Ten Things I Wish I’d Known

      Each spring since the year of my first publication, I’ve taught at a novels workshop in Louisville, KY. As part of this teaching gig, I’m asked to present sessions on subjects varying from characterization to research techniques to how to seduce an agent or editor, but this year one of the subjects I was asked to address was one I’d never considered before. This year they wanted a two-hour riff on “Ten Things I Wish I’d Known About The Business Before I Got Published.”

     This stumped me, I’m afraid. Before becoming published, I’d spent twelve years learning the business, and written twelve uncompleted manuscripts and eight proposals for manuscripts that were never completed. By the time I sold my first manuscript, I knew who I wanted for my agent and knew what my next three books were going to be. There were barely a couple of things I wish I’d known going in, let alone ten.

     But then I realized the earlier one knows how to make one’s way, the quicker the trip will be. Had I known more about the business before spending twelve years of trial and error, I might have sold that first manuscript while still in my thirties instead of at the age of forty-two. So I asked some of my fellow novelists what they considered the most important things for an aspiring writer to know early on, and found there were far more than just ten items. I culled to ten, and went to the workshop armed with a solid list of the essentials.

     Alas, I am not a lecturer. I leave the formal classroom stuff to the real English professors, for by training and vocation I am but an actor. I come to writing as a storyteller, and that is all I’m good for. My carefully prepared list went out the window when I realized that I’m just ADD enough to lose my train of thought while working from an outline. The more I struggled to concentrate on my list, the more I blanked on the entire subject. So I set aside the list and threw the discussion open to questions. Over the next two hours I fielded queries from about a dozen attendees, and it turned out to be an interesting, entertaining, and I hope informative discussion about the business in general. And at the end, I looked back over the list I’d prepared, and discovered we’d touched on every single point I’d originally wanted to make. No need to be a slave to an outline; I merely shared what I knew, and the group learned what they wanted to know, which was how to approach publishing in a professional manner.

     Planning ahead is the key. And an understanding that publishing is a business is the most important thing. Those who look at it as a fun hobby will always be at cross-purposes with the entire process. The following is the list of Ten Things I Wish I’d Known (Long) Before Becoming Published.

 1. Proper manuscript formatting.

     Back when I first began submitting my work, I had a vague idea that manuscript pages should be neatly typed and legible. That was all I knew. I did my homework on the subject, and learned what margins to use and what should be included (or excluded) from the headers and footers. Over the next two decades I’ve found that the standards I learned have shifted somewhat, due to the advent of the Microsoft Word defaults that have become accepted with the proliferation of computers. Courier is no longer the only font preferred, and margins are just a little smaller than of old. In any case, pages still need to be neatly typed and legible, on white paper in black ink. Headers should include your name, the title of the piece, and page numbers. (If you keep separate files for each chapter, be sure to make the numbers continuous from one to the next.) Though many editors don’t express a preference, among those who do the preferred fonts mentioned most often these days are Courier, Courier New or Times New Roman (10-12 pt.). One of the terrific things about working on a computer is that one can write in any font one wants, then change to one of the above before printing/submitting. I could write in Klingon if I wanted to, then switch. What a wonderful time we live in!

 2. When to send in multiple submissions.

     Most publishers don’t like to receive submissions that have also been sent to other publishers, but even more they hate to receive such a submission without being told it’s simultaneous. It’s always best to be up front about whether you’re sending to other editors. Also, there are times when it’s to your advantage to give an exclusive perusal if you know an editor you would prefer to work with, or if she’s already shown an interest in your work. If you do give an exclusive, state how long it will be such. If the editor hasn’t responded by the deadline, then you can feel free to query elsewhere.

 3. When to say “no” to an editor.

     In the beginning it’s easy to assume your editor knows all. After all, she’s the one who has the power over what happens to your book. She works for the publisher, who is paying for the manuscript. In theory, she knows what she wants and it’s your job to make her happy.

     On the other hand, unless she knows you extremely well, she might not know where your special talents lie and she might not have the best handle on how you see your work. Never forget that it’s your work and it’s your name that will go on it. And if you don’t tell her your vision, she’ll never know. It’s okay to stick up for the story. Pick your battles and don’t dig in your heels unnecessarily, but if you feel strongly that a request is just not right for your piece, then there is nothing wrong with making a calm, reasonable protest.

 4. The vagaries of the copyediting process.

     Also in the area of knowing when to say “no,” is the inevitable struggle with the copyeditor. She is the faceless and often nameless colored pencil that marks up your precious manuscript with queries and remarks relating to typos, facts, style and usage. A good copyeditor is worth her weight in chocolate; a bad one is an annoyance beyond measure. A really bad one can ruin a manuscript entirely. One must learn carefully where the line lies between reasonable protest and plain stubbornness.

     Some queries will stick, no matter how much stetting one does. A house style will often trump author preference, depending on the project, the editor, and the publisher. It’s usually best to let go of cherished spellings and punctuations if there’s a conflict. That’s the small stuff, and we all know not to sweat that. It’s the larger issues that matter, and you shouldn’t be afraid to mark “stet” something you think is detrimental to the work. Just don’t take any of it personally. No matter how good or bad the copyeditor is, remember she’s doing her best and hopes her queries are helpful.

 5. How much I would need an agent.

     Whether you need an agent is an individual question that can be answered only by yourself. Unfortunately, it’s also a question best answered after you’ve got some experience behind you. Over the years I’ve come to realize that I am not a salesperson. I think the reason it took me so long to sell my first book is that my talent lies in the writing, not the selling. I despise dickering, and even hate buying a car because of it. So I’ve always known I needed an agent. However, I found it easier to sell a book than to acquire an agent without having already sold a book. I wish I’d been able to sign with an agent before making my first sale, and since I began working with one my advances have improved and my future looks brighter. Many authors do well without any representation at all, and more power to them. They have a talent I don’t have. The ticket here is to know yourself and your needs. Decide where you want to end up in this business and whether you have the abilities necessary to get yourself there, then you will know whether or not you need an agent.

 6. That a bad agent is worse than no agent at all.

     Okay, you’ve decided you need an agent. I certainly do. What agent is best? Being signed with a “top” agent can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on who you are, what you write, and what your goals are. Do you have your heart set on bestsellerdom and a film deal? Many top literary agents won’t bother trying to sell you to the film industry. Does your prospective agent have a reputation in the genre you write? Will he see your work the same way you see it? Will you be comfortable with the amount of feedback you will receive on your work? Too much? Too little? Wrong kind?

     Even more important is that your agent has a good reputation in the business. That he know the people he’s submitting to well enough to not send your work to inappropriate editors. That he do his job and not let your manuscript gather dust on his desk. That he not misrepresent your work. That he not charge up front for services. That his accounting practices are proper, and that he forward checks in a timely manner. Asking around about an agent’s reputation is a good idea. Google is often our friend and can turn up items that will give you an idea of who you’re dealing with. “Writer Beware” is a highly recommended online source for identifying scam artists and agents whose business practices are merely questionable.

 7. That your agent doesn’t always have only your best interests at heart.

     One hopes to find an agent that is a good fit. Many authors pass from one to another many times before finding The One. It happens. But even then, when you’ve searched the world over and finally found the agent of your heart, there is always one thing to remember. You are not his only client. Even an ethical agent, doing his best for each and every client, will often have to make a choice between what’s good for you, for himself, or even what’s good for another client. Sometimes this can work to your advantage, but sometimes it doesn’t. Often it can mean falling through the cracks and deciding you need a different agent who will not ignore you. Sometimes it means a benefit of being connected to a high-powered agency with resources unavailable at someplace smaller. It can mean getting a really cool cover blurb, or it can mean being left out in the cold on that account. This is the sort of thing that can only be decided by experience, but it’s good to be aware of this factor from the beginning.

 8. When to quit the day job.

     I confess I am atypical on this account. I quit my day job very shortly after selling my first book, but not just because I’d sold the book. I hated that job. It was only part time, and my husband makes a pretty good living, so the amount of money I needed to make from books was quite small. For the past decade or so I’ve managed without the day job even though I broke all the rules in quitting.

     Rule of thumb, among those who support themselves with their writing, is to have at least four books bringing in royalties before depending on the income. Of course, that’s a gross generalization. A lot depends on how much income you feel you need, and how stable you need it to be. Remember that book money comes in at unpredictable intervals, no matter who you are or how much you make. And no matter how carefully you husband your resources, there is guaranteed to be a time when a check is delayed or a manuscript dropped from your publisher’s schedule or a drought when no manuscript sells at all. I, personally, once had an entire year’s income delayed by six months because of a series of accounting errors that resulted in three different advance checks going AWOL. Had I been depending on that money to pay the mortgage, I would have lost the house, even though the money would have been more than sufficient to pay.

     Another reason some writers want to keep the day job is that writing in a vacuum can stifle creativity. The muse must be fed regularly, and unless you’ve got some other activity or involvement in your life you’ll eventually run out of things to write about. Family, hobbies, volunteer work, all will contribute to rounding out your life, but if you like your job well enough there’s good reason to keep it even if you don’t really need the money so much any more.

 9. That I’d have to act as my own publicist.

     This is something I knew going in, but hoped wouldn’t matter as much as it does. As I’ve said, I have no talent for sales. Self-promotion to me is like going to the dentist. I dread it, suffer through it, then afterwards try to forget the pain. I do love people, but when the focus is on me I stress out. I go to conventions and signings, then come home and take a day to decompress. Making up stories, going where my imagination takes me, is what I love best, and as an actor I loved to hide behind a character and become someone else for a couple of hours. Talking about the work is not what I’m about. I just want to write the book, hand it over, and say, “Here. Read this, and you’ll know what I mean.”

     Some people hire a publicist, but that is costly, and a cheap, bad publicist isn’t worth even a little money. Publishing houses are very frugal with their promotional funds, and the lesser books are assigned to the lesser employees in their publicity departments. As bad as I am as a publicist, I’ve still had better luck booking my own signings than most of the publicists I’ve worked with.

     My opinion, after nearly a decade of struggling with this, is that there’s nothing for it but to bite the bullet, take a deep breath, and pick up the phone. Do the best you can—what you have time and money for—and don’t feel intimidated by other authors who run contests, write newsletters, blog daily, and set up their own cross-country book signing tours. But do let go of the dream of appearing on Oprah. At least with that first book.

 10. That you never “arrive.”

     I’ve worked in the entertainment industry on one level or another since I was eight years old, as a stage and film actor, a stage director, a rock singer, the wife of a show bus driver, a journalist, a writer of video sleeve copy, and a novelist. One thing I’ve learned about the industry in general is that you’re only as good as your last gig. And—let’s face it—in the final analysis we’re entertainers. Storytellers. If our audience doesn’t like the current project, there might not be a next one. It’s the way our world works. Publishing is just a little more forgiving than, say, pop music, but it’s still an entertainment medium and subject to the economic realities of the business. Accepting that selling the next book is always chancy goes a long way toward not living with white knuckles all the time. If you can live with the uncertainty, you’re well ahead of the game.

      These are by no means the only things one needs to know about the business. Books have been well filled with good things to know before making that first sale, or even that first submission. How to read a royalty statement, Stupid Publisher Tricks in some new contracts, the development of interpretations of copyright law relating to digital media for instance, are things even experienced authors have to figure out. The learning never stops. I hope these ten things are a good start.

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Ten Things I Wish I’d Known — 2 Comments

  1. That list pretty much matches what I’ve heard from various sides. A couple of comments:

    Guidelines:
    These days, guidelines vary wildly, and agents often have their own. It’s trivial for them to reformat a manuscript, so the real reason some of them are very specific in what they want to see is that it show whether the writer has read their guidelines and is willing to follow instructions.

    Editing:
    Pick the hills you mean to die on. If a writer quibbles over everything, they come across as a diva; if they accept everything, they can come across as not really caring (why *did* you make your character act this way if it doesn’t matter?) Very often an editorial suggestion translates to ‘something is not working here, and I think this would be better’ in which case it’s perfectly acceptable to offer a different solution. Engage with the problem, and when in doubt (after going away and thinking about it!), ask *why* the change was made. Just don’t – see rule one – challenge everything. You don’t want to be ‘the difficult writer’: you might see your things in print as you envision them now, but eventually you’ll see fewer of them in print.

    Agents:
    One newish trend is for agencies to act as publishers, which I feel gives the whole ‘conflict of interest’ thing a new dimension. If an agent can make more money when you self-publish a book than if he sells it for a small advance to a small publisher, their interest and the writer’s can diverge in new and unexpected ways. In an environment where most writers self-publish something (backlist, short story collections, …) I think the topic of self-publishing needs to be on the table from the start, even when – or maybe particularly when – you are looking to have a traditionally published career.

  2. While most of the practical matters of business will certainly change as the entire industry changes, I think #10 is the most important. This is a hard thing for many published authors to understand, and will probably get even murkier as self-publishing and agencies move into the market. Writer friends of mine who have gotten multi-book deals have been at an utter loss when the market leaves them cold, for no explicable reason. Learning to think like a working artist would go a long way toward solving this kind of trap.