Or, ‘What Every Writer Needs.’  Most authors come into the publishing industry a bit later in life.  At 39, I’m supposedly a ‘young’ writer.  It’s good that most writers already have life experience, because that makes up a good part of what every writer needs to survive, and possibly thrive, as a published author.

The first thing an author/writer needs (and I’ll use those terms interchangeably, hopefully without discrimination) is another income.  Don’t think that getting published automatically means you can quit the day job.  With only 25 percent of published books selling more than a hundred copies, and only 2 percent selling more than a thousand, you shouldn’t count on yours becoming an overnight success.  Although I personally wish it was otherwise, you have about as much chance of winning the lottery.  Twice.  In a row!  Even if you get an advance from your publisher–another rarity–you may find yourself paying it back if your book doesn’t get the anticipated number of sales.  I’ve never subscribed to the idea of ‘the starving artist’ as noble or desirable; neither should you.

As for me, I intend to make writing my career.  From what I’ve learned so far, it seems to me that I’ve made some very smart and/or lucky choices, from keeping my own ‘day job,’ to choice of publisher,  to the willingness to do most of my own marketing.  I love to write, and that’s really the second requirement for an author.  We do things for our passion that we wouldn’t dream of doing for any other reason.  It keeps us coming back in spite of disappointment, frustration, and disillusionment.  Here’s one example: I went with ‘supported self-publishing,’ and found that my choice of publisher automatically ‘disqualifies’ me from the majority of online author listings (a form of discrimination)–but I also realized I had sold more copies of my book, Been Blued, than 75% of those authors listed; I felt vindicated, in spite of the current biases against me.  How do you suppose it feels to be one of those authors listed, but still know your book has sold a hundred copies or less?  That must be poor consolation, especially if you’re an author looking for a writing career.  No wonder the ‘one book author’ phenomena is still with us…who wants to do that a second time?

Every author must choose a publisher…or you could send out your manuscript to every publishing house that deals with your genre and wait for years, in most cases, just to have them look at it.  That was the biggest factor in my decision to go with supported self-publishing.  I’d had one career fail to materialize, largely because of sexism.  I wasn’t about to wait any longer, and decided my success was entirely up to one person: me.  There are a lot of pitfalls in choosing a publisher.  Several of the self-publishing companies are dishonest, and far more interested in taking your money than in seeing you get a high quality book into print.  My publisher, iUniverse, had some built-in credibility, in that their book about publishing was on sale in a ‘brick and mortar’ bookstore.  I’d been interested in writing as a child and a teen, and found a lot of the same information in  Get Published  as I’d encountered before.  (As an industry, publishing is slower to respond to changes in culture and technology.)  But consider this: if a traditional publisher doesn’t market your book to get it past the first hundred sales, is that really much better than an unscrupulous self-publisher?  But it won’t cost me any money, you might protest.  Really?  What about your time, your effort, your mailing costs, your phone bill, etc?  How much income–not to mention, discouragement–does two or three years of waiting time cost you?

A writer also needs at least a basic computer with a word processor installed, and a good internet connection.  You could ‘snail-mail’ your manuscript, but why would you?  Don’t even think about sending a handwritten manuscript.  Most of the novels I’ve written predate my computer knowledge, and I doubt they’ll ever see ‘ink.’  Well, maybe, if I ever get depressed enough to retire…  After learning the basics, you’ll find that a computer makes writing easier, partly because you can get the ideas down quicker.

Yes, a writer needs lots of ideas.  Sorry, but if you’re uninspired, no amount of writing talent in the world can help you.  Otherwise, take one idea, and ask it a question.  ‘What if this happened?’  Then ask it another.  ‘What would be the result?’ or ‘How would someone respond to that?’  Keep going in that vein and you’ll soon find the goldmine of a story line. 

After getting published, an author needs a good marketing plan.  I’m terrible at coming up with plans and ‘to do’ lists.  If I lose the spontaneity of something, it’s disaster for me.  My marketing plan consists of little more than: be enthusiastic, tell everyone who will listen, and spend as little as possible…although, if I find something is necessary, I don’t mind spending the money.  Check out my web site, for example, www.ScifiAliens.com.  That was put together by American Authors, a professional web hosting company.  They did a wonderful job!  And they have instructions to teach me how to make any changes I might want, as well as a very responsive support staff.  I also put an ad on Facebook–I pay less for that in a month than I would for taking out a similar ad in a circular or newspaper for a week.  Ironically, I could do a lot more, but I still have to keep the day job going.  Whoever said ‘money is not the issue,’ obviously had money to start with.  But enthusiasm and word of mouth are very inexpensive.  I was lucky, with the marketing, in that I have retail experience.  I’ve done a lot of things to get Been Blued into readers’ hands that I may not have done otherwise.

Every writer, published author or not, must have some writing skill.  Some readers will forgive bad grammar, but a poorly contrived story line is unacceptable.  Characters must be believable.  Other things should be common sense.  Someone told me about a writer wanting to use various fonts to differentiate between a few small armies of characters.  No traditional publishing house would accept that, and I’d be very skeptical of a self-publisher who agreed to it.  Someone else told me he wants to have ‘every character in every series’ of a certain story line in his work of fiction…but the best fiction focuses on only a handful of characters.  You can have a ‘lone ranger’ type of protagonist, or someone more comfortable working in a team, but remember how difficult it is for you to remember all the names of a sudden throng of people you’ve never met before; pity your poor reader.

A writer must have patience and determination to become successful.  There’s no such thing as an ‘overnight success,’ at least not in the publishing industry.  It takes time for a new author to get noticed.  If you give up before you’ve made every effort, you need not have bothered in the first place.  If you brought your book to the attention of at least five people a day, through whatever means, you may have done more than your publisher.  Of course, this will all be much more effective if you’ve written a great book in the first place.

An author needs to have some understanding of what to expect in compensation.  A friend of mine recently mentioned a relative of his who felt ‘burned’ because his self-publisher ‘made more than he did’ on his book.  Let me be blunt: writers are at the bottom of the food chain in the publishing industry.  They always have been.  If I understand the motivation of the current writer’s strike in America correctly, it’s because writers were getting NO compensation at all for material placed on the Internet and made available in related ways; everyone else in the entertainment industry was.  Now, this is exactly the opposite of what someone who’s ‘new’ to the industry might expect.  After all, no writer, no story, no characters.  Everything you see on TV, the Internet, or in movies, was written by someone.  It’s all copyrighted as well, which should automatically mean that the creator, ie, the writer, gets a share in the profits.

Most publishers offer about 8 percent (you read that correctly, eight percent, NOT 80) of the book’s selling price to the author, but the rate is much higher with some self-publishing companies.  Do the math.  The traditional publishing houses keep 92 percent of the book’s selling price.  Out of that comes their own payroll, their costs of getting the book run printed, and of course, their own profits.  What does the author get?  Eight cents per dollar, or eighty cents on a ten dollar book.  Check out the price of a paperback with the same number of pages in a bookstore.  Do the math again.  That’s why it’s extremely important to ensure your book sells more than a hundred copies.  Some publishers are flexible, but don’t sign a contract you can’t live with.  Well known ‘best selling’ authors make money on the huge volume of copies sold, and often get a higher percentage written into their contract to begin with.  Do the math again, 4 million times 8 percent of the book’s selling price…  You get the picture, anything more than zero times a million is over a million.

One last thing an author should know or learn is how to get their book selling in other countries.  American and Canadian authors are luckier than most, in that the States and Canada are culturally very close to each other.  The publishing industry is set up in a way the seems to restrict authors and readers in different countries from hearing about each other.  The Internet is a huge benefit in this regard.  You can search just your own country or the whole ‘web.’  I sent a copy of Been Blued to Amazon’s ‘look inside’ program, and now you can apparently order it in the Netherlands.  I hope they can read English…  I live in an area that has a lot of tourists in the summer, not only from the USA, but from Europe.  I was handing out business cards before my novel even came out, and one kind fellow said he’d promote it in the United Kingdom.  (Hope he remembers.)  I asked a friend who travels to foreign countries to suggest my novel to her international friends, with the option of ordering it online where they live.  (She’s great, I’d do the same for her.)  Of course I sent a copy to friends in the States.  My friend in Alaska sent me a thank you card before I could get a letter to her telling her about the book…I thought I’d have time to write before it arrived, but it didn’t work out that way.

Thanks for reading.  🙂

Phyllis K Twombly

About Scifialiens

Author of the Martian Symbiont series: three titles, so far; Been Blued, Martian Blues, Martian Divides. Currently writing screenplays. 'Mating With Humans' can be found on her Stage32.com account. Enjoyed writing from the start. Also a Star Trek and Doctor Who fan. Canadian so far. Paternal grandparents were American. Feels more at home in the States. Loves dogs and most other animals. Loves cats from afar--allergies. Plays flute and saxophone; 'messes with' keyboard and electric guitar. Single so far. Not really looking at the moment. Age: irrelevant. Not to be confused with the fictional comic book character, Phyllis Twombly, who lived for 600 years in the American Midwest.

3 responses »

  1. Naomi says:

    Thanks for this – it’s a good summary 🙂

  2. Dube says:

    Interesting about the self publishing! I’d really like to hear more about how that progresses. It’s true that getting published is soooo tough nowadays. I’m glad there are other options out there!

  3. Cliff Burns says:

    I’ve been in the biz over two decades and this past year, thanks to some movie stuff, I finally made a bit of decent coin. That’s the exception, though, so this notion of not quitting your day job is the correct one. It’s hard to write when you’re living beside a dumpster (no where to plug in your laptop) and hard to focus when you’re starving (although Knut Hamsun did a brilliant job with HUNGER). Good, sage advice in your post…

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