What’s a New Writer to Do?

More often than you might imagine, I get e-mails from unpublished novelists asking me for advice about the publishing business.  I will admit, I take these queries most seriously when the person writing me has a project that is completed or nearly completed.  Worrying about where to get an unwritten novel published just isn’t practical.  Even at the best of times, industry standards change.  Lately, publishing seems to be changing on a monthly, if not weekly, basis.

My first, reissue and original versions

My first, reissue and original versions

Still, I’d like to help out if I can.  When I was starting my own quest to get published, I was lucky to have a good friend – Roger Zelazny – who tutored me on the business.   However, with hindsight, I realize I might have done better to also talk with someone who wasn’t quite as established.  Things had changed since Roger started out….  Although much of his advice was very good, some was distinctly dated.

So, here’s what I’m going to do.  I’m going to offer some advice meant to help those writers who have finished manuscripts in hand – manuscripts that are as polished and as perfect as their writers can make them.  However, I’m going to invite – even encourage – those of you reading this to update my assumptions.

Obviously, I can’t cover everything, so, who knows?  There might be a sequel.

Q: What’s an advance?  How much can I expect to get for my novel?

A: “Advance” is short for “advance against royalties.”  This is what a publisher pays you for the right to publish your book.  The money is yours, free and clear.  However, you don’t get any additional money until the book has earned enough for the publisher to make back what they have advanced you.  Royalties are based on a percentage of the cover price of the novel.  Since these percentages vary from publisher to publisher, I won’t go into that.

Brace yourself…  The basic beginner’s advance has not changed much in years.  Usually, it is under $5,000.00, often much less.  This is usually paid out in at least three segments: on-signing of the contract; on delivery and acceptance of the manuscript (this means the revised manuscript – after the editor has given you notes and you have addressed them in a satisfactory fashion); and on publication of the manuscript.   Publishers are notorious for not being prompt in making these payments.  You might sign the contract in April and not see the “on-signing” check until June.

The reason those million dollar advances make news is that they are rare occurrences.

Q: Should I try for one of the big publishers or would a small “boutique” publisher be better for me?

A: It depends on what you want.  A big publisher will have a larger distribution network.   That means they can get your books into all the chain stores.  They have sales reps out there, telling all the independent book sellers about your book.  They have a staff of editors, copy editors, art directors, and publicists in place.  However, you won’t be your editor’s only concern.   She (my last three editors have been female) will be working with other authors and other books at the same time as she is working with yours.

If you sell to a smaller publisher, you might get more personalized attention.  On the other hand, that’s not automatic.  If this smaller publisher doesn’t have a large staff, then your editor might be as over-worked as at a larger publisher.  Try and learn what sort of attention you can expect before signing with a smaller publisher.  Also, try to find out what sort of distribution and promotional network they have in place.

Always be careful of “publishers” who want you to pay them to publish you…

Q: Do I even need a publisher?

A: That’s a huge and controversial question.  My answer would be that whether or not you need a publisher depends on the type of person you are.  If you like self-promotion, enjoy spending lots of time on everything from formatting your own manuscript for publication, to art design, to promoting the work (a job that takes a lot of time), then self-publishing may be a good route for you.

If you can’t do any one of those jobs, then you’re going to need to pay someone to do it for you.

Although I’ve brought back into print a few of my out-of-print stories, I’m far from an expert on this area.  It’s also probably the fastest evolving part of publishing so No One, no matter what anyone tells you, is an expert.  If you’re considering the self-publishing route, make sure you get many opinions.

Also, make sure that at least some of your opinions are from writers who do not already have a publication record or following.  Seriously…  It’s easier to succeed in self-publishing if people already read your works.  Many of the articles I’ve read raving about self-publishing as the next wave of the future have been written by writers who already have long track records.  A couple of them have been major award winners.   Last year I was on a panel with a fellow who has done very well in self-publishing.  However, he had a following from his work in comics.  Either way, he might have been proudly showing us his first published novel – but it was far from his first publication (and he was the first to admit it).

Q: I’m beginning to feel overwhelmed!   Where do I look for current information on publishing?

A: If you want current, you want to look on the web.  However, make sure you’re getting a balanced presentation.  There are lots of people who have strong opinions one way or another about everything.  However, writers (because writing is what they do) are more likely to write these opinions down and put them where other people can find them.   This doesn’t mean that they’re right.

Consider looking into professional writer’s organizations.   Joining a professional organization can be beneficial.   These organizations will often have places on their websites where members can learn about publishers and new trends in publishing.   There are organizations for many different genres – science fiction and fantasy, westerns, horror, romance, mystery.  Consider joining more than one for wider exposure to opinions.

Yes.  You can join, even if you’re not yet published.  Look for information on “associate” memberships.

Many areas have regional writers’ groups.  I’m most familiar with Southwest Writers, here in New Mexico.  These groups can be great for beginners.  There are usually monthly meetings with guest speakers – usually published professionals.  Often there is an annual conference or contest, both interesting ways to learn more about the business or to find out how your work measures up.

If you’re interested in science fiction, fantasy, or horror, don’t overlook your local SF convention.  Often there is track of writing-related programming that most expensive writer’s conferences would envy.

Finally, come in to your research on publishing with an open mind.  A few years ago, I was on a panel at an academic writer’s conference.  One of the audience members asked about self-publishing.  He clearly did not like the answers he received.  Afterwards, I heard him ranting to someone in the corridor.  Turns out he had self-published.  He had expected to hear he was on the fast and easy road to big bucks and mega-success.  Hearing that he was going to have to work hard had not sat well with him.  In his opinion, the panel of five published authors were all idiots…

In other words, you can only learn how to succeed in publishing if you’re willing to listen, to weigh advice, and to formulate a plan that works to your goals and to your strengths.

Once again, I invite readers to provide added information on these or related topics.  I’m willing to listen!

6 Responses to “What’s a New Writer to Do?”

  1. paulgenesse Says:

    Jane, great post. Thanks for putting this out there. I agree 100%. I’m going to post this on my Facebook wall.

  2. Sally Says:

    One place to definitely check concerning publishers, agents, etc. is the Preditors & Editors site: http://pred-ed.com/ .

  3. Louis Robinson Says:

    I would be even more emphatic than “Always be careful of “publishers” who want you to pay them to publish you…”

    In professional publishing, I’m told, money flows _to_ the author, never _from_ the author.

    Mind you, I’m also told that publishers expect a certain level of self-promotion that is on the writer’s dime. Things like local signings and going to cons, where the expenses do come out of your pocket. So, like any dictum, there’s a certain degree of ‘it depends’ involved.

  4. Paul Says:

    It does seem today that a writer must do more than write. She/he must blog, tweet, Facebook and more that make one wonder why not go the route of self-publishing. Sometimes the first question a potential publisher asks is: How are *you* going to promote this book?

    • janelindskold Says:

      A good editor — and I stress the _good_ is a valuable asset. It’s almost impossible to see the weak spots in one’s own writing.

      Sometimes a good editor can show you weak spots you don’t know about. Yes. You can pay an editor, but then they’re your client and have a reason to please you. A professional editor who works with a publishing house is more like a collaborator.

      Every editor I’ve worked with has taught me something that I use to this day. I even include the one, long ago, who was mostly a nuisance.

  5. janelindskold Says:

    Thanks for the comments…

    I hope that those of you who get to this over the weekend will consider adding information to help new writers OR ask a question I might address next time.

    With publishing changing so quickly, exchange of ideas is useful to us all.

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