Random crumbly bits of author stuff

In no particular order. Your mileage may vary.

1) If you’re wondering about going indie, consider your lifetime fiction output. General rule of thumb — from a man I trust to know his business — is that “entry level” competency is reached when you have at least 500,000 words of books and stories in your trunk, and/or have several personalized rejections from trad pub editors. Prior to that, you may not have done enough “homework” to have your storytelling muscles up to the task of surviving in the indie marketplace. I know plenty of people immediately publish everything they’ve ever written, ever. I sometimes think that’s a mistake. I know I will get beat up for saying this.

2) If you’re wondering about going trad, consider your ability to withstand rejection. How long are you willing to wait for the editors/agents to decide you’re good enough? Keep in mind: waiting is not necessarily a bad thing. In my experience, breaking into trad pub print was one of the most satisfying events of my life. But I am from the old days, when the two options for authors were: outlast the gatekeepers, or shame yourself with vanity print. Anyone who has been through any kind of selection process — in any arena — will understand the joy of passing a tough bar. Just because it’s tough, doesn’t make it irrelevant. Although the tastes of many agents and editors can often seem wildly out of sync with the marketplace.

3) Editors and agents are not mind-readers. They cannot see into the future. There is no guarantee what will be a hit, or a dud, until it’s either a hit, or a dud. Some agents and editors develop reputations for “making” big-market talent, but this is akin to panning for gold: you have to devote a lot of time to sifting through silt, sand, and mud, just to get the little flecks and small nuggets of gold. In the words of one Hollywood producer, nobody knows anything. Ergo, the hits and the duds happen as they happen — and the one who ought to be a hit, isn’t, while the one who ought to be a dud, also isn’t. “Failure” in trad pub may have nothing whatsoever to do with the author or the stor(ies) and everything to do with events beyond an author’s control. Which is perhaps the #1 glaring flaw of trad pub that drives so many people to indie in the first place.

4) But indie isn’t an instant road to cash and fame, because now the slush pile is the whole world. Millions upon millions of books and stories being shoved at the audience, with fire-hose force. Standing out in that torrent, can be just as much of a chore as waiting in line at the gatekeepers’ transoms. You aren’t guaranteed anything. No matter how zealous you may be about the mode of delivery. Yes, indie grants the author full and total control, from start to finish. As well as the lion’s share of the take. But this also imposes the lion’s share of the responsibility. And if you thought it was painful waiting on editors and agents, it can be equally painful waiting on the audience at large. If you publish an indie book in the forest . . .

5) Don’t go cheap on covers. I know I am cutting against the grain with this. But seriously, don’t go cheap on covers. You want your cover to look like the trad pub covers that caught your eye when you were just a reader. Most artists will license an extant piece of artwork. May cost you anywhere from $200 to $500 dollars, which is stunningly inexpensive, considering that some of these men and women have done posters for Hollywood and done famous works which are known across the industry. I know many indie authors are poor as church mice, but still, don’t go cheap on your covers. You have a vanishingly short period of time in which to capture a prospective buyer’s attention. Pouring your heart and soul into a manuscript, then spending an hour on a free, terrible cover that you kludged yourself — with poor photoshop skills — is like devoting months of hard work to your diet and the weights at the gym, then going to the beach in dingy, grease-covered auto shop coveralls.

6) You can do everything right — according to the pattern established by your successful friend(s) — and still get bupkus. This is because the market is not a science. 1 + 2 does not necessary equal 3. It can equal 10,000 or it can equal zero. Consumers are legion, but they are fickle. They want a “sure thing” and herd dynamics dominate in every corner. Mountains of marketing advice is put forth, regarding ways to “game” the herd dynamic: get your product viral, so that the inertia of talk is on your side. When people are buzzing over your novel, especially if this buzz tends to self-reinforce as buzz-about-the-buzz, you can rake in wads. But there are still no guarantees. Like fishing. You can have the same type and kind of lure as your buddy next to you in the boat, with the same rod, same reel, same everything, and he will catch a dozen, while you reel in just one or two. Or none. And you have to be prepared to live with this. Pick yourself up off the hot pavement. Go wash your face and your hands. Then try again. And again. And again. And if this sounds way too hard for way too little return, there are 101 careers which serve as far easier paths to far better money.

7) So don’t quit your damned day job. Seriously. Do. Not. Quit. Your. Day. Job. It sucks trying to write full-time and work full-time. It sucks more not paying bills and being forced out of your house or your apartment. It sucks even more depending on the good will of your relatives, or your church, or government programs. If I had $10 for every embarrassed pauper author who proudly proclaimed, “I am a full-time writer, so fuck you,” and then (s)he went back to begging for lunch money, I wouldn’t have to work anymore. Starving artistry is not a holy calling. Really, it’s not. I know I am gonna get burned at the stake for saying it. But seriously, do not check out of the “mundane” work force. Not unless you’ve got a metric ton of dough in the bank, or you’ve got a spouse who eagerly volunteers to carry the mundane load — while you labor at the desk in the attic. But if you’ve got responsibilities to meet, and mouths to feed, please, meet them and feed them. As Steven Barnes said at Norwescon ’07, suffering for your art may be noble, but making your family suffer for your art, just means you’re an asshole.

32 Comments

Filed under BRAD R. TORGERSEN, WRITING: ART, WRITING: CRAFT, WRITING: LIFE, WRITING: PUBLISHING

32 responses to “Random crumbly bits of author stuff

  1. I may have been a bit scosh on the 500,000 word count before I went indy – but I did have several personal and regretful rejections from several agents and a couple of editors, so there is that.
    Sigh. I just fielded an email from a local writer, asking if I could advise him on a publisher for his magnum opus, of which he sent me a couple of samples. (Which I thought were pretty good, BTW.) I offered to help him set up as an indy publisher. Oopsy – he seems to be one of those who craves the validation of distant Trad Pub, and going indy at your own expense is a Dire Insult. I think it is more to the point to crave validation by your readers, but that’s just me. YMMV.

  2. kaflick

    I have finally written a book that I think is good enough to publish. For how long I have been writing (on and off, but mostly off – raising kids and starting my own company) my first book was about a boy who goes to wizard school and it was before that English lady’s book. 🙂

    I have done 3-4 books (depending on how you count them) that my family and friends think were good enough but this is the first one that I think is good enough. I have already started on the following book. Do you think it would be better to publish the first one and then bring the other out in six months or so -or- publish them both in six months or so?

    Not that I’m likely to wait, I’m too impatient. I’m curious about other people’s opinions on the marketplace.

    It is an adult fantasy adventure (too much sex and violence for a kids book) if that makes a difference.

    Thank you for the ‘Navigating from Writing to Publication’ series. It has been a tremendous help to me.

    • I would suggest a break between publishing the two books, but I would also suggest a delay of a bit of time before you publish the first, for the simple reason that a bit of distance may give you the chance to notice the one thing that you really want to change. (It doesn’t have to be a lot, and you can spend that time working on the cover etc. as well as the sequel. Just enough that the rush of finishing has dissipated and you can look things over with a fresh eye.)

  3. All very good points. My perspective, as someone who was trad-published in a relatively small field (tabletop games) before going indie:

    1) Definitely true. Practice makes, if not perfect, then at least less crappy. Not to mention that it’s nice to have something to write about. People often say writing isn’t a young person’s game, and I tend to agree. I was writing stuff since before my teens, but between the lack of life experiences and beginner’s skill level guaranteed craptastic results.

    2) Time is a huge factor, and nowadays comes with opportunity costs. My first novel made about $3,000 on its first year, and about the same on the second. If I’d spent two years trying to market it without results, I’d have been out $6K. Even if I’d gotten a contract on year two, I would have been lucky to get a $5,000 advance (split over three installments spanning at least another year). Of course, there were no guarantees the novel would have made that much. But it’s something to consider.

    3) Complete agreement. There are no surefire hits. Most publishers chase trends; they don’t set them, because nobody knows how to do that (at least, not reliably).

    4) Sad but very true. I believe 2010-202? (not sure how much longer this will last) will be remembered as the best time to be a genre fiction writer in history. That still leaves 99.9% of writers out in the cold. It’s not easy to make it in the business, and anybody who claims otherwise is probably trying to sell you something.

    5) I’ve run the whole gamut from DIY (with horrible results for the most part), to spending $300-500 per cover. Amusingly enough, though, my best-selling series has relied on premade covers for under $100 apiece. In some genres, more $$ isn’t going to generate more results. My next series is in a tougher genre, though, so I’m planning to splurge a little. But covers definitely need to be competitive. If your thumbnail looks crappy on a webpage, most readers will never click on it.

    6) It’s the flipside of #3. Just as trad pub doesn’t know what will do great, neither do we. If you hit every trope in certain sub-genres, you could do okay, but you’ll be competing with dozens of other equally competent writers. My best-written novel (IMHO), has been my poorest seller.

    7) This. Writing for a living is a chancy thing at best. Before I embarked on this little journey, I cut my expenses to the bone (helps to be divorced with no kids), and I still had another business on the side that paid all my bills. Now that business is a hobby and I write for a living. But I wouldn’t want my kids to have to depend on that income, because there’s no way to tell if I’ll make half as much this year as I did last year. Right now I’m saving as much as I can to survive a few lean years, but if I had to worry about a family, I couldn’t be doing this.

    • Covers that were less than 100 bucks? I’m sure we’d like to know who we could hire.

      Actually that’s something that would be nice, I suppose – a list of hirable artists. But then I realized that a list of hirable artists put on MGC would equal to being a hit list of artists that would be given death threats and harassment by the CHORFs, SJWs and imps, so… =/

    • TRX

      > My best-written novel (IMHO), has been my poorest seller.

      I see that comment a lot. Usually applied to a book that just made my eyes glaze over. Often applied to something quite different from the author’s usual work. Out-genre and “serious,” not like that fluff that actually sells…

      Frankly, I’ve always attributed that sort of comment as an attempt to boost the sales of a turkey.

      • Terry Sanders

        Or simply an admission of personal bias. There’s a reason editing is often referred to as “killing your little darlings.”

  4. I often wonder about people who feel like they must quit their day job in order to have time to create.

    First thought; how many hours do they work? There are sixteen hours in the workday, spend 8 to 9 at work, 1 to 2 on commuting, an hour on eating and making supper, at the high end you’d still have four hours free. Even resting for half of that gets you a couple of hours. Add in the weekends and there’s a solid ten to twenty hours a week available even with a full time job.

    Second thought; if the reason you can’t write during workdays is because of working a lot of overtime how in the world do you think you can survive without a job? You need the overtime? Obviously you need the money. So you need your writing income to replace your job, your overtime, your benefits, your pension. That’s a big ask. Not saying someone can’t do that right out the gate but it seems rare and unlikely.

    Third thought; if you have a dearth of creativity while working a full-time job, what makes you think your creativity will recover without a full-time job? It could be the well has dried up, it happens, or it could be you never had much creativity in the first place (I’ve seen many people trained as writers, who want to be writers, who don’t have the right kind of creativity, and are more in love with the idea of writing and being a writer than in telling their stories). Leaving your work to recover your creativity is not just leaping without a net, that’s leaping without a net, without a rope, with your eyes closed, with no idea how far away the ground is, with both arms tied behind your back, while declaring you’re Superman and can fly when you’re not even Willy Loman.

    Fourth thought; I’ve known a bunch of people who quit their jobs to make a go of it (artistically), and some have succeeded and some haven’t. But one thing all the less successful have in common? A lack of work. Both in the sense of a lack of effort, and in the lack of production. They have sixteen hours a day to work on their Art (and this kind of person always capitalizes that word), 112 hours a week, nearly 6000 hours a year, and yet produce not much of anything. Often while complaining about the government not paying them for their Art and existence. And also often while being subsidized for their existence by the government.

    • BobtheRegisterredFool

      Re: Dearth of creativity.

      I’m somewhat familiar with ill or lack of sleep sapping creativity. If a madman shouting in your ear or whatever means you need an absurd amount of time to recover, and you never get that time, your creativity might as well not exist. Chase a practical means of improving your life. If the problem is stress, health, or not managing your time, fixing that as a primary goal will fix the creativity.

      I’m fairly certain that creativity is something you train by studying prior art and that art’s techniques. If the time you put into advanced work goes nowhere, it may be that you should be studying the basics instead.

    • Re. time available.

      Based on the requirements of Day Job, I have three-four serious writing hours Mon-Fri, with more time on weekends IF I don’t have family activities. I can get up to 6000 words written in that time, although I average 3000 words. In six weeks, Life permitting, I can get a novel done. It will need revisions, polishing, and edits, but the basic lump-o-verbiage is done. It’s discipline and determination to get things done in whatever time I have available. It’s not always easy. I trained myself to lock down and focus during those hours.

    • Christopher M. Chupik

      Oh yeah. I’m often using the trip to and from work to do story planning. Lets me plunge right into it at home.

    • Mary

      One may have to switch jobs if the day job is too close to creative writing.

      But taking a break from trying to write is more likely to restart my creativity than taking a break from work.

      • It’s very hard for me to do art when I’m working at the photography studio for that reason. The work I do there taps the same well the art comes from.

        (Admittedly, I’m not doing art right now, but that’s a medical issue and we may actually have a reasonably easy fix for it. I will be happy to stop being exhausted…)

    • Draven

      an hour to make and eat dinner?

      pff.

    • “… if you have a dearth of creativity while working a full-time job, what makes you think your creativity will recover without a full-time job.”

      I think a lot of authors underestimate the importance of this. I quit the day job to go full time as a writer/ publisher at the start of 2011. Six years later and I still find the hardest part of the job is sticking my butt in the chair and getting my head in the right place to deliver the work I need to do that day. Having much more time in the day for writing and publishing adds high-octane fuel to the procrastination engine, so I’m not surprised to hear your experience of full-time writers who lack the mental discipline to deliver. It’s not easy. Even Chris Nuttall says he has to break for a cup of tea sometimes. Personally, I find the best approach is to mimic the traditional rhythm of ‘going to work’ by taking the 7am bus into the nearest town and working in coffee shops and libraries.

  5. 1. Here lies the conundrum of knowing when what you write is good enough to sell. This was the selling point of an editor who was – maybe still is – a true believer in traditional publication. The problem is addressed in 2.

    2. Just because it’s hard to break into traditional publication does not mean it’s relevant. The TP true believer would gush at the value of gate keeper to make sure what you wrote is good enough for publication. Except a good bit that comes out of TP these days is of the “They bought that?” variety.

    Ironically, I once believed in gate keepers. But that was when I thought gate keepers were doing their job.

    3. I wish editors and publishers grasped this fact. More to the point, I wish they grasped that just because they demand that the public like certain things (see “They bought that?” above) does not mean the public will care one whit.

    4. This point should be filed with Captain Obvious, but unfortunately some seem to think it’s a road paved with gold, so Captain Obvious should trot out the truth on a regular basis.

    5. When the opening ante in a poker game is $200, you know you’re at the wrong table. Ditto when someone calls $200 cheap. That may be perfectly true, but be that as it may, many of us doesn’t have that much to gamble. I agree that making a descent cover is hard, and if you look at my stuff you’ll see how I know. My first was a case of the blind hog finding an acorn, and I know I need to redo those designs. Yet $200 at a minimum is still too high for many of us.

    No, I don’t have a solution. See my covers as a good example of that. For a yet to be released book, I spent a least two weeks of evenings using my old school drafting skills to craft a 2D representation of an imaginary 3D object that, in turn, has other imaginary 3D objects on it’s imaginary surface. It should be passable, but even it it’s not, it’s the best I can afford and the best I can do.

    6. Another point Captain Obvious should trot out on a regular basis. This one is more insidious than 4 because when you go indie you have no one to blame but yourself for failure. Therefore, there’s the inclination to blame all failure on what you did and didn’t do, and overlook shear luck.

    7. Captain Obvious should recite this one several times a day. It’s actually something related to any small business and not just writing or indie. Writing and indie are actually better in that you don’t have to quit your day job to follow your dream, so failure shouldn’t mean financial disaster.

  6. paladin3001

    Thanks for the cold splash of reality. Everyone is looking to grab that brass ring hoping that it’s actually gold. Some people talk about the rosy dawn when they can become that writer. Then there’s reality. It’s a real bitch if you don’t prepare for it in your plans of career choice.

  7. Christopher M. Chupik

    Yes, unless you have some skill in graphic design, you might do well to get someone else to make your cover for you.

    This site has good advice, as well as some cautionary examples of how to fail:

    http://lousybookcovers.com/

    • TRX

      > Fifty-one Percent

      I had to learn to write cursive, but I never had to learn to read it. The title and author name might as well be in Arabic. I did note the author’s last name is a single letter, whichis almost always a “don’t even bother” signal

      > The Step Children

      Maybe a little clip-arty, but as far as I’m concerned, well within the normal limits of professionally-published covers I might find at a bookstore.

      > The Immortal

      I don’t see anything wrong with that one at all, except the author’s name is in worm.

      > Minding Benji

      Nasssty clip-artses. Nonono. On the other hand. the arrangement of elements looks just fine.

      > Daddy’s Bedtime Stories

      That reminds me of the homemade books you find for sale at state fairs and gun shows, usually about local history, crafts, or nutball politics. It’s ugly, but it’s so common it probably counts as a style all its own. Unfortunately, based on past experience, what it’s saying to me is “contents not of interest, move along.”

      > Desolation of Voronor

      There are other words, but that’s all I can make out. Yes, I’m color blind, but printing color on color like that means it looks like the parts I can’t see on one of those dots-of-color tests. The rest of the cover looks like someone swallowed some paint and threw it up.

      > Codes of [something]

      Another color fail. And ugly overall. And I think the author forgot a period in one of his middle names.

      > Stick Your Neighbor

      A nothing-burger, but representative of the modern “thumbnail” style.

      This is fun, I could bore you guys for ages…

      I still maintain that “good” cover art is what the casual shopper expects. It’s the default; it gets lost in the noise.

      Every now and then you might be able to come out with something that will cause a buyer to pick something up just to look at your artwork, but that person isn’t necessarily going to *buy* your book. You probably just snagged an art admirer, not a book reader.

      What’s the object of the cover? No, really?

      It’s to get someone to pick the book up, flip it over to the other side, and read the blurb on the back. *That* is where you sell the book. I’ll buy a book on the blurb, but I’ve never bought a book due to its cover. What am I going to do with a cover? Rip it off and thumbtack it to the wall so I can admire it? You probably put lettering all over the picture and ruined it anyway.

      • I’m an artist (the fact that I have a book published is one of those weird things, sort of a side effect of being a reader well past “avid” and into “rabid.”) There’s a WHOLE lot of wrong with the clip art stuff, primarily in that it doesn’t fit together as a unified whole, but pretty much every font choice in the examples I saw was a bad call.

        The basic rule of a good cover is this: Look at the decent sellers (not the best) in the genre that you’re writing. Preferably the most professional-looking covers, whether trad pub or indy. And recent, because cover art styles change (I can reasonably place a publication date by the art and font choice for fantasy, and sometimes for science fiction.) Then do something that looks similar without ripping them off. And even broke people can solicit advice for free—I’ll gladly tell anyone how to change their color choice or font style so as to improve the overall effect.

  8. Luke

    I wholeheartedly endorse #7.
    Granted, it doesn’t fully apply to me. But I’m very much looking forward to the school year starting this week, so I can actually have some consistent time to write. (I think. My plans gang aft agley.)

  9. I have to second the advice on covers, and add that it goes triple if you’re writing for a youth market.

    Or to put it another way, even trad pup screws this up, creating well-crafted professional looking cover art that (for example) screams “this is a book for 7 year olds” or “this is a gooshy romance” on an action title for 12 year olds. Oops.

    Indy books are often a very hard sell to young readers, even when you have a lot of trust built up from past good recommendations. You make your pitch, the kids seems interested, they take one look at the cover, and go find something else to read.

    • TRX

      In the publishing industry artists rank above authors. Asimov, Silverberg, and others have written about how they were assigned to write stories based on art a magazine editor bought. I recently came across this from Jack Vance:

      “One evening at the home of Poul Anderson [Cele Goldsmith] produced a set of cover illustrations which she had bought by the dozen for reasons of economy, and asked those present to formulate stories based upon them. Poul rather gingerly accepted a cover whose subject I forget. Frank Herbert was assigned the representation of a human head, with a cutaway revealing an inferno of hellfire,
      [snippage]
      Still, no matter how illogical the illustration, I felt that I must justify each detail by one means or another. After considerable toil I succeeded, with enormous gratitude that I had not been selected to write about the cutaway head which had been the lot of Frank Herbert.”

  10. Alan

    ” I know plenty of people immediately publish everything they’ve ever written, ever. I sometimes think that’s a mistake….” – Yeah. From this reader’s viewpoint, reputation is a very big part of marketing.
    IOW, if I’ve tried your most amateurish attempts in the past, I will have come to a conclusion about the risk of trying your perhaps-better-written offerings in the future.
    The other way around, however — once I’ve read your best, your earlier stuff won’t put me off (or at least not much), because I know where you’re going.