25 More Hard Truths About Writing And Publishing
1. You’re Always About 12 To 24 Months From Dying In The Abyss
I talked about this in one of my more recent posts (advice for the mid-career writer) — but looking ahead a year or two down the line, most writers will see a cliff. This cliff represents the end of your current contracts, maybe the end of a series, and at that point you should expect your career to become a giant blinky spinny question mark. A cartoon question mark that laughs (“hyuck hyuck hyuck!”) and just shrugs whenever you ask it a question. It’s like a Magic 8-Ball except it only has one answer in its cabinet and that answer is, “Gosh golly who the fuck knows, maybe you’ll be eaten by a bear, hyuck hyuck.” In fact, one wonders if a cliff is the wrong metaphor: perhaps it’s a cave. A dark cave whose dark depths may present treasure (your book sold well and the publisher wants more!) or tribulation (the publisher said you sold four copies and will now exercise a rare contract clause where they get to force you to battle other authors in a subterranean Manhattan fight club for the pleasure of the literary elite).
2. Social Media Will Not Sell Your Books
Said it before, will scream it again and again at the asylum walls until my spit-forth soaks the padding — social media will sell tens or hundreds of books, but not thousands. Social media is good for getting the word out! Social media is good for earnestly talking about your book. Social media is not a good long-term sales channel. Like, that thing where you hop on there and constantly run through a reiterative a sales pitch? Day after day? It feels gross because it doesn’t really work. If it did work, you’d be selling many copies of your book to a considerable portion of your social media audience. And you’re probably not.
3. Your Book May Not Sell For A Lot Of Uncontrollable Reasons
CONGRATULATIONS YOUR BOOK IS PUBLISHED. *trumpets and fanfare and ice cream firehoses and literary fight clubs for your delight* OH SHIT SORRY YOUR BOOK SOLD FOUR COPIES. And you’re like, wait, why? Why did it only sell four copies? Could be that your book sucks. Or your publisher didn’t care about your book. Or the one person your publisher picked to market your book is the janitor. Maybe the bookstores didn’t carry it. Maybe the print run was too short. Maybe someone forgot to send it out to trade journals. Maybe the trade journals had a backlog because it’s a busy month with a lot of books landing and sorry, yours just wasn’t the priority. Maybe your genre has been oversaturated. Maybe somebody in the CHAIN OF POWER just fucking hates you and your hair and your clothes. Maybe you’re secretly a ghost and don’t realize it and nobody can see your book. Who knows? Ha ha ha, it’s a spinning carousel of constantly defecating horses! You don’t know which one shit on you! They just did! And maybe at the end of the day it is your fault and you wrote a less-than-great book or the wrong book or…? So, control what you can control and write the next one as best as you can, and the next one even better.
4. Quality Matters Less Than You’d Hope
Wait, did I say that you should write the best book? You should. You totally should. And it proooooobably doesn’t matter. Let’s face this train head on: a book that super-sucks might do really well, and a book that is legitimately fucking amazing and everyone knows it and it wins awards and is precious to many might sell like a rock dropped into a toilet. This is far from universally true! Sometimes great books sell equal to its perceived quality. Sometimes bad books huff glue and die in a gutter. And nearly always, good and bad are totally subjective declarations because outside of core writing competency, stories are not plug-and-play dongles.
5. Luck Matters More Than You’d Like
I have asked a question of authors whose books hit big, and that question is: “How did you do it?” And more often than not, the answer is an empty smile and a slow shrug. Books are not widgets. They are not generally the result of a creator looking at the market and saying, “You know what the Butt Plug industry is missing? A Butt Plug that looks like David Bowie’s The Goblin King.” It’s not a greeting card where you suddenly identify a new holiday (“OMG it’s Dachsunds-In-Catapults Day!”) that needs a line of greeting cards, stat. Books arrive in a giant sweeping tide of releases — hundreds of books crashing every week upon a narrow audience. The ones that do well may do well because… god, who the fuck knows why? They pluck some precious chord in the audience and they buy in. Books that do really well tend to set trends rather than follow them. The good news here is, you can totally maximize your luck. Selling lots of copies of your book is like meeting Oscar Isaac. You might just randomly meet him in a CVS somewhere, sure, but you can increase your chances by going to a CVS in Los Angeles, or frequenting a dance club he likes, or by hiding in his medicine cabinet like a haunting spirit. In publishing, you can write the best book you can and publish with the best publisher you can and then they market it and give it a hopefully great cover and ideally nobody drops the ball or humps the ball before dropping it down a sewer grate, and all of these things increase the Luck Stat on your book’s character sheet.
6. You Have More Power Than You Deserve
You’re a writer. Congratulations. That means you write books and that’s really all it means. But for some reason, writers are assigned more power than this. Writing a book affords us an unexpected platform made from our own books and suddenly we’re up on top of it and people are listening. And most likely, we have not prepared jack shit to say, and so we just hilariously gabble through some swiftly-invented wiffle-waffle and next thing you know people are taking that to heart or they’re pissed off at you or they’re forming a cult to either venerate or destroy you — and yet, all the while, you’re just someone good at writing books. Recognize that being a writer affords you some small measure of power and privilege (which is on top of any you already possess) and it is a thing to protect, a thing that asks for caution, a thing that demands responsibility. (Though audience, please also realize: writers are full of shit. Brimming with it!)
7. (Amazon and Barnes & Noble Have Way More Power Than You, Though)
Ha ha ha, don’t worry, your power is still unmercifully tiny in the grand scheme of things. Two entities have way more power than you: Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Sure, this is a duh thing, but it bears reminding that each of these entities is not your friend and also not your enemy. They’re just big companies full of individual people and their actions can conspire to save your book or slit the book’s throat. And sometimes these actions are accidental, sometimes these actions are willful against publishers or genres or even against you individually as an author. B&N, for example, accepts the industry chestnut that FIRST WEEK SALES REALLY MATTER, except sometimes B&N doesn’t put your book out on shelves during that first week for untold reasons and people go to that store looking for your book and it’s in a box in the back — and then, first week sales are lower than everyone would like and when it comes time for B&N to put in an order for book two, the buyers tut-tut and say, “Well, this book didn’t sell that well in its first week,” and they don’t order as many or they don’t order any at all. Amazon, on the other hand, has theoretically infinite shelf-space, but will gladly undercut the Kindle price of your book by slashing the physical price of the book lower than the digital version and then they’ll put this little passive-aggressive note under the account that says, Price set by that stupid publisher because we would never do that because we love you very much. B&N can demand a new cover or title for your book. Amazon can completely erase your publisher from their site during disputes, which mmm, probably sucks for you, author. Are either of these companies evil? Nope. They’re doing business. And business can sometimes be hard for the little guy. (AKA: you.)
8. Selling Poorly Can Mark You
Poor sell-through on a single book, as noted, can hurt you. It might mean smaller advances or less copies ordered for shelves or less bargaining power at the table for contracts. If your new book doesn’t sell well, an actual goblin manifests in your bedroom just as you’re falling asleep, and every Tuesday night the goblin punches you right in the crotch. That’s no lie. That’s one of many hard truths about publishing. Goblins. Fucking goblins. Dang.
9. … And So Can Selling Well
Selling well is amazing! Go you! Now you can pay bills and buy cool stuff and fans carry you around on a motherfucking palanquin. It’s all cake from here. And what I mean is, it’s all one flavor of cake. I hope you like that flavor because now if you try to write something of a different flavor, nnnnyeah, it may not work. A big successful book is like a moon orbiting you — that bastard has gravity, and it will affect all your tides. It will be harder to pull away from the thing that made you successful and harder to do something more creatively satisfying. Maybe that’s okay. Maybe it feels like an ART PRISON. But it’s something to note! A good problem to have, admittedly — but it can still be a problem.
10. No One Way Is A Lottery Ticket
This is obvious and probably doesn’t bear its own entry — but I am very, very happy that the discourse in writing and publishing has pulled away (presently and hopefully permanently) from all that talk of THE ONE PROPER PUBLISHING PATH. No one method is a lottery ticket. Yes, luck matters. Yes, quality is of varying degrees of usefulness. Just the same: writing is not some ALL OR NOTHING charade — it’s not you shoving all your wishes and dreams into one bottle and then chucking it into the ocean with the hope it washes up on some precious beach. It can be a slow and steady career. Sometimes a writing career is less about the flash flood and more about the power of orchestrated erosion — wearing down stone one sluice of water at a time. No one publishing path is a lottery ticket, but every publishing path is a goblin who will crotch-punch you before bedtime. Or something? I think I lost the thread there.
11. Bigger Advance Means Bigger Money Spent On Your Book
The more money spent on your book means the more money gets spent on your book. This is both sensible and weird. Sensible because investments must be protected, and sometimes you protect an investment by adding money to it. Weird because, hey, why does Coca-Cola advertise? Do they need it? Is there anybody in the world who doesn’t know that Coke exists? But even Coca-Cola must remind the world of its presence (and if I recall, Coke’s sales are down, too). In terms of your advance, it probably means the contrary is true, too — if you got a smaller advance, well, expect that fewer dollars will be thrown toward your book doing well. Your book is possibly relegated to the THROW THAT POOP AT THE WALL AND SEE IF IT STICKS department.
12. Publishers Don’t Always Know How To Sell Your Book
Marketing a book is less like using antibiotics for an infection ten years ago, and more like using antibiotics for an infection today. What I mean is, ten years ago if you had a bacterial sickness the doctor would be like HERE TAKE THIS ZITHOMYCILLIN PILL AND TA-DA YOUR SICKNESS IS GONE, and now it’s like, TAKE THIS FLORKOMAX PILL AND IF THIS DOESN’T WORK WE’LL TRY LIKE SIX OR SEVEN MORE AND HOPE LIKE HELL THAT YOU DON’T GET SOME SORT OF FACE-EATING UBER-MRSA BECAUSE AT THIS POINT WE KINDA FUCKED UP THE WHOLE ANTIBIOTIC THING SORRY. Making a book sell is not an act where as long as you make the proper sacrifices and insert TAB A into SLOT B you are guaranteed a bestseller. It’s important to realize that publishers don’t actually know what they’re doing. This sounds like a knock against them; it isn’t. It’s to make it clear that they are not perfect gatekeeper entities curating bestsellers while willfully relegating everything else to the sewer. The best publisher tries a lot of different things based on experience and data. Even still, the best publisher has to concede that what worked for Book #1 will not automatically work for Book #2.
13. Getting That First Book Published Is Like Yay, And Then, Oh Shit
You got a book published. Woo. Huzzah. Fuck yeah. That is awesome. You are awesome. Everything is amazing. Or, rather, everything is amazing until it’s not — the book comes out and now you’re in the fucking wilderness, you poor fucker. You’d gnaw your own arm off for some data. And the data that comes in is a crude porridge, not a fine consommé. BookScan is about as accurate as you throwing shoes at cars. You hit some, you miss some. Your digital sales numbers are not necessarily accessible (and not always right) — though they’re accessible if you self-publish, of course. Amazon ranking is less reliable than scrying your sales through bird entrails. Then reviews come in. Professional reviews hurt worse sometimes. Reader reviews can be wildly variant (LOVE THIS BOOK AND WILL KILL ANYBODY WHO SAYS DIFFERENT, 3 STARS; THE BOOK SMELLS WEIRD, 0 STARS; POOPY PANTS, 5 STARS). You expect that the book will come out and now it’s all huggable kittens and a fragrant odor that never leaves your nose, but mostly it’s a lot like wandering a shopping mall not sure what to buy or how you even got here or if you’ll ever be allowed to leave. You live here now. Oh well?
14. Getting That Second And Fourth And Twelfth Book Is The Same Way
Every book is that way, not just your first. Sorry.
15. People Are Going To Hate Your Book
They just are. Not all of them, of course. Even the dog-shittiest crap-nastiest what-the-fuckiest book is going to have fans, but the reverse is also true: even the BEST BOOK EVAR OMG is going to have a percentage of people who hate it so bad they will film themselves force-feeding it to a weeping zoo animal. “I HATE HIPPOS AND I HATE THIS BOOK, EAT THE BOOK MISTER TUB-TUB, EAT THE GODDAMN BOOK.”
16. No, You Don’t Need That MFA, Or That Program, Or That Workshop
‘Twas a bit of a row last week when Neil Gaiman enthusiastically endorsed Clarion the way that I might enthusiastically endorse eating tacos — I might say, for instance, that if you want to know why life is worth living, you need to eat a taco or you are dead to me. I don’t mean that literally, of course (except I do), and so when Mister Gaiman said that real writers need Clarion, he surely didn’t mean it given that he himself did not attend Clarion and neither did Margaret Atwood and neither did I and c’mon. That said, he has the privilege of a huge audience and a big voice (see earlier comment: “You Have More Power Than You Deserve”) and many penmonkeys felt stung because of a long history of being told they’re not allowed to be quote-unquote real writers. So, let’s just get this out of the way: Clarion is an amazing program and it is also a non-essential program. So too with any other workshop or group or MFA program. Those entities are in no way bad (though MFAs in particular can be very expensive and offer too little bang for your considerable buck) and are useful to many authors. But you don’t need them. Some people might care, but most don’t. What they care about is that you wrote a book and it does not suck.
17. Critique Partners Can Save You, Or Kick You In The Throat
A good critique partner helps you understand your work better and will point you toward a better iteration of that story. A bad critique partner will tell you how they would write the book and how to send the book in an entirely different direction that is wholly not your own. Bad critique partners and groups outnumber the good ones, in my experience. Most critique partners possess no qualifications and them messing with your work can be like some rando off-the-street trying to fix your bathroom plumbing. A book is a little like pancake batter — it’s best with some lumps in it, and a lot of critique partners want to overmix the batter, which dorks up the pancakes. Don’t let some clumsy ass-hand dork up your metaphorical narrative pancakes. That may be the weirdest sentence I’ve ever written, so please update your records.
18. People Want You To Give Your Film And TV Rights Away
Film and television rights should get you good money. Key word: should. Some publishers will try to just take them from you (and note, that few publishers actually have the incentive or skill to peddle those rights to the proper channels in La-La-Land). Some people in Hollywood will also just try to take them in the hopes that you feel blessed just by having that rare chance of them making a film product from your book. You’ll get word from some screenwriter or production company that they want to license the work for a time for basically no money in the hopes of developing a script and shopping it around and… boy-howdy that sounds nice. They’re scrambling to sell it then, too, and you’re all in the same boat together and if they win, you win! Except, this is really common. Your work is going to go in a bin with dozens of other freely-given rights. And they have as much value as you assigned them, which is to say: mostly zero. Earlier I noted that publishers who spend money on a book will then spend more money and attention on that book, and the same thing goes here. If someone pays you for the film/TV rights, they are likelier to make it. In fact, the more money they give you, the better your chance — because this is an investment. Your book is not a fucking penny-stock. If someone wants to park their Hollywood car over your rights for a year, they should pay you for the privilege.
19. Publishing Is Shockingly Niche In A Lot Of Ways
Publishing is tiny. The audience is small. Bestsellers hang around the list for a long time because most readers just read one or two books a year and the same books circulate in that audience — it’s a self-replicating machine that way. Most people in publishing know each other. Many writers know one another — especially in their particular genres. It’s all very niche. This is important to know because to many, it’s quite a surprise. It’s also a good reminder not to shit where you eat, because a whole lot of people are watching you pop that squat. (I must also note that publishing is also shockingly white. Or not shockingly, since most industries are? See the current row over the Oscars. Diversity on the page matters, yes, but inclusion has to be a column and not a floor — it has to go from ground to ceiling, and it has to cascade off the page to the writers writing the books, to the editors editing them, to agents and marketers and book buyers and so on. This is a bit of an adjacent point, admittedly, but I think it’s worth calling out.)
20. The Digital Revolution Created Whole Lotta Noise
E-BOOKS ARE JESUS AND WILL SAVE PUBLISHING AND yeah but no. It’s untrue that e-books aren’t doing well. They are. They may have plateaued, and physical sales may have thankfully rebounded, but they’re doing fine. They also did not transform the industry or destroy print publishing as some predicted. They revolutionized some authorial paths, they created accessibility for some readers and they also created a great deal of noise. I say this as a hard truth just in case someone out there is still peddling this as a MAGIC UNGUENT that will heal PUBLISHING ILLS. It’s not. Digital is great. It also created the opportunity for infinite trash — which is fine, I like infinite trash because that’s basically what the whole Internet is, anyway. It’s just useful to keep expectations in check.
21. The Desolate Heart Of Book Signings (And Why You Should Do ‘Em Anyway)
Most authors, even the best, will do book signings where nobody shows. And some folks’ll say that book signings are old hat and not worth doing but I call shenanigans. Bookstores are best when they are front-facing to the book-reading community, and they can only do that with the help of authors. Bookstores allow authors to connect with readers, and further, connect with the bookstores, too. Booksellers have the magic power of HANDSELLING, which is about as wizard as it gets inside publishing — the one tried-and-true way to sell a book is by word-of-mouth, except booksellers have a cheat code where they are forever accepted into a reader’s word-of-mouth trust-circle. Make friends with bookstores. Sign stock. Buy booksellers beer.
22. Indie Bookstores Are Amazing Except When They’re Not
I love indie bookstores. Correction: I love good indie bookstores. Some of them stink. Some of are not very nice to authors. I’ve gone to bookstores and talked about setting up signings or signing stock and they look at me like I’m trying to talk to them with a mouth full of pudding. I try to explain to them that I am a “real writer” and my books are already on their shelves but they make a face at me like a wrung rag and nnyeah, no. Good writers appreciate friendly bookstores and good bookstores appreciate friendly writers. Everything else is not worth the time.
23. A Book You Can Describe In 30 Seconds Will Do Better Than One You Can’t
This might be very cynical of me, and it isn’t a true and proven thing but just a thing I’m feeling — if you cannot describe your book with merciless efficiency, then that book may not do well. Meaning, if the book isn’t an easy sell — something you can say fast, like, A GUN-TOTING PENGUIN AND A NOBEL-AWARD-WINNING PHYSICIST PROSTITUTE FIGHT NAZI SEX WORKERS ON THE MOON, then that’s a problem. I tell people about the Miriam Black books and say that it’s about a young woman who can see how you’re going to die when she touches you — it’s a short sharp hook that sticks in your cheek faster than you even realize it. (And the books have done very well for me, I think in part due to that somewhat elegant shiv-stab of a premise.)
24. Writing Exposes Your Heart, And Publishing Takes Its Bite
Writing is a craft. Storytelling is an art. Publishing is a business. What you do is a combination of those three things, and that is very confusing — it’d be like monetizing your marriage or shilling your adorable puppy like you’re some sort of cackling puppy peddler. You do this thing you love. You bleed on the page. You art hard like an artful art-er and now here’s this thing in your hand. It’s your pulp-slick heart throbbing like the neck of a frightened toad. You want the world to protect it and care for it just as you yourself have done… but then publishing grabs the organ out of your hand and takes a big honkin’ stonkin’ bite. Chomp. Then publishing grins with its blood-slick mouth and hands it back. Craft plus art plus business makes for an uncomfortable combo but that’s how it is. The advice then is to harden your heart a little. Callus that motherfucker up. It’s still your heart. It’s still your art. Do not compromise that, but also be ready for when publishing opens its clacking maw and scooches closer and closer…
25. There Is No Map
The header says it all. No map exists. None of this is science. You don’t add two reagents together to get a consistent reaction. This thing we do is weird and wonderful and horrible and soggy with luck and pickled in privilege and is very much like being lost in the woods. But take solace that at least we’re all lost together. That has to count for something.
As always: go forth and art harder, little penmonkey.
Because really, what else can you do?
* * *
Miriam Black Is Back (In Print)
Miriam Black knows how you’re going to die. This makes her daily life a living hell, especially when you can’t do anything about it, or stop trying to. She’s foreseen hundreds of car crashes, heart attacks, strokes, and suicides. She merely needs to touch you—skin to skin contact—and she knows how and when your final moments will occur. Miriam has given up trying to save people; that only makes their deaths happen. But then she hitches a ride with Louis Darling and shakes his hand, and she sees in thirty days that Louis will be murdered while he calls her name. Louis will die because he met her, and Miriam will be the next victim. No matter what she does she can’t save Louis. But if she wants to stay alive, she’ll have to try.
“Fast, ferocious, sharp as a switchblade and fucking fantastic.” — Lauren Beukes