A Hot Steaming Sack Of Business Advice For Writers
It was a couple weeks back that authorial sorceress V.E. Schwab said that few writers offer good business advice, and she named me among some others like Kameron Hurley and John Scalzi, who do so. It’s been a while since I’ve offered anything remotely like business advice for writers, mostly because, nyeah, it’s boring? I’d rather talk about writing and storytelling (aka the act of hunting down unicorns for whatever salacious purpose you so possess), but just the same, having the occasional injection of business advice into your writerly bloodstream ain’t the worst idea.
So, here I am.
Below, a fairly basic scattering of writer-flavored business advice — mostly 101 stuff — that you are free to behold or ignore at your leisure. Do with this as thou wilt.
The Overarching Rule: Protect Your Ass
This is very non-specific but important nevertheless: always cover your ass.
Cover it with chainmail undies and asbestos trousers. Lock down the hole, the cheeks, the undercarriage, everything. Protect your ass. Don’t worry about protecting a publisher. Don’t worry about protecting an agent. They got theirs covered. You cover your own. Note: this does not mean to help yourself before you help others. It just means to protect yourself, because this is an industry that often inadvertently will step on your neck if you don’t know what’s up. Protecting yourself is about educating yourself and making sure there’s no avenue for you to accidentally — or willfully — get used and abused.
Keep As Many Rights As You’re Allowed
What you eventually learn is that publishing one book needn’t be the end of that book’s financial output. Yes, sure, you have royalties, but a lot of books don’t properly earn out, so what am I talking about? I’m talking about rights, baby. First up, you have foreign rights, which is to say, other publishers in other countries buy the rights to publish your book in that domain. Even selling rights to one other country is like — well, it’s like getting a comical bag of money, the kind with the dollar sign right on it, handed to you by a chummy, benevolent friend. To give you a sense of it, the first three Miriam books sold for roughly $8k a piece. But the foreign deals (Germany, Poland, China, Turkey, France, Spain, etc.) add up. Some of those deals were on par with the original offer — or, in the case of Turkey, considerably higher. (Why Turkey? No idea.) Plus, now I’m earning royalties not just from domestic sales, but foreign sales, too. The books continue to generate life. All of my books don’t do this, but many do, and it helps.
Problem is, some publishers want to keep the foreign rights — either trying to produce the books themselves in other countries, or being able to sell the rights directly, which depending on your deal either pays out to you directly or counts against your advance. Which is fine, but the publisher is not as hungry to sell those rights. They may be equipped to. They may not be. But they’re not hungry for it the way you and your agent can and should be.
Same goes for film and TV rights, or other ancillary rights like games, comics, whatever. Those, again, can be like magic money. No, nobody’s ever going to make your film or TV project, but they might option it. And you get paid for that. Point is, keep your rights. So that you can sell them. Erm. Which means, keep them to get rid of them? Yes! Don’t just give them all away to the first eager beaver, is what I’m saying. In fact, don’t give anything to a beaver. Beavers are notoriously irresponsible. A beaver last year borrowed my car and crashed in into a reservoir. Or maybe that was a gopher. Prairie dog? Marmot? Shit. Whatever, moving on.
Publishingland Versus Hollywoodtown: A Brief Explanation
I’ve said this before, but here is, for me, the key difference between NYC Publishing World and Hollywood Filmteeveeopolis: in publishing, everything is no before it is yes. In Hollywood, everything is yes before it is no.
To explain, it means that in publishing, getting a book published is a series of locked doors and obstacles. And you pick those locks and clamber over obstacles, all while keeping a Damn Fine Book gripped tightly in your teeth. And then, if you survive, they say, “Congrats, this Damn Fine Book will be published.” And, generally speaking, they mean it. It’ll happen. You’re in.
Out on the Left Coast, you step into a room, and you are immediately showered in love and adoration. They tell you how much they love you. They love the book. They want to see it on screen. It is a magical fairy promise made by gilded, golden lords and ladies, and most of it is ephemeral — it is whimsy and candy-floss that breaks apart as soon as it hits your fingers or your tongue. It’s why Hollywood streets are paved in broken dreams. And that’s not their fault. That’s just the industry. In Hollywood, most working screenwriters get paid writing movies and shows that never actually get made. (I cannot imagine this in publishing. Developing books with publishers and editors and agents, only to have them be shelved again and again. It would be heartbreaking. Then again, the money is better there, so…nyeah, maybe I get it.)
Just be advised how it works. Do not be seduced by the promise of that place. Have your expectations sealed in nice and tight. Enjoy the ride, just don’t fall in love with it.
Money Spent Means Money Spent
Simple rule, generally true: the more someone spends on your work, the more they will continue to spend on it. Meaning, they will protect their investment more robustly — that might translate to more marketing dollars, a better shot at film/TV production, more visibility, a magical golden sheep who poops out special coins, whatever. I say this because some writers will be inundated with lowball offers, and sometimes, there is sense in taking them — a dollar film option, or no advance for your book. But generally, that means your window for success is far, far narrower than you would prefer. Camel through the eye of the needle.
You Are Not A Marketing Plan
I say this, because this is A Thing inside publishing, but you are not a marketing plan. Some publishers want you to be. Or they claim you should be. But you’re not.
What I mean is this: I think when social media became such a big damn deal that some people inside publishing were quietly cheering — first, because it genuinely provides a new axis of access for book discovery, but second because the writer can shoulder the burden. We can each become the darling epicenter of a glorious online CULT OF PERSONALITY, and we can command our hypnotized followers into buying copies of our books, the end.
Except, that bubble popped.
Maybe you don’t know that it popped. But it fucking popped.
You can maybe, as an author, sell 10s, even 100s of copies on social media. And you can do this semi-regularly. Problem is, for your book to make real money — the kind of money publishers need you to make! — you need to sell 1000s of copies, maybe more. A publisher who pretends you’re their only marketing plan is a publisher who isn’t spending money on your book, and your book will succeed more by happenstance and luck than by any engineered effort on their part. (Also, if they’re acting like you’re their marketing plan, might I suggest billing them for marketing hours, because that’s very seriously supposed to be their job, part and parcel of the relationship you enter by signing with a publisher in the first goddamn place.) Some publishers just wanna cover you in Velcro and fling you at a wall in the hopes you stick, but that doesn’t always work, either. It’s best to demand that they actually have some plan in place, and ask to see that plan. You can even ask before you sign the contract. And you should.
So Wait, What Marketing Should You Do?
Note: I’m not saying you won’t do marketing and self-promo on your own. You will. You will shimmy and you will shake. You will dance that dance and sway that tail, sexy author monkey.
First, because selling those 10s to 100s books still has value — every book is a pebble thrown, and a pebble can create ripples. One reader likes it, and they tell their friends, and now you’ve sold more books. Or, at least, you’re now on a collective radar: maybe those friends don’t buy this book, but they take a chance on your next one. Pebbles and ripples, pebbles and ripples.
Also, your publisher can and should create marketing opportunities for you — but that still requires work on your part. They get you interviews, or article opportunities, or panels at cons — so, you go do them. More pebbles, more ripples. (One thing I’m a bit dubious about: blog tours. As the value of blogs wanes, I’m not sold on the efficacy of blog tours. Especially when the blogs are a smattering of no-name never-heard-of entrants.) And you can drum up those opportunities for yourself, too. You don’t need to rely on the publisher. But if you’re the only one drumming up those opportunities and the publisher is simply cheering you on: they’re not doing their job, because you’re doing it.
The Bestseller Machine
There exists a common myth in publishing that publishers can make a book a bestseller “if they want to,” just by spending money on it. It’s nonsense. Provably false. Some books just don’t hit — not because the books aren’t good, not because the publishers didn’t support them, but because, ha ha, who fucking knows? The stars didn’t align! Mercury in retrograde! You were cursed by an old wizard! You angered the gods with your breakfast choice! Shit happens. Life is weird. *puts in Ian Malcolm sunglasses and affects a Jeff Goldblum mumble* CHAOS THEORY.
That said, a publisher spending money means you’re not just an author throwing pebbles — they’re joining you in that act. In fact, they are a catapult flinging a fusillade of pebbles. Lot more ripples. Meaning, a far greater chance at achieving success. And note, too, it’s not just about spending money, but about smart marketing strategy, which is why you again should always ask for their strategy in marketing your book.
Beware: Failure As Proof Of Failure
Here’s a thing that sometimes happens: a publisher will agree to publish Your Book, not support it, and then when it comes time to support the next book or sign you up for more, they say, “But your last one didn’t sell.” So, your next book gets fewer marketing effort or they make a reduced offer. I think this happens less than it used to, as I hear (anecdotally) about it less often, but just the same, it’s crap. It’s like shooting out your tires in a race and then saying next time, “I won’t bet on you, because you lost that race.” “But you shot out my tires!” “Excuses, excuses.” Bookstores can do this, too — a big bookstore chain might say, your book didn’t sell well last time, so why carry your next one?
Beware Non-Competes, First-Looks, Etc.
Since we’re all OOH BEWARE right now, also beware contracts that want to lock you down with too many non-competes and first-look-deals and exclusives — y’know, just narrow your eyes at these. Does the contract prevent you from doing your job? Does it prevent you from earning a real living? Then get worried. Now, there are some caveats to this. The publisher has some skin in this game, and some of these clauses are not automatically demonic — after all, if they’re publishing your brand new BDSM EPIC FANTASY PICTURE BOOK AIMED AT READERS AGES 33-36, then you shouldn’t also be able to go and immediately sell a similar book to a different publisher. Bookstores only have so much finite shelf space, and you do not want to compete with yourself or your publisher. At the same time, if the publisher also wants to stop you from publishing non-fiction or young adult or unrelated work, then that’s a concern.
Now, if the publisher wants to pay you well to be a kept author, so be it. You pay me enough, I’ll be your fucking cabana boy. I will exfoliate you tenderly with my beard-loofa.
But you gotta pay to play, suckas.
Also Beware The Sinister, Mustache-Twirling Rights Grab
More beware: rights grabs. I covered that a bit above, where publishers want to lock up rights that don’t really belong to them, but there are other ways — they want the book in perpetuity, they want you to pay them for various privileges, etc. You can check out a site like Writer Beware, run by Victoria Strauss, to get an understanding of some such rights grabs.
Beware The Small Press
Controversial assessment: beware a lot of small presses. I know, I know. They often mean well. They’re often quite earnest. They’re not often malevolent. But I’ll tell you: most of the times I’ve seen writers have real struggles with publishers, its been small presses. Because small presses, however earnest and well-meaning, don’t always know what they’re doing.
I’ll tell you a story, with names redacted to protect the innocent, but —
I was at a con, and a writer came up and said, “I pitched my novel during the pitch session and I got a bunch of full requests,” meaning, publishers requested the full manuscript. Which is great. Except I knew of zero big publishers at this con. So, I said, who requested it? And this writer named off a bunch of publishers I had never heard of — which is not necessarily an indictment against them, as I have a brain like a sieve. Either way, I said, okay, that’s good — and I didn’t want to bust said writer’s bubble, but — maybe just maybe consider sending it elsewhere? If the book is good enough to warrant small press attention, maybe it’s good enough to warrant the attention of an agent or an editor at a bigger house. It’s worth the shot, at least — and if it doesn’t work, and only a small press is interested, well, okay. (Though there you gotta ask: if only small press is interested, it’s a Come To Book Jesus moment. Is your book actually good?)
Look, the tests for this are easy enough. Does the small press publish reputable authors? Have they been around for a lot of years? Do their books look professional and not like some dickbird with Microsoft Publisher 1998 sloppily slapped it together? Can they identify a marketing plan? Can they demonstrate being in bookstores? If not, nnnghyeah, then either aim for a bigger publisher, or self-publish that motherfucker.
Don’t publish with UNCLE DAVE’S BASEMENT PRESS, okay?
Yes, Self-Publishing Is Viable
I’m glad this part of the conversation is well-established, but self-publishing is a great path for those who are equipped to not just be writers, but also publishers. It’s particularly good with some genres — romance, space opera or military sci-fi, etc. — though it’s less good for middle grade and YA, because younger kids and teens aren’t shopping at Amazon as eagerly as we might have hoped. Still. It’s worth it. Try it. Fuck yeah, self-publishing.
Safety Through Diversification
You can protect your pooper by diversifying wildly. Write across: formats, genres, publishing models. E-book, physical, comic book, novel, self, traditional, hybrid, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, whatever. Do it all, if you want to, if you can. If one door closes, you’ve carved out other tunnels through which you may move. It’s like driving — stuck in traffic? Know your exits and your back roads. Something something eggs and baskets. Have multiple baskets. Have multiple eggs. I have chicken eggs, emu eggs, dragon eggs, elf eggs. That’s right. Elf eggs. I breed elves. Not just the cookie elves, either, but all kinds — haughty elves, trailer park elves, tiny elves, big elves, forest elves, city elves, sex elves ha ha what I did not say “sex elves,” you said sex elves. Pervert.
A Bad Agent Is Worse Than No Agent At All
You want an agent if you’re going traditional. Even if not, you may still want an agent because agents are good. I just sold rights to a self-pub book to a Russian publishing company.
But watch out for bad agents. A bad agent is like a bad critique group, except now the consequences are not just creative, they’re professional. A bad agent will lead you in the wrong direction, likely for a year or more, and it takes time to recover. Find an agent who gets what you write and who wants to curate your vision and your career, and not cram your gorgeous circle pegs into an uncomfortable square hole. That is not a sexual metaphor, by the way, so calm down. Also if you need sex elves, I know a guy. And I am that guy.
Make Sure Your Agent Is Equipped To Do All The Things You Need Them To Do
Again, your agent should not just be able to sell books domestically, but also foreign rights or film and TV rights. And if your agent can’t directly, the agency that supports you should have people. Or you should have access to sub-rights agents. Something. If those doors are closed to you, then your success and your financial world will be limited.
Sidenote: sometimes you need to fire your agent.
The Truth of the Trilogy
Small but necessary point: in genre fiction, publishers often buy trilogies or series. They scoop you up for a three-book deal, yay, hurrah, huzzah. And if your book is by necessity and design a trilogy or a series, go you. If it’s not… then maybe don’t force it.
Here’s the reality of selling to series: subsequent books in the series will never sell better than the first book. You’ll never sell 1000 of Book One, and 5000 of Book Two. So if Book One: Sword of the Sex-Elf, doesn’t do well, then Book Two: Song Of The Dragonfuckers, will do worse. And publishers… you know, I’ll be honest, publishers don’t always handle this part well. They pump money into the first book and expect it to carry the second. And it might. That can work. But if it doesn’t, then you need to pump more money into the second book and the first book to get people to buy into the series. And then the bummer part for you as an author is, suddenly you’re caught for three years writing into a series that isn’t selling well and you know won’t land well. It’s emotionally difficult, time-consuming, and not financially ideal.
Plus, I actually kinda miss standalone books.
When To Work For Free
Mostly, don’t. Don’t work for free. Rarely worth it. Exposure is something hikers die from, and authors can die from it, too. If you do work for free, know the concrete benefits, and be sure to control the work — as I am wont to say, if you’re going to be exposed, then goddamnit, expose yourself. Not like that. Put your pants back on. What are you, some kind of Sex Elf?
I’ll note here too that the FREE WORK request doesn’t always come from disreputable weirdos — sometimes, it comes from big publishers. “Oh, with your new book coming out, we think you should also write a short story and a novella that we will release alongside it for free.” Yeah, great, but you should be paid for those. I mean, YMMV, but the book is the book — the story and the novella won’t sell them, so you should see money for them.
You did the work. Get paid for the work.
What you do has value, so claim value for what you do.
Seriously, Get An Accountant
Yeah, do that. Get an accountant. Your taxes as a writer just got infinitely more fucked up, so you want someone to help you navigate this new labyrinth of pain. And it can help you, too, because as a writer, you can deduct all kinds of shit now. Also, if you make enough money, might be time to form a business — an LLC or something. I did it recently, because it was worth it to do so for the tax savings. At lower levels of yearly income, the value dissipates.
Have People You Can Trust Behind The Scenes — Embrace Community
The community is your friend. Other writers can tell you their experiences. Anecdotes are artisanal data, sure, but it can still help you traverse these tumultuous seas. And a note to editors, agents, publishing folk: writers talk. We know when you’ve been naughty, we know when you’ve been good. Publishing as an industry is often cloaked in robes of MYSTERY and MYSTICISM, but it doesn’t need to be. Talk to writers. Help ’em. Let them help you. Onward.
Don’t Quit Your Day Job, Penmonkey
A lot of writers, I find, are eager to eject from their day jobs and leap into the writer career, naked and cackling. But the writing life — the career part — is a series of cliff mitigations. I am constantly aware of when the next cliff is coming — and it times out always with the end of my last contract. That’s when I drive over a cliff and die, so I have to pack in time and strategy to figure out how I’m going to make it over the next cliff — how I will leap that motherfucking chasm. That means writing this book but then also writing another or pitching another at opportune times to build a ramp or a bridge over the cliff.
You, too, have to worry about building that bridge or that ramp — and if you leave your day-job too soon, you will plummet into the void, not naked and cackling, but nude and screaming.
My advice for WHEN TO QUIT THE DAY JOB is plainly this:
Keep the day job until you cannot keep it any longer.
Keep it until you hit a crisis point: a point where you must sacrifice either the day job or the writing career. You are unable to do both, so you must do only one, and that is the time to ditch the day job because the writing job — meaning, one in which you are presently paid Actual Survival Money — cannot survive in the shadow of the day-to-day work.
It must become the day-to-day work.
And That’s It
Long post. I could keep talking, but I won’t.
*slings rifle over shoulder*
*goes to hunt unicorns*
* * *
Miriam Black is back.
In the fourth installment of the Miriam Black series, Miriam is becoming addicted to seeing her death visions, but she is also trying out something new: Hope. She heads to the Southwest in search of another psychic who can help her with her curse, but instead finds a group of domestic terrorists in her deadliest vision to date.
“This gritty, full-throttle series is what urban fantasy is all about, with bitter humor rounding out lyrical writing. It’s easy to root for this mouthy, rude, insensitive, but innately good young woman, and her story hits the reader like a double shot of rotgut.” — Publishers Weekly