Non-writers, we love you. We really do. We love how badly you want us to succeed, how badly you want to give us advice, and the incredible amount of support you give with your words and wallets. You are amazing. And when you try to make suggestions as to how we should go about publishing our books, it’s not you we’re frustrated at, exactly. We know that writing looks easy; it’s something we’ve all had to do in school a zillion times. And we know we’re not all getting paid for it yet, and that makes it look like it’s just this fun little thing we do to pass the time or indulge our insanity, and yes, it is that too.
But here’s the thing: it’s hard work. It’s time-consuming. It’s soul-sucking. And it’s so, so much more than you think it is. It’s something that requires a lot more effort than just putting words down on a page, and yes, we know we don’t always do a great job at making you understand just how much, or why. But I’m going to try, because we want you to get it, and because there are just some things we writers never, ever want to hear again.
So here are a few things to learn about our weird, wild world – I hope this helps bridge the gap even a little!
Getting a book published is not as simple as writing it. Let’s put aside for a second that whole “writing is hard” thing. What we do is not simply write down words and then give them to a publisher and say “Put this brilliance in a book!” Here’s what actually happens, in a nutshell, during the process of getting a book published.
1) Write a first draft, which is likely anywhere between 50,000 and 100,000 words. Yes, I know you’re thinking “How many pages is that?” because that’s what every single one of you asks when I give you a word count, and the answer is that I don’t know but assume 250 words a page. Bear in mind that on top of being “good,” this manuscript also has to be A) something that’s considered marketable right now, and B) different from what’s already out there, which is why we need to talk about books and read them so freaking much.
2) Revise it. Again, this is not just a matter of sitting down and making some changes. We send our manuscripts around to other people who give us suggestions and sometimes tear them apart, and we take that criticism and use it to make our books the best they can be. Of course, to even do this you have to find people willing to do this for you, which is an endeavor in itself. Ever wonder why the hell we spend so much time online talking to other writers? One huge reason is because they do things like this for us. And we do the same for them. So yeah, not only are we writing our own stuff, but a lot of times we’re reading other people’s stuff and making editorial suggestions for them at the same time. (Note: Doing this for someone is called beta reading. When you beta read for each other, especially if it’s something you do regularly or before a manuscript is even done, you are each other’s critique partners, also commonly referred to as CPs.)
3) When it’s finally done, after multiple rounds of this, which have probably taken months, we then write query letters. Query letters essentially read like the back of a book and they’re what we send to agents, often along with pages from our manuscripts, in order to get them interested in representing us. Writing a letter that encompasses your book in about 250 words is hard. So’s constantly getting rejection or even silence in response. Querying is an incredibly difficult thing that requires a writer to put him or herself out there really, really often. This also often involves revising, whether of a query letter or the manuscript itself, depending on feedback. So why do we do this? Because you cannot get published at a traditional publishing house without an agent. We cannot send our manuscripts to Random House by ourselves. That isn’t how it works, even if you “know somebody.” So please stop suggesting we try doing this without agents unless we specifically want to.
4) Should you be lucky and skilled enough to get an agent, there may be even more revision, and then your agent sends your manuscript to editors at publishing houses. This is called going on submission, or simply sub. It too is incredibly emotionally draining, but that’s how it works. Even if you know somebody, it can only take you so far; the decision to buy a manuscript does not belong solely to one person.
Now, let’s say that after all that, you sell a book. Yay! That is freaking awesome. If someone in your life sells a book, buy them a freaking bottle of champagne, because that is a massive achievement, in case you couldn’t tell. But also know this:
- From the time a book is actually contracted until it is published, it will often be somewhere between 12-18 months. That is standard. The time goes to things like having a book edited, copy edited, and proofread; having the cover designed and cover copy written; and a million other things. An author will not have a brand-new book to put in your hands a month later. Ever.
- Advances are not paid all at once; they are paid out over time. Also, agents get 15% of it (and they deserve it). So if you think someone who just got a book deal is seriously rolling in “easy money,” that is not the case. Ever.
- Writers do not get unlimited supplies of their own books. There is a number of complimentary copies written into the contract, and that’s what they get. They then often need to use some of those for promotional purposes, such as giveaways. Being a friend of the writer does not entitle you to a free book. Go buy the thing. It’s sort of the point.
And now here are some realities of the evolving world of publishing:
Self-publishing is not easy. I cannot express this enough. You cannot simply take your Word Document, put it up on Amazon, and call it a book. Can anyone do it? Technically yes. Can anyone do it well? Hell no. Self-publishing a book still means writing and editing, but when done right, is also means finding your own editor, copy editor, formatter, cover designer, and maybe even publicist and still adhering to the same sorts of work and deadlines as traditionally published authors. So on top of everything else, you have to find the right vendors and then you have the responsibility of doing the publicity and marketing that’ll make your book sell. So no, “just self-publish” doesn’t mean what you think it means.
Not every publisher pays advances. There are two main ways to get paid through writing books. One is called an “advance,” and it’s money a publisher pays you upfront and then in increments at designated times, e.g. half on signing and half when your book is published. The other is called “royalties,” and it’s the percentage per book an author earns for each sale. If you get an advance, you do not see money from royalties until your sales have earned out the amount of your advance. The higher your advance, the harder this is to do. The lower the advance, the more dependent on sales you are to see anything at all. The possibility you won’t see much cash at all for your book? Unfortunately likely. So when you say you’ll try writing to make some cash on the side? This and everything else in this post is why we grit our teeth at you in response.
And finally, thanks, but we have our own ideas. We love that you respect our skills and passion enough that you think we can do better justice to one of your ideas than you can. But nothing is more frustrating than having someone say to you, “I have this great idea, you should write it.” Thank you, but actually the way our brains work is that we come up with our own. That’s a huge part of why we’re writers in the first place – we have visions we want to put on paper. Our visions. With our characters. That’s the joy. But may we suggest that you try writing your own? You might find you actually like it here in the madhouse almost as much as we do!