
Now, with nothing left to lose, First Sentinel and the Shields are the only resistance against the city’s overlords as they strive to free themselves from the clutches of evil. The only thing they have going for them is that the crime lords are fighting each other as well—that is, until the tyrants agree to a summit that will permanently divide the city and cement their rule of Audec-Hal.
It’s one thing to take a stand against oppression, but with the odds stacked against the Shields, it’s another thing to actually triumph.
Mike Underwood: Website | Twitter
Shield and Crocus: Amazon
70 responses to “Mike R. Underwood: 25 Secrets Of Publishing, Revealed! (Or: Inside The Bookish Shatterdome)”
Thanks for a great heads-up piece. I’ve been working with an agent for the past year and I guess I’ve never fully appreciated how much goes into the process.
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