Home » The Business of Writing » 99% of what Writers are hearing in terms of advice comes from 1% of Authors

99% of what Writers are hearing in terms of advice comes from 1% of Authors

29 June 2014

From author Bob Mayer:

[W]e want to hear from success stories, not failures. Still, if it were easy to replicate those successes, then everyone would be doing it. Plus, many success stories feel their path is thepath, and don’t take into account not only other paths, but the changes in the business and even in story telling since they started.

For decades the spiel was pretty much the same: write a great novel following a traditional form of narrative structure (I still teach the five part structure) and then query an agent, hope the agent takes you on, then the agent pitches an editor, etc. etc. etc.

That’s somewhat true now, but there are so many more options, if I were new to publishing I’d be completely confused, as many writers I’ve met at conferences are.

First—does what the 1% say regarding their career path even apply any more? Things are different now than they were just six months ago. For trad authors issues like rights granted, reversion clauses, and non-compete clauses are growing more and more important. For indie authors, the market is saturated, so how do you get a toehold in it and leverage your way up, especially if you don’t have backlist, which is the conundrum for the new author?

When I was listening to an agent present I felt like I was in a time warp going back five years or more. Much of what she said was applicable but some of it had cobwebs hanging all over it. In fact, the success story she touted was a couple of years out of date and no longer applicable. But in a similar manner, I’ve heard some on the indie side speak and while what they say is often cutting edge, the cut is often very much slanted toward indie, while disparaging to trad publishing. I tend to believe for a new author, trad is probably the better option simply because the learning curve in publishing is so steep, that to learn it and break in while publishing yourself (while still writing, being a parent, working a job, etc.) might be more a cliff than a curve.

Link to the rest at Write on the River and thanks to Glinda for the tip.

The Business of Writing

43 Comments to “99% of what Writers are hearing in terms of advice comes from 1% of Authors”

  1. At least it’s a cliff going up. From what I’ve read about trad publishing contracts and how bad they’re getting, that path seems to be a cliff going down.

    • Yeah. I’d think it would be much wiser for an indie to get on that steep learning curve while owning all their own IP than to naively sign with an agent and publisher, and only find out once they’ve been kicked around a bit that the first thing they should have learned was DO NOT SIGN THAT CONTRACT. Now all their potential income for 70 years after their death belongs to somebody else.

  2. What’s wrong with ‘aspire to the best, but expect it to take a while’?

    Look at every story – see what might apply, dump the rest.

    It’s called educating yourself. I WANT to hear the success stories, not necessarily to copy them (John Locke) but to know that there ARE paths, and that some of these paths are accessible to ME.

    I know darn well (okay, I suspect very strongly) that what I write is probably not going to get me an agent, etc. But I still want to write it, and I don’t want to write it – and then get rejected over the course of the next five years by every agent on the planet. That way lies a lot of misery.

    I’m learning to take my 1% from each story, and drop the 99% that probably won’t work for me.

  3. Tennessee Williams got his start writing for pulp magazines.
    Indie, in a way, is the new pulp.
    You learn by doing but the key element is that you must want to learn and grow as a writer, not just rinse and repeat.

    • ^ this^

    • I agree with Barbara. And growing for an author in this century means dealing with the world as it is – a million demands and technology changing daily. So I disagree with the article that the learning curve is too steep.

      Writing in isolation doesn’t work without a keeper – in the old days maybe a patient agent. But that assumed that there would be an army of people out there to love your work and push it along.

      Now we authors must love our work and push it along. It isn’t easy, but we have much more freedom in what we can create. And we pay for that freedom by constantly learning and growing. It’s hard, but when it eventually succeeds it is immensely rewarding.

  4. Even with my combined experiences as a preschool teacher and a tech for over 10 years, that learning curve to self-publishing was still steep. I have story ideas all day, every day — written over 70 so far and more come weekly… in the car, in the shower , as I sleep, in dull work meetings! The process of turning the story into a book, through the Amazon/CreateSpace vehicle, meant buying & learning three Adobe products: Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign. It meant learning to blend backgrounds text and artwork without text or image blur, getting true enough colors, and telling the story in fun compelling ways. It also meant a tech-refresh to an i7 Asus laptop to be able to handle the demands of all those apps! ($700-$1200 investment right there.) A large screen TV or monitor is a must. A printer, scanner, etc. and soon you are Kinkos-B! Trying to find someone to take your book to CreateSpace for you? Good luck, it’s thousands of dollars.
    I see a need going wanting, a service of self-publishing… a self-publishers all-in-one service. Trick is to do this at a reasonable price! I’m going to step into that void, all the hard stuff! The learning curve of Adobe products, the fray of getting what you need from a CreateSpace printed book! At a reasonable price.
    We have the url already –www.publishmybook101.com
    and will start with a CreateSpace book to launch the service, rebating the price of the book if the writer publishes with our company.

    Shameless plug, sure. But having been approached for advise, help, and even “teach me” pleas by writers who have the perfect children’s book, family tale or recipe book — publishmybook101 is really self defense! I cannot teach friends at work, new friends at meetups, and friends of friends who were handled one of my picture books — how to publish their books, one person at a time! I’ve got books to write people!

    I feel this service will get a lot of books out from under beds, out of closets and desks, out of laptops — and into print. One flat fee of $350; add on fees only if artwork or rush publication is requested.
    Check out my site at http://www.orderchildrensbooks.com and look for http://www.publishmybook101.com by August 2014.
    Robin

    • Funny, publishing my books “required” Word 2007 (already owned), Fireworks 3 (owned since 1996), a pdf converter (cutepdf or pdf995, free), and a few hundred bucks to hire a pro to do the ebook conversions, while I handled trade paperback edition.

      (I will confess that being a longtime copy editor and used to working with graphic programs helped, too. But I’m not a trained graphic designer.)

      Later, I did get Photoshop, the CS2 version Adobe offers for free on their website.

      So, no, a writer doesn’t necessarily need to pay “thousands of dollars” to publish a book. Maybe not even $350.

    • I use Word to write and format my books and MS Publisher to set up the PB covers. I use an artist or cover designer, unless it’s a short story, then I use stock art and to make my own cover. So other than software I already own and use, the only cost has been for the covers– anywhere from, say, $15 to $300. So no, you don’t have to spend “thousands” to publish an e- and PB book.

      Disclaimer: I write straight prose fiction, and I think children’s books are a different animal.

    • All I needed was Word, PowerPoint and Paint, standard ops in Office.

  5. I agree with Joe. And more importantly, for me, the path is not the path I would want in any event. I wanted the pleasure of writing, the creative part. I wanted to share that with someone. That was my success, my goal.

    To have to become a Patterson, King, or some other worldly figure seemed to contradict what I sought. The PBS special on J.D. Salinger showed me how bad success would be for me. I’m content to be a B list writer, without fame or fortune.

    I want nothing to do with the thieves in big publishing!

    Amazon and others have given me what I wanted. A road less traveled is my success.

  6. “I tend to believe for a new author, trad is probably the better option simply because the learning curve in publishing is so steep, that to learn it and break in while publishing yourself (while still writing, being a parent, working a job, etc.) might be more a cliff than a curve.”

    This tells me that Bob Mayer has never tried indy publishing. I’ve done both, and the paths were of about the same difficulty — and here’s the important part — if your goal is to make writing your job.

    If you don’t, if you want to publish only, indy publishing is far easier. Even if you want to write a book that would stand up against trad-pubbed writers, it’s far easier.

  7. I spent 100 hours researching self publishing before I started. Publishing my first book took 100 hours more than publishing the second. And that’s not counting the time I spent reading blogs like this one.

    So, yeah, if I’d been offered a contract 18 months ago, it would have saved me a lot of time and I wouldn’t have started researching the publishing business.

    I wouldn’t know that I need a literary lawyer, not an agent.

    I wouldn’t know that reversion clauses don’t work anymore.

    I wouldn’t know that the deep-discount royalty is not a rare case scenario.

    I wouldn’t know that the publisher can sell my rights to a sister publisher for pennies and pay me halfpennies instead of dollars.

    There are a lot of nasty surprises in the publishing business’s learning curve. I’m glad I read about it online instead of being nurtured through it after I’d signed contracts.

  8. We must have read this and similar blog excerpts at least 50 times already. They are copying from each other to have something to say on their blogs.

  9. I think Bob is a really smart guy who has made a killing in indy publishing and helped a lot of others to do the same. That said, I think he got it wrong here:

    “I tend to believe for a new author, trad is probably the better option…”

    Trad has no chance of being the better option unless a tradpub editor chooses this particular new author’s book (highly unlikely), and the author, his agent, or an IP lawyer negotiates a contract that doesn’t cripple the author’s career before it’s begun (even more unlikely), and the publishing company puts time, energy, and money to get the book in front of readers (piling unlikely on unlikely). Even 20 years ago, when I did it, getting a multi-book contract was no guarantee you wouldn’t get a blank stare and no new contract a couple of years later.

    • Exactly.
      You don’t choose to tradpub, you choose to *submit* to tradpub. If lightning strikes, then you choose to submit to their terms or go home. (They like submissive folks.)

      Once home, you can either try again or go indie.

  10. “I tend to believe for a new author, trad is probably the better option simply because the learning curve in publishing is so steep, that to learn it and break in while publishing yourself (while still writing, being a parent, working a job, etc.) might be more a cliff than a curve.”

    If I’m trying to break into an industry, as I did when I decided to turn my keyboard henpeckings into a side-income, I’m certainly not going to do so by taking my stories with hat in hand and try to get myself entrapped in a lopsided for life contract.

    Learning to source covers and editors, learning to read the markets and find advice, isn’t really that hard. It certainly beats trying to wade through the torrent of “how to query”, “networking for dummies”, or “It’s not us, it’s you: how to handle rejection” advice new authors needed to practically memorize before having a chance in the industry.

  11. Yes I agree that going trad is not a good option for a new author. Especially romance writers with all the horror stories you hear. If you want to be in this business you’re going to have to learn it no matter what if you want to be a success. You learn by doing and there are a ton of tutorials out there on the internet. I was watching one today on making covers using word. It was quite impressive even though it looked complicated.

  12. “I tend to believe for a new author, trad is probably the better option simply because the learning curve in publishing is so steep, that to learn it and break in while publishing yourself (while still writing, being a parent, working a job, etc.) might be more a cliff than a curve.”
    Not really. Yes self-publishing required to learn some extra skills, and it was a cliff, but not steep, and did it all while writing, being a parent, working a job, etc. On the other hand the Trad-publishing is a wall, like in a vertical projection, 90 degree angle and taller than the ice wall in Game of Thrones.

  13. I tend to believe for a new author, trad is probably the better option simply because the learning curve in publishing is so steep, that to learn it and break in while publishing yourself (while still writing, being a parent, working a job, etc.) might be more a cliff than a curve.

    Thousands have walked across continents, crossed unknown oceans, and come back from war.

    Stand up, look up, put one foot in front of the other, and get your a** up the cliff.

  14. I was surprised to see Bob say:
    I tend to believe for a new author, trad is probably the better option simply because the learning curve in publishing is so steep, that to learn it and break in while publishing yourself (while still writing, being a parent, working a job, etc.) might be more a cliff than a curve.

    It’s not what I would expect ay all from him. To suggest one go with a small press that has limited (3-7 year) copyright terms, good reversion terms, no non-compete clauses, you know someplace like Cool Gus – that wouldn’t have surprised me.

  15. It took me longer to learn how to write a query letter and who to send it to than it took me to learn how to publish on KDP.

    I’ve done both. Got picked up by a small press with my first book, decided to self-publish my second. The latter was a lot less to learn than the former.

    • Absolutely! Everything I’ve needed to learn to self-publish has been fun. Every time I remember I’ll never have to agonize over another query letter, it gets more fun!

  16. I’m a new author. My first two novels are coming out next year through a small press, and I have two more manuscripts I hope to self publish soon.

    I’m also a very lucky new author. When I submitted my first novel, I had no inkling of the more nefarious ways that contracts can work. It wasn’t until after accepting the contracts – after I realised I was writing at a pace far greater than my publisher could handle, after I understood the advantages of indie publishing – that I understood I may well have done serious damage to myself.

    Needless to say, I read back through my contracts in a state of anxious terror. It turned out my publisher hadn’t played any tricks; sure, there are things in there I’d change in hindsight, but the option clause wasn’t draconian, and there was no non-compete clause. (Amazingly enough, the publisher even agreed to let me limit my option clause further, *after* I’d already signed – I have no idea how common that is, but it seemed remarkable to me!)

    It was a sobering experience. It would have been devastating, at this point in my career, to learn that I was effectively locked out of self-publishing because of a particularly aggressive option/compete clause. All things being even, I would rather be free to take part in the “saturated market” of indie publishing than to forever forfeit that option. And if we’re to frame this in terms of taking risks – the risk of a failed self-publication vs the risk of a bad and binding contract – I know which one seems hairier to me.

    I can only imagine how it feels for those innocent new authors who, like me, came late to understanding these realities, but who, unlike me, had contracts that denied them their ambitions.

    • There are honorable people in publishing… but less and less each day. The BPH borg just keep on assimilating them.

    • I hope that was a learning experience. So many people don’t really take the time to read and understand (in context of the industry they’re in) what the contract says.

  17. I’m confused as to why I’m hearing so many people these days talk about how hard it is to find success as an author. Hasn’t that always been the case?

    Yes, things are opening up, but nobody said that just because hitting the ‘publish’ button was easy that success was guaranteed.

    I can’t tell you the number of emails I’ve gotten from people who want the ‘secret’ to making money as an indie author. These emails usually contain some kind of preface like “I have a job, so I don’t have much time. I just want to do things the easy way so I can make some cash and quit working to write full time.”

    If someone wants to make money, writing isn’t “the easy way”.

    • “I’m confused as to why I’m hearing so many people these days talk about how hard it is to find success as an author. Hasn’t that always been the case?”

      This always gets me as well. I’ve been studying and dreaming about publishing most of my life (a very long time), and it’s never been any secret that being a writer is a hard way to make a living.

      It’s not _impossible_ to make decent money, but it’s not likely.

      I think the dream of easy money with a writing career is largely due to people not knowing/researching the job, and the flood of books, videos and websites that promise thousands of $$$ by uploading “a Kindle book” and sitting back sipping a latte.

    • People who are looking for an easy way will never find it. But they’ll always keep looking. If it were that easy, half of America would quit their day jobs and write.

  18. Yeah, it seems like the reason he gives for new authors to go trad pub first is possibly the worst reason I’ve ever seen someone give.

    A steep learning curve? As if there’s nothing to learn and no work involved in submitting to trad pubs? As if writers don’t spend months honing their query letters, more months or years submitting to agents and then additional years submitting to editors with the possibility that it all might end up being for nothing?

    How is that less steep than either gaining a useful new skillset or hiring freelancers and a guarantee of getting your book to the public in a matter of weeks or months rather than years or never?

    Bob usually seems to be a very smart guy, but this is a serious breach in his logic.

  19. The learning curve is no steeper on self-publishing than it is on trade publishing. The minute I decided to self-publish I no longer had to devote time to:
    – perfecting an elevator pitch
    – practicing a 15 minute conference pitch
    – learning how to do any kind of pitch
    – studying how to write a good query letter
    – or a proposal
    – researching editor wants
    – researching agent wants, and being hopelessly confused at the ambiguous writing on their websites
    – learning what questions to ask of prospective agents if they showed interest
    – researching conferences
    – or going to them (not to mention the cost sink involved)
    – trying to bone up on publishing contracts
    – agent-author relations
    – editor-author relations
    – trying to keep up with changes in personnel at agents and editors
    – trying to keep up with changes in publishing contracts
    – worrying whether my agent has sent the manuscript out to plenty of editors
    – etc. etc.

    Instead I had to learn:
    – simple book covers
    – more complex book covers
    – formatting a print book, including simple typsetting
    – the KDP self-publishing platform
    – the Smashwords self-publishing platform
    – how to write back cover copy
    – how to prepare a copyright page
    – how to prepare a list of “Other works by the Author”, and to keep it up to date
    – a little more on marketing than I would have needed with a trade publisher
    – a little more on editing than I would have needed with a trade publisher.

    No, it doesn’t take more time to self-publish than to trade publish. The learning curve is equally steep with both; it just contains different items.

    • Not to mention the usefulness of the skills you learned as a self-publisher. All transferable.

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