The Truths You Don't Want to Hear About Writing


It’s June 15, and I struggle along with the writing life. On the 10th, an article I wrote for Chuck Sambuchino’s blog over at Writer’s Digest, made its appearance on the site. How Writing Taught Me the Need for Patience is a brief account of the lengthy journey of getting Becoming Darkness to print. I’m grateful for the opportunity to tell this side of the story, since there are a lot of myths floating around out there about the whole publishing process and I figure my experience might at the very least help some in choosing the path they take.

It’s an unfortunate fact that many are of the mind that writing the book is the hard part on the road to getting published, but these days it may well be the easiest step of the entire exercise. To be published (at least, to be traditionally published) is an increasingly difficult goal to attain (even though there are more traditionally published books being released each year than ever before). The reasons for this are innumerable, prime among them being simple arithmetic: there are many more people now writing books and seeking publishing contracts than there have been at any point in the history of the industry. The numbers are quite staggering – in the millions.

With the market flooded with people wanting to sell their stories, it’s no wonder acquiring an agent (one of the first steps you have to take after finishing your book) has become a truly mountainous obstacle to tackle. Indeed, with agents (particularly the good and popular ones) being inundated with queries, the road to representation has reached the stage where it seems like a virtually insurmountable step to overcome. Even if you’ve got an extraordinary product, rejection is something most writers will probably encounter these days. Agents are in such demand that they can be very particular about the manuscripts they choose. If your work doesn’t click with them – no matter how well written and original it may be – they won’t hesitate to reject you. That’s understandable, because you can see how in their line of work a passion for the project would be something of a necessity. If they simply don’t feel it, they’re not going to be your best representative. And would you really want someone representing you who doesn’t believe in what he/she is trying to sell (to publishers)?

Assuming you acquire an agent, you may think everything will be smooth sailing from here on in. But representation is no guarantee your book will attract the interest of publishers. And if it does, in all likelihood it will be to a lesser imprint or smaller publishing house with far fewer resources to devote to marketing than the big houses. This means the chances of becoming a breakout hit are vastly reduced, and with it the financial security that goes along with that. In other words, don’t expect that just because you’ve achieved the vaunted goal of being traditionally published it means your

book is going to sell millions and make you a fortune. In the United States, the average traditionally published writer makes less than $8,000 a year. (Self-published writers make considerably less.)

Everyone has dreams of a big six or seven figure contract from one of the major publishing houses, but as you can see, the reality is far more sobering. Most writers will end up with modest (or even no) advances, and only a small percentage will make enough money from their writing to afford the luxury of doing the craft full time (only about 8% and falling in the US). For the vast majority of writers, advances (on royalties) will be small, and sales of their books will reflect this. They won’t become household names. They won’t appear on TV shows and have huge book signings. They won’t have Hollywood come knocking with a fat movie offer. And they won’t get anywhere near genuine bestseller status (and by this I’m not talking about what many consider the largely bogus Amazon “bestsellers,” which critics claim make a mockery of the term and which they regard as a deceit foisted on an unsuspecting readership).

Even if you’re really lucky and everything goes right, getting your first book traditionally published will likely take years. Not weeks or months, as some misguidedly believe. It’s pretty common for a writer’s first novel to take about eighteen months to work its way through the publisher’s system. That’s from the day of signing the contract until release of the finished book. Add to that the time you may spend looking for an agent, plus the time that may be spent doing rewrites for the agent and the time the agent may take to find the book a home, and you’re quite possibly looking at two to three years from the moment you finished your final draft and started the ball rolling. In my case, it ended up being much longer than that – largely because of unforeseen delays over which I had little or no control.

Of course, once you’ve been published you may believe the hard work is over, that now you can just sit back and churn out books and let your agent find publishers for them. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. Not everything you write is going to find a market. Moreover, it’s not unheard of to lose your agent. Sometimes they decide to move on to other things. Sometimes they feel you’re just not worth the time and effort for the little in the way of income you’re generating for them. And unless you’re a big name in the industry, being cut loose can be devastating. Not only in the psychological sense, but also to your writing career. At the very least, it’s likely to bring the latter to a grinding halt as you spend time scrambling to acquire new representation.

You might think that with a published novel in hand getting a new agent would be a simple task. After all, you’ve got an advantage over other writers who aren’t yet published. Don’t you? Well, maybe not. If your book hasn’t put up decent numbers in terms of sales, or received good critical response, it might actually work against you. And you have to factor in the unavoidable reality that if you’ve been dumped by an agent, others might be a bit wary (rightly or wrongly) of taking you on.

In today’s publishing world, writers have to be aware that the ability to make a living out of writing books is as tenuous as most careers in the arts. You really have to love writing to gamble your future on it, and (in most cases) you have to be really good at self-promotion if you want to hit the big times. Personally, if your goal is to become a successful traditional writer, I’d counsel a rethink. The honest truth is that while you may be one of the lucky ones, the numbers are stacked against you. You’d almost have as much luck of hitting the jackpot in a lottery – and we all know how rare that is. If you want a comfortable and secure living, seek elsewhere. There’s a lot to be said for a nine-to-five job.

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