Yes, that’s an ambitious title for a blog post. It might even be seen as egotistical (it feels egotistical to me). But I recently did an anniversary AMA on Reddit, and this question came up over and over again: “What advice would you give an author just starting out?” It was too big of a question to answer during the AMA (over 700 comments!), so I promised a blog post.
I’ll start by knocking the ego right out of the lungs of this thing and say that what works for one author may not work for another. I’ll also say that this is a massive topic and could easily lead to me writing a book. Not that I will. For both of these reasons, this blog post is going to ramble and often contradict itself. Such is my nature and the nature of the topic.
First off: If you want to become a writer in order to be rich and famous like me, that’s a bad idea. It isn’t why I started writing, and it isn’t why you should start writing. You should write because you love it. But I imagine you’ll want an audience (what artist doesn’t?) And so my advice is geared toward helping authors get to the end of their manuscript, polish it to perfection, and then gain the widest readership possible. This is the best you can hope for. I think it’s possible for every writer who gives it their all.
To begin with, you need to write. This seems axiomatic because it is. The only way to amass a pile of words into a book is to shovel some every single day. No days off. You have to form this habit; without it you are screwed. I’m going to assume everyone who keeps reading already has this down. If you don’t — you won’t make it. My best advice on how to form this habit is twofold: Get comfortable staring at a blank screen and not writing. This is a skill. If you can not write and avoid filling that time with distractions, you’ll get to the point where you start writing. Open your manuscript and just be with it.
Secondly, learn to write rough. Stop caring about spelling and sentence fragments and plot holes and grammar. Get the story down. Listen to the dialog and try to keep up with your fingers. Get to the end of your manuscript and THEN worry about the quality. If you can master the art of powering through to the end of your story, you are on your way.
When I finished my first novel, I was on a complete high. This is when you think your book is the shit and you wonder why Oprah hasn’t called. You’re gonna be rich!
This feeling lasted a few days. That’s when I started writing my next work. My father at the time wondered why I wasn’t spending all of my time promoting that first book. I told him I had my entire life to promote my works. I only had now to write. I stuck to that principle for years, writing and publishing several novels or short stories a year. I wrote a variety of genres and with a slew of styles and voices. 1st person, 3rd person, fiction, horror, sci-fi, novelettes, short stories. I also read a wide variety of works, but hardly ever in my genres. I read literary fiction and history, non-fiction and science. I try to read the newspaper every day.
My father now agrees with this approach and sees the value of having a dozen titles available. This is going to sound strange, but you are MUCH better off with your 10th work exploding than your 1st work. You’ll never have quiet time to crank out quality material ever again. And when your backlist matches the growth of your first breakout, you’ll do very well for yourself. Be patient. It’s been said by many others, but I’ll repeat it here: self-publishing is a marathon, not a sprint.
Now would be a good time to explain the advantages of self-publishing over traditional publishing. When writers ask for advice, they are often asking how they should proceed with their completed manuscript. I’m going to explain why every author should begin their writing career self-publishing, even if their dream is to be with a large publisher. There’s a lot to say. Bear with me.
Your manuscript won’t change. This is the biggest logical fallacy I see in the self vs. trad debate. The idea seems to be that if you self-publish, somehow your work drops in quality. It’s the same work. The words won’t change because of perceived association with what else is out there. Querying an agent won’t make your manuscript better. Self-publishing won’t make it worse. It’s either a story that appeals to readers or it isn’t.
Know your gatekeepers. Appealing to readers is the endgame. They want story over prose, so concentrate on that (aim for both, but concentrate on story). Agents and slush-pile readers are often the opposite, which is why they bemoan the absence of literary fiction hits and cringe at the sale of Twilight, Dan Brown, and 50 Shades. You are writing for the reader, who is your ultimate gatekeeper. Get your work in front of them, even if it’s one at a time, one reader a month or year.
Publish Forever. Working at a bookstore was a dream job but also a sad job. I saw how books sat spine-out on a shelf for six months, were returned, went out of print. That’s a narrow window in which to be discovered. If you self-publish, you will have the rest of your life (and your heirs’ lives) to make it. Your print-on-demand books will always be available. Your e-books will always be available. You can keep writing and promote later. You are building your backlist. Think about this for a moment: The self-pubbing revolution is in its infancy. The people writing and publishing today have had no time to be discovered. It’s a marathon.
Own your work. The chances of a book blowing up are slim whichever way you go. I would say the chances are minimally the same, and the odds may now be tilting in favor of self-published works. If you blow up, do you want to own your rights or have someone else own them? Do you want to be making 12.5% or 70%? Remember, the chances are that you’ll never have a mega-hit. Traditional publishing will not increase those odds. With the 6-month window, I’d say the odds are 1/100th what your work might do in 50 years self-published.
You are the Publicist. The reason you won’t blow up just because you got a traditional contract is that nobody will promote you. The first thing your publisher will explain is the need to form an author platform (I’d be shocked if anyone still gets publishing deals without already having a robust one). Houses have too many authors to promote all of them. They choose a select handful based on the excitement around a debut manuscript (rare) or the perennial bestsellers (more likely, but still rare). If you want to earn a living as a writer, which I’m assuming the people asking for my advice are, you are going to have to be more than a writer. You will be an entrepreneur and a publicist. Or you won’t make it.
Know the industry. I know things about publishing that my publishers don’t. Not everything. And I don’t know more than them (I learn from them every day). But by being a self-published author, I come into traditional publishing armed with experience that they don’t have. I understand algorithms and Amazon categories. I understand the importance of metadata. While at Digital Book World in January, I listened to publishing execs and marketing specialists speak excitedly about what we’ve been posting on Kindle Boards for over a year. I know what media mentions drive sales and which ones are merely for show, partly because I have realtime data that publishers don’t have. Partly because I don’t have biases from a media age that has long passed by. You want to be a writer for the art of it? Forget the industry. You want to earn a living? Study it.
I’m not the story. I’ve been hammering this point over and over, and people are finally starting to listen. The outliers are not the self-publishing story. It’s the midlisters. I’m begging Amazon to release a different set of stats than the ones currently bandied about. They advertise how many bestsellers and blockbusters they have. I’m dying to know how many people are making $100 a month, $300 a month, $500 a month. I wager there are thousands and thousands of writers making $1,000 a month. That’s the real story, not me. Stay tuned.
Be a pro. The writers who take this seriously are the ones making money. They do all the things above, but they do something more. They approach this like a little more than a hobby. It’s a second job, one that you can love and work hard at at the same time. Pros read up on grammar. They read books with an eye to what works and what doesn’t. They commune online at places like KindleBoard’s Writers’ Cafe. They set goals for how much they’ll publish in a year. Five years from now, these pros will have 10-20 works available. They only need to sell 250 – 500 books a month to earn a supplemental income. Ten books a day across twenty titles. That’s the longterm goal.
Network and be nice. I can’t stress this enough. Just being around other writers will inspire you to be a better writer. Join a writing group (in person is better. online if you must). Go to writing conferences. Go to writing camps. Take classes at your local university or community college. Join a forum or two. Participate in NaNoWriMo. And be nice to your fellow writer. Making it as an author isn’t easy. The last thing we need to do is make it harder on each other.
You are a start-up. I just participated in SXSW Interactive in Austin, a place where everyone is looking to start up the next great business. The next great business is you. I laugh when people bemoan the idea of spending $2,000 to self-publish a book. Personally, I didn’t spend a penny until I was already earning enough to quit my day job. But I don’t recommend this for everyone. Invest in your book with editing and great cover art. There are two ways to think about these expenses, and both methods make the costs seem trivial. In one, you are engaging in a hobby far cheaper than just about any other. Your neighbor will buy a camera, parachute, gaming PC, scuba gear that costs more than your book. Will their hobby ever make them a penny? Yours will.
The other way to look at it is from a business perspective. Name me another business you can start up with a total cost of two grand that will guarantee at least some earnings (your mom’s gonna buy a copy, right?) You are creating a product that never rots, never rusts, never expires. It is distributed worldwide by the largest retailer in the mulitverse. You control the price. Shipping is free and immediate. You can market it forever. Your margin is 70%. You’ll never need to write it again or spend another penny on it. For Pete’s sake, can it get any better?
The stigma is gone. Self-publishing is the beginning. For many, it will be the end. The moment the stigma disappeared among traditional publishers (i.e. they began signing already-published books to major deals) it meant the top-down approach to publishing flipped upside down. Think about it. Self-publishing used to mean the death of a book. Now, traditional publishing is the more likely death of a book. This is possibly the most important thing I’ll ever explain. Follow along.
The vast majority of books traditionally published never earn out their advance. They go out of print. They are now dead. This never happens to a self-published work. It can only go up, either in sales or by being picked up in a deal that you choose. The top-down approach is one where you leave options open. Self-publishing leaves all options open (it didn’t used to). Traditional publishing leaves almost no options open (this hasn’t changed). The day self-published bestsellers were mined for traditional deals, everything changed. Don’t trust people with old information who tell you otherwise. Those with the most experience in this business often have the worst advice. That’s not always true, of course, but the two do not correlate. Beware those who think they do.
More obvious advantages. Self-publishing pays 70% royalties for the rest of your life. Traditional publishing pays 12.5% for six months (how long you’ll be shelved or weakly promoted). Self-publishing pays monthly. Traditional publishing pays twice a year and after quite a bit of initial delay. If you own your material, you can give it away, a huge advantage in building readership. Traditional publishers won’t do this for fear of competing with their other products (other authors). It’s also why they won’t promote you beyond that six month window. You are now their competition. You don’t want that.
Again, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t team up with a publisher if you choose. But do it from a postion of power. Give your work a chance (years and decades) to be discovered. Enjoy a trickle of earnings in the meantime (how many hobbies are free to engage in and buy you a coffee now and then?) Publishers aren’t the enemy; their contracts are. I don’t want publishers to go away. I don’t see them as the enemy. They do some wonderful things, and I love the people I’ve met in the industry. Love them. But their contracts suck because there has never been a reason for them not to suck. That reason has sprouted in the past two years. That’s how young all of this is, how new. We are winning small victories over non-compete clauses. Scalzi recently beat back a Random House imprint and made some change. Bella Andre got a print-only deal from Harlequin. Colleen Hoover got the same deal as me from S&S. Real change is happening, which will alter this debate once again. That’s a great thing.
To sum up: The key to making it as a writer is to write a lot, write great stories, publish them yourself, spend more time writing, study the industry, act like a pro, network, be nice, invest in yourself and your craft, and be patient. If you can do all of these things, you’ll earn some money. Maybe enough to pay a bill every month. Maybe enough to get out of debt. Maybe enough to quit your job. Thousands of writers are doing this, and we are welcoming all comers with open arms.
(This is a published rough draft of my advice. I’m writing this on very little sleep, without giving it a second glance, and while on an exhausting book tour. I’ll revisit it and update it over time. Please comment with suggestions or advice.)