24 Things No One Tells You About Book Publishing

I loved this BuzzFeed list (by Curtis Sittenfeld) so much that I had to include it here, along with my thoughts.

1. When it comes to fellow writers, don’t buy into the narcissism of small differences. In all their neurotic, competitive, smart, funny glory, other writers are your friends. <— It’s really true. Writers get each other, even the super hermit-y ones. We had each other at hello.

2. Unless you’re Stephen King, or you’re standing inside your own publishing house, assume that nobody you meet has ever heard of you or your books. If they have, you can be pleasantly surprised. <— I would consider my life complete if I met someone who had heard of my book. Like, I could die right there on the spot and be happy.

3. At a reading, 25 audience members and 20 chairs is better than 200 audience members and 600 chairs. <— Um, yes, the idea of empty chairs sounds terrifying. Actually, the idea of a reading sounds terrifying.

public speaking

4. There are very different ways people can ask a published writer for the same favor. Polite, succinct, and preemptively letting you off the hook is most effective. <— Nobody has asked me for any favors yet. Well, my sister asked to borrow a suitcase the other day, but I don’t think that had anything to do with me being a writer.

5. Blurbs achieve almost nothing, everyone in publishing knows it, and everyone in publishing hates them. <— Good, because I don’t know anyone who would want to blurb me.
5a. “Blurb” is a verb in the publishing world.

6. But a really good blurb from the right person can, occasionally, make a book take off. <— Damn it. 

7. When your book is on best-seller lists, people find you more amusing and respond to your emails faster. <— I’d probably find myself more amusing if I was on best-seller lists too. 

8. When your book isn’t on best-seller lists, your life is calmer and you have more time to write. <— This sounds good to me, as long as my publisher doesn’t cut me loose because I’m not on best-seller lists.

9. The older you are when your first book is published, the less gratuitous resentment will be directed at you. <— See, it’s good nobody wanted to publish my stuff when I was 23. Oh hindsight, you give me such comfort! 

10. The goal is not to be a media darling; the goal is to have a career. <— Word. When I signed with my publisher, I actually said, “My goal is to have a career.” The term “media darling” makes me want to hurl. Actually, just the term “darling” makes me want to hurl. 

11. The farther you live from New York, the less preoccupied you’ll be with literary gossip. Like cayenne pepper, literary gossip is tastiest in small doses. <— Phew. I’m as far away from NY as I can get without crossing an ocean.

12. Contrary to stereotype, most book publicists aren’t fast-talking, vapid manipulators; they’re usually warm, organized youngish women (yes, they are almost all women) who love to read.  <— That’s a relief. I don’t know who my publicist is yet. Hopefully she’s okay with me doing these types of blog posts about how I don’t really know what I’m doing with this publishing thing. Am I supposed to act like I know what I’m doing? I’m going to shut up now.

13. Female writers are asked more frequently about all of the following topics than male writers: whether their work is autobiographical; whether their characters are likable; whether their unlikable characters are unlikable on purpose or the writer didn’t realize what she was doing; how they manage to write after having children. <— Wait, people are going to ask me shit? 

14. If you tell readers a book is autobiographical, they will try to find ways it isn’t. If you tell them it’s not autobiographical, they will try to find ways it is. <— That’s fine. I will remain shrouded in mystery.

15. It’s not your responsibility to convince people who don’t like your books that they should. Taste is subjective, and you’re not running for elected office. <— I haven’t even convinced myself yet that my book is good, so to all my future critics: I feel you.

16. By not being active on social media, you’re probably shooting yourself in the foot. That said, faking fluency with or interest in forms of social media that don’t do it for you is much harder than making up dialogue for imaginary characters. <— I genuinely like Facebook. I still think Twitter sounds like a drug withdrawal symptom. I’m giving it the ol’ college try though.

17. If someone asks what you do and you don’t feel like getting into it, insert the word freelance before the word writer, and they will inquire about nothing more. <— I have a day job so I don’t have to explain to people that I’m a novelist. The barrage of questions that follows such a declaration is unbearable.

18. If you read a truly great new book and feel more excited than jealous, congratulations, you’re a writer. <— I’m not really the jealous type. However, my husband has long, beautiful lashes that he doesn’t appreciate and that makes me envious and angry. 

19. Fiercely, fiercely, fiercely protect your writing time.  <— I do, much to the chagrin of people who want me to have a social life with them.

introvert problems

20. It’s OK to let your book be published if you can see its flaws but don’t know how to fix them. Don’t let your book be published if it still contains flaws that are fixable, even if fixing them is a lot of work.  <— I’ve been through one heavy duty editing round that involved admitting there were flaws to fix. I didn’t want to see them because I’m lazy. They are fixed. I’m getting my final edits from my publisher soon. I’m hoping for minimal remaining flaws.

21. Talking about how brutally difficult it is to write books is unseemly. Unless you’re the kind of writer who’s been imprisoned by the dictatorship where you live and is being advocated for by PEN American Center, give it a rest.  <— I don’t really think writing a book is hard. Maybe it seems hard to a non-writer, but that’s irrelevant because they are not writing. Like, fixing my transmission sounds hard because I’m not a mechanic. There are certain things in life that are unarguably hard. Living below the poverty line. Chemotherapy. Tying a cherry stem with your tongue. Writing is, ultimately, a joy. Or it should be. Yes, it’s a huge commitment and there are frustrations along the way (especially when you get to the publishing stage), but all those frustrations are mostly issues with the ego. I have a NEED to write, so one could argue that writing is just a selfish indulgence for me. Books are just a product of that need and indulgence. So, yeah, I don’t think writing is hard. Is it unseemly to say that?

22. Books bring information, provocation, entertainment, and comfort to many people. You’re lucky to be part of that. <— That’s very true, and that’s why it’s been a dream of mine to publish books. It’s one thing to write them, another thing to share them.

23. Sometimes good books sell well; sometimes good books sell poorly; sometimes bad books sell well; sometimes bad books sell poorly. A lot about publishing is unfair and inscrutable. But… <— Sigh…

24. …you don’t need anyone else’s approval or permission to enjoy the magic of writing — of sitting by yourself, figuring out which words should go together to express whatever it is you’re trying to say. <— Well, yes. Ultimately, that’s what it’s all about.

Source: Buzzfeed, Curtis Sittenfeld

 

The pressures of fame (yes, this is a Harper Lee post)

It’s been impossible to ignore all the hype about Harper Lee’s follow-up to To Kill a Mockingbird. Even if you’re not a reader, you’ve heard about it. And, if you are a reader (or a writer), you’re probably foaming at the mouth to get your hands on it.

Twitter went crazy with the news. This is one of my favorites. Click on image to see more.

Twitter went crazy with the news. This is one of my favorites. Click on image to see more.

I haven’t said much on the subject because I don’t want to add to the madness. Not that my little voice matters much in the grand scheme, but still. My first reaction to hearing about her forthcoming book was, “!!!” My second reaction was, “Oh god, I feel bad for her.”

This Ploughshares post captures my feelings perfectly.

See, I’ve heard that Lee is a hermit, “as reclusive as Boo Radley.” She once proclaimed that her first book said all she wanted to say. Nobody expected another book. Ever. And, then, the recent announcement. Immediately, journalists flocked to her hometown trying to get intel from her neighbors and caretakers at her nursing home. Ruthless!

I think fame is hard for lots of people, but especially writers. At our core, we are quiet people, usually introverted. We have to be because writing a novel is a mostly solitary act. It requires lots of alone time. We all want people to read our books when they’re done. They are our life’s work, after all. But I don’t think any writer really wants to be “famous.”

It’s no secret that J.K. Rowling tried to publish under a pseudonym in an effort to escape the pressure that came with writing something after Harry Potter. J.D. Salinger continues to avoid interviews. Thomas Pynchon has been so devoutly private that there have been crazy rumors made up about him (including that he was the Unabomber). Cormac McCarthy denied thousands of interviews before appearing on Oprah to say, “If you spend a lot of time writing about a book, you probably shouldn’t be talking about it–you should be doing it.”

What’s hard in this day and age is social media. I’ve just begun to realize the pressures of self-promotion. After signing my book deal, my agent sent me a document outlining all the things I can do to promote myself as we get closer to the book launch date. These days, I’ve heard publishing houses spend a lot of marketing dollars on very few names (and those names usually belong to proven best sellers). That said, as a first-time novelist, I’m going to assume that most of the marketing will be up to little ol’ me. Frankly, that’s terrifying.

This is how I feel about self-promotion. Source: Parents.com

This is how I feel about self-promotion. Source: Parents.com

It’s not natural for me to talk about myself or to interact with “a community” of people, especially online where that community is so vast and intimidating. I had a minor panic attack signing up for Twitter. Really, I just want to write stories and be done with it. I envy authors who wrote pre-Internet. They could focus on their craft and let traditional marketing (funded by their publisher) take care of the rest. I mean, that’s what writers are meant to do–WRITE. But, no, that’s not how it is these days. These days, you have to split your time between being creative (writing) and being strategic (marketing). It’s very jarring to switch back and forth and I wonder if, ultimately, the quality of the writing suffers.

From the Ploughshares post:

“It’s an unspoken rule amongst most writers that if you want to make it as an author in today’s digital, hyper-accessible age, you must be willing to promote your book. To launch yourself into the limelight. To smile and sign the books of adoring fans, asking how to spell their names. To tour five cities in three days. To do the circuit thing. To maintain your online platform. To walk the red carpet of the premiere of your adapted film release and bare all on a radio talk show. And to do so again after achieving fame the first time can be down right daunting—especially if your second or third book isn’t as beloved as your first.”

And more:

“I know many an author who sighs and groans about the “necessary evil” of the book tour—and many editors and agents who have taught me–a young, relatively unpublished author–about the necessity of proving to any potential editors and agents down the road my willingness to do my part in promoting myself.”

My publishing house sent me an author questionnaire and many of the questions focused on the connections, websites, and social media accounts I have. Promotion, promotion, promotion. I mean, yes, you have to write a solid book. But that seems to be about 40% of the focus in today’s publishing world. 60% of the effort is marketing.

In a way, I’m happy there’s hype about Harper Lee because it shows people still care about books (YAY!). But, I’m uneasy knowing that most of the hype is due to the fact that she has remained so stubbornly private and seemingly detached from the pressures of a world that is increasingly demanding of social engagement. We, as a society, pounce on these type of people. It’s the same reason girls always go for the “mysterious” guys. We like the challenge, the intrigue. Already, there is so much buildup and so much burden on Harper Lee for just doing what she can’t help doing–writing. In my opinion, there’s no way this sequel can match up to To Kill a Mockingbird. The media has already assured that, sadly. My only hope is that Ms. Lee stays off her computer, ignores the buzz, and continues to do whatever makes her smile.

 

 

Publishing Journey: Royalties

In a book contract, the royalties section comes right after the advance section. They go hand in hand. The advance is the money you get in advance of the book being published. Royalties are monies you get after the book is published. The advance is paid “against your earnings,” meaning you don’t start getting royalty payments until you sell enough books to “pay off” your advance.

Example: You receive a $20,000 advance. The book is published in hard cover at a price of $20. According to your contract, you get 10% of each book sold, or $2 per book. So, you’d have to sell 10,000 books to “pay off” your advance. If your book doesn’t sell 10,000 copies, you don’t have to return money to the publisher, but it’s unlikely they’ll want to publish you again because you effectively lost money for them. Let’s try to think positive though and assume you’ll sell a million copies. Okay? Okay.

king-wallpaper-i

Royalty percentages are fairly standard for first-time writers, with a little wiggle room depending on the deal you get. My book will come out in hard cover (YAY!) and I will get 10% on each of the first 5,000 copies sold. So, if the book is priced at $25, I’ll get $2.50 from each sale. Many people argue that writers get ripped off with this type of traditional arrangement. I wrote the thing, but $22.50 of each sale goes to other people? True, but the thing is, big publishing houses have the ability to market your book in a way you couldn’t do alone (unless you are extremely lucky, extremely talented with marketing, or a celebrity). By self-publishing, I’d earn way more on each book sold, but I’d sell way, way fewer books. Or that’s the theory. Maybe I’ll change my tune in a year. We shall see.

Anyway, the royalty rate increases as sales increase. Effectively, the publishing house rewards you for selling more copies. After getting 10% on the first 5,000 copies sold, I’ll get 12.5% on the next 5,000 copies sold. And after the 10,000 copies mark, I’ll get 15% of every sale. When the book goes to paperback, I’ll get 7.5% of every sale, regardless of copies sold.

The contract details royalty rates for every possible edition of your book–mass market paperback, electronic, audio, etc, etc. It’s all very business-like because, ultimately, this publishing thing IS A BUSINESS. It’s funny because so much about the business stifles creativity, and creativity is what made the business in the first place. I have to admit that it’s hard to work on my new novel (yes, I’ve started something new) without thinking, “Is there any point to working on this? If my book doesn’t sell enough copies, they’re not gonna publish this new thing” or “Will this new story even appeal to my publisher? It’s kind of a downer.”  But, it always comes back to this: I need to write, and I don’t have much control over the stories that interest me. I’ve always continued to write, even when I’ve gotten rejection letters that sent me back to square one. I’m just really hoping this book does well so the floodgates can open for all the stories I have to share. In the meantime, I write, write, write because I don’t know any other way.

 

Workshopping

Writers use “workshop” as a verb. As in, “Your book is coming along. You should workshop it.”

I haven’t done a workshop in many years. But for a while there, workshopping was a huge part of my writing life. It basically defined my grad school program–and most grad school programs (which is important to note if you’re considering such a thing).

workshops

Personally, I don’t like workshops. I may have just made a few enemies saying that. Writers seem to either LOVE them or DESPISE them. There is no in-between. One of the main reasons I don’t like workshops is that I am a very solitary creature and I consider writing to be a very solitary activity, especially when I’m in the process of it. After I’m done with something, I have a small handful of people I trust to read my stuff and tell me if it sucks or not. I don’t bug them while I’m writing though. I don’t ask them to critique as I go, one chapter at a time. That process is sacred to me, private.

Another reason I don’t like workshops is because people are either 1) way too polite, or 2) way too mean. In most of the workshops I’ve been in, we gave our pages to everyone else in the workshop and then took theirs home. When we reconvened, we gave each other feedback (and then handed over new pages). What I’ve witnessed is that if someone’s work is really bad (and it’s really not a subjective matter, trust me), nobody wants to say it. Instead, they fixate on small things that they know won’t break the writer’s heart, like, “On page 49, you said it was snowing, but isn’t it supposed to be May?” The thing is that a writer needs to know if their work sucks and it’s better if the news comes from people who are gentle and caring (as opposed to from a potential agent or publisher who responds with something harsh and insensitive).

On the opposite extreme, people can also be really mean–but, interestingly, not to the people whose work sucks. I’ve noticed that people are harshest with those whose work is actually pretty decent. Maybe there’s a competitive thing going on? Or maybe people critique hard when they see that a piece has some potential, trapped beneath a few character issues and plot problems? I want to think it’s the latter. It’s like if people are convinced there’s a giant turd buried under a pile of dirt, they won’t dig too viciously; if they think it might be a diamond, they will be relentless.

In general, whether people are nice or mean, very few of my workshop experiences have offered any kind of helpful direction. They have just been a bunch of people talking in “workshop language.” I’ve always left confused and lost. Amy Klein did a blog post about the “writing workshop glossary” for the New York Times that made me nod in hilarious recognition. Here’s my interpretation of the workshop language in Klein’s glossary:

“Find Your Own Voice”
Anyone who has been in writing workshops or classes has heard this. If you give or receive this advice, you should know that it’s code for, “you kind of sound like other writers” or “you are not unique or original.” Courageous critics will go a little further and tack on something like, “I’m just not hearing YOU in these pages.”

“I Don’t Find the Character Sympathetic”
This just means, “I don’t like your protagonist” or “Your protagonist annoys me” or “I don’t really care what happens to your character, meaning I don’t really give a crap about your story.” This is a fun one.

“What Does the Character Want?”
This translates to, “I’m not really sure what this story is about” or “This is boring as hell.”

“What Is this Story Really About?”
This is a workshop favorite. People ask this one a lot, with great emphasis on the “about.” What they are wondering is, “What is the deeper meaning?” or “What grand thing are you trying to communicate?” It can be a way of calling your story superficial or scattered or unfocused.

“Show, Don’t Tell”
This is just a way of saying, “I don’t like the way you wrote this” or “Could you be a little more creative in writing about the trees outside the windows/the morning dew/whatever?”  They’re kind of saying that you’re not poetic enough or a little lazy with your descriptions.

“Kill Your Darlings”
This means, “You have a lot of extraneous shit in here and you should cut it out” or “I know you love this line/paragraph/chapter, but it blows.”

***

There are many writers who benefit from workshops, and learn to interpret the language and find ways to improve their stories. I, for one, will continue to be a socially awkward hermit who prefers to have a select group of readers crush her soul when necessary. Whatever your way, good luck!

 

 

 

Publishing Journey: The Advance (aka Keeping My Day Job)

Before I got a book deal, the word “advance” was so magical to me. And mysterious, too. What, exactly, is it? And, more importantly, when do I get rich?

my advance

Ok, so what is it? Well, put simply, it’s a signing bonus. For first-time fiction writers, it’s paid when a publisher reads the full manuscript and wants to acquire it. If you’ve published before and done well, your publisher may buy your next book based on a proposal and sample chapters (nonfiction writers also get deals this way–lucky bastards).

The advance is paid against future royalty earnings, which means that for every dollar you receive in an advance, you must earn a dollar from book sales before you start receiving any additional royalty payments. So, for example, if you receive a $10,000 advance with a royalty rate that works out to $1 per book sold (more on royalties in another post), you would have to sell 10,000 books to “pay off” your advance. Now, if your book doesn’t sell enough to earn back the advance, you don’t have to return money to the publisher… BUT you will probably have to deal with them not wanting to publish another one of your books. Sad.

Now, the important question–when do I get rich? Well, not any time soon, unless I win the lottery. Most writers have heard of (and dreamed of) advances that are six or seven figures. Those are rare, my friends. Very rare. Rarer than the California condor. I think there are about ten living writers who get advances that large.

For a first-time writer (like me), the advance is modest. Mine is about half the annual salary of the job I had when I was 23. So, yeah. I used to think an advance was money you could live off of until your book is published (and then you could live off royalties from sales). Um, no.

Another thing–you don’t get the advance all at once. It is split into thirds. You get one-third of the advance upon signing the contract, one-third upon delivering the final manuscript, and one-third upon publication of the thing. And, actually, YOU don’t get it. The checks go to your agent. The agents takes their commission cut, and then sends the remainder to you. I haven’t received my first check yet, but when I do, you bet your ass I’ll make a copy of it and frame it.

 

 

Publishing Journey: The Contract (aka Why Writers Need Agents)

When my agent told me we made a deal with St. Martin’s Press, I thought the contract would be signed the next day and I’d be on my way. Um, no. Turns out the wheels turn kind of slowly. I got my book deal in early November and I just signed the contract this month. In that waiting time, I was pretty much assuming that everyone had changed their mind. Even now that I’ve signed it, I still don’t believe it’s real.

signed book contract
I had no idea what a contract involved, so I assume many fellow writers don’t either. First of all, the thing is 30 pages. I realized as I read it that *this* is why writers really, really need agents. There is a lot of stuff in there that is confusing lawyer speak. This is an agent’s everyday life though. Agents know what’s standard, what’s negotiable, what’s fair. I would not have felt comfortable signing it without my agent’s input.

Here is what a publishing contract includes:

  • Description of the work in question (duh) and granting of author rights
  • The amount of the advance and how it will be paid (I’ll have to do another post about this)
  • Royalty percentages (for hardcover editions, paperback editions, mass-market paperback editions, electronic editions, audio editions, etc, etc, etc)
  • Additional and subsidiary rights (first serial rights, second serial rights, selection rights, translation rights, etc, etc, etc—I had to ask my agent what all this meant and I’m still fuzzy)
  • Licensing information
  • Intellectual property ownership declaration—writer owns the copyright, basically
  • Rules about “competitive works”—publishing house gets first dibs to things, basically
  • The date the final manuscript is due (mine is March 1 and I haven’t received my final edits yet—gahhh!)
  • “Will publish by” date—within 18 months of acceptance of the manuscript
  • How to submit future works for publication (I’ll have to do another post about this)
  • Who the author’s agent is and the agency’s role in the whole shebang
  • And a bunch of other stuff about how the publishing house can use your bio and photo, how you get a certain number of copies of the book (and your agent does too), how accounting and payments will work, what happens if publication is discontinued, how the author’s estate comes into play (like if I croak), etc, etc, etc

Like I said, I didn’t really know what most of this meant, or if it was industry standard or what. I had to put trust in my agent, 100%. This is why authors should seek out an agent who has been around the block a few (hundred) times and, preferably, is part of a bigger agency that has experience and respect. There were a few rounds of back-and-forth between my agent and the publishing house to finalize some details, most of which were kind of over my head. In the end, the contract is signed and I’m very excited to start the next part of this journey.

Writing for control

Sometimes when I read Poets & Writers magazine, I come across an article that is so good that I must tear it out for safe keeping. I put it in a folder labeled “writing stuff.” In the latest issue, I tore out “Quieting the Mind” by Sarah Herrington. And then I promptly followed her on Twitter.

Yes, I highlight my magazines. I have problems.

Yes, I highlight my magazines. I have problems.

In the article, she writes about how she did a 10-day silent Buddhist meditation retreat and, by day 2, hid in a bathroom stall with her contraband–a pen and paper–because she HAD to write. I know the feeling.

“Halfway through, I saw how ridiculous I must have looked, hiding on that cold tile, gripping a pen like a fiend. I realized that while I meant to check in with myself through journaling, I was actually checking out. Afraid of the intensity of this new experience, I thought I could sort it all into vowels and consonants. Yet instead of helping me gain insight, documenting was acting as an escape. Like an Instagram user snapping constant photos on a trip instead of looking around, enjoying the moment, I was so busy chronicling that I wasn’t being.”

She decides to tear up the paper and ditch the pen, striving to “feel directly rather than shape those sensations into words.” And she’s successful–with the whole “feeling directly” thing. I know I would have had a hard time with it.

From the time I was really young, I used writing to understand myself and my world. There was a lot of navel-gazing going on. My first book was a memoir. Even in fiction stories, I was really just writing about parts of myself. I’d just change the hair color of the main female character as a way to say, “See, it’s not ME!”

In addition to fiction, I journaled ferociously. I was dependent on journals between the ages of 8 and 28 (two decades!). I couldn’t imagine NOT having that place to vent all my emotions. But I was really just controlling my universe with all that scribbling. I was trying to fit experiences into meaningful boxes because I couldn’t just let them exist with all the vagueness that is life.

Sarah writes: “I remember inventing poems at age fifteen, sprawled on shag carpet in my flowered bedroom in upstate New York. Then, writing helped me understand feelings so big I couldn’t make sense of them unless I had a pen. I dismantled them one by one: sadness, anger, even happiness.”

Yes, I get this. It’s no wonder that I journaled so much during years of my life that were particularly difficult. In my late twenties, I came to a much better place and, not so surprisingly, I stopped journaling. It was gradual. I remember finishing a paper journal and just not buying a new one. [Side note: I always wrote in hard copy journals, never online. I saved every single journal, deeply attached to what I wrote, though I never actually went back and read them. When I was a teenager, I asked my parents for fireproof safes for Christmas to store them. I still have them–the safes and the journals. I’m not sure if I should keep them or ditch them.]

Then I started journaling online by typing up thoughts in an email and sending it to myself. It was really just a way to vent. Then, I stopped doing that. I just didn’t feel the same need to make sense of things like I once did. I wasn’t so lost anymore. And I was more okay with surrendering to the world, not trying to make sense of every little event and feeling. I was giving up control.

Around the time I gave up my journaling addiction, my fiction changed, too. My novels evolved to be stories that were nothing like my real life. I even experimented with male narrators. These days, I can say that my fiction is truly fiction. Sometimes, a struggle or scenario from my personal life will weave its way in to a story, but it’s usually subconscious and probably recognizable only to me.

What hasn’t changed is that I still need to write. It’s not so much about myself or my daily life, but I still need it. I mentioned to my mom the other day that I’d started writing a new novel and she said, “That’s ambitious of you.” I don’t see it that way though. Ambition implies some premeditation and an end goal. I really haven’t thought that far ahead. In fact, it doesn’t make much sense for me to write something new when I have to do final edits on my existing book. There’s just this story in my head and I have to write it. I just have to. It’s a compulsion. Giving in to it and starting to eek out the story gives me a happiness I haven’t found with anything else.

All of this reminds me of one of my favorite quotes:
bradbury