I saw this question over on WTA, and I started to reply with a quick answer. In usual Correia fashion that turned into a 2,000 word blog post.
If you have a book in your head, and wanted to get it published – what do you do first?
What are the usual type of financial arrangements for the sale of a book? Is it a flat fee or a percentage or both?
Okay, here is the simple version.
- Write book.
- Rewrite book to make it better.
- Go pick up a copy of The Writer’s Guide from your local bookstore. TWG is a phonebook-sized compendium of all the literary agents and publishers, as well as a list of what they are looking for/representing.
- Pick the publishers/agents that will be interested in your work, and carefully following their submission guidelines, start submitting.
A note on agents. Many publishing houses will not take un-agented submissions. Before signing an agent do your homework. There are many shysters out there that will screw you. NEVER pay an agent. Agents work strictly on commission. i.e., they don’t get jack until you make a sale. Normal industry standard for an agent is 15%. If they want money up front, run.
I am unagented. There are pros and cons to doing this. Pro: I keep more money, and I’ve already got a relationship with my publisher and don’t foresee wanting to go anywhere else. (plus I’ve got a publisher with a reputation for honesty with their writers). A bad agent is worse than no agent, because a crappy one will not push your work, and will cost you lots of valuable time. If you get an agent, but you don’t feel like they are working for you, fire them. Fire them HARD.
Con: the agent’s job is to represent you. They will often get you a better deal than you can get yourself, plus they can get you better contracts or deals that you wouldn’t be able to get on your own. (like foreign language sales, that kind of thing). Many of my friends have agents. We’ve had this discussion amongst ourselves a few times. They also help you with the business end of writing. (but me being an accountant, wasn’t too worried about that… more about paying your taxes later)
Agents are difficult to get. You will be rejected by the vast majority of them. They serve as the first layer of defense against bad writing, and are the reason that many publishers don’t read unagented submissions.
5. Submit some more. You will be rejected. A lot.
There is something like a 99.9% failure rate in this business. However, just keep in mind that a big chunk of those rejections are because the manuscripts flat out suck. If you don’t suck, or care enough to practice until you don’t suck, then the main key to success is perseverance.
I was rejected by everyone and their dog. Some of them were rather nice about it. Some were jerks. Most were form letters. That’s life. Don’t let it get you down.
6. While being rejected, go write another book. You will get better with each try.
I’ve got a bunch of books coming out. People have asked me how I write so fast. It isn’t that I’m fast, it is more like I kept working on other projects the entire time I was trying to get published. So I had some backlog that all I needed to do was clean up after I started having success.
7. Oh my gosh, a publisher is interested! Now what?
There are many different publishers with many different deals. Personally, I’m not a fan of many of the tiny publishers because I’ve got quite a few friends who’ve been screwed. Then again, you might do okay.
Your contract will specify how much you get. Normally it is a percentage of cover price. (6-10%). Hard covers are usually much higher. (15%-25%) Writers aren’t going to tell you what they make because that is secret, and we’re a jealous, petty bunch. So if your contract says (for an easy example) that you get 10% of cover price, and the book is $10, then you would get $1 per book sold royalty.
Industry standard is that you get an advance against royalties. This can range anywhere from $1,000-$10,000, to one guy I know who got $280,000 for his first 3 books, to a friend of mine that got 2.5 million for a 4 book deal. There is a big variance. The bigger the publishing house, the bigger the advance usually. The advance is yours to keep. Period. You must earn the value of the advance before you begin actually getting royalties. i.e. If they give you $10,000, and you are getting $1 per book royalty, you have to sell 10,000 copies before you would see any money above and beyond your advance.
The big advance is awesome, but if you’re not living paycheck to paycheck, I wouldn’t worry too much about the size of your advance. If you get an epic advance, but then your sales choke, that publisher may have lost money on you, and then they might not buy any more books. I’d be more worried about the quality of my publishing house and how hard they’re going to work to push my book than how big my first advance was. The plus of the super huge advance is that the publisher is now heavily invested in you, and that means they are probably going to push/market you that much harder.
Publishers don’t pay like a regular paycheck. You usually get paid every 6 months, though I’ve heard of some that pay quarterly and some that pay annually. You will be a 1099. Which means DON’T FORGET TO PAY YOUR TAXES! Seriously, don’t. You’ve got to do your own personal withholdings. Many authors have never worked for themselves before they get their big break, and then a few years after their hit novel came out they are working for the IRS and living in their car. The IRS loves to audit 1099s.
Now, getting back to business. Do not expect to be able to quit your day job based upon selling one novel. Unless that book is a super big hit, you’re not going to make buckets of money. The average mid-list novel in the US sells something like only 15,000 copies in its life. If you’re making like 8% on a $7 paperback, that’s not a whole lot of cash. Normally authors will have several books out first and a new one coming every year, before they quit their day jobs.
My first two books have done really well and I’ve got 8 more under contract. I probably could quit my day job and be fine, but A. I’ve got a super awesome day job that pays good and loves me, and B. I’m an accountant and I’m too darn cheap to quit yet. (plus, if Mrs. Correia is reading this C. I can’t quit until I pay the new house off!)
Small presses are nice, but if that company has bad distribution, it sucks. I’ve got a few friends who have been absolutely shafted by their publishers, because stores can’t get their books or the chains won’t stock them. Big houses are good for distribution, but they can suck too and I’ve seen a few of my friends get mistreated by big houses. Keep in mind that this is a business like any other, and your publisher is your business associate. Personally, I think I really lucked out.
8. Nobody wants to buy my book. I’ve been rejected by everyone. I suck and am lame.
Yes. So buck up. You’ve got two possibilities. The book is not that good. Michael Jordan didn’t dunk from half court the first time he played basketball either. Learn from your mistakes, write a better book, and try again… OR let’s say that you’re super confident that the book is AWESOME and that customers will buy and love the heck out of it, and the publishing industry is just a bunch of poopy heads for not understanding your brilliance. You can always self-publish, which is how I got started…
BUT I don’t recommend it. If you are going to self publish you’ve got to be a self-promoting son of a gun. You’ve got to figure out who your market it, exactly how you are going to reach them, and then you’re going to have to work your butt off. Most self published books are badly written. Most readers know that. So you’ve got a huge handicap starting out that you’ve got to overcome. In their minds, self published = crap.
For example, I was reading some reviews of MHV over on a forum. I had just made the NYT bestseller list and a bunch of forumites were talking about how great this book was. Somebody who hadn’t heard of me went over to Wikipedia and read the entry about me there. He came back and posted “I don’t know… The Wiki says he was self-published. That’s never a good sign…” Yes. Even after selling a ton of books, getting tons of good reviews, and making the friggin’ NYT (which is like the writer’s equivalent to getting nominated for an Oscar to an actor’s career), this guy wasn’t interested because that’s how negative an impression self published works have had on him. That is what you are up against if you self publish.
9. Yay. I got a publishing contract! Puppy dogs and rainbows forever!
Nope. Once you get a publishing contract, you now need to promote the heck out of your book as much as possible. You can sit on your butt and hope that it becomes the Oprah book of the month and that your publisher will do all that hard marketing stuff, but that might/probably won’t happen.
You need to market yourself. You need to get fans. Be cool to them. If they really like you, they’ll tell their friends. There are many writers with far more literary skill than me, that sell a lot less books. (on the other hand there are some really terrible writers that sleep on giant piles of money, so go figure) For networking, I love the internet. It lets me interact with people all over. I love blogging, but then again I’ve got a gregarious personality. I love you guys.
On the other hand, if you hate people and have a lot of dreams involving clock towers and high powered rifles, then you probably don’t want that public interaction because then the word of mouth about you will be about what a jerk-psycho you are. And yes, I know a few authors like that too.
10. Write more books.
You don’t want to be that guy who wrote one or two absolutely brilliant books and then faded into obscurity. Writing is work. It is a job. You have to keep at it. Even once you’ve had some success, you’ve still got to keep it up.
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