Tuesday, March 13, 2018

A Handy-Dandy Guide to Surviving the Publishing Industry


Do you want to publish your great American novel?
Do you want to get rich and famous and live the glamorous life of a best-selling author?
Do you want to retire from your day job and go to conferences and writer retreats and meet the rich and famous and have champagne and caviar and have movies made of your book and win an Oscar and and and

Record scratch... brrrrpppttttt

Well, sure, that's all a gorgeous lovely dream isn't it? And honestly, it is obtainable. It is. I swear it is. But honest to god y'all it's like winning the lottery. But tougher.

You can't hope to win if you don't play. This is true. You can never be any of that above if you don't write a book first. I mean that is absolutely necessary. You have to have a book to sell to a publisher. Absolute necessity.

What? You thought you could sell a book idea, for a three book series, and send in a basic outline and get a million dollar contract lickety-split and be contacted by movie producers and get to sit in on the casting of your hot hunky hero... Hugh Jackman will be fifty next year, y'all. He's not getting any younger and he needs to be in the book you see him in while he's still mostly young enough to play your twenty something stud.


Reality check here to slap you in the face.

That is never going to happen. It's not. I'm not trying to be a killjoy or a Debbie Downer. But this is reality. The only writers who get million dollar contracts right out of the box are big time celebrities with ghost writers who have time sensitive exploitable stories to sell. Cold stop. Right there.

But Nora Roberts, and James Patterson and Stephen King.... they get that don't they?

First, I don't know if they get million dollar advances for books. I'm sure they get really nice advances for their books. But one thing I do know for fact, they didn't get anywhere near a million bucks for an advance with their first book. Or maybe even their tenth book.

They earned the contracts they have over several years because they successfully delivered the books they contracted in the time they promised and those books did well, and so on and so forth until those writers became bankable stars in the publishing world. And, I'll bet you one more little detail, I'll bet you that one of those big named best selling authors doesn't get anywhere near as much as the other two do in an advance, even if she does sell the same or more than the other two, in high heels...backwards.

The publishing industry is over run with people just like you with an idea for a book or a fully written novel or five novels or ten novels. Or even twenty novels. Trying to get that first book contract.

It is quite literally teeming with minnows flinging books at them. Buy me. I'm the next_______.

Ever walk through a Barnes and Noble and look at the books in the genre in which  you write?

Ever notice that, for the most part, you are still seeing the same authors you saw last year, and five years ago, or ten years ago, or even twenty?

New York publishers, called traditional publishers, or the Big Five, always say they're looking for fresh voices or new and different. But they're not. They are looking for exactly what they already have. And they are going to publish exactly what they already have until that author cracks up, has a major scandal attached to their name, or kicks the bucket. Because they are going to make back the advance they paid those authors. Guaranteed. These new people, that readers browsing through, have never seen or heard of, are names on a spine. Easily overlooked for that brand new __________.

And even if you have something exactly like what you see in the bookstore it doesn't guarantee that people are going to want it because it's just like________. Even if in the same breath they're saying that they go to _________ because they know_________ will always write the book they want to read.

I started writing twenty-one years ago-ish. Alaina was still in diapers. She'll be twenty-three in June. God I'm old. And twenty-one years ago, there was no such thing as ebooks or epublishers, or Amazon. Maybe there was, I didn't have a computer twenty-one years ago. I'd never seen the internet twenty-one years ago. God I'm pathetic. But if there were epublishers around back then, they were not a thing. The ebook revolution was still a few years away. And places like Ellora's Cave were in their infancy or not even a gleam in their creators eye yet.

Twenty-one years ago there were more than five New York publishers. And you didn't have to have an agent to get to some of them. I learned to write query letters and synopses synopsi? whatever the plural of synopsis is.

One page query letter to introduce yourself and sell your book. You had about five paragraphs to do this in. Intro/hook. Who this book is about. What this book is about. Closing paragraph, usually stating your credentials. If you've published. Who with. If you're in writers organizations. If your book is finished... remember that part about having a finished book... if your book is part of a series or stand alone. How you planned to market your book.... stuff. Short, sweet, to the point, with the absolute best face you could put in those five paragraphs. Never put things like mom of sixteen unless you're writing about being a mom of sixteen and you are running out of J names for the next seven you plan to spawn, I mean that probably worked... once.

You had to know your target publisher, and what they published, and who the target acquisitions editor was, and if they were still there, or if they were open to submissions and you had to send your letter with a self addressed stamped envelope if you wanted a reply. No you did not send your synopsis unless the editor specifically stated in their bio that they preferred to see the synopsis with the query letter.

Then you mailed it and you waited and waited and waited and waited. And sometimes you got back a short not interested, form letter. And you did it again and again and again, because back then they said they didn't accept submissions that were sent to other editors or agents and you did the process one editor at a freakin time and you waited...........

And then if you were lucky, you wrote the synopsis. Three pages. No more. One inch margins. Single space justified. And you told the editor your story to the best of your ability in three pages, no more. And if you were luckier still, they wanted the first five pages of your story. Double spaced, justified, one inch margins. And you sent that in a flat mailer paper clipped together with your real name, your pen name, your telephone number, your address, and the title... because the editor might put it down and lose it and never know who sent in this masterpiece in five pages... and you sent a flat mailer with exact postage self addressed, for the return of said synopsis and partial... because really, you needed that back... and you hoped that you had it as error free as possible, and that you had a hook to end all hooks and your voice shined like the sun as seen from Mercury on a summer day and... if you were really damn lucky you would hear back in a couple of months, or maybe a couple of years. And if you were exceptionally lucky the editor asked for your entire manuscript.

And you freaked the hell out and questioned life and wondered if you should go buy a lottery ticket, or fall down and thank the major deity of every religion and a few minor ones just to be safe. And you sent your manuscript plastered between two slim pieces of cardboard wrapped in rubber bands with your name and title on every page. And it cost a damn fortune. And you sent return postage, AND a single business reply envelope with return postage, in case they wanted to buy your book and keep the manuscript. And.... that happened to me twice.

I had one book almost sell to Silhouette. In Canada. I spent a fuckton of money to ship that manuscript three times, and receive it finally rejected a third time. My western romance was rejected by Pocket, even though the editor said she loved the hero and thought it could be made better, but they were no longer accepting American historicals. She wished me luck elsewhere. No publishers were accepting American historicals that year. She said she'd gladly accept any Scottish Highland romance I might have lying about. I don't know nothing 'bout writing no Scottish Highlanders Sassenach.

And if you want to pursue any of the New York publishers or Harlequin/Silhouette this is pretty much how it is twenty-one years later. Most editors will only accept agent represented queries. And I'm sure they've updated to electronic submissions by now. I don't know. I stopped pursuing New York about eighteen years ago.

And the ebook industry was gearing up to take over the world about that time. Ellora's Cave was starting to make news. People... women were writing erotica, branded romantica by them. Other small presses sprang up. Some did well. Others folded. Some did very well. There was a lot of money to be made in the ebook industry. Women were making bank. Big bank. At EC. And then Amazon got into the business. And then Amazon introduced the Kindle. And then in 2010... Amazon won the ebook industry... and self publishing happened. And people were making some serious damn bank self publishing books. And small presses were doing very well with Amazon and small presses sprang up like Waffle Houses. (Southern joke)

And people who couldn't get with New York because honestly, in twenty-years, New York has not kept up with the times. They are trapped in the past still trying to figure out what happened and waiting around for print books and seven percent royalties to come back.

And everything was incredible and awesome and people were getting rich and Fifty Shades of Grey proved that anyone could write and self publish a book and end up with a movie contract and


Not all epublishers were honest. A lot of those people making bank were never paid even half of what they were owed. Some, like me, with a huge bestseller, were robbed almost completely of all royalties by the publisher.

Self publishing is hard. It costs a lot of money to self publish a book. And a lot of the time the free lancers you can afford are not as good as they say they are. And all of the promotion is on the self publisher. And those authors who made tons of money, like EL James, had a massive promotional budget and probably a huge team behind them.

Even in self publishing you don't just put a book out and make millions of dollars.

I'm going to be honest with you here, I've made a half-million dollars over the past seven years. I made most of that as a self-published author. And I've paid one hundred thousand of that in taxes. And I've spent more than fifty thousand dollars, maybe even seventy-five thousand dollars to fund my self publishing endeavor. I'll let you know after I finish my taxes for this year and I have all of my receipts and... when it ends, it ends and there's no coming back from that.

Because, there is one hard and fast rule that I've learned in this business over the last twenty plus years... nothing stays the same. Except New York. And hell, they might actually make a comeback the way things are going.

So, I'm going to tell you some hard facts I learned the hard way.

This business is toxic.

It is toxic on all levels. It will eat you up and spit you out and grind you under it's heel and spit on you again.

You have to have a thick skin. A very thick skin. And you have to be able to ride out the storms. Because there will be storms. Not all of your publishers will be honest. Not all of your publishers will be profitable. Not all of your publishers will have your back. If you're lucky you'll find a publisher that will treat you like a human being. If you're lucky that publisher will weather the storms and keep the same staff and you'll be fine.

I was not that fortunate. I had one publisher out of five that was decent to me. I had one publisher that was so toxic I still haven't recovered. Robbing, gaslighting, cheating, threatening to dox me, threatening lawsuits, threatening my career, turning authors against authors.

It happens. And it keeps happening and it will keep right on happening. Greed is a powerful motivator. All that free cash coming into their bank accounts. Tell the ones who are most likely to fall for your lies that they will be paid if they do what they're told and watch the fun begin.

Other authors are not your friends, not really. And they're not your competition... but... they are. We are all competing against each other for visibility. And this makes people do crazy things. Authors can be toxic. People are people. And if you are lucky you will make some real friends in the business, but for the most part, you make alliances. Sometimes this is good, sometimes not so much.

You have to figure out where your line in the sand is. How far are you willing to go to sell some books?

Can you look in the mirror and do the things that you're reading about in social media?

This industry is toxic as hell. And it will not ever change. How you present yourself in this is up to you.

Book publishers will close. This is not an exaggeration. More book publishers have folded in the past couple of years than were around when I sold my first ebook. And that's just twelve short years ago.

Most of the larger small presses are gone now. Samhain. Loose ID is closing by May first. So many smaller presses. Honest presses. Gone. Their authors left with IOUs and books that are no longer published and maybe the press won't declare bankruptcy and they'll get paid.

But there's one thing that's just as true, you can spot when there's trouble.

If they close to submissions. That is a flag. It might not be a red flag, but it is a warning of some kind. If there are no rumblings behind the scenes, assume the flag is not red. But, once a publisher closes submissions there is trouble behind the scenes. It could be as simple as the business is on the downturn, as it is right now for everyone, and they have too many books under contract. But again, they are going to take the chance on authors they know can make bank. They are going to back the authors who keep them afloat for one more year to ride out the downturn. If they re-open submissions, it'll be fine. They'll make it. At least for a little while. Most all publishers will close to submissions at one time or other.

It's the rumblings that you listen for, from their authors, from their staff. If they release a lot of staff, yeah, it's not a good sign. There is always a revolving door in the staff department at publishers. But you never hear about most of the editors who leave or when they change their elite staff. Or anything minor. People leave. They go where there is better opportunity. They move. They have children. Or illnesses. It's when lots of people are let go at one time. That's a major red flag. If they are closed to submissions at the same time. If they just sold the company and are re-organizing. If all of these things happen without out author grumblings, then things are not good financially. If none of this happens yet you start hearing rumor that authors are not being paid. Yeah, that's going to end only one way. Rinse and repeat and rinse and repeat.

I can tell you right now that I expect to hear that two presses will fold this year. And that was before the events of today.

Crimson Romance, announced they were closing. Crimson Romance is a division of a New York publisher and not a company I watched.

If there is strife with the staff... run. Seriously. RUN. Don't make excuses. If the upper management are at each other's throats... you're in a toxic quagmire of a situation that will only end one way. Ugly.

You're not immune. And it's not your fault.

You did the homework. And you asked the questions. And you did your honest best to hold up your end of the contract.

Learn how to pay attention.

And listen to me, this business is toxic, and it will tear out your soul if you let it. You don't have to sign the first contract you are given. If you don't know how to read it, ask someone, a contract lawyer is a suggestion, they might charge you a fee.

You should never sign anything with lifetime rights. Or anything with a 'right of first refusal clause'. Or anything that states that they own your pen name. You should have a clear breach of contract clause. For both parties. You should know when your contract is up, and how to get your rights back, if you choose to end your relationship.

And agents: I've never had one. You don't need an agent to sell a book to an epublisher. And you're giving them fifteen percent of your forty percent of the publisher's seventy percent, if that's what you want to do. I wouldn't.

I'm a control freak. And I'm a loner introvert. And I've been burned so badly by this industry. And I don't have the ability to trust any goddamned person anymore. I don't trust a single person in this industry because that's what the past seven years have done to me. And I will guarantee you that you will find more people like me, than those who've never had a bad experience of some kind or another. You're going to find people who will tear you up and spit you out and you can only hope you survive to write another day. And every single time shit happens like is happening now, every one of those skin flaying soul crushing experiences come back to haunt you... but that could just be me.

My conscience is clear. I might not ever sell another book but I never harmed another person. And that's all I can say when it's all said and done.

But after all that, and I can say one thing, it's been worth it.

If you want to write and publish a book, there is no sugar coating this, it's hard damned work. Hard work. It might take years to get anywhere. You might never get there. Do your homework. Research everything. Join writing groups. Make friends and network. Go to conferences and conventions and take classes and workshops, and learn your craft. Learn how to promote. Learn how to revolve with the ever changing book times. Try to rise above the toxicity. I pray you can avoid it. Learn to manage finances, in case it happens, because when it happens, you need to know how to keep more of your money. Learn about self-employment taxes because even if you get a New York contract you are still self employed and self employed people pay twice as much taxes up to about $118,000.00 then you pay triple. I know this because I didn't know this. There was no one to tell me how to protect myself. There was no one to tell me any of this. Because publishers want their secrets kept and we all are contractually obligated to keep those secrets. Until we're not and then it's bad form to write about money. I made half a million dollars in six years and it stopped in the seventh because I wasn't paying attention to the clues that were right in front of my face and I am in debt to the IRS for the next four years because I didn't pay enough in.

But all I want to do is write my stories and pay my bills and feed my children. And maybe in the end I made someone else's life better because I can tell a story.

Is this for you? What do you expect? Are you willing to work for what you want? And learn? And grow? Then, yeah, go for it. But what will you do if it doesn't happen? If you never have a best seller. If you never make any money? Most authors never make much money. It's so hard to tell what makes people buy one book over another.

So... is this what you want?


1 comment:

  1. Mercy,

    This is an outstanding piece of writing. Hard-hitting, honest, and informational. Your personal emotional toll comes across, but it never devolves into a bitter whiny rant. Grim as the facts are, you somehow managed to interject a sense of hope and potential as well. Thank you for taking the time to share this.